Archive for the ‘Landscape’ Category

My hometown is Vandalia, IL, which is the former state capital and the terminus of the pioneer National Road. U.S. 40 follows the National Road’s pathway. About eight miles east of Vandalia, you can discover the site of the first post office in Fayette County’s Cumberland Township (later called Otego Twp.), and the site of two pumps—-one for people and one for horses—that had existed in pioneer days.

My friend Mary Burtschi (1911-2009) was a devoted local historian of Vandalia. She was one of the major reasons I became interested in local history. In her book Vandalia: Wilderness Capital of Lincoln’s Land (1963), she writes:

“In 1828 the mile stretch through the bottom land east of the Kaskaskia River [at Vandalia] was still heavily timbered. It was a tremendous undertaking clearing the sixty-six foot strip through underbrush and forest trees of such gigantic size. The roadbed itself was only thirty feet wide. Both oxen and horses were used to pull the huge stumps around which chains were fastened. The workers grumbled; it was too much physical exertion and they felt they were poorly paid. A song or rhyme that has been handed down describes the wretched condition of the pike:

“The roads are impassable—Hardly jackass able:
I think those that travel ‘em
Should turn out and gravel ‘em.

“Past the Statehouse square rolled the wheels of Conestoga wagons carrying settlers into a new life and hauling freight into a frontier territory and stagecoaches carrying travelers who would view the new land and then return home to sing its praises or to disparage the glowing accounts that had been written about it. A parade of critical visitors wanting to see the new democracy at work on the frontier cam through Vandalia. Many were convinced that the emotional religion at the camp meetings, the insolence of servants, and the free-for-alls in the grog-shops were too much for the educated man to tolerate. The impressions of the road and of the town recorded by these travelers is a part of Vandalia history.”

Mary quotes according from the German writer Frederck Gustorf, Edmund Flagg, and William Oliver, the latter noting an execrable well along the road. She continues:

“The ‘execrable well’ of which Oliver speaks was probably not the Twin Pumps on the Cumberland Road, located six miles east of Vandalia. Ezra Griffith, who came to this area in 1830, built the first frame house in Cumberland Township. The building, erected in 1835, contained the Cumberland Post Office, a store, and living quarters for the Griffith family. Across the road on the north side stood the wooden Twin Pumps with a horse trouble, hewn out of logs, at each one. The pump on the inside of the fence was used by the Griffith family for stock; the other on the outside of the fence was used by the traveler. Mr. Griffith maintained the pumps and provided a tin cup for the traveler to use. On the south side of the road for a quarter of a mile extended a line of shady locust trees. Here the traveler stopped to water his horses and to rest under the shade.” (pp. 145-146, 148)

Not long ago, I was over in my home area, Fayette County, IL, to take photos for the cover of an upcoming poetry book, and to photograph a few tombstones for the Find-a-Grave site. I visited the Pilcher Cemetery and the Griffith Cemetery, both in Otego Township; the two cemeteries represent much of my mother’s side of the family. My grandmother Crawford was a lifelong resident of Otego Twp. (and is buried in the Pilcher); she was friends with members of the Griffith family, like Chester Griffith who attended her church (and was a source for Mary’s history above). I think Ezra Griffith may have been a brother of my 3-great-grandmother Esther Washburn, but I’ve not proven that; the Griffith and Washburn families settled the area at about the same time.


Coming back out onto U.S. 40 from the Griffith Cemetery road, I took a picture of the little area that had been the site of the Twin Pumps. But I also photographed the memorial to the site had been erected across the highway on the south side. It’s been there a few years but I’d not taken the time to photograph it.


It was a beautiful, sunny summer morning, and I remembered again why the summer of 1974 was so important to me. I was a teenager and driving the seen-better-days ’63 Chevy that had been Dad’s stepfather’s. I was completing two genealogy projects: a family history of the Mom’s family, and also a record of all the tombstone inscriptions in the Pilcher Cemetery near Brownstown, IL, where much of my mom’s side of the family are buried. (I write about my hometown roots and genealogy projects in other essays on this blog.)

To do the work, I started in the morning. I put on shorts and tank top but I figured that solitary hours spent walking in the grass didn’t require shoes, so I didn’t even bring them along. A visitor to the cemetery one day didn’t expect to see a barefoot, longhaired young man examining tombstones and carrying a clipboard.

One morning, driving down IL 185, I had an emotional experience of belonging, a sureness that I would always feel a deep connection to this place: my hometown Vandalia and the surrounding Fayette County. (My main blog has a photo of the area of that highway.) During the ensuing years, my home area has been (to use Frank Zappa’s phrase) a conceptual continuity for me. All the history teaching and writing that I’ve done connect to the summers I did local genealogy projects. And all the Bible-related and religious work that I’ve done (including most of my eighteen books) relate back to my grandma Crawford (buried in that cemetery), who inspired me to do genealogy and first got me interested in the Bible and spirituality in a very preliminary way that bloomed a year or two later.

Places like Twin Pumps are important for local history and for all my own modest efforts during the past forty-some years.


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Recently I came across the term “ruin porn” in a New York Times article. I know this kind of non-erotic but addictive pleasure: the fascination with decrepit buildings and ugly landscapes. In fact, when I was a little boy, I loved the sign of automobile “junk yards” along highways as my parents and I traveled. (My parents dashed my fascination by reminding me that each wrecked car represents someone injured or killed.) I’ve also recently discovered the concept of urban exploration, or Urbex, the practice of discovering and documenting places that are in decline or abandoned, or unseen because they’re part of the urban infrastructure.

I’ve written about abandoned landscapes, for instance, here: https://paulstroble.wordpress.com/2010/01/19/sav-mart-memories/ The other day, as my daughter and I browsed the local Art Mart, I discovered among the book selection a new book by Tong Lam, Abandoned Futures (Carpet Bombing Culture, 2013).

Lam is a visual artist and historian who, according to his website, uses cinematographic and photographic techniques “to explore and document industrial and postindustrial ruins from around the world, as well as China’s hysterical transformation.” He researches “modern and contemporary China and East Asia, technoscience, media and spectacle, ruins, colonialism, and nationalism.” He is an associate professor of history at the University of Toronto. His websites are http://photography.tonglam.com/#/home?i=279 and http://www.tonglam.com/home.html

This interesting book captures a variety of abandoned and decaying landcapes. As the blurb on Amazon indicates, the despairing and apocalyptic images do contain hope, in the way trees and other flora return to the human-built scenes and begin to thrive.

I hate to use the word “haunting,” which seems overused, but it’s the word that comes to mind as I leaf through Lam’s photographs: futuristic UFO-shaped vacation homes in Taiwan, a factory, the abandoned island-city Hashima in southern Japan (used in the James Bond movie Skyfall, a “non-place” of thousands of discarded cars and vehicles in the Mojave Desert, buildings in ruined sections of Detroit, an empty carnival, a closed Bible college and seminary in southern Arizona, and others.

Lam’s commentary is important and thought-provoking, and should be taken to heart. For instance, he writes, “in many liberal democracies, government deficits and the retreat of the welfare state have resulted in service cuts and hospital closures…the most curious type of medical ruins are those highly specialized facilities that are suddenly rendered irrelevant as a result of paradigm shifts in medical science.” (The book has no page numbers; this is from chapter 9, “Maximizing Life”). Other kinds of ruins happen because they were made cheaply with no intention of long lives, and so buildings are discarded sometimes before they were completed; consequently, decline happens not over centuries but in a few decades or a few years (chapter 1, “Time Speeds Up”).

“Financial capital may be abstract, but the ruins it created are real. From the Global North to the Global South, the tsunami of financial capitalism sweeps away job security and certainties, destroying cities and lives… it turns out that Capitalism 2.0 has not gotten any smarter” (chapter 8, “Bubbles”).

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Here is a talk that I gave last month to our local interfaith breakfast group. My theme was sacred places in religious traditions.

A few years ago I wrote this book of Christian devotional theology: You Gave Me a Wide Place: Holy Places of Our Lives (Upper Room Books, 2006). The subject is the spirituality of the sense of place. I began with the observation that, although I received quite a bit of religious instruction as a kid, attending Sunday school at our small town church in Vandalia, IL, my most ongoing sense of religious feeling that rooted everything else was the physical space of our small church. I wondered about how the sense of place informs our religious feelings.

The title comes from Psalm 18, and my explorations had to do with ways that God creates spiritual place in our lives in the context of specific physical places.

I asked several friends to share places in their lives that they specially associate with religious growth or religious insight, whether or not it was a “big” spiritual experience. One friend talked about her college dorm room being a special place of religious growth and reorientation following her brother’s suicide. Several people recalled family farms and rural places, and several remembered places of particular beauty, like the ocean and the mountains. Another friend even talked about the way she hid under her bed as a child to get away from her loud brothers and began to feel God’s presence in the comfort of that room.

I also talked about difficult places, like accident sites or places associated with some disaster, like battlefields and the like. Cemeteries generally can be sacred places in this informal scene, but of tragedy and comfort.

For this group, I decided to dig a little more into the subject before coming back around to personal sacred places.

There are a number of “big” spiritual places,” which I didn’t really consider in this book but which are part of our religious heritage.

In his article “The Temple Mount as Sacred Space,” Tzi Freeman notes that the Bible contains what he calls “dual systems,” like Heaven and earth, G-d and humans, Creator and created, etc. Sometimes they meet, and these we might call the sacred places beloved in different world religions.

In Judaism, for instance, there is the Temple Mount, said to be the location of Abraham’s binding of Isaac, Jacob’s dream, the threshing floor that David purchased from Araunah the Jebusite, and the site of the two Temples. It is the place where where God chose the divine Presence in the Temple’s Holy of Holies. Of course, the Temple’s destruction is mourned on Tisha B’Av, and Jews do not walk on the Mount itself. There are also four holy cities associated with different times in Jewish life: Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed, and Tiberius.

In Christianity, sacred sites include those in Jerusalem and Israel associated with Jesus’ life.

The holiest sites common to all Muslims are Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. Specific holy places are the Grand Mosque (Masjid al-Haram) in Mecca, the Prophet’s Mosque (Al-Masjid al-Nabawi) in Medina, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The site on which the Al-Aqsa Mosque sites, along with the Dome of the Rock, is also called the Noble Sanctuary and is the Temple Mount in Jewish heritage. The holiest sites in Shia Islam are the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf, and the Imam Husayn Shrine with the Al Abbas Mosque in Karbala.

The most sacred place in Sikhism is the Sir Harmandir Sahib, or Golden Temple in Amritsar, India.

For Baha’is, the shrine of Bah’u’llah in Mahji near Acre Israel is the holiest site and the Qiblih, that is, the direction of prayer. The second holiest is the Shrine of the Bab in Haifa.

In Neo-Druidism, Stonehenge is a key holy site, and also Glastonbury.

In Hinduism there are tirthas, or places of pilgrimage. Benares (Varanasi) is the most famous and sone of several holy towns. There are seven ancient holy towns: Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh, and Sabarimala, Kerala are said to be the most major Pilgrim cities in Hinduism. Of these, Varanasi (also known as Benares) in Uttar Pradesh is considered the Holiest ancient site and it is considered by many to be the most sacred place of pilgrimage for Hindus irrespective of denomination.

Among Buddhist sacred places are sites associated with Gautama Buddha: the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, India; Kushinagar, India; Lumbini, Nepal; and Sarnath, India. There are also stupa, a mound-like structure that contains relics like the ashes of a monk. These are places of meditation.

In the LDS Church, there are several sacred places in history: the grove where Joseph Smith experienced the presence of God and Christ; the Hill Cumorah where the sacred records were hidden, locations of other of Smith’s spiritual experiences, and LDS Temples.

Theology about Places

Even though we identify sacred places among reliigous traditions, the theological distinctions about their sanctity differ.

In Judaism, the Tabernacle was a holy place which was safeguarded by limiting access to it, only priests entered it, and after the Temple was built, only the High Priest could enter the innermost place, and only on Yom Kippur.

There is of course no longer a Jerusalem Temple, and synagogues do not replace it. Synagogues are consecrated spaces that can be used only for the purpose of prayer, but a synagogue is not necessary for worship. Worship can be carried out alone or with less than a minyan, and communal Jewish worship can be carried out wherever ten Jews (a minyan) assemble. Worship can also be carried out alone or with fewer than ten people assembled together. However there are certain prayers that are communal prayers and therefore can be recited only by a minyan.

But Judaism also considers Shabbat a sacred place in time, an inherently holy place that does not exist in space.

In Islam, what is called the Bayt al-Ma`mur (the Much-frequented House) is located in the seventh firmament, which is the House around which those in the heavens circumambulate. This heavenly House is directly above the earthly Ka’ba and is the template for the Ka’ba, so that the Ka’ba is in turn a replica of the heavenly house where angels circumambulate, providing an important “axis mundi”. Yet this is not the place of direct communication with God nor the place of only a select few, but is rather the axis mundi and, of course, the qibla for prayer.

In Christianity, although places associated with Jesus’ life are often called holy places, there are not requirements for Christians to visit these, as there is in Islam with the pillar of the hajj. You could say that in Christianity, Jesus himself is the holy “place,” present in the sacraments. For instance, when Catholics have eucharistic adoration, they affirm that Christ is right here and present in this place.

In Hinduism, temples are sacred because human have access to the gods, who are present there. At the center of the temple is the murti, or the physical image of the deity, which in turn is considered to be and treated as the living god who is attended to by worshipers. Believers can thus behold, or take darshan, of the deity, because the diety can be simulaneously and fully present in many and possibly an infinite number of different places.

Legendarily, Ashoka divided the ashes of Siddhartha and distributed them to 84,000 stupas through his realm, so that the land of Buddhism is filled with these holy places. Some believed that the enlightened mind of the person enshrined there continued at that place. Over the years, stupas were themselves ocnsidered manifestations of the sacred world. The Great Temple at Borobudur in Java, Inonesia is a series of stupas, where pilgrims circumambulate.

In the LDS Church, LDS temples are the fullest expression of sacred space, into which only church members in good standing and with a temple recommend may enter. But LDS chapels are also places of saccred ritual, without restriction of entry, and family homes are also places where the Holy Ghost can be present.

Religion as unconnected to a particular place.

As I was working on this talk, I was very intrigued by the thesis of Yi Fu Tuan, who argues that, in a very strong sense that religion is antithetical, to sacred places. (Religion: From Place to Placelessness. Text by Yi-Fu Tuan. Photographs and Essays by Martha A. Strawn. Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago, 2009.)

One way that religion is antithetical to sacred space, is the prohibition against idolatry, which would include any notion of localizing the presence of God. Certainly a major aspect of the Ka’ba is that the Prophet Muhammad removed all idolatry from the place so that it could be wholly devoted to Allah who is never identified with any earthly thing.

Another sense of religion’s opposition to sacred place is the theological assertion that God encompasses all places. For instance, in Chinese religion, there is specification of levels of heaven and of Pure Lands. But the vastness of the universe in Hinduism and the Abrahamic religions aren’t necessarily plotted. For instance, Tuan notes, in the Comedy of Dante, Hell is geographical but Heaven is not.

In Native spirituality, too, is a belief in balance and mutuality among beings, which includes the sun and moon, meteorological phenomena, and features of the earth. “All these beings are imbued with power; all are alive in some sense.” Many locations can be sacred places, “filled with numinous aura…. alive by virtue of the narratives nad the rituals that may accompany them.” Likewise, common to the Chinese, there is a notion of cardinal points. Chinese, however, have less stress on narrative.

In Europe, however, we do not have this “clear notion of cosmic space demarcated by the cardinal points,” but rather a universe created by God in which God still acts. Thus churches can be built anywhere, because no particular natural places are specifically sacred.

Interestingly, Tuan notes that although Christianity places great stress upon the life story of Jesus, there is less stress than in Native spirituality upon the landscape, since he was always moving around. (Also, one might add, there isn’t necessarily unanimity of conviction about sites. For instance there are two traditional sites of Jesus’ tomb.)

In Christianity, too, worshipers focus not so much on places but upon worshiping “the Father in spirit and truth,” as Jesus puts it in the Gospel of John. Thus, the community is broadened to encompass many places—but also to transcend time and space, since the community of Christ includes the dead as well as the living. And, like Jesus, early Christians moved around and were not very localized. Christians were called “pilgrims” in early antiquity, people who were literally or figuratively on the move, dis-placed.” One could draw a comparison with arhats in Theravada Buddhism: monks who are rootless rather than rooted to a specific place.

Judaism of coruse has no place of intrinsic holiness: that was the Temple, destroyed in 70 AD. Now, any clean room that contains Torah scrools and in which a minyan can worship becomes Makom Kadosh, or Holy Space. I began my little book with the observation that the Bible refers metaphorically to God in place-terms. God is our machseh, that is, “dwelling place” (Deut. 33:27, RSV), or “refuge” (KJV and NIV). Psalm 46:1 calls God “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” In Genesis 28:17, God is maqom, “How awesome is this place!” During the rabbinical period the word maqom became a metaphorical name for God, as in Philo writes, “God … is called place, for He encompasses all things, but is not encompassed by anything.” Also, a midrash refers to God as “place” because God is “the place of the world.” A scripture like Psalm 139:7-10 shows how God comes to every place where we are and is not limited to our circumstances.

Sacred Space As Many Places

The author Peter Knobel writes, “Sacred Space is where God dwells and hearts are moved.” There is the Holy Place (mikdash) of the Temple where God dwelled, and also there is the holy space in the hearts of people who are moved to zedaqah. He points to ways that Jews can create “a whole space so that God can dwell among us, perhaps in ways that create Jewish identity and community via streaming services and online education, a “synagogue without borders”

Knobel raises a different understanding of sacred space: Holy Place as the site of good deeds. But this understanding verifies Tuan’s thesis that religion is antithetical to place, for (as in Quran 2:177), piety can happen anywhere, not just in specific places, and piety can possibly be anonymous and private, known only to God.

There is also a sense that story-telling facilitates the drive toward placelessness. We may not go to a specific place with intrinsic holiness, but we can retell the story. In important ways that shifts the “location” of sacredness” to time over place, analogous to the Jewish sabbath. In my Upper Room Books study, I discussed how personal locations become “sacred”: our own sacred places become personal locations that are in turn connected to the narratives of our religious traditions. These locations are identifiable in place terms but also temporal terms: for instance, the way I experienced a deep spiritual experience of peace and healing in the summer of 1996 in a particular but very mundane location.

So our contemporary understanding of sacred space/place are complex. (1) There are locations in religious traditions that are very key within the narrative and historical existence of those traditions, and that narrative-historical existence in turn points us to, or intersects with, the spiritual world in ways understood differently in each tradition. And (2) there can be an infinite variety of more personal and communal sacred places, because they are not only connected to the sacred religious narratives but also the personal narrative of each believer’s heart.

(At this point I opened for questions from our group. Several people, reflecting a spectrum of religious traditions, commented on their own understandings of sacred place. The idea of Sabbath as a “place” lead to some interesting discussions. Connected to Knobel’s idea, we also thought about how the internet can create “virtual sacred places” “without borders,” for instance @Virtual_Abbey on Twitter, and others.)

S. R. Burge, “Angels, Ritual and Sacred Space in Islam.” Comparative Islamic Studies 5.2. (209) 221-245. Accessed at equinoxonline.

Peter S. Knobel, “Sacred Space is Where God Dwells and Hearts are Moved.” http://www.reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/trumah/sacred-space-where-god-dwells-and-hearts-are-moved

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Small Town America, by photographer David Plowden, is a favorite book. I wrote and published this review in Springhouse several years ago. The book was published by Henry N. Abrams, Inc. in 1994 (price $49.95) and although it’s no longer in print, it is available via Amazon sellers and used book sites.(1)

The American small town remains fixed in our imaginations. Those of us who have left small hometowns lament, paradoxically, at the changing social forces that beset small communities. Qualities remain fresh in our minds: the excitement that once typified the small business districts; the perceived slowness of time and pace; the ability to conduct serious business transactions on a first-name, handshake basis; the neighborliness along with the provinciality; the easy association of names and families; the lack of privacy that contrasts with the often-preferred anonymity of urban and suburban existence.

When I originally wrote this review in 1996, I had just self-published a set of previously-published essays in a little book Journeys Home. Therein, I remembered my mostly happy childhood in a small southern Illinois town, Vandalia, IL. In the years since I’ve continued to write about my home places, interjecting stories in otherwise my books with topics unrelated to the small-town theme. To use Frank Zappa’s term, the small town (and the larger themes of place and of human community) have comprised my “conceptual continuity.” If you have a similar kind of loyalty to your small town roots, you’ll appreciate Plowden’s words and pictures.

In spite of their seeming simplicity, small towns are very complex places, both in terms of social dynamics and in their potential for varied portraiture. In his introduction to Plowden’s book, David McCullough, author of acclaimed historical biographies, notes how different are the portraits of small towns among works by writers like Mark Twain, Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, and Larry McMurtry (not to mention, he notes such different movies as It’s a Wonderful Life and Blue Velvet). Several photographers, like Quinta Scott (Route 66: The Highway and Its People, 1988, text by Susan Croce Kelly), Drake Hokansen (The Lincoln Highway, 1991), Richard Avedon (In the American West, 1983), and the novelist and photographer Wright Morris (The Home Place, 1947, Photographs and Words, 1991) have published haunting photographs of small town people and places.

In this book, David Plowden has brought together 111 photographs of small towns, taken over 25 years, into a composite portrait of “any town” U.S.A. Plowden has published several collections of his photographs. In the accompanying essay, Plowden recalls Putney, Vermont, where he was born in 1932. Liveries, general stores, “tonsorial parlors,” grist mills, and blacksmiths of the town had, by the time of his childhood, largely given way to barbershops and small cafes, local telephone operators who handled all incoming and outgoing calls, busy railroad stations, and a variety of downtown stores. Transactions were informal and trusting. One’s private affairs were public knowledge. The late-1800s facades of the business district featured modern signs more suitable for ubiquitous automobiles. Change inevitably comes, with interstate highways, Wal-Marts, and other franchises. The postwar generation, eager to be progressive, razed old buildings. Grand old hotels became homes for the elderly. Farms became “agribusinesses.” Prominent citizens died. “His” Putney no longer exists.

Many of us understand the poignancy of that change. Several years ago, in a Flagstaff, AZ, bookshop, I found Plowden’s earlier and angrier book, The Hand of Man in America (1973). Using his own words plus an array of black and white photos from around the country, Plowden called attention to the destruction wrought to American landscapes thanks to industry, strip malls, superhighways, and the loss of local heritage. Writing about local change can be subjective, for what is condemned as garish in one era is deemed old-fashioned in the next, and a few of Plowden’s 1973 examples of visual ugliness look to me today as quaint and even nostalgic.

Small Town America, while including concerns about social change, is a more positive though still elegiac account. That’s a value of photographs and judgments like his; they help us track social change and judge the value of structures that are part of our human-built landscapes. Plowden includes a generous number of black and white photographs from towns from New England to the West. He prefers buildings and rooms that hearken to his own childhood and includes fewer architectural steles characteristic of the 1950s and 1960s tourist trade. His exterior portraits include grain elevators, quiet railroad crossings, Victorian-era commercial blocks, and other styles and ornaments of vernacular architecture. He includes one photo of a wonderful old gas pump that still carries its glass crown.

Most of Plowden’s photographs depict interiors: antique hardware cabinets still in use, heavily used roll-top desks, general stores, barbershops, theaters, hotels, taverns, post offices, courtrooms, lodges, libraries, schools, and churches. I love one church interior that has the old-fashioned wooden display board for weekly attendance and offerings. Such photographs call attention to the towns’ “glory days” yet testify that the furniture and fixtures of bygone eras are by no means removed from everyday life, nor rejected for not being modern.

He also photographs several people: a horse trader, a rare blacksmith in the full regalia of his trade, a kid on a bicycle, children in school, a librarian, a judge, farmers, a barber, a tavern owner, a woman who runs a restaurant, a bearded restaurant customer working on his beer, and other small town folk. Like Quinta Scott’s Route 66 individuals, and unlike Richard Avedon’s Western people, Plowden’s several portraits of small town people look natural, in the midst of their life and work, and by no means unhappy. They’re the kind of people you and I know well.


1. This book is one of several books that Plowden (who turned 81 last October) has published, like the recent Requiem for Steam: The Railroad Photographs of David Plowden. His website is davidplowden.com.

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Andrew Wyeth

A couple years ago, my wife had business in New York and I came along. One afternoon I walked over to MOMA to enjoy, among other things, the special exhibit on abstract expressionism. I walked through rooms of Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, and Newman, and also enjoyed seeing art by Warhol, Lichtenstein, and others. Still looking at paintings, but also momentarily disoriented with respect to the exit, I wandered through an opening into another room, turned the corner, and realized I was standing in front of “Christina’s World,” which I’d forgotten was located at MOMA. What a change from the expressionists! I’d seen the photos of this painting–which is about 3 feet by 4 feet—many times, of course.

Long before I started writing about “the sense of place,” I enjoyed Andrew Wyeth’s art. In the early 1980s I purchased Thomas Hoving’s Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth (Houghton Mifflin, 1978), in which Wyeth discusses with Hoving his Kuerner and Olsen paintings and his relationship with the two families. Interestingly, Wyeth commented that people wrote him about “Christina’s World,” saying that he expressed their own lives in the picture; and yet those people didn’t notice that Christina was disabled. At the time I lived in a very rural area and I appreciated Wyeth’s ability to artistically depict great, unspoken significance in natural scenery and everyday objects. Wyeth told about his unplanned moments of inspiration, as when his friend Karl Kuerner pulled some homemade sausage off meat hooks on the ceiling. Wyeth, noticing the ugly hooks, used them in the painting “Karl.”

When our local Borders store closed, my daughter and I sadly stopped by and took advantage of sales. (We had loved our Borders in Ohio, which closed several months ago.) I noticed Anne Classen Knutson’s Andrew Wyeth: Memory & Magic (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc, 2005) and purchased it. The book explained well the artistic and subconscious reasons why many of us love Wyeth’s art. In her essay “Andrew Wyeth’s Language of Things” (pp. 45-83), Knutson quotes the historian Wanda Corn that Wyeth’s paintings frequently feature windows, vessels, ajar doors, and womb-like spaces. “In general, the objects he paints fall into three categories: still lifes in nature, vessels, and thresholds” (p. 45). Knutson writes, “Many of the natural and domestic objects that Wyeth foregrounds in his paintings have long been used in western rituals of mourning and death. Flowers, trees, and other organic matter are traditional metaphors for death and the fragility of life, and the enduring properties of granite and other rock symbolize the persistence of memory… Vessels are often used in memorials as metaphors for memory storage, and thresholds suggest transformation, a concept often explored in images of mourning. When Wyeth is not representing the transience of life, he often tries to freeze time in his paintings, just as nineteenth century postmortem photographs were sometimes placed within the face of a stopped clock” (p. 47). His paintings also depict the ephemeral quality of life: the Olsen’s house in “Weatherside”, for instance, seemed to be dying and disappearing (p. 68).

Little wonder that Wyeth’s paintings are attractive and compelling to many of us because memory, death, mourning, and a consciousness of life’s impermanence are universal! Someone could do a phenomenology of Wyeth’s images and symbols via the philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s “poetics of space” and the way (if I recall Bachelard’s argument correctly) those images and symbols are ontologically prior to their expression.

Knutson comments that although Wyeth’s paintings seem realistic, “[h]is realism is magic realism, prompted by drams and imagination rather than observed reality” (p. 47). (The first essay is by Michael R. Taylor, “Between Realism and Surrealism: The Early Work of Andrew Wyeth”.) Interestingly, Wyeth’s paintings are often inspired by but do not depict powerful personal memories. For instance, the painting “Indian Summer”—a nude woman, seen from behind, who is looking into darkness—was inspired by a angel figurine that was a Christmas tree ornament (p. 47). “Winter, 1946,” a hill down which a boy runs awkwardly and uncertainly, has its background in the accidental death of Wyeth’s father, as does “Christina’s World” (pp. 58-59).

Like the latter two paintings, Wyeth often “merges” human figures with the landscape. But compared to some paintings, the Helga pictures are more consistently about vitality and rebirth rather than loss. My family and I visited the Helga exhibit at the Canton (Ohio) Museum of Art in 2004. In those drawings and paintings, Helga becomes a kind of embodiment of nature (Knutson, p. 61). But although as strong and “other” as a landscape—unlike Christina, Karl, and some others, Helga never makes eye contact with the viewer—her significance is not simply landscape. As David Kuspit puts it: in people like Christina Olson and also Wyeth’s African-American models, “[A]gain and again we see Wyeth looking for signs of ego strength in people in whom one doesn’t expect to find it. But Wyeth always takes a lingering, searching second glance, discovering strengths of character in everyday people–a self-respect oddly rooted in respect for the body, whatever its problems” (David Kuspit, “The Meaning of Helga,” Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures (exhibition book), Washington, DC: International Arts & Artists, 2004, p. 9).

Wyeth died in 2009. His obituary in the New York Times gives an interesting overview of his life and career: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/17/arts/design/17wyeth.html

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A while back, I saw a feature on “CBS Sunday Morning” about the artist Ed Ruscha. I was surprised I hadn’t noticed his art before—my own fault. I’d love to have a print of paintings like “Standard Station, Amarillo Texas” (1963) or “The Canyons” (1979) or the graphite “Twentysix Gasoline Stations” (1964) (or the photographic book), or the painting “Noise, Pencil, Broken Pencil, Cheap Western” (1963), and others, and I want to look for his art at the MoMA when we’re in New York next spring.

Born in 1937, Ruscha (pronounced roo-SHAY) is an LA-based artist, photographer, filmmaker, and printmaker. As this article from a recent exhibition in Stockholm indicates, Ruscha has been identified with both pop art and conceptual art, and his work has commonalities with surrealism and Dada, but, according to this article, Ruscha’s art isn’t wholly identifiable with a particular movement(http://www.modernamuseet.se/en/Stockholm/Exhibitions/2010/Ed-Ruscha/Fifty-Years-of-Painting). He is a contemporary of artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein, was influenced by artists like Jasper Johns and Edward Hopper, and was featured in very early exhibitions of pop art. His West Coast subject matter makes him an interesting artist in the pop and conceptual art traditions.

After the “Sunday Morning” report I ordered the heavy retrospective history, Ed Ruscha by Richard D. Marshall (New York: Phaidon Press, Inc., 2003). Leafing through the book, I loved the quality of his art explained in the above Moderna Museet article, “Ruscha’s overarching theme is words and their constantly shifting relationships with context and message. In all his paintings there are tensions and frictions at play: between foreground and background, between text and image, and between how words look and what they mean.”

Unfortunately, the print in Marshall’s Ruscha is small, and gray rather than black—a strain for this middle-aged person—so I’m still dipping into the text as best as I can while enjoying the many reproductions. Meanwhile, I enjoyed an article by Laura Cumming (http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2009/oct/18/ed-ruscha-hayward-baldessari-tate). Cumming notes how Ruscha “painted words out of context, giving them a non-verbal life of their own as figures in a landscape; and he pictured words as images.” “His humour is perennial but it coexists with profundity.”

I found another article, an interview with Ruscha by Martin Gayford (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-features/6224022/Ed-Ruscha-interview.html). Gaylord writes that Ruscha’s work “gives one the feeling of being on an endless road through an immense landscape, interrupted by puzzling messages on billboards, at once folksy and mysterious, a journey through a wide space the only features of which are logos, gas stations and parking lots. Joan Didion – another literary admirer – wrote that Ruscha’s works ‘are distillations, the thing compressed to its most pure essence’. They are also sometimes surprisingly funny, in a laconic, Marcel Duchamp-meets-Clint Eastwood sort of way. Ruscha invented an entire artistic genre – one of several in his repertoire – that consists of nothing but words and phrases, floating in vaguely defined space: All You Can Eat, ½ Starved, ½ Crocked, ½ Insane, Chicken Rivets, Girls Girls Girls, Defective Silencer Units, Etc, and – especially ironic in the current circumstances – I Don’t Want No Retro Spective, a pastel from 1979.”

As with these other referenced articles, that whole essay and interview are worth reading, with many more insights and discussions that I can summarize. I was interested that Ruscha’s friend, with whom he drove Route 66 to California in the 1950s, was the musician Mason Williams, whose pieces “Classical Gas” and “Baroque-a-Nova” have been favorites of mine for over forty years.

In still another article, http://www.beatmuseum.org/ruscha/edruscha.html, the author writes this: “Born and raised Catholic, Ruscha readily admits to the influence of religion in his work. He is also aware of the centuries-old tradition of religious imagery in which light beams have been used to represent divine presence. But his work makes no claims for a particular moral position or spiritual attitude.” As I dig into the Marshall text in the days ahead, this theme is something I’d like to learn more about.

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ImageLate last fall, I listened to the Diane Rehm radio show as I drove to the supermarket, and her guest that day was Eleanor Jones Harvey, senior curator of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Harvey discussed her upcoming book, “The Civil War and American Art” (Smithsonian American Art Museum and Yale University Press, 2012), resulting in turn from the museum’s exhibition.

I pre-ordered the book once I got home and it arrived in time to be enjoyable Christmas holiday study. Harvey writes, “Surprisingly few American painters engaged directly with the war as it was being fought. There was little market for depictions of Americans killing one another, and artists found it difficult to immediately identify heroes and pivotal battles. Without the luxury of time and reflection, these artists approached the Civil War in a more elliptical matter” (p. 1).

That elliptical manner and use of metaphors are among the things so fascinating about the paintings depicted and discussed in this book. For instance, George Caleb Bingham painted Order No. 11 (1865-1870), depicting a forced evacuation of homesteaders from western Missouri, but Bingham protests the evacuation by invoking 15th century paintings Expulsion from Paradise by Masaccio and The Lamentation by Petrus Christus (p. 12-13). The depiction of Arctic ice in Frederic Edwin Church’s beautiful The Icebergs (1861) calls attention to a contemporary image, in Washington DC and elsewhere, that slavery’s end was as inevitable as icebergs melting tropical water (pp. 31-32).

Harvey writes, “During the first half of the nineteenth century, landscape painting was a simulacrum of American Life and values. Landscape metaphors and imagery permeated the American consciousness” (p. 19). Opposite that quotation is the example of Asher Durand’s Kindred Spirits (1849), one of my own favorite paintings. But a common metaphor for the war was ominous weather, and landscape paintings began to look darker, like Martin Johnson Heade’s Approaching Thunder Storm from 1859 and Sanford Robinson Gifford’s A Coming Storm from 1863 (p. 64). A haunting painting is the enigmatic The Girl I Left Behind Me from circa 1872, by Eastman Johnson, depicting a young woman standing in a strong wind (p. 230). Also haunting are a pair of paintings by John Frederick Kensett, Sunrise Among the Rocks of Paradise, Newport (1859) and Paradise Rocks, Newport (circa 1865), the very same scene, but the second painting is so much darker and more somber (pp. 68-69).

There were also battlefield paintings, such as Frederic Edwin Church’s Our Banner in the Sky (1861, p. 38, the one I inserted above), James Hopes’ Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862 and Bloody Lane (p. 7), Winslow Homer’s Sharpshooter (1863, p. 150), his Skirmish in the Wilderness (1864, pp. 158-159), and Gifford’s The Camp of the Seventh Regiment near Frederick, Maryland (1863, p. 126). I’m putting together a future college course about religion during the Civil War, and one painting reflecting that experience is Gifford’s Preaching to the Troops, or Sunday Morning at Camp Cameron near Washington, May 1861 (pp. 116-117).

Artists also movingly depicted the lives of free blacks and recently freed slaves, like Thomas Waterman Wood’s A Bit of War History: The Contraband, The Recruit, and The Veteran (1866, p. 209), Edwin White’s Thoughts of Liberia, Emancipation (p. 210, reflecting the controversial idea of sending blacks back to Africa), Eastman Johnson’s The Lord is My Shepherd (1863), his A Ride for Liberty—The Fugitive Slaves, March 2, 1862 (1862, p. 201), and Homer’s A Visit from the Old Mistress (1876, p. 219), reflecting “the dismay felt by an overwhelming majority of former slaveholders that their slaves did not in fact love them or wish to be enslaved” (p. 218).

Harvey also examines wartime photography, since the Civil War was the first war in which photography (and the often gruesome images of battlefield casualities) was important.

I love Hudson River School paintings and mentioned a book about the school in my 7/2/12 post. Harvey’s book depicts how the “primal experience of nature” depicted in those earlier paintings carried over into paintings of the 1850s and after—but became more stark and reflective of the national tragedy (pp. 17, 19). It is also an excellent source for those of us who love studying the Civil War, and she quotes many writers and politicians of the time as she discusses the pre-war years, the war itself, Reconstruction, and Reconstruction’s collapse. Of course the photographs and paintings are interesting to appreciate as you leaf through the pages, but the chapters are very informative and interesting.

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“The Knowledge”

Related to Olympics coverage, NBC featured a story this morning, about “the knowledge,” which is the 50,000 streets and thousands of sites and restaurants, etc., that London cabbies have to learn, so they can quickly take passengers anywhere. Our cabbie in London took us quickly from Heathrow to our hotel in Victoria without a missed street.  Another cabbie knew instantly how to get to John Wesley’s Chapel from Victoria (a few miles away), though he said he hadn’t been asked to for a long time. When I noted this on Facebook, a friend who had been to London twice added that the certification for London cabbies is the equivalent to a college degree, and about as expensive!

All this made me think of a different kind of local knowledge. I had lunch with the pastor of the church a while back. He took me to a place in nearby Kirkwood, MO. He mentioned that the building had once been a furniture store, and although the restaurant went by a different name, people still referred to the place as “the furniture store.”

I said that my family and I used to live in a community where a local landmark was “the old Sears store.” The building now contained several different shops and businesses. Nothing identified it as a former Sears place. But folks still said things like “Turn left a block past the old Sears store.” Newbies to the community, as we had been, were very confused by such directions!

The pastor said that he served a rural community and was told to turn at the Old Schoolhouse intersection. He got completely lost and asked for directions. The person chuckled, “That schoolhouse was torn down twenty years ago!”

In the place we previously lived, I asked a church friend the location of a store, and she said, “Just to the left of old Route 21.” I figured out that she meant a certain street which had once been U.S. 21, but that highway had long since been rerouted, and nothing on the street today indicates its earlier designation.

Similarly my hometown, Vandalia, Illinois.  On the “Vandalia Memories” Facebook page, some of us chuckle that we still call stores by the names they had thirty or forty years ago, not out of disrespect for the current owners but from habit.  A classmate has an excellent music store on the main street, but instead of calling it “The Noise” some of us forget and call it “Merriman’s” or “Bo-K,” businesses there in the 1960s and 1970s.

When you move to a new community, you have to learn aspects of the place: locations of good restaurants, the nearest post office, good places to service your car, and other things. You have to learn local perception of things: which beloved sports teams are rivals, for instance. New to St. Louis, we learned that folks are interested in which high school you attended; it’s a way of connecting with people, in a way. In some communities, unfortunately, you never quite catch what makes folks tick, and you come away regretful that your life there was less positive than it could’ve been. But usually, if a community is friendly, and if you have an interest in people, you can ascertain local interests and make enjoyable connections.

One thing that I love about “local knowledge,” though, is discovering those beloved places which people hold in memory. Folks were accustomed to the furniture store, the schoolhouse, or whatever the place was. Now, the store is something else, or the place is torn down, but the places remain landmarks: landmarks of the hearts, I’m tempted to say.

I found this quote from Katherine Mansfield. “How hard it is to escape from places. However carefully one goes they hold you—you leave little bits of yourself fluttering on the fences—like rags and shreds of your very life.”

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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

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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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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