Per Castra Ad Astra

David John Baer McNicholas

(New Mexico)


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Early pandemic, 2020. The sun rises in Santa Fe around six in July. I wake up to seventy-degree air, which feels merciful after having spent the previous week pressing through states like Kansas, Missouri, and Indiana. I always forget Indiana is a state; Vonnegut rolls in his grave. The drive took five days of hellish limbo between consciousnesses, where I was hardly awake nor asleep but performed both. I’m evolving again, from renovations contractor to academic.

The white plastic electric kettle whispers when I hit the switch. The hush grows into a roar from a tiny stadium, then the gurgle of a miniature jacuzzi. The interior of the El Dorado resembles a crushed apartment, chests of drawers loom over a roomy loveseat pinned between a queen-sized mattress, bookshelf, and a coat rack full of blazers bunched like bananas on a tree. The curtains are drawn on the windows to keep pedestrians’ curious eyes from finding for certain that I’m living here on Water Street inside my vehicle.

The kettle boils three times in quick succession. That makes a bowl of oatmeal and two French presses of soupy black coffee. I’m reading Simulations by Baudrillard from a paperback chapbook printed in 1980, complete with hot-pink typesetting on the cover, advertising its boldness of thought. Of course, I see now. The postmodern worldview is based on abstractions and is utterly detached from reality. That makes sense. Baudrilliard describes our contemporary beliefs as little more than a hierarchy of simulation; reality doesn’t require us to believe in it. I dig that.

Once, I got sober in 2012 and have been that way ever since. That’s reductive, but it will suffice. Once, I went bankrupt in 2018 and have stayed that way ever since. Before that, I was afraid of failure, so I never attempted anything meaningful. In the absence of purpose, I am flooded with meaning. When bankruptcy loosened my grip, a house in Somersworth, New Hampshire, three trucks, a late-model SUV, and a public self-image, all uncoupled at once. That winter, I got up one morning to find an icy snow falling into the open sunroof of the Explorer. I went outside in my robe and boots to shut it. It was almost tender, the way I scraped the ice out of the tracks, swept it off the heated driver’s seat, and after several tries, got the sunroof to close. My younger brother watched silently from the second floor. The car didn’t belong to me anymore, let the bank worry.

In Santa Fe it’s 2020. At eight o’clock I start the engine to get out of downtown ahead of the meter cops. Just up East Alameda Street there is a spot under a tree next to the river where I’ve spent each day of the last week. I drive there. I spend mid-morning with the laptop open. My goal is to complete registration for classes at the local high-brow liberal arts philosophy school; it’s a privileged education I’m searching for. The concentration required to read the forms exhausts me and I take a caffeinated nap on the loveseat, my feet nestled in the blazers. 

I jolt awake, the afternoon is a hot net I can’t escape from. I’m wrapped from the waist down in a blue pacific-style sarong. My sweat is evaporating quicker than I’ve ever felt, but my gut is a rock. While crossing the country, my diet consisted of Junk Americana – Guarana and Dr. Pepper, canned ravioli and ramen noodles. I’m stopped up like a drain at a pet grooming spa. Mom calls. I tell her I’m feeling “kinda down.” She tells me to go jump in the river. 

“It’s four inches deep, mom.”

“Use a dipper.”

She’s right. After our call I side-step down the North bank of the river with a green bar of Dove for Men soap, washcloth, and a mason jar. Standing in the stream I feel a weight slipping out of my toes and washing downstream. Pouring the crystal-clear mountain runoff from this dead river over my head is electrifying. I feel like I can look people in the eye again.

Between July and October 2020, I explore Northern New Mexico, Southern New Mexico, and Southern California. I’m running out of the pills I use to sleep at night. The nightmares that have been with me since childhood are getting more intense—two am, headlights reflecting off the glossy white fiber-reinforced panel echo moon beams across my eyelids; my eyes pop open, wide-awake now at what feels like the pinch in the hourglass between two lives. Red splashes of brake-lights and that hollow keening of worn pads against grooved rotors. The ceiling is a milky moving silk-screen constellation of the street outside. There are reasons for being awake now; something haunts me from the novel I’ll begin next month, images spilling out from the wordless void.  Standing waves thousands of feet tall gather me up. Wolves stalk among gray crags. The felt horror of places I’ve only seen in dreams has its own logic. A loneliness, a cold spot, an approaching stormfront in the realm of dreams can be information we aren’t ready to learn, fear hearing. 

October 2020, in the plaza, I witness a protest at the obelisk. A woman speaks on a microphone about the meanings of monuments. She has a tremor in her voice, but also a clarity. I sense the quality of an edge between the personal and the political. The group is about twenty people, and they are organised. About five minutes into her speech, lookouts up high on the obelisk blow a sharp whistle. They signal with their fingers to an approaching threat. A middle-aged white man with a toddler on his shoulders and a giant trump flag on a pole is marching toward the speaker. The group forms a protective semi-circle in front of her. The man with the kid and the flag walks into them and body checks a woman, all two-hundred pounds of him, his chest/stomach/leg strike her and send her staggering, before he steps back and squares off. Slashing the air with his flagpole, he screams, “I’m just standing my ground!” The small boy on his shoulders holds tightly to his neck and forehead, amusement park daddy, no seatbelts. 

A crowd of capitalist marks in patio furniture at the Plaza Café watches the police move in and separate the man from the group he’s assaulted and angered. They pull him into a corner by the café, interview him for a couple minutes, then set him free to wave his flag at the onlookers, who cheer for him – clapping, adoring fans.

I march over to the police and ask to make a statement. They have already decided how to frame the situation and say my statement will not be necessary. I give them my name and phone number anyway, knowing I will never hear from them. The protestors return the following day and remove the obelisk with chains and nylon tow straps. This work began slowly in 1974 when an earlier activist chiseled off the word “savage” from the inscription, “To the heroes who have fallen in various battles with savage Indians in the Territory of New Mexico.” In October 2020 they are done waiting for change to come from a stagnant municipal government; they tear the whole thing down. None of the Indigenous activists involved are treated with the generous white privilege bestowed instantly upon trump daddy, who I may remind you, assaulted a human being in front of witnesses.

I will learn about the invention of racism at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA). Funny, they don’t teach this in primary schools, that racism is a tool of the state, not a mere cultural phenomenon. The Portuguese Royal Family is well-known for kickstarting the Atlantic Slave Trade in the fifteenth century. Prince Henry sponsored the program of exclusively enslaving people from Africa; Gomes E. de Zurara was his chronicler. If you’re looking for a detailed account of the contributions of Zurara and the Portuguese Royals, see Ibram X. Kendi, How Racism Relies on Arbitrary Hierarchies. I recommend it for his blend of erudition and vulnerability. My point is, they made racism up. It was a political tool of war, forged in the ontological fires of European global conquest, its purposeis to dominate non-European lives. This was also the beginning of whiteness. But, just because it’s made up, doesn’t mean it isn’t real in some way. We know these things by their consequences.

After the scene in the plaza, I write a piece and publish it in my ‘zine, a meandering account in which I start to question my whiteness:

I begin to look again at the presence of white people in the demonstration. Were we there as allies [to the Indigenous protestors], or were we there to try to erase our shame? You could look at it either way I suppose. If we were blotting out something horrible, were we not doing enough to take responsibility for the actions of our ancestors [and what does that look like]? It could be said that since white people put the damn offensive thing there in the first place, they should be responsible for removing it. People of color, particularly Indigenous people, have been faced with this specific institutionalised reminder of their near annihilation, since 1866. A gut reaction of anger is understandable. What is the gut reaction of a sensitive white person? For white folks who helped pull it down, do some of us get to say, look, we fixed it? Meanwhile, has anything really changed?

No, nothing has changed. 2020 becomes 2021. There is now a boring old white man in the POTUS chair. He’s clearly a criminal and a racist who wrote big “War on Crime” bills when he was a senator. But at least he’s not calling for fascist riots on Twitter. I begin a BFA program at IAIA. After the protest, the signs pointing me in this direction were numerous. The Laguna artist Marla Allison, my first and dearest friend in Santa Fe and an alumna, said “you should go there.” St. John’s is a fine school, where students debate the meaning and value of 200 books written by dead European men, but so many people told me I belong at IAIA. When on a quest, throw out the map and follow the signs.

In the first semester I study the people on whose Dawnland I was raised. After European zoonotic diseases wiped out ninety percent of the population, the Abenaki were driven out at gunpoint by British Colonists in the early seventeenth century, who called the place Newington, New Hampshire. Historians in the twentieth century dubbed the land adjacent to my home, “Bloody Point,” a nod to those early conflicts. How do I relate to that land, so full of ancestors of the displaced Abenaki? Obviously not in ways that would entitle me to practice their rituals or claim bloodline. 

I was raised on a bluff overlooking one of the two remaining blocks of intact habitat in the Gulf of Maine Coastal Lowlands bioregion, The Great Bay Wildlife Refuge. The other is the Plum Island National Wildlife Refuge, about an hour away. The waters of Great Bay are brackish; twice daily the Piscataqua river takes in the rising Atlantic Ocean tide and swells upstream. The currents are some of the strongest in the world. When I was a child, the bay was full of horseshoe crabs and discarded blocks of styrofoam from maritime activities. The horseshoe crabs disappeared sometime before 1990, leaving only the styrofoam. Compared to Boston, Massachusetts, also in this bioregion, it is an intact habitat.  

In April of 2022 I write an essay about my ancestors. It hits the workshop like a dirty diaper. I first write a pathologically self-conscious piece about how difficult it is to be white and come to terms with needing to enter this conversation without knowing where to start. I attempt to illustrate from the outside a profound emptiness so powerful that it bends timespace. Instead, my essay is so un-self-aware, it demonstrates this lack of consideration, structurally. I want the story to tell itself through subtlety and nuance. That is exactly what it does. It just isn’t the story I think it is. It’s actually lowkey racist and sexist. 

My workshopping peers are an intimate group. We know each other. They give me the benefit of the doubt, another privilege. We number eight, including the professor. I’m one of two men, one of two white people, one of two people over the age of forty.  They tell me I missed the mark. None of them know who their ancestors are either. I’m not special. In fact, knowing one’s ancestors is a rare privilege. In this curious space where mistakes are tolerated and learned from I once again felt myself in a position of privilege. I had come to the Institute of American Indian Arts and done a very white thing, I wrote something that I then needed to have explained to me. 

At this point, there is a huge lump in my throat. Tears are working their way out through reddening eyes. But I listen as each of them calmly explains to me how my piece made them feel. If this is difficult for me, it must be exhausting for them.

I’m sitting in a work-study office now. It’s 2022. There are books on a shelf, a white board, a mini fridge, a microwave, a round table, and computers on desks flanking two walls. Who are my ancestors? McNicholas is neither Irish nor Scottish, but Viking by way of Ireland. Baer is Swiss-German, and for me it’s mixed with a maternal line named Boucher, French-Canadian. My father gave me the definitive McNicholas family history for Christmas when I was fourteen. It was manufactured to mimic a scroll, but the effect only went so far, as it was printed in System font on a dot-matrix printer. The family motto listed was “per castra ad astra.” This translates from Latin to “through the camp, to the stars.”

I don’t want to think of myself as white anymore. That is a fraught statement. Let me explain. I will always have white skin. For the foreseeable future, I will experience white privilege. I’m not hoping to be perceived differently. In Almanac of the Dead, Leslie Marmon Silko employs a conceit of distinction. For Silko’s narrator, white is both a color of skin and an aspirational condition of ignorance. What seems to make someone aspirationally white, is their inability to discern details below the Platonic surface. I quote Silko:

But once the whites had a name for a thing, they seemed unable ever again to recognize the thing itself. … Europeans suffered a sort of blindness to the world. To them, a “rock” was just a “rock” wherever they found it… Europeans…could often be heard complaining in frightened tones that the hills and canyons looked the same to them… (Silko 224-225)

Sitting in a work-study office pondering ancestry and Silko is a privilege I earned. Getting and staying sober earned me space to not be stuck. Walking away from the implosion of a business gave me this spiritual mobility which could not be purchased. Those were choices and actions which earned my path to this office. Residing in a twenty-two-foot graffitti-layered shuttle bus for two years in the Santa Fe plaza, despite taking significant emotional labor, is a privilege afforded to handsome, clean, white boys like me. In order to practice being anything other than white, I must make deeper distinctions.

Unlike the effects of white privilege, however, learning to be anything else takes hard work. Santa Fe has given me more self-awareness. The people I encounter while living city-close to the land have a peculiar way of showing me to myself. In New Hampshire, ninety-eight percent white since 1608, the cultural atmosphere is an aggrieved entitlement, white privilege turned inwards on itself. I lived there for nearly forty years and I never saw anybody more clearly because of their passive response. I registered people as assertive, aggressive, or passive-agressive. Passive responses were inaudible to me amongst the din of people all clamoring to be exceptional. Here a passive response is like the stars in the dark desert. The lights are quiet and small, but insistent, hard to look away from and forget. Irony has room to ring in the air like a bell.

July 2021, the summer before I start at IAIA, a year since coming to New Mexico. At the Wash Tub in Santa Fe, I glower at the laundry carts reserved by people who have left their soap and baskets in them. I ask, “Is anyone using this cart?” Nobody responds. Putting my hand on the stainless steel, I say, louder, “Does this belong to anyone?” 

A small middle-aged woman with dark hair and eyes looks at me. She says, “Yeah, that’s mine.”

Well, do you mind if I use it? My dryer is done, and you’ve got twenty minutes on your timer here. I’ll bring it back.”

“That’s fine.” Her pupils fall to the right before coming back up to meet mine. “You keep it.”

She takes her hamper. I take her cart  and empty my dryer. I can’t stop thinking about her. What was that sideways eyeroll for? I’m rather upset. First she hogs a cart, then she gives me attitude when I ask to use it. The mental itch won’t go away. I’m not quite finished folding, when what’s bothering me surfaces. All my entitlement—my whiteness, my maleness—conspires with my size and the way my words did not “ask.” I remember her side-eye and finally really see her. That’s the look that says, “Go ahead, I’m used to you taking what you want, but don’t expect me to play along.”

I throw my clothes from the cart onto the bench. She’s standing in the aisle as I approach. “You’re bringing it back?” It’s a matter of somewhat curious fact.

“Yes…I didn’t speak to you very well. I’m sorry.”

This time her eyes reflect that, yes, I’m an asshole, but not one-hundred-percent.

I am learning discernment. When I wrote that tone-deaf essay, my workshop peers gave me the benefit of the doubt. They told me in clear terms where I lacked discernment. This exchange was unpaid cultural translation, emotional labor which they performed with genuine concern. I will earn their labor. I cannot waste their effort. 

Until I was forty, I tried to fill this void. Driven by nightmares, my days were built from anxiety. When I stopped drinking, I started a business. In that period of early recovery, the realm of possibility expanded slowly, but when I survived my failure at business, I began to look at the void as a friend, something that inspires me to create fullness from a wealth of energy. This is so much better than the living nightmare of winging deck chairs and cocktails into the maelstrom.

What is this void? Every kind of addict, of which there are an infinite variety, tries to fill it. Those responses are sad but privileged compared to those of us whose only choice is to stare into it when the sun disappears, generation after generation. It’s not a black hole. Don’t call it a black hole. Without the unknown, the unseen, there is no realm of possibility. That theoretical singularity with a mass so soaked with significance that its gravity rains planets and stars, that’s creation.

Neutron stars are tiny, white hot entities whose mass to size ratio is so dense that they warp visible perception in an effect called gravity lensing. You can see the back from the front. Things falling into neutron stars are incinerated in a flash. When they collide with each other they shower heavy metals like gold and uranium across the cosmos, but they don’t really seem that mysterious. They are well lit places with privileged reserves, and they exert nearly unimaginable control over perception. Despite neither black holes nor neutron stars being at all technically empty, I think the bright white one is a better metonym for the ceaseless hunger which drives so many of us to burn up.

Late pandemic, 2022. This spring I had cataract surgery. Before that, I thought I would never see the stars again, now I just need to make the time. The sunset in off-world colors from the mountains burning is sad and beautiful.  I will always have this work, to understand the ways in which whiteness is and isn’t who I am. It’s still a choice, though. Tonight, I will camp in a shuttle bus under the stars again. “Through the camp to the stars” – the family motto purchased from a mall ancestry kiosk and handed to me over thirty years ago as a stocking stuffer – feels ironic, like a self-fulfilling idiotic prophecy. If they were Viking, why write it in Latin? Beginnings are tenuous. One never knows if something will go anywhere. The fear of the unknown can overwhelm an earnest start. Fear of the unknown is fear of the possible. 

As I begin to question who my ancestors are, I look to the stars and the land. The idea of doing ancestor work can also be privileged. Nobody owes me an ancestor. I recognise it takes resources and means I do not entirely possess, and some of us are not given the space to even wonder. I look toward the work I can do, practice careful discernment, see differences, cherish distinction.

David John Baer McNicholas

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

David John Baer McNicholas has been on travel in New Mexico for three years. He is the author of the novel Lemons: In an Orchard. He operates the nascent imprint ghostofamerica ltd co (Anarchy, Abolition, Art) and studies for his BFA in Creative Writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. Currently, he is working on short stories, graphic narrative projects, and a forthcoming book of poetry, a poem from which can be found on poets.org.

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