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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Acrophobia is a comfortable disease*

Watch out for kids from Sierra Leone

Watch out for kids from Sierra Leone

With apologies to e.e. cummings.* I’m not sure why that poem popped into my head. It has nothing to do with what I’m thinking about. Acrophobia is not a comfortable disease.

I am terrified of heights. I’d do almost anything to wiggle out of playing tour guide to a group of Lutheran kids from Sierra Leone who want nothing more than to go to the top of the JPMorgan Chase tower (55 floors) in Dallas. You can’t get to the top, but there’s a spectacular observation deck at the bottom of the “keyhole” on the 40th floor. About seven years ago I took those kids up there. We were almost chased away by the guards because the kids were taking pictures. Terrorists, you know.

Yes, I’m pretty much a wall-hugger by whatever definition you give the term.

Another wall I hugged was the stairway to the top of the steeple of the First Congregational Church of Nantucket in about 1979. I was there with the organ tuner. The tall ships were coming into the harbor. We left our work and scrambled up the tower. But when I got to the open space, I could go no further. The organ tuner yelled at me to come on up, or I’d miss the sight. I had every intention of missing it.

The first tall building (not that tall—only 34 floors) I was dragged to the top of was the Kansas City Power and Light Building, the Art Deco masterpiece that dominated the Kansas City skyline when I was a kid. Dragged there by my dad and an uncle when I was in elementary school. I remember my brother and cousins running around the observation deck and leaning over the balustrade as if they were on the ground floor while I hugged the wall.

About the time I hugged that wall, I had my scariest climbing experience. There was no wall to hug. My parents knew the Forest Ranger at the fire lookout tower near the top of Laramie Peak in Wyoming. We lived for the first six months of my life in Douglas, at the foot of the peak, and the ranger was a member of Dad’s Baptist Church (my brother and I were born in Douglas). One summer after we moved to Nebraska, we returned to Douglas and drove up the peak see the forest from the ranger’s perch. The family clambered up the open staircase while I sat in the car. A thunderstorm blew up. My terror of the stairs was not as great as my fear of the storm, and I managed to climb the tower alone in the rain.

There. Four examples of my acrophobia.

But (and I’m not getting all gooey and inspirational here—simply stating the facts) they are also examples of my overcoming my terror and having pretty wonderful experiences.

Art Deco from childhood

Art Deco from childhood

I know what Dallas looks like from above. I found my apartment, and I achieved some sense of how this city is laid out (John Neely Bryan or whoever set down the streets was, I am sure, drunk). I saw the Tall Ships in Nantucket harbor, even more magnificent than they had been at Boston in 1976. I had a real sense even as a kid how the Missouri river cuts between the two Kansas City’s.

And I saw the natural wonder near my birthplace. I don’t know how to explain that experience. In 2005 I tried to get there again and discovered that my dad had accomplished a remarkable feat simply to find the tower. I spent half a day driving around with the instructions of a park ranger at the base of the peak. But I didn’t find it on my own.

OK. So here’s the gooey inspirational part of this story. (Oh, puleeze!) In a very few instances I have overcome my fears and had important, exciting, lovely (you find the word) experiences as a result. And the fact is that, operationally at least, I am no longer acrophobic. That’s a lie. I never put my full weight down in an airplane, doing my part to keep it in the air. I still hate heights (you will never under any circumstance find me on the masochism machines at Six Flags).

I have demonstrated against the Viet Nam War. And against the unconscionable invasion of Iraq (see, we were right). And in support of the Holy Land Foundation five. I’ve stood in front of groups of people and talked about my beliefs. And I write here about myself in a way I shouldn’t.

Fear greater than lightening

Fear greater than lightening

I do quite a few things that belie my nature as a wall-hugger.

I’m not saying that climbing a fire lookout tower on Laramie Peak made me brave. It didn’t. But I’m going to die soon (oh, come on, even 50 years would be “soon” in the grand scheme of things) and I guess I’m beginning to understand that participating is the only thing that makes sense of my having been here in the first place. So I do it sometimes against my better judgment.

Perhaps cummings is appropriate.

.

.

.

.

*pity this busy monster, manunkind,

not. Progress is a comfortable disease:
your victim (death and life safely beyond)

plays with the bigness of his littleness
—— electrons deify one razorblade
into a mountainrange; lenses extend
unwish through curving wherewhen till unwish
returns on its unself.
A world of made
is not a world of born—— pity poor flesh

and trees, poor stars and stones, but never this
fine specimen of hypermagical

ultraomnipotence. We doctors know

a hopeless case if — listen: there’s a hell
of a good universe next door; let’s go
——  
e. e. cummings

“Unto the hills around do I look up. . .”

Scotts Bluff National Monumentpainted by Ruth Wright

Scotts Bluff National Monument
painted by Ruth Wright

  • In 1945 my parents lived in Douglas, WY. The town is situated at the foot of Laramie Peak on the Laramie River, a tributary of the North Platte River.  I was born in Douglas.
  • In 1945 our family moved to Worland, WY, situated about midway between the Grand Tetons and the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming.
  • In 1950 our family moved to Kearney, NE. The city is situated near the confluence of the North Platte and South Platte Rivers.
  • In 1952 our family moved to Scottsbluff, NE. The city is situated at the base of Scotts Bluff National Monument on the North Platte River.

From the top of Scotts Bluff on a clear day, one can see Laramie Peak, about 120 miles to the west.

  • In 1960 our family moved to Omaha, NE, situated at the confluence of the Platte and Missouri Rivers.
  • In 1963 I struck out on my own to go to college at the University of Redlands in Redlands, CA, situated at the base of Mt. San Gorgonio sixty miles east of the California Pacific ocean beaches.
  • In 1974 my late ex-wife and I moved to Iowa City, Iowa, situated on the Iowa River on the (former) prairie between the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.
  • In 1978 I moved to Massachusetts and lived for seventeen years within a mile of the Atlantic Ocean.
  • In 1994 I moved to Dallas, TX, situated at the base of Cowboys Stadium.

A few days ago my sister and I took a day trip up into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, fifty miles east above her home in Rancho Cordova, CA.

As a wannabe writer and sometimes musician who lives in fantasy more than reality I have been, for most of my life, affected by prominent- preeminent- overarching- glorious geological formations. Until I left home, I lived with my family in a series of towns and cities that have a direct connection through their proximity to the Platte River. I have always (with the exception of my time in this place where football stadiums have replaced natural wonders) lived in close proximity to rivers, oceans, or mountains.

Laramie Peak

Laramie Peak

But, it’s the mountains.

I have mountains in my blood. And that’s the truth. For all of us, I’ve come to understand. “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein,” my father would have said, quoting Psalm 24. The earth and all of us who dwell herein are made of the same stardust.

Today I am in mourning. Partly the mourning of being older than I was yesterday. Mourning (not regretting) the loss of ability to move and think and laugh and love as I could even five years ago, much less ten or fifteen. Mourning the process of being forced to retire a year earlier than I had hoped.

“Retire” is an odd word** to use for what SMU has decided I must do. “To retreat.” Dean Peter Moore believes it is best if I retreat. Retreat from what into what? I must ask. Oblivion? Is that what sixty-eight year old men do?

Retire is an odd word to use for ending one’s career. Or is it odd? I shall retreat. Yes, I shall retreat into safety, into the “everlasting arms” of the mountains—of the stardust from which both Laramie Peak and I are made.

I will retreat there soon enough. Perhaps my retreat is already complete. Perhaps it began the day I was born. Dean Moore only believes he has control over my retreat. In our arrogance we all believe we have some sort of power. It’s the illusion that drives us to “work” to feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves. Most of us pay lip service to a “god” or some other force to which we have sworn allegiance. We say we believe that force has control over our lives.

And then we act as if we have some power over the stardust of which we are made—and, more pathetically, over the stardust of which others are made.

I have little use for the language that John D. Campbell invokes to praise his particular god. However, I am coming to understand the truth of his image. I do lift up my longing eyes to the hills. My language—as I come to say here nearly every time I write—is no better than Campbell’s. Different but not better. How can it be? How can any of us explain our certain knowledge we are made of the same stuff, the exact same stuff, of which Scotts Bluff is made. My comfort is knowing that my retreat there is certain. It began the day I was born.

“Remember, O Man, of dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.”

“Thanks be to God.”
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**retire:
1530s, of armies, “to retreat,” from Middle French retirer “to withdraw (something),” from re– “back” (see re) + Old French tirer “to draw” (see tirade). Meaning “to withdraw to some place for the sake of seclusion” is recorded from 1530s; sense of “leave an occupation” first attested 1640s (implied in retirement). Meaning “to leave company and go to bed” is from 1660s. Baseball sense of “to put out” is recorded from 1874. Related: Retired; retiring.
**retirement:
1590s, “act of retreating,” also “act of withdrawing into seclusion,” from French retirement (1570s); see retire + –ment. Meaning “privacy” is from c.1600; that of “withdrawal from occupation or business” is from 1640s.
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Dana Levin has written this post as a poem that says what I am trying to say ever so much better. She has language artistry I do not have.

Big Horn Mountains

Big Horn Mountains