First, the latest news—truthful and unlovely as it is—from Indian Country:
Documents leaked to The Intercept’s investigative team of Alleen Brown, Will Parrish, and Alice Speri reveal how the company charged with building the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) colluded with mercenaries from the War on Terror to surveil and suppress the Standing Rock Sioux water protectors and their friends in their lawful struggle against ecological degradation.
As you may know, since the new Administration’s cancellation of environmental review and its re-authorization of construction, the pipeline struck its first leak while still barely operational. No surprise for anyone who has paid even passing attention to the abominable environmental record of the extractive industry and its infrastructure. Once again, the prophetic fears of Indigenous peoples have been confirmed. The cynical assurances of Energy Transfer Partners and their governmental and corporate enablers, given the lie.
And now, fresh from Iraq and Afghanistan, the TigerSwan security agency—in collusion with the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, the Marshals Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and state and local police in five states (forgive me if I have left anyone out!)—have brought the battlefield home. This is the reality that we saw live on our computer screens last fall: a brutal, militarized, domestic law-enforcement regime reminiscent of the occupying force that greeted protesters in Ferguson, Missouri. Which only added legitimacy and momentum to the nascent and unduly maligned Black Lives Matter movement.
Yet we are expected to swallow the propaganda, as the President and others have conveyed it to us, that the protesters in North Dakota were “very bad people” and their oppressors, in their figurative white hats, pure and good. And that the victims and activists against police misconduct in Black communities across the nation are the moral equivalent of rioters, cop-killers, and terrorists.
This in the fabled “land of the free and home of the brave,” where hysterical public officials, politicians, and white supremacists feel newly emboldened to assault journalists (“enemies of the people,” as we are told) and where state and national legislators feel empowered to criminalize our First Amendment rights to peaceful assembly and protest.
While I have not dug into the multiple files of evidentiary documents, I have read in its entirety The Intercept’s extremely thorough (and unsensational) reportage. Those of us who value our own and our fellow citizens’ civil liberties—even theirs with whom we most vigorously disagree—have more than ample reason to feel incensed by the story it brings to light.
Consider these few passages that I scribbled in my notepad; I don’t know how to interpret them without feeling the encroachment of George Orwell’s permanent Police State:
Passage 1: “TigerSwan’s relationship with public police agencies was not always harmonious,” we read fairly deep into the article. “The situation reports describe TigerSwan’s frustration with the amount of leeway some law enforcement gave protesters in Iowa and the company’s efforts to convince officers to use more punitive tactics.”
Passage 2: “Perhaps one of the most striking revelations of the documents is the level of hostility displayed by TigerSwan toward the camp protectors. TigerSwan consistently describes their peaceful demonstrators using military and tactical language more appropriate for counterterrorism operations in an armed conflict zone. At times, the military language verges on parody. More often, however, the way TigerSwan discusses protesters as ‘terrorists,’ their direct actions as ‘attacks,’ and their camps as a ‘battlefield’ reveals how the protesters’ dissent was not only criminalized but treated as a national security threat.”
Passage 3: “In one internal report, a TigerSwan operative describes an effort to amass digital and ground intelligence that would allow the company to ‘find, fix, and eliminate’ threats to the pipeline—an eerie echo of ‘find, fix, finish,’ a military term used by special forces in the U.S. government’s assassination campaign against terrorist targets.”
(Here I pass over some particularly chilling accounts of close surveillance and dangerously fanciful, paranoid, entirely unexamined, and freely disseminated assumptions about the most innocuous subjects of scrutiny. It’s like reading 1984, coming to the fateful hour of Winston’s and Julia’s arrests, and thinking: My God! There really is nowhere to hide! Big Brother and his Thought Police are everywhere! So that you catch yourself looking over your shoulder for the hidden drone with its precision camera.)
Passage 4: “In recent weeks, the company’s role has expanded to include surveillance of activist networks marginally related to the pipeline, with TigerSwan agents monitoring ‘anti-Trump’ protesters from Chicago to Washington, D.C., as well as warning its client of growing dissent around other pipelines across the country.”
Passage 5: “In a March 24 report, TigerSwan writes, ‘Much like Afghanistan and Iraq, the ‘Fighting Season’ will soon be here with the coming warming temperatures.”
America’s economic empire—increasingly enforced by military might—has come home to roost, it would seem. Protecting the investments of our perpetual-war profiteers all around the globe: the art of the deal, and the privileging of property and profits over the moral needs of regular people, represent the prevailing socioeconomic and political ideology, after all. Which, with the unregulated exploitation of our planet’s natural resources, is the logical end-place of unrestrained capitalist greed.
But why are we surprised? The primary business of the American people, as Calvin Coolidge told us, and since the days of the recently lionized and celebrated Alexander Hamilton, has been business. And President Eisenhower warned us, when he left office in 1960, of the rapacious appetite of our military-industrial complex; which the brilliant and indomitable Canadian journalist Naomi Klein has more recently metamorphosed into the neoliberal regime of disaster capitalism.
Is this the promise of peace and prosperity that we all voted for? Winners and losers, both, in the past election?
Now, my patient readers, let me make a rhetorical turn to a more particularly literary terrain. Perhaps, in the end, the twain shall meet and lead us toward the seat of wisdom.
Reading, recently, Ilan Stavans’s charming book Quixote: The Novel and the World, I came upon an allusion to the 19th-century Ecuadorian writer Juan Montalvo’s posthumous novel Capítulos que se le olvidaron a Cervantes (Chapters that Slipped Cervantes’s Mind—or, Memory). “It imagines,” Stavans writes, “a continuation of Don Quixote and Sancho’s third outing. An independent-minded anti-clerical thinker, Montalvo had a remarkable ability to mimic Cervantes’s style and content. His narrative is the closest I know to a sequel that feels authentic.”
I don’t recall how, more than a decade past, I came upon it myself, but doing so I translated the episode in which Don Quixote, were it not already taken by another knight, might have acquired a new title: The Knight of the Forest. The excerpted arboreal narrative, taken from chapter 16 and the beginning of chapter 17 of Montalvo’s work, I offer here in the spirit of the Standing Rock Sioux and their sacred waters. The translation first appeared online in The Quill & Ink, whose Indian editor, Anirban Choudhury, now resident in Hong Kong, was a consultant to Bosnian editor Voki Erceg’s Hourglass Literary Magazine—about which, a brief note further on.
Don Quixote on the Ecology
As Don Quixote was saying this, he cast a glance to one side of the road and saw a man, rather well on in years, who was having two beautiful cypresses hewn down from a group that offered dark, fresh shade for a good distance around. He stopped and asked him why he was having such beautiful trees demolished, in an instant destroying the work for which nature had required so many years.
“I’m demolishing them,” the old man responded, “because they produce nothing and pointlessly occupy the estate. These and the rest, which are no fewer than fourteen, I’m bringing down.”
“Might there be a way,” Don Quixote replied, “to avoid this slaughter? If the value of these cypresses incites you, I’ll pay you for them. Then they may remain standing.”
“That would go part and parcel with selling the land, which isn’t what I have in mind,” the owner said. “Rather, I am clearing it. Not so much to take advantage of these trees, which aren’t worth a great deal, as to give the land over itself to farming.”
“Cut, they are worth nothing,” the knight replied. “Alive and beautiful as they are, they are worth more than the pyramids of Egypt. And thus I entreat and strongly urge you to consider whether it’s not better for you to change your resolution and make a gift to Mother Nature, who takes pleasure in her children’s shade.”
“All shade is harmful,” the bloodthirsty old man argued. “Shade gives me nothing. Rather it takes from me what this estate could yield. Today I’m leaving it as bare as the palm of my hand. I’ll plow it right away, I’ll sow lettuce and cabbage. And from now, just as soon as you return this way, Your Worship is invited to the banquet.”
“Cease all jesting, since that’s not why I’ve come,” Don Quixote said. “For the last time, I express and ask for what is already expressed and asked for. And take your lettuce somewhere else.”
“Elegant performance,” the man responded. And despite his age, because in his day he had been something of a roughneck; or perhaps because Don Quixote’s figure, along with his pretensions, moved him to make himself ridiculous: “Elegant notification. And in the event that I don’t go along with that, does Your Worship plan to threaten me with your lance?”
“In your own words!” Don Quixote replied, charging then at the old man. Who by way of defense let himself fall, feet up, from the stone on which he was seated. “Concur,” the knight shouted, holding him in check with his lance, “that these trees remain uninjured. Offer, promise, and even swear not to touch them nor a hair of their beards.”
“I submit to however much Your Worship should command,” the wag responded, seeing that menacing point glisten. “Come on, friends! Leave me those trees standing. And don’t offend them with another blow of the ax, since that’s this good knight’s will.”
There was nothing more urgent than to save his life, and afterwards establish what amends should be made. But the knight-errant spurred on his steed and took off without adding a word. While at the same time the vanquished was sluggishly picking himself up, hurling epithets against the madman who had put him in that position. Then Don Quixote returned and said: “Those grooves or wounds in the cypresses can be fatal to them. Fill them at once with wax, and spread a layer of moist soil over it so that there won’t be any risk of their withering and dying.”
At that time two horsemen were arriving on either side of a carriage pulled by four proud mules richly harnessed and wearing very tall plumes on their headstalls. It was not possible for someone like Don Quixote to allow anyone to continue on their way without some inquiry, much less a procession that smelled so much like an adventure. “Good man, stop and respond point by point. Who are these who are coming this way? From where are they coming? To where and to what purpose are they going?”
“It is the Most Illustrious Bishop of Jaén,” the postillion responded. “He is coming from Madrid and going to his diocese.”
“Welcome,” the knight responded. “Now advise the Most Illustrious Bishop of Jaén that Don Quixote of La Mancha wishes to take with him some of his episcopal blessings.”
“Who is it?” they asked from within the carriage.
“The knight Don Quixote of La Mancha, who wishes to greet the Lord Bishop,” responded one of the men on horse.
“Don Quixote of La Mancha? I know him. The famous knight whose history travels all over the world. Well, I would be glad to see him. Tell him, if he please, that he approach the carriage door.”
Don Quixote dismounted then and did what the prelate wished, greeting him with a bow.
“Is Your Worship, Sir Knight, the same Don Quixote of La Mancha whose deeds the historian Cid Hamete Benengeli has praised to the clouds?”
“I doubt there be two knights of that name,” Don Quixote responded with great assurance. “As for he who dared assert to me that he had conquered a certain Don Quixote in singular battle, I already proved to him that he was deceived, not to say lying.”
“That audacious individual was the Knight of the Forest,” said the Bishop. “What is Your Worship doing in these environs? We thought you to be in Trebizond, and have even heard that you had crossed over to the island of Lipadusa to engage in combat with whomever might possess the sword Durindana.”
“Should I have notice of that famous sword,” Don Quixote responded, “I will cross over, not only to Lapidusa, but to Estotilán and Norumbeca. And to win it I will go arm in arm with King Gradasso, and even with that bewitched Don Orlando.”
“Once that bewitched Don Orlando is subdued by Your Worship,” said the Bishop in his turn, “what obstacle will there be to your taking from him, not only his sword, but also his lady? In this way, Angelica the Fair will come as it were to supplant Dulcinea.”
“No, Sir,” Don Quixote responded. “Durindana and nothing else will I take from him. Nor what should I do with that affected, fickle damsel? Who takes off when it catches her fancy with some Moorish jackanapes, as inexperienced in war as in love? In speaking so, Your Most Illustrious Grace, you sully the reputations of champions like Orlando the Bewitched and Rinaldo of Montalbán.”
“If it doesn’t anger Your Worship,” the Bishop answered, “I repeat my question. What business brings Your Worship through these environs?”
“I am going about in search of adventures,” Don Quixote responded. “If chance hadn’t guided me this way, just now a deed would have been done that no knight-errant would tolerate. Your Most Illustrious Lordship should leave his gig. Come see with your own eyes whether my profession matters to the world. And whether those of us who follow it lose our time and win our fame at little cost.”
The Bishop got out, considering whether some crime might really have been attempted there, and whether even now it was possible to prevent some misfortune.
“Does Your Most Illustrious Grace behold this small forest whose dark green trees rise in the shape of pyramids and spread forth over the ground this dense, inviting shade? In truth I tell you that there was not going to remain branch on branch, because if I had not arrived to save them from the destroying ax, this inhuman being would have cut them all to earth.”
The Biblical form of speech used by Don Quixote seemed good to the Bishop. Understanding the situation perfectly, and to humor the knight, he expressed that such an outrage greatly displeased him. And he joined him in extolling the inhumanity of one who had thus wanted to kill those beautiful giants of creation. Perhaps the prelate was speaking in good faith, too, since every heart where noble sentiments dwell has hidden connections with nature.
A tree that has lingeringly received the mysterious virtue of the centuries, along with the recondite essence of the earth, is an object that instills an almost religious respect and love. Yet there are those who in an instant destroy the work of two hundred years to take advantage of the puny circumference that a tree makes useless with its shade. To greed nothing is sacred. If the Phoenix bird were to fall into his hands, he would eat it or sell it. What does not produce, the speculator does not want. To the miserly soul, beauty is a chimera. A fool with neither light in his mind nor music in his heart does not attain the ability to enjoy it, nor does his soul possess the requisites that are needed in order for the wonders of the universe to make an impression on it. Only the thoughtful man whose deity has him continually aware, marveling at the Omnipotent’s works and becoming mad about Nature’s graces, ever kneels before the Parnassus.
Whether for fear of the one or respect for the other, the old man apologized as best he could and confirmed his promise to not carry forward a work that he had in no way considered to merit censure.
“And why wouldn’t it?” said the Bishop. “If you didn’t have an imperative need, it wasn’t at all Christian to thus destroy, purely for the sake of it, such a beautiful effect of our Mother Earth’s virtue.”
“It seems to me,” Don Quixote said in his turn, “that the Gentiles were on many occasions more pious than we. That veneration of theirs for the sacred forests reveals a whole world of religion in their soul. The woods of Delphi, the forest of Dodona, were temples for them.”
“Your Worship shouldn’t claim authority for the Gentiles,” said the Bishop in his turn. “The patriarchs of ancient law rendered almost divine honors to trees. Abraham planted a cypress, a cedar, and a pine, which by the work of Heaven became a single tree. Consequently that tree was looked upon as a wonder and a thing truly destined for the Divinity. Therefore it was cut down for Solomon’s temple. And what does Your Worship say about the famous oak beneath whose shade that very patriarch of whom I’ve just spoken pitched his campaign tents? The people bowed before it, and they made pilgrimage to the plains of Mamre to see that witness of such great things.”
“I have read,” responded Don Quixote, “that the Japanese, despite being barbarians, respect trees as much as their gods. They plant them everywhere and with them give shade to the roads. Because of that it’s a pleasure to stroll, beneath those regions’ blazing sun, along those fresh, green routes.”
“Among some peoples,” the Bishop said, “those who destroy certain birds are rigorously punished. As in England where no one can kill eagle, crane, nor raven. Small wonder if the Japanese punish the killer of a tree.”
“If it’s not permitted to kill ravens in England,” Don Quixote answered fervently, “it’s not out of respect for that animal but so as not, through wounding one of them, to injure King Arthur, who now moves through the world under a spell put upon him by his sister, the enchantress Morgan le Fay, and who in due time must return to his real shape and rule over the English. For it was never her intention, when she put the spell on him, to annihilate so great a king and valorous a knight, but perhaps to free him from some danger, and make the days race past him until the time should be accomplished for returning him to his own being and person. Your Lordship knows that this can be done without difficulty, or time can do nothing against those who are under enchantment. A thousand years pass, and still they emerge with not a white hair nor wrinkle more than when the enchantment was worked upon them.”
Postscript: I will forego my translator’s note on names to mention, finally, the happy news of the previously promised publication, in the little country of Bosnia, of Hourglass Literary Magazine. A copy of this in-every-sense weighty book came to me some few weeks ago with, toward the back of it, my own essay called “Small Graces.” It is followed by its translation into the language formerly known as Serbo-Croatian and now, in the reconstituted reality of four nations, at once Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin.
Those of you who have ever seen your own literary work rendered in a language you cannot read will understand the level of my excitement. And, while publication was delayed for some months (as is not uncommon, given the vicissitudes of modestly and irregularly financed literary journals), its material remains immediate to the concerns we face a year after my writing. And not just my essay, but everything I have so far encountered in the magazine. I continue to make my way through the rest of its excellent content.
As for “Small Graces,” should you have a chance to read it, rest assured that its musings of a political nature are surpassed by the most judicious and personal consideration of the liberal arts and human graces that become even more vital than ever in times such as ours.
We may be trapped in a world of cutthroat business and corporate practice, conscienceless deal-making and opportunistic politicos, but only through art, music, literature, and all the other liberal or humane arts do we learn how to live and conduct ourselves in the shadow of the valley of the imperial doctrine of Might-Makes-Right.
The eloquent and honest wielding of letters, after all, or of the poetry and rhetoric of literature, is arguably no less necessary than the most righteously activist tilting at the windmills of extreme inequality, injustice, and ecological ruin. Perhaps even more so, we can only hope, than Don Quixote’s soldierly exercise of arms in the age of potential nuclear and climate apocalypse.