. . . seeing daily a geological dirt and stone formation the mystery of which is that it exists at all . . .

1-img_5501

Scotts Bluff from the east, as migrants on the Oregon Trail would first have seen it.

Between August 18 and August 25, 2016, my sister, my brother, my sister-in-law, and I made a small pilgrimage to the cities in Nebraska where we lived from 1950 to 1969 – Kearney, Scottsbluff, and Omaha. Scottsbluff, 21 miles from the Wyoming border, is where we have the most memories in common. Scotts Bluff National Monument dominates the horizon from Scottsbluff the city, as it does all of the small cities in the area, Gering, Mitchell, Bayard, and others. The bluff is to this day a constant in my memory. I wrote the following shortly after our trip to try to explain the significance of Scotts Bluff to me.

z2-sam_1152-001

From the southwest, approaching from Gering.

As geological formations go, Scotts Bluff National Monument in far Western Nebraska is not overly impressive. Its elevation above sea level is only 4,659 feet, and it rises only 800 feet above the North Platte River at its base. The Riverside Park in the City of Scottsbluff, is on the other side of the river.

z3-img_5608-001

From the south. A quintessential Nebraska view.

As a kid I discovered in the Encyclopedia Britannica that if the Empire State Building were in Riverside Park in the city of Scottsbluff, it would be almost half again as tall as the Bluff. I used to try to imagine how that would look, but I could never in my mind’s eye get the New York building even as tall as the Bluff.

z4-sam_1177-001

The South Butte of the Bluff.

My birthplace is Douglas, WY, at the base of Laramie Peak. I have memories of the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming from the first five years of my life. I went to college at the University of Redlands, nestled at the base of Mt. San Gorgonio in Southern California. I lived in Upland, CA, for several years at the base of Mt. San Antonio. I know mountains. I know Scotts Bluff is not a mountain.

However, the Bluff dominates the lives and thinking―the consciousness―of the people of Scottsbluff (2013 population, 15,023), Gering (2013 population 8,084), Mitchell (2013 population 1,685), and several other small towns in its shadow.

5-sam_1184

From the top of the Bluff looking southeast.

Scotts Bluff still, 56 years after our family moved from Scottsbluff to Omaha, in some way I cannot explain, dominates my consciousness. This past week I was in Scottsbluff for only the fifth time in those 56 years. Driving across the plains of Nebraska and seeing the Bluff come into view brings me to a place of peace and self-knowledge that I have achieved nowhere else I have ever been.

z6-sam_1196-001

From the top of the Bluff looking east toward Gering.

The Bluff apparently gave many of the settlers 150 years ago crossing the country on the Oregon Trail a sense of peace and understanding, or at least hope and courage.

Many times in my life I have wondered how I would be different if I had spent the 10 most formative years of my life in the shadow of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, or the Library of Congress in Washington, or Mount Vesuvius, or the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, or the Great Wall of China, or La Scala Opera House in Milan.

sam_1204

Looking northeast toward Scottsbluff the city.

If I had read Proust or Heidegger instead of Mari Sandoz and Willa Cather.

It is, of course, pointless to speculate how my life might have been. I know only that my consciousness was shaped in part―a very large part―by seeing daily a geological dirt and stone formation the mystery of which is that it exists at all. The processes of the gathering and demise of the great North American inland sea, and the uplift and erosion of mountains are fairly obvious here. The geological history spans 33 to 22 million years.

z8-sam_1216-001

Looking west toward Laramie Peak (128 miles away and visible on a clear day).

The history for me began in 1950. It is the history of knowing day after day the power of the natural world to create itself, to build structures that show us―me, at any rate―how little power or control we have over anything.  The Empire State Building may be taller than the bluff, and we could build another one exactly like it. But we could not―cannot― build another Scotts Bluff. It is not spectacular like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon. It simply is. The bluff is the farthest extension of a reality stretched across the horizon of my life, the edges of my mind, reminding me that we, all of us humans together, cannot, did not, and could not create anything remotely like it. It is the embodiment of the mystery of my life.

10-img_5558-001

Sunset from the base of the Bluff looking toward Laramie Peak.

“. . . The noose pendulous over his head, you can feel him. . .” (Yusef Komunyakaa)

wagon_train-2
As a non-tenure-track professor of a college course now called “Discovery and Discourse,” (aka, “Freshman English”) I assumed one of the best means of “discovery” about any given topic for students would be discussion with other students who were not cookie-cutter versions of themselves. That, of course, is a liberal knee-jerk idea. I even went so far as to socially engineer class members into talking to each other. I’d ask them to get into groups of three in which they did not know either of the other two or have any contact with them outside of class.

That process usually meant that, if the class included students from one of the prerequisite minority groups on campus, they did not end up forming a group to work together either in safety or in opposition to the others. If the students didn’t self-select that way, I had my not-so-subtle ways of getting them to regroup.

The first time I was engaged to the woman who eventually became my wife (after our second engagement, brought on by my having no idea what I wanted to do when I graduated from college) and then became my ex-wife (when I figured out one possibility for what I wanted to be when I grew up), I met one of her closest friends, a young man who had been a classmate of hers at the college where she went before she transferred to the University of Redlands.

Her friend was a radical liberal hippie type from the East somewhere (we later visited him in Philadelphia, but I don’t think that was his hometown). At the time I met him, I was under the no-doubt communist (at least fellow-traveler) influence of Dr. L. Pratt Spelman, Director of the School of Music and Quaker activist against the Viet Nam War (which was hardly even a war at that time).

I was, because of the no-doubt-anarchist influence of Dr. Spelman, primed to be influenced by “Young Pierce,” as my sometimes wife called her friend for reasons I’ve forgotten. He was a member of SNCC—the Students’ Non-violent Coordinating Committee. He had either been in the “March on Selma” or helped coordinate the “Freedom Riders” who supported it. I can’t remember. He showed up in California, and I was terrified of him both because he was so damned articulate and persuasive about Civil Rights and such things, and because he was tall, red-headed, and handsome, and my not-yet-wife obviously had some feelings for him that made me nervous.

Never mind those feelings. What happened, of course, was that in about one weekend my political beliefs went from nice-boy (leaning away from) Nebraska Republicanism to radical (if timid) bad-boy California anti-almost-everythingism. I had been duly prepared for the change by the relentless tutoring of Hyman Lubman in my junior and senior American History classes at Omaha Central High School. Relentlessly academic and intellectually challenging, that is. I was pretty much a “hanger-on” in those classes, but Mr. Lubman had managed to get me used to the idea that the status quo might not be the status good.

The School of Music at the University of Redlands under the anarchist influence of Dr. Spelman (who was president of the dangerous American Society of AestheticsNOT skin-care) had one African American student—and I didn’t know any others from other department of the University. Can we say token?

Meeting Young Pierce opened me to a vast array of no-doubt-communist causes from anti-war to civil rights to “what’s-a-little-recreational-sex-between-friends,” and almost to smoking weed. That’s where I drew the line (at that time). You know, sex, drugs, and J.S. Bach, or something like that.

So here we are again where we were when I met Young Pierce. Wars that seem endless, Jim Crow voting laws being passed

Yusef Komunyakaa. Through the mirror into lynching.

Yusef Komunyakaa. Through the mirror into lynching.

right and right and right, and income inequality growing by leaps and bounds (the university where I taught for 15 years never paid me more than $40,000 per year, and rumor has it they’ve offered a famous football coach $4,000,000 to come and save the program, 100 times the amount of my salary). You know the state of affairs in this country. I don’t need to tell you.

I grew up in Nebraska, never more than a stone’s throw from the Oregon Trail. All the people on the trail a hundred years before were white. As far as any of us knew.

Our favorite stories of the Oregon Trail, the ones we played at and reenacted as kids, were the stories of the settlers being attacked by Indians, aborigine wild men out to kill us white good guys. We knew in a play-acting sort of way what “circle the wagons” meant. Wagon train, Oregon Trail, non-white heathens attacking, “CIRCLE THE WAGONS.”

So here we are again. Circle-the-wagons time. The non-whites are attacking again. Ebola from Africa. Thousands of children from Central America. Those “lazy black people that wants the government to give them everything” trying to vote. Gays getting married (most of them are white, but they might as well be black). Those old people without photo IDs trying to defraud us by voting. And a dangerous Indonesian-Kenyan smartass in the White House.

I don’t quite remember when it was (in your 70th year you’re allowed to forget almost everything), but once in my life I was questioned for a Gallup Poll. It must have been at a time of some economic distress in the country because the first question was, “What do you see as the most important problem facing our nation today” (or some you’re-in-the-Gallup-Poll language). My answer was, “Racism.” The young man asking the question was thrown off completely. “Racism” was not on his possible answers list, so he had no idea what follow-up questions to ask.

Circle the wagons.
__________
Yusef Komunyakaa was born in 1947. He is best known for his poetry about serving in Viet Nam. He received the Pulitzer Prize in 1994. He is currently Distinguished Senior Poet in New York University’s graduate creative writing program.
In several of his poems he uses the image of reflections as a metaphor for our ability to see past what is real in the present to connect with realities from other times or places. “All is a random flow of contingent, accidental associations, connecting to each other laterally but not to the transcendent presence of idea . . . Can one look through the window of history to its essence, or do its surfaces just laterally refract?” (“Knowing their place: Three Black writers and the postmodern South,” by William M. Ramsey).

Can one look through the window of the history of lynching, that is, racism, to see its essence?

“Reflections,” by Yusef Komunyakaa
In the day’s mirror
you see a tall black man.
Fingers of gold cattail
tremble, then you witness
the rope dangling from
a limb of white oak.
It’s come to this.
You yell his direction,
the wind taking
your voice away.
You holler his mama’s name
& he glances up at the red sky.
You can almost
touch what he’s thinking,
reaching for his hand
across the river.
The noose pendulous
over his head,
you can feel him
grow inside you,
straining to hoist himself,
climbing a ladder
of air, your feet
in his shoes.

What we do to "Freedom Riders."

What we do to “Freedom Riders.”