“Grab the canoe!” Russell Kirk – an epic conservative – knew in the 1950s, when he wrote “The Conservative Mind,” that Western Civilization was under assault, could be entirely lost. He knew representative democracy demands alert, engaged, morally grounded citizens, indignant about preserving their rights, keeping government limited. This election may be the real test.
In this election, what Ronald Reagan started to preserve in 1980, handed to George HW Bush to preserve in 1988, is either going to slip away, get beyond grasp, or be methodically clawed back.
What past leaders who believed in individual liberty, equality of opportunity, national security, civil society, and limited government taught was – we can lose it all by failing to use maximum.
In other words, we take for granted the world into which we were born. We forget it is not an accident, not inevitable, nor is survival. It is no more random than the guts of a pocket watch. It survives by care, focus, attention to detail, reaching out, taking risks, making sacrifices, failing, trying again, succeeding.
Only when we decide – in our time, in the hours of peril – that full effort is needed, do we preserve our freedoms for another undefined stretch, keeping the American Dream alive and leaders honest.
Many years ago, a childhood friend became a “Master Maine Guide.” To do that requires extraordinary effort, time, commitment, and learning. It also requires unceasing vigilance about weather, wildlife, changes, threats, and how to stay alive – in adversity.
One late fall day, as he relayed, he took a canoe to a remote island in a major northern Maine river, to put out decoys. He began putting them out, one by one. He had pulled the canoe up into the brush. The day grew late. Temperatures were headed for freezing.
Suddenly, he realized the canoe was not where he had put it. He looked out on the river, and saw it a quarter mile away, in the bear freezing river. His mid raced. No one would ever find him on the island, he would freeze. There was no way back without that canoe, he had to get it.
That was it, no more thinking needed. He stripped to underwear and swam for it. The harder he swam, the further away it seemed. He knew this was existential, get it or lose everything. His limbs got numb, breathing labored, he entertained doubt. He imagined the end, people saying how stupid he was.
He realized that, like it or not, this was the most existential moment of his life. He would either get to that canoe or die trying. He turned full effort to the task. He got closer, eventually within reach. Exhausted, he reached up to grab the canoe’s gunnel, pull it in, imagining his effort rewarded.
Instead, in a sad, terrifying turn of events, he accidentally pushed the canoe away, and – in shock – realized he was now at the end. He had to get the canoe. He dug deep and found reserves he did not think he had, again got to within reach, now focused and reached out, but could not get his hand onto the gunnel, pushed it away again.
With everything at risk, with no backup plan, canoe slipping further away, his energy ebbing, he came to a moment of last resort. This was it. He would ever save his life by going beyond what he thought he had in reserve, get to that canoe, grab it, hold it, master it, preserve himself, or he would lose his life.
He focused, understood the stakes meant no limits, everything or nothing. Cold to his bones, involuntarily shaking, he put his all on that canoe, gained on it, gained more on it, got within reach, and threw his entire soul into raising his arm to the gunnel…and he grabbed it. He got it.
Now, holding on, the real work began. Frozen, numb, gasping, shaking, he got himself up, onto the edge, nearly flipped it, pulled his limbs over the edge one by one, and finally collapsed in it.
Within the hour, he had paddled ashore, and learned a lesson he never forgot: Preserve with great care what you have, and what you cannot replace. Watch with care that your efforts are not in vain. And when the moment comes, if you are blessed to realize you are in it, that you must apply maximum effort to get back what you need for life, apply everything to the task, do not envision failure, only success.
He is still a Master Maine Guide, and a damn good one. But he knows more than he knew when, that terrible testing day, he nearly lost it all. We are now in that moment, with this election arguably the product of allowing ourselves to lose track of what would happen – as a Nation – if we did not protect the canoe. We are now up against it, in an existential sense.
In short, whether you measure the drift of our society by economic distress, crime, lost national and border security, cultural decay, or the accelerating loss of core rights and moral compass – the sort our Founders, innumerable warriors, Russell Kirk, and Ronald Reagan knew mattered – we are up against it.
We are in that exhausted moment, when – in the form of regaining control of the country through this midterm election – we either win by maximum effort, or we could lose it all. That is where we are. That is why we have to commit ourselves to caring, voting, reminding others to care. This is either the beginning of getting us ashore, or when we lose the battle. So, in a phrase: “Grab the canoe!”
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