Why I Went to the Woods, Too
The gears of our democracy, oiled with the blood of patriots, are being jammed by liars and theorists who no longer believe it works, and no outcome, other than one that pleases their constituents, is to be believed.
“The world that used to nurse us now keeps shouting inane instructions. That’s why I ran to the woods.” – Jim Harrison, Author
When election season arrives, my life has always been consumed with work. Reporting and analysis on candidates and issues have consumed my professional existence since early adulthood. There was always an energy in the air to be among candidates, traveling and sizing up their intellect and issues, and conveying that information to the public. Nothing excited me more than feeling like I was at the center of the democratic process and playing a minor part. I felt particularly suited to the role by temperament. As a journalist, I despised invading the personal lives of people who found themselves thrust into the news by tragedy or other circumstance. I was, however, always determined to stand in front of politicians and demand answers. They had asked for a public presence and responsibility and were obligated to explain their votes and policies, and when they were evasive, I became stubborn.
I am no longer on the job, and, frankly, wonder how I might perform in the absurd circus of our present political climate. Instead, as an experiment, I have withdrawn, seeking perspective, and hoping for a change that will revivify our democracy, or make me more sanguine about what might be coming. Even hiding in the remote reaches of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, though, there is no escaping the fragility that threatens the electoral processes of our country, and the candidates and voters willing to ignore the sacrifices made by generations of our military to secure our foundational gift. The gears of our democracy, oiled with the blood of patriots, are being jammed by liars and theorists who no longer believe it works, and no outcome, other than one that pleases their constituents, is to be believed.
Our wounded democracy has been injured by characters as flawed as a former TV news anchor in Arizona, who has indicated she will only accept voting results that show her the winner. Kari Lake, formerly considered a liberal by friends and colleagues, appears to have seen greater opportunity for acclaim by taking her telegenic good looks and persuasive public speaking skills to a side more impressed by aesthetics than facts. In the unlikely event Trump seeks another term and avoids indictment, she is almost certain to be his vice-presidential running mate. Arizona has become an incubator of idiocy.
There is nothing to suggest up here in the north woods that things are falling apart, though. The only thing extreme is the bright colors of leaves being stripped from trees by winds and cold rains. On our approach to the “Mighty Mack,” the historic bridge connecting these two northern peninsulas, diesel fuel was selling for close to $6 dollars per gallon. Whatever you consume was probably brought to your point of purchase by a truck. If you doubt this distribution process - as some people question American voting booths - take a short trip up the nearest Interstate highway. The increased cost of food and consumer goods, whether it is computers or microwave popcorn, is connected to what truckers are paying to turn their wheels. You may be assured that fact is a primary driver of inflation, which is affecting voter sentiments.
Critics are trying to smack President Biden over the head with rising gas prices, even though he got no credit from conservatives as costs at the pump dropped every day for over two months during the summer. Trump’s party is suggesting Biden’s energy policies created the price rise environment but there are hundreds of energy leases made available by his administration, and they are not being drilled. More production means increased supply and that reduces prices – Economics 101. Oil companies are making windfall profits presently simply by using existing supplies and infrastructure. Putin’s war against Ukraine also creates a negative dynamic in energy markets. Saudi Arabia, which sells us oil and buys our armaments, has made contract with Putin to reduce its daily production by two million barrels. The resulting increase in price per barrel due to diminished supply will help the Russian dictator fund the prosecution of his war. Neither Biden nor congress is stopping energy companies from drilling. Greed and a lust for current exorbitant prices guide their business decisions. The cutback is more than twice what Putin had been asking, calls into question U.S. alliances with the Saudis, and definitely blunts the impact of sanctions against Russia.
Winning, of course, is what matters in our culture. We lionize people who accumulate wealth and score touchdowns and tend to forgive their character failings because they’ve won the more important game, even when that victory diminishes us. Flexibility of morals becomes a desirable attribute along with the ability to deny the truth. Former football player Herschel Walker improbably arises as the right’s perfect candidate, a cipher who is only smart enough to call his ex-lovers liars and dumb enough to do what he is told if he ever reaches the floor of the U.S. Senate. His own son has disavowed his father’s behavior, along with the three women who bore his children, but he is still good enough for the Republicans and their ambition of controlling congress. Being good at football has never meant being a good human but it still can qualify you as a good Republican.
Oh, I need to think of other things.
I am as far north from the Texas border as I can be and remain in this country. The Canadian frontier is a short commute distant, as are the shores of Lake Superior, one of the largest bodies of freshwater on the planet at 160 miles wide and 350 in length. Probably the greatest of the Great Lakes, Superior’s waters carried freighters of ore and gypsum from the Iron Ranges of Minnesota and Wisconsin down to the steel and auto plants and fueled the Post World War II economic boom. The water cuts a rugged and rocky shoreline of palisades and picturesque beaches, dunes, and wild, storm twisted trees.
The region feels almost like an American afterthought, which is why it attracted the great writer, Jim Harrison. Best known as the author of Legends of the Fall, Harrison was from the Lower Peninsula of Michigan but was drawn to the rugged back country of the Upper Peninsula with its ancient pine forests and trails that are rarely trodden. He found literary clarity and production often in his cabin near Grand Marais, a crossroads of small businesses and cabins hard by the dunes of a lake known to the Ojibwe people as “Gitche Gumee,” or “great sea.” Harrison’s literary interest in the great water was preceded by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who referred to Gitche Gumee in his “Song of Hiawatha.”
The historic November storms on Superior were further memorialized when Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot recorded his epic “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” a tragedy that claimed 29 lives on a freighter coming down from Wisconsin. The ship, which “broke deep and took water,” lies at the bottom of the lake in 530 feet of perpetual frigidity and has never given up its dead. The two pieces of the massive hull sit not many miles from where I stand in October snow squalls, staring across at the nearly incomprehensible and fearsome beauty of a water that is almost constantly raging. I am not in search of nature as a muse but am hoping to separate myself from our present political turbulence by going to ground in the north. Instead, I find myself pondering the Texas border.
No matter how fast or far I run, as the song says, I can never get away from me, and the miles and the northern air haven’t cooled my near boiling anger over the lies and deception on the Texas and Mexico line. Our state’s governor perpetrates an ongoing fraud that he is somehow having an impact on immigration by spending billions in state and federal tax dollars to militarize the border with soldiers and razor wire and state troopers. My thoughts are that as word spreads south that he is giving free bus and plane rides to the interior of the U.S., he is only increasing the number of people turning their eyes in our direction.
Greg Abbott claims President Biden has caused the crush of immigration with an open border policy, but nothing even remotely related exists. Biden, in fact, has asked congress for billions more to increase staffing of what is already the largest law enforcement agency in the land that will soon reach almost 70,000 officers. Our country has a few simple choices. We can make the border into a long, impervious wall to protect us from our largest trading partner, put up guard houses, and re-create what happened in Berlin, or we can begin to formulate policy that resolves immigration issues. Why not create a temporary worker program to fill the jobs that are constantly open? Give taxpaying immigrants a chance for citizenship while they swing hammers and cook burgers and raise crops and clean hotels and take night classes? Republicans complain about immigration, but they’ve never offered a single piece of viable legislation to solve the crisis they claim exists because of Democrats.
Complications like the border are often less confounding when viewed from a distance. I have argued previously that we live in a broken land. The ruling political party gets no assistance any more to help them pass laws to improve our country because by giving them an accomplishment it improves the incumbent’s political prospects. Republicans will never help Biden and his party fix the immigration problem. To do so would provide Democrats an achievement upon which to campaign, and Democrats are almost as unlikely to assist a GOP president and congress for similar reasons. The nation is no longer pre-eminent to politicians and officeholders. Party and power are central to all goals. Nothing can advance. Ideas flutter and fall.
We live now in a land where a U.S. Senate candidate pulls out a toy badge to seek credibility and prospective policy leaders are taken seriously even as they demand execution for women who get abortions. They are calling into question the very democracy that they want to represent by planning attacks and investigations on almost every institution of the federal government, assuming they will win a majority control. If candidates can renounce results even before they are counted and reported, what’s left of the democratic process? When you cannot believe in your elections, faith in your government is impossible. People who doubt our nation’s founding principles are at risk in November and beyond and have paid no attention to all their fellow zealots who are pulling at threads that hold together our mutual interests.
That thought alone sent me scrambling.
These north woods abound with hoary metaphors. I look at the colors of the oak and maple and instead of a glorious seasonal change I see an ending, as if there were no spring. Wiping Election Day from my mind is not possible even at this remove. Our choice is more about the course of our country than even the parties and candidates we are to select. Do we want more government in our lives telling us what women can do with their bodies and what books we can and cannot read while our taxes are increased, and corporate tax financial responsibilities are reduced? Will we choose leadership that cares about the planet’s environmental future and what we are to leave as a legacy to our children?
We seem to no longer be able to make common cause and work together to form a more perfect union. Our nation is riven by party labels that seemingly make compromise inevitable, and truth increasingly evasive. National and even local media preach more than report and reinforce radical beliefs often founded on fantastical theories that involve dead presidents and secret societies that believe national officeholders run pedophilia rings. Voters are viewed as nothing more than an audience and substantiating their beliefs delivers clicks and advertising dollars when facts and confronting ignorance will leave them dissatisfied and alienated. Conflict sells, not resolution. TV producers and hosts of political talk shows are almost daily guilty of making up stories on the thinnest of assertions that came to them through political whispers or rumors while important issues go unexamined, and voters are left uninformed. Old and unfounded racial tropes are angrily repeated on the air and at political rallies and certain segments of the population live again in fear. Anti-Semitism is being normalized on the right as if no one knew the ultimate peril of such thinking.
The vibrations we feel in the air might be the trembling of our American experiment coming undone. Too many see it as an inevitability and have already begun to mourn its passing. A recent poll by a national publication revealed that more than half our citizens are comfortable with the notion of an authoritarian ruler. Who needs to vote when there is beer and football? More citizens know the statistics of their college quarterback than they do who represents them in congress, and democracy dies without vigilance, staying informed and involved. Any dictator who frees up the population to conduct its commodious activities of earning a paycheck, taking the kids to soccer, starting a business, and barbecuing on weekends while watching football, will have a long tenure in power.
I think the evidence indicates our democracy is frailer than we want to believe. The rule of law is about to undergo its most profound test since the great crisis on the Potomac under Nixon. Another man who also held the nation’s highest elective office presently walks free after clearly obstructing justice, attempting to circumvent the results of a national election, exercising his official power to overturn a state vote in Georgia, and fomenting a riot and attack on one of our most sacred institutions. There is sufficient, incontrovertible evidence for even a first-year law student to prosecute and convict the former president, and any failure to indict makes a mockery of every subsequent legal proceeding initiated against any citizen. The indictment must be considered inevitable. Violence may occur after it is issued but a nation will likely be mortally gutted if that man is not called to account. The U.S. Attorney General can be expected to understand the dangers involved with indicting and prosecuting a former president, but he must also surely understand there are greater perils for our country if he refuses to take legal action.
I came to a northernmost state to escape the political horrors of one of its southernmost and to sit the shoreline and walk the woods and see if my American angst might dissipate. No such transition has passed. I still hear my country singing even when I find the remotest of landscapes. I keep telling myself that Americans are about to vote for hope and the protection of individual rights and a government that facilitates prosperity and programs to protect “the least of these.” No one can be certain, but I am hopeful we will make sane choices.
Before we left the little town by the big water, we stopped for a beer, and happened into Harrison’s local watering hole in Grand Marais. Few writers have managed to be as sentimental and equally cynical as he was about the human condition. In his more than two dozen books of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, the romantic in Harrison always took control over his stories and conflict resolutions. He saw beauty even in enduring tragedy because of how it informed character and refined hope. I clung to that notion as we turned southward and rode through those canyons of October color. Harrison, who seemed to understand every flaw that might be manifested in a personality, and the accumulated stupidity of humankind, was, ultimately, hopeful, and positive about our destinies. And then I remembered a quote from his novel “True North.”
“Every day I wonder how many things I am dead wrong about”