Monday, May 15, 2017

The Mythical Power of Marble Statues and of the Lost Cause

"Shirley, with Katharine, Mary & Helen Armstrong, Jan'y 1901."
One day when I was a young teenager sitting with my sick grandfather while my grandmother did chores, my grandfather began singing that old song of the South, Dixie:
Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton
 Old times there are not forgotten,
Look away, look away, look away, Dixie Land.
"Do you know that song?" my grandfather asked me. No, I didn't. He was shocked and proceeded to teach me the words: In Dixie Land where I was born in, early on one frosty mornin', look away, look away, look away, Dixie Land.

It was one of the two times in which I felt as if I were getting to know my grandfather, as if a loving connection were being forged between us. The second was the time that he asked me about my dreams and hopes of the future, and I described to him my plans of attending college and perhaps becoming a writer. Then one day, my grandfather overstepped those boundaries with a fumble at my breast and a thrust of his tongue in my mouth.

To me, that's what the Old South is like: it comes on as genteel, paternalistic (all those slaves were really so well taken care of, and the South was really just insisting on the rights of freedom, you know, states' rights). One imagines the large veranda of the plantation home, (white) women in hoop skirts  and gentlemen in white jackets sipping mint juleps and bourbon and, of course, all that brave gray southern soldiery against the bright red rebel flag. Then, in the breeze come floating the scents and smells of slavery, the sound of whips against bare backs, the wails of parents being separated from their young children, the old master or the old master's sons or nephews fumbling at the breasts of the slave girls who have no power to resist them.

After the Civil War, the South did exceedingly well at perpetrating that proud, paternalistic myth, the myth of righteous rebellion. And it's a myth that has spread beyond the South. I am always shocked to see Confederate flags flying at the gates to western ranches or reproduced as bumper stickers and window clings on pick-up trucks driving down the streets of the small Arizona town where I now live and in the Northwest where I have traveled. What the fuck? I wonder. Are these people really glorifying the South and slavery?

Well, of course they are, even if they, themselves, don't recognize it, as they have been seduced by the myth of the South, of righteous rebellion against an overbearing government. So many people today still do not understand the continuing mythical power of all those statues glorifying the Lost Cause. As Garrett Epps writes in The Atlantic,
This was--and to a remarkable extent still is--a society embued with myth and propaganda. We were taught to believe that these marble men--who staked their lives and fortunes to fight for chattel slavery--were the equals of the nation's founders, and far superior to any Abraham Lincoln or Ulysses Grant.
There simply is no way to hold that belief and at the same time believe that blacks are equal before the law or even before God. That's not a coincidence. Defenders of Confederate iconography argue that the statues represent simple historical memory--reminders that the South was the cockpit of America's most cataclysmic war. But they are actually post-bellum propaganda. Segregation did not become Southern dogma [until?] well after the compromise of 1876. It was not firmly locked in place until Woodrow Wilson's ascent to the White House in 1912. In other words, segregation was constructed in precisely the period in which the monuments were put in place. They did not symbolize past battles, but present and future white supremacy.
A commemorative statue that most illustrates how those statues of the Lost Cause represent "white supremacy" rather than some anodyne "historical memory" is the monument to the Battle of Liberty Place in New Orleans. This monument was erected in 1891 and celebrated that "day in 1874 [when] a few thousand armed men from a paramilitary group called the Crescent City White League, many of them former Confederate soldiers, squared off on Canal Street against a contingent of mostly black police and state militiamen." The group wanted the resignation of the recently elected Louisiana governor, a former Union colonel, and when he refused to resign, they charged, and kept him holed up until Federal troops arrived to rescue him and restore him to his state post. 

The White League was responsible for racial terrorism in 1874-1875, and their racism is clearly illustrated in the group's platform:
Disregarding all minor questions of principle or policy, and having solely in view the maintenance of our hereditary civilization and Christianity menaced by a stupid Africanization, we appeal to men of our race, of whatever language or nationality, to unite with us against that supreme danger. A league of whites is the inevitable result of that formidable, oath-bound, and blindly obedient league of the blacks, which, under the command of the most cunning and unscrupulous negroes in the State, may at any moment plunge us into a war of races...It is with some hope that a timely and proclaimed union of the whites as a race, and their efficient preparation for any emergency, may arrest the threatened horrors of social war, and teach the blacks to beware of further insolence and aggression, that we call upon the men of our race to leave in abeyance all lesser considerations; to forget all differences of opinions and all race prejudices of the past, and with no object in view but the common good of both races, to unite with us in an earnest effort to re-establish a white man's government in the city and the State.
The statue commemorating that attack celebrated white supremacy. If there were any doubt it didn't, fifty-eight years later, in 1932, the year my father was born, "city leaders added an inscription explaining that the battle represented the triumph of 'white supremacy'":
McEnery and Penn, having been elected governor and lieutenant governor by the white people, were duly installed by this overthrow of carpetbag government, ousting the usurpers, Governor Kellogg (white) and lieutenant-governor Antoine (colored). United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state. 
Propaganda and myth, however, work so insidiously to undermine history
Up through the 1970s, respectable opinion held that the battle really had nothing to do with race. As one newspaper editorial put it after the obelisk was defaced with black paint in 1970, it was a battle against "interlopers...sent to the community to loot, to confiscate lands and to otherwise misrule Louisiana." 
In much the same way, Civil Rights leaders and participants were called "outside agitators" in the South. I remember as a kid in the 1960s and early 1970s hearing that phrase used to describe those advocating for full civil rights, as if the South (and Texas, where I grew up) were a place where African-Americans were treated fairly and had no reason to complain. The myth is of blacks happy with their circumstances until someone or something outside the happy place/plantation--the federal government, "outside agitators," "northern aggression"--stirs them up. That myth denies the agency of slaves, the agency of later black citizens, and gives it all to paternalistic whites.

I keep in a china cabinet in our dining room two photographs. One is of a handsome, white-bearded black man, seated, holding a white child, about three years old, flanked by two young white girls leaning on his knees. The man has a very solemn expression. On the back of the photo is this inscription: "Shirley, with Katharine, Mary & Helen Armstrong, Jan'y 1901." Katherine is my husband's grandmother, and Mary and Helen are her sisters. "Shirley" is, as far as I have been able to discover, an old family retainer who worked for the Nugent family in their second home in Salem, Virginia, and maybe even in their previous home in New Orleans. The mother of these children was Mary Nugent Armstrong, my husband's great-grandmother. I have learned a lot about the Nugent family by reading some of the hundreds of family letters we have. Mary's father, Perry Nugent, was once a rich man in New Orleans, a president of the Cotton Exchange. [He lost just about everything in the 1880s.]

This photograph, however innocently intended and cherished, represents the myth of the South: the beloved servant, happy in his station, surrounded by the white children of his former mistress. The nostalgia is reflected in the inscription, where the black man is honored not with the title of "Mr." and his last name but with the name by which the family called him, Shirley. The nostalgia is reflected in the beautiful silver frame which encases the photograph. 

Years later, I found a second photograph of this man in the large collection we have of Tom's family photographs, letters, and newspaper clippings. The photo was not framed. In front of a plain background, the man sits with two beautiful black children, one perched on his knee, perhaps the age of young Helen, another, leaning against his left leg, perhaps the age of Katharine or Mary. The people are not identified; the photo has no inscription beyond that of the photography studio, Maury Bros., in Roanoke, VA, & Salem, VA. What has always struck me is the contrast between the expression on this man's face, this younger "Shirley" surrounded by his two children or grandchildren, and the older "Shirley" surrounded by the white children of the family for whom he had worked for many years. The younger man has a much more open expression, less solemn, proud and happy. 
This photo was taken long after the Civil War, but it's very possible that this man had once been a slave. Here he is "free," and his children and grandchildren might have lived long, enjoying his company, rather than being ripped from his arms and "sold down the river," where they would have worked hard in cotton fields and been subjected to physical and sexual violence. But the South then was on the cusp of instituting Jim Crow laws, laws that not only prevented blacks from voting but that kept them subjected still to white rule, "slavery by another name."

I framed the photograph and placed it with the one of my husband's grandmother and great-aunts, as an antidote to Southern white nostalgia, a nostalgia that negates the terror of white rule that continued far into the twentieth century and whose consequences we still reap today.

Those monuments to the Confederacy are steeped in nostalgia, a white-wash of history. As Garrett Epps writes:
[t]hose monuments, that reverence for the Lost Cause and its leaders, do lasting damage to all that live in their shadows....
...Formally segregation died in July 1964--but it lived on in the minds of those taught to weep for the red and the gray, and it lives on in the hearts of their children and grandchildren. It poisoned the heart of Dylan Roof, who killed nine African-American worshipers at Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston; I suspect it lives on in the heart of the man who now sits in the cabinet seat once held by Robert F. Kennedy.
My city, state, and region is still troubled by the echoes of shots fired in April 1861. It is poorer, more violent, less welcoming, less democratic, less healthy, less educated and less livable because some of its people cling to the myth that men can be flawless demigods while taking up arms to maintain their human property. 
The statues should come down, all of them, the way the Stalin statues came down in Eastern Europe, the Saddam statues in Iraq.
And those who continue to fly the Confederate flag or promote "states' rights" with no recognition of the bloody and tainted history of that phrase should be educated of their ignorance. Michael Harriot reminds us that
[a]side from the fact that by 1860, many Americans had realized that slavery was cruel--so much so that they were willing to go to war to end the practice--the people who defend monuments that celebrate white supremacy and black genocide are just like their ancestors: indignant about continuing an evil practice.
Even if their descendants didn't think of it as evil then--we do now! Championing a bygone era that fought for human bondage is like sitting back and fondly remembering the good old days when a man could beat his wife for burning the pot roast. 

Links in this post:

Dolores Monet. "Women's Clothing of the South in the American Civil War." Bellatory. 5 December 2016.

Garrett Epps. "The Motionless Ghosts that Haunt the South." The Atlantic. 14 May 2017.

"Louisiana White League Platform (1874)." Website: Facing History and Ourselves.

"Liberty Monument (New Orleans)." Wikipedia. Updated, 15 May 2017.

Andrew Vanacore. "Among contested New Orleans monuments, Liberty Place marker has always been a battleground." The Advocate. April 14, 2017.

Anita Dugat-Greene. "The Nugents: The Second Generation." blog post at Left for Texas. 16 August 2013.

"Slavery by Another Name." Wikipedia. Updated 12 May 2017. [Description of Douglas Blackmon's book--more information here:]

Michael Harriot. "Why Wypipo Love the Confederacy, Explained." The Root. 2 May 2017.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Everything the man touches....

...turns not to gold, but to ash. And his phoenix rises not of his own doing but because others are complicit in helping him in his vast weakness. Banks found him too big to fail, and so they backed him while he abandoned his own investors. Radio hosts and television producers found him brash, profane, vain and vulgar in his gold-plated penthouse. And so they interviewed him, promoted him,  and burnished his image for higher ratings. A large portion of the American public found in him a strongman, an authoritarian daddy who promised to spank and humiliate everyone and everything they hated about their culture, their own lives, and a world that refuses to accept their exceptionalism. Leaders of authoritarian governments find him ignorant, prideful, gullible, and easily manipulated to their own ends. He is a man of his times made powerful by the ventriloquists behind the screen as well as the viewers in front of the screen who have been duped by the propaganda of reality TV and a news empire created and bolstered by predators and con men.

A couple of days ago I read an interview with Yale historian Timothy Snyder, author of a new book titled On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Snyder's books on the second world war, genocide, eastern Europe and eastern European leaders have been awarded prizes and have received international acclaim. In that interview, as well as in other articles by Snyder that I have read, Snyder predicts that Donald Trump will attempt to take advantage of some national disaster to overthrow democracy. His point of comparison is the Reichstag fire of 1933, the fire at the German parliament started by arson. The arsonist was identified as a young communist (though others have suggested that the Nazis themselves started the fire as a false flag), and Hitler used this fire and the fear of communism to suspend civil liberties and to establish his dictatorial power in what had been a young democracy

Any person with an understanding of history and authoritarian personalities could see in Donald Trump's presidential campaign fascistic tendencies, but to draw parallels between Trump and Hitler, to claim that it's "inevitable" that Trump will try to overthrow democracy in much the same way seems a comparison about which one should be very cautious. Eight years of listening to people screaming that Barack Obama was going to take away their guns and establish a dictatorship pretty much moved me into the arena of reading, research and careful deduction when it comes to drawing conclusions about our leaders. I certainly don't want to be like those idiots.

And so while I read the interview with interest and cautiously agreed with the points the historian was making, I hesitated to share on social media an interview titled "Historian Timothy Snyder: 'It's pretty much inevitable' that Trump will try to stage a coup and overthrow democracy."

And then, a day or two after I read the interview, Donald Trump fired FBI director James Comey.

What?! James Comey's public statements about Hillary Clinton's emails just days before the election likely helped Donald Trump get elected president. At the time, Trump praised Comey for re-opening the e-mail investigation (emails which, of course, turned out to be nothing worth investigating--not criminal but careless). In their first meeting after the presidential inauguration, Trump greeted Comey with an air kiss and a nuzzle.  But Trump's support soured when FBI investigations came too close to him. And then, like many of the current president's actions and decisions, the narrative of those actions and decisions shape-shifted as the public reacted.

When I read online about Comey's firing just minutes after it became public knowledge, the White House narrative was that Trump fired Comey on the advice of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. While Sessions has a dubious history of public service, Rosenstein has had, until now, a stellar reputation as a "straight-shooting law-enforcement official respected by members of both parties."  For his part, Rosenstein is unhappy that the administration used his reputation as cover for Comey's firing. But that's how this president works: duck, cover, deflect, re-direct.

Then the narrative shifted: No, it was the president's decision, and he told Rosenstein and Sessions to come up with a memo justifying the decision. Oh, and Comey deserved firing because he unprofessionally handled the Clinton email case; he should never had talked publicly about an FBI investigation, especially so close to the election (an explanation which directly contradicted Trump's praise of Comey during the campaign and just after the inauguration).

As journalists of the Washington Post report
But the private accounts of more than 30 officials at the White House, the Justice Department, the FBI and on Capitol Hill, as well as Trump confidants and other senior Republicans, paint a conflicting narrative centered on the president's brewing personal animus toward Comey. Many of those interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to candidly discuss internal deliberations. [my emphasis]
Trump was angry that Comey would not support his baseless claim that President Barack Obama had his campaign offices wiretapped. Trump was frustrated when Comey revealed in Senate testimony the breadth of the counterintelligence investigation into Russia's effort to sway the 2016 U.S. presidential election. And he fumed that Comey was giving too much attention to the Russian probe and not enough to investigating leaks to journalists.
 The descriptions of Trump's "brewing personal animus" in this report and others illustrate again how, to Trump, everything is about him. He is a massive egotist. In an interview with Lester Holt of NBC today, Trump claims to have fired Comey because Comey is a "showboat" and a "grandstander." No one out-showboats or out-grandstands Trump and gets away with it! Trump's firing of Comey was a grandstand in itself--directing the termination letter to be delivered to FBI headquarters by his long-time personal bodyguard; firing Comey when he was across the country in the middle of addressing FBI agents; having Comey receive the news through a televised report, with a ready-made audience to witness his humiliation. This is Trump, the well-coiffed, perfectly polished and groomed actor of The Apprentice. Our president runs the government like a goddamn reality TV show.

In that interview, Trump and his spokespeople also make claims that other sources contradict. Trump describes an FBI agency in disarray and his deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has suggested that FBI agents had lost confidence in Comey's leadership. But journalists from The Washington Post report that "[w]ithin the Justice Department and the FBI, the firing of Comey has left raw anger, and some fear...Many employees said they were furious about the firing, saying the circumstances of his dismissal did more damage to the FBI's independence than anything Comey did in his three-plus years in the job." And in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee today, Andrew G. McCabe, acting director of the FBI, "rejected the White House's assertion that Mr. Comey had lost the backing of rank-and-file FBI agents."

The lies, obfuscation, and contradictory narratives that come out of this White House are amazingly brazen. The increasing authoritarian tendencies aided and abetted by those highly appointed in the administration, by elected officials, and by those closest personally to Trump are deeply troubling. At times like these, historian Timothy Snyder advises us: 
The thing that matters the most is to realize that in moments like this your actions really do matter. It is ironic but in an authoritarian regime-change situation, the individual matters more than [in] a democracy. In an authoritarian regime change, at the beginning the individual has a special kind of power because the authoritarian regime depends on a certain kind of consent. Which means that if you are conscious of the moment that you are in, you can find the ways not to express your consent and you can also find the little ways to be a barrier. If enough people do that, it really can make a difference--but again only at the beginning.... as courageous as you can. Do you actually care enough about freedom that you would take risks? Do individuals actually care about freedom? Think that through. I think if enough of us take the little risks at the beginning, which aren't really that significant, this will prevent us from having to take bigger risks down the line. 
We are still at a stage where protest is not illegal. [Note: States are now trying to crack down on protests:] We're still at a stage where protest is not lethal. Those are two big thresholds. We are still on the good side of both of those thresholds and so now is the time you want to pack in as much as you can because you could actually divert things....
....Every day you don't do something, it makes it less likely that you will ever do something. So you've got to get started right away.  
Let's get started. 

Sources linked to in this post:

Chauncey Devega. "Historian Timothy Snyder: 'It's pretty much inevitable' that Trump will try to stage a coup and overthrow democracy." Salon. 1 May 2017.

Snyder, Timothy. "The Reichstag Warning." The New York Review of Books. 26 February 2017.

Ian Kershaw. "How democracy produced a monster." The New York Times. 3 February 2008.

David Ferguson. "Pres. Trump nuzzles FBI Director James Comey's cheek after blowing him a kiss at White House event." RawStory. 22 January 2017.

"Attorney General Sessions: A Rubber Stamp for the Chief Executive?" at

David Leonhardt. "Rod Rosenstein Fails His Ethics Test." The New York Times. 10 May 2017.

Pamela Brown and Evan Perez. "Rosenstein unhappy with White House handling of Comey firing: sources." CNN Politics. Online. 11 May 2017.

Ali Vitali and Corky Siemaszko. "Trump Interview with Lester Holt: President Asked Comey If He was Under Investigation." NBC News. Online. 11 May 2017.

Philip Rucker, Ashley Parker, Sari Horwitz, and Robert Costa. "Inside Trump's anger and impatience--and his sudden decision to fire Comey." The Washington Post. 10 May 2017.

"Latest Developments on Comey: Active F.B.I. Chief Contradicts White House." The New York Times. 11 May 2017.

Adam Gabbatt. "Anti-protest bills would 'attack right to speak out' under Donald Trump." The Guardian. 8 May 2017.

A few other sources I read in the last couple of days:

"Reichstag Fire." Wikipedia. Last edited 27 April 2017.

Maggie Haberman, Glenn Thrush, Michael S. Schmidt, and Peter Baker. "'Enough was Enough": How Festering Anger at Comey Ended in his Firing." The New York Times. 10 May 2017. 

Alice Ollstein. "Amid Comey Fallout, Senate Intel Chairs Discuss Russian Probe with Deputy AG." Talking Points Memo. 11 May 2017.

Lucian K. Truscott IV. "Americans are witnessing a slow-motion coup." Salon. 10 May 2017.

Josh Marshall. "Into the Abyss: Trump Fires Comey." TPM. 9 May 2017.

Josh Marshall. "Some Key Fact Points to Get Our Bearing." TPM. 10 May 2017.

Elizabeth Wydra. "Bad Law." Slate. 9 January 2017. 

William Saletan. "The White House is Lying about Comey." Slate. 10 May 2017.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Spring at Casa Malpollos

Snow covers peach blossoms on March 28, 2017
Last year we put in our first full garden in Arizona where we live near the White Mountains, at 7200 feet above sea level. Most of our gardening experience has been in the South (Texas, Georgia, Louisiana) except for a couple of years in northern Minnesota. The monsoon season begins here at the beginning of July, and most long-timers don't begin planting until May. However, we decided to experiment, and I planted cool season seeds (arugula, mesclun mixes, radishes) on April 10th. I followed suit this year, and these cool season plants survived the late freezes that are common here. But the warmer season plants that survived early planting last year were hit hard by those late freezes this year.

The weather here is not consistent, and gardeners are frequently disappointed. Friends who live just five miles away, nearer the Little Colorado River and at a little lower elevation, have never had apples from their apple trees. Yet last year, even though many blooms were killed in a frost, we harvested plenty of apples for canning. This year, we had such warm weather in March that we were encouraged by all the peach and apple blooms. Then the area turned colder, with freezing temperatures and snow the last week of March. 
the snow of 27-28 March 2017--peach tree full of blossoms, covered with snow

We were amazed, however, to see tiny fruit swellings on the peach, pear, cherry, and apple trees--only to be disappointed again by a late freeze and snow on April 29th and 30th. All the little fruits were killed, as well as the tiny, curling leaves just emerging on our grape vines. Even the hardy, ornamental Russian sage was killed back, its spring leaves withering in the cold. I wait to see if those will sprout back. 
The snow of April 29-30, 2017

The garden after the snow of April 29, 2017
With so many spring-flowering plants affected by those snows, the bees, which had been covering the blooms of the fruit trees, began swarming the hardier plants. I had planted arugula and mesclun mixes last fall. The plants hunkered down, survived the winter, and are now in bloom and full of bees every day.
Arugula and mustard flowering in the early spring garden--These plants survived the winter.
The arugula, mesclun mixes, and radishes we planted in early-to-mid April are doing well, potatoes have sprouted, and the garlic has 5- to 6-inch leaves. The parsley that I planted by seed last year also resprouted; they are biennial plants. Today I made a great salad with those greens and parsley.
Arugula and mixed mustards, early May garden
We have also added to our animal quotient on our little half-acre "suburban farm." When we bought this house, the previous owners had chickens and turkeys; we kept the chickens, ate the roosters, and now have four hens left from the original flock. In March, I purchased six little Wyandotte chicks (purported to be pullets at the local feedstore so there better not be any cockerels among them!). For the first three weeks, we kept the chicks in a large box in one of our spare bathrooms where we could set up a heater as well as a heat lamp. Then, as the weather warmed up, we moved the chicks to a rabbit hutch that we put in the garage, again with a heater and heat lamp set up to keep the growing chicks warm. Yesterday we moved the chicks to the hen house. They are in a small cage that Tom built in order to help the older hens and chicks become acquainted, with as little anxiety and pullet pecking as possible. In a week, we will release them into the larger hen yard.
One (of the two) black hens checks out the chicks yesterday (6 April 2017)
chicks in the hen house--The cage will keep them separated from the older hens for a week.
Now we are experiencing the high winds that the area is famous for--wind and very dry weather. Gardening here is a challenge, but so far, we've been up for the challenge.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Art Car #2: A Different and More Diverting Obsession

Last week I deleted the Facebook app from my cell phone and posted on Facebook that I would be off the site for a while. Social media eats up so much of one's time, especially if one is retired (or unemployed) such as I. The notifications are difficult to ignore. Who has responded to that latest post? What news outlet I've liked has gone live with an update or a video interview? What's the latest outrageous tweet from Donald Trump and how is the world responding? 

As I extricated myself from the time-suck of Facebook, I decided to divert myself further with art and craft. What better way to deal with the damaging effects of a Trump administration than to focus on art? It's certainly how I got through the Bush administration and the horrifying consequences of the Iraq war: I created an art car which I first drove in the 2003 Houston Art Car Parade and thereafter in parades in Austin; Baton Rouge;  Houston again; Decatur, GA; and Atlanta, GA. 

Instead of being outraged over every Trump tweet or despairing over an administration that cares little for responsible and transparent statesmanship, free of conflicts of interest, I will be obsessing over something a lot more fun to do: creating Art Car #2. This doesn't mean I won't be lobbying my Congressmen (and they are, unfortunately, all men!) to act in ways I think are best for the future of our planet and its inhabitants. This doesn't mean I won't be keeping up with the news. I'll just be obsessing less over what I cannot control. 

Today I finished the first installment in my art car, a covering for the steering wheel. While I am still mulling over a theme for the car, I have decided that art car #2 will be a yarn car primarily, with a crocheted and pieced covering that can be removed from the outside of the car. My goal is to have a completed art car by the 2019 Houston Art Car Parade.

We'll see how it goes.

Monday, March 27, 2017

A Reflection on the First Bees of the Season

one of the first bees I've seen this season--several buzzing around peach blooms
For the past few years I have been stalking bees and other pollinators in my gardens, first in Louisiana and now in Arizona. Taking photos of pollinators has opened up a whole new world to me, a world that we usually pass with little thought. I have identified creatures that I didn't even know existed and have watched dramas unfold in flowers. Paying attention to bees, wasps, moths, butterflies, and other pollinators has also made me more aware of the importance of sharing this world responsibly. It's an awareness that's gaining ground with a lot of people, including some corporations. 

The breakfast cereal Cheerios recently highlighted the plight of bees, some species of which are disappearing from our landscapes in record numbers, in a campaign the company called #BringBacktheBees. Every package of Honey Nut Cheerios provided information that encouraged customers to go online to order free packages of wildflower seeds (over 1.5 billion seeds, according to the Cheerios website). In addition, General Mills left a blank space on its packaging where the cereal's mascot Buzz the Bee usually appeared. The ad certainly had an important message, but like a lot of advertising, it over-simplified the problems of reduced habitat and threatened and endangered species. Some of the flower seeds included in the packets are native to some areas in the United States, but not others. This might not be a problem, necessarily, but the flowers might not be ones that native bees of an area usually pollinate.

The other issue is that while honeybees have had some serious problems in hive die-off and those problems have transferred to feral populations of honeybees, it's the native bees that are most seriously endangered. Honeybees are exotic to this country, introduced from Europe by white settlers. Because honeybees are used commercially in agriculture, from those bees transferred from farm to farm to pollinate fruit trees to those bred for honey production, European honeybees will always have moneyed support to fund research when a serious issue arises. Native bees and other pollinators, however, are extremely important in pollinating native plants, and these pollinators are often overlooked in popular Save-the-Bees campaigns. 

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, pollinators face threats from habitat loss and degradation as well as over-use of pesticides:
As native vegetation is replaced by roadways, manicured lawns, crops and non-native gardens, pollinators lose the food and nesting sites that are necessary for their survival.  Migratory pollinators face special challenges.  If the distance between the suitable habitat patches along their migration route is too great, smaller, weaker individuals may die during their journey.
According to research, native bees do a tremendous amount of work pollinating fruit and vegetables, with honeybees supplementing that pollination. In the words of one researcher, "honeybees can't do it alone." Native bees are most efficient in pollinating watermelons, tomatoes, blueberries, and squash, among other fruits. I have witnessed squash bees pollinating our squash plants here in Arizona. 
bee in squash flower (I took this photo in our garden in 2016)
And every year I listen for the arrival of bumblebees in our tomato patch. They seem less prolific than other bees. Yesterday while trying to take photos of bees visiting the blooms on one of our peach trees (blooms which will probably be hurt by freezing temperatures expected this week), I heard and then saw one lonely bumblebee buzzing around the blooms at the top of the tree. 
This was the best photo I could get of the first bumblebee I have seen this season.
Bombus huntii?
I have never understood the urge to create large, uniform swathes of green lawn and roadsides, and knowing what I know now about the degradation of pollinator habitats, I am even more adverse to those boring expanses of green, often made even more desolate by pesticides. In Louisiana, I let a large patch of daisy fleabane grow in a corner of our yard and was rewarded with being able to view and photograph the hundreds of pollinators that visited that patch. 

Here in Arizona, I am encouraging patches of native flowers as well as allowing dandelions to grow in the small grassy lawn that a previous owner planted in front of our house.
dandelions in our lawn
Yesterday I counted four different species of bees pollinating the peach blossoms in one tree (with the coming freeze, at least the bees got some pollen; we're not likely to get peaches.) Each species had a different buzzy hum. The natural world is full of music, if we only stop to listen.
bee landing on a dandelion in our front yard
bee landed and at work gathering pollen
deep in pollen

Thursday, March 23, 2017

One Compensation of Moving: The people one meets

My desk (originally Tom's Grandfather Greene's desk). Only once has it
been this neat, so I'm glad I took a photo.
Yesterday I wrote about how I mourn some of the relocating Tom and I have experienced in our married life, but mourning what is left behind is not the only feeling that accompanies a lifetime of moving in search of jobs. Every move has been accompanied by compensations that make me appreciate the experiences of living in different places. One of those compensations has been the interesting people we have met along the way, friends and colleagues whose influences still linger and affect me in a number of positive ways.

For fear of overlooking someone whose friendship was important in whatever place we lived, I won't list people by name, and I will only highlight a few outcomes of some of those friendships. 

If we had not lived in Denham Springs, Louisiana, I would not now have a friend who has been my most faithful correspondent since 1987 (and sometimes co-conspirator in adventures). We don't write as prolifically as we once did, but I have notebooks filled with our correspondence in which we discussed our lives, our hopes, our dreams, our daily experiences, our reading--in detail. These letters document my life, as do those of at least two other friends whom I met along the way, one with whom I corresponded just a few years, another whom I now call on the telephone because, at 77 or 78 years of age, she has become almost completely blind. Had I not been the office mate of the latter at Texas A&M University, I would not have been the model for a character in one of her novels, I would not have experienced a great literary weekend--accompanied by an aunt and two cousins--at a university where my friend directed a writing program. I would not have met (briefly--no way would he remember this) Frank Schaeffer, nor would I have attended a Glen Workshop and signed up for a five-day poetry workshop with Scott Cairns. Most importantly, I would not have received my friend's sage advice over the years.

Had we not lived in Denham Springs, Louisiana, I would never have met the friend who introduced us to Minnesota, an introduction which served us well years later when we moved there. Nor would I have had an intimate look at the struggles of being gay--including the loss of those with HIV/AIDS-- which helped me develop my own then-fledgling progressive attitudes. Had we not returned to Texas and to the church we once attended as undergraduate and graduate students, I would not have had the conversation with my pastor there that taught me how the fear of losing a job can prevent even a good man from openly promoting acceptance of those gays who were in his congregation and who were his friends. This pastor told me that science would prove how sexuality is governed partly by hormones, by electrical impulses in our brains, by genetic coding--and that the Southern Baptist Church, in its rejection of one part of sexual behavior, would further lose credibility.  I would share this encounter a couple of years later with a pastor in Minnesota, whose wife's family members were reeling from the suicide of a 19-year-old nephew/son/grandson who was gay.

Had we not lived in Harris County, Georgia, and had I not taught at Columbus State University, I would not have met the friends who introduced me to folk art, to Butch Anthony, to Pasaquan, and to art cars. I never would have created The Lady and would not have had so many adventures driving my art car to, from, and in art car parades in Texas, Louisiana, and Georgia. 
The Lady, my art car, Austin, Texas 2005 (before an art car parade)

And, thus, I never would have met Harrod Blank, ArtCar artist and filmmaker. 
Me and Harrod Blank, Baton Rouge Art Car Parade, 2006
I might not have sold my eccentric crafts at festivals.
colleague posing with a throw I made from felted, second-hand
wool sweaters, Artist Festival, Pasaquan 2010
And I never would have vacationed in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico--twice.

If we hadn't lived in Decatur, Georgia, I would have much less understanding of what it's like to be Muslim in America...or to be black in America. I probably wouldn't realize what a concerted effort is required to establish black middle-class wealth, the kind of monetary stability passed down from generation to generation that is too often taken for granted among those of us who have profited from white privilege. (I can sense the defensive hackles rising, and I would like to address them, but that's another post...someday.) Working on a community college campus among African-American colleagues and students who were in the majority made me face my own racism; yeah, I'm progressive, and I have worked at not being racist, but you know it's there, residual thoughts and feelings we don't like to acknowledge. A lot of my assumptions were upended--sometimes kindly and sometimes more aggressively. I'm better for it--not perfect, but improved.
farewell cake with tongue-in-cheek message
Had we not lived in Abita Springs, Louisiana, I would not have such fond memories of the Drinking Liberally meetings Tom and I attended; perhaps I would also be less motivated to be politically informed. I would not have seen upfront and personal how a state legislature works and how narrow-minded and dismissive of the less fortunate state legislators can be...publicly and unashamed. I might not have educated myself on mass incarceration, doing the research, writing a blog, attending political rallies and helping with local public meetings. I would know a lot less of what goes on behind the scenes in managing a small town and the work that some committed citizens do, gratis, to keep the rest of us informed. Many of the women I met during the time we lived in Abita Springs are far more politically involved than I am, but their continuing commitment to creating better lives for the most vulnerable in our society encourages me to stay engaged as a citizen.

Sometimes I get a little melancholy over what we've left behind, so it's important for me to take a moment to appreciate what we've gained. This post describes just a little of what I am thankful for.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

X Marks the Spot: A Lifetime of Home Searching

In mid-May, Tom and I will have been married 39 years. We met when we were 15 years old, and we began dating in February of that sophomore year of high school. We married four years later, when I was 20 and Tom was just two months short of his 20th birthday. As many couples in long-term marriages, we have had our conflicts, our sorrows, our worries, and our disappointments over missed opportunities--out of ignorance or chance. We have also had much to be happy about, the most important to us being our two children who have matured into responsible and caring adults. 

When we started out together at the age of 20, we had no idea where our marriage would lead us. I remember Tom's dropping me off at Texas A&M University, in the middle of a student population of at least 30,000 (now, in 2017, edging up to 60,000 students on the main campus). We had recently transferred to TAMU, Tom from Rice University in Houston, and I from Lee College in Baytown, Texas; we had been married for three months, and we had yet to move our meager belongings into the married student housing apartment to which we had been assigned.

Thirty-nine years later, we have packed and unpacked a total of 16 times, from apartments to homes, from rentals to purchased houses. The longest we have lived in an area? Seven years.  The longest we have lived in our own purchased house? Six-and-a-half years.  Fortunately for our kids, those seven years were the formative years of their childhood. We moved houses six times (three times from rentals to purchased homes in the same areas) between the birth of our son and his first year at university. Our daughter, being younger, experienced  an additional geographic move during her high school years. Our son still lives in the area where we left him eleven years ago; our daughter has moved across the country, hopscotching over the West. 

In our 39 years of marriage, Tom and I have moved from one abode to another, on average, every 2.43 years.

If this constant movement hasn't put an insurmountable strain on our marriage, it has certainly impacted us individually and personally. We did not set out to be academic nomads. Most of our moves were the result of chance: lack of good advice on employment upon completing our graduate degrees, lack of soft-money for continuing research projects, political decisions at the state or federal levels that led to budget cuts and thus job loss. Once we quit good jobs in pursuit of better opportunities and to be closer to family; only in Tom's case was the opportunity a better one. I ended up teaching part-time in Texas after having left a full-time teaching position at a university in Georgia--one of the hazards of a two-career couple.

I told Tom this past week that these years of moving have left me feeling "fractured." I grew up in an area in which 5 previous generations of my family had lived, the first generation of one family line having settled there with a Spanish land grant before Texas Independence and statehood. In the 16 moves since then (9 moves, not counting those within the same area), I have left behind friends, social opportunities, additional job offers, as well as hopes and dreams. Each time we have started over, making new friends, buying and arranging another home, growing gardens, making long-term plans for what we often thought would be our last move.

I have mourned something in every move, but the two moves I mourn the most are the moves from Cloquet, Minnesota, in 1996, and from Decatur, Georgia, in 2011. I was still in my thirties when we lived in Cloquet, with opportunities on the horizon. We had purchased a large home within walking distance of our son's elementary school, and in the year-and-a-half in which we lived in it, we did a lot of work inside: removing carpet to reveal maple floors which we sanded, painting walls, putting down new floor tiles in the kitchen, creating a garden. The kids had neighborhood friends who frequently came to our house to play. I taught part-time at a community college in Duluth, I wrote several articles for the local newspaper, I published poems in a regional literary magazine, and I became an active participant in a poetry society in Duluth. We loved the area, with its many hiking trails along the Northshore and its easy access to camping in Ontario.

But then Tom's research grant from the University of Minnesota lost its funding, and of the few job offerings available, the best one for Tom was in Georgia. Meanwhile, staying behind with the kids as I finished teaching my last quarter at the community college in Duluth, I was receiving offers to write for another newspaper in town, to teach at the local tribal community college, and to participate in poetry reading events in Duluth--all of which I had to turn down. 

Although my best teaching experience was to come in that next move, at Columbus State University in Columbus, Georgia, I think I look back on those years in Minnesota as some of our happiest, with its bright possibilities never consummated.

In contrast to our move from Minnesota, the move from Texas (to which we had moved in 2003 to be nearer family) to Decatur, Georgia, in 2007, was a move of middle age. I was nearing 50 years of age, our daughter was in high school; our son had just finished up a year of university. Encouraged by the state director of a national non-profit organization for which Tom had worked for several years in two different states, Tom accepted another position within the organization, prompting a move we hoped would be our last.

 Just six miles and a twenty-minute drive from downtown Atlanta, Decatur is a densely populated urban area, but its progressive leadership has made it a popular place to live: good schools, green spaces, walkable streets, well-kept neighborhoods, a great annual book festival that attracts well-known authors from all over the country, music venues, good restaurants, city ordinances that allow backyard chickens and front yard gardens. It's also a lesbian and gay friendly town. I chose the town because its high school had a decent reputation and was racially diverse. All of the other great attributes of the town came to light as we lived there, as we walked from our home to one of the neighborhood gardens or to events and restaurants downtown. (Its popularity does have some drawbacks, however, as taxes have increased, home prices have skyrocketed, and gentrification has had some deleterious effects on racial diversity. I read recently that McMansions have encroached upon one of Decatur's great old neighborhoods, Oakhurst.)

In short, Decatur offered urban amenities with progressive attitudes--a great place for a middle-aged former academic to live. Having decided to quit teaching after 25 years, I got a job as a part-time tutor on the Decatur campus of Georgia Perimeter College and began writing more poetry (with publication and award mentions in the Atlanta Review). Here was a place to stay, to retire and to enjoy life--X marks the spot. more moves later, we are in the West, living in one small Arizonan town of under 5,000 people which is cheek to jowl with another small town of about 2,000 people. The nearest non-Mormon/secular bookstore of any size is....probably in Flagstaff, a three-hour drive from our house. While the county trends Democratic, mainly because of Native-American voters, the area we live in is extremely conservative and primarily white. In a political argument with a local guy, I witnessed his saying that people could get shot at for making their progressive politics public. One neighbor's political signs for Barack Obama were shot up in his front yard. Only Trump signs were visible here in the last election. A pregnant neighbor encountered another neighbor who cheered her pregnancy because it would mean "more white babies." I am wary of being the X that marks the target: liberally progressive and proud of it.

Small towns are great for people who grow up in them, for community ties develop and deepen over time. They are also great if you can fit into some part of the culture: religious organizations are the usual avenues of acceptance and social life in conservative areas of the United States. When we moved here, someone told us that Eagar is the Mormon town and Springerville is the Catholic town. We are neither Mormon nor Catholic, and though we participated for many years in Christian churches--Southern Baptist in Texas and Louisiana (the first time we lived in LA), Evangelical Lutheran Church of America in Minnesota, Methodist in Georgia, and the Disciples of Christ, finally, in Texas again--we are no longer interested in organized religion. Tom and I met some very welcoming folks at a Freethought Society event in Tucson, but Tucson is a 240-mile drive from Eagar.

Yet here in Eagar, we also have good neighbors, the area is beautiful with a great geographical history readily visible in the landscape, we like our home, we have had good luck gardening so far, there are hiking trails we could spend the rest of our lives exploring, summers are moderate, and taxes are low. We just purchased a second-hand kiln, and we're planning to take up pottery again when we get a shed made for the kiln. 

This week I took some photos of jets and their contrails overhead--here in Flyover Country. Two contrails crossed, creating an X in the sky. Maybe X marks this spot as the one place we will stay, I thought, as I snapped the picture. As Tom nears retirement, and both of us enter our sixties, maybe we can find enough to sustain us here, to settle our restless spirits. 

Or maybe X will mark the spot where my ashes are finally scattered, my final resting place, the longest stay of all.
Our first (purchased) home in Texas
view of the back of our home in Minnesota
Our first home in Georgia

Our second home in Texas
Our second home in Georgia
summer view of our home in Georgia
side view of our second home in Louisiana
another view of our home in Louisiana
my backyard garden in Louisiana