Mid-day, we drive up into the Columbia River Gorge, just outside of Portland. It rains hard, off and on. Great strands of white waterfalls tumble off the basalt walls on the Oregon side of the river. They pull tourists in: parking lots and asphalt paths let us walk right up, throw back our heads, and try to see the source high in the mist. It’s wet on wet: drizzle and mist watering ferns, little maples, beds of lush moss.
Farther upriver is the Bonneville Dam: an astonishing testament to the species’ ambition, ingenuity, stubbornness. The Columbia rages past, white and black from a season of rain. It easily takes down huge Douglas firs and whips them away, but humans have somehow forced it to pass through this massive concrete structure. It’s beyond me how the first abutment was laid, never mind the turbines and gates rising out of the boil.
Homo sapiens, seeing the power of the water, felt the urge to use it, to tame it. And learned the skills to do so. It’s a giant, roaring library, this dam – storing all kinds of knowledge, good and bad.
Meanwhile, in the basement of its visitors center, through thick plate glass, you can make out the shapes of steelheads and Chinook salmon, fighting their way upstream against the fierce yellowish current (or, up the fish ladder, really). They seem to be all muscle. Which is all desire. Which is all instinct, we’re told. The drive to spawn.
That drive doesn’t involve learning, right? Just checking on how we view the world from the basement of a huge, man-made impediment: an electricity maker that the fish have to swim around. What the steelheads feel as an urge to get upstream is not what humans feel seeing the rush of the Columbia, right? Our impulse to harness the energy, to do something with it, is a thought, right? Not an instinct? Not a drive up against the force of the world?
The reading that night at the University Bookstore in Seattle is on University Avenue, which has a string of bars, Vietnamese restaurants, tattoo parlors, and students on bikes. My audience is older: 40 and up.
There’s a couple in their sixties out of South Carolina who took two buses across Seattle to get here this evening. They checked How Lincoln Learned to Read out of a local library and decided to keep it, paying the cover cost. Later, they talk about a radical past – an involvement with the civil rights movement when it was dangerous for Southern whites to take that stand. They’re reading Lincoln as a kind of instruction manual: studying history to learn how we messed up and, maybe, can make things better.
A woman in her 40’s asks questions based on her research of the Seattle school system. She cites its history of busing and private schools, the exodus out of the city and out of public education, the high incidence of home-schooling.
An older guy who listens hard says he picked this reading over a city school board meeting that was also tonight. At the meeting, they were voting on a new teaching method, Discovery Math, which he clearly thought was bogus. He’d rather be here, trying to get some larger perspective on the issues, than seeing whatever adjustments the system was making to curriculum. I hope Lincoln helped.
And there was a grandfather whose “extended family” was doing a lot of home-schooling, and it made him curious about how and where we learn. A home-schooled niece had just put on a student version of the musical, “Wicked,” from scratch. When he declared she seemed to be getting a good education, another woman in the audience said recent statistics were showing home-schoolers excelling in all areas.
There’s a definite feel out here in the Northwest that to ask the question Lincoln asks – how do we learn what we need to know – is to enter the discussion of alternative education, of kids learning from parents and other kids outside of formal school. I haven’t heard nearly as much about that in the Northeast.
There are only a couple of people waiting in the funky bookstore in Olympia, Washington. I talk anyway, trying to describe how the history of learning that Lincoln traces includes a history of how we treat the environment: from New England farmers “mining” the soil with corn crop after corn crop to Rachel Carson’s childhood in the industrial Allegheny River valley and her need for nature as a kind of curative.
The store clerks love it, and both buy a copy! I sign a handful of others. It seems like a silly pursuit in a world full of burning issues: talking to a couple of people on a cool, damp evening in a little college town off Puget Sound. The orange-brown Douglas Firs stacked on the loading docks seem more important – more solemn, certainly – than the thin, wood-pulp pages of a book.
On the other hand, driving the wet valley between Portland and Seattle, I heard an interview on the radio with Pete Seeger; it’s his 90th. He declared all real change came about through a series of small, incremental shifts and adjustments. If so, mebbe this little bookstore and the few people inside are part of that. I fly home the next morning.