Lewis and Clark and COVID-19


At my house we were doing coronavirus before it was cool, or so I like to say. I’ve been working from home for the past five years and haven’t seen any of my colleagues in the flesh since last September. My wife has been homeschooling our children, teenagers now, for most of their lives. It’s not that we’re untouched by the change, but this would be harder if we hadn’t been “social distancing” already, and if we didn’t have and enjoy each other’s company.

We took the canoe out last weekend, before the strict “stay-at-home” order came down from Oregon’s governor and the state parks were closed. It’s a sixteen-footer and we cram all four of us into it, plus gear and the dog. We launched into the Columbia River just east of Portland and paddled through the early spring currents to an uninhabited island midstream. McGuire Island is a mile long, thick with budding cottonwoods but sandy at the margins, its shore speckled with the bleaching shells of a million freshwater clams.

I sat on the beach and smoked a pipe of tobacco (a rare treat). I spotted a river otter fifty yards out and saw the year’s first osprey pass overhead. My daughter tracked critters through the shrubs with a big hunting knife strapped to her belt. We hiked together along the north side of the island for a while and I let her take a puff from my pipe, remarking that she was regular Tomboy Sawyer now. Downstream of us a half mile in the distance was the tip of Government Island, also uninhabited. Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery had camped there one night in the fall of 1805.

Just now I’m reading Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, about Meriwether Lewis and the expedition up the Missouri and over the Rockies to the Pacific. Ambrose is too enthusiastic for my taste, geeking out on the details and overdosing on exclamation points, but the book makes good reading when you’re cooped up indoors. I hadn’t realized before how close a relationship Lewis had with Thomas Jefferson, who was like an adopted father to the younger man. On our family tour of the East Coast two years ago, I recall seeing at Monticello a mounted rack of elk antlers that had come back to Jefferson from Lewis and Clark.

Ambrose relishes the traditional image of the Corps of Discovery passing through pristine wilderness and meeting untouched peoples, but there’s another tale behind it that’s not without some relevance today. The tribes Lewis and Clark met were living through an epidemic of smallpox, which had already been introduced by contact with Europeans (America seems to have given Europe syphilis in return). In the high plains the Corps passed through Mandan villages of the dead with lodges full of skeletons. A generation after their passage down the lower Columbia, nearly all the Chinook would be dead.

The history of European relations with the natives of North America is awful, but during the expedition of 1803-’06 both sides seem to have been eager to know one another better, to form ties of friendship and trade, to eat together and share stories. The threat of smallpox then was greater than the threat of coronavirus is today but we’re learning again that sometimes the price of togetherness is suffering. In the long run it’s a price we’ll pay because there’s suffering in isolation, too, and even the most unsocial must finally acknowledge we can’t do without each other for long.

Keep Calm and Carrion

The wolf criers and Chicken Littles of the world are always right eventually, even if they have to wait a hundred years for the beast to enter the village or the sky to fall. We’re not there yet, I think, but we’re closer today than we were two weeks ago when I jested about Quarantine Reading. I don’t know what it’s like where you live, but here in Oregon our schools and libraries are closed, as are most restaurants and shops (including Powell’s); the shelves at the grocery stores are bare; those who can do so are working from home; the police no longer respond in person to anything but life-threatening situations; the governor has prohibited public gatherings of more than twenty-five people, and the archbishop has been forced to cancel all public Masses through (and beyond) Easter.

And yet I can’t help but think we’re a generation of pansies and fraidy-cats. The threat of coronavirus is real enough, I suppose, but the scope and quality of the social panic we’re witnessing (and giving in to) is dismaying. Did you see Sam Mendes’ 1917, the movie that should have won the Oscar for Best Picture? I saw it twice. And just now I finished reading Iris Origo’s War in Val d’Orcia. Origo’s diary covers two years of WWII from the fall of Mussolini’s regime to its reinstatement by the Nazis to the Allies’ violent liberation of the Tuscan hills. The paranoia, rumor-mongering, and scarcity of provisions she describes are oddly familiar, but they feel more justified. Sometimes, when I think of the generations that survived the twentieth century’s two big wars, I wonder if anyone born since has really deserved the Earth.

Quarantine Reading

The most worrisome thing about the coronavirus scare is how your neighbors may respond to it. It’s hard to admire our collective capacity for rational thought when you learn that sales of Corona beer have plummeted. Do people imagine their favorite Mexican lager will infect them through of a coincidence of branding? Fear of the virus and fear of one another may come to the same thing in the end. For every person panic buying canned soup in anticipation of quarantine, three more will do so in fear that nothing will be left for themselves and their families to eat.

I enjoyed a happy hour of panic buying myself over the weekend when the first two coronavirus cases in Oregon were announced: I went straight to Powell’s Books. After all, if I fall sick, or if the New Black Death unleashes a springtime of barbarism and I’m forced to keep midnight vigil at the door with grandpa’s shotgun, I’m going to need some more reading material. And there’s a secondary use for books that is frequently overlooked by survivalists: they offer you, in extremis, a backup supply of toilet paper.

“What books will you bring into quarantine?” is the new version of the desert island books game. Those who like thematic overlap between reading and reality may turn to the old standbys of tuberculosis literature. There’s Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, of course, and Betty MacDonald’s much funnier The Plague and I, which I recently read myself and heartily enjoyed. But I don’t recommend prescription reading. As a general rule, I say, read what you want and avoid what you guiltily think you ought to read – or, for that matter, what you imagine will make you “well.” A good book is a companion, not a cure.

Ready at hand for fever to strike, my stack of quarantine books includes Patrick O’Brian’s The Fortune of War; Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire; Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend; Simon Winder’s Lotharingia; a collection of Somerset Maugham’s short stories; Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor; Penguin’s Nietzsche Reader; Norman Douglas’s travelogue Old Calabria; the autobiography of Pinkerton agent and murderer Tom Horn; Iris Origo’s diary War in Val d’Orcia; Sigrid Undset’s The Axe; Tom Holland’s Rubicon; and (the joy of anticipation!) Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s a pile to defy the Reaper for a month or two at least.

And yet other books suggest themselves, books due for re-reading, perhaps, or which I’ve owned for years and dipped into now and then but never given proper attention to because they felt, somehow, unseasonable. But there is a time for every purpose – and it may be for every book – under heaven. It can hardly be mere coincidence that glaring down at me just now from the bookcase above my desk is a sturdy hardbound copy of Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

Mother of Beauty

Rest on the Flight to Egypt Gerard David

Gerard David’s portrait of another contender for the title

In The Mother of Beauty author Nigel Andrew describes a school teacher who passed on to him a love for the works of sculptor Epiphanius Evesham, and more besides. “[He] showed me by his example how education, in the broadest sense, is a life-long pursuit, and how closely related it is to pleasure, to the full enjoyment of life and all it has to offer.”

I’m reading The Mother of Beauty for Lent but there’s nothing penitential in the choice. If it has a bit of the memento mori in it – which is unavoidable in a book on the funerary monuments of English parish churches – it is nonetheless all pleasure. Mr. Andrew does his old schoolmaster proud.

“Death is the mother of beauty,” as we read in the book’s dedicatory quote from Wallace Stevens, and “only the perishable can be beautiful.” Paul Valéry in his dialogue Eupalinos puts it this way: “What is most beautiful finds no place in the eternal… Nothing beautiful is separable from life, and life is that which dies.”

There’s a fragrance of incense in the sentiment, which I appreciate, but as a Catholic I believe the full truth of the matter is something different. We received our ashes two days ago and were enjoined to recall our mortality. But we look to the paschal mystery which teaches us, instead, that Life is that which dies and yet lives, and that Beauty is participation in the Eternal.

Technical Patent Malarkey

I managed to make professional use of my English degree – but I use it for evil. I stumbled into a career in corporate communications, which is a euphemism for PR. What can I say? I have a family to support, a mortgage to pay – and it’s not a bad job, as job’s go. But one of the qualifications for a career in PR is the ability to turn out reams of vaguely intelligent-sounding bullshit, and that’s where a BA in English helps. Back in college we learned to read our professors at least as well as our Shakespeare. We swallowed their special terms, pet theories, and personal predilections, and brought them back up again in novel arrangements of just-intelligible English sentences for our term papers. It worked.

Every one of the “garbage language” business terms described in Molly Young’s recent article I hear on a regular basis: futureproof, level-set, business-critical, etc. I work from home in another state, which spares me in measure, but when I travel to my employer’s headquarters in Silicon Valley I’m smothered in the verbal baloney for days on end. What’s worse, I use it myself, contributing my own tithe for the abasement of the honorable English tongue. I have to. I can tame it in press releases, reports, and media talking points, but a significant part of my job involves ghost-writing bylines for company executives, and some of these people cannot live without their unwittingly self-satirizing nonsense phrases.

Once, for example, I interviewed a member of the C-suite for an article I was going to write on his behalf. In the course of our talk he made a point of using the term “omni-channel push” several times. In the draft article I sent him a couple days later I had changed this to “multi-channel push.” I did so merely in the interest of accuracy: he was not, after all, suggesting we employ all of our business “channels” (a hateful usage itself) toward his objective, only several of them. But no, he insisted on “omni-” rather than “multi-” because, as he explained to me, “all is always better than many.”

Some of this corporate logorrhea is simply primate chest-thumping intended to assert one’s place – or aspiration for place – in a social hierarchy. Some of it may arise from imitation of sports and the military (where victory is tangible) or the hard sciences (where testing results in replicability). Much of it serves only to hide from ourselves the philosophical vacuum that crouches at the heart of marketing. I can’t adequately describe for you the horror of two-hour-long conference calls hosted by twenty-something Stanford grads excitedly describing in technical-patent-malarkey how good they are at getting people to click on links. I can’t describe the horror, that is, except to assure you these people truly believe they’re changing the world. And they are. And they already have.

Catherine Creek

It rained every day but one in January. February has been mercifully dry by comparison but the semi-permanent cloud cover only broke this week. As Monday was sunny and a holiday, we decided it was time for some nature. We laced up our hiking boots and drove eastward into the Columbia River Gorge, past waterfalls galore, with shaggy, snow-topped mountains looming over the highway like Winter Itself glaring down from above. We made it more than forty miles this time before the car-sick dog vomited on my wife – a good omen. It usually happens faster than that.

Catherine Creek is on the Washington State side of the river, a few miles beyond the town of White Salmon. The woods get sparse here; Douglas fir and western red cedar give way to ponderosa pine and white oak. Ten-million-year-old basaltic lava flows crisscross the landscape. The creek runs through a little valley just below a huge basalt wall with an arch in it. Rotting wooden corrals mark the site of an abandoned ranch. We saw Steller’s jays, ravens, a couple bald eagles, but most notably several dozen Lewis’s woodpeckers – scruffy, purple-breasted birds that look like the alcoholic uncles of the woodpecker family.

We have a favorite picnic spot atop the eastern ridge in the shade of a big ponderosa (you can recognize the species by bark that flakes into jigsaw puzzle pieces). It was cold and windy, but we drank hot tea from a thermos and ate cheese and salami sandwiches. A couple elderly ladies visiting from New Hampshire came by to alarm our dog and ask directions (none of the trails are marked). After chatting amiably for a couple minutes they left – and only then did my wife see fit to advise me I had a running nose and a bit of snot in my mustache.

We climbed into the high meadows after lunch. The turf this time of year is what I imagine tundra to be like: one part rock and three parts moss and lichen, very soggy. My daughter found some bleached deer vertebrae. The dog stopped to snack on animal droppings of mysterious provenance. The view is memorable up top. In the midst of the river a thousand feet below is what Lewis and Clark called “Sepulchar Island,” where the local Indians buried their dead. To the east one sees the treeless steppes of the interior. To the southwest, draped in glaciers and 11,000 feet high, Mt Hood looks just like Mt Crumpet from The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

True Crime

The story made national headlines a few years ago. A man aboard a local light rail train stabbed three other men in the neck, killing two, in a confrontation that began when the attacker threatened two young women (both black, one wearing a hijab) who were riding in the same car. This happened not far from where I live. The trial is underway now and, reading up on its progress, I was interested to learn that at the time of the attack the accused was carrying three books in his backpack. These were The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick, The Sagas of the Icelanders, and The Book of Mormon.

I felt a guilty thrill at the detail. Why should we care which books a homicidal maniac carries with him on the train? In this case, the choice of reading material sheds no light that I can see on the killer’s motives or the stability of his mind, but it fascinates.

Philip K. Dick’s science fiction novels were recently reissued in a handsome box set by the apparently desperate publishers of the Library of America series. I read one of them years ago. The Exegesis is something different: a thousand-page doorstop compilation of letters and notes and journal entries that purports to encompass the author’s “profound metaphysics.” I flipped virtually through a half dozen pages online and found it indigestible. A college friend who was once a champion PKD enthusiast admits that even he considers it an impossible slog.

My own brief passion for science fiction came to an end during a week of stomach flu when I was a teenager. I was reading a novel about archaeologists excavating the remains of a dead civilization of giant bird-like creatures on a distant planet. My experience of the book and of the flu mingled so unpleasantly that for months afterward I couldn’t think of feathers without feeling nauseous. Since then, my interest in science fiction has been limited to a few books by Stanislaw Lem (Solaris is the best) and H.G. Wells, whose short stories always delight me.

The Sagas of the Icelanders is another brick of a book, a thousand pages long, compiled and published by Penguin. I’ve almost bought a copy for myself on two occasions. The trouble is that the volume is so unwieldy, and I already own handy pocket editions of Njal’s Saga, Laxdaela Saga and a couple of the others it contains.

It’s an odd thing but people love Vikings these days; they’re all over the TV. They slaughter, rape, and pillage through the popular imagination like the rampaging id to the super-ego of political correctness. Every neutered, simpering cultural studies professor signing on for the demise of the patriarchy and the Western intellectual tradition is in his fantasy life drinking mead from human skulls and carving blood eagles on the backs of his department rivals.

The only real Viking I know is a retired chef named Anders who wears a hammer of Thor on a chain around his neck. He’s frail now and bent, but his voice is big and he swears gloriously. Anders was raised partly in his native Sweden, partly in South Africa, and partly in Texas, and his accent is a mash of all three. The last time I saw him he came roaring up the steps to my front porch with a cane in one hand and a case of Miller Lite in the other, golden Mjolner glinting amid the white chest hair sprouting from his open shirt.

I was surprised to discover as a boy that my paternal grandfather kept a copy of The Book of Mormon on the big shelf of Bible commentaries and Time-Life books and National Geographic magazines that framed his television set. We weren’t Mormons; we were the kind of Protestants that considered the Mormon church a weird cult. But Grandpa had a soft spot for backwater Americana and, like Harold Bloom, probably considered The Book of Mormon a special, if fantastically misguided, expression of the American spiritual genius.

When I’d gone through all the Time-Life books and Nat Geo issues on offer, I used to curl up on Grandpa’s La-Z-Boy recliner and page through the heretic scriptures. I never experienced the “burning in the bosom” that’s supposed to tell you it’s all true. The Book of Mormon seemed to me a bad parody of the King James Old Testament, and significantly more boring. I did, however, experience an occasional burning in my ten-year-old bosom when contemplating the two Mormon sisters, Jenny and Heather Nichols, who lived up the street from me. That was one thing which, in my opinion, the cultists seemed to have got right: daughters.

“Some Kinda Sicko”

There are children who can’t wait to grow up and others who cling to childhood against the pull of years. Then there are adults, like me, who by a perverse retrogression find themselves acting out a scandalous imposture of childhood in public.

My niece is really too old for dolls but still has one. It’s one of those awful “American Girl” dolls that cost her parents a million bucks, and she can’t be parted from it. Said niece was visiting us with other members of the extended family until yesterday morning. I got up to help them pack things into the car and watch them drive off an hour before sunrise.

I had just got back into bed when the phone rang. Niece had left her doll upstairs. They were coming around in the car again and could I wait at the curb to pass it to them? So, I found myself standing on the sidewalk in my pajamas, in the dark, with a cold rain coming down hard enough that I had to hunch over and grasp the doll tightly to my chest to keep it from getting wet.

The moments passed and still no car. Water was dripping down my hair and beard. Then two pre-dawn joggers came by with beaming headlamps.

Hey, Ho, the Wind and the Rain

The rain it raineth every day in northwest Oregon this time of year. And when it’s not raining, there is no sun. All is gray and ominous, dim enough that you need the lights on in the house to make a cup of tea or read a book or navigate the hallway. Out of doors lichen sheathes the branches and beards the rocks. Moss conquers sidewalks, the lawn, the front steps, chimneys, and rooftops. In the little seam that runs around my car’s windows moss grows too.

If I’m not posting often these days that’s because my boss has left the company and now I’m doing more work than I care to. I have made it clear to my boss’s boss, however, that I am not angling for a promotion. God help me, no. I enjoy my work and am grateful for my job, but I have no ambitions in that direction. Or, really, in any direction – though I do sometimes think I’d like to learn how to bake bread.

If I could do it all over again – education and career, I mean – I would skip the bachelor’s degree in English and philosophy. My professors believed in Western civilization and the canon, for which I’m grateful, but academic instruction in the humanities can’t take you anywhere worth going that reading on your own can’t also take you. The future of the traditional humanities must belong to the amateurs, or to no one at all.

No, I would join the Navy, I think. Then, after a few years, I would go to school to study biology (ornithology or entomology), or perhaps forestry. I’d work, if I could land a job, for the US Forest Service or the National Parks Department. That would be a life. But I don’t really regret anything. Life is what it is, and then you die. The really important stuff is there, all around you, regardless. And good books are for everyone, and not hard to find.

So let it come down.

Lectio Divina

The dead don’t read, or else I’m mistaken. It’s hard to imagine a literature of the afterlife unless the torments of Hell include forced readings of mirthless volumes on contract law or airline seatback magazines.

And yet I sometimes think that a bit of heavenly light shines forth from the page. Just now I’m reading Patrick O’Brian’s Desolation Island, the fifth of his Aubrey-Maturin sea tales set during the Napoleonic Wars. I don’t know how many years have passed since I read the fourth installment, but what a welcome rediscovery.

Consider the following passage. Stephen Maturin (physician, spy) is at breakfast a day after suffering painful reverses to his romantic and professional ambitions. He’s become addicted to laudanum and is ill with need. He’s reading a medical paper authored by a Dr. Mellowes, describing a proposed treatment for consumption, which Stephen thinks misconceived:

Deep in toast and marmalade, he demolished Mellowes root and branch; and noticing the indignation with which his hand had underlined the whole claptrap peroration, he observed, ‘I am not dead.’

I will not vivisect the sentence; I love it too much. But at its best, and unpredictably, reading may be for us – as it is in that moment for Stephen – an occasion of moral illumination, a grappling with life rather than an escape from it.

Even a reading of Mellowes.