Somewhere near the end of his life, Norman Maclean wrote in a letter to a friend “It is clear to me now that the universe in its truculence doesn’t permit itself to be that well known”.
I found myself this morning looking back over what I know of Maclean. Very little it seems. Maclean came to me because Friday afternoon, we were all a bit giddy readying to leave after another long week, and the topic of movie references came up. I offered that the final paragraphs of ‘A River Runs Through It’, are perhaps the best of any book I’ve ever read. And in the movie, narrated by Robert Redford with an older actor portraying Maclean, the scene is haunting and artistic perfection.
I came to know Maclean in an interesting way. I had not read his book. But the movie came out soon after I had opened College Market Books and Coffee. Little Laura, one of my employees, and I went to see it at the Reel Theatre in Pocatello. I was so moved by the experience that I went back to College Market, at around 10:00 at night, pulled the book from the shelf and read it straight through. Cover to cover. I finished early morning just about in time to open, so I started making coffee and helped the opening crew get going before walking the block to my apartment and taking a nap. I’ve re-read the book perhaps 3 times since then. This morning I started re-reading ‘Young Men and Fire’, Maclean’s 2nd book, which he finished just before he died.
This is the story of the Mann Gulch Fire in Montana in 1949. Maclean, a summer firefighter himself, was consumed with understanding what happened on that afternoon to claim the lives of the smoke jumpers. Incidentally, I bought this copy at a bookstore in Missoula, when I was there earlier this year with Eileen for the rugby tournament. It was rainy Saturday morning and so before heading to the pitches, we ambled through a nice bookstore and came away with a few gems.
Maclean was a religious man by all accounts. A Presbyterian. Whatever that means. Just as he openly struggled in ‘A River Runs Through It’ to understand why his brother was beaten to death, in ‘Young Men and Fire’ he struggles to understand why these men died. Maclean taught Shakespeare and poetry at University of Chicago for most of his adult life. He understood the art and mechanics of writing as well as anyone on the planet. He was 73 when ‘River’ was published.
But it’s that quote about the universe that sent me down a rabbit hole this morning. Of course we know that we know little of the universe, or at least we know little of its purpose. The physical construction of the universe seems to be slowly getting mapped, although it appears as if each year we find it is more massive and more dynamic and more perplexing and complicated than we thought even the year before. But our relationship to the universe is the interesting thing to me. It seems likely that we are the universe, more so than just living in the universe. Our individual selves may well be the same stuff we see at night when we look up. That theory seems more fitting to me than anything I learned from religion. We are as much a part of the universe as the trees and animals and stars and asteroids. We are one. But even if that is true, it is the meaning of it all that is maddeningly evasive. The answer is as likely nothing as anything. As likely arbitrary as directed.
And so the answers to these big questions always elude us. And without these answers, we really know little to nothing of how to live our best life. Right and wrong, outside of societal protocols, may not matter in any larger sense. It’s completely possible that Hitler’s post-earth experience may be the same as Mother Theresa’s.
Maclean obsessed about young men dying before their time and their lives being unfulfilled. In an unpublished notebook found after his death, Maclean had written ‘The problem of self-identity is not just a a problem for the young. It is a problem all the time. Perhaps the problem. It should haunt old age, and when it no longer does it should tell you that you are dead.”
Self-identity is an interesting thing. I am going through a period of intense self-reflection. Driven in part by a lingering sadness of unknown origin that will not dissipate. So maybe self-identity is related to this. Most people have kids and eventually grand-kids, and so their identity as a parent is surely the most acute. It’s their purpose and their reward. Some people achieve distinction in their careers and so that identity can also be meaningful. I am not a parent. I have had an interesting life and some casual success in work pursuits, as well as some instructive failures, but I have no distinction in career in any sense. I set MYO off and am immensely proud of that, but I am no longer connected in any meaningful way as I am not there enough. I had a great partner in Mandela, but that ended this year. So then, this idea of self-identity, which is closely tied to the ‘why are we here’ question may be the most important concept of all. What’s the point really? I still basically have fun, but the intensity fades and experiences mostly feel repeated and less intense. I am fortunate to have generally realized most of the things I dreamed of in my youth, so what now? All my life I have set my expectations too low, so perhaps that is the case here.
It dawns on me that a lot of my posts are about western writers. Norman Maclean, John Steinbeck, Wallace Stegner, Ivan Doig, John Wesley Powell, Edward Abbey, & Larry McMurtry. To name a few.
One other interesting note on this business of wildfires. One of the most interesting little projects I oversaw while at Sundance, was an updated publication of fire protocols for the Forest Service to be used at the Inter-agency Fire Center in Boise. We were contracted to manage this effort and were provided 4 retired USFS managers as resources. This was one of those contracts that are completely structured and laid out, but was just handed to us as a courtesy because a contractual mechanism was necessary and we were a woman-owned, minority-owned business and so it was an easy credit for the Forest Service to meet that mandate. So I assembled a series of conference calls as we were all in separate locations.
These guys had different areas of specialties and so each took sections of the current manual and came back with recommended updates and the science and data to support their recommendations. I would normally dial in and just listen strictly out of interest. I had absolutely no technical knowledge to contribute. It was fascinating to better understand how wildfires are managed. When a wildfire is first spotted, whatever resources locally are available to extinguish are immediately engaged. But after a fire gets to a certain size, then a massive amount of data gets put through an algorithm to determine what the next steps are. Things like fuel load in the area, geography of the area, weather predictions, homes and businesses in the area, what resources are available (or not dedicated to other fires), when was the last burn in that area and all kinds of other data. This manual helped to clarify how to react in the early stages of new fires, before it was either extinguished or turned over to the inter-agency fire center for management.
These 4 men were all very gracious and obviously well suited and committed to their professions. It was a lovely experience. I regret that I did not keep a copy of that manual.
Maclean informed my writing style as well. In the book, he writes about how their father made them write essays. When they turned them in for review, he would make some comments and then have them cut it down by half and return it. When they came back, he would repeat the process, again having them cut the words in half. In an interview, he said “you take it the way it comes to you first, with adjectives and adverbs, and cut out all the crap”. John Irving made a similar comment once. He said he generally published a book about every 7 years. He wrote the first draft in a year; then spent the next 6 years cutting it down to the final version.
To wrap up a few loose ends. I had to put down John Wesley Powell’s exploration for the 2nd and last time. I remember now why I chose not to finish it last time. It is an intense textbook download of geography, geology, anthropology, and cartography of the area around the Green River, Colorado River, and the Grand River. It is just too much information that is neither of great interest to me or of any merit in my work or life. What is of interest, and what I thought the book was about, was a diary of the actual explorations—which would have been amazing. But it is just the scientific observations and outcomes of his explorations with little of the detail of the hardships and routines of what would have been a brutal time in the wilderness.
I had planned this weekend to be in Flint Michigan with mom and dad. I was scheduled to interview mom in NPR’s mobile studio for Storycorps. But mom and dad’s close friend Charlotte Suttman died and they needed to go be with her widow Jim and their family. They were close friends for several decades and spent a lot of time together.
Also, on Tuesday of this week, I was meant to be in NYC to see a concert of Mark Knopfler at the Beacon Theatre. One day a few months ago, soon after making a proclamation that I needed to cut back on frivolous, expensive trips, I splurged on $900 for 2 tickets to see Mark. I have not ever seen a show at the Beacon, and well, it is Mark.
But the week before, I took a long hard look at costs of a hotel room, flight, dinner, and drinks, and decided to give the tickets to my friend Lisa instead. We saw Springsteen together last year and I knew she would enjoy the show. Tuesday, just before 8:00, Lisa called me and informed me they would not let her in to see the show. After 45 minutes of frantic phone calls, we find the ticket agency made a mistake and sold two sets of tickets with the same bar codes. So Lisa and her friend were denied the show, but it looks like I will be getting my money back. Or that is the current thinking. I have filled out the paperwork and led to believe I will be reimbursed shortly. Stay tuned on that.
Two good bike rides this weekend, although a slight mishap on Saturday. I had intended to stretch into 1/2 century territory and had mapped out a 50-55 mile route. But at mile 33 I flatted on the rear tire. And I found that I had the wrong tube in my bag. It’s been so long since I changed a tire, I doubt I could have gotten the new tube on without pinching it anyway. So I called Lyft and was rescued.
Today I rode another 31 miles. Interestingly, I felt much better on the bike yesterday, but my pace for today was slightly better. I am hoping to keep getting my mileage up so I can prepare for a couple of longer rides yet this year.
The Ohio landscape was truly magnificent this weekend. I just don’t like to stop to take many photos. The last two photos I took off the internet to give a better sense of the beauty of riding through the farm country here. The other picture is little Aneeka at her 7th birthday party a few weeks ago.
When I got my bike fixed, it was going to take 20 minutes–and the bike shop happened to be just down from Platform Brewhouse. Perfect.
The feature picture is my desk–which is a little ridiculous at times with technology and monitors.
14.6 average speed
2:10:02 total time
1432 elevation gain
2:21:50 total time
14.0 average speed
1578 elevation gained