Thanksgiving Thoughts for a New World

I feel that it’s incumbent on me, especially me, to talk about what I am grateful for this Thanksgiving.  In view of the election of President-Elect Donald Trump, I find myself deeply grateful for the State of California, for our pragmatic Governor Jerry Brown, and for its people: their openness, their kindness, their compassion, their inventiveness. I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, where I learned that if you didn’t have anything nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all.

Alabama is beautiful. It is a gorgeous state filled with rivers and streams and woods, flora and fauna of amazing variety. It is where I used to go hunting as a boy with my favorite uncle, taciturn Uncle Bud. He would take me deep into the forest. And he could explain to me what hunting was all about. For him, it was listening to his dogs.

“Listen to them,” he would say about the cacophony of barking voices echoing through the distant pines. “The whole pack, lost. They are confused. They don’t know if they are coming or going.”

There are barks in the distance. One voice off by itself. “Listen to Maggie [his favorite beagle]. She’s got the scent. She knows what to do. Listen to her call to the rest of them, saying ‘Hear me. Follow me.’” And I could hear her clear, confident voice resonating through the trees.

“Now listen to their voices as they realize she is right and follow her lead. Now they are on the trail.” And suddenly it all makes sense.

He puts away his pipe. “Come with me. Quick!” And he rushes over to a grove with a break in the trees and takes out his pistol. “The rabbit will cross here.”

And when it does, running, he shoots it with one single shot. And that night, he skins it and guts it and prepares it for eating. But we can’t eat it. The meat is riddled with worms. His tracking, his shot, was a feat so unbelievable and yet horrifying, it amazed me. But it is spoiled.

The beauty of the skill is hard to reconcile with the horror, outcomes that are unforeseen. There is always the possibility of worms.

What I didn’t recognize during those formative years was the understood, prevailing cultural prohibitions and biases; the amazing restrictions on public speaking, and attitude of what was right and what was wrong. One thing I knew was that one could walk into any neighborhood, knock on a door, carefully ask a political question, and get the same answer. There was a uniformity of cultural mores and truths that did not brook any differences.

When I first arrived in California in 1968, the Free Speech Movement was still underway and I realized that people were not afraid to speak their mind. I discovered a warmth and friendliness that allowed free discussion, argumentation, and a wealth of differing ideas and I told everybody who would listen that I knew that I had found my people.

This is where protests against the Vietnam War could take root, where new music could be born, where poetry and painting and printing and potting and publishing were all thriving in this heady mix of freedom and the excitement of what it meant to “find yourself.” Where free love suddenly took on a meaning other than what the media made of it. It meant loving your neighbor, caring for each other and, yes, it meant engaging in physical copulation, but it was more than that. It was all free. It was not about money or material success. It was a spiritual awakening that made life in California seem thrilling and I was amazed. This was the place that the Information Age would happen because people were free thinkers and could share ideas.

But today, it feels like Alabama has come to the shores of California. I watch the news and discover that Jeff Sessions, the Alabama state senator whose racist speech cost him a judgeship, now has been selected to be appointed Attorney General. I must say, that causes me to suddenly pause. That thought awakens my memories of “whites only” water fountains, of church bombings, the murder of four black children—Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair— in the name of segregation. And it comes to me that the restrictions on public speech that were so prevalent in the South covered over a host of repressive, subjugating ways of living. “If-you-can’t-say-anything-nice-don’t-say-anything-at-all.”

I am so grateful that California remains a bulwark against the bullying, racist world presented by Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump. I believe that we will not bend under this assault on our freedom and we will not give in to a past that is not worthy of respect or dignity.

 

Yes

                We were waiting in a stand of pines.  The hounds announced themselves.  Yes, he said, yes, they’ll cross over there.  And he began to run.

I remember catching up, my uncle taking the pistol from his clothes as he knelt on the road.  It had rained earlier that morning and the smoke stayed close to the ground, the sound burning in my ears.

Yes, he said, fine rabbit if he doesn’t have worms, and he smiled, his hand once again disappearing beneath his coat.

And the rabbit was so small, shot through the head, and I was amazed and puzzled, a child knowing that shot was a feat of perfection somehow.  So small and he had shot it from so far away.

So small, and yes, he had stood there holding it by the ears, the wind bending around us, the trees singing the song of what could be remembered, but never again touched.

Charles Entrekin

Berkeley Poets Co-op #14 (1978)

young-hare-i

11 thoughts on “Thanksgiving Thoughts for a New World

  1. Charles-thank you for bringing form, essence and heart to the experience we are carrying in our consciousness. As we move through these days post election, post President elect Trump’s Jeff Sessions and Steve Bannon, it seems we are in a dream not of our making.

    But yes, we are in California-and it feels like we will hold our own and will continue to represent free will, free speech and free will. Thank you for your story -thank you for your gift of imagery and color and care.

  2. One thing I’m grateful for is Charles’ account, for I too appreciate people with whom I enjoy an attitude of free inquiry motivated by a yearning for truth. That appreciation, however, also brings up a poignant sense of loss. Our connections with Americans generally, many of whom obviously voted for Trump, can’t be denied without losing some of ourselves. I find myself, for example, quite touched by Charles’ portrayal of taciturn Uncle Bud. He is a hero who to some extent stands alone, beyond the group. He’s in touch with his dogs and can decipher their language; he can anticipate the route of the escaping rabbit; he has the skill to deliver the single deadly shot, extolled in Hemingway’s work as a sort of absolution of the hunter; he has an intimate knowledge of the forest terrain inside his mind. He operates outside the human realm and stands as a sort of naive solitary, predicting the poet, the war protestor, the individual intellect struggling to separate fact from fiction. He is awake to the non-human world. In this sense he would deplore Trump’s denial of Climate Change, the Sixth Age of Extinction, the Anthropocene age in which man moves more dirt and rock in a single year than is carried to the sea by all the rivers on earth. However, by his rooted bond with his culture and community, he may just as easily be an avatar of Navy Seals, potentially capable of joining in such collusions against truth as Bush’s first invasion of Iraq based on Weapons of Mass Destruction, ultimately found not to exist. It’s good to remember that the first investigator sent to corroborate their existence, when he reported there were none, was replaced — by someone who would spout the line for war, which Hilary also was swayed by and voted for. This type of denial of truth infests our culture as thoroughly as worms ate into the flesh of Uncle Bud’s rabbit.
    Another gratitude I share with Charles is an appreciation for California, it being fertile ground for new ideas such as Buddhism, ecological awareness and necessary tolerance for other cultures. But this gratitude is also mixed with a sense of loss. An important reason California is so culturally open is due to the fact that its early white settlers had their effort to form deep roots, both with the land and with their communities, cut short. It was cut short by the gold rush. In 1949 eighty thousand immigrants dominated by greed poured into California to disrupt it. The patient farming through generations wasn’t allowed to do its work, either in the practical world or the cultural world. Those deep roots, aided by the habit of people talking to each other around wood stoves during the winter, telling stories, account for the fact that throughout the twentieth century eighty percent of significant American writers came out of the South. “He was walkin ‘cross the field like he was walkin on egg shells”. The prevalence of metaphor and telling yarns, where literal fact and fiction merged, was nourished by these roots — in the land and in transformational speech. To a lesser extent the extreme Northeast produced notable writers also, because of this same rootedness. That rootedness, while encouraging such creativity also bound people into the constraining admonition, “Don’t say anything if you can’t say something positive” that stifled dissent and free individual thought that Charles refers to.
    In contrast, California proved fertile for ideas such as Zen in the fifties, cults of various kinds, the intellectual freedom that allowed Intel to develop solid state circuits, innovative discoveries promoted by non-hierarchically structured companies that encouraged a free flow of ideas, the evolution of computers generally, back to the land movements ultimately emphasizing benefits of organic agriculture, a birthing ground for civil rights protesters and anti-war activists and on and on — all because this lack of constraining roots allowed people to do their own thing in an atmosphere of freedom.
    But my feelings of gratitude are not only mixed, they imply a challenge. How to speak from profound roots but freely. All new utterance has an element of danger in it, as D H Lawrence said.
    I grew up in Redwood City, the bay area, during the fifties. At that time Bayshore Freeway was four lanes with a double yellow line down the center, bordering working class houses sprinkled among empty fields, including a vast cowfield at the end of my block, an area now taken up by Ampex and a multi-story glass structure housing part of Stanford Hospital on one side and The Marsh on the other. We had chickens and dogs ran free. There were more vacant lots than houses. We had an icebox. One of my chores was to drag my wagon down to Fifth Ave to get ice: I’d put in a nickel and a block of ice would come clomping and sliding down the metal chute and out through the canvas flap. I’d take the medieval tongs and pincer it and struggle it into my wagon. I was only five.
    This landscape or timescape changed quickly. The freeway is now a torrent of frustrating traffic at what is now called Midpoint — halfway between the City and the silicon valley vortex that has touched all our lives. When I was a boy we would run across Bayshore to the Marsh — a region of sloughs, salt beds belonging to Leslie Salt Co, thousands of waterfowl that knew to keep beyond the range of bb guns and shotguns. The Marsh reverberated within a prehistoric hush, often foggy, especially in early Saturday mornings when I loved to walk along the levees by myself. Most of the families I grew up with were working class, many fathers machinists at United Airlines or heavy equipment operators building highways. My own father was an adding machine salesman for Underwood Corporation, taking the train into the City. I had a bb gun at eight and shot it into the mud in the sloughs, practicing. At YMCA camp the NRA taught us how to shoot .22’s and handed out patches and certificates. I was inspired by hunting stories from my grandfather, who had been a dog trainer, cavalry officer in the days they had horses, and was what you could describe as a 19th century sportsman. He conveyed great reverence and mystery for the wilderness. My own evolution as a killer came to an end one morning as I walked along a levee in the fog. Flying above the slough alongside me a great blue heron flew so close I could almost touch it. I was mesmerized by its its slow undulating wings. I felt true awe. My bb gun felt suddenly paltry, even ridiculous in face of such emotion. The bird became a kind of omen for me. Then later, when kids were talking about getting their first deer, I queried my father about it. “I went deer hunting only once,” he said, “with Dick Hurst. But when I sighted down the barrel of the rifle and looked into the brown eyes of the deer, I couldn’t do it.” So I never became a hunter, despite my grandfather’s inspiration.
    The experience of seeing Redwood City change so fast, from a city of ten thousand people to one of seventy thousand, to witness all the vacant lots disappear to be replaced by houses, the cowfield turn into corporate buildings, oak trees we used to climb cut down, the Marsh fill up with wrecking yards and trailer courts, strip malls popping up, El Camino a visual echo of LA all combined to make me feel that every place I felt sacred was bound to disappear. The quickness of it mimicked the transformation of California itself. That pace still unsettles me and, powered by our industrial and now post-industrial age, seems to promise nothing but devastation of every environment that keeps us sanely human. The implications for our natural world of so many Americans having gone for Trump boggles the mind. Caught in nostalgia for post-WWII industrial America they are are stuck in despair. Pure emotion may be an indulgence of the ignorant or deliberately blind, nowadays. I feel grief within my gratitude; but won’t be paralyzed by it so long as grimy dandelions still tender their fragile yet resilient yellow blooms alongside the freeway.

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