Category Archives: From Out and About

For several years I contributed a blog to the Rutland, Verrmont Rutland Herald (the oldest family-owned newspaper in the country) titled Out and About. The title was meant to suggest the variety of its subjects and concerns, rather than referring to the gay community (for which I have great respect–I’m just trying to be clear). The blog vanished when the website was overhauled and I have been unable to learn how or why. So I started this blog, where some of the previous writings will be reposted, either under this heading or some of the others.

WELLAND HORN, QUIETLY IMPORTANT

WELLAND HORN, QUIETLY IMPORTANT

One of Brandon’s finest men passed on recently, an event briefly noted on the obituary pages. But Welland Horn deserved more attention than that, because he did things that will matter to the future of the town especially and will matter to Vermont as a whole.
It was Welland who, in the 1950’s, learned that the state transportation agency was dynamiting an early 19th century iron-making blast furnace in Forest Dale to get rock fill for a small Route 73 bypass. He owned that furnace, so he went immediately to the site and put a stop to an act of official vandalism that today would be considered a major desecration of Vermont’s heritage. The Forest Dale blast furnace, now shored up at state expense, anchors a state Division for Historic Preservation plan to have the 10-acre collection of cellarhole holes and industrial remains become the primary site for documenting the lesser-known early 19th century Vermont manufacturing era. In the meantime, anyone can see the blast furnace and picnic on the grounds by following the Neshobe River eastward from where it crosses Route 53 in Forest Dale (in other words, go up the small streets until you come to the gateway, which is marked). Trout fishing is pretty good along there, too, I can tell you from personal experience, especially in the fall when the big brown trout cruise upstream in search of gravel in which to spawn. It’s your historic and fishing site as much as anyone else’s because Welland donated it to the State. Obviously a man who didn’t hold grudges.
He also donated a site that is equally interesting, the location of which is common knowledge in Brandon, but which I won’t give here because the State is keeping it under wraps. (I doubt that anyone who has gotten this far with my blog is the kind who would go “pothunting,” as the real archeologists call such depradations.) At one point there was a mine 700 feet deep there, where a paint company had found kaolin—an extremely fine clay that made a good filler in paint. (Today’s equivalent would be OMYA’s finely ground marble, which chemically is the stable compound calcium carbonate.)
The same site produced ochre, the coloring agent in the paint. One definition of ochre gives two meanings: 1. “An earthy pigment containing ferric oxide, typically with clay, varying from light yellow to brown or red;” 2. “A pale brownish yellow color.” A house in Forest Dale painted the latter color with Brandon ochre now is under renovation, and probably the new owners consider the historic trove of ochre-painted clapboards an unsightly mess, to be sent to the transfer station or covered with “Vinyl is Final.” Note the “ferric oxide” in the definition, which is iron oxide, or rust—again the presence of iron, which played such a role in the first decades of Brandon and helped build many of its finest houses.
But there’s more: the site has a deposit of lignite, a soft, brownish type of coal (carbon that didn’t get as much pressure as the black kinds). In that coal are fossils, some of them so rare that they constitute the world’s only evidence of some species of prehistoric plants. My mother, a high school science teacher, used to take field trips there, and I went along on one of them, so I can testify personally that the lignite is a wonder worthy of state preservation and interpretation.
But there’s more: Welland also gave Brandon the land on which the Senior Center now stands—a building that has hosted public meetings and a crafts school as well as numerous functions for elders. Previous eras used the land for a Boys and Girls Club (a local club, not an affiliate of the national organization like the one now in Rutland) and for a Fish and Game Club. There’s enough land for other public buildings, should the need arise.
Horn also had a distinguished record as a Freemason, and the Masons were there at his funeral, performing their unique rites in his honor. A lot of misconceptions have surrounded this not-so-secret society through the years, but the points to remember are that it brings men together in a charitable cause and enhances their moral development without reference to their political or religious beliefs. These days, the schools have discovered that service education has benefits of many kinds, not the least of which is bringing people together across previously imagined divides. Were he young today, I have no doubt that Welland would have devised some of the most ingenious and worthwhile projects, for himself, and his school friends, and especially for those in school who were not his friends.
When you hear the words “common ground”—the sermons and the pleas that we need to find more of it if we are ever to find peace—think of Welland Horn, who left three pieces of actual common ground. Welland, rest peacefully in the same perpetuity as your gifts.

VIETNAM, IRAQ, & BEYOND

VIETNAM, IRAQ, AND BEYOND
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This entry takes its title from a Nov. 29, 2003 Nicholas Kristof column in the New York Times, in which he announced the winners of his Name That War contest, from the 4,000 of so people who sent in suggestions.
There were duplicates: Bubba’s War, Burning Bush, Bush League War, Bush’s Folly, Iraqgate, Iraqnam, Iraqmire, Operation Quicksand, Shrub’s War, and The Crawford Conflict apparently arrived by the hundreds. Bushkrieg and Operation Bushwhack Iraq were along the same lines.
Then the true jokesters, one of America’s enduring strengths, got to work. Kristof said he didn’t see why anyone would suggest that Operation Iraqi Liberation should replace the official Operation Iraqi Freedom, until he realized the three initial letters were O.I.L. Another wit suggested Mother of Oil Wars.
There were names that could have titled bestsellers: Bush’s Botch, The Iraq Preemption, The Big Uneasy, The Bush Incursion. One was Biblically literate: Visit Scenic Sodom and Gomorrah. Popular culture, that favorite topic of angry ayatollahs, irate imams and moralistic mullahs, suggested others: Apocalypse Right Now, Mission Implausible: A Job Well Spun, Operation Kick the Dog, Operation Oops, We Did It Again, The Empire Strikes Out, and Trek 2: Wrath of Neo-Khan. Someone familiar with The War of Jenkins’ Ear chimed in with The War of Bush’s Flight Suit, and another offered The War That Cried Wolfowitz.
King George’s New Colony, put in a history buff. Others tapped English history for The Charge of the Right Brigade and The War of the Roves. Vermont’s own Donn Blodgett put together a sophisticated French pun: Coup d’Etats Unis, that wrongheaded country’s name for us being Les Etats Unis (the states united).
Wrapping up the contest, awarded Honorable Mentions to A’bombin’nation, Desert Storm und Drang, Iraq: A Hard Place, Operation Unscramble Eggs, The ‘Raq, Tigris By the Tail, and War of Mass Deception.
The winners, who got 250 dinar notes with Saddam Hussein’s picture on them from Kristof’s last trip to Crisis and Cruel Fates (there’s my own entry, belatedly) were, in the order that he listed them,
–Dubya Dubya III
–Rolling Blunder
–Desert Slog
–Mess in Potamia (Vermonter Will Hutchinson)
and
–Blood, Baath and Beyond.

That was nearly four years ago. As someone who was draft age during the Vietnam War, here are four ways in which this conflict and that one resemble each other:
–We patrol, they ambush, and our soldiers come back crazed.
–They are willing to give their lives, but our allies aren’t (unless they’re fighting each other).
–It drags on and on and on, against all reason, burning up our resources and threatening to leave a legacy of problems as difficult to solve. (Did you know that to finance Vietnam we had to raise interest rates to attract foreign capital, thus increasing the burden of Third World debt payments, thus inspiring the Oil Producing and Exporting Cartel, whose price hikes devastated us in the 1970’s?)
What might fill the streets with protesters, and possibly bring this wretched affair to an end, is an incursion into another country like Nixon’s crossing of the border into Cambodia (that and the Kent State killings inspired the “Kentbodia” mass demonstrations and other actions). Then there might national consensus “Stop him. Stop him before he does something even worse.”
This administration has already brought us a Blood Baath (Saddam’s party was the Baathists); now it’s time to make sure they don’t go Beyond.

–This was prior to Afghanistan.

VETERANS DAY REMEMBRANCES (Nov. 11, 2007)

VETERANS DAY REMEMBRANCES (Nov. 11, 2007)

Back in 1942, between Nov. 12 and 15, United States forces in the South Pacific turned the tide of the war by blocking Japanese reinforcement of their forces on the island of Guadalcanal.
The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal capped a half year of fierce combat on land, on the sea, and in the air, during which the Armed Forces, at least, realized that all those cartoons about dwarfish Japs with bad eyesight were pure fiction. Japanese fighter pilots trained for spotting enemy planes by looking for the star Sirius during the daytime. At sea, Japanese naval commanders had far better binoculars than their Americans counterparts. Today’s official military history of that period puts it this way: “Inside and just outside Iron Bottom Sound, five significant surface battles and several skirmishes convincingly proved just how superior Japan’s navy then was in night gunfire and torpedo combat
The Solomon Islands, of which Guadalcanal was one, run in two roughly parallel lines, and the seas between those lines became known as The Slot. It was like certain bars: if you wanted a fight, that was where you went. John F. Kennedy’s heroic actions after his torpedo boat went down resulted in a medal, and gave him a boost toward a career that included writing “Profiles in Courage”—a title that could have been applied to many during the time when, as “Tales of the South Pacific” put it, the Americans had to fight destroyers with PT boats, cruisers with destroyers, and battleships with cruisers.
James Michener’s “Tales,” which led to the musical “South Pacific,” should be mentioned in the same breath as Norman Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead” and James Jones’ “The Thin Red Line,” both of which also evoke the war against Japan. Michener’s book is unlike his later bloated epics, a set of linked stories filled with unforgettable characters, vivid depictions, and sharp symbolism. I recommend it to those who are, like me, fascinated by the period; it is not tightly gripping as Audie Murphy’s ghostwritten “To Hell and Back,” one of our unheralded classics, and doesn’t have the scope of Anton Myrer’s “Once an Eagle” (who incidentally fought three years in the Pacific Theater as a Marine) but to my mind it deserves major literary status.
The Americans also learned to respect their native scouts, especially Guadalcanal’s Jacob Vouza, who brought a downed American pilot through the Japanese lines then agreed to be a scout. He was captured while in Japanese territory, tied to a tree, and bayoneted in the arms, shoulder, throat, face and stomach to make his tell what he knew about the Americans—he said nothing—then left him to died. He freed himself, kept going through miles of jungle to the America base, and warned them about an impending Japanese attack, which led to the key American victory at the Battle of the Tenaru River.
Elsewhere in the South Pacific, the Allies went to Fiji to see if the men there would be good scouts. They set up an exercise during which the they would guard the base’s buildings during the night, and the Fijians would try to sneak up and mark the buildings with white chalk X’s.
They waited and they watched and no Fijians appeared. Lazy natives, they’re like children, you have to watch them all the time, why did we think they might make good scouts. Then, as a new day dawned, they began to see the white X’s: on doors, on equipment, and on each other’s backs.
This Veteran’s Day, I think of the men and women who fought and often died on and under and around Iron Bottom Sound, but also I think of the Japanese who died for their country, and of the natives, and of the Australian coastwatchers who reported Japanese movements up and down The Slot “Good luck,” they would say, “and good hunting.” Too often their luck was to become the hunted themselves and to die, sometimes very painfully.
World War II was the Olympics of warfare, a time when all nationalities showed that they were courageous and capable of great sacrifices, and should have gained each other’s respect. Much more than a big war, that era’s great cataclysm mixed what had been separate, and the flash of the atomic bomb fused together everyone’s fates. Now, as we go on pretending that we are better than the Iraqis and Afghanis, and creating bigger and stronger backlashes the harder we push, I’m glad my father, who flew in B-24’s as one of the Flying Tigers in China, doesn’t have to watch so many lessons from that time being washed away by waves of sentimental patriotism and silenced by the noisy cheerleaders of reflexive chauvinism. Allah help us all.

VERMONT’S MEXICANS

VERMONT’S MEXICANS

Vermont has a reputation as the whitest state in the nation, but you couldn’t have made a visitor believe it by taking them to this year’s Addison County Fair and Field Days. I’ve seen one estimate that about 500 Mexican emigrants, legal or illegal, are working on this heavily agricultural county’s farms, a statement usually followed by something about how they’re trying to keep in the shadows to avoid attracting the attention of the Interdiction and Nullification Service, or some such federal agency. Well, let me tell you, it’s true what they say about The Fair, that you’ll see kinds of people there who never seem to appear at any other time—and that includes people whose deep suntans seemed to have been imported rather than just acquired by doing field work.
That in itself wouldn’t have been particularly striking, but I spent most of my time this year taking pictures at the youth cattle shows, and I could see that among the next generation, there was no more barrier between Hispanic and Herspanic (You say there’s no such thing as Herspanic? Okay, but I’m sure that since 9-11 the average white American is some kind of -panic) than between Holsteins and Jerseys. I’m not just talking about brown-skinned kids proudly leading their pet cows into the show ring for ANYONE and EVERYONE to see, I mean watching those kids and the paleface farm kids discussing or joking or walking together with arms around shoulders in complete, unselfconscious, perfectly natural integration.
So the anxiety around the rural towns isn’t just that Addison County would lose much-need farm laborers if the federales swept through. In many cases it’s a question of losing friends, allies, people loved and trusted and welcomed into the community.
You could see that coming about 20 years ago when Leicester erupted over the possible banishment of a Mexican family that had come to live and work on one of the farms. The kids had contributed a Mexican cultural perspective to the small, rural elementary school; the father was a much-in-demand diesel mechanic; and they were just plain good folks, that’s all. And that’s a lot coming from Leicester, a town that has gotten called “the Wild West” of western Vermont because of its ingrained, don’t-tread-on-me attitudes.
They’re gone, but like the boll weevil, many others came. A postscript note: Brandon photographer Caleb Kenna’s pictorial essay on the Mexican presence in the state’s dairy industry, widely considered essential to its survival, has established one benchmark through its acceptance and appreciation by the public; another, perhaps, came from the Middlebury police announcing they would not investigate immigration issues in dealing with ALL county residents.
I don’t know any Vermonter who doesn’t admire the work ethic of farmers. Now that brown-skinned people are among them, they deserve equal admiration for their efforts, not least of which has been getting here in the first place.

–update: Six years later, the Mexican farmworkers had become just as essential to the state’s dairy farms as the annual arrival of the Jamaican apple pickers is to the orchards; the most recent estimate I have seen puts their number at about 2,000.

VERMONT STATE TOMATO

VERMONT STATE TOMATO

This was written soon after eating our last tomatoes—that is, the last tomatoes we had grown ourselves. Brought in as teenie greenies back when the hard frosts arrived, in November, they had gradually matured and turned red. I wouldn’t call them flavor champions, but they were tasty, and best of all they were mercifully free from all the stuff in which the “perfect” supermarket tomatoes were probably soaked to ward off Southern weeds and bugs.
They were Romas.
In the four- and five-gallon containers that line our driveway each summer, there are Sweet 100s for early ripening and eating off the vine, but for sheer mass productivity, the Romas rule the buckets. Much as I like to experiment, the vigorous and bountiful Roma would be my choice for a Vermont State Tomato.
The plants are “determinate,” which means you don’t really have to prune them, because they lack the desire to conquer the world shown by many varieties. The clusters of medium-size fruits will supply either sauce- and salsa-makers or salad enthusiasts. The chunky little ovals are not as frustrating to can as the more watery round varieties, and they dry better. They are less apt to bruise if you grow too many (very easy) and want to give some away. They last and last once brought indoors–I’ve even used one as the star on a Christmas tree.
And if you let them go long enough for them to start showing signs of illness, usually you can cut off that end (the meatier interior has more compartmentalization than with round tomatoes) and immediately gulp down the rest, because they’re at maximum sweetness just before they decide to try a mid-life career change as compost.
Vermont’s climate may actually make it easier to domesticate Romas. Here’s a North Carolina online contributor talking about them: “On Mar 25, 2003, Piedmont, NC wrote: ‘VERY productive, with over 100 tomatoes per plant. Excellent for canning, sauces, and salsa. Plum shaped, but about 1.5 times larger than a plum.
Although this is a bush variety, I would recommend at least a 4 foot tall cage. My 3 foot cages got pulled out of the ground by this vigorous plant!

Another great point: very disease resistant.

If I were to choose one variety for an inexperienced gardener, this would be it. Easy to grow, and LOTS of tasty tomatoes!’”
If you’re serious about extending the tomato-eating season, look in catalogs for winter-keeper varieties like Criterion. Make sure to wash what you bring into the house in the fall, both red and green, and dip each tomato in a weak bleach-and-water mixture to kill off your fungal competitors (about one sodium hydroxide to ten hydrogen dioxide, if I remember rightly). Some sources say to wrap them in newspaper. Store them in something with enough of a lid to keep them from drying out, and don’t forget to check them.
I’m an unrepentant former back-to-the-lander, so I’m delighted to see a critical mass of concern developing over importing so much of our food. I hope to see the day when people talk about the different breeds of winter squash, and which ones the kids like best as dried “candy” (cut into thin strips, put near the stove, throw those oily potato chips in the fire for additional drying heat). I want to see the local “chicken tractor” garden get as much attention as the latest celebrity scandal (divide the land half and half, raise chickens on one half and garden on the other, switch halves each year. I long for the day when neighbors see someone digging in the snow out back of their house in December and say “I’ll bet they still have brussels sprouts.” I want to see the LEEDS point system for honoring the best “green” construction include extra points for walling off a root cellar on the other side of the basement from the furnace. The pilot of a small plane cruising over a town ought to see flash after flash from the glass of greenhouses and living room solariums.
Though we don’t have the land for a very big garden, and are shaded by neighboring trees, you can bet we’ll be growing tomatoes in buckets. And you can bet the majority will be Lycopersicum lycopersicon, cultivar “Roma.”

REALLY, TRULY ETHNIC FOOD

Truly Ethnic Food

I went to an open invitation dinner at Middlebury College one time, and I found myself sitting next to a bright, personable young man from Malaysia. In the course of our conversation, I remarked to him that he must find American food very boring. He agreed: there were so many spices that grew in his tropical country and cooks knew how to use, but that people in the United States don’t know at all.
We’re improving, though. When I was a kid, we went to a restaurant once a year, at New Year’s, and always the same one: Rutland’s only Chinese restaurant, the Kong Chow. Since then, Americans have shown a growing fondness for Asia food of many kinds. Adjectives have become nouns: city dwellers ask each other, if you don’t feel like Chinese tonight, now about Thai? Vietnamese? Mongolian? It’s an old American tradition, immigrants getting an economic foothold by opening a restaurant featuring things that are second nature to them, but exotic to others. Many people probably don’t think of Italian as ethnic, let alone exotic–the dishes have become as American as pizza pie.
But there are limits. It’s important not to assume that we really understand and accept another culture just because we like some of its recipes. Deep down under, there can be differences that aren’t so easy to translate into American. It’s important to recognize these differences, too, because they remind us that mutual understanding is a continuing process, and perhaps always will be.
A picture of a Vietnamese restaurant menu, which a world traveler had shared on a website, brought this home to me with especial force. On a visit to Ho Chi Minh City (Hanoi during the war), he discovered a place that catered to those with gourmet tastes in snake.
The intense heat and abundant water of some countries closer to the equator cooks up plant life of an abundance Vermonters can scarcely conceive. (For Southerners, the word “kudzu” may be enough.) This in turn creates habitat for gazillions of bugs, which become the food for phenomenal numbers of frogs and toads and lizards and other minor predators. Both bugs and the things that eat them get viped up in turn by the snakes.
Ask a former Vietnam infantryman about snakes and you might not get an answer, but watch for changes in expression. A close friend of mine who saw a LOT of action over there said he probably used more bullets on snakes than he did on the Viet Cong and NVA.
If life gives you lemons, make lemonade. If life gives you snakes, you make gourmet delights like the following, given as written, in order, Vietglitch words included. Only one page of a menu; what might have been on the others?

“SNAKE DISHES

Snake soup with appetizer
Fried with lemon grass, mushroom
Spring roll
Chopped bacon
Fried skin (dip chili sauce)
Fried rib (serve with pancake)
Grilled snake
Chopped rib and meat roll in leave
Snake spine simmer with greenbean, sticky rice (noodle)
Sticky rice mixing snake fat

THE WINE LIST

Blood wine
Venom wine
Snake heads wine
Snake gall bladder wine
Cobras wine
Chinese medicine herb wine
Penises wine snake eggs wine
Gecko wine
Bees wine

“Bon appetit!”, as the French used to say before Dienbienphu.

TORTURE–TORTUOUS EXPLANATIONS

TORTURE–TORTUOUS EXPLANATIONS

(written during the Bush administration)

We have been told by our leaders that putting someone in a tiny, lightless cell for 40 days and nights is not torture. I know better, because I have seen what two weeks of such sensory deprivation will do to a healthy young Vermonter.
I hope he is well, and if by any remote chance he recognizes himself in what follows, I hope he will get in touch. Especially I hope this if he has led an untroubled life, because he will always be one of my heroes.
The scene is Vermont’s annual State Science Fair, in the year 1964. I have made my presentation to the judges, and now I have time to walk around and see what others have done.
My father urges me to pay attention to one disheveled presenter who stands at a table with no posters, no equipment, no display except an opened notebook. Later I will realize that for years Mr. Barna had been teaching his Otter Valley English classes Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon,” set in a Communist prison during the Cold War, and probably that was behind the urgency with which he made his recommendation.
The “experiment” that the young man conducted was in the field of psychology, and the subject of the experimenter was himself—certainly not the traditional scientific method of verifiable objectivity, but very much in the spirit of many pioneering scientists. He had decided to spend two weeks in the space under his house’s stairwell, without any source of light, to see what effect the experience would have on his thoughts.
He came close to spending the next few weeks in a mental hospital. Hallucinations, often very disagreeable, were only part of the torment he forced himself to go through. When I spoke with him, he still seemed shaky.
But he came out of it bearing knowledge that our present-day leaders could learn from: a human being is not separable from the environment the senses re-create, and in particular is not separable from other people. When the science fair prizes were announced, I won a first in chemistry, and he got nothing. My father and I were both outraged. This and other frustrations with trying to do science at the high school level diverted me from an intended career as a researcher, ultimately into poetry. Literature, you can do anywhere, with minimal equipment—like the political prisoner who wrote her works on bars of soap, memorized them, then washed away another day.
This was the period of my life when I was enamored of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of radical individualism, expressed in such novels as “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged.” I can’t say that I made the connection then, but now I will say it: this young man’s investigation, and many others showing that the ecological principle of interdependence applies just as much to people as to other organisms, have made it clear to me that Rand’s views are toxic gibberish. “When I was younger, young in oh so many ways/ I never needed anybody’s help in any way./ But I am older now and not so self-assured./ Now I find I’ve changed my mind, I’ve opened up the door.”
To think that 40 days of such deprivation do not constitute torture reeks of the kind of extreme right-wing individualism that sees the person as the soul and as the personality, the one within the other inside the head, both changeless. It’s the same anti-psychological, anti-sociological view that sees education as clearly defined training, not a sometimes messy growth process, and thus sees the penalties of the No Child Left Behind Act as a way of making Schools (which exist independently of the people who constitute them) meet standards, so that students will be exposed to the right lessons and acquire the necessary skills, which will result in their giving the right answers on tests rather than flubbing the questions to get even with the system. It’s the same essentially punitive view that opposes any contact with countries that take stances vastly different than ours, such as Cuba and North Korea, then points to their deprived conditions as proof that their way of life is inferior to open (except for them) market capitalism. Always there is this nugget of supposed individualized indestructibility, the assumption that an individual or a nation that can be pushed around, penalized, forced and deprived, then have the necessary magnitude and leverage to change—always in the way that the punisher wants, never by making a deeper commitment to a contrary view or by devising subterfuges and sabotages or by waiting for the right moment to exact a fearsome revenge, or by inspiring family or friends or allies or the next generation to do so.
In the case of extracting information from prisoners at Guantanamera—did I misspell that?—the soul-persona view assumes that after 40 days in the dark, the mind that is left will 1. be capable of remembering information accurately, 2. be willing to deliver it completely; and perhaps most importantly 3. be capable of putting one word in front of another. Playing Nixon’s tapes educated the nation as nothing else could have; how about playing us some of the interrogations?
If there is any question, let’s make the experiment. Let some stalwart subordinate in the current Administration come forward and volunteer, not for going in harm’s way in Iraq or Afghanistan, but for a month in some former basement coal bin. Let them report on their experience with no initial debriefing or counseling or advising or threatening, on national television.
Guantanamo, that’s it. Guantanamera was a song the Cubans adopted almost as a national anthem—“With the poor people of the earth/ 
I want to cast my lot” is one translation of one of the most popular versions—as well as a Sandpipers hit parade success in 1966 and a staple of folksingers thereafter. And the Sixties, as the right wing has been assuring us for about the last half century, never really happened.

THIRD WORLD ATHLETES

THIRD WORLD ATHLETES

As the world follows the peregrinations, permutations and politicizations of the Olympic torch, and while this country follows and bets on the National Basketball Association championship, I’m collecting pictures of third world athletes.
Sometimes we get a glimpse of them, like the Maasai who ran the Boston marathon with spears and shields, chanting, the way they do chasing lions from their herds. East Africa’s runners—is it just a coincidence that the bones of the earliest humans were found in Olduvai Gorge, whose name comes from the Maasai word Oldupaai, for the wild sisal plant?–are so famous they’ve even been in a TV ad. It was one of the most subtle I’ve seen, deserving to be put in the commercials Hall of Fame, if there is one: a herder out in the arid Kenyan bush asks another herder, “How do you stop a rhino from charging?” Then he gives the answer: “You take away his American Express card.” “That’s good!,” says his interlocutor, “They’ll love that in Nairobi”—and he turns and starts running. The camera turns and shows a dusty road going up and down, up and down, into the invisible distance. Thirty miles to Nairobi? Sure, why not?
But back beyond this, I mean athletes like the workers in the sulfur volcano in Indonesia, who go down into the fumes and come back carrying 70 pound chunks of sulfur as if they were schoolkids carrying backpacks. Like the Laotian boatmen who have long, skinny, shallow craft that can speed when needed and navigate shallows when essential, which they pilot with poles, while standing upright in the stern. The peasant haymakers bringing back a wagonload of their harvest, pulled by a donkey, with the workers balancing on top of a load piled so high that it scarcely seems possible to have arranged it. The shipbreakers on the tidal mud flats of Chittagong, Bangladesh, about whose working conditions one observer said, “just a brief look around is enough for one to know that the working conditions found there would give an OSHA inspector instant cardiac arrest.”
To me, the glory of the Olympics and the championships is that they expand our ideas of what humans can do. We all gain respect for each other through such events: maybe we can’t do those things now, but in time, as our children’s children’s children to the seventh generation meet and marry, who knows?
The Third World athletes expand our ideas of what humans can endure.
So, as I weed old National Geographics that are threatening our foundations (Remember how Omya marble is used in the papermaking industry? This must be how) I look for pictures of these unregarded heroes and heroines—unregarded except for the photographers trying to pay attention to their settings and timing and not be overwhelmed by the inhumanity of it all.
Today, in one issue, I found three such athletes. Arguably four, since one picture shows candymakers in Kabul, Afghanistan, each wrestling with a huge rope of hardening sugar paste. The two turn out a thousand pounds of sherni a day.
Another picture shows the rice field worker in Japan, headed back home the same way he came: via a long path made of what look like two-by-eight boards, set in a staggered line about eight feet above a shallow river on top of poles and crosspieces. It’s not short walk: the end of the plank road is invisible in mist rising from the cooling water. One hopes the photographer had a telephoto lens.
When the work day is done, they relax: like the Zambian swimmer a foot away from the 365 foot drop of Victoria Falls, standing on the edge of an eight-foot-deep pool that somehow they discovered carved into the rock next to the waterfall. Deep enough for good underwater swimming, and probably no crocodiles, either. Just don’t dive in and come up forgetting which way you’re going.
There are towns in Vermont where the high schools have great athletic traditions that were raised into place by grandparents and great-grandparents who worked in mines and factories. There are factories in Vermont where the leaders will tell you the operation would have left the state long ago were it not for an incomparable work ethic, which in some cases they think may be founded on the work ethic of farming. Elsewhere in the world, the connection may not be so clear, but here at least we can appreciate that hard work can be athletic and heroic—and I hope in time we will honor all the other workers around the world for what they have suffered and survived, and what they have put into place.

THE WEATHER UNDERGROUND WANTS YOU

THE WEATHER UNDERGROUND WANTS YOU

Weather Underground is looking for a few individuals with a commitment to changing everyone’s view of the world.
No, not the band of Sixties revolutionaries who took their name from a Bob Dylan song that asserted “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” I mean the worldwide family of photographers who post pictures of clouds, storms, mountains, scenery, birds, pets and much more at the Internet address www.wunderground.com–doing business as Weather Underground.
You can also get weather reports there. In fact, you can choose three favorite locations for which current weather conditions will come up as soon as you access the site (It’s warmer in Middlebury than Sedona, Arizona? Hmm.) So if you parents moved to Florida, or you ex is in Texas, or your best friend has joined the Californicanation, you can get a glimpse of their living conditions. Then, if you click on that location, pictures will come up posted by people who live in that area.
I’m talking about this because many people see tourism as having new importance to our economy, with manufacturing continuing to decline, farming struggling, and construction hit by the housing industry’s woes. Knowing something about this state’s inventive and energetic entrepreneurs and creative farmers from two decades of business reporting, I’m less inclined than many to count them out—and people are always going to want good places to raise their children or escape stifling cities or grow old and try to be wiser in peace.
But still, it would hurt to help tourism if we can. Other states have whopping promotional budgets—I Love New York, Virginia is For Lovers, etc.—that the State of Vermont will never match. But photo-sharing sites are a way that individuals can alert the world to our glories—literally the world—at little or no cost.
There are many more that Weather Underground. I’ve paid to post on pBase under the handle copyedEDitor because their galleries are so simple to access and often of top quality, TrekEarth lets you choose countries to visit and covers almost all of them, Community Webshots has great stuff if you can get past their relentless efforts to make you a subscriber, there are Flickr and SmugMug and many more, including fabulous specialized sites like Astronomy Picture of the Day.
But I’m pointing to Weather Underground because it has such a community feeling, and is so welcoming of amateur photographers who happen to love the outdoors.
Don’t get me wrong, there are many first-class fotogs, too, including mountain-climbers, off-road trekkers, world travelers, and wildlife photographers with those lenses that look like antitank weapons. You probably read or heard or saw something about the wildfire that consumed part of California near Hollywood, taking a number of big residences thanks to hot, windy weather; well, one of WU’s posters is an emergency helicopter flyer, whose perspectives on that and other blazes soar and sear. In one, a chemical-dropper plane passes close by, lower than the rooftop of the house it is protecting—that kind of inside insight.
In any given day, pictures are likely come from three continents or more. Lena in Slovenia seems to be in a contest with the guys in Slovakia to prove who has the most striking and picturesque mountains—or are they both chasing the Italian fellow who transmits high-altitude shots from the Dolomites?
Tonight, the guy in St. Petersburg, Russia sent pictures of snow falling, the Warrenton, Virginia guy captured another hard-to-see bird, an Iowan (where it’s wet) sent alarming flood pictures, Florida (where it’s dry) put up hellacious wildfire smoke clouds, South Carolina contributed shots of massive ocean waves attacking a pier, and Oklahoma showed all was not OK with Bell Cow Lake, where wind had churned the water clay red.
Under the handle ERLBarna, I’ve put up pictures of Addison County’s snow and cloud formations, Middlebury Falls, and the masses of trillium that county residents who love flowers make pilgrimages to see in May. But there’s plenty of room for other Vermonters, especially because good outdoor pictures, especially sunsets, have a way of appearing and disappearing in a seconds.
Together, we Vermonters can tell the world, literally, what a great place this is to visit—and don’t neglect to put up some mud season and snowbound pictures to let them know it can be a tough place to live. I’ve told the state’s Tourism and Marketing people that they ought to have a micro-grant program that would pay the fees some sites require. WU is cheap: for a small fee, they take away most of the ads for a year (which greatly assists browsing the pictures abd helps to support a worthwhile cause) and it’s a snap to upload pictures.
As some of the foregoing suggests, Weather Underground is a good place to get a sense of how global overenergizing is not just global warming, but a shift to dramatic unpredictability and extremes of weather. Again and again the words with the pictures express surprise or shock, at flowers blooming two months early in London, or snow coming too far into all sorts of places, and always that fierce ocean slamming into things.
Take one look at a picture of a tornadic supercell cloud from Oklahoma, Kansas, or Texas, and you’ll be glad to live in Vermont. Don’t underestimate the appeal that Vermont’s relative tranquility may have, as we drive farther along the flooded road that leads into the future, hoping what comes will trend upward rather than downward.

A later Rutland Herald blog

Weather Underground, Continued

This being the Fourth of July, a time to consider what it means to be an American, I want to share a way that anyone online can be part of a worldwide community. I do care about this country, but the idea of a nation is indivisible from the existence of other nations, and the better we know and the more we appreciate other countries, the more we will appreciate and the better we will know our own.
“Everyone talks about the weather,” goes an old saying, “but no one does anything about it.” Today, we know the last part isn’t true. All our actions influence climate change, and the worldwide community I will momentarily describe shares an in-depth knowledge of this.
In Vermont, though, talking about the weather is still the most common way for strangers to get from grim to grin. Maybe the information exchanged is banal, but as Winston Churchill famously said about negotiations, “Jaw jaw is better than war war.” This northland eye-on-the-sky-speak isn’t just heritage from our predominantly agricultural past, when an old-timer with a deeply intuitive weather sense might indeed have a better understanding of when it was safe to put in seed or to cut hay or go to market. We divide up the land, making our homes our castles, but we share the air–as one contemporary poet puts it in a piece about the seeming humanity of the moaning and crying of a strong night wind, “we go all the way to the wind/ and the wind goes everywhere else.”
Which brings us to Weather Underground. The name of this online gathering, accessible by all at www.wundergound.com, comes ultimately from a Bob Dylan song “Subterranean Homesick Blues” in which he raps (he was a pioneer rap innovator, in case you hadn’t noticed) “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” The political thrust of that line did not go unnoticed by a faction of the leftist Yippies who, frustrated by the failure of peaceful methods to end the Vietnam War, decided to try violent upheaval—under the name The Weather Underground.
Today’s Weather Underground is a peaceable lot, exception for the violence implied in some of the storm pictures that people from all around the world sometimes post on the site. Under the categories of Very Important Pictures (weather disasters like the recent flooding in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas), Approver’s Choice (subtitled “a bit of inspiration”—good shots, of anything outdoors), Weather, and Outdoors, both amateurs and pros contribute. Aside from some people putting their names on the shots, the participants don’t let copyright considerations block them from letting people make personal use of the medium-resolution photos.
People can email back and forth via the site, or blog, so it has truly become a community. An expert in bird identification will help someone put a name on a rarer species for that area; a pro fotog will give tips to someone who says they’re just beginning and would welcome critiques; and the captions, sometimes quite extensive, give the homebound an opportunity to ride a virtual tour bus. When a regular poster goes silent, there is general concern; right now, for instance, a lot of people are waiting for Lampy, a railroad enthusiast, to post another of his fabulous train-in-operation shots.
“What a unique way to see the world through others’ eyes!” writes kathydee in Ohio, who had sent in 331 pictures—all of which can be viewed, 50 at a time, by clicking on her online handle—of which 11 were Approver’s Choices. One of the latest was a heartbreaking picture of an old coal miner’s two-room disability retirement homestead—a friend of kathydee’s who will no longer bring her blackberries despite his ailments because he just succumbed to them. This site has heart.
Last night I started listing the countries from which pictures had arrived on Weather Underground. With only 12 hours gone, the following have taken part: Montenegro, Latvia, Belize, Croatia, Spain, the United Kingdom, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, Slovakia (maybe should count as two because Lena from Slovenia is vacationing there), Greece, France, the Netherlands, Canada, Bahrain, Thailand, and the Isle of Lewis in Scotland. I know, the last isn’t a country by legal definition, but for true it is one of the ends of the earth. Russian, Iran, Iraq, Malaysia, India, Japan, Mongolia, and many more have chimed in at other times.
Ends of the earth: there are people who climb mountains and send back their peak experiences; seashore dwellers document the infinite moods of the seascape; veteran wildlife photographers add closeups that no casual picturetaker could ever equal; and stormchasers, that death-defying breed who go after tornadoes and travel TOWARD hurricanes, send images that can be genuinely terrifying. Vermont, be glad you’re in a geographical location where the big storm systems arrive exhausted and panting: there are clouds in the middle states of this country that are enough to make you shake, never mind the storms themselves. Look up superstormchaser Mike Theiss’s glimpses of supercells that look like they arrive with instructions to 1. Open chuck; 2. Insert drill; 3. Tighten chuck; 4. Send pieces flying everywhere and leave a big hole behind.
Spend a year looking at Weather Underground and it’s hard not to believe in climate change. Not “global warming” exactly, because the extra energy that the warming puts into the system drives it to all kinds of extremes. Kansas soaks while Florida burns. London gets hail on July 3 so deep it looks like the sidewalks and streets are deep with snow, while elsewhere you get to see what it’s like driving into a dust storm. At one point earlier this year, a location reported flowers opening two months early, with snow on top of them. Lightning bolts so powerful that the photographer was scared even while in his car. Coldest on record, warmest on record, hurricane winds without a hurricane—meteorologically, it’s a world gone mad.
So, as I implied earlier, there is a serious side to all this weather talk. As quietly as the fog that sometimes swallows half of the Golden Gate Bridge, so that it appears to emerge from a tunnel, the necessary consensus is building.

THE REAL CONFLICT

THE REAL CONFLICT

Debate over who might be experienced enough to become President take for granted what “experience” means. Unfortunately, only a minority of the voters have had the experience of going to a liberal arts college where the professors would have flunked such superficiality.
History teaches that simply following the patterns of the past is likely to lead a nation astray as often as not. Psychology insists that someone who finds it difficult to learn from the experiences of others risks neurosis—that is, repetition of the same behavior regardless of whether or not it succeeds in what it seeks. Physics reminds us that entropy, the second law of thermodynamics, describes a universe in which things move from greater to lesser organization (ashes do not become firewood, for instance—which carries with it the corollary that any closed system will deteriorate. Biology points to evolution as the way life has increased in its organization and complexity: that is, the constant creation of new characteristics, some of which will eventually be keys to surviving a changing environment.
If the events of someone’s past reinforce certain beliefs and perceptions to the exclusion of others, that person can appear stable and strong and consistent—projecting the assurance that the comforting belief system provides. But as any builder can tell you, rigidity is not strength. Nor is inflexibility the same as acting according to principle. How many, many times someone is “born again” upon reaching the depths of dysfunction and despair—whereupon the convert, whose rejection of ambiguity and exploration and continual development has left a very happy sub-personality, goes about telling others who never wandered into such straits that THEY know better.
Yes, we are engaged in a long, long conflict, and have been for centuries. The enemy is not Islam; it is fundamentalism.
The late, great Norbert Wiener, an MIT genius who helped pioneer the “cybernetics” that in turn made possible the computer revolution, felt compelled to write a book of social observations titled “The Human Use of Human Beings.” At one point in his discourse, nearly a half century ago, he delivered a kind of parable about learning and vulnerability and growth that bears on our choices in 2008.
Why is it, he asked, that insect societies like those of ants and bees have never turned into civilizations, but those of apes have done so? The answer, he said, lies in a primeval fork in the road where evolving organisms had to go one way or another: whether to have an exoskeleton or an endoskeleton.
You know what an exoskeleton is. It’s the suit of armor that bugs wear, and which looks almost like a bug when it falls from the spider’s web, sucked dry. Under many circumstances, a toughened exterior can protect; under others, it will fail. (I think of the old argument during World War II between infantry soldiers and tank men: “You wouldn’t catch me in a big target like that!” versus “I’d never go walking along where I could get shot at any moment!”) I have never driven a car with airbags, but have had five times when someone else’s car was coming at my four- or three-cylinder tuk-tuk in my lane, and so far have always been able to dodge (no bets on the next time). And so on.
Where the bugs lost out, Wiener said, was in having to metamorphose to reach mature size. Think of the caterpillar becoming a butterfly: nothing the caterpillar might have learned could survive such a transformation, and thus there has been no reinforcement for higher learning ability in caterpillars. Humans, on the other hand, gradually change size and shape, and the adult form is recognizable even in the womb (which may superficially resemble an egg, but is a far more environmentally oriented place). What is learned adds up, and as scientists say, the answer to one question leads to others. Don’t underestimate the foundation this creates; generally, a three-year-old has a better command of his or her native language than an adult foreigner who has studied it twice that long.
Paradoxically, in the long crawl-creep-run vulnerability proved stronger than toughness. Turning to this election, we have a choice between the cult of the Warrior—a belief that armed conflict is the greatest danger our nation faces, and should be our highest priority, whatever the cost—and a style of leadership emphasizing negotiation, cooperation, and (although the word will never appear in speeches) context.
For those of us who believe the greatest threat to humanity is too much humanity doing too many outdated things, the choice seems clear. But even without the likelihood of environmental catastrophe (future centuries will look at the extinctions of species, cultures and languages and say it already HAS been a catastrophe), do we really want to be riding into the World Wide Web in a Tank of State while our economic strength is slowly but surely drained away?