Jim Corbett was a fascinating guy, but like all of us he had his faults. In his amazing first book, he way overdid the self-deprecation:
”Goatwalking is a book for saddlebag or backpack —to live with a while, casually. It is compact and multifaceted, but for unhurried reflection rather than study. It is woven from star-gazing and campfire talk, to open conversations rather than to lead the reader on a one-way track of entailment to necessary conclusions. I prove no points. This is no teaching.“
Like heck he didn’t prove points. And baloney his pages are “teaching-free”; they’re teaching-packed. (He was probably right about the saddlebag; tho I’m guessing on that.)
But don’t take my word for it. Read Goatwalking yourself and decide. And now you can, because on August 10, after a 30-year hiatus, the book is back in print, in modestly priced paperback and E-book versions, right here.
For that matter, Corbett writes tellingly about being and acting as a Quaker in our turbulent times, in ways that go far beyond our usual, Prius-with-the-correct-(but not too many)-bumperstickers mode. But here he also overdoes the mock-humility thing:
I’m an unlikely Quaker. I learned to shoot rabbits when I was five, had my own shotgun at nine, and joined the National Rifle Association, had my own 30-06, and began hunting deer and antelope at thirteen. For my eighteenth birthday, my parents sent me a pistol, unaware that in New York State where I was going to school the police and university authorities would disapprove. I’ve quit using guns, except for humane slaughter, but I still dislike gun-control legislation. I don’t think governmental coercion should be used to force others to take the Quaker way when police protection is unavailable or law enforcement turns to murder.
The “unlikely” part was right (at least for his liberal branch). But it also skimped on about twenty other ways the book reveals him to be at least an “unlikely,” not to say a mind-blowing Friend. (For that matter, legendary sharpshooter Annie Oakley [1860-1926] was from a Quaker family.)
Among the least likely of these was his cover story while visiting Central American war refugees hiding in Mexico during the 1980s Reagan wars: since Mexican law prohibits Catholic priests from wearing clerical garb in public, nobody questioned when his guide introduced him as Padre Jaime, a cuáquero muy católico — a “very Catholic Quaker” from a muy intriguing order, the Sociedad de Los Amigos. (Too bad this group was totally fictional; otherwise I’d be tempted to sign up.)
Another marker of his unlikely qualities is in his response to the natural query: “Why goats?”
Jim answered with a quote from the book, Goat Husbandry, by David Mackenzie:
“When man began his first farming operations in the dawn of history, the goat was the kingpin of the pastoral life, making possible the conquest of desert and mountain and the occupation of the fertile land that lay beyond. The first of man’s domestic animals to colonize the wilderness, the goat is the last to abandon the deserts that man leaves behind him. For, ever the friend of the pioneer and the last survivor, the goat was never well-loved by farmers on fertile land.
When agriculture produces crops that man, cow, and sheep can consume with more profit, the goat retreats to the mountain tops and the wilderness, rejected and despised — hated, too, as the emblem of anarchy.”
No wonder Jim traveled many years with goats: raised on ranches in the Southwest deserts , trained in philosophy at Harvard, his Indian heritage was not all that drew him back to the Sonora desert. He points out that several major religions emerged from desert experiences. And all of them still grapple with the perennial problem of finding a basis for a nonviolent society in a violent world; and to which what is now called “anarchy” is one abiding response:
The Hopi tell of ancient times when they wandered throughout the North American continent in search of the right place — the place to practice a sacramental way of life that preserves the universe. From jungles lapped by both oceans, they walked north to the Arctic icefields, east to the shores where leafy forests meet the sea, and west to the shores where giant redwoods overlook crashing surfs. No place anywhere on the continent equaled the high desert mesas where they finally settled. When explaining to outsiders, they sometimes observe that the home of a peaceful people must be in places that others consider wastelands.
Part of the reason the Hopi could be at home on their mesas was that they bred a corn that could grow and produce where other corns would wither. To be at home in desert solitudes, peaceful peoples must enter into partnership with other highly adapted life that permits them to walk gently over a land that is ruthless to misfits. To be at home in deserts, a gentle, peaceful people must also be ruthless. Sentimentalism is a luxury of the rich and violent.
During the years when his desert wandering evolved into the co-founding of the 1980s sanctuary movement, which brought hundreds of war refugees over the southwest U.S. border to a semblance of safety, Jim was also pondering the questions where political philosophy overlaps with religion, not only in theological notions, but in bloodstained everyday reality.
He had been doing this since college:
I decided against living as an academic philosopher. Although I’d learned I was clever enough to make a comfortable job of it at some university, and I thought that clearing away conjurings is at least as worthwhile as most other jobs (especially where conjurers congregate), I really had nothing to teach. I’d also satisfied myself that, wherever wisdom itself might be found, I wouldn’t find it in academia.
So while walking or riding with refugees fleeing torture and mass murder, Jim was also remixing Catholic, Protestant and Jewish theologies, looking for where, in practice, they might serve as allies for those so desperate to escape torture death squads that they faced the hundred other non-human faces of death in the vast desert.
He also saw — not foretold, though his accounts sound eerily prescient, but saw in the wilderness of nearly half a century ago — the years of wildfire, flood and drought that were gathering then to crash upon us now. They, along with renewed, or continuing crisis along the borders, makes the book both current and timeless.
Corbett found insights and answers, too, which won’t fit into this blog post.
But which provide more reasons to bring this book back into print, and circulate it widely.
The volunteers who gathered last year to make this reprint happen had to retype the whole book, because it had been written on an early word processor long since lost in the antediluvian mists of pre-web technological darkness. We were charged to resist every temptation to update and modernize the text (my idea was to split up the paragraphs, into the bite-size pieces favored by current readers; no dice, and I obeyed).
Yet we exacted a few concessions: an important one was adding an Index, to help with looking up the many telling quotes as we discussed the chapters in lively biweekly Zoom sessions. To aid others who may want to discuss it in groups, we also created a discussion guide. It is available separately here on its own page at goatwalking.org online, and as a free download.
Few activists of our time have combined so much advocacy with Jim’s deeply reflective, desert mystic’s temperament and wisdom. Goatwalking travels through years of war and tumult to a conclusion that, even in struggle, “The highest praise is silence.”
Ultimately, what is Goatwalking like?
Like nothing else.
Like Jim Corbett, his restless, brilliant mind, ever-seeking spirit, his love for the beautiful, turbulent wildlands he roamed, and the wider, threatened world he thought and wrote about so deeply there.
First published in 1991, Goatwalking is finally back in print, and it’s as timelessly mind-expanding, pioneering and prophetic as ever.
And just in time.