Category: philosophy

Ancient Hike

I took a walk through history the other day. Actually, it was just another hike. But aren’t all hikes through the wilderness a walk through history? This virgin desert hasn’t changed much from the way it was hundreds, or even thousands of years ago. It looks the same, smells the same, and even sounds the same, except for the occasional passing airplane.

Once you get past the cities and campgrounds, things haven't changed much over the past several thousand years.

Once you get past the cities and campgrounds, things haven’t changed much over the past several thousand years.

It tastes the same, too, if you’re as brave as me, and willing to sample some of the herbivorous offerings growing underfoot. It’s never killed me to do this, which is a little surprising.

Purple Sage is blooming this Spring--one of my favorite wildflowers. If Prince had ever seen this flower, I'll bet his famous song would have been given a slightly different name.

I call this Purple Sage, even though it’s blue. But there are many different sages called Purple Sage, so I have license. It’s one of my favorite wildflowers. If Prince had ever seen this flower, I’ll bet his famous song would have been given a slightly different name.

The ancients who hiked these hills before me had the same kind of worries, too. After all, I take care to avoid stepping on serpents, just like they did. But one of these days a rattler’s gonna get me, I’m sure. I’ve come close a few times, but so far the vipers have kept their fangs to themselves.

I can’t say the same for the two-legged vipers I’ve encountered, in that place we call civilization. But even the ancients had to deal with scoundrels within and without their tribes.

Bees love Purple Sage, also.

Bees love Purple Sage, also.

I’d sure like to get to know these ancestors. But the closest I can come is to walk through the same wilds they walked, and stomp the same hills, and keep the same watchful eye for buzzworms.

I wonder what they considered their reason for living? I doubt it was to be my progenitors, though that would be flattering. I’ll bet they, like us, could not quite put their finger on it. Everyone probably had their own theory.

This rock is so old, it's developed wrinkles.

This rock is so old, it’s developed wrinkles.

The purpose of life, according to my finger, is just to experience life itself. There’s no life in boredom, pain, or endless hard labor. That’s death, in my book. So I try to avoid those things. And when I do, what’s left is simply life itself, with its purpose automatically fulfilled.

I wonder just how old my theory is. How many ancients, who walked these hills, would have agreed with me?


This is my uncle on the left, and my dad, at about age 10, on the right.

This is my uncle on the left, and my dad, at about age 10, on the right.

Life comes down to a box of ashes. I know this because I held the box. It was a box that contained my father’s cremains.

My father accomplished a lot of things in his life. He helped raise five children and six stepchildren. He married three different women. All three were difficult women to live with, but he managed not to kill any of them.

He was a crackerjack at his line of work. He made good money and was in high demand. Even after he retired he continued to work part-time, because no one wanted to let him go.

He was well-liked by just about everyone. Even his ex-wives liked him. Especially when he sent in his alimony checks. He had a great sense of humor, was generous to a fault, and was honest to everyone except the IRS.

I spoke with him on a Sunday, and he was doing great. By Thursday he was in the hospital with pneumonia. I called him on Friday, and by that time he was going out of his mind. That’s because he was an alcoholic, and they don’t serve alcohol in hospitals. Twelve days later he was dead, succumbing to a combination of pneumonia and the DT’s.

Shortly after that his body was reduced to a box of ashes. And that’s what his life came down to.

It’s easy to get nihilistic when holding a box of someone’s ashes. What a metamorphosis cremation causes! It drives home the idea that everything we’ve ever accomplished can quickly turn to dust.

But nihilism is not for me. There are good Christians and good atheists. And there are lousy Christians and lousy atheists. I’m a lousy atheist. I don’t believe in nihilism.

Instead I make the assumption that there is life after death. It’s an assumption, and not an absolute belief. But to assume or believe the opposite is too depressing for me. I hope I’m not disillusioning any of my fellow atheists when I say this.

My dad was a good man, and I like to assume he’s enjoying an afterlife. For one thing, he has no more ex-wives to pay alimony to. And I doubt that IRS agents are allowed into heaven. And instead of alcohol, he has something better to drink. Ambrosia.

Actually I have no idea what any afterlife is like. But my best guess is that it’s nothing special. My guess is that nothing really changes on a fundamental level when we change worlds. Perhaps our joys will come from basically the same things. Maybe we’ll continue to enjoy friendships and romances and close relationships. And maybe we’ll continue to take pride in whatever work we do. And perhaps we’ll still love to laugh, make other people smile, and pursue games of cat and mouse with the equivalent of IRS agents.

So my guess is that life really doesn’t come down to a box of ashes. Life doesn’t come down to anything. It remains where it’s at and continues on and on in its own special, non-special way.

Life is all about the moment-to-moment joy of simply living, regardless of what world we live in.

The Grid

My hermitage about 10 years after I sold it. Years ago, it was razed and a modern house built over the site. Kind of symbolic.

My hermitage about 10 years after I sold it. Years ago, it was razed and a modern house built over the site. Kind of symbolic.

I could have been penpals with Ted Kaczynski. At the same time the Unabomber intrigued against modern civilization while holed up in a remote Montana cabin, I too isolated myself from civilization in a remote cabin. And while Ted’s activities were of the “underground” nature, so were mine. Literally.

That’s because my cabin was built underground. Well, mostly. As you can see from the photo, it was a log cabin dugout, with a roof that protruded a few feet above ground.

I resided with scorpions in the walls and rattlesnakes under the eaves. I held out against modern society for as long as I could, in this fastness of mine, beneath the desert floor. But at least I didn’t hate modernity as much as Ted, who got the lame-brained idea of mailing bombs to those at the forefront of technological progress.

Ted Kaczynski after his capture in 1996.

Ted Kaczynski after his capture in 1996.

These days they call what Ted and I did, “living off the grid.” But Ted wanted to do more. He wanted to get rid of the grid. That was not very brainy, especially from an erstwhile university professor. Ted grossly underestimated the scope and power of the grid.

There are all kinds of grids. There’s the electric grid, for instance. And some say if you put up solar panels, you are going off the grid. “Bushwa!” Ted would scoff, I’m sure. Because there’s also the water grid, which supplies you when you turn on the tap. There’s the internet grid, the highway grid, the grocery grid, and a whole gridiron full of grids.

A grid is any kind of modern system that supplies the masses with their wants and needs. And the grid is the insanely complex structure of modern civilization that you get when you overlay and interconnect all grids together.

It’s pretty hard to rid yourself entirely of the grid. For example, I didn’t like shooting wild critters. So I became addicted to the grocery grid. And Ted relied upon the postal grid to deliver his special packages to his victims. I wonder how thoroughly Ted pondered over that.

Things got pretty lonely for me out there on the gridless Mojave. Also my bank account was dissipating into dust. So after a few years, I sold my cabin and decamped back to civilization. I’ve been deeply embedded in the grid ever since.

I’ve learned that the grid is not the reified monster that Ted and I imagined it to be, so many years ago. Nor is it heaven on earth, as boosterish promoters of modern living might have us believe. The grid is actually just people. It’s the folks who keep the juice turned on, the water flowing, the trucks rolling, and the comestibles and consumables selling at the market. It never works perfectly, because people aren’t perfect. But with all its kludgy intricacies, somehow it usually comes through for us.

People can live cold, isolated lives in the middle of this great grid, not fully appreciating the value they receive from their neighbors and community, nor even the value they contribute back. Whether we realize it or not, we need each other very much.

The grid is very human. We are the grid.