In which Jon Renner remembers his youth and purpose unlocked by the song of the red-winged blackbird…
Guest Post: Jon Renner
This weekend as we walked the path along the Deschutes, enjoying the sunshine and fragrant breath of Spring, I heard the distinctive call of a red-winged blackbird … and was swept back … back many years to my home in Minnesota and another scene, now shimmering at the edge of the present … conjured by old memory paths, ingrained there by hundreds of similar experiences I’d had as a boy. We stopped and listened. A chorus of reply calls filled the air, and we were spellbound. The dogs barked and ran ahead … but the feeling remained … part here, part there.
I grew up in a place where Spring meant mud, waterworks projects,mosquitoes, and long, and then longer afternoons outside. My younger sister and I lived outside after school … partly engaged in the chores that were part of life on our small subsistence farm, and partly just being kids. Running, splashing, climbing, looking under rocks, building forts, exploring the wonders of the lake behind our house … and hunting. We kept at it every day until it was too dark to see properly, and then went into the house for homework, and eventually, dinner. And after dinner was done and everything was cleaned up, we went off to either more homework, our books, or other pursuits … pursuits that were frequently accompanied by the famous radio dramas of the day: The Green Hornet, Johnny Dollar, Gene Autry … and many more.
This was the pattern of our lives for years and years … and as Spring became Summer and the days grew longer, our routine shifted a bit because of the need to get the garden prepared or planted, the different kinds of work our animals required, or the ability to enjoy greater opportunities to do fun things outdoors. Still, we lived this life in pretty much the same way for most of my youth. Eventually, however, we got a television and things began to change. Now, when school was out the programming began. The first shows of the day started at 4pm, and we couldn’t miss a minute. Suddenly things that had lived once only in our imaginations now came to life on the small black and white television set that held its ground in a corner of our cramped living room. And just as suddenly, our routines … our lives … changed.
We were the first family in the area to own a television, and frequently our home was filled with afternoon visitors … experiencing this amazing technology for the first time, asking lots of questions about the temperamental machine and the programming available … and making us all reluctant “experts.” At the start of this change, there were only a couple of hours a day when the local station was operational … and so that’s all the TV there was. Imagine a world where your TV could only receive one station, provided only 3 hours of programming … and one of those hours contained The Farm Report and News 4 At 5!
I don’t remember how long it took to expand this new service to 2, then 3, then 4 channels …and for the programming to grow to fill the entire evening … but it wasn’t long. Soon there were actual choices that one could make … and our family owned “TV tables” so we could watch TV while we ate dinner. Before long, there was something on the TV from dawn until 10pm … then Saturday … and soon even Sunday programming became available!
By this time however, I was a teenager with a car, a job, and a girlfriend. My interest in the change that this technology was bringing wasn’t very strong … and I was a little too old to get hooked on the early American Bandstand kind of shows that captured many teens. By the time the Beatles hit the televised stage for Ed Sullivan, Viet Nam was consuming our young men and I was in the military as well … “keeping our country safe.” I didn’t get to spend time in the rebellious but still cloistered college campuses that were filled with many of my age mates, and really only began attending to the social changes that were swirling across our country when our cities began burning in the late 60’s.
When I left the military in 1970 and began the work necessary to earn my teaching credential, I was determined to change things, determined to “make things better.” My idealism was soon splashed with very cold water as I was both surprised and shocked by things I discovered at the urban university I attended … and by the society in which I was now living and working. My classmates were generally at least eight years younger than I … and, though perhaps having a greater native intelligence, understood much less about nearly everything that mattered. At least that was my feeling at the time. They didn’t know how to manage a farm, a flock, or put up canned goods for the winter. Some could perhaps fire a weapon, but because they didn’t know anything about the wider world, the direction in which to point it seemed beyond them. Many of the courses offered here had little to do with the skills clearly needed by our society, but still, these classes filled easily. It took me a while to figure out why. Many of my peers saw their time in college primarily as welcome relief from parental control, and cared little for their studies. I knew several who graduated with no more “useful” knowledge than they had when they entered university.
My classmates were kids who had avoided the draft or other public service and had grown up with wealth beyond the understanding of most of the world’s population. They also had been educated by a new kind of media … one that provided information about the world in a form that was overwhelming in its volume and yet supplied only limited context and depth. “Reality” became a “frankenscripted” construct prepared by invisible media forces beyond the reach of the ballot box or the war … and many of the best and brightest began to believe a very synthetic version of the world … one in which the concentration of power seemed to be a good and natural goal … and one in which the greatest rewards went to those who accomplished this goal most expeditiously, regardless of the consequences of their actions.
Now all of this is a long way from the Deschutes River and the song of a blackbird. And a long way too, from the hope that Spring always offers. But it’s a reminder also. The state of the river we watched, the kind of plants growing along the path, the trees that shaded it, the family of geese we came across and the fish that were swimming beneath them … all these things have been profoundly affected by our species, by the goals we establish and pursue. How will we make good choices, both public and private, if this understanding … the sure and certain knowledge that we are responsible for our environment … is missing? What happens if we fail to ground our children in a first-hand way with and in the natural world? What will happen if we replace children’s curiosity, and the interest in science that grows from it, with belief? When I think of the youngsters living in Brooklyn or Mumbai … the millions of these children who’ve never heard a blackbird’s song and who can’t imagine the starfield that I can see nearly every night … well it’s clear that I should do something besides “enjoy my retirement.”
And so, Spring brings renewal … even to the old … and a renewed determination to contribute.