Jim Dodge, author of Fup, Not Fade Away, and Stone Junction, contributed a number of poems, short prose pieces, and essays to Wild Duck Review between 1994-2001. “Bathing Joe” and “Learning to Talk” first appeared in Issue 16, Wild Duck Review, 1998; and, subsequently, in Rain on the River: Selected Poems and Short Prose by Jim Dodge, Grove/Atlantic Inc., 2002. Dodge’s essay, “The Body of Metaphor: 15 Propositions About the Mechanics, Magic, and Meaning of Figurative Language,” can be found in Issue 20: End of Human Nature?; and, Part II of “Getting Real on Drugs” can be found in Issue 18: Media.
An Elegy for Bob, 1946-1994
The summer of ’94 at French Flat, on a scorching afternoon in mid-July, my brother Bob suggested we bathe his dog Joe, a sixteen year old Kelpie. Since Bob held intractably to the notion that bathing dogs more than once a year destroys their essential skin oils, I hustled to gather the leash, towels, and doggie shampoo before he changed his mind.
Joe—112 in human years—truly needed a bath. He suffered every affliction of elderly canines: deaf as dirt; a few glimmers short of blind; lumpy with warts and subcutaneous cysts; a penis pointing straight down; a scrotum so saggy his testicles banged against his hocks; prone to drool; given to a seemingly constant flatulence that would be banned under the Geneva Accords; and possessed of what the genteel call “doggie odor,” which in Joe’s unfortunate case ranged between gagglingly rank and living putrefaction. When Joe dozed by the woodheater on a winter’s eve, enjoying dinner was difficult—considering one’s watering eyes and the instinct to cover food.
So I had the leash on Joe before Bob, whose right leg had been amputated near the hip years earlier, could get up on his crutches. With Bob herding from behind, I led Joe around back of the cabin, where we’d set up an old bathtub for starlit soaks. We hadn’t used the bathtub lately, so I scooped out the accumulated litter of madrone leaves and pine needles before I lifted in Joe. As I slipped off his collar, Joe grunted and sat down, settling into what we called the ODZ, or Old Dog Zone, where Joe seemed to be watching methane sunsets on Jupiter, or flights of birds invisible to human eyes. I turned on the water, hot and cold mixing in a single hose, while Bob opened the shampoo.
I asked him, “Want me to put in the plug?”
“Jesus, no” Bob said. “Rising water freaks Joe out bad. In fact, better make sure that drain ain’t clogged.”
“How could it be?” I reminded him. “Remember when you couldn’t find the rubber plug one night and hammered in that chunk of redwood for a stopper? Knocked out all those little cross-pieces?”
“Aw,” Bob dismissed the memory, “they were rusted all to shit anyway. Besides, the tub drains on the ground—not like there’s a pipe to clog.” He squirted some shampoo on his palm. “You gonna stand there yakking or are we gonna get on it—it’s broiling out here.”
Joe returned from Jupiter when the stream of water hit him. He bolted for safety but couldn’t get traction on the tub’s slick bottom. Bob grabbed him around the neck and Joe slid to the front of the tub. He held still, warbling softly as I soaked him down.
“It’s okay, Joe, you’re okay, “ Bob comforted his pooch, working the shampoo into a grey lather. Joe struggled again, scrambling to get his back legs under him, then suddenly stopped. His yellowish dingo eyes began to widen.
“Brain-lock,” I opined.
Bob ignored me to encourage Joe: “Good dog, good dog. Just keep still and we’ll be done in a few minutes. You can’t help being old, can you?”
Joe answered in a low, trembling yowl.
“What’s he yodeling about?” I wondered aloud.
“Hell if I know.” Bob rubbed Joe’s neck. “What’s the matter buddy?”
I noticed the grayish-yellow scum building in the bathtub and gratuitously advised Bob, “I wouldn’t bathe that dog without some industrial-strength, eight-ply latex gloves. You wake up tomorrow, you might not have fingernails.”
Bob glanced at the rising scum. “That’s the problem. Joe’s sitting on the drain, got it blocked, and the water’s rising—thinks he’s gonna drown. Let me scoot him back down, off the drain.”
But when Bob tried to slide him toward the middle of the tub, Joe’s yowl leaped an octave and he twisted his head free of Bob’s grasp. He huddled against the front curve of the tub, a strong shiver passing through him from flank to nose.
I turned off the water. “Now what?”
“Beats me, “ Bob declared, then cooed at Joe, “What’s your problem, buddy? You’re not gonna drown.” Bob slipped his hand underwater and felt beneath Joe. When he withdrew his hand he gave me a funny look. “You’re not gonna believe this,” he said solemnly, “but Joe’s got his nuts caught in the drain.”
“Impossible,” I assured him. “The drain’s too small for his nuts to fit through.”
Bob shook his head. “Maybe not if they were soapy and slid through one at a time. Better take a look under there. I’ll hold Joe.”
The tub was set about eight inches off the ground on a wooden frame, so I had to brace both legs and lift with a shoulder to rock the tub back far enough to see. Sure enough, Joe’s testicles were dangling from the drain, side by side in his flaccid, mottled scrotum.
Bob took a break from consoling his dog to ask, “See anything?”
I eased the tub back down. “Yeah, I see your dog’s nuts caught in the drain. I trust you appreciate my reluctance to believe it.”
“Well,” Bob said impatiently, “try to poke them back through. Ol’ Joe’s about to go into shock.”
Joe whimpered piteously in confirmation.
“You’re kidding,” I said. “Try to poke them back through. Hey bro, he’s your dog and those are his nuts—you do it. Poking Joe’s stuck nuts is not even on my list of 25,000 things I’d do for fun or money.”
“Sweet Jesus,” Bob sighed with pained exasperation, “show class or show ass.”
I’d forgotten that Bob, with only one leg, probably couldn’t leverage the tub, so I gracefully offered, “I’ll lift the tub; you handle his nuts.”
“Ah, come on,” Bob objected, “someone’s got to hold Joe. If he panics, he’ll either tear them off or stretch his sack so bad his balls will be bouncing along behind him the rest of his life.” He scratched Joe’s head, murmuring, “Hang on, old pal, we’ll get you loose.”
I had an idea. “Maybe we could take a sledgehammer to the tub—sort of break it out around him.”
“Right, good thinking, “ Bob mocked me. “Take a 12-pound sledge to a metal bathtub. We’d have him loose by next month easy.” He shook his head. “How would you like your nuts caught in the drain and some utter dimwit pounding away on the tub with a sledgehammer?”
“All right,” I said, “but it’ll cost you.”
“Why doesn’t that surprise us?” Bob asked his dog. Then to me, “What?”
“Dishes for a week plus that little Shimano reel you hardly ever use anyway.”
Bob explained to Joe, “You’re gonna be here a long time, buddy, because my brother is a no-class, show-ass jerk.”
Swabbing sweat off my brow, too hot for prolonged negotiations, I surrendered. “Hand me that damn bottle of shampoo.”
I lifted the tub again, sweat-blind in the heat, and awkwardly squirted some shampoo on Joe’s scrotum for lubrication. Taking a deep breath, I began working Joes’ testicles around in his sack, trying to arrange them vertically for a push upward, all the while providing a running commentary on my feelings for Bob’s amusement and to deflect all but the essential attention from the task at hand: “Forty-nine years I’ve been alive. Representing the present culmination of millennia of species evolution. Diligent study. Developing skills. The long, excruciating refinement of sensibility. And now I understand my whole life has been a preparation for this moment: trying to get your dog’s nuts unstuck from a bathtub drain. And I don’t know if that’s perfect or pathetic or both or none of the above.”
“Well,” Bob offered with a dry sweetness, “for sure it’s better than something worse.” Then to Joe, “Listen to him snivel.”
I saved my breath and, working by touch, manipulated Joe’s nuts around till they were stacked, then, using sort of a reverse milking move, squeezed his scrotum from the bottom. The top testicle popped through, then the other. Joe was free. With an agility he hadn’t shown in years, he leaped from the tub and starting rolling in the dirt, moaning.
Bob smiled. “There you go, buddy! Happy dog!”
When I dropped the tub off my numb shoulder, the dirty water sluiced forward and slopped over the rim, drenching me.
I sniveled some more: “Oh great, I free his worthless old nuts and what do I get—soaked with mutagenic Joe scuzz.”
Bob laughed. “Plus you get our eternal gratitude—don’t forget that.”
* * *
LEARNING TO TALK
Whenever Jason said “beeber” for “beaver”
or “skirl” for “squirrel”
I secretly loved it.
They’re better words:
The busy beeber beebing around;
the grey squirrels’ tail
like a skirl of smoke along a maple branch.
I never told him he was saying
their names “wrong,”
though I did pronounce them conventionally.
One time he noticed, and explained,
“’Beeber’ is how I say it.”
“Great,” I said, “whatever
But within a week
he was pronouncing both “correctly.”
I did my duty
and I’m sorry.
Farewell Beeber and Skirl.
So much beauty lost to understanding.
* * *
The following two-hour conversation between Jim Harrison and Casey Walker took place in Patagonia, Arizona on March 8, 1997. It was first published in Issue 14 of Wild Duck Review, April 1997; then, subsequently, in Conversations with Jim Harrison by Jim Harrison, Robert J. DeMott; University Press of Mississippi, 2002.
Casey Walker: What do you think of “nature writing” per se?
Jim Harrison: I don’t much care for the term, “nature writing.” In the hands of a naturalist like Ann Zwinger, I suppose the category makes sense. But, as far as what everybody else is doing—to act as if nature writing is something relatively new when it isn’t—says a lot more about this American culture of ours. Nature writing has been around since the 1870s and right up to Loren Eisley, who wrote more magnificently than any of us, frankly, and whose books—all but two—are currently out of print. Sporting magazines around the turn of the century, like Field & Stream and Outdoor Life, were predominantly and very strongly environmentalist and Bernard DeVoto wrote vociferously from the “Easy Chair” position at Harper’s right up through the 1930s-40s. Nature writing is nothing quite new or new at all.
At a recent talk I gave in Seattle, I spoke in part about a kind of schizophrenia in the environmental movement and in nature writing. To consider nature in any way as a separate entity that one looks down upon as subject: object is a problem because there is no split at all. Even Shakespeare said we are nature too. It’s in the splitting that environmentalists get their egos, their self-dramas, their self-congratulations, problems I just don’t see in the natives I know real well. The Anishinabe in the Upper Peninsula in Northern Michigan are wonderful at maintaining their humility in the natural setting. I think, though, it’s because there’s a religious base for them. It’s also in the way people grow up. Some have been hunting since they were seven. Even for my friend, Nick, who falls into the loathsome category of “outdoorsman,” it’s nothing for him to cover 5-10 miles a day everyday of his life and what he notices are details, the particulars. There’s no replacement for experience.
I remember when I first saw a wolf in the Upper Peninsula the sighting was doubted by a professor. I didn’t mind in the least. He sat in an office and I sat in my cabin in a forest on the river. I’d seen things from my window that were astonishing—male and female loons taking turns on the nest, each going crazy waiting for relief, making all kinds of noise, responding to coyotes and whippoorwills, calling back and forth. I think our sense of fieldwork can best be approached through what Thoreau called “sauntering.”
Because the motive to sauntering is so different from the motive of entering an experience in order to write about it?
Yes. As Dogen said, “The study of the self is to forget the self. And to forget the self is to become one with ten thousand things.” Okay, what he then adds and what people forget is that you (the ego) don’t become one with ten thousand things, but ten thousand things become one with you. If you go out with expectations of any sort, you don’t get what the outside has to give. In one novel, I parodied the mountain biker who told me he did thirty-five miles on a muddy road. I asked, “Geez, what did you see?” “Hey,” he said. “I keep my eye on the road!”
If every adventure in the outdoors is one of personal accomplishment and we keep attacking the natural world with equipment—our problems with ‘self’ in ‘nature’ will be just spectacular. Every extermination of any species has been accompanied by mechanization. I once wrote a note of complaint to Outside Magazine because they had a fabulous photo of a natural land-bridge formation in Utah, but across the top they showed this geek running in his spandex. It all reminds me of the Nazi youth when certain forms of nature loving were at a height in Germany in the 1920s-30s, and it was all tied to a particular moral force, the purification of a genetic strain, vegetarianism, and ego.
You don’t get these cultural attitudes with native people and that’s what is so wonderful about Richard Nelson’s phenomenal books, Make Prayers to the Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest, about the Koyukon people; and, The Island Within, about living on an island off Sitka. The trouble comes with a full elitism—the kind Robinson Jeffers was guilty of—the view that says, “I alone overlook the rock and the Pacific.” It’s the “I alone” that is on a family allowance for thirty-five years, surveys nature, and then loathes human beings. We cannot ignore humans or human habitat anymore than we can ignore animals, plants, or natural habitat. They all have to go together or you have, as in the case of Jeffers, a tremendous lacunae. I knew Ed Abbey and, as wonderful as he was, he had holes in his worldview vis a vis Native Americans and Mexicans.
Because of the exclusiveness of a singular point of view?
Yes. You have to think of reality in terms as an aggregate of the perceptions of all creatures. You look at the bear but the bear is looking at you, and you better consider the bear looking at you. He isn’t something to just put a fucking collar on, you know? They’ve done this absurd thing in Michigan. I have an enormous wolf bibliography at home and we now have a couple hundred wolves on the Upper Peninsula that came back by themselves over the ice and around, thirty-five miles. No one had to help them; it’s a matter of habitat, period. Now people are saying they have to radio collar all of these wolves. Well, there’s immense, immense knowledge on eastern timber wolves already—what more do we need?
The seduction of hard data, of funding more projects!
That’s true. Everybody wants to get a grant, get funded for something. Now we even have miniature telemetric devices for implants in quail, when you can tell an enormous amount about quail by simply watching. There’s just an enormous self-dramatization going on—a missionary zeal—especially when we say we’re going to help nature but then forget how to let natural processes proceed. That’s what I liked so much about David Quammen’s book, The Song of the Dodo, about island biogeography and the remarkable processes at work.
Environmental zeal also reminds me of the problems of feminism in the 1960s. If feminists had stayed unified as a political force, the ERA would have passed in the 1970s-80s; but they got bifurcated just like the environmental movement and splintered into hundreds of groups. Or, if feminists had stayed focused on issues such as the ERA and equal pay for equal work, they might have changed the dominant social and economic injustices right there. When movements split into many little self-dramatizing groups, they lose force. With so many agendas, there’s also a failure to understand the nature of Washington. You have to know you’re dealing with a septic tank full of greed and you must go into it with power. If all the groups could agree on three things they wanted and could amass voters, they’d have results.
Do you see legal battles as the place to start?
If you can concentrate the legal solution, it’s the place to start. It’s also remarkable though how the minds of the young can change things. I appeared at the first Earth Day as one of the literati and I happened to say, in the talk I gave, that there were too many billboards. Right away, students went out and began cutting billboards down with chainsaws. Besides my embarrassment, I rather liked the idea. Today, the minds of the young are so much more aware, generally speaking, of what the consequences are of our behavior.
What fascinates me about the Nature Conservancy and what I adore about them as opposed to some groups, is that they do understand the cogs and wheels turn so slowly in Washington that we had better buy habitat now and take it out of harm’s way. Things with enormous moral force are often completely ignored in Washington. You can’t be like a big muffin going to Washington, you have to unify and go there like a big axe. It’s the only way things are perceived there and I don’t care if the head of our groups have to spend a lot of money. It’s a Machiavellian world and there’s no sense going in there like Gandhi.
It’s a challenge to think of extending our language, creating the language to change discourse and take the lead on issues in ways not co-opted at the semantic level—the power level—of politics.
Maybe that’s the good of so-called, quasi-nature writing. It has a great deal more public appeal now. But, you’re going to get co-opted all the time by data. It doesn’t matter if you say, for instance, that only 3 percent of our beef by weight is grown on public land and how can you destroy this much public land for that 3 percent? That’s about as far as you can go with data because of the digestive system for fresh knowledge out there. One way that works is money. When the ranches were sucking up all the water of certain trout rivers in Montana, a lot of somewhat-moneyed trout fishermen pushed and pushed and now the ranches don’t do it anymore. This is the nature of the world. When we approach adversaries innocently, with goodwill, it’s fatuous. You don’t get your best-intentioned, $50/hour lawyer, you get your savvy, $500/hour lawyer.
The other thing that speaks loudly next to money and law, is just sheer votes. There’s no question that the anti-environmental forces and Gingrich’s “Contract for America” had to back up because they crossed the line with a lot of people—including Republican women birdwatchers. People don’t want to hear that kind of rhetoric anymore, it’s bullshit. What counts is a broad base of money, legality, and votes. You can frighten anybody with votes. I come from an agricultural background and have absolutely nothing against cows, but I have everything against improper use of public land for grazing. I can say to a rancher that we’re carrying the load too, this is an entitlement, and some of my best quail habitat has been turned into leather since last year. Who’s the landlord? As Rene Char said, “Who stands on the gangplank directing operations, the captain or the rats?” That’s always a good point. So, in other words, in this incredible swapmeet that is Washington, we can’t be so nice about it. We don’t want to be simple-minded. I don’t think it’s cynicism, it’s a recognition of how it works in America.
Beyond the politicians and the theologians, as you write in your essays, there are the writers and poets and artists out at the margins working away at consciousness.
Sure. But, you can’t ever think, and, as I’ve said, you shouldn’t ever have the illusion of coming to an artist for coherence. It’s feeble-minded to think of being right as an artist. Being right is about as fragile a thing possible in the world. The duty of the poet is not to shit out of the mouth like a politician. Poets should be out there on the borderland saying this kind of thing. Truly, some of the nature writing being done today is masturbatory, what I call the pornography of nature, and can be as obtuse and disturbing as the ignorance of nature. It goes so far as the poor woman in the Harper’s article who wanted to be kind to the sick hyena and got half-eaten alive. I think there is a failure to internalize what we’re saying, and to realize we know what to do when we’re in peril but we don’t know what to do when something else is in peril. Sentimentality forgets what is it to be wild.
And fails to see the appropriateness of backing away, backing off.
Sure. The function of adventure travel, which is somewhat debilitating in some respects, is not to count coup on everything, but to comprehend it all. We’re not getting rid of the ego when we write to ask, aren’t my observations elegant and astounding? The largest nature metaphor I ever heard, which is wonderful, came from Lorca, “The enormous night straining her waist against the Milky Way.”
Part of the problem comes because America, with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, is at the peak of her empire now. We have to think of what happened with England in Victorian times when there was a great deal of rigidification, moral rigidification, and scrutiny of everyone else, all of which is, of course, what we have in our New Puritanism. With American’s fear of losing world power and money, politicians are writing thousands of rules everyday to solidify their positions, to solidify the position of America. It’s absurd. It’s gotten so out of hand that you can’t have your own personal, moral structure without thinking everyone should have your particular moral structure.
What do you think of the role played by the processes of modernity and increasing abstractions in our lives?
I think our problems are partly modernity, but as Paul Shepard said somewhat inadvertently, and which also goes well with Bruce Chatwin’s last, posthumous book of essays on nomadism, this kind of rigidification came at the height of the agricultural cycle (post-hunter and gatherer), and now we’re at the absolute apex of this rigidification. The power of the priestly class is being assumed by national and state congresses who are relentlessly trying to make moral rules. Bernard DeVoto, according to Lewis Lapham at Harper’s, said the worst thing that happened during the McCarthy period, and what he found inconceivable, was all the constant snooping. Now the modern university, with all its political correctness, is closer to the cellular structure of Cuban communism than anything else. It’s absurd.
Sometimes our political correctness nonsense is funny. A couple of years ago, my Italian editor went to a dinner party in Marin County. She was outside looking at the Pacific, standing by a buffet table. A wind had come up, the tablecloth was flapping, and she was asked not to smoke. She did what all good, strong Italian women do, she said, “Fuuck you,” and was out of there. This kind of falling into line, whether it’s academic or not, is part of the monstrous response you had to Jack Turner in the last issue of Wild Duck Review. How dare he question it all? It’s amusing to hear all of these well-intentioned people chastening Jack. It sounds like something in the 1920s, with Lenin from the Finland station, “You’re failing to follow the platform.”
And, if you question, you must have an alternative plan. Where’s our desire for saying the unsayable?
It’s absurd. It’s just like the border problem here in Arizona and Mexico. Some suggest a moat should be built, but then you see these 12,000 foot peaks and you can see that a 1,900 mile moat is ridiculous. No one want you to say the reason the Mexicans are crossing the border is because they earn $5/day at most in a factory in Mexico and they’re earning $50/day working here. What do we expect? Unless you get a patrolman every 50 feet, a la Berlin Wall, you’re not going to stop anything. It’s fatuous—as fatuous as stopping marijuana from coming across. It doesn’t mean I have any solutions, but you can certainly say, as does Jack Turner, that when the emperor is naked, the emperor is naked. You don’t have to have any clothes ready for the emperor to see that he is naked.
What obligations do writers carry and to what, to whom?
Ed Abbey was magnificent to me, and we were always quarreling about one thing or another, but the wonderful thing was that you’d never mistake him for anyone else, anymore than you would Jack Turner or Doug Peacock. There’s no point in pretending an artist is going to be a junior scientist. His obligation is to note the discrepancies in our environmental efforts as poignantly as Ginsberg did the world order as it stands.
It’s hard to get up in the morning and look in the mirror and say, I am part of nature too. But you are, what the fuck do you think you are? We’re just the most dangerous form of nature and we better be aware of it with all our brilliant little ideas. Some of the most powerful “nature poetry” you’ll find is from poets like Snyder where it’s not obtrusively didactic, or from the Chan poets of China. I don’t think Wordsworth is read enough anymore.
There’s been a terrible suffering of literacy in the last twenty years in particular, partly because the teaching profession is so sure there is a short cut to be had. Now with the invention of computers and the Internet, it’s as if there is a new substitute for reading, writing, and thinking. There’s not. A mass movement is being created that is even more susceptible to different forms of Nazism, you know? It’s an implicit moral fascism. Look at the Savings & Loan debacle—and they’re right back again. What regulations have there been on greed?
It’s messianic to think greed is self-checking. I’ve never met a developer who wouldn’t spit in the face of his grandchild for a buck—that’s the nature of the beast and we better know it. I wonder at what’s going on. I was in Burgundy, France, in a big cattle raising area that is peerlessly beautiful. I remarked that it was extraordinarily well taken care of, given all of the cattle. The fellow I was talking with said, “Well, we didn’t have any place else to go.” We Americans have realized too late how limited we are. Here in America we’ve had a theological basis for land rape, too, with the Christian assumption that we’re going to die and go to heaven. Meanwhile, it’s our duty to do anything we want to the land to prosper. We can’t forget that wilderness has always had people living in it and that you don’t have to notice people. In terms of wildness, I always thought it was comic that I knew of more forty-acre woodlots in Michigan that are wilder than Yosemite.
Of course, the be-all, end-all problem is overpopulation, as we all know. I haven’t heard any intelligent solutions to this problem. I’ve heard intelligence but not functional intelligence. In the case of China, where you consciously limit your birth rate to two children per family, there’s amniocentesis and suddenly everyone wants sons. We can’t keep up with the technology. Then, here we are with cloning. Newt Gingrich will want 900 versions of himself. The stew we’re in is enormous. A movie mogul told me you have to play hardball twenty-four hours a day to get ahead in that business. I want my leaders in the environmental movement to play hardball twenty-four hours a day. Maybe they can file their teeth.
Oh, filing their teeth comes with their nature. It’s unthinkable for me to have any hesitation about what I say in a poem. I suppose that’s always been true for a particular kind of a writer. Once you receive your calling you can’t back off at all. Writing isn’t something for people who don’t want to spend their entire lives at it, and most people figure out that commitment early, by age eighteen. You see you don’t get to be a lot of things, that writing will take a full commitment.
You’ve quoted Rene Char as saying, “Lucidity is the wound closest to the sun.” Will you speak to what it means for you in your work?
Yes. Your obligation as a writer is to be utterly vulnerable moment by moment by moment. It’s a regrettable trap. It’s like Dostoyevsky questioning at some point to be too conscious or to be diseased. Or, as Nietzsche said, if you stare into the abyss long enough, it’ll stare back at you. Without question it is not a process that frees you from your common humanity, because writers are as susceptible to greed as anyone I know. The seductions are countless in this world to have the least important come first—vis a vis putting the lucrative screenplay before a book of poems. But, it can’t bother you too much because that’s the nature, too, of writing. Like Faulkner said, “If you’ve got to take it raw, take it raw.” That’s what writing is.
As a writer do you consciously protect your vulnerability?
Yes. It’s a great part of it. There’s something very troublesome that D.H. Lawrence said and I came upon it in my twenties, “The only aristocracy is that of consciousness.” Consciousness is a moment-by-moment obligation, and if you have it then I suppose you’re finally entitled to say something. It’s the same think as what is meant by “tentativeness” in Zen, or meant by Dogen when he said, “No changing reality to suit the self.” There’s no sense in marching or having a meeting when the world is being destroyed, as in the case of the bison, right outside. There is always the new wound or the new corruption right here, the moral corruption, that is absolutely profound and opens us to international ridicule. When the consciousness of Americans catches up to what they’re doing, the shit is going to hit the fan.
What do you think of psychotherapy?
I’ve been to a mind doctor off and on for twenty years and it’s made a profound change in my life. All they are are contemporary shamans—there is no other way to look at them—but, the trouble is, as many will admit, only one therapist out of a thousand is any good. I don’t object to therapeutics, but I object to therapeutics becoming a giant machine as it has in this culture. Now we have human imperfection numbered in thousands so therapists can bill insurance. He drinks coffee: #582.6. He washes his hands too often: #584.7. He turns off the light too often: #631.2. If such therapeutics free people from the responsibility of being human, we have a real problem. And, this great, great embracing of victimization that took place a decade or so ago has created real problems.
Yes, and the emphasis on the confessional in public as therapeutic, or in poetics as art, has real limits to it.
I never could read Anne Sexton for that reason. It’s not very interesting. When I say, oh woe is me in extremis, I’m just another coal miner. What’s the point in thinking it’s unique? Our cures are interesting; our infirmities are not. Everyone knows about infirmities. Our occasional luminescences are what contribute to the human condition. The idea that somebody can say, for instance, that I get up and work hard—well, try saying that to the Chicanos. Give me a break! I grew up in a rather poor family of dirt farmers in northern Michigan. Can you imagine the idea of a professor teaching six hours a week and whining about it? But, the confessional movement is rubbish and will go away fast. People will tire of lifting the Band-Aids. Even Rush Limbaugh is fading. People will look for something else, something new, as we do all the time and have throughout our history. Dozens of women I know have grown tired of thinking of themselves as victims. Now they’re on to kicking ass and taking names, which is infinitely healthier than saying, oh poor me. I have a profound Jungian therapist who points out that he has patients in their late sixties still whining about their parents. It is all very comic. It’s that illusion that parents are always dominant, that big brutes are always dominant, in our lives.
In one of your essays, I like your statement on the necessity of grandiosity for survival. Will you speak to what you meant by grandiosity and by survival?
Yes. There is a realization that to live your life you have to write your own songlines. Your own songlines and the degree to which you want your life to be an independent project is up to you. It’s harder for people, of course, whose parents or whose society has crushed them, and that has happened over and over again. In the 1940s, there was a craze in America for tying kids’ hands so that they wouldn’t pick their noses or misbehave. The elegant thing is to transcend being a victim.
I just wrote a children’s book called The Boy Who Ran to the Woods, which is what I did at seven years old when I was blinded by a little girl. I think it was Edith Cobb’s The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood that made it clear to me I had gone to the natural world to survive, to do my time alone. In Dalva, I wrote about having to withstand implacable blows. When my father and sister were killed in an auto accident, I thought: Isn’t this strange, any possibility of agreeing with the world has just left me.
However, we Americans have been relatively spoiled. Look at Europeans and their suffering—millions of people dead. Our country is now seething with generalized resentment. There’s more whining in the upper middle class than amongst the black population or natives by far. Certain people know through their consciousness as primates when they’ve painted themselves into the corner, and if they’ve painted themselves into the spoiled kind of corner, there’s nothing more depressing than a Rolex and BMW. I know you have to keep one ear for your friends and one ear to the conversations in the world around you. I see it, hear it out there, this malaise. It’s because there’s no spiritual life, of course, and that makes for an enormous vacuum because we’re spiritual creatures.
In your own work, whether from day to day to in its general arc, what does it look like to you? Where is your curiosity?
Well, you can go through it to the point you see not just what is in front of you, but can look at yourself walking away. I see more of the same work I’ve done before, I don’t change gears in quantum leaps. I do find myself reading more and more about botany and anthropology, which reminds me of Erik Erickson saying reality is mankind’s greatest illusion. We are overwhelmed by the perception of how short life is, as in the old Don Juan thing about the whining man who is always whining and whining about hoeing corn and then you hear a dog barking in the distance and the screen door slams and suddenly it’s evening. You have to be very aware of that sensation. Time is one of our great illusions too. In “The Beige Dolorosa,” there’s a man who wants to rename the birds of North America, and he’s created a calendar in which there are only three days a month, which gives him these great open spaces: three 200-hour days. Natives know this kind of thing—how to renew oneself. The interesting thing about being in a rut is that the only think you see are the sides of the rut. You don’t see out. The frogs who fell into the well now think that’s the universe. It’s the perfect metaphor for people rich or poor.
I’m working on the second chapter of a novel where I’ve moved from a seventy-one-year-old man to a thirty-year-old grandson. He’s questioning how, if we primates are mapped for anything that moves, do we discriminate between the spiritual caffeine of TV or movies and what lies mostly still outside the window? Occasionally a bird goes by, the sun goes down and then comes up. But people crave movement and forget that the movement seen on TV and in movies is not part of a living process, that it’s coming out of a tube. Life is subtle and complex. There are no easy, fast answers. There aren’t even any easy questions, let alone answers. In America this affects us in the environmental movement—the idea, the illusion, that every question has an answer. It’s our Calvinist upbringing to believe that everything is solvable. It’s sheer hubris.
How do you describe the core, the spirit, of your work?
This consciousness, I would say. Otherness. Otherness to remind ourselves of the bedrock of life, and death, and love, and suffering. Back to Lorca, what is poetry but love, suffering, and death? Or, the idea of making a heap of all that you have met. I haven’t been nearly as unflinching as I’d hoped to be, no. But, that’s part of my makeup. Early on, my inability to face certain horrors as directly as I should have contributed to that. But, then I’m always looking for the song I could make out of it, too. I can’t quarrel with the limitations which are part of me—everybody has the severest of limitations. You are ultimately what you collectively wish to be. When someone says they could be so much more, I say, well you better get started right now, who’s stopping you? Face it, there’s an anchor tied to your ass.
Are you writing poetry—is it the writing closest to your heart?
I’m always writing poetry. I don’t differentiate, though, between poetry and novels at all. Short things are short all over and long things are long. I’ve never been able to write short stories. The shortest I ever get is a novella, about 100 pages. Certainly, it’s too late to become a fireman or a cowboy. Early in my environmental activities it was always requested that I not speak a lot because, as my daughter would say, I could make an audience weep in five minutes through one means or another and the environmental movement is one area in which we need a lot of rationality. The poet has to be off to the side giving his two cents, but two cents isn’t the whole dollar. One isn’t really good without the other, but I see how brutally hard some people have worked and it’s paid off for the movement by just being out there plugging away, day in and day out.
How might the proliferation of creative writing programs and workshops affect literature?
You can’t ever have enough of what’s good. I think sometimes the bad or the mediocre obfuscates the good—that’s what Ezra Pound thought—and I think there’s a problem if one thousand literary novels are published every year and they are all recommended with sincerity. Certainly, sincerity is not then a very high virtue. Give me back the art. I can’t read prose unless it’s interesting prose. I don’t give a shit about anybody’s good intentions, you know? Juice can’t be taught in a creative writing program.
I created an ideal creative writing program once. I taught it for one semester and I gave students 148 books of poetry for the main part of the modernist tradition, from the French Symbolists onward. I lost some students there. But, I think an ideal MFA writing program would require one year of manual labor in the country; one year of life in the city; one year spent alone reading; and only then would anyone return and begin writing. How else would anyone know anything?
Sorrowfully, success in writing is not a democratic process. No matter how hard you work and study, it either comes or doesn’t, the door opening or closing on good prose. I’m just stunned how a man like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in his novella last year, can write as he does. As I’ve said before, most people look in the mirror and say, “I’m getting old.” But Shakespeare looked in the mirror and said, “Devouring time, blunt thou thy lion’s paws.” There is a difference. No one can teach you to make a metaphor. Or, Lorca’s, “Your belly is a battle of roots,/your lips a blurred dawn./Under the tepid roses of the bed/the dead moan, waiting their turn.” That’s a different way of saying, Gee, you’re nifty. So much of our current fiction sounds like the contents of white guys at loose ends. Our own history has been sanitized to leave things out like women, Indians, Mexicans…more examples of white guys at loose ends. Instead, good art smells like life.
* * *
Some eco-ninny released
at least a hundred tame white doves
at our creek crossing: what a feast
he offered, three coyotes in the yard
for the first time, a pair of great horned
owls, male and then the female
ululating; and at dawn today
all birds, mostly finches, curved bill thrashers
vamoosed at a swift startling shadow.
A lordly Merlin perched in the willow,
Ur-falcon, bird-god, sweetly vengeful,
the white feathers of her meal a clump,
among others, of red spotted snow.
“Jubilee” by Jim Harrison appeared in Wild Duck Review, Issue 13, February 1997.
* * *
JIM HARRISON is a poet and writer who lives on a farm in Northern Michigan. He is well-known and much-beloved in circles as varied as fellow writers and poets, readers, filmgoers, and—with his work translated into twelve languages—by ardent followers worldwide. Books of fiction and subsequent screenplays include Wolf, A Good Day to Die, Farmer, Legends of the Fall, Warlock, Sundog, Dalva, The Woman Lit by Fireflies, and Julip. Books of poetry include After Ikkyu, Plain Song, Locations, Outlyer, Letters to Yesenin, Returning to Earth, Selected & New Poems, The Theory and Practice of Rivers & Other Poems. 
FOR A CURRENT PIECE on Jim Harrison, see Tom Bissell’s “The Last Lion,” published in Outside Magazine (October 2011): http://www.outsideonline.com/outdoor-adventure/celebrities/The-Last-Lion.html?page=all
[ See “Pieces” tab above, or go to https://wildduckreviewarchives.wordpress.com/pieces/ ]
Published August 1998, Nevada City, CA
Issue17: Education (PDF)
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
Letter from the Editor, Casey Walker
Essays and Articles: David Orr, Chet Bowers, Dennis Rice, Jim Wood, HSU students, and Jim Dodge
Interviews with Jane Healy, David Noble, David Kidner, Heather-jane Robertson, Peter Sacks, Joseph Chilton Pearce, and Fritjof Capra by Casey Walker
Poem by Anita Barrows; prose by George Keithley
Letters to the Editor from Wendell Berry and Joanna Macy
Photography by Hank Meals and Molly Good
Published December 2000, Nevada City, CA
Issue 20: HumanNature (PDF)
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
Introduction by Casey Walker
Interviews with Martha Herbert, Keekok Lee, Francisco Varela, Suzanne Romaine, Tina Stevens, Bill Joy, Craig Holdrege, and Bill McKibben by Casey Walker
Essays by Florence Shepard, Chris Desser, Terry Tempest Williams, Nelson Foster, Jim Dodge
Prose and Poetry by David Hinton, Galway Kinnell, Jane Hirshfield, Jerry Martien, and Mike Connelly
Photography by Hank Meals
Published August 1999, Nevada City, CA; with second printing, October 1999, Nevada City, CA.
Republished as MADE NOT BORN: The Troubling World of Biotechnology, by Sierra Club Books, 2000.
Issue 19: Biotechnology (PDF)
Quick View Online:
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
“Ten Points to Introduce Biotechnology,” by Casey Walker
Essays by Wendell Berry, Jack Turner, David Loy, David Petersen, and Chris Desser
Interviews with Stuart Newman, Andrew Kimbrell, Richard Hayes, Richard Strohman, Freeman House, Kristin Dawkins, and Martin Teitel by Casey Walker
Poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins, Elizabeth Herron, Maya Khosla, and Jerry Martien
Letter from Marti Crouch
Photography by Hank Meals
Published January 1999, Nevada City, CA
Issue18: Media (PDF)
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
Casey Walker, Letter from the Editor
Interviews with Todd Gitlin, Marilynne Robinson, Lewis Lapham, David Quammen, Mark Dowie, Thomas Frank, Mark Crispin Miller, Don Hazen, and Neil Postman by Casey Walker
Essays by Jack Turner and Jim Dodge
Poems by Will Baker, Jack Bailey, and Jerry Martien
Photography by Hank Meals and Weston Walker
Letters from Readers