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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 outdoors.org/appalachia

 

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

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

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: cteco.uconn.edu/metadata/dep/document/CRITICAL_HABITAT_POLY_FGDC_Plus.htm.

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

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. 

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Doctors and Computers

Dr. Kristen Zarfos with a patient.

ctmirror.org, 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 medpagetoday.com. “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.

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 ctwoodlands.org for information

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

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.

References
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, Createspace.com, 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.

Japanese article quotes Chris Woodside. Subject: the Little House books

The newspaper Asahi Shimbun’s locator map showing De Smet, South Dakota, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s home as a young woman and where an Asahi Shimbun reporter attended a Little House pageant.

7-Oct-14

This is an unofficial translation of an article by Daisuke Nakai, which originally appeared in Asahi Shimbun, a daily newspaper in Japan. Nakai is based in New York and this summer visited Laura Ingalls Wilder’s house sites in South Dakota. His article addressed how the Little House books influenced the United States and Japan. A word about the weird text at the bottom: I have not been able to remove this formatting. Any coding whizzes, please contact me.

____

The “Little House” books, which portray the life of a pioneer family overcoming hardships and living strongly, are masterpieces of children’s literature, and still highly popular. In the US, many people consider them to be part of their heritage. At the same time, the way that the books were written, and the political thoughts that lay behind them, is also receiving more attention.

The population of De Smet, South Dakota is about 1000 people. It is surrounded by the prairie, literally making it “Little Town on the Prairie”.

Many tourists come to this small town every year, to see the place where Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author and main character of the Little House books spent her youth, and got married. In particular, the annual pageant on the prairie draws Thousands of people each July.
Darla Cosie, who brought her grandchildren to this year’s pageant, says “the attraction of the books is family members helping each other through good and bad times. It is also a way of learning the history of how South Dakota was born”. Chad Miersma, who came from neighboring Minnesota says “As a Christian, the wholesomeness of the books are something that we can enjoy as a family. You can feel the respect that people had for each other in those days”. Mr. Miersma read the books when he was a boy, and now his daughter Cadence, is reading them over and over.
Not only in De Smet, but in other places that the Ingalls family lived, there are various exhibits and facilities introducing the way of life of the time, showing the high interest in the books. Many people were also drawn to the books by way of the TV drama series based on the books.
Nami Hattori, who is a member of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Society, and who has written “A Journey to the Little House Books” in Japanese says “In Japan, the books are thought of as children’s books, but in the US there is a tendency to see them as portraying an ideal America, and the way that they are read is somewhat different from Japan”. Laura Bush, who was also a Librarian, has said that they were some of her favorite books, and Ronald Reagan is said to have “teared up while watching the TV series at the White House”.

The Little House Books were originally considered to be “facts”, written by Laura according to her memory. However, along with the rise in popularity of the books, research has been done on the actual life of the Ingalls family, and it has been found that some characters were fictional, and others have been left out.
In addition, the role that Rose Wilder Lane, Laura’s daughter played in writing the books has also been attracting attention. After the two women’s death, drafts of the books and letters between them have become public, showing that Rose, who was a journalist and a writer, added on and edited Laura’s drafts. Now it is widely regarded that the books are “novels written as a collaboration between Mother and Daughter, based on real experiences”.
As Rose grew older, she became more of a Libertarian. Libertarianism is a way of thought that puts the greatest emphasis on freedom of the individual, and in her political writings she shows her dislike of “big government” very strongly. Her “adopted grandson”, Roger Lee McBride, who inherited the rights to the books, ran as the Libertarian candidate for president in 1976, and said that Rose “was one of the people who influenced him the most”.
At the time, the Libertarian Party did not make much of an impression on American Politics, but recently Libertarian principles are having more influence in the Republican Party. Former Congressman Ron Paul, who gathered support from young people in the 2012 Presidential Primaries, is the most obvious example, but Congressman Paul Ryan, who was the Vice-presidential candidate that year, is also said to be influenced.

Perhaps reflecting Rose’s political beliefs, in the Little House books the independence of the individual is often stressed. Anita Clair Fellman, Professor Emeritus at Old Dominion University, who has written about the influence that the books have had on American culture in “Little House, Long Shadow”, points out for example that the distance from where the Ingalls family lived to the nearest town is continuously portrayed as farther than it actually was, and how Pa’s jobs as a carpenter where he received wages are not mentioned very much, leading to the image of “Pioneers living on their own” becoming stronger. During the latter half of the series, the family saving money so that Laura’s blind sister Mary can go to college is a one of the main themes, however according to Christine Woodside, a journalist who is writing a book about the relationship between Laura and Rose points out that actually the Dakota territories paid for a scholarship, with the money the family raised going to Mary’s living costs. Ms. Woodside says “in other passages as well, the good role that the government played has been edited out. When government does appear, it doesn’t understand the needs of the pioneers”.
One reason that both women raise, is the time that the books were published. It was the same time that President Franklin Roosevelt was pushing forth the New Deal to strengthen social security, but Rose was strongly opposed to the New Deal, claiming that it “intruded on the freedom of the individual”, and Laura, who had long been a supporter of the Democratic Party left it because of Roosevelt’s policies.

“If you read her diaries, you can tell that Rose at least was thinking of the books as a way to signal her political beliefs” says Professor Fellman, who explains that both traditional conservative values, such as the importance of families and values, and more Libertarian thinking, that show a dislike of government are in the series. She says ” I believe that the books had a role in creating a way of thinking that has continued in American Society and is now being seen for instance in the Tea Party movement”.

The Little House Books are a series that Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867~1957) wrote based on her childhood. They are the eight books starting with “Little House in the Big Woods” (1932) about her childhood in Wisconsin, and ending in “These Happy Golden Years” (1943) where she marries in South Dakota, and “The First Four Years” (1971) Which was published after her Daughter, Rose Wilder Lane (1886~1968) passed away. In the 1970s and 80s, the TV Series “Little House on the Prairie” was produced, and it became a huge hit in Japan as well as the US.

Will Seattle Be the First U.S. City to Recycle Everything?

Woman recycling glass in Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle, 1990. Seattle Municipal Archives/Wikimedia Commons

It’s dawn on waste-collection day in the hilly Magnolia neighborhood of Seattle. Along the curvy streets of this residential peninsula northwest of downtown, three large bins wait outside each house. The green ones hold compost — leftover food and yard clippings. The blue ones overflow with everything recyclable: glass, plastic containers, cans and aluminum foil. The round black ones, for the trash, often aren’t full these days.

Three years ago, Seattle’s City Council passed Resolution 31312, calling for zero net emissions by 2050, one of few cities crusading for this goal; along with it came a concentrated effort to push residents to conserve water, drive less and recycle way more. Half of Seattle’s greenhouse gas emissions are created through ordinary everyday life — getting around, eating and buying stuff. The city’s campaign used a gradual approach, phasing in rules like mandatory composting over three years, for example.

Seattle is one of a short list of American cities pushing for this level of effort by residents at home. Yes, early last century, some municipalities sent pigs around to eat garbage, but today, collecting food waste as a commodity is rare. There’s Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco (the first American city to require compost collections, but most cities are still working on basic recycling of paper and containers.

Seattleites I talked to said they feel proud to save resources and that doing so feels like part of the city culture — despite what might be happening or not happening in other cities — dating back to the 1980s, when Seattleites were recycling brown and green glass ahead of most of the country.

“We’re a family of five, and our garbage is rarely full,” said Kelly Hufty, who lives with her husband, David Self, and their children in Magnolia. “But our recycling is stuffed and oftentimes the yard waste and composting is full.”

Resolution 31312 called for cutting greenhouse gas emissions to 58 percent below the 2008 levels by 2030 in three areas: transportation, commercial buildings and waste. The latest report on greenhouse gas emissions from the city’s Department of Sustainability shows that those three key areas, in total, have remained the same — declined 0 percent — between 2008 and 2012, the most recent year evaluated.

However, the building and waste sectors have improved. The report shows that emissions generated by the collection of citizens’ refuse dropped 17 percent between 2008 and 2012. Building emissions are down 10 percent since 2008. Transportation emissions have increased by 6 percent since 2008 and by just 1 percent since 1990. Sustainability officials admit that the progress looks slow, but they point out that the population has increased (by 23 percent since 1990). They say that if one considers emissions reductions on a per-person basis, the progress reflects the effort citizens have been making over the past few years. Per person, emissions have decreased by 6 percent since 2008 and 22 percent since 1990.

Although the city’s stated emissions goals, though, are total emissions, it’s hard to ignore the cooperation of the individuals as they deal with their own waste. Back in 1980, the city reports, a family of three produced four 32-gallon cans of trash each week. Now that’s down to one or less than one. When the composting of food waste started three years ago, meat and dairy products were banned. Now the city takes those leftovers, too. All of the waste goes to a large composting operation run by a contractor.

The city’s statistics show that recycling is worth the trouble. One Seattle report notes that recycling had removed a net of 537,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in 2012 (in 1990, 439,000 metric tons were removed).

“It’s really great to be able to just roll that out to the curb, and away it goes — one bin — paper, plastic, metal,” says Herb Bergamini, a teacher who lives in Wallingford. He notes that the city will take labeled waste car oil too.

Hufty, who used to live in the Washington, D.C. area, says, “It’s part of living out here.”

After all, this is the city where composting toilets were installed in a famous office building, the Bullitt Center, which was designed to be carbon neutral when fully occupied. The Bullitt Center collects rainwater and makes solar power. When I visited, a staff member of Sustainable Seattle pointed me to the ladies’ room, where I could not trip the motion-sensor lights. But partly because of her attitude, I did not run back to ask for help. I fumbled for my headlamp.

Of course, even waste-savvy Seattle will not recycle many things that are part of modern American life: prescription pill bottles (the plastic is too brittle), wet or dirty produce bags, kitty litter, corks (the city does refer people to Whole Foods’ “cork reharvest” project), painted wood, treated wood, fats, cooking oils, grease. But officials are working on changing these gaps in its program. Home cooking oil could join the other curb waste in the next five years, said Timothy Croll, the city’s solid waste director. He said a separate collection of kitty litter, pet waste and diapers could start “perhaps eight years from now.”

The city now faces the challenge of motivating residents to work even harder. Mayor Ed Murray announced this year in the city’s biennial environmental report, “Moving the Needle,” that he wanted to thank Seattle residents “for all that you will do” (emphasis mine) to reduce emissions. The report soberly says that half of Seattle’s landfill-bound trash still is either food waste or recyclable. “We can do better!” the report noted.

One of the strategies of the sustainability department, which opened officially in 2000, is a poster crammed with other ideas: Don’t wash your blue jeans too often, eat less meat (sustainability officials say that meat-sellers have not complained about this), and, in this land of Microsoft, hold onto old laptop computer instead of buying new ones.

The department’s newsletter full of energy-saving tips motivates people, Hufty said. Her family doesn’t water their lawn at all now. And school programs on the new waste practices mean parents can’t get lazy. “If you try to put something in the garbage or down the disposal, you will get called on it,” Hufty said.

Still, the city’s ambitious goal will depend on the transportation piece, which accounts for 40 percent of the emissions, and while public transit funding has been in crisis, emissions from vehicles continues to rise. Building emissions have fallen, but population growth is expected to continue rising.

Can Seattle’s attitude make the difference? Geography that attracts nature lovers and the length of time Seattle has pushed for energy savings contribute to “our overall environmental savvy,” said Tracy Morgenstern, the lead advisor for climate change policy.

And as the city’s sustainability department communications advisor, Sara Wysocki, observes, “We have … a savvy population.”

 

About This Article

Last winter, I visited the Pacific Northwest to report on people and cliamte change. I met with the Seattle Sustainability Department and stayed with friends who live in the Magnolia neighborhood. I eventually found a home at Next City for this story about how everyday life with the trash and recycling in the city with the crunchy-granola reputation. Janine White edited this for Next City. My old friend Janine Gross of Seattle put me in touch with the residents I interviewed. Thanks to both Janines and also to Dan Stambor and Adam Stambor. 

Coastal towns adapt to the realities of climate change

Old Quarry Road in Guilford, which floods regularly. Residents have voted to raise it, even though only a half-dozen households will benefit from the expensive job.

Wrack Lines, Fall/Winter 2013-2014

Not too long ago, a municipal conservation director’s job centered around maps, meetings and the occasional field walk. But these are not normal times. The effects of climate change on the rate of sea-level rise has hit the streets of every coastal town in Connecticut. The Greenwich conservation director, Denise M. Savageau, has added a new duty to her job: during major storms, she works at the town’s emergency operations center, where, watching flood gauges, she directs firefighters and ambulance drivers away from roads she knows will always flood.

What used to be normal life for coastal New England has changed. “At moon tide, we’re starting to see normal flooding,” Savageau says. “That’s going to be more and more the case.” Greenwich, like many coastal towns now, has changed building standards in its comprehensive plan. It has altered drainage engineering standards for roads. Those who never dealt with floods before find themselves as of this year living in newly identified flood zones under new Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood maps. Officials struggle to protect their low-lying sewage treatment plants. Residents come to town hall asking how they can elevate their old houses above the flood waters.

The future will bring more waters creeping inland not only on the coast of New England, but around the world. How much? Scientists are not certain. Daniel Grossman in his book, Deep Water, writes: “The reasonable range of possible sea level rise this century varies from a couple feet to about 16 feet. The difference between the two ends of this spectrum in terms of cost and suffering is huge.”

Two feet of sea-level rise over one century might be accommodated. But, Grossman writes, 16 feet would “catastrophically damage” coastal properties. “Shoreline homes along much of the U.S. coast, including some of our most valuable property, would be past hope,” he writes.

It’s time to get used to at least the low-end of the scale, southern New England officials are showing in so many ways.

A new report, “Cost Efficient Climate Change Adaptation in the North Atlantic,” by Judd Schechtman and Michael Brady of Rutgers University and supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Sea Grant, and the North Atlantic Regional Team, profiles 34 cities, towns, or regional areas from Virginia to Maine.

Municipal officials no longer spend any time asking if climate change is real. Climate change is here, and its effects have damaged and threatened roads, houses, and facilities for several years as the rate of sea-level rise and storm surges have increased faster than anyone would have predicted 50 years ago. Greenwich dates its major problems with flooding to at least 2007, when major floods during two storms covered both Route 1 and the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut’s westernmost town of 62,000 people. Irene in 2011 and Sandy in 2012 brought worse to the already altered seas. Sea level today has reached barely below street levels in many areas.

Groton, the southeastern Connecticut town where submarines are built at Electric Boat, has been dealing with the fact that the coast has moved 100 feet inland since 1888. And the report quotes new research showing that the rate of sea-level rise there has doubled since 1980 to 4 millimeters per year. Groton, a town of 40,000 that includes the western half of Mystic, took part in a planning exercise funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Connecticut in 2010. One hundred officials attended three workshops. (See the report, published in 2011.)They heard the sobering statistics including that sealevel rise has sped up to about 4 millimeters per year in their region, and that major storms hitting land are more intense today. And they discussed major changes. These include new zoning regulations that encourage development away from the coast, a review of where the town schools are located, and an effort to teach the public about which areas are prone to flooding.

The struggles of these towns, and officials’ willingness to change how they build and protect their infrastructures because of climate change, mark a sea change for American officials that has begun in local boardrooms. As the report says, “Local governments are on the forefront of responding to and preparing for coastal threats, and they are more than willing and able to take on the task. Localities recognize the interdependent nature of managing coastal risks from climate change, and that partnership is necessary for successful planning to work. Guilford, the third Connecticut town the report profiles, has joined with The Nature Conservancy and Yale University in planning for climate adaptation. The conservancy developed a GIS-based tool showing how the rising seas are expected to change in ten regions around the world—including New York and Connecticut, where the sea levels hover only inches below billions of dollars’ worth of coastal property; the Gulf of Mexico; the Gulf of California; Puget Sound; the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Florida Keys; and more. The report suggests a framework to assess and act upon the risks these changes bring to local areas. Guilford, using the information it gleaned, has drafted a coastal resilience plan that the partners hoped would inspire other towns, said George Kral, the Guilford town planner.

Pulling together when it might not seem so easy

The struggle to adapt highlights the differences between the rich and the not-so-rich, those who can afford to raise their houses and rebuild, and those who cannot. Making the transition has pulled some communities more tightly together in an encouraging way. In Guilford, residents this year voted to use local taxes for an expensive raising of an often-flooded road to the wealthy coastal neighborhood known as Old Quarry.

For the rest of the story, see the full article in Wrack Lines.

 

About This Article

My editor was Peg Van Patten, who edits Wrack Lines in the Connecticut Sea Grant office (at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point). A version of this story later appeared in the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media. Bud Ward edited that story, in which I included other examples of deaing with flooding. 

Guilt, Goals, and Mom

Rachel Shwom

The Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media

A unique annual meeting at the Garrison Institute comes to grips — or at least tries to — with the human behavior component of energy use and climate. A key question: What makes people tick?

GARRISON, N.Y. — Early each summer, an unlikely crop of social scientists comes together at the Garrison Institute’s “Climate, Mind, and Behavior” conference.

Tucked in a former monastery on the banks of the Hudson River, in Garrison, New York, 100 or so sociologists, economists, psychologists, and historians studying human behavior and climate change seek common ground in their mutual interests in energy and climate change.

Many of them relate that they have gone to no other conference like this with the mixing of numerous disciplines. At Garrison, they agreed to go barefoot all day inside the center’s meditation hall, where (in between actual meditation breaks led by a Buddhist priest) they shared research into that most confounding of climate-change puzzles: Why people are so reckless with energy consumption.
Or, more accurately, they quantified what sorts of attitudes and rules might motivate people to use less energy. Various studies have shown that the U.S. could cut energy use significantly — by at least one-quarter by some estimates — just by choosing efficient products and learning to turn things off or do without. But people struggle to do those things, and so far, the savings are nowhere near the possibilities in most regions.

Into this quandary on the conference’s first night waded Stanford University assistant economics professor Matthew Harding and Rutgers University human ecology sociologist Rachael Shwom. Both said that people will save energy when prompted by wide-ranging stimuli like Facebook posts, setting goals for themselves, being tired, wanting to save money, and old-fashioned guilt.

But, they also said, no one influence has so far made a huge difference, long-term, in how society can vastly cut its energy use. The difficulties people have coping with their own ambitions to save energy make for some strange stories.

Signing-Up to Save, Then Choosing Nothing from a List

Harding reviewed surprising choices northern Illinois electricity customers made when offered ways to save money by signing up for a “Citizens’ Utility Board” program. They were asked to tick-off on a list items they could promise they’d do — such as change to compact fluorescent light bulbs or hang their laundry to dry. The website program would periodically inform them how they were doing with their energy-saving goals, and offer suggestions on how to meet them if they were behind.

Matthew Harding…skeptical that ‘information alone’ will change behaviors.
But Harding said some of them didn’t check anything. (It turns out they got some savings just by listing their names, but still.)

Others selected so many energy-saving activities that they signed up to save more energy than they were buying from the utility. “They were going to save more than 100 percent of their consumption,” Harding said, “because they had no idea what they were doing.”
It’s the human condition: we have lots of good ideas, but often we don’t really know what we’re doing. “This is the world where we know everything about everyone,” Harding told his colleagues. “In order to sign up for a program like this, you need to be sophisticated enough to realize that you have an enormous consumption problem.” And still, following through presents a challenge that might be too big.

Are Meters Sufficient to Make People Save Power?

Harding found that giving people information on meters isn’t enough to predict reliable energy savings. Citizens do better, he said, if they can try a couple of tactics at the same time.
“In the research that I’ve done, I find that people with smart meters who also have programmable thermostats that respond to price changes have large savings,” Harding said. The programmable thermostat works automatically to save energy and turns off unused appliances.

But customers who have to check information and then make decisions about turning things down — they don’t do so well. If they just own smart meters or use websites to learn about prices and how much they’re using — they don’t save as much energy.
“In general, I am skeptical that information alone is sufficient to change behavior,” Harding said in an e-mail to The Yale Forum. He said he does believe that in some situations, people will respond to some kind of incentive to change their behavior — whether it’s a company offering a price cut, or someone saying it’s an ethical issue. Social scientists call such incentives “nudges.” Harding said, “My view is that we need information PLUS something else (technology or nudges) to really change behavior.”

Do Exhausted ‘Earth Mothers’ Waste Energy on the Sly?

Shwom has studied social institutions and environmental behavior for years. (Her dissertation was on how government and industry tried to influence policies on the energy efficiency of appliances.)

She said she recently had decided to look more closely at motherhood as a social institution because, “I became a mom, and I felt really tired.” She didn’t feel like making the same effort to recycle, for instance, and she started noticing other exhausted mothers on Facebook saying things like, “I’m an environmentalist, but when I have kids all I want to do is move to the suburbs and throw my kids out on the lawn.” Or, “Yeah, I want an SUV so I don’t have to bend down to put my kids in.”

Then out came some provocative books: Elisabeth Badinter’s argument that modern mothers are forced to live like throwbacks to the past (The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women). And Alison Pugh’s book on parents buying too much to show love (Longing and Belonging Parents, Children and Consumer Culture). Shwom also followed research by her Rutgers sociologist colleague Norah MacKendrick, on mothers who control consumption, but for personal reasons: they want to keep chemicals away from their children.

But when Shwom put the issue of motherhood and wasting energy to groups of mothers and non-mothers, she found that dog-tired new mothers probably are no worse environmentalists than almost anyone else.

This could mean: they might feel guilty about their exhaustion, and vent on Facebook about wasting energy, but their guilty feelings probably stopped them from actually following through. Nothing like a little motherly guilt to keep energy-wasting in check?

Not so fast. “This analysis has just begun,” Shwom said to the gathered social scientists, “and it is fairly confusing at this point. I’ve just had the data for a couple of months.” But comparing men and women, she did conclude that being male and being Republican are the two most significant predictors of wasting more energy.

The group she found to be saving the most energy were women with no children. But a lot of women with children were “spending a lot of time preparing food, growing vegetables, avoiding toxics,” although “less time attending an environmental meeting.”

The question of human behavior and how it plays from an energy and climate perspective: It all remains one of the most challenging elements in an overall complicated stew of issues critical to addressing climate change/energy challenges.

 

About This Article

I attended the Garrison institute’s Climate, Mind and Behavior Conference in Garrison, New York. I have been to part of it in past years, but this time, I stayed overnight and spent most of two days soaking up social scientists’ views on how people use energy and how they consider slowing carbon-dioxide emissions. Basically right now they don’t think about this much, in America. Bud Ward edited me. He’s wonderful to work with.

Goal-Setting 101: You Must Lose a Fly to Catch a Trout

Twelve years’ worth of notebooks with goals

SEJ Journal, Spring 2013

Early in my freelance career, a successful writer giving a talk about his six-figure income reminded me that I am a business owner. Hearing this made me sit up a little straighter and remember the “free” part of freelancing — choosing my work. But of course, with freedom comes responsibility.

As business owners, we must make a business plan that plays to our talents, enthusiasm and energy. Every year since 2000, when I left my staff newspaper job and started freelancing full-time, I list business goals, by hand, in spiral-bound notebooks I keep.

The goals can be idea-driven (write about dying lobsters), financial (propose adding tasks to editing contract for x-percent increase), practical (use a telephone log, open a business checking account). Two or three times throughout the year, I revisit and often change the plan.

Working this way, I have tried, perfected, and occasionally rejected enterprises that many freelancers consider classic doctrine. First, I no longer feel I must sell a story to an editor before starting to work on it. That’s because I write about forgotten stories and people often enough that my ideas are too quirky to sell quickly every time.

Second, I used to use my reporting for multiple articles. I don’t feel I have to do that anymore.

So, early in my freelancing career, I wrote about the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut for Preservation Online, The New York Times, and a quarterly, Connecticut Woodlands. I reported on wild birds taking over an inaccessible city park on a beach peninsula for Connecticut Woodlands and Connecticut Public Radio. I wrote about taking my young daughters backpacking for an anthology, and for The New York Times. And when The Atlantic Monthly rejected a proposal after much discussion, I turned around and sold the proposal — which needed no additional reporting — as an oped to the Washington Post.

Those projects were great. But for every time I sold another one, I also spent untold hours, days, months, years, trying to resell these projects to outlets that ignored me or said no. I concluded that I was losing money by sticking to this concept of reselling reporting. I still use my knowledge again and again, but I no longer think in terms of repackaging. I feel more creative and energized this way.

Setting and reaching for these targets over twelve years have vaulted me from regional newspaper reporter to magazine and book writer and occasional radio journalist. Without dreams, I stagnate.

Some of the enterprises my goal list put me up to didn’t go so well. It felt to me as if some schemes ripened fast into rotten fruit. I now think of those ambitions as mistakes, but in truth, they were good, too. Mistakes have taught me to better recognize those other goals that do lead somewhere.

2010, a case study in goal setting

The objectives I set for 2010, and their outcome, illustrate the value of both good and bad goals. As 2009 wound down and the nation recoiled at the financial crisis, I noticed that my gross receipts for the year had dipped a little.

I set six goals. Three were money-saving goals:

— I’d sublet the office I’d been renting for a decade and work from my house.

— I’d look for a new contract for regular work (on top of what I was doing).

— I wouldn’t take a vacation unless it would yield paying work.

I know now that this list combined two misguided fantasies: that I was like environmental writer Wendell Berry or homesteading gurus Helen and Scott Nearing, or any number of environmental sages whose writing incorporated a deep understanding of their homes.

I know many writers who thrive working at home. I would learn that year that I don’t. At home I occasionally procrastinated and wanted to putter around the kitchen. More often I worked all the time. The work day bled into the night. I never “went home” because I never left.

In 2011, I took my office back. (My subletter had never used it! I guess he’s not like me. He did pay the rent, though.) After my big goodbye of the previous year, I ate some crow with my landlord, who billed me for another sign with my name on it. Lesson learned — and a good one. I need a geographic shift in order to lead a productive life.

Another error in 2010: I found more work, all right. I was already writing magazine and web articles and editing two environmental journals. I thought I could take on another project, so I began covering the environment for a new website in Connecticut. I wrote many articles I was proud of, but the editor and I did not click. Nothing I did for him ever was right until the third try. I had moved on from short-form breaking news writer to magazine writer, and I could no longer switch gears back and forth from genre to genre. It hurt, but I called him up six months into the project and asked to move on. No hard feelings.

Goals with a gain

But I was not all wet. I made some sensible goals in 2010:

Make every editor to be a repeat client. (My website designer told me he does this with his clients. It motivated me to keep communication open with editors.)

— Post new material each week to my website. Even if I don’t make this goal, it nags at me to pound out something that’s been on my mind for my section called “Get This.” Or, I’ll post another of my new articles. That goal ensures that my website will not be some neat thing I spent thousands on — but a tool to make me money.

— Draft the book about Laura Ingalls Wilder I’d been researching for years. This of course has occupied me for great hunks of time ever since. I have made major progress on four chapters, and I’m writing my book proposal. Because of this goal, I signed up for a class with a narrative nonfiction teacher, Mark Kramer, and every month or so the class meets in his kitchen. I have to show up with new drafts.

I talk about 2010 because it was a watershed year. I did work I’d never tried before and really understood my limitations, especially where time is concerned. Taking on that extra contract late in 2010 increased my gross receipts by more than seven per cent for the entire year. So it was decent income.

But as the editor and I struggled to work together, my malaise increased by an undetermined percentage. I had forgotten two hard-won lessons from goals I’d established very early in my freelance career:

— Match my skills and interests with work that delivers a good hourly wage. (Sometimes do work without concern for money, but only when other reasons are obvious.

— Rent an office outside of the house. I might work at home some days, but I must have that outside discipline.

My handwritten business plans, usually penned during the chilly winter evenings each year, change as the realities of my personality, talents and the workplace smooth them out. Without a plan, though, I don’t move forward. I know after all of these years that time spins wisdom out of all this goal-following.

Christine Woodside has been freelancing for twelve and a half years. She has written for outlets, including Nature Climate Change, The New York Times, The Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media, Popular Mechanics online, Appalachia Journal (which she edits), Audubon, New England Watershed and Connecticut Explored. She wrote “Energy Independence” (Lyons Press, 2009). She’s writing a book about Laura Ingalls Wilder and the pioneer myth. She lives in Connecticut.

 

About This Article

From the quarterly newsletter of the Society of Environmental Journalists, SEJournal, Spring 2013. Freelancer Sharon Oosthoek edited this piece, along with SEJ Journal editor Adam Glenn. Sharon pulled a lot of good stuff out of me and reminded me of the great wisdom of freelancing: work with good editors. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only. 

What Makes Climate Communicator George Marshall Tick?

George Marshall in New York, NY

14-May-13

Who is George Marshall? And why is he devoting his life to talking about climate change?

NEW YORK, N.Y. — George Marshall, in suit pants and fedora, looks like a distracted businessman, but in fact he’s a missionary in a cultural crusade to get people to talk about climate change. And he has no fear of hostile retorts. In a restaurant in New York City, on one of his infrequent trips from Wales, he recently dropped his menu, stood up, and stepped over to the next table. “Excuse me, is that salad good?” The diners looked surprised, but they said that yes, it was. They chatted. Marshall left them smiling, returned to his table, and promptly ordered what they had — the Cobb salad.
That’s exactly the way Marshall, co-founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network, COIN, and climatedenial.org, a blog about the psychology of climate change denial, tackles the problem to which he’s devoted his life. He’ll walk up to complete strangers and ask them what they think about the topic that many prefer not to talk about anymore — the changing climate.
He says it’s his “personal passion” to talk to those who don’t agree with his contention that the majority of scientists are right about the rate of and reasons for the rapid warming.
He believes that unless everyone starts talking about the rapid changes in the climate, problems will get worse, and that communicators have to branch out, reaching audiences often not adequately considered.
Marshall, 49, works as a consultant, speaker, and writer, and he urges people to look at climate change from new angles. He sees himself as an outsider in many political landscapes, with interests in some aspects of both conservative and liberal political agendas.
He lives in Wales with his American-born wife, Annie Levy, and their school-age daughter and son. They rarely fly because of the high carbon footprint. “We’ve become niche specialists in talking to new audiences,” Marshall says. COIN’s clients have included large trade unions in the U.K. such as the Communication Workers Union and the Public and Commercial Services Union. COIN is working on a climate change communication program with the government of Wales, and Marshall has been testing ways of talking about the issue with groups there. Focus group participants reacted most positively to a “woo-woo” set of statements and slogans such as, “There are things in life that are more important than just money …. such as the time you spend with your friends, and family, and community,” the test slogan went.
“We seek to actively develop programs with constituencies that are outside the current climate change discussion,” Marshall says. “We proactively seek them out.”

Society’s ‘Negotiated Silence’ … and Need for a ‘Very Hard Prod’

In his work as a consultant for governments and organizations about climate change, Marshall draws on his earlier work as an activist against destructive logging in Papua, New Guinea. He says now that although protests can be disruptive, he believes they have an important place in society — including in the work he’s doing now, prodding, as he puts it, large institutions and governments to change their climate policies. It’s an issue Marshall wrote about – the role of radical protests in policy changes — in the Guardian newspaper earlier this year.
No longer a protester himself, Marshall says large institutions, including governments, need ”a very, very hard prod” to change their climate policies and rhetoric. “I think it is a huge mistake for people to say radical action is no way to change things.”

On the Other Hand, Like Attracts Like Interests

Some years ago, Marshall got out of forest activism after 15 years. He turned to the broader matter of the climate because he decided that most countries suffer with language challenges. He has addressed people from around the world on how best to talk about the climate with their peers. On the same trip that took him to the New York restaurant where he talked to The Yale Forum, Marshall had given a speech to a group of more than 100 in Venezuela, chatted about world temperatures with antique car-buyers in northern California, and, the next day, was on his way to interview victims of Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey.
“My core contention is that climate change is a contested narration that is shaped by social negotiation,” he says. The problem, as Marshall frames it, is so bad now that people just don’t talk. Climate change frightens them, Marshall says.
And, just as he walked up to the couple at the restaurant, Marshall goes up to almost anyone he sees in public and asks about climate change.
He sees himself involved in a continuing social experiment — currently not going too well in the sense that people are not wanting to talk to him. “I might go up to four people sitting together,” he says. “I say, I’m over here and I’m writing an article for a British newspaper, and they’ll go, ‘Hey that’s really interesting.’ I’ll say, ‘I’m going all around America asking people what they think about climate change. Bang. Boom. The void opens. Three of them instantly turn away and start their own conversation.”
Something like that happens regularly as he asks groups about climate change. “I do it constantly,” he says.
Flying Too Much Vs. ‘A Lovely Spinach Tart’

One of his favorite examples of a social interchange killing a potential discussion of climate change is one that he describes in his book Carbon Detox. (Marshall this year is writing another book about how to get the climate change message across.)
The story involves a man who was at a fancy dinner party with retired professionals. Marshall goes on: “He raised the issue of how could they possibly fly so much, and they were completely silent. No one said anything until someone said, ‘What a delicious spinach tart.’ And then they spent the next 10 minutes talking about spinach tart — in obsessive detail. It wasn’t just a random thing. Spinach tart became climate change. ‘What a lovely spinach tart. Where did you get the spinach? I must have the recipe.’”
It’s an unusual turn of conversation, but Marshall says it happens because climate change remains a specialty topic, a subject some find uncomfortable. Back in 2007, Marshall searched for the words “climate change” on websites of major human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, YWCA, Oxfam US, and others. He found few or no mentions of the term. He also searched for innocuous words like “donkey” or “ice cream” as controls for his experiment. He says no single site back then mentioned climate change more often than it did donkeys or ice cream. (A quick Yale Forum check finds the term “climate change” cropping up a number of times now on Amnesty International’s site.)
Marshall’s point: the subject of climate change remains for many an uncommon one. “The question,” Marshall asks, “is: Why?”
He answers. “In society as a whole — and I think this applies at a micro level in individuals and peer groups and institutions — I think there is a deliberately negotiated silence on climate change. And in this regard I draw strongly on the research of people who have looked at the generation of silence as a sociological discipline, especially in regard to human rights.”
Marshall believes that the way societies respond now to climate change mirrors the way they respond to human rights abuses: with silence. “That is not to say they are the same thing,” he says.
Might a psychologist (amateur or not) call this denial? Marshall agrees, adding that a Freudian psychoanalyst would call it “disavowal.” He mentions the book The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life by Eviatar Zerubavel. It covers the topic of people who do not connect themselves in any way with the body of information about the climate.
“Disavowal would be a state of both knowing and not knowing,” Marshall says. “Selective recognition. It’s not ignorance. It’s not outright denial.”

Training Conservatives to Talk to Conservatives

Marshall seems bent on undoing the old fight between those who accept climate change science and those who steadfastly resist it. But making peace there means talking to the “other side.”
Within the past year, Marshall has visited Texas and sought members of the Tea Party in that state. He does it because he wants to figure out how to talk to them about the climate. “I don’t understand American politics,” he says. “I ask people in the Tea Party where they got their ideas.” They have cited talk shows and news programs.
“The Tea Party is a genuine movement, a radical social movement that I can only dream of for climate change,” he says.
Taking a lesson from that dream, Marshall lays out his strategies as a climate consultant and as a writer and speaker. “I don’t want to give a speech to a conservative audience,” he says. “I want a conservative to do that. My interest is in finding a conservative to do it.”
It’s not that he wants to turn all people interested in the environment into conservatives. “But I want conservatives to understand and get climate change as an issue, to be actively involved in shaping a conservative narrative, and I think that environmentalists can help that process to happen.” The way that will happen, he thinks, involves shaping new stories and new language so that messengers can speak to whatever audience they’re trying to reach.

What Journalists Should Do

Marshall thinks the news media should boldly jump into the worldwide dialogue about the climate of the future. But he thinks too that they should try some new tactics.
He likes to say that journalism since the dawn of the World Wide Web has changed radically, to the point where it’s even hard to define. In that spirit, he says journalists should write for audiences they might already know but may not consider among their principal or normal audiences.
Belong to a religious organization? Then consider writing about the climate for your religious magazine or website, Marshall recommends. Like to fish? Write about the climate for your favorite fishing magazine.
“There’s limited value in writing for a liberal outlet complaining about how appalling it is that so many people deny climate change,” he says with a hint of exasperation. “What is that achieving? You could maybe work for a liberal outlet and say, ‘This is how as individuals we can help to overcome this and persuade others.’ Part of the silence or the meta-silence is that we do not feel confident or empowered to bring up any of these subjects.”
Marshall says many people never find it “appropriate” to discuss climate change so it’s the task those in the communication business to make it so.
“I think any time you have a conversation with anyone about the weather you should bring climate change into the conversation, not in a hectoring, judgmental, on-your-soapbox way but just drop it in there every single time. ‘Weird weather we’re having …. yeah well, personally, I believe it’s climate change and that something weird has been going on. And it’s been getting weirder.’ Just put it out there.”
But most of the time in these talks he has with strangers, Marshall says, they just stop talking. That doesn’t matter, he says. Just putting it out there helps “establish staging points in that void where it is acceptable to talk about it.”

 

About This Article

I read a transcript of George Marshall’s talk in 2012 before a group of social scientists who study climate change. His refreshing take and sense of humor intrigued me. I wanted to meet him and see what made him so dedicated. I wrote this article for Bud Ward of the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media. It was posted there on May 14.

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