The Broken Compass and the Old Map

There’s been a bit of debate/misunderstanding as to what I’m talking about when I talk about “reckoning”, so by way of explication, I thought I’d talk a little bit about the picture I’m using in the header and what it means.

(I am very much hoping that header will change, and maybe even the whole site design will change with it, for each successive issue, in order to showcase new art and possibly to suit a new theme. For now, though, I am happy enough with this minimalist thing as is.)

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The compass was my grandfather’s, Navy-issue, from when he was stationed in the Phillipines during the Korean War. The needle is rusted in place, so it’s only right once in 360 degrees; worse than a stopped clock. Zoom in close on this picture and you can barely make out the words below the needle. “West Germany”. My grandfather didn’t talk much about the war. He was born in Quincy, MA in the twenties, the son of Italian immigrants. His father was a stonemason, he was a stonemason. The way he talked about it you’d think he’d built half of Quincy, including the house my father grew up in, plus the lake house in New Hampshire. When I was a kid he was always out in the yard building a fireplace or a brick oven using stone left over from some job. He was a master with a brick hammer, the kind with a flat head at one end, a tapering chisel at the other. And he had an uncanny ability for finding the fault lines in a piece of rock. Hefting a football-sized piece of granite, he’d strike it, quickly, expertly, three times with the chisel end of the hammer, with a sound like a cap gun going off, and it would split. Then he’d call over whichever of his grandchildren happened to be closest. “Quick! Quick!” he’d say, as if we were about to miss a rare butterfly or a solar eclipse. “Touch that!” And we’d brush a fingertip over the fresh, bright plane of stone, expecting it to be fiery hot like molten lava, though it never was. “Nobody’s touched that for hundreds of millions of years.”

The map was my father’s. It’s the 1:62500 scale 1964 US geological survey of the Kezar Falls quadrangle, along the Maine – New Hampshire border, and it hung on the wall of our family’s hunting cottage through my entire childhood, until it got a little too mildewed and moth-eaten and he replaced it with the much more detailed and up-to-date 1:2400 scale 1986 edition. Every fall, through my entire life, my dad has cashed in his accumulated vacation time, hung up his electrical engineer’s cap (he did not actually have a cap; rather a slide rule, then a graphing calculator–I only thought he was a train engineer for maybe the first seven years of my life), and spent a minimum of two weeks getting up before dawn to eat an enormous breakfast, put on hunter’s orange and step slowly and as quietly as possible to a carefully scouted and plotted location somewhere in the New England woods, where he would sit all day with a bow or a gun in his lap, watching the passage of time express itself in the motion of leaves, branches, birds, mammals, bugs. He took me with him a few times when I was a kid. I fidgeted. I couldn’t believe he had the patience. I never killed anything. I never even saw anything. After awhile I started to think I was jinxing him. I stopped going. He didn’t. As years went by, he graduated from binoculars, walkie-talkie, map and compass to infrared motion sensing trail camera, smartphone and GPS. He’s still out there every fall. Now I envy him.

My way of thinking about the earth and nature and what we do with it is a product of theirs; it entails a lot of study, close observation, forethought, patience and craftsmanship. I’m proud of that. But my understanding has evolved from theirs. It includes an appreciation for the assumptions theirs depends on, what they had that not everybody does. Property. Financial solvency. Access to natural resources. Education. And I appreciate what’s absent from the way they interacted with the natural world. Women, for example. My mother and grandmother had plenty to teach me too, though nobody issued them a compass. But I try to grow beyond their influence. The example they set out seems to me to require that. I look at them, then I look at the world, then I look for ways to reconcile them.

I want to publish writing that reflects this same kind of personal, idiosyncratic, subjective, but open and thoughtful experience of nature, its meaning and value, how we use it, what we take from it, what we give back, what we leave behind.

But I want to see experiences that aren’t my own.

Reckoning, in my estimation, is about finding our place not just in space or even time but in understanding, and looking not just where we’ve been and where we’re going but how.

I hope that sheds some light. If not, or not enough, I’ll keep trying. I’ll do better.

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What Is To Be Reckoned?

Everything.

At the moment, it’s 136 degree days in Iran, 120 degree days in India, thawing permafrost in Greenland. It’s the Bramble Cay melomys, a small rodent that lived only on a few coral islands in the Great Barrier Reef, extinct as of June 2016. It’s the remarkable but temporary upsurge in cephalopod populations in the world’s oceans. It’s my neighbor in suburban Michigan raking his front walk using a giant, gas-powered hairdryer. It’s the SUV holding steady as the most popular car in America. It’s the assassination of Berta Cáceres, the indigenous Honduran environmental rights activist, by a US-installed right-wing government. It’s the divestment movement. It’s #exxonknew.

Last year it was rail-thin polar bears moving south and mating with grizzlies to make bigger, tougher bears. It was mad mitigation hypotheticals about filling the sky with nanites to block out the sun a la Highlander II. It was tar sands. It was migratory bridges built for animals to cross highways in Europe. It was butterfly dieoffs. It was coral bleaching, ocean dead spots.

And these, of course, are only what I’ve heard about, from here in my comfortably passive-cooled, solar-paneled, hundred year old house in the water-rich, temperate (though momentarily droughted) Great Lakes State.

What I want to know is, what am I missing? What am I isolated from? What will it be like in a year? In two years? In five? Who will we be paying for the mistakes we’re still making today? What will get us to stop, and what flavor of too late will it be?

This is one of the purposes I want Reckoning to serve: as a milestone, something I can look back to from the future and remember what we thought was going to happen, where we were wrong, what has disappeared and what has gotten worse, what has been saved and what has gotten better.

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