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22 June, 2014

Global Warming: Food Supplies & Avoiding the ‘Urban Graveyard Effect’

By Peter Kinder


Minneapolis, MN:  Grain Elevators along Mississippi River  3/4/12

Minneapolis, MN: Grain Elevators along Mississippi River 3/4/12

          History – human experience catalogued – tells us how people react to climate stress and how sovereigns cope – or don’t – with the societal problems it spawns.

          In most instances, sovereigns didn’t know what was happening to their lands.  As at the onset of the Little Ice Age in the 17th century, if they acted, it was in ignorance – and usually ill-advised .

          In the 21st century, we have near-certainty as to what’s happening:  Global Warming, whether human-caused or secular or both.  Unlike our ancestors, we can predict, based on history, how people and societies will react.

           In the New York Times for June 22, Bush II Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson wrote of Global Warming:

I feel as if I’m watching as we fly in slow motion on a collision course toward a giant mountain.  We can see the crash coming, and yet we’re sitting on our hands rather than altering course.

 Something less than perfect it may be, but our knowledge – scientific and historical – makes the imperative to act moral.  We must save our fellow passengers


           The Little Ice Age contributed in significant part the ‘General Crisis’ of the 17th century.  Around the northern hemisphere, Japanese, Chinese, Ottoman, German, Spanish, British and American documents record human responses to environmental stress and institutional failures to meet existential challenges.[1]

           Millions had their lives cut short.  Tens – if not hundreds – of millions suffered from war, plague, famine, pestilence, rapine….

           Reviewing Geoffrey Parker’s vitally important Global Crisis: War, Climate Change & Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (2013), it is easy to cast blame at staggeringly stupid, even sociopathic rulers across the northern hemisphere, such as England’s Charles I and Spain’s Philip IV.  Neither Ottoman nor Qing emperors had hedged their risks of famine or disruption.

           Parker has produced a casebook on what can happen when civil authorities take no positive actions.  If post-Warming histories are written, few will be able to argue, ‘We didn’t know.’  The US military will not be one.


           In 2003 as American forces sallied into Iraq, the Department of Defense evidently[2] received a report it had commissioned, ‘An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario & Its Implications for United States National Security’.  According to the Observer (UK) for Feb. 22, 2004, its authors were ‘Peter Schwartz, CIA consultant and former head of planning at Royal Dutch/Shell Group, and Doug Randall of the California-based Global Business Network.’[3]

           ‘Our intent,’ Schwartz & Randall wrote, ‘is to dramatize the impact climate change could have on society if we are unprepared for it.’[4]  Neither when the report was leaked nor now do their hypotheses seem overstated.

           Abrupt climate change is likely to stretch carrying capacity well beyond its already precarious limits….  As abrupt climate change lowers the world’s carrying capacity aggressive wars are likely to be fought over food, water, and energy.  Deaths from war as well as starvation and disease will decrease population size, which overtime, will re-balance with carrying capacity.[5]

           A couple of paragraphs later, they summarize Constant Battles:  Why We Fight (2003) by Steven A. LeBlanc, a Harvard archaeologist, with Katherine E. Register:[6]  ‘Humans fight when they outstrip the carrying capacity of their natural environment.  Every time there is a choice between starving and raiding, humans raid.’[7]

           Parker doesn’t so limit his lesson from drawn from the 17th century.  For faced with hunger, modern humans do many things besides raid.  Many, many terrible things.


           Schwartz & Randall conclude their paper with seven recommendations.  Three are relevant here:

 4) Identify no-regrets strategies.  No-regrets strategies should be identified and implemented to ensure reliable access to food supply and water, and to ensure national security.

 5) Rehearse Adaptive strategies.  Adaptive response teams should be established to address and prepare for inevitable climate driven events such as massive migration, disease and epidemics, and food and water supply shortages.

 6) Explore local implications.  The first-order effects of climate change are local.  While we can anticipate changes in pest prevalence and severity and changes in agricultural productivity, one has to look at very specific locations and conditions to know which pests are of concern, which crops and regions are vulnerable, and how severe impacts will be.  Such studies should be undertaken, particularly in strategically important food producing regions.[8]

 Sound, vital recommendations all.  So far as I know, no government at any level anywhere has implemented any of them.


           Nothing like Schwartz and Randall’s recommendations surfaced in the 17th century, at least in Parker’s recounting.

           But they did in about the 19th century BCE.  And as I reviewed Parker’s description of ‘the urban graveyard effect’, I thought of a 4000-year-old story.  First, Parker:

…the Little Ice Age forced many farmers on marginal lands to flee to the towns with their families in the hope of finding work or at least bread.  Most of them met with bitter disappointment, in part because their flight helped to fuel unsustainable urban expansion.[9]

Unsustainable and unprecedented the cities’ growth was, though war and climate just accelerated the long-term trend:  by every measure of general well-being, mid-17th century cities were death traps.[10]

           Parker quotes a foresighted magistrate outside Shanghai:

           Our county does not produce rice, but relies for its food upon other areas.  When the summer wehat is reaching ripeness and the autumn crops are already rising, the boats of the merchants that come loaded with rice from an unbroken line…. [But] if by chance there were to be an outbreak of hostilities … such that the city gates did not open for ten days, and the hungry people raised their voices in clamour, how could there fail to be riot and disorder?[11]

 In 1641-42, ‘global cooling destroyed the rice harvest throughout South China.  Perhaps 500,000 people starved to death and public order collapsed.’[12]


           Some months ago, I wrote about Joseph & Pharaoh: A Lesson in a Time of Climate Change.  I won’t repeat here the story of Pharaoh’s dream, Joseph’s interpretation and his ascendence to viceroy.  Rather, I want to focus on what he did with the power Pharaoh delegated to him.

           Joseph had offered Pharaoh a way through the coming shift from wet westerlies to dry easterlies.  Its particularity is significant.

 Now therefore let Pharaoh look out a man discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt.

 Let Pharaoh do this, and let him appoint officers over the land, and take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven plenteous years.

 And let them gather all the food of those good years that come, and lay up corn [wheat] under the hand of Pharaoh, and let them keep food in the cities.

 And that food shall be for store to the land against the seven years of famine, which shall be in the land of Egypt; that the land perish not through the famine.[13]

           It’s easy to put Joseph’s plan into a modern, somewhat anachronistic formulation:  He’s suggesting an administrative agency with authority to bank 20 percent of the wheat crop for seven years.  That means constructing granaries, filling them and then maintaining them.  In sum, a huge, highly visible undertaking at considerable cost (including, one must assume, a rising price for corn to consumers) with no payoff for seven years.

          That’s smart, but what’s genius is ‘…and let them keep food in the cities.’[14]

           Start with visibility; there’s no question in the public’s mind where the grain’s going.  The granaries show the sovereign cares about his people.  They pre-empt the all-too-human reaction to crisis:  scapegoating.  Hungry people find people to blame.  Very hungry people can topple sovereigns.[15]

           Joseph’s plan worked:

 And the seven years of dearth began to come…: and the dearth was in all lands; but in all the land of Egypt there was bread.

And when all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread: and Pharaoh said unto all the Egyptians, Go unto Joseph; what he saith to you, do.

And the famine was over all the face of the earth: and Joseph opened all the storehouses, and sold unto the Egyptians….[16]

Note that Joseph ‘sold’ the wheat; he didn’t give it away.  That signals to me the plan had kept Egypt’s economy alive.  Pharaoh’s investment in risk mitigation, thus, earned a return, as well as guaranteeing public well-being.

           And soon, hungry herders from neighboring lands moved toward Egypt, among them, Joseph’s family….


           Old Testament heroes, one can argue, have a knack for spotting the main chance and taking it.  However, this part of Joseph’s story is very different from, say, David’s.  Unlike Goliath, the threat of famine was a long way off – however you interpret ‘seven years’.  Similarly, its duration.

           Managing the risk was a long-term project requiring delegation, construction and communication.  As Genesis presents the story, Joseph did what was self-evidently right.  But one can imagine the significant political ‘sell’ it demanded and the complex organisation implementation required.

           The most peculiar attribute of Joseph’s story is its lack of a God-dictated imperative.  Interpreted in the age of Global Warming where the risks and benefits of action are as distant, the force driving Pharaoh – don’t forget: none of this happens without his power and support – was in Adam Smith’s phrase his moral sentiments, his empathy for his people.  In short:  his duty.

           Hank Paulson concludes in Sunday’s Times:

           Climate change is the challenge of our time. Each of us must recognize that the risks are personal. We’ve seen and felt the costs of underestimating the financial bubble. Let’s not ignore the climate bubble.

           No, let’s not.  For the knowledge we have imposes a duty to act.  It is the moral obligation of our time, of our children’s future.



           1.  See generally Geoffrey Parker, Global Crisis: War, Climate Change & Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2013).

           2.  Peter Schwartz & Doug Randall, ‘An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario & Its Implications for United States National Security’ (October 2003).  The copies available on the web don’t indicate the report’s sponsorship on its title page, nor are the named authors given bios, nor is their organisation named.  On 5/20/14 I accessed the document at:  On 6/19/14, the link no longer worked.  (The GBN site appears to have been taken down.)  The report is still available at the link on the title.  The almost complete absence in ‘Abrupt Climate Change’ of cited sources, footnotes, etc. and its summary tone suggest to me that it is a version of a considerably longer document.  As such, one must ask, why was the summary prepared and released four months after it was delivered?  The articles linked in fn. 3, below, suggest partial but unsatisfactory answers.  H/T: Daniel Glick who pointed me toward this important report and the forgotten controversy around it.

           3.  As reprinted at:  The articles reprinted here reminded me of the thunder storm of publicity this report got at the time.  But like a summer shower, it was quickly forgotten in the 2004 presidential campaign and the continuing news from Iraq.

           4.  Schwartz & Randall, op. cit., p. 7.

           5.  Id., p. 15.

           6.  Id., pp. 16-17.  Curiously, in this one of very few sourcings, Schwartz & Randall miscite the book as ‘Carrying Capacity’ and fail to note the co-author.  Another sign, I believe, of the report’s origins.  Parker doesn’t list LeBlanc in his bibliography, nor is ‘carrying capacity’ indexed.

           7.  Id., p. 16.

           8.  Id., p. 22.

           9.  Parker, op. cit., p. 58.

           10.  Id., pp. 58-65.

           11.  Id., pp. 64-65.

           12.  Id., p. 65.

           13.  Genesis 41: 33-36.

           14.  Genesis 41: 35.

           15.  E.g., Parker, op. cit., p. 108.

           16.  Genesis 41: 54-56.

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Category: Agriculture, Ancient History, Climate Change, Community & Society, English Civil War, Environment, Ethics & Morality, Geoffrey Parker, Modern Life, Peace & War, Social Change, UK History, US Politics

21 June, 2014

Midsummer’s Night, A Fairy Ring & Kipling

By Peter Kinder

Wells, VT:  Writer in Fairy Ring  5/26/14

Wells, VT: Writer in Fairy Ring 5/26/14

One wet evening, a few weeks ago, I found a fairy ring. In this case, it was marked by ferns that had grown in a lush Vermont hill pasture. A picture accompanies this post. And, no, I can’t explain the haze around my head. It’s not in any others in the series.

Since childhood, I’ve looked for fairy rings. My mother had read to my brothers and me Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906), a book that has stayed in my soul, my imagination ever since. I’ll not try to explain why.

But courtesy of Project Gutenberg, I do want to share the opening paragraphs of a book that opened a child’s imagination to his surroundings and how they came to be as they are.


The children were at the Theatre, acting to Three Cows as much as they could remember of Midsummer Night’s Dream. Their father had made them a small play out of the big Shakespeare one, and they had rehearsed it with him and with their mother till they could say it by heart. They began where Nick Bottom the weaver comes out of the bushes with a donkey’s head on his shoulder, and finds Titania, Queen of the Fairies, asleep. Then they skipped to the part where Bottom asks three little fairies to scratch his head and bring him honey, and they ended where he falls asleep in Titania’s arms. Dan was Puck and Nick Bottom, as well as all three Fairies. He wore a pointy-eared cloth cap for Puck, and a paper donkey’s head out of a Christmas cracker—but it tore if you were not careful—for Bottom. Una was Titania, with a wreath of columbines and a foxglove wand.

The Theatre lay in a meadow called the Long Slip. A little mill-stream, carrying water to a mill two or three fields away, bent round one corner of it, and in the middle of the bend lay a large old fairy Ring of darkened grass, which was their stage. The mill-stream banks, overgrown with willow, hazel, and guelder rose made convenient places to wait in till your turn came; and a grown-up who had seen it said that Shakespeare himself could not have imagined a more suitable setting for his play. They were not, of course, allowed to act on Midsummer Night itself, but they went down after tea on Midsummer Eve, when the shadows were growing, and they took their supper—hard-boiled eggs, Bath Oliver biscuits, and salt in an envelope—with them. Three Cows had been milked and were grazing steadily with a tearing noise that one could hear all down the meadow; and the noise of the mill at work sounded like bare feet running on hard ground. A cuckoo sat on a gatepost singing his broken June tune, ‘cuckoo-cuk,’ while a busy kingfisher crossed from the mill-stream to the brook which ran on the other side of the meadow. Everything else was a sort of thick, sleepy stillness smelling of meadow-sweet and dry grass.

Their play went beautifully. Dan remembered all his parts—Puck, Bottom, and the three Fairies—and Una never forgot a word of Titania—not even the difficult piece where she tells the Fairies how to feed Bottom with ‘apricocks, ripe figs, and dewberries,’ and all the lines end in ‘ies.’ They were both so pleased that they acted it three times over from beginning to end before they sat down in the unthistly centre of the Ring to eat eggs and Bath Olivers. This was when they heard a whistle among the alders on the bank, and they jumped.

The bushes parted. In the very spot where Dan had stood as Puck they saw a small, brown, broad-shouldered, pointy-eared person with a snub nose, slanting blue eyes, and a grin that ran right across his freckled face. He shaded his forehead as though he were watching Quince, Snout, Bottom, and the others rehearsing Pyramus and Thisbe, and, in a voice as deep as Three Cows asking to be milked, he began:

‘What hempen homespuns have we swaggering here,
So near the cradle of our fairy Queen?’

He stopped, hollowed one hand round his ear, and, with a wicked twinkle in his eye, went on:

‘What a play toward? I’ll be auditor,
An actor too, perhaps, if I see cause.’

The children looked and gasped. The small thing—he was no taller than Dan’s shoulder—stepped quietly into the Ring.

‘I’m rather out of practice,’ said he; ‘but that’s the way my part ought to be played.’[1]


And so began my search for a fairy ring.


1. Rudyard Kipling, Puck of Pook’s Hill (New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1906), pp. 5-7.

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Category: Children, Families, History, Literature, Rudyard Kipling, UK, Writing

12 June, 2014

‘A Canticle for Leibowitz’: A Lesson on History and Global Warming

By Peter Kinder


Kent, CT:  Kent School Bell Tower & Grave Yard  6/7/14

Kent, CT: Kent School Bell Tower & Grave Yard 6/7/14

          Last weekend, I went to my 50th boarding school reunion.  It was an altogether wonderful and wonder-filled three days.

           But I had something on my mind, something I couldn’t shake, haven’t let go.


           In my first days at Kent School, like most incoming students, I was terrified – not wrongly.  I found refuge in the library stacks.

           In my hiding place, I saw a new book whose title seemed strange: A Canticle for Leibowitz.  After a few days of The Book of Common Prayer (1928), I knew what a canticle was.  And, I knew there weren’t any for Leibowitz.

           I pulled this strange, magnificent book from the shelf.  Despite my desperate academic situation, I spent every spare minute reading it over the next three days.  That was in mid-September 1960.  It is the only book I didn’t read aloud to my sons when small that I’ve reread more than twice.  I’ve lost count how many times I’ve laughed, cried and mourned over it.


          I was born 14 months after a ‘Little Boy’ flattened Hiroshima, killing in the end 135,000.

           One sunny morning – a rarity in the smog-filled Ohio Valley – with my mother and two younger brothers I listened to CBS Radio describe the immensity of a hydrogen bomb test.  I was not yet five.

           In the Valley, we didn’t do the under the school desk, hands over the head drill.  I’m certain – wrongly? – administrators thought it pointless.  No one in the Valley would survive.  Our aluminum factories, power plants, steel mills and coal mines meant the first wave of Soviet missiles would head for us.

           In the background of my uneventful childhood played the certainty the bombs would find us. But what would happen if some survived?

           In the stacks that first week at Kent I found a suggestion in A Canticle for Leibowitz that has haunted me.


          One afternoon in 3781, Dom Zerchi of the Brethren of the Order of Leibowitz snaps off a telescreen which had been reporting the imminence of war – nuclear war.

           Listen, are we helpless?  Are we doomed to do it again and again and again?  Have we no choice but to play the Phoenix in an unending sequence of rise and fall?  Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Carthage, Rome, the Empires of Charlemagne and the Turk, ground to dust and plowed with salt.  Spain, France, Britain, America–burned into the oblivion of the centuries.  And again and again and again.[1]

 No, says Leibowitz’s author, Walter M. Miller, Jr., there will be an end.

           Eighteen hundred years before, the ‘Flame Deluge’ produced a world recognisable to anyone with passing familiarity of the history of the depopulated lands of the western Roman Empire after the barbarian apocalypse.  But with profound differences.

           For one thing, the Flame Deluge leaves irradiated wastes and mutants.  The survivors proclaim ‘a great Simplification’, ‘a holocaust of those who wrought this thing, together with their hirelings and their wise men….’[2]  The Simpletons put to the fire the literate and what they might read.  The world careens into ignorance.

           One literate, Isaac Edward Leibowitz, takes refuge with Cistercian monks.  After a futile search for his wife, he returns to the order, becomes a priest and founds an brotherhood of ‘bookleggers’ to secure for the future some fruits of learning and literacy.  The future saint was martyred.

           Miller makes the encounters of Leibowitz’s heirs with 20th century knowledge – the rediscovery of the electric light, an elderly abbot’s interactions with a computer – laugh out loud funny.

           Like monks in scriptorums of the monasteries that mushroomed across western Europe in the thousand years after Rome, those of the Order of Leibowitz lovingly copied and illuminated papers they didn’t understand.  For a decade and a half, Brother Francis, who discovered relics of Leibowitz the scientist and the remains of his wife outside the door of a fallout shelter, spends his free hours copying onto vellum and illuminating a wiring diagram the scientist had initialed.

           I remember Miller’s wit and humor and find more on each rereading.  But it is not what makes A Canticle for Leibowitz relevant today despite its origins in the 55 bombing missions its author flew in Italy and the Balkans[3] and its first audience haunted by the prospect of nuclear war.  It speaks to my apocalyptic visions of global warming.


From the place of ground zero,
          O Lord, deliver us.
From the rain of the cobalt,
          O Lord, deliver us.
From the rain of the strontium,
          O Lord, deliver us.
From the fall of the cesium,
          O Lord, deliver us.

 From the curse of the fallout,
          O Lord, deliver us.
From the begetting of monsters,
          O Lord, deliver us.
From the curse of the Misborn,
          O Lord, deliver us.
A morte perpetua [From eternal death],
Domine, libera nos [O Lord, deliver us].

           In the gloom of the dark age following the Flame Deluge, the runaway slave Brother Francis repeats these versicles to himself as he hesitates outside the fallout shelter he’s found.  He could not know what the elements were whose names he chanted.

           It does not take much to adapt ancient litanies to Global Warming’s post-apocalyptic world.  But as I heard from the Presbyterians who shaped my childhood, ‘The Lord helps those who help themselves.’  I never thought to ask, to what?  For what?  Miller did.

When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle’s eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn.[5]


           I thought of Walter Miller’s bleak vision a week ago.  I had just come home from a CERES fundraiser where I’d heard Jeremy Grantham, the renown money manager and co-founder of Grantham Mayo van Otterloo (GMO) LLC.  Think Bill McKibben with PowerPoint and a soft English accent.  His was a sober yet somehow inspiring talk.

           I checked, as I do every evening,  the day’s links on  They led to Rowan Jacobsen’s ‘Something Is Seriously Wrong on the East Coast – and It’s Killing All the Baby Puffins’, a superb piece of reporting which Mother Jones published.  This long, harrowing article concludes the culprit is a rise of two degrees in the water temperature in the frigid Gulf of Maine which is killing off the small fish puffin parents feed their chicks.

           I thought of Miller’s final paragraphs, describing the seacoast just after the light from the second Flame Deluge fades:

           The breakers beat monotonously at the shores, casting up driftwood.  An abandoned seaplane floated beyond the breakers.  After a while the breakers caught the seaplane and threw it on the shore with the driftwood.  It tilted and fractured a wing.  There were shrimp carousing in the breakers, and the whiting that fed on the shrimp, and the shark that munched the whiting and found them admirable in the sportive brutality of the sea.

           A wind came across the ocean, sweeping with it a pall of fine white ash.  The ash fell into the sea and into the breakers.  The breakers washed dead shrimp ashore with the driftwood.  Then they washed up the whiting.  The shark swam out to his deepest waters and brooded in the old clean currents.  He was very hungry that season.[6]

           Even the renewal of friendships 50 years old, the soft and sunny warmth of early June, the green glories of the countryside along old US 7 from northwest Connecticut to southern Vermont could not lift the pall from my mind.

           Can’t we who are given so much education, knowledge and discernment put them to saving ourselves and our children?



           1.  Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz [1959] (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), p. 266-67 (hereafter ‘Bantam’).

          2.  Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz [1959] (New York: EOS Books, 2006), p. 62 (hereafter ‘EOS’).

           3.  The linked article cites no sources for its biographical information.

           4.  Miller, op. cit., EOS, p. 18.  That someone took the time to catalogue and translate all Miller’s Latin quotations speaks tellingly of the book’s power today when so much of the Catholicism he represented is a dim memory.

           5.  Miller, op. cit., Bantam, p. 288.

           6.  Miller, op. cit., EOS, p. 334.  You can’t write two paragraphs better than those!

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Category: Climate Change, Community & Society, Eastern Ohio, Education, Environment, Ethics & Morality, Fifties History, Future, History, Literature, Modern Life, New England, Peace & War, Religion, Roman Empire, Science Fiction & Fantasy, Social Change

4 June, 2014

Global Warming Campaigners: What They Can Learn from the Tobacco War

By Peter Kinder


Wheeling, W.Va.:  Mail Pouch Chewing /Tobacco Factory 8/5/12

Wheeling, W.Va.: Mail Pouch Chewing /Tobacco Factory 8/5/12

          Coal and tobacco:  Do today’s global warming campaigners have something to learn from the tobacco wars?  A lot, I think.

           Yesterday’s New York Times headline feed featured ‘In Debate Over Coal, Lessons From ’90s Tobacco Fight’ by Jonathan Weisman.  Two paragraphs caught my eye:

           But the public may not be ready to take up arms against climate change the way it was open to battling cigarettes, said Doug Holtz-Eakin, a Republican economist who recalled polling that he commissioned on the climate issue in 2000 as a senior adviser to the presidential campaign of Senator John McCain of Arizona.  At the time, he said, around 80 percent of respondents thought global warming could be sufficiently dealt with through recycling.

           “In the end, smoking became unacceptable.  That was not a legal statement.  It was a social statement, and consensus was broad and has held for a long time,” Mr. Holtz-Eakin said. “Maybe you get there on carbon emissions, but right now, this is an issue for the elites.” [Hyperlink omitted.]

 Holtz-Eakin has a point, though maybe not the one he intended.


           ‘The vice presidency isn’t worth a bucket of warm spit’, John Nance Garner is supposed to have said.  A tobacco-chewing Texan, Franklin Roosevelt’s first vice president knew what a spittoon was for.

           So did Ohio Senators whose chamber aisles in the mid-1960s were lined with brightly polished – and well-used – cuspidors.

           My beloved friend and political mentor, Belmont County Auditor Tom McCourt looked very different on the hustings where he didn’t chew.  In the office, the spittoon behind his desk got constant use, often for effect during conversations.

           On his 1960 baseball card Bill Mazeroski, the local boy who played second base for the Pirates from 1956 to 1972 has a large chaw in his left cheek.  It so increased in size over the years that I fantasized he stopped a sharp ground ball with his belly….   The future Hall of Famer, however, appears to be chawless as he heads for home after hitting the walk-off home run against the Yankees in Game 7 of the 1960 Series.

           But from childhood onwards, no woman I knew – most of whom smoked at least a pack a day – thought chewing anything but ‘a disgusting habit’.  We college kids who worked summers and vacations on mill floors tried chewing.  No one kept at it.

           Mail Pouch Chewing Tobacco was a local product and its barn ads common across the Appalachians.  (I wrote about them here.)  Originally, it was made of waste from rolling Wheeling Stogies.  That cigar of choice of mule skinners, drovers and carters was another tobacco product usually tried only once.

           So at the lower end of the tobacco-product spectrum, a class divide did exist.  And, the virtual disappearance of chewing tobacco and stogies – well ahead of cigarettes – was ‘a social statement’, ‘an issue for the elites.’


           My introduction to coal regulation in the early 1970s came in smoke filled offices and hearing rooms.  We cigarette smokers were dealing with the strip mining processes’s baleful consequences, not those of coal-burning.   So, the irony of doing it in conditions like the Donora smog didn’t strike us.

           No question, ‘elites’ led the fight to restrain surface mining, for land reclamation.  For the most part, they didn’t come from Appalachia, at least originally.  Their great breakthrough came when local hunters and fishers, having lost the land and waters they’d used for generations, joined the cause.

           Surface mining reclamation was an anomaly in the history of environmental regulation.  The technique and its spread were relatively new phenomena after World War II.  Most – though by no means all – believed it could be ‘done right’.  A tiny minority was fighting ‘coal’.  The 1977 Federal Surface Mining Act was the last sweeping environmental triumph.

           The Reagan-Bush I & II environmental counter-revolution drew strength from its anti-elitism.  The industries reliant on coal and coal-fired power plants could be stripped at leisure by other ‘elites’ – the maximisers of shareholder value – whilst workers and their communities focused on the green meanies.


           It takes a long time, if ever, for an elite armed with ideas to win the field.  Well after the Surgeon General’s Report appeared in 1964, I saw doctors whose office ashtrays overflowed with the butts of the cigarettes they chain smoked.

           It was two generations before, as Holz-Eakin put it, ‘In the end, smoking became unacceptable.  That was not a legal statement.  It was a social statement….’

           That’s the great lesson of tobacco for Global Warming.

            After years of battle with Big Tobacco on many fronts, the end – if such it was – came with legal settlements in the tens of billions, health warnings on tobacco products and protections of the air non-smokers breathed.

           The anti-tobacco elite had become a majority, if not a supermajority.

           The economic consequences for states like Virginia and North Carolina were severe but not catastrophic.  They lost agricultural, manufacturing and management jobs.

           Shareholders undoubtedly lost some prospective earnings, though they’ve done pretty well over the years.  The executives, who’d fought by fair means and foul since World War II, disclosure of tobacco’s risks and regulation received neither fines nor imprisonment.  Neither shareholders nor executives had to disgorge any of their decades of profits.

           By salary and position, Big Tobacco’s people remain an elite, albeit one made up of pariahs.  No more do romantic leads on screen smoke, but the villains routinely do.  ‘Casablanca’ (1942) could not be made today.  The cigarette was that essential to Humphrey Bogart’s character.


          Even in Coal Country, ‘global warming’ is for most a fact.  That battle, we’ve won.  The major tool in the war on tobacco, product liability litigation, isn’t available as a result of ‘tort reform’ and Supreme Court interpretations of class action and environmental statutes.  Those changes came as a direct response to the tobacco wars, a reprisal one might argue of one elite on

           Let’s return to Jonathan Weisman in yesterday’s Times:

           John Banzhaf, a law professor…, said opponents of climate change have much to learn from the long struggle against tobacco.  In that fight, legal action was aimed not only at beating the tobacco companies in court.  It was intended to force the release of internal documents that showed the companies had known of the health effects of their product, had hidden it, and had financed efforts to muddy the public’s understanding.

           Anti-tobacco forces did not simply aim to raise the cost of tobacco. They targeted the industry’s tools of promotion: advertising, lobbying and its think tank, the Tobacco Institute. Legal action was meant to alleviate the broad societal cost of smoking – higher Medicaid costs, more intensive use of the health care system and thus higher taxes. By demonstrating how everyone was hurt, tobacco opponents tried to engage the public.

           Perhaps most important, they sought to undercut the economic argument that kept tobacco-state lawmakers firmly on the industry’s side, said Rick Boucher, a former Democratic congressman who represented Virginia tobacco growers and its coal mines. The bulk of tobacco settlement funds in Virginia went to economic development programs to help move farmers to other livelihoods and to bolster the tobacco regions’ infrastructures, including broadband deployment and water and sewer system construction….

           “The idea of buying off people, as repugnant as that sounds to some, makes a lot of sense,” Mr. Banzhaf said. “Why pay off the coal companies? It’s simply analysis. Here is the cost if we don’t. Here is the cost if we do.”  [Hyperlinks omitted.]

           In this struggle, Weisman neglects to note the key supporting role of social investors.  They sought divestment of tobacco stocks from institutional portfolios – something in which even Harvard joined – and volleyed with Big Tobacco on shareholder resolutions on things such as marketing to minors.  For more than 30 years.

           Shareholders have played and are playing a similar role on coal and Global Warming.


           As with tobacco, the ultimate enemy on Global Warming is us:  the tolerant, the self-interested, the lazy, the addicted.

           We had to change.  We did.  That’s the lesson from tobacco.

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Category: Agriculture, American Character, Business, Climate Change, Coal, Community & Society, Energy, Environment, Fifties History, Future, Law - Civil, Modern Life, Responsible Investing, Sixties History, Social Change, Socially Responsible Investing (SRI), Sustainability, tobacco, US History, US Politics, Vices

2 June, 2014

‘Johnny Cash: The Last Great American’

By Peter Kinder


Wheeling, W.Va.:  'Madonna of the Trail' (ca. 1928), National Road East 8/5/12

Wheeling, W.Va.: ‘Madonna of the Trail’ (ca. 1928), National Road East 8/5/12

          ‘What a pretentious title’, I thought as I started the BBC 4 documentary, ‘Johnny Cash: The Last Great American’ (2004).  By the end of this thoughtful, fast-paced hour, I could feel the desperation of its producers to capture Cash in a phrase small enough for the TV listings.

           ‘Great American’ would be my choice.  Just that.  Simple.  Clear.  Like his lyrics, his phrasing.

           Late in the hour, Kris Kristoferson says, ‘He was a brave man.  He was a scared man.’  I thought of a clip in the classic documentary, ‘Eyes on the Prize’, of Martin Luther King speaking in a Birmingham church with a crowd howling outside.

           If you close your eyes and just listen, King’s voice is steady, reassuring, confident.  But when you open them, you see he’s as frightened as his audience.  Brave.  Scared.  Great.

           Merle Haggard first saw Johnny Cash in 1958 at one of his legendary San Quentin performances.  To the young inmate, he was ‘Abraham Lincoln with a guitar’.  He became Haggard’s role model and, later, friend.

           Kristoferson, the Rhodes Scholar, and Haggard, the felon: the BBC avoids the temptation to say something trite like ‘that says it all’.  Instead, they prove a more telling point with the added voices of Sheryl Crow, Rosanne Cash, Little Richard, Rick Rubin, and musicians and producers he worked with for years.  Johnny Cash attracted highly intelligent people whose loyalty he earned.

           To use a phrase from South Boston I’ve always liked, Cash was ‘a stand up guy’.  I hadn’t realized until ‘Last Great American’ that early on he’d modeled his phrasing on Ernest Tubb’s.  ‘The Texas Troubador’, a generation older than Cash, had spent time in his harsh youth in cotton fields as Cash did.  Like Cash, he never forgot his origins, his debts.  Cash chose his models well.

           ‘Country music is the white man’s blues’, says Little Richard in describing the young Cash.  No question about that.  But like Billie Holiday, Cash extended his repertoire and audience as he grew older.  Unlike Holiday, his venturesomeness led to one of the greatest ‘second acts’ in American show business.

          The protean Rock and Hip Hop producer, Rick Rubin, pursued Cash in 1993 because he wanted to take on the challenge of rebuilding a great star’s career.  Cash was at the top of his list.

           Cash had got stuck in a recording rut in the 1980s.  Rubin saw a way out of it which was simple yet brilliant.  Let Cash be Cash, but what he recorded had to be the best he could do.

           The result was a collection of recordings, the American Recordings, by a man whose vocal instrument was declining but whose understanding of the art of the song had grown immensely.  What a treasure he left!  And, thank you, Rick Rubin.

           Now this was a man who got the power of song very early.  Take his first 45 for Columbia in 1958.  The B side, ‘I Still Miss Someone’, a lovely ballad, is pretty standard stuff, albeit good enough to be covered by a dozen or so artists including Jimmy Buffet, Stevie Nicks and Emmy Lou Harris. 

           The A side is a haunting story, ‘Don’t Take Your Guns to Town’, almost spoken rather than sung.  It is an anti-western told harshly.  It was a surprising – maybe astonishing – crossover hit.  Just 10 months later, Marty Robbins would do the same with ‘El Paso’, a fine song, one I still hear with pleasure.

           But there’s nothing new in ‘El Paso’.  It’s straight out of the cowboy tradition, something Carson Robison or the Sons of the Pioneers might have sung 20 years earlier.  ‘Don’t Take Your Guns to Town’ was not country, not folk.  Musically and politically, it was something new, very different.

           Cash wrote or co-wrote both sides of his first Columbia effort.  Forty-four years later, he covered Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Hurt’ and then made a video to support it.  On June 1, YouTube reported 63,035,991 views over nine years of this stunning four-minute film.  Fittingly, the BBC spends much of the last minutes of ‘Last Great American’ reviewing the haunting video.

           In 2002 when he filmed ‘Hurt’, Cash looked a decade or more older than he was.  Within three months he would lose his devoted wife, June Carter, whose seconds on the screen are eerie, and four months thereafter in 2003, he would die.

           I’ve written at length on why I think Cash great.  So, here’s Trent Reznor who wrote ‘Hurt’:

I pop the video in, and wow…  Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps… Wow.  [I felt like] I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore…  It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form.  I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone.  [Somehow] that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning — different, but every bit as pure.

           A great American was Johnny Cash.  He would be disappointed if he were the last of his class.  Watch the video.


           H/T:  Jotham Kinder who suggested I watch a video of Cash’s first performance of ‘Man in Black’ which led me, as YouTube so inevitably does, to the BBC 4 documentary.


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Category: American Character, Country & Western Music, Folk & Acoustic Music, Johnny Cash, Music, Television Contemporary

27 May, 2014

‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’: The Funeral Train

By Peter Kinder


Wells, Vt.:  Lilacs, dooryard, farm house.  Memorial Day, 2014

Wells, Vt.: Lilacs, dooryard, farm house. Memorial Day, 2014

          The lilacs are in full bloom in Vermont.  Their blue, white and purple bring joy to the eyes and sadness to the heart.

           A line I think the best in American literature captures my ambivalence about lilacs.  In this post, I’ll write about the line’s historical and political context, in the next, some thoughts about lilacs and cellar holes.


 When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.


 In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash’d palings,
Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle—and from this bush in the dooryard,
With delicate-color’d blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig with its flower I break.

           No poem, no single line better captures the profound sadness of the spring the Civil War ended than Walt Whitman’s ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’.

          I hear in these first and third parts of Whitman’s mourning hymn to Abraham Lincoln a lament for the hosts who would never see their dooryards again.  But in the accompaniment I sense a keening for young America, for the land of yeomanry the Civil War transformed into a nation of capital and labor.


           Whitman’s ‘western fallen star’ had died the morning of April 15, 1865.

           On April 21, Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train began its slow progress through the awakening spring heading first north to Philadelphia and New York City and Albany, then west across the Empire State to Cleveland, from there south by southwest to Columbus and onward west northwest to Chicago and finally south to Springfield, where he was buried on May 4.

           The funeral train had traversed the heart of the Union.  But ‘the past is a foreign country’.  The train’s itinerary between Cleveland and Columbus lists 22 names; 16 (e.g., Cardington, Ashley, Eden, Berlin, Lewis Centre) on this familiar route are places unknown to me.

           During the next seven and half hours it took to reach Columbus, it must have passed hundreds of ‘dooryard[s] fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash’d palings’.

           How many of those houses held families grieving soldiers buried from Gettysburg to Vicksburg?  The War had thousands of ‘western fallen stars’ which is what makes Whitman’s first verse so unforgettable.  He captured them all in the one and centered grief in the most familiar of settings.

           How sad that first spring of peace must have been, North and South!  How poignant the Decoration Days that would follow with their late spring blooms of lilacs then peonies.


           But look at the route of the funeral train, and another deeply political message appears both for post-Civil War America and for the country today.

           Those who take I-95 or Amtrak along the seaboard from Boston to Washington rarely think how difficult that journey was 200 years ago.  We speed over (or under) the mouths of the Connecticut, Hudson and Delaware rivers as if spanning a rivulet.

           Not the least astonishing achievement of the Revolutionary generation was the creation of a north-south nation with its immense barriers to communication.

           A generation later in the north and the old Northwest Territory, canals and steam engines – propelling boats and railcars – imposed a political will on a resistant landscape.  That will had brought Abraham Lincoln, railroad lawyer and Whig-Republican politician, his fortune.

           The funeral train rolled slowly north across tamed – if not conquered – rivers to the nation’s former capitals, Philadelphia and New York.  Then to Albany it ran along the Hudson, the great pipe down which flowed the grain and produce from the heartland and whose return brought industrial products from the fall line.

          At Albany, the funeral train turned west toward Buffalo on the New York Central line parallel to the Erie Canal which had first tapped the agricultural riches of the west for the cities of the northern littoral.

           In Cleveland, the funeral train passed onto the tracks of the Cleveland, Columbus & Cincinnati Rail Road which had united Ohio northeast to southwest as no river or canal could.  From Columbus to Indianapolis, the rails paralleled the National Road, which similarly, had united this most important state east and west.

           The National Road (US 40, I-70) was the young nation’s first great experiment in unification by internal improvements.  No issue except slavery – with which it was intertwined, not surprisingly – so defined the first American republic as the fight over whether the Federal government should plan and pay for projects that made easier the transport of goods, people and ideas through and between states.

           Generally, the north and old northwest wanted internal improvements; the south didn’t.  The fate of the southern rebellion was determined by the improvements the north had made and the industrial development that followed.

           Such was the message of the funeral train.


           Lincoln’s four years in office affirmed the northern ascendency in arms, industry and education.  They committed the second republic – dominated by the north as the south had the first – to unification by transcontinental railroad, by Land Grant universities and by the thousands of aftershocks from the earthquake of the War of Rebellion.  (For my thoughts on reconciliation between north and south, see here; internal improvements, see here; education, see here.

           The heirs of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson had lost the wars – military and political – over the nation’s future.  Indeed, as Lincoln said at Gettysburg, ‘this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom’.

           Into this new reality past dooryards alive in lilacs in the spring of 1865 the troops trudged homeward.


          In American politics there are ‘no final victories’, as the Kennedy-Johnson insider Larry O’Brien titled his memoirs published during the Ford administration.

          Today’s third American republic seems destined to abandon the unifications of the second – from race to education to law to internal improvements – that do not depend on coercion or flag-waving.

          The heirs of Jefferson and Jackson and the southern rebellion are again ascendant.  To my ears, ‘When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d’ is a dirge for gains lost, for the seeming futility of it all.

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Category: Abraham Lincoln, Agriculture, American Character, American Civil War, Communities, Community & Society, Education, Poetry, Public Higher Education, Social Change, US History, US Politics, Victorian Era - US

17 May, 2014

Gambling & Socially Responsible Investing: Four Quotations

By Peter Kinder


Cambridge, MA:  Harvard Square Mayfest  5/4/14

Cambridge, MA: Harvard Square Mayfest 5/4/14

          For as long as I’ve been involved with Socially Responsible Investing, its practitioners have declined to invest in gaming stocks.

           Digging through files looking for some ideas on the current casino chaos in Massachusetts, I found three quotations that shed some light on another controversy:  divestment of fossil-fuel stocks.


          In the first, the novelist (my all-time favorite) describes a character whose villainous investment (and how he came to make it) was less ambiguous when she wrote than it might be now:

On one point he may fairly claim approval at this particular stage of his career; he did not mean to imitate those philanthropic models who make a profit out of poisonous pickles to support themselves while they are exposing adulteration, or hold shares in a gambling-hell that they may have leisure to represent the cause of public morality.

George Eliot, Middlemarch [1872] (New York: Bantam Classics, 1985), p. 133.


          I’ve used the next quotation in another piece on gaming (‘The Sands of (Our) Time’, Oct. 26, 2012)).  It retains its bite:

Degrees of separation between gangsters and friends of gangsters, between homicidal goons and corporate hustlers, are some how less meaningful now that gambling stocks owned by Harvard University and the California State Employees Pension Fund are part of what the authors call a “grand alliance of upperworld and underworld.”

James McManus, “Profiles In Corruption,” New York Times Book Review, April 15, 2001, p. 10. McManus is referring to Sally Denton and Roger Morris, The Money and The Power (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001).


          So how did we get to the point where such investments are acceptable?  Perhaps it comes down to one of the most complicated, most subtly influential public figures of my lifetime.  Here was a man who changed norms.

Frank Sinatra, the greatest vocalist in the history of American music, elevated popular song to an art.  He was a dominant power in the entertainment industries — radio, records, movies, gambling — and a symbol of the Mafia’s reach into American public life.  More profoundly than any figure, excepting perhaps Elvis Presley, Sinatra changed the style and popular culture of the American Century.

Benjamin Schwarz, “His Second Act,” Atlantic, July 2007, p. 113.


           Frank Sinatra paid no apparent price for his status.  Far more importantly, I think, he made us tolerant – even accepting – of that corruption in our lives, if not our portfolios.

           A less attractive character, though no less great in his field, paid an enormous price for gambling.  But when you read the following on Pete Rose, think about the compensation schemes for American executives and the incentives for management governance norms have baked into business:

In sports, the people that participate in the games cannot gamble on the games for reasons that are somewhat obvious to most people who aren’t serving a lifetime ban from baseball.

Norman Chad, “The Book on Rose,” Boston Globe, January 12, 2004, p. C3.

Stock options and stock performance-based bonuses look even less benign in the context of Pete Rose.

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Category: American Character, Baseball, Business, Community & Society, Crime - Organized & Not, Education, Ethics & Morality, Finance & Financial Services, Harvard University, Modern Life, Music, Social Change, Socially Responsible Investing (SRI), Sports, Vices-Gaming

12 May, 2014

On My Father’s 95th Birthday

By Peter Kinder


Cleveland, OH:  Anne Kinder's wedding.  June 1942

Cleveland, OH: Anne Kinder’s wedding. June 1942

          My father, Gordon T. Kinder, Jr., was born on May 13, 95 years ago.

           The picture accompanying this post was taken in June 1942.  My father in his dress uniform, a second lieutenant, had come to Cleveland from Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, for a family wedding.

           As at least two generations of men in my family regularly did, he sits at the feet of his cousin and great friend, Anne Kinder.  His brother, George, in a blazer, sits to my father’s right.

           The photographer – the album where this picture resides proves him extraordinarily talented – caught the three dear friends as I choose to remember them:  in boisterous, good-humored conversation.

           But with rare and treasured exceptions, my memories don’t picture my father like this during the 30 years after I was born in 1946.

           With the lucky ones who survived the war, my father returned from Austria to catch up on his schooling, then practise law working long hours (with no real vacations for more than a decade) on things for which he wasn’t particularly suited, supporting his wife and four sons while tending devotedly his aged parents.  His health was always fragile, his back always prone to excruciating trauma.

           I think of him in those years as weary, impatient, present but absent, often bedridden.

           Only in his mid-50s could he grasp an opportunity to build up manufacturing businesses, something he loved.  Shortly thereafter, he suffered a near-fatal heart attack.

           Of course, he stopped – cold turkey – smoking two plus packs a day, began exercising – something one of his sons should have done at the same time.  But more importantly, without announcing it, he set out to become a model father, an indispensable part of his adult sons’ lives.

          His actions spoke clearly.  He earned his place with wisdom when – and only when – asked, with money when needed, and with regular phone calls.  Like me, he hated picking up the phone, but he did it.  His business advice, I can testify, was always good, often brilliant.  Even at a distance, he knew character.

          From that time into his 90th year, friends and acquaintances called him ‘youthful’, ‘joyful’, even while he endured diverticulitis and kidney failure and other banes of aging.

           His wit, his love of people, and his engaged conversation shone and were examples to his sons, in laws and grandchildren.  These had returned.

           When I look at the picture with this post, I see the man I didn’t know and the one I did, before and after.  How he loved parties!  How he loved his family!  How much fun he was!

           And, there’s a back story.  The night before the picture was taken, he’d met one of Anne’s bridesmaids, a classmate from Vassar, at drinks before the rehearsal dinner.  He then shot into the dining room and rearranged the seating cards so he’d sit beside her.

           Twelve months later, they married.

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Category: Family - Mine

7 May, 2014

Amidst Political Gloom, Gold Finches of Happiness

By Peter Kinder


Gold Finch in budding Cherry Tree, E. Dorset, VT  5/7/14

Gold Finch in budding Cherry Tree, E. Dorset, VT 5/7/14



Red-headed Woodpecker in cherry tree, E. Dorset, VT  5/7/14

Red-headed Woodpecker in cherry tree, E. Dorset, VT 5/7/14

           Dies irae, dies illa’.  ‘Day of wrath, day of anger’.  That line from Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor greeted me when I turned on ABC Classic FM a bit ago.

           I’d awakened still feeling the anger and pain I’d went to bed with.  I’d read too many blogs about ‘post-Constitutional America’ and the Federal courts’ craven acquiescence to legislation allowing our military to imprison people – Americans, too – indefinitely without any obligation to offer the person counsel, a hearing before a judge or a phone call to his/her family.

           And then there was Pres. Obama’s appointment of Harvard Law Professor David Barron to the US First Circuit Court of Appeals.  Joining the line of former prosecutors – people complicit in the perverted Justice system of the Bush II/Obama presidencies – the president of hope denied has appointed the author of the classified memorandum justifying the murder by drone of Americans abroad.

           US Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is right (bet you never thought you’d see those words in this blog!) to insist on the memorandum’s release.  He’d be more right to urge his Senate colleagues to reject nominees, like Ninth Circuit Judge Jay Bybee (author whilst at the Bush II Justice Department of an infamous ‘torture’ memorandum) who have destroyed the spirit of the laws they swore to uphold and, I fear, damned us.

           Add to Barron the two men with very disturbing views on women, voting rights and secession Obama has nominated to the US District Court in Georgia, I wonder if breaking the filibuster was worth the effort.  What a legacy Obama is leaving us!

           Then there’s the prosecution and conviction on Monday of Occupy Wall Street protester, Cecily McMillan, in what appears to have been a kangaroo court in all but name.  Another craven performance by Manhattan prosecutor, Cyrus Vance, Jr….

           Dies irae, dies illa!

           But then I looked at the bird feeders next to the cherry tree outside my office window.  Greeting me this first morning in Vermont in two months were a dozen gold finches – my favorite birds since childhood – who’ve shed their winter drab for brilliant summer coats, a half dozen red polls, a red-headed woodpecker and a blue bird.

           Beyond them, a field of daffodils – yellow, orange and white – shake in the breeze.  The willows in the middle ground have moved from yellow toward green and hints of green one can discern amongst the buds on other deciduous trees which still appear – all the way to Mt. Graylock – winter purple and gray.

          So, instead of bemoaning our lost world, let’s revel in the new one spring brings.

           Gaudete!  Rejoice!

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Category: Classical Music, Community & Society, Crime - Organized & Not, Environment, Ethics & Morality, Future, Imperialism & Empire, International Criminal Law - UN, Modern Life, Peace & War, US Criminal Law, US Department of Justice, US Politics, Vermont, War on Terror

16 April, 2014

The Art of Junkanoo Now at the NAGB

By Peter Kinder

Nassau, Bahamas:  National Art Gallery of the Bahamas, Junkanoo Eagles (2013) 4/15/14

Nassau, Bahamas: National Art Gallery of the Bahamas, Junkanoo Eagles (2013) 4/15/14

          Junkanoo can’t really be explained.

           Junkanoo can only be experienced, whether in the ten-hour parades marking Boxing Day and New Years in the Bahamas or in the casual rushes celebrating an event such as last night’s opening at the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas (NAGB) in Nassau.

           At the turn of the year, it is an experience that combines dancing, drums, music, human-powered floats, all elaborately costumed for one parade.  The drums drive through your chest; the whistles and cowbells pulse in your ears; and the trumpets, coronets and tubas add a melody line.

           Whether on Bay Street or Shirley Street or amongst the crowds lining them, Junkanoo both requires and creates community.  The vast bands, the hordes of dancers, the floats and costumes demand organisation and a focused, collective creativity.

           I think as I watch that half this nation of 550,000 spread across 700 islands must be in the parade; everyone else must have worked on the costumes and come out to watch them go by.  

           An essential element of Junkanoo is the rivalry amongst the Saxons, the Valley Boys, One Family, the Prodigal Sons and other groups for the parade championship.  Judges evaluate performers as they pass Parliament.  Their tally sheets for each unit used to go into gray boxes pulled down the street accompanied by at least two police.

           The arcane judging often produces litigation extending Junkanoo’s joys for some weeks after the New Year.

           This year, both parade championships went to the Valley Boys, a result that seemed fitting as their co-founder and leader for 45 years, Winston ‘Gus’ Cooper, lay dying.  A revered figure, Cooper is generally credited with bringing about Junkanoo as it’s now experienced.

           The National Art Gallery of the Bahamas has always recognised the art of Junkanoo.  It took the occasion of Cooper’s death to remember him with a show celebrating this rarely preserved art and the communities that create it.

           The Ace of Spades’ – Mr. Cooper’s hard-earned title as the top card – is an exceptionally well-organised and informative show.  A long, crowded wall traces the modern history of Junkanoo following the unrest of the Depression and WWII when it was prohibited.  The irony of Mr. Cooper’s given names – Winston Roosevelt – goes unnoted.

           The next room recreates a portion of the Valley Boys’s ‘shack’ where they design and create – in greatest secrecy – their costumes for the year’s end.  Cardboard filled with sketches covers the walls.  The thought of drawings of such quality ending in the rubbish would make a gallery owner weep.

           A small alcove presents one of Boxing Day 2013′s most spectacular costumes.  To its left and right are snaps of the progress of its construction which proves it to be far more complex even than the exquisite detail suggests.

           The balance of the well-mounted exhibit displays additional costumes and details from floats.  Set apart and spaced generously, one can appreciate the genius of the individual efforts, something hard to do in the noise and movement of a moment on Boxing Day.  A mural captures themes from Valley Boy designs which have the complexity of Mayan ‘glyphs.

           As I looked at the mural, I thought of the inadequacy of museums and historical sites.  They preserve these wonderful artifacts but in isolation from the colors, pageantry and sounds that gave them collective significance.

           Yes, each art work rewards the time spent with it – especially the way the NAGB presents them.  But how inadequate they are emptied of the people who wore them, separated from the other costumes that surrounded them, mute and immobile.

           Outside, we joined the rush.  Perhaps 50 Valley Boys marched to the Gallery.  No costumes.  Just the joy of whistles and bells, drums and horns.  And people.


          For some pictures I’ve taken of Junkanoo: one, two, three, four, five, six.


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Category: Art, Bahamas, Music