The power of language

 

The Poet & the Patriot pub in Santa Cruz on St. Patrick's Day. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015

The Poet & the Patriot pub in Santa Cruz on St. Patrick’s Day. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015

Language and the stories we tell about our relationships to homelands and new found lands has been on my mind. Sitting in the pub on Saint Patrick’s Day surrounded by the din of good cheer, shamrocks, and a pint of stout, I heard above the fray, a few stanzas of my favorite Irish ballad The Maid of Coolmore.

The first time I met her, she passed me by, the next time I met her, she bade me good-bye. But the last time I met her, she grieved my heart so, for she sailed down from Ireland away from Coolmore. To the north of America my love I’ll search for, for there I know no one, nor no one knows me. But should I not find her, I’ll return home no more, like a pilgrim I will wander for the maid of Coolmore

Forced to flee their homeland because of famine, the Irish immigrated to America in the 1840s bringing little but the language in their songs. The great historian Oscar Handlin wrote in his 1952 Pulitzer Prize winning book The Uprooted “only in Dublin did I discover something and that not what I expected – not the documents in the libraries, not the sight of Bloom’s city, but the lilt of the Irish language everywhere adding a magical intonation to the words, so that never again could I read a line of the writing without hearing the resonance of actual speakers’ voices, without knowing the presence of persons long gone-by but real.” With this groundbreaking book, Handlin changed how we speak about and write our nation’s story and in so doing he changed how we see ourselves in and on this land. Regardless of origin, “the common experience was one of wrenching hardship and alienation and a gradual assimilation…that changed the country as much as it changed the newcomers.” The American story was no longer the myth of the Wild West, but the idea that we were a nation of immigrants. In Handlin’s words “once I thought to write a history of the immigrant in America. Then I discovered the immigrants were American history.”

Tomales Bay looking north from Point Reyes Station, charcoal sketch. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015.

Tomales Bay looking north from Point Reyes Station, charcoal sketch. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015.

Last weekend, I had the great good fortune to attend Geography of Hope a biennial conference held by Point Reyes Books fostering discussion about the relationship between people and the land. The 2015 conference focused on Women and the Land, and the panelist’s made clear the power of language to assign status or empower the powerless. The keynote speaker Robin Wall Kimmerer insightfully connected the objectification of women and the land; “when language objectifies, ascribing the status “it” we loose all responsibility. It is a convenient linguistic imperialism” that allows us to exploit and destroy instead of learning from and living with a land and it’s people. Kimmerer, a scientist, member of the Potawatomi tribe, and author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, called for the restoration of sacred language protocols with values of reciprocity and stewardship. Reading  the Poem When Earth Became An It, by the Cherokee poet Marilou Awiakta, Kimmerer said

“When the people call the Earth “Mother,” they take with love and with love they get back, so that all may live. When the people call Earth “it,” they use her, consume her strength. Then the people die. Already the sun is hot out of season. Our Mother’s breast is going dry. She is taking all green into her heart and will not turn back until we call her by her name.”

Tomales Bay looking north from Point Reyes Station, watercolor. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015

Tomales Bay looking north from Point Reyes Station, watercolor. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015

One panel asked the question what are the gifts and responsibilities of women in the work against carbon catastrophe? Lauret Savoy, Professor of Environmental Studies and Geology at Mount Holyoke spoke about Wangari Maathai, first Kenyan woman to receive a Ph.D., founder of the Greenbelt Movement, and recipient of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. Recognizing that women are the primary caretakers of their families and their environment, Maathai established the Greenbelt Movement to plant trees and preserve watersheds, strengthening local communities’ capacity to take action against climate change; advocate for an end to government policies supporting land grabbing, deforestation and corruption; and advocate for gender livelihoods (recognizing that women’s work was critical to family survival – imagine that!). According to Savoy, Maathai’s work illustrates how cultural diversity and biodiversity are intertwined; because there is a wealth of knowledge to be tapped in people’s knowledge of the land, and their stories, their language about the land, restoring the environment goes hand-in hand with restoring cultural integrity.

Savoy also co-edited the book Colors of Nature: Culture Identity and the Natural World which features an essay by Jamaica Kincaid In History. Kincaid begins the essay asking “what to call the thing that happened to me and all who look like me? Should I call it history? If so, what should history mean to someone like me? Should it be an idea, should it be an open wound and each breath I take in and expel healing and opening the wound again and again…or is it a moment that began in 1492 and has come to no end yet?” Kincaid’s essay clearly evokes the power of language as she describes Christopher Columbus’ discovery “he couldn’t find enough words to describe what he saw before him: the people were new, the flora and fauna were new, the way the water met the sky was new, this world itself was new, it was the New World…to have knowledge of things, one must first give them a name.” Botanists from the Old World quickly began to organize the fauna. “The plants…had two names: they had a common name, that is, the name…assigned to them by people for whom these plants have value; and then they have a proper name, or a Latin name…assigned to them by an agreed-upon group of botantists…the invention of the system has been a good thing. Its narrative would begin this way: in the beginning the vegetable kingdom was chaos; people everywhere called the same things by a name that made sense to them, not by a name that they arrived at but by an objective standard. But who has interest in an objective standard? Who would need one? It makes me ask again what to call the thing that happened to me and all who look like me? Should I call it history?” Language give us the power to reimagine our destiny and rebuild our world.

 

 

From this valley

View of Half Dome in Yosemite Valley. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014.

View of Half Dome in Yosemite Valley. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014.

From this valley they say you are going…we will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile…for they say you are taking the sunshine…that has brightened our path for a while.” These are lines from Red River Valley, a song heard throughout John Ford’s classic film of the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath, and the melancholy theme for the Joad family’s hard-travelin’ exodus from dustbowl Oklahoma. Tenant farmers, the Joads head to California hoping for a better life, forced from their home by drought and economic hardship. With a few days off in early November, I am driving there and back, crisscrossing my great state of California from Santa Cruz to Nipomo, Los Angeles to Fresno, and Yosemite to Oakland. The many legs of my journey take me through the Central Coast, the Los Angeles Basin, the Central Sierras, and the Central Valley. The land is parched, thirsting for rain and relief from a multi-year drought; and Chicano, Latino and Mexican-American agricultural workers — immigrants and migrants – who came to California hoping for a better life, populate much of this land.

In the fields of the Pajaro Valley, near Watsonville in Monterey County, artichokes, strawberries and cole crops like Brussels sprouts and cauliflower are tended and harvested. Farther down the road, I arrive in yet another important agricultural county, San Luis Obispo, where avocados, citrus, and vegetables are grown. As I drive by the workers in the field, Gloria Anzaldua’s words from her book Borderlands: La Frontera ring in my ears: “To live in the Borderlands means you are neither hispana india negra espanola, ni gabacha, eres mestizo, mulata, half-breed caught in the crossfire between camps while carrying all five races on your back not knowing which side to turn to, run from…”

Today migrants of the borderlands make these agricultural riches possible, but some fifty years ago, “Okies” migrants from the 1930s dustbowl tended the crops of this county. Working in Nipomo, Dorothea Lange documented this earlier migration and plight of the workers in her famous Great Depression photograph of the “Migrant Mother.”

Further down the road, I reach Kern County in the San Joaquin Valley where, Buck Owens Boulevard crosses Highway 58, which leads to the Cesar Chavez National Memorial in Keene. The child of Texas sharecroppers driven out by dust and the Depression, Buck Owens found seasonal work following the crops from Gila Bend, Arizona through the Imperial and San Joaquin Valleys of California. Growing up listening to Mexican border radio stations and Baptist gospel songs, Buck made Bakersfield his home and became famous for singing the story of the “Okie” migrants who came to find work in the farms and oilfields of Central California. Owen’s contributions and the work of Merle Haggard are chronicled in Gerald Haslam’s Workin’ Man’s Blues: Country Music in California. Ironically, just a few miles south of the road memorializing Owens is the final resting place of Cesar Chavez at the headquarters of the United Farm Workers (UFW) who started and led the farm workers’ movement to give voice to the next generation of poor and disenfranchised agricultural workers.

 

 

Or maybe the coast of Cal-i-forn

Monterey coastline. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014.

A traveller walking the Monterey coastline. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014.

Santa Cruz ahead and Monterey behind, we cycled through coastal farmland on yet another rainless winter day a couple of weekends ago. Here in drought stricken California, the Monterey Bay shimmers beside us and the air is sweet, replenishing my body with every breath. It is nearing the end of a sunny day, high clouds above us, but distant hills are taking on a hazy quality and we are glad it’s only a few more miles to retrieve our cars. I feel a strange guilt and paradox. It is beautiful, but it should be raining. We are training for the Strawberry Fields Forever ride, a fundraising event sponsored by Cyclists for Cultural Exchange dedicated to the “express purpose of furthering peace and international understanding through exchanges between people with a common interest in cycling.” An unusual and wonderful goal! As happy as riding makes me, I am nagged by the lack of rain. We need a strong steady downpour to quench this parched land. My mind jumps months on the calendar knowing I’ll be cycling some of these same roads in June when more than two thousand of us ride in the AIDS/Lifecycle from San Francisco to Los Angeles.  Excited about the long journey in June and that my fundraising is helping people with HIV/AIDS, I know the route to Los Angeles will take me through my beloved golden brown California landscape. Oh, but how I hope we get more rain and soon.

Putting those thoughts aside, I reach the crest of a small hill. About a mile ahead, a man, dressed in black, is pulling a shopping cart; a mystery considering there is no grocery store in sight for miles…no strip malls, box stores, houses or anything of the kind remotely close. The rich farming fields of Monterey County envelope us, a land where artichokes, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, and strawberries grow readily. Reaching his side, I note his tiredness and resignation, but I grasp this young man in his dirty Superman t-shirt is on an epic journey. He is not homeless, he is without home. Hoping my last Clif Bar will ease some of his sadness, he tells me his name is Lawrence. He describes leaving San Diego some weeks ago, “Life got messed up. It was time to walk…walk a long time…leave it all behind me…I’m going to Washington State. The walk will make it better. But Big Sur was rough. I barely survived.” Reaching into my pocket, I pull out a twenty, giving it to him as I shake his hand hoping the gesture will get him a little farther down the road and a few steps closer to finding home. I wish you well Lawrence wherever the road takes you.

It was time to return to my own odyssey. As my bike put space between us, I began to sing Bob Dylan’s Farewell, a tune lingering with me since seeing the Coen brother’s Inside Llewelyn Davis. I hope Lawrence strikes it lucky on the highway goin’ west.

“Oh it’s fare thee well my darlin’ true,
I’m leavin’ in the first hour of the morn.
I’m bound off for the bay of Mexico
Or maybe the coast of Californ.
So it’s fare thee well my own true love,
We’ll meet another day, another time.
It ain’t the leavin’
That’s a-grievin’ me
But my darlin’ who’s bound to stay behind.

Oh the weather is against me and the wind blows hard
And the rain she’s a-turnin’ into hail.
I still might strike it lucky on a highway goin’ west,
Though I’m travelin’ on a path beaten trail.
So it’s fare thee well my own true love,
We’ll meet another day, another time.
It ain’t the leavin’
That’s a-grievin’ me
But my darlin’ who’s bound to stay behind.

Bang the drum slowly

St. Louis Cathedral, Jackson Square facing the Mississippi River. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

St. Louis Cathedral, Jackson Square facing the Mississippi River. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

The night was a feast for the senses. We walked into hot, steamy and packed Vaughns, everybody dancin’, greeted by Kermit Ruffin’s wailing St. James Infirmary. Dan Baum’s book Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death and Life in New Orleans came to mind: “what lit Wil up inside was the music – a ship on the river sounding it’s horn across the Marigny, the clickety-clack of the trains along the Press Street tracks accompanied by the eighth-note ding-ding-ding of the signal lights at Dauphine…the music was all around him and inside him.”

New Orleans, Dan Baum writes, finds itself “perpetually whistling past the graveyard.” It is somehow fitting that St. James Infirmary, a blues single was first recorded by the New Orlean’s trumpeter Louis Armstrong in December 1928.  St. James Infirmary is a death lament, rooted in a 18th century English folk song The Unfortunate Rake. This same ballad inspired the birth of the cowboy dirge the Street’s of Laredo, which in turn inspired Emmylou Harris and Guy Clark to write in memory of Emmylou’s father the poignant Bang the Drum Slowly.  New Orleans jazz funeral bands accompanying a procession to the cemetery typically play dirges and hymns, slow sober songs like Nearer My God to Thee, Old Rugged Cross or St. James Infirmary. The lyrics of the three songs mashup well, a testament to their origin…went down to St. James Infirmary, saw my baby there, sat down on a long white table, so sweet, so cold, so fair…get six jolly cowboys to carry my coffin, get six pretty maidens to bear up my pall, put bunches of roses all over my coffin, roses to deaden the clods as they fall…bang the drum slowly, play the pipe lowly, to dust be returning, from dust we begin.”

In August 2005, just days before hurricane Katrina changed New Orleans forever, I attended the Society of American Archivist’s  (SAA) annual meeting in The Big Easy. Eight years later the archivists returned to honor and engage with the life of this unique American city. The Quarter, six feet above sea level, experienced Katrina as just another hurricane, water rose, and it drained away. But the Lower Ninth Ward on the south side of the canal and below Lake Pontchartrain, was devastated when the levee broke, and an African-American community lay on it’s death bed and nearly passed away. Dan Baum described life across the canal in the Lower Ninth Ward in the mid-20th century as “heaven for newcomers from the country…the lots…big enough for chickens, pigs and even horses…neighbors understood each other…you took care of your family, sat on your porch in the evening, and went to church…a quiet country life right there by good waterfront jobs.” Change is the essence of life, and we must accept this truth. The Lower Ninth Ward will never regain it’s former self, but rebuilding is underway. Organizations like lowernine.org and Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation are putting volunteer energy and funding into creating new homes for the Lower Ninth’s community members. Many archivists participated in SAA’s service day serving as volunteers with lowernine.org during the annual meeting; Bill Ross, Head of Special Collections and Archives at the University of New Hampshire where he teaches a class New Orleans: past, present and future, organized this opportunity working with Lowernine.

Oaks in the Texas State Cemetery.  Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

Oaks in the Texas State Cemetery. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

The last week of August 2013 my stepsister Linda died after a five-year battle with cancer. Linda was a wonderful person:  devoted to her family and friends, fun, and smart…so smart. I know life is about impermanence, but the pain feels so permanent for those that loved her. And so many loved her; she was a much beloved daughter, friend, mother, and wife. Attending her funeral at the graveside in Texas, I remixed (again) and riffed on the lyrics of St. James Infirmary, Streets of Laredo, and Bang the Drum Slowly: let her go, let her go, god bless her…we beat the drum slowly and played the fifth lowly, and bitterly we wept as we bore her along, take her to the valley and lay the sod o’er her, for she’s a young cowgirl and she did no wrong.

Poinciana on Central Avenue

Circuit M.T.G.: Yumiko Koshima, Adrian Turner and Darrell Morgan.  Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

Circuit M.T.G.: Yumiko Koshima, Adrian Turner and Darrell Morgan. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

“Check this out.” I listened closely as Adrian Turner queued up Poinciana by the Ahmad Jamal Trio.  “It’s highly structured and orchestrated…the spaces deliberate, equal to the sounds.”  In his book The History of Jazz, Ted Gioia wrote “Jamal was a harbinger of the future of jazz…his studied use of space influenced Miles Davis and anticipated the later work of Bill Evans…the charm of Jamal’s music came rather from his ability to maintain the swing, emotional conviction, and mood of his music even when playing the fewest notes.” Moments later, Adrian and his friends Darrell Morgan and Yumiko Koshima took up the bass, drums and piano, respectively, and the trio began the hard work of crafting their original compositions into a performance, inspired by the sparse, cool sounds of Ahmad’s piano and his colleagues Vernal Fournier on drums and Israel Crosby on bass (archival film footage of the Ahmad Jamal Trio in 1959 is available on YouTube). Three months later in June 2013 the trio  – Adrian, Darrell and Yumi –  now calling themselves Circuit M.T.G  – are joined by saxaphonist Dereck Mclyn and vocalist Annabel Lee for an evening of jazz and dance called Prime Spirit at ArtShare L.A. (a sanctuary for the arts in downtown Los Angeles providing live/work lofts and spaces for performance and exhibition). Their music is sublime; inspired, I sketch while they perform. It is a perfect evening, and I hope the music never ends; it brings me such joy to experience my good friend Adrian’s art, and although I’ve only briefly spent time with Darrell and Yumi I feel connected to them by experiencing their love for and commitment to jazz.

ArtShare L.A. is near the Fashion District and a couple of blocks from South Central; the steamy hot day is coming to closure as the sun sets behind the high rises of Bunker Hill. There is historical context for jazz performance in this place. In his forward to Central Avenue Sounds, Steven Isoardi, a cultural history writer and oral historian states “from the 1920s through the early 1950s…Central Avenue, extending from downtown Los Angeles south through Watts, was the economic and social center of the black population of a segregated Los Angeles…at night it became a social and cultural mecca, attracting thousands of people from throughout southern California to its eateries, theaters, nightclubs and music venues…this nonstop, vibrant club scene produced some of the major voices in jazz and rhythm and blues and it was the only integrated setting in Los Angeles.”  The book is based on excerpts from the UCLA Oral History Program’s interviews with musicians such as female trumpeter Clora Bryant (who played with Count Basie and Duke Ellington) and Buddy Collette (well known as a member of Chico Hamilton’s quintet).  Looking West at the sunset for a moment I imagine the community, so vibrant in the years just before I was born, documented pictorially in Carolyn Kozo Cole’s Shades of L.A.: Pictures from Ethnic Family Albums and captured by Walter Mosley’s hero Easy Rawlins in a series of novels starting with Devil in a Blue Dress.  Paraphrasing the historian Mina Yang, many factors played a role in the demise of Central Avenue: a downsizing post-WWII economy deprived many African-Americans of jobs; upwardly mobile black families were able to move out of South Central with the U.S. Supreme Court 1948 ruling making housing covenants illegal; and the merger of formerly segregated musician’s unions permitted black musicians to play in venues in other parts of Los Angeles.  But for insight into the role police played in the destruction of the neighborhood read Yang’s article A Thin Blue Line down Central Avenue: The LAPD and the Demise of a Musical Hub.

The Swanton Loop

Swanton Pacific Ranch. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

Swanton Pacific Ranch. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

June and we are blessed again with strawberries. It’s after 5:30PM when I leave work, but the summer sun remains sky high moving towards the solstice. Driving north from Santa Cruz towards Davenport, the Pacific flashes brilliantly on this clear and hot day; along the coast farmers are irrigating their crops. The infinite horizontality brings mindfulness; the day falls away and clarity about the scheme of things returns.  Listening to the Blessed Are album, and I find the Woody Guthrie track Deportee and I softly sing with Joan Baez:

 Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards? Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit? To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil. And be called by no name except “deportees.”

Swanton Berry Farm is my destination. Founded in 1989 by UC Santa Cruz graduate Jim Cochran, Swanton’s is the first commercial organic strawberry farm in California; it is also the first certified organic farm in the United States to sign a labor contract with the United Farm Workers (UFW). The farm stand, where I purchase my two pints of bright red strawberries, proudly displays the UFW flag bearing the black eagle on a field of red.  The UFW was formed as a result of Cesar Chavez’s organizing of Mexican-American and Fillipino American farmworkers to engage in boycotts, hunger strikes and strikes (all based on pacifism) to gain their rights.  The successful 1965 Delano grape strike is the most famous effort. The strawberries are amazing; a delight to see, smell, and taste the sweet and tart delight grown in the sandy soils of the coastline routinely kissed by the sea air. Last year, when Irene Reti’s & Sarah Rabkin’s oral history Cultivating a Movement was published, I read about Jim Cochran’s sustainable practices. Jim described using the Brassica family of plants— broccoli, cauliflower and mustard greens— in crop rotation to improve soil health instead of traditional strawberry farming practices using methyl bromide and Chloropicrin to kill soil disease. At Swanton’s you will never see the plastic covering the fields of commercial growers, indicating chemical fumigation is underway.

This month is also the 38th anniversary of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act that became law on June 5, 1975 giving farm workers the right to collective bargaining and ensuring “peace in the agricultural fields by guaranteeing justice for all agricultural workers and stability in labor relations.” The act allowed union organizers to meet with farm workers in the fields and for farm workers to select representation by unions such as the UFW to engage in collective bargaining to negotiate conditions of employment.

Strawberries. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

Strawberries. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

After purchasing my strawberries, I drive out Swanton Road a beautiful loop curving through the Swanton Pacific Ranch, crossing Scott Creek a riparian corridor for Coho Salmon and Steelhead Trout, and winding through forests of Redwoods, Douglas Fir, and Monterey Pine. Surfers say the waves where Scott Creek estuary greets the ocean are the same as Swami’s Beach in San Diego County. The Ranch is beautiful. The furrows nestled amongst the coastal ecosystem; mankind’s geometric abstractions seeking to tame the wilderness topography. Recently I learned about the plein-air painter Sheridan Lord whose inspiring works are with us in the book Things in Place. Sheridan’s farm paintings are pictures “of breathtaking simplicity: the whole surface is occupied by the towering sky and broad fields, which are separated by a mere strip of trees.” Lord’s paintings evoke the environmental writer Peter Matthiessen who quotes the Ojibwa people in his book Nine-Headed Dragon River writing “sometimes I go about in pity for myself, and all the while a great wind is bearing me across the sky.”  Mindfulness is found in many ways: in a song, in a vista, in a painting, in a koan, or in a strawberry.

Spring Haiku

Asian pear blossom. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler.

Asian pear blossom. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler.

Winter Isa Lei,

Asian pear blossoms,

Ry and Bhatt by the River. *

*References the 1993 album A Meeting By The River, a collaboration by Ry Cooder and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt; the album contains the song “Isa Lei,” the Fijian song of farewell that Ry Cooder learned playing with the renowned Hawaiian slack-key guitarist Gabby Pahinui.  I’ve been listening to Meeting By the River many mornings here in Santa Cruz while watching the beautiful asian pear tree in the garden outside my window greet the Spring.

there’s many a river that waters the land

Springtime along Salado Creek, Texas.  Copyright April 2013 Robin L. Chandler

Springtime. Cottonwoods and willow trees along Salado Creek, Texas. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

“The Rivers of Texas” is an old cowboy song that mentions fourteen rivers in the Lone Star state; Lyle Lovett recorded his version  – The Texas River Song –  on the album Step Inside This House. My good friend Bill tells me Townes Van Zandt also recorded this classic. This excerpt of lyrics comes courtesy of Verne Huser’s book Rivers of Texas:

“We crossed the broad Pecos and we crossed the Nueces, Swam the Guadalupe and followed the Brazos; Red River runs rusty; the Wichita clear. Down by the Brazos I courted my dear…The sweet Angelina runs glossy and glidey; The crooked Colorado flows weaving and winding. The slow San Antonio courses the plain. I will never walk by the Brazos again.”

Nomadic by circumstance, or maybe I just like driving, I am on the road again, speeding northward into the oncoming night from San Antonio towards Austin and Waco.  I laugh out loud recalling an essay in High Country News by John Daniel; in A Word In Favor of Rootlessness he wrote “marriage to place is something we all need to realize in our culture, but not all of us are the marrying kind…it makes me very happy to drive the highways and back roads of the American West, exchanging talk with people who live where I don’t, pulling off somewhere to sleep in the truck and wake to a place I’ve never seen.” Out my side window, I search for the “Old Yellow Moon,” Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell croon about on my CD player.  Running north – south, I-35 intersects a series of rivers crisscrossing Texas roughly north-west to south-east; I catalog them in my mind: San Antonio, Guadalupe, Colorado and as I get closer to my destination the tributaries to the Brazos including the Leon, San Gabriel and Little Rivers and of course Salado Creek.

Mission San Jose, San Antonio, Texas.  Copyright April 2013, Robin L. Chandler.

Mission San Jose, San Antonio, Texas. Copyright 2013, Robin L. Chandler.

This year, Texas like many places in the Western and Midwest United States is suffering from drought. Not enough rain is falling to soak into and heal the land, fill the reservoirs and aquifers and bless the riparian areas providing a respite to migratory birds and a home for wildlife along the streambeds. At the same time the demand for the life-giving water grows for agriculture, industry, and the expanding suburbs.  In the thirty-some odd years I’ve been coming to Central Texas the population keeps increasing; more houses, more malls and with this expansion the burgeoning need for water.  But this is not a new story.  In San Antonio, I travelled parts of the San Antonio River Walk heading south to the Historic Missions National Park. Built in the early 18th century, close to rivers, the mission communities constructed dams and aqueducts to guide water for irrigating crops and powering flourmills.  The Belton Lake Dam on the Leon River is a 20th century version of the mission acequias; Belton just provides a lot more water for a lot more people.  The grandfather of Texas conservation, John Graves, wrote a book Goodbye to A River, published in 1959, now considered a classic about his late 1950s canoe trip down the Brazos River.  The book is often cited as a major reason only a limited number of dams were built on the Brazos. The current drought places a strain on stored water supplies.  But what can we do to make sure that there is enough water for all those  who need it, including the native plants and animals? In the 13th Century, it is believed the Anazasi left the Colorado Plateau for the Rio Grande valley of New Mexico when extreme drought caused these peoples to abandon their homes.  Where could we go?

Nomad that I appear to be, place and community do obsess me. Wherever I land, I want to understand the context of the place – the land and its people. I do not feel geographic detachment, but I realize this ability to move quickly from place to place comes at an expense. In Teaching About Place Hal Crimmel published the article “Teaching About Place in an Era of Geographical Detachment.”  Crimmel states “technology enables escape from any particular locale, accelerating the process of geographical detachment.  In fact, living in place may have more to do with restraint than passion these days.  Unprecedented access to distant energy sources, such as natural gas piped across the continent, and to mechanical or electrical technologies means people need not live within the ecological limits imposed by climate and topography.” I feel the contradiction deep in my bones; I hope my Prius buys me some credit when my judgement comes.

Constellation Cetus and a shooting star

Farallon Islands from Point Reyes on a winter day.  Copyright Robin L. Chandler.

Farallon Islands from Point Reyes on a winter day. Copyright 2012 Robin L. Chandler.

It’s late afternoon on the last day of December 2012 and the annual Pacific migration of the gray whales from the Arctic to Baja is underway. On a spectacular day the air is clear and crisp, the sea is still – little movement on the waves, a cold rainy front moves south towards Southern California just skirting the Bay Area. Miles-at-sea, there is a flash of lightening. From the cliffs at Point Reyes National Seashore we look south towards the Farallon Islands. Wave gazes out at the infinite horizon and happily finds a small pod of whales. One fluke breaks the plane, and a bushy kind of heart shaped blow emerges nearby. “A whale spout is like catching a glimpse of a shooting star,” she says.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s 1943 novel The Little Prince comes to mind:

“All men have the stars,” he answered, “but they are not the same things for different people. For some, who are travellers, the stars are guides. For others they are no more than little lights in the sky. For others, who are scholars, they are problems. For my businessman they were wealth. But all the stars are silent. You–you alone–will have the stars as no one else has them–”

Footnote: this afternoon Public Radio International interviewed the iconic American folksinger Pete Seeger about the beloved Chilean poet and musican Victor Jara who wrote and sang songs about love, peace and social justice. Jara was brutally murdered during the 1973 Chilean military coup that ousted President Salvador Allende and finally last week a Chilean judge issued an international arrest warrant for his killers and their accomplices.  Pete sang the words “Victor Jara lived like a shooting star, a shooting star.”

Prosperity is right around the corner

Grain elevators, Thorndale, Texas. Copyright Robin L. Chandler

Grain elevators, Thorndale, Texas. Copyright 2012 Robin L. Chandler

“What do you want to do,” he asked. “Thorndale…I want to visit the Texas town where you were born and grew up.” We drive through Milam County listening to my Father’s stories as he points out his life landmarks. Travelling the farm-to-market roads in cotton country, we pass through mostly ghost towns like Bartlett, a once thriving farming community and sometime Hollywood location shoot, and San Gabriel, originally a Spanish mission.  Under gray winter skies, the soil, where corn and cotton were recently harvested, still look rich and black. Farmers still grow these crops here, but you get the feeling, people don’t do much of their living here anymore. Living might be a few miles to the south where the economy has shifted to the technology industries surrounding Austin.

It’s Christmas Eve and Thorndale is quiet. Thorndale is about ten miles east of Taylor where my grandparents and my mother are buried and about forty miles from Temple where I was born. A few trucks are parked in front of the main street café where we get a last cup of black coffee before they close down for the holiday. A main state highway cuts through town paralleling the railroad tracks.  Pick-up trucks roar by and now and again the sound of a Santa Fe diesel train engine horn moans lonesomely in the distance. We walk around town visiting the Victorian era farmhouse where my Father was born and grew up during the Great Depression. Living mostly in busy urban centers, it’s hard to believe that many of these ramshackle wood frame houses – that a strong wind might scatter – are still lived in.

Looking north from Temple, Texas at an oncoming cold front.  Copyright Robin L. Chandler.

Looking north from Temple, Texas at an oncoming cold front. Copyright 2012 Robin L. Chandler.

When my Father was a boy, more than one thousand people lived in Thorndale. Ironically, the 2010 US Census counts the town’s population at over one thousand. As we walk, my father points out the now boarded-up movie theater where he watched Tom Mix movies, and the abandoned car dealership. Some businesses from his childhood remain, including Mr. Butts’s dry goods store where you can still buy a good pair of work boots. I feel like a human Historypin, my imagination does the work of the computer overlaying linked-data historic photographs of a busy farm town on the now sadly deserted streets. Down the street, stands a small brick building framed with Doric columns, still housing the Prosperity Bank; I laugh to myself, recalling a scene from the 1936 film My Man Godfrey.

Set in a “Hooverville” along New York’s East River, Godfrey Park (the actor William Powell) and Mike (the actor Pat Flaherty) exchange a few words. “Mike, I wouldn’t worry.  Prosperity’s right around the corner.” “Yeah. It’s been there a long time.  I just wish I knew which corner.” Prosperity’s right around the corner was a phrase employed by Republican Party members advising the country after the Wall Street Crash to be patient and trust the free market’s ability to right itself.  Will patience serve us today as our Congress and President tango close to the fiscal cliff? As we stand in front of the bank, my Dad recounts a sight that remains stamped on his brain.  As a young man in the early 1930s, he witnessed grown men leaving the bank with tears streaming down their faces when the bank foreclosed on their farms.  He recalls they didn’t know how they were going to feed their families and hoping the federal government would continue to provide the five-pound sack of flour for free.  Woody Guthrie’s song about the bank robber Pretty Boy Floyd comes to mind.  The Smithsonian Folkway released a wonderful collection of his songs this year celebrating the centennial of his birth.

“Well, you say that I’m an outlaw, You say that I’m a thief. Here’s a Christmas dinner, for the families on relief.”

“Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered, I’ve seen lots of funny men; Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.”

“And as through your life you travel, yes, as through your life you roam. You won’t never see an outlaw, drive a family from their home.”