I remember when I was small and just beginning to receive my education via Kindergarten and Vacation Bible School that many topics and concepts were presented to me in such a way as to put the focus on how I was supposed to perceive them rather than to encourage me to investigate and explore their possibilities.
Later, elementary school and church going did much the same and this carried right through high school. I must say, it had the opposite effect from that intended. Most of the instructors were like art experts leading a group of tourists through an exhibition for the purpose of interpreting for them that which they are viewing and thus saving them the trouble of having an opinion.
I found that most folks were happiest with this and experienced real discomfort when, however rarely, they might be called on to decipher things for themselves. In this scenario, the person who can memorize and parrot the buzzword and jargon-laden interpretation du jour of a blank canvas is hailed as an intellectual, while the person who points out the obvious will be denounced as a hillbilly.
From what I could discern by the time I got my two front teeth, there are two kinds of people the world over. Those that want to know things and are willing to use the intellect given them by their maker and those that choose to have others tell them what everything means. In part this phenomena is due to the awe of academia which is inculcated into the youngster. The valuable lesson of The Wizard of Oz seems to me to have been lost on most of my generation who were fortunate to have seen that movie.
The foregoing is in no way meant to imply that we do not need teachers and true experts to help us along the way to understanding things. Indeed we do. But what do we need them for precisely? I would venture to say that the most precious thing that they could give us is accurate, documented information or to put it another way, clean data. I would like to define my use of the word expert to mean someone who has exhaustively investigated a particular subject and thus has a greater share of data specific to that topic than the average person.
If the expert has done their work properly, the student may check all their sources and verify all the data. The boon to the student comes from having all the diverse sources collated into an index that makes for easier examination as regards to the time involved in this process. Just as there is an obligation upon the expert to conduct proper research, there is an equal obligation on the student to utilize their own intellect in assessing the data before them.
If a teacher gave a bowl of different kinds of bird eggs to five students for them to examine, they should all come away with five individual understandings of these items if left to their own senses and not subject to any input from the teacher. Having said this, they would all five undoubtedly have much the same things to say about the nature of these objects. This hints at the beauty of truth. It is verifiable at any time by anyone, thus we need not fear that each individual seeker of knowledge may incorporate those building blocks into a unique structure of thought.
Working backwards we might take the five unique reports of the students in the example above and sift them down to that which is common to all. Using that as a base we would be able to conduct our own further inquiries into the topic and have saved precious time in the bargain. This brings us to well-written books by reputable authors. They are powerful resources and can save us much lamp oil and shoe leather. They can never replace thinking however and a reputable author, in my opinion, would not want a non-thinker to tout their work.
Two of the topics, of the many that fascinated me from my earliest times were those of history and religion. Alas, it is these two precisely that remain the most nebulous and partly this is due to the fact that the majority by far of those who write on these subjects have an agenda, an ax to grind or are bullied and bribed to present their material in such a way as to lead a reader to a given conclusion. This is a science in of itself and was perfected long before technology greatly leveraged the effect.
If a person was given a bowl of different kinds of bird eggs to examine by a chicken egg farmer and was briefed beforehand upon what they were to conclude from studying them, that person's perception would be much different than if this same process was initiated by an environmentalists out to save the hummingbird or an African Bushman with an ostrich egg canteen around his neck.
Thus, a child who just goes and gathers a bowl of different kinds of bird eggs and studies them alone may come away with as much useful hard data as any of the aforementioned groups and also be free of their biases. The child will of necessity of being human have his own bias. It cannot be otherwise. If you presented a hummingbird eggshell and an ostrich eggshell to our Bushman for making a new canteen, which do you think he would choose?
So let us imagine for a moment that books well-written are like unto bowls of eggs. We should be able to glean from them much basic data that is appealing to common sense and obvious to any observer that glances inside. I would recommend to you three books by one author that deal with the two topics of history and religion.
The author is Douglas Reed and the books are Insanity Fair, From Smoke To Smother and The Controversy of Zion. The first was written in 1938, the second in 1948 and the third was begun in 1949 and finished in 1956 although the manuscript never came to light until 22 years after that. One book deals with the lead up to the First World War and the other deals with the aftermath and build up to the Second World War. It also served to show the accuracy of Mr. Reed's predictions outlined in the first book. Almost like a report card. The final book is an exhaustive, meticulous study on the genesis of Judaism and Zionism, their impact on Christianity and their role in history.
Mr. Reed was an Englishman who described himself as "relatively unschooled". He began work at 13 as an office boy and followed that with being a bank clerk at 19 at which time he enlisted to fight in World War One. In 1921 at the age of 26, he began working for the London Times as a telephonist and clerk. Not until the age of 30 did he become a journalist in the capacity of sub-editor. Three years after that, he became the assistant Times correspondent in Berlin and finally was the Chief Central European correspondent in Vienna of the same newspaper.
He reported from this vantage during the years between the wars. Many of the biggest players of the era, which I know only from newsreel clips, photos and textbooks, Mr. Reed knew personally by dint of having interviewed them in person or having sat down to coffee with them at cafes in Vienna, Berlin, Prague, London, Moscow or Budapest. This list includes villains such as Hitler as well as the nobility, heads of state and the diplomats of many countries. Added to this first hand perspective, Douglas also spoke to the janitors, maids, farmers, soldiers and commoners of Europe and their presence in his observations of the power brokers serves to ground the entire body of his writings in a reality that at once is translatable to any reader when trying to make sense of their own time or of his.
His training as a journalist, his experience as a soldier, his lack of a bow-tie and his own standards of excellence in his work all add up to one of the best bowls of eggs I have ever been handed on the topics of history and religion. From it I will make my own omelet and invite you to do the same.
I have long felt that religion and history are artificially joined at the hip and this condition gives explanation as to why they appear to limp like Quasimodo through recorded history when we try to study one without taking into account the other. The period of the last two thousand years in particular appears to defy all logic when viewed from the singular perspective of historical narrative that we have inherited in our own time. In concert with this we are confounded by the phenomenon in religious history that a seemingly global trend towards the eventual idea of a single universal deity dressed up in differing robes should be rather suddenly overshadowed by the idea of a singular god acting on behalf of one exclusive group of humans, whether it be to their benefit or to their detriment. Mr. Reed apparently pondered this same conundrum.
Through his news career, which predated the first transatlantic phone call, Douglas eventually began to notice that many of his dispatches to his employer were lost, altered or suppressed. This led to him breaking with the paper in 1943. It is important to note that he walked away from them. Soon afterward he was to enjoy world fame for his books, Insanity Fair, Disgrace Abounding, Lest We Regret, and Somewhere South Of Suez.
The figures of the sale of these books in their day is nothing short of impressive and I imagine that at one time Mr. Reed was a so-called household name in the literate world. After 1951 his book Far and Wide was published, which was a look at America through the eyes of an ex-pat Englishman with much experience and independent study under his belt. I am a born American and when I read that book I learned a lot from it. Being a North American, I found I had very different views on the monarchy of Britain than Mr. Reed but I also learned to cut them a modicum of slack as well. Just a wee, mind you.
What followed next was a complete shutting of the doors. His books were banished from bookstalls, publishers refused to speak to him and the wonderful books already published began to be withdrawn from library shelves and to literally “disappear”. If you had read his books without knowing about this censorship, I wager that you would certainly wonder why this was done. Did this finish the man? No.
In 1951 he began writing The Controversy of Zion. He was adding the Epilogue just before I was born. This book is over 500 pages and is thoroughly documented, sourced and indexed. It was, clearly, his magnus opus. He knew it would never be published in what remained of his lifetime and thus it sat in a zippered file on top of a wardrobe in Durban, South Africa for over two decades.
The most I have learned about the story of my Cherokee ancestors was from material gathered by a relatively unschooled Irish-American, James Mooney who was as scrupulous as he was meticulous. After reading a score of books about the story of the gypsies, I found that the most plausible and resonant attempt to trace that story was in the work of a French-Canadian author who's research and findings were endorsed wholeheartedly by the leader of the Romany Kris.
Similarly, I feel certain that Jewish people could learn much about their own story from this work of a relatively unschooled English newspaperman who utilized his skills of gathering facts and presenting them in a concise verifiable format. At all points, Reed allows his readers to draw their own conclusions while precisely articulating those of his own in a spirit of simply wishing to see the lives of all mankind improved. When he opines, the reader is made well aware of this.
Also, this book contains the best description of that notorious Texan, Colonel House that I have ever encountered to date. While not fully plumbing the depths of this shadow man's motivations and likely connections, Mr. Reed is easily savant enough to see through Mr. House's methods and he presents them to you in a way that a child could easily grasp. As a Texan, it has always intrigued me just how many Texans there are in history's woodpile.
I can tell you that the first two books I mentioned will give any reader a better sense of the modern history of the Western world when added to whatever texts they have read prior, particularly those texts provided in their education. This last mentioned book, however, will take the reader many layers deeper. Deeper than most folks in his day and in ours would be comfortable to venture. I will quote here from Edmund Burke, a quote included in the manuscript before me, “An event has occurred, upon which it is difficult to speak and impossible to be silent.”
During the air raid
Guided by tan lords
And fat cupids
Made their way
Into pit mines
To beg boeuf
Voicing their vows
Skidding on jewels
Tugged molting asps
And shorn lynx
Under the roar of jets
Without landing gear
A most curious poem. A thing repeated for the past one hundred years. Evocative of man's autistic jousting with the real power. A man told me once that he had never seen a U-Haul parked at a funeral by the open grave. He was right but then again he had never been in Pharaoh's Egypt or at the sending off of a Viking Chieftain. He had walked the battlefield of Culloden, however and that counted in my books until I learned that the heads of many of the famous Scottish clans were actually avaricious immigrants from Brittany. He guided me on the stock market until I realized that there were two ways in which to play that game. You may either let a stranger lose your money and take the blame or you may throw it away yourself and explain it to your wife.
Contrary to some beliefs, no individual wins regardless of how many toys they accumulate. Their families may prosper for a season or two however. Not permanently. This is not to say that each individual may not have enough. Everyone may have enough and much blood has been spilled in trying to convince large groups of people that this is not so. The reality is not answerable to man and the artificial shortages are entirely man's doing. The astute reader or listener will likely wish to differ at this juncture and point out a million naturally caused catastrophes; acts of God, as it were, which refute the statement I just made. What about the Deadliest Catch or The Angry Planet, they might ask.
My answer to them would be one word. Borders. Frontiers, if you will. Sometimes you have to cross them, sometimes you shouldn't but always they are man made. The growing pile of garbage on the slopes of Mt. Everest should quell the argument that geography itself is a barrier to humankind. At least as long as the Sherpa population is willing to haul the gear. One legged men have run across continents, women have swum the Atlantic, and the emotionally crippled, morally bankrupt and intellectually challenged have steered our ships of state into shoal after shoal.
Borders and rules are inherent in our species. To many aboriginal peoples, a person's border or comfort zone, is a circular affair that travels with them as they move through the landscape that belongs to none. That is to say they are sovereign within this small dynamic boundary from which they take enough and no more. It must be borne in mind that all humans at one time would have been described as aboriginals.
Of course geography lent itself to the formation of early borders for the larger groups of humans. Temporarily. Our first look at an ocean beach is a daunting sight to any of us yet within a day we are speculating on what is across the water. It is no different where the forest peters out into desert or muskeg into tundra or river valley to canyon walls. The creation, formation, alteration, maintenance, defense and destruction of these frontiers actually takes place inside of us before manifesting on the ground.
It is logical and easy to follow along much of man's history in regards to the aforementioned human tendency to divide the world at large into manageable chunks of real estate. Where it becomes interesting, confusing and downright evil, is when large groups allow themselves to be subjected to borders imposed on them by greedy men. There are many reasons why people allow themselves to be penned up and insulated. These reasons range from fear (real or imagined) to addiction, convenience to hope. Like the song says, “You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away and know when to run.” In my life I have experienced all of these scenarios at borders and I am sure there will be more to come.
When I was in my early twenties and courting my second wife I had a Scandinavian friend who liked to go camping. He had just married an ethnic Chinese Indonesian woman and my fiancee was a Chinese gal. He liked my gal, I liked his gal and he and I liked each other. My gal liked him, his gal liked me but his gal had a deep abiding dislike for my gal. This made for a very complicated set of dynamics around the campfire.
One time he asked me to meet him at Ross Lake which straddles the US-Canada border. My fiancee and I stayed in the back of my Toyota which I had camperized and the Scandonesian couple stayed in a tent. After we got our fire set up and had unpacked, my friend and I roamed around the woods and along the lake shore while the girls ignored each other in camp. We noticed a very large tree snagged onto the shore with forty feet extending into deep water. It was wide enough for a man to lie athwart without getting his feet wet. We scampered up and down it before returning to camp.
When we got back, my gal wanted to go swimming, which meant she wanted to wear her bathing suit and dip her toes. While his gal had a nap, we three trundled off to the shore. We showed her the massive log and she waded across and climbed aboard. We boys swam out and began to rock it until it was free of the mud. Before we realized that the lake had a strong outflow current to the South we were in its grip and heading for the invisible border.
We laughed like boys half our age and started to speculate on how we could steer the thing. All the while my gal sun-tanned high and dry. Presently, a small motor boat presented itself alongside. Its pilot was a young man about our same age and he had on a US Border Patrol uniform. His expression was that of an alley cat confronting a tom turkey.
“Ahoy,” we laughed.
“Hi folks. I have to inform you that you are rapidly approaching the United States. What is your citizenship?”
“I'm a Canadian from Texas with a Swedish-American Grandpa, a Canadian father, a German-Canadian Grandpa, a Welsh-Irish-Canadian Grandma, a German-Welsh-American-Cherokee Grandma and an American Mum. She is a Chinese Canadian and my buddy is a Danish Canadian. How about you?”
“You are Canadians all?”
“I am going to have to ask you folks to turn back, you will be entering the country illegally if you hold to your present course.”
The current was picking up and indeed the fellow had to gun his outboard to keep alongside us. My gal was wide awake now and very amused. My friend was speaking in Danish and lucky for us the guard wasn't understanding him. I thought about the many fish and birds who were contravening the law at that very moment. I thought about the Vikings who had tied ropes to the London Bridge and pulled the whole damn affair into the Thames before heading off to an island in the Seine for camping while the Gauls hurled verbal abuse and ineffective arrows.
Presently I spoke over the outboard thrum, “This thing is seriously too big to maneuver. All we have is our hands to paddle with. It would be like trying to give a blue whale a massage.”
“That's your problem sir. I guess you'll have to swim.”
I pointed out that my fiance couldn't swim well and that we were in deep cold water very far from shore. I figured he would be a cowboy and offer to tow the tree to shore or at least give the girl a ride home. I was wrong. He angrily said that he would be back shortly and turned turtle. We watched him cross the imaginary line. I didn't want to see the cavalry.
I got my friend to get in the water with me and we both kicked like hell while pushing the water logged hulk side wise and used the wake from the pathetic small craft as a helping hand. In a strenuous diagonal tack, we managed to get in close enough to a projection of land for the lady to make a relatively safe transit to the muddy weed-clogged bank. I was proud of her and I could tell she was enjoying the adrenaline to a degree.
We bushwhacked back to camp as the timber turned like a ship on its anchor chain, heavy end first; found deep water and joined the current which would carry it to the coming posse. We peered through the rain forest to watch it go. We were all surprised to see how far we had traveled. At camp, we recounted the tale to my friend's wife and she decided she would like to go for a wee hike as well.
My gal stayed by the fire and off went the new set of three. This time we headed in an opposite direction to our earlier exploits and soon were deep in the florescent mosses and raven choruses that decorate those woods. After a time I heard my friend, who was in the lead cease his singing of Donegal Danny and yell for us to catch him up.
The gal and I ran to see. There, about twenty yards off the barely discernible trail was a pile of soccer ball sized boulders. It was about seven feet long, three feet wide and two feet high. It was obviously constructed by human hands and perfectly camouflaged by leaf litter, branches and moss. The stones were lichen covered which meant that they had been placed there a mighty long time ago. By the time the gal and I stood near it, my friend had cleared the outline like a manic archaeologist.
“It's a grave,” we said in unison.
Me and the lady backed up a step and stood like you see people doing at funerals. My friend leaped on top of the cairn like a pirate and began tugging at a rock. After the initial shock that this action had on us two onlookers we turned on him as one and made it very clear that no graves would be desecrated that day, marked or otherwise. He looked at us like we were crazy but he stopped when he saw how serious we both were. We speculated about who it could be, how old it was and if the person had been murdered or had died naturally on the walk back to the camp.
Once I was in the French Pyrenees. I was eventually going to Africa via Spain and had tarried a bit in the Basque Country. It intrigued me for these people had their own language neither French nor Spanish and inhabited a region whose borders had changed with every conquest, reconquest and the good or ill fortunes of the peoples who surrounded them. They were mountain people like the first Cherokee were. They also had their own ideas about other people's borders and had learned how to exploit this nonsense of control to their own advantage. They were consummate smugglers.
Late one afternoon, I came to a dusty mountain town. From the porch of an inn I could see the French mountains whose southern slopes were claimed by Spain. I planned to walk over them. I had a passport but I wanted to just walk over them like a natural man. I could present my papeles on the other side I reckoned, if push came to shove.
I was the only traveler in the large expansive rustic bar. There was a stone fireplace and I warmed my backside while I enjoyed a beer. The proprietor looked like a cross between Stromboli and Charles Bronson. He only spoke in curt bursts of just enough speech to answer a query and this with no trace of emotion save for an undertone of mistrust and annoyance. He had a magnificent German Shepherd dog.
I gestured to the brute which sat beside the bar and it loped over to my position by the fire. I figured I'd talk to it if the man didn't want to chat. I reached slowly palm down for the dog to sniff my hand. Before the animal could do this, he was summoned with a word I couldn't understand other than by its context and its consequences. The wolf-like creature shot across the empty space in a fraction of a second and heeled hard against the man's side.
The man said in a voice that carried more warning than the rattle of a Diamondback, “Don't touch my dog.”
Outside I smoked while gazing at the mountains and decided it prudent to take the conventional route into Spain. Even today, I know this was the correct choice. The dog man's people had been crisscrossing those hills since before they had been named. They weren't the problem. I was. No one knew who or what I was and there was no time for me to establish my credentials in the old way.
Hold, fold, walk or run. We cannot escape dealing with borders both spiritual and temporal. The important ones lie within and are reflected on the outside by those we encounter. Frontiers can also be edifying. A game, for example, is constructed of pieces (willing people) allowed a limited set of possible actions (man-made laws) confined by a finite set of rules (borders) competing to achieve a predetermined goal (death). We could be discussing a good game of chess or the average modern person's life story. I played a game of Scrabble with my wife tonight. The poem at the beginning of this essay was constructed from the words on the board at the end of our game.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.