Empathy

Empathy has been on my mind lately. Its absence in Donald Trump has been noted by numerous commentators as well as my fellow citizens. Why is this important? Here’s my take on it.

Empathy is the capacity to co-feel with another human being. We even extend that capacity to our relationship with other sentient creatures, especially our pets or any animals we instinctively feel a bond with. It is the capacity to “walk in another’s moccasins,” as the old saying goes.

All of this would be seen only as an altruistic virtue for the sensitive and high-minded if it were not also crucial to the underlying moral axiom “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is the Golden Rule embedded in the Torah and in Jesus’s teachings. Without empathy we have no way of sensing how our actions affect others and thus we cannot formulate either a rule or a calculus for our actions.

I imagine one could argue that the consequences of our actions could be evaluated on the basis of “objective” evidence that treats the other like a billiard ball on the pool table of life. In this case, you might seem to be following the Golden Rule by acting according to abstract rules some detached observer might derive from this axiom, much as Immanuel Kant argued two centuries ago. But you would be unable to plumb the feelings of respect, dignity, honor, love, and fear that power our deepest commitments, actions, and behaviors. You would be unable to understand the effects of your actions on real human beings. Empathy enables us to act according to the Golden Rule not merely in terms of its inherent logic but in terms of its real consequences for others. One could even argue that the value of the Golden Rule is only as deep or wide as the capacity of the actors for empathy.

In this respect the capacity for empathy could empower the highest kind of moral action, as we see in Albert Schweitzer, Mother Theresa, or St. Francis of Assisi. However, it could also paralyze us in inaction, lest we be unable to choose among greater and lesser evils. Empathy gives us a psychological basis for ethics but it can also set a limit on our ethical action in the real world.

The lack of empathy can be labeled as “sociopathy” or “narcissism.” With this, we label the incapacity for a moral or ethical way of life as a medical disease or a psychopathology. An actor can seem to be acting in accordance with the Golden Rule, but in fact has lost the real world context for it. She or he would be play-acting an ethical life, trying to fool the people around them. Like so many people in our celebrity world, they have lost touch with the difference between their stage and the world we share together. This failure of understanding is also a failure of ethical development, a character flaw that makes an ethical orientation impossible. In politics, it is the basis for the “strong man” who is above the law and, more importantly, “above” ethics. It is the way of the dictator and demagogue.

It is in this sense that the Trump phenomenon, like its counterparts in other countries, is a failure in our moral will as well as in our economics and politics. Some have resisted the Trump phenomenon as a moral affront. They have drawn this moral line in the sand even when it seems to endanger their own views of their economic or political interests. Those who do not oppose Trump’s campaign may have their own reward, but it is not an ethical one.

Among people capable of empathy and a moral point of view, there can still be intense disagreements over policy and the facts and arguments supporting policies, but they can occur within an ethical discourse rooted in the moral principles which have withstood thousands of years of human testing. Politics is always a test of our ethical capacities, but this year’s US election is straining us all. It’s important to know what is at stake culturally as well as politically. Let’s keep the conversation healthy and strong.

When stuff like this starts driving me nuts, I do some woodworking. Here’s the latest, a cherry bowl with turquoise inlay, about 7 inches across.

 Cherry w Turquoise 2016 web

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Art and Craft at Warm Springs and Timberline Lodge

My final report on our Oregon trip begins withWarm Springs Entrance72 the Museum at Warm Springs, on the eastern flank of the Cascades north of Bend. The Warm Springs Reservation is home to an Indian Confederation composed of the Warm Springs (originally the Walla Walla), the Paiute, and the Wasco tribes, which was formed by treaty in 1855. The museum invites you into its halls with rock walls and a stream, as if you were walking up a creek to its mountain origins and entering a sacred enclosure where the ancestors dwell in spirit and memory. And indeed, that is what you find, with artifacts from the long history and pre-history of the peoples of the Warm Springs Lobby 72“Big River” region in the Columbia highlands.

But we also found more in the contemporary work of Lillian Pitt, perhaps the most celebrated artist of the region. Drawing on her Warms Springs ancestors and traditions, she works in many media, including ceramics, glass, wood, and other natural materials. Through her masks, figures, and more abstract pieces we could get a feel for a long tradition that has also found its way into Stick Indian 72Sylvia’s art through her mosaic renderings of Tsagiglal (“She Who Watches”), a legendary petroglyph figure of the region. (It’s also spelled Tsagaglal,” we found out.) For once, I actually egged her on to purchase a lovely brooch of one of Lillian Pitts’ Tsagiglals cast in silver.

We then drove through the high plains east of Mt. Jefferson to Mt. Hood, wreathed, as usual, if swirling clouds, its spreading base thick with trees.

Timberline Lodge, high on the southeastern shoulder of Mt. Hood, testifies to a very different craft and artistic tradition. Mt. Hood, with its near active volcanic core, has long been a destination for skiers, climber, and hikers. The Lodge was built in 1936-37 as a Works Progress Administration project. The WPA employed thousands of workers, crafters and Timberline FrontLower Lobby 72artists left penniless by the Great Depression. Since most of the funds for the project were devoted to wages for the 500 workers, the craftsmen used locally harvested and recycled materials to build the lodge. The land and lodge belong to the US Forest Service, which worked with the planners and architects as they sought to build something that would reflect the mountain’s topography as well as the cultural heritages of the area. The fulfillment of this vision was then transformed by the craftsmen into the rugged artistry in iron, stone, fiber, and wood that came to constitute the lodge. Since then, volunteers as well as the Forest Service and the family firm managing the lodge have devoted great attention to maintaining and restoring these components as faithfully as they can.

As a result, the massive lodge is a raw expression of the native talent, skill, and imagination of the workers themselves. What they labored in penury to envision and build is now, ironically, enjoyed by the affluent and Main Door 72those who make a pilgrimage to this testimony to the craft and artistry of “ordinary workmen.” The skiers now have a large facility across the parking lot to cater to their needs.

Built of local stone, the Lodge looms out of the parking lodge at over 6,000 feet as if it were a part of the mountain. It is open all year around, but the snow pack just above the Lodge testifies to the mantle that encases it much of the year.

Massive doors on wrought iron hinges frame openings to the vista across the range to Mt. Jefferson. Mosaics adorn a number of the walls, while 30-foot timbers frame in the space around the central chimney, Entrance Mosaic 72with its four fireplaces opening onto the three floors encircling it. Some of the art pieces were carved on linoleum and highlighted with paints. Carved lintels depicting wildlife of the region and some of the pioneer history fill out the stairwells and span some of the larger doorways. Mountain lions fashioned in wood marquetry crouch on the wall of the main lobby. Large glass mosaics depicting Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe brighten the basement pub where the aroma of fresh pizza fills the air.

The andirons in the fireplaces were fashioned by hand out of old railroad rails. Rams head door knockers, lamp stands, chandeliers, Andirons 72Timberline Desk 72gates, and decorative hinges manifest the craftsmanship of the workers throughout the building.

And, of course, there is wood, some of it reflecting the Arts and Crafts movement, some of it growing out of he artistry and necessity that shaped the construction of the Lodge. Newel posts made of telephone poles are topped off with carvings of wildlife. The main lobby employs the intricate joints and pins typical of this ancient craft to erect the central tower on hand-hewn columns of Ponderosa Pine.Cougar 72

The furniture also tends toward the massive, displaying the mark of adz, broadax, scorp, chisel, and scraper of pioneer workmanship. Side desks look like something Paul Bunyan could have used to write a note home on a cold winter night. Wherever possible, the craftsmen have adorned their work with carvings of animals, flowers, or abstract designs.

Fabrics were also a big part of the craft work. Rugs were hooked, curtains were woven, and spreads were appliquéd and sewn together. Many of the fabrics have had to be replaced, but care has been given to employing the same methods, colors, and fabrics. While the atmosphere is casual and relaxed, it is also clear that you are staying in a museum as much as in a ski lodge.

This union of usefulness and beauty is what artistic craft is all about. In John Ruskin’s words, “…the moment we make anything useful thoroughly, it is a law of nature that we shall be pleased with ourselves, and with the thing we have made; and become desirous therefore to adorn or complete it, in some dainty way, with finer art expressive of our pleasure.” Walking through the hallways and lobbies, not to mention the very room we stayed in, was to savor the way this work had lifted hearts and minds, even as it brought bread to the table for the workers of the thirties. When I see the so-called blighted areas of our country and come across a mural on the wall of an old warehouse, or a mailbox housed on a sculpture of bicycle parts and rebars, I know that the human spirit is at work, bringing something out of no thing, beauty and usefulness serving a life. We need to celebrate that more. It’s right under our noses…or hidden in the forests up on a mountain. Find it.

Workers Mural 72

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Time in Lakeview

Lakeview, Oregon, nestles at the foot of Black Cap, a promontory of the Warner Mountains in south central Oregon, its shoulders soft with sagebrush in grey abundance like a lawn spread out beside its door. Here the pioneers from the East laid out streets in an orderly grid where there had been gullies, houses where there had been boulders, stores where antelope and rabbits once nibbled on the dry vegetation.

Gliders and Raptors at Black Cap

Glider (bottom right) and Raptor (center top) at Black Cap

 

The ranchers from Ireland and the sheepherders from the Basque country (that’s right), are still here, but now hang gliders soar from Black Cap’s top and bio-fuel producers seek to fill the gap left when the logging operations shrank from five mills down to one. Yes, there are gliders soaring in the picture here, playing with the raptors.

Lake County is larger than the state of Massachusetts, yet it has a population of less than 8,000 people, about one per square mile. With more cattle and sheep than people, it continues to be ranching country, but before the ranchers came, people lived here for some ten thousand or more years, leaving their inscriptions on the igneous cliffs and boulders, their sandals and pots in the caves that dot the region. The Northern Paiute are their descendants.

Petroglyphs on the Greaser Boulder

Petroglyphs on the Greaser Boulder

Though one of Sylvia’s classmates found some of these sandals over fifty years ago, she had never visited the petroglyphs scratched into the rimfall boulders of the area, so we drove out to the Greaser Boulder, which is just past Adel on the way to Winnemucca, Nevada (I love to say “Winnemucca,” which advertises itself as the city of paved streets). Another excursion took us to Petroglyph Lake on the Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge east of the crossroads of Plush (I like to say “Plush,” too.) The rattlesnakes didn’t bother us as we made our way around the rockfall and boulders, puzzling over the meaning of these circles, spirals, lizards, and

Sylvia at Petroglyph Cliffs

Sylvia at Petroglyph Cliffs

wavy lines. Maybe they were just the “Kilroy was here” of ancient peoples. Maybe they were ways to tell of wild game and water. We don’t know. They are simply a door to the past we cannot fathom, an invitation to a world of spirits speaking in another tongue.

Sylvia Walks through Rattlesnake Draw

Sylvia Walks through Rattlesnake Draw

Everywhere lie testimonies to the land’s volcanic past. Ash from Mt. Mazama can be found in subtle layers underneath the surface soil. Black basalt forms cliffs where uplift forced by the Pacific plate relentlessly extrudes the mantle far below. Sometimes the rocks provide a map of eons of volcanic process, as does this cliff north of Lakeview near Summer Lake. Other times, this volcanic power is present simply as the faithful geyser on the north side of town, part of an underground system that provides heat to some of Lakeview’s buildings, and, some people hope, electrical production.

Ash and Ancient Lava near Summer Lake

Ash and Ancient Lava near Summer Lake

The Geyser at Lakeview

The Geyser at Lakeview

We came to Lakeview once again because it was here that my wife was formed into young womanhood. Whether in the school, the church, the swimming pool, the explorations of the boundless hills, or the beloved snack shop, News and Sweets, where she bought her Seventeens and read them with the passion of a devotee, her life was shaped in ways my Eastern eyes might never understand. Here, you can see beyond your grasp and so you always hunger for more. You learn to be content within a boundless world. Here you have to live as if it all depended on you alone, for there can be times that no one can be seen within a dozen miles. Here you learn to bend with all extreme diversities to live, survive, and prosper, often in hidden ways. Here is desert, a different kind of plenty, of beauty, and of grandeur. Here the bare bones of the earth’s anatomy are open for all to see. This land gave her an aesthetic of spare discernment, a clarity of color you can almost smell, and a willingness to experiment with plastic form and patient spaciousness.

Downtown Lakeview: Top Floor: Sylvia's Grandmother's Apartment; News & Sweets was to the right

Downtown Lakeview: Top Floor Sylvia’s Grandmother’s Apartment; News & Sweets was to the right

And how did she take this personhood so far away? It was because of a man named Bernard Daly, a doctor and entrepreneur in Lakeview at the turn of the century. After helping rebuild Lakeview in the wake of its devastation by fire in 1901, he had the vision to bequeath his estate to a fund to educate its young people by sending them to any state college or university in Oregon. Sylvia was a Daly scholar, which propelled her into the wider world. Though she moved many miles away, many scholars come back, as

Sylvia's Beloved Swimming Pool

Sylvia’s Beloved Swimming Pool

Daly hoped they would, making Lake County one of the best educated counties in the US. So, Dr. Daly, you have my gratitude and the

Dr. Bernard Daly

Dr. Bernard Daly

thanks of thousands of others.

This means that Lake County has very educated cowboys and ranchers! But they still can ride. And fly. A little trip from the local landing strip to the opera in San Francisco is not unusual, they tell me. They celebrate the Fourth of July here with a rodeo, starting with “mutton busters” —little kids who ride the sheep out of a pen rodeo style until the sheep

Bull Riding at the Fourth of July Rodeo

Bull Riding at the Fourth of July Rodeo

shake them off and return to the flock, wondering why little Jack was trying to get on their back. The young men, with spurs, fancy belt buckles, and hats, hang on to bulls and even tame some broncos as they lunge out of the gates. That this is dangerous fun is not lost on anyone, but it remains a rite of passage for many a young cowboy.

Oh, and about Plush. Northeast of Lakeview, Plush is the general store, a few homes and a church, at the center of miles of ranches. To the north lie the digs where amateurs and real prospectors unearth sunstones for the jewelry trade. The store in Plush has souvenir dollar bills on the ceiling, gas and diesel at the pumps, and the best hamburgers you’ll find anywhere. They know their beef. And, if you have the time, there’s friendly chatter to fill up the space you’ve breathed outside all day.

Despite the region’s sturdy traditions and education, economic forces of globalized commerce have drained the local stores in Lakeview of their former sparkle. FedEx and UPS have bypassed them. A ninety-minute drive to Klamath Falls to the west attracts the window shoppers. And Lakeview, like so many small towns that have created American culture, struggles to re-invent itself, find new economic boots, and maintain the self-reliant imagination that put a town in the midst of sagebrush, alkali lakes, antelopes and towering pines. My hat, such as it is, is off to them.

 

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Crater Lake

The Cascade Range, stretching along the West Coast from northern California into British Columbia, is by far the most volcanic region in North America. Seattle’s Mt. Ranier, Portland’s Mt. Hood, and its Washington neighbor Mt. St. Helens, are its most famous peaks, with St. Helens losing its top in the historic cataclysm of May 18, 1980. All of these are closely monitored for ongoing seismic dangers.

View from North Rim

View from North Rim

 

But the mountain that really lost its top some 7,700 years ago is probably the most visited and admired. The ancient Mt. Mazama, as it is called, was a “composite cone” built up over hundreds of thousands of years to a probable height of 12,000 feet. A  series of massive explosions released gas, ash, and magma, and evacuated the lake of molten rock inside it, causing some 5,000 feet of its top to sink into its interior, leaving the sheer rock faces you can see today.

Snowfalls and rain began filling the caldera, which constitutes a slight oval about 6 miles across at its widest point. Subsequent eruptions built up cones beneath the surface of the present lake, with one, Wizard Island, rising 800 feet above the lake’s level. The lake itself, with its remarkably stable level, has a maximum depth of 1949 feet, making it the second deepest lake in North America. Some 1500 feet above it looms the rim of the ancient volcano, displaying the whole range of volcanic rocks that geologists have deciphered to unlock its history.

Because the rim is still some 7,000 feet above sea level, it receives over 40 feet of snow each year. While the Park Service keeps the road to the top open all year, the road around the rim was still not completely open when we visited at the end of June.

View from South Rim near Lodge

View from South Rim near Lodge

Fascinating as it is, that is just the geology, the physical history. What attracts so many people is the awe-inspiring blue jewel of the lake itself nestled in the silent rocky testimony to the creative destruction that formed it, still reverberating in the legends of the native peoples of the region. It is this combination of intense beauty amidst the silent testimony to overpowering energy that makes a visit a kind of pilgrimage, one we try to capture in our cameras but can’t quite capture in our minds.

At first it frightens us, because one slip could send us down the steep slope into the freezing water like an unsuspecting ant at the edge of an ant lion’s lair. Then it awes us, as its size reduces our pretensions to a wispy breath in the arguments of cosmic time. But then the blue, amniotic waters connect us to the heavens and the waters of creation. It is this nearly mystical sensation of the “mysterium tremendum” that probably drew me to its rim to gaze across the blue expanse, as it does so many others.

A hundred years ago the land was set aside as a national park, a fitting consonance with Native American veneration of the spirit of the mountain. A lodge was built for visitors. We couldn’t get a room even six months in advance, but we ate in its rustic dining room, sat on its porch overlooking the lake, and chatted with old friends who came up for the day from nearby Medford.

We had been there for a few hours 33 years ago. Crater Lake Pose webWe found the silvery skeleton of a tree where we had stood before and got a photograph. The sky mirrored the intense blue of the lake as shadows began to pull the covers of the night across the surface far below. The boat that takes intrepid visitors around the lake was carving its last V into the waters as we turned to go to our cabin on the flank below.

We had driven up the western slope of the range from Eugene. The next day we leveled out on the high desert to its east, a mile above sea level, to head to Lakeview, the ranching and logging town where Sylvia had grown up.

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