Reading Among the Ruins
I have been reading both new and classic books this week among the ruins (see photos below).
Martin Anderson, now almost in his 90th year, has written a fascinating memoir about fashioning a cattle and big-game preservation ranch in Africa: Galana: Elephant, Game Domestication, and Cattle on a Kenya Ranch. At one time Galana was believed to have been the largest single ranching operation in Africa, and one encouraged by the Kenyan government to be a model of tourism, cattle production, and wildlife protection. Galana is an analytical but also personal memoir about what Africa was like in its once hopeful and immediate postcolonial phase, and how Martin Anderson in his late thirties came to the Kenyan wild in 1960, when most Westerners were leaving, often for understandable reasons. When I last saw Martin two weeks ago, he was headed to Nairobi, undaunted by the recent Islamic violence at the shopping center, and eager to return to his ranch. When talking with Martin (who appears more like 65 than 89), one realizes that in some sense age is a state of mind -- and old age a referendum on a life either smartly or unwisely lived.
Speaking of the bush and the wild, as I was finishing rereading Galana last evening, I got a call from my son about a truck speeding out of the family vineyard alleyway across the road. Yes, I know, reader -- same old, same old:
The miscreants had already dumped their trash: chemical drums, paints, solvents, oils, concrete, tires, garbage, and lots of broken fluorescent glass tubes -- something a bit worse than the usual toxic brew that is left on San Joaquin Valley property.
How strange that the California legislature can pass all sorts of new laws over the last six months -- transgendered access to either boy or girl restrooms in the public schools, the banning of lead bullets, driver's licenses for illegal aliens -- but it cannot go after the epidemic of destroying the ecology of the San Joaquin Valley countryside. If only there were a spotted toad or a lavender newt native to the vineyard, perhaps the Bay Area intelligentsia would change their views about unchecked illegal immigration. I think the rationale of the dumpers is that there are always enough law-abiding citizens left to pick up after the casual law-breaking of the fewer. But are the fewer still the fewer?
This is a beautiful, but also increasingly creepy, state. We are now fighting over whether to allow out-of-work salvage loggers to harvest a billion board feet of burned timber from this summer’s two vast forest fires in the central Sierra. (Some environmentalists argue that the wood should rot to ensure larger populations of bark beetles to help improve the woodpecker population -- so much for the human population of unemployed loggers.) Our green elites don’t seem to worry why there was so much fuel in the mostly unlogged Sierra in the first place, and of course consider massive forest fires, rotting logs, and epidemics of beetles part of nature’s process of death and renewal. It is certainly that. Yet why is such a natural cycle somehow interrupted in Hillsborough, the Berkeley Hills, and Pacific Heights, which, in terms of how their food, power, water, fuel, and shelter apparently appear almost by magic, are most unnatural places? Could they not be left alone to revert to the wild modes of growth and decay?
Never mind. I pressed on to reread (I am writing a book on how wars end) W.H Prescott’s classic History of the Conquest of Mexico, a beautifully researched and written, harrowing 19th century classic of narrative history. It is difficult when reading Prescott to fathom which side was more savage. The conquistador class of Hernan Cortés and his hidalgos were unleashed, from a successful 700-year effort of the Reconquista (completed the same year as the discovery of the New World), upon the Mexican peninsula. The New World’s natural wealth offered influence, riches, and saved Christian souls for the impoverished expatriate half-aristocrats of Castile. Or were the Mexica the more vicious? There were over a million subjects of the Triple Alliance headed by Azteca, under whose leadership tens of thousands of sacrificial victims each year were paraded up the great pyramid, hearts torn out and while beating sacrificed to the unending appetites of the gods, most notoriously Huitzilopochtli, with heads on display in the skull rack consisting of some 100,000 specimens and more.
Prescott’s 1843 narrative of the brutal conquest sometimes reads like a 19th century Gothic novel -- eerie and often surreal. What were Cortés and 600 conquistadors thinking when they marched into Tenochtitlan in late 1519, as if their Christian faith, long expertise in battle, or superior Western technology might be force multipliers of some sort against a city of 250,000 inhabitants? Two years later, without mercy they leveled the city -- thanks in large part to the tens of thousands of indigenous allies who hated the bloodthirsty Aztecs more than they did the bloodthirsty Spanish.
I took a break from that depressing thought and wished to visit a farmer around the corner. But the entire adjacent rural avenue to my own was unexpectedly blocked off. Apparently, yet another drunk or incompetent driver this week (and in broad daylight, no less) had gone off the road and sheared off a power pole (no wonder our power rates are the highest in the nation and our roads are rated among the very lowest of the states).
Fire trucks were blocking the intersection to prevent access as the power company sought to deal with the wreckage. The same lunacy, a mile away, happened on my own rural street earlier this summer, when a drunk driver veered off the road and took out another power pole, replete with transformer. There are literally thousands of drivers in this most regulated of states who with impunity operate outside of the law, in a cosmos in which DUI or public dumping are abstractions for others more neurotic to worry about. (The odd thing is that where the power crew worked, there were also discarded sofas and mattresses along that avenue, too. I suppose because the refuse is not electrified, it is my neighbor’s, not the state’s, responsibility to clean up those almost daily cast-off furnishings.)
Tomorrow is always another day for catch-up reading, and so it was. I returned from the interruption to an advanced copy of Robert O’Connell’s forthcoming Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman. The engaging and fair-minded biography reconciles the majesty of Sherman’s character with his occasional shortcomings and pettiness as a husband, father, and volatile friend. Outspoken, petulant, prone to wide swings of exuberance and melancholy, blunt if not cruel in some of his assessments, Sherman was an authentic strategic genius. Without his talents, the Civil War might not have ended as it did. I wrote about Sherman off and on over the past twenty years in The Soul of Battle, Ripples of Battle, and The Savior Generals, and I share O’Connell’s tolerance for Sherman’s eccentricities and occasional pettiness, if not meaningless, given that he helped to end that awful war with far fewer casualties on both sides than the ongoing bloodbath in northern Virginia.
After finishing with Sherman, I took another break to deal with the state of California. My irrigation taxes were due for the local ditch district that draws on water from the Kings River. But I wonder why, given that we have had no water for over a year in the canals due to drought, and little the year earlier. Indeed, there has been almost not a drop for the last two seasons, as the failed backup wells and burned-out pumps in these parts attest. I also just received various assessment fees for some sort of irrigation district work done, and for water association memberships, but again, little if any water for over the last 24 months. Do water-tending public employees work the same hours when there is no water to tend?
It is worse on the neighboring San Joaquin River, whose irrigation flows have been diverted for fish restoration. In California, there is always the irony: the great early- and mid-20th century dams were built for flood prevention, power generation, irrigation, and recreation, brilliantly offering all sorts of solutions to a once-confident and ascendant California. Now? Thanks to our grandparents’ dams, there is still water in the drought-stricken Sierra to feed and allow the rivers to flow to the sea and thus to offer a laboratory for environmentalism; in the rivers’ natural, pre-human, pre-dam state, they would have long ago dried up by late summer during these droughts, and the fish perished.
We are a state rich in timber that imports 80% of the wood we use. We are richer still in gas and oil, but must rely on imported fuel for most of our daily transportation. If I understand the California legislature, all of us need not irrigate more farmland, harvest our own timber, or produce our gas and oil -- given that we can pump Facebook, eat Google, and hammer Apple. Whenever I see “franchise tax board” on any mail, I assume inside is a shake-down: we just thought up a new idea for a fee of $160 for theoretical extra fire protection for your house; we think you might have been using the Internet and so suggest a compensatory sales tax contribution, and so on.
The week was not done. Another truck (quite new for someone not employed at 10:00 a.m. on a weekday) drove in my barnyard, slowly circling before stopping. He thought no one was home.
But outside I was reading Lawrence Freedman’s massive new encyclopedia Strategy: A History, a brilliantly researched and argued survey, beginning with the Bible and the Greeks and ending amid the present nuclear age. I am about a third through, and am eager to finish it, especially after just rereading in September Geoffrey Blainey’s often ironic, but always brilliant four-decade old The Causes of Wars. Both books remind me that these days few of our leaders think all that much anymore in terms of strategy -- what are your aims; are your means commensurate with them; and what results will you be satisfied with? For example, what does this administration want the Middle East to look like: no Mubarak but the Muslim Brotherhood, or instead a coup and junta to replace them all? No evil Gaddafi, but no evil Islamists to replace him; no pro-Western militias (an oxymoron?) that need help? Syria? Free of Assad -- and then what?
Are we producing our own oil and gas to the fullest to free us of Middle Eastern blackmail of the last half-century? Do our efforts aim at a nuclear-free Middle East? Are we pivoting away, as if the Mediterranean is now stagnant again like the 18th century, rather than dynamic in the way of the 16th? Instead, there is no history, no strategy, no grand strategy, only past “game-changer” empty presidential threats to Iran and Syria.
In any case, back to the young parked gangbanger in the new truck (I think that is a fair stereotyped deduction from his tattooed appearance and demeanor). I suggested to him politely that he drive out -- reminding him that he was long ago anticipated by earlier thieves, and now there was nothing in the yard left for him anyway. The ancestral cast iron Fresno scraper of my great grandfather was long ago stolen. So were the two hay rakes, the historic horse-drawn steel sulfur machine, the tiny old discs. The bits and pieces of this farm’s past remain only on the old photographs inside the house. They were long ago taken in the night by the ironmongers, the steel stealers, and the copper wire thieves who traffic daily in someone else’s things that they believe are their own birthrights (but who is to say the one percent’s is not the rightful property of the ninety-nine percenters?).
After all that, I needed an escape. So last night I watched a rerun of The Hobbit on television, while rereading some selections in David Campbell’s Greek Lyric Poetry (in the old Macmillan "red" edition of my youth). I stopped at Tyrtaeus and the ancestral Spartans’ call never to give up: