Posted by: tuulenhaiven | September 9, 2014

Following the Johnstown Flood

I had the chance to get out to Johnstown, PA, on Sunday, to visit the scenes of the Johnstown Flood. Although I didn’t ride the train as I’d planned to, being in a vehicle meant my fellow historians and I could get up into the mountains to view what’s left of the South Fork Dam and the reservoir that was called Lake Conemaugh.

We then followed the path of the flood down through the valley into Johnstown, and visited some other historically significant spots. It’s always strange (but very much part of human nature) to find pleasure and interest in the scenes of a catastrophe. Having read about the flood at length it felt important to me to retrace it’s thundering steps though, and then I inevitably had to share that journey here with you!

Diorama of the reservoir, Johnstown Flood National Memorial, Sept. 7th 2014

Starting at the beginning…here’s a diorama of the reservoir at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial museum – the dam is located in the bottom right corner of this picture.

Where the reservoir used to lay, Johnstown Flood National Memorial, Sept. 7th 2014

You can still kind of see where the lake lay – the remnants of the dam are on the right side of this picture. While the water is gone, the peacefulness remains. The wind makes waves in the goldenrod and a bit of creek sparkles in the bed of the former lake.


I’m enjoying a lovely summer day, like many folks who posed here on the dam before me, although they would have had the blue waters of Lake Conemaugh behind them.

What's left of the South Fork Dam, Johnstown Flood National Memorial, Sept. 7th 2014

The observation platforms you can see here (I was sitting on the near one in the picture above) are on either side of the gap…

…where the earthen dam burst apart on May 31st, 1889.


The rushing waters crashed down through 15 miles of twisting gorge before bursting into Johnstown.


The water came from the left and crossed the center of Johnstown, slammed into the steep hillside on the right of the diorama (this one is located in the Johnstown Flood Museum in town), and turned to follow the valley out through the bottom of this image. The bulk of the flood was hindered by a stone bridge, which is the diagonal bar across the Stoneycreek River at the bottom right of the image above.

Johnstown, seen from the top of the inclineSept. 7th 2014

I took this picture from the top of that hill, so visualize the wave of water coming from the gap in the center of the image and crossing straight to the shadowy foreground. The waters were turned and then partially stopped, as I mentioned, by the stone bridge near the Cambria Iron Company.

The flood waters more-or-less were stopped by the old stone bridge here, Sept. 7th 2014

Debris blocked the arches and a huge fire broke out around the bridge, but it withstood everything and obviously still stands today.


The exhibits and photos at both the National Memorial site and the Johnstown Flood Museum were interesting to see, but I couldn’t get over the actual visuals – the real mountains and valleys that the flood poured down and through. Today…

Johnstown, seen from the top of the inclineSept. 7th 2014

And Johnstown before the flood…

After the 1889 flood, an incline was built to help folks get out of the flood plain faster in the event of another catastrophe. It starts at the bridge over Stoneycreek River, which you can see at the center bottom of the image above…

The Incline in Johnstown, Sept. 7th 2014

…and rises about 524 feet to the top of the hill at a 71% grade – the steepest in the world. After having dinner at a restaurant at the top, my boyfriend and I rode the incline back down the hill.

Sunset in Johnstown, Sept. 7th 2014

The sun set over Johnstown and the moon rose. On a Sunday night the town was quiet – but it’s often quiet these days. It has survived several more large floods, and the steel industry stuck around until the 90s. Now, though, the town is trying, like so many places in this area, to reinvent itself. It may be harder these days than ever before to rebuild, but Johnstown has had plenty of experience with making the best of things and getting on with life. I wish it luck!

Posted by: tuulenhaiven | September 2, 2014

Stone Memories

I went on a walkabout a few days ago and discovered a few new things around my neighborhood.

Kendall St., Aug. 27th 2014

Kendall Street, even steeper than it looks here and still paved in rough stone bricks (flagstones?)

Stairs connecting 56th St., Aug. 27th 2014

An old flight of stairs connecting a missing section of 56th Street

A secret entrance, Aug. 27th 2014

A secret entrance to Allegheny Cemetery

Aug. 27th 2014Aug. 27th 2014

Old and interesting gravestones

Top of the cemetery wall, Stanton Ave., Aug. 27th 2014

Top of the cemetery wall, Stanton Ave., Aug. 27th 2014

Carvings left on the top of the cemetery wall by generations of children

Dry stone wall inside the cemetery, Aug. 27th 2014

Aug. 27th 2014

A lovely dry stone wall in the cemetery

Posted by: tuulenhaiven | September 1, 2014

Thunder In the Mountains

I think Labor Day is an appropriate day to talk about the West Virginia Mine War of 1920-21. It’s been a recent obsession of mine. I live in a city that has fought harder than many to get and maintain the union, and today one of the largest Labor Day parades in the country will send 85,000 people marching through the streets of Pittsburgh, including AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka. While unions shrink country-wide and Americans forget on a yearly basis about the Pullman Strike (or never learned about it to begin with), it is worthwhile to pay attention to how hard and how long folks have fought to establish unions in this country, once upon a time…

I was poking around in the Braddock branch of the Carnegie Library a few weeks ago, and came across Lon Savage’s book Thunder In the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War 1920-21. Hot off learning about the Johnstown Flood, I was itching for more local history, so I took it home and inhaled it. It was a lively and very detailed account of the events, written by the son of a fellow who had fought in this now forgotten mini civil war (on what one might call the wrong side…!).

The strike that developed into an all out war on Blair Mountain began in the usual way – with folks realizing that they were slaves to a coal company (a company that had also more-or-less stolen their land right out from under their feet) and deciding that they deserved better treatment and wages. When the miners decided to join the union, the company sent Baldwin-Felts “agents” to squelch any trouble, and these hired guns took pleasure in kicking families out of their company-owned homes with gleeful violence.

In the town of Matewan, WV, mayor C. C. Testerman and Police Chief Sid Hatfield stood up to the Baldwin-Felts men and sided with the striking miners. There was a sudden terrible street battle, and when the gunfire ended and the dust settled, Mayor Testerman was dead, along with 7 Baldwin-Felts agents and 2 miners. Sid Hatfield was a local hero after this, and continued to fight to protect the striking miners. The next summer, however, he and his best friend Ed Chambers were murdered on the steps of a courthouse in Welch, right in front of their wives.

Rebellion and unrest accelerated into warfare within days, and before long there were thousands of union minors on the march. They were met by state and private police, militia, and federal troops. Whole counties were in open rebellion, military rule was imposed, and before it was all over bombers from the U. S. Army Air Corps had been deployed. The Battle of Blair Mountain was one of the largest civil uprisings in American history, and over the course of 5 days 10,000 union minors sat on one side of the gap and exchanged approx. one million rounds with the 3,000 lawmen and strikebreakers on the other side of the gap. Surprisingly few folks were killed, but it took presidential intervention and the United States Army to end it. The miners were willing to battle the coal company and the hated Baldwin-Felts men to the death, but going up against the army of the country many of them had just spent WWI fighting with and for, was crossing a line.

The miners went home, and the whole thing was something of a wash. While the war brought attention to the appalling conditions of the coal camps and the violence the company was willing to unleash against it’s workers, it was a long time before any good seemed to come of it. The union wasn’t fully organized in southern WV until 1935. However, the war did help lead to a much larger and more strongly organized labor effort in the country.

The events leading up to the shootout in Matewan are the topic of John Sayer’s 1987 film, Matewan. Chris Cooper plays a union organizer who helps push the miners toward striking. The cast also includes James Earl Jones as one of many folks brought in by the coal company to work the mine during the strike, and Mary McDonnell as a widow who must let some atrocious Baldwan-Felts agents board in her company-owned house. David Strathairn plays Sid Hatfield (without much enthusiasm).

The director’s choice to focus on a union organizer instead of the compelling character of Sid was interesting, but it worked pretty well and Chris Cooper was quite good in it. The pacing is slow, but the build-up of tension is well done. The soundtrack is full of Appalachian music, the cinematography is lovely, and together this builds such a strong sense of place that it becomes a character on its own. I recommend the movie purely on these merits, but if you’re at all interested in a brief look at the historical events it’s also a worthy tool.

To round out my education on the West Virginia Mine War, I also read Denise Giardina’s 1987 novel Storming Heaven. I really enjoyed it and am pleased to have stumbled across such an excellent writer. It is based on the events of the Mine War, sometimes quite loosely, but starts long before that, tracing the lives of four people who eventually got caught up in the storm.

Like John Sayer’s movie, but in even more detail, Giardina brings to life the Appalachian mountain villages and the rough and lovely folks who called them home. C. J. Marcum picks up the tale first, watching as the coal companies come through and forcibly buy up the land. He manages to avoid working in the mines, and later becomes a socialist and the mayor of Annadel, a non-company town. Rondal Lloyd spends his boyhood in the mines, then escapes the life and becomes a union organizer. Carrie Bishop grows up on the outskirts of the whole coal mine scene, but becomes a nurse and falls in love with Rondal and finds her life changing forever. Rose Andelelli, a Sicilian immigrant who loses four sons to the mines, gets the least amount of page-time but is no less powerful of a character. Carrie is the best drawn among them, and kind of the cornerstone of the story, but all the characters – even the ones briefly met – are well crafted.

As the story progressed I could see how certain characters and events were slipping into the shoes of the real people and circumstances, and this was occasionally heart-breaking. The street fight and later assassination of Sid Hatfield and Ed Chambers were worked into the tale pretty subtly, but I guessed they were coming and was terrified for several different characters before the story sorted out who was who. In fact the switch from pure fiction, in the beginning of the book, to historical fiction later on was very well done and I only noticed because I’d been reading up on it.

There are beautiful passages about the land and about loving people, but the story is never slow. It cracks along, current people and events racing through the mist of ghosts and history that fills those rugged Appalachian valleys. It’s not the happiest tale, but it’s weight is worth shouldering. Even if you’re not interested in the Mine War at all, this is a gripping tale about a part of America that is overlooked and sometimes not very well loved, but very deserving of respect. I highly recommend it. (Giardina has written quite a lot of other books, so this discovery may lead to many more hours of good reading!)

I think this obsession has run it’s course and I can leave the West Virginia Mine War behind for a bit – but I won’t forget it. Folks in WV are struggling to keep at least part of Blair Mountain out of the hands of today’s coal companies and preserve this national historic site. The fight for decent working conditions and wages goes on and on. Labor Day rolls by every year, but we mostly munch burgers and watch baseball, and don’t think about the people who were willing to die (or, equally notable, to kill) for their rights and dignity. Today I’m choosing to remember. I hope you will too.

That said, enjoy your labor-free (I hope!) day, if you’re here in the states. And of course I hope the rest of you have a pleasant Sept. 1st as well!

Posted by: tuulenhaiven | August 26, 2014

Reading the Rainbow

Ana of Things Mean a Lot reminded me recently that the third A More Diverse Universe reading challenge was coming up, hosted again by Aarti of BookLust. The challenge is very simple – read at least one book by an author of color and write about it during the week of Sept. 14-27. I was the 87th blogger to sign up for it this year, so one can hope that by the end of that week there will be at least 87 reviews of books that you may not have ever heard of – books whose authors probably had to fight to get them published, books that were repeatedly rejected or overlooked, books that you may not see on the shelves of bookstores or libraries.

I love what Ana wrote here: “Making a deliberate effort to diversity your reading is a way to redress the fact that the world is not a level playing field. It means acknowledging that the best works won’t “naturally” rise to the top. It means a small step towards righting a wrong. And it means enriching your reading life by seeking out valuable perspectives that deviate from the white default.”

In her signup post (which you can reach by clicking the banner above) Aarti recognizes that turning your reading into a political activity can be exhausting. After all, reading is often a relaxing activity, and an escape from the trouble or boredom of life. Why make it complicated? However it is also a powerful form of media, and therefore what you choose to consume becomes very important.

Like Aarti says: “None of us lives in a monochromatic world, and yet the fact that terrifying hate crimes still occur makes it clear that we do not fully understand or trust each other. And maybe part of the reason is because the media we consume does not accurately reflect the diversity of our society. And books are such a massive part of the media we consume that we should demand and fight for those that do represent minorities and those that do present the world from a different perspective than the one we are used to.”

Ever since I was little I’ve turned to books to teach me about the world – both the one I lived in, and the one I imagined. Reading has always been an intentional act for me, and the older I get the more thought I put into it. I began to read more books by female authors on purpose a few years ago, and it did stretch me a bit. I had to work at it, and most years I still wound up with a book list dominated by male authors. This year though, the thought habit is strong and female authors are two books ahead on my list…!

Only 10 books out of 40, however, were written by an author who wasn’t white. This is the next task at hand.

I was drifting in this direction already this year, with my discovery of August Wilson and recent obsession with the Cuba of Margarita Engle’s books. It has also been interesting to explore the library in Braddock, PA. The collection is colorful with spine labels that note ‘African-American Author’. I’ve scanned a lot of library shelves over the years, and have grown familiar with the typical collection found in those of small communities – small predominantly WHITE communities. Braddock’s library collection reflects a much more diverse community, and frankly I’ve never heard of most of the authors whose books line those shelves.

I plan to focus on diversifying my reading for more than just the week of the challenge, therefore, and I’m excited about all the new books I’ll discover! I started making a list the other day, using my interest in Cuba and my recent trip to Jamaica as jumping off points. I realized that I’ve read very few books by Native American authors throughout my life, despite being born just outside a Navajo reservation, so I sought out a few of those too. And all the books I’m aiming to read are by female authors. This was an afterthought, but seemed necessary when I realized that of the authors publishing in Cuba who were then also being translated into English, only about 3 are women. I demand more!

My list so far then:

Jamaican Authors -

The Hills of Hebron by Sylvia Wynter

From Harvey River by Lorna Goodison

The True History of Paradise by Margaret Cezair-Thompson

Cuban Authors -

Cubana: Contemporary Fiction by Cuban Women edited by Mirta Yáñez

Disconnect by Nancy Alonso

Havana is a Really Big City by Mirta Yáñez

Everyone Leaves by Wendy Guerra

Native American Authors -

Perma Red by Debra Magpie Earling

Mean Spirit by Linda Hogan

Miko Kings: An Indian Baseball Story by LeAnne Howe

Night Sky, Morning Star by Evelina Zuni Lucero

Ravensong by Lee Maracle

About half of these books are somewhere in the Pittsburgh library system, which is nice, but part of the challenge is to diversify your own shelves, so I have a good excuse to buy a few books! I was startled and pleased though to find The True History of Paradise sitting on display at my local branch today, so I guess I’ll be getting right to it.

I encourage you to join A More Diverse Universe – it’s so easy, and I suspect it will be ridiculously rewarding too. I can’t wait to discover a new favorite book!

It’s worth noting that L of omphaloskepsis writes about diversity in lit most Fridays, and has a really good collection of lists on her blog!

Posted by: tuulenhaiven | August 25, 2014

Reggae Roads

Somewhere over the states - Aug. 13thCuba - Aug. 13th








Fly over Jamaica - Aug. 13th

I usually hope for a window seat on an airplane, but it was absolutely necessary when I flew to Jamaica on Aug. 13th. I wanted to see the moment when I left the North American continent for the first time. I was not disappointed. The clouds were spectacular, the ocean was way down there, I saw Cuba when we roared over it, and Jamaica from the air was a fluffy emerald wonder.

Customs and immigration navigated, I came bursting out of the airport into Jamaica’s hug of sun and humidity, and was soon comfortably installed in one of Clive’s airport transfer vans – on the wrong side of the vehicle! Left-hand drive is just one of many relics of British colonization. Once I had gotten over my surprise I rather enjoyed the phenomenon. The Red Stripe that I clutched for most of the ride from Montego Bay to Negril also helped. (Michael, my driver: “What would you like to drink during the ride – water? Beer?” Me: “…Beer? Yes, beer, thanks!” Me, thinking: Oh ho, I ain’t in the States anymore…!)


I clutched that beer because driving in Jamaica is pretty exciting. The main roads are in decent shape, but smaller roads have potholes that rival New England’s after a bad winter. I say smaller, but all the roads are small, and there’s a a whole lot of activity on them. Cars, bikes, people walking, goats crossing… Jamaican drivers are honk happy – and good thing! They drive fast and break hard, zip around corners, pass joyfully whenever they please, and honk the whole time. They honk to say hello, to warn that they’re passing, to make the goats pick up the pace, and to alert pedestrians to tuck in elbows and watch their toes. I walked a lot while I was in their country, and I grew to love the cheery “Peep peep” of their horns (which sound nothing like the deeply angry “HOOONK” of American car horns). I could have hip checked most of the cars that passed me but I actually never felt like I was going to get hit. (On the other hand, I was nearly smashed in a crosswalk by a thoughtless Pittsburgher on my first day back…!)

Entrance to the hostel where I stayed - Aug. 15thAug. 15th

Michael dropped me off at the gates of Judy House, on West Land Mountain Road, Negril, after spending the hour drive chatting about his country and his plans to go travel in the States soon, (and about how he’d stubbornly stayed in his little wooden house during the last bad hurricane and been fine!) I found my way through the lovely maze of Sue’s garden (the owner is Sue, I don’t know where ‘Judy’ comes from) to the back of the property where a backpacker hostel comfortably hosts the more adventurous tourist. Sunny decks, sheltered hammocks, outdoor baths, and cute cabins built from corrugated tin, painted lilac, are scattered throughout the garden. The place is guarded by Brownie, a sleepy, content Golden Retriever, who never bothers to run off the number of small semi-wild cats that flit about and come begging for nibbles or tickles. The garden – and indeed the whole island – is full of plants that came straight from the Tropical Fruits & Spices room at Phipps Conservatory, not to mention heaps of glorious flowers, including bougainvillea bushes as big as horses.

IMG_3748I flung my things on my bed in the dorm, then caught a ride from Sue back into downtown Negril. There a friendly Australian girl (a co-hosteler) and I exchanged money and marveled at grocery items in the Hi-Lo Supermarket. The food-stuffs there had a definite British influence, with dozens of imported crackers and cookies. There was also had a well-stocked cooler of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. We were invited by everyone we saw to “Come into my shop”, “Take a ride in my taxi”, “Exchange money with me, my rate is better”, and we wandered among them and around the Sunshine Plaza while it suddenly poured. Vigorous thunder and lightning accompanied the storm, so we scuttled into a tiny Jerk Shack to wait it out and eat some dinner.

I had Jerk pork, which I ate in wonderment – finger lickin’, bone suckin’ good. Across the road lightning sizzled and sparked into the ocean, multiple strikes searing the horizon at once. I checked the time – 4:30 p.m. – and fervently hoped that the beach-side wedding I was scheduled to appear in at around the same time on the coming Saturday wouldn’t be graced with a similar storm…

My new Australian friend walked back to the hostel when the rain let up, and I set off to find my American friends at their resort on the beach. Skirting around puddles and trying not to get run over by route taxis, I made my way through the small center of Negril and started across the bridge that spans the Negril River. A tall, somewhat tattered Jamacian man with long dreads bundled up on his head said “Hello lady,” to me as I passed him. When I responded with just a smile he said with some insistence, “Hello, stop please, one moment, can I speak to you?”

I stopped and turned to him, and he grinned hugely. “I’m Paul,” he said, sticking out his hand. “Welcome. What is your name?”

“I’m Sally,” I replied and I shook his hand.

“Sally,” he said. “Sally. I look at you, I see you walking, and I wonder what is her mission?”

“I’m going to meet my friends,” I said quickly.

“You’re here with friends? You’re here on vacation?”

I said “Yes,” and he looked at me rather pointedly. “You walk very quickly,” he said.

“Ah. I’m walking too fast maybe?”

“Yes! Relax. You’re here to experience life!”

“All right,” I said, “I’ll walk more slowly. I was forgetting!”

We stood on the bridge while cars and bikes and people rattled and romped by and chatted for awhile longer. The man guessed that I was a Virgo, like himself, laughed a bit, got me to confirm that he might be a little bit psychic, was pleased with himself, and let me go finally after I promised to continue on my way at a slower pace.

He didn’t ask for my number, or wonder where I was staying, or claim that our energy vibed well together, and didn’t ask to get to know me better, or beg me to show up at some bar or beach-side concert later that night, didn’t comment on my outfit or call me pretty – all things that other Jamaican men said to me, rapid-fire, as I made my way up the beach that day, and here and there in Negril for the remainder of my stay. I learned to dance away from such encounters with relative grace (most gave up after I mentioned my boyfriend) and wasn’t too bothered by them. I wish that I could have had a real conversation with these guys, but like the men selling sun hats and friendship bracelets and ganja at the edge of the ocean, they seemed to me to be trying to sell something as well.

Salty Dog - Aug. 16th

The famous so called 7-Mile Beach (really it’s about 4 miles long) is a curve of white sand tickled by deliciously warm ocean, bordered along it’s length by resorts and restaurants. I found my friends – soon to be bride and groom – enjoying their first pina coladas of the trip not far from the resort where they were staying. We trooped further up the beach, running in and out of the water, until the sun set in a stupendous blaze of color. There’s nothing quite like a sunset over the ocean, especially when you’re facing west.

Sunset over the Caribbean Sea - Aug. 13th

I spent the evening with my friends exploring the beach and went back to the hostel late, where I curled up under my mosquito net and slept soundly. Roosters crowing woke me early and by 7:30 a.m. I was outside scribbling in my journal, listening to distant reggae and nearby goat sounds, and wondering what my first full day in Jamaica would hold.

As it turned out, it contained a long walk down West End Road to the westernmost point of Jamaica, a visit to the lighthouse there, a delicious late breakfast of saltfish and ackee at Just Natural, a boat ride while my friends parasailed, many beach-wanders, dinner at Juicy’s, and a ride in a route taxi home to my hostel bed.

View looking north from South Negril Point - Aug. 14th

Cliffs line the coast to the south of Negril

Negril Lighthouse - Aug. 14th

Negril Lighthouse, built in 1894. One of the earliest concrete lighthouses, it’s built on top of a tank of water 14 feet deep which helps to keep it stable and balanced if there’s an earthquake. The lighthouse keeper told me that it’s come through many hurricanes without flinching, even when the ocean has flooded right up to it’s base. He also wished he had known I was coming – he’d have made me breakfast…!


“Jamaican breakfast”, which most places means saltfish and ackee (a savory fruit that looks like scrambled eggs above), dumplings (served fried here, with a banana jam), and other fruit. I ate in the shady garden at Just Natural and enjoyed fresh papaya juice too. Those round green things are guineps, a very odd fruit with sweet gooey-ness wrapped around a big pit. You pop them out of their skins and then just kind of suck on them.

Friends parasailing - Aug. 14th

My friends putting their heads in the clouds

I’m so pleased that I stayed at the hostel, in what is known as West End. Even in the off-season, the hustle and bustle of the beach with it’s relentless drive to delight and entertain tourists, was a bit much for me. I loved going back to my little hostel bed, and waking up to the sound of chickens being fed and workmen building a house down the road.

West Land Mountain Road - Aug. 15th

On Friday I tromped the 10 minutes down West Land Mountain Road and around the corner to CJ’s, a tiny shack restaurant with a roadside porch where some fellows playing Dominoes welcomed me and shouted for CJ. He came from the kitchen and washed a table on the back porch for me, then fed me brown stew (chicken in a rich brown sauce) and a boiled dumpling and breadfruit and several other fruits or veggies that had a potato-like consistency.

I sat watching the ocean for a bit, then a fellow caught sight of me and asked if he could join me. I said yes, and he sat down and explained what I was eating, then told me that CJ was his cousin, and that his father came from further up West Land Mountain Road. His mother owned a little restaurant down the road, and he worked there. He boasted about his Domino skills and sent his good wishes on to my friends for their wedding and marriage. He was lovely and interesting, and I was pleased to have met him.

I spent the rest of the day with my friends and the growing group of wedding guests. I met another nice Jamaican man who decided I was altogether too sun burnt, and slathered me with aloe straight out of the plant. It was wonderfully refreshing, and did take the pink out of my skin somewhat. I bought a bunch of aloe from him, anticipating more burning… Later in the day we caravaned to Rick’s Cafe, which was kind of terrible (terribly white) but there’s no doubt that the Jamaican divers who flung themselves into the sea were a spectacle to behold…!

A diver getting ready to jump, with the Negril Lighthouse behind - Aug. 15th

I stayed with the bride that night, and we spent the next morning dodging the groom and finally swimming in the ocean. I can swim quite well in warm salty water, it turns out…! The wedding went off with a few hitches (the rain I’d dreaded came right when it was supposed to start…of course!) but it turned out all right and everyone had fun. We thought when a Chinese fire lantern crashed into the sea that there might be some bad luck involved, but were immediately gifted with a visit from a sting ray, so good luck all round!

Bride and groom - Aug. 16th

I stayed that night near the beach at a bungalow some other wedding guests had rented, and spent another morning swimming in the ocean. Our friend the sting ray was still around, and we kept calm and collected and in the water with it for awhile. What a stunning creature…! In the afternoon, after much debate, we chartered a van and driver to take us to Mayfield Falls. The bride picked the excursion and made vague promises about waterfalls and mineral pools, so we expected a bit of hiking and a dip in the river. We got quite a bit more than that…!

"Reggae roads" - Aug. 17th

Seaburt picked us up and drove us the hour or so into the jungle. The roads got smaller and more rough until we were driving on real “Reggae roads” as Seaburt called them with a grin. “You like dancing?” he said as we bounced around. I rode in the front and got the best views, somewhat hampered by a brief, heavy afternoon rain. We passed through small communities and and a sugar plantation, and then started to go up into the mountains. I thought West Virginia had narrow, twisty-turny mountainous roads…! Jamaica takes the cake though – and beyond being narrow (one lane!) and curvaceous, they are potholed, lack guardrails, and are the front yard, sidewalk, and hangout space of the folks that live on them. Homes that would make lovers of the Tiny House movement drool (brightly painted, pretty wood details) are scattered across the steep slopes, some with their butts hanging out over empty air, corners balanced on stacks of cinder blocks. Seaburt honked a lot (“Peep peep!”) and drove fast, but he slammed the breaks at an especially good vantage point so I could take a picture. We also stopped at a little store owned by a friend of his, and were given several bunches of guineps to suck on.

Heading into the mountains - Aug. 17th

We were met at the road by our guide for the falls – a small, barefoot, muscular man named Comfy – and after he greeted everyone with fist-bumps, we traipsed down a flight of stairs and across a bridge to the office and bar of the place. Waivers were signed, water shoes were rented, and then Comfy and the staff started taking away our possessions. Boys had to empty pockets, the bride had to give up her phone, they didn’t think I’d want my big palm-leaf hat. “How wet are we going to get?” I asked. “Soaked. You’ll be soaked,” they said. Comfy promised to put my camera in a water-proof bag and then made us strip down to just swim suits.

Off we trooped. We reached the river, and Comfy told us the water would feel great if we just jumped in right away. And he canon-balled in. I looked at the groom with apprehension. I don’t really swim, and he was taking time during the trip to get over an actual fear of water. He had floated for the first time that very morning. But we both kind of shrugged, and then followed the others in – splash, splash, splash, SPLASH!

We hiked straight up the river, in and out of pools both shallow and deep. Comfy was an excellent guide, telling us precisely where to step safely and where to sit so we could get a water massage under the falls. He took pictures for us, and guided the groom and I around the especially deep spots. I did successfully swim for it at one point, and was proud of myself.

Enjoying the pounding water - Aug. 17th

On our way back, walking through the jungle on a little ridge above the river, Comfy showed us ginger and turmeric roots and pointed out cocoa trees and a pineapple bush. He was funny and charming, and has been guiding tourists up the falls for 16 years. We commented on his bare feet, and he said proudly, “I’m a jungle boy. Tough feet!”

I bid farewell to my friends that night for what turned out to be the last time, as I never managed to get ahold of them the following day – my last full one in Jamaica. It was a relief to return to the hostel and the West End. I had fun on the beach for sure, but the hotel bar food wasn’t as good as what I’d eaten in the little shack restaurants, and all those delicious pina coladas put a dent in my wallet…! It was interesting to have these two contrasting experiences of Jamaica though, and while I was an American tourist in both scenarios, I didn’t feel as much like one in the West End.

I spent much of that Monday at the Canoe Bar, a restaurant at the bottom of West Land Mountain Road right on the West End’s only little bit of beach. I swam, ate yummy food, drank Red Stripes, and read Cold Comfort Farm. I walked into Negril to do some shopping and hit up the post office, started packing, and then went back to the Canoe Bar for more swimming and dinner and the sunset.

Sunset at the Canoe Bar beach - Aug. 18th

I rose early enough on my last day to go down to CJ’s for breakfast. This time he made me his version of Jamaican Breakfast, with saltfish and ackee, a boiled dumpling, and all those mystery fruits/veggies. He introduced himself to me officially, and was sorry to hear that I was leaving. “Why?” he asked, and so had a few other Jamaicans. “I don’t know,” I replied. I was just starting to dig in to Jamaica, to find it’s rhythm. Going back to the States seemed like so much foolishness.

IMG_3760 IMG_3759 IMG_3762 IMG_3758

But I went, regardless. My driver, another fellow who worked for Clive’s Transportation, was late picking me up. He apologized profusely, but I told him, “Never mind, I’m not in a rush to leave!” All too soon I was back at the airport in Montego Bay though, and the rest of my day was spent in endless lines and on crowded planes where I didn’t get the window seat.

Still, it was nice to see that Pittsburgh skyline when I burst out of the Fort Pitt Tunnel in my boyfriend’s truck at 1:30 in the morning. I’ve been back for almost a week, and I’m managing my wanderlust pretty well. I do want to go EVERYWHERE now, but I’m content to stay here for a few months! I had a fun, wide-eyed experience in Jamaica, but next time I travel abroad I want to do it with more intent. I want to dig into the culture more, talk to more people, get my hands dirty.

In the meantime, I have precisely that to do around here! The adventure is always at hand, the game is always afoot.

Posted by: tuulenhaiven | August 8, 2014

Recently Around Pittsburgh

Things are pretty around here!

Around Highland Park, August 4th 2014

Bryant Street, Highland Park

Braddock Farm, July 16th 2014

Braddock Farms

Around Highland Park, August 4th 2014

Bryant Street, Highland Park

Melwood Ave., August 8th 2014

Melwood Avenue, East Liberty

Along Stanton Ave., August 4th 2014

Along Stanton Avenue, Lawrenceville

Along Stanton Ave., August 4th 2014

Along Stanton Avenue, Stanton Heights

River at McCandless St., July 21st 2014

Allegheny River at the bottom of McCandless Avenue, Lawrenceville


Posted by: tuulenhaiven | August 6, 2014

Discovering Cuba with Margarita Engle

photo (3)

I found The Lightning Dreamer by Margarita Engle in my local library branch and decided it was time to visit Cuba. I’ve been intrigued by the place for years but have been woefully lax in educating myself about it. Engle’s book, a novel in verse (I’m on a novel-in-verse kick!) was an excellent jumping off point, and as you can tell from the picture above, I have continued to embrace her as my teacher. How could I resist such lovely books anyway? (And what fun it was to gather them together from four different regional libraries!)

All four books are historical fiction, and each one brings to life incredible people whom I had never heard of before. They explore slavery, the oppression of women, and how the written word can be a source of freedom and power. They all beautifully evoke the landscape of Cuba, especially the countryside. Their touch seems light at times, pretty poetry dulling the pain of truly terrible events, and I didn’t find the voice especially distinctive in any of the books (the author’s voice was clear but the characters’ voice wasn’t unique). Regardless, I was fascinated by them and grateful that Engle decided to share these important people and events with me, and with teens in this country whose knowledge of Cuba may be limited to the missile crisis, cigars, and the navy base at Guantánamo Bay.

The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano is the first chronologically of the four books I read. It’s also the most intense. Born a slave in 1797 in Cuba, Juan grew up as the pet wonder-child of his mistress, Señora Beatriz de Justiz de Santa Ana, who made him call her Mama even though his real mother was her handmaiden. Slaves were denied any kind of education, but Juan could memorize anything he learned by ear, and someone taught him to read in secret. Although his parents were freed and his own freedom was promised when Doña Beatriz died, Juan was whisked away by a new owner – the psychotically cruel María de la Concepción, la Marquesa del Prado Ameno.

Engle’s book jumps from the perspectives of Juan, his mother and father, his two mistresses, the sympathetic son of la Marquesa, and various overseers who throughout Juan’s life as her slave administered the punishments that la Marquesa came up with. Juan sought refuge from his abusive life in the poetry of others, and then in his own words. His talents were noticed and appreciated by others, but agonizing punishments were his only reward from la Marquesa. He had to find the courage to run away, and keep running.

Aside from the lack of real distinction in voice from character to character, Engle’s use of poetry to tell this story is perfect. The plot moves well, but a lot of the drama is in the mind of Juan, as he works out his place in the world – both the place seen by his mistresses and the truer one he sees for himself.

The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist is Engle’s impression of the childhood of Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, (1814-1873). The daughter of a wealthy family with ties to the Spanish aristocracy, Tula (a childhood nickname) was the victim of what was in her mind another form of slavery. Forbidden by her mother to read much or write, she would do both in secret and burn her scribblings. She refused an arranged marriage, and while at a country estate where she’d been sent to “rest”, she fell in love with a slave. She was inspired by a fellow Cuban, the poet José María Heredia who was banished from Cuba for his abolitionist views and desire for independence from Spain. Tula realized that she could use her pen to address the oppression she saw around her, giving a voice to those denied one and challenging anyone who might try to chain her heart.

There were again multiple points of view in this book, although Tula was the main voice. Her loyal brother chimed in, as did her overbearing mother, the Nuns who let her read their books, the family slave Caridad whom Tula encouraged to run away, and the boy she fell in love with. Engle drew many characters from the famous book that Avellaneda wrote as a young woman – Sab – which was supposedly based on her experiences. That interracial love story was one of the first abolitionist novels (published 11 years before Uncle Tom’s Cabin). The ideas that Engle imagined the girl Tula cultivating were ones that brought Avellaneda much renown and notoriety as an adult – that all people were equal and free to love and live as their hearts directed.

The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba is about Fredrika Bremer’s visit to Cuba in 1851. She was Sweden’s first female novelist and an early advocate of equal rights for women. Her letters and diaries from the time mentioned Cecilia, her African-born translator, and most of the events that inspired Engle’s novel. As usual though, Engle imagined a few characters of her own, and in this story the balance was between the slave Cecilia, and Elena, the daughter of slave-owners. Elena was kept like a bird in a cage by her family, stitching away at items for her hope chest, an ironically named item, for soon she’d be hopelessly married off to whomever her father chose. Cecilia was sold into slavery by her own father when she was 8. Both girls were challenged and inspired by the strange Swedish lady who could travel at will, believed in education for girls, and when in church knelt in the back with the slaves. Fredrika was in turn profoundly effected by her relationship with the two girls, and by both the beauty and the horrors she witnessed in Cuba.

This was the simplest story of the four, detailing a quiet revolution in the lives of just a few people. The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom was epic by comparison. It began in 1850 with Rosa, the little witch, a slave girl skilled in the healing arts, curing ailments that occurred on the plantation, and nursing escaped slaves back to health so that they might escape again or die trying. Then it followed Rosa through three wars. Some slaves were freed, their owners joined forces with them, and from 1868-78 a war for independence was fought against Spain. Rosa escaped to the jungle with her healing skills, and there she and her husband José maintained gorilla hospitals, hunted all the while by Lieutenant Death, a slave catcher. Rosa helped whomever was suffering, rebel soldier or Spanish troop, for ten long years, and then again from 1878-80 when the Little War wracked the country. Abolition of slavery came slowly throughout 1880-86, but still Lieutenant Death dogged Rosa’s steps. Living and healing in caves and secret hospitals in the jungle, Rose came through the final war (1895-1898), growing old as Cuba was tossed from Spanish to American hands. She patched up Cubans, Spaniards, and Rough Riders with equal care.

Engle did an excellent job of distilling that much history. Rosario Castellanos Castellanos was a real person among many jungle nurses who tended the fallen and ill throughout the years of war. Little is known about her or her husband, so Engle was free to let her imagination patch the holes as Rosa patched the bodies. In this book more than the others, Engle’s own knowledge of the jungle world shines. Childhood visits to Cuban relatives bred in her a love for tropical nature, and Engle became a botanist, turning to writing later in life. The jungle is as much a character in this story as Rosa, or Silvia – the child who joined Rosa after escaping from one of the reconcentration camps established by Imperial Spain’s Captain-General Weyler.

Rosa is too busy stitching wounds to write, but the theme in Engle’s books of poetry and the power of words is still strong. The exiled Cuban poet José Martí, whose writing helped inspire the war effort on the side of the rebels, is mentioned – when he returns to Cuba to fight and is killed in his first battle, unfortunately. The diaries that rebels kept proved to be important later as historical documents, and the character Silvia is determined to record her experiences. It is also worth noting that the Spanish-American War was known as the “journalists war” because American newspapermen were influential in marketing the war and swaying American sympathy toward intervention.

The Surrender Tree won a Newbery Honor in 2009, the first one ever given to a Latino writer. It’s my favorite of the four books I read by Engle, but all of them are worth reading, and all of them have sparked off other sources of investigation. I plan to read everything else Margarita Engle has written, and look forward to learning a lot more about Cuba’s fascinating and important history.


For further reading about the author, here’s a good interview from 2009.


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.

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