The Isolationist Song in Paradise

Living out in southern Utah, in the red-rock country, I don’t hear the news much, nor do I much care that I’m missing it. No radio, no television. Limited access to the Web via a contentedly glacial dial-up line. Lately something about Israel and Hezbollah and the bombing of Lebanon filters in, mostly from friends in New York who are aghast, staying up nights, ashamed as this latest U.S.-funded murder campaign comes on top of the continual downward spiral in Iraq.

I mention it along the dirt roads where I’m living. Who? Israel? Hezbollah? Lebanon? Iraq? Might as well be talking of planetoids on the far side of Pluto. That’s Mormon thinking: Utah was founded as a separate country by a persecuted people under the banner of a separate god. A delusional bunch, no doubt, just as delusional as the theocrats running Israel and Hezbollah and divvying up Iraq. There was one matter of character and intent, however, that recommended the Mormons over these other nutjobs: they never wanted to expand. They found Zion in the red rock. It was adequate. They wanted to be left alone. By the 1840s, they got forced back into the fold of the expansionist U.S. by the bayonet of the federal war of aggression against Mexico. So much for being left alone.

After a while, though, this sense of absolute localness, as irresponsible as it sounds to my concerned buddies in New York, who from their insomniac couches lament the problems of the entire planet in a single night, doesn’t feel blinkered or ignorant but natural and wise and clear-eyed, a husbanding of resources and interests in a harsh land. There are crops of pinto beans and peaches and herds of cattle here to be tended in the crushing light of the 105-degree days, and horses roaming high in the range of the La Sal Mountains to be kept from wandering too high or going too wild, and there are rivers and canyons and millennial forests of juniper that will outlast our generation’s foolery – by god, the little junipers have already outlasted the 10 before.

More radio chatter from Congress about the “national interest.” Also about rushing U.S.-made bombs to Israel because the army there is running out. The talk of madmen staring in pinholes and seeing the universe. There is no national interest. There is the place in which we are, which for me is a country that consists of the Colorado Plateau and its canyons.

I meet an old cowboy with a long beard living at the end of a 20-mile dirt road that turns impassable in a sprinkle of rain. His trailer is alone under hot Triassic walls, astride the purling of the Green River where it runs wide and slow in Labyrinth Canyon. No city or town or men in permanent habitation, either in mud or hut, for more than 100 miles upriver or 200 miles down. We talk about Edison and Tesla (the long-beard was once an electrician) and the flow of the river, its late-summer ebb, the fat snows already toppled from the Rockies. We talk about the people on big-paying safari who come down in canoes cursing the sun and the sandflies and the wildness of the place, and the even fewer, the loners, who in their broken boats never come back, knowing at last and perhaps forever the primal urgency of stars, night, water, meat, shade, sun, sleep. We talk about catching fish and lying down in the wide warm mud-scented current. My dog does this. He starts paddling, panicking, disappearing down the river, swiftly borne away, so I strip and I’m in there with him, downriver, also feeling overwhelmed (2,500 cubic feet per second of overwhelmed – which really isn’t much until you’re in it, channeled). Long-beard, laughing, says, “Eddy’ll bring right ya back up the bank, don’t worry.” And so the eddy does, slurping and slapping, and I stop worrying. We talk about A/C electricity versus D/C electricity: alternating current which turns on and off 60-times-a-second, vibrating in the walls of America’s homes, almost metaphysically (as Long-beard describes it) making a kind of dog-whistle noise that perturbs the cells of the human organism. Direct current doesn’t make that racket, Long-beard assures. I think about that, naked, dripping the river into the hot sand, and the sun goes down under the rim of the rock, silhouetting its castles and pinnacles and towers, and the air is as warm as if a hundred girls had rolled me up in a bed of silk. I think about the calming effect I have always felt living without electricity nearby, A/C or D/C, how in the desert, for example, in a tent, my body seems to settle into itself, present, whole, quieted – embracing, perhaps, what the Persians meant when they spoke of paradise, which in their language meant “the place where you are content to be no other place.” The long-beard cowboy, needless to say, runs his trailer on solar panels, off the grid, using D/C current.

I mention “our” war out there in Israel. Also “our” war out in Iraq. We both agree that a crazy pack of ghouls in a swamp called Washington is running things in a foreign country called the “United States,” which is fine, the only problem being that we happen to pay a portion of our taxes for the ghouls to run amok. Hopefully this United States will come to an end someday soon – maybe it could move its government to Israel to be closer to the action – and leave the rest of us the hell alone in paradise.