By 2018 our brother Kendall Thomas Fortney had been dead for fifty years. He was killed in Vietnam in February of 1968. Time heals all wounds, it is said, but that is not true. To his family and friends, his death in a failed war appears to have been pointless. All have been wounded. The country is still wounded. Though the wounds are gone, scars remain. This memoir covers much territory. Beginning as a supporter of that war, like so may Americans I struggled to understand his death, the nearly sixty thousand casualties of that war. Experiences as a university student, a seminarian, a newspaperman, a schoolteacher, a poet and novelist the learning and all the doubt and anguish of parents bitterly hurt, of living through that awful time slowly gives us that new understanding that knew the waste of that war.
Recent wars have had as little justification as Vietnam did. A, superfluously armed America with bellicose leaders without a moral compass potentially threatens our sons, daughters and grandchildren with new wars. The scars of Vietnam are visible. We do not heed them. Vietnam’s lessons have been ignored by far too many for far too long.
There probably are very few South Wisconsin men in their thirties who haven’t dreamed about a place Up North. This is the story of four such men and the supportive women who helped them to realize that dream. The story of the shack and the cabin they built on the wild land in far northwestern Wisconsin where they hunted and fished, read, and played cards, hiked, and explored, built a cabin to replace the shack, grew and matured, and raised their children and grandchildren to appreciate the wilderness tells their tale of medi- tation, recreation, artistic production, companionship, both idle talk and serious discussion, and a place where families and friends flourished. In due course, grandchildren came to enjoy the place as much as their grandparents and parents had. Oulu Rulu created a happy community. The dark times were rare. There were some. Human nature is not uniformly radiant. Shadows are inevitable.
Poems and stories come out of a lived reality: the woods, blue and stormy skies, streams, and lakes, above all the prodigious presence of Lake Superior, and the people there who inspired those poems and stories. The Oulus discovered that nature heals, companionship is enhanced in conditions of shared effort, friendships improve and endure. The four of them, with their wives, their families and friends, worked together, built together, and nurtured each other and their project over many years; two bachelors – Eugene and Jim – were especially crucial; but among those four, one stands out: the brilliant and charismatic Eugene Cummings, the beloved Uncle Gene to their children, who for many years was the center of their lives. What follows is, in part, his poem and his story.
In the story of Hans Christian Heg, the highest ranked Union Officer from Wisconsin to die in the Civil War, and for those Scandinavian-Americans but a few generations removed from their European roots, we find how a courageous, liberal, and humane politician-soldier could love his country with its ideals of liberty and community. We find it necessary to reexamine what it means to be a patriot in this disaffected and divisive age. On what basis can one be an American? Heg’s sacrifice shows a way.
The Thomas Jesus is a historical novel of the life of Jesus based on the researches of Westar Institute's Jesus Seminar. It offers a portrait of who the Jesus of history, a man of genius, might be and what he might have to say to skeptical moderns.
The Battle of the Little Bighorn, the assassination of Sitting Bull, the Ghost Dance Religion, Canada’s Northwest Rebellion, and the horrific massacre at Wounded Knee are all vividly recounted as David St. Clair and his Métis friend Pilgrim journey through the Western Frontier. Overhead, the northern lights—which the Ojibwe believe to be their ancestors’ spirits—swirl, warning of impending peril. The American treatment of its Native peoples is a dark chapter of our history. Our future is dark if we do not heed the ecological message of native spirituality. If we do not listen our fate will be worse than theirs.
The Reunion is the story of several generations of a large Norwegian-American farm family. Many plot strands are interwoven with a description of a huge reunion at the ancestral farm in west-central Wisconsin in 1983. The cousins share a range of backgrounds from farming to big business to nuclear physics to military veterans from WWI to Vietnam. Be warned: the last section of chapter four, titled “1968” is a harrowing tearful ride. Nonetheless, a scene near the end of the novel finds the narrator climbing a hill overlooking a valley where generations of his family have farmed and gone to school. And there, making a simple, life-affirming gesture, he has an experience that lifts him out of his human limitedness into a deep love for the earth, his connectedness to it, and the transcendence of the sorrows of his family
In a little town in the middle of America a group that includes writers, artists, teachers, housewives, and businessmen who are actively seeking a new way to express their spiritual needs, have, almost by accident, gathered in a Gazebo built by one of their group to explore and experiment, with music, art, and theater, and intense living. Led by a renegade monk who works as a reporter for the newspaper owned by the Christopherson brothers, the group slowly after many, sometimes painful adventures, hit upon rites, reasons, and rituals that begins to satisfy them. This is a story that begins the adventure of how a whole country changes step by step from one major religious influence to another. From Orthodoxy to universality. From Christianity to Buddhism.
"The Maitreya" depicts America some decades from now. Extremist politics and religion have grown even more virulent than they are today. A single willing intermediary stands between the right-wing governor of Wisconsin and an armed, underground militia. Forces of oppression and repression seem poised to plunge the U.S. into a dark age. Among those standing in the way is an unusual collection of artists, academics, and meditators calling themselves the American Buddhist Community. Their aim is to fuse the best of Buddhism and western culture, renewing America's vision and, if possible, saving it from doom.
Inhabiting this story are characters as three dimensional as the most interesting people one has known. They express themselves eloquently, sometimes drunkenly and humorously. They fall in and out of lust and love, they live and die in scenes of great power and beauty.
One charismatic and puzzling figure is Martin Butler. First encountered as a derelict living in an abandoned warehouse, he gradually becomes the focal point of the novel. Important people inside the Buddhist Center believe that he is the Maitreya, the long-prophesied Buddha of the West who, through the work of three frightening Norns called the Masters of Revels who work in a dark area, will bring about deep cultural change. Powerful forces outside fear that this is true and plot to abort his mission before it begins.
Why does a neo-agnostic Buddhist monk turn himself into the leader of a Country-western band? He seems to be playing a subversive role. He goes by four names: Marty, a band leader, the Maitreya a name he detests, the Overseer, and Just a Guy! In spite of his desire for only ordinary celebrity, he finds himself eventually in contest with vast sinister forces. The issue is resolved only on the Dakota plains where two gigantic armies face each other. One of them is devastated with a secret weapon. The other enjoys a humane triumph.
"To the Lake," is not merely a book of poetry but a book that, read in the right light, can provide guidance and succor for life's most important and difficult moments.
The themes are vital ones: the central place of family, the saving role of nature, reverence for life, the necessity of friendship and the human need for Community. Most come together in the selection "Rogers, North Dakota, 1936," (p. 183). This is a poem about the poet's mother and father, about a father and his sons, about claiming the past honestly and about healing from long-held wounds. It synthesizes the intimate and the large-scale. This is evident throughout the volume. This theme is picked up again in the novel Empire’sChildren.
The book contains three extended poem cycles, to speak of two: "A Canticle for Palmquist," and "To the Lake." In both, the poems call up from an untrammeled synthesis of mythical, historical and quotidian events. Kali and Christ, Pythagoras and Steven Hawkins, Adam and Atreus, Gilgamesh and Noah (among others) put in appearances. But so does a rather ordinary middle-aged man enduring loneliness and lust in a motel on an uninspiring business trip.
In these, and in many of the shorter poems, the issues of the mortal and tragic sense of life are addressed. But yet the view of the poetry is ultimately affirmative as one embraces one’s contingent mortality joyously. The spiritual vision thus achieved owes much to the vision of Westar’s radical Jesus and Steven Batchelor’s Gotama’s Neo-agnostic Buddhism. The larger context emerges from Eliade’s History of Religious Ideas and Campbell’s study of mythology in his Masks of God. The final synthesis is a religious one, however radical and heterodox it is.
The primacy of reason and seizures of art and the enlightenment experience are Pelerín’s (named for the Métis rascal-pilgrim in Fortney’s novel, Ghost Dancing) central concerns in this book of essays. Others are the nature of inspiration, and most importantly, a unique perspective on the relation of science and religion: religion as art. The religious experience is an aesthetic experience, and its methodology is but a form of artistic creativity. Theology, therefore, is poetry or art criticism. The current conflict between science and religion is a false conflict, and must be reassessed as the more familiar relation of science to art. Thus a picture of progressive religion, grounded in science and art, and with a focus on the mystical event, standard in the East, finally emerges as the esoteric inflection of the monotheisms of the Levant and the monist religious expressions of the Far East, particularly in the neo-agnostic Buddhism of Stephen Batchellor. Science is our first magisterium. The enlightenment experience is central. Art is the path to spiritual progress.
Tempest North is the story of a family who have been forced to become ecological activists, and, eventually, terrorists, to wage a hopeless war against giant mining corporations that threaten to destroy the pristine integrity of their northern homeland. Although they lose every battle, and, tragically, one of their own, they finally seek, aided by their Native American allies, to employ an unusual and revolutionary strategy that in the long run may help the human species to live in saving harmony with the earth.