I’ll always remember the sweltering night in Missouri, the pulsing din of the katydids, the prairie grass stretching away on the other side of the trees. In the dark woods across the pond, a lost calf bleats its anguish— six times, then eight, then six again. I sit at the camp table listening, as so many nights before. In the tent, sleeping, the boy, now thirteen, the woman, after twenty-seven years. Moths and greenbugs attack the lantern, flapping crazily. Before I finish tonight they will land in the halo of the hot gas light, diligently search out the lantern’s air vents and incinerate themselves. In the morning I will brush away the fine white ash. This is not a fitting metaphor for any human aspiration. The light we are seeking is not the kind that destroys those who seek it. True, the bright burning gas tempts us sometimes. I know, I know. There are nights when we feel that bad. I turn the valve of the lantern to off and wait for my vision to adjust to the darkness. The almost inaudible breathing from the tent comforts me. I think of us sitting on the shore as the last sunlight seeped from the sky, watching the boy cast his fishing line again and again out into the pond, catching nothing except happiness. The light we are seeking catches all the world in the shooting arc of the outthrown line, never to be lost, not bounded by night, dangerous only to death.
It wasn’t where we wanted to live but you have to put down roots to thrive. Daily we bore the shock of forbearance— our own and our neighbors’: the noise, the smell! Be fruitful! We tried. Soil of lead arsenate, cadmium. We added our detritus, peel and core: redemption. And now our mineral prison blooms in this, the year of our departure: now at last the berries fruit in blue abundance. Which goes to show our acts are not our own; what we make does not belong to us. At best we fade softly as timothy, and leave our harvest to the next people.
Great westerns have always wrestled with moral issues. John Ford’s The Searchers tackles racism; Howard Hawks’s Red River, loyalty; Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, honor; Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, revenge; Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, redemption.
The satirical comedy Art School Confidential features Jerome Platz (Max Minghella) as a student at a prestigious Manhattan art college who discovers that it’s not the paradise he dreamed it would be. His classmates lack taste and imagination, his instructors are competitive and self-involved, and everyone is focused on the promise of a glitzy career rather than on education.
We practiced at “The Decontam”— clumsy name for an ugly place—bare concrete rooms buried beneath a protective pyramid mound of soil, turf, and God knows what, designated sanctuary nonetheless for any unlucky enough “in the event of nuclear attack” to survive the initial blast and burn to reach this subterranean space of hollow refuge. The Station Decontamination Centre—to rhyme the place in full, an—as yet—unfrequented location (praises be . . .) where, Tuesday nights, an ill-assorted crew of horns and woodwinds—sackbuts, cornets, clarinets, even the occasional bassoon—would fumble-stumble along through “Colonel Bogey,” “The RAF March Past,” old favorites from Gilbert and Sullivan, “Chu Chin Chow,” and Noel Coward, rehearsing for the CO’s garden party, full-dress dinner evenings at the Mess. They echoed so, those naked rooms and sounding corridors, as if our music might drown out—yes, decontaminate—the cold, blind fury cradled tight beneath the wings of our sleek avenging bombers; full squadrons perched above in laden readiness, paying no heed to our hapless melodies and marches.
Philosopher Michael Ruse is an ardent evolutionist and unbeliever, but he often comes to the defense of believers who are under fire from militant atheists like Richard Dawkins. Ruse says his sympathetic stance toward religion is partly due to his Quaker upbringing. “I grew up surrounded by gentle, loving (and very intelligent) Christians. I never forget that,” said Ruse. He also objects to what he regards as bad atheist arguments. Evolution explains the existence of religion as an adaptive mechanism, but that doesn’t necessarily explain it away. “It is as plausible that my love of Mozart’s operas is a byproduct of adaptation, but it doesn’t make them any the less beautiful and meaningful,” Ruse said (New York Times interview, July 8).