Big Man’s Stool from the middle Sepic River region of Papua New Guinea. This was a wedding gift to us many years ago from my husband’s uncle, an expert on Melanesian art.


Tribe“Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.

It’s time for that to end.”

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger

I was fascinated by David Brooks’ recent column in The New York Times, “The Great Affluence Fallacy,” in which he says that, back in the day, many Americans joined Native American tribes, either voluntarily or because they were captured. Often, whites who were allowed to return to their original culture chose to stay with Native Americans.

This rarely happened the other way around: Native Americans never willingly chose white society.

David Brooks read about this phenomenon in Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger, (Junger is the author of The Perfect Storm and War) which inspired me to read this short, well written extended essay on the plight of the lonely, autonomous individual in modern American culture.

I highly recommend Tribe if you feel that we’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way in our relentless pursuit of autonomy and self-actualization, and if you feel we’re in need of a course correction. At about 130 pages, it is a quick but memorable read.

Here are a couple more quotes that spoke to me:

“A person living in a modern city or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day–or an entire life–mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone.”

“We are not good to each other. Our tribalism is to an extremely narrow group of people: our children, our spouse, maybe our parents. Our society is alienating, technical, cold, and mystifying. Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that.” – Sharon Abramowitz

Family Reunion

Speaking of tribes, connection, and meaning, this summer I went to a family reunion held every three years or so by my husband’s large extended family of Irish descent. It’s always a great time, and through the years I’ve enjoyed watching four generations gather from the east and west coasts and many places in between. At the reunion we had a memorial tribute to my husband’s uncle, Peter, who recently passed away.

As a young man, Peter emigrated to Australia, started out in advertising and, beginning in the 1960s, spent three decades traveling deep into the interior of New Guinea and collecting tribal art. Eventually, Peter became one of the world’s foremost experts on Melanesian art.

Reading through Peter’s autobiographical material on display at the reunion, I found this:

“…he would spend months at a time traveling in remote areas, living amongst the people and studying their culture and traditional art….he would spend weeks traveling to small, obscure villages…No place was too far. There were trips to the most remote regions of Milne Bay, the Dampier and Vitiaz straits, off the beaten track in the Highlands, even an eleven month trip which delivered a major Kula canoe from Kitava Island to the South Australian Museum.”

Peter’s catalog descriptions make for fascinating reading. I love the vivid, succinct descriptions and the precise words. It’s almost like poetry. Here is one:

IMG_3634A Wood Mask, Kandrian Sub-District, Wosom Village, the oval white face with an hollowed mouth showing teeth and tongue, hollowed eyes, pierced ears, and the high forehead with three cylindrical shafts issuing feathers, strands of shells and pig teeth hanging from the ear lobes, painted with white, black and red pigments. Height 63 cm. (24 3/4 in.) 

This type of dance mask, called ‘Waku,’ was used in circumcision festivities.”

It strikes me that Peter’s fascination with Aboriginal art and life may have been inspired, in part, because he admired their community values and human bonds that ran deep…which is what Sebastian Junger writes about in Tribe. Peter must have resonated with their deep connection to nature, too.

So much knowledge and wisdom can be lost with the passing of intrepid individuals such as Peter. Fortunately, much of his knowledge and many of his experiences have been preserved in books and photographs, which we were able to see at the family reunion. As time goes on, the grandchildren and great grandchildren will be left with some sense of Peter’s remarkable life.

For him, no place was too far.


One of the old photos Peter left behind. I have no way of knowing what tribe this is or which village. Can you imagine pulling up in your canoe at some remote river location and receiving such a warm welcome? Or, maybe it was posed…either way, everyone looks happy.



Dance 1


Art by Sammy Clarmon of the Lockhard River Art Gang, in Gatherings II: Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art from Queensland, Australia. This is one of the Keeaira Press books designed by Great Uncle Peter. These esoteric, small press books about tribal culture are invaluable; they preserve glimpses of a past way of life and a unique body of wisdom for future generations.

Are there fascinating figures in your family history? Do you agree with Sebastian Junger that modern society makes people feel unnecessary?




Living on the edge of wilderness

Cascade wildflowersI’ve been keeping company with Ana Maria Spagna’s essay collections, Now Go Home: Wilderness, Belonging, and the Crosscut Saw; and Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness while we’ve been vacationing in the Cascades.

After college, Spagna made a commitment to work on trail crews for the National Park Service in spring, summer, and fall, and to travel during the winter months. Eventually, she settled in Stehekin, Washington, a remote town in the northern Cascades, where she and her partner built their own house. I believe she still works the trail crews several months out of the year.

I tend to romanticize what it would be like to call such a place home. In her essays, Spagna captures the glamour and majesty of living surrounded by natural beauty, but she also writes about the never-ending challenges.

Ana Maria writes about how Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, tree huggers and loggers, religious fundamentalists and atheists get along (or don’t) in a small community.

There are the forest fires, flash floods, and avalanches. There are the costs incurred to keep residents of these areas safe from natural disasters, costs often borne by taxpayers who live in more populated areas.

It hadn’t occurred to me that precautions to prevent forest fires may cause the buildup of flammable, dense growth that could result in The Big One, a massive fire that destroys everything.

Spagna’s writing is important. She’s a voice from another world, the last bastions of nature, a voice whose wisdom we need to hear.

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

“I visited the Magic Kingdom thirty-seven times before I turned nineteen, and by then I craved something, anything, that would be the antithesis of Disney, the real thing. That’s what I found on the highway: places you can count on, places where in the morning without fail, there will be coffee at the gas station heading out of town….[and] people who….were honest, if quirky, and unexpectedly generous, and they lived an ethic that the land itself, no matter how pretty, can’t teach…..The Golden Rule.”
View from Spirit Lake trail
“These places…wilderness areas, national parks – are supposed to transform us, make us new…..they do not continuously dispense spiritual wowness like a fountain….I stripped myself of everything to be out there–out there!–and the problem with being out there is that then it is not out there anymore. It is more like in here….you can’t be made new at home.”

Quotes are from Now Go Home: Wilderness, Belonging, and the Crosscut Saw, by Ana Maria Spagna, Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, 2004.

Bridal veil falls