Eager to head home

Russian River is heavy grizzly country and nature writer Richard Nelson and I pay close attention to the countryside on both sides of the river.

Russian River is heavy grizzly country and nature writer Richard Nelson and I pay close attention to the countryside on both sides of the river.

There are no black bears on the island. The river is clear and very cold and it moves over and around big rocks and very large moss-covered cedars.

Olive-coloured old man’s beard hangs from the branches of enormous Sitka spruce. This place is spooky even in midday. In a few places we come across snow on north-facing slopes. Feathers left behind by gulls, ravens and other various shore birds are everywhere.

Because of the unusually high snow pack in Sitka this winter, eagles were having a hard time finding food. There is some indication they began to feed on each other.

But is has warmed now, and the vegetation shows signs of new growth; huckleberries are budding.

We talk about Richard’s book The Island Within. It is an excellent read about his life on a small island just off Sitka’s western coast. It is as sensitive as the writer himself.

We also talk about American politics. Both of us are extremely troubled with the direction the United States is headed.

I have been at the Island Institute here in Sitka as writer-in-residence for the month of April and in that period of time I have read about mass executions of students in Virginia and the expected copycat attempts that are sure to follow.

I followed the story of a man who killed himself and a hostage in the NASA offices in Texas.

I have been subjected to a continual body count of dead and injured American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the four weeks I have been here the soldiers in those countries have managed to kill, injure or maim about 2,200 combatants, and an estimated 3,500 innocent men, women and children.

Richard and I are appalled.

Violence is so much a part of American history and culture there is just no escaping it.

Richard reminds me that from the very beginning — the mythological vision of pilgrims sailing in on the Mayflower and living in absolute harmony with Wampanoags, sharing turkey dinner with all the stuffing — America has been a country at war, with itself or with others.

That warrior spirit is now deeply ingrained in the American psyche, in the culture and is now exemplified by a firearm mentality, he believes.

And I have no reason to disagree; America is in deep trouble, in a serious moral decline.

While I have been here in Sitka, America has lost two great voices: Kurt Vonnegut and David Halberstam. Both writers were astute critics of an America gone slightly off the rails.

Halberstam’s death really got to me.

I was raised on pure Halberstam. A journalist with one mission and one mission alone: to get at the truth no matter how deeply buried, how dangerous, or how painful.

I remember hearing him on the nightly news in the early 1960s pounding away at the futility and the horror of the Vietnam War.

To paraphrase him, Vietnam was a war the US certainly did not have to fight, could not expect to win, and in losing it would place the US in a disadvantageous situation diplomatically for decades to come. And the decades have come, and Halberstam was right.

Halberstam went straight from Harvard University to the racially segregated South. He felt it was there, wallowing in the racial hatred of southern America, that good journalism could be written.

He did just that. He became the leading journalistic voice of the civil rights movement.

From there, with the Vietnam War raging, Halberstam joined on with the New York Times and headed straight into the heat of the jungle.

Long before it was policy to imbed reporters to ensure just one side of the story, Halberstam covered it all, refused to take a side. He would not pass judgment on either side fighting the war. He knew that in war there were only losers.

Halberstam went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the war, and his book War in a Time of Peace was runner-up for a Pulitzer.

Over the course of the next 30 years, he went on to become “the” voice of the American conscience. He challenged the direction America was taking in the later part of the 20th century and was equally critical of its role in the 21st.

But even as one of its greatest critics, Halberstam saw great opportunity for America to heal itself.

“For all of the difficulties,” he once said, “I am somewhat optimistic about the future. In my lifetime I have seen the resiliency of American democracy.

“What I’ve come to admire is the muscularity and flexibility of this society. What I trust is its common sense.”

As Richard and I make our way through increasingly dense bush here in the rainforest, we both wonder if Halberstam got it right.

Is there common sense? Is there an ability to be resilient? If so, neither of us see much indication.

As we reach the end of the trail, we sit and drink tea. Richard tells me I am lucky to be a Canadian. Sitkans, he tells me, like talking to folks from Canada. I ask him why.

“You have much less killing in your past, a cleaner conscience, a lot less to hide.”

“And that,” he says, “is a good thing.”

I feel content, sit back and have more tea. I am eager to head home.