Monday , May 27 2024
A journey into our own heart of darkness, with an experienced guide.

Book Review: The Great Western Divide by John Spivey

We are told that primitive man lived in perpetual fear of the dark until he discovered fire. With its discovery was created a circle within which safety was assured. Fire and technology have pushed back the darkness and its accompanying fear until we have reached the stage where there is so little darkness, we no longer even recognize it.

While for early humans the fears were real and tangible — there were things that went bump in the night and were more than happy to eat them, and the light provided by fire was a necessity for survival — that is not the case for contemporary people. The light we have now does not serve to keep our community safe from predators and physical harm; it actually encourages us to live in fear by blinding us to its existence.

Our technology, combined with a philosophy that deems time not spent in gainful pursuit sinful, ensures that there is little or no room left for introspection. Without those moments of pause, seconds in which we can catch our breath, we are denied the opportunity to examine the fears that dominate us.

Although our attitudes have changed in recent years towards the practice of psychiatry and other analytical processes, there is still a stigma attached to those who have made use of these facilities. Conversely, there has been an outbreak of “self-help” books that offer band-aid solutions but very little assistance of substance.

Ten Easy Steps That Will Make You A Better You could be the subtitle for all of these books. Each of them promises to put a bounce in your step, a smile on your face, and if you’re really doing well, money in your pocket. “Come to the light” is their empty promise and false blandishment: Blind yourself even further so you can forget the misapprehensions and fears you have about your life and the world.

It is fitting that in the opening of his book The Great Western Divide, John Spivey invites us to sit at a fire with him. It’s a small fire, only bright enough to illuminate the author’s and the reader’s faces as they sit together with the ancient darkness pressing in around them. It’s a very small circle of safety that he offers, both for himself and those who are listening.

Fires have always been places where we can gather for storytelling; even today a lot of us have memories of camp cookouts where the fire became brighter as the night deepened. Then the stories would be told. Usually stories that made us scared of the dark, stories that made us recall primitive times by huddling closer to the safety of the flames.

John has some stories he wants to tell us, and some of them are stories about the dark outside of the circle of light he has created. But his stories about the dark aren’t meant to scare us away from its inky blackness; they are to help us penetrate the darkness lying inside of us that dictates our behaviour.

He has histories to tell us that span over 150 years of life in the Great Western Divide where his family settled in the 1800’s. Some of them are personal, some are of the land, and some are of people who lived out their lives here a century before most of us were born. Each one of the stories is designed as an example for the point he is making at the time.

We listen as he tells us of the exploration, development, and rape of the land surrounding the southern Sierra Nevada. Years of government policy that gradually leached the water out of the ground by diverting and damming rivers and draining marshland, combined with the practice of growing only oranges, has turned a once lush land arid.

Loggers and settlers seeing the Giant Sequoias dreamed of money and ravaged the forests. But unlike her redwood cousin, she was so brittle that the act of felling her splintered the wood so badly she was only good for fence posts.

As the environment around them changed, so did the people. Not just the native population was affected by the changes, although they were the first to vanish, so too did the white population with the replacement of personal farms with agribusiness. But before that happened the first peoples as always were the first affected. John offers Hale Tharp’s first hand observation of what happened and as an example of what it must be like to be intimately connected to the land you live in.

By the spring of 1862, quite a number of whites had settled in the Three Rivers area…the Indians has contracted contagious diseases from the whites…and they died off by the hundreds. I helped to buy twenty-seven in one day…Chief Chappo …came to see me and asked me to try to stop the whites from coming…When I said it was impossible, they all sat down and cried…their people loved this country, did not want to leave it, and knew not where to go…I think that by the summer of 1863 the Indians had left the district…I don’t know what has become of them now. John Spivey, The Great Western Divide, Crows Cry Press, 2006, p.120-121

John feels that one of the reasons we are so lost and scared is that we have no means of connection to the place where we were born. As a species we have drifted away from the love of place that these people had; we don’t belong anywhere anymore.

Near the beginning of the book, John asks you across the fire:

What did you see when you first looked into your parent’s eyes? Did you gain a small taste of infinity submerged in the depths of your parent’s love? Did you gain a first glimpse of who you really are reflected and magnified in the lens of their being? Or did you fall into the emptiness of their self-absorption and pain, the emptiness of being buried beneath their beliefs about life? ibid, p.37

By telling his personal story, John shows us how a person’s spirit can be destroyed and our fears developed. Sometimes the inheritance left us with more than just physical possessions and monetary gain. We could be carrying emotional scars that date back generations and with each new birth the wound is opened afresh.

Fears and beliefs about ourselves born in childhood can govern our behaviour for the rest of our lives unless we have the strength and determination to look into the dark places inside that scare us. The memories of actions that shame us the most are always a good place to start because to find out why you did that will tell you so much about who and what you are. It’s not looking for excuses, according to John, but explanations. Once you understand why you act like you do, it’s a lot easier to affect change.

I’ve sensitive radar for what I call self-aggrandisement through pain and suffering. “Look at how amazing I am for having been through so much” stories that are told for no purpose other than the author’s need to inflict themselves upon others is the worst excuse for writing around these days.

John doesn’t even come close to approaching this territory. He’s writing about himself because that’s what he knows best, and he serves as a good example for what he is trying to talk about. His journey into his personal darkness is told for a purpose; a road map of the ongoing process of self-exploration, not an exercise in self-flagellation as is so popular today.

You can’t help but be moved by his experiences; but by the manner in which he recounts his story, and tells the stories of others, you know that you would have felt the same emotions if he had been talking of someone else. It is the sign of a great storyteller that he or she can talk about personal issues and not make it a cry for attention.

The Great Western Divide is not about John Spivey. He’s one example cited along the way. His is not the only story that is being told in these pages, nor is it only his family. Others, like Hale Tharp quoted above, make their entrances to be examples, offer advice, and serve as warnings.

Earlier I said his stories aren’t meant to frighten us away from the darkness but teach us to examine it. That does not mean that this book will not scare a lot of people. It asks you to take things you hold dear, accept as normal and right, and look at them in a different light. That is a very intimidating task that not many of us are prepared to take on.

As an aside, and on a personal note, what was nice for me was to see someone articulate a lot of the things that I believe personally in such a thoughtful and intelligent manner. This book is such a refreshing change from what is out there; there’s no divine message from angels, or channeling spirits from ancient cultures substantiating his theories. It’s one man having the courage and the integrity to speak his mind about what he believes in.

Some of the theories, like childhood conditioning affecting behaviour for the rest of your life, are accepted theories of modern psychology, and some are hypotheses that he has generated from his own experiences. He’s not proselytising a religion or a lifestyle or selling classes that in just seven days will make you a man – oh sorry, enlightened.

All he’s asking is you sit by the fire with him for a while and listen to the stories he has to tell. What you get out them is up to you. I personally agree with everything he says, but seeing as how I started a similar journey twelve years ago, that’s not surprising.

Just remember one thing before you start reading: you don’t have to be afraid of the dark because after a while your eyes will adjust and you’ll be able to see. Think of The Great Western Divide as the infrared glasses you need to get you started and you’ll be fine.

About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of three books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion" and "Introduction to Greek Mythology For Kids". Aside from Blogcritics he contributes to and his work has appeared in the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and has been translated into numerous languages in multiple publications.

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