The Mystery

by Bruce Blizard

The mystery is always there.

The land where I live in southeastern Washington State rushes north, up from the Yakima River to the crest of Rattlesnake Ridge and then slides away to the northeast and into the mystery of the new Technological Century. As we ascended the southern slope of the ridge on horseback, my daughter and I often meandered upward and away from the comfort of our primitive home. We could see the thin ribbon in Interstate 82 in the distance, cars and trucks speeding purposefully east and west, but the sound of the freeway did not carry this far.

Once we crested the ridge the ominous reactors of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation commanded our attention. On horseback, at the crest of this ancient ridge, secure in the certainty of prairie grass and sagebrush, the specter of the nuclear mystery spread out below us shimmering in the desert like the memory of some long forgotten future time.

I trust the past, but I don’t trust memories.

I was still teaching at Richland High School when a respected professional colleague once asked if I was worried about eating “homemade beef”, the meat of animals we had raised ourselves. My reply, that I knew where the meat came from and what it had been fed and who had killed it, whereas she did not when she bought meat at the supermarket, took her aback. She assumed that buying meat in cellophane was intrinsically safer than raising, killing, and eating your own meat. She had implicit trust in people she did not know and could not see. She had no context for trusting the nearby, the familiar.

Her solace was in distance.

This seemed backwards to me at the time, and it still does. We trust the slaughterhouse and the packing plant and the trucking company, the meat wholesaler, the supermarket chain, and the government inspectors more than we trust our own neighbors, our own land . . . our own selves. We are far removed from the fundamental facts of life and repulsed by the hardness of it all.

We have come to prefer a mysterious future, lurking unseen in the distance to the solid and trustworthy past.

A parallel situation has evolved in the packinghouse of public education:  We are comforted by distance and are frightened by what is close and familiar.

When my daughter and I rode on Rattlesnake Ridge, I wondered if she was thinking about the past to the west or the nuclear mystery in the north. From the trail along the ridge we could see equally well in both directions. It was a fortunate vantage point.  But her attention always seemed straight ahead, certain and aware.

Back at school on Monday mornings, I wondered if I was supposed to prepare the dazed kids in my classroom for the mystery of the future or to acquaint them with the certainty of the past. They rode their own ridge of uncertainty, staring straight ahead, guided by the lie of safety in the future, security in the distance.

More and more the answer as to which path we should take comes from people who do not know me or my children, but who only want them to contribute to the dubious economy of their future happiness–distant officials and educational inspectors who will brand and stamp all our children as suitable for consumption by the future.

But on horseback, on Rattlesnake Ridge, the mystery was too distant. Dismounted, it was no easier to see, so I always climbed back onto my big gelding and wandered with my daughter slowly to the southwest. If the future was too mysterious, too much, for me, what did the mystery say to those bewildered children who struggled through the maze of my classroom?

I am haunted by what I did not tell them.

A favorite author, William Kittredge of Oregon and Montana and Nevada, writes of getting an education in the dim enclosures of Elko whorehouses and the broad ranges of his father’s MC Ranch. How do young people today hope to gain Kittredge’s “education in realities”? 

More and more, it is not to happen in the classroom, despite the best efforts of dedicated teachers. Even though the wisdom of the land–hard-earned lessons from a time when there was too much real work to worry about the mystery of the future seems to be forbidden, but the mystery remains.

© Bruce Blizard 2017