Lacoon, Destiny and World Order

Lacoon's attempt to save Troy was thwarted by fate.
Lacoon and his sons fight the snakes sent by the gods to destroy him when he tried to warn the Trojans that the great horse left by the Greeks was not a gift but a deception.

Lacoön and His Sons may be the most famous sculpture in the world though its origins are shrouded in controversy. Is it Greek or Roman or a later forgery?

What we do know is the story. Lacoön correctly understood that the giant horse left by the Greeks on the plains outside the city of Troy’s defensive walls was not a religious offering but a deception. He correctly intuited that enemy warriors were hidden inside. When he tried to demonstrate this truth to the Trojans by attacking the wooden horse with his spear, the gods sent those snakes to kill him and his two sons.

The Trojans then destroyed their own city wall to create a large enough gate to bring the “Trojan Horse” inside. This story isn’t told directly in Homer’s Illiad, which focuses on Achilles’ wrath. That poem ends after Achilles is brought to some dim comprehension of universal justice after Priam, the King of Troy, persuades Achilles to grant a truce long enough to provide a proper burial for Priam’s son, Hector, whom Achilles has killed in battle. In his wrath, Achilles had been mutilating and dragging Hector’s body behind his chariot, but after listening to Priam’s plea, he senses that his conduct is wrong. A light dawns slowly in the warrior’s mind. He senses that some actions are wrong, even when done to one’s hated enemy. That was the moment Homer was aiming for, and soon after Achilles is killed by an arrow shot into his heel by a Trojan warrior.

Homer briefly relates the story in the Odyssey, when Odysseus asks a bard to sing of the event. For the Greeks, the story reveals a shift in the Greek understanding of how to win against the enemy. For ten years they have put their faith in physical might, represented by the awesome prowess of Achilles. But there was no victory. Achilles turned out to be quite fickle, controlled by his moods more than by fidelity to the Greek alliance. It was Odysseus who finally contrived to defeat The Trojans using deception more than muscle. Odysseus, the hero of the Odyssey, is a liar and a trickster.

The Aeneid, written by the Roman poet Virgil, provides best telling of Lacoön’s story from the Trojan point of view. What matters most about Troy’s ruin is that from the smoking ruins, Aeneas stumbles away. In his wandering, he gradually comes to a more clear vision of a mission he only dimly understands. It is when he visits the Underworld that he finally learns from his dead father that his fate is to found a new civilization—Rome. In modern vernacular, he learns that in creating a new polity he will be on the right side of history.

The greatest story in literature deals with the creation and preservation of a new world order. That grand project is not like Greece in a vital way. The Greeks sought to live in accord with nature, and the Greek heroes lived out their nature. But Rome’s destiny will unfold as characters learn to subordinate nature to the needs of the state. Aeneas is no Greek hero. It is not fame that he serves but a new international order that will bring peace through civilization. Serving that order exacts great costs and ultimate bowing down to the needs of the state.

Though Aeneid often does not understand what is happening, the audience, living after the founding of Rome, knows much that he does not. They can understand how the work of statecraft requires operating with limited knowledge and uncertainty about outcomes while having faith that the gods have a plan, and that plan will come to fruition. The reason the Trojans do not heed Lacoön’s clear warning is that it was their fate to be destroyed.  He might heroically speak truth to power, but it makes no difference. What the gods intend will come to pass. No hero is larger than destiny.

The destruction of Troy was integral to Aeneas’ vision of statecraft. Success can be guaranteed neither by military might nor by deceptive intrigues. It is necessary to be aligned with destiny and to accept its dictates—to persevere in faith.

Of course, we moderns see Rome from quite a different perspective than did Virgil. The Pax Romana (Roman Peace) provided the world with some order and stability and was a period of sustained prosperity. Much was achieved in the realms of managing large organizations and keeping order through the use of written law. Tribes bound together by kinship and shared territory were superseded by states, organized into an international order.

But Rome was not the end of history. Though Roman engineers were adept at creating implements of war, Rome was often a violent place, permitting and even glorying in hideous cruelty, such as arena games, unconstrained by respect for human life. It was a slave empire that never bothered to master using the winds to power their ships or water to power their mills. The slaves made innovation less than urgent. Those slaves had no rights, and sexual slavery was a central preoccupation for much of Rome’s reign. For a great many people, the collapse of Rome was a great liberation.  It was not its destiny to persist through the ages.

The collapse of Rome was followed by a Euro-American Empire which built on many of Rome’s learning while greatly surpassing it in vital ways, including the gradual abolition of slavery and the development of various theories of human rights.

Today, we live at a moment when that civilization appears to be faltering, mainly by allowing global financial creatures of a vast scale, directed by a small oligarchy, to perfect the conversion of earth and life to money, to corrupt a system of justice into a network of powerful interests for whom the name of “justice” is a decoy, and to displace the culture’s best stories with Hollywoodish propaganda that creates in many citizens, especially the young, a false consciousness. We are living by and through lies. Things fall apart.

If Lacoön were here, he might point out that we are fools to allow the fake gifts bestowed upon us by overlords to entice us to lower our guard and to tear down the walls and fences that have served us well in the past. But that will not prevent what is already happening. My hunch is that we might do better to search for our own visionaries such Aeneas, who have turned away from the conflagration to search for those messages from God that tell us the truth of things are they really are and as they will really be. What comes next is better than what is passing away.

Bison, wolves, and anxiety

Bison in snow, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone.

The bison were serene. They were made for this world and don’t imagine otherwise.

Winter will pass as surely as summer, and while it is here the daily work of eating goes on as it always has. The pleasure of having been equal to the task increases with its difficulty, at the beginning. We know we can have enough, even of pleasure.

A couple of wolves sat beyond the edge of the herd. Waiting. I wanted photographs of them in action, so I also sat waiting. One of the wolves lay down, stretched out, and went to sleep. This made me restless, and I moved on, looking for something else.

Wolf napping in snow

Restoring the world, beginning with swans

A pair of swans flying low over Pablo Reservoir testify to the success of the Swan Restoration on the Flathead Reservation.
A pair of Trumpeter Swans flying over Pablo Reservoir on an August evening. The swans were locally extirpated in the early years of the Twentieth Century. Today, more than 250 resident swans are here.
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On a summer morning in 1996, retired biology teacher Harold Knapp released the first of 19 Trumpeter Swans as part of a re-introduction project conducted by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT), Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (MFWP) and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The goal was to re-establish a breeding flock in the valley. The birds had been brought to Montana from Oregon.

Knapp understood the inestimable value of helping young people to do real work in the real world, so he partnered with the Fish and Game Department to let them experience fieldwork outside the classroom. Knapp had grown up at Round Butte near Ronan. He became a science teacher at Hellgate High in Missoula, where he was chair of the science department, winning many honors and awards. For example, he was named outstanding biology teacher of Montana by the National Association of Biology Teachers in 1968.  

Naturally, he was drawn to the project. What could be better than recreating a swan population in this place where they had once flourished? A river with a swan is an entirely different order than a river with no swans. Their graceful white beauty along with their devoted constancy,  they usually form monogamous relationships for life, have gained them a prominent place in the folklore and literature of many peoples. Just as we use mountains to imagine the concept of “majestic,” swans help us imagine beauty, grace, serenity, love, and passion. In Hinduism, swans symbolize the relatedness of the material world to the spiritual realm, creatures at home in both water and sky. They are living metaphors, tangible realities that are also bridges to the invisible world.

When the swan reintroduction project began, the only Trumpeter Swans seen in the valley were during migration—visitors that stopped briefly coming from or returning to Canada. No breeding pairs had lived here for decades.

Local Trumpeter Swans did not survive the Homesteading Era early in the Twentieth Century, due mainly to subsistence hunting by both settlers and Natives. The big birds are tasty and easily hunted. Commercial pressure also played a part. We know that nationally there was a market for their hides and feathers for quilts, pillows, and mattresses and the feathers were desired for women’s hats and garments. Swan quill pens were also popular, and they were on the market in London by 1736 in bundles of 25 or 100. The Hudson Bay Company’s hunters harvested about 108,000 swans between 1823-1880, and the numbers declined precipitously after that. Many thousands of swan skins ended up in Europe. The company had a trading post at Fort Connah near Post Creek in the Heart of the Flathead Indian Reservation.

Other environmental pressures also contributed to the disappearance of the swans. As the valley became more agricultural, many of the pothole ponds that dotted the landscape, dating back more than 10,000 years to the last ice age, were dewatered for agriculture. The influx of people after the Reservation was opened to non-Indian homesteading in 1910 caused many changes to the flora and fauna of the area.

The passing away of swans on the Reservation was part of a much bigger story.  In 1929, the National Park Service began a survey to figure out how many swans remained in North America. Over the next four years they found 31 swans in Yellowstone Park in Wyoming, 26 near the park at the Red Rock Lakes in the Centennial Valley of Montana, and 12 others in the surrounding area. Researchers concluded that the birds were on the brink of extinction. Later, remnant populations of Trumpeters were also found in western Canada and in parts of Alaska. In the 1930s and 1940s restoration efforts began, using eggs from the Red Rock Lakes.

In 1968, 3700 Trumpeter Swans were counted in North America. By 2015, there were 63,000. It’s a vital story—how that restoration happened and is happening, the return of  the largest North American bird  and maybe the largest living waterfowl on earth (measuring up to four feet tall and weighing up  to 30 pounds, with a wingspan of up to eight feet)—involving thousands of people, learning and working and offering many forms of support. It’s a story of feasible hope. 

Locally, the re-introduction project was led by Dale Becker, a large, amiable man who has been the Tribal Wildlife Program Manager for CSKT since 1989. Dale grew up on a farm in Iowa, and like Harold Knapp, he spent as much time as he could outdoors hunting and fishing. He and his wife Marilyn moved to Montana in 1977, where he completed a B.S. and an M.S. in Wildlife Biology. He worked for various conservation agencies before being hired by CSKT. He was honored as the Wildlife Biologist of the Year by the Montana Chapter of The Wildlife Society in 2004, and he served as President of The Trumpeter Swan Society from 2005 to 2010.

Dale began planning with other tribal, state and federal wildlife managers to reintroduce Trumpeter Swans in 1996, triggered in part by money in the form of mitigation funds from Kerr Dam, a hydroelectric facility on the Flathead River a few miles below Flathead Lake. Ecological restoration often becomes more important to people as prosperity advances. People who live near to hunger will readily eat swan eggs or roasted swan.

Today, the big birds are a common sight on the Flathead Reservation, and the trendlines are good. The captive breeding program has been suspended because it appears that wild nesting will be enough. We can restore what has been lost if we are willing to study and obey nature’s ways, if we are willing to find allies and accept constant work, and if we are willing to learn from attempts that fail, re-envisioning the path forward.

When autumn came in 1996, those 19 swans relocated from Oregon that were released into the Pablo Reservoir flew away and did not return. So, back to the drawing board.

By 1999, Dale and partners on the project (including an old friend of mine, Bill Edelman, of the Lower Flathead Valley Community Foundation) had located better sources of cygnets. They established a relationship with the Trumpeter Swan Fund (TSF) in Jackson, Wyoming. This provided both a source of cygnets and access to a wealth of knowledge about captive breeding and introducing captive birds into the wild. With a source of the indispensable resource and more knowledge the project continued. Since 2002, 125 Trumpeter Swans have been hatched in captivity and released on Reservation waters. 

The first successful nest in the wild occurred in 2004 at Del Palmer’s place, a beautiful property lined with weeping willows, just west of the Ninepipe Reservoir. The successful pair continued nesting there for 13 years, until the death of the female. In 2018, according to Becker, 194 resident adults and sub-adults and 64 cygnets were counted here (and 329 in the rest of Montana).

Since the re-introduced swans had been raised in captivity, they never accompanied their parents on the southward migration, usually to Red Rock Lakes where warm springs keep two large, shallow lakes unfrozen through the winter. The lakes are in the wild Centennial Valley, protected since 1935 as a federal wildlife refuge.  The Flathead swans have lost migratory patterns that had existed for millennia.  Most of the birds now winter locally, a few miles southwest on the Flathead River between Dixon and Paradise.  Essentially, the swans have become year around residents even though the river doesn’t have an abundance of aquatic vegetation such as waterweed, pondweed, watermilfoil, and duck potato. Trumpeter Swans are heavy feeders, eating up to 20 pounds of plants a day. But despite sparse foods, the birds “seem to get by,” said Becker. “If the river ices up, they move up or downstream for a few days.”

When we attempt a restoration, many things have likely changed so what we create will not be identical to what existed in the past. We live with current realities such as that the migratory habits of today’s swans are different. Even more striking, the Pablo Reservoir, which is where the first reintroductions took place (and is today a favored location where many dozens of swans gather for the fall molt) is an artificial lake that didn’t exist when wild swans nested here without human intervention.

Pablo Dam was completed as a storage reservoir for irrigation in 1919.  The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) requested the establishment of Pablo National Wildlife Refuge, and in 1948 Congress passed legislation enabling the federal government to create a long-term lease for the Indian Trust land and to superimpose a national wildlife refuge on the irrigation project. The wetlands that exist today are to some extent the creations of large, coordinating institutions that barely existed in the early Twentieth Century.

Not long ago I spent the last two hours of a day on the shore of the reservoir. The site doesn’t have recreational facilities which means its an easy place to be alone. It’s permissible to hike down to the lake when nesting season is over. That evening I photographed Trumpeter Swans, Green-winged Teal, Caspian Terns, an Osprey, several Great Blue Herons, Ring-billed Gulls, Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, some Killdeer, and one American White Pelican. Up to 18 varieties of shorebirds have been seen in a single day, according to Audubon. It isn’t wilderness, exactly, but wildness is abundant there, mainly because of people who wanted it to be there enough to learn and to work, and then to learn again.

For the Tribes, ecological restoration is inseparable from cultural and spiritual restoration, as, I think, it is for us all. This may be easier to see for a hunter/gatherer culture, but what is happening now is that the tribes have accepted modern technology and science but subject their uses to the advice and direction of tribal elders. Last fall at a Lake Honoring program at the University of Montana’s Biological Research Station on Flathead Lake, school children from area high schools experienced a series of science station led by staff of the University of Montana, MFWP, and CSKT. The opening session featured a talk to students by Tony Incashola,  Selish and Qlispe Culture Committee Director. Tony has been a leader in the work of restoring and preserving traditional culture. In 2017, Incashola was presented with the Montana Historical Society’s Board of Trustees Heritage Keeper Award for his “dedication to preserving, protecting, and perpetuating the culture, history, and language of the people of the Flathead Nation.”

 “Taking care of our environment is an important part of our way of life as Native people,” he said. “If we can learn to value the earth when we’re young, we’ll carry that throughout our life and hopefully pass it on to the next generation.” He stressed that there was no conflict between traditional values and science. “We respect the trees and appreciate all they do for us. The provide us with shade. They give places for birds to nest. We can burn wood to keep warm. But we can also learn more about how they do these things and what we can do to care for them.”

A true restoration won’t be an inflexible replica of some state of things that existed at some point in the past. It needs to be a living community of humans and other creatures interacting in complex ways with realities that exist right now. The result will be different in some ways from what was once here. It’s an act of creation.

If we do our work well, we find balances that include as many pieces of the bigger picture as possible. In finding those balances, we greatly increase our knowledge of how nature works. We tread sacred paths that open to us only as we move forward. “We learn by going,” Roethke said, “where we have to go.”

We become stewards, gardeners whose byword is “care.” Restoration is creation, engaging the past and the present to form visions of the future, informed by science but drawn onward by our hearts’ recognition of the swans themselves—aspects of Creation that give accessible form to an older and deeper spiritual knowing.

The higher learning: final thoughts on PHS

by Michael Umphrey

Meghan Speckert, the editor of Salishian, gave me this assignment: “Since this high school is going through drastic changes, where do you think the school is going? What do you think of this educational system?” I repeatedly gave her good reasons why I didn’t want to do that. But Meghan is persistent–bullheaded, you might say.

She and I have read some significant texts together this year—a large book on John Locke, Thoreau’s Walden, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Plato’s Apology, Eliot’s The Wasteland and many other readings. We discussed these in early morning meetings, after school, a few times on weekends, and we met throughout last summer to discuss some of the big ideas in great books.

We did this at her insistence. In most cases, she made the choices as to what to read, and she set the schedule to fit her other obligations. She got no extra points or grades or credits. She has a genuine interest in what we might call “the higher learning,” and she reminds me of what I’ve always loved about teaching. I’m inclined to do for her whatever I can.

So, where do I think the school is going? If you want to predict a people’s future, your best bet is to figure out what vision is guiding them. Desire drives human history–what we want amid what we think is possible or likely. PHS has not escaped the fate of many schools in recent decades–being captured by late modernist ideology, which is a political vision. Schools have been transformed into massive factories for the production of political opinion—standardized, uniform, flat-souled. It’s not an inspiring vision, but for the winners it sometimes pays well. Meanwhile, dystopias have become the dominant genre of pop literature. People are drawn to stories of zombies—the spiritually dead driven by insatiable appetite—or vampires—creatures who live by devouring the life force in others. We sense that things have gone wrong, that the human world has been impoverished.

Powerful interests set the agenda, and “experts” market the new phrases and ideas in magazines such as Educational Leadership and at conferences such as School Administrators of Montana (SAM). Counselors get the appropriate posters in the mail and tack them up around school. New programs are rolled out and most staff adapt the new buzzwords—a few feign enthusiasm and most offer due compliance without much change in practice.

I would expect the future in the near term to be quite like the present. People with little background in history, literature and philosophy have few resources with which to critique the endless repetition of political orthodoxy. They may advocate critical thinking but they can’t quite practice it.

I have seen fewer students like Meghan each year. Late modernist thought is quite relativistic. Bit if no opinions are better than other opinions, there’s little point in putting the work into understanding what Socrates or Locke or Thoreau thought. Since I”ve been at PHS, I don’t recall ever hearing a leader justify education in any terms except self-interest and careerism. We no  longer talk about truth, beauty and justice. The new verities are race, class, gender—and material success. For students who have been taught that education is mainly vocational—a means to a higher income—the focus shifts to finding the quickest and most convenient way to get to the payoff. “How many points is this worth?”

Of course, I’m not saying that work is unimportant. Work—effort toward a goal—is the foundation of most people’s lives. How large and how good the order we build for ourselves is determined in large part by the wisdom and persistence of our effort. The young don’t always know this, which is why guidance into wise and persistent work should be the foundation of the education we offer our young.  The question is only whether we live to work instead of working to live.

We need purposes beyond what we do for money if we are to fulfill our promise. The economy is important but it’s not the only game in town—nor is it the most important. Everyone knows this. Lately we hear a lot about civic education and about character education. Eventually, we need to get beyond just talk.

A good education helps us be better citizens, better friends, better parents. It’s useful to know how to change the oil, but there are higher games.

Imagine a chimpanzee at a baseball game, maybe standing on third base. He can see the batter, the runners, and the glittering lights of the scoreboard. What he can’t see is the game itself. There is a level of reality that isn’t accessible to him. He can’t comprehend what’s involved in being in the bottom of the ninth with two out and the count 3-2. He could never figure out what a bunt is, let alone why it might be used. He can’t wake up to a reality that, for him, will never exist.

We’re all like that to varying degrees. We’re all surrounded by levels of play that are invisible to us. Things are happening that we do not see, though they are right in front of us. This is why the secret of life remains a secret even though our greatest teachers in every generation shout it from the rooftops—people cannot or will not hear it

It might be helpful to think about what religion professor James P. Carse has called “the infinite game.” He said, “a finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the game.” Football is a finite game. Gardening is an infinite game. A political campaign is a finite game. A family is an infinite game.

In a finite game, winners exclude losers. In an infinite game, winners teach losers better plays.

In a finite game, the winner takes all. In an infinite game, winning is widely shared.

In a finite game, rules are fixed in advance to guarantee a single winner. In an infinite game, rules are changed along the way by agreement.

In a finite game, energy is focused in decisive contests. In an infinite game, energy is invested in the long term.

Finite games focus on how they end. Infinite games focus on how they continue. Good schools–like good communities, good economies and good families–are playing an infinite game. They may include finite games within them, but they ensure that these games don’t displace the larger play or corrupt it. We could have a sports program that didn’t harm academic studies. Carse ends his book with a statement that bears further reflection: there is but one infinite game.

The story of that one infinite game is the story that historically the best schools have organized their practices around. In the west, the main plot of that story has been the coming into the world of justice and freedom. But to a great extent we’ve lost that story.

In recent decades, people have focused on gaining power over the natural world, mainly through science. This has been tremendously successful, and we are all blessed by what we have learned. Our trouble today is that the large systems we have built continue operating but no longer seem under our control. We have elaborate processes of change which are increasingly disconnected from human purposes. We see everywhere the constant agitation of people adjusting to some directive from afar—coping with changes that experts say are needed has become a way of life in most of our institutions. So, many of us learn to comply without really knowing or believing the changes make life better. We abdicate responsibility for what, day by day, we are doing.

In schools, we endure constant disruption and endless new programs engineered to comply with such directives as No Child Left Behind or the Common Core, but test scores stay flat. Meanwhile, we neglect the great topics that once lay at the center of a general education for young people: freedom and justice. The liberal arts not so long ago focused on stories of heroes in history and literature  who lived in a moral universe where death was the horizon but the quest was driven by love as fierce as that homing instinct that drives millions of birds into annual migrations over thousands of miles. The great stories helped us understand the practice of honesty, hope, gratitude, courage and other virtues. We consciously taught our youth that it mattered whether or not they were the sort of people who could be trusted and reliable partners in business, political and personal undertakings.

Much of that is gone now. The modern world is full of miracles, and yet in some ways it is harder than ever to be young. PHS hallways featured suicide prevention posters all year, for good reason. Many young people do not know how to form and preserve enduring relationships. The two most important education books of recent years, Our Kids by liberal researcher Robert Putnam and Coming Apart by conservative researcher Charles Murray, both drew on the same mountain of research and reached similar conclusions: the main cause of our growing social pathologies is the collapse of marriage culture, leaving many kids without the support of strong families. Loneliness is a national problem as we isolate ourselves in individual autonomy and a web of virtual ghosts. We make little effort to teach young people the real basics of living a good life. Instead, we decorate our schools to look like the Capitol in Hunger Games, with banners proclaiming POWER! and PRIDE!

The good news is that anyone who wants to can begin living by different rules. We can choose to pursue the higher learning. We can make the great books our most important peer group, replace a desire for autonomy with a commitment to loyalty, practice making and keeping promises, and act to rescue the others we see hurting around us. You can choose to live among the society of heroes. It turns out to be far easier than the alternatives, and much more fun.


This eagle more or less flew into the frame while I was taking shots of the sky.

I had to drive into work today to work with the debate team—which was unexpected. It wasn’t what I intended for the day, but we have a competitive meet tomorrow. So I grabbed my camera and went to get the work done.

On the way home, I pulled over just to photograph a dramatic sky. While I was standing on the shoulder of Back Road, my camera in my hand, an eagle flew by directly in front of that sky and quite close to me.

I think one of the secrets of life is simply to find out what the world is becoming and help it. I judge whether I’m on the right path to some degree by the amount of serendipity I encounter. Though hard work is required, the best things that happen are often very easy.