I feel that it’s incumbent on me, especially me, to talk about what I am grateful for this Thanksgiving. In view of the election of President-Elect Donald Trump, I find myself deeply grateful for the State of California, for our pragmatic Governor Jerry Brown, and for its people: their openness, their kindness, their compassion, their inventiveness. I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, where I learned that if you didn’t have anything nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all.
Alabama is beautiful. It is a gorgeous state filled with rivers and streams and woods, flora and fauna of amazing variety. It is where I used to go hunting as a boy with my favorite uncle, taciturn Uncle Bud. He would take me deep into the forest. And he could explain to me what hunting was all about. For him, it was listening to his dogs.
“Listen to them,” he would say about the cacophony of barking voices echoing through the distant pines. “The whole pack, lost. They are confused. They don’t know if they are coming or going.”
There are barks in the distance. One voice off by itself. “Listen to Maggie [his favorite beagle]. She’s got the scent. She knows what to do. Listen to her call to the rest of them, saying ‘Hear me. Follow me.’” And I could hear her clear, confident voice resonating through the trees.
“Now listen to their voices as they realize she is right and follow her lead. Now they are on the trail.” And suddenly it all makes sense.
He puts away his pipe. “Come with me. Quick!” And he rushes over to a grove with a break in the trees and takes out his pistol. “The rabbit will cross here.”
And when it does, running, he shoots it with one single shot. And that night, he skins it and guts it and prepares it for eating. But we can’t eat it. The meat is riddled with worms. His tracking, his shot, was a feat so unbelievable and yet horrifying, it amazed me. But it is spoiled.
The beauty of the skill is hard to reconcile with the horror, outcomes that are unforeseen. There is always the possibility of worms.
What I didn’t recognize during those formative years was the understood, prevailing cultural prohibitions and biases; the amazing restrictions on public speaking, and attitude of what was right and what was wrong. One thing I knew was that one could walk into any neighborhood, knock on a door, carefully ask a political question, and get the same answer. There was a uniformity of cultural mores and truths that did not brook any differences.
When I first arrived in California in 1968, the Free Speech Movement was still underway and I realized that people were not afraid to speak their mind. I discovered a warmth and friendliness that allowed free discussion, argumentation, and a wealth of differing ideas and I told everybody who would listen that I knew that I had found my people.
This is where protests against the Vietnam War could take root, where new music could be born, where poetry and painting and printing and potting and publishing were all thriving in this heady mix of freedom and the excitement of what it meant to “find yourself.” Where free love suddenly took on a meaning other than what the media made of it. It meant loving your neighbor, caring for each other and, yes, it meant engaging in physical copulation, but it was more than that. It was all free. It was not about money or material success. It was a spiritual awakening that made life in California seem thrilling and I was amazed. This was the place that the Information Age would happen because people were free thinkers and could share ideas.
But today, it feels like Alabama has come to the shores of California. I watch the news and discover that Jeff Sessions, the Alabama state senator whose racist speech cost him a judgeship, now has been selected to be appointed Attorney General. I must say, that causes me to suddenly pause. That thought awakens my memories of “whites only” water fountains, of church bombings, the murder of four black children—Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair— in the name of segregation. And it comes to me that the restrictions on public speech that were so prevalent in the South covered over a host of repressive, subjugating ways of living. “If-you-can’t-say-anything-nice-don’t-say-anything-at-all.”
I am so grateful that California remains a bulwark against the bullying, racist world presented by Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump. I believe that we will not bend under this assault on our freedom and we will not give in to a past that is not worthy of respect or dignity.
We were waiting in a stand of pines. The hounds announced themselves. Yes, he said, yes, they’ll cross over there. And he began to run.
I remember catching up, my uncle taking the pistol from his clothes as he knelt on the road. It had rained earlier that morning and the smoke stayed close to the ground, the sound burning in my ears.
Yes, he said, fine rabbit if he doesn’t have worms, and he smiled, his hand once again disappearing beneath his coat.
And the rabbit was so small, shot through the head, and I was amazed and puzzled, a child knowing that shot was a feat of perfection somehow. So small and he had shot it from so far away.
So small, and yes, he had stood there holding it by the ears, the wind bending around us, the trees singing the song of what could be remembered, but never again touched.
Berkeley Poets Co-op #14 (1978)