Saturday, August 27, 2016

Chapter 1 from Pieces of the Plains: Memories and Predictions from the Heart of America.




1.  Ethel
The sun is high now, and the day is hot. . . Noon. . . Blue sky and breeze. . . Gone.
Peter Matthiessen
Far Tortuga

            “These make me sad,” she said, holding the photographic prints in her lap, by their edges so as not to put a smear on the surface. She slipped a fingernail behind the one she was studying, then slowly pulled it toward her, to see the next.
            “Sad?”
            Nostalgic is the proper word, she thought, but so formal, and so inadequate. So she said nothing. Her mother had died when she was a child. Many times she’d said that not everyone knew how it was to be a seven year old girl and have your mother die. Usually she made this comment late at night, maybe out on the highway, after a day at her stepmother’s. Sometimes it was a holiday, or one of the many graduations, or births, when the clan descended on “Grandmother Jenny” and the food was carried out on big platters, mostly beef, ham, five-cup salad, steaming vegetables, and everyone sat around stuffing their faces and kidding the older boys about their girlfriends. Then it would be over. She would offer to help with the dishes, but Genevieve would say no, she’d do them later. On the drive back is when she’d start talking about Jenny’s courage, walking into that family of three girls and a working man, one of the girls just a baby, and accepting the responsibility. When their mother had died, the two older sisters had been sent for a time to their aunt and uncle’s farm, out in the panhandle. There the western prairie’s crackling summer dryness stamped its unforgiving mark on her memories. Never again would she see the smoke-green sage without saying that reminds me of Aunt Ethel’s. A cicada in the August cottonwoods was a time machine—you could see it on her face the moment the chirring started its rise and fall: she was seven years old again, her mother had died, and she’d been sent with her older sister to stay with her aunt and uncle on a farm near the town of Woodward, Oklahoma.
            Years later, the mother of two daughters, she felt drawn back to Woodward. An inner voice, it seemed, kept telling her a cycle of some kind wouldn’t be complete unless her children saw the farm, walked through the buildings where she’d spent that indelible summer, and listened to the cicadas. He agreed to drive out to that part of the state, then bought black and white film for the trip. Farmsteads, he knew, were yin-yang places—on the one hand idyllic, romantic, full of worn angles and weathered lumber, the clutching emotions of a life obsessed with growth, a life among the calves, births, deaths, the grand elements of existence, and adoration of a God that giveth and taketh; on the other hand, hard work, grinding labor in the howling wind, hours upon a tractor, the prayer for rain answered by a swath of hail erasing in a few seconds a year’s commitment to the land. Yes, a farm would be a place for black and white, contrasts. He would look for designs among the outbuildings, she could visit with Aunt Ethel, and the girls could play in the yard.
            Outside, the familiar high plains dry heat came to him on a gentle wind. The woodlot was second growth, but the yard cottonwoods were gigantic. Only out here did they achieve their finest majesty—twisted by the gales, gray bark a woven matrix with wooden cords as thick as his arm. Down in the cracks he could see insects, microscopic lives scurrying into tiny canyons, away from delicate translucent spiders. An eight year old girl could almost put her foot into one of those crevices, he thought, and use the cork ridges as steps into the branches, up where the cicadas sang. He let his imagination run on. The cicadas were calling her into an enchanted castle in the air. All she had to do was put her bare toes into the bark and take the first step, then the trunk would change into a spiral silver staircase. Desire, desire to get up to where the cicadas sang, a wish, a want, was the switch to change a cottonwood tree into silver stairs. She put her foot on the gnarled roots, felt the roughness, and turned her face, squinting, into the canopy. She could not take the step. Her faith lay in other worlds. It was the song she needed, not the rattling scratchy frantic insect, the buzz bomb trapped by ornery hand, or a kingbird’s beak, but the song. The song came with the soft knocking of waxy leaves against themselves, with the western Oklahoma summer heat, the stillness. She looked more closely at the trunk. Abandoned cicada skeletons still clung to the bark, split open at the back, the tangle of cast trachea like threads of a worn-out jacket. They had climbed out of the soil, emerged, let the magic drop of fluid stretch their wings, then flown into the swaying heights. He wondered how big this tree had been when she’d decided not to climb. Again this year there were cast skeletons, still clinging to the bark.
            He’d often thought about the lives of cicadas, how they were a part of his own childhood, too, but not the same kind of part. His mother hadn’t died when he was seven, and besides, in those days boys were supposed to be curious about squirmy things—toads, snakes, various “bugs”—but girls were supposed to be afraid. While he and a friend would spend the night with a flashlight watching the cicada emerge from its nymphal case, waiting for the wings to unfold and harden, saying to one another “if you touch it now, it’ll never fly,” she would lie in the afternoon back bedroom, surrounded by old furniture, listening to the rise and fall of the cicada’s song, then the chorus of chirring, and wonder if her mother was in Heaven. For him, the insects were creatures of the night, the secret climb onto rough walls, or limbs, the agonizing ecdysis, the dark hours of soft flightless vulnerability, with finally the rattling dash into hiding, clutched beneath a twig high in the elms, when there were still elms in the city, with the morning warmth.  His midnight flashlight, trained until the batteries died on the persistent imago, symbolized his relationship with the natural world. His excitement came with doing something nobody else did:  watch the “locusts” at night, see them in important times, do what the birds could not do, peel away the protective darkness, watch the acquisition of flight, then smile, and go back to his bedroom while the world slept, stole, killed, writhed under the covers, and called it life, and ponder for a while before sleep the discoveries he’d made the hundredth time.
            But for her, cicadas were creatures of the day, the afternoon, and they were markers of major events in human lives. She would never hear another one without expecting a change, usually one she could not control. She had an expression, a look of the past; she was the vulnerable one, the receiver, the one who responded; her thoughts were made by what happened to those around her. Thirty years, and if she lived that long sixty or seventy years, could go by, and anyone who’d been with her that summer in Woodward would be taken back there by the look on her face when she heard the cicadas. It’s all gone, said the look, my childhood, my aunt and uncle, the farm, the physical assurance of a grandmother, and a mother, the carefree happiness of a little girl, the caring in times of sorrow, gone into the Oklahoma wind, gone with the leaves, paint on the barn, all gone except the cicadas. She never wanted things to change. She wanted to stay a child, her own children to stay children, her parents to stay alive, and her aunts and uncles. She did not like death, did not consider it educational. But the world would not wait for her. The grinding politics of war, starvation, the clearing of vast forests, rivers sucked dry, chemicals poisoning the soil, drugs, schoolboy bullets in their classmates’ brains, tangled shards of steel and blood and broken glass along the highway, missiles in a silo on the prairie, the hopeless clash of race, of religions, all came to her in an endless parade of “news.” It never ended, this mess made of a lone world drifting in the hollow arm of the galaxy. The cicadas sang. She did not want to go where the songs took her. The journey would erase all that had gone wrong since she was seven years old, but the songs would also erase all that had gone right.  From the paradox came the look on her face. The chirring in the heat said in falling rising words:  good and bad; only one with the other.

            Wandering among the buildings, he took some pictures.  He knew they would not show what he had in his mind. In the negatives there was never enough contrast for him, never a fraction of that he could see in the gray boards, a rusted nail driven decades ago, the barbed wire hidden in a tangle of wild plum, all telling him of the hardest work and the deepest love for the land. The western prairies seemed to homogenize the landscape—one farmstead was the next, low hills were places to see more low hills, tree-lined creeks were snakes you passed while the radio played weather, local news, and markets. But weather and markets were the news. His contrast lay at a higher, more abstract, level, than his pictures could show. Somehow, he thought, if a person could work at the higher level, he could show the human experience on earth in a way that could not be seen otherwise. The yin and yang were not really in the deep shadows behind bleached boards of a loading chute; no, they lay in the constant battle of growth and death in a fertile land of a dying culture, in the elusive subtle complexity of a flat horizon over upright grass, in the native’s rich visual world against the visitor shading his eyes in the glare, and in the timeless memories bound so tightly to the calling of an insect.
            They’d walked through the buildings and empty pens together before she went inside to talk to Aunt Ethel, and he and the girls, bored, wandered back into the yard. She’d remembered the names of the cows. This hadn’t surprised him. She remembered birthdays of nieces, nephews, towns where second and third cousins lived. He didn’t have to ask whether she’d given the cows their names that summer when she was seven. They’d all been named well in advance of her mother’s death. Ethel was the kind of person who would name cows. They were female; they worked hard to keep the family fed; they suffered in the drought and cold, the isolation; they grew old and weathered; their late winter coats were tattered. They did their duties, walked their paths worn, by habit and efficiency and their burden, into the prairie sod. Yes, Aunt Ethel would have named them all. He wondered if the cows answered when called, maybe hearing Ethel’s strained voice through the blowing dust and turned their heads, trying hard to see. There were no longer any cows in these buildings. Plowing ran nearly to the fence.  Except for the homestead itself, the land was leased. Ethel was free. Cicadas chirred. He called to the girls. He’d seen his picture and he needed them.
            The driveway into the farmstead was dirt, or more properly, dust, sandy dust, in this part of the country. Tracks curved away from the blacktop, from the gravel on the shoulder where the mailbox stood, toward the woodlot, and then beneath the giant cottonwoods where lower limbs dragged their umbrella of leaves on small thin branches out over the lane. Late afternoon sun bounced off the sand, made him shield his eyes as he looked from the highway to the house.
            “Run toward me, along the driveway. Race!” “Race” was a better word than “run,” at least for a picture. 
            “Go!” He waited until they were halfway to him, then pressed the shutter.
            “Who won?!” Breathless; laughing; yet, tense.
            “I forgot to look.” 
            Winning had not been the purpose of this race. But in all fairness, they could not have known that. He felt bad about not worrying who would win; he owed them the judgement for their efforts. On the other hand, nobody had thought to mark a finish line. Someone says “race” and off we go, not knowing where it will end, then ask someone else if we won. He refused to dwell too long on this jaundiced view of his world. They were on vacation. He was taking pictures of the family. The philosophy could wait for coffee break at work. But the metaphoric dash down Ethel’s driveway did not leave his mind gracefully. He turned his thoughts to the negative, the print. He was not really a photographer; he had great love for the negative, too little patience with the print. Maybe there was a lesson in that situation, too. He needed a beer and a nap. He walked to the house and got iced tea and a conversation about distant relatives instead.
            The print was eight by ten, on F5 paper, his own purposeful violation of some photographer’s rule, or perhaps his own homage to an internal world of stark contrasts. He did not care; he was no professional with a camera; he made his living as a scientist and the image coming to him under the red safelight was art. He waited until there were two, nearly black, silhouettes beneath an equally dark cascade of boughs, shadows reaching out behind the running figures, all against the glaring path of tire tracks. The girls had lost their faces in his use of the chemicals, but the loss was somewhat of a gain. More yin-yang, he thought, then filed away for future times alone with his art the possibility that the western prairies were responsible for his mental processes.
            How do people who live in the mountains think? he wondered. One mistake in the mountains and you fall past layered geological epochs, the timeless earth itself seeing you not as a person, but as one more potential fossil—Archeopteryx with a ballpoint in his pocket. Is this why the Swiss make such fine watches? Do it carefully, with precision, notice every small detail, if you are to live in the mountains? Unforgiving land breeds watchmakers. But on the prairies you walk forever, fall, and only the wind says try again, take another step, maybe you’ll get further this time. Surely there is something to see on the prairies besides horizon and sky. The baby learns to catch flowers, ridges carved by intermittent streams, grasses lying low, and later the child watches geese, and such trees as are sculpted by the wind. There are no watchmakers on the prairies, he decided; too many options, too many opposite ways of seeing, too much change mixed with stability, to even need a watch. At home he studied the dry print. My own children, he said to no one, they’ve lost their faces in my use of light, chemicals on paper, but they’ve gained a certain timelessness. Two sisters once again race down a dusty path. The ancient cottonwoods smile to one another, and whisper: they’re doing it again, they say, the girls are racing down the driveway, again.
            He was satisfied with what he’d done. They’d made the pilgrimage to the farm at Woodward, satisfied someone’s need to convince herself that she’d survived her mother’s death. He had looked around the place, wondered what there was to be recorded for all eternity—was that not the reason you took a camera on vacation—and come away with the reason they’d gone to Aunt Ethel’s in the first place. He could look at the picture of his children and see in it his wife and her sister as children dealing with a shattered world by racing down a couple of tire tracks in the prairie while the cicadas chirred and the cottonwoods stood smiling. But he had achieved nothing else. 
That didn’t bother him much; he understood himself well enough to know why he saved his most serious thinking for black and white film. He was a person of inner contrasts: the artist was always struggling with the scientist, the worker with the bum, the radical with the reactionary. But for him the opposite of “right” was not “wrong,” it was “many shades of right.”  The opposite of “wrong” was not “right,” but “wrong only in certain ways, or at certain times.” He lived on a sliding scale of contexts. So he was not a man of color. Color had a story all its own. Colors lived in a different domain of reality from pure white light. So he was satisfied with his black and white print of two girls running under the trees. He could look at the picture and hear cicadas. But the prairie wind didn’t whistle through his picture, the sand didn’t move, the miles of blowing grass said nothing to him, and he knew why. Even as he smiled and said he didn’t care, he remembered the wind and the horizon; they were in his mind. He didn’t need a picture.
                                                *                      *                      *
            In the beginning was all the universe within a point, a dot, and then the dot exploded. Fourteen billion years later, apes rise on their hind legs to think, then do the math that allows them to look backward to the beginning, to write books about the first three minutes, and the last three, and to predict the future ten billion years away. In all their efforts to erase time, the scientists have come full circle to the arts: their laws have shown a history. This is the way things behave, they say, and by “things” they mean small mites of energy. Then they build stars, and planets, on paper, and because they’ve built the planets, they consider themselves to have also made the prairie winds, cottonwoods, cicadas chirring on an August afternoon. But once a mind has shown eternity to have a beginning and an end, then the brain has put itself in the same category as fingers whose clutchings at a shutter make one picture, one and only one, a phrase that sounds like math, or other theory. “Pretty,” or “powerful,” says some critic, or color-coded for my living room she says with checkbook in hand, but unique, he says from behind the lens, looking toward the edge of a vast land where no one falls down very far, stretching straight and flat to a distant horizon. The captured bit of time will be there for all to see, like a tiger in the zoo, proof of striped cats afoot in the jungle, because we caught one and put it in a cage. And how do we know the universe is old, that once it was young, and that some day it will die? He caught a piece, with his camera, and put it out for all to study. The piece he caught was there, once, and now is gone. Like the cicadas, and her childhood, her mother, Aunt Ethel’s farm, the cows, two sisters racing down a path, it is gone. But here in her hand, when she looks at it, the chemicals on paper make her sad. And because she’s sad, he knows the picture’s good.

Afterword:
            This piece was originally written for a book of photographs by John Spence, a local artist friend and superb photographer. Virtually all of it is true. John walked into my office one day, laid a large envelope of his photographs on my desk, and asked if I would be interested in writing something to accompany them, perhaps for submission as a coffee table type book. Of course I agreed to try the writing without even looking at the pictures; I knew John and his work well enough to say “yes.” Then I brought a stack of those photographs home for Karen to see, and she did indeed sit down in her living room chair, carefully slip her fingernail beneath the edges, and say “these make me sad.” With that statement, I knew immediately how to write the essay. We had visited Aunt Ethel’s farm at Woodward years earlier, and I had taken the photograph of our two daughters racing down the driveway under the cottonwoods. And for each of the fifty years that Karen and I have either been dating, or engaged, or married, every time the cicadas start chirring in late summer, she comments that the sounds remind her of that summer at Woodward after her mother died. So this essay is actually about the tiny things that connect us with major life events, the almost invisible threads that are woven into our lives from the very beginning, and the way certain moments can direct our vision backward, toward those very small details we accumulate over time.
            The Spence manuscript was written mostly in third person. I tried to put myself in his mind when he took the pictures. In looking back on my writing, painting, and scientific activities of the past six decades, trying to evaluate their quality, what they actually say about the universe, that Spence manuscript stands out as one of the pieces with which I am most personally satisfied. Naturally it was rejected over and over again, and the photo-essay project never saw the light of day. One of the essays in it did eventually get published, however, appearing in my book Dunwoody Pond as the chapter entitled “The Road to Roscoe.” Dunwoody Pond gathered only three or four reviews, none of which was in my local newspaper, The Lincoln Journal/Star. But one of the DP reviews, I’ve forgotten from where, singled out that chapter—“The Road to Roscoe”—as being “particularly riveting.” Those two words seemed to validate my own assessment of the material. I have been a guest speaker at gatherings where, while being introduced, my host reads sections from that particular chapter. I am still very satisfied with the Spence manuscript, regardless of its ultimate fate. 
Someone is likely to read this last paragraph then react in the cynical, sarcastic, way that pseudo-intellectuals, especially those in positions of power, often react when a writer claims that something is among his or her best work. Anyone who has produced anything original, be it art, music, literature, or science, knows how difficult it is to actually assess serious original work at the time it is produced. And anyone who has produced an original work has first, if not the only right to judge its quality. The quality, or lack thereof, that others attribute to the work is all in the others’ minds or, some believe, in the marketplace. Sometimes when students, especially the pre-meds, are uncomfortable passing judgment on their own work, I suggest playing the role of Dr. Paul Gachet in Auvers-sur-Oise, France, and imagining that during an appointment with your patience Vincent van Gogh, he’s just declared “one of my pictures will sell for $40 million.” Such a declaration would do nothing to dilute your opinion that van Gogh was crazy. Remember, however, that van Gogh thought Gachet was even crazier than he was.
            The Woodward farm is gone, now, at least as a family enterprise with which I have any connection by marriage, although the land itself is still in production, farmed by members of the large Campbell family, next door neighbors for nearly a century. If a writer living throughout the Great Plains has anything to say about his or her nation’s evolution from a personal perspective, it’s a commentary on the demise of the family farm, not so much as an economic unit, but as a cultural one. This claim may be a stretch, but the cultural loss is, I believe, manifested in the majority of today’s college students who are ignorant of rat, or for that matter any vertebrate’s, internal anatomy and who are startled by what they find when they dissect a freshly killed one in biology lab. Our vision of Farmer Jones in his overalls, smiling in pastoral bliss beside his barn, is the stuff of old children’s books. Nowadays, Farmer Jones may still be in his overalls, but individual producers—farmers and ranchers—must become skilled accountants, diversify their operations, and increase their holdings in order to maintain a family business in any kind of healthy condition. The literal homestead as an ideal, a metaphor for the American dream, is as gone as that day beneath the cottonwoods at Aunt Ethel’s, but the concept remains, morphed into every entrepreneur’s startup loan, remodeling of an old building, printing of stationery, and uncrating the inventory. Indeed, this metaphorical homestead is almost a defining character of a powerful nation founded by people seeking relief from religious oppression, venturing across a treacherous ocean in surprisingly small ships, and staking claim to a bountiful land occupied by aborigines. The very word “American” carries with it an assumption of risk, adventure, and freedom to win or lose at any of life’s games, no matter where those games are played, even five miles south of Woodward, Oklahoma.   
The statistical disappearance of the family farm, and the nuclear family committed to it on site, obtaining all their sustenance from its activities, is well documented in United States Census records from the past century. The land remains, of course, but use of that land is increasingly mechanized and corporate. Between 1940 and 2000, the number of American farms dropped from about 6.3 million to around 2 million—that’s a loss of four million individual businesses over the productive lifetime of one farmer—while the average size of the remaining farms increased from 140 acres to 471. That documentation, the de facto disappearance of people from vast regions of the central prairies, led to one of our more interesting, relatively controversial, evolutionary ideas promulgated by Deborah and Frank Popper, a couple of Easterners with PhDs and described with a rather infective catchphrase: Buffalo Commons. The idea was perceived by many as simply allowing this part of the world to return to its original state, but in fact the Poppers saw a much larger process, a “softer” evolution of the prairie biome into a more “natural” economic system in which bison could, if not should, play an economic role.
            The life, experience, and as yet unfixed fate of this two-word phrase—Buffalo Commons—comprise a model for our evolving nation, that is, a device for achieving a certain level of understanding about the way our United States of America operates. Although it’s a somewhat roundabout approach to explaining why Buffalo Commons has such metaphorical staying power, we might begin this explanation with the birth of Thomas Sidney Lucas on April 29, 1872, in Mt. Pulaski, Illinois. Twenty years later, in Winfield, Kansas, Thomas married Lillian Marie Hoge, a year and four months his senior. Tom failed to stake a claim in the 1893 land run, but he and Lily Lucas nevertheless established a homestead in Woodward County, buying a 160 acre “relinquishment” from a local “Mr. Horn.” Like many settlers, Tom quickly built a one-room sod house in the northeast quarter of Section 23, Township 22 North, and Range 21 West. Six children resulted from this marriage—Mildred, Claudie, Ivan, Ethel, Emmett, and Evelyn, in that order; all must have helped with chores and learned about birth, death, and weather from firsthand experience. Ethel was born on September 18, 1897. She later married Ferris Campbell, one of the Woodward Campbell clan’s many landowners, and moved to his farm east of the Lucas property. 
Evelyn, the youngest, was born July 15, 1908. She eventually married Glenn T. Oneth, a mechanic from Jet, Oklahoma (2000 population, 230, including 113 males and 117 females),  with whom she produced three girls—Dolores, Karen, and Wanda Sue, in that order—then died in surgery for an intestinal blockage in El Reno, Oklahoma, on March 14, 1948. Evelyn was 40 years old at the time of her death. When Evelyn died, Karen, Wanda Sue, and Dolores were sent to Aunt Ethel and Uncle Ferris’ farm. There the western prairie’s crackling summer dryness would stamp its unforgiving mark on Karen’s memories. Never again would she see the smoke-green sage without saying “that reminds me of Aunt Ethel’s.” Then John Spence would go out into a rural prairie landscape, take some photographs, and bring them to Karen’s husband’s office. These pictures would find their way home, into her lap, where she would look at them one by one, holding them by their edges so as not to smear the surface, slipping a fingernail behind the one she was studying, then slowly pulling it toward her to see the next, and saying “These make me sad.”
The term Buffalo Commons has legs because of its power to bring back such memories. The idea of returning vast regions of the Great Plains to wilderness, presumably occupied only by bison, prairie dogs, coyotes, rattlesnakes, meadowlarks, pocket gophers, a dozen species of perennial grasses, cottonwoods and willows along the stream beds, and red-tailed hawks, is an intriguing one, especially to people who don’t live in rural Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, eastern Colorado, or the Dakotas. Those of us in this part of the country still tend to think of ourselves in terms of this wildlife occupying our signature landscape, even if that landscape is found only in a nature preserve far outside of town. But a 532 mile drive from Crete, Nebraska, to Willis, Oklahoma, a drive I take every year as part of my job, does not necessarily reveal a disappearing rural America. Instead, there is a defined set of houses, outbuildings, machinery, silos, and livestock pens, all landmarks that tie the Buffalo Commons into a single unit, at least in the mind of a person taking this trip. Some of these structures need paint; others have been painted recently. Children’s ride toys suggest changes in the lives of residents rarely seen as I pass their homes at a mile a minute. Over the years, mailboxes acquire stylized purple cat heads; the kid who once used that ride toy now goes to Kansas State University and his ride toy is probably a full-sized pickup. Once in a while there is a yellow ribbon tied around a tree. Someone has gone to war.
People are in fact living and working in this vast, open, water-challenged, environment. The infrastructure that allows these lives to be pursued would be considered science fiction by Lillian (Hoge) and Thomas Lucas, Aunt Ethel and Uncle Ferris, could these folks suddenly be resurrected and plopped down in the Buffalo Commons armed only with their knowledge and experience earned at the hands of the Kincaid Act. As a minimum, that infrastructure consists of genetic research on strains of wheat, genetically engineered seed corn, computer programs to control center pivot sprinklers, the global commodities market and political machinations that control it, startup biotech companies, pesticide chemists battling insect resistance (itself strong evidence for evolution), a highly complex set of agricultural subsidies and regulations negotiated by elected officials whose first hand knowledge of rural America is, at best, lost in childhood, the prime interest rate, a food processing industry so intensely competitive that it almost redefines the word, dietary fads, and an occasional cow exhibiting symptoms of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a single animal that can set off a world-wide economic blaze not unlike that real fire started by one of Kate O’Leary’s five, all of which, we must surmise, were named, but none of whose names survive. Were they still alive, Ferris Campbell and Tom Lucas would be on the Internet daily and their respective wives might well be owners of a cottage information technology company.
Within minutes, if not seconds, Ferris and Tom, plunked down at their new laptops with itheir 500GB hard drives, 16GB memory, and 2.66GHz processors (by the time you read this, these figures will be passé!) could easily discover that the very term, “Buffalo Commons,” and the idea it conveyed, had already morphed into a variety of forms: a serious attempt to actually produce one (Great Plains Restoration Council), a McCook, Nebraska, folk arts and storytelling festival, a futuristic sci-fi military command, a mathematical exercise in the solving of complex and ill-defined problems developed by Bernard Hollister, an Illinois Mathematics and Science Teacher Academy Master Teacher who “passionately believed that a teacher's role is to stimulate the natural curiosity of students to investigate, question and learn,” and copyrighted by the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy's Center for Problem-Based Learning, a birding tour guide industry, a “weblog devoted to books, authors, and readers on the Great Plains of North America,” along with links to booksellers’ own web pages, a bison hunting operation with a professional guide, a title of a poem, an Oklahoma geographer’s assertion that he’d originated the idea, an anti-bio-terrorist training exercise conducted by the North Dakota Department of Health, and a Virginia Wesleyan Student’s description of the difficulty of solving this problem in a class designed to teach problem solving in general. What is this problem that seems such an ideal teaching device? It is the problem of how to manage essential natural resources in a wise manner at the national level in the modern world. Everyone has an idea; nobody, not even a student at a small university, has a solution acceptable to all. That’s why Buffalo Commons has, as they say in the advertising business, legs. 
John Spence took his photographs before the Poppers published their idea.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Why God made tapeworms - an excerpt from INTELLIGENT DESIGNER



An excerpt from INTELLIGENT DESIGNER: EVOLUTION FOR POLITICIANS:
 
The Biblical story is relatively open to interpretation, too, especially with respect to time, and is even more open to interpretation when one considers life forms that we now know exist but are not specifically mentioned in Genesis. Thus there is a lot of wiggle room for people who want to use the Genesis story for various reasons and in various ways, and depending on how the story is interpreted, some fairly heavy theological issues surface. To illustrate some of the problems involved in understanding special creation, we might consider the group of parasites known as tapeworms. It takes very little knowledge of zoology to realize that any answer to the question of when God made tapeworms—i.e., before or after their hosts—leads inevitably to an interesting theological discussion because quite different post-creation events must occur to explain these parasites’ continued existence, depending on when they were supposedly made. Genesis 1:20-25 deals with the world’s fauna, so we could infer that tapeworms were included in the categories listed (“every living creature that moves”), or were simply included with, and within, the larger animals mentioned, such as birds and cattle.
All tapeworms are obligate parasites; they do not survive outside of their hosts, except as eggs passed in host feces. Therefore, if God made tapeworms before He made their hosts such as the birds and cattle specifically mentioned, then those worms must have been either free-living or something we would not recognize as tapeworms. If they were unrecognizable as tapeworms, then that means they were changed into tapeworms by some mechanism not mentioned in the Bible, and because we’re discussing creation instead of evolution, that mechanism has to involve a decision by God to transform an existing, free-living, worm (we suppose it was a worm) into a new kind of worm, this one a parasitic, segmented, hermaphroditic, egg-producing machine dependent on its host’s defecation for survival as a species. In other words, if we do not allow evolution to create a tapeworm from a free-living ancestor, then we must allow God to accomplish exactly the same thing as evolution evidently accomplished, although for some mysterious supernatural reason. If God created tapeworms anew after He created their hosts, however, and furthermore, created them in their present form, then He purposefully made a parasitic, segmented, hermaphroditic, egg-producing machine dependent not only on its bird or cattle host’s defecation for survival, but also on the eating of tapeworm eggs (= eating of host feces) by various invertebrates such as beetles in which infective larvae could develop.
But as if the timing of tapeworm origin is not enough of a theological problem, the reason why God made tapeworms compounds the difficulty of rationalizing their existence. It’s difficult to seriously discuss why God made tapeworms because such a discussion quickly becomes an exercise in creativity, carrying with it a strong dose of smart-aleck cynicism. What was God thinking when He made these parasites? What was His intent? What purpose did God have for such a creation? But let’s do the exercise because it’s a fairly instructive one in terms of what we might call “creationism theory,” although it involves an attempt to read the mind of God, an activity some religions consider blasphemous and probably most consider impossible. Nevertheless, let’s try to answer these questions, beginning with the idea of a tapeworm in the mind of God, remembering, of course, that we could do these exact same thought experiments with any of the 100,000 species of molluscs, the 300,000 species of beetles, the untold thousands of roundworm species, and just to include plants, poison ivy.

INTELLIGENT DESIGNER: EVOLUTION FOR POLITICIANS is available on all e-readers and as a nice paperback from amazon. Feel free to buy a copy and send it to your scientifically illiterate elected official.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

For Father's Day - Excerpts from BERNICE AND JOHN: FINALLY MEETING YOU PARENTS WHO DIED A LONG TIME AGO



Some time in the late morning of November 23, 1973, John Janovy, petroleum geologist, age 59, received the last of his morphine injections, administered by his son, who gently slipped the needle into his father’s inner thigh, about the only place on his body where there was enough flesh to receive it, and slowly pressed the syringe until it was empty. Later that afternoon the men from the funeral home would arrive, place John’s body in a zippered vinyl bag, and leave. It’s best when they die at home, in their own beds, the doctor had said; they’re more comfortable, more at ease, than in the hospital. The son would then pour himself a large glass of Jack Daniels and begin wondering what to do next beyond filling out an obituary form for the Daily Oklahoman. Thirty years later I, that son, would open a box containing my father’s papers, start slowly reading them, and thus discover a man I’d known no better than the woman who was my mother.

Upon being given a similar prognosis—You have only six months to live—and asked the same question—If you had just enough strength to do one remaining thing, what would it be?—Bernice’s husband John, by now a widower married to another elegant lady who’d also pulled herself up from modest working class beginnings, would answer: build a greenhouse. I had never thought of my father as a particular heroic type until he was given those final six months and embarked on this amazing, courageous, venture, either a gamble that he would actually have the strength to finish it, or an obsession so strong it would keep him alive long enough to finish it.
In the end, it is impossible to distinguish between these two alternatives. I push him in his wheel chair out through the garage to the greenhouse—his greenhouse—open the door, push him in, and let him just look at his work. I take the cigarette from his fingers; he is too weak to hold it as it burns close to his fingers. There, surrounded by his plants, he lives an hour in the company of the latest and most consuming of his several concurrently indulged passions—alcohol, tobacco, music, stamps, coins, photography, cactus, his family, his grandchildren, and the oil business. Then, at the ancient age of 59, he dies. Unlike my mother, he leaves a swath of a trail, but I would not find it for another thirty years. When I begin to explore this jungle, I find another stranger.
“How did he do all this stuff?” I wonder one day, telling our oldest daughter, home for a visit, about her grandfather’s files, about the stamps carefully mounted on loose leaf pages upon which he’d drawn, with the exquisite skill of a superb draftsman, small India ink rectangles to frame them, then added labels—actually personal catalog numbers—lettered in his perfect steady hand.
“Obsessive compulsive,” she replies, converting him into a case study.
My father’s first job after graduating—in 1935—from the University of Oklahoma with a bachelor’s degree in geology, was out in Pampa, Texas, working for Skelly Oil Company. He never mentioned whether he or my mother ever ran into Woody Guthrie, or heard about him; the music in our house was classical—Jascha Heifetz and the like, not folk singer protest with flattop guitar. My father’s second job was with Louisiana Land and Exploration Company, and so he and my mother moved to Houma where I must have been conceived and certainly was delivered, although by whom, and with whose help, I do not know. A fire in the parish courthouse destroyed my original birth certificate, but the State of Louisiana issued a replacement with no questions asked. This replacement I use to obtain and renew passports, again, no questions asked. My last renewal was prior to September 11, 2001; we will see, over the next few years, whether a long-ago fire in Houma, and a not-so-long ago hurricane named “Katrina,” make any difference in the life of a post-Patriot Act American seeking proof of citizenship.

Among my father’s souvenirs from his Houma days were two tarpon scales that he kept in his fishing tackle box. Again I wonder, as in the case of the cameras, why this young man acquired a tackle box, but by the time I was old enough to understand fishing, he had one filled with all sorts of wondrous lures in addition to these tarpon scales. Among the photographs I salvaged from my parents’ house after they died are ones of men and a boat, not a large boat, but one large enough to have a small cabin. I think I went out on this boat once; I have a hazy image of being helped down a ladder into a dark space. I don’t know whether we actually went fishing, or even whether the boat moved after I was helped down the ladder. Nevertheless, either on this boat or some other, my father went fishing, caught a tarpon, and saved some scales. Or, perhaps, and just as likely, someone else caught the fish and he saved the scales.
Why might he have saved these scales? That is, what can we learn from a couple of strange items in someone’s tackle box? My guess is because the scales were so large that they challenged our very idea of a fish, at least for a person accustomed to inland bass as I was at the time. I want to believe that to him these scales were metaphorical reminders that our preconceived ideas—about fish, obviously, but actually about anything—could easily be overturned by observations if one allowed those observations to talk and listened to what they had to say. Again, it’s somewhat of a stretch, but those scales might well have been the equivalent of 3 x 5 cards with the words BE OPEN MINDED, NOT SURPRISED, printed in bold letters, a simple but important lesson about making your living by searching for naturally-occurring resources. At least those were my thoughts every time I saw them as a child, which was fairly often. Fifty, maybe sixty, years after discovering those tarpon scales in his tackle box, I still think the same way—suspicious of preconception, unusually respectful (some of my colleagues would say too much so) of plain observation—and wonder whether such a thought pattern is inherited, or was taught to me, by my father, and by example, beginning down in Houma with a couple of scales.

BERNICE AND JOHN is available on all e-readers