Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A Local Note in the International News

The BBC paints a decidedly unflattering picture of Aberdeen, Washington on this 20th anniversary of the death the town's most famous son, Kurt Cobain ("Kurt Cobain's hometown no 'nirvana' 20 years after death").  That Cobain left a mixed legacy in his hometown isn't very surprising, given the circumstances of his childhood, the limits of life in a small town, his negative comments about Aberdeen as a celebrity, his drug use and suicide.  Being a dead rock legend doesn't count for a whole lot for many folks in Aberdeen.  If it counts at all, it's for the possibility of tourist dollars.

I can't speak to Cobain's life, his music or death--I was well into folk and folk-influenced rock and paid only passing attention to Cobain, Nirvana and the grunge movement.  On the other hand, I have been to Aberdeen more than once and can't say that the BBC is too far off the mark.

Among the very first references to Aberdeen I heard from a native Washingtonian was "Aberdump" and while others weren't as overtly negative, most people don't have much good to say about the town which is about 50 miles west of Olympia.  My first view of Aberdeen took me through a downtown that was more remnant of a better economy; I'd passed all of the big box stores on the highway east of town.  Lots of empty retail space.  Houses small and worn looking.  Neighboring Hoquiam looked equally forlorn.  Gray skies only heightened the effect.  The BBC rightly notes that Aberdeen has been hit hard by the decline of logging and it shows in the empty buildings.  On a larger scale, Aberdeen just looks like it's been used hard.  The city's waterfront is extensive and built out for an economy that no longer requires it.

Aberdeen does have a few things to recommend it, though.  The city is located at the head of Grays Harbor Bay at the confluence of the Chehalis, Whiskah and Hoquiam Rivers, all of which make for a dramatic coastal setting.  Most of my experience of Aberdeen has been passing through on my way to the grand places of the Olympic Peninsula; however much the area may be diminished by the "march of progress" it retains much of its innate beauty.  The approach from the east along Route 12 follows the north side of the broad flood plain of the Chehalis River with its many sloughs and wetlands.  Aberdeen is home to Grays Harbor Institute where Maggie and I heard Melissa Harris speak.  Aberdeen is home port for the Lady Washington, Washington's semi-official tall ship.  Three drawbridges span the Whiskah, Chehalis and Hoquiam Rivers.  A ray of local economic hope is the construction of the pontoons for the new floating bridge in Seattle.  I even ate good Mexican food at an Aberdeen restaurant.

If you look closely you can see Aberdeen's positives but you can't ignore it's decline.  For as much as Aberdeen disdains Kurt Cobain, the BBC would not be writing about Aberdeen but for Kurt Cobain.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Same Date. Different Years

From the journals:

04 April 2002.  At Hawk Mountain Shelter with about 20 other people this first day hiking the Appalachian Trail.  Red, Gary, Maggie and I are camped in the upper level of the shelter.  Long day hiking--6 hours--but we got in early enough to grab a space under a roof.  After dinner the sun is setting and the air is cooling.  Dinner was Ramen noodles with textured vegetable protein.  I still worry that we will run short of food before we reach Neels Gap.  I guess the stress of the city and and getting to the trail head is still with me.  Even so, today was a great day.  We encountered many people, most of whom seem to be here at Hawk Mountain this evening.  Sitting at the table in front of the shelter, I count seven tents.  More are out of direct sight.  The Appalachian Trail is a crowded place this fourth day of April.

04 April 2005.  Camped at Stover Creek Shelter on the first night of my Appalachian Trail "make up" hike.  Walked a blistering 3.5 miles today, barely half of that with a pack.  Brother Neil drove me up from Atlanta to Forest Road 42 about a mile north Springer Mountain summit.  We walked south to the AT southern terminus there, touched the plaque there and returned to the road.  Then I stared walking solo.  Easy walking, much more so than three years ago.  Feels strange to be out on my own--no Red and Gary, no Maggie, just me and this year's aspiring 2,000-milers.


Monday, February 17, 2014

Okefenokee Journal

You saw the photos, here's the whole story.


Even this far south, at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in almost-Florida southeast Georgia, the temperature is in the low 30’s.  Much better than the sub-freezing Atlanta snowmageddon we passed through to get here but still cold for sitting in an aluminum canoe on a foggy morning at Stephen C. Foster State Park.  Maggie is in the bow.  My brother Neil and long-time friend Peyton are alongside us.  I try to remember how to steer a canoe. 

We make our way out a short canal to an open, wide channel of the Suwannee River.  I practice paddling and steering from the stern, figuring out how to coordinate with Maggie paddling from the bow.  Our route is a simple: follow the Red Trail 9 miles up the Middle Fork of the Suwanee River to Big Water Lake (an interesting term for describing an interior feature of a very large swamp which also has prairies), camp on the platform there Friday night, return on the Red Trail, paddle 2 miles past the state park channel on the Suwannee to camp on land at Mixons Hammock Saturday and return to Stephen C. Foster park on Sunday. 

The trail turns north into a narrow channel that follows the Middle Fork of the Suwanee.  The cypress trees are close in as we pick our way around brush and debris here and there.  Everywhere I look is water, yet vegetation is so dense that it almost seems like land.  White herons are everywhere.  Some blue herons and snowy egrets, too.  We reach the rest stop at Minnies Lake after after two-and-a-half hours.  We’re paddling about a mile-and-a-half per hour against some current and occasional headwind.  Steady but not fast.

The sun comes out as we leave Minnies Lake.  With just over five miles to go, we should be in 4:30-5:00 at the latest.  More birds, this time a pileated woodpecker and cormorants.  No alligators sited, though.  We pass Milepost 22 and soon spot a trail sign that says “Shelter” with an arrow pointing in the direction we are headed.  Camp will be soon.  I’m ready.  My butt is sore and my arms are tired from paddling.  Besides we only have about an hour or so of light to make camp and dinner.  I’m ready to be in now.

But no shelter comes into view.  We keep paddling, looking hard for signs of a man-made structure.  Passing Milepost 21, I begin to get that uneasy feeling I had hiking when I thought I might have missed a turnoff to a shelter.  In this swamp, there’s no alternative—no land to camp on if we don’t find the shelter.  The thought of sleeping in the boats chills me in more ways than one.  I paddle with determination.  After another 20 or so anxious minutes, the platform comes into view, much to everyone’s relief. 

We land and begin making camp.  The platform has a vault toilet and a sloped roof over about half of the space.  Peyton’s tent is at the far end in the open.  Neil’s in the middle under the roof.  Maggie and I are on the opposite end in the open.    We are using a rental tent and must figure out how to set it up.  It’s a free standing REI Half Dome with a fly that works best staked in four directions.  I manage to stake the vestibules on each side wedging the stakes between the platform planks.  Dinner is fast.  A few stories, some discussion about the difference between actual trail miles and map mileage (probably due to the recent relocation of the shelter), hot chocolate and to bed.  Sky is partly cloudy but open enough to see Jupiter rising in the east.

A rain shower begins after midnight.  One or two more follow.  Owls hoot in the wee hours.  At first light the platform is wet but no rain is falling.  All around I see swamp enveloped in fog, dark waters dissolving into mist and sky.  This is one of those epiphany moments when I am both in wonder of the experience and the good fortune in life that brought me here.  Yesterday’s long paddle is fully justified in this moment. 

Another shower during breakfast but it ends quickly and we are able to pack up dry.  We bail the boats using my tent sponge in lieu of the more traditional car wash sponge which we don’t have.  We’re on the water by 10:00, expecting rain.  Maggie and I are first out and spot an alligator lying in the tall grass on the far side of the channel.  Occasional patches of fog hover on the water.

Although we are following yesterday’s route, its reverse is every bit as challenging and interesting.  Despite expectations, no rain falls.  The current is with us—nice for cruising down an open straight stretch, not as nice when cautiously trying to thread a canoe under brush and around logs.  I think I have mastered the basics of paddling and steering a canoe but it’s still awkward at times.  Fewer birds are out this morning it seems.  We spot a red tailed hawk perched high when it calls out as we approach.  It watches us as we pass under and away from it.  Woodpeckers drum back and forth.

Lunch is on the platform at Minnies Lake.  Across the channel a white heron is methodically hunting in the tall grass.  A solo kayaker passes by heading north and returns shortly.  He’s the first person we’ve seen in over 24 hours.  Peyton loans me his kayak paddle to try out.  The technique is different but I quickly understand how it allows for steering without the loss of momentum that comes with the steering movements of a single paddle.  I understand that but in a few tight spots I wish I had a single paddle.  Back on the Suwannee, I can crank out easily with the kayak paddle.  We encounter a flotilla of Boy Scouts, not all of whom fully control their canoes.  Signs point toward the Suwannee River Sill and Cravens Hammock. 

Not seeing Mixons Hammock among the destinations leaves us a bit uneasy after last night’s extra distance.  We know we’re heading in the right direction and keep paddling.  We pass a vulture tree—a cluster of trees, actually, with 40 to 50 vultures roosting.  Another sign points the route the Sill and Cravens Hammock through a narrow channel.  Since it’s the only option we follow it and after a few twists and turns we spot a sign for Mixons Hammock on a cable suspended across the entry to the dock. 

No shelter here—just a dock with toilet and a short boardwalk to solid ground.  The campsite has a fire ring and some marginal sites.  It’s surrounded by skinny trees supporting a moss-draped canopy.  The underbrush has a lot of the low palm plant that is so prevalent in this part of the country.  Maggie and I fully stake out the tent and rainfly.  The tent leaked a bit last night at the head and foot because water got between the ground cloth and tent floor.  Dinner is a more leisurely than last night.  Peyton gets a fire started but it never gets going strong due to the wet wood.  Still the smoke keeps the few mosquitoes at bay.  I make pesto tortellini for all.  The two day old crescent moon hangs low in the western at the end of twilight. We’re up a bit later tonight but it’s still an early evening

Sunday morning is foggy and wet.  Tent didn’t leak but there’s much condensation inside the rainfly and lots of moisture on the exterior.  I’m happy that I’m not sleeping in this tent tonight. 

Heading out, fog lies low on the water in places.  Neil and Peyton are far enough ahead that their wake is not evident---we have glass-smooth water ahead.  We pass the vulture tree.  Vultures are roosting and flying on both sides of the channel.  A few fly overhead.  Maggie spots an alligator.  This one is mostly submerged—only its eyes, nostrils and a bit of tail are visible above water.

Soon we reach the channel leading back to Stephen C. Foster State Park.  We pull in before noon.  Neil and I grab a quick shower at the campground.  Now it’s time to find some food that someone else will cook while we sit at a table.  Then back to Atlanta.


Sunday, February 9, 2014

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Jesus Stories

My reading choices in the past few months have focused on 1st century Palestine. It all started when a friend recommended Christopher Moore's Lamb: the Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal. It's fiction and a clever work of imagination but Moore did some decent research to serve as the basis of his narrative.  He has a pretty blank slate work with since not much is known about Jesus Christ until about age 30.  Apparently some tradition suggests that Christ traveled east in his earlier years, an idea that Moore expands with no small amount of humor.  I read Moore's A Dirty Job years ago and found it wildly inventive and funny.  Moore does a good job with the Jesus story.  I give it as much credence as the Bible and it's WAY more readable.

About the same time I was reading Lamb I found  A Jew Among Romans: the Life and Legacy of Flavius Josephus by Frederic Raphael at the library.  I vaguely recognized the name from a classified add that often appeared in The Nation claiming to offer proof (for only $1 and a self addressed-self stamped envelop) that Jesus Christ was an invention of Flavius Josephus.  I figured I might learn what that proof was.  What I learned was that Palestine was was awash with Jewish nationalism, factionalism, messianism and terrorism in pursuit of the promised Kingdom of Israel in the years before and after Jesus of Nazareth.  I learned that in 66 CE (most any time, actually since they often profited from the Roman occupation) wealthy and educated Jews, including Josephus, thought that rebelling against the Romans was very ill-advised.  I learned, too, that many other Jews would kill anyone who questioned the rebellion.

As governor of a city besieged by the Romans and defended by zealots, Josephus was was a dead man no matter what he did.  What he did was manage to survive by making himself useful to the victorious Roman general Vespasian.  Josephus ended up in Rome as historian when Vespasian became emperor.  Josephus wrote history that flattered his patron but it serves as a valuable chronicle of 1st century events.  A Jew Among Romans taught me some history I did not know and added context to the familiar history and myth I do know.  I never learned if Josephus invented Jesus Christ.

Well before reading either of these books I had a request in at the library for Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Resa Aslan.  It drew attention when it came out a few months ago; from  Fox News wingnuts coming unglued about a Muslim writing about Jesus to and religious scholars/authorities who question Aslan's research.   Whatever it's quality and interpretation, Aslan's research is extensive--53 pages of notes and 10 page bibliography.  Aslan examines the historical record, which excludes the Gospels and other New Testament accounts written after the fact with a point of view, to place Jesus of Nazareth in the messianic and revolutionary traditions of 1st century Palestine and questions whether Jesus intended his message for non-Jews.  That said, Aslan acknowledges that Jesus of Nazareth is the only one of the several messiahs of his era who is remembered and the religions created in his name have flourished, even if the remembered Jesus is not the actual Jesus.

 Reading Zealot immediately after A Jew Among Romans added to Zealot's credibility.  Both relate the same events without contradiction.  Zealot focuses more narrowly on Palestine and events in Jesus's life but offers a rich background of the era's politics and culture.  A Jew Among Romans is more broadly focused, as Josephus life events took place on a larger stage than Jesus.  The two books reinforced my belief that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical figure.  I don't need him to be anything more than that. Another version of the Jesus story is "The Ballad of Mary Magdalen".  Mary figures prominently in Lamb, the most readable and fun of the three works.  Seems only right to end with her story.



"The Ballad of Mary Magdalen" is written by Richard Shindell.  It's one of many fine selections on "Cry, Cry, Cry"  by Shindel, Dar Williams and Lucy Kaplansky.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Best Books of 2013

Ever so timely.  I found this draft that I thought went out.  Here it is now.

From the book section of this blog, my choices for best books of 2013.  The only criteria I use are that I read the book in 2013--most were published in previous years--and that I remember it without looking back at my notes.

Of the fiction  I read in 2013 two novels stand out: Stalin's Barber by Paul Levin and The Taliban Cricket Club by Timeri N. Marari.  Both are tales of cleverness and chance in perilous times and places told with reasonable accuracy and imagination.  Stalin's Barber is set in the 1930's Soviet Union I know from studying Russian history in college.  Paul Levin recreates the paranoia and tension that underlay Stalin's Kremlin, a dark tale that is not at all improbable.  The Taliban Cricket Club is from more recent history and, while the dire conditions under Taliban rule that are the the setting are all too real, the plot is a real stretch.  The plot is clever, though and to Marari's credit, he makes it seem possible with a well-crafted conclusion.  Both books were published in 2012.

Sherman Alexie's short story collection, Blasphemy, is also worth noting.  The stories are fiction but the voice always sounds autobiographical.  Alexie writes with the mordant humor of a Native American who lives in two cultures and sees the fallacies and foibles of both.  At times laugh-out-loud funny, other times teeth-gritting real, Blasphemy demonstrates Alexie's mastery of the short story form.

For non-fiction:  The Man Called Brown Condor: the Forgotten History of an African American Fighter Pilot by Thomas E. Simmons (2013), A Dance with Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II by Anne Noggle, and At the Dark End of the Street:  Black Women, Rape and Resistance--a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power by Danielle L. McClure (2010).  The first two were notable for me because I was entirely unaware of the history.   A Dance With Death is an oral history told by the women who served as fighter and bomber pilots, navigators, armorers and mechanics in Soviet Air Forces.  If you ever need proof that Russians are tough, these histories will serve well.  The Man Called Brown Condor tells the story of one of the first African American aviators, John Robinson, a man who in the face of 1920'sracism and exclusion. learned how to build, fly and maintain airplanes.  He became an advocate for African-Americans in aviation and ended up in flying for Ethiopia in the face of the 1935 Italian Invasion for which he became a celebrity in the US.  He returned to Ethiopia to create that nation's air force in 1944 and later Ethiopia's national airline.  He died in a plane crash flying medicine in an emergency.

At the Dark End of the Street broadens my understanding of history that I know.  Well before African-Americans began to demand economic and civil rights, their women demanded the right to be safe from assault and rape.  Beginning in the 1940's, those efforts established the organizing strategies and legal arguments that became the groundwork the broader movement that emerged in the following decades.  Along with a 2008 work, Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950 by Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, At the Dark End of the Street adds new dimensions to an important history that is usually told only superficially.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Ancient Arts

Saturday evening I attended an event at the Olympia Library about typewriters.  Jim Hair of Blue Moon Camera (they also deal in vintage typewriters) in Portland came up to talk about typewriters, their history and their (somewhat) renaissance.  I have a fondness for typewriters since it was the typing class I took in high school that landed me the company clerk job after five months humping the boonies as a rifleman in Vietnam.  Never mind my college degree--it didn't do diddly for me--but knowing how to type was literally a life saver.

People brought in their manual typewriters to show.  There were some pretty bizarre antique machines as well as more "modern" ones.  There was also a typing contest where contestants typed copy for three minutes.  The sound that was loosed in the building when 10 or so people all began to type was amazing.  I can't recall the last time I heard the clatter of keys like that.  I typed in the second round.  I managed 70 words with 21 errors.  The winner typed 108 words with fewer errors.

Since then I've been playing around with my 1941 Royal Quiet Deluxe.  The keys have a presence that you just don't get from a keyboard.

The event reminded me that I'd heard an orchestral piece that mimicked the sound of a typewriter at some point.  This being the internet age, I quickly found a few videos of  Leroy Anderson's "The Typewriter" only it was not a mimic--the piece features a real typewriter.  The musicians look like they are having a good time.