“Mad as a March hare” is a common British English phrase. It is still in use today and was in use in the time of Lewis Carroll when he was writing his books about Alice’s adventures. The phrase appeared in John Heywood’s collection of proverbs published in 1546.
The origin of this is thought to come from a popular (though not scientific) belief about hares’ behavior at the beginning of the long breeding season. (In Britain, it would be from February to September.) Early in the season, unreceptive females often use their forelegs to repel overenthusiastic males. It used to be incorrectly believed that this “fighting” was between two males competing for breeding dominance.
The March Hare as a character is called Haigha in Through the Looking-Glass. The March Hare most famously appears in the tea party scene in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Alice says, “The March Hare will be much the most interesting, and perhaps as this is May it won’t be raving mad – at least not so mad as it was in March.”
Hares and jackrabbits (leporids belonging to the genus Lepus and classified in the same family as rabbits) are similar in size and form to rabbits and have similar herbivorous diets, but generally have longer ears and live solitarily or in pairs rather than in groups or families. They are very independent creatures and unlike other rabbits, their young are able to fend for themselves shortly after birth. They are generally faster than other rabbits.
The March Hare character is certainly more hare than rabbit. he is friends with The Hatter character. The Hatter also appears in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass. Readers often call him the “Mad Hatter” but Carroll never uses that adjective for his name. But at the tea party, the Cheshire Cat refers to The Hatter and the March Hare as “both mad.”
In Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations, the March Hare is shown with straw on his head, which apparently was a common way to depict madness in Victorian times, perhaps alluding to to a straw-stuffed scarecrow head.
For all you language fans, jackrabbits are hares, rather than rabbits. Should they be jackhares? A hare less than one year old is called a leveret. A group of hares is called a “drove.” And the march Hare’s real name in the books, Haigha, should be pronounced to rhyme with “mayor,” according to Lewis Carroll – which would mean it is pronounced “hare.” Madness indeed.
Since then, I read about another of his journeys that he chronicled in River Horse. This time he starts out from New York Harbor aboard a boat he named Nikawa which means “river horse” in Osage.
His plan is to reach the Pacific Ocean near Astoria, Oregon. He has a companion this time, a First Mate he calls Pilotis, as he attempts a 5000 mile water journey.
This trip would be more miles than any other cross-country river traveler. He follows the path of some other famous inland explorers, such as Henry Hudson and Lewis and Clark.
In some ways, this voyage is similar to his truck trip around the country. He runs into more real battles with nature (floods, submerged rocks, dangerous weather) but he also meets interesting and helpful people with tales of their own.
The landscapes of Blue Highways become riverscapes as they take the small motorized boat down rivers, lakes and canals from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The book also carries more of an ecological story about our lands and waters.
I still have a few other Heat-Moon books to read. I think my next one will be PrairyErth: A Deep Map. In that book, he sets off on foot. It is a big book (624 pages) and from reviews I have seen, it is quite different from Blue Highways and River Horse.
PrairyErth is a term that Heat-Moon found in an old taxonomy to describe prairie soils. In this book, he does not attempt to walk across the country, but instead he picks a specific area of prairie. In the same way that Thoreau “traveled a good deal in Concord” and how Annie Dillard became a Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in Virginia, Heat-Moon attempts to explore every bit of the 774 square miles of Chase County, Kansas in the geographical center of our country.
If this big book seems too much to take on right now, consider William Least Heat-Moon’s collection of short-form travel writing. Here, There, Elsewhere has short pieces on trips to Japan, England, Italy, and Mexico and also to Long Island, Oregon and Arizona. He visits and writes about small towns, big cities, the shorelines of our country and places hidden inland.
“Life doesn’t happen along interstates. It’s against the law.”
– William Least Heat-Moon “It is not down on any map; true places never are.”
– Herman Melville, Moby-Dick or, The Whale
I wrote in a preface or companion post to this article about the Red Road in Oglala Lakota holy man Black Elk’s vision and philosophy and how it connects to the “blue highways” of William Heat-Moon’s travel book.
This post is about modern day road visions. Blue Highways is the story of the author’s 13,000-mile journey and the people he meets along the way.
The Red Road may be the “right path” but he chooses the smaller roads and highways marked in blue on his paper road atlas. He avoids cities and interstates. He tries to avoid fast food and the usual interstate experiences. He seeks out towns because they have odd names and wants to find very localized American culture.
I read the book years ago when it was first released. It was on the NY Times’ best seller list for 42 weeks in 1982-83. The term “blue highways” became a way to describe a journey of introspection and discovery.
I mentally shelve this book next to Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. They are two books that I really loved reading and both are on-the-road, travel and spirituality texts. Pirsig is more spiritual and philosophical. Heat-Moon is more travel.
But both are modern epics and hero’s journeys to me. I read Zen upon publication in 1974, when I was a junior in college and it certainly made me want to take that journey (though in my VW Beetle rather than on a motorcycle).
This summer motorcycle trip of a father and his son took on other meanings when I was older and had my own two sons. But both books ponder big questions, as Black Elk did, of personal philosophy and how to live.
Pirsig’s route was a pretty straight shot from Minnesota to California. Westward Ho! Like Black Elk’s Red Road, Heat-Moon’s route is a loop. He does not drive across America, but he encircles it, mostly staying at the edges of the map.
I was particularly interested (as many of us would be) about his observations in my part of the country. That would be when he passes over the Verrazano-Narrows bridge in New York City to Staten Island, and then into Paradelle-country: Lakewood, New Jersey, Lakehurst Naval Air Station, somewhere on the Wading River in the Pine Barrens, Weekstown, Egg Harbor City, Millville, Bridgeton, Othello (“‘In Cumberland County we have a settlement of people called ‘tri-bloods,’ people that trace their history – or legend – back to a Moorish – Algerian, specifically – princess who came ashore after a shipwreck in the first years of the nation. The Indians took her in, and from the subsequent mixing of blood – later with a small infusion from the Negro – there developed a group composed of three races. The ‘Delaware Moors,’ they’re called…'”), Greenwich, Hancock’s Bridge and Salem, New Jersey.
Sadly, I have not been to most of those places myself. I really must plan a summer journey along that path for myself. No doubt, most of the places he passed through have changed a lot since he passed through tem.
I would also place on that mental bookshelf with those two books another one that I read much earlier in my youth that made me want to wander the roads of America. That book is John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley.
It’s not Steinbeck’s best book, but by the time I was in high school I had read almost all of his fiction and so I picked up this travel with his dog in search of America book. It is listed as non-fiction, but more recently I have read that some of it is fiction. Not all the people and experiences actually happened to Steinbeck on the road. I’m okay with that mix of fiction and fact. I think most fiction is that blend, though we hope that most non-fiction is not.
In 1960, Steinbeck started his trip because he thought he had lost touch with the country. I think he was looking for inspiration for his fiction, but found a book in the process. Like Heat-Moon, he traveled in a truck, a three-quarter-ton pickup truck he named Rocinante. (that is an allusion to Don Quixote’s horse. Heat-Moon names his truck Ghost Dancing, a more suitably American Indian name.) Pirsig’s trip is with a son. Heat-Moon is alone. Steinbeck was accompanied by a French poodle named Charley.
Robert Pirsig did take a Zen-like trip by motorcycle with his si, Chris, but most of the book is fiction. As far as I know, Heat-Moon did make the trip he describes, but as far as the accuracy of the dialogue with people and the many details he includes, I’ll assume some poetic license and post-trip research.
William Least Heat-Moon is the pen name of William Trogdon. He is an American travel writer of English, Irish and Osage Nation ancestry. His pen name came from his father saying, “I call myself Heat Moon, your elder brother is Little Heat Moon. You, coming last, therefore, are Least.”
He was born in Kansas City, Missouri and Heat-Moon attended the University of Missouri where he earned bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. degrees in English, as well as a bachelor’s degree in photojournalism. He also served as a professor of English at the university.
In the book and in his interactions with people he meets, he does come off as a professor. He assumes the role of just a sort of bum on the road
Heat-Moon’s journey of self-discovery (as we would say is one of its themes, if I was teaching the book) begins because of personal loss. He really starts his inward look by looking outward. He recognizes those who have made such journeys before, from ancient heroes real and fictional to Walt Whitman and Black Elk.
At the end of the book, when William crosses the Ohio River, drives through cornfields in Indiana and heads home, he seems to have more knowledge of himself through learning more about others.
I haven’t read William Least Heat-Moon’s book Writing BLUE HIGHWAYS: The Story of How a Book Happened and I don’t know anyone who has read it. I’m not sure if it will reveal some fiction in the facts, or if it will add more meaning to the book itself. It shouldn’t take a book to explain a book.
I recently retraveled the back roads of William Least Heat-Moon’s 1978 travel account, Blue Highways. I read the book when it was released, but this time I listened to the audiobook which is how I prefer to experience books when I am on the road or walking my own backroads and woods.
Heat-Moon seems to have coined the term “blue highways” to refer to those out-of-the-way roads in mostly rural America which were shown in blue on the old Rand McNally road atlas. This is a book from a time when a GPS wouldn’t have even seemed possible.
But the author mentions an earlier version of his blue highways coming from his own American Indian ancestry. He references Black Elk’s “Two Roads,” one of which is sometimes called the Blue Road. On this recent reading of the book, I did some further research into that aspect of the roads.
I had read John Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks a few years before I read Blue Highways, but I don’t recall ever making the connection between the two.
Nicholas Black Elk was born in 1863 and died in 1950 and saw tremendous changes in the lives of his Oglala Lakota people. The book was published in 1932, but paperback editions of it were common in the 196s and 70s amongst college students. The “New Age” popularity was probably due to the visions of Black Elk that are recorded.
The book describes Lakota life and is a history of a Native nation, but it is often read as a spiritual tale.
Black Elk met Neihardt in 1930 on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and asked him to record and share his story. (There has long been some controversy about this non-native writer telling the story.)
At the age of nine, Black Elk received a great vision which is the central reflector of the book. His celestial vision has been interpreted as the totality of earthly creation. It is a joyous sky-spanning vision of Earth and the heavens united.
For perspective, think about that the year after his vision, Black Elk was present at the Battle of Little Bighorn. He was a second cousin of the war chief Crazy Horse.
His childhood vision remained strong in Black Elk’s life until his death, though his own interpretation changed. He asks Wakan Tanka (God or The Great Spirit) throughout his lifetime if he properly interpreted or fulfilled the vision. In Black Elk Speaks, the conclusion seems sad and he feels he has not been able to save his people through his vision and works.
But Black Elk lived for almost twenty years after Neihardt finished his book, so the story there is incomplete. The newer book suggests that the answer that Black Elk finally received from Wakan Tanka was that he had fulfilled the vision.
Something that is missing from Neihardt’s book is that Black Elk was baptized on St. Nicholas Day in December 1904 and took the name Nicholas to preface Black Elk. He was a practicing and proselytizing Catholic until his death. He baptized hundreds of Indians, taught the Bible, held Masses, and preached sermons. That was a 46 year period of having a simple, righteous, useful Christian life.
This conversion changed his interpretation of the childhood vision. There is Roman Catholic teaching aide that he encountered commonly known as the Two Roads Map. It was a visual catechism that was poster-sized. Though it is a Christian “salvation history,” there are parallels between Black Elk’s vision and the Two Roads Map that Black Elk was probably pleased to see. Some of the similarities may seem coincidental or trivial – thunder beings, flying men, tree images, villages, a black road, a red road, an evil blue man engulfed in flames in a “Hellish” place where people moaned and mourned. He used the Two Roads Map in his teaching.
The map has a pre-Christian black road and a Christian red road. In Black Elk’s vision as well as in the Christian map, the Red Road was the good and authentic path. For Black Elk, it seems to have represented both the traditional Indian way with Lakota symbolism and Christian symbolism. The Red Road was the Christian right way to live.
It may be cultural or religious appropriation that the Red Road has more commonly become a name for the right path without regard to religion but perhaps some regard for spirituality.
So where does the Blue Road that Heat-Moon alludes to originate? For that, you need to read in The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux. This book is also a transcribed version of Black Elk’s teachings on the sacred pipe that was written much later in his life. In this book, he speaks of the Red Road as the north-south cross of the Medicine Wheel. The east-west cross is the black or blue road, which is the way we should not travel.
For, Nicholas Black Elk, Christianity was the Red Road, a metaphor for living a spiritual way of life. Rather than being a road stretching forward to the horizon, he saw the people on the red road as one interconnected circle of travelers making a “sacred hoop.”
William Least Heat-Moon lightly references the blue roads as being a way to travel that is kind of a waste of your time, but his blue highways were chosen to help him reconnect to people, the country and himself. His motorized journey is a spiritual one, though not one Black Elk may have recognized or endorsed.
In the descriptions of Black Elk’s central childhood vision that I have read, there is almost always a disclaimer that, of course, words cannot really capture what he saw. He saw multiple manifestations of a single Great Spirit. This monotheistic image probably made the transition to Catholicism more logical.
Charles Frazier was told a story by his father about an ancestor named Inman who was wounded in the Confederate Army. Inman deserted, and walked across North Carolina, to his small hometown at the foot of Cold Mountain.
Frazier thought it would be a good basis for a novel, but he couldn’t find much more information about the real Inman. So, he wrote from his imagination, and from letters and diaries from the Civil War.
But he wasn’t sure he wanted to write a “war novel.”
“I didn’t want to write a novel of the battles and the generals and those famous personalities. There have been a lot of books written about that — good ones and bad ones — and I didn’t want to add to the bulk of that literature.’
I like how Frazier divides those novels into two categories.
“I realized that there are two kinds of books about a war: there’s an Iliad, about fighting the war, and about the battles and generals, and there’s an Odyssey, about a warrior who has decided that home and peace are the things he wants. Once I decided that I was writing an Odyssey kind of book instead of an Iliad kind of book, I could move forward with it with some sense of happiness.”
Inman is a Civil War Odysseus on a journey back to, Ada, the woman he loves,
He published Cold Mountain in 1997. It was on The New York Times best-seller list for months, and was also made into a film with the same title.
I first heard about remote viewing in the 2009 film The Men Who Stare at Goats which was more of a parody of real experiments done by the military into the paranormal. The film (starring George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, and Kevin Spacey) is based on Jon Ronson’s 2004 book of the same title. The film got me interested enough to read the book which is about attempts by the U.S. military to employ psychic powers as a weapon.
In the book The Men Who Stare at Goats, Ronson gets into the U.S. Army’s exploration of how “New Age” paranormal concepts such as ESP were given serious consideration as having potential military applications of the paranormal.
The book’s title refers to attempts that were made to kill goats by staring at them and stopping their hearts. A three-part British TV series in 2004, Crazy Rulers of the World, was based on the book.
The podcast talks about one successful example of remote viewing (RV) which is the practice of seeking impressions about a distant or unseen target, purportedly using extrasensory perception (ESP) or “sensing” with the mind. In the example, a remote viewer was asked to “look” into a building in Russia by concentrating on a photo of it in a closed envelope. One soldier described a building on a shoreline, which smelled of gas and industrial products that had inside of it a large coffin-like object with fins, like a shark.
A few months later the CIA received satellite imagery showing that the Soviets had constructed a new ballistic missile submarine. It was later known by its NATO designation, Typhoon class, but at the time of the remote viewing it was known in the USSR as the Akula. Russian for “shark.” This is purported to be one of several true examples of the military’s paranormal activity research.
My own investigations led me to another quite serious investigation in the book Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis by Annie Jacobsen. She examines the now declassified papers that came from government attempts to locate hostages, fugitives, secret bases, and downed fighter jets, and gather other nations’ secrets using the paranormal. It went as far as to try to predict future threats to national security. She says that the intelligence agencies and military services involved include CIA, DIA, NSA, DEA, the Navy, Air Force, and Army-and even the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
As the podcast noted, remote viewing experiments have been criticized for lack of repeatability, which scientists demand, but it may be that a successful remote viewing is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence for a subject and just not repeatable. There is no scientific evidence that remote viewing exists, and so it generally falls under “pseudoscience,” although it is physicists Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff, parapsychology researchers at Stanford Research Institute (SRI), who are generally credited with coining the term “remote viewing.” They wanted to distinguish it from the closely related concept of clairvoyance.
Ronson’s book first looks at the small group of U.S. Army officers in the late 1970s and early 1980s who wanted to use paranormal phenomena, some New Age philosophy, and elements of the human potential movement for intelligence-gathering.
Some of these efforts included First Earth Battalion Operations Manual from 1979 which you can now buy from Amazon! and a “psychic spy unit” established by Army Intelligence at Fort Meade, Maryland, in the late 1970s that was the focus of the film. This was the Stargate Project, established in 1978 by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and SRI International (a California contractor) to investigate the potential for psychic phenomena in military and domestic intelligence applications.
The Stargate Project was terminated and declassified in 1995 after a CIA report concluded that it was never useful in any intelligence operation. But conspiracy theorists seem to believe that its successes have been hidden from the public and are still being used covertly.
The “men who stare at goats” were Special Forces soldiers who supposedly experimented with psychic powers against goats at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, at the now-decommissioned “Goat Lab” medical training facility. Legend (and probably only a legend) is that one soldier was able to kill a goat simply by staring at it.
The middle section of Ronson’s book jumps to more modern psychological techniques like the military programs from the post-9/11 War on Terror at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and the psyops in Iraq. The connections seem tenuous, but maybe I am naive.
I was much more interested in the parts of the book dealing with the 1950s Army psychic program, and later the CIA’s MK-ULTRA “mind control” research program of experiments on human subjects that intended to identify and develop drugs and procedures to be used in interrogations. Early CIA efforts focused on LSD-25 to see if they could weaken an individual and force confessions through mind control. Could it be used to make Soviet spies defect against their will, or could the Soviets do the same to the CIA’s own operatives?