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Beyond the Warrior

Coming Home to the Land

© 1995 by Shepherd Bliss

This article appeared in the January 1996 issue of M.E.N. Magazine


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Our April 1995 issue contained an interview with Shepherd Bliss, in which he raised questions about the emphasis on the Warrior in Men's Work. That interview generated many comments, both to Shepherd and to the magazine. Since then, Shepherd has spent considerable time reflecting on these comments and dialoguing with other men. He reports that his thinking on this topic has shifted and deepened. He offers this article to further the dialogue.

The harvest finally ends, so my attention can turn elsewhere. A season of getting to the field by six in the morning to pick berries, selling them throughout the day, and collapsing by nine at night to sleep under the fragrant redwood trees and stars or inside has been exhausting, instructive, and rewarding. This morning I delight in planting seeds for the first time in weeks, initiating the growth cycle again. I enjoy digging directly into this fertile, responsive soil with my bare hands; it is productive and pleasurable, good for both body and soul.

The Earth teaches, and I want to pass on what I have been learning. This wisdom differs from what I learned in the mind from years of schooling and university teaching. I now learn more directly through the body and from its contact with the community of the land, which includes plants, animals, the wind, people, soil, sun, the stars, and all that is naturally here. I take up pen and paper for the first time in a while, having a distinct mission. My writing has been dormant for months, the plants demanding constant attention. Now that the plants are going dormant, I can shift from the non-human world which nourishes me to communicate directly with people again.

Two distinct legacies collide within me-warrior and farmer. I was raised in a military family. As a young man, I walked the warrior's path-in the Army and then in the anti-war, civil rights, anti-imperialist, gender and other social change movements. The warrior is deep within my bones and available when I need him to defend myself, friends, ideas and the land where I live. As a teenager, I lived briefly with my farming Uncle Dale in Iowa. He brought life up from the Earth on his cows and corn farm, becoming the elder (now ancestor) whose image of manhood has sustained me. The Warrior's Way gets a lot of attention within certain circles, whereas the Gardener/Farmer's Way is seldom mentioned. As a mid-life man, I now follow the land-based farmer's path. Trained not to surrender, which the warrior sees as defeat, I now seek to surrender to nature, rather than try to control it. I enjoy eating something almost each day that I grew-without chemicals. It gives me great pleasure to bring berries up from the field to feed people. I am thankful to have grown beyond the warrior and now to be able to grow plants. Many viable alternatives to the warrior exist for mature men.

Warrior in My Blood

I was born during World War II to a young soldier and his war bride. For nearly 25 years, the U.S. military was the defining institution in my life. During the last 25 years I have been demilitarizing myself. I was born Walter Shepherd Bliss III. Walter means warrior in German; that name became a burden. One of my first adult acts, upon leaving the military, was to drop Walter and begin using my great grandmother's last name, Shepherd, as my first. You can soften "warrior" with modifying words like "spiritual" and "peaceful," but "war" remains, at the core of the warrior. And "war is hell," as I am reminded listening to stories in my Vietnam Veterans Writers' Group. The warrior has done his duty; it is time to retire him and welcome all warriors back home.

My mother and her family farmed in Iowa, as my brother still does. He was a Marine; I served in the Army. The third "Bliss boy" was a football coach, still is. My father came from a prominent Southern military family and was a career Air Force officer. Years later, when I finally communicated with my separated-from-the-family namesake, Grandfather Walter Shepherd Bliss, Sr., he spoke proudly of various Bliss generals, fighting military men and the Texas fort which bears our family name. My father trained me to be a warrior, expecting me to continue the Bliss legacy. I was taught chess as a young child, to learn strategy and tactics, and excelled in school sports and debate. I enlisted in the First Division, Big Red One, during the mid-sixties, dutifully embracing the warrior. I was a teenager, and Vietnam was heating up. I looked forward to playing in the woods with the boys. I thought the Army would be like high school sports and hanging out with buddies. I was wrong.

When I went to jail briefly to protest the Vietnam War during the late sixties and left the Army, my parents let me know that I was also leaving the family. We stopped communicating for years. This was better than snapping to attention and saluting my "Yes, sir!" father and always being told what to do, chain of command being an essential part of the Warrior's Way. They felt I had betrayed the country, and I felt they had betrayed their son.

My intentions in writing this essay are to challenge warrior language and to place my concerns within my personal history and a larger context. This essay was stimulated by my Vietnam Veterans Writers' Group, based on the Buddhist teachings of Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Since leaving the U.S. Army, I have tried many ways to heal myself from that devastating experience. Joining the veterans writers' group has been a great help to get me beyond my warrior phase into a post-warrior life. I have needed to write out my warrior's pain.

The gifted writer and teacher Maxine Hong Kingston, ironically the author of The Warrior Woman, leads the veterans group. As an aside, whereas the warrior dominates many male psyches, given our rigid sex roles, he has been forbidden to women. They can learn various things from the warrior, such as precision, boundary-setting, being on time, focus, and standing up for oneself. Maybe if more women would act from their warrior, it would free more men to mature beyond it.

Reflections from Fifty

I recently turned fifty years old-a good time to reflect. I never made it to Vietnam. I met a woman religious activist who took me to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. speak against violence and war. I had a conversion experience, left the military, and joined the peace movement. King and this female spiritual guide helped turn me around, and I worked for years to end the war. I even left the country disgusted, for Chile, in the early seventies. Chile's democratic opening was shut tightly by its murderous, politicized military. King's preaching interrupted my prevailing belief system and initiated a new one. I followed King to seminary and was ordained a minister. A spiritual longing leads me to sustainable farming, which can be a path to the Divine. As the Sufi poet Rumi observes, "There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground." Among them is agriculture based on nature's ways. Farming can be soulful spiritual practice. Its practitioners include a long list of people known for something else, such as the Roman poet Virgil and Thomas Jefferson.

Farming can also further damage the Earth, if pursued with chemicals, fossil fuels, and high-technology machines. The degeneration of value-based farming into profit-based agribusiness has heightened humanity's desecration of the Earth and its plunder of resources for human use. We could benefit from returning to some of the ancient tribal and village practices of living in harmony with the natural cycles of seasons, stars, the sun and moon, migrations, wind and all that goes to make up the community of the land. We could put down our high-tech weapons and pick up simple, non-mechanized tools. Thoreau and Gandhi were among those calling for a return to simplicity; I echo them and urge us to study the ways of indigenous people who live in direct daily contact with the Earth. Developing eco-masculinity can help men to play our part to regenerate what is being lost.

Words, Language, and Meaning

Words carry many levels of meaning, some of which are concealed. They may mean something more, or different, to the reader than the writer intends. People of different generations, classes, races, cultures and genders hear words differently, so attention to words is important. War is at the core of the warrior and tarnishes him. We need to get beyond war and anything which fans its flames. American culture is too war-oriented, as our language reveals, with its contradictory "war on drugs" and "fight against crime." When I read the American Cancer Society's motto, "There's nothing mightier than the sword," I want to respond, "How about love?" With all this war talk, is there any wonder that America is the most violent society in the world? Reducing this violence requires changing our language, including all the warrior talk, which contributes to the climate of violence.

The warrior needs an enemy, or we would no longer need the warrior; that oppositional posture requires us/them dualism. The warrior must always be alert and prepared to enter combat to defend or offend, making it difficult to relax. Hemorrhoids are a common warrior's malady. His stance is not receptive. Darkness is one of the warrior's greatest enemies, because it can conceal "them." Maturity, on the other hand, requires an embrace and integration of darkness, rather than an opposition to it. The warrior is trained against ambivalence, seeing all sides, and empathy for "the other," because these mature human traits can impede direct, decisive action. Maturity includes an embrace of paradox, ambiguity, and doubt-helpful as one ages, not as useful in battle.

For some who have not experienced war and warriors directly, they can be glamorous and become glorified, if one ignores that they bring death and destruction. There can be compelling energy to the dynamic warrior, who can offer to feed a young man's longing and hunger for the heroic. I do not want to dishonor authentic warriors, yet I must raise questions at this end of the 20th century about the continued domination of the ruling archetype in the male psyche, even when redefined. I write from my own life experience and field research, rather than from books or abstract ideas. Among the many groups that use the term warrior to describe their work, the ones who do so with the most integrity, in my opinion, are martial artists, especially those involved with aikido. Men do need to find a proper place for warrior energy within themselves, rather than attempting to be the warrior. We cannot deny him his place, but a warrior focus is too unidimensional.

Typical warriors are detached and disciplined, contrary to the Wild Man, who is engaged with nature directly and spontaneously. Men's work must include efforts to reduce violence, and not emphasize threatening images which can heighten it. We must take opportunities, including a careful examination of our language, and its consequences, to work against violence, one of its worst forms being war and its perpetrator being the warrior. I want to get beyond war and demilitarize our language. Adversarial terms such as "the opposite sex," rather than "the other sex," and associations such as "all's fair in love and war" facilitate disconnection rather than connection. War words provoke reaction. I am more comfortable with a precise, esoteric use of the word "warrior" within a context in private (such as an aikido dojo); when the word is used in public, it invites reaction. Terms such as "gentleman," which evokes that other essential masculine side, can be more helpful.

Aligning the hunter with the warrior, two quite distinct ways of being, is inappropriate. The hunter emerged long ago in the ancient hunter-gatherer societies, whereas the warrior is much more recent, probably only about 10,000 years old, coming with the rise of agriculture to defend the land. The hunter and warrior are quite different; I am much more supportive of the hunter as both a more ancient and a potentially more mature ideal for men. Hunters work to feed themselves and their families and communities, not using their weapons against people. I value their sense of struggle, aggression, and mission.

Some label the negative traits of the warrior as being merely the soldier, dismissing the horror and trying to separate it. Or they describe the killing, so much a part of the warrior, as his "dark side" or "shadow," forgetting that a shadow is part of one's essence. The "soldier" and "shadow" sleights of language can conveniently obscure the negative aspects which remain inherent to the warrior. The neat bad soldier/good warrior duality is a false distinction. Though there can be a difference between the warrior and the soldier, this difference can be used to hide the negativity of the warrior.

The Orphic Tradition and a Mythopoetic Approach to Men

Words, language, and naming are important. I named my farm after Kokopelli, the humpbacked flute player who originated in Mexico and spread throughout the Southwest. He is a man of peace known as the "water sprinkler" and "great fertilizer." Kokopelli is also a wounded healer. He went from village to village, even when they were warring against each other, with a bag of seeds for planting, like Johnny Appleseed. Kokopelli is a man of the Earth, rather than the sky, one of the "gods of the ground." Kokopelli is a non-heroic non-warrior, in the Orphic legacy of historical and mythological characters, such as the Greek musician Orpheus, wild Pan, young David in the Old Testament, the Aztec plumed serpent Quetzalcoatl, gentle Francis of Assisi, the nurse Whitman, and introspective Thoreau. Their love for animals, plants, music and nature and their stories have much to teach contemporary people.

Orpheus went with Jason and the Argonauts on a hero's journey, after which he matured into a lover and man of grief, developing ancient Greece's most advanced spirituality. Francis fought fiercely against the neighboring Perugians, before becoming a friar and founding the still active and peaceful Franciscans. Both passed through the warrior phase and offer post-warrior images of mature masculinity. David, on the other hand, ceased writing psalms and degenerated into a competitive, warring, womanizing king, having Bathsheba's warrior husband killed, so he could take her for a wife.

The mythopoetic approach to men means re-mythologizing masculinity. We need to re-vision what it means to be men facing the twenty-first century. We would be wise to march to different drummers than Hercules and Mars. Whereas warriors and kings typically fear chaos and attempt to control it, Kokopelli and Pan offer a playful acceptance of life's inherent, transformative chaos. As men mature, we need to learn how to let go and let be, rather than how to control. In place of the arrogance and royalty of monarchs, mature men can be guided by the commonality of undenied loss, which inevitably accompanies aging.

A 21-Gun Salute, and Burial, for the Warrior

I would like to offer the warrior a 21-gun salute, then bury him, properly and honorably, within. Let's release him as the guiding masculine metaphor, retiring him. Yet I want to retain warrior virtues such as courage, loyalty, bravery, teamwork, love of country, service, and discipline. War is inextricably linked, through language association, to any "warrior." Some paths teach positive values such as courage, but to describe this in terms of the "warrior" invites the acceptance of war as an acceptable tool toward a desired end. Those same virtues can be taught under different names, calling forth strength in the service of peace and healing, without subliminally honoring war.

The great mythological warrior Odysseus was a farmer when recruited to the Trojan Wars. He returned years later to the land and became a farmer again. In Homer's Odyssey, we have one of literature's greatest homecoming scenes. Odysseus went on a hero's journey and came home in mid-life to the land. In addition to its practical aspect, which I experience each day, land also has a mythic dimension, which I am beginning to experience. The warrior or farmer issue is an ancient one. Twentieth-century America is unbalanced, with its overvaluing of the warrior's firepower and its lack of attention to the gardener/farmer and to the land. This imbalance threatens us. Exaggerated claims are made for the warrior, whose appropriate place is more humble.

What the warrior does when he returns from battle is key. Some remain killers or commit suicide, especially in cultures, such as ours, that lack rituals to welcome warriors home and help them re-integrate into society and mature from their warrior work. The wound remains open, looking for mending. My good friend Ray Gatchalian returned from being a Green Beret in Vietnam to become a firefighter, a good choice for post-combat work. The warrior wields firepower, which we have too much of in violent America today. We could use more water, earth, and air to balance it. I want the war to be over, Vietnam and all wars, inside me and among peoples. I want warriors to be welcomed home to the rich, multicentric, polytheistic diversity of ways of being masculine.

The Green Man

Rather than the potentially toxic masculinity of the warrior, men would be wise to follow Odysseus home to the farmer's regenerative masculinity. There they would find the Green Man and the legacy of the "gods of the ground," such as the Mesopotamian Tammuz, the Greek Adonis, and the Roman Silvanus. Various horned gods, such as Pan and the Celtic Cernunnos, bring in the animal. The ancients had many names for vegetative masculinity, known to the Egyptians as Osiris. Celtic storyteller Padraic Colurn, born in 1881, asserts, "When Osiris reigned, death was not in the land. Arms were not in men's hands; there were not any wars. From end to end of the land music sounded; men and women spoke so sweetly and with such depth of feeling that all they said was oratory and poetry. Osiris taught men and women wisdom. He it was who first planted the vine … and caused them to rejoice in the flowers also." Retrieving such pre-warrior masculinity could benefit men, women and children. Fortunately, the Green Man does seem to be returning, after being deeply buried.

The warrior seeks control-of weapons, other people, territory, the sea, air, darkness. Those who farm or garden with nature as their guide know they cannot control. Instead, we witness, perceive, meander, contemplate on, and surrender to what is happening with respect to plants, soil, water, animals, and other variables. Then we act at the most auspicious time in order to maximize growth and harvest. Farmers follow nature's lead and develop its opportunities for nurturing living beings and participating in the great exchange that is life.

Farming is about feeling: joy, disappointment, loss, despair, awe, gratitude. Many people farm because it is in our blood and we love beauty-in plants, animals, and the land itself. Farming is about connecting, communication, and relationships in the human and non-human worlds. Community can emerge from this feeling and connecting. Warriors kill, bleed, and scream; farmers sweat, grow and play. The gardener/farmer offers a much wider range of ways of being than does the more limited warrior. He is one of many viable alternatives to the warrior.

My main work these days is directly with the Earth-learning from it, tending to it, mending it, caring for it, being inspired by it, eating directly from it, sleeping on its soft, receptive bed. I echo Mary Oliver's poem "Sleeping in the Forest," which begins, "I thought the earth / remembered me, she / took me back so tenderly..." For decades I made my living and protected myself with my mind, mainly by college teaching. Now I am delighted to have returned home to work directly with strong hands in the Earth. Both my body and soul appreciate this turning toward the ground.

Unfortunately, even farming is being militarized. Agribusiness is becoming more like war-pesticides, herbicides, and machines. Agribusiness wages war on its "enemies"-weeds, insects, fungi and other pests. Industrial agriculture involves killing and attempts to control and conquer, rather than respond to, nature. Factory farms diminish soul and measure success by profits, rather than by the taste and nourishment of food. As an organic farmer, I seek to improve my soil and attract beneficial insects and fungi to give my plants taste, nourishment and an edge in the market.

Foolish Old Men, Wounded Healers, Gifted Artists and Dancing Gods

The April 1995 M.E.N. Magazine carried a long interview with me. Among the many things I said were brief, undiplomatic comments about my reservations regarding the overuse of the warrior cliché. I challenged some sacred cows in the men's movements and fundamentalist thinking about the "Gang of Four"-King, Warrior, Lover, Magician. These four shortchange the diverse multiplicity of the masculine, which is more expansive than any neat quadrangle. This Holy Foursome with its emphasis on doing rather than being misses the rest of the masculine, including but not limited to the thinking of the Wise Old Man, the feeling of the Man of Grief, and the abandon of the Wild Man. There is much more to the masculine than any quartet could ever capture. I implored men's movements to grow up and expand our imagery beyond that appealing, youthful foursome. Even among them, the King and the Warrior have dominated the men's movement discussion, relegating the Lover and the Magician to a hidden corner. Beware of elevating the King and the Warrior-in the outer and the inner worlds-to privileged positions.

More Foolish Old Men, Wounded Healers, Gifted Artists and Dancing Gods could help men today. They might wander about, bump into each other and do silly, playful things. As my friend Bruce Silverman of the Sons of Orpheus writes, "No hero will save us from the ecological and spiritual impoverishment we face as a species." We may long for a heroic savior, but we must work hard to restore the Earth, including the task of de-constructing the warrior metaphor.

My provocative comments generated the expected sharp responses from true believers, now ready to battle, as well as some support. The warrior's merits, some of which I acknowledge, were advocated, but I want to focus on his flaws. My spontaneous observations in the interview by an old friend were perhaps too offhand. They were what one says in conversations but should hesitate to publish. Perhaps they served a good purpose by stirring things up? The debate has been stimulating, and I have appreciated hearing from the warrior's defenders. I have sat quietly within this controversy for months-pruning, fertilizing, mulching, picking, composting, and watering my plants-and considered how to respond. It is tempting to react directly to the attacks and to the people making them. Instead, I have chosen this indirect approach by placing my ideas in both my personal context and in a larger frame. Warriors typically fear that which is fragile, frail and vulnerable. My personal response may make me more open and vulnerable, something which seems to occur naturally as I enter my fifties, a time of losing some of my hair and teeth and of slowing down.

Use of the warrior metaphor has strong defenders, as well as some challengers, such as Sam Keen in Fire in the Belly and Faces of the Enemy. He suggests alternative images-such as Guardian, Defender, Citizen, Protector, Husbandman-that embrace the vitality of the warrior without his negative aspects. Keen offers a thorough critique of the substantial damage done by the warrior and concludes, "The habit of organizing society around the warfare system, and the psyche of men around the necessity to become warriors, is rapidly becoming a historical anachronism, a puzzle we must solve in the near future. There is a hollow sound in our battle hymns."

I challenge the warrior's domination, aggression, hierarchy, hostility and detachment. The warrior is controlling, power-oriented, commanding, and violent. He is trained to avoid feelings, contemplation, and appreciation and to repress compassion, guilt, and fear. He must harden his heart and body, being allowed anger but not tears. Listening on the radio to young American warriors on their way to another deadly battlefield in Bosnia recently, I realize how much of their training is to avoid feelings: "I'm just doing my job," one soldier observed, "I don't have any feelings about it. I'm going over there, and I'm happy." A pilot kept referring to himself as "you," apparently unable to say "I" and express a self. Their training against feelings and individuality may help the fighting machine, but it hurts the participants' souls. We need different images of what it means to be men in order to grow into the 21st century. The warrior can be essential at certain developmental stages, especially in one's adolescent and early adult years. Rather than seeing the warrior as the telos-the goal, finality-one then can mature into other images, having adequately integrated and consolidated the warrior.

Too many men are fixated on the warrior ideal. Let a thousand flowering archetypes bloom! The warrior needs to be complemented by a wider cast than the Gang of Four, rounding him and them out. These masculine characters could include the committed Husband, the creative Artist, the concerned Brother, the team-member Musician, the cleansing Garbageman, the devoted Priest, the wise Teacher, and the healing Physician. Warrior imagery can activate and initiate the masculine, but then it can become restrictive, impeding growth. Being a warrior is not enough. One needs other initiations into mid-life and elderhood. One of the many things that the warrior lacks is subtlety. He is not supposed to be doubtful and afraid. I long for more generative and paradoxical images than the warrior offers to guide mature men.

The Trickster and the Coward

In the year since the M.E.N. Magazine interview was done, my thinking has evolved. I continue to value aspects of the warrior, such as being disciplined and organized. I appreciate my warrior training and my immediate access to that power. It is important to know when to summon warrior energy, and when to surrender and keep one's warrior contained. In the interview I also advocated the mature Sacred Trickster, whom I continue to value. The Trickster is too often ridiculed and seen only as immature, so I asserted his positive aspects. However, in the last year I have come to see more of the Trickster's shadow; he is less likely to have the warrior's commitment to work with others in a team. The Trickster is solitary and can become isolated. The Trickster can be a cover for stealing, lying, cheating and other forms of unethical behavior, examples being the clever men who engage in corporate crime.

I have worked with men who are financially and otherwise irresponsible, inflating and glorifying themselves as Tricksters. This can be a cover for the coward, a negative archetype. I see it in men unwilling to fight for the values they espouse or support others. Such men use power over and gang up on others inappropriately. For all their shortcomings, I prefer warriors to cowards. I appreciate men willing to struggle for what they believe, even though I may disagree with their beliefs. I do not have much respect for those who make commitments and cowardly fail to honor them. We should never take warrior virtues for granted; they must be cultivated, to serve the individual, family, community, humanity and the Earth itself.

Do not misunderstand my challenge to the warrior. I am not writing against fierceness and conflict, which I value. I do want to move beyond the warrior being men's ruling archetype. Men's movements have over-emphasized a vital aspect of masculinity, perhaps because many men drawn to these movements have felt confused and even threatened by the changing economic situation and by feminism. The warrior offers a clear answer, in a time when it might be better to remain in some chaos rather than accept old answers. Men's movements have drawn a narrow segment of American men, failing to grow into a mass movement, partly because of our language. We have not given adequate attention to non-warrior, even anti-warrior, values, such as tenderness and compassion. What happened to the gentleman?

From Vietnam to Oklahoma City

Not only did we kill all those people in Vietnam, but we also scorched the Earth, killing many animals and plants. We destroyed ancient systems of feeding human communities and other creatures. The ingredients of the recent bombing in Oklahoma City were the same which run most commercial farms-chemical fertilizer and diesel fuel. After World War II, the petrochemical companies needed to market their products of destruction from the war, so they sold some as fertilizer. The same deadly materials used to kill people are now placed on the soil and plants to enhance their growth. Today's chemical-based agriculture can effectively destroy plants and animals, as well as soil, water, air and the Earth itself-a slower death than military war, yet just as deadly. This chemical warfare against plants and animals mainly benefits agribusiness. In the Oklahoma bombing our deadly agricultural practices, rooted in World War II, were exposed. Though the media initially tried to blame the bombing on "Arab terrorists," in Oklahoma, war and the warrior have come home to America's heartland and exposed our war-based culture, agriculture and metaphors of manhood.

So I work to end war, get beyond the warrior and transform agriculture from its current industrial focus toward farming in nature's image. We need fewer warriors and more organic gardeners and farmers. Spanish poet Antonio Machado ends his poem "The Wind, One Brilliant Day," with a compelling question for our own time and place, "What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?" I invite all the warriors and kings to come back home to the Earth, not to dominate it but to let it be and to be blessed by the many abundant fruits and flowers in its gardens.

Shepherd Bliss has been active in men's movements since the mid-1970s. He has contributed to over a dozen books, most recently co-authoring A Quiet Strength: Meditations on the Masculine Soul . He is currently writing a book on moving from the city to the country, from which this essay is excerpted, and can be reached at Kokopelli Farm, P.O. Box 1040, Sebastopol, CA 95473.

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