Search This Blog

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Finding Treasure -- in Northport!

The book I was so excited to find at a sale recently doesn’t look like all that much at first glance. Unfortunately, the dust jacket is missing. The spine ends are somewhat, though not horribly, bumped. Slight fraying starting to appear at the ends, too. But I was excited, because the title is one I remember from my girlhood and have never forgotten, though this is the first copy of the book I’ve seen since the library copy I read in the 1950s. 
The flying sand and salt spray were in her eyes, in her mouth, in her hair. Her lips tasted of brine and her teeth felt gritty with sand. She was too occupied keeping out of reach of the roaring surf to care, and she had to jump about constantly to avoid the crawling, spreading edges of the breakers that frequently crept up on her unaware. For this was a howling northeaster on lonely Heron Shoals Beach. But Posy had no thought of its inconveniences or dangers. She was enjoying it to the full, chasing retreating waves and flying before oncoming breakers. This was life! This aroused a fire and enthusiasm that she had never known before! 
from The Vanishing Octant Mystery, by Augusta Huiell Seaman
Then Posy spots a treasure on the waves! It eludes her grasp, and she spends the rest of the book searching for it on the beach, where her family has rented a house for the summer.

I cannot recapture my feelings as a youthful, first-time reader of this novel, but I do remember that it was one of those books (like The Silver Nutmeg, by Palmer Brown) that I checked out of our grade school library to read over and over. Today I read online that Augusta Huiell Seaman’s novels for young readers predated the Nancy Drew books in offering adventures and mysteries to girl readers. I may not have read any of her other books and first read The Vanishing Octant Mystery (originally published in 1949) years after the author had died. (Not that I knew or cared about that at the time!) But Seaman was born in 1879, for heaven’s sake, and published her first book, The Boarded-Up House, in 1915, before either of my parents was born! In fact, The Vanishing Octant was her last book, appearing) in 1950, the year before her death, and by then Nancy Drew and all manner of other mystery series and stand-alone titles for young people had appeared. 

(Another favorite of mine was The Boxcar Children, by Gertrude Chandler Warner, though I could never accept the idea of sequels to the original book — sequels I only learned about as an adult — since the entire premise at the beginning was that the children had no family and had to fend for themselves in the world, and in that first book they are reunited with their grandfather. But I digress….)

When I first read The Vanishing Octant Mystery, it transported me through time and space in more than one sense. Let’s say I must have been nine or ten years old; the girl sleuth in the story is 13. At that time in my life I had never seen the ocean, let alone studied ocean navigation. (Still have not done the latter.) But also, the instrument at the heart of the story, the octant, was originally invented around 1699 and produced in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries until superseded by the more familiar sextant. I’d never heard of such a thing. The description and history of the octant fascinated me. For me, then, the octant itself would have been a mystery, even had it not disappeared.

We see very little of the inner life of characters in this story — only a hint, now and then, of Posy’s thoughts, no one else’s. There are no murders, no dead bodies, no guns or knives or other weapons. No characters are involved in flirtations, let alone love affairs, doomed or otherwise. The most vivid “character,” if I may put it that way, is the ocean itself. The story opens with a foretaste of the ocean’s violence, violence that reappears, magnified, in the form of the hurricane that blows through several chapters, bringing various other characters together and the story to its surprisingly undramatic conclusion. I am tempted to summarize the finale, but that would constitute a spoiler.

Local sweet water equivalent: Lake Michigan

Many of the author’s books are now in public domain and available as cheap paperback reprints ($9-10 range). Some were published earlier in paperback by Scholastic. Note that The Vanishing Octant Mystery was published 1949, which is 70 years ago, so will it be coming into public domain this year? I don’t have an answer, but a signed first edition with worn, chipped dust jacket is offered by one bookseller for $327, and another, not signed but priced at $80 online, is described as follows: No dust jacket. Ex-library. Cover is bumped to boards on corners, spine tips are missing, spine is faded, cover is rubbed with water spots on front. Front binding is loose. When you are looking at descriptions of books online and can’t hold them in your hands to examine, it’s imperative to understand the grading system — and, if possible, to know and trust the dealer from whom you’re buying. As my copy (not ex-library) is much better than the $80 book online, I’m pricing mine at $100. 
In the story, Posy’s father explains to his housekeeper the instrument his daughter saw in the surf in these words: 

“[It’s] … an old instrument they used to have on ships, to sight the sun with at noon every day and get their positions, like they do now with a newer kind called a sextant. This one was an earlier kind called an octant. They don’t use octants any more, and they are considered rare.”
There are enough copies of The Vanishing Octant Mystery available online that I wouldn’t call it rare, but it is fairly scarce. As I say, I haven’t seen a copy since the 1950s, and since entering the book business I’ve been looking for favorite old titles in bookstores, thrift shops, and antique stores, at estate sales and garage sales. 

It’s always exciting when the wind and waves toss up something I never expected to see again. So I can’t help imagining some unsuspecting browser in my bookstore suddenly coming upon this book — or another from his or her past — and exclaiming over it in delight. It’s like finding treasure on the beach. Serendipity! That thrill of discovery is difficult to match with online searches, and I know, because I’ve done plenty of those, too, over the years. 

Sunday, October 6, 2019

We Get Each Other Through

More than one person in Northport (and you all know who you are!) has told me that my "Books in Northport" posts help them get through the winter, largely because those winter posts in recent years have originated in southeast Arizona. There the Artist and I rent a simple little one-room cabin in a mountain ghost town, where it does occasionally snow but where we need not shovel or plow. I call my unstructured time and adventures in the mountains and high desert a “seasonal retirement,” possible only because so many loyal longtime customers and adventuring new bookstore customers get me through the spring, summer, and fall in Northport. In my eighth decade of life (yes!) and with two younger sisters retired, I do not apologize for taking winters off. I have earned them.

Leelanau County winter

Cochise County winter

My old garden
My first bookstore in Northport was an uninsulated, unheated shed, fine for warm weather, that is, for summer and early fall. Next I tried a Union Street location in Traverse City and hung on for three summers and the intervening two winters, missing my Leelanau County life the whole time. So I went back once again to Northport -- closer to home -- first in yet another unheated, insulated building, but told my new landlord, “I’m in this for the long haul.” That return to Northport was in 1997, and I’ve been here ever since. Three different locations (two with my "long haul" landlord) but all right here in the village. In retrospect, the time has gone by quickly.

Winter on Waukazoo Street, 2016
For many years Dog Ears Books was open through the cold, lonely months of January, February, and March, when I had to take on part-time work elsewhere to keep the bookstore heat on. Copy-editing, book reviewing, substitute teaching, tutoring, cleaning, picking apples — my checkered supplemental employment varied from one year to the next. Over the years, also, I’ve given various answers to the question (which, by the way, I hate), “How do you stay in business?” For a while, I told people the secret was to have “low expectations,” i.e., no one goes into bookselling to get rich! Then I started saying (and it’s true) that I am a very stubborn person and don’t give up easily. 

Now, after 26 years, my answer is simpler: 

How do I stay in business? What keeps my bookstore alive from one year to the next? "I sell books." It’s that simple. There is no trust fund backing me up, no wealthy investors riding on my coattails. It’s true that I don’t expect to get rich and that I’m stubborn, but the absolute bottom line for the continued existence of Dog Ears Books is sales of books. Expanding my selection of new books, focusing more on Michigan writers, and finally making the leap into accepting credit cards have all helped, but the bottom line is still selling books.

106 Waukazoo Street
It's selling books, also, that keeps “Books in Northport” going. This blog has been around since 2007. It’s free for the reading, and I’m happy to help anyone get through the winter, whether they spend the season in Northport or flee to warmer climes. So when the locals who say I help them “get through the winter” come around in spring, summer, and fall to buy books from me, our meetings are warm and happy, whatever the weather, because they appreciate my blog and my bookstore, and I appreciate the fact that they read “Books in Northport” and purchase their books at Dog Ears Books. More than words are involved on both sides: the commitments we have made, we remake and honor one day at a time, year after year. I would be nowhere without the friends and customers who support my bookstore with their loyal patronage, and if my author events and my blog posts and the presence of my bookstore in the village are meaningful to the community, I am happy to continue doing my part.

Looking down Nagonaba to the east

Northport has come a long way from the bleak years of the late 1990s. Businesses have come and gone in that time, as one would expect anywhere, but it feels as if we’re in a pretty good place these days, still small and relatively quiet, yet vibrant and happy, and I’m happy to be part of a small town that continues to support --along with a beautiful harbor, a K-12 school, welcoming library, friendly post office, bank, and grocery store — a small but healthy smattering of restaurants and retail establishments. 

One town in our county  (Empire) recently lost its only grocery store, another (Cedar) will be losing its bank before this month is out, and I realize, once again, that the success of any small town resides in no single business or institution but is dependent on a kind of critical mass. It seems we have achieved that in Northport after years of struggle and hard work. Now the challenge will be to keep what we have, both the success and the friendly, small town atmosphere (and natural environment).

Anyway, thank you, Northport! I'm glad to have put my bookstore roots down in this welcoming community all those years ago and grateful to all of you who support Dog Ears Books, locals or visitors.

Welcome, visitors to Northport!

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Goodness in the Work of Toni Morrison

In an essay on “Goodness,” published in the September 8, 2019, issue of the New York Times Book Review, the late author Toni Morrison wrote of her search for goodness in American literature of the 19th and 20th century. She found that, generally speaking, with the exception of satirical works such as Don Quixote and Candide, it was evil that inspired writers to “vivid language” and gained for them a “blockbuster audience.” Those novels of earlier times ended, however, with redemption and the restoration of order, virtue its own reward in the triumph of the long-beleaguered protagonist. 

Twentieth-century novelists gave us very different stories. 
The movement away from happy endings or the enshrining of good over evil was rapid and stark after World War I. That catastrophe was too wide, too deep to ignore or to distort with a simplistic gesture of goodness. 

As was always true in her fiction, Morrison uses forceful, succinct, and vivid language to express her findings on good and evil in literature. “Evil grabs the intellectual platform and its energy,” she notes. 
It hogs the stage. Goodness sits in the audience and watches, assuming it even has a ticket to the show.
She finds modern novels -- again, in general — uninterested in goodness, except to expose “the frailty, the pointlessness, the comedy” of it. The conditional “in general” is important because the importance of Morrison’s own work cannot be overstated, and she herself was very interested in goodness and its role in fiction. 

Searching for definitions of goodness in philosophy and science, she finally narrowed the concept down to altruism and theories of altruism down to three: (1) learned behavior; (2) a form of narcissism; and (3) “instinct,” a genetic predisposition passed down through (genetic) evolution. She turned then to her own work and took examples illustrating the three theories from, respectively, A Mercy; The Bluest Eye; and Sula

Expressions of goodness are never trivial or incidental in my writing. In fact, I want them to have life-changing properties and to illuminate decisively the moral questions embedded in the narrative. It was important to me that none of these expressions be handled as comedy or irony. And they are seldom mute. 

What a breath of fresh air, even in the midst of the most horrible tragedies in literature (horrible because we as readers know such events took place not only in the lives of fictional characters but in our own country’s history), to find goodness given un-ironic voice! Morrison concludes her essay by telling us that “[a]llowing goodness its own speech” is crucial because it allows a character to learn something, “something vital and morally insightful….” Articulating goodness is an expression of, as well as a means to, self-knowledge. 
Such insight has nothing to do with winning, and everything to do with the acquisition of knowledge. Knowledge on display in the language of moral clarity — of goodness.

I had reached the next-to-last page of the first section of Morrison’s novel Beloved when her essay came serendipitously into my hands. I think Paul D’s words of judgment would have leaped off the page at me, anyway, but there’s no saying for sure. Anyway, Sethe is telling him that her act of violence against her children worked, in that it kept them from being returned to the plantation where she (before her escape) and others had been violated. Paul D insists she should have found some other way to save her babies. 
“There could have been a way. Some other way.”  
“What way?” 
“You got two feet, Sethe, not four,” he said, and right then a forest sprang up between them, trackless and quiet. 
Is Paul D’s articulation of a moral difference between human beings and animals without language an expression of moral clarity? Does it enlarge his self-knowledge at the time of his speaking the words?

Paul D had only come to know what Sethe had done when Stamp Paid, the self-named man who smuggled other enslaved people to freedom, showed him the story in a newspaper. Stamp showed him the paper because he believed in truth and felt Paul D should know the truth of the woman whose life he had re-entered, but afterward he had doubts. He tried to set that truth-telling, going behind Sethe’s back to Paul D, against other “sneaking” things he had done, “always for a clear and holy purpose.” He had sneaked

…runaways into hidden places, secret information to public places. Underneath his legal vegetables were the contraband humans that he ferried across the river. Even the pigs he worked in the spring served his purposes. Whole families lived on the bones and guts he distributed to them. He wrote their letters and read to them the ones they received. He knew who had dropsy and who needed stovewood; which children had a gift and which needed correction….

In other words, Stamp Paid was a good man. But was telling Paul D what Sethe had done a good thing, as he believed it was when he did it?

Afterward—not before—he considered Sethe’s feelings in the matter. And it was the lateness of this consideration that made him feel so bad. 

Motivation is what matters to Morrison, as it did to Kant, in determining goodness. Amy’s apparent kindness to Sethe in caring for her wounds, and Baby Suggs’ seemingly generous neighborhood feast — despite the gentle, effective nursing in the one instance and the joyful sharing in the second — both appear imperfect in the author’s eyes, tainted by pridefulness, illustrating the narcissistic theory of goodness. We don’t see either Amy or Baby Suggs growing in self-knowledge as a result of reflecting on their own behavior, though it seems impossible to say that what either did was not good. Certainly, neither was a bad person. And neither, certainly, was Sethe herself, though her goodness through most of the story can be seen as instinctually motivated. 

Stamp Paid looks to me like the clearest example of goodness, the character who gains the most, articulately, in self-knowledge (his author’s own definition). He not only practiced goodness as a habit (Aristotle’s definition) but reflected on his deeds and their meaning, and in questioning his own motives in revealing Sethe’s story to Paul D, he created his own opportunity for further moral growth. 

Sethe and Paul D take longer to open themselves to self-knowledge, but who can blame them? It’s a long road because they have had so much pain and are protecting themselves from more until, finally, their shared past allows them to face a future together and to see not only themselves but each other in new and important ways.

I haven’t told you anything really about the story, because that you should read for yourself. Beloved is one of the most powerful American novels ever written, Toni Morrison an outstanding American writer. And for me her literary investment in “making sure acts of goodness … produce language” is as important as her command of language itself. 

Go elsewhere for superficial cleverness or smart irony. Come to Toni Morrison’s work for clarity, truth, and fiction to help you grow your soul.

Monday, September 30, 2019

“Nor Iron Bars a Cage”

The sky was overcast at first as I walked around Northport on Saturday morning, but well before the official beginning of Leelanau UnCaged (11 a.m.) the sun broke through — Hooray! — and spirits that were already high with anticipation took flight all over town. The idea for Leelanau UnCaged came years ago from Andy Thomas, a John Cage fan, which I admit I have never been, in general — not a fan of his art, at any rate, but there is room in the world for all kinds of art, and the Cage quotes around town speak encouragement to all:
Just learned that Susan Ager painted this sign. Thank you!
Getting ready!
Then it began in earnest, and throughout the village there was music, dancing, and drumming, and there were artists and craftspeople and vendors of all manner of food and beverage. I was in my bookstore all day, from 10 a.m. to nearly 9 p.m., but happy to be there, where the day’s first excitement came when UPS delivered an extraordinary flower lei all the way from Hawaii for my author guest of the day. Next Nancy Peterson’s son and one of her daughters delivered Nancy’s book, which began selling even before the author’s stated signing time began and continued throughout the day. 

Nancy Peterson and daughter Nina Muller

Nancy visiting with customers for her memoir
Nancy herself was lovely and gracious and smiling and photogenic, as always, and it was a joy to see the enormous turnout for her event and the gratifying number of people buying her book.

And that, in general, is how I spent the entire day: selling books and visiting with customers and friends. Through the big front windows I could watch vendors and strolling fair-goers, and I could see the light change hour by hour. That is to say that I did not feel in the least “caged” on my little treasure island. “Nuns fret not,” after all. I am living my chosen life, and it was absolutely lovely to see and feel and share the happiness that filled our little village on Saturday.

Thank you to all the organizers and volunteers and participants for yet another fabulous Leelanau Uncaged! It just gets better and better every year! 

Friday was rainy. Sunday was rainy. Saturday was a beautiful window of sunshine for Northport's annual festival of the arts and of life in general, and on Monday morning I caught a glimpse of something I hadn't seen two days before. Who is responsible for this wonderful little sand castle on the lot of the old restaurant, the lot awaiting its next incarnation? The castle promises future delights, and Northport will be ready.

Postscript: For the Richard Lovelace poem from which today's title is taken, see here. For another work expressing similar thoughts and from which I took the phrase "Nuns fret not," see William Wordsworth's poem here

Monday, September 23, 2019

Other People's Lives

A local friend who is now a new author will be signing her new book in my shop next Saturday (9/28, 1-3 p.m.), and Nancy brought me an early copy of her memoir this past Saturday. My husband and her late husband were friends. Patrick and David appreciated one another’s minds and enjoyed sharing conversation and occasional short road expeditions close to home. David and I were not altogether blind to the fact that Nancy and Patrick’s marriage had problems (whose doesn’t?), and they in turn were aware that we had been through plenty of drama ourselves. When I began reading the first few pages of Nancy’s book aloud to the Artist, however, we were blindsided by its revelations.

Nancy’s Peterson’s memoir, Dear Husband: Letters to an Addict, opened our eyes to a personal world that we had never suspected about this attractive couple we saw regularly around the village and once in a while (although only a couple of times in each other’s homes) on social occasions. We thought we knew them. It turns out we knew only the merest fraction of their personal, marital, and family world. 

Others knew more, as is apparent in some of Peterson’s “letters,” which are in fact ongoing journal entries she began addressing to her husband in September of 2009 and continued until after his death in October 2016. What is also apparent, though, is that even close friends, knowing of the husband’s alcohol and drug addictions, had trouble understanding why Nancy chose to remain in the marriage. 

But that’s just it. We only see other people’s lives from the outside. Others may confide in us, but we have only their reports, never their experience. We never know anyone else’s family from the inside — or even our own family from the experience of the other members of it!  And the same is true for other people’s marriages. Going deeper, Nancy Peterson’s memoir reminds us that within the marriage itself, between two people who may love each other deeply and passionately, ignorance and mystery always remain. And ignorance and mystery contribute to a world of misunderstanding and pain — though perhaps in other ways they shore up and make possible continued commitment and recurring delight. 

From a mood of resentment, the spouse appears in one guise; from a mood of desire, quite another; in a spirit of generous appreciation, something else again, and so on. Where in these various, varying perceptions is reality

No one is simple. Everyone is a mystery. 

Someone I know felt impatience for years with friends suffering from depression until she experienced depression herself during pregnancy. It was beyond her control, and that alone was a striking lesson. Now when she is in a grocery store and witnesses a young child having a screaming meltdown, instead of blaming the mother for bad parenting, she tells herself the child may be autistic, and both child and mother may be doing the best they can.

We are all mysteries, even to ourselves.

Once, long ago, an acquaintance asked me if I thought a third person we both knew might have mental health problems. “I’m not a good judge of what’s normal,” I replied. Growing up the oldest daughter of an alcoholic father also diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I had not found in eighteen years of  family life a solid baseline reading of normality to apply in later life. During spells of darkness, I questioned my own mental health.

My father found his manic-depressive illness an endless source of fascination and loved to talk about it. He would also periodically abuse his prescription medication to maintain the “high” that inspired him to do things such as book a flight from Chicago to Los Angeles on a whim or buy drinks for everyone in a strange bar or, or, or…. He denied his alcoholism for years (if he ever admitted it, I was not informed), aided by convenient misreading of a brochure he was given during one of his periodic hospitalizations, a brochure containing a checklist of maybe a dozen warning signs of alcoholism, taking the form “Do you ever do such-and-such?” My father’s interpretation of the questions was that only someone who answered yes to every item was an alcoholic. He never hid bottles, so could answer no to one of the questions; therefore, he was not an alcoholic and had no problem.

At my mother’s insistence, she and my father once legally separated, but before the waiting period was up that would have granted a divorce, her minister persuaded my mother to forgive and try again to save the marriage, and my parents remained together until my father’s death. In time, advancing age brought a leveling-off of drama. As time went by, my father could no longer drive and so could not disappear for hours or days on end. As he declined in strength, too, he watched more television and drank less and less. Toward the end, the addition of a pair of kittens to the household gave their last years together a new, entertaining, and joyful focus, distracting them from each other’s often annoying ways and irritating habits. 

What I appreciate most in Nancy Peterson’s story is the way she depicts not only the repeated disappointments, frustrations, and what feel like downright betrayals involved in life with an addicted family member but also the happy occasions and wonderful adventures she and Patrick had as a couple and with their three children. Also, the deep love and appreciation they felt for what was best in each other. Because all of it was real — the joy and the pain —. And because Nancy chose, again and again, to remain with Patrick despite the pain, all five members of the family had opportunities that would otherwise have been lost to face their own individual and mutual demons and to build loving memories of their years together. 

The addict and alcoholic are part of him, but not only him. This man, my choices, our lives together, and the life we built and nurtured in so many ways, are not black and white. They are complicated, intertwined, laden with deep feeling and regard, as well as a shared history. 
- Nancy Peterson, Dear Husband: Letters to an Addict

It’s easy to say, from the outside, that someone else should or should not have stayed in a marriage, but what someone sees from the outside can never be a complete picture. Either way, something’s lost, and something’s gained, and there’s no crystal ball in which to read ultimate outcomes.

Next Saturday will be a lively, busy day in Northport, with streets closed to traffic and art and music and dance and food and craft vendors throughout the village. So come on down, and anytime between 1 and 3 p.m., stop by Dog Ears Books to visit with Nancy Peterson, who will be glad to autograph a book for you. 

Dear Husband: Letters to an Addict could have been a bitter, tragic story. Instead, it is an ultimately celebratory account of one marriage and the adventurous, strong, successful family created by two imperfect human beings.

And, friends, aren’t we all imperfect, every single one of us?

Patrick and Nancy, together

P.S. 10/1/2019 - You can see photos of Nancy at her signing here, as well as more about a fabulous Saturday in Northport. 

Friday, September 20, 2019

Back to -- the World?

Back on home ground
Although I took two books along on our four-day, post-Labor Day getaway, one kept me occupied during my few hours of vacation reading, and it was only back home again that I turned to the second, another book set in France, this one stories by the poet W. S. Merwin of the countryside in which he lived for many years. He called it The Lost Upland. I'm now over halfway through the three long stories in that book.

I first thought of titling this post “Back to Reality,” then argued with myself over the tentative choice. After all, even the one September we spent a couple of nights of Mackinac Island, a place the Artist maintained was “not the real world,” my take on it was that people live there, work and raise families there, and that makes it as much “the real world” as anywhere else, even if the island economy is based on tourism. And the Lake Huron shore towns and cities do not begin to match Mackinac Island for quaintness or isolation, so we were only away, briefly, from our own responsibilities and schedules.

Vacation from reality? I was the one, not the territory we visited, taking as much of a break from present-day American life as possible. By seeking out with him my husband’s departed forebears in cemeteries and museums and churches, plunging into the area history of shipping and lumbering and early farming, and pausing to linger over long-abandoned rural sites where only the mice and bees are busy these quiet fall days, I picked up books, postcards, ephemera — but never a newspaper. When the Artist turned on television news at night in a motel room, my earplugs let me roam ancient peasant roads with Alain-Fournier’s fictional characters. I had a little bookselling talk here and there when meeting colleagues in the field, and that was fine. I really did not want to hear a word about what was happening in Washington, D.C. Time enough for that when we resumed our normal lives.

Then the Artist picked up a newspaper, and the world intruded. But it was not the outside world! It was conflict and hostility within the very territory that had been absorbing our attention and screening out, for me, angry political voices elsewhere! And here’s that little story.

One of the small towns we had planned to seek out was Posen, where the Artist’s mother, at the age of 17, had once had a memorable and amusing date in Posen. It was a story she loved to tell. So we wanted to visit the town and also look up her brother’s Lutheran church, his first church when he finished seminary. Posen had had its annual Potato Festival the week before, and I was somewhat disappointed that we couldn’t have experienced that — until we read the newspaper account.

Apparently one political party had more or less hijacked the Potato Festival Parade and turned it into a partisan political rally, and the other political party naturally and vociferously objected, but what was done was done. Small towns don’t get too much smaller than Posen. Still, differences of opinion don’t need a large population, and a week after the festival sore feelings still rankled and would not easily be laid to rest. 

Oh, brother! Now I was glad we had missed the festival! The story even took away a little of my jones to venture away from the shore in search of the little town, but we went ahead and found it. The church turned out to be on the edge of Metz, three or four miles away, a town so much smaller than Posen that it seems to contain not a single going business concern, its claim to fame still the fire that destroyed it in 1908. We took a few photographs at the church and went on our way. It was a grey, overcast, drizzly day, and I imagined the few remaining residents of Posen and Metz, indoors in their houses, whether raucously celebrating victory or stewing resentfully over indignities, still consumed with their little country farm-festival-turned-political-conflict. In its small way, the story struck me as tragic. I saw my country torn apart in the Sixties, and it is painful to see battle lines drawn again between groups of Americans.

Change of scene: I keep in touch with my Arizona ghost town neighbors by text, e-mail, and Facebook, and the most recent thread of conversation among us was not about hummingbirds or rain but about giant agribusiness livestock confinement facilities in the Sulphur Springs Valley and consequent severe drops in the water table. The basic story wasn’t news to me. All of us have seen those confined cattle on the Kansas Settlement Road, and falling water table and failed wells have been in Cochise County news for years. The link one neighbor sent, however, moves the story from “same old” to brink of catastrophe. I watched that news story all the way through, and it's a heart-breaker.

I find it bitterly ironic that traditional ranchers who chafed at any kind of government regulation, who wanted no one telling them how many cows they could run or how much water they could use, may soon be put out of business by corporate giants who saw an opening and grabbed it. No limit to numbers of animals? Good, we can cram in thousands on a few acres! All the water we can pump? Great, we’ll put down wells as deep as two Empire State Buildings! Your little 200-foot well on your little forty acres has run dry, and you can’t afford a new well? Sorry! This is how free enterprise works!

Another change of scene: I’m not on vacation now and am looking reality in its sometimes smug, too often self-satisfied face again (politics, stripping of environmental protections, etc.), but when I wake up at three in the morning I still turn to something other than news, which brings me back to W. S. Merwin and The Lost Upland. As I was reading there in the quiet, peaceful dark, thoughts of my own emerged, sparked by the book. European countries, I was thinking, have never had what they could mistake as limitless frontiers. Farmers there have always had to take care of the land they had. The countries themselves are small. Their limits, I was thinking, have been their salvation.

And then I reached a series of episodes in the story Merwin called “Shepherds.” Yes, the relentless engine of change was already bulldozing its way into southwest rural France, in the form of multi-story confinement sheep facilities. Certain local factions considered the confinement “cruel,” but that was “a minor argument about the new ‘industrial’ barns,” one dismissed as “sentimental.” Inevitable pollution could not be so easily brushed aside. 

The statistics differed depending on who supplied them, but they agreed that many thousands of sheep, over a period of months until they attained the desired weight, would eat, evacuate, and eventually bleed, and that the results would have to be removed continuously. And for this, the developers maintained, they must have water. It must come in clean, which was not difficult along the valley with its small clear crayfish streams winding through woods. On the downstream side of the new barns the current would emerge full of the warm contents of bowels, bladders, and veins of lambs and sheep fattened on chemically souped-up feed.  
- W. S. Merwin, The Lost Upland
But there was no stopping the engine. Those pushing for “progress” wanted municipal slaughterhouses in nearby towns closed, as their businesses would be vertically integrated and process animals from conception to the market. Historic old roads and bridges would need to be destroyed to make way for wide, modern truck routes. A web of connections linked the “modern farmers,” as they saw themselves, to governmental officials and large chain grocery stores. Eventually even the conservative peasants were carried along by the tide of “progress.”
They moved reluctantly, helplessly, resentfully into debt and the use of unknown forces that they had been told were bettering them and that they knew were taking them over and would obliterate them.

Nevertheless, those who could afford to do so took to keeping two separate flocks of sheep, a commercial flock raised on chemicals and inside buildings, and a smaller flock raised the old way, pastured, for family consumption and for sale to discriminating restaurateurs. Merwin says nothing about fresh water for the flocks moved from pasture to pasture. In what sense was the upland “lost”? It still sounds quite charming in this lithub piece, though clearly no longer affordable to a college student putting himself through school by waiting tables and saving money by wearing secondhand clothes.

I tried this morning to work Esau into the American story of polluted and lost natural resources, but it felt like too far a stretch. It does seem to me, though, that Americans think of freedom not only as a birthright and an absolute but also in pragmatic terms, as a means to increased wealth. Thus in our greedy determination to have no limits whatsoever on our freedom and property rights, we too easily forget that natural resources are themselves limited, that the earth is finite. I suppose a southeastern Arizona homesteader could haul water for household use and maybe even to support a couple of feeder cattle for home consumption, but for how long? And where will future pottage come from when the resources bought by the birthright are gone? 

Pragmatism is not pragmatism when it doesn't work. And there is no "getting away." We are still here, and we still have to live together, one way or another. Or go extinct. For now I continue with the Merwin book, even as I can no longer consider it escape reading.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Part III and the End of Our Wandering (For the Time Being)

Pine River Motel, Cheboygan, Michigan
Cheboygan with a ‘c’ is in Michigan, Sheboygan with an ’s’ in Wisconsin. Both are white European spellings of an Ojibway word, but which one? Does the name come the word for "passage between lakes," "sewing needle," or "place of ore"?

The Artist’s memories of a long-ago night spent on the edge of Cheboygan were unlovely, and so when the two of us had subsequently passed the same way we did so quickly. This time was different. To begin with (and it was a happy beginning), we found the motel pictured at the top of this post, where we had a clean, comfortable, roomy but cozy room and there was plenty of space outside, well off the highway, to walk a dog. We had our choice of restaurants in close range. If only we’d had in-room coffee, I could have stayed for a week, before even seeing the town itself. Initially the Artist was not so sure. He didn’t remember there being “much to see” in Cheboygan. But he agreed to give it a chance. 

We found a long Main Street lined with businesses, many of them open even on a quiet September morning. Alice’s Restaurant fell somewhat short on its “best coffee” claim; breakfast, however, was nothing short of delicious. You already know we visited the bookstore, because I gave that away in Part I of my story. What really captured our hearts, though, was the Lake Huron shoreline at Cheboygan — like a shoreline in a dream, it was, all reedy and undulating, with parks and open space and a long boardwalk out to a viewing platform.

Cheboygan, like Alpena, is confusing to navigate, since its shoreline and river mouth conspire to make a regular prairie grid impossible for more than a few blocks. For true wanderers, of course, irregularity of layout adds interest. So did the town’s houses, churches, and other buildings, both historic and modern. We were glad to see the original Carnegie Library now being used for cultural events and to find a big new library not far away.

Old Carnegie Library

New public library

My guess is that the old church now called “Huron Street Tabernacle” is the old St. Charles Catholic Church. Just a guess, but an active Catholic Church we saw as we were coming into town, with the name St. Mary’s above the door, is now St. Mary’s/St. Charles, so — . In any case, the Tabernacle is in rough shape.

Huron Street Tabernacle

St. Mary/St. Charles
I did not photograph any of the old mansions or the fabulous old horse chestnut trees we found. Sometimes I need to let my eyes and mind make their memories unaided. But we wandered and circled and poked around until we found ourselves on a road leading out of town, past what looked like an old schoolhouse.

Outside town --
When I consulted the map, I saw that we could stay on that road south until we reached an east-west road that would take us over to Alanson, so that’s what we decided to do. Back on familiar territory, we were happy to stop for coffee at the Dutch Oven Bakery in Alanson (now that was the best coffee anywhere on our trip), and I went a little nuts making purchases before we left — bread (David’s choice), plum bread (out of this world!), jams, and a terrific little spice cookie made there called dry bones, which are very delicious and quite addictive. Beware!

Dry Bones from Dutch Oven Bakery, Allison, Michigan
We made one last exploratory stop down the road at King Orchards for apples, and if I hadn’t been so unrestrained at the Dutch Oven Bakery I could have spent much more than three dollars at the orchard store. There’s not much better than a Michigan apple, though, unless it’s a whole bag of apples, and that bag was all we needed to get through the rest of our last day of travel.

Small glimpse of all that's outside

Little taste of what's inside
So we did not get over the Bridge this time. But getting away doesn’t have to mean going terribly far or staying away for a long time. Four days can suffice and did for us this September. Besides, close to home, a couple of hours are often enough to refresh our spirits….

Road to Cedar -- always a good county cruise....