The night before, a group of Amish sung lullabies on an island below a full moon at the end of June. It was a cool, still night, on a lake, George Pataki, former governor of New York State, called the “heart of the Adirondacks.”
I was up to my knees in clear, warm water ready to push-off. To say thanks to the beach and forest, where I slept, cooked, and swam for two-nights, I looked back, like I did from the back of our silver 1990 Toyota Land Cruiser, when my mom whispered: “Say goodbye.” As we drove-away from our home.
To the other side of a river; a new home; a new county; a new place.
Fighter jets over the North Country. I’d heard them the past couple hours. Like I do from the farm I’m restoring on the New York side of the Champlain Valley.
Aimlessly, I wondered if they flew east out of Watertown, or west from Burlington? After all, I was “in,” or, “on”, the “heart of the Adirondacks,” and either base is about the same distance away.
They’d been up there a while. Curious, I looked up with thoughts of Catch-22 and Yosarrian—at the hospital, not wanting to fly.
I saw fire and smoke.
A collision. Equipment failure. Then, as they circled round’, like huge grey arrowheads, I realized I was watching a systematic release of the kind of flares I’d seen pilots use in movies—the ones for attracting enemy missiles. I recorded a video.
Coincidentally—even if, on our feverish planet where people, places, things, usually seem in conflict—I’d been thinking about World War and World Peace, before my trip.
Russians and Ukrainians slaughtering each other for no good reason…Smoke from Canadian wildfires filling the lungs of upstate New York…Millions in body bags from a pneumonic plague many refused to respect as a life-threatening situation…Climate trends pointing-up a fundamental mismatch between human demands and Earth’s ability to support unlimited growth…An embarrassment of riches as the west slips into darkness instead of finding the courage to confront the violent political-economic cycles of the past few thousand years of human development…
War and Peace. Exaggerated Meanness and Kindness.
Like so many kindergarteners learning to share a room.
As those jets ripped furrows in an otherwise quiet blue above, shooting trails of smoke to explode in hot orange endings, I didn’t have to think far-and-wide to see our prevailing political-economic paradigm—the same one polluting every square inch of Earth’s surface; every particle of space in Earth’s atmosphere; and therefore, every living cell—cracking its knuckles.
It was right there. Soaring. Plunging. Raining down in exploded ordnance.
I thought of the degree and scale of destruction in the news. And if it’d force the kind of cultural reckoning seemingly imminent during, and after, every war?
I thought of all the promises and pretty proclamations. The sacrifices, horrors, and new beginnings. The awkward addresses. The bereft: the wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, sisters, and brothers— and how, they, should be giving the speeches.
I thought of the pilots up there and what it’s like to hit the ground after 1,200-miles-per-hour.
The simulation rooms on the aircraft carrier docked in New York City my parents and I visited in the 90’s when I was fascinated by all things War. The summer sun reflecting from skyscrapers. The sour smell rising from liquids along the sidewalk.
My grandfather, a translator in General Patton’s armored division. The camps. The VHS rentals from the local store. The uniforms and tanks. The stacks of books in my grandfather’s—the other one, the one who served with the Air Force in Korea—upstairs room at the lake house in western New York.
And what about the Amish on a summer retreat? Two huge vans at the trailhead. The Canoeing, singing, and cooking over campfires. Where did they come from? Central New York? And what’d they think about those shapes and sounds in the sky?
Those large arrowheads. That soaring and plunging. The deceptive slowness when a pilot pulls back. Their body caving-in. Tightening. Holding-on. Anticipating. Leaning-in.
A ready-made story.
The sharp contrasts. Fighter jets; an otherwise Edenic wilderness; apocalyptic news from the past couple years crackling in my mind; sounds of Amish singing lullabies on an island beneath a full moon on a dead calm night at the end of June in the North Country—the most beautiful and bizarre thing I’d witnessed in a long time.
I tried weeping below that moon. I prayed for the trauma to come out in long salty streams. To never return. To leave me. Untouched and pure as the moonlight and lullabies undulating over the water’s surface to the warm sandy beach where I stood wondering how to make a living?
How to live in an economy of relationships where actions—jobs—are more like those in the larger economy— “Nature’s economy”—from which, and through which, all life exists.
From the top-down. Bottom-up. And outward.
Sunlight and rain. Blades of grass. Roots spreading.
The next morning, as they shattered the sound barrier and my illusions of Peace, it was like those jets were hauling the entire banner of human history.
They reminded me, how, if you want, almost everywhere you look, you can see the dominant aggressive form of relating with people, places, things, as objects for the taking—even way out in the “largest park in the United States.”
I tried finding a warm feeling. Like the one I sometimes get when I’m physically exhausted. When I let my mind swing through my life, and over the Earth, as I understand them, and come back to me—”yes, this is good.”
To try and imagine something cozy.
Like what it’d be like to live through the sustainable, mutually-beneficial relationships—the ones people swimming upstream have always talked about—and if such a network, if dedicated and extensive enough, would be enough to end the game of chicken manifest whenever enough people, have enough weapons, and the hand of a state forcing them down-the-line. To interact as partners in life instead of adversaries in conflict.
I thought of Russian soldiers invading Ukraine. And all the soldiers through time. And what it’d be like to lay down arms at the same time. Arms. Army. Arm-istice. Surrender.
An unmistakable sound.
Like the planet spinning. And that light. That energy. Passing over its bosom. A dawn forever becoming.
The percussion of a million guns hitting the ground. A prolonged music of clicking and clacking.
A premonition in the boardrooms and command centers; classrooms and highways; farms and oceans; dinner tables and bedrooms.
A feeling. A holiday. An old sensation.
That sixth sense. A coming.
A turning-round. A looking up. A dawning.
The searching for someone.
A long holiday.
The tears of eternity.
And the planet.
Chicken. Waiting for someone to turn.
Two muscle cars on a summer’s night. Crickets. A roaring in the engines. Cornfields and billboards. Headlights and glossy paint. Electric guitars. Wailing.
Who gets in the car with the one who doesn’t turn. Who yields and makes the turn? What of leadership. Who follows who? And what of U.S. politics in 2023?
What then? After the turning-away?
8-billion strong pulling-away and committing to Peace.
What of the outliers left spinning in the ruts of War?
Is violence, like a weed returning to an abandoned field, an article of neglect?
An unpleasant fact-of-life forever to be met on the fields-of-life, wherever they may be, with a kind of attitude and composure free-from any edge or surface to which it can hold and cling?
Something that, if met with no energy, no emotion, turns inward and burns itself out?
But to leave it hanging. To blow-and-settle.
To leave the madhouse of business-as-usual, and walk freely— bravely—into night, towards a new dawn.
Maybe people, like in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s ‘Defeating Windigo’—people old and wise, and sick of the violence —would come forth?
Offerings. Medicines for those committed to War.
Vomiting up their sickness.
Freed from torment.
Talking. Cooing. And then walking.
Back into health.
Back into the warm embrace of human kindness.
At the take-out, in exchange for the same, I helped a family carry their canoe up a long rocky trail to their car. I asked the father, an accomplished writer and farmer from the Hudson Valley, if he’d seen the drills. He hadn’t. “Maybe they’re using environmentally friendly flares,” I joked, as I showed him my video.
I wondered what he thought about the strangeness of being in the kind of place frequented by people who’d probably notice something like an aerial military maneuver over their—after all, these places are public-lands, subject to policies descendent from democratic participation through free-and-fair elections—state-protected wilderness area, where, the works of humanity, are supposed to be largely absent.
I asked him, considering the indispensability of our military— an arbitrating force accustomed, through the might of its arsenal, to bringing all sides to the table—in this great planetwide game of geo-political chicken, if having fighter jets fire flares, is like having pit privies; wooden walk bridges; and fire-towers; in the backcountry?
A human necessity: in a world still looking through the shades of War.
Photo courtesy of the author, Sam Levine.