Posted by: tuulenhaiven | July 28, 2014

The Johnstown Flood

by David McCullough

Last week when I wrote about Three Rivers Rising by Jame Richards, and the Great Flood of 1889, I didn’t really expect to read David McCullough’s book on the subject right away. A casual search at my local library branch turned it up and although I’d only meant to check if they had it, for some future mid-winter entertainment, my curiosity got the better of me and into my bag it went. I started the book over breakfast the next day, and then spent much of a slow day at work being swept along by the terrible rush of the narrative. I was supposed to be selling veggies at the indoor market where I work, but instead of talking taters I was sharing flood facts.

Which are, in brief: Johnstown, PA, in the 1880s was a coal-and-steel town just reaching it’s boom-time. Many families were achieving their first real business success, and at the very least there was work for whomever wanted it. In the mountains above Johnstown an old earth dam, which had changed hands a few times, was then under the ownership and responsibility of an exclusive sporting club, members of which included Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Andrew Mellon (very rich dudes!) Shoddily repaired, the dam haphazardly held back the waters of Lake Conemaugh, and despite warnings of potential danger and annual nervousness during spring rains, it did hold them for years.

However, during a phenomenal rain storm on May 31st, 1889, the dam finally burst, dropping the swollen lake down from it’s mountain hold at roughly 1,600 feet, through 15 miles of narrow twisting gorge, and right onto Johnstown. The build-up of water pressure and force was like turning Niagara onto Johnstown for 30 minutes. The wall of water destroyed everything in it’s path through the mountains and obliterated the majority of the city. In Johnstown alone at least 2,000 people died. The flood became the biggest news story, and scandal, in the country.

McCullough’s book draws from tons of records, diaries, letters, and interviews with survivors (it was published in 1968 so some of the very youngest survivors were very, very old when McCullough caught up with them). The narrative is engaging, roaring with details and lively characterizations. McCullough wove a painstaking description of the events throughout a richly textured portrait of Johnstown, the place and the people, and how both fit into the grand scheme of that point in PA’s history and the country at large.

McCullough’s view as a good storyteller and a great social historian made for an excellent read, but my enjoyment was deepened because of having just read Three Rivers Rising. Richards listed McCullough’s book as her main source of info about the flood, and it was fascinating to see what sort of details inspired her and what true-life characters and circumstances she explored and let her imagination run with. I’ve always dabbled in writing historical fiction, and this glimpse into the process of another storyteller was nifty.

I mentioned that Richards didn’t really point any fingers in her narrative. McCullough does, but even though a large part of the blame for the disaster can be dumped in the velvet draped laps of the rich club members, the true cause of the dam bursting is fairly complex. I appreciated how thoroughly McCullough investigated all the various arguments, not without bias, but certainly laying blame fairly, and without hysterics. He left that for the newspapermen of the time!

A contemporary illustration of the broken dam from Harper’s Weekly

In the end, he pulled two crucial mistakes out of the wreckage of facts surrounding the dam’s failure. First, ‘that if man, for any reason, drastically alters the natural order, setting in motion a whole series of chain reactions, then he had better know what he is doing.’ (p. 260)

In the case of the South Fork dam (which was the initial alteration of natural order), repairs were not conducted by experts, there was a sag at the center of the dam (due to crappy repairs), the spillway was obstructed (by gates meant to keep the club’s fish in the club’s lake!), and most ridiculous of all, there were no longer any discharge pipes at the base of the dam (meaning that the club owners at no point whatsoever had any control over the level of the lake). Yes, there was a storm without precedent, a biblical rain, but it was general knowledge soon after the flood in Johnstown and across the country, that, as one George Swank wrote, “We think we know what struck us, and it was not the hand of Providence. Our misery is the work of man.” (p. 253)

Andrew Carnegie

Henry Clay Frick


The work of the same men who built the mills and mines that provided jobs, and therefore food and shelter, to the people of Johnstown – the fabulously wealthy, powerful, brilliant business men who were relentlessly building industries and pushing the country toward greatness. It had been foolish to believe that they could also look after a little earth dam in the mountains.

The second crucial mistake, according to McCullough, was one that was made by the club members as well as most of Johnstown, who ‘went along on the assumption that the people who were responsible for their safety were behaving responsibly.’ (p. 262-63)

The club members took it for granted that the men who rebuilt the dam knew what they were about. And as I said above, the people of Johnstown believed that the clubmen would be sensible enough to mend the dam well. Both were wrong, and catastrophe ensued.

There’s an excellent lesson here, but it’s disheartening to note that history has repeated itself over and over and over again. Men continue to tamper with “the forces of nature on a stupendous scale“, as the director of the U. S. Geological Survey, Mayor John Wesley Powell, wrote later in the summer of 1889. “Woe to the people who trust these powers to the hands of fools.” (p. 263)

Shall we talk about the Sidoarjo mud volcano, set off in 2006 by a drilling operation (probably) and still spewing mud to this day…??

The people of Johnstown rebuilt, the mills and mines reopened, and the clubmen (although charged in court to some degree, and broadly condemned by the workingman) were never required to pay for their part in the disaster. This added to the bitterness and resentment stewing in the lower classes, who were beginning to notice that despite ‘the progress being made everywhere…the growing prosperity and the prospect of an even more abundant future…not all was right in the Republic.’ (p. 248) It is worth noting that just three years later the violent Homestead steel strike erupted in Pittsburgh, and Henry Clay Frick narrowly escaped death by bullet in his neck.

As much as we haven’t taken to heart the lessons of the Johnstown Flood, we haven’t made a lot of progress either on addressing the destructive forces of ‘the trusts, the giant corporations, and the men who [run] them‘ in this country. (p. 249) Back in 1889 folks asked how ‘such a calamity could possibly happen in the United States of America‘. (p. 248) I must ask, how could such calamities possibly still occur here? Appalling, frustrating thought.

But setting that aside, I’d recommend The Johnstown Flood if you’re in the mood for a dramatic tale of devastation. I’ll be seeking out more of David McCullough’s work, as he went on to write Pulitzer Prize-winning books Truman and John Adams, as well as histories of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal, and most recently The Greater Journey (2011) , about Americans in Paris from the 1830s to the 1900s. Sounds interesting!

(According to his Wiki page, after writing about the Johnstown Flood, publishers asked him to write about the Great Chicago Fire and the San Francisco earthquake, but he turned those ideas down because he didn’t want to become known as “Bad News McCullough”…! Ha! Poor fellow, he does give disaster a nice ring…)

Oh, and did I mention that he’s a Pittsburgh native? Remember this bridge?

16th St. Bridge - Oct. 21st 2013

In 2012 the David McCullough Bridge (better known as the 16th Street Bridge) was dedicated to the author and historian, who was born in Pittsburgh in 1933 (ten years after the bridge was completed). I’d forgotten about that until I noted how frequently folks commented on what I was reading – Pittsburghers like their local authors!

Aside from visiting Johnstown soon (via train! so exciting!) I mean to read more about Andrew Carnegie, and Clara Barton (who brought her Red Cross unit to Johnstown after the flood – the first major disaster it was present for in America). I also want to find An American Doctor’s Odyssey by Victor Heiser (a teenage survivor of the flood who lost both his parents, but then put himself through medical school and traveled the world researching the prevention of disease – his account of his experience during the flood can be read here).

I, at least, mean to learn something from history…!

Posted by: tuulenhaiven | July 22, 2014

Johnstown and Juárez

I have two cities on my mind today. One lies only 67 miles east of my dooryard, while the other would require a journey of over a day.

It’s likely that I’ll visit Johnstown, PA, sometime soon. There’s a nifty incline there, the steepest in the world in fact, which begs to be ridden by me. There’s a cute downtown to poke around in, and a beautiful stone bridge. There’s the Johnstown Flood Museum to visit.

The great flood of 1889 is the background for a book I just finished – Jame Richards’ Three Rivers Rising. It’s a novel in verse, featuring several narrators from various classes of life. 16 year old Celestia spends the summer with her family at a resort on the shores of Lake Conemaugh, a reservoir in the mountains above Johnstown. She falls in love with Peter, the hotel’s hired boy, in defiance of her parents and her social station. Meanwhile, a young mother feeds her babes and stitches a quilt, ears pricked for the special whistle of the locomotive that her husband drives. And heartbroken Kate makes her way through nursing school and toward a new job in Johnstown. Their lives intersect on the last day of May, 1889, when, amid a biblical rainstorm, the earthen dam fails and Lake Conemaugh empties into the valley below.

Although the characterizations were broad, and the relationships un-complicated, I found the book to be interesting and certainly a good introduction to a historical event that has intrigued me for a few months. The format of novel in verse suited the tale well, compelling me along with a wild rush (I read the book in less than 2 hours).

There was a bit of commentary on who was to blame for the disaster, but in the story no fingers were really pointed. The author included a chronology of the South Fork Dam at the end of the book, however, which makes it clear that there was some clear dereliction of duty and lack of responsibility on the part of the private sportsmen’s club that took over the management of the dam in 1879 (members included Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Andrew Mellon among others, rich and powerful). I can’t help thinking about some other instances of man messing around with water and failing to control it…we don’t seem to learn!

I plan to read David McCullough’s The Johnstown Flood sometime soon, as Richards listed it as her main source for some of the more fascinating stories (of daring rescues and escapes!) and personalities that she learned about.

Three Rivers Rising told the story of a single day of destruction, but another book of poetry that I read recently describes an ongoing disaster. Secrets In the Sand: The Young Women of Juárez is a collection written by Marjorie Agosín (trans. Celeste Kostopulos-Cooperman) about the epidemic of feminicide in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. The actual numbers are difficult to pin down, but in the preface written by the translator, she quotes Amnesty International’s estimate that between 1993 and 2005 over 370 women were abducted and murdered. (This situation is the basis for Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666 which I read earlier this year.)

Marjorie Agosín witnessed the horror of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, and being familiar with the pain of ‘the disappeared’ she felt compelled to write poems about the woman who had been killed in Juárez, and the families who must live with that sorrow. Her book adds to the testimony, giving voices to women who have been hushed forever. In a situation where sketchy reporting, falsified evidence, and a lack of investigation or attention from the Mexican justice system is the norm, such testimony is powerful. Like her character Celeste says in I Lived on Butterfly Hill, ‘ “How can we figure things out if we all stay silent?!” ‘

Her poems were quiet, full of grief and lonely, desert imagery. They were sad, but not as provocative as I had expected. I read through them quickly, feeling distanced from them, and therefore from the events they spoke of. Maybe the day was wrong for them, or my mood – but that shouldn’t matter with poetry, I think. It’ll grab you or it won’t.

The last two poems in the collection stopped me in my tracks. They were a whip lash across my heart. They’re written by Guadalupe Morfin, who was appointed by President Vicente Fox in 2003 as the special federal commissioner on violence against women in Ciudad Juárez. She was tasked with coordinating the government’s response to the murders, a daunting prospect considering that she’s up against corrupt police officers and powerful drug cartels. International pressure has finally pushed the authorities into action, but too often they ignore leads and make false accusations and arrests.

No wonder Morfin’s poems are raw and trembling with frustration, vicious with grief. She is in the heart of the horror, looking into its eyes, unwilling to blink first.

The situation has not improved since this book was published in 2006. This New York Times article from 2012 reports a horrific increase in numbers, in fact. And this 2013 article from AlJazeera America talks about a female vigilante amid a culture where ‘Three out of five Mexican females have been physically abused within the past year‘ – in a city where 1,400 women have been killed over the last 20 years. The need for testimony – like the poems and stories of Agosín and Morfin and Bolaño – is more necessary now than ever.

Both of these books left me with questions and the desire to learn and read more, and obviously with an urge to tell someone else about them – and that’s something. A very little something, when faced with those pink crosses, but still. I look forward to visiting Johnstown, PA, and maybe someday I’ll walk the streets of Juárez and -

…love deciphering her secrets

waking among her silences

and taking refuge

in the morning light of the neighboring hills.

- from ‘Land of Ashes’ by Guadalupe Morfin

Posted by: tuulenhaiven | July 21, 2014

The Dispossessed

by Ursula K. Le Guin

I came across Le Guin’s collection of short stories titled The Wind’s Twelve Quarters a few months ago, and was delighted by what is her earliest work, including her very first published tale. Even better than some of the stories were the descriptions she included of how she came to write them, whether they were sparked by a personal experience or were the reaction to an event or to a book she was reading, or were the exploration of an idea that was puzzling or fascinating her. She called the book a retrospective, and it is delicious to read as a fan of her novels because many of the tales are the seeds that would later germinate into full blown, gorgeous books. The world of Earthsea is recognizable in at least two stories, and settings and characters from her Hainish cycle pop up all over the place. Two of the stories felt very important to me and deserve to be discussed on their own – ‘Nine Lives‘, a relatively straight sci-fi story that explores ideas of self and identity and features clones and a mining disaster, and ‘Vaster than Empires and More Slow‘, which is about a man who is able, for better but mostly for worse, to empathize with every living creature, from the scientists traveling through space with him to an entire planet populated by nothing but plants. Someday I’ll write about them – you should probably just go read them though. *grin*

Two award-winning stories in the collection led me to Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed, which brings us to the topic at hand. ‘The Day Before the Revolution‘ is pretty much a prequel. I read a bunch of Le Guin’s sci-fi in 2008 and though I (probably?) read The Dispossessed, it didn’t matter to me the way it does in 2014. The short story sparked my interest thoroughly, for in it Le Guin began her exploration of anarchy and societal change, following elderly Laia Odo – anarchist philosopher and founder of what became the utopian society of Anarres – through what is likely the last day of her life, and certainly the day before the General Strike that kicked off the revolution. Because this is Le Guin writing, the huge, historical events swirling around Laia are almost a distant roar when compared to her extremely personal experience throughout the day, coping with aging, grief, her own sexuality, and the quiet knowledge of her coming death.

I was grateful to have this glimpse into the life of the legendary Odo, going into my reading of The Dispossessed, which takes place about 200 years after the revolution that Odo inspired. Laia spent some of her last hours questioning if, already, her ideas were being warped and if the human tendency toward authoritarianism would upset her ideal society before it even got started. I appreciate that Le Guin’s story, start to finish, pushes hard at every idea it presents, and that both Laia and later Shevek, the main protagonist in The Dispossessed, question and test and doubt and challenge themselves to take nothing for granted. The writer behind the story is perhaps more present, because of this, than I would sometimes choose. However in this case I felt like Le Guin was making a place beside her for you, presenting a partnership, not nailing the answers to the wall but asking you to join her in thinking about the questions.

And beyond that, The Dispossessed is a damn good story. It begins with Shevek, a brilliant physicist, leaving Anarres – the habitable moon of the planet Urras, where the Odonian anarchists were sent 200 years before by the Urras governments, to prevent a world-wide anarcho-syndicalist rebellion. Shevek is the first man to leave the moon since the anarchists came there, since part of the deal was a guarantee of non-interference on both sides. He is working on a General Temporal Theory, which will eventually lead to the development of the (fictional) ansible, an instantaneous communications device that makes a lot of what happens in the rest of the Hainish Cycle possible (incidentally…) The Urras governments, especially the state of A-Io, want the theory badly enough that they agree to ship Shevek down, and give him whatever support he needs until he finishes the work.

Shevek, who has been creatively stifled in his own world, is eager for the resources, exchange of ideas, and positive reception that A-Io promises. He has other motives as well though – the wall between Urras and Anarres is more than empty space. Hatred for the capitalist, egoistical, coercive authoritarian societies of Urras has festered in his people, causing a stagnation of creativity and a fear of change. Meanwhile, despite their best efforts at building a consensus-based society, people have found ways to gain power and even build a subtle form of government. Shevek aims to tear down walls, open lines of communication, and bring fresh ways of thinking to his moon and the old home-world of Urras.

The story-line bounces back and forth from Shevek’s adventures on Urras to his upbringing on Anarres and the gradual development of his thinking (and his physics). This makes for a fascinating exploration of both the good and the bad aspects of the society he was born into, and Le Guin’s characterization is as masterful and complex as her world-building. The story is compelling and full of drama, but it is also slow – not in a dragging way, but in a thoughtful fashion. Ideas are hashed out in real-time, often enough. You’re there when Shevek talks himself into a whole new realm of thought, or when an old friend points out something he’s been missing. If you are more interested in a smash-and-grab story this won’t be the book for you. If, like me though, you enjoy a mental work-out, you’ll find a lot that is interesting and pertinent here.

And that’s the kicker. The Dispossessed was written in 1974. If you want, you can liken the state of A-Io, with it’s capitalist economy and grimace-inducing patriarchal system, to the USA. The state of Thu comes off as rather Soviet Union-y. There are left-wing groups in A-Io who are sympathetic to the ideas of Thu. An uprising in the under-developed state of Benbili gives A-Io and Thu a chance to conduct a proxy-war. Sound familiar?

That was then. But I found the book to be still incredibly relevant to today, with the capitalist economy of A-Io still being comparable to the USA, complete with an incredible gap between the very rich and everyone else. Of course we’ve cleaned up our act considerably when it comes to embracing the equality between the sexes that Odonian orthodoxy insisted upon (Le Guin certainly put in her time as a feminist). However, some of the more subtle problems that Shevek noticed in his society are things that I see developing in this country – sometimes without much subtlety.

There were walls around all his thoughts, and he seemed utterly unaware of them, though he was perpetually hiding behind them.’ – p. 16

Even when we’re aware of it, in this society the struggle to possess things defines much of our life. It’s one of the walls around us. So, so often, as Shevek observed of the people in A-Io, we have ‘no relationship to the things but that of possession.’ (p. 132) We didn’t make the thing. It wasn’t made by someone we know, or even made nearby. It was made ‘out of sight, somewhere else. Behind walls.’ (p. 132)

They think if people can possess enough things they will be content to live in prison.’ – p. 138

They won’t even notice that they’re in prison. Walls.

In Shevek’s world they are vigilant against the desire to posses things, to posses anything at all, looking squinty-eyed at people who choose to partner for life, who spend more time than is necessary with their children, who have an original idea… And Shevek sees how that extreme can be an error too.

In his 20s he came up against a huge wall, a wall pushed up by the fear and hatred for Urras and what it represented, accompanied by the ‘innate cowardice of the average human mind.‘ (p. 165) Careful, quiet resistance to change, to new ideas. He crashed into the power structure that had evolved around him, a form of government that ruled Odonian society not through ‘vested authority‘, or ‘intellectual excellence‘, but through ‘stifling the individual mind‘. (p. 165)

When his friend Bedap points this out to Shevek, he resists the concept violently. This is a fascinating conversation, with Shevek sticking up for the good aspects of the society they’ve built on Anarres and Bedlap showing him how those good things have grown toxic. On a barren world where everyone must work together in cooperation to survive, human solidarity is the only resource. Bedlap argues that obedience has replaced cooperation.

‘ “It’s always easier not to think for oneself. Find a nice safe hierarchy and settle in. Don’t make changes, don’t risk disapproval, don’t upset your syndics. It’s always easiest to let yourself be governed.” ‘ – p. 168

‘ “…we forgot that the will to dominance is as central in human beings as the impulse to mutual aid is, and has to be trained in each individual, in each new generation. Nobody’s born an Odonian any more than he’s born civilized! But we’ve forgotten that. We don’t educate for freedom. Education, the most important activity of the social organism, has become rigid, moralistic, authoritarian.” ‘ – p. 168

Some would claim that America is the land of the free, that we fought a revolution in order to be free, that we continue to fight tooth and claw to stay free. Le Guin noticed in 1974 that the wall around this country was, like all walls, ‘ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.‘ (p.1) Does the wall around America enclose the universe, leaving us beyond the wall, free? Or is America inside the wall, a great prison camp?

We don’t educate for freedom in this country, while still calling it the land of the free. We don’t learn to see the wall. We’re content to live in a prison. But the lie of that drives us crazy. We can feel the wall, even if we can’t see it. It is there in the corner of the eye, sensed in the small of your back, a whisper behind you. Evading reality will drive you crazy.

But that’s okay! We have medication for that. And we must medicate, because otherwise we might feel pain.

Take a pill! Otherwise we might notice that we are enduring an ‘earthquake of the soul‘ (to mix book references…) Every day I walk around this city, and I pay attention. People are in agony. I see ‘ “the spiritual suffering! -

‘ “Of people seeing their talent, their work, their lives wasted. Of good minds submitting to stupid ones. Of strength and courage strangled by envy, greed for power, fear of change. Change is freedom, change is life…but nothing changes any more. Our society is sick. … Its suicidal sickness!” ‘ p. 166

I think we need to feel pain. Over the last few years I have made myself feel more, I have embraced days of feeling sad, let myself be angry, pushed away the habit of thought that tells me I should, I must be happy all the time! I don’t cause myself intentional harm, don’t seek out highs and lows of emotion, but when I feel sorrow I let it fill me just as thoroughly as I do joy. It is terrifying. It is thrilling. It is truthful. It is not socially acceptable in America.

And because of that, because we lie about our own pain, we can never fully empathize with each other. We won’t ever see each other fully, won’t love each other truthfully, won’t achieve brother/sisterhood. I think Le Guin is right (Shevek as a teenager explores the idea) in saying:

‘ “Suffering is the condition on which we live. And when it comes, you know it. You know it as the truth. Of course it’s right to cure diseases, to prevent hunger and injustice, as the social organism does. But no society can change the nature of existence. We can’t prevent suffering. This pain and that pain, yes, but not Pain. A society can only relieve social suffering, unnecessary suffering. The rest remains. The root, the reality. All of us here are going to know grief; if we live fifty years, we’ll have known pain fifty years. And in the end we’ll die. That’s the condition we’re born on.” ‘ – p. 60

‘ “It’s the self that suffers, and there’s a place where the self…ceases. I don’t know how to say it. But I believe that the reality – the truth that I recognize in suffering as I don’t in comfort and happiness –  that the reality of pain is not pain. If you can get through it. If you can endure it all the way.” ‘ – p.61

It seems to me that in our current society, our unwillingness to accept our own pain, the reality of it, stops us from preventing even the suffering that we can, as a social organism. We isolate ourselves, medicate, and ignore. We’re insensitive to our own suffering and therefore to the suffering of others. If this continues, there’s no way that any of us can endure. And ultimately, after all, we can’t save each other or ourselves from death. When Shevek voices this comment to his friends, all born into an anarchistic society, they protest ‘ “You’re denying brotherhood, Shevek!” ‘

‘ “No – no, I’m not. I’m trying to say what I think brotherhood really is. It beings…it begins in shared pain.”

“Then where does it end”

“I don’t know. I don’t know yet.” ‘ – p. 62

Where do we go from here, from accepting our own pain, and sharing the pain of others? In this early part of the book I was grateful for Le Guin’s ability to put some of what I’ve been thinking lately into words. She continued doing that, sharing my realization that perhaps the most we can do for each other is hold each other in the darkness. This passage, a moment shared between Shevek and his partner Takver, is lovely. Shevek speaking:

‘ “All you have to do to see life whole is to see it as mortal. I’ll die, you’ll die; how could we love each other otherwise? The sun’s going to burn out, what else keeps it shining?”

“Ah! your talk, your damned philosophy!”

“Talk? It’s not talk. It’s not reason. It’s hand’s touch. I touch the wholeness, I hold it. Which is moonlight, which is Takver? How shall I fear death? When I hold it, when I hold in my hands the light – “

“Don’t be propertarian,” Takver muttered.

“Dear heart, don’t cry.”

“I’m not crying. You are. Those are your tears.”

“I’m cold. The moonlight’s cold.”

“Lie down.”

A great shiver went through his body as she took him in her arms.

“I am afraid, Takver,” he whispered.

“Brother, dear soul, hush.”

They slept in each other’s arms that night, many nights. ‘ – p. 190-191

It’s hand’s touch. There’s power in that.

In this country, blinded by possessions, ownership, and the need to dominate, thwarted by states, nations, presidents, chiefs, bosses, generals, bankers, landlords, wages, charity, police, soldiers, and war, we’ve completely forgotten that we are brothers/sisters, that we come into this world empty-handed and will leave that way too. We knew it once, but we’ve forgotten it. We MUST learn it again. We must learn that -

‘ “…there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give.” ‘ – p. 300

‘ “You cannot take what you have not given, and you must give yourself. You cannot buy the Revolution. You cannot make the Revolution. You can only be the Revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.” ‘ – p. 301

Shevek spoke these words before a peaceful protest on Urras, one that was ruthlessly shut down moments later. Meanwhile, back on his home moon many of his people called him a traitor for leaving Anarras. There are no solutions here.

There’s just the revolution in your spirit, the condition of pain you’re born to, the relearning of brother/sisterhood, and hand’s touch.

Keep living the questions.

Posted by: tuulenhaiven | July 15, 2014

Beauty in the Details

My last two visits to Phipps Conservatory were barely a week apart. The first was with my Mom and little sister, who kept to a leisurely pace which provided me with lots of time to investigate via camera lens all the pretty details of the Summer Flower Show. The second visit was with a dear friend, who joined me with her own camera in hand and went at a snail’s pace, providing me with enough time to get completely lost several layers deeper in the details.

Flowers are always lovely – the structure of their faces, their dueling simplicity and complexity…

Children's Discovery Garden, June 25th 2014

Orchid Room, July 8th 2014

Children's Discovery Garden, July 8th 2014

Children's Discovery Garden, July 8th 2014

Tropical Forest Conservatory, June 25th 2014Tropical Forest Conservatory, July 8th 2014

It’s fun to see them change from season to season, and the fact that there are always different orchids in the Orchid Room kind of blows my mind. It was a delight to visit twice so close together too though, as I could check back with some little flowers that had gone from blossom to bloom.



Yes, flowers are always lovely – but I found my attention drawn increasingly to ferns over these last two visits, and by extension to the more abstract forms and patterns of plants. In the Fern Room the fronds of most of the plants were covered in spore cases (called sori) because the ferns are starting to reproduce (which they do without seeds). Each variety of fern has its own distinct pattern of sori on the underside of the fronds, and these can be gorgeous.

Fern Room, July 8th 2014

Fern Room, July 8th 2014

Fern Room, July 8th 2014

Fern Room, July 8th 2014

Stove Room, July 8th 2014

I went a little Georgia O’Keeffe with my photography, lingering long over each plant that grabbed my eye, relishing the angles and soft curves and the million shades of green.

Tropical Forest Conservatory, July 8th 2014

Tropical Forest Conservatory, July 8th 2014Tropical Forest Conservatory, July 8th 2014

Stove Room, June 25th 2014

Fern Room, July 8th 2014Orchid Room, July 8th 2014

Tropical Forest Conservatory, July 8th 2014

I’ve seen almost the full turning of the seasons at Phipps, but it’s exciting to note that I won’t grow tired of the place anytime soon. There’s always something new to see there, some plant or flower or seed pod that sparks the wonder in me, rekindles my curiosity. I’m looking forward to many more happy hours spent there staring at the greenery. Or at this bit of glory:

Children's Discovery Garden, June 25th 2014

My complete album of pics taken at Phipps can be found here. Enjoy!


Posted by: tuulenhaiven | July 9, 2014

I Lived on Butterfly Hill

by Marjorie Agosín

trans. E. M. O’Connor

While breezing into the children’s room at the Oakland branch of the Carnegie Library, headed for the juvenile fiction with Moomins on my mind, the pretty cover of this book stopped me in my tracks. Lee White’s work is bound to do that, with its glowing colors, but the black and white illustrations that fill I Lived on Butterfly Hill seemed especially luminous. A flip through the book and a glance at the plot – a girl leaves troubled Chile and travels to the coast of Maine – was enough to make me wedge it under my arm. I got round to reading it over a long weekend spent in Ohio at the Sky Cabin.

Celeste loves living in Valparaíso. She loves the steep hills above the sea, covered in colorful houses. She loves the pelicans that fly past the window of her blue room every morning. She loves the humitas made by her Nana Delfina, and the blue scarves that her Abuela Frida knits endlessly. She loves the fact that her doctor parents accept eggs and vegetables in payment for their services. She loves the fact that Chile has new hope, now that the new Presidente has promised to help the poor and make all Chileans responsible for looking out for one another.

But the boats in the port, stranger and so much larger than she is used to seeing, bother her. And the magic pendulum that her friend Cristóbal Williams has grown up trusting, swings in a worrying fashion. Soon enough the ‘earthquake of the soul‘ that her Mother spoke of rocks Chile, and the world Celeste has known disappears – as do friends, the principle of her beloved school, and her pelicans. Celeste finds her life in a tailspin – the Presidente dead, her parents in hiding, marked as ‘subversives’, and herself on her way to an impossibly far and foreign land.

Safe with her Tía Graciela in Juliette Cove, Maine, Celeste faces the challenges of a new land, language, and loneliness. With the resilience of a thoughtful child, in touch with the supernatural aspects of life, Celeste finds new bravery and joy within herself. She comes to love her blue room in Maine and the grey houses above the grey sea. Just as she is getting settled though, the dictatorship in her first home comes to an end and she is sent back to Chile. She must find even deeper sources of strength to draw on if she is going to find her parents and help rebuild her country.

The author of I Lived on Butterfly Hill escaped the terror of the Pinochet dictatorship with her parents, and she draws heavily from the experience in this book. It is based on real events, but the timeline is significantly squashed (Pinochet was in power for 17 years, not 2!) Perhaps this is because the book is aimed at middle-grade readers, but interestingly, Agosín doesn’t skimp on details regarding setting and explores the ways that Celeste finds meaning and understanding amid the chaos of her circumstances. She also brings in cultural depth with the use of characters like Nana Delfina, a Mapuche woman from the south of Chile, and Celeste’s Abuela, a German Jew who escaped Vienna with the Nazi’s on her heels.

The writing is pretty, even piercing at times, and Celeste is a character who grabs you. The ‘earthquake of the soul‘ line keeps ringing in my ears, and there are a couple of passages about what it means to be an exile that roughed me up a bit. I hope that there are kids out there who will be challenged and inspired by this book. It certainly gave me a lot to think about.

I’ve spent some time refreshing my memory on the historical framework for the story, which of course is somewhat disheartening. Reading an interview with author Isabel Allende (niece of Salvador Allende, the Presidente that Celeste knew as Alarcón), I came across this:

“Fear is a very powerful tool and Pinochet used it successfully. He controlled the military, the judiciary and there was no Congress; there was no freedom of the press, no habeas corpus, no right to dissent. He imposed an economic system that seemed successful at the beginning, although it benefited the capitalists while it maintained the labour force under an iron fist. The gap between the very rich and the poor in Chile is still shameful.”

And also:

“It is very hard to live in fear. Out of necessity, one adapts rapidly. Denial is a way of protecting oneself. There is a feeling of impotence and loneliness. Terror works by isolating people.

Ideally, every little family is at home watching the official version of the news on TV, there is no interaction, no public discourse, no dialogue or discussion, no exchange of ideas that might stir rebellion.”

It’s easy to say that things in this country aren’t bad, that we don’t live under a dictatorship, that we have all kinds of rights and laws. But that’s not something I can say or see anymore. Instead, I see those laws protecting only some of us, and those rights being carefully limited. Our Congress barely functions, our military is feared world-wide. Our economic system is broken, and the gap between the rich and poor is shameful. The press is controlled and television has been a propaganda machine since it’s conception.

Americans live in so much fear, and out of necessity, they medicate. They live behind walls and walls and walls of denial. I am surrounded by people who are frustrated to the point of impotence, isolated and lonely. Some days I think I’m one of them, and that really is terrifying.

Fear is something that Celeste learns to let go of, even if for only a moment. Those moments count. They add up. She pays attention, and she thinks about what she sees. She refuses to be quiet, because ‘ “How can we figure things out if we all stay silent?!”

In America we haven’t let soldiers start burning books, but folks sure like to try and censor them. I Lived on Butterfly Hill doesn’t have sex or too much violence or swear words in it, but I’d say it’s pretty subversive, full of dangerous ideas. I hope that kids will read it and pay attention, and think about what they read. What happened in Chile will happen again – is very quietly happening all around us right now. We need more kids like Celeste – and many more adults like her.

I’ll be following the threads from this book for awhile (need to revisit Pablo Neruda’s poetry, read a bio of Salvador Allende, go to Valparaíso! and of course there’s more to read from the author herself, a prize-winning poet and human rights activist…) Read it for a good story, but it’s so much more than that.

Further reading: ‘Here, in a piece from the New Statesman published in March 1974, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel García Márquez explores Allende’s record in Chile, his rivals’ dealings with the United States and the rise of his successor – the army general Augusto Pinochet.

I just finished Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson (trans. Elizabeth Portch), and it’s made me long for the seashore… Teasing the waves, as Snufkin does, building a “house” on the sand out of driftwood and a sail, exploring cliff-side beaches and hidden harbors, picnics on the beach and naps in little sand-nests. I did it all and more as a kid, and as a big kid too, and I’ll never be too old for sea-side adventures or for the Moomins either.

‘”Wait!” screamed Sniff. “Don’t leave me behind!”

But Moomintroll didn’t stop until he came to the sea, and there he sat down and solemnly watched the waves rolling in, one after another, each with its crest of white foam.’

- p. 16 Comet in Moominland

I read Comet in Moominland in April and although I can’t remember reading the books when I was little, they are so familiar to me. Finn Family Moomintroll was just the same. The world of the Moomins is strange and funny, full of characters that seem at first glance to be rather simple, but which are actually complex and interesting and real. I can’t help wondering if I did wander into their valley when I was young, and left it with a better understanding of the world I lived in…at least it seems to me now that Tove Jansson saw things like I do.

Both Comet in Moominland and Finn Family Moomintroll contain a mystery. In the first, Moomintroll and Sniff notice a pattern reoccurring around them, a star with a tail, and they set off to discover it’s meaning (well-provisioned by Moominmama with woolly stockings and packets of sandwiches). They encounter Snufkin along the way, a poet and musician and wanderer, and eventually find the Observatory where they learn that a comet is indeed heading for their valley. Then it’s a mad scramble to get back and warn everyone and survive the disaster.

In Finn Family Moomintroll, after the long winter sleep Moomintroll and Snufkin discover a mysterious top-hat that soon causes havoc, as it changes anything that’s put inside it to something quit different. The hobgoblin it belongs to is hunting for the King Ruby, which may or may not have found its way into the valley. Meanwhile, the Moominhouse is full of visitors, and with the moody philosopher Muskrat, the Snork Maiden and her brother, and the fanatic botanist Hemulen underfoot, Moominmamma might lose her patience.

These books were written for children, but they have important things to say, and they’re never preachy. Moomintroll and his hooligan friends fight and make up, are selfish but also drastically kind, comfort each other and take care of each other. Big, frightening things happen – the fall-out from the comet, terrible storms – but they have to deal with small disasters too, like the Snork Maiden singeing her pretty hair off, or Sniff not getting any garnets, or the Hemulen completing his stamp collection, and these things hold equal weight.

The Moomins take time to enjoy the good things in life – yummy pancakes and raspberry juice, the ocean’s song left in a seashell, funny little paths -

…winding here and there, dashing off in different directions, and sometimes even tying a knot in itself from sheer joy. (You don’t get tired of a path like that, and I’m not sure that it doesn’t get you home quicker in the end.)

- p. 113 Comet in Moominland

My favorite character so far is Snufkin. Moomintroll and Sniff find him camping in a lonely place along the river. He’s a self-proclaimed tramp, who wanders about, setting up camp when he finds a spot he likes.

“Do you like this place?” asked Sniff in surprise, looking at the desolation all around them.

“Certainly I do, said Snufkin. “Look at that black velvet tree with the beautiful grey colours beyond; look at the mountains that are deep purple-red in the distance! And sometimes a big blue buffalo comes to look at himself in the river.”

“You aren’t by any chance – er – a painter?” asked Moomintroll rather shyly.

“Or perhaps a poet?” suggested Sniff.

“I am everything!” said Snufkin, putting on the kettle.

- p. 55-56 Comet in Moominland

Snufkin takes up with them, adventuring around and eventually coming home to Moominvalley where he stays with the Moomins for a long time. He is never much bothered with stuff, thinking that it can be rather dangerous to “load yourself up with belongings.” By the end of Finn Family Moomintroll, despite the fact that he’s found a home and family with the Moomins, he sets off again. I like that he’s not afraid to be by himself – even yearns for it.

…they sat for a while swinging their legs over the water, without speaking, while the river flowed on and on beneath them to all the strange places that Snufkin longed for and would go to quite alone.

“When are you going?” Moomintroll asked.

“Now – immediately!” said Snufkin throwing all the reed-boats into the water at once, and he jumped down from the bridge and sniffed the morning air. It was a good day to start a journey; the crest of the hill beckoned to him in the sunshine, with the road winding up and disappearing on the other side to find a new valley, and then a new hill…

- p. 127 Finn Family Moomintroll

The difference now is that Snufkin will return in the spring – thank goodness! I’ll look forward to that with as much anticipation as Moomintroll. I’m eager to see what these sweet devils get up to next!

Posted by: tuulenhaiven | July 1, 2014

Growing Things: Plants and Plots and Such

Last month crashed by at high speed, spurred on by thunderstorms and a heat wave. I began squeezing those new projects and ventures in around a still busy work-schedule, and left myself with little time to breathe for a bit there. Days off were spent at The Big Idea Bookstore, or out at Braddock Farms.

Braddock Community Farm, Braddock - June 4th 2014

The farm lies right beside one of the last steel mills still in operation in the area. Bells and whistles sound, things clatter, the air is less-than-ideal for consuming, but still the plants grow. I’ve made it out there about 5 times now and have cultivated Swiss chard and then harvested it weeks later, picked strawberries, planted cucumbers, cleared new beds, pruned tomatoes, pulled golden raspberries and thistles out of the rhubarb (this last task was undertaken with the help of my visiting Mom and sister!)

Braddock Carnegie Library - Braddock - June 18th 2014

I will often spend the morning working, then trot up the hill to the Braddock Carnegie Library, where the librarians take my dirty sun burnt appearance in stride and cheerfully hand over the key to the bathroom so I can wash up. Nothing fazes this library, I suppose, which has stood there since 1888, the first Carnegie Library in the country. Speaking of washing up, there used to be a bathhouse in the basement and a tunnel entrance where mill workers could access the baths, before heading up to make use of the billiard room and the rest of the library facilities.

Braddock is a borough of Pittsburgh and although, unlike much of the rest of the city, it still has a mill in operation, it is a shell of it’s former self, having lost about 90% of it’s population. There is a lot of community interest and effort going into the place though, and the fact that the library still stands and interesting parts of it (like the old music hall) are being restored is proof that Braddock is hanging in there. Something about the place really pricks my heart. Things seem weird but in the right way there, somehow – even if on a scorching afternoon my boyfriend saw two fist-fights break out in the space of four blocks…

Notice: More Hugs Needed - Braddock - June 18th 2014

More hugs needed, indeed.

My exploration of Braddock will continue, but other things have come to an end. My job concluded on June 22nd, and that night my Mom and little sister flew in to visit me. I kept busy for five days giving them a grand tour of Pittsburgh and touching base with the city myself. We went to some of my favorite places (Phipps Conservatory) and checked out some new places (the Duquesne Incline, the National Aviary).

Stove Room, June 25th 2014Children's Discovery Garden, June 25th 2014

National Aviary, June 27th 2014

Duquesne Incline, June 26th 2014

My Mom baked bread several times, and my boyfriend made fresh pasta. I was terrified by live clams, and made gorgeous tortillas. We volunteered in my local community garden and went up round the corner to the 52nd Street Market nearly everyday to restock the fridge. My little sister read a whole book, and my Mom beat us at cards. It was such a long, pleasant, work-free week. A vacation at home.

And now it’s July, and they’ve gone, and I started a new part-time job on Saturday, and it’s time to properly begin this new chapter. I’ll be helping with farmers markets for Clarion River Organics a few days a week, working out at Braddock Farms (where I’m plotting to build a cob oven!), staffing The Big Idea Bookstore, practicing my ukulele, looking for swimming holes, taking pictures, writing stories. The challenge will be to stay productive and not to spend all of my recently regained free time reading…but of course I have reading goals to catch up on too!

I’m hoping for a peaceful, interesting summer. See you around!

Monotropa uniflora (ghost plant, corpse plant, Indian pipe...) Rager Mountain Tail Loop, June 30th 2014

(Peaceful and interesting, like monotropa uniflora, or Ghost Plant/Corpse Plant, found yesterday along the Rager Mountain Trail in the Charles F. Lewis Natural Area, Gallitzin State Forest, PA!)

Posted by: tuulenhaiven | May 27, 2014


You guys! My computer was broken for a few months, and then today when I finally got round to taking it to be repaired, it turned right on and was completely fine. The man at the Goodwill computer store is some kinda wizard. He just looked at my computer cross-eyed and Presto! – it came back to life.

Life has been interesting, meanwhile. Spring in Pittsburgh, although it came late and was chillier than normal according to the native Yinzers, has been lovely. I’ve enjoyed champagne and skipping rocks on the shores of the Allegheny, marveled at all the flowering trees, been thrilled by thunderstorms, adopted a “candy corn vine” and built a flower tower, went to my first baseball game, got lost in the woods with a cute boy in North Park, finally dared to enter the cave in Allegheny Cemetery, eaten ALL OF THE THINGS at Barb’s Corner Kitchen numerous times, finished Master and Margarita at long last, reconnected with my bike and sewing machine, and made plenty of other mischief too. I gave a month’s notice Marty’s Market and am reconstructing my life around urban farming and a volunteer job at a bookstore and building community pizza ovens (instead of working 40+ hrs serving tables and managing a frustrated restaurant scenario…)

Life is going to get even more interesting, yo! Boyfriend, new job, summer in Pittsburgh, digging into this community (literally, I hope!), and I am intent on taking up proper writing again too. Stories and such. Bad poetry. Practicing the craft, you know? Covering those scary white  pages with purple scribblings until something good materializes.

The world is getting weirder every day, but there’re still brilliant books to be read and music to make and listen to, and friends to meet and keep, and despite myself some days, and because it’s spring, I feel pretty hopeful and excited.




Posted by: tuulenhaiven | April 3, 2014

Story Snippets from March

After spending much of two months with 2666, I decided to stick to shorter books in March and enjoyed 5 that were under 200 pages. Somewhat refreshed, I then dived into The Master and Margarita…

To start, I read another one of August Wilson’s plays, the second in his Pittsburgh Cycle – Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. It didn’t grip me the way that Gem of the Ocean did, but I enjoyed it’s depiction of daily life among the residents of a Hill District boardinghouse in 1911 – their casual conversation, their woes and joys both little and big, the different ways each one cared about the others. Again, I’d definitely like to see this performed someday.

Next I read The Blue Fox, a strange and gorgeous tale by Sjón (trans. from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb) that I had stumbled across in January. This somewhat amusing review over on Wuthering Expectations reminded me that I owned it, so I pushed it off my TBR pile. A hunter stalks a blue fox through a snowstorm, and a man remembers the life of the lovely woman with Down syndrome who had been his charge for many years. Abba’s personal mysteries, and the supernatural mystery of the blue fox melt and reform together in the snowy quiet of the story, making something quite wondrous. There are funny moments too, and the end result is a tiny but thoroughly satisfying book. I’ll be looking for more from  Sjón soon.

Another tiny book I read was a delicious surprise – while exploring the main branch of my local library system, I found Georges Perec’s The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise (trans. from the French of course by David Bellos). I haven’t read anything by Perec in a few years, so this was a treat. As should be expected, the book is a puzzle, a game, in actual fact a computer program. Perec was challenged to replicate a computer procedure, or solve a problem as a computer would. The problem is, of course, how to ask your boss for a raise. The fly-leaf of the book has a flow-chart that is amusing to look over, and worth doing so, as the text of the book makes more sense if you kind of know what the map looks like. Because one does not simply ask your boss for a raise – it is a complex process involving innumerable factors and outcomes, based on things like: is your boss in his office when you go to see him? if so, is he in a good mood? did he eat fish for lunch (because it is Friday, or during Lent) which leads to the chance that he will have swallowed a fish bone and become ill before you pop the question? do his children have measles, because if so then you’d better abandon your task and get out of there before you catch it! etc. The text, like the flow-chart, sends you around and around and around – and gleefully tells an actual tale of how a man loses his identity and some portion of his mind to the corporate drain… It’s clever and funny, and it was an absolute delight to hang out with Perec again!

Meanwhile, alongside these books I was reading a collection of Wendell Berry’s poems – Leavings, from 2010. I like the little bits of things I’ve read by Wendell Berry, especially as he comes from a point of view I appreciate – that of a social activist farmer who is in love with the land. This collection didn’t blow me away though. The first poem of the bunch was my favorite:

‘Suppose we did our work

like the snow, quietly, quietly,

leaving nothing out.’

I should read more of his novels, as he tells a story well (some of his poems proved) and his essays would probably interest me…

I also read my first Moomin book in years…if I ever did read any of Tove Jansson’s Moomin books as a kid – I really can’t remember. Comet in Moominland was so utterly delightful that I think I’ll gush about it in a separate post. And I have two of Jansson’s adult novels checked out from the library right now, so April will be filled with the apparently charming and thought-provoking world of this Swedish-Finn author. I can’t wait.

I just have to finish the mind-twisting and grimace-inducing Master and Margarita first…!

Posted by: tuulenhaiven | March 10, 2014

Lawrenceville Walkabout

Finally some warm weather! I dug out my flip flops and went trekking about this evening, camera in hand, reveling in mid-50s temps and skies still lit at 7 o’clock.

Lately I’ve been fascinated by the urban beauty of my new city, noticing little gorgeous architectural details and loving the blunt lines of old factories and warehouses against the sky. In the late afternoon and evening sunset light, my neighborhood seemed to smolder with old and new promise.

51st Street, Lawrenceville - March 10th 2014

48th Street, Lawrenceville - March 10th 2014

44th Street, Lawrenceville - March 10th 2014

One Hundred 44th Street, Lawrenceville - March 10th 2014

REVOLT, Lawrenceville - March 10th 2014

Washington Crossing Bridge from 43rd Street, Lawrenceville - March 10th 2014

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