Category Archives: Books

Reading: ‘A Thousand Illusions’

“Civilization creates for me a thousand other worlds that have little to do with my senses, a thousand illusions among which to choose. It is one of the functions of much of contemporary education and politics to convince me that my choices are limited to these creations. Were there a television in my home, it would spend twenty-four hours a day convincing me that life is either a series of dangers and disasters or an endless series of shallow and banal encounters with uninteresting people. Magazines and newspapers tell me the same story. Shopping malls connected by broad paved highways are filled with objects presented as the rewards of existence–the flesh of the world converted to doodads. Big Science has had a good deal to do with the creation of this deadly alternative reality, and science has willingly lent its hand to the great effort to to convince me that the evidence of my senses and the intuitions that arise from their use are illusory.

“But there is a scientific practice that precedes Big Science, a devotion to patient and scrupulous observation of the world and its creatures. I have come to love this discipline, now known as natural history, which delves ever more deeply into the physiological and behavioral differences between my species and others. There is an explosion of this kind of knowledge accumulating in our era, driven by an increasing awareness that many species are disappearing and that we known desperately little about them and therefore little about how to save them. …”

–Freeman House, “Totem Salmon”

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Guest Observation: Colum McCann

The other morning, the soon to be late and already lamented “Talk of the Nation” featured the Irish novelist Colum McCann. He was talking about a new work, “Transatlantic,” which features fictional stories of historical figures who made the crossing, one way or the other, between Ireland and the New World. (One story involves a historic adventure I’d never heard of before, the first aviators to fly nonstop across the Atlantic: Alcock and Brown, eight years before Lindbergh (who made the first solo nonstop flight).

Former Maine Senator George Mitchell and his role in negotiating peace in Northern Ireland is one of the other “Transatlantic” subjects. McCann read a brief, poetic passage of the Mitchell section of the book:

“This is a section where I just wanted to create a myth for the idea of what he was doing, which was receiving all the words.

“It is as if, in a myth, he has visited an empty grain silo. In the beginning, he stood at the bottom in the resounding dark. Several figures gathered at the top of the silo. They peered down, shaded their eyes, began to drop their pieces of grain upon him. Words. A small rain at first, full of vanity, and history, and rancor, clattering in the emptiness.

“He stood and let it sound, metallic, around him, till it began to pour, and the grain took on a different sound, and he had to reach up and keep knocking the words aside just to get a little space to breathe, dust and chaff in the air all around him. From their very own fields, they were pouring down their winnowed bitterness, and in his silence, he just kept thrashing, spluttering, pushing the words away, a refusal to drown.

“What nobody noticed, not even himself, was that the grain kept rising, and the silo filled, but he kept rising with it, and the sounds grew different, word upon word falling around him, building beneath him, and now, at the top of the silo, he has clawed himself up and dusted himself off, and he stands there, equal with the pourers, who are astounded by the language that lies below them.

“They glance at each other. There are three ways down from the silo. They can fall into the grain and drown. They can jump off the edge and abandon it. Or they can learn to sow it very slowly at their feet.”

Neil Conan’s interview with McCann, embedded below, is a good one. His reading of the passage above takes place after the 12:00 mark in the audio.

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First of All Martyrs, King of All Birds

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze,
Although he was little his honour was great,
Jump up me lads and give him a treat.
—"The Wren"

Of course, in Ireland and like parts, the "king of all birds" was singled out for some rough treatment the day after Christmas. A somewhat sanitized version of the song, on The Chieftain's "Bells of Dublin" album, alludes to the death of the wren, but doesn't explain how it came to expire. Liam Clancy's much earlier recording of a traditional number, "The Wran Song," doesn't leave much doubt about what had happened to the bird: "I met a wren upon the wall/Up with me wattle and knocked him down." In fact, if you're inclined to explore further the Irish (and fellow Celts') Christmastime wren customs, here's a book for you, "Hunting the Wren: Transformation of Bird to Symbol."

A brief passage on the traditions of the wren hunt: "Typically, on the appointed 'wren day' a group of boys and men went out armed with sticks, beating the hednges from both sides and throwing clubs or other objects at the wren whenever it appeared. Eyewitnesses described the hunting of the wren in Ireland in the 1840s:

For some weeks preceding Christmas, crowds of village boys may be seen peering into hedges in search of the tiny wren; and when one is discovered the whole assemble and give eager chase to, until they have slain the little bird. In the hunt the utmost excitement prevails, shouting, screeching, and rushing; all sorts of missiles are flung at the puny mark and not infrequently they light upon the head of some less innocent being. From bush to bush, from hedge to hedge is the wren pursued and bagged with as much pride and pleasure as the cock of the woods by more ambitious sportsmen."

And why is the wren "the king"? According to the book above, the appellation goes back to a fable apparently current in several cultures and in Greece and Roman tradition ascribed to Aesop: various birds vied with the eagle for the title of the king of birds. One by one, the eagle out-soared them. But the wren–the wren concealed itself in the eagle's feathers, and as it sensed the eagle was tiring, flew up and away, farther than the eagle could reach.

But enough of the wren. I really want to talk about December 26, also known as Boxing Day (what's that about? Here's a rather tart view from early 19th century London) and St. Stephen's Day. The latter is of special note for me, since my dad's first name, and mine, are Stephen. A few years ago, my friend Pete offered up a find from an encyclopedia on Roman Catholicism on the life and times of St. Stephen, who is remembered as the first Christian martyr. The capsule version of his trouble is recounted in the New Testament book of Acts. Therein, it's recorded that locals in the Greater Holy Land area didn't appreciate everything Stephen, whom Jesus's apostles had appointed a deacon and put in charge of distributing alms to poorer members of the community, had to say on theological matters. He was accused of blasphemy, hauled before the Local Religious Tribunal, and tried. During the trial, he continued to outrage his accusers, whereupon, according to Acts 8:

"…They were cut to the heart: and they gnashed with their teeth at him. But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looking up steadfastly to heaven, saw the glory of God and Jesus standing on the right hand of God. And he said: Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. And they, crying out with a loud voice, stopped their ears and with one accord ran violently upon him. And casting him forth without the city, they stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man, whose name was Saul. And they stoned Stephen, invoking and saying: Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And falling on his knees, he cried with a loud voice, saying: Lord, lay not this sin to their charge: And when he had said this, he fell asleep in the Lord…."

A few years ago, I was in Paris and after wandering through the Latin Quarter and up toward the Pantheon, landed in front of a church where the denouement of this story is depicted above the entrance. I only slowly put the name of the church, St. Etienne du Mont, together with the story of St. Stephen (Stephen=Etienne en français). I stand by my earlier description of the scene (picture below): "Immediately above the doorway … Stephen is about to earn his way onto the church calendar despite the presence of an angel who, though appearing benificent, doesn't seem the least inclined to stay the hands of a bunch of guys who look not at all hesitant to cast the first stone." One detail of this image I didn't notice before: The sculpture was done in 1863, a good 240 years after the church was dedicated.

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Road Blog: Butte to Spearfish

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The charm and allure of travel: visiting new places, seeing new things, meeting new people, and perhaps choosing not to eat at a chain or “American cuisine restaurant when you’re in unfamiliar territory (that assumes of course that you’re motel stop for the night is within hailing distance of that non-chain eatery, but I digress).

Today we hit the road in Butte about half past 8 in the morning and got off the road–the same Interstate 90 on which we’d been pounding our way eastward all day–at about half past 8 in the evening. Our major stop during that 12 hours: the Little Bighorn battlefield, a little more than 60 road miles east and south of Billings. I’d been there before; Eamon and Sakura never had been, but were game.

Much has changed on the battlefield since I visited with my dad in 1988. We were motivated by both having read Evan Connell’s “Son of the Morning Star,” his discursive, wandering appraisal of Custer and the Little Bighorn–both in myth and reality, as far as anyone can get to the “reality” of Yellow Hair’s climactic moment. (The interpretive efforts at the site have become a lot more sophisticated over the past couple of decades, but today I still came across a signboard of recent vintage that said something like, “no one can know Custer’s motives” in the decisions he made before his attack and during the battle itself. One hundred thirty-five years later and the “what ifs” abound.)

I believe that around the year we visited, some Lakota or other Native American activists had caused a stir by daring to stage a parallel event and place their own memorial marker on the battle’s anniversary days, June 25 and 26. That was probably not the first time, but it was a prelude to something serious and enduring. I saw several red granite markers on the field–red, one assumes, in contrast to the white marble markers placed in 1890 to mark the locations of where members of Custer’s command had fallen–that noted the location where Lakota and Cheyenne fighters died “defending their homeland and their way of life (see photos below, and click for larger versions). And in an apparent answer to the red stones, several new white headstones have appeared noting the deaths of several of Custer’s Arikara scouts; these stones note the scouts died defending their way of life. (American history: It’s too new to be over.) Beyond the stone wars, there are other signs, too: Native American guides conducting tourists through the battle sites and a beautiful memorial to the tribes present at the battle on both sides and the losses they suffered there (bottom photo).

Anyway, we spent a couple of hours driving and strolling sections of the battlefield. I made my companions wait while I tried to record sound and take pictures and visit just one more thing over there I’ll be right back! When I finally returned to the car, I apologized and said I hope it didn’t seem to be a repeat of a long ago (1988, too) trip to the Antietam battlefield with Eamon and my brother John. Eamon was going on 9 and didn’t quite grasp what was so interesting in the landscape that every 90 seconds or so we had to pull over and start pointing and jabbering. His moment came when we made it to a famous bridge on the battlefield. Eamon climbed up on one of the sides and walked across Antietam Creek while I held my breath–it was a long way down.

After Little Bighorn, we got back on I-90 for the drive southeast into Wyoming (the route I hoped to take, U.S. 212, is closed about 50 miles east of the battlefield because of a big slide). We whirred past Sheridan and Gillette, the distant Devil’s Tower, and within sight of the Black Hills. We decided to call it quits in Spearfish instead of going on to Deadwood: cheaper motel (I got my room for fifty dollars cash paid to a Hungarian tourist. True story), earlier night.

Tomorrow, we’re looking to make Omaha. What’s between here and there?

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From top: On Interstate 90, looking back from Big Timber to the Absaroka Mountains. Three photo panel from left: a stone marking the death of a civilian member of Custer’s regiment on the Little Bighorn battlefield; a stone marking the death of a Sans Arc Sioux warrior at the southern end of the battlefield, and stones for three Arikara scouts who died fighting with Custer’s command. Bottom: Sculpture at Native American memorial at battlefield, on the northern slope of “Last Stand Hill.” Click for larger images.

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‘Stay with the River’

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From “Bang the Drum Slowly,” by Mark Harris.

One thing he knew was north from south and east from west, which I myself barely ever know outside a ball park. We drove without a map, nights as well as days when we felt like driving nights, probably not going by the fastest roads but anyhow going mostly south and east. “Stay with the river,” he said.

“What river?” I said. “I cannot even see the river.”

“You are with it,” he said, and I guess we must of been. He traveled according to rivers. He never knew their name, but he knew which way they went by the way they flowed, and he knew how they flowed even if they weren’t flowing, if you know what I mean, even if they were froze, which they were for a ways, knowing by the way the bank was cut or the ice piled or the clutter tossed up along the sides when we ever got close enough to see the sides, which we sometimes did because he liked to stop by the river and urinate in it. He would rather urinate in the river than in a gas station. Once a couple years ago I caught him urinating in the washbowl in the hotel in Cleveland. I bawled the daylight out of him. “I wash it out,” he said. Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t. For a long time I kept an eye on him.

Moving south he noticed cows out of doors. “We are moving south all right,” he said, “because they keep their cows out of doors down here.” He knew what kind they were, milk or meat, and what was probably planted in the fields, corn or wheat or what, and if birds were winter birds or the first birds of spring coming home. He knew we were south by the way they done chicken. “We ain’t real south,” he said, “but we are getting there. I can taste it.”

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Salmon for Their Own Sake

Like everyone else, I’m given to enthusiasms. Like everyone else, my enthusiams are too many to list. Thinking about them, most seem to involve a narrative of some kind: the progress of favorite remembered plays in baseball or basketball–any sport, really–to movies and books to roads I’ve traveled and places I’ve visited and on good days to whatever I happen to encounter in the world.

(Maybe something else is at work here; our tendency or need to turn everything into a story. I just came across a poem, “In Praise of a Teacher,” by Nikki Giovanni. She says:

“I always loved English because
whatever human beings are, we are storytellers. It is our stories
that give a light to the future. When I went to college I became a
history major because history is such a wonderful story of who we
think we are; English is much more a story of who we really are.”)

One of my enthusiasms, strange to tell for one who has hardly ever hooked a fish, is for salmon. Specifically, the salmon of the Pacific coast. And going with the notion of story, I think the biggest part of my attraction is to the salmon’s life narrative: birth in cold inland waters, migration to the sea, a sojourn that can last several years in the hostile wilds of the ocean, and then a long homeward journey to find that birthplace stream, whatever the obstacles, spawn just once, and die.

salmonstream.jpgIt’s a great story, and my often half-informed fervor to share salmon history and lore for anyone who will sit still for a minute has led my colleagues at our Local Major Public Radio Station (LMPRS) to adopt a “safe word” when they think things are getting out of control. It’s “coho.” At the same time, I’ve probably gotten as much interest (or forebearance) as anyone could reasonably expect when suggesting salmon stories to develop for broadcast. Earlier this month, I got to attend a West Coast fisheries conference and do a few stories on prospects for the coming salmon season.

But that interest from my fellow journalists always comes with a question that I’ll summarize this way: “Salmon? Why should we care about salmon?” It’s a reasonable enough question: Every news story in every news venue contains some sort of explicit or implicit rationale or assumption about audience interest. Falling housing prices? Well, a lot of the audience is in that boat. E. coli in the food supply? We all eat that food. Rising taxes or reduced pensions? You see how it works.

In narrating the plight of California’s once-great native salmon populations, those who seek to save some semblance of the historic fisheries are learning to play that “why should anyone care?” game. In the past couple of years, they’ve brought consultants into play who can quantify what salmon mean economically. Cancelling two straight commercial salmon seasons, they reported, cost boat operators and fishing communities upward of $2 billion and 23,000 jobs.

I suppose the numbers are powerful, and it’s useful to have them when trying to persuade someone else that the decline of salmon is a story that matters. But the power of the statistics only goes so far: Someone else whose ox is being gored in the debate–for instance, the Central Valley farm interests who might not get all the water they want because some is being set aside for salmon–can come up with bigger, scarier numbers. And the numbers are unfortunate in another way: The pure economic impact is important, of course; whole societies have lived their lives around the salmon. But the cost a lost salmon season doesn’t begin to touch on the wonder of the animal and its place in the world or on what’s really lost when wild salmon runs go dead.

As it happens, my schoolteacher wife is teaching her fifth-graders about watersheds this year. Part of the lesson is about fish, and she’s been particularly interested in learning about efforts to restore one of Northern California’s last surviving wild coho runs, up in Marin County. One book in her watershed library is the one pictured above, “Salmon Stream.” The entire contents: a simple narration of the salmon’s life history. What’s wonderful about it is it presents the fish–the “resource”–as something of value for its own sake, without economic justification or cost-benefit analyses.

For me, the answer to why anyone ought to care about the salmon isn’t instantly accessible. The rational piece of the answer is what they represent about the world as it has been, as it is, as it might be, and the toll we’ve exacted from our surroundings to have our lives just so. The non-rational piece is the beauty of the thing itself, from conception to death. And maybe, when the question comes up next, I need to have copies of that picture book handy.

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‘Pent Up in Lath and Plaster’

I had occasion over the weekend to open the front cover of “Moby Dick.” (One of many secret shames: I’ve never read it through.) But Kate had suggested that there was a section there we might share with some friends with whom we were going to have a poetry-reading evening. The very beginning of the book carried me away with its description of city dwellers tending toward the sea:

  Call me Ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs — commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme down-town is the battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.

Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall northward. What do you see? — Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep. But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster — tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. How then is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they here?

(Here’s a decent online annotation of the text for some of the references above, including “hypos,” short for “hypochondria,” which back in Melville’s time meant depression or melancholy.)

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