To End the Earth’s Suffering

“Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world.”

~ Unknown Buddhist Monk

Our suffering is killing us, and it’s destroying what sustains life on earth.

We suffer, in part, because we crave or desire material objects – a newer iPhone, a nicer car, a bigger house – as well as emotional safety, such as the illusion of stable relationships and certainty about life’s path.

No amount of material possessions can ever satisfy our longing because happiness and peace in life cannot be obtained from external belongings. Nor can we ever count on our relationships with other people, with our work, or even with our family for emotional grounding because these things are constantly in flux: friends move away, careers change with time, children grow up and leave home and loved-ones die. Happiness and peace are not found outside of the self; only within.

Across much of western society, and around the world, we have either forgotten this simple truth or have never learned it in the first place. We continue to try and ease our suffering through the accumulation of wealth and by denying the most basic fundamental truths of human existence: everything changes; everybody grows old, gets sick and dies; and everything is part of everything else.

Our difficulty grasping the interconnectedness of everything, not only on earth, but across all of time and space, leads us to feel a profound loneliness and a sense of isolation from one another. In turn, we try to ease this pain by filling our lives with material possessions, rather than practices that help us erase the barrier between ourselves and the rest of existence.

As humanity struggles to address the most pressing global issues of our time – a changing climate that will irrevocably alter life on earth, crushing poverty and inequality, and the loss of biodiversity that will cripple global ecosystems of which we are inextricably a part – we need to address not just the outcome of these challenges, but their root cause: our suffering’s impact on the world that sustains us, and on one another.

For almost twenty-five years I’ve been an environmental and social activist. I’ve taken a straight-forward approach to advocating for what I believe in: a patch of wilderness that I cherish is threatened, so I work with my community, scientists, and with other activists to fight oil and gas development, logging, mining or road building. An important animal like the grizzly bear or the bull trout is threatened with extinction so I rally the public to fight for stronger laws and regulations to protect it. I’ve had some success, but I’ve also watched so many things that I cherish slip away.

My advocacy was often fueled by anger, and its underlying cause fear, because of what we were losing. Around ten years ago that started to change; I realized that letting my love for other people, for wild places, and for the dignity of humanity fuel my work to make change was far more effective – and personally sustainable – than being driven by my fear. In 2006 I wrote Carry Tiger to Mountain: The Tao of Activism and Leadership to outline what I thought was a better path for people who want to make the world a better place to follow.

Since then I’ve been trying to use the three pillars of the Tao – restraint, compassion and love – in my everybody life, first as a consultant to non-profits and business, and once again as a leader in North America’s conservation movement.

In doing so I’ve stumbled upon a difficult reality: all of our victories to protect the fabric of life on this planet, all of our efforts to provide dignity, food and shelter for people who are in need of it, are temporary. Everything we do to protect the backbone of the globe’s biodiversity only lasts until our own insatiable appetite for whatever riches lie buried beneath that place as goal, oil and gas, or growing on it as merchantable timber, are needed by an ever more desperate human population.

Nothing is safe and no place is so sacred that we won’t one day sacrifice it if we grew desperate enough. There is no law that can’t be rescinded; there is no United Nations status that is so prestigious that it won’t be ignored if humankind continues on its current trajectory. Witness the status of South Africa’s black rhinoceros: hunted to near extinction for the aphrodisiac believed to be continued in its horn. Laws and even an armed militia aren’t enough to keep poachers from shooting these animals and leaving them to rot, and for what? So that someone somewhere can satisfy their sexual desire.

Witness also the full-out assault on Canada’s laws to protect our environment; laws that once made us the envy of the world, and now leave us the laughing stock. In just a few short years Canada’s Conservative government under Prime Minster Stephen Harper have dismantled the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the Navigable Waterways Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the Fisheries Act, once the strongest piece of legislation in Canada for safeguarding the Environment. The Species at Risk Act, which I helped advocate for from 1997 through late 2002, is next on the chopping block. Why? To make it easier for petrochemical companies to drill for oil and ship it to refineries around the world.

Until we address the underlying cause of the rampant destruction of the natural world, until we address the extraordinary disparity between rich and poor around the globe, every effort to protect life on earth will be fleeting. We need another approach; we need something in addition to our political and community advocacy in order to address what Wade Davis calls the “fire burring over the Earth, taking with it plants and animals, cultures, languages, ancient skills and visionary wisdom.”[1]

Through the practice of meditation, which I began in earnest during a period of personal upheaval in 2006, I began to understand the nature of my own suffering, and that of every other human being. Suffering is at once deeply personal and universal. We all suffer; it is the nature of humanity to feel the pain that comes from life, and our perceptions of it.

Twenty-five hundred years ago an Indian prince named Siddhartha Gautama felt that pain too. Raised in opulent luxury and sheltered from the world of sickness, disease and death, the young prince came face-to-face with these realities and fled his life of privilege and began to follow a spiritual path. After six years of wandering, meditation, and self-deprivation, the man who would become the first Buddha was no closer to solving for himself what is a universal paradox: life ends, everything we love is taken from us, and we and everybody we care for will one day die. Nothing we can do will stop that; we have to make peace with it.

Siddhartha sat down under the Bodhi tree and meditated on this quandary. He recalled that in his youth he had found the greatest peace of his life enjoying a profound interconnectedness with nature, and with all life on earth, and in that moment realized what Buddhists now call the two Great Truths: that everything is temporary and everything is interconnected with everything else.

In that moment he ceased to be Siddhartha the prince and he became a Buddha; one who has conquered suffering; an enlightened being.

All the riches in the world could not fulfill the young prince’s soul; he had to confront the most basic facts of human existence, and make peace with them, before he could be happy. From that moment on he dedicated the rest of his life – another forty-five years – teaching a simple message: that we are all the Buddha. Every human being who has ever lived and ever will are Buddha, and all that is needed is a profound understanding – not just intellectually, but an actual emotional and spiritual acceptance – of the basic conditions of life.

Let me be clear about this: I have not surmounted the obstacles to suffering. I have not achieved enlightenment; not even of the 25-watt kind. Enlightenment isn’t even my goal; peace of heart and mind is my simple ambition. But the world is careening toward disaster and I am no longer convinced that activism alone will abate the destruction, so I find myself writing about an end to suffering out of a moral imperative to preserve what, and who, I love.

In concert with activism of all kinds, I believe that a spiritual and practical application of the Buddha’s teaching could ease the pell-mell ruin of the earth’s wonders. Once we have experienced, first hand, the simple truths of the Buddha’s teaching, and put into place some basic tenants to guide our behaviour, we no longer feel the need to satiate our appetite for material objects to fill the hole in our hearts. It does not mean that we must live the life of an aesthete, shunning any material possession or pleasure. It means that we control our desire, rather than the other way around.

The Buddha taught that there are Four Noble Truths that we must confront before we can do so.

The first is the truth of suffering. We all suffer. Some have misinterpreted this to mean that all life is suffering, but that is not what the Buddha taught. He taught us that life entails suffering.

Second he taught that there is a cause to this suffering. Our suffering is caused by our lack of understanding of the two Great Truths: that everything changes and everything is connected. We become attached to things, to people, to loved ones, to objects of desire, and that attachment, our desire for these things, causes us to suffer when we can’t have them, or when they change. We suffer also because we perceive ourselves as separate from one another and the fabric of life on earth and across the universe.

Third, the Buddha taught that there is an end to suffering. If we can experience the interconnectedness of life and make peace with the nature of change, we can conquer our suffering.

Finally the Buddha taught that there is a path that we can follow to peace, joy, liberation from suffering and ultimately nirvana: the magic of living fully in the present moment in a state of enlightenment. That path is the Noble Eightfold Path, and it remains a guide that we in the 21st century can use to achieve peace while addressing the underlying cause of the suffering we inflict on the world.

The Noble Eightfold Path is not a mystical passageway that leads to a conversion or to a religious belief: it is a set of guidelines for living a life free of suffering. The Eightfold Path is right view, right thinking, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right diligence, right mindfulness and right concentration.  Right in this case means “in the right way” or “straight” or “upright.”[2]

For example, right view means developing a deep understanding of the Four Noble Truths about the nature of suffering and how to end it. Right view means developing personal insight into these truths and believing in our hearts that there is an end the pain caused by our misperceptions of life and having faith in ourselves that we can overcome this pain because many others have already.

When we have come to grips with the nature of suffering through right view, we then automatically begin to think more clearly about our lives and the choices we have to make, and so on. In this way we see that each of the Noble Eightfold Path’s steps are at once a logical progression from one to another and all interconnected.

My purpose in writing this book is simple: I want to help ease human suffering so that we in turn can ease the suffering we cause the world and one another.

The purpose of Buddhism is not to make more Buddhists, nor is that my purpose. While I identify myself as a Buddhist – one who has accepted the basic truth about human suffering and who is trying to ease it – I also am a father, a husband, an activist, a writer, a community member and a friend. The teachings of the Buddha are not aimed at converting people to a certain religion. People from any faith can learn about the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path – along with many other teachings – and adopt them as part of their own personal trajectory towards happiness and peace. While there are certainly schools of Buddhism that verge on the worship of the man who was Gautama Buddha that is not what the Buddha taught. He taught that we are all Buddha, and that each and every one of us can wake up to the peace that comes with liberation from suffering.

Nor is my purpose in writing this book is not to replace what I think of as traditional activism with a spiritual practice. Buddhism has existed on earth for more than two-thousand, five hundred years; the process of seeking and finding nirvana – everyday freedom from suffering – is a slow process. We will need to use all of our skills and tools to save what we love about the earth, its cultures and its people. We must continue with political pressure, with protests and marches, with letter writing and economic pressure; but to win in the long term, we must remove the desire that drives the hunger for more; more things, and the precious resources that must be consumed to make ever more material objects.

My purpose is this: if we want our success in preserving life on earth and human dignity to be lasting then we must quench the fire that burns in the heart of humanity that must constantly be fed by more and more material demands. Until we do nothing will be sacred. Once we begin to make peace with our selves and the basic truth of human existence everything will be sacred.

This is the first piece of writing in a series of essays I am completing for a book. What do you think? I want your feedback to improve the ideas, and to collect first-hand examples. Please chime in.

[1] Wade Davis, The Clouded Leopard. pp 231. 1998, Douglas and McIntyre Ltd.

[2] From The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching; Thich Nat Hanh, page 11. Broadway Press, 1998.

The Hardest Book I’ve Ever Written

The hardest book I’ve ever written is set to be released in the coming weeks (mid March, 2013). The Third Riel Conspiracy is the second novel in the Durrant Wallace Series of historically themed murder mysteries, and is my seventh published book. It was hard to write in several ways: the research was hard; the writing process was hard; and the editorial process was by far the hardest I’ve gone through.

The book follows Durrant – the one-legged North West Mounted Policeman – from the newly minted town of Calgary to the battlefield of Batoche at the apex of the Northwest Rebellion. He arrives during the chaos of the final day of the four day battle to find that a man has been murdered in the Zareba, the African inspired fortifications erected by the Northwest field force. A Métis man is in irons for the crime, but Durrant suspects that there is more to the murder than simple revenge.

When I started working on the Durrant Wallace series in 2007 I quickly plotted out the first three or four books in the series. This is how I’ve approached all of my writing projects. I don’t think in terms of single books, but narrative arcs that continue over several volumes. The first book in the series, The End of the Line, was published in the fall of 2011, and by the time it came out I was already neck-deep in the second volume.

That was the first thing that was hard: the research. Writing historical fiction isn’t like penning a regular mystery novel. In addition to mapping out the plot of the story and ensuring that the settings are accurate – something that I think is very important – there is the additional challenge of matching the storyline with the actual events of history.

In the case of The Third Riel Conspiracy, that meant doing a great deal of reading about the Northwest Rebellion and actually visiting many of the places in the book. Starting in the summer of 2009 I began reading dozens of books on the history of this seminal period of Canada’s development. The roots of the second Northwest Rebellion were in the uprising of 1870 in Fort Garry so I had to reach back that far in my research. The conspiracies that form the backbone of the novel’s plot are based on actual political skulduggery at the time so I made a chart of the real life machinations afoot and then changed them to meet my needs. (Interestingly Riel and his colleagues’ sentiment in 1885 was that “the west wants in;” 100 years later the Reform Party would use that same sentiment as a motto but with a much different result.)

I tried my best to understand the various motivations – religious, social and political – for the return of Louis Riel from Sun River, Montana to the Saskatchewan Territory in late 1884 and use those to create suspects for the murder. This gave me the chance to explore each of these themes in turn throughout the novel. In addition, I wanted to tell the story of the Battle of Batoche, a fascinating and often overlooked marker in our nation’s history, but didn’t want to reduce myself to mere exposition. Instead, I selected four key suspects and through Durrant’s interrogation of them revealed the events of the four-day conflagration.

I made dozens of pages of notes and charts and printed maps of the battleground and created a detailed timeline that placed my characters into the context of the real action of the day. As is my custom, I created a thorough outline of the book – what happens in each chapter, and how the characters interact – before I started writing. I made a chart of all the suspects – and there are a fair number in this novel – and then created a list of red-herrings that would be used to distract the reader from the actual killer.

All of this took place in the summer and fall of 2009. It was obvious that I would have to visit Saskatchewan, so instead of taking a trip to Utah to ride our mountain bikes, Jenn and I went on a four- thousand-kilometer road trip from our home in Victoria BC to the battlefields of the Resistance: Fort Pitt, Frenchman’s Butte, Fort Carlton, and finally Batoche National Historic Site. My wife is a good sport.

Photo taken from a grown-over riffle pit on Frenchman's Butte, looking toward the ground held by General Strange during that skirmish.

This on the ground research was vital. While I had a vague sense of the landscape from reading the historical accounts of the conflict, seeing it, feeling it underfoot, breathing in the prairie air, was critical to being able to write about the place, and for understanding the origin of the uprising. It was very much about the land and the Métis and First Nations relationship with these beautiful places.

When we got back from the trip we were distracted by our upcoming move back to the Canadian Rockies (we had bought a house in Canmore on the final leg of the journey) and writing The Third Riel Conspiracy got put on the back-burner. It would be a year before I took it up again.

That was the second thing that made writing this book so difficult: the time lapse between research and writing. I’ve outlined some of these problems in more detail in the section of my blog I call “deconstructing draft one.” The main problem was that my notes, while plentiful, left me guessing in places about what I wanted to happen, to whom, and when. I didn’t have to start over once at the keyboard, but I did have to reconstruct some of the plot.

Reconstructed gate at Fort Pitt.

The next challenge was fitting the actual historical events into the timeline I had constructed for my characters. Durrant Wallace is a sergeant in the Northwest Mounted Police, but because there was no official investigative branch in the NWMP, he operates outside of his jurisdiction. He reports to Sam Steele, who during the period of the Battle of Batoche was more than 300 miles away, tracking the Plains Cree and Big Bear as they fled towards Frenchman’s Butte and Steele’s Narrows. I had a critical exchange that I needed to engineer between the two men, but they couldn’t just text each other; I had to get them in the same place at the same time. Steel stopped at the burned-out Fort Pitt at one point, so that’s where the scene would take place. I had to jimmy dates and Durrant’s progress in the investigation to allow him to arrive at Fort Pitt the same time Steele would. It worked, but it took several tries to get the dates aligned.

Similar challenges occurred with Leif Croizer, who was the Deputy Commissioner of the NWMP at the time. I took some liberties there.

Undoubtedly the greatest challenge with writing the book was how to address Louis Riel. More than one-hundred and twenty-five years after his execution, Riel remains one of the most contentious characters in Canadian history. One possible motivation for the murder in this book was the complex web of politics that surrounded his life, and death. I figured that having Riel as an actual character in the book would be a flashpoint for controversy, but only he could have the critical piece of information that Durrant Wallace would need in order to find the real killer in the novel.

You’ll have to read the book to judge how I handled this challenge.

The cemetery and Mission church at Batoche; the scene of heavy fighting on day one and day four of the battle, and where the Métis killed during the fighting were buried.

The final challenge for this book (so far) occurred when I sent it to my publisher, and the book went through the inevitable story-editing hell. I love my publisher, and I love my editor. We’ve worked together on five books now, including The Third Riel Conspiracy, and the upcoming Glacier Gallows, and without a doubt they have made every single one of those books better. But it isn’t easy. Buy the time I press send on another novel, shipping it off to the publisher, I’ve spent several years with the book. I’ve dreamt about it; I’ve sweated bullets over dialog; I’ve made painful decisions about, as Bob Seger says, “what to leave in and what to leave out.”

So I’m attached. I try not to be, but inevitably when the edits start rolling in, I realize that I am.

The Third Riel edits were very difficult. I’m not going to go into details, because it’s water under the bridge, but suffice to say that for the first time in decades I seriously considered stopping writing. It lasted for a few weeks. On a good day I require a pretty heavy hand when it comes to edits, but The Third Riel was by far the most red ink I’ve ever seen. I plowed my way through, frustrated and a little despondent, wondering how it could be that seven books into my writing career I was still making all the same mistakes. I got through them, and with a pep talk from my publisher, got excited once more about writing. But there were some pretty dark days during the editorial process for this book.

The book should be back from the printer this week, which means soon I’ll get my shipment of complementary copies, and will experience once more the excitement of opening the box, smelling that fresh-printed-ink smell, and get to fondle a copy of The Third Riel Conspiracy for the first time. I know from experience when that happens all the challenges of creating the book will dim and I’ll get to feel the excitement of holding this creation in my hands.

I don’t know if this being the hardest book I’ve ever written will equate to being the best book I’ve written. I’d like to think that’s true for every book I write, which would mean that my writing is always improving. That’s for you to decide.

Letter to my Mother: Writing the Next Chapter

When we were together last September, when in the afternoons we’d sit in the backyard, near the weeping birch, and talk, we discussed the idea of you telling a story. In those warm days of September neither of us could imagine what you would soon face; then we were rebuilding our relationship after so many difficult years, and you were emerging once more, my mother.

We talked then of you writing the story of your childhood; of growing up in a gold mining town in Northern Ontario, and of losing your father at the age of five. Too young to really know him or have much in the way of memories; instead, you were raised by your mother and older brother. It wasn’t an easy upbringing. We talked about how to write that story; without bitterness or guile. People aren’t inspired by resentment; what they want to read is a story of hardship, honest, simple achievement and of what life was like in a very interesting place, and time.

I asked you: what is the story you want to tell about the first chapters of your life?

When I drove you to the airport and said goodbye at the gate, I was filled with hope and love. You and I haven’t had an easy go of it. It’s nobody’s fault. I wasn’t a very good kid when I was a teen: I drank, and snuck out of the house a lot and was moody and angry. You drank too, and didn’t want to let go, or face your own fears. We clashed. For a long time we were at each other’s throats; it wasn’t easy on either of us.

But over the last decade we’ve started to grow back together. We’ve both grown up a little, and time can take the edge off; make it easier to forgive.

When I left the airport I called your partner, Ernie. I was excited about your future, and wanted to share that with him. He was excited too, and I could feel the hope he shared for the future.

He proposed to you when you got off the plane. Who says you don’t get second changes, or third?

Six weeks later you got married. And four weeks after that, the ailment that had forced Ernie to sit during your wedding ceremony was confirmed as cancer.

And now he is gone. And you are alone once more. And it leaves you, and me, heartbroken.

The last year has been hell. There’s no other way to say it. In and out of the hospital during the rapid decline of your third husband, the second to be stolen by cancer in a decade. The last few weeks were more than anybody should have to endure; to lose a soul mate, one you hoped to have in your life for a few more years: just a few more years to love, to debate (and yes, argue), to share tender moments with, to discover what life’s true purpose is.

It would be understandable for you to sink lower, deeper into despair. You’ve spent a lot of your life living with regret, and its made you angry at times, lonely at others, and most of all, bitter about what could have been, but hasn’t become.

And now you have a choice to make: what do you want the next chapter of your life to be?

You can write this chapter any way you want. Yes, there are limitations: you’re struggling with a lot of physical challenges. Some of these there is nothing that we can do anything about. Some we can find treatments for, and some you can control wholly.

But within the confines of these maladies, you still have a choice. You can choose to accept control over your decisions and the consequences of those choices. You can choose to be happy; unreasonably so if you have to. Nobody would blame you if you decided to slip from mourning into a deeper despair, and resentment. But if you’re going to author this next chapter, why not choose to make it about service, about a modicum of joy, about peace?

You have it within you. I know you do. I told you at lunch before I left Hamilton that what I wanted more than anything was to see you smile again; for you to know happiness. You’re not alone; you have Chantel and I and you have friends. But the sort of happiness you must seek now can’t be dependent on others; you’re going to have to find it within. It might be centred on community, or on faith or service, but at the end of the day, you’re the one holding the pen: only you can write the story.

Respect, not Contempt, needed from Ottawa for Idle No More

My MP in Ottawa is an earnest young man from Airdrie named Blake Richards. He’s a backbencher with the Conservative Party, and I get a lot of mail from him extolling the virtues of his efforts on my behalf in Parliament, and those of this Party.

It’s pretty rare that we agree on much of anything. We’re both in favour of open, accountable government, but he isn’t a part of one. The F-35 fiasco has proven that beyond a doubt. Apparently we’re both in favour of responsible spending, but the Conservatives hand $1.4 billion dollars every year to oil and gas companies in Canada, which in turn record massive profits at the expenses of our environmental and health: hardly a wise investment.

Otherwise, I find that my voice is completely absent from Ottawa as my MP could really care less about someone like me: fish-kissing, gay-rights supporting, pro-democratic-reform whack-job from Wildrose.

Now I’ve found something else Mr. Richards and I can staunchly disagree on: I am one Canadian who has NOT grown “increasingly frustrated and disappointed with the actions of those who blockade highways and railways” as Mr. Richards suggests in his January 18 “Richard’s Report.”

“There can be no doubt that Canadians have had a lot of patience with the recent Idle No More protests taking place across our country,” he says in his Report.

I’m pretty sure that the First Nations people he’s referring to are also Canadians; the First Canadians in fact.

The MP then goes on to say that thanks to the dedication of the Conservative Government, 80 land claims have been settled and 10,000 units of housing built on reserves. This is all well-and-good, but it doesn’t seem to have helped the poorest people in Canada pull themselves out of poverty, nor does it address some of the fundamental concerns that have lead to the Idle No More movement across this country.

Bill C-45, among other pieces of federal legislation, is at the centre of this dispute. The massive omnibus bill threatens to further destroy Canada’s environmental protection by gutting the Navigable Waterways Act. Already the Fisheries Act, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act and the Environmental Assessment Act have been reduced to shadows of their former selves. The Species at Risk Act is next. First Nations people argue that the federal government has a duty to consult them on the most recent desecration of Canada’s environmental safeguards, and that destroying those provisions amounts to a violation of their treaty rights.

Mr. Richards concludes his newsletter by saying this:

“Our government respects the rights of all Canadians to legal, peaceful protest. In the case of Idle No More, this movement has done a lot to engage our First Nations citizens. This sort of awakening can be useful in helping us make progress on matters of mutual concern like economic opportunity, housing, education and accountability.”

So true: what the Idle No More movement has come to realize is that as Canadians we can have our awakening and “make progress” until the cows come home, but it’s not solving the problems that lead to the moment of reckoning in the first place. The rest of us Canadians should be out there in the cold with our First Nations colleagues, neighbours and friends fighting for what makes Canada great: the vast beautiful green land that until recently was considered one of the most pristine on earth, but is rapidly becoming a toxic sewer, ever fast now under the Conservatives.

Mr. Richard’s government is running Canada into the ground. We’re an international pariah on the environment, deliberately sabotaging any effort to curb green house gas emissions and make meaningful progress on other important global issues such as poverty and meaningful aid to developing nations.

And meanwhile, this nation’s First People’s are still living in government sanctioned squalor. Yes they have problems; some of their fiscal management is almost as bad as our federal and provincial governments. But for ten thousand years these First Canadians lived good lives on in this extraordinary landscape of prairie, forests, lakes, mountains, tundra and sea-shores and in the last two hundred years all of that has been ruined for the sake of profit and the progress that Mr. Richard’s espouses. Nobody expects First Nations people to live as they once did; but nobody should expect that when our country continues to break promise after promise made to them that they will sit still and say thank-you for building a few houses and settling the occasional treaty.

What the Idle No More movement seems to be saying – at least to me, an outsider who shares many of their concerns – is that respect is as important as anything else that we can share with our First Nations countrymen and women. And what Mr. Richards makes clear on behalf of his government is that he has very little of it when it comes to his relationship with this country’s First Peoples.

Addressing what Slickrock Paradox does not

I’m one of those authors who always reads his reviews. I don’t get a tonne of them: five or ten for each of the six books I’ve published so far, so it’s not an onerous commitment. Two of every three reviews I’ve received since starting to publish books in 2006 has been positive, and as Meatloaf crooned, that ain’t bad. I like the ego-massage of reading good reviews, and knowing that my intention as an author is hitting the mark, and I take heart when a reviewer points out where I could improve either the content or the style of a book. I’m new to this, and committed to learning as much as I can about the craft of penning novels and non-fiction alike.

The recent review of The Slickrock Paradox in Briarpatch Magazine hit on a third topic: what I apparently missed completely in penning the novel.

In The Slickrock Paradox Silas Pearson is looking for his wife Penelope de Silva in the searing heat of the American desert. De Silva went missing three-and-a-half years before while working on a clandestine conservation project in the canyon country of Utah and Arizona that centred on the writing of Edward Abbey, the iconic and controversial desert rat who penned The Monkey Wrench Gang and other books.

The reviewer, Yukata Dirks, seemed to enjoy the central mystery of the book, and has very nice things to say about how I portray the landscape of the Canyonlands, but points out:

“Unfortunately, Legault never addresses Abbey’s reprehensible racism. In 1963, Abbey wrote: “I certainly do not wish to live in a society dominated by blacks, or Mexicans, or Orientals.” Just as insidious were Abbey’s racist, colonial ideas about Indigenous peoples and their relationship to the land he fervently defended. Midway through The Monkey Wrench Gang, the gang destroys a coal train and plants false leads around the site to point the blame at Red Power radicals. Indigenous people don’t have a place in Abbey’s narrative of eco-resistance, even if it is their traditional lands that are being destroyed.”

I can’t say I’m shocked by this feedback. Edward Abbey was a controversial figure in American literature and the life of the American West in many ways. In addition to being racist, he was misogynistic, crass, anti-social and at times bordered on abusive. He had five wives and it’s probably fair to say that the first four were happy with being left in the rear view mirror as he carved his path through life. He fathered five kids. He was a complex writer and a complex person, and just like the rest of us had plenty of demons to grabble with, more than a few created by his own hand.

I consider racism reprehensible and unjustifiable. If I were writing a book of literary criticism, or a critical biography of the man, it would be shameful not to mention these character flaws while praising his prose and his depth of feeling for life. But I’m not. The Slickrock Paradox is a mystery novel that is centred on Abbey’s nature writing. My protagonist, himself a critic of literature, openly states his distaste for Abbey’s writing; he prefers Ivan Doig, Wallace Stegner and Cormac McCarthy (all of whom I love). It was a bone of contention between Silas and his missing wife.

Briarpatch goes on to criticise my portrayal of the American Indian in the book:

“Sadly, although Legault’s plot turns on the discovery of the ruins of a Pueblo gathering place by a young Hopi woman, The Slickrock Paradox suffers from a similar, though less crass, erasure. Despite his realistic portrayal of the political and economic landscape of the Southwest, the role of Native Americans in the defence of their land and water rights goes unmentioned, and Legault’s few Indigenous characters are treated as objects more than actors: victim, grieving sibling, spiritual Elder.”

It’s true that there are no American Indians among the leading characters of this book. It’s not a book about tribal water rights or the efforts of the Navajo or Hopi to defend their traditional lands. Characters like Darla Wisechild, the sister of one of the deceased in the book, are much like other supporting characters in the novel; they help carry the plot. In a book of 85,000 words there isn’t time to create in-depth portraits of every person that appears and still maintain a fast pace with lots of suspense. These characters are foils for Silas’s investigation. The fact that so much of that investigation involves the discovery of Ancient Pueblo ruins, artifacts and mythology merely reflects the reality that life in the Southwest today is an overlay of an ancient culture that has existed there for ten-thousand years and there is no place you can turn without confronting that.

In my 2008 novel The Darkening Archipelago Archie Ravenwing, a “Northern Salish” elder is a complex and flawed leading character fighting salmon farming on traditional First Nations territory in BC’s Broughton Archipelago. Every book can’t be about everything.

All of this reminds me of the curious moment when, after publishing Carry Tiger to Mountain: The Tao of Activism and Leadership, that I read a review that criticised my portrayal of the Tao te Ching for not including a discussion about Taoist sexuality. Really? I tried to imagine about how I could have shoe-horned a discussion of ancient sexual energy into the book between chapters on strategy, fundraising and leadership styles. I recall thinking at the time that 1) my book was about leadership and activism, and not about sex; and 2) that sometimes reviews are a good way for the reviewer to make a tangential point only peripherally related to the topic at hand.

I used Edward Abbey’s writings as a centre-piece for The Slickrock Paradox’s mysteries because I love his passionate description of the landscape and because of his iconic stature among the canon of western literature. It doesn’t mean I endorse everything about the man, or his life, or even every word that he has written.

All of that said, every review I read gives me something to think about, and I’ll certainly been considering this feedback while penning the second book in the series, Black Sun Descending, due out from Touchwood Editions in 2014.

Have your say. Should Edward Abbey’s racism necessarily be part of any discussion of his writing? Or can we accept that he was a good nature writer and a passionate man without investigating his other character flaws?

Malformations of the human species

The news that former criminology and psychology student, and convicted animal-torturer, Karla Bourque was released from prison last week is unsettling news. Kayla Bourque was convicted of cruelty towards animals and sentenced to eight months in prison, six of which she had already served. The judge in the case gave her the extra two months so that a long list of complex parole conditions could be prepared. These parole conditions included a ban on owning knives, needles or duct tape.

It raises challenging questions: this is a woman who has admitted wanting to kill homeless people, and who has shown to take pleasure in torturing her family pets, so why is she being released from prison after serving just eight-months, and what can be done about it? How do we protect ourselves and our communities against people who feel no remorse for their actions, and experience none of the moral constraints that prevent them from committing terrible crimes?

This story strikes a nerve with me because my 2011 book The Vanishing Track is about a male version of Ms. Bourque. In this mystery novel, set in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, a young man named Shawn Livingstone graduates from juvenile delinquency to torturing and killing animals, stealing cars, burning down a neighbourhood grocery store to stalking and killing the homeless. Sean is a psychopath – a human abomination incapable of feeling the most basic emotion: empathy – and that makes him capable of committing the most heinous crimes without feeling any remorse. He, like all psychopaths, is intelligent and superficially charming, but he lacks the ability to feel. He can mimic normal human emotions, but as Dr. Richard Hare of the University of British Columbia, and the world’s foremost expert on psychopathy, says “he knows the words but not the music.”

I don’t know if Kayla Bourque is a psychopath, but the odds are in favour of it. Dr. Hare has developed the standard model for assessing this severe form of mental deviation. It’s called the Hare Phychopathy Checklist and it includes two main categories: personality “aggressive narcissism” and case history “socially deviant lifestyle.” Under the first category are behaviours such as having a grandiose sense of self worth, pathological lying and the failure to accept responsibility for his/her own actions. In the second category are historical habitats such as a need for constant stimulation and tendency to experience boredom, a parasitic lifestyle, poor behavioural control and juvenile delinquency. Twenty questions in all, the checklist is administered by a trained professional and each of the twenty categories is scored on a scale of 0-2 (zero meaning no evidence of the trait is displayed, 1 meaning there is a partial match and 2 if there is a reasonably good match). The maximum score is forty; different administrators have varying thresholds for the label psychopath but it is usually in the range of 25-30.

Screenings of the general population using Hare’s checklist suggested that around 1% of the people in North America are potentially psychopaths. One in a hundred people demonstrate the behavioural or historical traits of psychopathy. Not all psychopaths turn to criminal behaviour: in fact Dr. Hare, along with Paul Babiak, wrote a fascinating book about what many psychopaths end up doing called Snakes in Suits: when Psychopaths go to Work. Think about the collapse of Wall Street in 2008 and the lack of remorse shown for the suffering that caused and you’ll understand Hare and Babiak’s thesis.

Many psychopathic individuals are content to live non-violent lives, but they are almost never without victims. Some male psychopaths express their parasitic tendencies through casual and exploitive sexual relationships; others prey on families and associates through petty crimes or mental, financial or emotional abuse.

The cause of phychopothy is not known: researchers speculate that a chemical imbalance between testosterone and cortisol may be to blame; others suggest environmental factors such as abuse during childhood while others say poor socioeconomic status might be a factor. No one has yet stated categorically that there is a definitive cause.

Psychopaths are gross malformation of the human species; so like us in so many ways, but lacking the moral fibre that we associate with humanity, and therefore not quite fully human.

There is no cure. One psychologist who spoke with the troubled Ms. Bourque before she was released said that the young woman will likely require supervision for the rest of her life.

Ms. Bourque has admitted to wanting to kill people, and is intelligent enough to study criminology at Simon Fraser University to learn how to do it in a manner that she will not be caught. Consequences have little meaning to psychopaths: they don’t fear being caught because they will be punished; they fear being caught because it will spoil the fun.

It was only Ms. Bourque’s inflated ego that led her to being arrested: she bragged about her cunning to a fellow student who called the police.

The question remains: what do we do with people like Ms. Bourque? She hasn’t yet committed a crime that warrants locking her up for the rest of her life, but obviously the judge in this case feels that she is likely to re-offend or he wouldn’t’ have imposed such strict probation. Our judicial system prevents us from locking Ms. Bourque and others like her up for crimes she has yet to commit, and monitoring her behaviour for the rest of her life will be a costly and human-resource consuming operation for police and social service providers. If we don’t watch her she will almost certainly commit additional crimes. And what do we do with all of the others?

There is no easy answer. I’m open to your ideas:

The End of the World, and Other Equally Improbable Things

As REM used to sing, “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”

I’d be okay if the world as we knew it ended today. For clarity, I could do without the earthquakes and tidal waves and the Yellowstone caldera erupting in a tower of molten rock and fire. I’m also fond of the people on the planet – most of them, at least – and the wild critters that we’ve seen fit to leave alone. But if the rest of the world ended today – the human-made parts that, in a spasm of fear and misunderstanding we have crafted to create an ecological, humanitarian and economic crisis, I’d be fine.

Maybe what the Mayan’s intended for the 21st of December 2012 was that the world was going to start anew, and not merely end.

But that’s not going to happen either. It’s equally unlikely that the world will turn some critical page in its history today as it will come to a crashing halt. And let’s face it; it’s not the world that needs a reboot; it’s just us. You and me and the rest of the seven billion of us who are making a catastrophic mess of things.

Maybe the world has already ended and we haven’t noticed? Maybe we’ve living in a slow-motion end of time that the Mayan calendar-makers couldn’t possibly have foreseen.

I think very little is going to come to an end today, and very little will start over. Humankind is too distracted to press the restart button; we’re caught up in our own small, insular experience of the world, busy texting each other pictures of our cats, or playing the latest Xbox 360 game, to notice that things could really use a do-over. Those distractions keep us from both the pain and the joy of life on this planet; we’re slowly weaving a cocoon around ourselves.

So the end time will come to pass today without significant incident. And that’s too bad, because we need a serious kick in the pants if we’re going to end the world we live in, and start building a new one.

The root of the sickness

“The time to address gun control laws in the United States was Thursday.” This statement, made to a CBC reporter when he asked a question of a Newtown, Connecticut resident yesterday, will almost certainly dominate the debate over the most recent mass shooting in America in the coming days. And while I think this conversation is vital, there is a deeper, more radical question that must be asked.

The predictable and often repeated debate over gun control in that country will once again be replayed in the wake the death of 27 people on Friday, December 15. On one side of that debate will be advocates for gun control arguing that without the easy access to guns, madmen like the one who killed innocent children and their teachers on Friday in a Connecticut school would not be able to take as many lives. On the other will be the zealots from the National Rifle Association and other industry funded “right to bear arms” groups saying that possessing firearms is protected by the US constitution and that Americans should preserve that privilege in order to defend themselves. Never mind that in any one of the twenty mass shootings in the US in 2012 nobody has successfully defended themselves and their fellow citizens with their own weapon.

This debate is bound to reach a fevered pitch in the US, and elsewhere, in the wake of the most recent school shooting. I predict it will reach its apogee just before Christmas, and then, as it always has, will fade from our minds, replaced by more mundane concerns, and by the holiday season.

And if that happens, twenty young children, some as young as five years old, will have been gunned down by a madman in vain. There can be no sense made from such violence; there can be the impetus drawn from such malice to cure what ills us as a society and has, this year alone, claimed sixty-eight lives in mass-shootings (The FBI defines a mass-shooting as one where there are four fatalities, not including the gun man) and 543 since 1982.

If you use the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence’s statistics, the story is even bleaker. They report that since 2005 there have been 431 incidents where more than one person has been shot at a time in the US alone.

The gun law debate aside, we must address another question: what is it about the human condition that makes the sickest among us want to pick up a pair of handguns, walk into a school, shoot your own mother and then proceed to kill her students? What makes someone want to walk into a crowded theatre and randomly shoot strangers?

There is a profound illness that underlies these acts of random violence and has made them the norm, not just in the United States, but here in Canada, in Europe and elsewhere. Psychopathy – the mental illness that renders a person unable to feel empathy for others – must surely be part of the root of this predilection of mass violence. But there must be more.

If our communities are like giant, interactive living organisms, these people who emerge to cause such unspeakable violence are the symptoms of a vast illness that permeates our being. At the root of this illness there is a lack of value for the sacredness of human life, and a fundamental failure to grasp the interconnectedness of all living beings. Every day as a society we cause great violence to one another and the world around us. These gunmen are simply the most obvious – and most disturbing – outward manifestation of our illness.

There is an anger and a fear that lies just beneath the surface of humanity that every now and again finds an outlet through these psychopaths and sociopaths and just-plain deeply disturbed individuals. We live in a way where our desires can never be satisfied, because what we want – more – is never enough. We seek our fulfillment from without – from things, from other people – and not from our own peace and well-being, and that frustration simmers below the surface of our everyday lives like a cancer waiting to metastasise.

When that illness finds the perfect host to express its rage – the utter lack of caring for the holiness of all life, of humanity, of the pure unbridled potential of a child – it can have disastrous results. The combination of a society without an understanding of our interconnectedness, and a mentally ill person with easy access of guns and you get Colorado, Columbine, Connecticut and too many other examples of list, or even make sense of.

We can, and we must, (but likely won’t) address gun control, not just in the United States, but everywhere that firearms are so easily available. But as a society we must also consider the underlying illness that makes it possible for sick individuals to fester up like a lesion and destroy lives so wontedly. Until we view all life as sacred, until we see ourselves not just as individuals who are isolated from one another but as a part of all life, we can justify perpetuating great violence against each other, and against the earth and its creatures. We are not separate, and when we harm our so-called enemies, and when we rip into the earth and poison it, we are slowly killing ourselves too.

The death of so many children and those who loved them and were sworn to their care yesterday is just another deeply painful example of why we must seek to find peace in our own hearts, and teach that peace to one another and our children. It’s for the sake of our future as a species that we must bring an end to this terrible suffering that we have created.

Rough Breaks on the Red Breaks Road

The Red Rock Canyon Mysteries were born of adventure and exploration in Utah and Arizona’s magnificent wilderness, such as the Escalante National Monument, described here in this tale of mis-adventure.

“Do you think we can get down that?” I ask.

I’m sitting behind the wheel of “Toro Azul,” – the Blue Bull — my trusted and dependable 1989 Toyota SR5, gripping the wheel with white knuckles. The road slopes down at a twenty percent grade, but it’s anything but graded. It’s sandy and deeply rutted, and in addition to the downward pitch, the whole road lists to one side, tilting precariously towards an arroyo, a dry wash that once or maybe twice a year floods with water the colour of blood, and then goes dry.

Greer Chesher is sitting beside me, her border collie Bo at her feet. It’s early spring, and we’re exploring the Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument, a 1.9 million-acre swath of wilderness in south-central Utah. Greer is doing research for a book on The Monument and I am along for the ride, such as it is. Greer and I met in the early 1990’s when she was a ranger at Grand Canyon National Park and I was a volunteer there. We’d stayed in touch, and when I wanted to spend a month in the Escalante, she agreed to show me around.

And now we’re driving down the Red Breaks “Road,” which is really a couple of sandy ruts that snake across the desert, around stunted Juniper trees, and up over bare red rocks. We’re trying to get as close to a place called the V, where Harris Wash meets the Escalante River.

When we get to a point where we can drive no further, we’ll hike the remaining miles.

“Do you think we can get down that?”

It should have occurred to me that this was that point. But it didn’t. Instead, Greer said cheerfully, “Yeah, we can get down that.”

What I didn’t think about, at least until we were down, was – gravity being what it is – can we get back up that?

I shifted into first and crept down the grade in four-wheel drive, leaning to the right to avoid being pressed against the driver side door, steering to keep the tires in the ruts of the road. The moment we were down, I knew that getting back up was going to be a serious problem. I should have just cut to the chase, turned around, and begun the 12-hour ordeal of driving that twenty meters of road right then and there. Instead we drove on another mile, parked where the ruts disappeared into slick rock cliffs, and wandered over the canyon country towards the V. We didn’t make it, for whatever reason. That isn’t important now. Instead we rendezvoused with the truck an hour later and began the return journey.

When we got to the place where the road was perched on the edge of the dry wash, I stopped. That was a mistake. If I was an experienced off-highway driver I would have just kept driving, and might possibly have used momentum, horsepower and a devil-may-care attitude to make it to the top of the grade. But I didn’t. The image of the sand giving out under the truck, and Greer, Bo, and I tumbling sideways into the wash made me let up on the gas and roll to a stop. The fall wouldn’t have killed us. But we were 40 miles from the town of Escalante – population 400, including dogs – and I was rather attached to my truck. I didn’t want this arroyo to become henceforth known as Legault Wash with my battered truck as a monument to my stupidity.

After a few minutes of study I geared down into compound low and began to creep up the grade, hardly touching the gas. Even at this snail’s pace the tires dug into the loose blow sand, and we ground to a halt. I backed down – nerve-wracking at the pitch and angle of the road – and tried again, this time giving the truck a little more gas. We went up. We stopped.

We tried again, and again we dug into the sand.

Cursing. Back down. This time we got out to survey the scene. The sand was loose and dry and the wind was picking up, blowing in more from the desert all around.

We tried a few more times, me nervous and watching out of the corner of my eye the dry wash twenty feet below looming out of the passenger window.

What came next was an hour or two of road work. We hauled rocks from the wash and the surrounding desert, and found loose brush that could be used to build up the road to give the truck some purchase. The wind picked up and more sand blew in, burning our eyes and filling our hair with grit. It was exhausting work, with the nagging concern of being stuck out at the end of a road that saw maybe one or two vehicles a week (or less, who knows!) gnawing at the back of our minds.

When we got the road to where we thought it could support our weight, we mounted up and took a bit of a run at it in four-high. We climbed nearly to the top, the truck swaying back and forth, the engine revving as it worked hard to keep its momentum. Just as we reached the crest our handiwork gave out, the tires left the rocks and brush and dug deeply into the sand, and we lurched to a halt. I tired to reverse and couldn’t. I switched to compound low again; nothing. We were stuck deep.

Stepping out of the truck into the blowing sand, I could see that we were going nowhere. On the driver’s side, the back wheels were pushed to the very top of their wells and half buried in sand. On the passenger’s side, there was a two-foot gap between the top of the wheel and the bottom of the well, and it was likewise buried. The axle was completely obscured by sand.

Hiking. Greer and Bo guarded the truck and I began the hike towards Greer’s vehicle – also a Toyota SR5 (our expedition was not sponsored) – parked six or seven miles away. The plan was to return with her truck and use it to pull mine from the sandy quagmire.

After just four miles, at the trailhead for Harris Wash, I flagged down some hikers and they offered to give me to Greer’s vehicle. One of them had been stung by a scorpion and they were on their way to Escalante to find medical attention. I had a snake-bite kit and did first aid while be banged over the rough road. I wished them good luck, and they me.

Behind the wheel again, I started back with Greer’s truck, over the rocky and pitted road as far as Harris Wash, then down through the creek and up past the sign that warned travelers that the Red Breaks Road was four-wheel drive only.

Who was it that told me that that four-wheel drive just gets you stuck deeper, further from home?

As I drove Greer’s truck back towards my own, I noticed with some dismay that the tracks from my morning’s passing were already gone, blown over as more sand drifted across the pathway.

Down and around the stunted Juniper tree and up over the slick rock, I finally got to the place where my truck rested axle deep in the road. We hooked up a sturdy tow rope, and I got into my truck while Greer pulled with hers. Nothing. We were in too deep, and her four cylinder SR5 lacked the chutzpa to pluck mine from the desert’s greedy clutches.

Driving. We made our way in Greer’s truck over 40 miles of sand, rock, ruts and bad attitude and finally reached the asphalt and Escalante. We ate a pizza and drank coffee at the town’s only Espresso Bar – a sign of the times with the creation of the Monument attracting new business to this tiny town. And then we called the tow truck. Singular; there was only one.

Greer suggested offering one of the sturdy Escalante men, with a muscular Ford, Chevy or Dodge truck a hundred bucks to drive out into the desert and pull my dinky import from the clutches of the Monument. I always felt out of place in Escalante with so small, and so quiet, a truck. But I lacked the guts or brains to give this a try. The tow truck seemed so much safer.

That’s when Darrell showed up.

My first response was one of tremendous relief. The tow truck was massive. Its wheels – all six of them – were up to my shoulders! Good news, I thought, this rig will do the trick.

When Darrell emerged from the cab to discuss the particulars of the situation I noted that he looked ready enough. He smiled a wide grin and I noted that he was missing two teeth on top and two on the bottom, just about where you might land a well-placed punch. Excellent. He either fought enough not to care, or so rarely that he was really bad at it.

I drove with Greer, Darrell followed behind. We had to stop at the Conoco on the way out of town so Darrell could pick up a friend who could help with the job. That’s when I met Steve. Another affable chap, despite the fact that most of his teeth were present and accounted for.

When we got to where Greer and I were camped in her trailer dubbed the “Adventure Pod” I climbed in with Steve and Darrell, and we left Greer behind. No sense in getting two Toyota’s stuck. It’s not like there was a two-for-one sale on in Escalante that day.

We groaned along in low gear over the rocks and ruts of the road to Harris Wash. I inquired after the workings of the big rig, and learned that indeed it was four-wheel drive, but all the wheels that “drove” were in the back. The front two were for steering only. Then and there I should have seen the trouble brewing.

As we crossed the wash I was ruminated on cold beer, which I mentioned was in a cooler in the back of my truck. Darrell couldn’t drink, a condition of his recent parole from prison.

Further into the desert.

Down and around stunted juniper, blow sand accumulating quickly at the bottom of that swale, and up over the slick rock we ranged, the wind beginning to howl. By this time it was late afternoon. Sundown was just a few hours away, and ahead was the last long, straight stretch of sandy road before the steep decline, the wash and my truck. We drove headlong into sand, and stopped. The front wheels of the massive rig burrowed into the soft sand and the back wheels spun and we were rendered motionless.

The tow truck was stuck.

We clambered out and found some rocks and brush and used a couple of four-by-fours that Darrell had on the back of the truck for just this sort of situation and drove again. We made a solid four or five feet of progress and then down went the rig into the sand again, hub deep in the powdery grit.

Suddenly the couple of hundred yards between us and my Toyota seemed like the distance to the moon. For two hours we dug, hauled rocks, moved the four-by-fours, gunned the engine, lurched forward, dug in again, and repeated. Each time we made a few feet of progress. Once we drove twenty feet with loud raucous cheering before sinking back into the desert. We bonded.

We fixed bandana’s over our faces to keep the blowing sand out of our noses and hauled more rocks, reorganizing the desert as we went.

When we finally reached the Toyota it took all of a minute to pluck it from the Monument’s greedy fist. It popped out like a cork. I pulled the top from a couple of Mormon 3.5% microbrews and those of us not on parole enjoyed them, the watery suds washing the sand down our gullets.

We three stood side by side looking back over the road we had just spent several hours transforming. It looked as if it had been carpet bombed. The sandy ruts were churned up several feet deep from the tow truck’s massive tires.

“I can’t drive my truck over that road,” I said.

“Just drive it like they do in the commercials, man,” grinned Darrell.

I didn’t have the heart to tell these fellows that I had never actually seen a Toyota commercial.

I handed the keys to Steve.

I’ve never seen my truck do the things that Steve made it do that evening. Somehow he got it going fast enough to surf over much of the loose sand, and when he did get stuck once, he shifted into compound low so fast that the momentum of the truck seemed to propel it out of trouble again.

Darrell pointed the tow truck toward to the side of the road and roared across the desert, avoiding the hazard all together. I groaned at the thought of the hardworking men and women at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance ever learning of my malfeasance.

Then I remembered that I was standing in the desert, Steve was sitting behind the wheel of my truck, and Darrell behind the wheel of the tow truck. 40 miles from town. I hurried to catch up, congratulated Steve on an impressive display of manly driving, and resumed control of Toro Azul.

In the failing light and blowing sand we made our way back towards Harris Wash. But our misadventure was not complete. Remember the ‘down and around the stunted juniper’ part of the road? The down and around went fine on the way back, me in the lead and the boys following close behind, but as I gunned the Toyota on the uphill side (I was emboldened by Steve’s driving and the thought of what a Toyota commercial must look like) all the gear in the back of the truck slammed against the tail gate, which popped open, spilling my stuff in the middle of the road.

Run it over! I yelled, as Darrell piloted the tow truck around the Juniper. But he didn’t He stopped. And didn’t get started again.

More brush, more rocks, more deep and abiding guilt. It took us another hour to free the tow truck from the incline that it was marooned on. The winch came in handy. It’s amazing how sturdy stunted juniper trees are.

It was past 10 pm when we finally reached Greer’s Adventure Pod. She handed me what money she had and I drove on ahead of my new friends to Escalante, drinking 3.5 and singing the saddest Ian Tyson songs I could as the wind buffeted my Blue Bull.

At the town’s only bank machine I took out all the cash I could – Darrell could take neither cheque nor credit card – and paid nearly $500 US for the privilege of their assistance that afternoon. I gave them each a $20 tip – all the cash I had left – for their trouble. Then we parted. Muchacos.

I stopped at the Conoco for more beer, courtesy of Visa, and finally reached the Adventure Pod and my sleeping bag near midnight. As I closed my eyes I could feel the sand grating over my corneas. The following morning we drove back to town to shower and I deposited bright red sand from the Escalante Monument into the corners of my shower stall.

Two days later we were driving out to Egypt Point, over a washboard road, when my muffler, loosened by being buried in blow sand and unceremoniously wrenched from the desert, fell off and I drove over it.

But at least now my truck, braying like a jack ass, fit in around Escalante.

Rough Breaks on the Red Breaks Road was first published in I Sold my Gold Tooth for Gas Money, an anthology of adventure travel stories edited by Matt Jackson and published in 2006 by Summit Studios.

Greer’s book – Heart of the Desert Wild was published in 2000. My Toyota SR5 blew a head gasket climbing a steep mountain pass and was sold for scrap in late 2004. Now I drive a 1993 Nissan 4×4, but for how much longer?

Autumn Trails

NOTE: I’ve been editing my forthcoming book Running Toward Stillness (Rocky Mountain Books, 2013) for the last three or four months, but wasn’t comfortable with the ending. Yesterday something happened that helped me find the words to rewrite the final essay. Feedback, as always, is welcome.

* * *

I went for a run yesterday for the first time in six months. I hadn’t run since April. It’s the second time I’ve taken such a hiatus in the last eighteen months and I was beginning to worry that maybe my days of trail running were coming to a close. But yesterday it was a perfect blue-bird day; the aspen’s that cloak the hillsides above my Canmore home were ablaze in yellows and gold, and I’ve been itching to feel the steady rhythm of motion I’ve come to love.

My knees have been in rough shape of late. In April I woke one morning limping and it persisted for weeks. I took a break. I finished the ski season and then rode my mountain bike three or four times a week and learned to see the world at a very different speed. It was a lot of fun, and I got in decent shape, and my knees didn’t hurt as much.

But yesterday the sun and the colours made me throw caution to the wind. I took it slowly, worried that my knees might protest, or my lungs give out or my legs turn to stone. But none of this happened. I glided up the trail like I hadn’t taken six months off, and after an hour and a half of running on the dazzling aspen benchlands, I felt very good indeed. I didn’t care if it was my first run or my last; I wasn’t running for anything but the sheer joy of being in motion on a stunningly beautiful day. I felt once again the sensation of inseparability between myself and the landscape – between myself and everything else in the universe – and didn’t worry if it would ever happen again. It was enough to be alive, in motion and perfect stillness all at once.

I thought about the months when I hadn’t been running as a prolonged period of stillness, even though I’d been riding my bike and walking nearly every day.

Inside of motion there is stillness, and in stillness, motion. The ancient symbol of Taoism is the Tai Chi:  the black and white swirl with a dot of black in the white and a dot of white in the black. These two halves are not opposites coming together, but parts of the same whole, working in harmony.

There is a still point in motion that occurs when the runner, the rider, the walker, moves in a way that is completely free of effort, and in a manner where the barrier between ourselves and nature evaporates. At this moment we touch the perfection of creation and open a door to the mysterious fabric of the universe to reveal itself in us.

Just so, in stillness – meditation – there is motion. The circle of breathing that creates a rhythm also opens the door to a glimpse into the infinite between our cluttered thoughts.

Motion and stillness, working in harmony, can be a portal through which we glimpse the true nature of the universe, and our beautiful place within it.

The sun was setting as I wove my way home, the bright woods breezing past. I felt the familiar cadence of breath, the steady beat of my feet on the leaf strewn path, the rhythmic pulse of heart and blood and bone as I trotted down familiar trails.

Don’t be afraid to stop, I told myself, and don’t be afraid to start again. That’s all this is, a simple rebirth. Every single day.