I’ve kind of been quietly making an etching alphabet of songbirds. The first idea was to make them pretty, pretty, pretty, and then I thought about the nature of Nature–it’s not all pretty–and then the hideous habitat destruction we’ve inflicted on songbirds and every other creature the landscape attempts to sustain, and the pictures have become a bit tougher and more wild, and maybe more true. We’ll see.
“B”is for Baltimore Oriole.
All over the west and south sides of Chicago there are still live poultry shops. It only now occurs to me that I’ve never actually been in one. Americans are particularly squeamish this way– we never want to look the creature we’re about to slaughter in the eye. We’d rather see it fried with some biscuits and gravy on a plate, or in nugget form in a small styrofoam box; or even better, chopped up with a bunch of vegetables in some soup. We’re not much for the blood and the feathers and the screeching death that comes along with butchering poultry.
A number of people in the city have begun to keep chickens in their yards in Ukrainian Village they raise their own eggs and I have to admit it is kind of heartening to see a plump chicken or two walking the alleyways. You want to warn them that: feral cats, large rats, raccoons, and now coyotes also now walk these alleys, and would gladly feast on them; but then you notice these are some big-assed chickens and when you get right up close and look them in the eye? You see all of the madness in the world.These chickens are Chicago chickens and they just might be able to hold their own.
The word “Apache” is another of those catch-all words used to denote many tribes of first-nation peoples. Apache is, in fact, many peoples. The Navajo and the Mescalero are also Apaches. I was ignorant of this because I was only taught the history of white Europeans. Of the 562 tribes of first-nation peoples, a great many of them from the American Southwest to the Plains states can be identified as Apaches. Geronimo and Cochise were both Apache. There were Texas Apache, New Mexico Apache, Arizona and California Apache, and many, many clans contained in those tribes.
The first Americans were as different state to state and village to village as Europeans and Celts were. It is an inexcusable blind-spot in American history that the story of our first citizens are barely known to us.
My friend, the art dealer Sara Jo Romero, is a child of New Mexico and one of my favorite things in this world is an Apache “teardrop” arrow head she gave me some years ago as a gift. She’d find them all over the high dessert in new Mexico. they are lovely; made from agate, which was almost like glass and shaped into a lethal tear-drop shape that was so sharp I could still cut paper with it easily. These arrow tips were often dipped in poisonous compounds from plants–jimson weed and hemlock– to insure death in the intended target.
The Apaches were great warriors and hunters, often trading the elk, pronghorn and other hides for other goods with neighboring Apache tribes. They often raided and were considered horse thieves (a hanging offense) by other tribes and white settlers. Still, nobody much wanted to fuck around with the Apache peoples. They were ferocious in war–even the Sioux gave them a wide berth.
The Comanche (also Apache) regularly got their asses handed to them when attempting to usurp their fellow Apache tribes both the White Mountain and Mescalero Apache stomped their ass more than once.
A couple of Apache guys I know have a bristling resentment with the Navajo because their reticence at identifying themselves as Apache. “It’s like they’re Navajo before they’re Apache. They are like the Mick Jagger Apache. They piss the rest of us off.”
My friend, Hector Maldonado, who is Texas Coushatta (which are not Apache), often explains to me that nobody has a nastier opinion of other tribes like other Indians do. Like every other tribe, like the Irish, Italians, Polish and Germans, we want to be around our own kind, and are suspicious shitheels to those who are different from us.
The popular version of American history was that the Americas were virtually uninhabited when mighty-whitey got here. The ruling mythology being that the existing 526 nations were like so many rabbits and turkeys.
‘Sit on your ass, Pilgrim. . .light up a Camel. This IS the promised land.”
Thankfully, the Apache had peyote and used it in ceremonial sweat rituals to seek visions. And if you’ve ever done peyote, you know that, after the ceremonial puking up of your toenails, the visions are NO problem. That’s right, Butchie, gag down a button or two, if you don’t have any plans for the next week. . .and you bought your ticket to the aural and visual tilt-a-whirl.
I have friends that make a yearly pilgrimage to Burning Man with a stash of buttons and don’t remember a goddamn thing other than “There was fire. Big fire.” It looks like fun–a bunch of smelly hippies burning shit and fucking in the mud, all the while dressed like the cast of the Road Warrior. The website sure is fun. Friends have begged me to go and I’m always tempted but I feel like I’m too old by about 25 years for this circus. It is not lost on me that this pagan bacchanal is held right in the nut-sack of what used to be the heart of the Apache nations. I am betting there are no small amount of spirits to summon there.
I keep writing what very little I know about First Nation peoples because in 2012, in the middle of an election year, it seems they are nowhere in this conversation. It seems the stories of the 526 nations of our first Americans have been rendered disposable. That is the way history works against us. Bankers, bean counters, and bloggers now decide what is worth saving and what is worth remembering.
We want badly to forget that we took this country at gunpoint. We burned other humans in piles next to newly built railroad tracks. For all of the proud words and hyperbole being tossed about, about “honor” and “change we can believe in,” the land itself tells our story and underlines our transgressions.
When you step into the voting booth? Know this: We live on stolen property. Every sidewalk, every gated community, every 7-11. And we descend from the most successful murderers in human history.
As proud as I am of my Irish heritage, I will admit that we believe in some pretty goofy shit.
We are fishermen from way back and believe in any number of aquatic phantasms–nymphs, Jenny-Linds, Selkies, sea serpents and many other manifestations of floating apparitions.
Mermaids are the killers though. They are beautiful and imperiled, and many a Mick dipshit has dove overboard to “save” one clinging to a rock only to find that by the time he gets to her after fighting off a rolling sea.she actually looks like Don Knotts with tits.
I decided to make a Chicago Mermaid, a blues girl. Who wouldn’t do you like that. Who wouldn’t hide her beauty. No. . .she would save you with the blues in shades of blue and green and velvety black.
This one too, is for my pal and fellow Mick, John Manion.
In his imperfect but fascinating “Nothing Like It in the World-The Men who Built the Transcontinental Railroad,” Steven Ambrose, the often suspect popular historian, tells the story of the building of the railroad between Council Bluffs Iowa and San Francisco, the many lives it took, the blasting, digging, excavating and back-breaking labor of it all. I’ve read a number of Ambrose’s books and he has often been accused of shoddy fact-checking, misquotes and outright plagiarism. Still, the old grouch wrote a damned entertaining story.
Much more entertaining is “Hell on Wheels,” AMC’s nihilistic, grim history of those who built the railroad– freed men of color, Confederate veterans, the newly immigrated Irish and poor southern whites. Later,past the Mississippi, it would also be the Chinese and no small amount of convict labor.
All the while, the Lakota Sioux, as well as the Cherokee and Cheyenne and many, many, other First Nation peoples, were trying to hold onto their lands. The white man took it by force. The railroads were given a remarkable amount of latitude with the law. They had their own police force as well as the Pinkertons, a bunch of rent-a-cop type pukes who were mostly criminals themselves.
“Hell on Wheels” introduces us to a Confederate veteran and widower named Bohannon who has a positively biblical sense of justice, and the band of cutthroats, shysters, swindlers and and con men who built and profited from the expansion of the railroad. They are some nasty, dirty, scurvy motherfuckers.
Needless to say I love this show. The Indians are portrayed as blood-thirsty and savage and for my money, should have been more so. It is like an Oglala Sioux friend of mine once said, “We should have killed you fuckers at Plymouth Rock.” The theft of our country was intentional, savage and absolutely without mercy. Upon seeing railroad tracks for the first time, Sitting Bull referred to them as “The Path of Thieves.”
This piece is part of the visuals I’m making for Steve Earle’s next recording, “The Low Highway.” Per usual, I get to hear the record before anyone else does and it is an astonishing collection of songs. I can’t really say much more than this. Trust me. You will be rewarded if you get it when it hits the street.
Steve is an incredible student of American history and a small part Cherokee. One of the books we’ve discussed is Cormac McCarthy’s bloody and unyielding novel of the Plains Indian wars, “Blood Meridian.” It is a sobering and shaming piece of writing that led Steve to once comment to me, “Yeah, I’ve read all of the Cormac McCarthy books and he means us no good.” I understand this. McCarthy paints a grim picture of mankind altogether.
We’re bastards. And when you know as much history as McCarthy (or Steve Earle), it is easy and perhaps inevitable that this conclusion is arrived at. The difference is on Steve’s record there is always a glimmer of hope…a bolt of light…a saving grace. On some of this record there is an abiding sadness, but it never blots out the sun. In McCarthy’s sometimes pitch-black narratives like “The Road,” “No Country for Old Men” and “Blood Meridian,” though they can be mordantly funny in places, there are two kinds of hope–Bob Hope and No Hope.
If you wonder why I prattle on about things like this, I think of those bloody epochs of history as distant mirrors. We are STILL this country. Brutal, violent and unrepentant about taking that to which we feel entitled. There is a moment at the end of the film version of “No Country for Old Men” where the sheriff, played by Tommy Lee Jones, tells his wife he is giving up; essentially that he is no match for the evil in the world. It is a sunlit slice of utter despair. It is a good man deciding to do nothing in the face of evil. It chilled me to the bone.
However, on Steve’s new record, there is a psychological map of our republic drawn; one that tells us our definition as a country is still being determined; that it is not too late to find our better selves. What my my grandmother used to refer to as the “angels of our better nature.” He often channels the voices of those marginalized and rendered voiceless–the migrant worker, the addict, the hobo, the outsiders charting their own maps as they go. The people on the other side of the billboards. The imperfect, hobbled and luminous. We, the people.
One of the great worries American Indians had when the white man started encroaching was watching the depletion of nature occur at an accelerated pace. Trees were cut down, mountains plowed through, rivers damned and bridged; as well as animals slaughtered for meat, fur, hides and bones. The white man was a whirling dervish of waste and destruction. This led Native Americans to some destructive behavior of their own. They hunted the bison to the brink of extinction in an effort to deprive the white man of a primary food source. It didn’t work. the white man kept coming and ate elk, deer and antelope in lieu of buffalo. It was one of many desperate measures taken in order to stanch the inexorable march of the murderers, thieves and rapists who stole our country for us.
Of course it didn’t work, and the genocide and internment of the First Nation tribes, which exists to this day, was a fait accompli. The grinding erosion and elimination of natural resources, plants and animals also assumed a murderous pace as well. The making of this Republic was a bloody, awful business. It meant the unmaking of a natural world. Naturalists will tell you that extinction is part of nature. As the planet changes, each species’ ability to change with it is tested. The last passenger pigeon died in a Cincinnati zoo in 1912.
They were at one time so plentiful. It would take 2 or 3 days for a single flock of them to pass over head during migration. Less than a hundred years later, they were extinct. The march of mankind did them in. New emigres from Europe would feed them to their hogs. Massive “pigeon shoots” were commonplace. There was an idea out there that the supply of passenger pigeons was infinite. This, sadly, is an American thought. We devour the world in front of us because we think there will always be more. We plan…and nature laughs.
At the end of summer every year, you notice the beginning of how things end in the world. Gardens and grass are more brown, more dry and less vibrantly alive. The summer big movies have been released and the studios empty out the less worthy offerings around the beginning of September. There is murderous heat and the realization of our kids that school is about to start.
This year, there is also another bitter election cycle to distract us from the sad fact that we have so much less power than citizens of our parents’ generation had. Our “leaders” don’t get it anymore. They don’t understand that they work for us–that they are public servants. Somehow, and not all that long ago, they decided, via our inaction and apathy, that they were in charge; that they were Tarzan and we were Jane. It’s our fault, really. The political culture’s obscene sense of entitlement is an arrogance we allowed to happen. Twenty years ago, Rahm Emanuel would not have been able to get elected without the support of labor. Now he feels entitled to break unions, fuck with pensions and decide for you and me what kind of schools our kids will have.
The head of the teachers union, Karen Lewis, is not helping matters any. She is hell-bent on brinksmanship. She is naive and way out of her depth. What she doesn’t know is that these guys have NO bottom. There is no depth to which they will not sink to get their way. They are creatures of the political back-channels and alleyways, and these are the political operatives who are down there where the lizards have no eyes. Rahm has forgotten more about the foul arts of political vindictiveness and nastiness than Karen Lewis will ever know.
I’ve come to believe he is the worst person we’ve ever elected to any position of power in city government. First it will be the teachers, then the CTA workers or the firemen. . .then every other union that employs public workers–letter carriers, etc. Rahm and his crew will run the table. They will have privatized the city like his East Coast pal, Michael Bloomberg, a similarly height-challenged, big-city mayor with a Napoleon complex. All the while, while people are screaming about their pensions, the Emanuels of the world will be telling them, “It’s those GREEDY teachers” or fireman, or train conductors or letter carriers, or cops or. . .well, you get the idea. Fill in the blanks.
Aldermen and politicians are exempt from this because 20 years ago King Richie helped pass a bill which inoculated them from this fate. I guess he figured, ‘Why should we take the fucking when we can pass it along to the citizens?”
There will be two kinds of people inhabiting Chicago–wealthy , connected types. . .and those who deign to serve them.
I had an odd epiphany last night, watching the parade of Republican drool cases at their convention. At one point, they trotted out Clint Eastwood to endorse the Sphincter Twins and, albeit half-heartedly, he did. It made me sad to see Eastwood used so cynically, and in the service of such hateful mediocrity. Toward the end of his rather surreal and disconnected endorsement, he looked straight into the camera and reminded us, “We the People, own this country. Not the politicians. That, at best, they are our employees.”
It kind of makes me wonder if this were not his intention all along. To wrap his real message in a half-hearted endorsement of a haircut masquerading as a public servant.
This is another thought about the end of summer: one’s tendency to indulge in wishful thinking. “Washing the dirty roses,” was what my grandmother called it.