Archive for the ‘Landscape’ Category

“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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Trees in the Bible

“Trees in church! declared a Facebook friend, referring to the royal wedding between WIlliam and Catherine. Not having gotten up early to watch, I noticed in the film clips that, sure enough, Westminster Abbey was full of trees!  Specifically, according to an online source, six field maples and two hornbeams.

Trees in church… what about trees in the Bible? It didn’t take me too long to realize that the Bible is arboreous. So in honor of springtime, and of Earth Day tomorrow, here is a lighthearted search form “woody” texts.

Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees; and they camped there by the water (Ex 15:27).

On the first day you shall take the fruit of majestic trees branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days (Lev. 23:40).

You shall have olive trees throughout all your territory, but you shall not anoint yourself with the oil, for your olives shall drop off (Deut. 28:40)

When David inquired of the Lord, he said, “You shall not go up; go round to their rear, and come upon them opposite the balsam trees (2 Sam. 5:23).

He went after the man of God, and found him sitting under an oak tree. He said to him, “Are you the man of God who came from Judah?” He answered, “I am.” (1 Kings 13:14).

But he himself went on a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take  away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” (1 Kings 19:4).

Over the olive and sycamore trees in the Shephelah was Baal-hanan the Gederite. Over the stores of oil was Joash (1 Chr. 27:28).

[A]nd that they should publish and proclaim in all their towns and in Jerusalem as follows, “Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths (“tabernacles,” in Hebrew succoth), as it is written” (Neh. 8:15).

The lotus trees cover it for shade; the willows of the wadi surround it (Job 40: )

As an apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste (Song of Songs 2:3).

You are stately as a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters (Song of Songs 7:7).

He cuts down cedars or chooses a holm tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it (Isa. 44:14).

The cedars in the garden of God could not rival it, nor the fir trees equal its boughs; the plane trees were as nothing compared with its branches; no tree in the garden of God was like it in beauty (Ez. 31:8).

The vine withers, the fig tree droops. Pomegranate, palm, and apple—all the trees of the field are dried up; surely, joy withers away among the people (Joel 1:12).

In the night I saw a man riding on a red horse!  He was standing among the myrtle trees in the glen; and behind him were red, sorrel, and white horses (Zech. 1:8).

Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit (Matt. 12:33).

There are more references to trees in the BIble, but among other notable ones are: Abraham’s tamarisk tree in Beer-sheba (Gen. 21:33), Jonah’s leafy tree (John 4), Jesus’ illustrative mustard tree (Matt. 12:33, Luke 17:6), the doomed fig tree (Matt. 21:19), Zacchaeus’ sycamore (LUke 19:4), Paul’s figurative olive tree (Romans 11:17, 24), the palm trees that supplied branches for Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (John 12:13), the olive trees that stand before the Lord (Rev. 11:4), and many others. Could you describe ways that trees function within the Bible’s sections: Torah, History, Writings, Prophets, Gospels, and Epistles? Write me a ten page paper, ha ha …

Most of all, trees are biblically connected with life and salvation. Bible texts are interconnected with trees, beginning middle and end: the Trees of Life and of Good and Evil in Eden, the cypress wood that formed the saving Ark, the acacia wood used for the  Tabernacle and its various components (Ex. 25, 30, 36-39), the Lebanon cedar and other woods used in Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 5-7, 2 Chr. 2-4), the wood of Christ’s manger, the cross (the “tree” on which Christ took our curse: Deut. 21:22-23; Gal. 3:3) and finally the restored tree of life of Revelation 22:2:

On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

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I’ll soon post here a remembrance of an author and activist, but until I can figure out some formatting problems, here is the link:  http://paulstroble.blogspot.com/2011/07/anne-labastille-1935-2011.html

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I’ve written in several other posts concerning my fondness for old highways.  One aspect I love is former alignments, the kind you can see as you drive the older two-lane highways through countryside. The first alignment from the 1910s or 1920s made a curve, but the newer alignment, on which you drive, goes straighter. Meanwhile, off to the side, the old pavement remains, with grass sprouting through cracks and seams. One such wide, abandoned curve is north of my hometown, just to the east of the modern U.S. 51 (which is in the right-hand background of this picture).  The alignment’s old bridge still has a plaque dated 1924 and indicating that the road was originally State Route 2.

In other places, the older alignment passed directly through rural villages but the newer alignment curves around to the side. South of my hometown, U.S. 51 proceeds through a nice series of towns and villages: the unincorporated Shobonier, Vernon, Patoka, and Sandoval. At the outskirts of both Shobonier and Patoka, you can still see a few hundred feet of abandoned roadbed indicating the original path of the highway as it passed through the respective business districts.

My hometown has similar, old alignments at its city limits, one on the opposite side of the river, where 40 was rerouted to the south to accommodate a new river bridge, and the other where the first pathway of U.S. 40 (the former Illinois 140) enters town.  There, the original road went straight then make a curve to the left, but the replacement alignment first makes a curve and then heads straight into town.  As one sometimes sees when discovering original alignments, the old road serves as access to people’s homes.

The last time I drove 51 north of my hometown, I noticed that the new, wider alignment didn’t extend too far south of Decatur but had bypassed another town that I liked when I was young, Moweaqua. Sure enough, at the north and south outskirts of town, a few hundred feet of abandoned roadbed indicated the original way into the town, where my parents and I sometimes stopped at a downtown restaurant (which is still operating) after our Decatur shopping trips were done. Although the realignments through Shobonier and Patoka had been done “before my time,” I still remembered the original approach to downtown Moweaqua and the anticipation of pancakes.

East of my hometown, at the intersection of U.S. 40 and Illinois 185, the two roads once went straight northwest and southeast, respectively, but the construction of Interstate 70 necessitated an alignment reconstruction, so U.S. 40 makes an S-curve over the interstate, and the intersection with 185 is a few hundred feet to the east.  The original pavements are still there, however, and the new alignment of 185 shows a seam where the road once went straight. This intersection was quite important to me as a little boy, because it was the halfway point to my grandma’s house.

I enjoyed seeing another example of this landscape history as I traveled in central Illinois recently. Driving down I-55 north of Springfield, I pulled off at Elkhart, Illinois because I heard the downtown had antique shops.  But a stopped train prevented access into the business district, so I just drove south on old Route 66 toward nearby Williamsville. On the north side of town, the original alignment of 66 (and perhaps of its predecessor, IL 4) lay in a grassy area and made its separate, abandoned way toward the center of town, while the newer road on which I drove bypassed the business district. Interestingly, there is a newer, four-lane version of Route 66 outside Williamsville, although neither it nor the two-lane route go very far before deadending at I-55, which you could call the fourth stage of automobile highway evidenced at Williamsville.  (The four-lane version of Route 66 can be seen elsewhere in Illinois.  One alignment proceeds out of Springfield, dead-ends at Lake Springfield, and resumes on the lake’s other side.  Here is a picture of a four-lane alignment north of Litchfield, IL, with only the former northbound lanes still open.)


Mentioning U.S. 51 just now sets me daydreaming about numerous memories of that road.

“Where two great highways cross!” declared a Vandalia brochure from the 1940s, referring to U.S. 40 and U.S. 51. The latter road is a north-south highway through the center of Illinois. When Illinois began to create a system of automobile roads in 1918, the road was State Bond Issue route 2.  In northern Illinois the oldest alignment of 51 is still called IL 2.  When federal highways began in 1926, highway 51 was one of the series of 1-ending north-south roads with U.S. 1 on the east coast and U.S. 101 on the west coast.  Highway 51 itself begins at U.S. 2 at Hurley, Wisconsin, near Lake Superior, and ends at U.S. 61 at LaPlace, Louisiana, 1286 miles south. Originally, the road continued another 73 miles, concurrent with U.S. 61, into New Orleans.

Here are some interesting sites.  This one features pictures of the highway as it crosses Illinois: http://www.highwayexplorer.com/il_EndsPage.php?id=2051&section=1  This site has shots of the old pavement before U.S. 51 was rerouted concurrently with Interstate 39: http://www.roadsites.org/losthwy/us-051_wi.html  Finally this one shows the southern end of 51 in Louisiana: http://www.southeastroads.com/us-051_la.html

My childhood acquaintance with U.S. 51 included only about 95 miles: 65 miles to the north to Decatur, Illinois, and 30 miles to the south to Centralia, Illinois.  Centralia  has about 14,000 population in 2000, Decatur about 82,000, and my hometown 7000. Both communities were places my parents and I went to shop on occasion.  I also got my teeth straightened by a Centralia orthodontist, so we frequently drove down 51 to that office during my early teenage years.  Naturally, the scenery in both directions became significant personal memories.

In fact, two of my very earliest memories relate to U.S. 51.  One is a childhood visit to see a railroad engine on display at Centralia’s Fairview Park.  http://www.ageofsteammemorial.org/  The visit must’ve been fairly soon after the engine was moved to the location in 1962, when I was five, but I’d never seen anything so massive and amazing!

The other early memory is a childhood visit to Kitchell Park in Pana, IL, thirty miles north of Vandalia.  I think this was a family reunion of some sort, but I don’t remember which reunion.  Our yearly Crawford family reunions happened in late August in Vandalia. I remember being upset when two bigger boys wouldn’t let me play on a seesaw.  To console me, my mother walked me over to the bridge, pictured in this very old postcard.

The bridge is still there, although I’m not sure I’ve visited the park since that early 1960s reunion. It was fifty years old then–ancient and venerable, to my young mind–and now it’s over 100 years old.  But sometimes, when I’m at the edge of a lake or stream, this old bridge appears in my memory.  We used to live along a small lake and, as I mowed the lawn, I’d think of the bridge.  It always happens, too, when I see a Monet painting of water and water lilies.

I’ve lots of other childhood memories of U.S. 51. Ghost signs are advertisements painted on the side of buildings and other structures, but the signs are fading and not always legible. One of my favorites is gone: a Miller High Life logo painted on a silo beside the road, a few miles north of Vandalia.  I went to high school with the girl who lived on that farm in the 1970s.  I didn’t pass by the place for several years but the last time I did, the logo had pretty much vanished.

Barns with advertisements painted on their roofs or sides are particularly interesting.  A favorite book, Rock City Barns, has pictures of two barns along U.S. 51 near Vandalia.  The one I saw most often was the one several miles south of town.  I say “was” because although the barn is still there (last time I passed by, anyway), the once-white letters on the roof had completely oxidized and were no longer recognizable.

The familiar black and white, six-pointed shield signs for U.S. highways became common from the 1960s on.  Original signs were cut-out shields with the letters and numbers embossed, then after World War I, cut-out shields with flat letters were more common.  During the late 1990s, when I took my father on a visit to Ramsey, IL so he could visit his grandparents’ graves, I found one of those post-war shields on a side street, where (I assume) it was unnoticed when signs were replaced.  It’s gone now, sadly, but how fun to chance upon a different kind of relic of highway history.

Two-lane highways followed existing streets and roads. As we traveled to Decatur, I liked the zigzag but still northbound way that 51 passed through Pana: north on Poplar St., then east on First Street for five blocks, north on Cedar Street across the railroad tracks, east on Jackson Street for a mile or so, and then north toward Decatur.  Read any guidebook for driving old Route 66 and you’ll find similar, zigzag alignments through towns. (Before the widening of U.S. 51 reaches Pana, I need to give a shout-out to a highway curve north of that town, which I always loved.  It’s just a gentle curve through the landscape, with a sign pointing east toward a place called Dollville.)

Driving south from Vandalia, I liked those river bottom lands which often flooded in rainy seasons… a little hill called Pole Cat Mound…a lumber mill near the road where a great-aunt and uncle of mine lived…the barn roof that advertised Rock City…the small slope with a bath tub (apparently a trough for farm animals) nearby…a sign for a Lutheran Church located down the county road… a small and junky, crossroads antique store where I only visited once because the proprietor was so profane….a line of trees that indicated a much earlier alignment of the highway….a roadside picnic area, between the main road and another, earlier alignment…. Rural sight after rural sight along a gray two-lane road, accompanied by the tracks of the Illinois Central Railroad and the accompanying power lines between the highway and the tracks of the Illinois Central. The large petroleum storage tanks near the village of Patoka intrigued me as a little kid because there were so many of them, huge cylinders, and a few had the red Pegasus logo for Mobil.Ò

Among those villages I mentioned earlier, I liked Vernon (population 178 in 2000), paradoxically, because of involuntary time spent there. My mother was at one point an interested sewer, and she loved the remnant and fabric shop in Vernon. I was a little boy and waited and waited and waited in the car for her to finish shopping; I read nearly all of A Christmas Carol as I sat in the back seat.  But I liked the town because it is so small, the houses are not close together, and you have the (to me) peaceful experience of seeing the farm fields and bordering timber beyond the village as you look from highway through three or four blocks the village’s yards.  I also liked the simply little playground and the G.A.R. monument, an inauspicious park but, I’m sure, sufficient for a little kid living in the tiny place.

Driving to Centralia, you arrive in Central City, Illinois, which is continuous with Centralia, and you feel a little relieved to be in a town again as you pass florists, gas stations, small churches, and motels.  There was once a discount store along northbound 51 where my mom liked to shop for picture frames, and where I liked to browse the bins of LPs.  I remember purchasing the Moody Blues’ Question of Balance album there, and perhaps others.

Central City soon merges into Centralia, and you arrive at Centralia’s business district. My parents enjoyed shopping there, though less frequently than our monthly or bimonthly trips to St. Louis.  Along Broadway, there were nice clothing store (at one, I purchased some Cub Scout paraphernalia), a very cool newspaper office designed in Egyptian style, a stationary store which my mom particularly liked (and it still operates), and a music store where I bought sheet music. I was thrilled to find the music for “The Overture from Tommy,” which I’d heard on the radio in the Assembled Multitude version rather than The Who’s. Compared to my hometown’s, Centralia’s business district was not appreciably larger or more cosmopolitan, but it seemed so to me, a little kid, as we strolled from the stores near the Illinois Central tracks on the west and the grand trees and stately library in Library Park to the east. Perhaps that pre-kindergarten visit to the railroad engine always gave to me an extra bit of appreciation for the small town.

Another Centralia memory: a childhood visit to the synagogue there, as a Vacation Bible School field trip.  But I’ve acknowledged that shul’s influence on my life in another blog entry here, concerning the Exodus and Christian Faith (4/5/11).

A few years ago I discovered a German word, fernweh, which means “far sickness.” It’s the opposite of “home sickness” but is a similar kind of longing: longing for a place that’s not home, a nostalgia for some place distant. I’ve experienced this feeling for places more exotic than our drives on U.S. 51, but the sights were enough like–and close enough to–my own home places that home- and far-sickness mingled. The sights along U.S. 51—the houses, churches, small industry, and business districts–were other people’s landscapes.  In a childish way I wondered what people’s lives were like in these “distant” areas, creating in me the feelings described well by that word.

But there is also good old nostalgia, the sigh-inducing pleasure of driving a two-lane road you’ve known your whole life.  Even classical music that has nothing to do with rural Illinois—much of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ music, some of Elgar’s and Holst’s, and others—give me a peaceful sense that my brain “sets” into childhood scenes like those along U.S. 51.


When we lived in Flagstaff, AZ in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I felt homesick for Illinois and wanted to write about it.  I ordered a book, Thomas J. Schlereth’s U.S. 40: Roadscape of the American Experience, to study the main east-west highway through my hometown.  Although I hadn’t realized the book was primarily about that road in Indiana, the book providing interesting information about highway alignments, roadside architecture, community planning, and other things which I’d never considered before.  I was more inspired than before to think about hometown landscapes and old highways.  Soon I began reading about Route 66, which was the main road through Flagstaff (concurrent with U.S. 180 and U.S. 89).  The next book I purchased was Quinta Scott’s and Susan Croce Kelly’s Route 66: The Highway and Its People, still my favorite among the now-many books about what Steinbeck called “the mother road.”

At that time I was never able to drive the famous Seligman-to-Kingman stretch of 66 in Arizona, especially after daughter Emily was born.  That road was a considerable drive from Flagstaff and (always phobic about being stranded) I worried about having an infant in a car while traveling otherwise alone in a remote location. Instead, I liked to drive remnants of 66 at the Belmont exit of I-40.  One interesting pavement, which featured a deteriorating Whiting Brothers station, was too pitted and difficult to drive, but a nearby alignment seemed maintained and passed a few gorgeous miles through the pines.  This old postcard depicts that same alignment.

When we returned in 1999, we traveled down U.S. 93 from Vegas and then I took us on old 66 (now AZ 66) from Kingman eastbound.  I snapped this picture to preserve not only a trip memory but the amazing clouds. 


I used to have a copy of a 1983 issue of Art in America, with Ellsworth Kelly’s “Concorde Angle” on the cover. In the accompanying article, the author discussed Kelly’s minimalist art and made reference to Kelly’s then-recent Concorde series. I don’t remember the exact quote but the author noted that Kelly sought in that series to overcome or challenge the form of the rectangle . The quote may have been “the tyranny of the rectangle,” but I’ll have to find the article and check.That comment stayed with me because I wasn’t sure if the goal of overcoming the rectangle was one of those high artistic concepts which Tom Wolfe lampooned in The Painted Word, or if that was an interesting insight into the way art represents or does not reality. I appreciate contemporary art more now than when I first read Wolfe’s small book. But the comment came back to mind when I discovered a book recently, which has been out for a while: Lisa Mahar’s American Signs: Form and Meaning on Route 66(New York: The Monachelli Press, 2002). There is a vernacular story of overcoming the straightforward, rectangular form, in the history of motel signs.Mahar provides the history of motel signs along Route 66 during its main years: from the late 1938, when most of the road was finally paved for its complete distance, to the 1970s when the highway began to be decertified in some parts of the country. Of course, motels along 66 are
representative of those along America’s many other highways. She quotes the geographer J. B. Jackson that “The beauty that we see in the vernacular is the image of our common humanity, hard work, stubborn hope, and … love” (p. 10). She continues that a formal analysis of signs not only show us the humanity of Americans during different time period but also their values and economic realities.  (To these comments, I added a few scans of motels from my own postcard collection, some from 66 and some from U.S. 51.)

Mahar’s book is divided into periods: “Symmetry, Geometry, Rigor: 1938-1947”; “Theming and Regional Symbolism: 1945-1960”; “Abstraction and Self-Expression, 1950-1957”; “Specialization, Modularity, Segregation: 1957-1965”; “Intensive Simplicity, 1961-1970s.” In the first period, signs were more straight-forward. In the post-war period, the simple geometry and efficiency of the earlier signs “no longer provided a sufficient means of differentiating one business form the next. Motel owners and signmakers responded by boldly theming their buildings and signs.” (p. 77). Thus, not only did signs show more visual interest in their shapes (for instance, incorporating designs like tails and arrows), but also more imagination in their names: one saw fewer motels simply named for their owners–“Clark Motel”—and more memorable names like “Desert Hills” or “Ozark Court” or (as in Flagstaff) “Flamingo.”

During the 1950s, one also saw many more novel signs and asymmetry, and what has been called the “googie” style related to the Space Age. Personally, I like these kinds of signs the best; during my parents’ 1960s vacations, plenty of those 50s signs still beckoned travelers along highways. The signs seem quaint and nostalgic now, celebrated in picture books about Route 66 and the Lincoln Highway, and striking where they still exist.

In the later period of Route 66’s existence, the 1960s and 1970s, one saw a return to more simple signs, often made of much cheaper materials than earlier signs. Part of this greater simplicity was due to cost savings, but also the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, and the accompanying feeling that we shouldn’t clutter natural environments with gaudy signs and advertisements. I think this postcard of the Motel Orlando in Decatur, Illinois is from the 40s but does show the original, simpler design.

It is hard to imagine a more thorough treatment of motel signage. Mahar discusses the many geometric innovations, patterns, and styles of signs, including materials, structures, and fonts, as well as years when a popular form (like tails—as in the above postcard of the Holiday Motel in Centralia, IL—arrows, and formal similarities to the motel’s architecture) were developed or dropped. She is influenced by material culturalists in the structuralist tradition, like Henry Glassie, and also Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook, which “combined the science of rigorous analytic method with a faith in the power of ordinary objects to reveal larger truths” (pp. 24-25). I’ve always appreciated a book coauthored by my friend Keith Sculle: The Motel in American Life by John A. Jakle, Keith A. Sculle and Jefferson S. Rogers (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996). For good treatments of this aspect of American culture, I’d recommend that book plus Mahar’s detailed account.

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When I lived in Kentucky during the 1990s, I went to work along U.S. 60 in an area called St. Matthews. High upon a particular phone pole, at the intersection of Lexington Ave. and Shelbyville Road, hung an Lincoln Heritage Trail (LHT) sign. Another such sign hung a few miles east on U.S. 60, at the intersection of Grinstead Drive and Interstate 60, and I recall signs on the road toward Frankfort, where historical markers commemorated the death of Lincoln’s paternal grandfather in that area. But I always liked that St. Matthews sign the best. It was faded, placed too high to be noticed easily, and was too far from other LHT signs that might have guided a traveler. It seemed a relic of an earlier time.  One day, as I returned from work, I noticed it was gone.

The old LHT signs were familiar from my childhood when, growing up in southern Illinois, I saw them in and near my hometown along US 51 and Illinois 185. When that St Matthews sign disappeared, I decided to look into the trail. I found a brochure in an Indiana rest stop along I-64, but not much else. Two different addresses for LHT Associations, in Petersburg and Champaign, Illinois, were out of date; my queries returned “unable to forward.” Finally, in a Vandalia antique store, I found a tour guide, “Traveling the Lincoln Heritage Trail” from the Spring-Summer of 1972, which gave me some information. Later, I found websites like http://www.alincolnlearning.us/lincolnhighway.html and http://www.millenniumhwy.net/lincolnheritagegtrail/Lincoln_Heritage_Trail.html

The trail, a series of highways in Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky, tied together towns, parks, and locations associated with Lincoln. In Illinois the trail follows highways like U.S. 51, Illinois 121, Illinois 29 and 97, U.S. 25, U.S. 34, U.S. 150, Illinois 1, 14, 15, 185, and old U.S. 66, linking towns associated with Lincoln like Vandalia, Salem, Mt. Vernon, Carmi, Marshall, Charleston, Decatur, Lincoln, Springfield, Petersburg, and others. A southern “alternate” trail connects towns like McLeansboro, Carbondale, Chester, Cairo, Vienna, Harrisburg, Shawneetown, and others. Here is a good photo at the village of Ware, IL, through which I’ve passed, in southwesternly Union County: http://shields.aaroads.com/show.php?image=IL19490031  A northern alternate branch connects Beardstown, Mt. Sterling, Quincy, Nauvoo, Monmouth, Galesburg, Peoria, Metamora, Bloomington, and others. Anyone taking a trip over a few days can visit New Salem, Lincoln sites in Springfield and Coles County, the Vandalia Statehouse, and other Illinois places—to say nothing of Indiana and Kentucky places, like his birthplace near Hodgenville, KY and his boyhood homes in Knob Creek, Kentucky and Spencer Co., IN.

Lincoln visited lots of other places, too. Because it primarily follows the earlier travels of Lincoln, the LHT omits Alton and some other Lincoln-Douglas Debate locations. I used to teach a course called “The Life and Times of Lincoln” at University of Akron. One of the books I refer to is Following in Lincoln’s Footsteps: A Complete Annotated Reference to Hundreds of Historical Sites Visited by Abraham Lincoln by Ralph Gary (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2001). If anyone wants a very comprehensive guide to places Lincoln visited, you couldn’t go wrong with this nice text. Lincoln set foot in twenty-three states during his life, all but four (Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana) east of the Mississippi. East of the river, he visited all the states except Maine, Alabama, Florida, and the two Carolinas. Besides the DC area and places like Gettysburg, his notable historic sites are in the three LHT states. Another good book about his life travels is Don Davenport, In Lincoln’s Footsteps: A Historical Guide to the Lincoln Sites in Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky. I have the first, 1991 edition but newer editions have been published.

I’ve driven some of the LHT, not nearly all of it. When I lived in southern Illinois several years ago I followed the southern alternate trail a few times, enjoying favorite communities. When our daughter was younger, we visited New Salem during an enjoyable weekend trip. A few summers earlier we visited the birth site in Kentucky—the enormous temple enclosing a pitiful shack provides a startling contrast. The boyhood cabin site in southern Indiana, with Nancy Hanks Lincoln’s grave nearby, is also an enjoyable visit.

Traveling Lincoln’s life metaphorically is something else again. So many biographies and monographs consider his life. What was the relationship between him and his parents? Was his marriage as positive as it could be, given the Lincolns’ different temperaments, was it or a living hell? Lincoln was compassionate, tenderhearted, cruel, highly intelligent, crude, horribly depressed and lightheartedly humorous—who couldn’t be fascinated by such a complex, contradictory person, let alone someone who guided the country through its darkest times? Among the several biographies that I own, I’ve enjoyed Michael Burlingame’s two-volume Abraham Lincoln: A Life since it came out a few years ago.

I wonder who travels the LHT today, consciously I mean, in order to seek out places pertinent to our greatest president. It’s the kind of leisurely, semi-educational vacation people would take when they weren’t in a big hurry. Nearly everyone, however, is in a big hurry. I can imagine a car-full of whiney children, posed stiffly against a series of historical markers, their pictures preserved in a scrapbook later. Perhaps I’m being too nostalgic, though, for many of the signs are still there (though not “my” sign in St. Matthews), if not enough of them to give confidence to someone traveling without a map. The signs still beckon us to seek after Lincoln’s heritage off the fast-paced interstates.

If you decide to go, take your time, and have a good time learning!


In addition to the LHT, there is the famous and much longer Lincoln Highway. Both were conceived in the 1910s to honor the 50th anniversary of Lincoln’s death. While the LHT was not designated until the early 1960s, the Lincoln Highway was laid out as a drivable coast-to-coast road, from Times Square to San Francisco. Interestingly, the Lincoln Highway is the oldest memorial to the president: the Lincoln Memorial itself opened a few years later. It was also the first transcontinental highway.

As with other named roads established during the 1910s, the Lincoln Highway was replaced in 1926-1927 with a series of numbered routes. For most of its length, the Lincoln became U.S. 30. In the West, however, U.S. 50 is nearly identical with the road through Nevada and California, since the pathway of 30 veers away from the Lincoln in western Wyoming and proceeds northwesterly through Idaho and Oregon During the 1940s and 1950s, many U.S. routes were realigned to bypass the business districts of small towns, but many communities, like Massillon and Canton, retain the Lincoln designation for the main streets. In Illinois, the old route of the Lincoln/U.S. 30 is state route 38, after the highway was routed to the south.

In 1928, an effort was made to keep alive the route and memory of the Lincoln Highway: a series of concrete posts laid along the entire road. Each featured a plaque indicating that the road was dedicated to Lincoln, along with the president’s famous profile. Sadly, there are far fewer of these posts remaining than there are LHT signs. When we lived in Ohio, I was glad to see a post in East Canton, OH in its original location, although some towns have erected replicas of the posts.

About twenty years ago I discovered Drake Hokanson’s Lincoln Highway: Main Street across America (University of Iowa Press, 1989, 1999). His interesting history of the road is enhanced by black and white photography of road scenes, some of them rather haunting. He includes photos of several 1928 posts, including the westernmost post on a street corner in San Francisco. Additional histories and guidebooks have since been published, as well as websites. Just a few of those include: http://lincolnhighway.jameslin.name/ and http://www.lhhc.org/highwayhist.asp, and also http://drivelincolnhighway.com/history.html

As you drive two-lane highways, you can occasionally spot earlier alignments, left over when the route was straightened or moved. Around my hometown, I liked to see old alignments of U.S. 40, like the several yards of roadbed just east of the river bridge, the dead end road left when 40 was rerouted slightly to accommodate Interstate 70, and a wide curve at the western edge of town en route to Hagerstown, IL. Another abandoned curve is north of Vandalia, just to the east of the modern U.S. 51, with an old concrete bridge that still has the metal plaque, common on such bridges, which dates the road to the 1910s. I could list several other examples of locations that I like.

I’ve noticed the same thing as I’ve driven the old Lincoln Highway. When we lived in Ohio, one day I drove down State Route 21 down to Massillon and then proceeded east on Lincoln Way, which is the old Lincoln Highway as well as the original U.S. 30 (now routed south of the town). Driving through Massillon and Canton, I rejoined highway 30 and drove out into the country for a while. I enjoyed seeing the oldest paths of the Lincoln Highway as they moved away from the modern highway, made a long curve, and then reconnected.

Whenever I drive U.S. 30 through western Pennsylvania, I spot the same thing: old highway alignments left over when the highway was straightened in the 1940s or thereabouts. Just west of Greensburg, for instance, an alignment curves around to the south and up a hill, then descends the hill and becomes the main street through the town. A mural on a downtown building calls attention to the days when the Lincoln Highway was this street.

Many interesting places can be found along the highway, as Hokanson’s and other books show. One was the S.S. Grand View Hotel, a ship-shaped establishment built on the side of a Pennsylvania mountain (http://www.brianbutko.com/lh.ship.html). Kearney, NE, where one of my college friends lives, is the middle-point on the highway between New York and San Francisco; in 2013 the highway’s centennial will be celebrated there.

My grandfather Crawford was the oldest of eight children: three boys and then five girls. Most of the family lived around my hometown but one great-aunt and her husband moved to Laramie, WY. They were named Ruby and Pearl, but since I always knew about them and visited them sometimes, I never stopped to think how funny they were both named for jewels and that Pearl is a different kind of name for a man. They, and their three sons and several grandchildren, were great, hospitable people. During one of our visits to Laramie, when I was about seven, we stopped and saw a famous Lincoln Highway scene, the tree growing from a boulder. I thought that was something fantastic!

That was a long set-up for a small, personal Lincoln Highway memory. But how many millions of small memories–of family visits, vacations, business trips, and so on—define the Lincoln Highway, over its entire coast-to-coast route! But the highway is defined in a different way: not only travelers, but people who lived, worked, and shopped in local business districts through which the road passed.


I grew up in Vandalia, Illinois, the former state capital. Lincoln began his political career there as a 25-year-old legislator attending the Ninth General Assembly in 1834-1835. He served two more legislative terms at Vandalia and a final term once the state government moved to Springfield. Of course, as a Vandalian, I heard about Lincoln from a very early age. Eventually I learned that several family members lived there while Lincoln was a legislator at the old capital, and one ancestor even helped construct the statehouse where Lincoln served.

Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas met for the first time in Vandalia in 1834 and subsequently served together during the 1836-37 General Assembly. The “Little Giant” distinguished himself at Vandalia as a powerful speaker and a master of partisan practice. Lincoln began more modestly – according to Usher Linder’s reminiscences, one legislator saw him and another homely colleague and asked “Who the hell are those two ugly men?” But Lincoln grew in sureness and abilities during his terms in the house of representatives. Lincoln’s probable places of lodging in Vandalia no longer exist, so the statehouse is the town’s foremost Lincoln site.

A “Madonna of the Trail” statue stands at the corner of the public square, near the statehouse.  (Originally it stood in front, as this old postcard shows.) In the same year as those Lincoln Highway posts, 1928, twelve of these statues were placed along the route of another early, transcontinental highway, the National Old Trails Road. That was had been incorporated into U.S. highways 40, 50, 350, and 66. While the statues do not honor Lincoln per se, Vandalia’s honors pioneer women, the memory of Lincoln, and the terminus of the pioneer National Road. Vandalia’s Madonna inspired great fanfare. Harry S. Truman, then a Missouri judge, was scheduled to speak but canceled at the last moment. The celebration and pageant parade went on apace, and my father and his sister are among the young “Indians” in the panoramic photograph of the celebration.

Striding confidently forward, children in her arms and tugging at her dress, her long skirt clinging to her striding leg like that of a Greek goddess but her (stone) sunbonnet looking—so I thought as a boy – a little too much like a military helmet. The Madonna looks out toward the West as if meeting some bully’s challenge on Gallatin Street as surely as Lincoln stood up to the “Clary Grove boys.” She actually looks down the row of shops.  (My cousin’s postcard photo at the head of this blog gives a good idea of the Madonna’s perpetual scene.)

This is a purely personal response, of course, but through all my own academic work on Lincoln, I have never been able to emotionally disassociate him from the small town, childhood ambiance in which I first encountered him, including small town stores, small town streets, and two-lane roads. Lincoln’s name was the name I saw on Illinois license plates; his was the face on the brown-and-white Lincoln Heritage Trail signs which ran along U.S. 51 and Route 185; his was the face on the penny which I placed in downtown parking meters; he was the great president honored by Vandalia’s Little Brick House museum which I visited on grade school trips; he was the hero whose home we visited by traveling U.S. 66. There was even a plaque to Lincoln in the city park where I played as a boy, for the pioneer road from Vandalia to Lincoln’s Springfield ran there. Cars with out of state plates parked in downtown Vandalia as tourists visited the statehouse. Every downtown drug store and restaurant sold postcards with the famous full-face November 1863 portrait of the president. Before it burned in 1969 the downtown Hotel Evans contained a mural depicting Vandalia as capital, with Lincoln and Douglas in the painting’s foreground, their height differences notable. Postcard renderings of this mural can still be purchased locally. I still purchase Vandalia postcards, as if I was a tourist who means to send them, as if I don’t know those scenes by heart. We call him “Abe,” a name he disliked, even if local accents sometimes run his name together as “A Blinkin.”

Once, in a shady neighborhood of a small town, I discovered a historical marker that called attention to an 1850s Lincoln speech. In Vandalia, no plaque is needed; the old capitol reminds us each day that the greatest president began his political career here. (Lincoln’s visits to Vandalia in 1856, which would have earned an historic marker in any other town, have been largely forgotten locally.) The young man Lincoln walked the same streets as the shoppers and business people and the teenagers who traipse around looking for something to do on a dull, hot summer day. If he came to town today, he would come downtown from Springfield on LHT routes like I-55 and IL 185. Perhaps he’d make a joke about all the signs he passed that featured his own distinctive profile.

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