When I finished John McPhee’s Encounters with the Archdruid on Thursday morning two and a half weeks ago, I thought the timing perfect because Ian Rankin’s latest Rebus crime novel, Saints of the Shadow Bible, was due to arrive in the post later that day from the UK. (I had pre-ordered it from the UK Amazon, unwilling to wait for its US publication in mid-January.) But when I got home that evening, it wasn’t there. Meanwhile, Dwight Garner’s review of Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel had appeared in the NYT the day before, reawakening the interest I had in it after reading Oren Kessler’s WSJ review two weeks before.
In the spring of 1897 a steamer carrying a delegation of 21 British Jews left Port Said, Egypt, for Jaffa—the last leg of its journey to the Holy Land. Leading the pack was Herbert Bentwich, an affluent London lawyer and Zionist leader and the great-grandfather of Ari Shavit, a columnist for the Haaretz newspaper and one of Israel’s most influential political commentators.
In “My Promised Land,” his first book in English, Mr. Shavit charts Israel’s history partly through the lives of his pioneering forebears: His grandfather, Herbert’s son, was a Cambridge-educated pedagogue who helped develop Israel’s education system, while his father was a chemist at the eye of Israel’s nuclear program. The result is roughly equal parts personal and family memoir, Israeli history, and prophecies for the land’s future. It is one of the most nuanced and challenging books written on Israel in years.
“My Promised Land” shifts into higher gear in its middle sections, with the claiming of the Masada fortress in the 1940s as a symbol for Zionism, and with the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. This book’s middle 200 pages are almost certainly the most powerful pages of nonfiction I’ve read this year.
It’s not just that Mr. Shavit lays out the story of Israel’s founding with clarity and precision. This is a story we’ve read before, in a stack of books that, laid end to end, would wrap 88 times around the outskirts of Tel Aviv. It’s that he so deliberately scrutinizes the denial he locates at the heart of Israeli consciousness.
This book’s central chapter is probably the one about how the Palestinian citizenry was driven from the Arab city of Lydda in 1948. Many were killed; some were tortured during interrogations. There was looting. Tens of thousands of Palestinians, long columns, were driven from their homes into the desert. In expulsions like this one lie his country’s original sin, the author argues, beyond the settlements of its later expansion.
“Lydda is our black box,” he declares. “In it lies the dark secret of Zionism.” Mr. Shavit is a powerful writer about denial. The miracle that is Israel, he says, is “based on denial. The nation I am born into has erased Palestine from the face of the earth.”
It’s among Mr. Shavit’s gifts as a writer and thinker that he can see this fact plainly yet condemn “the bleeding-heart Israeli liberals of later years who condemn what” was done in Lydda “but enjoy the fruits of their deed.”
Garner’s claim that the “book’s middle 200 pages” are “the most powerful pages of nonfiction I’ve read this year” sure got my attention. I downloaded the free portion that Thursday evening and began reading. Rankin’s book arrived the next day, but it was too late. I was hooked. (I also saw that next day, with the NYT Sunday book review posted online, that it would featured as the subject of the lead review, by Leon Wieseltier.
Until we get to the tedious later pages, each chapter of My Promised Land focuses on a particular time, place, and set of people, with some superb story telling based on historical research and interviews. The first chapter revolves around Shavit’s great-grandfather’s 1897 visit. The second drew me in through its treatment of Jewish settlement in the Harod Valley in the 1920s, with a focus on Kibbutz Ein Harod.
The further I read into this chapter, the more I had a sense of déja vu. Not that I had been there, but my cousin Batia had settled a kibbutz in the 1920s, and I began to suspect that it was in the same valley. Sure enough, later in the chapter, Shavit wrote about a day in April 1926 when the members of Ein Harod and some neighboring kibbutzim, including Beit Alpha, stopped work early to wash up and prepare to attend a concert held in a valley amphitheater. Shavit takes a moment here to explain that none other than Jascha Heifetz had performed in this quarry a few months earlier. As for Beit Alpha, that’s the kibbutz my cousin founded.
Batia was my mother’s (much older) first cousin. Her mother and grandmother—my grandfather’s sister and mother—were active Zionists in Poland. Batia moved to Beit Alpha in the 1920s. Her sister and mother stayed behind to continue their efforts, ultimately perishing in the Holocaust. When I met Batia over forty years later, in the summer of 1970, she was a kind older woman (not so much older perhaps than I am now) living in Tel Aviv with her husband, a chemist at the Weizmann Institute of Science who commuted to Rehovot daily to work on a chemistry curriculum for the nation’s high schools. One son was an engineer with two young children, living in a suburb south of Tel Aviv. The other was an advanced student at the Technion, still serving in the Army. It was a professional urban family, living in a modest apartment where I spent a lot of time.
A year later, on a return trip to Israel, I came to Tel Aviv one weekend to visit Batia and Fritz, as was the norm, and off we went on a Saturday morning on a long drive to a kibbutz where they had friends. It was Beit Alpha. To my surprise, when we arrived Batia and Fritz were treated like honored guests, as pioneer members decades before. This was counter to everything I knew about them. We had the most delightful afternoon. I remember the kibbutz as sitting on the lower slopes of a hill or mountain, with the West Bank border just beyond. On reading Shavit’s account, I realized this was Mount Gilboa.
Anyway, as Garner mentions in his review, the book hits full stride in chapter 4 with Shavit’s treatment of the expulsion of Arabs from Lydda in the 1948 war. From there, for 200 pages or more, the reader is in for a powerful experience. An essential theme for Shavit is that the Jewish settlers lost their way, or their innocence, not with the West Bank settlements in the aftermath of the 1967 and 1973 wars but with the expulsion of Arabs in the 1948 war. This was, as it were, the original sin.
The book lost its way, at least for me, in the closing chapters, which become more a monologue in which Shavit expresses his concerns about Israel’s direction, less a historically focused treatment of key moments in Israel’s history in which a series of fascinating characters is introduced. The penultimate chapter goes on and on about the threat of Iran’s nuclear weapon development, something that evidently was a Shavit cause in his newspaper writing for years. The final chapter, one of the two longest, is an extended essay on the challenges the country faces. I would have been happy if the book ended before them.
Despite being a decades-long John McPhee fan, I had never read his 1971 book Encounters with the Archdruid. A year or two ago, when I saw that Joel had put it on his Amazon wish list, I bought it for him, this being an indirect way to buy it for myself as well, since we share a Kindle account.
I didn’t touch the book for a while. It was Joel’s after all. But I eventually downloaded it and read a few pages here and there, continuing to wait for Joel to read it first before plunging in. Finally, a couple of weeks ago, plunge in I did.
What a marvelous book. It’s three independent pieces, each featuring an encounter between environmentalist David Brower and someone whose work places him in opposition to Brower’s principles. First we meet a famed geologist at Stanford who advises mining companies. McPhee sets up a trip to Glacier Peak National Forest here in the Cascades, accompanying the two as they hike through the mountains argue over developing a copper mine. Next McPhee brings Brower together with the man who developed Hilton Head Island as they visit Cumberland Island, off the coast where Georgia meets Florida. Cumberland is in private hands and undeveloped, but development is on the way. Or perhaps a takeover by the federal government, which can convert it to national seashore. The third encounter, between Brower and the nation’s great dam builder, fresh off his completion of the Glen Canyon Dam, has the pair ride down the Colorado and debate future dams in the Grand Canyon.
The secret to the book is that each of Brower’s foes is entirely likable, a delightful character whom one finds oneself rooting for. I could quote countless passages to illustrate this, but I’d end up quoting the book as a whole. Here’s one I marked in which Dominy, the dam builder, recounts a trip with Robert Frost.
He and I went to Russia together. I was going to visit Russian dams, and he was on some cultural exchange, and we sat beside each other on the plane all the way to Moscow. He talked and talked, and I smoked cigars. He said eventually, “So you’re the dam man. You’re the creator of the great concrete monoliths—turbines, generators, stored water” And then he started to talk poetically about me, right there in the plane. He said, “Turning, turning, turning … creating, creating … creating energy for the people … for the people … .”
Most of the day, Frost reminisced about his childhood, and he asked about mine, and I told him I’d been born in a town so small that the entrance and exit signs were on the same post. Land as dry and rough as a cob. You’ll never see any land better than that for irrigating. God damn, she lays pretty. And he asked about my own family, and I told him about our farm in Virginia, and how my son and I put up nine hundred and sixty feet of fence in one day. I told my son, “I’ll teach you how to work. You teach yourself how to play.”
A year ago, Adam Hochschild wrote a piece about McPhee that explains the book’s greatness far better than I can. I’ll outsource the rest of the post to Hochschild.
To my mind, McPhee’s engineering masterpiece is his Encounters with the Archdruid, the text of which, like almost all of his books, first appeared in The New Yorker. A portrait of the environmental activist David Brower (1912-2000), it is structured like no other biography or profile you will read. Brower was a militant, not a compromiser or deal-maker, and his passionate, lifelong defense of the American wilderness against any threat dependably left his enemies fuming. And so the book is arranged around three prolonged encounters between the “evangelical” Brower, as McPhee calls him, and people who detest everything he stands for.
The first is a prominent mining geologist named Charles Park, whose entire life has been devoted to targeting deposits of valuable minerals, wherever they are found. He was a man who believed, McPhee says, “that if copper were to be found under the White House, the White House should be moved.” How does McPhee bring him together with Brower? He takes the two of them camping and hiking for a week or so in the Glacier Peak Wilderness in Washington State. The setting is shrewdly chosen: Glacier Peak is a federal wilderness area, “not to receive even the use given a national park, not to be entered by a machine of any kind except in extreme emergency, not to be developed or lumbered – forevermore.” But there’s a key exception: mining claims, including a huge one held by Kennecott Copper, remain valid, and, at the time the men were making this trip, for more than a dozen years into the future new claims could still be made. To display two political enemies in combat, McPhee could not have picked a better battleground. Park chips away at rocks with his geologist’s tools, curious about what metals could be mined here to feed the American economy; Brower praises the beauty of the mountains, still unravaged by men like Park. Almost any writer, doing a story like this, would have elicited these rival points of view by interviewing the two men separately. McPhee, however, brings them together, where, with spectacular scenery in the background, they argue at length, providing him with writer’s gold: dialogue.
The second encounter McPhee sets up, again for what appears to be a week or so, is between Brower and a businessman who wants to build a vast housing development on a wild island off the coast of Georgia, complete with an airport suitable for private jets. Compared to the first encounter, the conversation between the two antagonists is much more polite. However, the businessman, Charles Fraser, has great contempt for environmentalists, calling them “druids.” He tells Brower, “I call anyone a druid who prefers trees to people” – hence the book’s title.
The third encounter is the most dramatic, and threaded through it, providing its narrative backbone, is one of the more spectacular journeys available in the lower 48 states: going down the Grand Canyon by raft. In the 1950s and 1960s some of the most furious American environmental battles were over the building of dams. As McPhee puts it, to environmental types:
The outermost circle of the Devil’s world seems to be a moat filled mainly with DDT. Next to it is a moat of burning gasoline. Within that is a ring of pinheads each covered with a million people – and so on past phalanxed bulldozers and bicuspid chain saws into the absolute epicenter of Hell on earth, where stands a dam. Conservationists who can hold themselves in reasonable check before new oil spills and fresh megalopolises mysteriously go insane at even the thought of a dam. … possibly the reaction to dams is so violent because rivers are the ultimate metaphors of existence, and dams destroy rivers.
David Brower regarded the building of the Glen Canyon Dam, upstream on the Colorado River from the Grand Canyon, as “the greatest failure of his life,” McPhee says. But after losing that battle, he went on to furiously wage and win several others, stopping Bureau of Reclamation plans to build two more large dams in parts of the Grand Canyon itself. His arch-enemy in this prolonged warfare, the proud builder of the Glen Canyon Dam, defeated for the moment in the later struggles, was Floyd Dominy, longtime commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, in effect chief dam-builder for the U.S. government.
McPhee’s swift brush strokes make Dominy leap off the page: “He appears to have been lifted off a horse with block and tackle. He wears bluejeans, a white-and-black striped shirt, and leather boots with heels two inches high. His belt buckle is silver and could not be covered over with a playing card. He wears a string tie that is secured with a piece of petrified dinosaur bone. On his head is a white Stetson.”
Four weekends ago, we headed down to San Francisco for the wedding of our friends’ daughter Hannah. Years back, I had occasion to be in the Bay Area frequently, whether in San Francisco itself, Berkeley, Santa Cruz, the Peninsula. There was always some reason, from conferences to friend and family visits to stays at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute. Yet somehow a dozen years had elapsed since our last time there.
That was a memorable trip. The centerpiece was a game at the then-new Giants baseball stadium. It was the weekend that straddled June and July in 2001. Barry Bonds was on his way to a record 73 home runs. Friday night we watched the end of the game on TV as he ran into the wall and injured himself. He would not be playing Saturday. Darn. This rookie phenom from the Cardinals was playing though. Pujols. Albert Pujols. And Bonds came in after all to pinch hit in the 9th inning. All in all, a great game. Except for the sun. We forgot sunscreen and I got pretty well burned.
But we weren’t there just for baseball. We headed to Golden Gate Park on Sunday. Alas, I had missed the news that the de Young Museum had closed at the beginning of the year and would remain closed for years to come.
In 1989 the de Young suffered significant structural damage as a result of the Loma Prieta earthquake. The Fine Arts Museums’ board of trustees completed a project that braced the museum as a temporary measure until a long-term solution could be implemented. For the next several years, the board actively sought solutions to the de Young’s structural jeopardy and solicited feedback from throughout the community, conducting numerous visitor surveys and public workshops.
With extensive public input, the board initiated a process to plan and build a privately financed institution as a philanthropic gift to the city, in the tradition of M. H. de Young. An open architectural selection process took place from 1998 to 1999. The board endorsed a museum concept plan in October 1999, and a successful multimillion-dollar fundraising campaign was initiated under the leadership of board president Diane B. Wilsey.
The resulting design by the Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron weaves the museum into the natural environment of the park. It also provides open and light-filled spaces that facilitate and enhance the art-viewing experience. Historic elements from the former de Young, such as the sphinxes, the original palm trees, and the Pool of Enchantment, have been retained or reconstructed at the new museum. The former de Young Museum structure closed to the public on December 31, 2000. The new de Young opened on October 15, 2005.
Twelve years later, seeing the de Young was my top priority. Whatever else we did in our free time before the wedding events, we would see the de Young. And so we did.
The de Young’s American Art Department is home to one of the finest survey collections of American paintings in the United States. Strengthened by the acquisition of the Rockefeller Collection of American Art, the de Young’s holdings include more than 1000 paintings ranging from 1670 to the present day.
While essentially chronological, the installation of American art at the de Young juxtaposes works from different cultures and time periods to emphasize the historical connections between works in the collection, and includes galleries devoted to art in the following areas: Native American and Spanish Colonial; Anglo-Colonial; Federal and Neoclassical; Victorian genre and realism; trompe l’oeil still life; the Hudson River School, Barbizon and Tonalism; Impressionism and the Ashcan School; Arts and Crafts; Modernism; Social Realism and American Scene; Surrealism and Abstraction; Beat, Pop and Figurative; and contemporary. Also featured are important California collections with national significance, including examples of Spanish colonial, Arts and Crafts, Bay Area Figurative, and Assemblage art.
Joel and Jessica took off in their own direction, joining us for lunch in the de Young Café before splitting up again.
Here are a few highlights, courtesy of my iPhone.
First, a painting by Joshua Johnson, the earliest known African-American artist, a freed slave in Baltimore. The image is that of the daughter of a wealthy Baltimore merchant. (This and other descriptions are from the signage in the museum.)
This next one is blurry. Sorry. It’s by Horace Pippin, another African-American artist, whose grandmother saw John Brown being led to his hanging in 1859. Pippin emphasizes Brown as a Christ-like martyr, with the jury and prosecutor/persecutor recalling the twelve apostles and Judas.
Next, one of several John Frederick Peto paintings that need to be seen in person for a proper sense of texture.
Near the Peto is this nearly contemporaneous painting by John Haberle.
Here’s a wonderful Sargent.
How about this wonderful Stickley sideboard? I could find a spot for it in our house.
I can’t properly capture this Grant Wood, inspired by Wood’s childhood memories of the annual threshing ritual on his family’s Iowa farm. The accompanying sign suggests that the bisected farmhouse recalls early Renaissance paintings, especially those depicting the Last Supper. Wood thereby endows the farmers with the dignity of biblical disciples partaking of a sacred meal.
Here’s a detail.
I’ll end with a painting by William Zorach, who became a friend of my parents late in his life. I remember his visits to our house.
After viewing the art, we met up and walked to the elevator to go up the tower that contains museum offices and, at its top, a public observation floor. The shot I took of the tower as we left is at the start of this post. Here is the view north toward Marin County.
We left so much unexplored. There’s always next time, which I hope isn’t another dozen years away.
I mentioned in my last post, by way of explaining my absence from Ron’s View of late, the events of two weekends ago (my mother-in-law Bea’s death) and last weekend (funeral, associated family events). One of those family events, dinner a week about about now for dinner at Gail’s sister’s, led us straight into an unexpected traffic mess.
On the way up, we stopped at the Apple Store so Gail could get a new screen for her iPhone, which was becoming less and less functional two months after its great fall. From there, I was stunned to find us in a long line trying to exit northbound on a local street, a street that in my decades of driving regularly through that neighborhood has never been so backed up. Not counting just after UW football games anyway. Then, as we slowly worked our way north and west toward I-5 to continue our route northwards, we encountered still more traffic in unlikely places.
With I-5 in sight and a massive line of cars heading north on a local road, I said to Gail and Joel that I-5 must be closed. Joel checked the map on his phone and said no, it shows no traffic. I pointed out that if it were closed, there would indeed be no traffic. Then Gail asked if any event was taking place and Joel said oh, yes, Obama’s in town for fundraisers. Had I read the paper, I would have known that he was due to head from the airport (south of downtown) through downtown to a private home in the north end of the city. We had stumbled right into the stoppage of I-5 that was designed to offer him clear sailing. We slowly edged north until we were able to get on an entrance with traffic flowing freely, Obama having apparently gone by. A routine 25-30 minute trip had taken an hour.
Perhaps it’s worth explaining that Seattle is long north and south, narrow east and west, with water on both the east and west sides–Puget Sound and Elliott Bay to the west, Lake Washington to the east. I-5 runs north-south right down the middle. And the city is divided east-west in the middle by natural and artificial waterway, so one can’t get from south to north without driving across one of a handful of bridges. What this means is, if you stop traffic on I-5 northbound, you are screwing everyone who wants to go north, even a limited distance.
Is this sensible or is it madness? An awkward question to ask on the weekend that fell exactly fifty years after the assassination of JFK.* Yes, presidential security is important. I get that. I do. But must thousands and thousands be pushed aside? For a fundraiser?
*I won’t dwell on where I was fifty years ago, but yes, I remember well where I was on learning of the assassination. I also remember where I was two days later, fifty years to the day before encountering the Obama motorcade. You may have read last week about the NFL’s decision to go ahead that day with its regularly scheduled games. I was at one of them. My beloved Giants against the St. Louis Cardinals at Yankee Stadium. That morning, my father stopped with my brother and me at the local post office to meet my uncle, who was dropping off my cousin to join us. As Jimmy got in the car, he announced the shocking news that Lee Harvey Oswald had just been shot. And off we went, to the Bronx and the game. 24-17 Giants. I’ve never forgotten the score. Let’s see. Here: the boxscore. It says the temperature was 48 degrees, with 19 mph winds. I remember the wind, and being plenty cold.
Anyway, we made it to Tamara’s and ate dinner: leftovers from the post-funeral dinner the night before. Gail and her siblings got to take care of some business. Eight o’clock rolled around and it was time to head home.
We were happily driving south on I-5, back from the suburbs into Seattle, southward through the northern part of the city, approaching the I-5 bridge that crosses the ship canal. And suddenly everything slows down. All southbound lanes uniformly. Then stops. Then stop and go. A mile ahead is the left-lane exit to State Route 520, which leads toward our house and then over the Lake Washington floating bridge to Medina, Bellevue, and the other communities of the Eastside. High up on the bridge is a sign that offers traffic warnings when needed. It is lit up. We finally get close enough for me to see that it says there’s been an incident on SR 520. Bridge closed. All lanes closed. Exit to 520 closed.
Wow! That must be some incident! Or so I was thinking.
Not your ordinary incident, though. I was naive. You see, after his North Seattle fundraiser, Obama was off to Medina, to the home of a retired Microsoft exec for fundraiser number two. And the time had come for him to drive back to Seattle to his downtown hotel. They closed the entire 520 bridge westbound and I-5 southbound just for him. For fundraising.
This is total madness. There are so few ways into Seattle. Two of the three biggest were closed. (There’s also I-90, coming across Lake Washington a few miles to the south.) We sat there for 15 minutes. No more stop and go. Just stop. Then Gail and Joel noticed flashing lights coming west on 520, south on I-5. Moments later, we were released.
Maybe next time Obama can do his fundraisers via Skype and let us go about our business.
Two weeks ago tonight, in the post I’m Back, I apologized for the longest hiatus in the five years of Ron’s View.
The longer I go without writing, the larger my list of overdue items and the harder it is to get back in the rhythm. Being in San Francisco two weekends ago (for a wedding) and New York/Chicago last weekend (for family, then business) made it difficult to find time to write. Yet, the trips gave me more to write about. And this weekend had its own major event, which perhaps I’ll get to at some point.
It appears that I was premature in my announcement, in part due to the major event to which I referred, which would be my mother-in-law Bea’s death two weeks ago. That led a week ago to another eventful weekend, with pre-funeral dinner on Friday, funeral and dinner on Saturday, post-funeral immediate family dinner Sunday. And this weekend, well, Thanksgiving has brought more family events. It’s been a full month.
Tonight I’ll see if I can start catching up. I’ll begin here with a photo (up top) from our walk through Central Park three weekends ago, as we were heading to the Frick. You may recognize the remote-controlled model sailboats as the rentals available at the park’s Conservatory Water.
In my first post last Sunday, after my extended absence, I listed eight items to write about. The first was Paul Schneider’s new book Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History, which I finished a week ago. Here’s the description from the book’s website:
In Old Man River, Paul Schneider tells the story of the river at the center of America’s rich history—the Mississippi. Some fifteen thousand years ago, the majestic river provided Paleolithic humans with the routes by which early man began to explore the continent’s interior. Since then, the river has been the site of historical significance, from the arrival of Spanish and French explorers in the 16th century to the Civil War. George Washington fought his first battle near the river, and Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman both came to President Lincoln’s attention after their spectacular victories on the lower Mississippi.
In the 19th century, home-grown folk heroes such as Daniel Boone and the half-alligator, half-horse, Mike Fink, were creatures of the river. Mark Twain and Herman Melville led their characters down its stream in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Confidence-Man. A conduit of real-life American prowess, the Mississippi is also a river of stories and myth.
Schneider traces the history of the Mississippi from its origins in the deep geologic past to the present. Though the busiest waterway on the planet today, the Mississippi remains a paradox—a devastated product of American ingenuity, and a magnificent natural wonder.
I first learned about the book in a Wall Street Journal review by Fergus Bordewich a few weeks ago. An excerpt:
In “Old Man River,” Paul Schneider takes us on an epic journey of his own that encompasses the furthest reaches of the Mississippi watershed, from remote geological prehistory down to the re-engineering of the river by modern planners and politicians. Along the way, we encounter Stone Age mammoth hunters, mound-building Indians, explorers such as Hernando de Soto, Robert de LaSalle and Zebulon Pike, and a collection of riverine bandits, hustlers, loggers, antebellum slaves, bone hunters and archaeologists.
Always a lively and companionable guide, Mr. Schneider punctuates his excursions into the past with accounts of his own efforts to canoe the river’s reaches. “As soon as you are in the coffee-colored water, you know immediately that you belong to the Mississippi River,” he writes. “It commands every sense. There’s the sound a truly big river makes—not loud but nonetheless vast and soothing, more like wind over grasses than a waterfall. There is an odor to the river as well, vaguely sweet and earthy, though oddly more like the sea than like a mountain stream or a lake.”
Mr. Schneider is equally observant of the workaday river—the giant barges loaded with grain and gravel, the dams and other man-made obstructions that have altered its character, and the heavy industry that in places crowds its banks.
Mr. Schneider eventually delivers us to a river that—while still majestic—has been vastly altered by more than a century of human interference (most of which he detests) intended to make it more easily navigable and safer. A system of damming and hardening of the shoreline throughout the watershed has eliminated natural outlets to wetlands and deepened channels in ways that have led to catastrophic flooding and to the hemorrhaging of soil that was once distributed more or less evenly along the course of the river. “Every forty-five minutes an area of Louisiana marsh roughly the size of a football field disappears under the waves of the Gulf of Mexico,” he writes. This works out, he says, to the disappearance of 2,000 square miles of Louisiana over the past 70 years. “Think one Manhattan a year, one Delaware a century.”
Given that the book is short and the scope vast, the journey is a whirlwind, akin to a visit to eight major European cities in fifteen days. But Schneider chooses his stops well. I wasn’t eager to cover
ground water I’d already been over with Mark Twain, or get a recap of the Civil War. Fortunately, I didn’t have to.
Instead, I learned a lot about Native American civilization (the coverage of the Indian mounds is superb), the French explorers, and the siege of Vicksburg. Nor did I want to re-read the story John McPhee already told so well in his classic The Control of Nature. Schneider knows there’s no point trying to outdo McPhee, so he moves on quickly.
Regarding Indian mounds, Schneider’s recounting of his stop at Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa is superb. He becomes entranced as he walks amid the giant bears.
When I moved on to the second beast in the row, though, I unconsciously slowed down and became, as a result, more conscious. The path turned sharply left, then right, then right again, then left as I walked around first one bear leg, then another. Then along the long belly of the beast. When I completed my circuit of the third mound, for some reason I didn’t move on but began again down the same great neck to the grass-furry paw. I walked myself into a trance.
Whether walking the outline of an effigy mound was part of the original rituals practiced by the builders I couldn’t say, but it felt reflexively correct. … Tracing the outline of a knee-high bear in the dimming light above the Mississippi River felt less a pilgrimage than some kind of devotional act. I was going around in circles, after all, not to some holy place. …
I don’t currently practice any circumambulation regularly, other than taking two trips around every new rental car to make sure there are no dings or dents before leaving the parking lot. Truth is I don’t take part in much organized ceremonialism of any sort, thank God. Whether this makes a person more or less vulnerable to surprise attacks from global bear spirits, I have no way of knowing, but I do know that on my fifth trip around the third bear, what hair there is on the back of my neck stood up and would not stand back down.
Effigy Mounds National Monument is now on my list of places to visit. As are so many of Schneider’s stops.
My mother-in-law Bea died Friday afternoon. She had not been well for many months. Nonetheless, the decline at the end was rapid and unexpected, with word Tuesday that she was not eating and death 72 hours later. Gail called me at my office in mid-afternoon Friday to say she was going out to be with Bea. We agreed that I could wait until the end of the afternoon. I didn’t get there in time, and neither did Gail.
Bea did not have an easy life. In her final years, she was beset by Alzheimer’s and then a fall and broken hip from which she never regained mobility. Which is especially sad given how much she enjoyed getting around. She didn’t drive, but she was determinedly independent in her use of the Seattle bus system. I’ll never forget Thanksgiving dinner of 1986, when she went toe to toe with another experienced rider, a brilliant colleague of mine, and held her own in bus mastery.
At her first Alzheimer’s home, before the fall, she would frequently head out the door and around the fenced-in open air area surrounding the facility. The only problem was that it consisted of four identical spokes off a central reception area and she didn’t always return to the correct spoke. Right bedroom location, wrong wing. Oh well.
Bea was a fearless cook. We can put aside the question of how successful the results were, though I always seemed willing to eat them. She’d cook day and night (her eating schedule being a bit unpredictable), and no one could out-bake her. Some details might get overlooked, like shutting off the cooktop burners, but no matter. And anyway, thankfully, Jessica lived with her in the last years before she moved to the home, so someone was paying attention when those burners were left on.
No one spread the church news better than Bea. She’d call for Gail, I’d answer, and she’d plunge right in with the latest death, along with the scheduled service at the neighborhood funeral home, Wiggins. That I had no idea who she was talking about, that I knew no one at the church besides the family, that I didn’t go to the church (or any other) never mattered. Nor did I know Wiggins, but I eventually caught on to his identity.
It’s only fitting that she, too, is now passing through Wiggins. I would say I’ll miss her, but that Bea disappeared some time back. I’ve been missing her for years.