Monday, September 28, 2015

Not so alone

Another thing that kept me away from blogging last month was that I spent half of it in Alaska. I wrote a two page epic hiking adventure in the journal at a yurt one night, visited a couple Russian churches, and took a few notes on my visit to a cabin in the wilderness that is on the National Registry of Historic Places. The cabin was built by Richard Proenneke and has been made semi-famous by a half-hour documentary featuring him.

He is known for his longevity, he spent 30 years in that cabin. He was also known for his craftsmanship, the handle mechanism on the door is ingenious. He is a little lesser known for his environmentalism.

In 1967 he was retired from the Navy and decided that building a cabin in Alaska would be a challenge he’d like to try. Challenging himself was a way of life. He had a friend who had a cabin on Upper Twin Lake, just north of Port Alsworth, so he spent that summer walking the area, finally settling on a spot right next to his friend.

There were no hardware stores in the area so whatever he needed, he had to bring or build. Space was saved by bringing only the metal parts of drills or chisels and fashioning the handles once he was there. This also led to one of my favorite lines from the documentary, “today I needed a spoon, so I made a spoon.”

His skills were excellent, and his hiking pace was legendary, but many people have accomplished such things in Alaska and elsewhere. Mr. Proenneke felt the lifestyle of accomplishing things on your own, not wasting anything and spending time reflecting on the wilderness, was worth sharing, so he also filmed himself as he built and stocked the cabin. Originally, he probably had no more in mind that simply making some instructional manuals so others could share the experience.

As he returned to that isolated wilderness year after year, he noted changes in people who came to the area. He saw people no longer caring about the values he cherished. Something you’ll see in his film or if you visit his cabin is a lot of gas cans. He fashioned many useful storage and carrying items by recycling old gas cans. But where did they come from? He didn’t have a chainsaw or gas stove. They came from the hunters. They would come out, shoot their moose and sometimes leave everything behind except the antlers.

He wrote not only about how to live in the woods but of the experience. Others, Sam Keith in particular, put those journals and film into production and he gained a little fame. This was not his goal, since of the gifts he said, “My cabin and cache have been full to overflowing for quite some time and each new load makes me wonder where I will stow it all. ... I do appreciate everything but wish they would consider the poor miserable brush rat more fortunate than they and spend their money to beat death and taxes.”

When you see him talking about himself, it’s easy to assume a level of conceit, but if wasn’t for his friends, we probably would have never heard of him. One of the park rangers at the cabin said he corresponded with Aldo Leopold and Willard Munger, but I haven’t been able to confirm that. She said Dick did not save his letters, something that comes from living a sparse lifestyle. So whatever he did, that’s lost to history.

Summing up my feelings about this pilgrimage has been more of a challenge than I expected. The man remains a bit of a mystery, and as with any public figure, he’s what each of us want him to be. What struck me most on this trip was that he did not harbor much anger. In any of the short descriptions of him, no one ever called him “crusty” or a curmudgeon. Instead they went out of their way to note how friendly he was despite his isolation. Even his hunting was kept to a minimum, apparently out of a kinship with the animals who shared his valley.

This is not to say that he withheld his opinion. Throughout his discussions about carving handles or constructing a food cache he scatters tidbits of the value of making something useful, and being able to make something with quality and craftsmanship. He ends his first book with a longer discussion on those philosophies and on the positive affects it would have on all of us if more people adopted them.

To try to give some sense of the man, here’s part of a note that was left on his table,

“You didn’t find a padlock on my door (maybe I should put one on) for I feel that a cabin in the wilderness should be open to those who need shelter. My charge for the use of it is reasonable, I think, although some no doubt will be unable to afford what I ask, and that is – take care of it as if you had carved it out with hand tools as I did. If when you leave your conscience is clear, then you have paid the full amount.

This is beautiful country. It is even more beautiful when the animals are left alive.
Thank you for your cooperation.”
R.L Proenneke

Somehow he managed to be “alone” yet engaged. While alone he was listening to the world. He saw the rise of polluters from the hunters to corporations. He also saw that just as no single person can solve our environmental problems, no single person caused them. Instead of loudly broadcasting anger over the changes in the world he did not care for, he quietly showed us how to live not just in nature, but with each other.

Monday, September 14, 2015


Lots of good stuff going on this month, and signs of Fall are beginning, including an uptick in my blogging. My summer vacations included a lot of reflection and philosophical discussion with family and friends. One of those discussions was about something I did half a lifetime ago, the est training. If you don’t know what it was, you can look it up. I don’t really care which opinion you get. It’s an ontological discussion and experiential group experience designed to expand self-awareness. It’s now called Landmark, and that’s a story in itself.

What I want to relay today is a bit of wisdom from a friend of mine from college. All of my friends could see I got something out of this two weekend seminar thing I did, but due to its complexity and my own lack of eloquence at the time, they weren’t sure what it was. One friend in particular said something that I had no response to, and has held up as true. I don’t remember the exact words, basically it was; there are truths about life, about our human condition, truths that are discoverable. There are many paths to those truths, but when they are illuminated by a particular source, some people tend to attach those truths to that source as if that source is the exclusive source.

I’ve asked several psychologists if there is a name for this phenomenon but no one has given it an ID. A colloquial phrase for it might be “he drank the Kool-Aid”. If you don’t know that one, please, look it up. It implies a cult nature to the group, something I’ve argued strongly against, even after I quit endorsing the organization. You should be able to find many discussion on that too. I’ve never found anything but a basic accusation of their cult status, never any real evidence.

I was involved with est during the decade or so when they went through the name change and reorganization. Before that they relied exclusively on word of mouth advertising. That’s a nice way of saying they used the graduates of the programs to sell it to their friends and family. It was creepy. I’m not proud of it. In the 90’s and since, they started to appear more on talk shows and eventually they started releasing what was once secret to the internet. Look up “Werner Erhard” and you can see for yourself. There’s everything from 3 minute promo spots to 3 hour seminars.

Here’s a sample, titled the “best ever”, make of that whatyou will. He starts saying that you make your own purpose in life. Keep in mind this started in the 1970’s, so that was a fairly big deal back then. The 60’s were over and meaning was not being found at a Grateful Dead concert or in a Disco. Billy Graham had found his way into the White House and the word “fundamentalism” was just coming into popular use.

He then talks about how people will react when you declare your purpose and start acting like you think you might accomplish something with your life. He doesn’t need to be specific about what people will say, because we all know. We all know people who don’t have enough of a life of their own and feel the need to crush everyone else’s dreams to make themselves feel better. What we don’t talk about as much is how we suppress ourselves just to avoid those public conversations. So, he gets a good laugh and it seems like maybe he’s said something profound.

But, as we used to say in est, sometimes what shows up is what’s missing. What’s missing from this conversation about setting goals and finding meaning is how you build relationships that will support you in getting there. It’s funny that we listen to the negative people around us and let them affect our decisions. We shouldn’t listen to those voices. But ignoring others is not a recipe for success either. There were other seminars and other talks, but the creation of community was mostly mechanical, reciprocal exchanges of support, timed listening exercises, things like that.

I hope this doesn’t sound like I regret my experiences with this organization. I’m not going to try to sell it to you, but if it sounds interesting, I certainly wouldn’t talk you out of it. I would say that there is a limit to how much you can learn about community by paying to be part of one, but that’s actually one of the things that sets est apart from cults, they encourage building your own life, to get whatever you get form them and move on. They want you to apply what you learn there but come back with questions or additional “coaching”. It’s a fine line. 

Some get overly enamored with the programs and make it into something it’s not. Those are probably the ones you know about. Others see it for what it is and make good use of it. If you met one of those, you might not even know it.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Orange Drink

I found this Clementine orange soda in a Fred Meyer store in Anchorage. Sorry for the fuzzy picture, I wasn't spending much time on quality on my vacation. Orange has always been my favorite thirst quencher for soda and hiking the mountains definitely had me thirsty. It was also low in sugar, something I've been concentrating more on lately. As you can see, this wasn't just orange flavored water, it was thick with juice. It was like a glass of orange juice without the citric acid or the pulp and fizz instead.

Possibly the best orange soda I've ever had. I didn't get where it came from though, and I doubt I'll find it again unless I go back to Alaska.