Dependence Day: What the Bald Eagle Told the Desert Rat

    Art by Travis Kelly

    Good party for the 4th here at Pack Creek Ranch: beer, fried turkey, music, starlight and moonrise and many friends. But little talk about independence, or the U.S., or the Constitution, its crafting under duress. No surprises: I am 34 and for my entire life the 4th of July has been meaningless except as an excuse to drink, gather, eat meat, watch explosions in the sky. Which is fine. The dudgeon and pretense of the holiday should therefore be excised and July 4 renamed “Get Wasted and Blow Shit Up Day” or something more in tune with the American mind.

    Better yet, if we wish to commemorate the degeneracy of our historical moment, our peculiar fallen stature as a people and a republic, we might try simply Dependence Day. Here in Moab, Utah, the dependence is utmost: strung out at the far ends of industrial foodism and carbon fuel addiction in the red rock, a desert people piling too many into a place with too few local resources for real sustenance: the trucks on the highways bring us the life of a 2,000-mile supply line, and the long strings of the power plants bring us air conditioning in the 108 degree days (growing hotter every year), the phone line that keeps me jabbering onto the Internet, the fridge that keeps the ice to cool the brain – all of it the function of large-scale, far-flung, giantist systems of dependence whose links, if severed, would render our partying, this writing, intellect, politics, freedom itself moot.

    A few facts we know, ought to know, or know and don’t speak of because unacceptable in the current hologram of wellness and self-regard: it comes home to me in the memory of a crack whore among the warehouses at 9th Street and 2nd Avenue in Brooklyn, a toothless creature no more than 30 years old and looking 70 who was starved and told me, “Mistah, I’ll suck yo dick for five dollars – please.” I bought the woman a sandwich and avoided the blowjob…but here she is in the sage and under the moon haunting my imaginings of the U.S. as “independent”: We suck the dick of foreign oil, imports whose slightest shiver in supply would send us into chaos; we suck the dick of foreign lenders, the Chinese and Japanese buying up our bond reserves, propping up our markets with cheap goods that we hoover like apes at the totem of a banana and without which the sand and spit foundation of U.S. home mortgages would collapse like beach to the sea. The perversity in these overseas relationships is that we bow for blowjobs while pointing a gun at the blow-jobbee, crying out By god we will keep sucking dick or shoot you.

    Which brings me to the issue of the bald eagle as national symbol: I went hiking a few days ago in Salt Creek Canyon in Canyonlands park, finding again and always that the flora and fauna of the redrock country serve as a kind of metaphor and lesson plan for a true conservative conduct that so-called conservatives in the U.S. have abandoned. Here heat, sun, lack of rain, the thinness of soil, the vastness of scarcity makes moderation, modesty, self-reliance the norm and the virtue. And the eagle has no place.

    The bald eagle with its great strength and noble visage and razor talons is a fraud. He survives not by prowess and creativity but by theft and the strong-arm, by dive-bombing smaller birds to make them drop the rats or rabbits or fish these more enterprising avians catch through lone hard work. The behavior of the bald eagle hence falls under the rubric of kleptoparasitism, which makes the bird a fitting symbol of the U.S. government, especially as regards foreign policy.

    But kleptoparasitism is an aberration in the desert, which is why the vicious beady-eyed bald eagle finds a hard row to hoe in zones of self-reliance such as the redrock country. Instead, desert life teaches more admirable lessons, lessons that jibe, for example, with the so-called paleoconservatism – awful usage – of a Barry Goldwater, himself a desert rat who late in life rafted the Green and Colorado Rivers where they confluenced in Utah, toppling down the canyons in whitewater, and who was thus converted from conservatism to conservation in understanding that wild places should be kept wild. Desert flora foremost show that wildness – a sense of distance, keeping an arm’s length, not getting in each other’s way or invading mutual space – is key to a happy co-existence: among the top flora such as the sagebrush and the pinyon pines and the juniper, there is always spacing for each to have enough water and to cull the nutrients from that thin soil.

    Hence no ostentation among these plants, no waste, no profligacy. The flowers such as the evening primrose or the four o’clock show-off bloom white and cream or magenta and crimson only when night falls, but come daybreak they close to no one’s notice (the scream of the sun would take their life in an hour’s time). Modesty is their virtue and also their survival. Meanwhile, some of the most beautiful and most damned of the lifeforms are armed to the teeth, showing that the best defense is a good offense: the claret-cup cactus, spiny to the point of impossibility; the scorpion, who hunts little bugs but rarely deploys his terrible piercing stinger against human beings. Above all, there is self-sufficiency in these lifeforms, suffering terrific extremes and the better for it, more economical, tougher, more muscled, more careful, more free than their counterparts in the easy climes of the temperate East.

    The notion of a desert conservatism is not new and it haunts the thoughtful newcomer to the desert as much as an idea of Eden: it has its precedence in the mountain men loners who came west before the en masse migrations of the pioneers, before the gold bonanzas and the cattlemen welfare queens (the hardest tit-suckers of the West), before the railroad corporations conjured the first of the big real estate scams. And, in modern times, it finds expression in the throwback orneriness of writers such as Ed Abbey, who in Desert Solitaire of 1968 envisioned the deserts of the Southwest as a safe house of political liberty, the “base for guerrilla warfare against tyranny.” (Goldwater, an Arizonan, also spoke about this).

    Abbey wondered aloud in Desert Solitaire as to the necessary steps an American government might take to quash democracy. First, he suggested, encourage overpopulation and “concentrate the populations in megapolitan masses,” where they are easily surveilled and controlled. Second, mechanize agriculture so that food production sits in the hands of the few, eliminating the fundamental source of independence in self-sufficient communities (siege starvation is the ultimate strong-arm, barring the bullet). Then, fight wars against distant, mostly chimerical, threats overseas, “divert[ing] attention from deep conflicts within the society” and rendering “support of these wars a test of loyalty.” Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the wilderness is to be razed, paved over, developed, rigged with roads and cellphone towers and WalMarts and utility corridors, means of access, centralization, control – because it is here that the last of the self-reliant tribes will find their hold-out, a perch unacceptable to forces of dominion. In short: create a system of dependency and thou wilt prevail…not news and surely an algorithm in the books of the sociopaths in the White House. Like his peer of a generation earlier, poet Robinson Jeffers, Abbey saw in the vanishing of desert wilderness the perishing of the republic, the freedom for which it stood.

    And here in my hypocrisy of this screed, sitting up late burning the coal of the power plants, I notice that even Google shows an image of the bald eagle, wings spread, descending in hero’s flight…holding perhaps an olive branch…or a stolen sprig from the mouths of children.

    Comments are closed.

    A Web Archive for the work and writings of Christopher Ketcham (copyright © Christopher Ketcham, all rights reserved)