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Archive for June, 2012

A post from my “Changing Bibles” blog….

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut. 6:4-9).

When we moved to a new home recently, I noticed a small mezuzah outside my daughter’s bedroom. This site explains the purpose of these doorpost cases:http://www.jewfaq.org/signs.htm#Mezuzah. Contrary to this site’s recommendation, our home’s previous owner did not remove the case, but understanding its significance I treated it with respect.

Among God’s commands in the significant scripture Deuteronomy 6:4-9, God says, “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart… write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (verse 6 and 9). Thus, mezuzah’s are literal responses to this scripture, as are tefillin.

This passage captures my imagination on a variety of levels. One is certainly my own failures in being faithful to this, a text addressed to Jews but which we Gentile Christians now also take to heart.

Bible study has its risks. You could have strong opinions about points of biblical interpretation but communicate stubbornness rather than love when you discuss the Bible. I remember feeling so inadequate when, as a new Christian (who felt inadequate as a general rule), other Christians pressed me for my opinion on certain topics about which I’d not yet considered. You could become discouraged in your faith because you can never measure up to the Bible’s standards. Or you don’t know what to do with your doubts and questions because you think—because the Bible is God’s word—you’re not supposed to have any.

But we read the Bible best when, in addition to private reading and devotional time, we’re also part of a congregation of diverse, worshiping people where prayer, preaching, the Eucharist, group study, and service are part of a whole spiritual journey. The Deuteronomy passage is addressed to a people, not a bunch of individuals who happen to be together. I imagine us Christians taking these to heart (including myself, a faithful Bible reader who has failed in many ways to live up to the Deuteronomy words). For instance, an emphasis on Bible study—and the self-diagnosis and wisdom that comes from Bible study—can be a powerful tool for churches, in addition to (or instead of) the more programmatic means that congregations sometimes adopt.

I love this story from the author and activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

‘ “Once I noticed,” writes a Christian scholar, who visited the city of Warsaw during the First World War, “a great many coaches on a parking-place but no drivers in sight. In my own country I would have known where to look for them. A young Jewish boy showed me the way: in a courtyard, on the second floor, was the shtibl (Hasidic synagogue) of the Jewish drivers…. All the drivers were engaged in fervent study and religious discussion…. It was then that I found out and became convinced that all professions, the bakers, the butchers, the shoemakers, etc., have their own shtibl in the Jewish district; and every free moment which can be taken off from their work is given to the study of Torah. And when they get together in intimate groups, one urges the other: Sog mir a shtickl Torah—Tell me a little Torah.” ‘[1]

I don’t study the Bible that way and I’m unfamiliar with Christians who do. But I love the image and the challenge: What if we, who don’t want to be fundamentalists but do want to live as faithful Christians, talked about the Bible as a natural part of conversation, the way we talk about the irritating people at our places of work, about our favorite books and movies. We might get angry at least other, but we’d deal with it; we wouldn’t be aloof from each other; we’d accept our disagreements. We’d grow together and perhaps reexamine our cherished yet unhelpful opinions and positions. We’d grow in wisdom and kindness.

*****

Being me, I have to go on a nostalgic reverie, but the Deuteronomy passage is so sacred for Jews that I didn’t want to trivialize it with personal memories, so I’m thinking separately about the image of the doorpost, or, more generally, the primary door of your residence.

My childhood home was constructed in the late 1950s and suits a period style: a long ranch house with large picture windows. The walkway to the front door was parallel rather than perpendicular to the house, which meant that anyone coming to the door was already walking right next to the house. The effect was always just a bit creepy, to realize someone was right outside the big windows (although they weren’t necessarily looking inside). I don’t know how many times we were startled by an approaching visitor.

In the 1990s my wife and daughter and I lived in another ranch style house, but the front walkway was perpendicular to the house. However, our street was a cul-de-sac (thanks to the bird brains who ran the adjacent condo neighborhood and decided to block the street to reduce traffic into that neighborhood) so our front door was more seldom used. Our kitchen door opened into the car port and drive way, and down the driveway was our mailbox, which was actually located another street than our address, an anomaly that created much confusion. Our kitchen door became our major entrance, which in turn made the house all the more homey, somehow. Visitors stepped right into our kitchen.

For a few years we also lived in a townhouse apartment. There was a solid front door and also a glass door, into which one hapless guest collided (without hurting him or breaking the glass, although he felt embarrassed). We were sometimes startled awake by late-night knocks on the door; our neighbor, it turned out, was dealing drugs and his customers got the apartment numbers confused. Thankfully our next neighbors were pleasant and more morally employed!

I think of Psalm 121:8, which connects well to Deut. 6:9. The psalm refers to a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and God’s unfailing providential care, not only for that original occasion but for any occasion. But the lovely imagine of God’s care for our “going out and coming in” means that our relationship with God encompasses our daily chores, our car-trips for errands, our employment places, our yard work, and all the other times we’re in and out the main door of our homes.

Notes:

1. Stephen M. Wylan, The Seventy Faces of Torah: The Jewish Way of Reading the Sacred Scriptures (Paulist Press, 2005), pp. 73-74.

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I learned from a Facebook fan page that the environmentalist author Anne LaBastille died on July 1, 2011.  Here are some websites that describe her life and work. http://adirondackdailyenterprise.com/page/content.detail/id/525384/-Woodswoman–Anne-LaBastille-dies-at-75.html?nav=5008http://www.adirondackalmanack.com/2011/07/remembering-anne-labastille.html?flv=1
http://www.santafenewmexican.com/Outdoors/Woodswoman_wants_to_return_to_cabin

Occasionally I write authors and artists whose works I enjoy, and in Dr. Anne’s case I was familiar with Woodswoman and The Wilderness World of Anne LaBastille, as well as a National Geographic article about Wisconsin that featured a picture of her resting—tanned and quite attractive, I thought—in her canoe. I didn’t tell her that, but I told her I enjoyed her writing.  She wrote back, I wrote back, and for about ten years we sporadically exchanged notes.  Mostly I got postcards from her, sometimes short letters, and I wrote a bit more.  I was just starting out in free-lance writing, and her example of independence and resourcefulness in managing her career, as well as her writing style, were inspirational to me.  In one note, she apologized for not writing sooner because she had a break-in at her home, the same crime that she described at the end of Woodswoman III.  She also alluded in letters to her painful experiences as a guest professor, which she recounted in detail inWoodswoman IIII.

I was always respectful and appreciative of her time. In fact, until now, I never told anyone we were occasional pen pals, to respect her privacy. We were both only children, had PhDs, liked going barefoot, and felt a lack in our lives for having never met our grandfathers. I was honest with her that I wasn’t active in environmental efforts—and didn’t even know what a “grebe” was until I read Mama Poc—but that I enjoyed ecology-related books and planned to support organizations more conscientiously. In retrospect, I appreciate that she didn’t dismiss me as an inadequate fan just because we weren’t “on the same page” about issues crucial to her.

I regret that we fell out of touch and never had the chance to meet.  During the mid-00s, I had to move my elderly mom to a nursing home in another state, sell my childhood home, and complete a short book-writing assignment by a deadline.  Consequently I didn’t write for nearly a year, and I never heard back the two or three times I tried to reconnect, including giving her the book I’d written.  She may have been ill by that time, or I may have seemed like an absent friend. But while we corresponded, I was able in small ways to help her by citing and recommending her books, and calling attention to her books to some independent booksellers.  One time she was chagrined that some company was making her books available online without permission. Since she didn’t use computers, I did some research for her about the company and sent her information if she wanted to deal directly with the situation, which she appreciated. She was also pleased that I gave my father (a dog lover and former hunter) his own copies of her books and that he became a fan prior to his death.

She had many grateful fans, and I was only one, and a minor one. I enjoyed collecting all of her books, including the children’s books, her two 1960s books, and her 1974 scientific monograph about the Lake Atitlan grebes.  She autographed several for me.  Of course I included self-addressed padded envelopes for her to use.  She liked the following review that I wrote to help “spread the word” of her efforts.

*****

Book Review of Woodswoman, Mama Poc, Beyond Black Bear Lake, andWoodswoman III (written for Springhouse magazine, published in the June 1997 issue).

Some Springhouse readers will already be familiar with this author. I read some of her National Geographic articles back in the mid-1970s but remained oblivious (in spite of her memorable surname) that she’s a best-selling author with a large following. I love nature-related books (one of her articles had introduced me to Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac) and last year I finally checked to see what else she’s written.  I selected one of her books and liked it so much I didn’t wait twenty years to find others!   All her books are available from bookstores or from West of the Wind Publications, Westport, NY 12993.

Dr. LaBastille is a wildlife ecologist and consultant who lives in Adirondack Park, a six-million acre area of state-and-privately-owned land in upstate New York. She was born in New York City, grew up in New Jersey, and received her Ph.D. from Cornell. She has written several books: Woodsman, Beyond Black Bear Lake, Assignment Wildlife, Women and Wilderness, The Wilderness World of Anne LaBastille, andBirds of the Mayas. She also wrote titles in the “Ranger Rick’s Best Friends” series for young people and has contributed to Nature, Travel, Reader’s Digest, Outdoor Life, Audubon, National Geographic, and others. She has worked as a professor, lodge-co-owner and manager, a freelance ecologist, park commissioner, guide, consultant, writer and photographer. She has received top awards as a writer and conservationist.

Woodswoman begins as LaBastille, reflecting upon her experiences as she sits in her cabin during a beautiful, dramatic winter, recounts her early goals of studying wildlife and living in a natural environment. Several years before, her marriage succumbed amid the pressures of running a resort lodge in the Adirondacks; the need to remove herself from that situation caused her to return to her long-time dream of a private haven in the woods. LaBastille found a track of land at a reasonable price near a location she calls Black Bear Lake. She recounts the construction of her 12 by 12 cabin, heated with a wood burning stove, lighted by candles and kerosene lanterns, then gas lamps running off her propane. Two males who helped her with the cabin’s construction gave her the nickname (at first an exasperated response to her requests) which became the book’s title. Settled, she loved to contemplate the beauties of the park, the scents of the forest and the many animals of the land. Unfortunately, an attorney showed up stipulating that her 14-ton house had to be moved 12 feet back from the lake to conform to codes, which she grudgingly accomplished. Trespassers showed up, too, whom she dismissed in no uncertain terms.

Much of the book recounts the splendor and history of the park. She notes that the park is the largest track of wilderness east of the Mississippi and half the park has been legally designated “forever wild” since 1894. She is visited by beaver and deer, shrews, bats and monarch butterflies. She writes with awe concerning the great trees, the spruce and fir; she writes concerning the history of logging in the region, and the lives of the park’s residents (don’t miss the description of “Adirondack haircuts”). She delights in skinny-dipping in the clean water, in developing her practical outdoor skills first learned during her initial and happy years of marriage, and in living a healthy lifestyle that many of us would find too Spartan (no TV, electricity, or phone). Her first two pets were a kitten and silver fox—the kitten was too lively and the fox was sadly killed—but Pitzi, a German shepherd puppy she found in Guatemala which doing her doctoral research, became her companion for twelve years. Helped by her guide friend Rob, LaBastille became one of the very few licensed women guides of the park.  She finds love, in a chance encounter with a man she calls Nick, and she weaves a bittersweet story through her observations of the park. After they go their separate ways, she ruminates about the difficulties of the successful career she has established, the difficulties of being a woman whose education threatens some men, and her own dreams and hopes. But in the last chapter, an eventful stay in DC helps remind her of the impersonal quality of the city, contrasted with the tranquility of her cabin and her many friends and contacts there. The book ends wistfully as the author looks to the unseen future, confident of the rightness of her choice to live close to wilderness.

Mama Poc covers the period of LaBastille’s life from the early 1960s through the mid-1980s, thus including the same general period as Woodswoman but including additional years.  [Of course, Assignment: Wildlife, which I’d not yet read at this time, and the later Jaguar Totem also cover this period.] LaBastille documents how a single species went from health (albeit rarity) to extinction in less than a quarter century.

Around 1960, she and her husband studied birds in Central America and Mexico, and during that time she encountered a rare bird, the giant pied-billed grebe classifiedPodilymbus gigas. Unlike the common grebe of the U.S. (Podilymbus podiceps) the larger grebe lived only at Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, where it required certain amounts of territory for health and breeding. The grebes were called “pocs” by the native Indians, and thus LaBastille became “Mama Poc” and “the crazy bird lady” by people curious at her presence and work. She began to document the life of this bird, with its estimated population of only 200. After her divorce she traveled again to Guatemala, meeting and befriending several people including Armando (they fall in love), Edgar Bauer (who appears on the book cover with the author), and others who work with her on gathering census data and observations. Unfortunately, the grebe population fell to 80 during five years when new species of fish were introduced to the lake.  What should she do? She and Armando created “Operation Protection of the Poc” and obtained the interest (partly thanks to LaBastille’s creative use of Spanish!) of the agriculture department to hire a game warden, which Edgar became, and they began educational trips around the region.

For the next few years LaBastille returned to Guatemala and accomplished a great deal. She learned how best to get things done in the country and she gathered both grass-roots support and the support of Guatemalan leadership. Soon Edgar had better equipment with which to work, the poc was featured on a postage stamp, and folk who loved the lake grew concerned for the grebes.  Sadly, she and Armando realized their cultural differences and other issues which made marriage impossible. That sad realization coincided with the happy news that the grebe population as growing again.

Several years later, a 7.5-magnitude earthquake hit Guatemala in 1976, killing 23,000 people and creating fissures at the bottom of Lake Atitlan, causing it to drain slowly. But a reduced water level threatened the giant grebes, which needed much more territory in which to thrive. With Edgar, LaBastille also discovered that many vacation homes and tourism adversely affected the lake. Edgar devised a plan to increase the reed growth at the late, but as Guatemalan policies grew more heated he was killed by unknown assailants in 1982.  When LaBastille returned in the mid-1980s, a census revealed rapid diminishment of the grebe population, which were doomed. Too little was known about the birds’ habits to breed them in captivity; meanwhile, the human population around the lake thrived.  As a valedictory, LaBastille spotted two male pocs at the lake during a late visit which included a bleak but comic attempt to get medical care for an Indian’s dog.  One determined person can make a difference, she writes, and her successes with the pocs, both in increasing their numbers and encouraging public awareness, is a case in point.

Beyond Black Bear Lake begins as LaBastille recounts the many intrusions into her life after Woodswoman’s publication: visitors sought her out, some well-intentioned and respective, some not. Her fan mail increased beyond her ability to handle it, and her phone machine (at a nearby house) included truly weird calls. Likewise the human population around Black Bear Lake increased. LaBastille resolved to build a new cabin near the parcel she owned farther into the woods. She loses her beloved Pitzi when he encounters a car coming too fast down the road. She resisted obtaining a new dog but serendipitously met Condor, a German shepherd puppy who, like Pitzi, learned to ride in a canoe and carry the mail bag. Later, in the book, LaBastille acquires Condor’s puppy, which she named Chekika after a Seminole chief.

Concern for the effects of acid rain and technology upon her land (which she discusses) she selected Lilypad Lake for a retreat home she’d call Thoreau II.  Careful to be aware this time of bureaucratic regulations (which she encountered anyway), she set to work on her retreat, recounting the process of cutting and dragging logs and raising the place. Frighteningly, she dealt with a proposal to store nuclear waste in the Adirondacks. Fortuitously, a hip injury became occasion for a friendship with a local surgeon named Mike to grow into a mutual love and affection. She writes of Rob, her old friend who taught her to guide and who, in his old age, willed himself to die rather than be hospitalized, and of Rodney Ainsworth, a hawk-nosed, cigar-smoking and tender-hearted guide with whom she also became close friends. (She writes additionally of the admirable Rodney in Wilderness World.) Finishing her house, she muses concerning the similarities and differences between her Thoreau II and Henry David’s own famous cabin at Walden Pond, which cost only about a hundred dollars less than LaBastille’s). She reflects on her happiness as an unmarried woman and the rightness of her life spent living in wilderness, solitary with nature, as she built her career as a writer, photographer, and ecologist. She dreams of the educational and ecological work which her estate will someday continue.

LaBastille’s most recent work, Woodswoman III, represents her ongoing reflections and experiences in promoting environmental issues. Her encouragement of women to pursue active environmental appreciation, as well as to nurture their own independence and self-reliance, is another ongoing task. Astonished at time’s passage, she describes her satisfaction at living for thirty years at the edge of wilderness. Her life still balances quietness and contemplation with professional fervor. As a writer and consultant, her daily routine is hectic and resistant to quite writing time. Recently she purchased a tract of land which she christens Kestrel Crest Farm; there, powered with electricity for her grudgingly acquired phone and fax, she humorously describes both her work day and her schedule as an “ol’ book peddler” around the park. She also describes the enjoyable and rewarding experiences as she revives her work as a park guide, and farming her land with a Thoreau-like, barefoot ease.

In the park, she is greeted by loons, a respected porcupine, and a hearty pheasant named Napoleon. She loses her beloved Condor to old age and infirmity but Chekika is soon joined by the Arizona-born puppy Xandor, another shepherd (regrettably, with similar infirmities endemic to the breed). She appreciates ongoing friends (like Andy and Albert), honors the park’s founder (a determined New Yorker with the memorable name of Verplank Colvin), and she enjoys the temporary company of a mouse who hitchhikes in her truck until a witnessed highway accident makes the mouse disdainful of human chaos.

The natural and human worlds remain enriching or terrifying. A twister strikes the park (leaving the remote Thoreau II in unknown condition for a while). In two chapters she recounts a new environmental hazard, the large boats (50 HP and over) which had long been discouraged but now threaten the environment and local neighborliness alike. LaBastille also suffers cut brake line, arson, and burglary; the first two are assumed to have been in response to her environmental activism. Her experience reminds her of Edmund Burke’s famous quote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

In all her books LaBastille style is informative and genuine; her words are never forced or self-conscious. The naturalness of her style attracted me to seek out her other books. Her happiness and delight at the natural world are everywhere apparent. Although LaBastille says her fan mail came mostly from women, I don’t think she writes for women alone, though she is particularly encouraging to women. Like Thoreau, she aims to convinced people of the value of nature. But Thoreau, writing extremely and rhetorically, couldn’t imagine that people wouldn’t walk several miles a day like him!  LaBastille is more invitational. Even Mama Poc is not stylistically characterized by blameful outrage (although she did feel outrage and sorrow); she still makes clear that one person can accomplish great things in conservation and natural preservation.

Many of us lead lives of quiet inattention to the natural world.  I’m not different. One of the benefits of books like hers is to call people like me to a kind of repentance. Read her books if you’d like an enjoyable impetus to appreciate the outdoors. She discusses the need for natural wildness, responsible recreation, and protected lands. She doesn’t eschew urban life but sees the modern city as that “wilderness” where you may lose your spiritual center. Unfortunately, many of us aren’t appreciative of the noise and the risk, even though we may feel at peace as we lounge comfortably with the TV remote. The solitude and silence, which nurtures and sustains LaBastille in the Adirondacks, may go the way of the pocs if we’re not better stewards of our world, time, and lives.

Read her books, too, if you need an injection of inspiration and courage for your own life. Impressively credentialed academically, she uses her training to serve, teach, train, encourage, and inculcate confidence in everyday people concerning wilderness. She has made her own way into areas of work and scientific inquiry traditionally dominated by males. Like many modern women she has struggled with commitments of career, singleness, love, and companionship. Like many people she discovers, in living, that the lost dreams of one portion of her life leads to wisdom and new dreams down life’s way; she accepts difficult circumstances as opportunities to make choices concerning her priorities. Those priorities balance personal needs as well as service to others. She is interested in physical health, emotional and spiritual well-being, lifestyles responsible to the environment, and the needs and mysteries of the earth. She is a “regional writer” in that she has selected a beloved region, lived in it and loved it, gained wisdom from it, and she lets the region stand for larger truths. As a “whole” kind of person, she validates those ecological values to which she has devoted her life.

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A few months ago I noticed on Twitter that the day was Neil Diamond’s 71st birthday. Just for fun, I posted this news on Facebook along with a YouTube video of “Holly Holy.”  Before too long, I was deep in a nostalgic mood.

Diamond’s provided music for my struggling adolescence. So many great songs were (and some still are) personal favorites: “Sweet Caroline,” “Solitary Man,” “Cracklin’ Rosie,” “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show,” “Kentucky Woman,” “Shilo,” and others. The “Hot August Night” album figured largely in my life: I borrowed the double LP set from a girl on whom I had a painful crush (and I hoped this might be the start of some magic between us, but alas).  I recorded that album on the reel-to-reel tape deck that my parents bought for my birthday in 1972, and I played it a lot.  A little later, smitten with another girl who loved his music, I drew for her a picture of Neil from the 1968 “Greatest Hits” LP, but added his big hair of his “Hot August Night” period.  That sounds very “Napoleon Dynamite”-ish, but I was a pretty good artist, and the girl seemed to sincerely think (maybe?) that it was cool.

I found a site, http://www.scaruffi.com/vol1/diamond.html, that discusses Diamond’s ability to mix elements of soul, gospel, country, classical, reggae, and other styles while also having special talent in catchy melodies and excellent arrangements. His voice was adept at evoking the introspection and emotions of his and others’ songs. To me, even his songs of loss (so prevalent and distressing in the music of, for instance, another of my favorites of the time: Jimmy Webb) left me feeling good. Without thinking too deeply about it, I liked the religious imagery that was explicit in songs like “Holly Holy,” “Walk on Water,” and “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” but flavored other songs, too.

There was a combination of things going on in my life at the time: I had low self-esteem (and would have for a long time) but was working on getting better; I was able to drive for first time; I loved driving around our small town and taking the back roads on summer days as I passed little country churches and peaceful rural scenes; in my genealogy hobby, I was learning about my family history in our hometown and deepening my sense of belonging to that area; I felt all the more identified with my hometown and its history; I was looking toward my own future beyond high school and wondering what lay ahead. Within all these things, “Holly Holy” became a favorite, meaningful song. I loved the chorus’ A-D-Dsus4-D chord progression and imagery of faith, but I also loved the words from the first verse:

Where I am,
What I am,
What I believe in….

Or, as I felt in my heart: place, identity, and faith.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RQwqQwD6OOw

Diamond has been in the news recently because of his third marriage and a resurgence in his record sales. As much as I loved his music, I purchased surprisingly few of his albums back then: only “Double Gold,” I think, and later “Serenade” and “Beautiful Noise.”  But I don’t remember how I had all the other great songs in mind and heart; perhaps I owned more LPs and 45s at the time than I recall. I liked the single “Walk on Water,” which followed “Song Sung Blue” and “Play Me,” but didn’t rise as high on the charts as those two and, as I recall, didn’t stay on the radio as long.  That annoyed me because I preferred the song to the other two, but I had the 45, with the extended piano coda. This past month, just for fun, I found some of his early albums on eBay and our local vinyl shops.

Reading now about his career, I learn things I didn’t think about at the time. That “Double Gold” album represented Diamond’s first two albums on the Bang label, “The Feel of Neil Diamond” (1966) and “Just for You” (1967). Those were the hits like “Cherry Cherry,” “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” “Solitary Man,” “Kentucky Woman,” “Red, Red Wine,” and others.  In fact, “The Feel” LP had “Solitary Man” on the side of the record cover, even though that wasn’t the album’s title.  The author of the website cited above considers his early albums far ahead of other songwriters of the time.

Then Diamond moved to MCA Records (the Uni label) and released the albums “Velvet Gloves and Spit” (1968, and later it had a different cover), “Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show” (1969, and later it had a different cover), “Touching You, Touching Me” (1969), “Tap Root Manuscript” (1970), “Stones” (1971), and “Moods” (1972).  Although the title of “Touching You, Touching Me” comes from the song “Sweet Caroline,” that single was not on this album or originally on any album.  It appeared on reissues of the “Brother Love” record.  His Uni hits (represented on the “12 Greatest Hits” album) included “Sweet Caroline,” “Shilo,” “Holly Holy,” “Cracklin’ Rosie,” “Play Me,” “I Am…I Said,” “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show,” “Song Sung Blue,” and others.

Diamond then signed with Columbia, which has been his label ever since. Although the first two albums have never been released on CD, Bang Records issued several compilation albums based on those first two albums, and Columbia acquired the rights to those songs but not to the Uni albums. Thus, the several compilation albums represent different labels, as discussed at http://pw1.netcom.com/~zmoq/pages/repackage.htm

Another thing I didn’t realize: “Tap Root Manuscript” made use of “world music” over ten years before other artists like Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon.  At my divinity school, some African American friends elicited my help for a Afrocentric chapel service by having me play the song “Soolaimón” on the piano as an anthem.  It occurs to me, too, that Neil was ahead of his time in using gospel elements, a few years before some pop and rock artists began to embrace religion and spirituality.

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James D. Newton, Uncommon Friends. Life with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Alexis Carrel & Charles Lindbergh.  With a foreword by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986.

Speaker and author Danny Cox, whom the author thanks in the preface, sent this book to me via Springhouse magazine for which I write.  I was very pleased to receive and read it.  Then I began noticing it in bookstores.  Here is a book review I wrote for the February 1995 issue of Springhouse.

The five men recalled in this book are major twentieth-century figures, and many people will recall their respective accomplishments. Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) was the inventor and industrialist who invented the phonograph, electric lighting, and the moving picture camera. Henry Ford (1863-1947) was chief engineer of the Edison Illuminating Company in 1891 and resigned in 1899 to manufacture automobiles. He established the Ford Motor Company in 1903 and his Model T Ford automobile (first sold in 1908 for $825) was resoundingly popular for its assembly-line production and affordably low price. Harvey Firestone (1868-1938) organized the Firestone Company in 1900 to manufacture sold and pneumatic tires, a company which expanded after Ford’s 1906 volume order. Alexis Carrel (1873-1944) won the Nobel Prize in 1912 for his revolutionary technique for suturing blood vessels. He and Charles Lindbergh (1902-1974) collaborated in the 1903s to develop a perfusion pump by which organs removed from the body would be kept alive. Carrel also wrote scientific and philosophic books and articles. Lindbergh made the first successful trans-Atlantic solo fight in a heavier-than-air craft in 1927. Although an anti-war activist in 1939, Lindbergh worked with Ford to produce B-24 bombers and few civilian combat missions during World War II.  Later he was a consultant for Pan Am Airlines and a conservationist.  His wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh authored a number of popular reminiscences.

As for the author of Uncommon Friends, according to the jacket “James Newton born in 1905 has had a long career as a real estate developer, conservationist, cowboy, soldier, corporate executive, labor dispute negotiator, and friend par excellence. He and his wife Ellis live in Fort Myers, Florida.” [Newton died in 1999. In 1993 he established the Uncommon Friends Foundation, uncommonfriends.org.] As told in the book, Charles Lindberg was best man at his and Ellie’s wedding. Familiar accounts of these people (Edison’s early years when he was chided as “different,” the kidnapping and murder of the Lindberghs’ son, etc.) are not described. Nor are the people’s shortcomings and flaws help up for scrutiny.  Newton’s purpose for this reminiscence is to record the stories of friendship, including the faith, values, humor, and deepest convictions of these men and their wives, as revealed to a close friend like him. In this warm and readable memoir, he is successful in his aim.

Newton did not ask to meet any of these people, nor took any money from them for he help he provided to them (except for his brief career with Firestone).  He met them via business contacts or overlapping friendships, forming a long and interrelated story. He was a twenty-year-old head of a Flordia real estate company when he met the Edisons. First he met Mrs. Edison when, prudishly it seems, she protested the statue of a naked Greek maiden which was to adorn the entrance of Newton’s neighborhood development project, Edison park. The maiden was veiled with powdered marble, and Newton and the Edison’s became fast friends. Henry Ford lived next door to the Edisons, and Newton became friends with him when the Edison’s recommended Newton for a building project.  Also through the Edisons, Newton met Harvey Firestone, who was impressed with Newton’s precocity, business acumen, and integrity. Firestone soon hired him to do management, sales, troubleshooting, and a variety of “right hand man” tasks around the country. He spent several intense years with the company until, collapsed from overwork he made the mature decision to take a leave of absence to let his soul catch up with his body, in his words (p. 91). During that time of reflection, and shortly before Firestone’s death, a fellow businessman introduced Newton to Carrel, who was creating a stir in the scientific community for writing words—books and also essays solicited by Reader’s Digest—on prayer, psychology, and spiritual matters.  Carrel and LIndbergh were already friends; the death of Lindbergh’s sister from then-inoperable heart disease created his interest in Carrel’s research in cardiac and vascular surgery.  Carrel arranged the first meeting of Newton and Lindbergh. “I want you to tell hi how God came into your life,” Carrel had said. “He respects my beliefs, but I don’t think he’s found a satisfying faith himself yet. Possibly you can help him” (p. 152). Newton shared with Lindbergh some of his beliefs and religious discoveries, and the friendship proceeded from that foundation. Because Lindbergh lived many years after the other four men, the second half of the book deals with that friendship as Newton marries Ellie and the two couples enjoy times together.

The story of the various overlapping friendships makes for enjoyable, inspiring reading, and so, too, are the examples of the convictions of these people.  We see Edison refusing to become discouraged during years of experimentation, and we see him allowing a young man to carry a light bulb (which took many, many hours for Edison and his assistants to make) to another room—the same young man who had accidentally dropped and broken a bulb a few days before. Newton wonders what this act of trust meant to the young man, downhearted from his earlier carelessness.  Carrel, honored for his scientific research, grappled with issues of God, faith, spirituality, the meaning of psychic power, and issues of character. He was interested in Zen and meditation three decades before these things became popular in Western countries.  Having an intuition, Firestone sold $60 million of his own company stock in 1929 in order to have capital for other products, and he didn’t feel right, as the saying goes, having all his eggs in one basket.  Five days later the stock market crashed.  Although as concerned about products as any businessman, Ford one year doubled his employees’ wages to $5 a day, realizing the financial risk would improve productivity and product loyalty.  In opposing America’s entry into World War II Lindbergh paid a price in public criticism, then was grieved but supportive when intervention became inevitable after Pearl Harbor. Altogether, these men gave examples of their character: Edison never let failed experiments prevent him from pressing on to success; Firestone refused to conduct his business according to mere expedience; Ford struggled with new ideas and sometimes took serious business risks (like perfecting the already failed V-8 engine) in order to advance the industry; Carrel was interested in the whole of human experience beyond the merely empirical; though pressured by fame, Lindbergh sought new challenges.

Newton sadly concludes that, in spite of the conveniences and dynamic tools which these men bequeathed to us, and perhaps because of these things, our modern life is in peril as never before. I think about the era which Newton describes, when notions like “company loyalty” could be deeply esteemed, more so than in our era of public cynicism, fallen heroes, and corporate downsizing.  I think of people for whom character is a concern and are very individualistic in that concern; they neglect to see how character can be undermined in our present-day economic and corporate reality. Even our talk of “virtues” reflects our desire to regain something we’ve lost, and Newton’s book reminds us that not only virtue of faith, talent, risk-taking, creativity, common sense, and the willingness to swim against the stream for a greater principles—qualities he respected in his five friends—are values and principles that seem scare these days.  Newton’s book made me think about such things again, and the benefit of such a memoir is its ability to elicit such thought.

I realized, too, how important is the simple gift of friendship. “To Jim, personal relationships come first,” said Lindbergh of Newton (p. xiii).  Got a hold of this book if you’d like to be inspired to enrich your own friendships and values!

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Wallace Stegner, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.

Here is a book review which originally appeared in Springhouse in 1994…. Wallace Stegner was born in 1909 and died in 1993. He was the son of a speculator who spent his life drifting from western town to town, looking for bonanzas which never materialized and entering one boondoggle scheme after another, while doing “more human and environmental damage than he could have repaired in a second lifetime” (p. xxi). Stegner’s fifth book, The Big Rock Candy Mountain, was his first literary success in 1943 and is based on his rootless, childhood years.  I remember from grade school reading the chapter “The Colt,” which has been widely anthologized. In this volume the essays “Finding the Place: A Migrant Childhood” and “letter, Much Too Late” poignantly describes Stegner’s childhood. He taught at Wisconsin, Harvard and Stanford and wrote several novels and nonfiction works, most with western themes. One could scarcely find a better life’s work than Stegner’s: reflecting upon a region which one loves deeply.

This collection of essays concern western literature, identity, and environment. The book that its title, as does the 1943 novel, from a 1920s hobo ballad which celebrates a dreamt-of land of plenty, where “the handouts grow on bushes…and the sun shines every day. Stegner writes that his experiences of drifting, with his father, gave him a lifelong passion for the West—in American consciousness, the mythic land of abundance and opportunity—as well as a keen awareness of the consequence of human exploitation of the western environment. Early in the book he posses a ludicrous-sounding situation—imagine several millions people living in a desert region with no source of fresh water closer than 200 miles—and responds that this situation is, in fact, the case for Los Angeles and other western metropolitan areas, and that the droughts of that region had not slowed the growth of those areas. His father’s eagerness for economic gain and his disregard for the consequences of his actions seem an uneasy metaphor for the rapid growth of western cities.

What will be the consequence of such a situation? Stegner fears the worst, for the western environment, unlike non-arid regions, does not easily heal environmentally. “Damaged by human capacity to carelessness, it is more likely to go on to erosion gullies and desertification than to restore itself” (p. xvii). In the interesting essays “Thoughts in a Dry Land”, “Living Dry”, and “Striking the Rock”, he considers the theme of aridity in the history of western settlement, including the various federal agencies that have tried to preserve particular lands or which have developed dams and reservoirs to “engineer” aridity “out of existence” rather than adapt to it.  The dry “open spaces of the West are areas which many, including such perceptive authors as William Least Heat Moon, consider “the true West,” even though 75% of the West’s population live in large metropolitan areas far from fresh water sources.

Interestingly, Stegner sees western literature as symbolic of the cost to western environment, and the resurgence of western literature in recent years as a metaphor of what could be, in the future, a more responsible approach to western economic development. In several essays that examine Owen Wister’s The Virginian, John Steinbeck’s “Flight,” Walter Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident, and Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, Stegner shows how the western literary tradition reflects the regional experience. The West uniquely mirrors the American experience (at least that of Americans of European descent) of entering an abundant, new land where laws and social structures are not yet in place. The literary genre of “the Western” is popular because this experience of taming—both socially and environmentally—a new land still holds our imaginations. The unquestioned morality of The Virginian (a character Stegner doesn’t like), the lynch-law of The Ox-Bow Incident, and the pipe-dreamers like Stegner’s father embody the risk, and the lack of social and environmental responsibility, which the west has inspired. Stegner prefers authors who write appreciatively of place and “stewardship”—Larry McMurtry, George R. Stewart, Wendell Berry, Louis Erdrich, and others—because the West needs boosters with those qualities.

Stegner makes important points in these interesting essays.  I’m not an active environmentalist beyond the everyday chores of recycling and turning off lights, etc, but when my family and I lived in Arizona, I was chagrined that support for education, mental health, etc. was defeated at the polls one year (“let’s not throw money at the problem,” piously noted a Phoenix television editorial) even though plenty of money was “thrown” at economic development for rapidly growing cities. I don’t want to say development is automatically a bad thing, nor economic and energy needs, but other human needs tend to be lost in public debate, as well as needs of the environment such as clean air (which Phoenix lost years ago), water, the forests and desert.  The challenge has grown more dire in the years since I read this book, in our current mood toward deregulation, unhindered corporate growth, and the curtailment of government programs (even pension plans). I have no solution and neither really does Stegner, except for “stewardship,” a quality which could catch the public imagination as deeply as the West already has.  Poignantly (considering he died shortly before his collection was published), Stegner hoped he lived to see the West so revitalized.

I’m not sure whether Stegner gives sufficient benefit of the doubt to that American literary character, the rugged loner. True, such a character casts off identity, social and laws and thus potentially embodies irresponsible qualities. But another side of the character is the ability to triumph over insurmountable odds.  I take it from people who like, for instance, John Wayne, that his roles appealingly capture this quality. Stegner moves in that direction when he evokes Claude Dallas, the fellow who killed two game wardens and became in the process a folk hero. Stegner rightly deplores lawlessness and its “attractiveness” to some people, as well as the tendency for people to uncritically rally around even a violent folk hero.  Yet, might there be a new western character who, on one hand, faces great odds and seizes the public imagination, while on the other hand, rallies around issues of social and environmental import?

The idea seems odd at first—Marshall Dillon lobbying for clean air?—but, as Stegner writes, the West is in many ways still new and finding its identity. In so far as the West embodies many American values for both good and ill, perhaps we are a nation are, too.

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