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Rants from the Hill: Scout's honor

How I earned the excommunication merit badge.

“Rants from the Hill” is cross-posted from High Country News One of Henry Thoreau’s many prose lines of pure poetry (his poetry, by contrast, is as prosaic as the side of a milk carton) sings that “the bluebird carries the sky on his back.” It is a line almost as lovely as the bird itself. The mountain bluebird, which is the state bird of Nevada, is a year-round neighbor here on the Ranting Hill. Of course the profusion of bluebirds here may be due to the unfair advantage my daughters and I give them by mounting nesting boxes not only on our property but also (illegally, no doubt) on the public lands surrounding our home. There is hope in this small gesture of nailing little wooden homes into the tangled arms of junipers out here in the far reaches of the high desert. Unfortunately, not all my associations with bluebirds are positive, for a bluebird restoration effort was my final merit badge project before being ejected from the Boy Scouts. To be more precise, I was formally excommunicated from scoutingbefore managing to earn the cultishly named “Arrow of Light,” a rite-of-passage symbol which sounds like a cross between a cheap appropriation of Native American mythology and a thinly veiled secularization of a fundamentalist religious ideology. I realize that in saying this kind of thing I’ve stepped over an invisible line in our culture. Who rags on the Boy Scouts? Especially among those of us who deeply respect outdoor experience and wilderness skills—not to mention less practical character attributes like trustworthiness and honesty—there is something sacrosanct about scouting.
Photograph of the author's daughters placing a bluebird box in a juniper snag.
Before failing to become a Boy Scout I was, under duress, a Cub Scout. I made it just far enough to become a “Webelo,” which is Scouting’s equivalent of a “tween,” a boy no longer a cub but not yet whatever was supposed to come next. A man? A bear? An eagle? A fake Indian? (Webelos are referred to as a “tribe,” a designation my Native American friends fail to appreciate.) To make matters worse, “Webelos” was given the “backronym” of “WE’ll BE LOyal Scouts,” which served as yet another reminder that the fundamental principle of the organization was unremitting conformity and respect for authority. I submit as further evidence of this the “Cub Scout Promise,” by which we were compelled to swear allegiance to God and country and to “obey the Law of the Pack,” which sounded vicious and scary. Worse still was the “Scout’s Law,” which enjoined us to be “trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” Is this a reasonable standard for any kid? I suspect most parents would be satisfied with “Look, you don’t have to be reverent or brave. Just stop hitting your brother.” Read more at High Country News