My primary means for understanding the world outside myself has always been through the worlds created within books and other media. I know as a child that my parents read a lot to me, and they took enjoyment in teaching me riddles and rhymes that I would recite. We also attended Catholic masses, and although I’d later find issue with the theological foundations of Catholicism that invested priests with a higher authority to interpret the bible, I suppose at the time the experience was formative in teaching me the value of the written word, as well as the accompany symbols and rituals that words could impress upon a congregation. It was not the story of Jesus, however, that first took hold of me, but the story of a dog, which, being the young child I was, is not so surprising. That story was White Fang by Jack London.
I may have encountered White Fang in a book first, but what I remember most vividly is watching the VHS at home sometime after 1991 when it was released and four years after I was born. If I were to reflect on the plot long enough, I might find an archetypal journey that subconsciously affected my life, as I’ve vaguely considered before, but in the least, it has inspired me to read other London works throughout my life and partially ascribe to a belief in his unforgiving depictions of nature, as well as mankind’s will to overcome it in order to provide a better life for themselves, their young, and a larger community. What was more engrossing about his stories is that I grew up privileged in a way that I think all people, young and old, should be privileged. That is, I grew up not only with access to lots of books at home and at a library, but also I had access to a wild expanse of wooded area in my backyard where I could observe nature as London had.
Beyond stories, the woods were my sanctuary during my childhood, and I would play outside until late in the evening when my parents would call me home. This was in Missouri, and there was a large creek running through the woods, and there were caves and sheared off rock cliffs, and there were all kinds of creatures. I observed little swirls of minnows, water skaters, red-tailed hawks, groundhogs, and brown squirrels. I caught crawdads, bull snakes, garter snakes, and fireflies. And I carved out fossils from limestone. The land beneath me, and all around me, teemed with life, and what’s more, it had a history.
The history I’d discovered when I’d entered school, and what most fascinated me about it then was the Civil War, which raged wildly where I was from. There were the big Eastern battles that I learned about from young adult books like Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt, as well as the movie Gettysburg based on Micheal Sharaa’s novel Killer Angels. Additionally, I became absorbed in stories about more localized fighting that I’d learn about in history texts and later from Daniel Woodrell’s fantastic, Woe to Live On. Once these stories took hold of me, the woods took on a different resonance. My imagination caught fire. The caves were hideouts for bushwackers, the sheared off rock cliffs became forts, and my neighborhood friends, brother, and I organized ambushes on imaginary soldiers who dared enter our territory. We played both North and South, allying ourselves the same as our ancestors who were equally divided not so long ago in our state. The politics of the civil war and the larger politics governing the narratives of our nation had not entered my mind so much as the romanticism of war. Like dogs for a boy, war for a young man has a strong appeal. At least it did for me.
Through the rest of middle and high school, I read many of the prescribed classics, but none had a stronger impression than ones I found on my own or by recommendation of people I looked up to. These books included Jack Kerouc’s Dharma Bums, Edward Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang, and the regional classic, Huckleberry Finn, all of which convinced me more than anything, that if there wasn’t anything I care to fight for, I may as well seek out a life working and wandering in the woods. It is also worth noting at this point, that Catholicism and all religion had by this point completely fallen to the wayside. I saw myself as something of a beatnik.
During the second year at the University of Missouri, though, my beatnicking caught up with me, and the War on Terror garnered my deeper attention. Prior to this, I had cynically dismissed the war as an unnecessary and destructive conflict for self-interested ends. But there I was, self-interested in my own right, desiring an escape from my failures at school and needing little more to justify joining the Army than a buddy telling his stories about Iraq, my own families military history, and two movies–Lions for Lambs and Charlie Wilson’s War, as well as Ernest Hemingway’s novel, For Whom The Bell Tolls. If I couldn’t be Robert Jordan embedding myself with Spanish Guerilla fighters, I could as well be an Army Ranger like Robert Redford’s college students. I had a perfectly romanticized conception of the role I would play in America’s pursuit of justice.
So I joined the Army, served two years with the Rangers and two more with a Colonel in a big Army Brigade. And I also deployed for 15 months and saw a lot of things that would later take me a lot of effort to process and put behind me, because as any many of the war authors I read could later attest, war is not so romantic. From my generation, no-one makes this point better than I think, Colby Buzzel, Brian Mockenhaupt, Evan Wright, and Phil Klay. From the previous generations that I’ve read, those authors are Wilfred Owen, Issaac Babel, Dalton Trumbo, and Tim O’Brian. With the exception of the latter, I also find it interesting that none of those authors are typically taught in school to young men and women who will soon be of military age, although I also suspect that many in this group now are seeking out combat footage that is extensively posted online. The new digital media landscape is drastically changing the perspectives from which modern conflicts are viewed.
Where I really started to sort out my life in the military, after I got out of the military, was at the University of Montana, where I had re-enrolled in school using my G.I. Bill. Missouri had lost for me the wildness that Edward Abbey described as a “necessity of the human spirit,” and I looked to the vast expanses of lands and histories in Montana as opportunities to explore territory that was new in my imagination. Time and school would reveal, as it continues to reveal, just how much the land and histories contain. My first introduction was through Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It–a popular starting place. Then I started reading books recommended or required in the English department where I had committed my major. These books included Richard Hugo’s collected works of poetry, Making Certain It Goes On; celebrated Blackfeet author James Welch’s historical fiction novel, Fools Crow; and the regional tome that spans time, genres, and authors, The Last Best Place, edited by William Kittredge, who along with Hugo, had taught at UM’s creative writing program.
The creative writing program, I’d learn, had a storied history of its own–one that gave birth to many of the stories I absorbed, and through the program, I decided I would reclaim and process my own personal history, most particularly as they related to my experiences preparing and going to war. Here is where I learned the cathartic power of committing words to a page. Through the course of two creative writing workshops, I wrote feverishly to produce a collection of short fiction and non-fiction, that I self-published for a while on Amazon, but have since removed to work on it further with my fiance, who I’d met almost 8 years later and wanted to help contribute her perspective. She, too, had gone to Afghanistan, but as a photojournalist, and like me, she had many memories she needed to work through. It is unfortunate that war is one thing that would bring us together, but as the great cynicist and World War II veteran, Kurt Vonnegut would say, “so it goes.”
After writing through my experiences, I decided not to stay committed to the Creative Writing program, rather I desired to pursue my secondary English teaching degree. My mom was also a teacher, and it was in this field, too, I felt like I could have the biggest impact. To prepare me, as all English students at the university are prepared, I took courses in Shakespeare, early American literature, British literature, African-American literature, and critical theory. Here, I began to understand the concepts of Multiculturalism and the importance of representational viewpoints from all ethinic and minority groups. It was important not only that students see themselves in the media they read or viewed, but also that they recognized the struggles and triumphs of all people who comprise our nation, as well as the wider world abroad.
Upon graduation, I would use my newfound realizations in the classroom. I accepted a job as the 7-12 English teacher at Heart Butte on the Blackfeet Reservation where they were especially relieved to have me. Teacher and administration turnover there was, and probably still is, one of the highest in the state. The winters are brutal, with massive snow drifts that block off access to the nearest grocery store and gas station 40 miles away, and winds that blow them gusting up to 100 miles an hour. However, the students– although often as challenging as the problems they faced in their daily lives–I couldn’t have been prouder to teach. My curriculum included many books in the high school canon including Romeo and Juliet, Of Mice and Men, Beowulf, The Outsiders, The Call of the Wild, and A Raisin in the Sun, as well as native American literature, from anthologized poetry and short stories to Sherman Alexi’s Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven, N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, and Kent Nerburn’s Neither Wolf nor Dog. This last book too, I drove the Junior and Senior classes to a theater in Cutbank to watch a movie adaptation upon its premier–something they all enjoyed.
In reading the books we considered sources of empowerment, like identity, family, culture, and solidarity, as well as key terms like segregation, assimilation, discrimination, inequality, and prejudice. Another big focus was “The American Dream” and what that even meant or looked like in the complicated worlds they were trying to navigate. To help them navigate this world, I encouraged them to write often using poetry, personal narratives, fictional short stories, or whatever inspired their creativity. One of the best tools I've found to inspire creativity, and certainly what I found worked best for me, was to have an audience, that is, someone beyond one teacher who could validate their experiences. Thus, I also started a literature magazine using an OPI grant, and we published and distributed three editions of their writing, totaling 300 copies, to the local community and beyond. A digital copy of the first two editions are on www.windssongshb.weebly.com.
After my second year teaching at Heart Butte, I found out I was going to have a daughter, and so to provide for my new family and provide childcare, I took a job fighting fire with the Forest Service. I did that for four seasons and I appreciated the experience–traveling around the west from incident to incident, like Ishmeal aboard the Pequod in the great American novel Moby-Dick. What I’ve also found in the Forest Service, is a class of hardworking and highly-literate individuals who’ve made many recommendations to me. Much of our time in between assignments on a fire was spent reading and swapping a diverse range of books–fiction, non-fiction, classic and contemporary.
In conclusion, without some knowledge of my history, my current media selection may seem fairly random. I’m currently working through books on middle eastern history and classic poetry, working-class politics, educational theory and practice, and protestantism, as well as following conflicts in Syria and Ukraine in addition to PBS News. Each Sunday I try to attend church, particularly for the music, sermons, and community. It is the same one where Norman Maclean’s father preached many years ago. And I continue to work for the Forest Service but for the trails and recreation department where I’m happy to continue learning a “literacy of the land,” in terms of all the geography, flora, and fauna. If there’s one thing I’ve learned to this point, there is not one manual to navigate the difficult terrain of our existence, there are thousands–and there are many more ways of reading beyond that. It is for each individual to do the difficult but rewarding work of charting a path of their own.