Blood and Thunder

I've lived all of my 38 years in the American West, and sadly, in all that time I've learned nothing of its history. The West, unlike practically every other region in America doesn't have a Lincoln Monument or a Civil War battlefield or a Colonial Williamsburg.

OK, that's not entirely true, historic Spanish missions and ancient Indian ruins dot the Southwest, but the West is better known for monuments of Prehistory (Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, the Rockies, etc.) rather than American history.

If there was a single man who defined the West and who brought a magical historical gravitas to every rock he touched and every forlorn creek he drank from, it was Kit Carson. Journalist John Sullivan may have coined the phrase, and the curmudgeonly James K. Polk may have been its architect, but it was Kit Carson who willingly or not personified the romance and blood of American "Manifest Destiny."

Hampton Sides' "Blood and Thunder" is a gory and glorious report on Carson and the conquest of the American West. Carson's name of course is ubiquitous in the West with rivers, mountains, parks, and even towns and cities bearing his namesake. As a born and bred westerner, you just grow up taking his name for granted as you can't cross a river he hasn't forded, a mountain he hasn't climbed or a desert he hasn't traversed. However, as many times as Carson escaped certain death at the hands of hostile Indians, drunken French trappers, not to mention that callous bitch Mother Nature, he was also reliably at the fulcrum of events that turned the West from a Spanish/Mexican Outback, to a continent that would spread from Boston to Santa Barbara.

That's not entirely a good thing.

The flip-side of our ocean-to-ocean ambitions was the premeditated destruction of entire civilizations, particularly the Navajos led by their immortal "Chief" Narbona. (I put 'chief' in quotes, because the Navajo didn't have a strict hierarchy, although Narbona's authority is rarely questioned.) Here Sides masterfully shows Carson, in spite of his lack of formal education and simple demeanor, as a complex man wrestling with the contradiction of his reverence for the Navajos and the inevitability of their conquest.

It seems Carson's siding with Polk and his generals was as inevitable as the conquest and subjugation of the Navajos.

This is one of those rare history books that grips you like a Charles Dickens novel...come to think of it, in "Blood and Thunder" we even find Dickens chiming in on the exploits of Kit Carson. Like the labyrinthine network of canyons where the Navajos would make their last stand against a patient and merciless Carson, the book follows every dead end, meticulously probes every cave and every boulder-strewn narrow and when it's done, we no longer see the lonely, crowded West of stretching suburbs and resort communities, but instead we get a rare peek into an enchanted land, a West that quit existing the moment we set foot in it.

A compelling read.

I'd like to thank my Mom for generously donating this book.


Dangerous & Radical

Well, it's been quite a stretch since my last post. Apologies all around.

Anyway, it's not like I quit reading.

In fact, I read two head-spinning non-fiction books that will surely make your hair stand on end.

Joel Garreau's riveting take on western civilization's ever-ascending technology curve and the mind-boggling ramifications for humanity as we know it had my head swimming for at least a couple of weeks. If that wasn't enough, I tossed in John Brockman's "What is Your Dangerous Idea?", a compendium of answers to the book's title from some of the world's leading scientists, philosophers and academicians.

However, it's Garreau's book that has this human in a state of future shock. According to some very credible scientists the exponential nature of the information technology curve (think Moore's Law here), we are rapidly moving toward the "singularity" a moment in human evolution where the line between what is human and what is machine is blurred past the point of recognition.

For some, like Dr. Ray Kurzweil, this is humanity making it's inevitable move toward immortality. Garreau follows Kurzweil through the "Heaven Scenario" where our technology abolishes poverty, pestilence and even death. Kurzweil is no crackpot, the guy predicted the internet in explicit detail decades before it's development.

Of course, one man's heaven is another man's hell. Garreau flips the evolutionary script following Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy into scenarios that seem plucked from a James Cameron script. Which isn't to say that any of Joy's doom and gloom scenarios aren't realistic...some of them, to me anyway, seem downright inevitable. Swarms of self-replicating nano-bots, stark stratifications between artificially enhanced humans and "naturals", or artificial intelligence deciding the fate of humanity. If technology is accelerating at a clip faster than human morality can absorb its broad-ranging implications then some kind of technological catastrophe or even a holocaust is inevitable in our lifetime.

But then again, those sci-fi outcomes seem just a little too easy.

Garreau's third scenario the "Prevail Scenario" that seems most likely. If technological calamity doesn't render humanity extinct then we will muddle through as a species to a scenario we simply can't imagine yet. The movement toward the "singularity" might push humans toward rather than away from each other and through creativity and embracing the unknowable, we may be able to (eventually) transcend technology and be forced by necessity to accept each other in what will clearly be a wildly heterogeneous world.

Anyway, the future is at once scary and exhilarating...and so I guess there is nothing new under the sun...for now.

John Brockman's "What is Your Dangerous Idea" brings together Garreau, Kurzweil, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins and dozens of other scientists and intellectuals to briefly proffer their scary ideas...and the book doesn't disappoint. Ideas here range broadly from Stevens Institute Director John Horgan who surmises that the human "soul" doesn't exist to Harvard Business School's Juan Enriquez seeing technology as hastening the disintegration of the United States.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to return to my closet and resume shutting my eyes, muttering to myself and rocking back and forth.


Oh, and thanks again to the Denver Public Library who graciously loaned me Joel Garreau's "Radical Evolution."