Throwback Thursday

Thursdays at ClimbingSky feature re-posts from 6+ years of MontanaWriter and ClimbingSky. This post was previously published on August 9, 2010.


connellIn 1969, I watched the moon landing with my mother’s family including her grandfather who was in his mid 90s at the time. When he was born in the early 1870s (I don’t recall the exact year) steam locomotion was still a new technology, and the First Transcontinental Railroad was very recent history. In his lifetime he saw the invention of the car, the invention of the airplane, and finally rockets to the moon. He remarked that day that seeing Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon was the highlight of his life.

A few years later I visited Little Bighorn Battlefield for the first time. Sometime during walking around the battlefield it dawned on me that my great-grandfather had been alive when Custer, Crazy Horse, and Sitting Bull fought where I was now standing. Within his long lifetime, the Montana I knew and lived in had gone from being true wilderness to a place with interstates and television.

It has been said that more books have been written about the Battle of Little Bighorn that any other battle in history. The obvious question is why? Why does a battle in the small corner of present day Montana still matter to people?

Like the Battle of Isandlwana (present day South Africa, January 22, 1879), the Battle of Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876 continues to capture our imagination precisely because it represents ultimately the last violent confrontation between wilderness and modernity. At both Isandlwana and Little Bighorn the native people won… but their victories ultimately meant their complete and utter defeat.

Because there are so many books about Custer’s Last Stand, it has taken me decades to decide which one to read. I wanted to read the best one, the definitive one. At last, I recently settled upon Evan S. Connell’s now classic Son of the Morning Star, and I am glad I did.

Like Stephen Ambrose and Cornelius Ryan, Connell brings narrative power to history. It is clear that his research is broad and deep, but it is the way he tells the story that keeps you turning pages. Son of the Morning Star was first published in 1984. I read the 2001 edition from History Book Club with a “new” introduction. Sometimes “new” introductions written for older works seem pointless, like changing floor mats on an old car and selling it as new. But Connell’s brief “look back” at his work 20 years down road is illustrative and adds to the pleasure of the book.

The site of the Little Bighorn Battlefield is the stark and empty plains of eastern Montana. When I was young, I thought that Montana should end where the mountains end… somewhere around Laurel, Montana, or maybe Billings. I had no time for the great, empty plains. “Give it to North Dakota” I said. As time has passed, I have grown to love eastern Montana and western North Dakota as much as the mountainous West. There is a spiritualness to empty spaces that grows on you. That sense is heightened as you walk Custer’s battlefield and remember what happened there. Having now at last read Son of the Morning Star, those feelings will no doubt be more pronounced for me next time I visit The Little Bighorn Battlefield.

Chess Reveals Character

"Chess Life" (photo by m.a.h. hinton)

“Chess Life” (photo by m.a.h. hinton)

The tie was broken yesterday by Sergey Karjakin in the World Chess Championship. Playing black he defeated the Magnus Carlsen, the reigning world champion.

I started playing chess online in earnest more than 15+ years ago. I remain a patzer.

Chess they say reveals character. A study of my chess game would reveal that I am both stubborn and impulsive. I am capable at time of flashes of a poor-man’s disciplined-brilliance, but then I will suddenly and inexplicably rush forward in a mad unplanned attack that could only defeat another patzer like myself.

But still I love the game.

Over the years I have read dozens of books about chess: the history, the philosophy, the strategies. I own five books on the English Opening. The only opening I ever play… the only opening I have played for 15+ years (stubbornness).

I have watched Magnus grow up over the years that I have been playing online and reading chess blogs and chess news. I used to teach a chess class in a middle school and would show YouTube videos of Magnus as a very young player to students. The students loved to see the young genius playing bullet matches.

I am rooting for Magnus even though according to he has only played the English Opening 44 times in his career.

Favorite Chess Quotes

“A player plays in order to live through an adventure. In playing, he overcomes – overcomes himself, circumstances, and fate.” – Anatoly Karpov

“During a game the tremendous burden of all possibilities weighs upon you, along with the passage of time. Therefore we play at full strength only in those moments when, consumed by the process of the battle, we merge with the game to such a degree that everything else ceases to exist.” – Anatoly Karpov

“You must take your opponent into a deep, dark forest where 2+2=5, and the path leading out is only wide enough for one.” – Mikhail Tal

“Chess is the art that expresses the science of logic.” – Mikhail Botvinnik

“Chess is life.” –  Bobby Fischer

“It has been said that man is distinguished from animal in that he buys more books than he can read. I should like to suggest that the inclusion of a few chess books would help to make the distinction unmistakable.” – Emmanuel Lasker


Throwback Thursday

Thursdays at ClimbingSky feature re-posts from 6+ years of MontanaWriter and ClimbingSky. This post was previously published on February 4, 2011.

Mark Van Doren

Mark Van Doren

When I think of Mark Van Doren, I always think of Thomas Merton. That is because it was Merton that first led me to read Van Doren, or rather, reading Merton’s Seven Story Moutain that led me to want to find and read Van Doren’s poetry.

Once Van Doren was widely acclaimed as a poet. His Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940. As time has passed though, his stature has diminished. His books are difficult to find. Looking on, I find used copies of his poetry available… but little currently in print.

It is difficult to say why Van Doren has fallen so far out of fashion. It is not his poetry or his poetic ability. It may simply be that at this point in time predominant tastes do not lean in his direction. Some day they will again. They must because his poetry is too good to be lost.

The first volume of Van Doren’s poetry I ever purchased was one I found at a used bookstore in Birmingham, Alabama. I was killing time waiting for a Greyhound bus headed for Florida and Key West. I stepped into a small used bookstore on my way back to the bus station from a barbecue place that someone had recommended to me.

The store was cramped and filled with Harlequin romances and old best sellers. On a table in the back, I found a paperback copy of Van Doren’s Collected Poems. It may have been the only volume of poetry in the whole store. It was beat up but unmarked and only  .75 cents. I bought it.

I read the book on the bus through Florida and in Key West. When I read one of his poems now, I quite often think of Key West… of Red Stripe beer and boats… of  long, lazy mornings and lazier afternoons… of music and girls and sun… of my youth.

What better way to start the weekend than reading a poem that reminds you of all of that….


Morning Worship

I wake and hearing it raining.
Were I dead, what would I give
Lazily to lie here,
Like this, and live?

Or better yet: birdsong,
Brightening and spreading –
How far would I come then
To be at the world’s wedding?

Now that I lie, though,
Listening, living,
(Oh, but not forever,
Oh, end arriving)

How shall I praise them:
All the sweet beings
Eternally that outlive
Me and my dying?

Mountains, I mean; wind, water, air;
Grass, and huge trees; clouds, flowers,
And thunder, and night.

Turtles, I mean, and toads; hawks, herons, owls;
Graveyards, and towns, and trout; roads, gardens,
Red berries, and deer.

Lightning, I mean, and eagles; fences; snow;
Sunrise, and ferns; waterfalls, serpents,
Green islands, and sleep.

Horses, I mean; butterflies, whales;
Mosses, and stars and gravelly
Rivers, and fruit.

Oceans, I mean; black valleys; corn;
Brambles, and cliffs; rock, dirt, dust, ice;
And warnings of flood.

How shall I name them?
And in what order?
Each would be first.
Omission is murder.

Maidens, I mean, and apples; needles; leaves;
Worms, and planers, and clover; whirlwinds; dew;
Bulls; geese –

Stop. Lie still.
You will never be done.
Leave them all there.
Old lover. Live on.

A Year of Paying Attention

Yesterday’s hard frost, the first of the year, has not killed all the flowers I can see from my office. On our neighbor’s wooden fence that runs along the western side of our yard, the clematis we planted a number of years ago still has a single flower. Still defiantly growing amid browning leaves.

Along the back fence, a few tall yellow flowers that I do not know the name of, also continue to bloom on brown and drying stocks. Beauty amid decay.

My search of beauty amid decay (of many kinds) has me embarking on a new project that may be highlighted here every now and then. I am going to spend 12 months weekly exploring the river bottoms near where I live and writing about the experience. A year of paying attention.

Along the Minnesota River where I live, just before it meets the Mississippi, giant cottonwoods grow. Many more than 6-feet in diameter. Towns and farms could not survive along river-bottoms that floods each spring, so the flood plains where these giants grow have been largely left alone. Civilization claimed the bluffs, prairies, and woods but it left the river-bottom to the nature.

In Minnesota where “wilderness areas” such as the BWCA (Boundary Waters Canoe Area) are second growth forests, these giant cottonwoods and the flood plains they inhabit, may be the only true wild places left in the state.

It takes more imagination to live in Minnesota than it does in Montana. Growing up in Montana, all you had to do was step out the door and everything looked pretty much the same as it did when Lewis and Clark first visited there.

In the “land of sky blue waters” the great prairies have been plowed under. The big woods logged off. But sometimes you can still find something that reminds you of the way Minnesota once was. Those moments are magical. It is those moments I am searching for.

"Autumn Leaf" (photo by m.a.h. hinton)

“Autumn Leaf” (photo by m.a.h. hinton)

Throwback Thursday

Thursdays at ClimbingSky feature re-posts from 6+ years of MontanaWriter and ClimbingSky. This post was previously published on August 19, 2011.

HopkinsI have been thinking of late of poetic hermits, those poets who live and work outside the mainstream poetic milieu. Unencumbered the with usual social-obligations, group-mind, and unquestioned/shared-understandings, these are the poets free enough and courageous enough to strike out in new and unexpected directions… to search for new and forgotten paths up the holy mountain towards that Olympian light. These are poets like William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, and Gerard Manly Hopkins.

Hopkins, the Jesuit, is the quintessential poetic hermit. His unique poetry is the result of his unique poetic and religious understandings.

Hopkins, who studied Old English and Welsh was greatly influenced by older rhythms and words that still echo in the very bones of the English language. This led him to experiment with a different kind of poetry, one we might call proto-free-verse: one with a completely different kind of  rhythm (which he called sprung rhythm) and with completely different kinds of words, even new words. He pushed the boundaries of language and rhythm, and poetry and the English language are the better for it.

“Duns Scotus’ Oxford” is a good example of what is best about Hopkins. Simply read the first three lines of the poem out loud (as every poem should be read, after all) and you will be hooked. The feel of his language in you mouth is one of the great pleasures of English Literature. It reminds us of why we first fell in love with poetry in the first place, why poetry remains the art closest to our very bones.

“Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmèd, lark-charmèd, rook-racked, river-rounded” is the kind of language we would expect an ancient priest to speak out into the night to summon powers of some kind. It is magic. It is the language of incantations and god-summoning. It is at once ancient sounding and new. Only a poetic hermit could write language like this. Only a poetic hermit could make us enjoy our tongues like this.

On another beautiful August morning, what could be better than a beautiful Hopkins poem.



Dun Scotus’s Oxford
Towery city and branchy between towers;
Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmèd, lark-charmèd, rook-racked, river-rounded;
The dapple-eared lily below thee; that country and town did
Once encounter in, here coped and poisèd powers;
Thou hast a base and brickish skirt there, sours
That neighbour-nature thy grey beauty is grounded
Best in; graceless growth, thou hast confounded
Rural rural keeping—folk, flocks, and flowers.

Yet ah! this air I gather and I release
He lived on; these weeds and waters, these walls are what
He haunted who of all men most sways my spirits to peace;

Of realty the rarest-veinèd unraveller; a not
Rivalled insight, be rival Italy or Greece;
Who fired France for Mary without spot.

Throwback Thursday

Thursdays at ClimbingSky feature re-posts from 6+ years of MontanaWriter and ClimbingSky. This post was previously published on November 1, 2013.

"Saxophone" (sketch by m.a.h. hinton)

“Saxophone” (sketch by m.a.h. hinton)

November arrived in the North Country cool and wet. Overcast morning skies this time of year mean leaving the home in deep darkness. Something that gets more difficult to do with each passing year.

I continue reading about Jazz. I am still working my way through Ted Gioia’s History of Jazz. But have also started reading Stanley Crouch’s excellent book Considering Genius.

Crouch is a fine writer. Next to Ralph Ellison, the best “jazz” writer I have read yet. Crouch, of course, is famous for his political views which he sprinkles liberally throughout his essays.

I have read a fair bit of Crouch over the years, and have always admired his thoughtfulness, even when I have disagreed with what he is saying. Good writers and good thinkers are rare, the combination of both even rarer.

My listening life is still largely Lester Young, though I have recently added a little bit of Hod O’Brien.

The more time I spend with Young the more enthralled I am. It is the way I have felt in my life at times about Yeats and Whitman and Thoreau. It is the aesthetic equivalent of standing at the edge of the sea.

Everyone who writes goes through seasons where they doubt the power of language. It seems like I have been in one of those periods for awhile now.

I suspect that it is precisely because Lester Young’s vulnerable immediacy feels like the most “human” art I have yet encountered – in painting, in literature, in music – that I think I have been spending so much time with him of late.  His art has come to “feel” like a possible way out of this “season of doubt.”Only time, of course, will tell.

So for now I listen to Lester Young, read about jazz, and push words around on pages. Winter is coming… but that only means spring is sure to come.



"Late Autumn Color" (photo by m.a.h. hinton)

“Late Autumn Color” (photo by m.a.h. hinton)

On the top shelf of the bookcase in my newly “remodeled” office are books by Thoreau, books about birds (and a few other animals), my old RSV Bible, the 1855 Edition of Leaves of Grass, and a couple of journals.

Time levels and distills. What is most important to us eventually rises to the top.

For the Protestant, revelation comes only from the Bible, sola scriptura. My uneasiness with this concept, I suppose, is what ultimately “converted” me. In the end I realized that I could never  reconcile my natural way of thinking about God, creation, and being human with that most Protestant of credos.

For me, Nature and Art tell us as much about God as the Bible can. Often times more. Revelation comes from everything. Creation after all bears witness to the Creator. The Bible is merely the first among equals in revealing what is Truth.

Thoreau and Whitman are prophets. Thoreau a prophet of Nature. Whitman of the Self and being human.