Getting Ready 20

Sitting in lobby of non-descript hotel in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. Landed at Bradley last night on Southwest after leaving Oakland an hour late, followed by sitting on the tar mac in Chicago for at least one extra hour, so went to bed about 3 am. Going up to Vermont on AMTRAK which comes through Windsor Locks at 2:30 his afternoon. We continue to experiment with ways to get from California to Vermont without having a car or a place to park a car near an airport. Adventures in transportation.

So far, all the people we have dealt with have been great. People are great; weather is hot and humid; planes, trains and automobiles are something to get past.

I have been reading two books, one to sharpen my sense of anticipation, the other to clear my mind. The first is Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle. The cheerful, outgoing, enthusiastic tone in which he describes his adventures is an inspiration and a model. He is so interested in the world that he will undergo nearly any discomfort – cold nights sleeping on the ground in the Cordillera, high winds that would blow you off a mountain trek, earthquakes, meals made of strange animal parts, seasickness –to find out what’s around the next corner. On this voyage, he’s primarily a geologist, but his eye sweeps not only the coastline and the ridges of mountains (and he can evidently see them flow into the forms they take today, from what they were millions of years ago, so that we see them too, in fast motion like an animated cartoon) but everything under his feet as well. And he tells us what he hears: for example, the sudden absence of birdsong when he walks from the sunlit edge of a forest into the dark old growth.

Darwin’s job is to see what is there and note it. Literally, that’s his job assignment, his ticket aboard the Beagle. But there are lessons to learn about organizing your research, too. The famous story of the beaks of the finches on the Galapagos is a sharp lesson in the importance of getting your categories right – if your categories go wrong, you can be blinded to what’s there. “Once off the path, your wanderings are endless,” said someone, probably Lao Tze. Darwin notices differences among the beaks, but it is only when someone suggests to him in a chance conversation that the differences correspond to the different islands where he collected the birds (yes, he kills them and takes them back to the Beagle to study them; he kills lots of creatures) that he realizes that he has nearly lost an important piece of information, because he has not been tagging them by island; he’s just been putting all the finches together in one bag. This was one of the critical moments in the development of the theory of evolution, although he didn’t come up with that until later. Mixing up the finches would have destroyed the evidence that the shapes of the beaks corresponded to different islands. As it turns out, he’s only half way through sorting the finches, so the category of the island of origin isn’t lost. But it was close.

The other book is Ursula LeGuin, The Dispossessed, which I read every 10 or 15 years to see what it can tell me. Talk about great books! Written in the early 19970s, published in 1974, middle of the Cold War, early in the embargo against Cuba but during the Vietnam war, it’s about life in an anarchist society on a moon, Annares, which circles a planet, Urras, that feels a lot like Europe. It focuses on the life and work of a physicist, Savek, and his wife and children. He is a creative genius, an Einstein (who figures as someone named Aisenstain who lived 400 years ago on the planet Terra) who is working on a general Theory of Simultaneity, a mathematics that bridges time and space. This book gives you the society of Annares, warts and all, famines, work assignments, children’s dormitories, even to letting us see a public debate about whether or not Savek should be allowed to visit Urras, where he might share his invention.

LeGuin, the daughter of Theodore Kroeber the anthropologist and friend of Ishi, the last California Indian, creates both whole social worlds, complete with histories, in her novels and requires her characters to move through them, encountering every privilege and tribulation that they embody. She imagines the world and then visualizes them. Every time I think, “How is she going to get out of this fix?” she is able to find a way.

Speaking of books, we sent a long list of the titles of maybe 60 books to Vinh, saying that these were books that we would try to bring to Vietnam. They are all contemporary labor books, lots of steward training, organizing manuals, bargaining handbooks, some about low wage labor and global trade. All very bottom-up stuff. We asked her to mark which ones they had or which ones she thinks they’d like. The list came back almost overnight, with many books marked priority #1 and #2. Books specifically about US labor law were not what interested her, but she marked nearly all of the other ones. I was very heartened by her choices. It sounds as if she wants basically all the same kind of stuff that we use in our classes here.

We sent the same list to George Saxton who had said he would pass it to the State Department to see what books he might be able to along on his delegation in November. He warned me that he has no storage and no transportation, so that may not work. We will have to spread as many books as we can around our luggage, keeping under the 50 pounds limit.

Now we’re on the train, going through miles after mile of green fields and forests, up to Vermont. The farther we go, the cooler it gets. However, it would still be nice to have an ice cream sandwich. I go to the café car to see what they’ve got for ice cream: nothing. The attendant says that the train loses power so frequently that anything frozen would melt and have to be dumped.