“We hang petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office.”

Aesop, Greek slave and fable author.

“Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber.”

Plato, ancient Greek philosopher.

“Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river.”

Nikita Khrushchev, Russian Soviet politician.

“When I was a boy I was told that anyone could become President; I’m beginning to believe it.”

Quoted in ‘Clarence Darrow for the Defense’ by Irving Stone.

“Politicians are people who, when they see light at the end of the tunnel, go out and buy some more tunnel.”

John Quinton, American actor/writer.

“Politics is the gentle art of getting votes from the poor and campaign funds from the rich, by promising to protect each from the other.”

Oscar Ameringer, ‘the Mark Twain of American Socialism.

“In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.”

George Orwell, English author.
“I offered my opponents a deal: if they stop telling lies about me, I will stop telling the truth about them.”

Adlai Stevenson, campaign speech, 1952.

“A politician is a fellow who will lay down your life for his country.”

Texas Guinan, 19th century American businessman.

“The first panacea for a mismanaged nation is inflation of the currency; the second is war. Both bring a temporary prosperity; both bring a permanent ruin. But both are the refuge of political and economic opportunists.”

Ernest Hemingway, American author and war correspondent.
“I have come to the conclusion that politics is too serious a matter to be left to the politicians.”

Charles de Gaulle, French general and politician.

“Instead of giving a politician the keys to the city, it might be better to change the locks.”

Doug Larson, English middle distance runner who won gold medals at the 1924 Olympics.

“Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.”

Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of England, considered by many the greatest statesman of the 20th century.

“What happens if a politician drowns in a river? “

“That is pollution.”

“What happens if all of them drown?”

“That is a solution.”

Anonymous misanthrope.

Thanks due, from Aesop to anonymous.




“To be rooted is perhaps the most important but least understood need of the human soul.”
Simone Weil

“Of all the memberships we identify ourselves by (racial, ethnic, sexual, national, class, age, religious, occupational), the one that is most forgotten, and has the greatest potential for healing, is place. We must learn to know, love and join our place even more than we love our own ideas. People who can agree that they share a commitment to the landscape/cityscape—even if they are otherwise locked in struggle with each other—have at least one deep thing to share.”
Gary Snyder

I have an old friend, now in his 80s, who has lived since he was a child on the same piece of land in a beautiful valley of a western state framed by mountains. I once wrote a letter of congratulations to him “For remaining rooted in place….There are few people in our culture who have this sort of good fortune, and having such deep roots has allowed you to grow in certainty from young agile boy with a smile looking for the next adventure to old, bionic-kneed man with a smile looking for the next adventure.” During the years from childhood when his home was nearly 10 miles outside town to the raising of his children to playing with his grandchildren that town has grown and surrounded and made a cityscape of the landscape of his youth. Still, his sense of place has allowed him to keep his priorities in order, his integrity intact and his sense of humor in operating shape. He has retired from a teaching career and has a sufficient but not extravagant lifestyle, and when a real estate developer offered him $14 million dollars for his property he turned it down. My friend said to me, “What would I do with $14 million? Move to Sun Valley and buy a condo? I like it here. I always have. This is my place.”
My friend’s wisdom is both informative and inspiring, as are Weil’s and Snyder’s.
A person rooted in place has a different experience and understanding of that place and thereby the larger world than one who is passing through to make the next step on the ladder of upward mobility, looking to crash as gently as possible after falling off that ladder, moving to the next job, following the restlessness of disaffection to the next layover or being pushed off place by rising prices. Place as used here is not to be confused with property and it need not be a particular dwelling or tiny or humongous parcel of land within either landscape or cityscape. Roberta McKercher’s place was Hailey, Idaho in the home where Ezra Pound was born. Mary Jane Conger’s is Ketchum, Idaho where her family has lived for three generations. John Muir’s was the Sierra Nevada. Another old friend, writer/photographer Peter Miller’s is Colbyville, Vermont. Jane Goodall’s is Tanzania. Han Shan’s was Cold Mountain. The Dalai Lama’s is the Potala, which he has not seen since 1959. And Gary Snyder wrote of his place, “I set up my library and wrote poems and essays by lantern light, then went out periodically, lecturing and teaching around the country. I thought of my home as a well-concealed base camp from which I raided university treasuries. We named our place Kitkitdizze after the aromatic little shrub.” There are those who are only at home and at peace with themselves (and committed and attuned to place) in the mountains, others on the sea and still others upon the rivers that connect them. For Wilfred Thesiger it was the southern Arabian Desert. In the late 1940s he was one of the first Europeans to even see what was then known as the Empty Quarter, and he titled the book he wrote about his experiences and sense of the place “Arabian Sands.” One description of Thesiger’s work reads, “It is a book of touches, little things—why the Bedouin will never predict the weather (“since to do so would be to claim knowledge that belongs to God”), how they know when the rabbit is in its hole and can be caught. It is written with great respect for these people and with an understanding that acknowledges its limits. With humility.  Fail the humility test, and the desert will surely kill you.” Today the Empty Quarter is filled with oil wells, Land Rovers and people passing through with a notable lack of sense of place or humility.

It might be said, Fail the humility test of sense of place, whether the place be a plot of land, a river, mountain, sea or neighborhood and it will surely kill at the very least some essential part of the soul.
If you have a sense of place, treat it with respect. If you don’t, start looking.


“To study the Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things. To be enlightened by all things is to remove the barriers between one’s self and others.”

Dogen Zenji, 13th century

Dogen is the founder of Soto Zen and he considered zazen to be the heart of the practice of Buddhism. It is definitely the heart of Soto Zen practice, and Zen Buddhists are sometimes known as the “meditation Buddhists.” Without going into the history of Buddhism, when Dogen returned to Japan from his studies in China the first thing he wrote was the Fukanzazengi, the universal recommendation for the practice of zazen. That is, zazen is not just for monks; it is for all people, men and women, old and young, rich and poor. In referring to zazen, Dōgen is referring specifically to shikantaza roughly translatable as “nothing but precisely sitting”, which is a kind of sitting meditation in which the meditator sits “in a state of brightly alert attention that is free of thoughts, directed to no object, and attached to no particular content.”

The importance Dogen attached to zazen is encapsulated in these quotes from his writings: “Therefore even if only one person sits for a short time, because this zazen is one with all existence and completely permeates all time, it performs everlasting Buddha guidance within the inexhaustible dharma world in the past, present and future. Zazen is equally the same practice and same enlightenment for both the person sitting and all dharmas.”


“You should know that even if all the Buddhas in the ten directions, as numerous as the sands of the Ganges River, together engage the full power of the Buddha wisdom, they could never reach the limit or measure or comprehension or virtue of one person’s zazen.”

In other words, zazen is where it’s at in the practice of Soto Zen Buddhism. It is at the heart of the study of the way and of the self. It brings together what sometimes seem to be the separate entities of the body, breath and mind into one reality. Since the body has a way of communicating outwardly to the world and inwardly to the self, the position of the body while sitting zazen has a lot to do with what happens to the breath and mind. There are very specific techniques of sitting zazen that are integral to Soto Zen tradition handed down from Dogen 800 years ago. Whether one sits zazen in a full lotus, half lotus, seiza position or in a chair, it is crucial that the back is straight so that the diaphragm can move freely while breathing. In zazen we focus on the breath. Breath is life. Breath is the vital force, the central activity of our bodies, and mind and breath are one reality. When a person is agitated, breathing is agitated. When a person is nervous breathing is quick and shallow. When the mind is at rest the breath is deep, easy and effortless. Zazen gives the mind a rest from its incessant chatter, movement and attachment to the self.

One zazen instruction reads: “In the process of working with the breath, the thoughts that come up, for the most part, will be just noise, just random thoughts. Sometimes, however, when you’re in a crisis or involved in something important in your life, you’ll find that the thought, when you let it go, will recur. You let it go, but it comes back……Sometimes that needs to happen. Don’t treat it as a failure; treat it as another way to practice. Don’t use zazen to suppress thoughts or issues that need to come up…..Just be with the breath. Just be the breath. Let the breath breathe itself. That’s the beginning of the falling away of body and mind…..And it’s that power of concentration that ultimately leads to what we call samadhi, or single-pointedness of mind”

And it is there that one can begin to study the Way and study the self.



“Quality is a direct experience independent of and prior to intellectual abstractions.”
Robert M. Pirsig, author of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”

“An intellectual is a man who doesn’t know how to park a bike.”
Spiro T. Agnew, 39th Vice President of the United States

A fine film concerning the environment of Planet Earth, “COWSPIRACY: The Sustainability Secret” is recommended to anyone who cares about……well, anything. One gentleman interviewed in the film, Howard F. Lyman, a lifetime Montana cattle rancher and author of “The Mad Cowboy” commented that “75% of Americans consider themselves environmentalists,” a surprising assertion. It seems to me that if that statement were true the air, water, soil, flora and fauna, of America would certainly be healthier than they in fact are, but some research reveals that Lyman is correct. Most Americans consider themselves environmentalists, though a Gallop Poll puts the percentage at 61%.
Whether Lyman or Gallup are closer to the truth, most people reading this consider themselves environmentalists and will be interested in one of the best environmental activist organizations in America—The Foundation For Deep Ecology, based in San Francisco and found on line at www.deepecology.org. It also suggests a disconnect between those environmentalists and their direct experience of the environment. That is, the perceptions of intellect and the consequential realities of action are not in accord. The Foundation For Deep Ecology addresses this disconnect in several ways, including its efforts “…to helping build the intellectual infrastructure of the conservation movement… Since its inception the foundation has invested in a wide variety of such efforts, supporting numerous journals (Wild Earth, Resurgence, Plain, and AdBusters to name a few), books (The Case Against the Global Economy, Deep Ecology for the 21st Century, Turning Away from Technology), conferences and symposia, and advertising campaigns. FDE-sponsored gatherings of leading thinkers led to the formation of several independent organizations including the International Forum on Globalization, the Jacque Ellul Society, and the Wildlands Project. The foundation has also operated an innovative book publishing program that has produced numerous award-winning titles on conservation issues.”

Deep Ecology is a term coined in 1973 by Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess whose environmental thinking had been greatly influenced by Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.” He viewed much of the environmental thinking of the time as ‘shallow’ because it did not address the deeper root causes of environmental problems. Thus, Deep Ecology, which has an eight point platform. The first is “The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: inherent worth, intrinsic value, inherent value). These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.” The eighth is “Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to participate in the attempt to implement the necessary changes.”
That is, between 61% and 75% of Americans have an obligation to participate in the attempt to implement the necessary changes, and the necessary intellectual infrastructure to do so is already in place. Check it out.


Like many older people I find in recent years that I learn more from those younger than from my peers. I recently gained a new sliver of insight into the matter of risk tolerance from my youngest son, Jason, who lives in Santa Cruz, California and is an avid surfer. Several years ago I heard about Mavericks, the famous, big, dangerous wave an hour north of Santa Cruz. I asked Jason if he knew about and had been to Mavericks. “I don’t do that kind of thing, Dad,” he replied. As a parent I was understandably relieved. A couple of  years ago the fine biographical film “Chasing Mavericks,” about two Mavericks icons, was released. It is, in my view, a superior film about the human quality of risk tolerance and much more. After I saw it I asked Jason if he had seen it. He knows some of the people portrayed in the film but his busy life as a parent, husband, firefighter, surfer and mountain bike rider had left him no time for the film. But he said something that resonates with lessons for those willing to learn them. He said, “You know, there are only a handful of surfers in the world capable of riding Mavericks, and within that handful there are only a few who want to.”

About 20 years ago I was talking about the latest casualty of the mountains with a friend, a fellow climbing guide. It is a theme that people who live, work and play in mountains return to all too often. Our discussion that day veered away from the specific most recent death of a climber we knew to all the people we had known who had died in the mountains over the period of our lives. Some of them had been friends, a few close ones. For reasons I’ve forgotten, we decided that we would search our memories and each make a list of all the people we knew who had died in the mountains. The next day we resumed our conversation with our respective lists which totaled more than 70.
We were both surprised. We should not have been.
There are more names on those lists 20 years later, but neither of us have kept track, nor shall we. People die and are injured every day in the mountains of the world, and it is both easy and practical for mountain people to acknowledge the inevitability and constancy of such events. It is not nearly so painless to move beyond acknowledgement to acceptance. Death and injury, untimely or not, and the questions and diverse answers that arise from them are often neither common nor sensible to everyone, and they are never painless.
Nor are they limited to people and activities of the mountains. They are integral to human life, regardless of where or how lived. There is a usually accepted perception (belief?) that people who engage in such mountainous activities as climbing, skiing, hang gliding, paraponting, kayaking, snowmobiling, snowboarding and the like put themselves at more risk than the general public. A physician I know who views climbing and, I suspect, climbers with jaundiced eye once showed me an article in a medical journal claiming that, statistically, a climber on Denali was more likely to be injured or die than a soldier in combat. I have no idea what data was used to determine that statistic, but that it appeared in a mainstream medical journal illuminates the aforementioned perception. When confronted with such a factual overview of an aspect of life you care about, it is always good to keep in mind the Disraeli adage “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” For me, conflating the unnecessary degradation and horror that war brings to humans with the fundamental beauty, pleasure and spiritual uplifting that mountains instill in them is tasteless in the extreme and a disservice to human understanding of the process of the life, which, inevitably, encompasses death to skier, climber, soldier, housewife and spy alike. I don’t know how to determine such a thing, but I suspect that, statistically, physicians who have climbed on Denali lead healthier, happier, and more creative and perhaps even longer lives than do battlefield and more mainstream physicians. And, yes, it is tasteless and an impediment to both understanding and appreciating life to conflate the two, a risk and a choice I am not willing to take. My suspicion is neither a certainty nor a statistic, only an affirmation of the integrity of each person’s preference of how to live and of the individual tolerance for risk that choice entails, whether in mountains, cities, battlefields or industrial farms.
I am reminded of Tom Patey’s well known verse:

“Live it up, fill your cup, drown your sorrow
And sow your wild oats while ye may.
For the toothless old tykes of tomorrow,
Were the tigers of yesterday.”

Patey, a fine climber (and doctor), made a simple, human mistake and died in a rappelling accident at the age of 48.
Like all people who have spent a significant amount of their lives engaged in mountainous pursuits, I have dealt with, thought about, observed, engaged in and been affected by the risks and the simple human mistakes inherent to that life. The operational human quality in dealing with those activities I choose to call, for a reason that will soon be clear, ‘risk tolerance.’ Personally, I am more comfortable (and, I will argue, safer) pursuing a day of any mountainous endeavor with which I am familiar than, say, driving the congested freeways of southern California, walking the streets of many neighborhoods of any large city on earth, dining regularly in the best known fast/junk food restaurants or, needless to say, engaging in violence, whether personally or patriotically inspired. This implies that people are more comfortable (and safer) with the familiar than with the exotic and unrecognizable, but even that does not insulate them from death and injury. Every year more than 30,000 people are killed in car wrecks in America (in 1972 it was 54,000). Every year more than 2500 people are killed in house fires, almost all of them caused by nothing more complicated, risky or unusual than cooking a meal, and more than 13,000 are injured in these fires. In 1978 more than 6,000 people were killed and more than 20,000 injured in house fires. These statistics do not include the firefighters killed and injured trying to save the lives and homes of American people engaged in an activity no more exotic or exposed to risk than cooking dinner for their families. Cooking a meal and driving to the store are not considered high risk activities, at least not statistically, but every day people die and are injured in their pursuit because something went wrong.
And after nearly every accident in the mountains and elsewhere there is a search for answers to why it happened, seeking lessons to be learned to prevent the same mistakes being repeated, sometime assigning blame, always striving to make tidy and comprehensible the complex and often inconceivable. And more often than not those searches turn up human error as a primary factor, sometimes incomprehensible error, sometimes completely conceivable. That the lessons are not learned is self-evident. As mentioned, people die and are injured every day in the mountains of the world, and so they will continue to be.
That people often act like sheep and will follow the herd even when knowing they are walking toward the wolves is well established. There are enough well-publicized avalanches that resulted in multiple deaths to illustrate this. In instances like these, personal tolerance for risk, personal judgment and personal integrity itself are sacrificed (sic) to herd bravura. This dynamic can be observed every day from small groups in every walk of life to entire counties including but not limited to our own. This does not imply that the herd is always wrong just because it is a herd. Sometimes the herd avoids the wolves while one of the sheep goes to them.
Four experienced, competent, knowledgeable backcountry skiers were at the top of a steep bowl covered with a foot and a half of fresh snow draining into a long gully with a couple of flat spots along the way. Three of them skied, one at a time, down skier’s right of the bowl, into the gully and to the bottom where the snow ran out and they were safe. The fourth skier waited for them before moving left to the center of the bowl and jumped off a fifteen foot cliff to land on the steepest part of the bowl covered with new snow. Naturally, predictably even, the slope avalanched immediately and took the skier for a 1500 foot ride that temporarily buried him in one of the flat spots before a second wave of the slide pushed him along until he wound up at the bottom partially buried, a bit beat up, but very lucky and alive. His friends dug him out and they all went on with their lives. Nice story that easily could have ended not so agreeably. At the end of the official report of this incident was a section titled ‘lessons learned.’ Not included in those lessons was what seemed to me the obvious one of avoiding jumping off cliffs onto steep, freshly snow loaded terrain. When I queried the writer of the report about this exclusion he replied, “Some people have a higher tolerance for risk than others.”
While the statement is true, it seems to me in this and other instances it sidesteps the onerous task of learning the lesson which, as human history illustrates, is quintessential human behavior. This dynamic is succinctly summed up by Kurt Vonnegut’s response to the well known George Santayana insight, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
“I’ve got news for Mr. Santayana: we’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive.”
As a species, as a culture, as a lifestyle, as members of communities of mountaineers, skiers, firemen, housewives, school teachers, politicians, writers, sky divers, bartenders, bankers, clergy, drug addicts and thieves we are, as the great Vonnegut noted, doomed to repeat the past. That is what it is to be alive. The silver lining in being alive is that as individuals we are sometimes capable of learning, sometimes without even remembering the past, much less having to repeat its mistakes. As a group, any group—-any group—-that capability is not so evident.
There are always those individuals in every adventure and aspect of life who stand out from the group by their ability to learn the lesson, gain the insight, raise the standard and in some small or large way expand the limits of the possible by example. Sometimes these individuals learn from their own egregious mistakes, sometimes they learn without them. (The skier mentioned earlier who jumped off the cliff onto a loaded steep slope reportedly told a good friend, “That will never happen again.” Good for him, the individual who learned.) Usually, those who raise the standards become the stars, the leaders, the ones to emulate and, eventually, exceed. They become the beacon and the authority, and they do not last long. It has been only 60 years since Tensing Norgay and Edmund Hillary became the first humans to climb Everest, a milestone in mountaineering and human endeavor. Now any person with $60,000, a modicum of fitness and the desire for a piece of the action can climb Everest. My old friend Yuishiro Miura, who climbed Everest when he was 70 years old and again when he was 75, climbed it again at the age of 80. Ueli Steck, arguably the finest climber in the world at the time, and his two climbing partners were attacked by an angry mob of a hundred Sherpas whose profession involves getting those $60,000 clients up the mountain. The Sherpas were angered by a perceived violation of ‘etiquette’ on the part of the climbers.
Risk tolerance and etiquette delineate boundaries and, like fences, create good neighbors. When they are crossed some of the dynamics of accidents and high achievement in the mountains and elsewhere come a bit more into focus. I will argue (admittedly without having been there) that Steck’s personal experience, focus, knowledge and unusual skill provide him a risk tolerance and security for both himself and those around him not available to any of the professional Sherpas who were so offended by and, according to reports, violent toward him and his climbing mates. But the Sherpas do not and should not be expected to understand that. Unlike the intention of etiquette, risk tolerance is not democratic. For the Sherpas, Everest is for clients, not climbers, and one ignores that cultural reality according to one’s own tolerance for risk. Ho ho.
In an age when personal and professional spraying and promotion via films, I phones, the internet, GoPros, You Tube and Facebook are both immediate and endemic to the mountain culture, the latest exploit of the standard bearers, the super stars and the icons of the edge is immediately known and available to the world. The levels of achievement and risk tolerance of every super star of the mountains, seas, plains and cities in history are connected to and built upon the efforts of their respective communities. But those levels, no matter how well sprayed and promoted to the general populace, are only available to a few. Just because one sees a film of someone jumping off a cliff onto a steep slope and carving great turns in powder does not mean that every other similar mountain slope will not slide. Every slope, like very person, is different. The reasons for this are complex and obvious and, for some, difficult to accept and impossible to learn. As the good Kurt observed, we are as a species doomed to repeat the past. As individuals we can make some progress.
The level of risk tolerance for, say, Ueli Steck, Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell, Hayden Kennedy, Shaun White, Kristen Ulmer, Will Gadd and others who came before and more who will follow, is different in both kind and degree from those of less commitment and effort, mountain intelligence and instinct, attention to detail and that indefinable quality that some are born with and most are not that can be polished and enhanced but never earned. It can be called ‘genius’ but might be nothing more than having been born with better vision or hand/foot-eye coordination than others. However one chooses to define it, that quality keeps some alive in mountains where others perish. As standards move up so do expectations, personal and cultural, but in all things there are only a few who are capable of living on or close to the edge. And none of them can live there for very long, time being as relative as levels of risk tolerance. And when the many push to where only the few can, with luck, survive there will be accidents remarkably similar to those in the past.
Jason’s insight is always worth keeping in mind. That is, always listen to yourself—not the herd, not the promotion, not the cameraman, not the super star, not the comparison, certainly not the expert or authority—just yourself, your trusted friend who is the only one who can differentiate between wanting and thinking you should want to. Only you know what a tolerable risk is for you, and usually, not always, that risk is made more dangerous to the degree that it is comparative.


“But nicotine slaves are all the same
At a pettin’ party or a poker game
Everything gotta stop while they have a cigarette
Smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette
Puff, puff, puff and if you smoke yourself to death
Tell St. Peter at the Golden Gate
That you hate to make him wait
But you just gotta have another cigarette”
Merle Travis and Tex Williams

That song was a household anthem of my post-WWII ‘40s and ‘50s childhood. My parents were heavy smokers. Mom often went through three packs a day. She died the long, slow way of emphysema at the age of 50, spending most of her last ten years hooked up to oxygen tanks. It was not pretty. Dad quit when it became obvious that smoking had destroyed his wife. Though I could have avoided more of them, I am grateful and fortunate that I completely avoided the vice of smoking. Still, my lungs have always been compromised by growing up in a house of smoke.
I mention this personal history as context to my personal reaction to the recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Health Interview Survey which found that in 2015 15.2 percent of American adults smoke cigarettes. That’s a troubling number of nicotine slaves to those who care about the health of fellow countrymen, but it’s a monumental decrease since 1962 when 42 percent of Americans were smokers, including Mom.
Stanford’s Dr. Robert Proctor has written “The cigarette is the deadliest artifact in the history of human civilization…. Cigarettes cause about 1.5 million deaths from lung cancer per year, a number that will rise to nearly 2 million per year by the 2020s or 2030s…. Part of the ease of cigarette manufacturing stems from the ubiquity of high-speed cigarette making machines, which crank out 20 000 cigarettes per min. Cigarette makers make about a penny in profit for every cigarette sold, which means that the value of a life to a cigarette maker is about US $10 000.”
One human life=$10,000 corporate profit.
Despite the best coordinated efforts of the tobacco industry’s “denialist campaigns” to deny that cigarettes are “the deadliest artifact in the history of human civilization,” along with denying their awareness of this danger and making such absurd claims as that the science wasn’t complete and more studies needed to be made, etc., etc., the awareness of reality filtered into the consciousness of the majority of Americans with the help of higher taxation on tobacco and outlawing smoking in most public places. (A pertinent local side note: Sun Valley Mayor Dewayne Briscoe was instrumental in the passage of the Washington clean indoor air act in 1985, the model for subsequent anti-smoking laws in Washington and many other states.)
That is, exposing the lack of credibility of the denialist campaigns of the tobacco industry worked. Not perfectly. Not completely. But it’s better than it was in 1962 and a lot of people are alive who wouldn’t be otherwise.
That is, take heart, all you activists against climate change deniers, the causes of gun violence deniers and the world-wide environmental collapse deniers.


In the Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen the first two definitions of “dharma” are : 1. The cosmic law, the “great norm” underlying our world; above all, the law of karmically determined rebirth. And, 2. The teaching of the — Buddha, who recognized and formulated this “law”; thus the teaching that expresses the universal truth.
As Buddhists we take refuge in the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha, the teacher, the teachings and the community of companions on the path. The dharma is the teaching—both received and given—by the individual practitioner in every second of every day in the normal actions, thoughts and intentions of daily life.
The dharma, the teaching, is continuously both received and given. In the dharma we are all students and teachers, and it is a mistake to become attached to either role. This point, in my view, deserves more consideration, discussion and contemplation than it receives.
The first definition mentioned above includes “karmically determined rebirth.” That is, the circumstances of our lives, according to the dharma, are a result of karma, cause and effect. How we were in the past (not just past lives) determines how and where we are in the present. How and where we are in the present and what we have and have not learned from the past will determine the future. That’s the dharma.
There is no truth or falsehood to the dharma. The dharma is just our everyday, normal lives, and by living within the dharma, “…the teaching that expresses the universal truth” we are able to find out for ourselves what is true and what is false. That is, the cosmic law is not a set of rules which we follow, but, rather, is the never ending dynamics and lessons of each of our everyday lives as we live them every minute of every day. Padmasambhava expressed the dharma this way: “If you want to know your past life, look into your present condition; if you want to know your future life, look at your present actions.”
That’s the dharma.
Look carefully.
No one else and no teaching can tell you what is true and what is false. If a teacher or a teaching indicates that it is good practice to develop a regular practice of meditation every day, that is, in my view, good advice, but the only way in which you can determine whether this is true for you is to practice and to remain open to what is. Is the practice true for you or not? Only you can discover for yourself what is true and what is false. Dr. Richard Davidson, Director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin and a friend and colleague of HH the Dalai Lama, brought up in a lecture a (to me) surprising premise: for some people, primarily those suffering from bi-polar and schizophrenic disorders, meditation may actually be destructive.
All who are practicing are eager to learn, to hear and follow the teachings and the path, to know what is true and what is false, eager to be certain so that we can relax. But the dharma doesn’t tell us what is true and what is false. That is something we must each do for ourselves in our own lives.
The only certainty is that the circumstances of our present life, each action, thought, breath, intention of that life is the dharma. As such, it is the means, the vehicle, the alarm clock that can wake us up.
There is a Zen admonition to live each moment with the awareness of a warrior in the night behind enemy lines, and, for that warrior, that is the dharma. Or, as Dogen said, “If you can’t find the truth right where you are , where else do you expect to find it?”


Most of our time is spent in Idaho, but Jeannie, my girl friend, partner and love in life, owns a house on the pond in Mystic Heights just outside Bozeman, Montana. We spend less time in the house on the pond than it deserves, but our irregular visits are cherished, nourishing and always educational. Bozeman and the surrounding area has more people living in it each time we visit, as does the rest of western America and, in fact, the entire earth. An ever increasing population of humans is referred to by humans as ‘growth,’ but in the natural world it represents the opposite, a diminuendo. Montana friends both close and casual are, as everywhere, treasured, and the six hour drive between these two homes and circles of friends and the gaps of time between them encourages appreciation of the moment, person and place at hand and leaves less time for taking any of them for granted. Absence really does make the heart grow.
Absence does not have a like influence on understanding.
Mystic Heights is a classic middle-class America suburbia subdivision, with an abundance of normal children from toddlers to teens, dogs of many sizes and breeds with an accent on Golden Retrievers and adults of a wide range of backgrounds, professions, interests and political, social and spiritual leanings. Mystic Height citizens include contractors, pilots, writers, a National Geographic photographer, teachers, doctors and at least one PA, a personal trainer, business owners, a biologist, some devout gardeners and a few serious athletes and world travelers. Its citizens have all the problems, joys, failings, hopes, fears and fantasies that form the tapestry of life in other similar American neighborhoods.
Except this is Montana and Mystic Heights is at the entrance to Leverich Canyon on the northern edge of the Gallatin Range. That is, like other western housing developments, it is suburbia joined to a wilderness laced with hiking/biking/running/horseback riding and (alas) motorcycle trails and roads. It is not unusual to start a run up Leverich and meet and pat on the head one of the friendly neighborhood Goldens and fifteen minutes later see fresh bear or cougar tracks on the trails of your run, and, on occasion, the maker of the tracks in creature. A few years ago Jeannie was running alone and was bluff-charged by a bear less than a mile from the house. It was a black bear but grizzlies are abundant in the Gallatin and the experience, regardless of the taxonomy of bears, properly focused her attention on the present moment of survival and the long trail back to Mystic Heights. I ran up a favorite trail one day and on the way back down came across cougar tracks that had not been there an hour earlier, inspiring an unplanned burst of interval training to end the run. (In truth, I am a chugger with increased interval speed training in the jogging range of fleetness, but I call my endeavors running for purposes of communication. What would people think if I said I was going ‘chugging’?)
A few years ago I was enjoying a run on one of the Leverich trails when I entered and quickly exited a section enveloped by the unmistakable and overwhelming smell of rotting flesh, the stench of death. I picked up my pace to interval training and saw no corpse, though its presence was not in question. I was relieved to get beyond the odorous area and I later mentioned it to a neighbor who told me the story. A local horsewoman was enjoying a ride on that trail when her horse dropped dead, probably from a heart attack. She was unhurt except for the emotional/financial loss of the horse, but she had to get herself and saddle and bridle back to the trailhead. She did. That left a dead horse beside a popular backcountry trail in an area frequented by cougars and bears. For obvious reasons moving or burying the horse was out of the question. So was keeping people off the trail. Possible human/large predator encounter scenarios were easy to imagine. The solution to the dilemma came from a government agency, though it wasn’t clear to me whether it was a Forest Service or a Fish & Wildlife decision. Like many government agency solutions to imagined or real problems, the one chosen was breathtaking. The horse was dynamited into smithereens so there was no handy meal for a large predator. I jogged through the area a few hot summer days after the blast and saw nary a smidgen of horse, but I sure did smell them, as did every other creature in the area with the smelling capacity of a CAFO worker, apologist or government inspector.
And then there is the pond.
The pond was once a gravel pit several miles from town, but Bozeman grew as part of the ubiquitous development of western America, extending pavement and subdivisions in all directions. Parcels of land once used for gravel pits, grazing, farming and just filling a natural niche in the environmental scheme of things suddenly took on an economic value as mysterious and random as the odds of winning the lottery. Capitalism in action. Mystic Heights Subdivision was platted, lots put up for sale and Jeannie bought one. The gravel pit was lined with bentonite and filled from a spring on the southwest corner. The pond is roughly four acres in size, less than a hundred by two hundred meters across, forty feet at its deepest spot and, because of the bentonite, turbid, though the water quality is called “decent” by one who has analyzed it. As intended, it has become a private recreational center for the denizens of Mystic Heights, a superb swimming hole on hot summer afternoons, a place to paddle or float on buoyant contrivances—canoes, rubber duckies, inner tubes, noodles, inflatable mats and surf boards. Jousting and balancing contests among hormonal teens are spectator events. The pond has been stocked with Rainbow and Brown Trout and there are said to be suckers as well. I have seen minnows, tiny crustaceans and turtles in the pond and a few people fishing on the pond and from its banks. I’ve never seen them, but algal outbreaks and fish kills have occurred.
Each autumn flocks of geese stop at the pond during their laborious annual migration. They make a squawking racket that is endearing to me and annoying to some others, and I love watching the geese prepare in formation for their morning takeoff from Mystic Heights to the next pond south, accompanied by copious and loud communication. I always wonder what they are saying to each other. They leave in waves. Sometimes three or four groups of ten or twelve geese depart in a span of ten minutes, and it is beautiful to watch such graceful, tribal, harmonious creatures rise and form patterns in the sky. Geese are often on the pond in spring, but usually in groups of two or three or four, never in flocks of ten or twelve.
In winter the pond is frozen and used for ice hockey and New Year’s Day polar bear plunge fests. The rest of the year it is not unusual to see a wide range of avian and terrestrial creatures on or near the pond. Several years ago one of the neighbors used the pond as home for his pet duck, a large white bird that couldn’t fly but added a resident neutered wildness to the suburban ambiance. I named him “Fred” in my own mind, but so far as I know he had no other name and Fred was shunned by his wild, multi-colored cousins during their short visits. Perhaps as a consequence Fred spent an inordinate amount of time on the pond quacking existentially into the void to no obvious response in order, anthropocentrically speaking, to substantiate his own existence and alleviate his disconnection from his own kind, much like some human beings do. I rather enjoyed Fred’s running commentary and was not distracted by it, but Fred mightily irritated others who were not amused, informed nor entertained by his lyrics. For them, a beautiful day did not include a white bird, even on a hot summer day. One day (or night) Fred simply disappeared, either at the hands of his owner responding to complaints or those of a stealth neighbor who had had enough of Fred except, perhaps, for dinner.
Fred’s close cousins the Mallards are probably the most frequent and numerous visitors to the pond except for the geese in autumn. I have seen ospreys, egrets, hawks, cranes and Bald Eagles at the pond. The Bald Eagle, the national bird and symbol of the United States, like the nation and values it symbolizes, has recently had its extinction rating improved from endangered to threatened. We hope this trend continues and that eagle the creature and the nation it symbolizes make joint comebacks to health and vitality. Deer are often in the yard, and on occasion we have heard elk bugling from nearby fields. I once watched a bear leisurely amble along the bank beneath the towering cottonwood trees on the far side of the pond before disappearing into the fields beyond. A wildlife biologist who specializes in wolves was staying at the house and swears he saw a black wolf in the front yard.
Whether one views it as suburbia in the wild or wilderness in suburbia, Mystic Heights is as symbolic of Montana, the American west, perhaps the environment of the earth itself as the Bald Eagle is of the United States. Symbolism is a human construct. It does not exist in nature. As such, it seems to me, the symbol perfectly symbolizes mankind’s relationship with the earth’s environment and nature itself. That is, we humans often tend to think of things as they are as something else. How could we not? My friend Jack Turner reminded me the other day: “Two hundred billion stars in our galaxy, billions of galaxies. We are spinning around the Earth’s axis at about 15,000 mph; around the sun at I don’t know what; and around the black hole at the center of the Milky Way at around 500,000 mph. Weeeeeeeee… And nobody knows.”
Nobody knows. And, of course, we spin at different rates at the equator, in Anchorage and at the South Pole and the earth itself spins around the sun at a different rate in January than in July. I mean, truly, nobody knows. Weeeeeeee.
And the only ones with a clue are the ones who acknowledge that nobody knows.
Our understanding of nature is incomplete, and whatever humanity’s self-imposed absence from the natural world does to its own heart, it tends to fragment its deficient awareness of our proper relationship to it. No matter how much we pave, extract from, develop, poison, clear cut, ignore, rape, pillage, plunder and exert our self-anointed, ignorant dominion over the earth, we do not understand the consequences of what we do upon it. We are each part of that inscrutable ignorance.
Nobody knows.
Before we came to Bozeman this spring our friend Robin, who has stayed in the house for the past year, reported the presence of a loon on the pond for several days. That was exciting news. I had seen but a single loon and heard its lovely, haunting call once in Wisconsin. We had never seen a loon on the Mystic Heights pond and, so far as we knew, none had ever been there. Which only shows how little we knew (know?).
And there he was that first morning, a lone loon on the pond. Rarely did he make his call, but when it came it was ethereally beautiful. We watched him through binoculars, floating, sometimes paddling, and every so often diving beneath the surface to fish for up to a minute at a time. A bald eagle made a few swooping passes over the pond and loon and then spent a couple of hours in the top of one of the cottonwood trees observing the world and the loon with eagle eye. We watched these things intermittently between chores and work and as distraction from that antithesis of nature tool, the computer, before which I sit writing words about contemplating nature.
While having coffee the next morning I watched through the front plate glass windows an interesting exercise by the lone loon of Mystic Heights pond. He (I later determined it was a he) paddled to the east end of the pond without a dive or pause, turned and immediately commenced a furious wing-flapping take off toward the west end. He quickly built up an impressive rate of speed but rose no more than a foot or two above the water, not nearly enough to clear even the treeless section of the west bank. The loon made an awkward landing in the last stretch of water and paddled immediately back to the east end and repeated the performance with the same result. Something about it didn’t seem in harmony, but I was busy with matters of my own (perhaps no less loony) life and forgot about it. That evening I timed the loon making a series of fishing dives lasting nearly a minute each. He was good in the water.
The next morning, again drinking coffee and watching the pond as much in procrastination as curiosity, I saw the loon again paddling east. He reached the far end, turned and immediately commenced a frenzied, wing-flapping effort to take off. His speed was impressive but his height was low and again he made an ungainly landing on the west end. The loon wasted no time paddling like a loon back to the east end and launching another effort resulting in an even more graceless landing, after which he placidly floated as if contemplating his next move and resting. Two take off attempts seemed his limit.
I retreated to my computer and the internet for some loon research which quickly revealed that the Mystic Heights loon was a Common Loon. I learned the loon is sometimes known as “the spirits of the wilderness” and has four calls—the tremolo, the hoot, the wail and the yodel. I’d only heard the wail though Robin had heard a yodel. Adult loons are rarely eaten by other animals, though the young are often taken by raccoons, skunks, turtles and big fish. Adults are sometimes eaten by bald eagles, leading me to surmise that the eagle I watched swoop over the loon and then sit in the tree for several hours was not just whistling “America the Beautiful” but was working on staying out of endangered or threatened survival categories. Because their legs are far back on the body loons are both awkward and vulnerable on land and spend as little time as possible there. Loon bones are denser and heavier than those of most birds and that weight helps them dive for food. Though I was totally impressed that the loon of Mystic Height pond stayed under for nearly a minute loons can stay down for up to five minutes and dive to 250 feet. One revealing (to my uneducated mind) description read, “Graceful in the water and in flight, they are almost comical on takeoffs and landings. Their size, solid bone structure and weight distribution result in thrashing water take-offs that can last 100s of feet. The loon’s landing is nothing so much as a controlled crash-glide.” That certainly matched what I had seen, and it pleased me that my bits of research and observation fit so nicely together.
But absence fragments understanding. Because we had never seen a loon on the pond before, and because we had not talked with our seldom seen neighbors about that loon, we assumed that loons on the pond were a rare occurrence.
“Most of our assumptions have outlived their uselessness,” said Marshall McLuhan.
We observed the loon for the next couple of days and each morning he attempted two take offs from the east with the same inelegant landings on the west end so different from those of the graceful goose. By then my research had taught me enough to realize that the pond might be too short for the loon’s take off requirements. For sure, I concluded, a loon launch from Mystic Height pond needed a good wind from the west to succeed and even that was no guarantee. It occurred to me that this loon was trapped in too small a body of water. Far from being one of the spirits of wilderness, he was a prisoner. With this new understanding that he might have screwed up and landed on a pond with too small a runway I viewed the loon with new eyes. Nature can be cruel.
What to do?
The anthropocentric response, it seems, is to interfere. By the time my knowledge of loon ways had reached this stage of incompleteness Jeannie had left for a climbing expedition in Alaska, so Robin and I conferred over morning coffee.
What to do with a crazy loon that had landed on a pond too small? He had been there more than a week. We watched him attempt another take off and perform another clumsy crash-landing. After some discussion we decided that, even though the fishing was good and he appeared healthy, his morning take off attempts were reason enough for the anthropomorphic conclusion that he must be missing the company of fellow loons and he needed help to get off he pond. He clearly needed a longer runway. Robin had to go to work but she thought she knew someone who worked for Fish & Wildlife and maybe we could contact them later in the afternoon. Like everyone who follows the fluctuating fates of wolf and buffalo, we both know that the true headquarters of Fish & Wildlife departments in most western states are located deep in the folds of the pockets of the local ranching, hunting and real estate development industries. Contacting Fish & Wildlife about helping wildlife is not a step to be taken lightly and we would not, but we were conflicted.
But it was our conflict, not nature’s, and like all things left to nature it took care of itself naturally.
That afternoon when I returned to Mystic Heights from chores in town the loon was gone from the pond. Whether the loon got a lift from a headwind or from the bald eagle or was hyper-motivated by ESP that we had even considered calling in Fish & Wildlife is unknown, but neither he nor any other loon has been seen after that.
I’ve since learned that a few loons visit Mystic Heights Pond every spring. Whether they get off the pond in the talons of eagles or a headwind is something I hope to determine by further, better informed observation in another spring. Either way is as natural as the eagle or the wind or the black hole at the center of the Milky Way. I don’t know whether the loons that land on the pond become eagle food or take off in the first strong wind to fly another day, but, anthropocentrically speaking, I see in the loon of Mystic Heights Pond a symbol of the more than six and three quarters billion human beings living on this tiny earth which may or may not be large enough to allow takeoff into the graceful flight of survival.



“Laypeople frequently assume that in a political dispute the truth must lie somewhere in the middle, and they are often right. In a scientific dispute, though, such an assumption is usually wrong.”
Paul Ehrlich

Science can be said to be the search for empirical truth about the universe. Politics is the struggle for power in the affairs of man. While scientists certainly use politics to their personal and professional advantage all too often, science itself does not compromise. If it claims to do so, it is not science, but rather, something else. For lack of a better term (and because there might not be one), this something else can be called “spinscience.”
Spinscience takes many forms and has, unfortunately, become a part of all our lives. It has been around for as long as science, but spinscience has reached new levels of cynicism, misrepresentation, deceit, fantasy, and fiction presented as fact. It is insidious, lacking in integrity or care for the world at large, and it is the way of many major corporations and, of course, their stooges, particularly those in the oil, coal, gas, automobile (and snowmobile), agricultural and mining businesses which, not coincidentally or surprisingly, are the largest financial supporters of many members of the U.S. Congress and other state and federal public servants whose integrity is for sale and whose care for the world is incomplete.
The subject of global warming offers just one example, albeit a large one, of spinscience in action in modern American government, in American business and, sad to say, in the minds of all too many citizens who should but somehow appear incapable of not knowing better. There is a worldwide scientific consensus that the earth’s atmosphere is warming up as a result of human activity. These same scientists recognize the uncertainty about the long term outcome of this warming and about many of the consequences along the way. The minions of spinscience, at the behest of the business interests paying them, have managed to twist legitimate scientist’s uncertainty about the outcome of global warming into uncertainty about the phenomenon of global warming. This is not just disingenuous. It is a lie.
To paraphrase the good Gertrude Stein: A lie is a lie is a lie.
There is a well funded (think the Koch brothers) network of organizations involved in the spinscience of global warming. For the most part the money can be followed (think Deep Throat) to the oil, coal, gas, mining, agriculture and automobile industries, which, apparently, will do anything to keep the truth about global warming from being comprehended by the American public. These organizations are not scientific bodies, but, rather, public relations, propaganda and lobbying groups, using science the way some politicians and some terrorists use ‘God’ (think James Inhofe) as an excuse for saying and doing anything that fits their agenda. That is, they make the mythical claim to having science/God on their side, but they do not. They only have spinscience on their side.
Spinscience has no place in an honest debate or, for that matter, in a deep breath of clean, unpolluted air, which is harder and harder to find every day on planet Earth.
Think of that.


During the winter of 1963-64 I worked as a bartender/pizza cook at the Sun Valley’s employees bar in the Quonset hut behind the Challenger Inn that later became the laundry. Called the Holiday Hut, it had a full service bar, pizza, ping pong tables, sofas and a television and was in business to discourage off duty Sun Valley employees from hanging around the guest bars in the lodge and inn. My old friend and boss, the wonderful Ned Bell, had set me up with this job that included room and board, a lift pass, some spending money and enough time to ski and train at the gentle levels required to recover from recent surgery and sickness.
Thanks in part to Ned it was an enjoyable, unusually relaxed winter and period in my personal life, a vacation from the concentration of competitive skiing, allowing room and energy for the contemplation of larger issues. And it was a strange and unsettling time in American culture when such issues encouraged contemplation, reassessment and personal connection to and responsibility for them. Just a few months before, President John Kennedy had been assassinated. A year earlier, George Wallace’s inaugural address as Governor of Alabama included, “…segregation now; segregation tomorrow; segregation forever!” Six months after Wallace’s shameful (and shameless) racist polemic, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. And the obscene disaster that a few months later would become known as the Viet Nam War was already underway under the radar but being felt and heard like the distant thunder of an imminent shift in and expansion of the consciousness of the unsettled American culture.
A milestone in my own awareness of and participation in that shift and expansion happened in the Holiday Hut one February 1964 night, the 9th to be precise.
Usually the Holiday Hut had about 10—15 customers doing the things young people do in such places after work, but early that evening the place unexpectedly filled up. I had never been so busy making pizzas, serving drinks and trying to keep customers happy. I asked someone what was going on and was properly chastised for being clueless. The Beatles were appearing on the Ed Sullivan show that night and the Holiday Hut had the available TV. Since I had been out of the country for most of the previous year I didn’t even know who the Beatles were.
I, along with 73 million other people who watched Ed’s show that night, soon found out.
And the Beatles were more than fine musicians and pop stars. They embodied, inspired and gave literal voice to both shift and expansion in the culture’s consciousness, at least for those not too mired to shift or/and too tight to expand. The Beatles were the right people in the right place in the right time to be the literal and musical voice of an era. It was an era of change for many, but even many of those who couldn’t embrace, for instance, peace and love as a mantra for social organization or getting America out of Viet Nam as a political goal, incorporated the Beatles music into their lives. The Beatles’ personal and professional lives were part of the cultural fabric, not because they were celebrities but because they were the public face of shifts in perspective and thinking of a significant part of the culture. The lyrics of their songs were studied and oft repeated. “All You Need is Love,” “Good Day, Sunshine, “Let It Be” and, later, “Imagine” made far more sense for all people than, say the systems analysis thinking of people like Robert McNamara who orchestrated the Viet Nam War and for whom some people were more disposable than others. I mean, anyone with half or less a brain knows that Gandhi is a better role model than Attila.
So, even though life moved on and the Beatles broke up and went separate ways the music and the message lived on. Even when John Lennon joined Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy and thousands of lesser known oblations to the gods of America’s gun culture the music of the Beatles endures with lyrics like:

“But if you want money for people with minds that hate
All I can tell you is brother you have to wait”

And then just the other day a book called “Acorn” by Yoko Ono, Lennon’s widow, showed up. She calls it a book of ‘conceptual instructions’ and notes, “I’m riding a time machine that’s going back to the good old ways. Great!”
Among Yoko’s instructions:

“Mend an object
When you go through the process of mending
You mend something inside your soul as well.”

“Take your pants off

before you fight.”
The beat goes on.