I had four enduring fascinations as a young boy, fascinations that have remained with me all my life. And I am now in the middle of my 6th decade. They are my love of nature, a sense of spiritual reality, interest in how people could live together more successfully, and art.
My love of nature and feeling at home and at peace when within it is life long, stretching back to some of my earliest memories. From the little intermittent stream near my elementary school to my parents’ farm in the Flint Hills to the soaring peaks and tundra of the Colorado Rockies, and later all wild land anywhere, my love of nature has been a constant in my life. So also has been my attempt to understand what that love meant.
Looking back on a childhood that was not a happy one, I can say it was this love that kept me together, more or less. Later I often described my defense of the wild as “paying nature back” for keeping me afloat during those years. Now I know Nature is much more than that, but She is also that. And I will always be grateful. If we could see Nature for what She is, we would treat not only the other-than-human world better, we would treat one another better as well.
In grade school I wanted to be either a forest ranger or an architect. The other-than-human community competed with the human community. I was constantly “designing” houses and what today would be called intentional communities. Later, in the 8th grade, a different interest in these issues was shocked awake by my home room teacher’s attack on the John Birch Society because they hated democracy. Alarmed, when I got home I asked my mom of we knew any “Birchers.” She mentioned several friends of the family who were members, and decided I was hearing too much liberal propaganda. (I was growing up in Wichita, Kansas, which perhaps says enough.)
I was taken to various right wing gatherings, initially to talks sponsored by the Cardinal Mindzenty Society. As I entered high school I was also invited to John Birch Society meetings and became an avid reader of their literature. With some friends I founded a Young Americans for Freedom chapter in high school and in my senior year (I think it was that year) almost became state chairman of the Teenage Republicans. During this time when hanging out at the American Opinion Bookstore, owned by the Birch Society, a pivotal event took place. Charles Koch, then a young engineer and at the time a libertarian, gave me books by Ludwig von Mises and similar conservative, libertarian, and classical liberal intellectuals. He urged me to start reading the good stuff. In doing so Charles opened up the life of the mind to me. I gradually stopped reading right wing propaganda, and started reading the intellectual heavyweights that helped create a now almost dead conservative intellectual tradition. I had fallen in love with research and the world of ideas. Charles Koch seems long since to have fallen out of such a love, apparently preferring wealth and power, but I will always owe him my thanks for introducing me to the world of the mind.
Upon entering college I ultimately decided to major in history and political science because the calculus needed for an architecture degree did not agree with me. My other interest had been a double major in political science and drawing and painting. The university refused to allow it.
College expanded my horizons and as I turned against the Vietnam War the right wing’s lock on my imagination was broken. I began seeking my own understanding rather than simply aping those I had thought were my betters.
The years since then have carried me very far from my youthful right wing idealism but the fundamental motivations, as I look back on them, have not changed much, although they have deepened almost beyond recognition.
I have always drawn and painted, and preferred scenes from nature as my subject. When I entered college my first hope was a double major in drawing and painting and political science. But these fields were in different schools, fine arts and liberal arts, and I was not allowed to do so. I chose political science and history, and set formal study of art aside.
Upon entering Berkeley’s Ph.D. program, I often decorated envelopes when I sent letters to friends. Later, upon beginning my dissertation, I despaired because I did not have the money to write it, did not have a grant, and teaching gigs were too unreliable from semester to semester. But if I got a 9 to 5 job I was pretty sure I’d never finish it. A fellow grad student, Pearl Marsh, convinced me to make my envelopes into a small business as an alternative. Another debt of gratitude. Probably the only thing beyond genome that she and Charles have in common.
I began my small business, and after some floundering ultimately made a success of it while learning first hand the differences between what academics do and what businesspeople do, and why neither usually understands the other.
Shipping my stuff all over the country enabled me to help support some employees, but I needed to sell my stuff on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley to make enough so I could pay the rent and still write. Along the way two things happened. I became a pretty good pen and ink artist and I met people I never would have met in graduate school, including the man whom, just after I got my Ph.D., I dared to “show me some real magick.”
In my first decades a sense of spiritual reality usually provided a quiet context within which I lived my life. Occasionally it would move to the forefront, as in high school for about a year when I decided that if the Bible was the word of God, the most literal interpretation must be the best. I drove my parents crazy by becoming involved with Herbert W. Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God. That episode, from which I soon recovered gave me a solid inoculation against that type of religion. Beyond that episode spirituality remained mostly in the background until I completed my Ph.D.
In the 60s, like so many others, I got interested in nontraditional approaches to Spirit, especially the insights provided by psychedelics, or what I now think is a better term: entheogens. But like so many others discovered, these experiences on their own did not lead anywhere much beyond providing a certainty that more was involved than the autistic Western mindset allowed. Mostly I focused on political science and related fields because after opening the “gates of perception” once they wore off the entheogens did not leave you inside. You were outside the gates, but had had a peek inside.
Alan Watts, that emcee to the spiritual East, opened my eyes to non Christian spirituality during this time. But I had a deep distrust of any religion claiming to have it all right, a valuable inheritance from the World Wide Church of God. Other than learning how to see ‘energy’ around people, my explorations in things metaphysical did not go far. By the time I got to Berkeley I figured if I ever did get involved in a religion, it would be one that honored book learning, like Buddhism or Judaism.
The universe must have laughed.
One of my regular stationery customers in Berkeley had once told me he was a magician. I did not take him seriously. But after receiving my Ph.D. and figuring that I’d soon be a professor I decided I did not have to tip toe around my customers’ delusions. I dared him to show me “some real magick.” I was curious how he’d weasel out.
He didn’t weasel out. One night on the UC Berkeley campus annihilated my traditional secular understanding of the material world. I asked him if he ever taught it. “Sometimes.” He said.
“Will you teach me?”
And my life changed forever. Not by getting involved in Buddhism or Judaism, but in Wicca and shamanic practices. The polar opposite of book learning.
For the first year or so I kept a journal, writing down what I experienced and the circumstances surrounding the event. I wanted a reality check. Finally I decided this new world was genuine. It was more irrational to doubt its existence than to accept something profound was happening. I was publishing academic research in good journals, keeping my friends from the past, and successfully running a small business. I seemed competent at handling the world. I was just doing this while living within a shamanic reality. A 20th century academic with a Pleistocene ontology.
For well over 25 years now I have been studying the intersection of this world with the modern understanding of reality. I believe I have gradually closed the intellectual gap between them, at least in my own mind, and now feel competent to write about this most important of issues. Some of that will appear here.