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Archive for the ‘Social Issues’ Category

Visiting friends over this past weekend, I stopped by a favorite bookstore between visits and purchased the Spring 2015 issue of Tikkun magazine. I need to subscribe to this magazine because I enjoy the articles and the overall perspective of “healing/repairing the world” (tikkun olam). A particular piece that I have thought about in different contexts appeared in Tikkun.

This Spring 15 issue contains a series of articles on the theme, “The Place of Hope in an Age of Climate Disaster.” I appreciated the complementary and interfaith perspectives on what is, to me, a very depressing problem. The ordinary person doesn’t know what to do, and the lachrymose tone of many writings on the subject (who are, after all, environmental activists who see what is happening) can be distressing. Too, we are all beneficiaries of a economic system that contains injustices, and environmental destruction is one.

It would be amazing if we had more political leaders who inspired people to action on this issue. To use Ronald Reagan as an example of a very inspiring leader: had he been an environmentalist, how many Americans would have been inspired to step up!

The nature of science, too, can be a source for impatience. Scientists observe present phenomena and make predictions based on models suggested by the evidence, and the observations may change based on additional evidence, as was the case last week when predicted solar activity suggested a near-future cooling of the earth. These aspects of science–ongoing study, and the refinement of predictions–contributes to two popular responses to the science: scoff at it, or just wait and see what happens.

But for now, on this subject of climate change, I recommend to anyone interested in this subject to pick up a copy of this issue of Tikkun and read the articles, which are:

Michael Lerner, “It’s time to get serious about saving the planet from destruction” (pp. 18-19, 60-61).

Whitney A. Bauman, “Facing the death of nature, environmental memorials to coiner despair” (pp. 20-21, 61).

Charles Derber, “Hope requires fighting the hope industry” (pp. 22-23, 61-62).

Julia Watts Belser, “Disaster and disability: social inequality and the uneven effects of climate change” (pp. 24-25, 62-63).

Vandana Shiva, “Limiting corporate power and cultivating interdependence: a strategic plan for the environment” (pp. 26-27, 63).

Ana Levy-Lyons, “The banality of environmental destruction” (pp. 28-29, 63-64).

Janet Biehl, “Reducing auto dependency and sprawl: an ecological imperative” (pp. 30, 64-65).

Arthur Waskow, “Prayer as if the earth really matters” (pp. 31-33, 65-66).

David R. Loy, “A bodhisattva’s approach to climate activism” (pp. 34, 66-67).

Rianne C. Ten Veen, “Looking to the Qur’an in an age of climate disaster” (pp. 36-37).

Parth Parihar, “Dharma and Ahimsa, a Hindu take on environmental stewardship” (pp. 38-39).

Matthew Fox, “Love is stronger than stewardship: a cosmic Christ path to planetary survival” (pp. 40-41, 67-68).

Anna Peterson, “Climate change and the right to hope” (pp. 42, 68-69).

Peterson writes, “Most people in the United States genuinely care about the environment, and yet collectively we are still filling landfills with plastic, guzzling gas, supporting factory farms, investing in unsustainable companies, and electing officials beholden to energy lobbies.” In other words, we have values but our practices are different, in part because we lack a genuine hope, she writes. Amen! But using TIllich’s theology, she discusses genuine (as opposed to utopian) hope to build confidence in the possibility of incremental improvements.

Her article is a good complement to Levy-Lyons’ article that draws upon Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase “the banality of evil” in order to discuss the fact that ecologically damaging practices are normal for our culture, and that is how we are accustomed to living.

Derber puts blame on both liberals and conservatives. Republican leaders are one source of the denial message, and unfortunately 40% of Americans buy into this message. (In fairness, I do have a conservative friend who criticizes the science based on his own study of the topic.) But liberals have another kind of false hope: that the problem can be solved within our current political and economic system.

The pieces together develop ideas that could help change attitudes but also suggest different economic practices—the later of which are scary for those of us (like me) who though concerned live comfortably each day.

All the articles have some spiritual component, even if more general, but the pieces by Waskow, Loy, Ten Veen, Parihar, and Fox clearly bring in religious traditions on this subject.

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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.

Notes:

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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Watching the news of the Oklahoma tornados in May, where numerous people including children were killed, made me recall the following thoughts written after the March 2011 Japan tsunami. During that first week following that tragedy, I noticed a friend’s Facebook status update. I think he borrowed it from somewhere else, so I don’t know the author, but the quote urged us to stop calling disasters “acts of God,” but rather “acts of nature.” The quotation went on to call acts of compassion “acts of God” because God does not send disasters. Instead, God sends us out to care for and help other people, to pull together, and to bring good things out of tragedy. I liked the quotation so I borrowed it, with credit to my friend, for my own update. I’ve been noticing similar posts in the aftermath of the new tragedy.

The quotation led to an interesting exchange of ideas among some of my other Facebook friends, centering around the nature of God’s presence amid disasters and tragedies. One friend introduced several scriptures that do affirm God’s control over natural processes.

Moses said to him, ‘As soon as I have gone out of the city, I will stretch out my hands to the Lord; the thunder will cease, and there will be no more hail, so that you may know that the earth is the Lord’s (Ex. 9:29).

When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; the very deep trembled. The clouds poured out water; the skies thundered; your arrows flashed on every side. The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lit up the world; the earth trembled and shook. Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen (Ps. 77:16-19)

When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against you, and then they pray towards this place, confess your name, and turn from their sin, because you punish them, then hear in heaven, and forgive the sin of your servants, your people Israel, when you teach them the good way in which they should walk; and grant rain on your land, which you have given to your people as an inheritance (1 Kings 8:35-36).

The mountains quake before him, and the hills melt; the earth heaves before him, the world and all who live in it. Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and by him the rocks are broken in pieces. (Nahum 1:5-6)

Our Facebook discussion continued for several more comments. Some of our group argued that God allows disaster to happen, whether by giving Satan a short leach, by setting up creation to function in a certain way, or by exercising at least some control over the circumstances. Even allowing for poetic imagery in the above scriptures, the biblical witness is such that God’s authority over Creation is difficult to deny; the Bible’s God is not the “lesser god” of Tennyson’s poem, who creates but lacks force to shape creation properly. Nevertheless, we don’t understand God’s ways or why God does allow (or guide) certain events. But we can affirm that God does work for good (Romans 8:28), expresses compassionate help to the suffering, and moves us to love and serve people who are suffering.

As it happened, I was at that time doing research for a church curriculum lessons, which used the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 19. I kicked myself for not thinking of that passage during our Facebook discussion; it would’ve added some spice! The passage famously indicates that God was not in the wind, fire, and earthquake, but rather in the gentle silence afterward. God clearly was present in some way during Elijah’s crisis but God was not “in” the destructive natural occurrences. So…. where was God in the “natural disaster” of 1 Kings 19? Any natural disaster? Isn’t it inappropriate to affirm God’s sovereignty when innocent people are suffering or have been killed?

One other source for my freelance research was John Wesley’s sermon “The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes”: http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-129-the-cause-and-cure-of-earthquakes/ To the other scriptures discussed so far, Wesley adds Psalm 104:32 and Ps. 97:5, as well as Ps. 18:7, 114:7, Isa. 13:11, 13, Isa. 24:1, 18-20, Isa 29:6. Clearly the Bible is rich in praises for God’s supreme divine power, somehow present within natural circumstances.

But Wesley’s sermon raises even more urgently the question of God and natural disasters—where is God when they occur, and why does God allow them to occur? Wesley stresses that God uses earthquakes to punish sin and to awaken people to repentance. Wesley gives examples to show how good and bad people alike suffer and are killed in disasters like earthquakes, which is all the more reason to repent and strengthen our relationship with God.

Although Wesley reasons from Scripture, the awakening of repentance is a too human-centered and simplistic way to interpret the providence of God within these natural occurrences (although one wouldn’t rule out circumstances in which the Spirit did indeed awaken in someone a new relationship with God due to crisis). You’d never tell a farmer, discouraged about crops amid a too-wet summer, that God had arranged rain storms in order to awaken the farmer and surrounding community to repentance for some sin. You’d never tell someone in Moore, OK that God used the tornado to remind us to be godly.

Writing from a Reform Jewish perspective, W. Gunther Plaut notes that the doctrine of “chastisements of love” (yisurin shel ahavah) is found not only in Deuteronomy 8:2-3 but also Psalm 94:12-13 and 119:71. He notes that, for Jews, this belief that God sends hardships in order to guide the people was upheld in Judaism until Maimonides, who argued instead that we suffer because of natural occurrences, social occurrences, and our own imperfection. While the biblical passages interpret the divine-human interaction in those situations, Plaut argues that the doctrine no longer has application in Judaism following the Holocaust, far too horrible an experience to attribute to a loving God (W. Gunther Plaut, ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981, 1390-1391).

This is such a difficult philosophical, theological, and pastoral issue. I don’t want to take a deistic, “watchmaker God” kind of interpretation: that is, God simply created and wound-up the universe to function on its own, and then withdrew for the most part. The tragedy of physical life is that, short of the final redemption, suffering and death happens to everyone, regardless of whether we deserve it or not. It’s human to wonder where God is amid tragedy, though all of us are mortal and live among many, many potential dangers, just in the course of living. For whatever reason, God intervenes in many situations, but we do not see a divine role or perceive a divine purpose in many other circumstances.

But I do come back to Matthew 25:31-46, which does answer the question of “Where is God?” God (in his passage, Christ) is with the suffering, and therefore that’s where we need to be, too.

(After I posted this, I noticed this article with a similar theme: Evangelical author John Piper had tweeted verses from Job concerning the death of Job’s children in a wind storm. He was subsequently criticized for thereby implying that the Oklahoma tornado had something to do with God’s judgment. As one person quoted in the article stated, “Piper was highlighting God’s sovereignty and that he is still worthy of worship in the midst of suffering and tragedy,” but one writer’s response, with which I agree, is that “Christians have to stop the idea of responding to tragedy by suggesting God is inflicting his judgment.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/23/john-pipers-tornado-tweets-stir-up-a-theological-debate_n_3328857.html?1369350389&ncid=edlinkusaolp00000009 The article also points out a real dilemma in times of tragedy: what gives one person theological comfort may be distressing to someone else. )

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Rape Culture

The term “rape culture” refers to society’s tolerance and in some cases encouragement of male sexual aggression and violence against women, as well as the focus upon what the rape victim supposedly did rather than upon the crime itself. Although the term has been used for quite a while in feminist discourse and in programs to increase awareness of sexual assault, the Steubenville rape case has brought that term again into public discussion. (This past year the issues and crises of rape were in the news because of a politician’s comments about “legitimate rape”). In the Steubenville case, a sixteen year old girl was raped by two high school football players. This article gives details and indicates that the case is ongoing: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/18/us/teenagers-found-guilty-in-rape-in-steubenville-ohio.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Winnie Wang writes in the Yale Daily News about the case: “When the guilty verdict was announced, some mainstream media outlets became active participants in furthering our victim-blaming rape culture. Probably the most sickening news coverage came from CNN, where anchor Candy Crowley lamented that the ‘young men … had such promising futures, [were] star football players, very good students.’ Registering as sex offenders would ‘haunt them for the rest of their lives.’”

Wang continues, “We need to examine how we think about sexual assault. Instead of questioning whether the victim was intoxicated or dressed provocatively, we should question how we can hold perpetrators accountable. These defendants are responsible for their own actions.” She adds that we also need to examine our social environment in which these crimes happen and in some cases are covered up. (See her article at: http://yaledailynews.com/blog/2013/04/05/wang-examining-rape-culture-after-steubenville/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=wang-examining-rape-culture-after-steubenville)

Part of the difficulty of raising public awareness is the fact that some of us can indeed badly miss the point while trying to be caring and aware. For instance, the people who felt sadness about the young men had a kind of compassion: the men did ruin their lives before they even reached adulthood, and that is tragic. HOWEVER, they ruined the life of the young woman because of their actions, and thus people’s compassion should be directed first and very strongly to the victim. This NYT article covers the kinds of community responses: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/17/sports/high-school-football-rape-case-unfolds-online-and-divides-steubenville-ohio.html?pagewanted=all&_r=2&

There have been several related posts and news items about this issue. This letter by Magda Pecsenye, “A Letter to My Sons about Stopping Rape,” has been widely discussed, as seen in the variety of comments afterward.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/magda-pecsenye/steubenville-rape-mother-letter_b_2902943.html Ms. Pecsenye tries to wrestle with the messages that boys and young men get concerning women and sex.

In another news item, a young man at the University of Arizona student who styled himself a Christian preacher interrupted a campus sexual assault awareness meeting with a sign, “You deserve rape,” and with messages like, “if you dress like a whore, act like a whore, you’re probably going to get raped.” The dean of students responded that his message was “vulgar and vile” but “is protected speech.” The young man’s message is tragically another example of a social culture that would characterize someone as “deserving” rape. http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2013/04/25/arizona-campus-preacher-to-anti-rape-protesters-you-deserve-rape/

I remember a preacher on the University of Virginia campus in the 1980s, who (on a hot day when students were dressed in summer clothes) proclaimed to students walking by, “You’re all walking billboards for an easy lay!” That is an occasion where I wish I could go back in time and chide the man (other than ignore him, as most other students, both male and female, also did). But at the time, his comment seem more comically prudish and moralistic than a symptom of rape culture; once again, sometimes we need to be shocked into insight and clarity.

Sexual Assault awareness meetings and information are excellent responses—and are good ways to cure us of blindness and sensitize us to the issues. Obviously it is good whenever this information can permeate many aspects of culture, including religious organizations. That process is at work. For instance, I found an article that described a meeting by Maya Dusenbery, editor of the Feministing blog, who pointed out that (in the Michigan Daily article’s words) “the current conception of rape conveys a ‘no-means-no’ culture, allowing the accused to claim lack of a denial as valid sexual consent.” Dusenbery called for a change in that kind of thinking. 
(http://www.michigandaily.com/news/feministing-editor-speaks-sapac-event) We owe a great debt to persons like Dusenbery who are experts on this subject and work to education the public.

In another news story this month, the student magazine staff at Palo Alto High School took on this issue. According to that story, “High-profile rape cases from Ohio to India prompted senior Lisie Sabbag to look into local cases. The resulting stories and opinion pieces, published last week, just days before a story emerged about an alleged incident of sexual battery involving Saratoga High students, have grabbed national attention. It’s not only the topic. The package [of stories] is being hailed as thoughtful, sensitive — and disturbing. Students don’t clearly understand what constitutes rape, Sabbag’s story makes clear. Yet rape is not so rare, and sometimes the response of the victim’s friends and families turns into a second assault.” (http://www.mercurynews.com/rss/ci_23031742?source=rss)

And the difficulties don’t stop there. As I was still looking around the internet, I saw this piece that discusses the fact that “a stunning majority of states – 31 of them – offer some form of visitation and custody rights for men who impregnate their rape victims”: http://www.salon.com/2013/04/29/rapists_should_not_get_custody/

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partisanA piece from last fall….This week’s “Time” magazine (October 22, 2012) has an essay by Katy Steinmetz (p. 15) called “Unfriending the Enemy.” She notes that “The Pew Research center found that nearly 1 in 5 social networkers has blocked, hidden or unfriended someone over political material that was too frequent or too disagreeable.” One user is quoted, “The final straw for me was a post about how Obamacare requires all Americans to get chips installed in their skin.” Steinmetz writes, “now that many people can count everyone from close friends to crazy uncles to far-flung professional contacts among their Facebook friends, it’s important to keep the whole audience in mind, says consultant Jacqueline Whitmore. The original rule about politics and conversation, after all, was about having consideration or others’ feelings.”

Have you unfriended anyone on Facebook over politics? I’ve unfriended just a few, folks with whom I wasn’t close friends and who annoyed me with partisan postings. (I recall that one was rather sneering about climate change.) I felt foolish and “codependent” afterward, because I do have many friends whose political postings I disagree with, and I’ve friends whose postings, while frequent, are more congenial to my own views. I’ve political views but I’m willing to listen to and appreciate diverse opinions, as long as folks aren’t dogmatic or generalizing or angry. But then I thought, why should I have to get annoyed day after day, with persons to whom I’m not that close anyway? I suppose I could’ve just asked them to stop.

With a few friends I’ve reduced the number of status updates that appear on my “wall.” In some cases, I care about those people very much and don’t want their political views to hurt that caring. For instance, I realized a friend, whom I liked a lot in person, was a real Rush Lindbergh/Fox News fan, neither of which I can tolerate. I walk out on businesses wherein the store’s radio is tuned to Rush. But I don’t want to lose that person’s friendship. So I’ve just reduced such folks’ statuses on my feed, until after the election. I do check their “walls” to make sure they’re doing okay.

I hate judgmental peopleOne time a FB friend and I discussed an issue on FB, concerning an article that I posted and found interesting. My friend took a position I disliked and when we discussed the matter, I felt like I was seeing my friend’s point but not vice versa. We weren’t meeting halfway. But I do tend to find political disagreements exhausting rather than productive. That’s just my nature, like my friend’s nature is to be more vigorous in discussions. So if you’re like me and aren’t really a debater, but you still follow politics and want to be socially engaged, you have to find a sense of genuineness, balance, and caring.

The thing is: I don’t think that Facebook is a really good way to discuss politics, because the lack of face-to-face contact might give you courage to be nastier than you’d otherwise be, and it’s difficult to convey nuance and genuine concern. When you watch candidates and TV advertisements, you may think all Democrats/Republicans are (as my dad would say) damned liars, hell bent on turning the nation into a socialist/fascist wasteland, but some of your friends who are Democrats/Republicans are probably good, solid people who, like you, want the best for the country. But you’re lumping them into the category of the damned, destructive liars!

My mother died two weeks ago, and nearly 200 of my Facebook friends posted prayers, words of encouragement, support, and interest as I announced her loss, made arrangements, and traveled to her funeral and burial services. I feel like the possibility of mutual, real-time support is the outstanding feature of Facebook. I keep that in mind as we s-l-o-w-l-y wind up this difficult political season.

I’ve begun to post articles that I find interesting, not on Facebook but on my blog. Somehow it seems more like a sincere sharing of social concerns, and of things I find interesting on both sides of the political aisle. There are some scriptural admonitions about being kind, gentle, thoughtful, and mutually supportive, and I do want to try to follow these teachings, even on political and justice issues about which I feel really passionate. It’s a struggle to find that balance, but a good one.

 

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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