Friday, October 11, 2013


Everyone I know is weary of it, exasperated, taking great lengths to ease conversations around the subject like unwinding a hose on the edge of a fire. Don’t get too close. Shutdown. There, I said it. Very sorry. Stay with me.

Even the fact that National Parks, about which I care a lot, are at the center of it rankles. What about National Forests that cover more acreage nationally? Not a single news show I’ve listened to has mentioned that the United States Forest Service is shutdown. Why? Because the Forests are less glamorous, less high-profile, and therefore less essential than the Parks even though, for example, the trail workers we know who work for the Forest Service do the same work for the same reasons as Park Service crews do, except for less pay … a point which is moot right now because no trail workers for either agency are getting paid.
Why? Because work is non-essential.

What’s essential? Carrying a gun. Pasting up closed signs. Handling the media. What’s essential, apparently, is how things look from the outside, not how they work on the inside.

Which reminds me a little of writing.

Conversations about writing inevitably lead to talk about publishing or agents or marketing. All of that is important, I know. You want your books to reach readers the same way we want National Parks to be user-friendly. But people go to National Parks because of what’s actually there.  And people read books for what’s actually there. The present, not the wrapping paper. The content, not the elevator speech.

There are many people who see this position as old-fashioned and unrealistic. Which is exactly what doing trail work is like. Or maintaining an apple orchard. Or doing carpentry on historic buildings. Or planting willows along a salmon stream. Everyone I know who does that kind of work is shutdown right now. They are pawns, and they are angry … but not as angry as you might think. They know exactly where they sit on the totem pole, and they’ve chosen to sit there. They take enough pride in the good work they do that it doesn’t matter that they’re deemed non-essential. (Besides, they worked seasonally for so long they learned to save pennies, and crucially, few of them have families to support.)

I’ve decided that’s what I aspire to. Non-essentiality. I realized with considerable shame a few years ago that many of the people I admire most in the world—and nearly all the people I did trail work with—don’t have Facebook accounts and never will. The fact that I do, that I always try to straddle these worlds, sometimes concerns me. I can see the value in reaching out even as I work. But I never want that to be the end in itself. The work is the end: trails brushed, trees pruned or planted, boards nailed, words written, then revised. That’s what matters to me.