On a Snowy Evening, Intimations of Mortality


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Working at home today — if reading Andrew Curran’s new biography of Diderot for the class on the European/American Enlightenment I’m teaching can be called work — I  witnessed a most remarkable succession of clouds.


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Fire on the Mountain

Three months ago we were evacuated from our home in Woodland Hills, Utah, along with other residents of our town and people in Elk Ridge, Covered Bridge Canyon, and residents in Hobble Creek Canyon, because of a threatening fire burning on the flanks of Santaquin Peak, the mountain that rises abruptly up from the highest streets in our town.

Today I hiked up the mountain and learned a few things.

  1. fires are unpredictable. With scrub oak and maple trees unaffected on both sides, almost everything burned in this little swale


2. These scrub oak and maple trees may or may not grow again next spring.


3. The fire, as fierce as it was from our perspective, was largely a quick-burning affair fed by grasses and dead brush. This Douglas fir, for instance, was burned only around the lower trunk and otherwise was not touched.


4. The Douglas firs along the ridge line didn’t do so well.


5. Our town’s attempt to control any subsequent debris flow by channeling it into our park surrounded by jersey barriers seems a pitiful gesture toward pretending we can control nature.


Can’t wait to see what the ground looks like in the spring, once the snow melts.

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Hyunmee Lee at the NuArt Gallery in Santa Fe

Lyn and I spent an afternoon during our Thanksgiving break with our friend Hyunmee Lee’s new paintings in Santa Fe, an exhibition called “Epochal Dimensions.” We have lived for a decade with three of Hyunmee’s paintings. I wrote about the large black-on-white painting chunji-changjo / Heaven and earth a few years ago HERE. The smaller paintings were a gift when Hyunmee left Utah for Santa Fe.

It is one thing to see and even live with a painting, quite another to see a painting in the context of other paintings done during the same 6-month period. It was enlightening to stand between and before and behind the paintings of “Epochal Dimensions.” In the midst of the large paintings that make up the new exhibition, I witnessed variations on a theme: black box or blob or even triangle plus cyan box or blob or slash plus yellow impulses and even lavender touches connected and commented on by lines of black—all on a canvas painted and overpainted with white. Look at the various positions of the black. Of the cyan. Of the pale yellow. Of the lavender. See how them move from canvas to canvas. They move! They rearrange themselves. They speak with one another: This! And this! But this! No, this! Why not this? Each painting fascinating with its own complexities. Together they were magical.


For images on the gallery site, click HERE

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My Son and My Friend: Birthdays on November 24

This conjunction of birthdays (my son Ben and my friend Sam) leads me, today, to think about friendship and family.

Father/Son relationships are difficult in as many ways as they are rewarding. “Your mum and dad,” as Philip Larkin famously wrote, “they fuck you up.”  I’ve certainly done that to and for my son Ben. And, fortunately for me, he has been generous and gracious in the face of decisions I’ve made that complicate his life (the divorce, for example). With his own exploits he has eclipsed my claims to fame on a mountain bike and on back-country skis. He has flourished in a field he has chosen (as have each of his siblings) and has shared that with me (as far as I’m able to follow the science). He is a patient and wise father.

Today I’d like to celebrate that fact that Ben is alive, alive to the world more intensely than most of us are. You can see that in his face in these three photos. He’s not just smiling for the camera. He’s happy to be alive. And I’m grateful to be his father.


Sam Rushforth has been my friend for going on 30 years. Friendships aren’t easy either. If you’re lucky, and I have been, a friendship broadens and deepens your experience, challenges you in productive ways, provides solace and support and inspiration.

I’ve been putting together a set of essays I published while teaching at BYU, most of them attempts to argue against decisions that were progressively destroying a university I loved. I’ll call the book “Personal Encounters with Mormon Institutions.” Sam and I were a good team in those efforts at BYU. When I was denied promotion because of my work, Sam stepped in as my faculty advocate. At the appeal, knowing there wasn’t a chance in hell the administration would reverse its decision based on “the ridicule I had brought to the university,” we had a good time making our point that BYU had lost its way. Among my papers I recently found the powerful 7-page, single-spaced opening statement Sam made and will quote a paragraph here, grateful to be seen this way by a man whose friendship I cherish:

Because Professor Abbott has pointed out some of the problems at Brigham  Young University, he has been accused of being a contentious critic. This is absurd. Professor Abbott is a true optimist in the sense of Albert Schweitzer. He returned to Brigham Young University, leaving a tenured position at Vanderbilt in order to devote himself to the growth and expanding excellence of our institution. Professor Abbott has worked for the betterment of this university in every way. He is a consummate academic. But equally important, he has been willing to see the future in new ways. He has been willing to examine the past and point out our errors, not for any spurious or malicious reason but because he thinks we can be better. Scott came to Brigham Young University because he holds a vision of our institution that is better than reality. And he has the courage and drive to work toward the realization of that alternative Brigham Young University.

Like Ben, Sam is more alive than most of us. You can see that in these photos (well, except for the one where Sam has lost momentum riding up the Great Western Trail in Provo Canyon — a sideways turn that works as a good metaphor for moments in our lives when we need a little push from a friend).


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A Utah Woman

. . . who tried to hire a hitman to kill her ex-husband was sentenced to prison on Monday — a three-year-to-life sentence.” The Salt Lake Tribune, 30 October 2018

“The prosecutor said human life meant nothing to her. ‘She is cold,’ he said. ‘She is calculating. And she only exists to serve her own interest.'”

“The Utah woman was a beneficiary on three life insurance policies taken out on her ex-husband.”

“‘I think it’s time that this sociopath is held accountable and not allowed to play any more games with the court.'”

KSL NEWS, March 9, 2018: “WOMAN on trial for criminal solicitation. . . .”

“‘. . . no, she didn’t even blink when the verdict was read. She just stared straight ahead until she was taken away back to jail.'”

“‘I don’t know how easy it is to get away with this stuff,’ she said in a recorded conversation, ‘I just don’t know. . . . He cannot walk out of there until he’s as dead as a doornail. . . . And I really don’t give a damn if he takes her [the ex-husband’s wife] out too.'”

When she says this last sentence in KSL TV’s film clip of the trial, I recognize the precise intonation, the discriminating enunciation. This is not some Utah woman convicted of a bizarre crime, this is the woman whom I loved and learned from during my second year in college.

From my Immortal for Quite Some Time:

October 1970, Provo, Utah

The lights go down and the play begins: “Years ago, bloody years, a governor named Georgi Abashwili ruled this damned city. He was as rich as Croesus.”

They skipped Brecht’s prologue set on the Soviet collective farm! I whisper.

This is BYU, she whispers back.

The mother leaves her child. The servant girl saves the child. A stagehand walks aimlessly across the stage.

Alienation effect, I whisper. The top of her foot grazes my calf.

The war ends. The mother returns and wants the child she abandoned. The judge suggests a Solomonic solution.

The warm foot again. And again.

May 1971, Northwest of Moab, Utah

Will you marry me? I asked. She looked at me quizzically—and said yes.

I borrowed my roommate’s Pontiac GTO, an aging but full-throated beauty. We drove from Provo to Farmington where I asked her father for her hand in marriage. My father embraced her warmly. . . .

June 1971, Provo

“When I’m loving you more than I can stand I have to get you something and a book is all I can think of. As you grow with the contents of these pages and others I will be with you always.” She inscribes the Anchor paperback of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or with her love. I mark two early passages:

One ought to be a mystery, not only to others, but also to one’s self.

Every individual, however original he may be, is still a child of God, of his age, of his nation, of his family and friends. Only thus is he truly himself. If in all this relativity he tries to be the absolute, then he becomes ridiculous.

July 1971, San Francisco, California

We lie spooned in her single bed. I’m not ready to be married, I say. It’s too soon, I say. This won’t work out in the long run, I say. It will be better for both of us, I say. Get out of my bed, she says.

That sparse account hardly does justice to our relationship. She was a senior economics major, smart as all get out, teaching a beginning economics class on her own as she finished her degree. I read all of Steinbeck while we were engaged, started reading philosophy, found my way from a pre-med curriculum to a major in German literature, learned, under her tutelage, what pleasures our bodies were capable of.

When we split up she took over the payments on the new Toyota Corolla we had bought together and went off to make her fortune. I heard at one point that she had bought a truck, an oil tanker she hired someone to operate. She would, I figured, flourish in one business or another.

Five or so years ago, she sent me an inquiring email. She was wondering about me as I had, over the years, about her. Her first question was whether I was happy at that point in my life. I responded that life is too complex to answer that question with a yes or no. I asked about her life and she said she had married and had a daughter who was now an adult. I told her about my children. She had divorced and remarried. I had divorced and eventually remarried. She wrote a long account of her expertise in some kind of foreign affairs, maybe related to economics (I wish I had kept the email). She had been called in as a special advisor for the Clinton administration, she said, top secret questions that required her total invisibility. We exchanged emails about Freemasonry, which she said she had studied extensively — both the fraternal organization and the Mormon connections to Masonic ritual — and claimed to have unlocked some of the important esoteric keys. I told her I had resigned from the Mormon Church and had written a book about Freemasonry and the German novel. The important Freemasons, I wrote, the ones with real influence in American politics (Washington, Franklin, etc.), saw their ritual as a purely metaphorical means to improve character and not as esoterically charged. And that was the end of the email exchange.

I look at a still photo from the TV footage and recognize the long curve from her nose to her upper lip, the almost round ear. I knew that talented and thoughtful woman intimately. I look at the photo and grieve. That is not some Utah woman. That is a woman I loved.


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En attendant Godot: First Edition!

I was looking through some of my books this week and found this one hiding behind some others:


I opened it carefully and found this:


A first edition! Published in 1952. I looked around the internet and found copies in worse shape than mine selling for $3000. One with Beckett’s signature is going for $20,000.

I read the page a little closer and wondered how a book from 1952 could include a note in the past tense saying the play was first performed in January 1953.

I turned to the last pages:


A 1970 reprint.

The internet told me I could get another one for 25 euros.

I’ll be waiting, then, for a 1952 Godot.

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Great Western Trail: 1000-Lake Mountain

Lyn and I gave a talk about barbed wire last night at Robber’s Roost in Torrey, Utah, invited by the Entrada Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting science, humanities, and arts in the region. Frank McEntire, a remarkable Utah sculptor, was our host. As a thank you for our lecture he gave us a windmill made of sections of “Brink Flat” barbed ribbon. Frank got it from the estate of a friend and figured we would love it. We do.



On the way home we drove through the little town of Freemont and up onto 1000 Lake Mountain. At the top we stopped at the trailhead of the Great Western Trail. Here is the scene at the trailhead:

1000 gwt

And here is the territory dropping off toward Capitol Reef that Sam Rushforth and I rode our mountain bikes through that day in October 20 years ago.


In case you haven’t read our book Wild Rides & Wildflowers: Philosophy and Botany with Bikes (Torrey House Press), here is an account of the epic ride.


16 October, Great Western Trail, Thousand Lakes Mountain

It’s just before noon and Nancy is driving us through Bicknell and then north through Fremont. Alfalfa fields are lit by a brilliant sun, which makes the white slashes across the green grass all the more shocking: gangly big-wheeled irrigation pipes are rimed with gleaming white ice. Hogan Pass is high and exposed and windy. We leave the car reluctantly to assemble our bikes, pull on our gloves and draw our hoods tight amidst blowing ice crystals.

“You’re making a big mistake,” Nancy says while surreptitiously tucking a bag of cheese curd into Sam’s camelback (after having convinced him to add a bag of sunflower kernels and an emergency blanket).

“No question about it,” Sam agrees.

We wave good-by and head south on the Great Western Trail. Just below the pass we stop to adjust our packs. A moving shadow draws our gazes upward to where a big bird banks and sweeps and quarters into the wind, its white tail flared and white head brilliant against a black body. It’s a bald eagle! (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). “Haliaeetos,” I discover later, is the Latin for sea-eagle or osprey. “Leuco” is Greek for white, light, bright and is related to lux, luna, light, lightning, lumen, luster. “Leucocephalus”—white head.

“It’s a good omen,” I tell Sam.

“A good omen, my ass,” he replies cheerfully.

We pedal south on a rough jeep road. The mountain ridge rises abruptly to the west. To the east, 3500 feet below us, stand the buttes and spires and grotesque protuberances of Cathedral Valley. Sam points out Factory Butte at the north end of the Henry Mountains, whose peaks are half-veiled by dirty air, courtesy of coal-burning power plants. We skirt the western edge of the mountain through sage scorched by a recent fire. A flock of mountain bluebirds (Sialia currocoides) rises and falls among the sage. The trail leads us down a steep jeep track into a grassy valley. Around one turn we come face-to-face with a corpulent elk hunter sitting on a rock next to his four-wheeler.

“Sorry,” I say, screeching to a surprised halt. “Didn’t mean to screw up your hunt.”

He answers with a hateful stare.

“Lardass,” I mutter as we descend into the valley, shooting down the trail faster than I would have had my mind been on the mechanics of the descent. I hit the ground hard when my front tire slides across a steep incline, pulling the bike out from under me. I glance back quickly to see if the hunter can see me. He can’t. I feel a little better.

“Hell,” Sam says, riding up, “you do that on purpose?”

We hear motors. Two orange-clad elk hunters follow the trail out of the trees. They stop in front of us, a burley, burrheaded 45-year-old man and his father. We exchange pleasantries, about how cold it is, about how riding a bike at least kept your blood running, about the elk they have seen this morning.

“Where are you coming from?” the younger man asks.

“Hogan’s Pass,” Sam answers.

They are surprised.

“Where you headed?”

“To Torrey.”

“Torrey? You’re riding to Torrey!”

We’ve never ridden this trail. Now we’re a bit spooked.

We forge on, pushing some, riding some, tiring rapidly, awed and sustained by the magnificent Water Pocket Fold stretching away to the south and by the fantastically colored Capital Reef now below us.

There is the final sudden trail down from 9000 to 7000 feet, what I begin to call the Great Western Chute as the tendons on the sides of my knees begin to scream. Then the ride out between white and red Navajo Sandstone walls, along Sand Creek on a road so drifted with red sand that we fishtail our tired asses down into Torrey, where we call Nancy and wait in gathering dusk for a blessed ride home.

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Labor Day Memories from the Oil Patch: 1972

These pay stubs are from the first summer I worked as a roughneck. It was a wildcat expedition in southern Arizona, the first well almost two miles deep — just outside of Eloy (between Phoenix and Tucson) — then a shallower well outside Wickenburg to the west.

Hot as hell.

Three crews worked 8-hour shifts or “tours” / pronounced “towers” — 7 days a week with breaks only between wells. Thus the “BOTTOM HOLE” pay — a substantial bonus if you worked through to the end of that hole. The middle check is just for bottom-hole pay and not for subsistence (the hourly wage). Time-and-a-half overtime, which came only if someone on the tour following yours didn’t show up and one of you had to stay for a second 8 hours, which meant you only had 8 hours before your next tour to eat and sleep.

Floorhands like me were paid $3.25 an hour. Checks were issued weekly. With my summer’s wages I bought my first car for $600 (a VW Variant hatchback) and paid tuition, room, board, and incidentals for my next year at college. Plus I returned to Provo with an enormously expanded vocabulary.


Loffland Brothers was a big company out of Oklahoma. This is the logo like the one on my hardhat.

loffland logo

The booklet the company gave out to all its employees let us know what an extraordinary company we were privileged to work for and had a full page informing us that from time to time outside agitators might try to talk us into forming a union. We were to ignore them. There was simply no need, given the benevolent employers we were privileged to work for.

There was, of course, no medical insurance. No benefits of any kind other than the hard hat and sticker and, of course, the hourly wage. And, lest I forget, the benefit of principled sayings at the bottom of the pay stub:


I was proud to be a roughneck, proud to earn a living among skilled men. I worked for 4 more summers with companies out of my hometown, Farmington, New Mexico. In retrospect, I wish Loffland Brothers had had principal principles aimed not at personal self-sufficiency but at corporate responsibility to its labor force.

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The Perfect Fence: Upcoming Talk

Flier just released for our upcoming talk for the Entrada Institute in Torrey. We’re very much looking forward to this.

Bennett-Abbott Flyer PDF

[photo credit: Tim Abbott]

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