No Electricity Day

I remember snow days when I was growing up–or ice storm days.  In the early 1960s, when living near Chicago, we had the ice storm of the century where we were without electricity for four days.  It was a child’s dream world.  We could skate across the grass and we spent the evenings playing “tea kettle” or reading Winnie the Pooh by candle light.  If you are not familiar with the Tea Kettle game, it goes something like this:  You think up an action and then have others ask questions until they guess what you are doing.  The questions come in the form of the following.  “Do you “tea kettle” in the daytime?”  “Do you “tea kettle” by yourself?”  You get the gist of it.  It was one of the few times that I can visualize my father home and playing with us.

In New England we have what I call, “no-electricity days.”  We lose electricity regularly and for long periods of time.  I remember hearing about such a thing in the news before moving here and not really understanding it.  Here the schools can be closed due to no power.   Unlike snow days, everyone can get out and around and ends up in long lines in Starbucks or the local diner for breakfast.

“No electricity days” usually follow a nor’easter storm where strong winds take down trees, power lines and other infrastructure which has not been upgraded for many years.  I have collected photos over the past few years of the aftermath of such events, the most recent of which left me without power for two days.

If a nor’easter comes with high tide, high water or ice flows come with it.

They always come with downed trees that fall on power lines, windows, and back-up generators.


Thankfully, I put in a back-up generator when I bought my house and placed it away from trees.  I was warm.  I had internet.  I could cook.  But I could not wash clothes or use the dish washer and Starbucks was way too crowded.

Losing Myself in order to Find Myself

Looking south across the Mahoning Valley.

The last two years have been difficult.  I should correct that.  The last seven years have been difficult.  And so I pay attention to those times when I lose track of time because I am immersed in a task or experience in which I can lose myself completely.  These are times when am I totally “in the zone.”  I have tried to be intentional about creating these opportunities to lose myself as a way of finding the center of what gives me joy in the midst of stress.  For some people this may involve going to an orchestra concert or cooking.  For me it is always the puzzle of wondering about a place—searching, finding, and visiting it—and contemplating its place in a larger historical and geographical narrative.  I can’t say why this is the case for me but from an early age I would look at maps and try to imagine what a place would be like or pack a lunch and follow the railroad tracks that ran through my back yard as far as I could.

I have been wondering about a particular place for several years.  In an earlier blog (Water Gaps and Cultural Gaps) I wrote about my ancestors’ narrative about being captured by Native Americans in 1780.  I have continued to wonder whether I could find the place where they lived at the time.  And I have been feeling the impulse to search and find this place before I move away from the east coast.  The opportunity to try to find it came with a visit to friends within several hours of the place that I wanted to explore.

My starting clues included the narrative which said that the Gilbert family settled on the far side of the Blue Mountain, six miles from Fort Allen on Mahoning Creek.  They established a mill on the creek.  My brother sent me a google map with a six-mile scale from central Lehighton, PA outward along the Mahoning Creek.  Fort Allen was on the Lehigh River, or present-day Lehighton.  And my brother sent a google satellite image of one small spot along that scale that looked like a one-lane road and marker at the end asked, “I wonder what that is?”

Mahoning Valley extends southwest from Lehighton, PA.  The Lehigh River provided a route through the mountains to access the valley (USGS Map).

Before setting off to explore, I made sure I understood the possibilities in terms of directions from Lehighton.  It became clear that the creek emptied into the Lehigh River at Lehighton so the only possible direction was west, going upstream.  I then used the web to figure out the township and county of the area—presently Carbon County and Mahoning Township.  I considered six miles to be the outside possibility because that was a straight line and I was certain they did not follow a route as the crow flies.  Looking at present-day maps, I could see that branches of the creek converged at several places between 4 and 6 miles out from Lehighton.

An example of one of the sites where tributaries come together to form the main channel of Mahoning Creek

It seemed reasonable to assume that the stream flow for a mill would be better downstream from these sites.  At about six miles out I found Mill Road which was at one point of stream consolidation.  More stream branches came together to form the stream at four miles out at Seneca Road. Both were possibilities—but a place name like Mill Road could be a crucial clue.

Having identified several possible locations, I searched for the oldest township maps I could find in order to try to look for further clues.  The earliest plat maps I could find were from 1860 and 1875.  These maps were constructed long after the event that led me on the search.  And I was not surprised that I could not find anything earlier.  Yet echoes of the past still remained.  The 1860 Map of the Counties Monroe and Carbon (HF Walling) showed a grist mill and a saw mill along the creek at the four-mile point where Seneca Road is presently found.  The 1875 A Guide to the Property Owners had a SM (saw mill) noted at the same place and had a land owner nearby with the last name of Gilbert. I had identified a target location!  And it made sense—this was closet location to Ft. Allen where all the branches of the stream came together, forming good flow for a mill.  And Mill Road was just a bit far to be certain of its location as a possibility.

1860 Map of the Counties Monroe and Carbon

1875 A Guide to the Property Owners

Actually finding the place was quite easy.  From the highway that followed the creek I turned north on Seneca Road and immediately crossed Mahoning Creek.  A house sat on the north side of the creek. I parked and walked across the bridge to view the creek.

Afterward I started to drive up Seneca Road to get a better view of the Mahoning valley when I remembered my brother’s question: “I wonder what that is?”

I turned back and looked for a short road with something at the end and didn’t see anything.  But then I saw a flat piece of granite, totally out of context, near a swing set in the middle of the yard of the house that sat along the creek.  When I parked and walked over to it, I read:  In memory of the Benjamin Gilbert Family and others who were taken captive by the Indians April 25, 1780…

As I drove back to my friends’ home, I retraced the route that my 6th great grandfather, Benjamin Gilbert, had taken to get to that place on Mahoning Creek through the Lehigh River water gap through the mountains.  I lost myself that day in the exploration of the historical and cultural layers of a landscape.  And I continue to contemplate its place in the historical and geographical narrative of my own life.

Cape Cod: Real or Imagined?

Almost all Americans hear about Cape Cod in history class when they are growing up.  And for my generation, it is also tied to the Kennedys.  Pilgrims.  Colonial history.  The Royalty of the Kennedy Clan.  Cape Cod holds a certain mystic in our imaginations.  Growing up in the corn fields of Illinois, I had a friend a bit older than me who talked about a week he spent at his college history professor’s cottage on Cape Cod.  It was as if nothing else would ever be able to compare to this experience.

I have lived in Massachusetts over seven years and never really gone to Cape Cod.  I live on the North Shore and Cape Ann.  Cape Cod is part of the South Shore.  Bumper to bumper traffic had separated me from this experience during the summer months and work during the off-season.

Now that I am going to move out of New England I decided that I needed to get to “the cape.”  And I always have a desire to get to the end of the road.  Provincetown, located 65 miles out into the Atlantic at the end hook of Cape Cod, is definitely the end of the road.

The landform of Cape Cod is the result of continental glacial processes.  The materials left by the continental glacier form a ridge of moraines that stretch from east to west, on the more northern side of Cape Cod.  The moraines are uneven hills formed when a glacier front stays in one place.  To the south of the moraines, the majority of the Cape is outwash plain, a depositional feature that slopes away from ice front which is made up of sand and gravel carried by meltwater.  The southern side of the Cape, the majority of the area, is outwash plain.  The landscape was further shaped by wave action that leaves sand deposits in low energy zones such as the very end of the of the Cape and spits that form across bays.

When I lived in Louisiana with the Houma tribe, I read about all the Native American tribes of the eastern United States.  Cape Cod was (and is) the home of the tribe with my favorite name—the Mashpee Wampanoag.   It is a name that just rolls of your tongue.  The Wampanoag taught the settlers to survive, whether farming or use of whales that were stranded on the beach.  The 19th century brought the beginning of tourism.  It is appropriate that the Mashpee Wampanoag’s have benefited from tribal gambling facilities for tourism.

In my travels to Provincetown, I took the main southern highway.  The high way was one long strip mall with many restaurants already closed for the season though it was only mid-September.  I began to see a pattern—shoe outlets, mini-golf, restaurants closed for the season, and a smattering of old houses that needed renovation for sale.  Only when I got to Chatham did I find much activity around its quaint downtown and upscale developments.

Miniature Golf on the Cape

The long final stretch in the route to Provincetown goes through the Cape Cod National Seashore with its dunes and beaches.  And then finally you reach Provincetown at the very end.

Pilgrims landed where Provincetown now is before going on to Plymouth in 1620.  Clearly this is a place that was meant to be reached via the sea rather than land.  In fact, when I was there two large cruise ships had deposited tourists into the downtown for a few hours.  Thankfully, I was there in September.  The year-round population is about 3000 but in the summer the town has up to 60,000 people.  Often called “P-town” it is known for its beaches, beautiful harbor, and tourism, especially as a destination for the LGBTQ+ community.  The town has more married gay couples per capita than any other town in the United States.  Thus rainbow flags reign over the main streets of P-Town.

One of the many old houses ripe for renovation.

A typical “cape cod” house with cedar shakes on the side but painted siding on the front. This home was on the market for $4 million but included a significant addition on the back.

When I get to the end of the road, to a place like Provincetown, I always imagine what it would be like to live there year-round.  Would it live up to the ideal such as my childhood friend expressed—oh to be able to live forever on Cape Cod?

I’m glad I made the trip, but I will probably never go back.  The first day was beautiful and sunny.  The second day was rainy, cloudy, and cold.  After all, we were 65 miles out into the Atlantic.  As I drove back on the main northern two lane road, I tried to imagine the summer traffic jams and wondered about the amount of time spent in traffic versus living this “ideal.”  And furthermore, I really detest miniature golf.

Persona Non Grata

Image result for passport

I have tried to teach my daughters that when you travel internationally, you have to be patient and ready for almost anything.  In other words, screaming, pouting, and stomping your foot will do no good.  You are at the mercy of circumstances, so go with the flow of the adventure.

I had to remind myself of this lesson this past March when I helped organize a group of biology students and scientists to go to New Zealand on a trip to learn about birds, conservation, and culture. Flights to New Zealand often go through Los Angeles.  This trip was no different.  The majority of the group was booked on a late night flight from L.A. to Auckland.  Most everyone went on the flight before me because I wanted to make sure everyone was accounted for.  As I went up and had my passport scanned, I was pulled aside.  There was a problem on the New Zealand end with me entering the country.  Granted, I had had a work visa there in 2002 and had last gone their when I was living in Hong Kong, but that was seven years prior.  While the plane continued to load, several agents tried to get the right New Zealand number to get my entry cleared—which had happened in the past.  They just needed the code for clearance.  I kept saying, “This is my group I’m leading on this plane.  I need to be on it with them.”  I admit, I did not say this calmly.  I might have been described as screaming, pouting, and stomping my foot.  I was allowed one call to someone on the plane in our group.

Two hours later, with the plane on its way to New Zealand and me still at the gate while up to five agents with three cell phones tried to get the computer code to work, I suggested that I get a hotel and get to bed.  It was three a.m. according to my clock.

The next day was ground hog day—same gate, same time, same agents.  I was cleared and arrived in New Zealand a day late.  How was I to find my group that was off on an island looking at endangered species?  My friend who was the tour guide on the ground gave me some directions via email:  Go outside the door of the airport near the McDonalds.  Look for a van from this particular hotel.  Go to the hotel and sleep and relax.  At 4 p.m. get a tax and ask the tax to take you to the Gull gas station in the little town of Kumeu, which will be about thirty minutes away.  Wait at the gas station and we will pass by.  By this point I was really sorry that I had not activated my phone for use in New Zealand, but I could look at a map via internet at the hotel to see where Kumeu and the gas station was.

I followed the directions.  The taxi cab driver was very skeptical and didn’t want to abandon me at a gas station.  He kept asking people to make sure it was the right gas station and went next door and got a chair for me to sit on while I waited.  I suggestion he come back the next day to make sure I wasn’t still there.  I sat on my chair with my big zebra striped suitcase as people came and went, looking at me with some curiosity, including the local police.  It was a beautiful sunny day.  An hour later the bus pulled in and I was welcomed back into the flock.


The rest of the trip was pure pleasure.  No pouting, screaming, or stomping of my feet.  I was just happy to be back in New Zealand with its Norfolk pines, the Cabbage trees, the Kaka parrots, the seafoam candy, the Stitch bird, and the Silver Fern.  It felt like being home.



Kurdish Iraq: Universals or Cultural Diffusion

I can’t say that I ever told anyone that I wanted to visit the Kurdish region of Iraq.  But then, I never said that I didn’t want to visit the Kurdish region of Iraq.  And thus began an adventure to Sulaymaniyah, near the Iranian border.

The first step was to read the Department of State website on going to Iraq which I will paraphrase:  Don’t go.  If you insist on doing so, update your will and make sure your daughters know all your passwords.  This did not seem to deter me and I didn’t even need to get a visa beforehand to go to Sulaymaniyah.

The next step was to figure out the logistics of travel.  How do you get there?  My hosts arranged for a direct flight from Boston to Qatar and from Qatar it was just a flight of several hours up the Persian Gulf and then over the Mesopotamian region of Iraq into the mountains of Kurdistan.  What a great adventure indeed to be able to see this region en route from above!



As we approached the city we flew over snow-capped mountains and I saw greenhouses in the green valleys of the rural areas.

Kurdistan rural area


I had a wonderful and interesting time during my day and a half in Sulaymaniyah.  I was treated well.  I had wonderful Turkish coffee.  Security was present but no more onerous that going through metal detectors when you enter the Smithsonian Institute, or approaching an airport after 911.


I left with one impressions and one question.  First, my strong impression was that the fathers and grandfathers loved and cared for their children and grandchildren.  I saw this everywhere.  But the question that remains for me is about how the “Michigan Left” ended up being used in Sulaymaniyah or how a Sulaymaniyah left came to be used in Michigan.  If you are unfamiliar with this traffic pattern, Wikipedia describes it as:  A Michigan left is an at-grade intersection design that replaces each left turn at an intersection between a divided roadway and a secondary roadway with the combination of a right turn followed by a U-turn, or a U-turn followed by a right turn, depending on the situation.

I remain awake at night pondering this puzzle and the different possibilities.  Is this an instance off cultural diffusion and if so, in which direction?  Did a Kurdish traffic engineer come to Michigan and introduce this or did a Michigan traffic engineer contribute to planning in Sulaymaniyah?  Or did traffic engineers in both places come up with this solution to a problem independent of each other but with the same outcome?  Is it a universal truth that traffic engineers everywhere come up with crazy solutions to simple problems?

Ghosts of the Past

I once had a colleague who talked about flying into a particular city and just having a sense of evil in the place.  It was a city that was the center of powerful for ethnic and religious elites who were using their force against a minority community in an adjoining region.  My colleague could not wait to get through the city on to his final destination.  Do places take on the spirits of their past and present?  As you walk through Rwanda, can you sense the heavy spirit in places where the Rwandan genocide was concentrated?  Do these spirits live on, long past human remembrance?  If you have ever read a book by James Michener, you have a sense of how a geographer sees the depth of cultural landscapes.  Landscapes embody the past where generations of people lived, worked, suffered, and loved.

In visiting a coastal marshland landscape near Hilton Head, SC and Savannah, Georgia, I explored and read about the evolution of this cultural landscape to its present recreational use.  Population early on in this area was tied to rivers and rice production dominated during the eighteenth century.  The reclamation of swampland required large amounts of labor which led to the extensive association of the area with slavery.  For example, Ralph Brown, in his Historical Geography of the United States, states that in 1765, the region had 40,000 whites and from 80,000 to 90,000 African-Americans (pg. 63).  Rice plantation homes were more like hunting lodges, as they often became later in their history.  Planters and their families would only be in residence several months out of the year with the rest of their time spent in places like Savannah or Charleston.  The traditional townhouses in these coastal cities had large porches to allow air circulation and according to John Hudson, the porches were built on the long dimension of the house in order to maximize the use of space.

Traditional architecture in Bluffton, SC

House under historic renovation in Bluffton

Other than these major coastal cities, where rice and other products were traded for imports coming from the British Empire, towns did not flourish.  The plantations were the center of economic activity with their buildings found in clearings of higher ground, almost appearing like they sat on islands. Post plantation era saw many of these lands become sites for hunting estates and eventually for second homes and resorts.

I spent several days at Palmetto Bluffs, one such resort that has evolved from rice plantation to hunting lodge to resort.  Palmetto Bluff was comprised of 21 plantations during the antebellum era.   After 1902 it was used as a hunting estate and for entertainment for those who would come by steamship or railroad and stay for weeks at a time, enjoying R.T. Wilson’s retreat home.  On March 26, 1926, the great mansion caught fire, and R.T. Wilson’s idyllic retreat was reduced to ashes.   It past into the ownership of timber interests and continued to be used as a hunting camp.  Eventually it was realized that its 32 miles of riverfront and forest had great conservation and recreational value.  As I walked around the resort, whose architecture is modeled after traditional southern plantation house and building types, I pondered the re-creation of an architectural look that reflected a dark aspect of our history.  Should I be sensing ghosts of the past here?  As I was reflecting on this thought, an African-American colleague walked by, and we chatted about the history of the place.  He simply said that “yes, all places have histories,” and continued on his way, enjoying the scenery, the warmth of the sun, and the beautiful surroundings.  I decided to do the same.

Hunting Lodge Ruins


Water Gaps and Cultural Gaps

A water gap is a site where a river cuts through a mountain ridge rather than being diverted by the barrier.  In the case of the Ridge and Valley section of the Appalachians, water gaps cut through long ridges.  These mountain ridges focused migration and transportation routes through these gaps. Usually the existence of a water gap is an indication that the river preceded the topography around it.  In other words, the river established its course, and as tectonic forces acted upon the land, the river cut down through the underlying rock layers, cutting through the ridges as they formed or became exposed by erosion.  Perhaps the most famous water gap is the Cumberland Gap which Daniel Boone identified as a route for European migrant through the Appalachians and into what is now Kentucky.

I visualize the water gaps in the Appalachians as funnels through which Europeans spread into the central plains of North America, displacing Native Americans.  Had all of the eastern United States been flat plains, this displacement might have happened even more quickly.  The mountains served as a barrier until the routes through the water gaps became known.

I have read several books lately on the eras of European settlement and Native American displacement that took place in the Midwest and Great Plains from several points of view.  Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires places Laura Ingalls Wilder and her writing in the context of the history of the settlement era in Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Kansas.  It includes instances of interaction with Native Americans, the period of the Sioux uprising in Minnesota, and the Ingalls being pushed back from settling on Native American land in Kansas.  The Heart of Everything that Is by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin is the story of the Dakota (Sioux) Chief Red Cloud.  Here is the story of the tribe being pushed out of Minnesota, withdrawing to Montana, and ending up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.  Red Chief was a very violent and aggressive warrior, but when he went east and saw the numbers of Europeans that were there, he was a pragmatist and came to terms with the reality that faced them rather than fight to the bitter end.

I’m unsettled by all these stories because they involve my story as well and I’m not sure what to do with this history.  But I begin my journey with a hike at the Delaware Water Gap.  At the Delaware Water Gap, the Delaware River cuts through Blue Mountain, one of the main ridges and major barrier to westward migration.  My daughter and I hiked up the ridge to get a view of the water gap.  We stood at the top and thought about a time in 1775 when my ancestor, Benjamin Gilbert, took a portion of his family and settled in the wilderness on the other side of Blue Mountain.

Gilbert’s friends and family were concerned about his safety, but because he was Quaker and had good relations with Native Americans, he thought he would be fine.  What happened next is recorded in a published narrative. On April 25th, 1780, the family was taken as prisoners by a group of Native Americans. Their homesteads were plundered and burned and eventually members of the family were separated and adopted into different bands.  They experienced hardship and violence.  The English negotiated the release of Benjamin and some family members at Niagara in June of 1780 and then sent them to Montreal as King’s prisoners.  Benjamin died enroute to Montreal.  The family continued to work to get the rest of the family released and the last member was released June 3, 1782 after which the group was allowed to return to Pennsylvania.

So much incongruity comes from these interactions across the cultural gap—one captive wrote with affection many years later about her “adopted” Native American father and maintained some contact with him.  One descendent of this family went back to the site on the far side of Blue Mountain to live.  This line of the family eventually migrated to eastern Ohio and then John Curry, my great, great grandfather migrated to central Minnesota immediately following the Sioux uprising in the area.  My father told me that the settlers in John Curry’s community had a place where they would all go when there were rumors of another uprising.  And my father also said that my great, great grandfather had a Native American site on his land and he insisted that it be respected.

Even the capture narrative has an introductory disclaimer while the narrative itself goes on to describe traumatic events.  It states:

Hence it will be proper to make some allowance for the prejudices which then existed toward the uncivilized aborigines of the wilderness, whose passions were then wrought up by the aggressions of the white inhabitants—and the scenes of warfare between the colonies and the mother country…When “the revolutionary war began, the poor Indians hardly knew what part to take, fearing they would lose all their country in the quarrel between nations of white people.” Many of them took side with the British, or it was so considered—and hence the Americans by means of general Sullivan and his army drove them from their homes, and destroyed their crops and settlements along the Susquehanna and Genesee rivers. This exasperated the Indians, and they again sought retaliation “by killing and taking into captivity the white inhabitants” along the frontiers of Pennsylvania, New York, &c. —among these the Gilbert family were a part of the sufferers. It is believed the Indians who committed these depredations were ignorant of this family being Friends or Quakers, the peaceable descendants of William Penn—and friends to the natives (4-5).

My hope is that the incongruity that underlies my family’s interactions across the cultural gap between Europeans and Native Americans reflects a, cross-generational and on-going tension and discomfort as we struggle daily with issues of injustice, mutual understanding, and respect.  My older daughter’s name, Marie, embodies my own journey.  Marie is my middle name, but my daughter is named after Marie Dupre, a Houma tribe member, who welcomed me, cared for me, and served as my cultural translator when I had the privilege of working for the tribe.  She was my bridge as I moved through the metaphoric water gap from my world to the Houma Tribe’s world.  She was my guide in my journey in uncovering the ridges and valleys and cultural layers below the water’s surface.  The world needs more such guides through the water gaps.

I think I’m from Minnesota…

My daughters grew up in Iowa and Michigan.  Recently my older daughter, who continues to live in Michigan, had someone ask her where she was from.  She thought about it and finally responded: “I’ve never lived there, but I think I’m from Minnesota.” I’ve been thinking about my daughter’s response to the question: “Where are you from?”  What is involved in our answer to that simple question?

In Chinese culture, many people celebrate the Qingming Festival, or Tomb Sweeping Day.  This is the holiday where people go “home” and clean off the tombs of their ancestors. And ancestral villages, tied to clans, where families can trace their lineage back hundreds of years, are important touch points.  But how long must a family inhabit a space and place before it takes on this sacred meaning?

Like my daughter, I would also probably say that I’m from Minnesota, if asked.  But then, I have lived there.  As a first grader my family went “home” and lived with my grandmother while my father was in-between jobs.   My grandmother (father’s mother) was good friends with my mother’s aunt.  We lived two blocks from my great aunt and uncle on my father’s side and would go there for Aunt Myrtle’s homemade donuts.  And I remember going with my mother and other family members to help clean out Opa’s house (her grandfather) after he died.  I was fascinated as I opened a trunk and found a German family Bible.  And I can still picture the round pedestal oak kitchen table.  My mother took off the top and turned it into a coffee table that was always in our house as I was growing up.  Now it is in my daughter’s house—Opa to his granddaughter, and from my mother to her granddaughter.  Ties that span five generations all tied to a place in Minnesota.

Later, when I returned to live in Minnesota in my 20s, and made the trip from the Twin Cities back to southwest Minnesota to attend the burial of my great uncle Bud, I walked through the Delft cemetery seeing many of the names from the German side of my family dominated by the surname Smith.  Opa was there.  My mother’s great grandma Brinkman, who hung herself on a door, suffering from depression, was close by.  Jenny Marie, my grandmother’s younger sister, who died as a child with whom I shared a birthday and a similar name was present.

After my first grade year, my family moved to Illinois.  A year later we got the call during Sunday morning church that my grandmother had died.  I can still see my mother coming into my Sunday school class to get me.  We made the journey back to Minnesota and when we walked into the house, I remember seeing the cookie jar full of sugar cookies and thinking that this was evidence that my grandmother must have known that I was coming.  I got to choose one item of my own to take with me from Minnesota that time.  It is my grandmother’s glass swan which has gotten chipped in one of the many moves I’ve made over my lifetime, but still sits in my glass cupboard.

My grandmother was buried in Windom in the town cemetery next to a grandfather I never knew.  Always pragmatic and realistic, my grandfather had bought 6 plots to be used for he and my grandmother and for my father and his sister and their spouses, in spite of my father anticipating living in the Belgium Congo and my aunt ending up living as far away as California.

The next time I came back to this cemetery was when I traveled from Louisiana when my aunt Ruth, my mother’s sister, died.  This was Ivan’s Ruth.  I had just recently graduated from the college where Ruth taught.  We had gotten to know one another during my time there.  In my family we also had Fred’s Ruth and Ernest’s Ruth which helped us differentiate.  Ernest’s Ruth, though an aunt by marriage to my mother, was also related to my father somehow.  Ruth’s service was in the Twin Cities and then the family made the pilgrimage home to southwest Minnesota, traveling through the Minnesota River Valley with its enormous Jolly Green Giant sign that marked the passage through the vegetable production region.

By the time my grandmother on my mother’s side died at the age of 101, I was living in Michigan and had two daughters.   We drove to Illinois to pick up my parents and made the long drive in Minnesota.  One of the last Harry Potter books had just come out on tape—22 hours long—and it kept us patient on the long journey both ways.  Grandma Oma was buried by my grandfather, her first husband, in the Jeffers cemetery.  He had died in 1939 from injuries from a car accident and the tombstone that had then been put in place had both their names but the final year left blank for my grandmother (19–).  Alas, my grandmother made it to 2002 so the front of the stone had to be cut off and redone.  In this graveyard we also walked among the Courts family graves, the family of my Grandma Oma’s second husband and his first wife and extended family.  My Grandma Oma would always refer to people like this who were somehow connected to me, but not always very closely or directly, as shirttail relations.

My father far outlived both of his parent.  By the time he died, both he and my mother had moved to Michigan to be near me.  Several months after he died, the family gathered in the Twin Cities, and again made the pilgrimage down through the Minnesota River Valley to Windom to bury his ashes.  We picked up various family members along the route and then were joined by others at the cemetery for the service.  One small man was among the crowd, standing out among the tall crowd.  My daughters asked me who he was, seeing that he didn’t seem to fit in.  He was my mother’s step-brother who had been adopted into her step-father’s family.  He had left home as soon as he could and joined the navy and this was the first time in more than 50 years that he had returned to Minnesota.  By this time, other names had been added to the names in the town cemetery—My uncle Bob had taken his place in one of the Curry plots.  My father’s extended family—my aunt Myrtle Berry and cousin Ferg Croft were among the names that I recognized.

This past summer we repeated this journey as we went to bury my mother.  This time I came from Massachusetts to Minnesota.  And this next summer I will experience yet one more pilgrimage to southwest Minnesota to do our family’s version of tomb sweeping.  Ruth’s Ivan will be added to the names and memories.  And someone will probably bring a bucket of water, soap, and sponges to clean the headstones that have been there for some time as we add one more to the mix.

Curry, Groves, McBirnie, Courts, Berry, Croft, Schaefer, Sherman, Ludeman, Ewen, Carlblom, Grant, Brinkman, Smith, Groves, Rippie.  Two parents.  Two grandfathers I didn’t know.  Two grandmothers I did know and love.  Aunts and uncles. Great aunts and uncles. Cousins once-removed. Shirttail relations.  In-laws.  Family friends.

This is what happens when a family inhabits a place for a length of time.  There becomes a place where you can walk through space and see all the names that are all tied to who you are.  And sometime others will join you on this walk.

When I lived in Minnesota in my 20s, I once had a shirt that said:  If you live a good life and say your prayers, when you die you will go to Minnesota.  May it be so.



Earth, Water Air and Fire: Southern California’s Primordial Elements

A visitor to California in the 1890s described it as the “Land which the Almighty has crystallized with a smile.”  It was a land of dreams fulfilled.  Today, while that image still persists, we are also likely to associate Southern California with fires, mudslides, earthquakes, racial tensions, and violence.  How do we make sense of these conflicting images?

Clarence Glacken, in his classic work Traces on the Rhodian Shore, describes how ancient Greek philosophers’ perceived the world as a balance among fundamental elements.  Everything has its counterpart and through this, order and balance exist. The interaction of the opposites—the coldness of air or mist and the heat of fire, the dryness of the earth and the wetness of water provide the structure out of which order in the world exists.  Empedocles identified the four essential elements at work—earth, water, air, and fire—as the substances on which love as the unifying and hate as divisive—react.  These four elements were also associated with the four humors (blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm) and associated temperaments (sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic) of humans.  The balance among humanity was seen as but one part of larger oppositional forces in nature.

I’ve been contemplating this framework for thinking about Southern California.  After all, the ancient Greek classical elements—earth, water, air, and fire—both shape and disrupt this idealized land.  Forces are at work that create a landscape both attractive and dangerous.  Yet, in many cases, humanity acts only with an understanding of the attractiveness without the balancing force of understanding the danger.

Earth and Water.  California’s coastal landscape is shaped by tectonic forces which continue to shake the earth and gradually cause the coastal land to rise in elevation while ocean forces act to create wave-cut platforms which eventually rise above the forces of the water but whose dramatic coastal morphology reflects its geologic history.

Likewise, the tectonic forces have left California with a narrow continental shelf, sometimes less than a mile, causing ocean waves to quickly move from deep ocean to shore, creating the crashing waves that make it a great environment for surfing. These same forces unleash themselves in earthquakes where the energy of the earth’s movement leads to liquefaction where unconsolidated sediment flows like water.

Water and Air.  Glacken is not surprised that the Greeks developed a sense of balance around these particular elements.  Greece and Southern California both have a Mediterranean climate where hot is associated with dry and cold is associated with moist.  Mediterranean climate regions are found globally at approximately 35-40 degrees of latitude, on continental west coasts.  This unique climate is characterized by summers with the high air pressure associated with desert climates—hot and dry. Winters bring westerly winds off the oceans and a rainy season—cool and moist.

Air and Fire.  The summer landscape in Southern California is dry and parched.  Santa Ana winds, strong winds that blow from the dry inland deserts from the east during this dry season, adding to the drying out of the landscape.  At the end of the summer, fires break out and move through the hills, fueled by the dry vegetation and intensified in the presence of Santa Ana winds.

Fire and Earth.  Fires, having burned off much of the vegetation, leave little to hold the soil in place when the rains arrive.  The rains of the winter become the force that leads to mudslides and the slumping of hillsides.  Dry river beds are transformed into massive streams laden with debris. John McPhee, in his book, The Control of Nature, describes the massive structures in the hills around Los Angeles that are built to capture this debris in attempts to avert disasters.

Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. Elements that create beauty as they act together, and danger when humans fail to balance their optimistic temperament with humility.



Small Town Life: Multiple Roles

One of the characteristics of small town life, no matter where in the world, is that many individuals play multiple roles in a community.  The local mayor may be a local business owner who gets $5000 a year for their compensation for public service.  Volunteer firefighters are called from church services.  When I lived in rural Iowa, the same person served as county sanitarian and 911 phone operator.  Clearly few septic systems were ever pro-actively inspected.

Last week I got a note from a friend from rural Manitoba.  They had some excitement when their combine caught fire.  As my friend Margaret reported: “Brother law looked back and there was smoke so jumped out. First couple of hours of combining of the season. Ed was in the other yard dumping grain.”

Getting assistance in such an instance can be difficult.  My great aunt’s house out in the country started fire in the ten minutes between my calling her and our getting to her house and the volunteer fire department was already there—very impressive.   My friend experienced a bit of a greater challenge.  She said: “Fire trucks were slow.  Apparently 911 has different names for the North south Roads than I do and we are on a juridical boundary. Also 911 didn’t answer very quickly. Should have called the fire chief’s tire shop in Benito. Probably couldn’t have save it anyway but scary.”

Thankfully all were safe.  Margaret recently sent me a note that said: “Combining is going well. They brought in a custom combiner and will look for combine over the winter. Yields are good.”