The Tree – Chapter 1

Chapter 1 – “The Tree”

We pass them daily, here and there, occasionally awed by the showier of their number but mostly taking them in subconsciously, as background to the more mobile elements of our world.

We cut them down by the millions for chairs and tables and newspapers and junk mail. In life and in death, they serve us in every conceivable way. They sacrificed themselves to allow us our earliest accomplishment, the prehistoric campfire that gave us warmth and kept the blackness of the night at bay. They provided the most precious symbols of our religions: the Ark of the Covenant — made from acacia. The Bodhi tree — the sacred fig under which the Buddha received enlightenment. The Burning Bush. The Cross. From this lofty station they have served, and all the way down to toilet paper. At birth we are laid in a cradle made from their yield, and at death, into a coffin of the same. Our lives are intertwined as much as any two life forms’ could be, never mind how lopsided the relationship has thus far been.

Some among us appreciate them. Some have made studying them, saving them, or planting them their lives’ work.

But perhaps most significantly, we use them as symbols of ourselves. We plant them to commemorate births, and deaths, of our own kind. This is done out of a vague recognition of the nobility that planting a tree is an act that will outlive us, and yet, even if it is a long-term investment, it nevertheless is one that can be appreciated in the seasons of one’s own life.

But I am deeply suspicious that there is more to this habit of planting trees to commemorate birth and death, a deeper connection. It is as if we recognize at a gut level that a single tree is a physical reminder of a single human being, that over and above the fact that our lives are so inextricably linked, the tree is a silent stand-in for a human soul.

Consider. Though most are larger than we are, they nonetheless exist on a more-or-less human scale. They have arms, and occasionally legs. They have personality — stately or gnarly, thorny or fruity, and infinite combinations of all these and other traits. And, like us, they have individuality. Though they have classifications and varied types, they each are unique specimens. No two are the same — the patterns of their bark no less unique than a fingerprint.

These connections and similarities seem to be more than coincidental, more than a convenient metaphor onto which we can project certain features of our own nature only to cast them off when the metaphor no longer fits, latching on to some other object in nature or science.

No, rather, I believe that the relationship between humans and trees is deep beyond anything we can imagine, that it is profound, the similarities infinite, and the parallels, divinely designed. Here is what I mean.

The universe, by definition (“uni”) is one, a single thing. And yet, insofar as the human experience is concerned, it seems to exist in two parts, like two sides of a coin. It is unified, a single thing, as a coin, and yet has two vantage points, two distinct experiences. One part is material, the other spiritual. A suitable metaphor for these two worlds, which are nonetheless one, is that the material world is like the earth under our feet, while the spiritual world is the air around and over us. One is solid, tangible, and obvious — you can stomp on it; the other is invisible and subtle, but no less real and certainly no less essential to life. They are distinct, but linked.

Everything in this material world is a reflection — an analog — of something in the spiritual world. Some have said that the physical plane is merely a reflection of the spiritual plane, or is something akin to shadows being thrown from light and objects in the spiritual realm. Another way to state it is that the physical world is an emanation of the spiritual world, that the whole universe itself is simply an emanation of the Mind of God.

In the material world or world of nature, one poignant sign or symbol of God is clearly the sun, which created the Earth by first donating a part of itself and then continuously sustaining every organism on it through its constant flow of matchless energy. (Perhaps this explains why primitive man, with his more childlike, simplistic view of the cosmos, so often worshiped the sun as God Himself, his young consciousness not yet able to grasp the metaphoric nature of the physical world.)

If one sign of God in nature is the sun, then the corresponding sign of the human spirit in nature is the tree. Consider: The tree is rooted in the material world, and yet, as it grows toward the sun, it becomes ever more glorious, reaching out to the sun, into the heavens above its earthly and earthy beginnings to fulfill its potential, the destiny written in its acorn, its intrinsic majesty. When its lowest branches, the ones closest to the material world, are pruned away, its energy and nutrients are forced into the higher branches, and as the tree grows taller, closer to the ultimate source of its life, it grows inestimably more majestic than even it was in the wild.

The tree can never be the sun. Indeed, it can never even touch the sun. It will always be a tree. But the closer to the sun it grows, the more perfect and glorious a tree it will be. It can never attain a station greater than what it was created to be, but it can attain perfections within that station, and this is what its Creator must have intended.

The physical and spiritual worlds are different in one respect: one is obvious and easily observable, the other, largely mysterious to our limited perceptions. But if the obvious physical world and the mysterious spiritual world are reflections of each other, then it stands to reason that we could use the natural world to unlock the mysteries of the unseen spiritual world. We can use nature as a sort of Rosetta Stone to decode the subtler reality that is the spiritual world. Growth and decay. Light and darkness. Morning, afternoon, and evening. The cycle of the seasons. The parallels between the single organism and the collective species. All of these broad phenomena have their spiritual parallels, or more likely, are themselves merely illustrations of spiritual realities, physical conditions that are built on a mind-boggling scale and over a cosmic timeframe for our benefit that we might learn from them.

In fact, nature seems to have been created for two purposes, one following the other like a launch rocket followed by a booster. In the first place, nature has arisen and proliferated in diversity in such a way that it has, finally, produced a being capable of relating, in some small way, to its Creator. And each creature, no matter how bizarre or seemingly disconnected to us it might seem, nevertheless has played and is playing a part in the vast and subtle web of life to which we owe our existence.

Now that spiritual consciousness has arisen in the form of the human, we can see that these creatures also can be seen to exist as living metaphors for us. I believe the web of life, whether we see a given part of it or whether that part remains in isolation, never glimpsed by the eyes of humans, nevertheless exists that we might grasp its metaphors and employ those to our improvement. The web of life is a book that has taken thirteen billion years to write, the last four billion on earth, so that we now might have the honor and the duty of reading it. (And, it should be added, this thirteen billion years represents only the latest edition, and the local edition, for, if the universe is an emanation from the mind of God, it follows that the universe can have no beginning or end, either spatially or temporally.)

Consider how the nobility of the horse or the steadfastness of the dog or the majesty of the eagle inspires us to strive for our higher nature. Who is to say these magnificent beasts were not created for that very purpose?

But let us not wax sentimental about a postcard, arm-chair version of “nature,” glossing over how brutally indifferent it can appear. Nature also puts on display for us the gluttony of the pig and the foul, opportunistic viciousness of the gila monster, all perhaps, to warn us away from our lower nature by the revulsion they elicit in us. These too are reflections of the spiritual world, stand-ins for parallel spiritual realities. Nature exists not only for the positive examples, but for the negative examples it yields. While nature in and of itself cannot really be bad, there are behaviors and phenomena we witness that trigger feelings in us of disgust, pity, fear, revulsion. The nature of the condor, the lion, and the blue whale is also the nature of the maggot, dung beetle, and mole rat.

Isn’t this a bit egotistical, anthrocentric, that everything was created simply to facilitate our appearance on the scene and then to aid in our spiritual education — the entire cosmos as an audio/visual aid? Perhaps. And yet, what is the alternative explanation? If our physical world does not exist to serve to build, then inform, then astound consciousness, what function does its creation serve? We have yet to hear an alternative answer, other than the deeply unsatisfying “none.” And why would we have been given the instinct to search for meaning if, at the end of the trail, none were there to be found? Even a naturalistic, evolutionary worldview argues for the existence of ultimate meaning, because we’ve obviously been given an instinct to seek it out, and evolution itself tells us that instincts don’t develop for no reason.

Creation is an emanation from the Mind of God. And it seems to exist for two principal reasons: as a platform from which spiritual life eventually would emerge and as a virtually infinite pool of metaphors to further inform that spiritual life.

If we accept these premises, then a vast reservoir of spiritual knowledge awaits us. So let us turn now to the business of decoding the spiritual truth about ourselves by considering more closely the life of that organism that is the natural world’s sublime reflection of the human spirit, the tree.

The Tree is available here.

Table of Contents

1 The Tree ……………………. 1
2 The Acorn…………………..13
3 Roots………………………19
4 The Pruninghook……………..27
5 The Arborist…………………37
6 The Forest…………………..43
7 The Orchard…………………63
8 Tree of Life…………………..79
9 Greater Heights……………….85

Epilogue: The Sister City of Our Souls . . . 91
A Note on the Source of Ideas ………99

Selected Essays

Seven Steps to Heaven on Earth ……101
Science, Religion, and the Patterns
of Creation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 125
From Barbarity to Civilization:
The Transitions of Societies . . . .135
The Meaning of Life ………………145

Rise, Pause, Fall

Isolated basin, hanging valley, hidden lake, logging road.
Construction site, national forest, snowy field, treeline, ridge line, cave system, swamp.
Backyard feeder, kitchen window, hen house, rabbit hutch, headlights.

Klamath, Marble Mountains, Holy Cross Wilderness, Dark Divide, Cascadia
Mount St. Helens, Bluff Creek, BC, Manitoba, Ontario, St. Edward’s Island,
Olympic Peninsula, Sierra Nevada, Northern Minnesota. Ohio.
Southern cousin, suburban outcast.

Lean-to of hand-snapped saplings, mud pit, lay area,
Earthbound nest of boughs and weeds
Tree-knock, Enoch.
Primeval Morse code of wood on wood.

Dermal ridges, mid-tarsal hinges, compression zone
Miles of tape measures spanning acres of plaster
Hair sample from screen door, tooth on foot trail, acrid pool of blackberry diarrhea.
Skookum body cast.

Shaky video. Blurry photo. Background object discovered months later.
Shattering implications in a single charcoal pixel.
Hissing cassettes of distant screams across black valleys’ 3 a.m.
911 recording, panicked Seattle homeowner. Matter-of-fact homeless San Antonio woman.
PG 13, P-G frame 352

New Peguis Backroad, Memorial Day, New York Baby in a Craw, Texas Woodpile Thermal,
Pennsylvania Trailcam, North Carolina Zagnut, Kentucky Pancake.
Patty. Matilda.

First the odor: Skunk. Methane. Horse. Wet dog. Rotting garbage. Dead animal.
Then, the dumbstruck forest. Crickets and thrushes hushed by what? Titanic EMF? Infrasound?
Now seismic footfalls. Snapping branches.

And then …

Field of vision filled. Reality rent. Something so us, and so not us.
Quartet of essential descriptors: large, hair-covered, upright … creature.
Size, impossible size. Seven and a half. Eight feet. Ten feet

Mountainous muscle-bound bulk. Breathtaking latent power. Terrifying and wondrous.
All shoulders and trapezia and arms. Impossibly wide with chest as deep.
Surface-to-volume ratio, cold adaptation, Bergmann’s rule.

Then the doubt, then the ruling out: No bear. No man. No hoax. No hallucination.

Rise, pause, fall. In-line trackway. Compliant gait.
Confirms on uniform color. Black, auburn, brown, albino.
Ostman’s pads.
Coned head, slope to back.
Gray-faced, heavy brow, red retinal eyeshine, hooded nose, long upper lip, canines,
Human expression. No, animal. No, human.

Nocturnal-crepescular. Bipedal-quadripedal.
Arboreal. Amphibious. Omnivorous. Opportunistic. Nomadic.
Physical as we are intellectual. Hominoid yin to our hominid yang. The trade-off now clear.

Evolutionary bridesmaid. Country cousin.
Brilliant beast or benighted man?
Literally benighted. Stinking. Howling in the dark. Nervous. Harassed and harassing.
Threatened and threatening. Raw venison.
Primitive language — whistles, grunting chatter.
Promethean snubbed.
Opposible thumb good only for hurling rocks at miners, hikers,
Choking fawns, stealing chickens, snapping limbs.
Dead end. Missing link. Pleistocene relic.
Fading snapshot of our younger selves.

Ever thus for us.
Genesis giants in the earth
Gilgamesh’s Enkidu
Grendel, bane of Half-Danes, sons of Cain
Woodwose to puzzled monks and Fear Liath to fog-bound Highlanders
Werewolf. Wookie.
Archetypal projection? or barely repressed racial memory?

Straining credulity:
No roadkill. No early century hunter’s trophy.
No decent wildlife photographer. Not one.
That the last to be discovered could be most spectacular.
That we have named four hundred thousand beetles,
Yet somehow overlooked this, which we cannot look over.

But thirty thousand reports. Two hundred years. Forty-nine states.
First Nations traditions —
Each and all a hoax or mistake? Every one?
Dashcam video. Law enforcement. Air traffic controller.
Respected psychologist imperiling career.

Sleepless timber executives, visions of death by conservation.
Lumberjack gag order.
False recantations coerced by sinister threat.
Manufactured hoaxes to muddy water.
Grinning news anchor mockery: “And finally tonight…”
Government X file. Scientific pariah. Professional suicide.
Tabloid infection, promise of fortune, dueling lawsuits, non-disclosure agreements, film rights,
Vegas promoters, website entrepreneurs, sideshow barkers.

Patterson, Gimlin, Freeman, Erickson, Slick, Moneymaker
Heuvelmans, Krantz, Bindernagel, Meldrum, Hadj-Chikh
Byrne, Williams, Green, Pyle

Type specimen or DNA?
Tranquilize or shoot to kill?
Poaching? Manslaughter? or Murder?
Habituation. Investigation. Dismissive nation.
DNA sequencing. Peer review. Press conference.
Gigantopithecus canadensis.

The Master’s Mule

One night
After months of rocky sharp steps
Under Iraqi sun and Ottoman moon
I plodded at the rear
Of the caravan of the red roan.

The pines came ever thicker,
Until their needles combed away
The Anatolian moonlight
And ink drowned my beacon,
The white fez of my Master ahead,
Now one with His wavy black locks.

Distracted, fatigued,
Attracted by a patch of weeds
Or the gurgle of a nearby stream
My tall ears did not even glean
That the crunch of hooves
And Turkish murmurs
And Persian chants had faded
To only the rustle of needles and cones
In a summer night breeze.

Off the trail, I paced the dark
And brushed the bark
With bulky saddlebags.

I drank my fill from a high stream
And stood altogether unaware
I’d defected from that team,
And I stood in silence.

Far under hoof, and near the antipode,
I heard with these tall ears
The whinnies at Gettysburg
Of other equine servants,
Splattered from above in the blood of other masters
Doing their best to tear this world apart
With rifle and sword and the name of the Lord
As fast as Master can put it together.
The antipodes of heart.

I was drinking from the stream as first light came,
And felt a hand upon my rein.
I turned to look, flattened my ears
And it was Him —
His gentle eyes, much older
Than His nineteen years,
A warm wide smile
Set off by a short black beard.
No scolding. No angry blows.
Only a warm hand on my neck.
And another on my nose.

For when He’d noticed I was absent
He’d alerted the warden-escort,
Who assured Him in a Turkish accent
Nothing lost in a thicket of this sort
Could ever be found.

But I carried something on my back,
Something I never really knew —
Papers in a box,
And other objects too.
Was it these or me for which He grieved the loss?

With permission
He had ridden out into the blackest night.
Whoever finds him first, He said,
Call out, or tell with firelight.

* * *

The sun was high over the land,
When we rejoined the caravan.
Cries of joy went up, and I stood a little taller,
When the search party led me in.

They rushed toward my saddlebags
Loaded them onto forward nags.
It was the boxes for which they longed,
Not me, I thought.
I hung my head and plodded on.

Just then I felt that hand again.
And it was Him now walking near,
Whispering in my tall ear
A gentle word, a loving tone.
He chose to join me at the rear
Of the caravan of the red roan.

–Ridvan 2009


Rocky Mountain

I stood transfixed, as if in midair, on the rocky outcropping. The air was cool and still, and the fog, which filled the canyon right to its rim, was a living sculpture, changing moment to moment as the sun pared it away in subtle swaths here and there. I raised my camera for one final picture. No click. I checked the monitor. “Card Full.”

I hit the playback button and quickly scrolled back through the last three days for a shot I could do without. That fifth photo of the backside of a mule deer that I took in Rocky Mountain National Park would do nicely. I deleted it and snapped my final photo of the trip. Kirstin and the boys had already begun the long journey home and were back at the minivan in the nearby parking lot.

I capped the lens, breathed deeply the mountain air, drank in the view one last time, and set off to join them. No sooner had I turned toward the lot than about 65 Japanese tourists swarmed down toward me and completely overtook the fenced landing known as Artist’s Point. A few of them howled like wolves, and everyone cackled with laughter at the running joke and splintered off into sixes and tens to have their presence there in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone documented. Such a jarring contrast to my solitary, Thoreau moment seconds before might have been a buzzkill, but their exuberance was catching. I smiled at the notion of them so happy, and marveled at how many of them, how very many, had traveled halfway around the world to see the natural wonders of the United States of America. Our country was, indeed, pretty badass.

Our own journey here had begun nearly a year earlier, morphing this way and that in the planning stages until finally congealing about six weeks before our June 1 departure. We would fly from Austin to Denver, saving ourselves two days of driving each direction. Then we’d rent a car, and after a good visit with Kirstin’s brother and sister-in-law in Denver, we would blitz three national parks in about six days: Rocky Mountain National Park, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone.

I had always been vaguely aware of our national parks, but was not a devotee as the nearest one to my home was 10 hours driving. But I had gotten religion about them from watching Ken Burns’ 12-hour documentary. And ever since we committed to this park system hat-trick, I had scarcely been able to think of anything else. After doing the calculus and deciding that flying was the only sensible way, we had bought our plane tickets six months out.

Yellowstone in particular was such a piece of Americana that I hesitated to admit to friends I had never been. We watched specials and read and learned more about it in an attempt to get the boys primed. The Ken Burns box set came to me as a gift, enabling multiple wistful viewings on hot Texas afternoons. Nova soon aired its phenomenal “Christmas in Yellowstone” episode. Then the Yogi Bear movie came out, set in “Jellystone Park.” This was meant to be.

Four days before we left, the Destroyer of Worlds had sprawled on his bedroom floor in a fit of despair and sobbed, “I want to go to Yellowstone! I WANT TO GO TO YELLOWSTONE!!!” Never mind that he didn’t have the vaguest notion of what Yellowstone even was. He just knew we had been talking about it for a year and that he wanted to go, already.

With the boys at 9, 7, and 4, this nine-day, three-park blitz would be an epic undertaking. I’m not exactly sure what girding one’s loins looks like, but I’m pretty sure Kirstin and I were engaged in this activity during the countdown. Two full days in advance I set up folding tables in the living room so that we could see what we were packing for each of the three boys and for ourselves. Judging by our living room, we were honoring these national parks by transporting to them everything we owned.

We awoke at 3:45 in the morning for our 6 a.m. flight. Ian surely thought he was being kidnapped.

As we made our way to Southwest’s check-in counter, we must have looked like an American middle class version of a refugee family, wheeling and carrying all our earthly belongings to a new life: an enormous suitcase, the biggest duffel bag we owned, rolling suitcases for all three children, backpacks bearing one change of clothes and activity books to keep them occupied on the flight, and three car seats — two boosters and a full five-point harness. I figured I myself was moving in excess of 125 pounds worth of luggage toward Southwest Flight 1325.

We arrived in Denver, claimed our many bags, boarded a train to the main terminal, then boarded a shuttle bus to the rental car station. There I stood in line for 20 minutes as the sole associate slowly made his way through the infinite variety of coverages the fellow before me in line or I could buy for just $15, $29, or $49 more per day.

When I had finally broken his will to live, he surrendered the keys to our minivan, which curiously were not keys at all but just elaborate fobs, the nubby end of which started the engine when inserted into the ignition. Outside we were greeted by a sea of Chrysler Town and Countries, and after checking to make sure their storage areas would accept our enormous rolling suitcase, the size of the chests people would have moved all their belongings in during transatlantic voyages of the 18th century, we let the boys pick our van, based purely on color. The one Chrysler calls “clearwater blue” got the nod.

And now I began what I thought would be the fairly straightforward process of unlocking and opening the van. The key fob more closely resembled our intimidating TV/DVR remote than anything I had ever seen for an automobile. I punched the button with the broken padlock icon. Nothing. Then twice and it opened. There were other buttons on the remote that opened the automatic sliding side doors and still others that popped the hatchback. It was a miracle of wireless communication, really. But as appreciative as I was of the technology, I never was able to crack the code of which button did what and after how many pressings. Sometimes once worked, other times twice, two and a hold, three punchy ones. It was like you had to spell out “Chrysler” in Morse Code with dits and dahs. Worse, there were two identical key fobs, and I didn’t have the common sense to separate them and simply use one. So while one might have gotten the car locked with one, when we returned I would inevitably guess wrong and grab the other, which either wouldn’t work or worked differently. For nine full days, every time we approached the van, I simply started pushing the ten buttons on the two fobs until doors started opening.

We were in, and we were off, our four cylinders furiously pushing us north by northwest toward Estes Park, gateway to Rocky Mountain National.

We were about 15 minutes outside the airport when Ian, from the middle row of seats, first said, “I wanna go home.” Kirstin and I exchanged knowing looks, both immediately thinking of how inconsolable he had been in his desire to go to Yellowstone 48 hours earlier. We smiled the longsuffering smile of veteran parents, and ignored him.

As we approached the town of Estes Park, I almost wrecked the van in excitement over our first wildlife spotting–two cow elk standing around on the front lawn of a building. Oh, it’s like this? I thought. Elk are to Estes Park as whitetail deer are to west Austin. They’re simply everywhere, with no fear of humans, and probably, to those who live there, simply pests that eat your flowers and crap all over your lawn.

In five minutes we had reached the park proper and wheeled into the first of innumerable visitor centers. Here is the temple of national parks cult, where high priests in flat-brimmed hats spread maps out on countertops and reveal mysteries to excited believers like where the bighorn sheep have been seen most recently. One of the first pieces of information the ranger imparted to me was that roughly two-thirds of the park was still closed to cars because of snow. No matter; there was still way more park open than we could see in our paltry half-day visit.

As this was the first of what we hoped were many trips to national parks, we went all in on the “passports,” the activity books, the field guides, and, of course, the Junior Ranger curriculum.

As little boys will demonstrate, there’s nothing worth doing that can’t be rewarded with a badge. And with two of our three close in age, there’s no badge-winning activity that can’t be turned into a de facto competition. Things might have gotten ugly and cutthroat between the two big boys if their requirements hadn’t been differentiated by age.

Throughout the rest of the trip, we had homework: checking off five of the nine animals pictured above, finding these fifteen words hidden in the puzzle below, finding an igneous rock in the visitor center and describing its texture, identifying why it was difficult for Americans to settle Jackson Hole, attending a Ranger program. And on and on. If we had taken a week at each park, completing the Junior Ranger requirements would have been a leisurely stroll. But we essentially squeezed three week’s worth of scavenger hunts and paperwork into six days. For all the madness of it, we actually gave great credit to the program for keeping the boys focused and engaged.

Our final purchase in our first visitor center was the musical soundtrack to the Ken Burns series. With its fiddles, mandolins, and guitars spinning in our CD player for the next week, we had truly checked the last box. We were Americana incarnate (emphasis on “car”).

Five minutes driving in the park and we had pulled over again, joining the wildlife paparazzi. An elk herd lounged on one of the flats near the highway. We turned out into a small lot overlooking the flats, the camera came out, the boys unbuckled, and we felt like at long last we were doing what we’d set out to do nearly a year earlier.

In twenty minutes we had concluded that elk were pretty much like cattle, only taller, in that they mainly just stood around and ate grass. We decided to move on, and in another five minutes were pulled in at a trail-head where folks were looking through binoculars at the hoped-for bighorn sheep.

Here we decided to try our first “hike,” which consisted of about one-tenth of a mile out and back. As we were still tethered by the short legs of a four year old, seldom did our “hikes” ever even take us out of view of the van. We fantasized that in the years ahead, we would return as hard-core mountaineers, checking in at all these back-country offices we saw, and packing our food and shelter into barely charted terrain. But it was clear those years were far enough away that Kirstin and I would be bent with age before the boys were hardy enough, and in the meantime “hiking” would remain in quotes.

Within another half hour I was putting the minivan through its paces, pushing our way to higher and higher altitude toward something the Park Ranger, or, as Ian called them, Parking Rangers, had circled on our map called Rainbow Curve.

As we rounded every corner and climbed every new rise the scenery was more and more spectacular, vistas stretching down and away from us into steep gorges and valleys, huge cliffs rising up, and now we were seeing snow up close for the first time, pines and aspens growing on impossibly steep mountainsides. I looked over at Kirstin to see her reaction. Fast asleep, and so were the boys. No worries, I thought, they’d see it all on the way down.

I slowed every few minutes to carefully pass a cyclist, some of them obviously in for the long-haul with heavy-looking panniers anchored to their front and rear axles. I figured these panniers were necessary to transport all the performance enhancing drugs that these climbs would certainly require. I’d be dead in the first quarter mile, a grizzly and a pack of coyotes playing tug-of-war with my Spandex-clad corpse.

At last we reached a turnout with sixty parked cars. We figured this for Rainbow Curve. We pulled on our fleecies and hoodies and windbreakers, grabbed up the camera, and headed out to see what the big deal was.

And a big deal it was indeed, a breathtaking view of what was probably the entire northeast quadrant of the park and beyond. Snow-capped 14,000-foot peaks across an alpine valley were only slightly higher than we were. The week before, I had introduced Andrew to the Lord of the Rings movies, and here we started a curious bonding over which scene from the trilogy the landscape resembled most. Rainbow Curve, with its stone wall and miles-long overlook, we decided was actually Helms Deep, near the Gap of Rohan, and we defended the fortress against encroaching Uruk-hai, he as Legolas, I as Gimli.

Back in the minivan, I rode the brake down the mountain and we stopped at Bear Lake. The winding drive had cold-cocked Andrew, and Kirstin stayed with him while he slept in his seat in the van. I led Cameron and the Destroyer of Worlds to the frozen lake’s edge, both of them slipping and falling multiple times on the snowed-under and then iced-over trail.

Our last stop of the day was Sprague Lake, a gorgeous former resort that had been donated to the park. After a picnic lunch, we set out for another “hike,” this one a full half mile around the lake. We had made it over the first patch of snow, when the Destroyer of Worlds got a funny look on his face and began to whimper. Then Ian cried out, “I got to throwed up! I got to throwed up!” We took one step off the trail, and Ian projectile vomited for what seemed like about 60 seconds into the strip of snow and pine needles between us and the sky-blue lake. Best we could tell, it was just one of those random childhood hurlings that can strike at any time and for any reason. Might have been the altitude. Might have been the curvy roads we had just come off of. Might have been those hundred and fifty nacho cheese flavored Doritos … or some combination of the three. Regardless, when he was empty, he felt all better. And in the ultimate leap of faith, I put him on my shoulders and we proceeded around the lake.

If Ian’s vomiting on the banks of Sprague Lake represented the low point of the trip thus far, perhaps the high point was just five minutes later, when we walked up on a group of park goers giddy at the sight of a bull moose just thirty or so yards away. Perhaps the Dorito vomit had drawn him in, sort of like a chum trail — I admit this is unlikely.

When we returned to the parking lot, we found two fresh-faced park rangers who quizzed the big boys on what they had seen that day and administered their first Junior Ranger oaths.

With our loop complete, and our boys sworn to protect our world and everything in it, it was time to say goodbye to Rocky Mountain National Park.

I have nothing but admiration for the rangers we encountered throughout our trip, with the singular exception of the one who, at the beginning of this day, hovering over a map, told me that there was an alternate, more scenic drive back to Denver that we should consider taking, a route that was just “slightly” longer than the way we came in. WRONG!!! Way longer, Dudley Do-Right! Way longer! By the time, we were back to Denver, Kirstin was one raw nerve from the switchbacks and the drop-offs, yes, but mainly, just from not knowing how much longer the drive was going to last. That extra hour-and-a-half forever cured her of wanting to live in the mountains. And I wasn’t feeling my oats either, both of us eating ibuprofen like it was Tic Tacs to combat the altitude headaches.

Back in Denver, we moved into the boys’ Uncle Greg and Aunt Esther’s 800-square foot house, the favorite attraction of which was the doggy door cut into the back door. Ian crawled through that door at least sixty times, and there is no doubt that this is what he’ll remember most, not just from Greg and Esther’s, but from the entire trip. We’ve noticed this is true for all the boys — that the best part of any vacation is not what you’ve set out to see and do, but wherever you’re spending the night. They’d much rather explore the closets of a new hotel room or have a pillow fight on its king-size bed than traipse along a mountain range or ride a roller coaster or just about anything else. It’s about the room.

On the next day’s agenda was river rafting with Uncle Greg, who, conveniently enough, owns a river rafting company and had agreed to find a very flat, beginner stretch of the river west of Denver for us to float down. In Idaho Springs we found the Wide Open Adventure office and outfitting station. There, we spent the better part of an hour trying to find and get all five of us into suitable gear. As far as we know, the Destroyer of Worlds was the smallest human to have run this stretch of the river. His coat swallowed him like Medieval tunic, and we had plenty of misgivings about the stage of the water and whether any of this was a good idea given the record snow runoff that was pushing the river higher every day. But Uncle Greg was a consummate pro, and we trusted he wasn’t going to set us up for the coldest swim of our lives.

I squeezed myself into the wet suit, pulled on the booties, pulled the windbreaker-like coat over my top, strapped on my helmet and finally donned the life jacket. And, with Kirstin, did same for all three boys. I hadn’t had this 19th century chastity contraption on for more than 30 seconds before I realized I needed a bathroom. As the office did not have one, we had to walk to a Subway sandwich shop next door. There, I stripped off my jacket and beheld for the first time, in the enormous bathroom mirror, the specter of my body in a neoprene wetsuit. The shock has now passed, but I’m still not sure I’m over the depression. Imagine a shirtless middle-aged man in a pair of skin-tight overalls, black, of course, to accentuate his paleness. I looked like a professional wrestler from the ‘50s, before gyms, chest waxing, and tanning booths became the norm. The black suit pressed and squeezed against my pasty, hairy, pear-shaped torso like a full-body set of Spanx for men, rendering the most unforgiving, unflattering profile shot of myself I’ve ever allowed to penetrate my consciousness. The picture in the mirror looked like a seal trying to eat a polar bear feet first.

I quickly unsnapped the shoulder straps, peeled myself like a banana, emptied my bladder, re-snapped, and hurried the loose-fitting jacket back on before anyone else could be likewise traumatized by the sight.

After a slightly unnerving ten minutes of sitting in the raft on shore and watching the roiling and inadequately named Clear Creek roar past us, we were ready to face the music and we pushed off. We floated past abandoned gold and silver mines, ducked under bridges, passed a water mill, and hooted and generally made like we were on Class Four rapids even though it was not even Class One. And the boys went gamely along until at one point I looked over my shoulder to see that Andrew was gray and his eyes were slits.

“Buddy? What’s going on, buddy? Greg– can we pull over?”

Greg made some sort of signal to the guide in the lead boat, grabbed a rope, lept out of the boat onto a gravel bar and dragged us onto the island. Andrew left the boat and stumbled around for a minute; we were certain he would repeat Ian’s hurling of the previous day, but he pulled it together like a little soldier and within a few minutes we had finished the float.

With our whitewater adventure behind us, we drove the rest of the afternoon through the beautiful borderlands between Colorado and Wyoming. This was the one night for which we hadn’t reserved a room, and it reminded me of driving vacations when I was a boy, where we rarely if ever had reservations, taking things an hour at a time. In Rawlins, Wyoming, we found a Best Western, and the boys proceeded to our room and thrilled at everything they found there. After a fried dinner under a taxidermied elk mount, a good night’s sleep, and a gray breakfast in the same restaurant, we excitedly made away from Rawlins and at long last were almost to the Mecca of our pilgrimage, the national park duplex of Grand Teton and Yellowstone.

Central Wyoming is beautiful but ever so empty. Vistas spill away from you for fifty miles in every direction. We’re used to this sort of emptiness in Texas, especially West and South Texas. We long ago adopted the Mad Max term “The Nuthin’” to describe these places where you could go twenty minutes without seeing another car and an hour between city limits. After days of driving in the mountains, constantly riding the brake down to twenty miles an hour for each switchback, it was nice to let it out a little bit and make up some time. Besides, being able to see for fifty miles in every direction made an accident as unlikely as it had ever been.

So imagine my surprise when we rounded that bend and saw the state trooper parked in the oncoming shoulder with his radar gun pointed directly at me. I knew in an instant I was toast. The patrol car slowly made a U-turn in my rearview mirror, and on came the Christmas lights.

“Okay, boys,” I sighed. “Daddy’s getting a ticket.”

“What?!” they asked excitedly from the third row.

“This policeman is pulling me over.”

“Are you going to jail?” the boys asked in unison. My mind immediately went to whether that would fulfill a Cub Scout elective, like the field trips to a bank or the state capitol. I pictured the sentence “Go see a jail” with a colorful illustration next to it in the Wolf Handbook.

“I don’t think so, Cam. Just a ticket, but I need you guys to be quiet for a minute, okay?”

“Okay. (a beat) How fast were you going—”

“You need to be quiet!” Kirstin breaks in.

The trooper approaches the car.

It was a fairly standard stop, including the part where he sat in his car behind me for ten to fifteen minutes working a Sudoku puzzle, texting his girlfriend, or doing Lord knows what else. I think troopers must be duty bound to make the stop last so long that it negates whatever good time you were making by speeding.

When I got back to Austin and read the fine print on the back of the citation, I learned I had been charged with an “offense against the peace and dignity of the State of Wyoming.” That seemed a little overwrought, and I suspected somebody at the Wyoming DPS had been reading the Federalist Papers for their night class. It was a cruel irony — after all, experiencing the “peace and dignity of the State of Wyoming” was the very reason Kirstin and I were bleeding our bank account dry and dragging our kids clear across the American West in planes, trains, and automobiles. Ozzy Osbourne taking a leak on the Alamo was an offense against the dignity of a state. Going 82 in a 65 — when we hadn’t seen another car in ten minutes — is merely an attempt to maximize our time in Grand Teton. To not get there as soon as possible would have been the greater offense. Alas, not a view shared in Lander, Wyoming.

After we had idled on the shoulder long enough for him to have watched Gone with the Wind on his dashboard monitor, he released us on our own recognizance, and we pushed northwest at precisely 65 miles per hour.

Soon the landscape changed from tan and sage to red canyons and fantastic geological rainbows of purple and gray and beige and rust. Then, quite suddenly, we climbed, and everything began to change rapidly. Gorgeous charcoal mountains accented with brilliant snow rose up on all sides of us, and soon, as if we had just passed through the Wardrobe, we were driving through fresh-looking snow and pines.

We had not even reached the boundary of the park when I saw a red fox scamper across the road and sit on the snow off to our left. To the amateur wildlife photographer, it was too good to be true. He just sat there as if to say he was ready for his closeup, Mr. DeMille. There was no turnout, but I deemed the shoulder wide enough for a safe stop and so hit the brakes and wheeled over. Kirstin grabbed the camera and put the long lens on for me while the boys watched from the back of the van.

I got out and crossed the road in a crouching position. Whom I thought I was fooling with this hunter’s stalk I have no idea because I certainly wasn’t fooling the fox, who looked at me as if I were insulting his intelligence. His thought bubble read: “What’s this dipshit think he’s doing? I’m a fox.” Regardless, I fired off three fine photos and with the zoom function on the camera’s playback, I even learned that night that he had blue eyes.

At last we reached Jackson Hole, the name for the massive basin of which Grand Teton is only a part. Up here it was Jackson everything. Jackson, Wyoming. Jackson Hole, Jackson Lake, Jackson Lake Lodge. Ever since we started researching this vacation I had assumed it was all named for Andrew. In fact it was named for David Jackson, a trapper who was one of the first whities in the area.

Five minutes inside the park, we encountered twenty cars pulled onto the shoulder and a mass of tourists with binoculars, tripod-mounted scopes, and cameras ranging from disposables to those the size of bazookas. This was our first real experience with the flash mob of wildlife paparazzi. If you’re driving in the national parks (and you are typically driving) and you see a mob, there’s something good out there, so you better check your snobbery, drop whatever fantasy you’ve been harboring about spotting wildlife yourself, and just pull over. Here at this pond directly across the road from one of the park’s biggest visitor centers and lodges, a mother moose and her calf had taken up pretty much permanent residence. Every time we passed this way, there they were, as if kept their by shock collars and an invisible fence. It was an easy win for us beginners.

When the boys’ curiosity had been sated — and this never took long — we were on to find our cabin. Time had gotten away from us as we meandered through the mountains and the crew was transitioning from hungry to cranky. Determined to not eat out at every single meal, we stopped at the park grocery store and loaded a basket with sixty dollars worth of fruit, sandwich meat, bread, peanut butter and jelly, paper plates, cups, and plasticware.

The little grocery was our first exposure to a whole class of people we would continue to encounter throughout the national parks: the working retired. They were cashiers and stockers at the gift shops, information desk workers, laundromat attendants, all sweet people who had the good idea of getting away to the mountains for a nice long break to make a little cash before retirement started in earnest, and as far as I could tell, have the adventure of operating a cash register for the very first time. I’m sure that working in Grand Teton or Yellowstone sounded ever so much better to that IBM team manager before he was assigned to work the counter at the laundromat, trying to figure out how to run my credit card for a $1.99 Wilcoxson’s ice cream sandwich. He surely would have to go all the way back to high school to find a job so menial on his résumé — but you can’t argue the scenery, and that’s the point.

We didn’t come out that far ahead for all of our provisioning at the grocery, but we felt virtuous and took comfort in knowing we’d survive if we didn’t make it to a restaurant before closing time. But the grocery shopping had made us even hungrier.

As soon as we pulled up to our quaint 1930s log cabin, I took off jogging around the grounds to find a picnic table. Alas, my running form was not everything it might have been, and when I caught my toe on the raised lip of a sidewalk, I went down hard. In addition to being hungry, my hands now stung with the full force of 190 pounds falling five feet onto asphalt. It was over before I knew it, but if seen in slow motion it would have been a spectacular NFL dive for the end zone, my gangly frame lurching forward head-first, then the limbic realization and a look of terror on my face as my hands instinctively thrust out in front of my body, a hard horizontal landing followed by two full rolls to slow the momentum.

I was immediately overcome with the realization that all of this — all the planning, all the money, all the vacation time expended, all the days and months of anticipation — could go up in smoke from one bad step. This vessel of so many hopes and dreams was fragile. I was okay, but if I had broken my elbow, or if any of us broke anything, the world’s greatest family vacation would be for all intents and purposes over.

After all that, with apologies to Yogi Bear, there were no “pickanic” tables. We opened our dark little cottage and built sandwiches of ham and turkey and Goober Grape for the boys using one of the beds as a work surface.

The cabin was truly great in every respect but one: 10 seconds after we flushed the toilet, the plumbing reacted with a low, ominous foghorn-like groan that resonated through the entire structure. The edict came down right then that no one was to flush the potty overnight. But it provided a lot of good laughs until then. “Pardon me.” … “Excuse you!” … “Ian!”

That afternoon we set out to see some more animals. We whipped and spurred the minivan up Signal Mountain, where we soaked in most of the southern reaches of Jackson Hole and the Snake River. At the summit, we came face to face with a chicken-sized bird we later identified as a blue grouse, hopping along a low branch.

That was plenty interesting, but on the descent, things got more so. I pulled over behind a ranger truck and got out with the camera to investigate. A black bear was crawling through the tall brush about forty yards off the road, and I sidled up to a young couple who pointed him out to me, while Kirstin, following a superior set of instincts, took the boys across the road and up a hill to watch. When the show was over and we were back in the car, I handed her the camera to view the results. “You got an excellent shot of a bear’s back,” she said. It wasn’t sarcasm, it was simply the best she could say about it. He had ducked his head just as I pushed the button.

It wasn’t until the next day, when we had reached Yellowstone, that I saw a very prominent sign in the men’s room reading, “Always keep one hundred yards between yourself and a bear or wolf (twenty-five yards for all other animals).”

* * *

At last — or perhaps I should say already — we were headlong into our ultimate destination, the world’s first national park, land of geothermal wonders and free-roaming bison and wolves — Yellowstone.

We were no more than forty-five minutes inside the park when we spotted our first group of geothermal features. Geysers, mud pots, fumaroles, steam thingies, sulphur-majiggers, and day-glow bacteria ponds. (Our labels, not sanctioned by the park service.) We traversed the long, snaking boardwalk along the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake, puzzling mightily over a wide variety geothermal thing-a-mabobs, all groundwater set to “simmer” over a rocky crust just three miles thick. Mother Nature’s freak show.

My favorite story on the topic was of the early fishermen who caught their dinner in the lake and, in one fluid motion, flung the still-hooked catch into natural mini-volcanoes of boiling water — the so-called hook-n-cook method.

And soon we came upon the bison. Noble beasts, so primeval with their enormous humps, dark horns and shaggy coats. They inspire awe as they move across the flats. They are a wonder of the natural world, a national symbol, and one of our most important environmental success stories.

They also crap a lot. They crap everywhere. Some call them buffaloes. I call them crappaloes. On the side of the road. On the road. On the path to the cafeteria. In the two-square-foot area right outside the front door of our lodge. I now understand why the Plains Indians burned buffalo chips. It wasn’t because they were a rich fuel source needed for heat and cooking in a land of carbon scarcity. It was simply the fastest method of getting it the hell out of the way so they wouldn’t constantly be scraping it off their moccasins. Sheesh! And I had to constantly remind myself that all of this was from a relatively small population, still recovering from near extinction. I learned from one of the interpretive museum exhibits within the park that bison once ranged pretty much over the entire lower 48 states. Imagine the output from those numbers! Our fair nation was, from sea to shining sea, well nigh built on a thick foundation of bison patties. Purple mountains majesty, indeed.

By our second day in Yellowstone it was high time to see the most iconic feature of our most iconic national park, Old Faithful. If something were to happen, like the jogging wipe-out I had two days before at Grand Teton, and we were not able to see it, it would have felt like the entire epic enterprise had been a Wally World-like failure. As we were staying at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone — which sounds like it was once sued for trademark infringement by the Grand Canyon and so had to add the qualifier — we were about an hour from the famous geyser following the enormous, lazy loop that facilitates travel throughout most of the massive park.

Following the signs to Old Faithful, we turned off the main highway and immediately came to a stop behind a line of cars. Hmm, we thought. Maybe it’s another paparazzi mob. Trouble was, no one was out of his car. Perhaps it was a horrible traffic accident, someone’s RV overturned in the Gibbons River, Memaw and Pappaw being swept toward the falls. We crept ahead at about two miles per hour. Soon enough, we understood what was happening. We were a part of that pageant that is a rite of passage for all Yellowstone visitors if they stay long enough or return often enough — the Yellowstone Bison Traffic Jam. The way we deduced this was, of course, the verdant mounds crap all along the road over which we were slowly rolling.

For a full two hours, TWO HOURS, we crept along at bison speed, a line of cars a hundred long. It wasn’t entirely the bison’s fault, as they were simply walking on the only safe path between a rushing river on their right and a steep hillside on their left. Kirstin and I nervously ran the numbers in our heads. At what point do you bow out and turn back? Thirty minutes? Forty-five minutes feels like a huge investment on a day as precious to our family as this one. By turning back we would have wasted those forty-five minutes. On the other hand, if no one is passing the bison, then this could literally go on for the rest of the day. The boys’ vacation journal entries for Day 2 would chronicle only what the back of the camper shell directly in front of us looked like. So bad was it I even started to question our decision to not bring the portable car DVD player for the boys.

Although it didn’t really matter how far back we were (since no one was passing the plodding beasts) still, I couldn’t stand not knowing the details: how many? and where were they in relation to the Seale-mobile? I gave the wheel to Kirstin, got out, and joined the parade of parents and kids walking along the shoulder.

At last, just as I had reached the bison on foot, the road veered a little ways away from the river, and the bison lumbered down to the freezing water for a well-deserved drink. Our afternoon was saved, most of it. I leapt up and down on the shoulder and pumped my fists in the air, rejoicing with passing drivers and watching for the minivan to pick me up.

Within minutes we had reached Old Faithful, and a parking lot that resembled that of a mid-sized mall. Through the large wall of windows in the visitor’s center, we saw the geyser steaming and in front of it, a large sign in the foyer reading “1:47” — the forecast time for the next show. We took our lunchables to a shady spot where the boys could listen to a park ranger’s talk and so get credit toward their Junior Ranger badges. As go-time approached, visitors by the hundred congregated on a huge semicircular boardwalk about seventy-five yards from Old Faithful.

There are two things I’ll never forget about Old Faithful. The first is the geyser itself — how it steamed nonstop so that everyone would know where to look, how it belched and cleared its throat before going off, and how it finally blew, right on time, high into the clear blue Wyoming sky.

The second thing that impressed me was this: This is one of the true wonders of the natural world, not only a giant geyser but one that goes off like clockwork every ninety minutes, as if created just for the convenience of tourists. It spouts for about three minutes. And yet, people to my left and right were wandering off before it had completed its three-minute eruption. Part of me wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt: maybe they had been here all day long and this was their sixth viewing. But another part of me judged them harshly: You mean to tell me that you’re standing before one of the natural world’s most impressive sights, and your attention span won’t allow you to just hang for three-minutes?! Go! Go back to the suburbs, you ingrates! Back to your shallow, media-saturated, sugar-addled lives of idiotic reality television and fast food and compulsive shopping! Nah, they had probably just been there all day.

Yellowstone marked our third hotel room of the trip, and here we would put down roots: three glorious nights without unpacking and repacking. With five of us in one room, I couldn’t help but ponder what a far cry this was from Kirstin’s and my earliest experiences in hotel rooms. With this many people within four walls, I couldn’t so much as gaze lovingly into her eyes.

The practice that allowed us to wedge five people into a room with two beds was a concept that will be familiar to any parent of three or more children, a concept Kirstin, in a stroke of genius, had coined “Ian’s Special Bed.” For more than a year whenever we were traveling, the big boys would share the second bed and Ian would get his “special bed.” This usually consisted of a blanket on the floor. When you’re 35 pounds, the difference between a Serta Perfect Sleeper and a beach towel on the floor is negligible. In this case, it was a chair that, when combined with its ottoman, served perfectly as “Ian’s Special Bed.”

I noticed Kirstin had brought up several times since we reached Yellowstone how badly we needed to do laundry. As the boys and I were accustomed to camping, and we figured all this for something akin to a glorified camp-out, doing laundry was not something that was at the top of our lists. But as a consolation to the fact that she as a female is always outnumbered, and in recognition that she is always right about everything, I decided not to resist her suggestion that we spend tonight, our twelfth wedding anniversary, in a laundromat. It wasn’t going to be a traditional anniversary date in any event.

We were changing our three loads from the washers to the driers when we paused three seconds to toast our union, her with an ice cream sandwich, me with a chocolate shake out of the chest freezer. It was an iconic moment that summed up this stage of our lives as neatly as any could. To everything there is a season; a time for every purpose under the sun. And I wouldn’t have traded this season, this night — listening to the whir of driers and watching our three blond monkeys climb around on countertops in a national park laundromat — for a week in Paris or anything else. We called our wedding anniversary “our family’s birthday.” And while there are a thousand fine ways to commemorate it, there weren’t any better than this.

Kirstin and I fancy ourselves reasonably frugal relative to the modern, materialistic American family. We only buy used cars. She cuts coupons and watches for sales; I ride the bus, eat peanut butter and jelly for lunch more days than not, and shop at Goodwill. But there’s something about vacations that prompts us to both spend money and ingest calories like the world is ending the following week. And it was a good thing we were now in this new mode, because while the dining situation in Yellowstone is varied, it is never cheap. Our grocery run in Grand Teton was still paying dividends, not least to the carpet of the minivan, which was now so encrusted with chips and goldfish around the boys’ seats that I was starting to wonder if even the most toxic of industrial solvents could free it.

But I was still unprepared for the total for our first cafeteria meal in Yellowstone, a cool $50. No wonder they can keep the entry fees so low. It’s like anywhere else you go; they get you on the drink. Having lived and learned, we trimmed that total by nearly $15 on our next trip to the cafeteria just by foregoing the $2.50 soft drinks.

But vacation-eating rules, marked by the very absence of rules, were still in effect: while we normally insist on wheat bread, organic peanut butter, and something fresh at every meal, we now watched serenely as the boys poured chocolate milk on their Fruit Loops.

Before we had left Austin, I had resolved to take some really good pictures on this trip. We had borrowed a friend’s camera, and I had planned to go on photo mini-safaris every day at sunrise and sunset to try to get good wildlife portraits and “golden hour” landscapes.

What I didn’t plan on was the fact that Ian was the first one awake every morning, and in order to keep the other boys and Kirstin asleep, I would have to take him with me. This was ever so perfect. During the one time of day when I might have been able to stalk an elk for an extreme close up, his tawny eyelashes highlighted by the rising sun, or frame up that single drop of dew just about to fall from a pine cone, I had the Destroyer of Worlds riding shotgun, singing the Wonder Pets theme song at the top of his lungs and continuously asking for “a dwink.” But to be fair, he wasn’t a total handicap. In fact, he proved a pretty good spotter on a couple of occasions, and we bonded happily as we drove the winding roads to the National Parks soundtrack.

On Day Three, we came upon a roadside mob with cameras and binoculars trained on something across a snowy field. I zipped up my windbreaker, grabbed the camera and sprinted across the road to fall in formation. After asking around for what and where it was and verifying it with my own binoculars, I jogged back to the van. This was the top prize for wildlife watchers in Yellowstone.

“Boys! It’s a grizzly! C’mon! Who wants to see?!”

“We’ll just stay here and work on our Junior Ranger stuff,” said Andrew. “Yeah, it’s sort of raining,” Cameron added. Wow, I thought, so jaded after merely three days that they refuse to even get out of the minivan to glimpse the top predator of the New World. Rangers indeed.

But we’re all prone to cynicism at some point. I saw it in myself. On our last day, we still hadn’t seen any wolves, which are notoriously reclusive, but I had heard there were some patrolling Hayden Valley, where we were passing through. A car was pulled over, and not at a turnout, which usually signaled something juicy. I slowed and rolled the passenger window down.

“‘Morning. Whatcha got?” I asked.

“An elk,” said the young lady with the binoculars. I smiled and waited for some other descriptor like, “… being torn apart by a pack of wolves.” But none came. Just “an elk.”

“Nice,” I said before accelerating away. As we gained speed and I powered the window up, I realized I might as well have said, “You stopped for that? First ten minutes in the park, huh? Adorable…” then peeled out leaving her in a cloud of blue smoke.

In just days we all had become jaded. The wildlife paparazzi culture had imbued in us a subconscious but crass rating system in which God’s magnificent creation was reduced to an index of four combined criteria: size, rarity, familiarity, and predator/prey status. Moose beats elk for size and rarity. A bird could be of the rarest species in the world but get passed over for black bear, beaten on size and familiarity. Wolf vs. grizzly is a draw: both rank high on familiarity and predator status, grizzly wins on size but wolf wins on rarity. Even though an elk beats a fox on size, the fox is more elusive and also has that predator swagger. And so on. A chipmunk is cute but after the first photo you don’t break your stride for that. For a wolf sighting, I would have put the Town and Country into a Starsky and Hutch-inspired 180-degree skid.

* * *

It was over, we had checked out of the Cascade Lodge, and were on our way south, but I had one last stop stop to make — a place that rendered the most famous vista in the park but one I had yet to visit, Artist’s Point.

I stood transfixed, as if in midair, on the rocky outcropping. The air was cool and still, and the fog, which filled the canyon right to its rim, was a living sculpture, changing moment to moment as the sun pared it away in subtle swaths here and there. I raised my camera for one final picture. No click. I checked the monitor. “Card Full.”

My soul was too. But I wondered. What would I remember in twenty years? Would we really ever be back here as we promised each other we would? Would the boys remember any of this cathedral of nature, or merely the details of the minivan’s backseat and the way the hotel bed felt when they belly-flopped on it?

In the end, those questions mattered little. All that really mattered was that we had spent nine days together, away from our daily life, a moving island unto ourselves. That is the sacred essence of the family vacation.

That and buffalo chips.

Four Spiritual Questions

Shot in 2004, this was a bonus feature on the DVD set for my film The Secret of Suranesh. (We were shooting on Boca Chica Beach near Brownsville, Texas.) My friend and co-director Jay Galvan did the camerawork. (Sorry for the weird still frame.)

The Sophomores

We are the sophomores.
We know better.
Both better than you
And somehow better than this.

We are the sophomores.
Insurance rates higher
Thin brakes and bald tires
We argue technicalities
Assume every adult privilege
Shirk every adult responsibility
Indulge every mature pleasure
Abdicate every mature dilemma
Bemoan the slightest inconvenience
Chafe at any suggestion.

We are the sophomores.
Our religion, freedom.
Liberty a birthright claimed
And invoked for the privilege
Of forfeiting cumulative years
Of precious life
On the altar
Of media conglomerates

We are the sophomores.
We demand proof,
Then when it’s given
Wander off bored;
Examining proof
Takes effort.
That wasn’t the deal!

We are the sophomores.
We talk tough
Play with guns
Drink and drive
Back our country —
Like City High —
Right or wrong
Over crosstown rivals.
Dish the dirt
Bully the freshmen
Live on credit
Demand respect

Not bad, of course.
Just sophomores.

None of the Above: A New Conception of Religion

Throughout history and until virtually this moment, there have been three ways that religion has been conceived and practiced.

The first we can think of as Exclusivist or Fundamentalist. This was how most religion was conceived of for the vast majority of history. This view holds that one’s own religion is right and all others are wrong, that one religious founder is correct and all the others either occupy a station far below him or else are pretenders. Fundamentalism’s essence is “My way or the highway … to hell” (with apologies to AC/DC). It is characterized not only by exclusivity, rigidity, and a hyperliteral reading of scripture, but is disproportionately animated by a reward/punishment model based on heaven and hell. Because Exclusivism feeds an us-versus-them, in-group/out-group mentality, it thrives by stroking the group ego with a sort of self-congratulatory vibe.

The second view, which flourished largely as an understandable reaction to the unyielding nature of Exclusivism/Fundamentalism, is Materialism, or atheism, the motto of which might well be: “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Materialism, holding as it does that there is no non-physical dimension to life or to the universe, dismisses all religion as superstition, as a mere function of individual and group psychology, as a tool for control of the masses, and as the nemesis of science and reason.

The third conception of religion can be called Postmodern Pluralism, and a suitable shorthand for it might be a spiritualized version of “If it feels good do it.” In most instances, we have a positive association with the term “pluralism,” but in this case it refers to a fragmented approach to religion rather than a holistic one, where theology and observance is a la carte, as a salad bar at which one picks and chooses the religious ideas and observances she fancies, instead of the full-meal deal, eaten at the behest of an expert nutritionist. Here, we find those who suspect that there is a higher power and therefore are not comfortable with cold Materialism, but likewise reject Fundamentalism for most of the same reasons Materialists do — its hostility to questioning, its disregard for science, etc.

Though Postmodern Pluralists believe in a higher power, their typical lack of an internally consistent doctrine can lead to a faith that is vague, ever-shifting, somewhat non-committal, and largely a function of cultural preferences and comfort zones. (“I like the music/location/preacher in this church, so I’ll be a ___”) As much as Fundamentalism is closed, Postmodern Pluralists, in their extreme form, can be equally open to every new idea that comes along, and therefore their conception even can be a portal back into superstition. Here we see the “new age” resurgence of astrology, crystals, past lives, etc. Author Nader Saiedi, whose typology I have borrowed here, writes, “Its relativism of truth and value becomes compatible with an eclectic, arbitrary, uncommitted, and fragmented approach to religion.”

Finally, Postmodern Pluralism generally preaches a gospel of affirmation rather than one of transformation. Because its members circulate in a vast marketplace with infinitely varied menus of beliefs and approaches, it typically seeks to reassure, comfort and affirm the views and habits a person already has instead of challenging them to transform themselves through the sometimes uncomfortable process of personal growth and the tough re-examination of assumptions.

Before going further, I want to say that it’s easy to empathize with each conception as a reaction to the extremes of the other two. The Materialist reaction to Fundamentalist fire-and-brimstone judgmentalism and the blind eye to science, and Materialism’s rejection of the woo-woo superstition of much of Postmodern Pluralism’s new age wing, is wholly understandable and even praiseworthy at a certain level.

For her part, the Postmodern Pluralist can be admired for recognizing that the choice between the extremes of Materialism and Exclusivist Fundamentalism is a false one — that God exists but doesn’t necessarily conform to the hyperliteral interpretation of the Bible Belt, the orthodox synagogue, or the madrassa.

And there even is a grudging degree of empathy here for the Fundamentalist, who on one hand is repulsed by the inherent nihilism of the Materialist, and, on the other, equally loathes the Postmodernist’s moral relativism, or fair-weather, soft-focus, affirmation-based theology, or its gradual abandonment of personal morality.

What’s more, all three of these conceptions of religion exist in the East and the West. And every major religion is split between Fundamentalism and Pluralism (conservatism/traditionalism vs. liberalism/progressivism) Think Orthodox vs. Reform Judaism, sharia Muslims vs. Sufi mystics who may have little use for religious law, evangelicals vs. the Christian left, and so on. Every major tradition has felt and is feeling the strain of those pulling in these opposite directions. Indeed, even within tiny religious communities such as single congregations, or even families, one sees the split, as when certain members of a church feel the necessity of upholding the fundamentals of scripture while another faction, instinctively uncomfortable with scriptural anachronisms (like Creationism or stoning), pushes the congregation toward ever more liberal stands.

By identifying three categories, I don’t mean to suggest an over-simplified scheme in which every person or congregation within a given category appears identical. We can picture the phenomenon as a pie divided into three sections (the Mercedes-Benz logo), in which each individual, depending on his or her constellation of views, could be plotted on the graph closer to one of the other two conceptions or farther away, as well as closer to the middle (moderation) or to the edge (extreme). But even taking the subtleties into account, the three basic conceptions held true.

Until Baha’u’llah.

Just when it seemed that there really could be no other conception of religion than these three, and that these views were irreconcilable at the deepest level, Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, introduced a notion that was essentially different from all three of these — answering “None of the Above.” This new conception is known as Progressive Revelation.

In short, Progressive Revelation means that God reveals His will to humanity gradually and through progressive stages. A few metaphors might help illustrate the idea.

The Baha’i conception of the historic religions is not the typical one of competing ideologies, but rather that the world is a schoolhouse, and each of the prophets are teachers, instructing at a different grade level. There is only one principal, God, who is in charge and is directing the teachers, who are given authority in each of their respective classrooms. The fact that the first-grade teacher is covering one topic and the fifth-grade teacher another does not mean that one is right and the other wrong. It merely means that the teachers are dispensing lessons at an age-appropriate level, and with different classroom rules to optimize learning.

Rather than viewing the great religions of history as separate books, Baha’is view them as chapters in one single book, a book that gets more sophisticated as each chapter arrives.

Finally, in our high-tech world, one last analogy might help. The human is like computer hardware. And the Word of God is like the software, or perhaps even the operating system, on which it runs. Over time, the software needs to be upgraded. The old software has gotten buggy, corrupted over time, and besides is not optimized for the tasks that the modern world requires. Think of it as Word of God 4.1, Word of God 8.5, etc.

But if religion is one, why don’t the historic religions agree in all their concepts, let alone in their particulars? Two reasons: their social laws are intended for a specific time and place, and, as mentioned above, their original teachings are corrupted over time, usually by a presumptuous clergy making leaps of logic after the founder is long gone, and often it is the particulars of social law as well as the corruptions — and not the essences — that we are comparing.

Now, strictly speaking, Progressive Revelation is not a new idea. Jews believe that God revealed his will to Abraham, and to Moses after him, and to many prophets after him. Christians believe in the authenticity of all of those Jewish prophets, but then add John the Baptist, Christ, and the apostles after him. Muslims believe in the Jewish prophets, the divinity of Jesus, then add Muhammad. What all of those have in common, of course, is that they all believe their revelation was the final one and all others coming after that, imposters, nevermind that the founders in each case spoke of one who would come in the future.

So the truly unique elements of Baha’u’llah’s Progressive Revelation are that He 1. equalized the station of all of the founders of the major religions, in Baha’i parlance known as Manifestations of God, and 2. said that this was an organic process that had occurred from time immemorial and would continue eternally. He did say that we should not look for another Manifestation before 1,000 years’ time — His medicine has to be given time to work — but he clearly stated that others would come after Him to carry civilization forward yet again.

It’s interesting to consider how Baha’u’llah’s fourth conception of religion, Progressive Revelation, is different from but in a way unifies all three previous conceptions:

  •  With Postmodern Pluralism it shares the belief that there is not simply one path to God, and in a sense ups the ante on this pluralism, affirming that not only is there more than one path, but indeed ALL the historic religions originated with an authentic revelation from God, with prophets who were equally exalted in their station.
  • With Materialism it shares a certain clear-eyed humility about our ability to really know the essence of God. While we believe in God, we also hold that God is an “unknowable essence” (which is why He appointed human messengers that could relate to us through our own language). Additionally, Baha’u’llah affirmed the importance of science, saying that true science and true religion had to be in harmony. And He made the independent investigation of truth, without attatchment to either superstition or tradition, the first prerequisite of a spiritual journey.
  • And finally, with Fundamentalism it shares the belief that God has a definite plan for humanity, that there is purpose and direction in that plan, that the ancient prophets were in fact correct (however misinterpreted they might be), and there is indeed one prophet whose message in particular is optimized for us (because it is optimized for this age and the unique problems and complexities of it).

As the Baha’i Faith is the only religion that fully embraces Progressive Revelation as an ongoing, organic process, the Faith is not simply another church, or another denomination, or even just another religion. It is a whole new way of thinking about religion. It is not just its own species of religion, but is a species, genus, family, order, phylum, and kingdom unto itself. While it shares numerous traits with other religions, it in itself embodies a radical new conception of religion — one that makes peace between and unites these three dominant old worldviews.


This essay was inspired by the book Logos and Civilization: Spirit, History, and Order in the Writings of Baha’u’llah, by Nader Saiedi, University Press of Maryland, 2000.