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Saturday, November 17th, 2018

Consuming the Final Frontier

Wednesday, May 30th, 2018: 2018 Trips, Nature, Regions, Road Trips, Sky Islands, Wildfire.

Space vs. Earth

Some advocates of space exploration and colonization are also concerned about the damage caused by humans here on earth. Some of them believe we can give the earth a break by moving our civilization elsewhere. Others believe it’s too late to fix the earth’s problems, but now that we know better, we can move to another planet that’s in better shape, and start over, avoiding the mistakes of our ancestors.

Still other space nuts don’t care – they just want to hang out with all the cool aliens they’ve seen in Star Wars movies. Terrestrial life is passé – they’ve been there/done that on TV nature shows.

People who lack passion for either space or the earth may say “Why can’t we have both?” The answer is easy for the few of us who know where our resources come from. It takes big, energy-guzzling machines made on earth to study or explore space, and machines are non-renewable – every machine humans make comes out of a hole in the ground that used to be wildlife habitat. Space isn’t harmed by studying the earth, but the earth suffers when you study space.

Meanwhile, while living their lives as consumers, in cities far away from the ecological impacts of their consumer lifestyles, each generation of humans unknowingly destroys more of the earth. So-called “renewable energy” is a lie – solar and wind power equipment comes from nonrenewable mines, destroying nonrenewable habitat, and is manufactured and transported using fossil fuels. Wind farms and solar plants destroy habitat and harm and displace wildlife. Even if climate change were somehow stopped, or even reversed, the endless demand for consumer resources results in relentless industrial sprawl and conversion of wildlife habitat to toxic wasteland.

The next generation has no idea of what the earth was like for previous generations. If they experience rural environments at all, they view these now-degraded places as “nature,” just as city dwellers view their pocket parks full of imported vegetation as “nature.” In their ignorance of ecology, it looks fine to them – it has pretty flowers, and places to let their pets run off-leash – why should they worry about the loss of a few square miles halfway across the globe?

Sky Island on Fire

Returning home from a distant city, I decided on a whim to take a back road. The back road took me past a mountain range I’d flown over many times and had always been curious about. I knew there was a road to the top of it, where an astronomical observatory was maintained. In my homeward momentum, I drove past the turnoff, but a few miles farther, without making a conscious decision, I pulled over and checked my map. How far would it be? There were no services up there at all, but I had plenty of gas, a water bottle that was almost full, and a partial bag of trail mix.

This is the penultimate Southwestern “sky island” – an isolated mountain range that rises 7,000′ above the surrounding desert, allowing you to travel from the arid scrublands of Sonora to the alpine forests of the Canadian Rockies in just a dozen miles. It shelters species that have been isolated from their kin in other mountains since the last Ice Age, so that for those of us who love the earth, it’s a true frontier, a place with hidden wonders waiting to be discovered. But unlike most of these ranges, it has a paved road that goes nearly to the top.

A road that passes a Federal prison, at the northern foot of the mountains. A road that turned out to be perhaps the most dangerous paved road I’ve ever traveled. Narrow, and with more hairpins than any other I’ve seen. And you know those white lines they paint along the edge of the pavement? On this road, in many, many places, if you happen to cross that white line on the edge, your vehicle either disappears into a seemingly bottomless hole, or it falls hundreds of vertical feet down the side of the mountain. No shoulder and no guard rail, and in some places even that white line is crumbling.

The road’s so dangerous because this is one of the steepest mountain ranges I’ve ever been in. Even at the top, there are no large meadows or internal valleys. The paved road ends at 9,000′ elevation and turns to steep, twisting, washboarded dirt, and I followed it to its end. The entire mountain consists of precipitous slopes, with just a handful of small patches of grass on less steep slopes that are generously termed “flats.”

When I crested the first ridge it was all I could do to keep my truck on the road, because the views from this mountain range are mind-boggling in all directions. I could see the outline of the state prison way down there at the southern foot of the mountains, mirroring the federal prison on the north. But I was also surprised to enter a fresh burn area. At first I figured it to be a couple years old, but then I came to stands of slender fir, their blackened, drooping branches still holding charred needles. Later I passed slopes that were mostly clear except for big trunks white as bone, killed by a much older fire. The whole top of the mountain had burned in patches, at different times, and now, in springtime, the slopes were blanketed by virulently green ferns.

It was the day after Memorial Day. That’s one reason why I’d come up here – I figured all the vacationers would be gone by now. I had the mountain mostly to myself. I got to the small reservoir near the end of the dirt road, and the only people in the large campground there were a young couple taking a romantic stroll. Even the Forest Service information center was closed, but I did meet three kids playing blissfully in the forest outside the compound of staff housing. A tiny minority of children in our “advanced” society still get to experience a degraded form of what all our ancestors once enjoyed.

On the slopes above the road loomed rock outcrops and pinnacles, and throughout the shadowy forest rose the primeval shapes of lichen-encrusted boulders. Ribbons of water tumbled down from the peaks. Birds were everywhere, wildflowers were rampant. This magical range, isolated in the desert, is known to host the densest population of black bears in North America.

On the slopes that had been fully incinerated by the recent fire, it was easy to see why it happened: all the trees were spindly and had grown close together, a sign of generations of fire suppression by “experts” who were as ignorant of ecology as our city-dwelling consumers. This whole beautiful, damaged mountain range with deep-space telescopes on top, and mirrored prisons and a burning riverbed at its feet, was like a textbook case study of the cascading failures of Anglo-European society and its institutions.

Science vs. Nature

I only spent a few hours up there, so I’m by no means an expert. But I’ll try to summarize the story as it’s recorded by Forest Service ecologists and local historians.

For generations, white Americans stocked unsustainable herds of cattle on these slopes, overgrazing the forage and destabilizing the soil. They logged the old-growth timber while suppressing fires, encouraging dense stands of smaller-diameter trees. To get to the forage and timber, the road was built, and scientists – astrophysicists like media darling Neil deGrasse Tyson – began to covet that peak high in the desert sky as a site for the “world’s most advanced telescope,” to look deep into time and space to the beginnings of the universe itself. While Native Americans hold peaks sacred, white people see them as jumping-off points for their ambition to “conquer the cosmos.”

But environmentalists – that dying breed of obsolete earth-lovers – pointed out that the peak sheltered an endangered subspecies of squirrel, and a battle between scientists began. It became evident that astrophysicists are not conservationists. Different kinds of scientists have different values.

To most science buffs, this is inconceivable. At a time when science is under siege by right-wing fundamentalists and climate-change-deniers, scientists should close ranks! Science is science, and all science is good (except maybe those guys who work for Monsanto, and the oil companies, and pharma, plastics, the arms industry, those scientists who get paid lots of money to do nasty stuff that we don’t want to think of when we’re Marching for Science). Earth and space can live together in harmony – right?

Unsurprisingly, the astrophysicists – who by the nature of their empire-expanding work always have money and power on their side – won. A compromise was reached, because one thing you can never stop is “development” – i.e. replacing natural habitat with roads and buildings – and the astronomical observatory rose on the peak, with a few provisions to protect the squirrels.

It was then that the first fire hit, in 2004. Firefighters, being humans themselves, were naturally keen to protect the observatory, but not so much the habitat of the squirrels.

And last year, the second fire hit, spreading all over the mountaintop, decimating the squirrels. They are now expected to die out completely.

Consuming the Final Frontier

Squirrels are cute, and they’re also famous for burying nuts in the ground, to eat later. A little critical thinking might suggest that some of those nuts might germinate and grow into trees that would produce even more nuts. Like, the trees and the squirrels are working together in some kind of partnership. One will not survive without the other. That’s ecology – holistic thinking. Not so common in astrophysics, which like most science is reductive and mechanistic, treating nature as a machine which can be understood and controlled by breaking it down into its component parts.

The conifer forests at the top of these mountains, and the squirrels that are going extinct there, evolved together, along with thousands of other species – more than our science can ever identify and understand. But billionaires and popular media say we have to go to outer space to discover something new.

Meanwhile the sky islands – a unique frontier, one of a kind, that few people have ever experienced – are dying. The Forest Service, which as part of the federal government is one of our most conservative institutions, says that these high-elevation enclaves in the desert will be completely gone by the end of this century, due to climate change. Entire, incredibly rich and vibrant communities of sophisticated beings with their own priceless knowledge and wisdom, wiped off the face of the earth by our greed and ignorance.

Since conservative predictions are routinely being exceeded by reality, it’s likely that the magical sky islands will be gone in only a few decades. The scorched forests you see in my photos will not regenerate, nor will their squirrels return. It’s probably best not to take your kids out into nature. It will only depress them in the long run, and make them angry at the society that consumed their final frontier.

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Summer Solstice 2018: Into the Burn

Wednesday, June 20th, 2018: 2018 Trips, Mogollon Rim, Nature, Regions, Road Trips, Wildfire.

On the day before the solstice, I wanted to try a short hike on a new trail. But all of the nearby trails were closed due to extreme fire danger, so I drove east to the South Fork of the Little Colorado, an area I’d never visited. The trail started in the shade of a beautiful forest beside a tumbling stream, but as I hiked beyond the human infrastructure that fire crews defended aggressively, I emerged into the heart of the most intensely-burned zone of the 2011 Wallow Fire. It continues the theme of wildfire and habitat destruction from my previous post, but this was my first hike through this kind of devastation, and I was shocked at how little the habitat had recovered in seven years.

The Wallow Fire was the biggest wildfire in the history of the Southwest. It consumed 538,000 acres, or 840 square miles, of the best wildlife habitat in our region – an area more than twice as big as the county I grew up in back east.

It’s hard to believe it’s been 7 years – I can still remember the smoke plume and the choking pall that lay over us when the wind blew out of the northwest. The White Mountains of Arizona have been my favorite local getaway since I moved to New Mexico, and it broke my heart to know they were burning.

The fire was started by two campers who let their campfire get out of control. But that was just the proximal cause. Like all our really destructive wildfires, it was really caused by Western Civilization – European culture – and its Biblical mandate of man’s dominion over nature, inherited by “secular humanism” during the 18th century “Age of Enlightenment.” The machinery first invented during the Enlightenment has enabled us to replace most of the best habitat in North America with cities, reservoirs, industrial farms, and energy infrastructure, ultimately leading to global climate change. And that European drive to engineer our environment was behind the Forest Service’s policy of wildfire suppression, which resulted in disastrous buildups of forest fuel.

As I walked up the stark, sunny canyon past the skeletons of torched pines, it was easy to visualize the cool, shady forest that had been here seven years earlier. I tried to imagine what it would’ve been like in the midst of the inferno, with walls of flame pouring down toward the stream from the ridges above where the heat was most intense. Imagine being thrust into a furnace!

Wild animals, unlike civilized humans and their domesticated commensals, are resilient. They live lightly on the ground, adapting and migrating when necessary. Catastrophic change is a driver of evolution as well as of extinction. Many species are still hanging on here, but in the canyon I hiked – formerly a lush refuge of high water table, low temperatures and high humidity – they’re struggling in a much dryer environment with much fewer cool, wet refuges and much higher average temperatures, now that we’ve killed the great trees and their protective canopy.

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Summer Solstice 2018: Return to the Cloud Forest

Thursday, June 21st, 2018: 2018 Trips, Mogollon Rim, Regions, Road Trips.

Woot! Longest hike since my foot injury, over a year ago – 6 miles round trip, with about 800′ elevation gain.

First time I visited this magical place was during monsoon season, three months before my hip surgery in 2015. See the dispatch from that trip for the difference between wet and dry. Back then, despite my disability, I made it almost all the way to the top, twice as far and twice as high, using a walking stick.

This time, it was a hard slog climbing to 10,000′. It really hit home how much heart and lung capacity I’ve lost to my disabilities. Despite it being a Thursday, and very dry, I ran into a lot more people on the trail this time – two other groups of 3 or 4 each, all in their 20s. I also saw the smoke plume from a new wildfire, about 40 miles to the east, continuing on the theme of yesterday’s dispatch.

One young man who said he’d hiked this trail about 8 times saw his buddy holding up his phone to take a picture. “Dude, you can’t capture this with a camera!” I laughed. “That’s totally right!” We all need to spend more time in places like this, with infinite views, to stretch our eye muscles. I’ve been doing that for decades in the Mojave Desert, to counteract the damage done by living in the city and staring at screens. It works. You can actually see the curvature of the earth from this trail, but you can’t capture it with a camera.

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Summer Solstice 2018: From Flowers to Flames

Saturday, June 23rd, 2018: 2018 Trips, Mogollon Rim, Nature, Regions, Road Trips, Wildfire.

I was heading home, but it was still morning, and I didn’t want to leave the mountains yet. I scanned my trail guide and found a trail that was kind of on my way, but also deeper into the mountains. And even the rather dryly worded Forest Service guide suggested it might be special.

But when I got there shortly before noon on this Friday, there were already four other vehicles at the trailhead, one of them parked so as to block half the parking area.

The trail followed a stream, the West Fork of the Black River, out of the high alpine meadows into its canyon, between steep slopes alternately forested and scarred by fires. Above the stream and the trail there was an old “railroad grade” – presumably the bed of a narrow-gauge track built to haul logs out of the forest in the 19th century. Now, this valley was a site for wildlife habitat restoration – the reintroduction of the endangered native Apache trout. As I walked through this lush protected area, I tried to imagine the scene more than a hundred years earlier, when crews of dozens of workers with heavy machinery were blasting and gouging away at the hillside above.

Despite the burn scars, the valley was a paradise of flowing water, lush vegetation, endless wildflowers, butterflies, and broken volcanic rock. My passing flushed two herons in a row out of the streamside vegetation. The first hikers I came upon were an elderly pair of naturalists poking their way through the thick riparian vegetation, wearing unfashionable khakis and those huge funny-looking hats they sell at REI. I later discovered they were the ones who’d blocked the parking area with their new SUV.

Then I came to the restoration area, where workers had built two small dams in a row to block invasive trout from swimming upstream. I passed three college students, two boys and a girl, returning up the trail, glowing with good cheer. I was feeling pretty good, too. On this trip, I’d been able to hike more than at any time in the past year. Hiking is my way of learning about nature, but it’s also my stress relief. Up until this trip, I’d been hit by one source of chronic pain after another, and I felt like I was losing control. Each time I began to recover from one disability, another would appear. This trip had been like a moment of grace in a long ordeal.

I came to a seep where water flowed out of the hillside and into the stream, and crossing it I glimpsed a tiny, fast-moving snake, smaller than a nightcrawler. I came upon recent trash left by other hikers, and stuffed it in my pocket. Then I came to a campsite in a grove on the bank of the stream.

It immediately seemed strange. This was the third time in the past two years I’d encountered backpackers camping next to a trail and within less than a mile of a trailhead – things nobody in my generation would’ve done. All these new-style backpackers are in their 20s. I wondered where they’d learned to backpack like this.

Four men, they were sitting in camp chairs carrying on an animated conversation, with a tent and two hammocks set up behind them, literally on the bank of the stream. Since I was passing so close I waved, but they ignored me. It was less than a mile from the trailhead, but I’d only intended to scout the trail and file it away for future reference, so I only continued a few hundred yards farther to a point where the floodplain opened out, then climbed up to the railroad grade to backtrack. On the way back, I encountered three more young people, high school aged, sitting in the shade of a fir tree eating sandwiches. An area both beautiful and popular.

When I got back to the truck, I checked the Forest Service trail guide. Sure enough, they tell people to camp out of sight of trails, and at least 200 yards from streams and bodies of water, to protect habitat and wildlife. I passed a small herd of elk out in the open meadows on the way to the paved road. I had to drive through a heavily used recreation area surrounding a big reservoir, and coming upon the RV dump site, I was faced with the deepest butt crack I’ve ever seen on a man wearing pants, on the backside of the maintenance guy bending over in his truck beside the road. Oh, the horrors.

I drove east through the rugged mountains with their swath of alpine forest along the highway that had been protected from the massive wildfire in 2011. A convoy of fat, leather-jacketed bikers suddenly thundered past on choppers with deafening pipes, their women holding on tight behind. I already knew that tough guys can’t prove their toughness without machines that go fast and make a lot of noise. I didn’t know they needed to prove that in the middle of an alpine forest, but we all have our insecurities.

When I regained a signal on my phone, I called the Forest Service office and reported the outlaw campers. After all, these selfish jerks were setting a bad example for all the other young people using this popular trail. Basically, what they’d done was carried their packs less than a mile from the trailhead, picked the most beautiful spot on the bank of the stream next to the trail, set up their gear and started partying, all before noon. They might’ve even arrived the previous afternoon, which would make it even worse. Apparently they intended to just sit there for the whole weekend, with everyone else walking past them. I call this new trend “slackpacking.”

In the meadow upstream from Luna Lake, a reservoir outside Alpine, I spotted between 50 and 100 elk grazing, the biggest herd I’d ever seen. Then, after crossing into New Mexico, coming down the grade between Luna and Reserve, I saw smoke rising from a wildfire somewhere up ahead.

South of Reserve, twisting and turning downhill through the forest, I caught glimpses of a helicopter spiraling above the column of smoke. Then I came to a stop behind a couple of other waiting vehicles. It was at the dirt-road turnoff for Pueblo Park recreation area, before the climb to Saliz Pass, where there’s an old burn scar. About a quarter mile ahead of us, white smoke was climbing steep forested slopes toward the west. There were some official vehicles milling around, and some utility trucks passed us, heading toward the smoke. We waited, and more vehicles arrived and lined up behind us.

I could see the fire growing up the slope. Suddenly a tower of black smoke rose up amidst the white – the fire had reached a vehicle, a cabin, or somebody’s fuel stash. A whole tree – maybe killed by bark beetles – turned into a bright red torch at the upper edge of the fire.

Then one of the official vehicles pulled out and led us in a convoy up the road toward the fire. This is the narrowest, twistiest part of the road, and we were driving close together, so it was hard to shoot any pictures without running off the road or hitting the vehicle in front of me. I glimpsed the silver flash of a small plane circling overhead. Suddenly we came upon a long line of pea-green trucks labeled as “Globe Hotshots,” “Payson Hotshots,” and others from locations in both New Mexico and Arizona, and then we were in the fire. Young men in bulky yellow suits worked alongside the road, amid ashes, smoke, glowing embers, and bursts of flame. Fire trucks hunkered on side trails behind old-growth ponderosa pines.

Out my side window, I caught glimpses of active burning, in a dense cloud of smoke up the steep western slope right above us. The forest up there was shrouded in billowing smoke. We passed the shaded gate of the Apache Plume Ranch, up in the middle of the burn area. The area around the gate had been protected from the flames, but I didn’t know what lay behind it in the steep forest – maybe whatever had caused that tower of black smoke.

Then we came out of it all, and we all continued in a convoy toward Glenwood, spread out at safe distances except for the jerk in the big old Buick that tailgated me all the way to town. Two college girls had died in a head-on collision on this dangerous stretch of road just a few months ago.

The gibbous moon was rising over the tall Mogollon Mountains east of us. The same moon was waiting over my house when I finally got home, at the end of another very long day. And as I drove over the final grade into Silver City, the next tune came up in the random shuffle in my truck, and Coltrane’s “Lush Life” was playing as I arrived home.

I normally honor the solstice by taking stock of my life and giving thanks for the lessons and benefits that have come to me in the past half-year. This time, I started the trip in pain and under considerable stress, and ended with an adventure. I can’t seem to avoid adventure – it’s the inevitable result of exploring the world, putting yourself out there to learn new things. As time goes by, and we civilized humans keep consuming the natural world, there’s less and less of it to explore and discover. Kids grow up in the city, lacking the freedom and immersion in nature that I used to take for granted. We raise generations of timid slackpackers. Forgetting what came before, many believe this to be progress.

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Wisdom vs. Happiness: A Eulogy for James Sayre

Wednesday, October 10th, 2018: People, Society.

House in Rockridge

In summer 2011, I had my last phone conversation with my old friend James. He was ten years older than me, and had had a profound influence on me when we first met, more than thirty years earlier, so that I came to consider him part of my small circle of honored elders and mentors.

In the early 2000s, James had moved into the dilapidated house in Oakland’s Rockridge district where his younger brother had committed suicide, and within a few years James had contracted diabetes. The interior of his house had become a dusty maze of clutter, combining odds and ends he’d picked up at yard sales with stacked boxes of the books he’d self-published but couldn’t sell. There was only a narrow path between the clutter allowing movement between rooms. When I visited, we sat in a tiny cleared space in front of the fireplace, as James broke up pieces of old furniture to burn, to take the edge off the chill, since he was no longer using the house’s heating system.

In keeping with his lifelong practice of “voluntary simplicity,” James refused to fix things when they broke. The kitchen sink leaked, so he’d taken to washing dishes in the bathtub. His focus was on the small yard outside, the tiny patch in front and the larger, fenced area in back. There, he cultivated a profusion of exotic vegetation, including his beloved Australian eucalyptus, a jungle that was gradually engulfing the house and hiding it from the street. Some of it was edible – he had a rapidly expanding blackberry patch.

The mainstay of James’s diet had always been the heavy unleavened bread, full of nuts and dried fruit, that he had baked as long as I’d known him. On his weekly forays to libraries and yard sales by bike and public transit, he carried chunks of this bread in his pockets, so that he was always snacking for sustained energy instead of concentrating his intake at regular meals. Self-reliance and thrift were a family tradition, part of James’s DNA.

We’d both maintained regular contact over the years, through frequent emails, regular calls, and sporadic visits. I moved to New Mexico in 2006, and on my first visit back to the Bay Area, I called to arrange a visit.

When I showed up at James’s house, his parents’ old Buick was in the driveway, but there was no response to my knocks and shouts at the door. I kept trying for a half hour, then left. And shortly after I drove off, my cell phone rang. James apologized, saying that he no longer felt able to allow people into his house. He seemed embarrassed, but otherwise in good spirits.

We continued emailing and talking regularly, and James seemed a little more down, a little more discouraged, each time. His family were all dead, and he’d gradually lost touch with all his other friends – he got in an argument with the last of them, a former Stanford classmate who was a computer consultant in Berkeley, and stopped communicating. I was the last friend standing. By 2011, he admitted he was running out of the last of the money he’d inherited from his parents, and he didn’t know what he was going to do to survive. And after that last call in the summer, he stopped responding to my calls and emails. His web site went offline, and when I called a second or third time, his land line had been disconnected.

I called a friend who lived nearby and asked her to check out James’s house. She reported that there were young people living there now, so I really freaked out. I sent a letter to his address requesting information, but shortly afterward, I called his number again, and got his answering machine. And his web site was back online.

I continued to send email inquiries and leave occasional phone messages, and I downloaded his web site to my hard drive in case it went offline again. But I never heard from James after that.

I visited the Bay Area several times, always stopping at his house, pounding on the door and yelling his name. My neighborhood friend had apparently gone to the wrong address – James’s house never changed, always hidden behind a screen of vegetation, always silent, with the old Buick parked in the driveway. I was of two minds about harassing someone who’d chosen to be a recluse. Should I respect his decision and leave him alone? But I always left a note saying I missed him.

Every six months or so I did a Google search on his name and location. He continued with his practice of writing letters to the editors of the Berkeley Planet and San Francisco Chronicle, fighting capitalism, imperialism, and corruption, through 2012, but after that there was nothing. Finally, before visiting the Bay Area in 2018, I did an online tax search in county records and found that someone had paid a big supplemental tax at his address, indicating improvements to the property, which I knew James would’ve never done. A friend did a real estate search and found that his house had indeed been partially renovated, and it was listed for sale at $1.2 million.

We drove over, and a neighbor informed me that James had died a year earlier from complications of diabetes. I took BART to the Berkeley Court House and waited an hour to request probate records that ultimately put me in touch with James’s nephew, the son of his younger sister who had died much earlier.

Voluntary Simplicity

I met James because Pake, my best friend in grad school at Stanford, had met him earlier, and had stored his belongings in the attic of James’s group house while we were tramping through Mexico and Guatemala after finishing our studies. James let me store my stuff there, too, and when I returned months later, let me camp out in his attic. I came up with the idea of building a new room, an extension on the back of the house, and James thought it was a great idea. He showed me where to steal used lumber, late at night, from the site of a building that was being demolished a few blocks away.

James and I had both studied engineering at the graduate level at Stanford, but ten years before me, he’d dropped out to help organize anti-war and environmental movements. Like many in our society, James was addicted to politics, but he was also suspicious of those who seek or hold power, and was more comfortable with local, grass-roots, communal efforts. Politics on higher levels was a game to him, a spectator sport just as entertaining as baseball. He had an old black-and-white TV in his room and we roommates could hear him yelling behind his closed door, throughout the day and night, but we never knew if it was sports or politics that were setting him off. Whatever – he nudged me out of my long academic isolation, just as our world really seemed to be going crazy.

Within a few weeks after I moved in and finished building my room, there was the People’s Temple mass suicide, followed immediately by the Moscone/Milk assassination, and then the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown. James enlightened me about the shameful hidden history of our society that we’d never been taught in school, what Howard Zinn would summarize in his People’s History of the United States a few years later. The brutality of capitalism that made people poor and drove them into cults like the People’s Temple. The brutality of imperialism that had caused generations of suffering in Central America, with death squads, revolution, and civil war in our own time. James and I went to what Ralph Nader called the largest-ever anti-nuclear protest, in San Francisco’s Civic Center. My art and music changed to reflect the current events, and the history behind them, that James was educating me about.

James was a tall, dashing, long-haired hippie who looked like a swashbuckler out of Elizabethan times, but he introduced me and my friends to punk music and changed the course of my life. I’d grown up in a small, conservative farming community in the Midwest, and until I finished grad school, I remained uptight and inhibited, isolated from and oblivious to much of what was going on the world. James became my first guide to this new world. I remember when I first heard the Modern Lovers and the Ramones playing behind the door of his room, and got a history lesson on the Velvet Underground and Iggy Pop. The Sex Pistols followed shortly afterward, and there was no turning back.

Stealing lumber in our affluent suburb was only part of James’s larger program of sticking it to the Man, exploiting the loopholes of capitalism, and living simply and cheaply. He got me started dumpster diving for food at the upscale supermarket a couple blocks from our house, and within weeks I was getting most of my sustenance for free. There were now five of us living at the group house and rent was super cheap. James taught me and my friends his Book-of-the-Month Club scam. Using a transparently false name like Bill Melater, he’d join the club and receive a box full of free books and records “on approval” which he would immediately sell at local used bookstores, raising $100-$200. The club would then send invoices for a few months before giving up, and James would start over again under a new phony name. With a cheap enough lifestyle, you could live like this indefinitely.

Inspired by the news, the history, and the punk music James had turned me onto, I joined the post-punk arts underground. I rented a loft in San Francisco that my roommates and I – a group house inspired by James’s – turned into an underground arts center. James collected admission at my experimental band’s first show, and he was a frequent visitor at our loft throughout the 1980s as he came and went between his travels across the world.

From the beginning, even before I moved into James’s group house, I was the beneficiary of his torrents of correspondence. I have more letters and packets of clippings from James than from anyone else, including my family. For more than thirty years, James sent me postcards and letters continually, sometimes several times a week, from wherever in the world he happened to be, always signing them “Love, James.” He was interested in almost everything, and everywhere he went, he protested against corruption, capitalism, and imperialism. He collected folk and ethnic music and dubbed it from vinyl to cassette – I have James’s compilations of Tahitian music, Australian country and western, etc. etc.

To support my creative work, I’d landed a very flexible job with an engineering firm, and in the mid-80s when James needed more funds for travel, I hired him as a clerical assistant. There really wasn’t much for him to do, but he did it conscientiously and it allowed me to take more time off for my band. Later, as the digital and dotcom industries took off, he found work as a tech writer in Silicon Valley.

In the 1990s, his younger sister and brother died, and James met a new girlfriend who encouraged him to write and publish. His first book, on bird names, was well-received, so he wrote and published a second, on herbs, that resulted in neither reviews nor sales. That experience, and James’s frequent letters to the editors of local newspapers, inspired me to share my own writing for free, to sidestep the competitive, hierarchical culture of capitalism and consumerism and stop dreaming of stardom in the market economy.

A lifestyle of self-reliance and voluntary simplicity meant that James, by dropping out and setting an example wherever he went, did more for society and the environment than many people who seek to “make a difference” through the use of money and power, or by otherwise working within a system that is fundamentally unjust. He certainly did more, by consuming less, than people who buy electric cars and fantasize that they’re “saving the planet” through increased consumption of electricity and the energy and unaccountable raw materials that go into advanced technology.

By thinking beyond the cliches of liberalism and patriotism, by opposing war and imperialism and speaking truth to power, James reinforced the lessons I’d gotten from earlier mentors, like the radical pastor who’d encouraged me to question authority and think critically, and the radical college professor who encouraged me to challenge the fundamental assumptions of our society and culture. Unlike many of my well-educated friends, James never stopped thinking critically and questioning authority, and to the end, he resisted the capitalist consumer lifestyle and addiction to technology that they all ultimately accepted.

Wisdom vs. Happiness

A few years ago I was visiting an old friend when he said he needed to have a heart-to-heart talk with me. He sat me down and told me that there must be a flaw in my criticisms of our society, because my conclusions had brought me nothing but loneliness and unhappiness, and my life had become a miserable failure.

I try to avoid knee-jerk reactions and remain open to my friends’ feedback, so instead of responding directly, I continued to reflect on what he’d said. None of my other friends had said anything like this – most of us had lively discussions, learning from each other and agreeing on many points. I eventually concluded that my friend’s “heart-to-heart” said more about him than about me.

But there was a belief nested within his message that seems widely held and is worth examining: that true wisdom, true enlightenment, bring serenity. And the converse, that the lonely, unhappy person has failed to find the wisdom that would enable him or her to be content.

Beyond this, there’s the unspoken assumption that individual happiness is the goal of life, and the acquisition of wisdom is just the means to that end.

All of these fundamental beliefs can be traced back to Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher I studied in my freshman year of college. Some people now replace “happiness” with “well-being,” but in our individualistic society, the emphasis is always on the individual.

There are actually people who live such cloistered lives that they believe true enlightenment can protect us from suffering. As if the desperately poor, the sufferer of chronic pain, the tortured prisoner, the victim of rape or other violence, can be happy and serene in the moment if they’ve achieved true wisdom.

I thought of all this as I contemplated James’s final years. We have no way of knowing how he experienced them, but what impact did his withdrawal have on his friends and neighbors?

I remember dilapidated, “haunted” houses from my childhood, old widows and widowers who were recluses, and eccentric outsiders and outcasts who came and went in the background. People who would now be considered dysfunctional or mentally ill in one way or another. Was it that they’d turned their backs on the community, or that the community had let them down in some way?

In any event, we could say these dysfunctional recluses were setting a negative example. Don’t let yourself end up like them, lonely and miserable! But there would be a lingering curiosity, especially as we all age and develop more and more doubts about our own paths through the rat race. Withdrawing from the world could have its attractions. I have a reclusive older neighbor who admits he’s happy by himself – not miserably lonely as you might expect.

Peaceful societies like the Amish and the Ifaluk place their emphasis on the well-being of the community rather than the individual. If the community is not thriving, how can an individual member be happy? If the individual’s environment is full of dysfunction and suffering, how can wisdom bring him or her happiness? Many of my urban friends move daily through streets reeking of piss and teeming with diseased homeless people, breathing polluted air, their ears assaulted by mechanical noise. Can they tune all of this out by meditating? Should they?

Following James’s example, I eventually decided that happiness should not be my primary goal. As an artist, I need to see things as they are, no matter how ugly or frightening. I want to understand what’s happening, no matter how discouraging. What I see and understand will not make me happy. Enlightenment will not bring serenity, and if you keep saying things that make people uncomfortable, you may end up alone. So be it.

James Sayre Memorial web site

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