Ralph Waldo Emerson, marching season, and the guys who slash the tires

By Eva Murray | Aug 06, 2011

Here’s what Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “These things look thus to me; to you, otherwise.”

Our friend Ralphie Emerson, so we hear, by way of Garrison Keillor, gave a commencement speech at Harvard Divinity School during which he bemoaned the state of the prevailing religion. Recall that this was in 1838. Anyway, he was brought up short by friends and others for daring to speak critical words about the good Christians of his day. It’s just not done! Emerson stood up for his right to say what he thought needed saying, regardless of whether the majority of his audience might think it more than a tad heretical.

So what is this all, as they say, in aid of?

OK, the other thing they were talking about on the radio early this Friday morning was what many of Northern Ireland call “the marching season.” Evidently in some districts, when certain partisans feel it is time to stick a finger in the eye of the other team, they muster up a parade. Nyah nyah nyah.

That might be a good idea around here. It beats the stuffing out of slashing somebody’s tires.

Ah, sad but true: Life is hard, and not everybody deals with stress like an adult. It has become my department, over these nine or 10 years of pounding out my observations one keystroke at a time, to indulge in a bit of defiant positivism about Matinicus. Is that the same as “rose-colored glasses?” I suppose. I have and I will continue to defend this enigmatic island against naysayers, malcontents, sensationalism, other journalists with mean-spirited agendas, several departments of the state, pompous part-time commodores and 300 years of hard-won reputation. I can’t do much about our home-grown school-yard bullying. Sorry, folks; no rose-colored glasses today.

So how does a fellow actually arrange to get an enemy’s tires slashed anyway? Just curious about how these things work — not knowing, and all that.

It never seems to be the angry party who is spoken of on the “bush telegraph” as potentially wielding the actual honest-to-pete knife. Somehow, nobody real ever does it. The conventional wisdom is that “they” do it. Who are “they?” I don’t know; bog-wraiths, maybe. From exactly where comes “conventional wisdom” anyway? And, inquiring minds want to know: is one best advised to use a dive knife, or something off the counter still scaly from filleting a fish, or just your ubiquitous little red Victorinox?

Is this heresy? Probably. Many will scowl over my admission that a few Vandals, Ostrogoths, Huns, etc., skulk in the darkness with their blades. It is summertime. The islands are glorious and beautiful. The ocean twinkles, the buoys… ah, all those buoys, and the puffins of course, and the iconic lighthouses…. As I write, we enjoy a few days of astonishing beauty and physical comfort, meteorologically speaking. Alas, peace in the valley is only for the visitor. The rest of us poor slobs are getting a stomach ache.

One wonders how these things get engineered. Having worked quite hard to remain a total square, as them of the cooler subculture called such people as us back in the Stone Age, I truly have never understood how it works. One theory which I have heard espoused (by folks who I warrant have no likelihood of actual knowledge here) is the following convoluted machination: Somebody with a bee in his or her bonnet about some real or perceived wrong goes and riles up whichever tribal chieftain he feels the closest allegiance to, likely whoever went to the third grade with the aggrieved soul. Following such agitation, the local headman, in the interest of keeping power in the right hands, makes loud comments in the presence of various henchmen who, not being from around here, will do anything to look like a good loyal tough guy and a true-blue member of the gang. These so-called “yahoos” (that is a technical term common amongst the more highly-educated anthropologists) do the deed and the socially more prominent get to make believe their hands are clean.

Right. Armchair sociology. Such nonsense.

Do people who are angry actually sit around and plan the cowardly acts of vandalism? There sure have been enough of those lately (and after such a peaceful winter!) I cannot begin to imagine what such a dialog might sound like. Clearly, since nobody actually does this stuff, and the tangible action is somehow delegated to the transient flunkies, ghosts of a sort, orders must be given, albeit with some subtlety. Or maybe not; I wouldn’t know. Does this discussion happen around the supper table, or across the hood of the pickup, or on the couch over a case of beer while watching “NCIS?” Beats me. Are the culprits the same guys to whom I offer band-aids and sympathy? Do I sell them root beer? What does a bog-wraith look like?

There is a myth which is unfortunately accepted by so many in mainland law enforcement, which is that “we’re all in this together,” that every islander knows where, why, and how everything that happens was done, that we all know how it works, we all would do the same in turn, and that we all deserve it. That’s a myth. Get past it. I am serious.

Oh, well, but you see, it should be obvious that if some neighbor, somebody with whom you would eat Christmas dinner in the basement of the church, or sit through a children’s school play, or fight a fire or dig a grave or listen to the music on the wharf on any summer Saturday night should incur your wrath or even your slight indignation, the destruction of some part of their motor vehicle is the sensible and customary response. Even if only the wife, the employee, or the customer of said malefactor is inconvenienced a sort of law-of-the-jungle justice, or revenge at least, still must prevail. One cannot let people get away with just doing their thing without appropriate homage, without obeisance, without them practically paying a tribute. It’s about honor; it’s about being — hello — the captain of the ship. I suppose we all must be kept in line.

The kid who hauls the freight around for the flying service in Owls Head did comment that he wondered why he was taking quite so many tires from the airport to Eastern Tire this summer.

By the way, Northern Ireland’s “marching season” parades are not relaxed family events where firemen throw candy and leftover Mardi Gras beads at children. They aren’t the sort of thing where a guy like our friend Tom’s buddy up visiting from Baltimore or wherever can ride on the hood of the jeep and juggle bowling pins like back on Independence Day out here. Rocks and bricks and items far more damaging are often the order of the day. “Marching season” has got something a few hundred years old to do with territory, and power, and tribalism, and keeping the other side nervous. That is sounding familiar.

That sounds like my blessed island. If anybody should be so easily offended as to get testy at me for speaking of such things in the public square, I shall lean on my buddy Ralph Waldo Emerson. (“Ralphie Emerson? Is he that old guy from Vinalhaven?”)

I’ll bet if Emerson were around a 100 some-odd years later, he’d have to change a few tires himself. He would also call this bull-pucky what it is. Am I making fun of the pain? No. Am I being deliberately oblique, complicating a Matinicus story with all this public radio stuff about 19th-Century thinkers and the Troubles in the “six counties?” Of course I am, and it should be obvious why. Am I making fun of some zombie who thinks he’s really accomplishing something because he can stick a sidewall? Damned straight.

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