Courage & Stupidity: It’s A Fine Line, They Say
Courage & Stupidity:
It’s A Fine Line, They Say
By Jesse Wolf Hardin
Wise risks and stupid choices…
gambling on an overloaded raft in a roaring flood… chancing to live our dreams.
In the course of my life, I’ve had to be comfortable conversing in the clipped sentences of martial jargon, thanks to early years in military school, and with the limited but loaded vernacular of the outlaw bikers I hung with after I ran away. Thanks to my diverse and checkered past, I can speak fluent “poet” and “revolutionary”, and can carry on in the language of “hard-bit logger” as well as “sentimental tree hugger”, talk a bit of “barrio” and make out more than a few words of “academia”. My history and firearms vocabularies are extensive, making interesting conversation possible with both college professors and self described gun nuts. I utilize terms and expressions particular to veterinarians and veterans, aesthetic focused artists and mumbly Latin-mouthed botanists, evoking the inflections of hell defying preachers as much as pissed off protestors. In every case, there are trademark aphorisms that denote each group’s values and attitudes, prejudices and priorities, in the course of teaching broadly helpful truisms to anyone able and willing to hear.
One of the passed around here in the still rural West, is that “there’s a fine line between courage and stupidity.”
It could be considered courageous, for example, to gallop your horse to the front of a stampeding cattle herd in a bid to slow and turn them, before they dash to their deaths off the nearby cliffs like panicky investors in some failed banker’s securities scheme. Courageous, to risk a whiskey bottle to the head in the course of defending the honor of a woman. Or to face off against the New Mexico State Police and U.S. Air Force with nothing but an antiquated Winchester rifle and copy of the Bill of Rights, when the government tells you they are taking your lifelong ranch away… to expand their White Sands missile testing range.
One might think it purely stupid, however, to get drunk and ride a bull through the window of an eastern New Mexico bar, or to break bottles over your own head just to show some gal how tough you really are. Stupid, to tell a Texas sheriff that no “tin-star hick-ass agent of oppression” has the right to goad, pulling you over just because you looked out of place on that lonely stretch of desert road.
Such expressions can be applied to anyone’s life. Quitting a job that you feel wastes your life or deadens your spirit, especially in financially difficult times: pretty doggone brave. Getting fired for telling the boss off, a month before retirement: potentially short on smarts. Sticking with a difficult relationship, because of real love, a desire to help, and signs of progress: courageous without question. A wife staying with a man who berates and belittles her, “for the sake of the kids”: simply dumb, dumb, dumb.
When it comes to the herbalists we know, it’s brave for them to defy the cultural bias against natural healing and in favor of biased research and pharmaceuticals, to risk being ridiculed over either the primitivity of their craft or occasional habit of talking to plants, to spend money on books and schools with no assurance they are devoting themselves to a career that will pay them back. But what’s less than smart, is whenever a few practitioners go so far as to discount all scientific research, or don’t readily utilize modern conventional medicine even when clearly advisable, or nurse an emotional attachment to having either mass appeal or official acceptance.
So often though, it’s not really clear which we are until after the fact, the test, the crux, the close or finish line. If I’d been killed while living with criminals and crazies on the street, it would have seemed far more dumb than courageous. Or if was never able to make an income or have an affect on the world, due to a stupid stunt like turning my back on formal education, certificates and degrees. Or if I’d ended up penniless and back to sleeping under bridges, after selling the engine out of my only vehicle and school-bus home for the down payment on some wild and remote land. Or if no one had attended our herbal conference or read our new herbal magazine, after launching them in the middle of an economic recession.
If such things seem brave in retrospect, it is because I both survived as a teen runaway, and learned on the mean streets much of what I needed later to thrive. It’s only due to the evidence of hundreds of articles and dozens of books that I’ve written, the nature awareness school I founded and the many people who say I and my partners have helped them, that dropping out of school, living without medical insurance or a consistent income, and following a dream at such great risk and cost can be seen as anything but ignorant and disastrous. Thanks to a few successes at raising awareness of endangered wildlands, my Don Quixote efforts aren’t as laughable. It seems brave how I bought this property I’m on, because I somehow or other managed to struggle and make each of the 15 years worth of payments, restoring this micro ecosystem to health as it restored me myself. And our magazine and conference could be dismissed as ignorant and foolhardy gambles, if not for the volume of enthused subscribers and the first year’s event selling out.
Watching and measuring me throughout all these tests of relative stupidity or courage, have been not only my various audiences and constituencies, the sportsmen, conservationists and scholars, readers and supporters, detractors and denigrators, but also the few locals inhabiting my isolated county. It is they, of all people perhaps, with no investment in the outcome, who have been the most objective witnesses of all. The majority didn’t care if I managed to make the land payments, walking the 17 miles round trip to the nearest village for supplies, or if I would keep from being thrown and killed after buying a proud-cut Arabian with no experience in cinching a saddle… but they’ve certainly been entertained at all my efforts and contortions, and at time seem to have greatly enjoyed betting on the results.
Never was this made more clear than during one of our normally small river’s periodic floods, with us unable to get out to the road except by scrambling and sloshing up miles of soggy mountainside or swimming with one hand while holding the outgoing mail aloft. The nearby town’s wonderment regarding when and how we might brave the 20’ high rushing waters again was finally eased when a few fellow visitors to the Reserve post office noticed me carrying out a very large package, and unpacking it in the parking lot, and carrying what looked like rolled up plastic over to the gas station and its air hose. By the time I had filled the raft’s three chambers, a half dozen of my neighbors (loosely defined, of course, since our cabin is situated miles from the next nearest domicile) had cued up to find out what I planned, fascinated by the site of a water craft in a Southwestern landscape known for its dryness. All proved glad to help me get the inflated vestibule lashed down in the back of old Sammy Giron’s Toyota pickup, and determined to follow us to what was now a highly anticipated launching.
Sammy drove slow as always, with me perched in the back so I could try to hold down the raft’s nose in the wrestling winds. Every mile or two, it seemed, somebody else would jump into their truck or jeep as we passed by, then follow the growing line of vehicles that was appearing more and more like an underfunded and under-decorated parade. Nearly 30 people pulled up behind us at the edge of the river where it snaked virilely into the our narrowing canyon, the floating tree trunks and white froth rushing by at a remarkable speed as the first of wagers were made. A bet in rural America is not always a simple matter, though this day money was laid done over nothing more complex than whether I and my baggage would possibly stay afloat past the first sharp turn and until I was out of their sight.
It was the matter of my baggage, as it turns out, that determined the arithmetic of the bets, with the odds against me going up with each heavy item that I loaded up. Containers of kerosene for the lamps, groceries, books and mail, judiciously wrapped in garbage bags to guard them against the paddle’s sure spray. So heavy were they in total, that the last half had to be hoisted in after the boat had already been slid into the water, held against the shore only by the efforts of a so many folks holding its tethering ropes. With all the available floor space thus taken, I had no choice but to sit high astride the plastic covered boxes as ropes were released and the current had its way.
Fact was, that I’d never actually boated before, only watched videos of white water rafters jauntily navigating between jagged river rocks. What such films failed to indicate, needless to say, was the fact that an overloaded vessel is absolutely impossible to steer, with one’s paddle being of no use other than to push off of any rock eddies where you might get stuck. “Get the camera, George,“ and “God help him” some woman was heard to say, just as the muscular current got its way. And then was the first time I ever heard that old expression, about what a fine line there can be between courage and stupidity, or considered that it could prove an important lesson.
Kindly exclamations of concern now gave way to shouts of excitement from the shoreline crowd, as I bounced violently off of the cliff at the first bend. Not to be outdone, one boisterous cowboy was shouting “I’ll give you eight to one” at the top of his lungs. By this time, my new raft was spinning precariously in a circle, water spilling over its sides in what must have briefly looked a lot like a water rodeo. Briefly, I say, with no time to consider who among them might have been right, before careening crazily out of the crowd’s site.
For a short while, I could still discern the sounds of truck horns honking back at the crossing, and the occasional distant thunder of revolvers fired in celebration into the air. In less than ten minutes I was swept, bounced and jolted all the way to our property, jumping into the cold, neck deep water in order to slow and then finally beach my bloated craft. Except for a couple of the packages that I’d gotten, most of the boxes remained dry, I’m happy to say, with only a few folks making money on me that fine Fall day: those willing to bet on a long shot.
Many years later, our rancher and retiree “neighbors” still have little admiration for our growing a riparian forest where there’d been none, and our successful magazine and conference are only curiosities, but they nonetheless like to cite such things as examples of a person accomplishing the unlikely. They reason that if I can get done what I have, with the odds consistently stacked against me, then anything may be possible. They imagine it means they they could win the New Mexico Lottery jackpot, by spending only a buck or a two on tickets at Jake’s Grocery. That one might be able to get that special gal or guy that the heart longs for, no matter what his or her friends or parents might say. That the too brightly lit and over managed monoculture that is the 21st Century can be kept at bay a while longer, helping ensure that rural landscapes, country skills and personal freedoms continue to exist.
In this, there’s something for all of us, it seems… learning to not let the chances for failure – nor even the possibility of looking stupid – prevent us taking the necessary risks to live out our dreams.
(From an upcoming book of mind stretching thoughts and heart opening anecdotes from a wildly rural perspective… by Jesse Wolf Hardin, possibly to be titled “The Town That Waves”)
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Categories: Jesse Wolf Hardin – Essays & Tales, Our Life in The Wilderness, ReWilding