Monday, October 03, 2005

God on a Harley

Up in these parts, on the high plateau between the Thompson and Fraser rivers, cows outnumber people. The only thing that outnumbers both people and cows are trees. The consequence is that when cattle are put out on the range, it's not grass we're talking about. We're talking about trees: pine, spruce, aspen, cottonwood, fir, that kind of thing. Cows don't eat trees, though, so they tend to spend most of their summers wandering around on the roads, eating the dusty grass from the ditches, and chewing snuff.

Well, cud, really, but they chew it like snuff. The cowboys chew snuff, too. This is called parallel evolution.

She likes a good wad of snuff.

The cattle-ranching tradition that the poet Pat Lane shoveled through in the Beaver Valley east of my house, comes directly from Mexico: it is among the oldest silver-spangled traditions on the continent. The first cattle arrived in 1858, on cattle drives punched up from Los Angeles by Mexican cowpokes. What makes it even more unique, is that it's in the world's only inland temperate rain forest, too. That's right: storms hit the Coast Mountains of British Columbia's central coast, unload their water on Bute Inlet and Bella Coola, then sail over high as can be, before hitting the Cariboo Mountains on the far side of the Plateau and dumping their water again. Red Cedar, paper birch, devil's club, wild apples, alders, the whole forest is repeated there, as if the plateau itself was a rolling sea and there in the mountains the continent finally rises up, seriously. Seriously.

You gotta take it with a sense of humour. On his own way north and west in 1965, the Canadian poet Al Purdy came to the plateau, too. On the southern lip of the Cariboo Plateau, somewhere between the San Jose River and Lac des Roches, Purdy wrote a poem, Cariboo Horses, about the horses which had brought Ghengis Khan across the steppes now tied up in front of the grocery store for five minutes, while their owners, rolling cigarettes around in the corners of their mouths, quite aware that they were putting on an act, went in to pick up groceries.

Of course, Al found it funny, too.

Here's what Canadian poets Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje have to say about Al's horses. Now, I'm not sure they've actually been to the Cariboo, but, I tell ya, this is what Cariboo horses look like now: Yeeh Hah!
In the States, though, where cowboy culture was a bit of a latecomer, their cowboys are God himself, putting on the chaps and spurs. Now, how did that happen? Does God like to play dress up? Here we go to, what, Super Cowboy? Or, geez, I don't know what: lassoo your Vitamin C Cowboy? Or, wait, these German guys have latched onto it, too. They'll let you enter their fantasy in comfort, in comfort, in Ride a Harley Cowboy.

It's not the only kind of irony. When the British drafted the Treaty of Versailles which ended World War I, they added some eyewitness testimony from Belgium, which they forced the German Generals to sign:
I saw eight German soldiers. . . . They were drunk. . . . They were singing and making a lot of noise and dancin about. . . . As the German soldiers came along the street I saw a small child, whether boy or girl I could not see, come out of a house. The child was about 2 years of age. The child came into the middle of the street so as to be in the way of the soldiers. The soldiers were walking in twos. The first line of two passed the child; one of thesecond line, the man on the left, stepped aside and drove his bayonet with both hands into the child's stomach, lifting the child into the air on his bayonet and carrying it away on his bayonet, he and his comrades still singing.

The British made it up.

The final treaty was signed in a railway carriage in the forest of Compiegne. When the war was re-shot as World War II: The Sequel, Hitler had the French sign a treaty in the same railway carriage, in the same spot. They had to pull it out of a museum. This is why you should look after your local museum.

War being what it is, the Hitler didn't have a sense of humour, did he. Hey, wait! I think that was supposed to be a sense of humour!

Every movie needs his posters. Here are some that Hitler's backstage boys whipped up for opening night.

German Propaganda Posters for the Opening of World War II: The Sequel

Well, back in the original shooting, to show Belgian partisans that it would be futile to resist, the men in field grey showed their steely nerves by torching the Catholic library in Louvain. They forced open the basement doors of the library, poured cans of gasoline down the stairs, and tossed in a match. It took days for the fire to consume the library's 230,000 books, 800 incunabula printed before 1500, and more than 900 manuscripts, but it burned them all in the end. Wishing to instill shock and awe in its enemies, the German Army telegraphed the news: Louvain is no more. That's why the Brits had the Germans sign that gruesome eyewitness document. Two could play this game.
Here's a postcard of a bunch of German soldiers lined up in front of a cigar store in Magdeburg, ready to go off and tame the French Wilderness. The address is Grosse Muehllenstrasse 1b. The year is 1917. Either these guys are well fed, or they're wearing all their clothes at once.

Talk about parallel evolution. In the 8th Century, when Rome's first Bible was younger than a first edition of Shakespeare is today, the monastery in St. Gallen kicked off when an Irish Monk, Galen, went looking for a piece of wilderness which he could turn back to the Garden of Eden. For a monk like Galen, the whole world was a wilderness. It would have been a lot like the plateau here, really.

What Galen needed was a Stokes Seed Catalogue.

We like to think of paradise these days as the reward for a suicide bomber, but back then Galen would have been thinking of recreating the very beginning moment of the world, when world and Heaven were joined and Eve still hadn't picked a golden pear off God's own tree and handed it to him.

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. John 1: 14.

Maybe a good monk spent his waking hours waiting for the judgement day, sure, but, well, anything that is not illegal is legal, right, and who says you can't help it along a bit by bringing earth and heaven together on your own?

Galen, it seems, was smarter than a suicide bomber.

He was pretty well right up there with American cowboys.

Not me. I planted red cabbage this spring, but thedeer got them all last night. They hollowed them out like vegetable jelly moulds. They taste soooooo good. Your average cabbage, even the substandard cabbage that the Cariboo clay spat forth this summer like a hair ball, is a might strong attractant for your average deer, that's for sure. The idea, of course, is to give an earthly manifestation of God's Word, as a garden. It's how the world of God reveals itself in a wilderness: ordered growth subjugated to reason, bearing fruit. Galen knew that.

I don't know what he did about the deer.

The bomb of God.

What we do know is that Galen erected a wooden hut on the edge of the Steinach creek, in the Arbon Forest, above Lake Constance, and gathered disciples about himself. Men came from a great distance to seek his counsel. A bear brought him a load of firewood. He rewarded it with a loaf of bread.

Monk 101: When you have no lambs, improvise.
That's Galen getting his yule log on the left,
and trading it for bread on the right.

Over time, the monks who followed Galen, developed church liturgy, helped invent European handwriting, planted grapes, grafted apples and pears, and taught the natives -- the Germans and the Celts we now call the Swiss -- to make cheese and wine. What they were really doing was creating a civilization that would one day learn how to distill the essence of pears into schnapps.

A page from a 10th Century schoolbook from St. Gallen.

Speaking of distillation, the Greek philosopher, Plato, believed that the chair he sat on was only a projection in this world of a perfect chair in the world of logic -- a philosophy he had inherited from the Egyptians, who carved statues in the belief that a statue contains a god to the degree of its perfection, that a perfectly carved statue contains a god fully, while one with flaws contains only a percentage of the power of the god it was carved to represent. The Egyptians got this idea from the Abyssinians. The Abyssinians lived in Iraq.

What Plato said about pears is not recorded.

Plato's Chair. Now you see it; now you don't. Whoa! Check out the woodpecker damage on the stump. Did Plato know about that?

Plato wasn't really talking about distillation, though, was he. He was talking more about evaporation. The world was drunk on Plato's chairs. I mean, maybe Plato's chairs were drinking him.

Something to think about the next time you sit down.

Next week: slavery and the devil in British Columbia, an American poet in London, the Holy Grail, the sex life of mosquitoes, and noble pears.


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