Dragons in Paradise: In the Mean Time, out here in the Edge

First published in Mountain Gazette 100, January 2004, substantially revised July 2004.

            This starts here in the edge, in the mean time – on the far edge of the edge, I guess, on a Sunday afternoon – the realization that it is time to start getting serious about taming wildness in the world, a wildness that has gotten out of control.

I was out doing a little cross-country skiing up toward the edge of the Fossil Ridge So-called Wilderness Area, one of places here in the Upper Gunnison where we go to play. I say “so-called” because the Fossil Ridge Wilderness Area is a beautiful once-wild place that has essentially been either reduced or elevated to just a beautiful place. One could, of course, still die out there, just as one could die in the middle of our so-called civilization by doing something stupid or careless – stepping off the curb at the wrong time in the one place, stepping on a loose rock the wrong way at the wrong time in the other place. But out in the so-called wilderness are no longer any of the active threats or promises, real or imagined, that haunted our perception of the wild unknown places that cartographers used to mark with the words: "here be dragons.”

The Fossil Mountains – basically a rocky wrinkle between the more massive Sawatch and Elk Ranges – were never aggressively anti-human; nothing that we called “wilderness” ever actually was. The Fossils simply didn’t care one way or the other about us and our survival, and being both conscious of that and insecure about it, we took some affront at that indifference. Now, we are such a ubiquitous presence here, so thoroughly surrounding the so-called wilderness – with the native species all counted and under study, non-human predators mostly radio-collared, the Rescue People always poised and ready to run in to rescue us at the drop of a cell phone, and some agency or other prepared to take extremes sanctions against any bear or wolf that takes the wilderness boundary too literally – that even the occasionally aggressive aspects of that natural indifference of the place have receded, although it can still be pretty aggressive on a cold and windy day.

So it’s standing up there near the near edge of the Fossil Ridge So-called Wilderness Area, ready for the always exciting run back down to the wilderness parking lot, that this minor epiphany strikes: the realization that I go to this so-called Wilderness Area to escape the more intimidating wildness loosed in the world today. And what, if anything, am I going to do about this bracing, invigorating, aesthetic, healthy cowardice I practice, running away to designated wilderness from that really ugly wildness below?


So here we are in the Year of Our Lord 2000-something, but we’re counting now from the Year of Our Fear Ground Zero. In the mean time. Maybe the meanest time we’ve ever had in this country. It is not the first time, of course, that a third of all Americans have been trapped in a grinding kind of genteel poverty, or forty or fifty million people have been a sickness away from bankruptcy with no real social safety net, while a few percent have lived in the fat lap of luxury, enjoying the passive support of the brainwashed masses they impoverish. Because in America, someday we will all be Number One, right?

I do think, however, it might be the first time in recorded history when we’ve gone back to that kind of primitively selfish society, the first time we’ve allowed the angry old alpha hogs to start reversing a century of serious efforts to implement the kind of universal access to opportunity we’ve paid lip service to for most of our history – lip service and little more until the 20th century.

Look what was accomplished in the bravest part of that bloody century: we established a common right to a moderately dignified old age; we established basic rights for former chattels like women and racial minorities; we established a public commons in air and water, making appropriators from that commons pay for most of what they took; we even established the right for all other forms of life on earth to live protected from our unconscious or conscious efforts to make them extinct .

And now, after all that, we are allowing the old medieval forces of fear and greed to undo and dismantle the whole process. To paraphrase Churchill, never have so many allowed so few to take away so much.

Why? Most recently, here in the Year of Our Fear 3, it is driven by fear. But the Big Retrenchment has really been going on since the mid-1970s, when the more subtle fear of ultimate oil depletion began to wake up the dragons. And now, since the Year of Our Fear Zero, having learned that we are not invulnerable to serious attack just because we are protected by two oceans and the mightiest arsenal ever assembled, or by the fact that everyone should love us because of our unimpeachable if vague intentions, we are suddenly a frightened, cowed people who seem willing to give away any and all freedom for security – or just the unsupported promise of security, if we can’t get more than that..

It all makes me to want to just go skiing up in the Fossils, or West Elks, where things make more sense – where we’ve purged the natural wildness but not let in the cultural wildness to any great degree.

Not yet, anyway. But just wait till the first terrorists – “ecoterrorists” will do – are found hiding out, or are found to have maybe been hiding out, or are suspected of maybe being hiding out, in the so-called wilderness. Or wait till the argument is launched that _eventually_ they probably will be hiding out there, therefore necessitating preemptive occupation. What possible argument will then work, here in the Years of Our Fear, to keep the humvees and hoptercopters out?


            If you are new to the mountain valleys, or any other edge, you probably think of “the edge” like that Wisconsin academic, Frederick Jackson Turner, thought of it a century-plus ago: a “frontier line...at the hither edge of a free land,” “the meeting point between savagery and civilization.”  In its most general sense, the edge is a line between this and that.

But if you have been here in the mountain-valley towns for a while, you have probably developed a more ecological sense of “the edge” as an “ecotone” – not a line at all, but a blurry lively zone between this way of doing things and that way of doing thing, where both ways of doing things are interacting in ways that actually create new way of doing things.

Here in the Upper Gunnison River edge zone, for example, we collect our garbage in cans, then the bears and coyotes and coons from over the edge one way compete with men in big trucks from over the edge the other way, to haul our garbage away – while we who are truly at the edge dream of a way of converting that garbage to something useful here in and of the edge. We haul a little wood from beyond the edge down into our edge zone to burn in our “aesthetic solid fuel burning devices” (actual term in our Gunnison County Land Use Resolution), but most of our energy for keeping warm comes in a pipe from beyond the edge the other way. But what we in the edge dream of is a way of keeping warm and well-lighted from what flows naturally into and through the edge (water, wind, sunlight), without having to physically or economically haul our energy in from over the edge in either direction.

That brings us to the concept of “environment.” By circular definition, the environment is that which “environs,” encircles, surrounds us, and is there independently of us: it is everything out there that we neither create nor initiate nor directly control, and therefore _have to adapt to_. Most obviously, our environment is the weather, the physical geography, the way the water comes and passes through our place, the forests and grasslands that we can easily damage but can’t easily replace or recreate without dependence on circumstances beyond our control. The environment is everything that is over the edge from us. Either way.

Back when we were all relatively isolated hunter-gatherer groups, all of our energy and intelligence for adaptation went toward adapting to the natural environment – the weather, the physical geography, watersheds, plant and animal communities. We basically had two options: to adapt to that natural environment or to leave it for something better. We now know that, in this valley, the Upper Gunnison, isolated hunter-gatherer groups adapted reasonably well to this somewhat challenging environment for six or seven thousand years. Six or seven thousand years – that’s as long as recorded history. Then, about 3,000 years ago (halfways into history elsewhere in the world), something happened – probably a climate change of some sort – and those early people here had to leave or die. They probably left, although we have no way of knowing that for sure – if they all died here, we just haven’t found where yet.

But today – today adaptation to environment is different. In an accounting of the things we have to adapt to here, in the Upper Gunnison edge zone, some of them, to be sure, are out there in the same natural environment that the old hunter-gatherers had to adapt to. But that is all relatively easy compared to the adaptations we have to make to things we cannot create, change or control from the other side of the edge – over the edge into so-called civilization.

Most of what we need to live today – almost all of our food (including the meat we eat, despite all these cows in the valley), most of our energy resources, most of our building materials (even lumber and strawbales), most of our clothing, pretty much everything – comes not from the “natural environment” surrounding us, like it did for the old hunter-gatherers, but from the “unnatural environment,” the cultural environment downstream and out in the larger world beyond. Even if we decide to get our “energy source” from the forest, we have to go first to the cultural environment (United States Forest Service) for a firewood permit. And the only thing that works consistently in interactions with that larger world, that cultural environment, is money, so we spend a great deal of our time and energy doing what we can to bring money from that cultural environment into our edge-zone, our ecotone – so we can send it right back out to bring in the things we need to live here in the manner to which we’ve become accustomed.

But that cultural environment – since it is made up of humans like ourselves, shouldn’t it be a friendlier and gentler environment to interact with, adapt to, than that hugely indifferent natural environment out from the other side of our edge zone – that region of hard and beautiful terrain and storms and droughts and great ski slopes with avalanches?

Yeah, sure. Ask your distant and anonymous mortgage holder out there, to which your friendly local bank or S&L sold your mortgage practically before your signature was dry; ask (if you ever get off hold) at the 800 number you have to call about your locally-purchased health insurance or auto insurance or home insurance; ask (if you ever get off hold) at the 800 number you have to call to ask why your natural gas bill is suddenly up 30 or 40 percent; ask the grocery chain manager when you’re concerned about the provenance of the fruits and vegetables and chickens or pork you’re contemplating eating.

Ask, and you will always get a cheerfully polite answer from a professionally nice person, a professionally composed answer rich in its equivocations, a wealth of digressions and avoidances and outright lies, an answer as devoid of any real help as it is of any personal animosity, personal anything; you get input from the cultural environment that is as warm and personal as is the downvalley wind at dusk that will efficiently suck out all your inner fire if you are too far from shelter and sustenance.

Ask your cultural environment for anything, or try to ask, and you learn then that there is nothing about indifference that we humans don’t practice on each other as well as nature ever did it to us – but we do manage to do it without wasting any simultaneous giveaways of beauty and joy, like nature does; it’s just a pure economically calculated indifference, nothing even interesting or amazing or lovely about it as it sucks out your essence.

Dragons be there.


Let’s think about dragons for a moment. Like the so-called wilderness, dragons are an idea that has been tamed and civilized. Pete the Dragon, My Father’s Dragon, Puff the Magic Dragon. Most of the modern stories about dragons run parallel to the dominant mythology of mankind as master of nature – stories about dragons being ridden by humans, turned to human purposes, just another conquerable force of nature.

But there are some more mythically accurate portrayals of dragons. John Gardner nailed dragon nature pretty well in Grendel. The “worms” of Dune are blind deadly forces. And J.R.R. Tolkein held to the true nature of dragons in The Hobbit: a bestial being of immense size and power driven by a brain stripped down to efficient reptilian essence. No evolving neocortical cover on Smaug’s brain, capable of abstract thought, of beginning to think, however haltingly and episodically, of the potential to be harvested if we all truly committed ourselves to the idea that we are all in it together. And no cortex either, that best and worst evolvement of the mammalian brain – that warm fuzzy or hot prickly seat of the emotions that sort the world into us and them, good-for-us and bad-for-us, lust and fear and joy and love, those seeds of the herd, the pack, the church, the squad, the pre-rational community for which the “I” would die since without that community there is no “I” at all.

So no, no neocortex or cortex in the dragon: just that cold reactive reptilian brain which sees nothing but itself against everything else. Tolkein’s Smaug knew nothing, respected and acknowledged nothing but Smaug and what Smaug claimed as Smaug’s. He did nothing useful or even interesting with what he accumulated; he just sat on it, slept on it, and destroyed anything that came with any idea of retribution or redistribution. There’s no heart to the reptilian mind.

Ages ago, we pushed the edge to and beyond the point where we could any longer believe that “there be dragons” out in the natural environment – and we began to miss them; we’ve gotten nostalgic about them, just as we got nostalgic for wilderness. We hang onto a few longshot hopes – that there might actually be a “monster” in Loch Ness, that a “Lost World” might still exist in some remote jungle place – or now, in the genetic age, that a “Jurassic Park” might be constructed from preserved DNA. But imagine: if some kind of a saurian throwback were actually to be discovered in Loch Ness, it would immediately be declared an endangered species, a World Heritage Thing; it would be protected like the so-called dragons of Komodo, and what kind of a dragon is that?

But look now the other way from the edge, downstream toward civilization. Is there anything back that way that is immensely huge and powerful, that accumulates for the sake of accumulation, that is driven by the cold selfish calculation of the reptilian sensibility, and that overwhelms with a cold ferocity anything that challenges it in any way?

Well – how about your friendly mutual fund, whose managers have been ripping you off for personal gain in timed-trading? How about the big box retailers that want to replace your whole downtown with convenient total one-stop shopping? Or how about the overseas megacorporation that informs the local mountain-town entrepreneur with his little backpack factory that, since his stuff is now selling so well, they are either going to buy him out cheap, or copy him and undercut him and drive him out of business? Or the megarealty firm – Coldcock Bankwell, ReMagnum, whichever – that decides your town is ripe and makes your local realtor an offer she can’t refuse to get your town on the global market? Or the “health company” that maintains its chops in the executive-pay game by carefully balancing raised premiums with lowered payouts on claims? Or the big electric wheeler who chortles about shutting off granny’s power to scare California into giving it obscene profits?

All of these entities are absolutely reptilian in their calculated self-absorption – and they are blessed in that by our own Supreme Court, literally ordered by the court to make accumulation of money for their stockholders their first priority, above any vague social responsibility – and then the rest of us are told by the court that money is speech, even if it isn’t free (the money that is), so it is okay to expect your money to talk through bought-and-paid-for legislators and presidents....

Maybe there be dragons then, still, today. Big things that devour everything in their insatiable desire to possess everything. Born, nurtured and legally sanctioned with the full (if passive) complicity of those they devour. The occasional “St. George” emerges – Eliott Spitzer, Ralph Nader – but for the most part we just lie low and hope the dragons miss our town. What can we expect to do against them?

Thinking about that – I think I’d rather just get my skis and go poke about up in the Fossil Ridge So-called Wilderness. Things make more sense up there. No dragons there, yet, again.



In addition to edges, environments and dragons, I find myself thinking these days about evil – real old-fashioned malevolent Biblical evil. Look up “dragon” in the dictionary, and one of the definitions is “Satan” – another mythic figure that has lost a lot of its oomph for sophisticated people like us hedonists out here in the edge. But....

I think specifically, from time to time, of the Biblical myth of the “cities of the plain” – Sodom, Gomorrah, Denver, L.A. – wups, getting ahead of myself there. But I wonder – what were they really like, those Biblical cities so evil that the old billygod of the Bible decided he had to destroy them entirely, and lace the land around them with salt so nothing could ever rise up there again? Even more specifically – were _all_ the people in those cities consciously, deliberately evil, buggering each other relentlessly in Sodom and doing whatever Gomorrites did?

Or was it more like the situation of the “evil Germans” in the middle of the 20th century: a handful of truly evil people manipulating a lot of basically ordinary decent people, people just like their ordinary decent American relatives and descendants today – an aggressive and conscienceless minority driving a docile civilized majority by keeping them frightened, alienated from each other, and in the dark about the really evil purposes toward which they were being driven?

The larger question there is – if basically decent people live in a society where evil is being done, and they do nothing about it, either because they are brainwashed to believe that evil is not evil, or because they believe that evil is relative or just misunderstood, or because they are so easily intimidated and brainwashed to fear and hate on command – if that happens, then have those basically decent people who do nothing about evil become evil themselves?

And if one is living in a society, or out in the edge of a society, that preaches the gospel of wealth at any cost, that openly and shamelessly worships Mammon, that aggressively scorns decent people who get impoverished by bad breaks and a heartless economic calculus, that sanctions and even encourages selfishness in its most malignant forms, that persecutes loving and kind gays while openly marketing soft porn and dirty sex to its sons and daughters, that drives out the unique and the diverse with big-box formulae – how can one look at that, from out in the edge, and not see it as evil? And what of those of us who just go along with it because we have no idea how to take on that whole foul cultural environment?

That was, in a sense, the question that ancient Abraham asked the old billygod about Sodom and Gomorrah, four thousand years or so ago, when history was just starting to unroll this ongoing story – and we haven’t improved a bit on Abraham’s solution: according to the Bible, he just fled the cities of the plain and went to a “town called Zoar, which meant ‘small’.” So – Zoar 4,000 years ago, New England 400 years ago – and most recently, the receding remnants of the true America, the real Zoar, in places like Aspen back in the 1940s, Crested Butte or Moab in the 60s, Driggs in the 80s, some yet undisclosed place today – we’ve been leaving the cities of the plain for a long time, leaving behind those huddled masses yearning to be safe and cared for; coming out to the edge to do our noisy little democracies, indulge our freedoms and other victimless crimes, all slightly above the benevolent radar below that wants to protect us from ourselves, out here now on the edge of whatever it is we humans might become if we finish evolving to become something a little braver and smarter and more altruistic and _more interesting_ than we’re likely to become in this mean time....

Four thousand years of leaving the city, in quasi-orderly retreat from that which seems to pile up where there are too many people, that garbage-mass of greed, fear, powerlust that cooks in the dark into a money-leavened corruption that subsumes the initiative, inspiration, aspiration, perspiration, opportunity, creativity, hope and all the other qualities of the meaningful life brought by the previous generation of flight from the previous city, before that sanctuary became the new city – or the new terminus of the same old city. One remembers Durrell’s poet, C.V. Cavafy:


There's no new land, my friend, no

New sea; for the city will follow you,

In the same streets you'll wander endlessly,

The same mental suburbs slip from youth to age,

In the same house go white at last —

The city is a cage.


“No ship exists to take you from yourself,” he says later in the same poem, and – speaking only for myself – I’ve gradually become aware of how unconsciously impure my flight to the mountains was, how uncleansed I was of that which I thought I wanted to escape. I was still at a stage of life where all my material possessions still fit in the trunk and back seat of a car – and the car itself was so decrepit that it broke down on the move – threw a rod – and for my first two winters in Crested Butte I lived (just fine) without a car. But it’s only partly the physical stuff one brings (“Up there I might really _need_ an SUV”); it’s mostly the attitudes, ambitions, conscious and unconscious desires.

I brought here – in my music, books, and mind – the attitude of rebellion, but lacked the discipline of revolution; I was still in Cavafy’s cage. There’s now enough of the city here so it’s hard to tell parts of it from the “same mental suburbs” you’d find in Jefferson or Boulder County down in the metro area. This is not all my doing, of course; but it is a consequence of me and the rest of the refugees with whom I arrived here not being able to get it together to do anything different.

Is it too late? I continue to work on committees and projects and programs committed to the idea that some lines can be drawn, institutions modified, laws and guidelines established, conflicts worked out that will put the dragons in a cage – or more likely, us in a cage safe from the dragons roaming unchecked everywhere else. Here in these mountain valleys, where we’ve got the highest education attainment levels in the nation, and a dominant majority of people who have come to their Zoar like Abraham, asking, what now, what next, O Lord, and bringing wealth with them, not just of dollars but of experience good and bad, of mistakes from which wisdom should come – shouldn’t we be able to come up with some better system, some truer America, that might work toward something better than the model of enforced “democracy” they are trying out in Iraq, possibly to see how it might be imposed here to clean up the messiness of the current system?

Shouldn’t we, the wealthiest, best educated, most experienced (not to mention 12-step post-experienced) generation in history be able to come up with some kind of functional community that might work well enough to scatter seeds on the increasingly bare and stony wilderness of the America back where we came from?

 But all that is just hope, nothing more, nothing less. Keep plugging away and hope. And meanwhile, the dragons slither in. Subway joins with TCBY in a new larger storefront and the students at the college here all cheer: something else that reminds them of home, wherever they’re from. The local arts do better than hold their own against the dragon arts – but that just means that the percentage of people engaged in building community through the arts goes up a couple tenths of a percent, to between two and 10 percent of the rest of the people here who are all watching television here on any given night. And it really doesn’t matter whether they’re watching “Friends” or the history channel – they’re there, not here; they’re with the dragons.

Keep plugging away and hope.

So how far are we now from the meanest time, a time of real evil? We had, may still have, a president who said: “The American people need to understand that the war in Iraq is about peace.” That puts the corruption of meaning about one short step from the ultimate generalizations: “War is peace,” “slavery is freedom,” “Arbeit macht frei.” Is this just good marketing and management, or is it plain evil?

But more to the point – what can be done about it? As I write this, there’s an election coming up that all sides, are painting in the dark tones of Armageddon – all hell breaking loose if the president is not re-elected, all hell breaking loose if he is re-elected. You, reading this, know something about that election that I don’t.

But I don’t honestly think the outcome will make all that much difference; I think hell has already broken loose and is working its magic: the evil of an almost unimaginable national debt imposed on our children, the willful short-term ignoring of the coming crash when we begin to run out of oil (again it’s on our kids, not us), the willful abandoning of all the social safety nets designed to develop a spirit of community among us all, the blatant bowing and scraping to the lifestyles of Mammon – all this is already unleashed on us, regardless of who becomes – has become – president.

If we are indeed approaching Armageddon, I do hope that there will be a “rapture,” and that all the people who expect to be called to the other world will in fact be gone; then at least those who are most aggressively and mindlessly supporting the dragons will be out of the way, and that might give the rest of us a fighting chance against Satan. But I expect we will not be so lucky, and will not get any kind of a quick dramatic and Biblical resolution, but will instead get a long drawnout decline and fall of the republic transmogrified to empire.

Either way – out on the edge is a good place to be, even if you aren’t doing anything but watching the decline and fall with the morbid fascination we bring to other massive erosions, like the Black Canyon of the Gunnison just downstream here.

But better to be doing something. Yes, sure, vote, early and often – but pay particular attention to the local votes – county commissioners, school board members, DAs, judges to be retained or dismissed, et cetera. Because from here on out, I think, if anything good happens, it is going to happen here in the edge where the dragons maybe only have a paw in the door. One hopes.

And that’s where we seem to be now. Here in the mean time, in the Years of Our Fear . A lot of people, here in the edge, poopooh my concern: they don’t believe in dragons, don’t believe in evil; there just aren’t those kinds of things in America. Let’s go skiing instead.

So we’ll see, I guess. And in the mean time – might as well head up into the Fossils, or the West Elks, up past the edge into the once wild places where now no dragons be, for the time being, turning our backs again on the rampant wildness of the human spirit unleashed, undisciplined. When in rout, go higher.