Amy Cools • January 20th, 2017
For four days and five nights I’ve been at Lochsa Lodge near the northern end of the Bitterroot Mountain range, about 12 miles southwest of the Idaho / Montana border. To celebrate the beginning of my fortieth year, I gave myself the gift of a humanities retreat with about twenty other curious, thinking, engaged people, and I had a wonderful time. The retreat is put on by Clay Jenkinson, a humanities scholar, writer, and speaker who did me the honor of being my first podcast interview guest, and Becky Cawley, a warm, welcoming, all around delightful woman who took great care of us and additionally warmed my heart by reminding me of a favorite auntie of mine. Clay introduced each session with a topic question, quote, or a talk, and then guided the ensuing discussions.
I have few pictures to share with you because I wanted to stay true to the spirit of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden by not mediating the scenery through a screen for awhile. I wanted to keep my immersion in the beautiful natural world around us and in the conversations of my retreat companions as uninterrupted and undistracted as possible. I appreciate technology very much, of course, since I’m writing to you here, but I think it’s good practice to step away and remember it doesn’t need to dominate so many of our waking hours. Walden was one of our books under discussion; as you likely know, it’s about nineteenth-century transcendentalist Thoreau’s experiment of living in a simple home by a lake in the woods for a little over two years. He built the little house mostly by himself, with some trees he cut down and some salvaged lumber from another old house. He also grew some of his own food there. While he didn’t ‘rough it’ as thoroughly as many readers would have liked, he had great insights about, as he called it, living deliberately; the benefits of immersing oneself in nature; the hazards of owning too much stuff; living in unthinking conformity with laws and social mores; and many other things besides. It’s more than a worthwhile read if you can look past the preachiness and even self-righteousness that creeps in now and again.
We also discussed Shakespeare’s The Tempest, one of his more difficult plays for a modern reader to take because of the racism inherent in his portrayal of Caliban, the native inhabitant of a lonely island. Born of a witch, he is taken in by Prospero, an exiled duke and self-made wizard of sorts who is marooned there with his daughter after his usurping brother puts them to sea on a ramshackle boat. It’s quite a complicated and convoluted plot with a highly artificial set-up so I won’t go into it here. The artifices, however, are there to set up some interesting conundrums and provoke what-if questions about human nature; power over others; guilt and innocence; crime, punishment, and forgiveness; knowledge, wisdom, and ignorance; and the perils of magic. One of the primary topics of the play that we discussed, however, was the notion of The Other, why and how human beings often feel about and treat others with disdain, disgust, and even cruelty when they are perceived as not being ‘one of us’.
This discussion set us up for the main subject of our readings and discussions: the culture and history of the Native Americans of the Great Plains, their long and disastrous encounter with the expansionist United States and its European-Americans settlers, and how this led to the current protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock. It was the sort of discussion that should be happening more widely, informed by the history of Native American-United States relations which is marked throughout (on both sides but vastly more on the U.S. one) by bloodshed, racism, injustice, glory-hunting, broken treaties, misunderstandings, greed, short-sightedness, and ignorance, ignorance, ignorance. We read and talked about the tragic story of Crazy Horse, the series of events which led to the Great Sioux War and its sad aftermath, what it was like to live on the Plains (from the biography of the Cheyenne warrior Wooden Leg), and much more. I was quite ignorant myself of this long and complex history, aware only of some of the broad details. What I learned thus far, from the reading, Clay’s talks, and our discussions has made me anxious to learn much more, and to hope others are similarly inspired. I don’t think the protests will be rightly understood or have good outcomes if people don’t have sufficient understanding of how the history of this part of the world brought us to this point.
Besides all this reading, thinking, learning, and discussing, we played too: we cooked together, went on a little hike to the river, ate good food, talked and sang around the campfire, and drank (not too much, or, well, not most of the time) and made merry. One of my favorite things we did was a trip to some natural hot springs by Warm Springs Creek, where we soaked in warm pools among the snow and the tall trees, with the large creek rushing right near and a little below us. There are two pools a little ways up from the creek and one right at the side of it, or rather, forming a part of it, where a hot little waterfall tumbles down. Being the only one foolhardy enough to go down about a hundred extra yards in below-freezing weather in my wet swimsuit, I was rewarded by the exquisite experience of lying across a little rock-edged ledge which forms a shallow pool, barely large enough for one person, as I gazed up at the misty blue sky ringed by soaring snow-topped trees and the dark reddish rocks from which the warmth flowed down and over me. When overheated, I would occasionally cool myself with a shift of an arm or foot into the cold river water, the contrast providing such a delicious sensation. I don’t believe any spa could deliver bliss like this however hard they tried.
So I had a quite a time, enriched in mind and soothed in body. Thank you to all who made this a wonderful week, and I hope against hope I’ll be able to join you this summer for the Lewis and Clark tour!
Amy Cools is the creator and editor of Ordinary Philosophy blog, podcast, and history of ideas travel series.