Dead Fish, Condoms, Brown Foam: Sewage Has Chokehold On Black Rock Harbor

Dead Fish, Condoms, Brown Foam: Sewage Has Chokehold On Black Rock Harbor



On April 25, 2018, Patrick Clough walked onto a dock at Fayerweather Yacht Club on Black Rock Harbor in western Bridgeport. He looked down. Swirling around the dock was a brown, foamy slick. Women’s sanitary products and other objects floated in it.

He posted a photo of the discharge on two Black Rock neighborhood Facebook pages, writing “This is disgusting.”

A week before Clough captured that photo, equipment malfunctioned at the Bridgeport West Side Water Pollution Control Facility. Fecal matter and other suspended solids spewed at two times the maximum limit allowed under a discharge permit issued through the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) ordered the city to make all repairs and upgrades by 2039.

The West Side facility, the larger of two sewage treatment plants in the city, sends its treated waste through a 72-inch discharge pipe into Black Rock Harbor.

When the flow of waste and rainwater overwhelms the system, as it does several times a year, untreated sewage releases out of combined sewer overflow (CSO) pipes into the harbor.  It sluggishly works its way to the open water of Long Island Sound. The plant also discharges partially treated waste during storms or equipment failures. Those discharges are called bypasses. Like the CSOs, the bypasses are legal and will remain so for decades.

Every 10 days, on average, a sewage discharge flows into the harbor, according to July 2014-July 2019 data from DEEP. There were 99 CSOs and the West Side plant bypassed partially treated waste 85 times. Overflows from the CSO pipes range between 100,000 gallons and 500,000 gallons. The legal plant bypasses ranged from 1 million to 16 million gallons.

Most of the overflows rush out during rainstorms, but residents interviewed said that they have seen regular overflow discharges for years on dry days and that they suspect West Side facility equipment malfunctions are the cause.

The city’s sewage plant manager maintains that 99 CSO spills over five years is not a high number. “During a heavy rainstorm, depending on the intensity and duration, [the CSO pipes] can overflow,” said Lauren McBennett Mappa, general manager of the Bridgeport Water Pollution Control Authority. “The overflow is very diluted raw sewage that can overflow for a short period of time. This happens very rarely.”

Residents are unhappy that DEEP, as enforcer of federal clean-water laws, gave the city so many years to fix its overflow problems. Although DEEP’s records show that most overflows are legal, residents say they have witnessed other spills that they believe aren’t documented, such as the scene in Clough’s photo.

“People look in the water, and they’re just shocked,” said resident Bruce Williams, who runs his family’s Captain’s Cove Seaport, a complex of shops, a marina, and restaurant that also leases space to sailing teams. On a recent Sunday, he said, “People from Long Island were staring at it. It looks like a horror movie. They were just stunned.”

The Culprit: The Plant

Part of the problem is the way the West Side facility operates. The Bostwick Avenue plant, built in the 1940s and last upgraded in 1996, is three times larger than the city’s east side plant and handles the majority of the city’s waste. Stormwater and waste together are pumped into the plant, and then travel through treatment by gravity. On a dry day, 18 million gallons enter the plant, which is designed to handle 30 million gallons a day. On a wet day, as much as 90 million gallons can enter the plant’s main raw sewage pumps. Usually one pump operates, but in heavier flows, up to four pumps move the water.

Over a 12-hour period, the waste normally circulates through three screening tanks, where human feces, sanitary napkins, tampons, condoms and other items are screened out. Then the water enters tanks where the remaining solid material is allowed to settle to the bottom. These solids are later trucked to landfills. The water then continues to aeration tanks, where sprayers speed up the breakdown of bacteria. Next chlorine is added, and then bisulphate is added to dechlorinate the water.

But if a flow equal to more than 58 million gallons per day enters the plant, the facility enters “bypass mode,” which speeds up and eliminates some steps in the process. During this mode, the system screens out solids, chlorinates the water, dechlorinates it, and then discharges it. The level of rain that triggers a bypass depends entirely on the accumulated water level in the street. Some official documents list the amount of rain that triggers this as four-tenths of an inch in 24 hours.

Since last year, DEEP has issued two administrative correction orders to the city, including one in 2019 that addressed the April 2018 permit violations. A June 2018 order requires the city to stop all discharges out of its CSO pipes by 2039. Eleven projects separating stormwater pipes from sewage pipes must begin by 2021. Some of this work has begun. An order issued earlier this year sets deadlines for fixing sludge processing and nitrogen removal systems that malfunctioned earlier. Construction on those must begin by the end of 2022.

Floating Condoms

Captain’s Cove rents the city-owned waterfront across Bostwick Avenue from the West Side sewage plant. Williams’s office overlooks the sewage discharge pipe. “I’m here every day. This happens all the time. I will go down to check that no condoms or sanitary napkins are floating in the shipway.”

So much is unknown about health threats in this water. But human contact with fecal contamination can result in gastrointestinal sickness like norovirus, respiratory illness, ear and eye infections, and rashes, health experts report. Regular water-quality testing is geared to the swimming season at some public beaches.

Bridgeport tests some of its beaches for bacteria that can indicate fecal matter and therefore disease-causing microbes. Swimming beaches like the neighborhood’s Seabright Beach, about 200 yards from one of the CSO pipes and 800 yards from the main discharge pipe, were closed for swimming most of the summer. The nearby Seaside Park, one of the most popular destinations, was rated “D+” for high bacteria by Save the Sound, a program of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment.

‘Not Normal’

For 13 years, Kevin Blagys, who owns KB Dive Services, has been diving in Fairfield County waters. Wearing a wet suit and snorkel gear, and holding a scrub brush in one hand, he cleans the barnacles and particles off boat bottoms. As he swims underwater, he passes through striating sections of brown and clear water. Sometimes the visibility is so bad he can only see a few inches. As the summers progress, the quality of his work zones worsens with floating black mud and the combination of heat, sun and nitrogen that makes hypoxia—oxygen too low to support life. He then hauls out dead horseshoe crabs. In some years, he has steered his small boat through slicks of dead menhaden, fish that typically thrive on Connecticut’s coast.

Blagys, a native of Greenwich, has been frustrated for years by the water quality in Black Rock Harbor, where “we have a discharge pipe at the end of a dead-end harbor.”

Living and working so near the discharge pipe gives people in the area a sense of the water’s condition, Blagys said. “The whole neighborhood knows when it’s gross and when it’s not normal.”

Bill Lucey, the Long Island Soundkeeper, a watchdog scientist for Save the Sound, has docked his research and education boat at Captain’s Cove since spring 2018. This year he tested for dissolved oxygen in the water near the sewage discharge. In mid-August he was recording oxygen saturations of 0, the result of nitrogen from the sewage discharge combined with heat and light. High levels of nitrogen result in harmful algae growth.

The harbor could handle some nitrogen, Lucey said, “but that is only OK if it’s being discharged into a pristine environment,” which Black Rock Harbor is not. “The whole system is overloaded.”Lucey thinks nitrogen levels should be lower than they are, but Mappa said nitrogen tests at the plant’s outflow between July 29 and Aug. 2 were “all very good numbers.”

Everyone agrees Black Rock Harbor is polluted. Residents called Peter Spain, their 130th District City Council member. He organized a public information meeting on the plant’s permit, attended by Save the Sound, DEEP, business owners, and residents, including some students. Residents hoped to share their concerns, but DEEP engineer Ann Straut spoke for much of the reserved time in a local school auditorium. She explained in detail each step required to plan, approve, fix and check plant upgrades. Public questions were cut short. Lucey trimmed his presentation on the health of the water in Long Island Sound to a few minutes.

Residents, business owners and students had already decided to take part in a regional Unified Water Study of Long Island Sound, coordinated by the Connecticut Fund for the Environment. Spain helped fund the study out of his City Council stipend.

Although Blagys never got a chance to address the meeting, he said he would have told those in attendance, “I’ve maintained boats underwater throughout the [Black Rock Harbor] and western Long Island Sound, from Milford to Greenwich. Of all the harbors—like Milford and Norwalk and Southport—Black Rock Harbor stands alone. It is clearly the most stressed environment.”

Visit the Save the Sound, Sound Health Explorer to view bacteria levels and other information here.

This project was written for the Connecticut Health Investigative Team and first appeared there and in media outlets throughout the state in October 2019. The project was supported by a grant from the Society of Environmental Journalists – Fund for Environmental Journalism.

Read Part 2:  A catalog of West Side plant malfunctions and sewage discharges into Black Rock Harbor; how sewage problems persist in other cities.

Read Part 3: Black Rock area residents, including high school students, spent the spring and summer cruising the harbor and Long Island Sound gathering water samples for testing. They’re part of the Long Island Sound Unified Water Study, and like many living and working in the area they’re tired of the smelly, brown-slick water and beaches closed to swimming.




Testing poop is the future:  Yale’s tests of New Haven sludge offer faster way to see outbreaks

Testing poop is the future: Yale’s tests of New Haven sludge offer faster way to see outbreaks

Above, from the Yale study: The red line represents the rise and fall of the COVID-19 outbreaks as detected in New Haven sewage. The darker line, seven days later, represents a similar curve of the outbreak as tracked in human testing.

A new study by Yale University of the COVID-19 virus in New Haven’s sewage sludge has found that testing human feces is a quicker and broader way to understand the pandemic in communities—a week faster than human testing and including even cases where people didn’t feel sick.

The study published Friday as a preprint (before peer review) compared sludge results from the settling tank at the East Shore Water Pollution Abatement Facility on New Haven Harbor to human testing and hospitalization rates for the New Haven area between March 19 and May 1. It found that the so-called curve of the epidemic’s rise and fall tracked each other but that the sludge results could be determined more quickly.

Testing continues daily.

Another outbreak going forward could be predicted through sewage testing seven days earlier than human testing and three days ahead of results on hospital admissions, said the lead author, Jordan Peccia, a professor of chemical and environmental engineering at Yale University.

Sewage testing has been used for years to understand drug use, eating habits, genetics, and diseases. Lead author Jordan Peccia’s past research has tested sewage for viruses including herpes, adeno virus, HIV, norovirus, and other coronaviruses like SARS and MERS. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Eric Alm started a study of Cambridge, Mass. sewage in 2015 called Underworlds, and the Somerville, Mass.-based sewage testing company Biobot Analytics is now looking for COVID-19 in samples from sewage plants in 42 states.

The way to test people without symptoms

Sewage doesn’t lie. “When you test people,” he said, “you’re testing only the symptomatic people. You’re missing the asymptomatic fraction, which is significant. Meanwhile, they are giving their samples to the sewage treatment plant: samples from everyone served by the New Haven plant — 200,000 people. “We can do this for about $20 per test.” The East Shore sewage treatment plant serves New Haven, Hamden, East Haven, and parts of Woodbridge.

In the first weeks of the New Haven study, the Yale team froze sludge samples while they perfected methods to detect the virus. People who are infected—whether they show symptoms or not—shed RNA (ribonucleic acid) from the centers of COVID-19 molecules into their feces.

The sludge testing method involves the turning of the virus’s RNA (a single-stranded molecule) into DNA in the lab, which allows them to detect the virus at the molecular level.

In March when the team began, the sludge results weren’t available in real time. “We were figuring out how to do the analysis. We were storing it and checking,” Peccia said.

Peccia’s 11 co-authors are affiliated with Yale’s schools of public health, management, medicine, and nursing; its Institute for Global Health; and the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.

“The city has been really remarkable in allowing us to continue to sample and taking any interest at all in our results,” Peccia said.

He said he hoped that widespread sewage testing could be a valuable nationwide method to understand the pandemic because 250 million people in the United States are served by municipal sewage plants.

“It’s certainly not going to replace (human) COVID testing,” Peccia said. “I want to be really clear: as an individual you know you are positive or negative and you can do contact tracing and quarantine yourself. That’s the gold standard.”

“There are two important things we get out of this testing,” Peccia said. “It’s another thing for cities, public health officials, municipalities, to look at as they’re making a decision about whether they’ve had 14 days of decrease in a row. The second one is it can be earlier than the testing data. It can answer this critical question we have right now: Are things going to go back up?”

Peccia said virus levels in New Haven sewage were so low by late May that “in the next set of analyses we will get some non-detects.”

What about combined sewage overflows and swimming?

 It’s not known yet whether coronavirus can live in the diluted combined sewage overflow (CSO) discharges (untreated sewage mixed with rain) that still sometimes pour into water bodies in New Haven and five other cities. Peter A. Raymond, a professor of ecosystem ecology at Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, is sampling CSOs in the area. His results are not yet available.

Amy Kirby, a senior service fellow in the Waterborne Disease Prevention Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an April 27 webinar, “We think it is unlikely to present a substantial infection risk in wastewater.”

Jennifer Perry, assistant director of infrastructure management in the water bureau of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said DEEP has no evidence of how long the coronavirus can live in untreated wastewater. “So we recommend not swimming, bathing, drinking, or fishing next to or downstream of a combined sewer overflow for at least 48 hours after any storm.”

Peccia said, “I don’t want to go swimming in a water body that gets a CSO, but if I did, I wouldn’t worry about catching COVID. I’d be much more worried if on my way back from taking a sample, I stopped in the grocery store. It’s a disease that definitely goes from person to person, and the evidence suggests it’s much harder to be transmitted in the environment.”


Long Island Sound to Lobsters: Is This Farewell?

Long Island Sound to Lobsters: Is This Farewell?

A lobster from southern New England is offered for sale at the Fulton Fish Market in New York City in 1943. Source: Library of Congress archives

Twenty years ago, Long Island Sound was home to a thriving fishery of the American lobster. Hundreds of lobster boats brought in 3.7 million pounds
worth more than $12 million to the Connecticut side, and almost double that catch arrived in New York ports. In a half-century, Connecticut-landed lobsters had increased twelvefold (from 226,300 pounds in 1950). It was a tiny economy next to the much larger Maine lobster fishery, but it represented the top of a boom for the Sound and a livelihood for hundreds of fishers.

And then, in 1999, something went terribly wrong. More than half of lobsters commercial fishers pulled up were dead in the traps or died before they could get to market. In the years since, 99 percent of the lobstermen in the once lobster-abundant waters of the western Sound have gone out of business. What caused this? Scientists have spent the years since then gathering data with the help of lobster trappers and
coming up with an answer.

Three potential causes have been identified and studied, but the evidence points strongly to one factor in particular. It’s temperature. The Sound today is too warm too often for this cold adapted species. Despite some years of slight increases in their numbers, Long Island Sound lobsters have failed to recover from the 1999 die-off, when the warm conditions persisted for more than 60 days.

There is no better public example of climate change in Long Island Sound than the lobster. Its demise connects directly to warmer temperatures. Perhaps the most poignant detail in this tragedy is that these lobsters eventually die out in situ, wired by instinct not to relocate. They are not migratory animals. The remnant population remains here. Every instinct tells these lobsters not to move.

What happened

Scientists from the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the University of Connecticut and other institutions have tracked three stressors that hit the ecosystem at once in that dramatic year of 1999.

First came pesticides. West Nile virus, a bird-carried pathogen from Africa whose presence was confirmed for the first time that year in birds and mosquitoes in the New York-Connecticut region, was the spark. The potentially fatal virus soon would spread to horses and people, and in response to what
seemed a potentially dangerous threat, several cities and towns began floating solid cakes of the chemical methoprene in storm drains. New York and Connecticut officials also sprayed other mosquito-killing chemicals from airplanes.

Although some of the pesticides do hurt lobsters in laboratories, several studies failed to find a link between pesticide use and the lobsters’ demise, according to Penny Howell, a retired DEEP fisheries biologist who spent the last part of her career studying what happened to the lobsters. The worst of the pesticides used to kill mosquitoes, malathion, could have hurt lobsters in the extreme western Sound, scientists from DEEP, Connecticut and New York Sea Grant and the University of Connecticut found.

“We really thought that was just too minimal to be a real cause,” Howell said. “It was not a wide enough an area and long enough in duration to really be the principal cause.” Hypoxia, or low levels of dissolved oxygen in the water, does not kill lobsters either unless the levels are very low, 2 milligrams per liter of dissolved oxygen, she said.

Diseases were a second major stressor. Epizootic shell disease, an infection causing lesions, hit lobsters badly in eastern Long Island Sound in 1999. They looked mottled and weak when pulled out of the water. This was the focus of a study published this fall in the American Naturalist by scientists from Millstone Nuclear Power Station in Waterford and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary. It looked at market data over 34 years and concluded that warmer water causes lobsters to molt quickly in the spring, making them more vulnerable to shell disease. First warmth, then comes vulnerability to shell disease. These conditions may also have accelerated the growth of a strain of parasitic amoeba that actually killed many of the lobsters that year. More than 90 percent of lobsters examined that year were infected.

This leads to the last and most significant stressor that killed lobsters in 1999. For about two months that year, the Sound warmed to temperatures higher than lobsters can tolerate.At the high point, the temperature measured nearly 72 degrees F (about 22 degrees C), about 3 degrees warmer than the hottest temperature Homarus americanus can stand. The previous winter was also warmer than normal. Warmer water in the Sound has become the norm. The American Naturalist study noted what many scientists now agree is the reality: The American lobster “is declining at its southern geographic limit.”

The temperature in the Sound is increasing at about 0.8o F (about 0.47o C) per decade, that study reported. James O’Donnell, professor of marine sciences at UConn, reported that the warming over the last 100 years is about 1.8 degrees F (about 1 degree C).

“This trend is resulting in profound impacts on biological communities such as fish and shellfish,” the University of Connecticut and Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection reported in their joint Long Island Sound Resource Center climate change monitoring report. This trend is having profound impacts on biological communities such as fish and shellfish.

Since the 1990s, lobster landings from Long Island Sound have decreased sharply. Basically, just a remnant commercial fishery still exists. Howell now gives public talks summarizing the surveys and studies she coordinated on the lobster demise. The 1990s were “a big boom,” she said. “The lobster really is a cold-water animal that can’t tolerate [warm water].”

Landings of lobsters for sale in markets hovered around 2 million to 3 million in Connecticut in the 1980s and 1990s. Since then, the numbers of lobsters landed have dropped so significantly that they don’t show on the state’s graphs of lobster landings over time. This crash cannot be blamed on the lobster trappers. It’s not the fishery’s fault, Howell said.

A short economic history

The commercial lobster industry in the Connecticut waters of Long Island Sound peaked and then began to decline over a relatively short period. Although lobsters have served as food ever since civilizations here devised ways to trap them, selling them on a large scale grew only after World War II. The number pulled out of the Sound for sale grew steadily from 1950, peaked 48 years later, and by 2016 had dipped back to about the 1950 number. Even as they begin what could be a final decline, lobsters remain a valuable delicacy.

New York landings from the Sound trend higher in more recent years, possibly because the figures are estimates, but for the most part the New York landings match Connecticut’s.

The rate of harvesting was “pretty high when the population went high,” Howell said. “We saw a brief increase in abundance which the fishery took advantage of in 2005. It’s no great demise in harvest rate through 2013, but it’s hard to say that overharvesting caused the problem, because we should have seen some kind of an increase in 2002, 2003 and 2004, and we didn’t. It’s getting the fishery off the hook. It’s not their fault.”

The heat

Lobsters become sluggish in warmer water. One 2006 study found that lobsters in too-warm waters become sick. The animals can adjust to a warmer average temperature, but the result then is that they suffer heart problems during cold spells, the study concluded. They become less resilient.

Beyond the Sound and north of Cape Cod, lobsters are doing well. In Maine the population seems to be enjoying an incredible boom. But that boom is feared to end at some point. Scientists are watching the water temperature trends in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank. More and more researchers and resource managers are starting to investigate the effects of environmental changes on American lobsters in northern New England waters.

Could lobsters from the Sound simply crawl their way to colder waters? Probably not. Lobsters are not migratory animals. Studies have shown consistently that the lobsters in the Sound tend not to move much.

But they would move if they could find a food source in colder water, Howell explained. The trouble is the way the Sound is set up. With cooler water coming in from the East River at the western end and the Atlantic Ocean at the eastern end, a whole lot of warmer water gets sandwiched in the center, and the lobsters don’t realize there’s anywhere else to go.

When the Sound warms up, she said, it warms up in the middle first and then at both ends, because cold water comes in from either end. Those lobsters on the mud bottom of the western Sound can’t get out to the open ocean unless they migrate east through the warmer central Sound and toward the Race, the narrow opening to the Atlantic Ocean at the eastern end. But lobsters will never go toward warm water if given a choice.

“What we realized was that when the Sound warms up, it warms up from the middle and then the edges,” she said. “That means that these animals here would have to go from warm water to warmer water and we do have published laboratory behaviorial experiments that show that if you put a lobster in a setup where
the animals choose between very small changes of temperature, two streams of water coming at it, it will always go to colder water. It will never
go to warmer water.”

She added, “They would have to be very good navigators in order to get out. They only will go if there’s no food. And they only will go if there’s a way for them to get out.”

From Wrack Lines Fall/Winter 2018.

How Much Plastic is in Your Body? Scientists Turn to Oysters, Mussels for Clues

How Much Plastic is in Your Body? Scientists Turn to Oysters, Mussels for Clues

Marine scientist J. Evan Ward checks on oysters he and his colleagues cultivate at the University of Connecticut. They examine them for the presence of microplastics. Photo by Christine Woodside

J. Evan Ward knelt on a dock jutting into Eastern Point Bay at the eastern end of Long Island Sound and hauled up a floating cage containing oysters.

These oysters came here from nearby Mason’s Cove and serve as the resident population for lab studies that Ward, a professor of marine sciences, conducts at the University of Connecticut Avery Point. He studies these and other oysters and sediment gathered on boats operated by Norm Bloom and Sons of Norwalk.

Oysters are master water filterers. A single oyster can filter up to 1.3 gallons of water per hour. They process much of what ends up in Long Island Sound. That includes the ever-increasing load of tiny pieces of waste plastic. Some of this ends up in their bodies.

New England’s great oyster markets appear so far to have escaped large plastic contamination. Oysters collected by Ward’s team contain fewer plastic pieces than one might expect—8 to 10 pieces per oyster, he said.

Oysters likely encounter more plastic than that but will spit out pieces larger than 1 millimeter, Ward said. Although oysters today contain few plastics, their bodies will encounter, and probably accumulate, much more than this because people are discarding more and more plastic every year.

Our throwaway society has created much of the microplastics problem. Around the world broken-up pieces of plastic waste, pieces from a few millimeters in size to so small that they can’t be seen, wash into waterways and oceans.

They enter water supplies, food, the guts of marine animals, fish, and shellfish and humans. Scientists don’t know all the ways they enter the water, or how they harm the environment or people. Early results show that these fragments are everywhere.

“We’re really behind in the United States,” Ward said.  “We are very much behind. The Europeans have much more money to study this.”

The effect of microplastics on human health remains largely unknown. King’s College London scientist Stephanie L. Wright wrote in a study published this year in the journal Environmental Science & Technology: “Chronic exposure is anticipated to be of greater concern due to the accumulative effect that could occur. This is expected to be dose-dependent, and a robust evidence-base of exposure levels is currently lacking.” In other words, the more plastics in the environment, the higher the threat.

Plastic particles travel and accumulate in the human body, especially in lymph nodes and around joint replacements. They can carry harmful chemicals that attach to them in the ocean. They can cause immune system problems. Airborne particles like nylon can lodge in the lungs, causing breathing disorders.

Plastic pieces lodge in the intestinal tracts and tissues of oysters, clams, mussels and scallops, which humans eat whole. In studies of sand and gravel and mussels collected at Avery Point in Groton, Ward and three other scientists found microplastics in 73 percent of the sand and gravel samples and in all of the mussels they collected. These findings were published in Environmental Science & Technology in August.

Scientists know that plastic pieces find their way into drinking water, sea salt and even beer. University of Minnesota public health scientist Mary Kosuth and her colleagues documented small plastic particles in all three in the Great Lakes region.

“The microplastics just keep on getting smaller and smaller and smaller,” Kosuth said. “They don’t biodegrade.”

Plastic that breaks into pieces includes synthetic clothing fibers, water bottles, cups and cup lids, straws, plastic bags and microbeads—the tiny bits of plastic mainly used in exfoliating body washes and facial scrubs. The federal Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 halted the manufacturing of microbeads in cosmetics in 2017 and over-the-counter medicine last year, but the microbeads in medicine can still be sold until next year.

“There are a lot of them out there still,” Ward said.

For several years now, people have heard about the “great Pacific garbage patch” ( Despite how we might envision it, the “patch” consists of swirling wastelands of very tiny pieces, said Marcus Eriksen, a scientist, activist and author of Junk Raft, who saw some of the plastic gyres while floating with Joel Paschel across the Pacific Ocean in a raft made of old plastic bottles. Eriksen said plastics’ effect on human health represents a new frontier for science. “It’s really everywhere, but does it cause harm? We don’t know for sure.”

Most of the plastics in the ocean come from single-use objects and containers, and the rest from fishing gear. The tiny particles are easy for marine life to take in, and scientists worry about polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), the insecticide dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) and other chemicals plastics absorb. Eriksen said eventually plastics will be found sunken to the ocean floor, washed ashore, or “excreted and deposited as sediment.” 

China is the No. 1 contributor of plastic washing into waterways, and the United States is 20th, according to a study published three years ago in the journal Science. That study estimated that 192 coastal countries contribute between 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons of plastic to the oceans every year. Without some way to stop the waste, it will greatly increase by 2025, the authors wrote. Eriksen said the plastic waste amounts to 5.25 trillion pieces. “Ninety-two percent are smaller than a grain of rice,” he said in an email interview.

Plastic is so ubiquitous in daily life, Ward said, that “you’re also eating a lot of microplastics every morning when you take off your fuzzy synthetic sweater over your coffee and it’s raining into your coffee.”

And it’s not just microplastics that affect marine life. It’s estimated that over 1 billion plastic bags are used annually, and more than 100,000 end up in Long Island Sound each year. Three Connecticut towns have banned plastic bags in their stores: Westport’s ban took effect in 2009, Greenwich’s ban started in September and Stamford’s ban takes effect in April 2019. Other communities are considering similar bans on plastic and some are looking at banning plastic straws too.

Denise Savageau, Greenwich’s retired conservation director who has been active in the plastic-reducing movement, said many residents worry that using plastics along the coast harms the environment. “There’s so much plastic on the bed in Long Island Sound, it’s just incredible,” she said.

Savageau said people are confused when they see plastics labeled “biodegradable” or “degradable.” These plastics don’t actually break down, she said, but instead fragment into tiny pieces. With the exception of a few cornstarch-based materials labeled “compostable,” plastic doesn’t degrade, she said.

Richard Harris, a marine scientist for Norm Bloom and Sons, said they are not hearing any concerns so far from the public about plastic. But he said the company is relieved that microbeads are being phased out this year. “There are no alarm bells going off, but if we continue on our present course, I’m sure we will be.”

For now, Ward said, he continues to enjoy the mollusks he studies so closely.

“Do I eat mussels and oysters? Yes. Am I concerned about the number of plastics in mussels and oysters? No, in 2018,” he said.

But about the future, he’s unsure. “Will our kids be able to eat them?” he asked.

This story was reported under a partnership with the Connecticut Health I-Team, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to health reporting. (

Fear of rattlesnakes

Fear of rattlesnakes

Biologist Tom Tyning scrambles up a ledge in Massachusetts, looking for rattlesnakes he will study in his lab and then return to the wild. The snakes are rare because poachers steal them and sell them illegally. (Photo by Christine Woodside)

From Appalachia Winter/Spring 2019, published originally by the mountaineering and conservation journal of the Appalachian Mountain Club.


The rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus, is not cute. Poachers and scared people have nearly wiped them off the New England landscape in the last century or two. A few hundred years ago New England’s only venomous snake thrived. Streets, hills, and valleys are named after them. In my hometown of Deep River, Connecticut, Rattling Valley Road rambles down past outcroppings of ledge rock where, long ago, rattlesnakes lay on the cliffs. Back then you watched where you put your feet. Now cars ramble down that valley looking for a back way. A few dozen miles north of here, Rattlesnake Mountain houses television and cell antennae. Another Rattlesnake Mountain, free of snakes, overlooks Squam Lake in central New Hampshire; no snakes there, either. Rattlesnakes are so rare that biologists who study them won’t reveal the last few spots where they live lest they encourage poachers who usually know where they are, anyway.

For some years now, I’ve been on the trail of an underground rattlesnake poaching operation in New England. Snakes sell for hundreds of dollars on the internet, although harvesting and selling them in the Northeast is illegal. I set out to visit where they do thrive so that I could understand what drives small-time criminals to collect them in sacks and what fascinates those people who would buy a wild snake and keep it in a cage. And so I followed the only people who could legally show me: snake biologists.

Tom Tyning, a rattlesnake biologist from Berkshire Community College, panted as he trudged slowly up the steep side of a traprock ridge somewhere in southern Massachusetts—location to remain secret.

Tying has spent his life following snakes. As a kid he caught and kept snakes as if called by God. He told me that if he hadn’t picked the scientist route, he could have grown up to be a snake hunter—except that in the Northeast if you collect rattlesnakes without a scientist’s permit, you’re a poacher. Poachers have worked long careers with limited penalties. The most notorious of them was the late Rudy Komarek, who poached and killed 9,000 rattlesnakes in three states over 30 years. Komarek singlehandedly caused what researchers have called “the shocking demise” of rattlesnakes in Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts. Tyning told me that after authorities caught and imprisoned Komarek, he remained unrepentant. From prison, as a protest, he mailed other illegal snake catchers maps marked in detail with places the rattlesnakes lived. Apparently it’s easy to help poachers from jail.

Komarek did the damage of several people. Today the secret Rudys are still at it. Tyning said, “There are always people getting arrested at airports who get caught with snakes in their pockets, tied to their legs. It’s become a really weird international ring of poaching. And it’s a huge smuggling operation. After birds and even before monkeys, reptiles, especially snakes, and turtles and lizards are among the biggest entities in international smuggling. They’re fascinating; they’re beautiful. I understand all that stuff.”

I had promised I would not say where I now trudged behind Tyning up a steep hill. The sun shone, which was vital to our quest. Sun brings out the snakes. As he panted up the ridge, Tyning joked that he was getting too old to chase his research subject. He was slightly overweight but very strong, and he pushed energetically toward the cliff where he knew a community of timber rattlesnakes lived. I would help him collect a few for his research. We were using all the same techniques poachers use. First, we would hike right to where he knew they would be basking. Then he would reach out with his snake tongs just as a snake went by. He would grab them with his snake tongs and drop them into a bag I would hold open. The bag looked like a pillowcase.

Late spring’s vegetal soil filled my nostrils. I heard a raspy hiss. A creature looking more like a black snake glided from under a rock. “Why does it look so dark?” I asked. Tyning said that sometimes their tan and black patterns seem to recede under grayish tones. “It’s about to shed its skin,” he told me. “Are you ready? I’m going to grab it, and you’re going to hold open the bag just when I tell you.”

“I’m ready,” I said, as if saying so would make it true. I had come out here out of respect and awe for an endangered reptile that could kill me with its bite. If it felt threatened, it could sink its fangs into my hovering arm. My skin would swell up and eventually turn black as the venom kills tissue so that it might be more easily digested were the snake to later make a meal of me. That would never happen. Snakes eat mice and other small rodents. They only bite humans if we threaten them. Which of course we were doing right then. Still, humans almost never die of rattlesnake bites, and antivenom available at nearby hospitals would reverse any bite’s damage quickly. I thought of none of that as I stood with the pillowcase, but Tyning’s calm demeanor washed over me.

“The fear of snakes,” a Minnesota snake information site explains, “is a learned behavior, which has been exacerbated by such things as myths and media misrepresentation.”

I would not fail Tyning; I would help him without causing new problems.

Road noise could not drown out the molting snake’s loud hissing. Tying leaned in, ready to strike with his grabber. I leaned in. He expertly affixed the two sides of the grabber around the snake. The rattling got louder.

The snake didn’t like what it knew was coming. It rattled and rattled; I felt rattled. Tyning reached out with his grabber—and the thing wouldn’t shut down. It was stuck open. The snake slid down and away and underneath another rock. That had never happened to this biologist in his entire career, and I was a witness. Something about the escape told me more than if we’d gotten the snake. I’d gotten very close and could see the beautiful shingles of its skin.

Dennis Quinn, an independent herpetologist, wore tan cargo pants and a green striped polo shirt. He might have been out for a ramble in the woods. Except he looked pretty odd. He was carrying a long snake grabber and he asked if I would take one side of a large plastic cooler. He joked that he dressed like a poacher—and that they tend to use the same collecting tactics. Quinn’s job that day was collecting snakes for a study of fungal disease. In a lab, scientists would take blood samples and make observations.

We trudged up and around a set of rock outcroppings covered by young tree growth. They were in there. We peered down. He gently poked a pole under the rock, just to rustle them up a bit. They slithered out like a slow, downhill seep. I stood by, thinking I ought to apologize. One short one I peered at from a crouch, watching his eyes, which looked like vertical slits. “Sorry, guy,” I murmured. Quinn turned to me, reassuringly, and said, “I’ll return these in a few days. Your job now is to open the cooler when I say.”

He grabbed first one, then another, then another snake with his tool and quickly placed them into giant pillowcases. These are the tools of the poacher. He said, without irony, that he guessed scientists gathering snakes for lab studies could easily become snake hunters if they didn’t have their work. The hissing went on and on as I held open the green plastic lid.

A few days later, as he promised, Quinn returned alone with the cooler and set his research subjects free. I imagined them sighing (or the serpentine equivalent of sighing) and making fast time back to their big ledge rock. I felt awe by now. I cared. Many people do care about rattlesnakes now. Connecticut’s wildlife biologist Jenny Dickson told me later that the days of hysteria and fear have passed. “The public is more understanding,” she said. “You’re going to get the occasional intentional killing of the snakes. But they’re probably going to think twice before they pick up the shovel and just randomly whack something.”

A few years ago I thought I might see what else I could learn about the poacher Rudy Komarek, so I sent an email to the office that had secretly investigated his crimes in New York State:

“Dear office of environmental crime,” my letter started awkwardly. “I am working on a story about rattlesnakes and their incredibly low numbers due to poaching. I would like to interview someone who can talk about the problem of poaching timber rattlesnakes and who was involved with Operation Shell Shock a few years ago. Please let me hear from you.”

I did not hear from them. I will venture a guess why. The battle goes on. Any publicity might expose the last of the dens. I know well that reticence to tell a writer about endangered snakes. Poaching continues by quiet, strong criminals wearing hiking shoes and carrying pillowcases. They know where the snakes live, and they sneak in, take them, sell them illegally, and go back for more.

Stealthy small-time poaching in southern New England and New York State threatens a species that has retreated in the parade of civilization. This tragedy continues silently. People have crushed their land and them, losing important predators of rodents and disease-carrying ticks. If I got my wish, and it were no longer rarer than a lightning strike to see one, I could then fear them, and even hate them. To save the timber rattlesnake, we must preserve or recreate the conditions that led to our fear and hate. And we must learn not to act upon that fear.


Mold concerns rise with the sea level

Mold concerns rise with the sea level

Hurricane Sandy destroyed this cottage, and many other houses, in Fairfield, Connecticut. Courtesy of the Fairfield Fire Department.


A day after Hurricane Sandy hit, Nancy Arnold waded down her basement stairs and saw five feet of storm surge partially submerging her furnace and hot water heater.

After the water eventually retreated, and the local fire department pumped out the rest, Arnold had another worry: mold. A husband and wife who had done painting for the Arnolds showed up and offered to wash the home’s lower level with bleach.

“Where would I have been without that,” Arnold wondered this summer, “because they knew about the mold, and they Cloroxed the whole basement. If there’s another storm, I don’t know if they’re up to do that again.”

Arnold has lived in her house near the end of Whitfield Street in Guilford since 1962.  She and her family evacuated to a local community center for six hours during the worst of Sandy’s tempest. Evacuations have become commonplace in her neighborhood, she said. A year prior, during Hurricane Irene, the family also packed their bags and spent the night at the center. After the Sandy cleanup, Arnold hired a contractor to install a new furnace that hangs from the ceiling, about 5 feet above the floor. “That’s as high as they could make it,” she said. “If it needs to be higher than that, Guilford’s in trouble.

But the way the world is today, who’s to say, you know, what could happen?” For the past several decades, Arnold has watched the tide creep deeper into the marshes that ripple outside her living-room window. Guilford’s coastal neighborhoods, like most of the shoreline, saw the future arrive with Hurricane Irene in 2011. In a century, climate change and a rising sea level on Connecticut’s coast have brought more frequent and devastating flooding during storms.

The flooding destroys property, something people hear about immediately. But it also harms people’s health. After flooding, mold quickly multiplies into fuzzy blobs on walls and furniture. When people try to clean up, they breathe in airborne microbes that can trigger breathing problems, skin rashes and infections, mucous membrane illnesses, and problems in internal organs, according to fungal scientist Eckardt Johanning and his colleagues, writing in an article in Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine.

Health researchers say that residents should view floods as hazardous to their health and doctors need to beef up their training to recognize flood-related illnesses. Mold itself can make people sick, but mold also signals the presence of other bacteria and disease, said Paula Schenck, director of the Center for Indoor Environments and Health at UConn Health. She said doctors “can advise their patients to have the appropriate protective gear on hand before the flood, and then avoid exposures that would cause illness, so I’m sort of on a disease-prevention soapbox here.”

If you live in an environment that is likely to see severe wet weather, it’s good for your doctor to consider if you might have health concerns from exposures after a storm, or from being in a chronically wet environment, when you go in for your yearly exam,” Schenck said. This little-discussed public health threat—exposure to moldis rising slowly into the public consciousness. Nuisance flooding has increased on the United States coasts, and it will increase dramatically after 2050, or about the time that today’s babies will be young adults.

People who live near water now live more and more in water. Adam Whelchel, director of science for the Connecticut Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, has worked on coastal resilience planning with dozens of municipalities. “There’s a whole lot of emotional stress that goes along with living along the coast,” he said. Around New England, most coastal areas have been inundated several inches over the past century. Bridgeport’s sea level has risen nearly 1 foot, and New London’s slightly less, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) calculations.

The yearly increase is almost 3 millimeters. In March, the Connecticut Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaptation at the University of Connecticut released a report predicting increases of another 20 inches by 2050. Major areas of the coast will flood regularly in the future. High-tide flooding along the nation’s coastline has increased 300 percent to 900 percent in the last half-century. NOAA’s map of projected high-tide flooding can be zoomed to street-level detail for any town in Connecticut. A perusal of the state shows that inundation by floods will cover large swaths of Guilford south of I-95, and large areas of Madison, Bridgeport, Middletown, Old Saybrook, Haddam, Hartford and Stamford in the future. Buildings in the floodwaters’ path will be prone to mold and all that mold signifies.

All molds are part of the kingdom of fungi. Scientists haven’t yet identified most fungi that exist—90 percent or so, said De-Wei Li, a research mycologist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station’s Valley Laboratory in Windsor. Scientists who study fungi spend much of their time simply identifying species. The hundreds of molds scientists have identified in this part of the world can trigger allergies like asthma and skin reactions, and some of them contain mycotoxins or volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in their spores. Mycotoxins and VOCs can cause serious diseases or reactions when ingested, when they come in contact with skin, or when someone breathes them in. The microscopic spores penetrate deep into the lungs.

A month after Sandy hit in the Northeast, scientists collected samples of mold from houses in Brielle and Manasquan, New Jersey. They found 36 types of mold, including six that killed flies in the lab. Molds found included Aspergillus niger, which the CDC reports can cause lung infections and allergic reactions; Aspergilloma (fungus ball); and the most common found in damp or water-damaged structures, Penicillium chrysogenum.

The presence of mold also indicates a whole soup of biological materials, including bacteria. If someone sees mold growing inside, they are witnessing a risk to respiratory health, Schenck said. She added that flood waters can be dangerously contaminated. Certain medical conditions make one vulnerable to airborne mold.

“Many materials—wallboard, fabrics themselves (clothes, curtains) and those that trap dust (carpet) are a grand meal for mold,” Schenck has written. “Even some well-constructed buildings that haven’t had moisture concerns in the past become wet from wind-driven rain and flood waters in severe storms.”

Schenck wants people to know that any time they see mold, they should consider it an indicator that “moisture is available for biological growth.” The wetter it is, the greater the chances of severe respiratory illnesses. An increase in floods will cause wood and drywall and other building materials to become saturated more often, causing an increase in people’s exposure to airborne mold spores, since that is how they reproduce.

This means that people whose immune systems have been weakened by disease are more vulnerable to health effects from mold. The most urgent advice about a flooded living space is to get out until the standing water has subsided. “Once it’s flooded, don’t go wading unprotected in that environment,” Schenck said.

Encounter with a hare

Encounter with a hare

Lepus americanus. Photo by Walter Siegmund.

Past midnight I awakened and crept behind the mountain shelter, over dry leaves behind the back wall. Wind rustled from the open ridge of Vermont’s Mount Tom toward the spruces. I wore my improvised headlamp, a flashlight on a nylon cord tied around my head. The light wagged back and forth over dead leaves. I teetered unsteadily on my left hand while peeing. I always felt calm and safe doing my business in the woods, but why?

Something off to the left rustled. I turned my head. My flashlight on its cord swung out, then crashed into my forehead. I grabbed the flashlight and pointed it at the largest rabbit I’d ever seen. It stood like a post in my obnoxious light and seemed to stare at me. How could it do that? Rabbits can’t look forward. Yet I stared back. My companions slept. I felt alone with the creature. I did not smile, something I might do with a person nearby. All pretension vanished. I saw that this creature and I did not understand each other. The creature, the edge of the flashlight’s beam, each individual moldering leaf near my squatting spot brightened into sharp focus.

I moved my light back and gathered up my long johns. I stood and trained the light back out into the dark. The rabbit had gone.

For years I remembered this moment but did not know what I’d seen. It was a snowshoe hare, Lepus americanus. It lives in dense forests, mostly in far-northern woods. It favors thickets. Its fur grows brown until the winter, then turns white. It has no interest in meeting me. It does not need me. The hare’s babies stop nursing and hop off to their own lives within one month of birth. Hares spend most of their time avoiding danger. Because it had come close, my encounter left me in awe.

Years later I saw my second one. I’m certain that many dozens of hares have watched me walk by without showing themselves. Now I walked alone down off the forgotten side of Carter Dome in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I descended off a trodden route onto a path few walkers go. I crossed into the federal wilderness area and saw moose droppings every few feet. I sensed that animals hid just off my trail, waiting for me to move on.

I walked three miles down into a desolate campsite. Perkins Notch, once bustling, had gone back in time and become a ghostly opening in the woods, really just a signpost. The Wilderness Act specified that humans must interact as little as possible in this area now called the Wild River Wilderness. A year or so before I got there, U.S. Forest Service employees had dismantled a shelter but piled the lumber by the trail. Graded areas for tents now resembled rutted gravel squares. I seemed to be the only human for miles. Forecasters had predicted rain. I wandered about looking for a good tentsite—not the abandoned gravel tent pads; they’d funnel moisture toward my sleeping pad. I settled on a flat spot below a stand of saplings. But here, I felt uneasy. Something 50 yards away caught my glance: Someone had built (out of the pieces of the old shelter) a crude A-frame shack. I shuddered. “I’m not going in there,” I said to no one.

The stream ran back by the way I’d come in, so at dusk I returned there with my cooking pot and water bottle. There sat the pile of lumber from the old shelter. There leaned a rotting signpost. It pointed to lonely, little traveled trails deeper in the wilds.

The stream rushed, interrupting my loneliness. And then I saw the first animal of my evening. A snowshoe hare, in summer brown fur, stood. Posed. Stared. I stared back. I thought for a second that I had made eye contact—one eye. This animal barely noticed me. Or didn’t see me. I didn’t fear it. I feared what it knew that I didn’t know. A natural cycle in which I have absolutely no part was playing out in Perkins Notch. The hare had emerged at dusk looking for plants it could eat in safety. An owl could swoop in and grab it. Most hares die violently, actually. That’s why they breed like rabbits.

At times New England wildlife managers have transported snowshoe hares from Maine to states where too many had been hunted. Moving hares also saves Canada lynxes because the only thing a lynx will eat is a hare. I did not realize at that moment I met the hare that a much larger animal might be lurking. I thought the hare looked wise and that it somehow embraced nature’s cycles—find food, live a while, then die—with more grace than I accept those cycles. This hare, of course, thought nothing of life’s stages. It lived in a constant state of fear. I have never known such fear.

Martin Laird writes in Into the Silent Land (Darton, 2009), a short book about Christian contemplation: “Fear itself becomes a vehicle of deeper silence,” and, “Be still in the midst of fear.” He tells us that the Eskimo word for polar bear is tornarvsuk, “the one who gives power.” Eskimos confront the bear to grapple with their fear of it. In doing this, they “receive the gift from the bear.”

I had come seeking something like peace. Instead I confronted the gift from the snowshoe hare. I had run right into a creature that didn’t know enough to fear me.

I knelt clumsily at the stream with my pot, water pump, and bottle. I could find no level ground or rock on which to prop the pump, so I lugged the pot of stream water and the rest of the stuff back to the campsite. Dusk had moved in. I could see very little. Was that movement over by the A-frame shanty? No. What was that crackling? The whirr, the whish? I was out of place and would always return to such spots trying not to be.

From Appalachia journal, “The Long Way Home,” summer/fall 2018 issue. Subscribe to Appalachia at


Trail of Memories

Trail of Memories

Heading up the Undermountain Trail with Talley. Photo by Julie Bidwell
Yankee Magazine, March 2017

One bright Monday afternoon, I step onto the Undermountain Trail below Bear Mountain, in northwest Connecticut. I climb east. The trail rolls mostly straight up, but because this is an old hill it feels smooth, with only one fast jog north, up steeper rocks. Traveling on a dirt and boulder track widened by many boots, I push upward through mountain laurels. I have come out today because I needed that periodic reconnection with the Appalachian Trail, the 2,190-mile forest highway that links Georgia to Maine. Once I reach the ridge, I will intersect the AT—which pulls me, like a force, back into the pilgrimage of my past.

At age 28, I walked the entire AT with my husband and our friends Phil and Cay. After about a month, our other hiker pals called us the Eight-Legged Thing; that is, it didn’t matter what our names were. I let the other six legs, so to speak, drag me along, and they and this trail gradually taught me that I could press on through all weather, pain, and exhaustion. I grew up here.

It’s been decades since my “thru-hike,” but I am still a changed person, one who pauses with surprise at water coming out of a tap. One who doesn’t care about rain or stale bread, who doesn’t wish for new carpeting, shiny cars, or cruises. Any point along the AT delivers that power. It pulls people back to simplicity. That makes the AT different from any other trail in the East. I don’t have time for more than a three-hour round trip today, yet I know that is enough for the AT to reconnect me.

At Riga Junction, I stare up at a giant signboard of faded and chipped light-green paint with routed yellow letters. A million people have gaped up at this sign:

         Appalachian Trail
<———South     North———>

If I turn right and walk for two months or so, I will reach the placid rumble of Maine landscape and the giant massif Katahdin, where the trail ends. If I point my scuffed leather boots in the other direction for, oh, three months, I will stumble into former gold-mining country and onto the treed top of Springer Mountain in northwestern Georgia.

I turn right. I jig from rock to mud. As soon as I start, I have no name, send no texts, make no lists; I’m just leaping across a jumble of sediments that 450 million years ago tumbled this rock onto older marble and other material. Riga Mountain, as the locals call it, is Connecticut’s only example of this geologic drama. The first blackfly of the year heads for my eye.

Sitting quietly on a mount of rock that once was a fire tower foundation, a grizzled man in a red sweatshirt, hood up, stares out over the green fields and the Twin Lakes of Salisbury, called Washinee and Washining. We get to talking. His name is Joel Blumert, he’s a guitarist and singer, and he’s been climbing the Undermountain Trail onto the AT and to the top of Bear Mountain for decades. Two years ago, he promised himself he’d climb it once a week for a year. At the end of the year, he bumped it to twice a week, indefinitely.

He’s met long-distance hikers up here a lot. I’m not surprised by how easily we talk. That’s the way it is on the AT. Pretension vanishes.

I meet again, in memory, all sorts of pilgrims I’ve encountered on trips up here.

Once I took a radio reporter up onto this ridge. She’d read that fewer hikers were carrying gear and sleeping out anymore, so I decided I would prove this theory wrong. Of course I chose this rocky, open ridge up here near the Connecticut-Massachusetts border. But on the way in, I scared her: We’d left late, dark came, she wanted to stop, and I said no, we had to reach a certain campsite with a locking metal box that bears could not break into. That quieted her. It also cemented our friendship.

The next morning, we encountered a soft-spoken man followed by his Welsh corgi. “I find God out here,” he said.

We met a man and a woman from New Zealand thru-hiking the AT in honor of her 60th birthday. She asked why she wasn’t seeing more animals. I considered assuring her that hawks and fisher-cats and coyotes and newts and black snakes and the rest were hiding from the procession of hikers, perhaps only a few feet back from the trodden dirt. But I didn’t have to explain anything to anyone.

I repaired a relationship up here. I followed him, watching his strong legs in baggy blue gaiters fade in and out of fog, sliding over wet rocks. He picked me blueberries on the ridge. That night we camped near a group of boys who were part of a state program for juvenile delinquents. As their mentors stirred a vat of stew, the boys asked if they could meet our poodle, Talley. I could see that they were nervous out here, and they could see that I wasn’t.

I’ve been hiking on the AT for so many years that these memory companions make a crowd. But it doesn’t feel crowded. And I always forget what I have to do after I go back down the mountain. The sun begins to sink. I must go down. I jump from rock to rock.

The Undermountain Trail leaves Route 41 north of Salisbury, CT, and intersects the Appalachian Trail roughly 2 miles up; almost another mile on the AT leads to the summit of Bear Mountain.

How “Little House on the Prairie” Built Modern Conservatism

How “Little House on the Prairie” Built Modern Conservatism

Laura Ingalls Wilder, right, with her sisters Mary (seated) and Carrie circa 1881. Courtesy of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home Association

Politico Magazine, September 11, 2016

For 84 years, American kids have been growing up with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s inspiring Little House books, reading brave tales of survival on the prairies in the 19th century. The saga tells of a pioneer girl’s itinerant childhood traveling in covered wagons and starting new farms across the prairies—from Wisconsin to American Indian lands, Minnesota and Dakota Territory. She courageously helps her family fight fires, blizzards and drought; she helps bring in the cows, dress a blackbird for supper and twist hay for the cookstove. Both in the books and the popular TV show “Little House on the Prairie,” the Wilder family stories have become perhaps our most iconic portraits of the optimism and self-reliance of the frontier.

In modern America they also seem like escapism—a welcome relief from the welter and conflict of today’s politics. Actually they’re anything but. The Little House books, conceived during the Great Depression as a family project to honor the nation’s tough old pioneers, blossomed during the writing into something else. Woven into the story of Laura’s life were then-new ideas about the value of individual freedom, unfettered markets and limited government. During the writing of each new book, as the series expanded in answer to the fans’ clamors for more, the Little House books became anti-New Deal political parables. They helped lay the groundwork for the modern libertarian strain of modern conservatism—and to an extent few people realize, they helped fund its rise.

The Little House books, still in print with HarperCollins, began with Little House in the Big Woods and ended with These Happy Golden Years. Wilder’s silent collaborator in all of them was her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane—a famous writer in her time and a key early organizer of the libertarian political movement starting in the 1930s. Rose helped shape the books as she helped her mother get the stories down on paper, turning them—with her mother’s cooperation—from straight memoir into a kind of sustained allegory of American freedom.

Amid the images of stoic optimism displayed by the Ingalls and Wilder families as they ride through storms and survive locust plagues, the authors deliver little lessons in vignettes and dialogue, extolling free-market economics (“You work hard, but you work as you please. … You’ll be free and independent, son, on a farm”) and raising skepticism about government overreach (“Why do they make a law that he’s got to stay on a claim, when he can’t?”). For a country in the throes of the Depression, the Little House books delivered a clear and consistent message about the virtues of rugged individualism and not taking handouts from Washington.

For the American conservative movement, the books were part of a big shift, away from emphasizing wealth and toward emphasizing the power of the individual to do what he or she wants. Lane was one of the intellectual architects of the shift: aside from being the books’ co-author, she was an influential free-market activist, economic thinker and acquaintance of Ayn Rand. She wrote essays and book reviews in favor of free markets and against government programs; she refused a ration card during World War II and grew and canned most of her food at her Danbury, Connecticut, house. She kept a hand in conservative thinking until her death in 1968.

Her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, was not a politically oriented talker, or much of a public figure at all, but from her comments we know she saw her life story as helping shape America’s sense of itself. And far beyond that, the books’ influence continued to shape politics. With the comfortable income provided by the Little House royalties, Rose helped fund a free-market academy in Colorado called the Freedom School. Two of the people who attended the school were perhaps the most profoundly influential donors in modern conservativism: Charles and David Koch.

The story of how Little House—one of the most beloved series of books in American history—entwined itself with the growth of free-market conservatism is one of the most dramatic, and little-appreciated, examples of the way literature can shape national politics. It might not be quite true that the Little House stories built the conservatism we know today, but it surely wouldn’t be the same without them.


The eight original titles in Wilder’s series (Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, Farmer Boy, and the rest, published between 1932 and 1943) retold the story of 19th-century farming families to an audience of early 20th-century families then struggling with lost investments, job loss and a multiyear drought. The books came out just when the old pioneers were remembering their hardships and expressing anger that Americans thought they needed the New Deal.

Though the books carried the name of just one author, behind them was an unusual collaborative relationship. Laura Ingalls Wilder was herself one of those tough former pioneers. She had endured a lot of hard times. By age 13, she had moved six times. She married a farmer and, after heartbreaking disasters in Dakota Territory (told about in the unedited book published after her death, The First Four Years) raised chickens and fruit with him in Missouri. In middle age, Laura began writing essays for a farm paper. A lifelong storyteller, she’d long wanted to write down her life, but she relied on her daughter Rose Wilder Lane to help her frame, structure and polish her writing. Rose pressed her to first write a long memoir (an annotated version, Pioneer Girl, was published last year).

Lane knew writing and publishing. Before working with her mother on the Little House books, she had been a journalist, best-selling fiction writer for big magazines and book author—she wrote a dramatic and glowing campaign biography of Herbert Hoover in 1920. She had helped many of her writer friends polish their work. She’d lived in France and Albania and visited Russia in the early years of its communist government. During the Little House collaboration, Rose published two pioneer novels for adults (Let the Hurricane Roar and Free Land).

As the Little House books took form, evolving from personal reminiscence to carefully crafted fiction, they took on a subtle but consistent ideological cast—an optimistic take on pioneer times that showed struggling settlers making decisions based on their desire to follow the Declaration of Independence. This political cast isn’t just a literary interpretation, and it was no accident. Laura Ingalls Wilder was herself a political conservative, suspicious of the handouts of the New Deal. And her daughter was more ideologically driven. For Rose, self-reliance was an ethic she learned growing up, and it became an intellectual principle she fixed upon through extensive reading. (For all her sophistication and impressive connections, she was a self-taught intellectual whose schooling had ended in roughly ninth grade.) Rose kept detailed diaries for many years and wrote hundreds of letters to friends and to her mother. It’s clear from these documents, which I’ve examined carefully, that Rose exerted a heavy editing and framing hand on her mother’s books.

It’s not hard to detect this impulse to celebrate individual freedom in the books, and it often appears in almost didactic form—“Don’t forget that every one of us is free and independent, Loftus,” Pa lectures a storekeeper in an argument over wheat profits during a winter famine. In Little Town on the Prairie, Laura, then a young teenager, has an epiphany about being responsible for herself after she hears a speech about independence at a Fourth of July ceremony. Elsewhere, the books minimize the role of government in the life of a family that sometimes did have to rely on it, as they took free land and benefited from state funds that paid sister Mary Ingalls’s tuition at the Iowa School for the Blind for seven years, a public subsidy the books quietly omit.

During the years they worked together, Lane—we know from her diaries, idea notebooks and letters to friends—began to think seriously about the relationship between the family’s farming roots and what makes America strong. Both Wilder and Lane thought that the solution to the Great Depression was to let people ride it out and learn to get by on less. The resulting books were best-sellers that celebrated the power of the individual over the government as an American principle just when that debate was raging over Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

These ideas fit with an anti-government-regulation movement that was beginning to light a fire under political conservatives. And they reached more readers with those ideas than a political manifesto could ever have done.



The Little House books were also very lucrative. The yearly income from book royalties is unknown, but based on reported negotiations during a 2000 lawsuit over royalties for the last two books, it’s likely to have been tens of millions of dollars since Rose’s death.

This made Rose Wilder Lane important for another reason. She had been struggling with her own political books. After moving from the Wilder farm in Mansfield, Missouri, to her own house in Connecticut in 1938, Lane met Ayn Rand and became quite friendly with Isabel Paterson; all three women would be called the mothers of the libertarian movement. Nearly broke after a period of very little fiction writing, Lane turned to essays and commentary.

In 1943, the same year the last Little House book, These Happy Golden Years, came out to great accolades, Lane published a treatise about the power of the individual to do the right thing. It was a short, broad-brush gloss over recorded history. She called it The Discovery of Freedom, and it received almost no notice at the time, although Herbert Hoover was persuaded to write a tepid blurb. Its ideas got much more exposure a few years later, when General Motors customer research director Henry Grady Weaver got Lane’s permission to reword major sections of the book into his own, The Mainspring of Human Progress, published in 1947, and which was reported to have sold 400,000 copies to Rose’s initial 1,000. (Privately, however, she told a friend that Rand “is leading the lunatic fringe of the growing ‘conservative’—i.e., blundering anti-‘liberal’—movement.”)

Her job at the review gave her a platform to debate the pros and cons of “collectivism”—the term anti-communists used for any government that centralized social programs—versus capitalism. Lane actually helped shape American economic theory when she trashed an economics textbook by progressive Stanford professor Lorie Tarshis, calling his book propaganda for then-new theories of John Maynard Keynes. Tarshis’ book—which refuted the theory that the economy self-regulated and said government policies should regulate employment—had been well received until Lane bashed it, sparking a rumble among conservatives. William F. Buckley took up the cry in his book God and Man at Yale. Major universities canceled plans to use the textbook, which left room for Paul Samuelson’s 1948 textbook to come to the fore. (Samuelson was influenced by Keynes, too, but his approach was broader and more mathematical, introducing theories of supply and demand, for example.)

MORE COMING. See the whole article on the Politico site.

The Disappeared Sandplains: 95 percent of them are gone

The Disappeared Sandplains: 95 percent of them are gone

Sandplain in central Connecticut. Disturbed sand is from an all-terrain vehicle.

Connecticut Woodlands, spring 2016

I trudge along a barren, sandy field, following a bespectacled, gray-bearded ecologist named Bill Moorhead. He steps carefully in his work boots over dead patches of grass and green-grey lichen. He leans down suddenly, plucks a dead plant out of the sand, and holds it against the worn-green canvas of his work coat. I peer at the dead, orange-tinged seeded tops of St. John’s wort (Hypericum gentianoides).

He holds the wispy dry leftovers of a grass (Aristida tuberculosa) that survives on these sandy soils because of its three wing-like seeds, or “awns.” These catch the loose soil as the wind drops the grass. The awns fix themselves in the sandy soil, ensuring the growth of the next generation.

This is not the beach. This is not the desert Southwest. This is a sandplain somewhere in central Connecticut. I have raced across a state highway, skirted a fence, and crossed railroad tracks behind Mr. Moorhead. Behind the sandy field and its dead grasses and lichens rises an industrial building. Now we walk around an intriguing bull’s-eye-shaped indentation in the whitish sand.

Because this habitat I’m visiting is so rare now, I have agreed not to talk about where exactly I am, but I am curious to know what species made this odd circular wallow. “People,” he says. “An ATV.” Homo sapiens did the usual ritual of circling around in an all-terrain vehicle. That shocks me a bit, until I learn that as long as a joy rider doesn’t do that all the time—say, as long as the ATV driver comes back here only once every few years—then the disturbance might even help this landscape. I have much to learn.

Degraded and Diminished

This is a sandplain grassland, sometimes called a sand barren, one in a list of “imperiled ecosystems” grimly catalogued several years ago by a plant expert, Kenneth J. Metzler, and an insect expert, David L. Wagner, both of them state of Connecticut scientists, explaining to a governor’s taskforce what rampant development and other human degradation had done to the diverse habitats of southern New England.

A sandplain is a dry deposit of sandy soil left by glacial deposits and historically maintained by disturbance. The main type of disturbance was fire, which encouraged certain plants and trees to thrive on that dry land. In modern times, even if the sandplains were still extant, burning them regularly would not fit any kind of safety policy of most municipal and state officials. But the sandplains woes go way beyond the lack of regular fire.

Dr. Metzler, a former state heritage biologist who identified and mapped critical habitats for state databases, said that so many sandplains have been lost to development or degraded by adjacent industry that he had “written off the sandplains as being nonfunctional, until I met this fellow named David Wagner.” Dr. Wagner, an entomologist and professor of ecology at the University of Connecticut, found rare beetles living on sandplains. The insects thrived in soil so heavily altered by people that it was little more than a collection of sandpits, but “they had these cool tiger beetles living in them.”

It’s difficult to calculate exactly the acreage of Connecticut’s sandplains before development, but Dr. Metzler estimates that only about 5 percent of the original sandplains are still sandplains. This may seem an obvious point, but I ask Mr. Moorhead if, once industrial buildings, shopping malls, houses, and pavement cover sandplains, is the habitat totally lost? The answer: yes.

Developers have loved sandplains because they’re flat. They don’t hold rocks or roll around large hunks of rock ledge as many Connecticut landscapes do. The earliest development of sandplains was making them into cemeteries. In modern times, they provided level areas for huge complexes such as Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, the University of Connecticut’s stadium at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, and the former Cytec Industries in Wallingford (now closed)—all were built on sandplains.

Several acres of sandplain remain undeveloped around the Cytec property, Dr. Wagner notes. This is the largest undeveloped sandplain left in the state. And, like most of the sandplains, it is in private hands. This Cytec property went up for sale this winter.

The Original Sandplains

Before European colonization started in the 1600s, this sandplain —and the many miles of others to the north and south of where I stood the day I visited the sandplain with Mr. Moorhead—could have been covered with pitch pine trees. Those low, gnarly trees thrive on sandy soil. And beneath them, at that time, probably were similar grasses to the ones I review with Mr. Moorhead. The land would have burned every several years because the Indian tribes who lived here used fire to keep their hunting and migration routes clear, and to produce fresh grass for meadows.

Or the land could have been open and somewhat barren, as parts of it appear to me the day I rambled around it. Whether once home to the low pitch pines or the grasses, we know for certain that this sand has been here for about 12,000 years, since the time a gigantic lake retreated.

The lake was known later as Glacial Lake Hitchcock (for the geologist who studied it). For some 3,000 years, it held water for miles on either side of today’s Connecticut River, extending from today’s Rocky Hill, Connecticut, to northern Vermont. The lake’s layers of sand and silt settled as a result of the lake’s movement and ultimate draining after the landscape altered.

Stanley W. Bromley imagined some of this scene in his 1934 article, “The Original Forest Types of Southern New England” (Ecological Monographs, vol. 5 no. 1, January 1935). Most of Connecticut was forested by very old trees with a “parklike” landscape beneath, he wrote.

A few years later, in 1937, Charles E. Olmsted studied sandplains for his Yale dissertation. He proved in a paper published that year, “Vegetation of Certain Sand Plains in Connecticut” (Botanical Gazette, vol. 99 no. 2, December 1937) that sandplains’ plant make up can change easily by seed distribution. Birds, wind, people’s shoes, and nearby farmers planting shrubs along fencerows—all can change the make up of the plants and therefore animals.

Dr. Olmsted identified the then-largest swatch of sand barrens, as the sandplains also have been called, from North Haven and Wallingford north to Meriden, 1.5 miles wide and 15 to 16 miles long. That the land remained barren, favoring small groups of drought-tolerant, sand-loving plants and animals in a state where almost 46 inches of rain fell in a year—this proved, he wrote, that the barren landscape represented a land not modified by people. He believed that grassland persisted on the sandplains until the European colonists came along and encouraged pitch pine and scrub oak.

His paper also documented how farmers had degraded sandplains. They tried to grow crops that weren’t suited to the soil. The farms failed, and they abandoned them but didn’t take away seeds left from their failed crops. This disturbed seed banks in the sandplain soils, and discouraged, in turn, those plants that would thrive on sandplains.

A Vulnerable Ecosystem

Seldom do the remaining sandplains appear in the best condition they can be. Optimally, they are home to several pollinating insects, all of them either listed as Connecticut species of special concern or no longer found here. These include the noctuid moths Apamea burgessi, Agrotis stigmosa, Eucoptocnemis fimbriaris, Lepipolys perscripta, and Euxoa pleuritica; the violet dart moth (Euxoa violaris); phyllira tiger moth (Grammia phyllira); the frosted elfin moth (Incisalia irus); and the regal fritillary moth (Speyeria idalia); and Leonard’s skipper (Hesperia leonardus), a tiny fast-moving butterfly that lives for only two weeks.

The sandplains also provide the unique dry habitat for certain plants. These include sandplain gerardia (Agalinis acuta), which the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection lists among the “most important” to protect in its 2015 Wildlife Action Plan and which is endangered in the United States; low frostweed (Helianthemum propinquum, and golden-heather (Hudsonia ericoides), both endangered in Connecticut; and others.

Animals that thrive on sandplains struggle, too. One of the rarest toads in Connecticut, the eastern spadefoot toad (Scaphiopus holbrookii), likes to hide in sandy holes after breeding in temporary pools. We know it’s out there on the sandplains. Grassland birds that live in this habitat include the state-endangered Northern harrier, grasshopper sparrow, savannah sparrow, and upland plover. We can’t list them all here. See the Connecticut habitat listings in the Connecticut Wildlife Action Plan, best found through an online search.

Dr. Metzler mapped critical habitats used in these reports and others, and says it’s a shame more of the public doesn’t know about the maps. One can search online for “Connecticut critical habitats,” and that will usually lead to the database. Or go to this URL to get started:

Sandplains aren’t going to thrive as the total ecosystems they used to be. Dr. Wagner says some scientists have given up hope. Mr. Moorhead and Dr. Metzler are two who look at the future with a sense of possibility, if a diminished one.

Before Dr. Wagner showed him the tiger beetles burrowing around in degraded sand pits, Dr. Metzler says, “I was looking at it from what I considered a viable ecosystem perspective in the plants and size. My mind was changed.” Now he considers the few remaining sandplains “as remnants that function with a few species that are indicative of that type of habitat.”

If seeds have been waiting in the sand for their right moment, and the land remains free of development, the sandplains could harbor some of the unique flora and fauna they once did.

Back on the Ramsey Trail: The Boys Are There

Back on the Ramsey Trail: The Boys Are There

Chris with John, Steve, and Bob, ready for day camp, Southhampton, Pennsylvania. Photo by Gloria Woodside

Appalachia Journal, Winter Spring 2016

I first climbed the Ramsey Trail in central New Hampshire with my three big brothers—Bob, Steve, and John—in the mid-1960s, when my family vacationed at a camp on Squam Lake. I followed the boys up this trail that took the direct route up the small but formidable 1,260-foot rock face of Rattlesnake Mountain. The boys could reach the top in fifteen minutes going on the Ramsey, and I tried to go as fast as they did but never succeeded.

Last June, I stepped back onto the trail that the reckless Ramsey of long ago had blazed. Now I hesitated. The boulder-strewn trail would require more time than I had. I hadn’t been here in so long. Midday sun glittered on the mica bits in the dry soil. Roots hunched up beside the old rocks. The vegetation seemed so familiar, and yet the trees had grown giant and the path more trampled.

I’d been climbing mountains for so many years that I was shocked to find myself back in childhood. I actually heard my brothers’ voices. Steve, five years older than me, was saying, “Chrissie, we’re not going to wait.” John, my closest brother, was scrambling his way up, baggy jeans hanging, calling, “Chrissie, come on.” Bob, six years older, was quietly surging forward. (And I remembered a time on the Ramsey when Bob was in his late 20s, a microchip engineer. We’d taken the wrong fork near the bottom—a fork that always confused us—and had to about-face. “We’ve lost seven minutes!”)

Climbs spanning my entire life came together as one strong uncomfortable realization as I pushed up the face, looking nervously at my own watch because some people were going to be waiting for me down below. I realized that I’d learned to scale mountains through a kind of tough tiger-brother training. None of my brothers ever waited for me. My brothers never asked me how I was feeling or whether it might be too hard for me. If I complained about their bombastic indifference, my parents would say, “They give you a hard time because they like you.”

Panting, I lunged toward the steepest part after briefly going the wrong way. That was it! I’d dreaded mountains when I was a kid, but they always exerted this amazing force, and I went up, over and over. Many years later, with my new husband hiking long distances with a full pack, I knew something. I knew in muscle memory that pain is not a bad thing. When you climb to the top of even a very small mountain, by the hardest route possible, you know that you can do more hard things. This is the epitome of developing resilience.

Steve later told me that he believed nobody could keep up with him and John on the Ramsey Trail. “One particular time,” he said, “Dad got the big idea that the men, and you, would all climb up Ramsey together.” He recalled that I had caused some kind of commotion because I thought a bee had stung me. “You slowed down, then stopped, and began whining about it. Dad (and I think Bob) stayed behind to attend to you, and John and I finished off the trail alone at our usual pace. Inwardly, I was a little annoyed we had to deal with you— no bee sting was ever verified— but it all worked out in the end.” I remember nothing of the bee sting story, and I note the happy oddness of Steve’s saying that “it all worked out in the end.” When I was a kid, I was never sure, running behind them, whether it all was working out at all.

John reminded me, when I asked him, about going up with our father, “the great trail finder” (which he wasn’t, being from cities originally, and part of this dynamic was him laughing at himself and our learning to follow trails so he wouldn’t get lost). “In true form,” John said, “we lost the trail about halfway up. Then we just bushwhacked. Somehow we eventually found our way to the top. I remember you were not too happy about losing the trail, but you soldiered on and got it done.”

I remember that particular day well, but not that either my father, John, or I felt worried for one minute. I trusted them by then. I guess it was just part of the family business, to scramble up Rattlesnake at every opportunity during our two short weeks.

Now, back after so many years, I instinctively hurried—muscle memory, instinct to run behind the boys. All of my brothers were athletes. They did not consider any other method of climbing. I could match their pace or I could hang back. My choice. My brothers sometimes intimidated me, but they radiated pure joy on Rattlesnake.

I took a quick look at the sparkling water of the lake far below. Then I hurried down, crab-walking and jumping from rock to root, shocked at how strong the boys’ presence felt. And I realized why. For all the times I’d climbed Rattlesnake—by the Col and Ridge trails, by the Pasture Trail, by the Old Bridle Path, and by this crazy Ramsey Trail—this moment marked only the second time I had been on the Ramsey by myself. The first time, I’d gotten lost and ended up, 25 minutes later, in a meadow.

The boys are the reason I climbed mountains, and yet when I got serious about it—that year I’ve written about here before, when my husband, two friends, and I set out to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail—I later learned that two of my brothers had all doubted I would make it. (John did not doubt.) But each of them came out to meet us on the trail. Steve and his wife waited for us at Pine Grove Furnace State Park. John and his wife hiked with us into Palmerton, Pennsylvania. Bob waited at a trailhead in Vermont overnight and then packed in two cans of baked beans.

Not one word from them about “we never thought you’d get this far.” Instead, my brothers all showed by their actions that they cared, just the way they’d done so when they allowed me to follow them so long ago.


About This Article

This is my column, “The Long Way Home,” from the Winter/Spring 2016 issue of Appalachia journal. 


Helen Binney Kitchel

Helen Binney Kitchel

Helen Binney Kitchel in a 1970s newspaper clipping

Connecticut Woodlands magazine, Summer 2015

Champion of nature

A few years ago, Greenwich local history librarian Carl White called Helen Binney Kitchel “the Rachel Carson of Greenwich, Connecticut.” The two women were very different but similar in a basic sense. Both were New England natives who feared that civilization was damaging the natural world.

Ms. Carson was a marine biologist who wrote lyrical books about the sea. Her magnum opus, Silent Spring (Houghton Mifflin), appeared in 1962. She changed public attitudes about chemicals. The opening of that book starts with an ideal town, before pesticides’ effects had poisoned birds and animals: “Along the roads, laurel, viburnum and alder, great ferns and wildflowers delighted the traveler’s eye through much of the year. Even in winter the roadsides were places of beauty. . . . ”

Mrs. Kitchel became a politician and writer in middle age. She also thought “roadsides were places of beauty.” Her greatest political fight was against billboards. It sounds like a small thing, but it symbolized much more. She scrawled, in pencil for one of her many speeches, the reason why. “Connecticut is in reality a huge garden—not awe-inspiring, like the Canadian Rockies or Yellowstone Park or the Grand Canyon—but comfortable and intimate and restful.” She then recited images she’d listed on the page, almost like poem. “Sheen of sea across the sand or marsh, beauty of snow and ice in winter, glory of autumn foliage, shadow of meadows and farming—this is our heritage. This is what we are fighting to preserve.”

“Billboards along rural roads are an affront,” she went on. “Not only do they obscure the view—they destroy the effect of relaxation and recreation which are induced by communion with nature. Even though this effect is often entirely subconscious.”

Crayola Crayon Family

Mrs. Kitchel was born September 9, 1890. The family lived in Old Greenwich, which then was called Sound View. Her parents were Edwin Binney and Alice Stead Binney. Her grandfather Joseph manufactured charcoal in upstate New York. Her father Edwin expanded the business as Binney and Smith with his cousin C. Harold Smith. The company manufactured marking pencils, school slates, and chalk and perfected the modern crayon. Mrs. Kitchel’s mother Alice coined the name Crayola, which combines (the Binney and Smith history relates) the French word for chalk, craie, with “ola,” meaning oily (derived from the word oleaginous).

Mrs. Kitchel’s mother, a former teacher, wrote and published songs reflecting her lighthearted love of nature and children—such as one called “Bobolink,” and a piano piece inspired by her daughter, “Helen’s Caprice.” Mrs. Binney also was a published poet.

The Binneys were the first family to live on the shore in Old Greenwich. On a carriage ride early in their marriage, they spotted the land where they would build their fieldstone house, “Rocklyn,” in 1895. Their old albums are filled with photos of the family enjoying the beach and the outdoors. Helen had a brother, Edwin “June” Binney Jr., and two sisters, Dorothy and Mary.

Mrs. Kitchel attended Catherine Aiken School in Stamford and married Allan Farrand Kitchel in summer 1909, when she was 18 and he had just graduated from Yale University. Her parents gave them a house on Binney Lane, “Oaklyn,” as a wedding present. Allan Kitchel joined his father-in-law’s company and later was its president. He also was active on town committees.

The Kitchels had four children, Allan F. Kitchel Jr. (called Tim), Douglas, Barbara (called Bobbie), and Happy. “I should not say politics or a career and domesticity were incompatible,” Mrs. Kitchel said in a 1934 interview with the Bridgeport Sunday Post, “but for me they were.” But she got involved, deeply, in politics when her children were in college. Originally, this involvement came through the Garden Club of Old Greenwich, which was part of the greater Federated Garden Clubs.

Campaign Against Billboards

In 1931, she was elected to the first of four terms in the Connecticut House of Representatives, 1931 to 1939. Almost right away, she began an intense campaign against billboards on the side of roads. She was the first woman in Connecticut ever to have a bill named after her, the Kitchel bill. She introduced anti-billboard bills several times, and although the core of her argument never became part of the eventual state law covering billboards (Connecticut General Statutes, 21–58), she instilled an attitude that changed how people viewed roadsides. Cities, towns, and policy bodies such as the Merritt Parkway Advisory Commission exercised control over billboards that Mrs. Kitchel surely influenced in her early fight.

Her ability to write and her natural affinity for a good campaign, plus her parents’ love of nature instilled in her from birth, came together in that campaign against billboards. In 1927, the state had passed a regulation requiring permits for billboards in its law concerning outdoor advertising. The permits ranged from $3 to $9 for 900 square feet. And the billboards could not stand within 100 feet of parks, forests, playgrounds, or cemeteries. But Mrs. Kitchel and her garden club friends felt that this was not far enough away.

From her first sponsored bill in 1933, the friendly, approachable Mrs. Kitchel made friends all over New England in this campaign. This was the decade when car travel had taken a firm hold on the state’s life. Outdoor advertising organizations fought her campaign, but that did not seem to faze Mrs. Kitchel, who joined forces with the Federated Garden Clubs. She spoke to the National Council for Protection of Roadside Beauty in New York City on October 8, 1934. She asked Governor Wilbur Cross to mention billboards in his inaugural address of 1934. He wrote to her, “I may find a way.” As far as we can determine, he did not find a way to mention billboards in his inaugural address.

When her billboard legislation passed in the House but failed in the Senate, Mrs. Kitchel started a movement to create the Connecticut Roadside Council. She approached the Connecticut Forest & Park Association, which in 1936 invited her to speak during the Roadside Reservation division of the annual meeting. She marshaled the brother of CFPA President Goodwin B. Beach to help with the roadside council. And she wrote to the United Advertising Corporation. The following year, Dorothy Thompson, the columnist and wife of Sinclair Lewis, joined the campaign against billboards in one of her essays.

The next year, 1938, Mrs. Kitchel’s campaign continued, even though it was in between legislative sessions. She solicited comments from former Governor John H. Trumbull against billboards. By the 1939 session, her bill called again for higher permit fees, and it greatly expanded the proposed distance billboards must stand away from parks and natural areas—to 500 feet.
Mrs. Kitchel seemed to have become fearless at this point. And the pushback from advertising was strong. The Outdoor Advertising Industry published a newsletter against the bill. By the end of it all, when she left the legislature, she had fat files of letters from the many groups and individuals she’d enlisted in what for her was as philosophical as it was a practical campaign.

State Park Effort Fails

The anti-billboard quest symbolizes her commitment, but her conservation quests began and ended in her hometown. The Binneys tried and failed to stop development of a tract of land where she’d played as a girl and young adult, the Will March Farm. This 200-acre property was really a natural wooded tract, not strictly a farm. Old photos show the family putting on plays in the woods, dressed in pseudo-tribal costume. In the early 1930s, when Mrs. Kitchel had started her political career, a donor who had offered to buy the Will March Farm withdrew the offer, and the land was sold to a developer. The loss greatly upset Mrs. Kitchel who, with her sister, Mary, turned their efforts to preserving nearby land as a park for the town. The sisters persuaded their father to buy and landscape land for 10 acres. That work included creating a dam for two lakes. Later, Mrs. Kitchel’s mother bought surrounding hilly land and expanded the park to 20 acres. Mrs. Kitchel in 1934 joined again with Alice Binney and Daniel Waid in buying land that became the Helen Binney Kitchel Natural Park.

Mrs. Kitchel and members of CFPA helped plan the landscaped Merritt Parkway, and later, she wrote a multipart series about the Merritt. The connection between the easy car travel the Merritt encouraged and the negative aspects of highways became apparent soon enough. Secretary Edgar Heermance invited Mrs. Kitchel to speak at meetings about these problems. She saved the notes from her March 13, 1935, address, in which she described her second billboard bill, which in that iteration called for a 200-foot buffer between roadside and billboard, limited their sizes and certain placements, and increased fees:

  • It is safe to assume that you who have travelled by rail or motor need no argument of mine to convince you of the need of this proposed legislation. Although the first robin is still to arrive—and the shad blow buds are sheathed in brown—the spring crop of billboards bursts glaringly upon our view at every turn—in every meadow. . . .
  • This is 1935. We are reviewing 300 years of history of our state—and much of it fills us with pride and reverence. . . . But in the name of progress we have sometimes accepted changes which were blights rather than blessings.

Mrs. Kitchel, a longtime member of CFPA, donated most of Algonquin State Forest in Colebrook to the state starting in 1963. (Originally the land was known as the Kitchel Wilderness Preserve.) Her family had begun buying acreage in the area in 1926. She was named an honorary director of CFPA in 1968.

Mr. Heermance once described Mrs. Kitchel at a CFPA meeting just before she gave a speech. She sat quietly in the corner, scribbling, and others weren’t sure whether they ought to disturb her. When she made notes for her talks, she always reached into her personal moral well. She asked CFPA members once whether Connecticut residents should allow outdoor advertising into the countryside, as if it were uncontrollable, like a storm. “That an earthquake or hurricane spreads death and destruction seems beyond man’s power to control,” she said. “But if we sit idly by while commercialism destroys our natural heritage we are guilty of a cowardly negligence.”

In other words, she said, pay attention. Mrs. Kitchel’s legacy is unmistakable and goes way beyond roadside advertising. She said in so many words, be brave. She railed against apathy and sloppiness. She demanded that we would stand up for Connecticut’s beauty, its wildlife habitat, and its open spaces. She said that land serves functions deeper and more lasting than acting as a backdrop for clutter.


About This Article

Thanks to the Greenwich Historical Society and the Connecticut State Library, who assisted in research. This appeared in the quarterly of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association in summer 2015. Joining CFPA entitles you to a subscription to Connecticut Woodlands, which I have edited since fall 2001. See for information

Doctors and Computers

Doctors and Computers

Dr. Kristen Zarfos with a patient., December 5, 2014

Not the best examining-room combo

By Christine Woodside and Dr. Kristen Zarfos


Researchers conducting dozens of studies in recent years have asked patients how they feel when their doctors stare at personal digital assistants or laptop computers instead of at them. Several of their studies in peer-reviewed journals concluded that technology in a doctor’s lap is good. We challenge this premise.

We think America is bumbling through the Dark Ages of examining-room technology.

Electronic medical records might seem inevitable, but using them properly still flummoxes practitioners. Only a quarter of 20,088 doctors surveyed this year for the Physicians Foundation said that this technology streamlines their workloads, and almost half of them complained that it hinders a decent bedside manner.

We are a patient and her doctor. We believe that doctors looking at screens can’t examine people. Doctors conducting a physical exam and asking questions now must very quickly turn to the keyboard. We don’t think they can do that in the examining room with any consistent success.

We have read through many of the peer-reviewed studies of this technology. We find evidence of a defeatist attitude about computers next to examining tables. If we had to invent a slogan for the current approach it would be: computers first, reasons for them second.

Let’s go back a few years. A study in the Journal of American Medical Information (in 2009) listed a “paucity of evidence” that these devices helped doctors treat patients. A 2010 report in Family Medicine claimed that although most patients perceive tablet computers positively, their attitudes differed: by age in how fast doctors could look up files, by race in worries the office was less personal, and by race and education level a feeling that the tablets took away privacy.

Newer studies suggest greater acceptance. In the Journal of Health Communication, a 2012 article said that patients who watched a brief presentation about why their doctors used PDAs or smartphones “increased measurable perceptions” of the devices.

We think that whether doctors explain to patients why they are holding PDAs or computers in their laps misses the actual problem — distraction.

Last winter, in the journal Academic Medicine, William Bynum, M.D., wrote that doctors “need to be more than automated medical kiosks.” But he didn’t say technology is a problem. He said doctors are the problem. Dr. Bynum claimed that medical leaders can “embrace and promote technological advancement while at the same time working to maintain the human connection that physicians have with their patients.”

We detect, again, an attitude of submission to technology companies. We say no. We think that—like the people who can’t concentrate on more than one task at a time—doctors expected to be caring practitioners and medical recorders will fail at one or the other of those tasks.

Doctors, nurses, physicians’ assistants, and other health workers have dealt with distractions forever, and when pressed, they will neglect record-keeping for the patients. A study by Scott R. Walter published in March in the journal BMJ Quality and Safety summarized the actions of 200 clinicians over 1,000 hours in Sydney, Australia. The authors wrote, “Documentation was generally given low priority in all groups, while the arrival of direct care tasks tended to be treated with high priority.” That doesn’t surprise us, but we point it out because we believe that computers have introduced even more distraction than previous record-keeping methods.

A 2013 study by computer experts Pushpa Kumarapeli and Simon De Lusignan in the Journal of the American Medical Information filmed 163 doctor-patient consultations using various computer-record systems. They found that 61 percent of the time, the doctor was directly interacting with the patient—15 percent actually examining the body, 25 percent using the computer, and 14 percent allowing the patient to look at the computer too. (They did not explain the remaining 7 percent of the examining time.) The conclusion of this study? That the record-keeping systems “should be designed to facilitate multi-tasking.”

The patient of us goes to a doctor whose office provides an online database of her health record. This record includes errors, even those pointed out previously. But the staff spends a fair amount of time entering data into this record, which takes away from their work with patients.

Dr. Suneel Dhand complained about the feeling of straddling two very different tasks in an essay last year for “Now, instead of demands to see more patients in less time or increased bureaucracy from insurance companies, it is the time we are spending with computers that is increasingly taking us away from our patients.”

We agree. We have experienced these distractions from both sides of the exam table. Doctors stroking keys struggle against time that always gets away from them. Patients fear that their doctors care more about entering information into their devices than what the patients say.

Looking at a screen means one ignores the person sitting there. This seems as bad to us as the most stereotypical smug and distracted practitioner who interrupts a stuttering patient.

We both believe that time is a doctor’s most valuable commodity. Time with patients builds relationships. A doctor must earn trust by making eye contact and truly listening. A doctor learns a great deal just by watching patients’ responses to questions and listening to how they describe their problems. One can’t put a value on this.

If technology functions as efficiently as the manufacturers say, health offices and hospitals need scribes in every examining room. The skill of recording data and locating records is specialized. The doctor of us asked for a scribe at her previous job and was firmly rebuffed.

Scribes will undoubtedly increase the amount of information in a patient’s records. That will create new problems. Sometimes the overwhelming bulk of information can obscure the salient facts in a patient’s case.

As Abigail Zuger, M.D., wrote in an October 13 article in The New York Times, “Like computer servers everywhere, hospital servers store great masses of trivia mixed with valuable information and gross misinformation, all cut and pasted and endlessly reiterated. Even the best software is no match for the accumulation. When we need facts, we swoop over the surface like sea gulls over landfill, peck out what we can, and flap on.”

The doctor of us sits on a committee that will list important questions for breast care in an electronic medical record system — essentially, instructing the computer. Obviously a lot of care will go into this program. That does not change the basic problem we’re talking about. Physicians using electronic medical records say that the burden of inputting data clearly subtracts attention and time they could devote to patients.

Dozens more studies of the effects of technology on patients are out there or in progress. We say: ask the proper questions in these studies. Ask not how we can get patients to accept technology as if it were inevitable, like an asteroid plummeting to Earth. Ask whether we’re on the right track with this invasion of technology into the space of deepest human connection: the place where a doctor looks at a patient’s body and figures out whether he or she is sick.

Health and life are precious. They are also complex. They cannot fit into a size-4 time slot when a size-12 time slot is required.


About my co-author:

My longtime doctor and friend, Kristen A. Zarfos, M.D., FACS, is a surgeon specializing in breast and thyroid surgery at the Hospital of Central Connecticut. We thank Maryrose Keenan, MLS, for her help with research.

Little Libertarians on the Prairie

Little Libertarians on the Prairie

Illustration by Boris Kulikov for the Boston Globe

The Boston Globe, August 11, 2013

A few months after the stock market crash, in the winter of 1930, Laura Ingalls Wilder sat at a small desk in Mansfield, Mo., and began writing down her life story in pencil. She had rattled in wagons from cabin to sod house to shanty, slept to the howling of wolves, endured droughts, tornadoes, and blizzards, cooked for teamsters, and ultimately married a man, Almanzo Wilder, with whom she’d done more of the same. Wilder was 63 when she started writing down her life, and she wasn’t an experienced writer: She had published little more than farm newspaper columns. But her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, 43, was a famous journalist, and she thought her mother’s story would sell.

“Once upon a time, years and years ago, Pa stopped the horses and the wagon they were hauling away out on the prairie in Indian Territory,” Wilder wrote in the earliest surviving draft, written in a notebook she labeled “Pioneer Girl No. 3.”

From her mother’s rough anecdotes, Lane typed and edited a manuscript called “Pioneer Girl,” but no magazine editor would buy it. So Lane spun one early section of the story into a children’s book: “Little House in the Big Woods,” followed two years later by a second book, “Little House on the Prairie.” Six more books would follow. The Little House books would come to rank among the best-selling children’s volumes ever written. Laura, her sisters Mary, Carrie, and Grace, and their parents, Ma and Pa, managed subsistence farms in harsh climates with good cheer. They started with nothing, put hands to the plows, and built lives out of strength and grit.

From the publication of the first book in 1932, the series was immediately popular. And, at a time when President Franklin D. Roosevelt was introducing the major federal initiatives of the New Deal and Social Security as a way out of the Depression, the Little House books lulled children to sleep with the opposite message. The books placed self-reliance at the heart of the American myth: If the pioneers wanted a farm, they found one; if they needed food, they killed it or grew it; if they needed shelter, they built it.

Although Wilder and Lane hid their partnership, preferring to keep Wilder in the spotlight as the homegrown author and heroine, scholars of children’s literature have long known that two women, not one, produced the Little House books. But less well understood has been how exactly they reshaped Wilder’s original story, and why. Throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, as the Little House fans clamored for more, Wilder and Lane transformed the unpredictable hardships of the American frontier experience into a testament to the virtues of independence and courage. In Wilder’s original drafts, the family withstood the frontier with their jaws set. After Lane revised them, the Ingallses managed the land and made it theirs, without leaning on anybody.

A close examination of the Wilder family papers suggests that Wilder’s daughter did far more than transcribe her mother’s pioneer tales: She shaped them and turned them from recollections into American fables, changing details where necessary to suit her version of the story. And if those fables sound like a perfect expression of libertarian ideas—maximum personal freedom and limited need for the government—that’s no accident. Lane, and to an extent her mother, were affronted by taxes, the New Deal, and what they saw as Americans’ growing reliance on Washington. Eventually, as Lane became increasingly antigovernment, she would pursue her politics more openly, writing a strident political treatise and playing an important if little-known role inspiring the movement that eventually coalesced into the Libertarian Party.

Today, as Libertarian values move back into the mainstream of American politics, few citizens think to link them to a series of beloved childhood books. But the Little House books have done more than connect generations of Americans to the nation’s pioneer history: They have promoted a particular version of that history. The enduring appeal of the books tells us something about how deep the romance with self-reliance runs through American history, and the gaps between the Little House narrative and Wilders’ real life say a lot about the government help and interdependence that some of us sometimes find more convenient to leave out of that tale.

Laura Ingalls Wilder was a farm girl born and bred who believed a farm was the one place where a man and woman could work in equal partnership. But her daughter, Rose, abandoned that life. She left the land at 17, found work as a telegrapher, then become a reporter in San Francisco. Eventually she traveled to Europe, writing for the American Red Cross. During the roaring 1920s, growing ever more successful as a writer of magazine fiction, she lived the high life and even had a big house and servants in Albania for a time. She made enough money to renovate the Wilders’ old farmhouse in Missouri—where she then returned to live—and built her parents a retirement cottage nearby. In the farmhouse, she entertained cadres of writers from New York who arrived by steam train. She hired a cook, housekeeper, and farm hands.

Unlike her parents and grandparents, Lane turned her nose up at manual labor, and there’s little evidence to suggest she felt any reverence for the hardscrabble people of the plains. In 1933, Lane sketched an outline, never finished, for a “big American novel.” One of the characters was the pioneer, whom she described as “a poor man, of obscure or debased birth, without ability to rise from the mass.” In a letter to her old boss in April 1929, six months before the stock market crash, she had written: “Personally, I believe what we need—what every social group needs—is a peasant class.”

When Black Tuesday did come, the Wilder-Lane households began a painful two-year downslide, as Lane’s savings deflated from $20,000 to almost nothing. Magazine work almost dried up. Wilder, too, lost some money but, characteristically, scraped together savings and paid off the farm. Lane fretted about money, missed rent payments to her parents, borrowed thousands from friends, and continued to call herself the head of the household. She also began to consider other possible writing projects.

For a decade already Lane had milked various snippets from her parents’ lives for short stories. Now she saw an opportunity for her mother. Pioneer struggles could eerily mirror the struggles of the Great Depression, and Lane thought Americans were ready to hear about covered-wagon childhoods. After magazines rejected Wilder’s real-life account, Lane began reworking some of the memoir into what would become the first children’s book, “Little House in the Big Woods.”

Published in 1932 by Harper & Brothers, the book was praised by book critics for its honesty and caught the interest of readers nationwide. The Junior Literary Guild, a national book club, paid them an additional fee to print its own run. The income crisis at the Wilders’ ended. In the shadow of the crash, tales of overcoming great adversity resonated, and the editors wanted more.

Wilder and Lane responded with their now-famous sequels. From the start, there was tension between their approaches. Wilder argued for strict accuracy, while Lane, the seasoned commercial writer, injected made-up dialogue, took out stories about criminals and murder, and—most significantly—recast the stoic, sometimes confused pioneers as optimistic, capable people who achieved success without any government help.

Laura Ingalls Wilder never got used to Lane’s heavy rewrites, but the evidence suggests that on the main approach, playing up toughness in adversity, she agreed with her daughter. Both women believed fervently that the nation in the depths of the Depression had become too soft. In 1937, Wilder wrote Lane that people’s complaints about having no jobs made her sick. (“People drive me wild,” she wrote. “They as a whole are getting just what they deserve.”)

The early books celebrated Laura’s early childhood in a cozy log cabin in Wisconsin. They celebrated Pa Ingalls’s storytelling abilities and described in gripping detail how backwoods and prairie farmers took care of themselves—hunted, butchered, cooked, built, and made things like soap and bullets—in the 1860s and 1870s. The third book, “Farmer Boy,” was about Wilder’s husband Almanzo’s life on a New York State farm. In the fourth book, “On the Banks of Plum Creek,” the Ingalls family relocated to Minnesota (the locale of the TV show), where they built a house and became wheat farmers despite a grasshopper plague.

In shaping the memoirs into novels, Lane consistently left out the kinds of setbacks and behavior that cast doubt on the pioneer enterprise; the family’s story became a testament to the possibilities of self-sufficiency rather than its limitations. The last four books—which tell the story of the Ingalls family’s attempt to homestead in the future state of South Dakota—are particularly fired by libertarian themes.

Comparing Wilder’s original memoirs to the contents of the published books, it’s possible to see a pattern of strategic omissions and additions. In the fifth book, for example, “By the Shores of Silver Lake,” Laura promises to become a teacher to pay for her older sister Mary to attend a college for the blind. Wilder’s own account of her life reveals that although Wilder’s sister did attend a college for the blind, in reality it was the government of Dakota Territory—and not the family’s hard work—that covered the bills.

The next book, “The Long Winter,” stops for a moment of free-market speechifying almost certainly added by Lane. When a storekeeper tries to overcharge starving neighbors who want to buy the last stock of wheat available, a riot seems imminent until the character based on Wilder’s father, Pa, Charles Ingalls, brings him into line: “This is a free country and every man’s got a right to do as he pleases with his own property….Don’t forget that every one of us is free and independent, Loftus. This winter won’t last forever and maybe you want to go on doing business after it’s over.” It’s an appealing, if perhaps wishful, distillation of the idea that a free market can regulate itself perfectly well. Wilder rarely wrote extended dialogue in her own recollections, the manuscripts show; her daughter most likely invented this long exchange.

The Little House books barely mention the obvious, which is that the impoverished Ingallses never could have gone to Dakota Territory without a government grant: Like most pioneers, their livelihoods relied on the federal Homestead Act, which gave settlers 160 acres for the cost of a $14 filing fee—one of the largest acts of federal largesse in US history.

Wilder’s memoirs offer a picture of the costs and risks of isolation that never made it into the book series: A baby brother who died at 9 months. A miserable year working and living in an Iowa tavern. A pair of innkeepers who murdered guests and buried them out back. Another pioneer couple who boarded with them during the Long Winter whose attitudes were far more whining than stoic.

Perhaps the most telling omission is the book that almost never was. Wilder wrote one final volume, never revised by Lane, and not published until after they’d both died. “The First Four Years,” the ninth book, told of the drought that led to the failure of the Wilders’ first homestead after they were married in 1885. No one is sure why Lane did not revise that book, but it’s no stretch to imagine that she found herself at a loss to mold its dire underlying story—struggling, borrowing more and more money, losing the homestead anyway—into another celebration of self-sufficiency.

As Lane redrafted the last four of the original Little House books between 1937 and 1943, her extensive correspondence reveals, she was growing increasingly antigovernment in her personal views. She cut back her income specifically to avoid paying taxes; during World War II, Lane refused a ration card and retreated full time to her newly acquired 3-acre farm in Danbury, Conn., where she canned her own beans, beets, squash, and green-applesauce.

Throughout the early years of the Little House series, she had also continued to write fiction of her own. But Lane’s last novel, “Free Land,” about homesteading, published to great fanfare in 1938, had exhausted her. Her next effort, in 1939, the short story “Forgotten Man,” headed into what was becoming unpopular territory: It was an anti-New Deal story about a coal mine put out of business by government fees. The editors of the Saturday Evening Post rejected it for publication, calling it propaganda.

Once, in 1943, Lane was so outraged by a radio broadcast about Social Security that she penned an angry postcard comparing such programs to Nazi policies. (Someone sent it to the FBI, which dispatched a state trooper to her farm.) In 1944, the year after the last Little House book came out, newspaper reporter Helen L. Worden interviewed Lane, writing that Lane had “taken to the storm cellar until the Roosevelt administration blows over.” Lane had stopped writing her own novels, she said, “because I don’t want to contribute to the New Deal.”

She began to attend meetings against communism. She exchanged letters at the time with other conservative thinkers, including Isabel Paterson, H.L. Mencken, George Schuyler, and Clare Booth Luce. According to a 1990 biography of Lane by William Holtz, Lane socialized with Ayn Rand at her Danbury home and admired her writing, but found her elitist and irrational.

Just after World War II, an editor Lane had worked with introduced her to his 14-year-old son, Roger Lea MacBride. That began a friendship that lasted the rest of their lives. As a teenager, MacBride learned antitax principles at Lane’s knee in Danbury. Later, she enlisted him to help her revise a book that she intended as an explicit argument against big government, “The Discovery of Freedom.” It was published in 1943, and although it languished in obscurity for decades, Libertarian thinkers consider it a treatise that helped the party rise out of the strong anti-Communist movement of the time.

MacBride became Lane’s lawyer, agent, and her sole heir. Wilder, now a widow, remained on her Missouri farm, answering thousands of fans’ letters each year but rarely venturing out. In 1949 she instructed their agent to assign 10 percent of the Little House royalties to Lane. Lane made regular winter visits to Wilder until the pioneer author’s death at 90 in 1957. Lane, by then a rich woman doing little writing, started living most of the year in Texas. She died unexpectedly in her sleep in Danbury, the night before she had intended to leave on a world tour.

MacBride eventually went on to help form the Libertarian Party, and he ran on its presidential ticket in 1976. Lane’s thinking on limited government had from the beginning influenced a relatively small group of people; most writers of the era called Ayn Rand the “mother of the Libertarian party.” But MacBride believed that Lane was more important. In 1984 he wrote in an introduction that Lane’s political opus, “The Discovery of Freedom,” was “the seminal force creating the current wide trend toward individualistic views in America.”

MacBride failed as a politician, but he succeeded at managing Lane’s estate. Lane had been divorced since 1918; her only child had died at birth. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s will had specified that when her daughter died, the valuable book rights should go to the tiny public library in Mansfield, Mo. Lane, however, instead left the Little House rights to MacBride, whose daughter still owns them today.

MacBride began systematically renewing copyrights to the Little House books in the 1960s, and sold the Little House rights to television—turning it into the series that aired in the 1970s. Although the TV show departed in a saccharine way from the Little House books, it entranced another generation of Little House fans.

Clearly, the Little House ethic of self-sufficiency appeals to a much wider American audience than just one with libertarian politics. Pioneers could be cold, dirty, or hungry without whining. They faced down adversity. They made do with little. They respected the power of storms and the patterns of wild animals. The books inspired whole generations of women, and Americans of all political persuasions admire the tenaciousness of settlers like Ma and Pa Ingalls and their four daughters.

Lane must have known, as she redrafted her mother’s handwritten memoirs, that this notion of pioneer bravery—and the very real fortitude of the family—would prove an irresistible American theme. The result was a series of books that helped instill a deep national code of frontier values, including the notion that isolated Americans can thrive because the government leaves them to draw only on their personal energies and ethics. It’s an appealing idea, and it has become woven into our image of the pioneers. But it’s not the full story of what happened out there on the prairie.


About This Article

Stephen Heuser, formerly of the Boston Globe (and now at Politco), was my editor—one of the best I’ve ever worked with. I also thank Farah Stockman, columnist for the Boston Globe; she guided me to work my ideas into what you see here. This article first appeared in the Boston Globe’s Ideas section on Sunday, August 11, 2013. It covers some of the major themes in the book I’m writing about Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, who secretly collaborated on the Little House books for children. They wrote them together in Missouri and then by mail between Missouri and the East Coast between 1930 and 1943. The two women did not get along, and their partnership was very tense and resulted in the fracturing of their relationship. These children’s books have inspired generations of people who continue their devotion into adulthood. The love of the books is so strong that it has changed how Americans view pioneers. 

Four Quartets and Eight Legs

Four Quartets and Eight Legs

The Eight-Legged Thing outside the Caratunk, Maine Post Office. From left: Chris Woodside, Cay Lodine, Phil Lodine, Nat Eddy

Appalachia journal, Summer/Fall 2014

Rituals fortify an Appalachian Trail trek

The thin paperback’s cover bent back. My friend Phil held it up above his head in his left hand and tipped the page toward the beam of his tiny flashlight. He lay on his back next to his wife, Cay, on the dirty wooden floor of the open-fronted shelter. Three of us stared up into the dark rafters, listening, as Phil read “Burnt Norton,” the first part of T. S. Eliot’s work, Four Quartets. “Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future.”

I lay on a flimsy sleeping pad next to my husband, Nat. Four days earlier, we had started walking the Appalachian Trail through the tree-covered mountains of northwest Georgia, four of the hundreds of middle-class American pilgrims redeeming the regrets of bad jobs or undevised ambitions. We would push ourselves through this adventure, and (we predicted) change. We would live in the present. We would walk with heavy packs for as long as we could—we hoped for 2,100 miles, through the ridges of Tennessee and north Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. We had quit those jobs and vacated our apartments. We thought that what we were doing made sense.

Burnt Norton

“Footfalls echo in the memory,” Phil read. “Down the passage which we did not take/ Towards the door we never opened.” My shoulder blades ached. I smelled. The soles of my feet felt smashed and bruised. And on this early night of a four-and-a-half-month slog, I strained to understand T. S. Eliot. in a few weeks, we would hardly have time to glance at the cover of the Four Quartets paperback. But its somber truths matched the painful march.

Nat and I had been married for almost two years, and Phil and Cay for about ten months. Phil and Nat had first met at Haverford College. Friends had introduced me to Nat when he was at Yale Divinity School and I was working as a journalist in Philadelphia. The three of us had worked as camp counselors together after that. Then, Cay had been Nat’s and Phil’s boss at Nature’s Classroom, an outdoor education program in New Hampshire.

For two years before we stepped onto the trail, I had managed a newspaper in Westchester County, New York. I had worked 55 hours a week. It had felt like a sweatshop. I had been miserable. The more miserable I’d felt, the harder I’d worked, thinking this would stop the feeling. It had not. No one ever had seemed happy there, no matter how hard they’d all worked. I had planned an escape; Nat was in. And he’d run downstairs to the wall phone in our apartment, dialing Phil and Cay in Boston. They were in. Nat had sold out of an infrared optics business where he and his partner had clashed. Phil had taken leave of a library job. Cay had walked away with relief from a university office where arguing had trumped productivity.

I went out to the trail for more than these obvious reasons. Something lay deep within me, unfinished. On the trail, I wanted resolution of my personality. Planning and executing a trip like this feels like a strange dream from which you wake up only after you realize you have condemned yourself to jail because you know that jail will deepen you.

The mountains of northwest Georgia and the ridge dividing North Carolina from Tennessee made me gasp. They were beautiful. But soon enough I was working so hard that I could not always see the blue-edged trees tumbling out before me. We reached a rocky overlook; we sat down and meditated on how we’d get up again in a moment. Phil and Nat had signed up for graduate school. We would have to hike 2,100 miles by early September. We left in mid-April. We would have to cover 20 miles a day throughout the south, if we possibly could.

We laughed a lot, but people laugh in jail. Phil one day performed an imitation of how Dracula would have spoken if he were Viennese. Every time he said, “Bleah” in a Viennese accent, I laughed like a hyena. Phil and I sang television theme songs from the 1960s. I had not known that I could sing all of the verses of “Green Acres.” But as I did so, although I didn’t appreciate the mountains the way I imagined I was supposed to, I did become someone else. i began to forget who I had been before.

Phil read “Burnt Norton” in a clear, perfectly paced, unsentimental voice that suggested he had thought about why we had come to be lying on the ground and why we would be doing so for many months.

“Time past and time future/ Allow but a little consciousness./ To be conscious is not to be in time.”

And this: “Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker/ over the strained time-ridden faces/ Distracted from distraction by distraction/ Filled with fancies and empty of meaning.”

We would live with neither too much nor too little of anything—just enough to get by. Just enough food, just enough money, just enough courage. Distractions would almost break us, again and again—whether they come in the form of stinging wasps, soaking rain, high winds, or brusque Post Office clerks.

East Coker

“East Coker,” the second poem in Four Quartets, refers to the village where T. S. Eliot’s ancestors lived in England before leaving for America, and where he was buried.

“In my beginning is my end,” starts this second poem. And, “In order to arrive at what you are not/You must go through the way in which you are not./ And what you do not know is the only thing you know.” And, “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” It reminded me of Nat, who never flinched from pushing us along, adding miles, keeping us on schedule.

Only Nat could have walked the distance alone. The rest of us now agree on that.

On a dark June afternoon, we hiked through northern Virginia and toward the low country of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conference. A crisis was brewing. Cay had said she hoped we could stop early enough to set up camp properly. She meant, Nat and I realized, that she wanted to surprise Phil for his birthday. We remembered she’d been hoarding a box of instant cheesecake in one of the food bags. At about 5 P.M., the four of us convened on the trail, wondering how much farther to go. Nat wanted to walk three more miles to the next shelter. Cay stood quietly, looking down. Of course she would not say out loud her birthday surprise. Just then, the forest darkened, as if someone had blotted out the light with a cloth. It was going to rain, hard, and probably thunder and lightning too. Nat stood with his hands on his hips. He insisted, “If we keep stopping early all the time, we’re never going to make it to Katahdin.”

(“Katahdin,” I thought. “Was that where we were going?”)

Cay said, softly, in a quavering voice, “I’m concerned that we should set up camp before it rains.” When Cay was upset, she became ultra-polite. No one answered. We all knew what no response meant. We’d been through this before. No response meant we would keep going. Cay turned and walked forward. she held her back firm, stoically. We just kept walking. No more than 30 seconds later, the trail in front of me got even blacker, if that was possible. Fireflies started blinking as if it were sunset. Rain pelted down on us.

The wind whipped up. The four of us, saying nothing, stopped immediately, took off our packs, and mechanically started setting up camp in the middle of the trail. The raindrops plopped around like giant gumballs. Nat and I shook out our tent and slipped its single curved pole through the fabric sleeves. We would sleep smack in the middle of the hiking superhighway, and it seemed a lovely place to stop. “BOOM.” The thunderstorm landed finally. We jammed in the tent stakes, and the fabric of our tents shivered up into place. I dove into our tent while Nat adjusted the fly. He threw me my damp pack, and I just sat against it, hugging my knees. A puddle of water settled around my behind. I could hear mad rustling of fabric in the other tent. Cay was pulling out the dinner bag, sobbing.

We just sat in our tents, silent, for many minutes. The rain lightened. Cay called out, “I’m making some dinner.” In the shelter of her tent fly, she lit the stove, plopped the pot of water on top, and poured in soup mix. A few minutes later, her hand parted our tent door, handing us soup. Then I heard her spoon hitting the side of the pie pan. she was mixing the birthday cheesecake. several minutes later, the pan, with half of the dessert left, slid into our tent. i dipped my spoon into the smooth filling.

Nat had not succeeded in keeping us to our schedule. We had stopped because of the storm. In sunshine, we would have kept going, I knew. And I think Cay knew. We would push to the limit every day. Storms meant we could stop early. Birthdays did not.

The Dry Salvages

Eliot’s third poem is named for rocks off Cape Ann, Massachusetts, which he remembered from his childhood. “And the ragged rock in the restless waters,/ Waves wash over it, fogs conceal it; . . . in the somber season/ or the sudden fury, [it] is what it always was.” A rock, timeless in moving time, reminded me of Cay, who had a Florence Nightingale quality about her. Night after night, I slumped on the edge of some filthy shelter platform, watching Cay stand in her boots and pour noodles into the unsteady pot. She stirred, dumped cheese sauce, shook salt and pepper, sprinkled a few dried herbs. She dished dinner into our cheap plastic bowls. She handed me my bowl.

Earlier in our journey, one awful cloudy, May dusk, Cay and I said goodbye to Nat and Phil. They raced ahead, as much as two men can race while wearing gigantic packs. It was almost 6 P.M. and we would cover seven more miles that night. The sun would set before we got to camp. Don’t talk, I thought. The air faded grayer and grayer. I dragged myself into a lumbering gallop behind Cay’s fast trot. She obviously had calculated that we ought to make about four miles an hour if we wanted to see. I only knew that I must follow her.

The trail twisted one way and then another down one mountain. It meandered up and around the next. Cay would pause only long enough to look back. As soon as she’d see me catching up, she’d take off again. We reached the bottom of the last hill just before the sun made its final dip behind the trees. Cay reached for the guidebook; we had two miles more, up one final treed mountain. I nodded miserably. We squatted to rest. I left my pack on, of course. Cay took hers off only so she could pull out the gallon Ziploc bag of breakfast raisins. We grabbed fistfuls. Cay could see I was holding on but barely. She knew better than to engage me in talk. I just silently hated everything.

Then Cay gently nudged me into the lead. She knew I was strong on the uphills. She knew I had a way of igniting out of my doldrums at odd times. The trail slanted upward and I marched. I kept thinking, “I can still see. I can see.” The light dissipated into blotches. We knew that if we got out our flashlights, our night vision would bleach out. So we kept on. The only noises were our boots dully slapping against the dirt and our panting.

Near the crest, I stopped and turned around. “Is this still the trail?” Cay stepped ahead, pulled off her pack for a second, got out her flashlight, and before we could focus on the beam, we heard voices—strange men’s voices, Nat’s and Phil’s voices, and a dog barking. I was afraid of dogs. The animal bounded up to us. Cay reached her hand down and tamed the beast. Suddenly I felt really good.

Little Gidding

The final chapter in Four Quartets examines suffering as the way to new life. It’s named for an English village where an Anglican commune lived in the 1600s, but the group scattered during the mid-century English Civil War. This poem made me think of myself. Hiking the trail had been my idea, and I was the weakest of the four. I cried when I was hungry. I cried when I was tired. I felt that complaining was the way to happiness. And everyone just ignored me.

We were hiking through a downpour in central Virginia near Dismal swamp. The rain and fog had started around lunchtime and poured down
for about three hours. The trail followed roads here. Everything was asphalt and fast cars swishing puddles, sending giant waves onto us. We wobbled along a narrow concrete edging of a one-lane bridge under construction. My feet were decomposing (I thought). A thick layer of calluses had absorbed so much of that water that they were rubbery. Underneath these, giant blisters formed, one on the ball of each foot. It hurt so much to walk that I cried out with each step. By late afternoon, at Nat’s suggestion, I switched from my sodden leather boots to the light Adidas I usually wore in camp at night. I was no less soaked, but I could feel a tiny bit more of my dead feet this way.

A pathway of bog bridges—two split logs resting flat side up—lay across the wet terrain through here. I stepped onto the wet wood; tingly pains blasted from my feet up into my legs. I screamed. Once Nat looked back at me with a look of slight disgust. The rain was slowing down now, into a misty, chilly cloud.

The clearing for the Wapiti I shelter barely went beyond the buildings and the mushy-looking fire pit in front of it. The inside wasn’t too horribly wet. I eased myself to the edge, groaning as I sat down and pulled off those running shoes.

“Chris, why don’t you cook dinner?” Nat asked.

I never cooked dinner. Well, I’d done it twice before. Usually Cay in her quiet way started cooking when we reached camp, but that night, they all wanted me to do it. On some level, they understood that I needed rehabilitation.

I roused myself and stopped blubbering. I rummaged through my pack for the first-aid kit. I pulled out the needle and matches from the red nylon pouch. somehow I had to pop those gigantic blisters. I perched on the damp platform with one foot on my other knee, jabbed the needle through the dead white flesh, felt nothing. The pus seeped out and I wiped it with my bandanna and unwrapped a bandage. Nat handed me my hiking boots; they were sort of dry, while the Adidas now were soaked. I pushed my numb feet back into the boots and left the laces dangling. I stood up, leaning at the edge of the shelter floor. Tomorrow we would go into Pearisburg, Virginia. So we could eat anything out of the packs now; there would be plenty of time to replenish the stocks. Now it was my job to creatively use up what we had left. I took a second-long inventory, and then began cooking the last of the dried sliced potatoes. When they softened in the liquid, I dumped the mashed-potato flakes into them. Next, I boiled some rice and mixed in more water and Knorr leek and potato soup as a sauce.

My feet screamed as I stood mixing and stirring the all-potato meal, but something gentled my complaints. I had to pay attention to that stove. I started to joke around, pretending I was an italian chef and I kept saying, “Mangia, mangia.” Then I’d giggle hysterically. By the time I handed the glop to my companions, the responsibility of feeding them had quieted my breathing.

Eliot wrote, “If you came this way,/ Taking any route, starting from anywhere,/ At any time or at any season,/ it would always be the same: you would have to put off/ sense and notion. You are not here to verify,/ instruct yourself, or inform curiosity/ or carry report. You are here to kneel/ Where prayer has been valid.”

I was stumbling in prayer. I remember the afternoon, a few weeks earlier, when I had realized that I had chosen a life of walking through a tunnel of brown leaves. That’s really what hiking the Appalachian Trail is. Oh yes, there are open ridges, but mostly you’re in the leaves on the way up and on the way down. On that day of recognition, we had gotten over a ridge of grassy-topped mountains on the Tennessee–North Carolina border and in mid-afternoon we’d crossed north Carolina Route 226 at iron Mountain Gap.

The asphalt held onto the sun to mock us. I wanted to scream. I focused on the painted lines pointing to civilization miles away, out of reach. I stepped up the rock steps leading from the road back into the woods. The swath of leaves stretched away into the forest. Someone said something like, “Only six miles to go.” Only six miles. I gulped. My chest lurched. The leaves blurred, and I was sobbing. I was walking on ruined feet on endless runners of dead leaves. Nothing would change. It would never feel better, I was still too proud to give up, and I was going to have to hate every second. There was no talking to me. I waved off every advance from Nat and Phil and Cay. The leaves and tree trunks canopied a horrible highway down which I must march without seeing past it. Crying had once cleansed me. Now I kept crying and didn’t feel any better. I felt worse. I had given up my job and my life and dragged my husband and our friends onto this trail. And I didn’t want to do it anymore. I hated every step. I hated my pack. I hated the guidebook, the cheery hiker registers with jaunty remarks like, “Goin’ all the way!!!” I hated the slimy pepperoni on crumbling crackers. I hated the stale instant coffee. The only thing I wanted was to get out of there. But no. I didn’t want to give up. And yet I might have to. I couldn’t hike, even. Pains shot through my feet and toes. My knees ached all the time. My shoulder blades stung where the pack straps rubbed. I felt exhausted.

I sat on the edge of a shelter that evening, not seeing my boots, unlacing them, tears draining. A man about our age, out with his father, asked me, “I’m interested to know—is it hard to enjoy the trail when you are trying to hike the whole thing?”

I don’t know why I held back, but I just said, “This is not the best time to ask me that. I’ve had a bad day today.” I sat there. Cay stirred the dinner, Phil ran water through the hand pump for tomorrow’s supply. Nat got out the sleeping bags.

“And what you thought you came for/ is only a shell, a husk of meaning,” Eliot wrote, “From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled/ if at all. Either you had no purpose/ or the purpose is beyond the end you figured/ And is altered in fulfilment.”

I knew then that I could not do anything alone. I could not do anything without a strong inner sense of purpose, either.

The days, weeks, and months compressed into a string of repeated rituals that started with the early morning sound of Phil dipping the dishes in boiling water and Nat stirring cereal glop in the giant aluminum pot. By 7 A.M. we snaked up the path, arms crossed in front of us, gigantic packs swaying behind. “You should see these guys,” our friend Jim told someone. “They’re an eight-legged thing.” And so, months into it, we had our trail name. In “thing” formation, Cay led, Phil and I went in the middle because both of us have bad hearing, and Nat, pushing us on with his invisible cattle prod, went last.

A typical day went: five miles, then snack of six Duplex Creme cookies; five miles, then crumbling saltines with peanut butter for lunch; five miles, more Duplex Cremes; five miles, stop for the night. Cay made dinner, the men pumped water through our filter for the next day; we ate; I washed the dishes wearing my flashlight on its cord around my forehead. Late at night, I awoke, wrote a few sentences in my notebook, and planned our itineraries for the coming days. Each day, we again covered more ground than we felt really capable of. Each day’s hardships pulled me through by their rituals. In rituals, I broke away from my former, dead life of wrong obligations. In rituals on the trail, in crying through those rituals at times, I came to a new sense of the life that lay before us and me.

“There are three conditions which often look alike/ Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow,” T. S. Eliot wrote in that last poem, “Little Gidding.” “Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment/ From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them, indifference.” Maybe not quite indifference. One day I thought to myself that I was just a hiker, just another pilgrim in life. Knowing that, I swallowed the disappointments and pushed on, covering too many miles. One afternoon at 5 P.M., I stood on the beach of a completely remote, wilderness lake called Lower Jo-Mary Lake, deep in Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness. I tilted my filthy face toward the late-day golden sun. I wanted to stop, lie down, and camp there for a week. In the background, I heard Nat call my name. And I turned and walked forward, the last few miles of another day.

AT THE END, IT WAS TIME TO GO FIND MY TRUE VOICE, AND MY children’s voices in my coming motherhood. I could not picture myself entering that stage before, because I had labored in overwork and false obligations. The trail gave me “a condition of complete simplicity costing not less than everything.” I could see the cost of leading life from a sense of inner light, instead of doing what everybody else seemed to want me to do. I saw that in order to say yes, I must say no often—no to debilitating jobs for unpleasant bosses, no to unreasonable demands.

I would provide my own sense of satisfaction. I could not get it from others. But I knew that a full life is one lived in community, where each member contributes a skill, and all of them accept one another even if they are driving them crazy.

Eliot, T. S. Four Quartets from T. S. Eliot: The Complete Poems and Plays 1909–1950. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1971.
Woods, the Rev. J. C. The Voices of Silence: Meditations on T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets,, 2013.


About This Article

I started working on what I thought would be a book soon after we finished the trail, in late 1987. But I didn’t know what I wanted to say. I carried with me everywhere that small brown six-ring notebook holding the journal pages from the four-and-a-half-month hike. Then I lost that notebook. I must have left it in a room we rented on a lake circa 1991. But I’m not sure. I keep thinking the little volume will turn up.

Truth is, I was too tired to write much. That trail diary was so short it almost lacked verbs. But it had mapped our experience. I used it in very early drafts of sections that I incorporated into this essay.

The key in finishing it, finally, was T.S. Eliot. We’d carried that book and read out of it, but the connection it held to who we were, the themes in the four poems matching themes in the four hikers—all that didn’t come clear until very recently. And I didn’t have the courage to go back to that time and figure out what I wanted to say until all this time had gone by.

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