Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Impact of Friendships

Bronze bust of Ed Ricketts at site of death
Researching Isaac B. Werner and his community gave me the opportunity to reflect on the importance of friendships.  He was a prairie bachelor, far from his siblings and the Werner cousins, uncles, and aunts that had surrounded him as he was growing up.  Isaac's story involves his relationships within the prairie community, his place as a bachelor in an environment in which most men his age were married with children.  Part of the prairie story is the constant movement of new settlers arriving and others giving up on their homesteads, and while friendships were interrupted and new ones were made, those relationships were essential to survival.

During our recent John Steinbeck Retreat, one of the segments I most enjoyed was learning about the friendship between Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed "Doc" Ricketts.  Prior to the Retreat, I had not read Cannery Row or The Log from the Sea of Cortez, and I was unaware of the influential relationship between Steinbeck and Ricketts.  Fortunately for me, one of the members of our group, Russ Eagle, has been a devoted fan of those books and the friendship between those two men, and his enthusiasm was contagious!

Display at Steinbeck Museum
Learning how many of the characters in Cannery Row are based on real people that Steinbeck knew when he lived there as a struggling writer, I was especially intrigued by the character "Doc."

In 2000, I created my Millennium Reading List of great books, together with a personal review form that I complete after finishing each book.  The reading list has grown (and I may never manage to read every book on the ever-expanding list), but I have maintained my commitment to do a review after finishing each book I read.  When I reviewed Cannery Row I described "Doc" in the Character section of the review as follows:  "...the owner and operator of Western Biological Laboratory, regarded as the local philosopher, respecter of music, literature, and art, and scientist whose speciality is marine life but whose experiments included rats, cats, and rattlesnakes."  In the Literary Techniques section of my review form, I wrote:  "The plot is draped loosely over two parties for Doc--one well-intentioned but catastrophic when he returns late and his 'guests' have destroyed his place, and the other a birthday party on the wrong day that began with sincere intentions and erupted into the only kind of successful party they could enjoy."  At that time I assumed the characters were creatures of Steinbeck's imagination.

Ed Ricketts Lab
View from back of lab, holding tanks
By the time I read The Log from the Sea of Cortez, I was aware that "Doc" was a real person and Steinbeck's great friend.  Frankly, I wasn't excited about reading The Log but it was one of the books to be discussed during the retreat, so I began.  The opening page was titled "About Ed Ricketts" and by the bottom of the page Ed's car had been struck by the Del Monte Express, and although he was conscious the severity of his injuries did not bode well for survival.  After his funeral Steinbeck turned to writing as his way to deal with the loss of his friend.  "...there is another reason to put Ed Ricketts down on paper.  He will not die.  He haunts the people who knew him.  He is always present even in the moments when we feel his loss the most.  ...Maybe if I write down everything I can remember about him, that will lay the ghost.  It is worth trying anyway."

Clay Jenkinson overlooking Ricketts holding tanks
I don't think Steinbeck's plan worked.  I believe he carried Ed Ricketts with him for the rest of his life.  Perhaps that is what all of us who are fortunate to have a great friendship in our lives must do.  Certainly Steinbeck made many of us feel like we had known Ed Ricketts...or wish we had known him.

Having introduced readers to Ed Ricketts, with whom the expedition on the Sea of Cortez was planned and experienced, the actual Log is introduced.  Steinbeck explained:  "The design of a book is the pattern of a reality controlled and shaped by the mind of the writer.  This is completely understood about poetry or fiction, but it is too seldom realized about books of fact.  And yet the impulse which drives a man to poetry will send another man into the tide pools and force him to try to report what he finds there."  What follows is not only the literal description of their adventure, beginning with all of the planning before chartering the Western Flyer with its tolerant skipper Anthony Berry, and hiring the crew, but also the literary wanderings typical of Steinbeck that I so enjoy.

Also included in the Log is a discussion of "teleological thinking" which inserts its way into the book on Easter Sunday, when the crew did little collecting of specimens, instead half dozing and "...thinking of old things" and later discussing "manners of thinking and methods of thinking" involving what Steinbeck identified as teleological and non-teleological thinking.  This sort of discussion was typical of Steinbeck and Ricketts, who enjoyed exploring ideas and reason.  In fact, Ricketts had written his philosophy on this subject for which he had never found a publisher.  Much of this section in The Log from the Sea of Cortez came from Ricketts' writings, a sort of posthumous gift from Steinbeck to his friend.

During the Retreat we had a wonderful tour of the former Western Biological Laboratory, guided by an outstanding docent and concluded with a talk from author Susan Shillinglaw.  Although the laboratory had a brief life serving other uses, it was fairly well preserved during that time so that today it feels like Doc might soon return from one of his tidal pool forages and offer his guests a drink.

Susan Shillinglaw

After hard service and severe neglect, the Western Flyer is being restored, with plans for use as a sea-going classroom.  The magnificent Monterey Bay Aquarium is only a few steps down the street from Doc's lab. The legacy of Ed Ricketts lives on.

(Remember, you may enlarge images by clicking on them.)

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Messages from History

Rock formations guided early settlers
I am fascinated by history.  It helps me evaluate the significance of current events and balance seeing those events as too impressive or too frightening.  As children we see the world as brand new, with each day seeming to have been born with us.  Life seems full of magic and monsters under our beds, because our personal history is only as long as our own tender lives.

With maturity, we lose some of the wonder but we gain greater knowledge of the world.  Part of that is simply experience.  The longer we live the more experiences we have to make us aware, and part of it is vicarious experience from education, reading, watching television, and picking up information helter-skelter--some of it valuable and some of it worthless or worse.  The formal teaching of history in schools is difficult and too often ineffective.  As adults most of us can still remember how ancient events only a decade or two in the past seemed.

Kansan John Brown's role in Civil War
As much as I appreciate an awareness of history now, I can't quite recall when it became important to me.  As a child I don't recall that I read much history, although I do remember seeing movies set in the past that intrigued me.

The thing that first intrigued me about Isaac Werner's journal was how many similarities I found in the late 1800s with current events.  When I first began working on the manuscript I was anxious to finish it and find a publisher as quickly as possible, because I thought it was so relevant to current events.  Yes, I do wish I had found that publisher more promptly, but what I have realized is that history doesn't go out of style.  Perhaps the things I initially found so relevant have subsided, but other current events have arisen that share common issues with the late 1800s when Isaac lived.

Another thing I have recognized is that in my youth I paid more attention to things that happened elsewhere than exploring the history of my own region.  I suspect that people fall into extremes, either overlooking the importance of things that happened in their own region or being too provincial in ignoring what happened elsewhere.  History gives us a broader view that helps us put things into perspective.

Beecher Bibles came to Kansas
I try with the blog to share overlooked sites and events of historical importance in Kansas.  I have certainly learned a great deal about my home state in the process of doing research, and I have  learned to be more observant.  Now, if we see a road sign pointing to some attraction a few miles off the highway, my husband and I are much more likely to take the time to explore.  How many times had we driven Interstate 70 without taking the time to visit the amazing rock formations nearby?  Why had we not discovered the church connected with Beecher Bibles.  Would we ever have bothered to see Dr. Higley's cabin?  I have shared those three experiences in this blog, as well as many others, and as one blog follower told me, "You have given me many new places to visit."

But what I also have tried to do is share ideas from the past that have relevance to today's events.  They are part of our heritage.  How many Kansans know that a significant reason that Kansas is a "red state" today is because so many Union soldiers staked homestead claims here after the Civil War.  They were soldiers from Lincoln's Army, they voted Republican, and many of their descendants still do.

We are losing voices from the past
My great-grandfather was one of those Union soldiers, but I had no idea his military history influenced the political conversations around the dinner table when I was growing up until I began during the research for my manuscript.  Soldiers were given a year's credit for each year they served as a Union soldier to apply toward satisfying the five years required to live on and improve their claim in order to acquire title.  Confederate soldiers received no such benefit.  Many of Isaac Werner's neighbors were former Union soldiers. I suspect there are historical explanations of all kinds lurking unknown in most families' histories.

I think it is interesting to discover those things.  The current popularity of genealogy research would seem to indicate that others agree. and other genealogy sites include ways to not only discover who your ancestors are but also what was happening in the times in which they lived.  I hope those of you who follow my blog find the the grab-bag of historical information I have shared on the blog to be of relevance and interest to you and your children.

Our community recently lost one of those people who could share first-hand accounts of World War II.  Emerson Shields spoke at the Veterans' ceremony at the Stafford School this past Veterans' Day, but now he is gone.  Isaac B. Werner left his daily journal, whose pages inspired me to write a manuscript about the struggles of the working class of farmers, miners, and factory workers in the late 1800s--a struggle that led to the creation of the People's Party that many people living today know little or nothing about.  Yet, many of the goals of those struggling workers are accepted realities today.  Our current lives are filled with whispered message from the past that we should pause to hear.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Another Look at Poetry

Visiting the grave of Emily Dickinson 
It has become my tradition to remember the importance of Poetry in April.  Those of you who are regular followers of the blog may remember my post inspired by a reading given by Kansas Poet Laureate (2013-2015) Wyatt Townley.  It was my friend Shirley who invited me to join her at the Kinsley Library to hear Ms. Townley read some of her poetry at an event sponsored by the Kansas Humanities Council (KHC).

Two specific things were the direct result of my participation in that KHC sponsored event.  First, I tend to write poetry in spurts, a genuine amateur who lacks the discipline to sit down regularly and wait for the muse to whisper in my ear.  Rather, some sight or sound or thought will inspire me, and the result will be another poem added to my ever-growing notebook.  Wyatt Townly inspired me that day with her own poetry, her enthusiasm, and a challenge to try a form of verse I had never heard of, and consequently, had never tried to write.  The Cinquain consists of five un-rhymed lines of poetry with a strict adherence to the number of syllables per line:  2/4/6/8/2.  Each Kansas Poet Laureate develops some project to encourage an appreciation for poetry, and Townley encouraged Kansans to write a cinquain about their state.  Each month she selected a cinquain to be published as part of her regular poetry columns printed in newspapers across the state.  One month, mine was chosen to be published.  My cinquain that was selected by Wyatt Townley for recognition appears below.


Bugs at twilight,
Juicy watermelon
On the lawn, serenaded by

Wyatt Townley at Kinsley
At that time I was serving on the Board of the Vernon Filley Art Museum in Pratt, KS, and the second direct result of hearing Townley was my recommendation that we invite Wyatt Townley to speak and read her poetry to our Legacy Arts Supporters.  She was nearing the end of her two-year appointment as Poet Laureate, but she managed to fit an evening into her schedule.  Frankly, there were those whose enthusiasm for inviting Wyatt did not quite match mine; however, the evening was a huge success--among the most enthusiastic fans by the closing poem were some of those who had worried the most about how well a poetry reading would be received!  Of course, it doesn't hurt that Wyatt Townley is an excellent speaker as well as a fine poet, but the doubters in the audience that night learned that poetry, well-read, can be a compelling experience.  Wyatt Townley even sold out some of the volumes she had brought to make available at the end of her presentation!

Recently, I received an e-mail from Wyatt and three other past Kansas Poet Laureates--Denise Low (2007-09), Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg (2009-2013), and Eric McHenry (2015-2017).  The message reminded Kansans that in 2016 KHC had provided over 700 free programs to nearly 400,000 people in all 6 sections of our state.  The current cost-cutting threat to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), which costs the average American 50 cents a year according to the e-mail, is the primary support for many humanities programs in Kansas and other states.  

Robert Service "The cremation of Sam McGee"
The e-mail pointed out that the Kansas Poet Laureates average 50 public appearances a year at colleges and schools, but primarily small-town libraries and community centers, with the travel stipend they receive paid entirely by private donors--like those who paid expenses when Wyatt visited the Filley.  (It should be noted that, in turn, Wyatt spent that stipend for lodging, fuel, and other purchases in the Pratt community in connection with her visit.  The benefits to the community were economic as well as cultural.)  The NEH funding of the Kansas Humanities Council funds the staff that supports the Poet Laureate program, a program with a national reputation for excellence.

The number of "closet" poetry fans is surprising.  We had a friend who could launch into the recitation of long narrative poems with the slightest encouragement.  Our niece, who has been engaged in a brave battle with cancer for several years, finds solace and courage in poetry and is sometimes inspired to write her own.  Humorist Garrison Keillor shares his love for poetry on NPR; former President Kennedy's daughter, Caroline, has published a book of her favorite poems for children; young parents recite nursery rhymes to babies who will carry on the tradition to their own children in an unbroken generational chain...  Traditional, un-rhymed, humorous--the list of poetry that people enjoy is endless.  

So, as I tend to do each April, I encourage you to pick up a book of poetry this month--if you have forgotten how much enjoyment and inspiration poetry holds, or pick up a pencil and exercise your own talents for poetry which you have allowed to lie dormant.  And while you are thinking about it, you might consider speaking out in support of the importance of the arts and humanities to the nation.  We must not realize the individual and national importance of those things only too late--when they are already gone...

(Just for fun, I challenge you to write your own cinquain about April or Spring, or whatever inspires you, and send it as a Comment to this blog post or directly to me.  Teachers, challenge your students of all ages to write a Cinquain.  Remember:  five lines with specific syllables in each line--2, 4, 6, 8, 2.  It's about the creative discipline of imagery and feeling within the strict limitations of syllable counts.  I'm curious to see if any of you will take the challenge!) 

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Climbing Fremont Peak

View of Fremont Peak
In early 1846, John Charles Fremont arrived in the Sacramento Valley and set about stirring up American patriotism among settlers there.  When he camped near the highest summit of a mountain range bordering the valley, now called the Gabilan Range, at what is now known as Fremont Peak, he nearly provoked a battle with Mexican General Jose Castro, who had thousands of troups in the Monterey region.  Had the conflict occurred, Fremont's troops would likely have been annihilated.  It was judgments such as this near mistake that have left Fremont with a mixed reputation among historians, some saying his impetuous actions over-shadowed his military accomplishments, which other historians judge more highly.

Steinbeck Retreat Climbers
The same mixed assessment of 23 climbers who scrambled to the topmost point of Fremont Peak might be made as to whether their assault on the jagged peak was brave or foolish.  The oldest climber was 80 years young, and she, like all the rest of us, would not have missed the experience.

We did not climb the peak to start a war but rather to experience the emotions John Steinbeck shared in his account of Travels with Charley.  We were led not by Fremont but rather by historian, author, and host of The Thomas Jefferson Hour, Clay Jenkinson.  We had come together for a week to discuss John Steinbeck and his books, and to visit sites relevant to the man and his work.  It was our last day of hiking to places Steinbeck had visited and written about, and it was an especially awesome site.

Preserving the view
When Steinbeck wrote Travels with Charley, In Search of America, he was no longer young.  He had not visited his beloved California in several years, and living on the East Coast he sensed that he could no longer feel the pulse of the nation.  He decided to set out with his beloved standard poodle Charley 'in search of America.'  He had a camper custom-made atop a pickup, and he headed north to Maine and traveled across the upper states before reaching Monterey.

His return to the California coast of his youth was a disappointment, for the places he remembered were not the same, nor were the old friends who were still there.  "In my memory it stood as it once did and its outward appearance confused and angered me."  He realized that Thomas Wolfe had been right.  Steinbeck wrote:  "You can't go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory."  However, he allowed himself one last sentimental thing.  He drove to Fremont's Peak, now Fremont Peak State Park,  and with his dog Charley, "...climbed the last spiky rocks to the top."

Reading from Travels with Charley
On March 8, 2017, 23 Steinbeck enthusiasts found foot and hand holds in the craggy rocks and helping hands to grasp as they summitted this rocky peak.  At the top, they listened as Steinbeck scholar Russ Eagle read the passage in which Steinbeck reclaimed his affection for this place from his youth.  "Here on these high rocks my memory myth repaired itself.  Charley, having explored the area, sat at my feet, his fringed ears blowing like laundry on a line." Charley had not been a part of Steinbeck's life in that region when he was a young man, so Steinbeck described for his canine companion his memories of the place,  relating what his heart saw rather than the changes which had so disturbed him.

When Steinbeck finished sharing his memories with the dog, he wrote, "I printed it once more on my eyes, south, west, and north, and then we hurried away from the permanent and changeless past where my mother is always shooting a wildcat and my father is always burning his name with his love."

My husband & I atop Fremont Peak
It was to hear Russ Eagle read those words in this place that all of us had risked personal safety to make the climb.  The sky was clear and the breeze was slight--the most perfect day of the trip, and we savored the experience a while longer before reversing our path.  It was a great day.

Isaac B. Werner was only a toddler when Fremont nearly started a war, but John C. Fremont became the 5th Territorial Governor of Arizona in 1878, the same year Isaac came to stake his claims in Kansas.  Although Fremont was born 3 decades before Isaac, he outlived Isaac by 5 years.  Both men are now a part of my experiences with history, but especially, my afternoon on Fremont Peak gave me a feeling of Steinbeck the man, beyond Steinbeck the writer.

Our Steinbeck Retreat was wonderful, and I will continue to share some of our experiences in future blogs.