DEEP WINTER, January in the central European Alps, new snow,
with chinook storm (note lenticular clouds) from South
On the road in the Alps. [ click photo for next . . . ]

[ double-click to play / download here ]


Mala herba cito crescit
(Weeds grow fast)

The unique privilege of the pilgrim or wayfarer is the opportunity to
observe cultural custom and bias from a certain distance. This distance
I like to think of as a kind of neutrality, which is simply an unburdened
readiness to move or change, or to correct mistakes quickly, like an
agile biker banks left or right maintaining a steady center of balance.

Consider alcohol. I’ve noticed that there is a certain relationship in the
Northwest between the number of gas stations, and the number of bars
and liquor stores in a town. They are usually about equally co-pres-
ent. Similarly, in the trendy economies of Arts & Crafts / Ski towns,
a related connection seems to exist between the number of realtors
and espresso shops. So, if one pulls into a town as a stranger—and
don’t forget, on a bike of any kind in North America one is always a
stranger, or something of a cultural curiosity or outsider—one would
naturally assume that custom dictates that one first fill up one’s tank,
and then get a drink.

Alcohol:—clearly, balm to some; bane to others. And an ancient fea-
ture of what is in many ways arguably the best of European culture.
After all, there is hardly a book in the Iliad or Odyssey of Homer in
which wine does not figure prominently. But what interests me here—
and the question that comes repeatedly to mind as I’ve biked through
the stubborn head-winds of North Dakota and Montana—is why certain
addictive substances are legal, and why others are not. The answer is
that there is no answer. That is, an answer in the sense of a reply that
would satisfy the still-unfettered intelligence of a young child. It is
simply arbitrary.

Now, arbitrary norms and values in an enlightened society based on the
rule of reason make for bad laws. We see the beginning of the problem
in the word-history of ‘arbitrary’ itself, coming to us from the Latin
arbitrarius, from arbiter or ‘judge, or supreme ruler.’ So we must deal,
for the sake of a child’s understanding, with this potential contradiction
between the ultimate authority of the arbiter, and the potential unfair-
ness of this authority when it is based not on argument, but rather on
mere whim or pleasure or some hidden agenda. (Note that what the
child most likely does not but should know here, is that this kind of
doubt and serious questioning of governmental authority is done in the
spirit of perhaps one of the greatest of all North American traditions:
that of a simple commoner, for instance, like Thomas Paine, standing up
to, and soundly defeating intellectually, the (arbitrary) authority of the
King of England with but a single pamphlet published in 1776, Com-
mon Sense.)

So what is a reasonable society to do with the myriad of addictive
substances that when used by people of certain cultural heritages and
with an appropriate sense of measure—these two seem to go hand in
hand—do little harm, but when used to excess by others leads to almost
certain self-destruction? I would argue that we should do nothing. First,
because of the inherent arbitrariness discussed above. Why are alcohol
and cigarettes legal—both demonstrably potentially deadly substanc-
es—but not coca and cannabis? Second, because, when it comes to
addictive substances, the perhaps well-intention effort of law-makers
to increase peace and order at home, evidently invariably increases
violence and disorder abroad where they are produced. Witness Co-
the coca leaf and cocaine; witness Afghanistan, the poppy
plant and heroine. Both Columbia and Afghanistan are, most would
agree I think, essentially drug-ravaged states, and will tragically re-
main so until the root cause of the disorder—the vast amounts of drug
money coming in from the US and Europe—is eliminated.

So, abuse of addictive substances is best dealt with in my view not by
judges and the threat of prison time, but rather by sympathetic doc-
tors and open clinics. At the same time, cultures by definition must
necessarily strive to draw out the best of each individual citizen by the
natural—that is, non-arbitrary—authority of the demonstrated ethical
good example. And the good example here is much more than just us-
ing such substances in a modest, temperate way, if at all; it is perhaps
much more a question a taking responsibility for one’s actions at home
as their consequences resonate throughout the wider world community.
First—do no harm, is here as it is everywhere a good ethical point of
departure. And arbitrary drug laws which turn common plants in an
endless source of dirt-cheap criminal gold, are without doubt wrecking
havoc with the world’s shared economic household.

Camp Lost & Found,
Eagle Cap Wilderness,
Oregon, VIII.17.2008

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