Climate Change History Weather

A will and a big water

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

In 1927, the rain kept falling in the Mississippi delta. Folks would look at the sky anxiously, hoping for a break, but none came. Those who lived near the Mississippi, well they knew he was a cantankerous old bastard and could turn on they any old time. They’d watch the levees, those mounds of dirt and tough old swamp grass that was all that stood between them and the waters.

Most years, the levees held and the rich, wet lands yielded plentiful crops–usually cotton, though some land owners ran sugar cane. The folks that farmed the lands were black, but they didn’t own the lands, no sir. No they were sharecroppers, which back in those days was only about a drop of blood away from slavery.

Then early that year, a wall of water came down south, riding the Sip like a drunk-happy gambling boat captain. It started in Illinois, where those in charge, the Mississippi River Commission pointed to their work, their levees and said without a doubt they’d hold. Then right before Easter, the levees gave up their fight and started to fail, one after another.

“On that night that the levee broke, when daddy went out and he could see the water coming across the fields. And our house was about, I guess about eighteen inches off the ground. And he come back in the house, he says, “”I see the water coming across the field. It done filled up a big slew coming between our house and the levee,” and it’s level out there. So he come back in the house and stayed about twenty minutes. About 10: 00 that night, we were moving a few bed things up in the loft part of the house, and there’s where we was until the next morning. And we stayed in there, up there, two nights and three days. Finally a seaplane come along, and my daddy had done cut a hole where we could look out on the outside, and he was waving a white rag when that seaplane come by. And then about two hours after then, it was a gas boat going up there and taking us all to the levee. And we lived up there on the levee until the water went down.”


William Cobb On the Night when the Levee Broke

In Greenville, Mississippi over 13,000 blacks are stranded on the levee without food and water and little protection from the elements. When boats arrive to rescue those flooded out, only the whites are picked up, because the plantation owners in the area are worried that if the blacks are ferried out, they won’t return to farm the land.

Will Percy decides that the only honorable and decent course of action is to evacuate the refugees to safer ground down river and arranges for barges to pick up and transport the refugees. Many people are reluctant to abandon Greenville, despite the fact that their homes have been submerged. The planters, in particular, oppose Will’s plan, fearing that if the African American refugees leave, they will never return, and there will be no labor to work the crops. LeRoy (ed. note: Will Percy’s father), placing his business interests above his family’s tradition of aiding those less fortunate, betrays his son and secretly sides with the planters. Boats with room for all the refugees arrive, but only 33 white women and children are allowed to board. The African American refugees are left behind, trapped on the levee. Later, Will Percy will write that he was “astounded and horrified” by this turn of events.

To justify his relief committee’s failure to evacuate the refugees, Will Percy convinces the Red Cross to make Greenville a distribution center, with the African Americans providing the labor. Red Cross relief provisions arrive in Greenville, but the best provisions go to the whites in town. Only African Americans wearing tags around their necks marked “laborer” receive rations. National Guard is called in to patrol the refugee camps in Greenville. Word filters out of the camps that guardsmen are robbing, assaulting, raping and even murdering African Americans held on the levee.

From: PBS A Fatal Flood

The flood waters covered over over 27,000 square miles across several states, Mississippi and Arkansas being hardest hit. Over 240 are known to have died, but record keeping was poor in those times.

“Back up to a house . . . there was seven people on it. I presume it was wife . . . man, his wife, and five children. And I was heading over to this house. This was on my first hauling, the next day after the levee broke. And on the way getting to the house—this house was just moving along [in the river], you know—and all of a sudden it must of hit a stump or something. And the house flew all to pieces. And I searched the boards and things around there for ten minutes, and you know I never saw a soulÌs hand come up, not a soul.”

Henry Caillouet Seven All Together Went Down

The flood lasted two months, and the folks in New Orleans had actually dynamited a levee before the city–an act that proved unnecessary because broken levees elsewhere along the Sip had spilled enough water so the river wasn’t a threat to the city.

By the time it was over, 700,000 people had lost their homes, and a hundred thousand homes and businesses were destroyed. The costs of the flood topped 4 billion dollars by 1993 standard’s–a comparison brought to mind because in 1993, another great flood hit, but this time further north in Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri. I remember talking to a man in an old lighthouse on the hill overlooking Hannibal, Missouri about the day when the waters began to rise. He was a simple man who liked to talk with people, becoming an unofficial greeter to those visiting the lighthouse.

“You see there”, he pointed out at the far shore of the Mississippi. “The water came from that direction. It just kept rising and rising, and it came toward the town, like a great, slow moving wave.”

He then pointed at the bridge that spanned the River.

“There was another bridge here during the flood. I watched as people tried to get across the bridge, to get to their families and homes before they were cut off from the waters.” I remember him smiling, raising his red feedcap (of which he was very proud), to resettle back on his head. “I watched as they blowed it up to make way for the new bridge.”

When the floods washed out the approaches to the bridge, people had to commute from one side to the other of the river either by plane, or driving 200 miles away. Hannibal was underwater for 147 days before the flood began to recede; some towns were under even longer. Even St. Louis had flood waters lapping at the heels of the Arch, and flowing down the normally dry Des Peres river into the city and into the neighborhoods only a block or two from where I live now.

The 1993 flood displaced 74,000 people, and destroyed 45,000 buildings and homes. It’s cost was 7.5 billion.

Today, the most significant sign you see of the flood of 1927 is the number of blacks living in northern cities. After the flood, many left the delta area, either because they lost their homes, or because of their harsh treatment; most likely because of the harsh treatment. There is some irony in this mistreatment of blacks, and the fears on the part of the white landowners about losing their workers. I think if the blacks had been treated decently, many wouldn’t have left, thereby hastening the final curtain call for the old southern plantation culture.

And when the blacks left, they took with them part of the southern culture, manifested in the blues that followed every where they went: Chicago, Seattle, New York, and points beyond. Some would even say that the 1927 flood was the birth of the blues, such as this When the Levees Break, recorded by Kansas Joe, recorded in 1929.

If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break
If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break
And the water gonna come in, have no place to stay

Well all last night I sat on the levee and moan
Well all last night I sat on the levee and moan
Thinkin’ ’bout my baby and my happy home

If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break
If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break
And all these people have no place to stay

Now look here mama what am I to do
Now look here mama what am I to do
I ain’t got nobody to tell my troubles to

I works on the levee mama both night and day
I works on the levee mama both night and day
I ain’t got nobody, keep the water away

Oh cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do no good
Oh cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do no good
When the levee breaks, mama, you got to lose

I works on the levee, mama both night and day
I works on the levee, mama both night and day
I works so hard, to keep the water away

I had a woman, she wouldn’t do for me
I had a woman, she wouldn’t do for me
I’m goin’ back to my used to be

I’s a mean old levee, cause me to weep and moan
I’s a mean old levee, cause me to weep and moan
Gonna leave my baby, and my happy home.

The flood was also responsible, in part, for some of the success of the Civil Rights movement later in the 1960’s. Whites in the north, and even parts of the south, came face to face with the atrocities committed on blacks in the delta. And blacks found that they were no longer willing to be free in name only.

You also don’t see any of the damage from the 1993 flood, though again you see signs of it everywhere. At the restored Hodgson Mill, there was a pencil scratch half way up the second floor of the mill that marked the highest level of the flood. Most of the towns at risk along the Sip have also installed high floodgates, painted or not dependent on the town. The government also bought out flood-prone farms and made many into parks and conservation land.

When floods happen, people move, but when the waters recede some return, while others move in. Life goes on, because flooding, no matter how tragic the losses, is a part of life. It is a part of the delta, a legacy and a price for living by the river.

Right now, the delta is being hit again, but this time it isn’t Old Man River who is to blame. Lots of stories about this new flood, too; lots of cries of doom and destruction: Thousands are dead, exclaims the mayor, even while he has people on roofs listening in on radio;Katrina leaves a trail of death and destruction, says the papers, even while people desperately hope for a green cot in a dome in another city; The Mississippi coast is gone, says the governor, even as people pick through rubble and find a single shoe. The recovery will take years, says the President, even as the finger pointing and blaming has begun. Stories about looters and havoc and ruin and how nothing will be the same again.

The city is destroyed. Well, now, I take exception to that one. You can’t destroy a city unless you kill off every last one of the people who live in and love the city. You would also have to remove every reference to it in history, and all of its culture, and every last bit of influence it has ever had in the past, present, and we presume, future.

But I do not intend to give up easily. Why? Because I am absolutely convinced that New Orleanians will not allow their city to become a ghost town. And I intend to be part of the renewal that springs from this determination.

The culture of New Orleans has long since factored disasters and general uncertainty into its economic and philosophical outlook. An early-19th-century cholera epidemic killed one out of five New Orleanians, the equivalent of 100,000 today. Even the gravediggers died, forcing people to pile bodies at the cemetery gates. The first owner of the Lombard Plantation was among those who succumbed. But his wife and family stayed on, and some of their descendants, both white and black, are still in New Orleans today, perhaps perched on their rooftop awaiting rescue or huddling gratefully with friends out in Lafayette or Breaux Bridge.

I expect they, too, will return, and that life in New Orleans will go on, with all its precariousness and sense of fragility and, yes, with all its relish for the moment. That relish, by the way, which arose from the constant awareness of precisely such disasters as we are experiencing today, accounts for much of what gives the people of that city their reckless abandon, their devil-may-care attitude, and their zest for life. Rebuilding after Katrina will be just the next in a long series of events in which that spirit has been manifested.

S. Frederick Starr in A Sad Day, too, for Architecture.

Here’s a prediction: come March, 2006, with our help, the towns along the coast will rebuild. A home will replace rubble, and a church will open its doors again. With our care, the bodies will be buried, and those who have suffered loss will be comforted. With our force, we will overcome those who grab gun and seek to cause fear (and in the process find that the ‘gangs’ become ‘groups’ and the groups are fewer than our lurid speculations imply). With our support, the casinos and businesses along the coast of Mississippi will be in full swing, and folks will be back at work. And with our hard work and sacrifice, the Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans will be the best. Ever.

The city is destroyed. What foolish nonsense. You know, the people that wrote this, they really don’t know the South, and the people who live by big water.


Subtle impact

Twenty years ago, most people would probably say that the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was the single-most significant event of the last century. Five years into a new century and history is already writing a different story.

Yesterday was the 60th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima. The event has received a great deal of coverage in weblogs, as well as other publications.

Among webloggers there were those who come out with a hearty ‘Well Done!’ in regards to the bombing; and those who deplore the event as barbaric and unnecessary. Most acknowledge that they don’t have any ready answer, as to whether we should have dropped the bomb or not. As to whether the act was a war crime or not, well, they say history is written by the victors. As Curtis LeMay said of his own part in the firebombing of Japan before the atomic bomb was dropped, if the US had lost the war, he would have been tried as a war criminal.

The depth of knowledge about the atomic bombing varied widely among the webloggers. Some adhered to the rote view that “millions were saved” because of the bombs, a number and notion that has been largely discredited over time. I found one weblogger who talked about Hiroshima being in China. (I won’t embarrass him by linking–note: it isn’t.). On the other hand, Susan Kitchens has been writing a set of posts that details the events, day by day, leading up to the bombings, and the aftermath.

Some webloggers wrote empathetically of the bombing and the inhumanity of war. I found, though, that many people have a detached view of the event: they know it was a Bad thing for people to do to other people, regardless of whether it was necessary or not. But it was something that happened a long time ago.

One weblogger wrote the following, which says more than just the few words imply:

Yesterday was the 60th aniversary of the Atomic Bomb being dropped on Hiroshima, and on Tuesday is the 60th aniversary of the Atmoic Bomb being dropped on Nagasaki. This resulted betwen 50000 and 150000 deaths i dont know how many and i cant be bothered to check anyway remember the dead

Another weblogger who lives in Hiroshima wrote:

I did not know anything about sufferings that people who lived in Hiroshima back in 1945.

I watched a TV program on atomic bombing last night. I learned a lot, and realized that I really have not known about how much and how many people suffered from the bombing until now. I am not trying to victimize myself for just being born and raised in Hiroshima. My parents are not originally from Hiroshima, so I do not really have relatives who can tell me how it was back then.

Joi Ito was asked to provide his perspective on the event in an op-ed for the New York Times. I found his writing to be a frank, dispassionate, and unflinching look at the viewpoint of today’s younger, affluent, less traditional, and more future thinking Japanese:

WHEN people ask my thoughts on the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, I always feel uncomfortable. As a Japanese, I know how I’m supposed to respond: with sadness, regret and perhaps anger. But invariably I try to dodge the issue, or to reply as neutrally as possible.

That’s because, at bottom, the bombings don’t really matter to me or, for that matter, to most Japanese of my generation. My peers and I have little hatred or blame in our hearts for the Americans; the horrors of that war and its nuclear evils feel distant, even foreign. Instead, the bombs are simply the flashpoint marking the discontinuity that characterized the cultural world we grew up in.

Joi has received some heat for his writing from those who think he didn’t display the ‘proper’ perspective on the event; I, personally, valued his honesty and insight.

Joi’s writing and his mention of the future leads, indirectly, to another August 6th anniversary: it is the Web’s birthday, as it was on this day in 1991 when Tim Berners-Lee released a set of documents detailing his vision for a “World Wide Web”. I could ask Joi and others which they consider the more significant event–the bombing of Hiroshima or the invention of the Web–but I think I know the answer: in Japan, and elsewhere, the lessons of the past must compete with the hope for the future, and hope can be a powerful force.

Critters History Photography

Pink and shadows

Thursday I thought I would try the Castor Shut-Ins, see if the overcast days would help with the photographs. The challenge with taking photos in Missouri is the unusual coloration of much of the environment here–all that pink because of the iron deposits in the state.

Overcast and cooler but still humid at the Shut-Ins. This was the first time I’d been in this area since Winter, and it’s amazing how different it is with the seasons. In the winter, all is open and light. In the Summer, though, the leaves close in and the hills are full of shadows.

It’s difficult to describe to those unfamiliar with the types of forests in this area what it’s like being deep in the woods in the Ozarks in the summer. Most guidebooks recommend saving the trails for the fall, spring, or winter. They say it’s because of the bugs and the heat, but I can’t see how this, alone, is enough to discourage the avid hiker. I think it’s the heaviness of life that surrounds the hikers that intimidates.


Walking through the trees on Thursday, I was reminded of the passage from the old short story, Windigo by Algernon Blackwood:

The forest pressed round them with its encircling wall; the nearer tree-stems gleamed like bronze in the firelight; beyond that — blackness, and so far as he could tell, a silence of death. Just behind them a passing puff of wind lifted a single leaf, looked at it, then laid it softly down again without disturbing the rest of the covey. It seemed as if a million invisible causes had combined just to produce that single visible effect. Other life pulsed about them — and was gone.

The creature seemingly at the heart of this story is a variation of the legendary Windigo: spirits of humans who out of desperation and madness, turn to eating other humans to survive. As punishment they are made into a creature, tall, fearsome, and hungry for flesh–a Canadian werewolf, since the Windigo is primarily a Canadian legend. It is just one of the many creatures of legends that are said to populate the dense stands of trees in wilder forests–when we peer in among the woods and can’t quite see what is making that shape, or what caused a bush to shudder.

The Ozarks where I walked on Friday are said to be the habitat of the Ozark Howler, a very large and heavy black cat that roams the hills, emitting a blood-curdling howl. It’s eyes are said to glow yellow, it stands three feet high at the shoulder and, according to one ‘experienced Ozarks huntsman’, the ‘numerous’ sightings have shown us that without a doubt the creature does exist.

Well, without a doubt until you see the name of the leading Ozark Howler investigator: Itzakh Joach.

Unlike the woods of the shadowy north, east, or west, the Ozarks have never had a fearsome reputation. No monsters stalking the unwary hunter; no restless spirits. Not even the animal life is that inimical to humans, but more on that later.

At Amidon Conservation Area, where the Castor Shut-Ins are located, I met an older couple leaving as I came in. Since mine was the only car in the parking lot, I assumed I was the only one about. Aside from the usual squirrels and birds, it was quiet–not even a little wind to stir the leaves and the humidity.

At the section where the dirt trail moved on to the rocks, I noticed that the end of one of the dead trees was shredded and torn apart. Though this is a good indication that a bear had been in the area, how fresh was the damage was hard to determine.

There was hardly any water running in the stream over the Shut-Ins; as wet as it has been up here in St. Louis, the southern part of the state is going through a drought. Still, it was uncomfortably humid as I walked about the rocks. I followed the trail down to the stream bottom, but stopped about half way–tired, cranky, and dripping with sweat.

Castor Shut-Ins

Every once in a while I’d hear sounds from back down the trail — twigs breaking, movement in the bushes. I actually stopped walking a couple of times to listen more closely, and expected to see more hikers arrive, but no one joined me at the rocks.

I decided not to do the full loop, which would take me through too much brush. When I headed back I noticed fresh scat in the path by the torn apart tree. (For you city folk, ‘scat’ is a polite term for animal shit.) This pile of scat was very distinctive: one of Missouri’s rare black bears had come, and gone, while I’d been exploring the rocks.

I had a mixed feelings, seeing that scat. I was disappointed the bear wasn’t there at the trail, and realized I may have frightened him or her away into the bushes near the water. At the same time, and even knowing that no human has ever been threatened much less attacked, by a black bear in Missouri, I froze like a deer in headlights. I had to walk through the forest, about half a mile, to get to my car. My nice, safe car.

An interesting albeit stilted half-mile, too. I’d walk for a little ways, slowly and deliberately, and then hear a noise and freeze, grabbing for my camera (to take a picture, or somehow use as a weapon, I wasn’t quite sure). If all was still, I’d start walking again, head rigidly kept to the front, eyes fixed on the trail.

My nervousness was largely unjustified, as black bears are a timid, non-aggressive animal. Though they can reach up to 400 pounds, the ones we usually encounter range between 100 and 200 pounds. If you startle one they might ‘slap’ at you, but unlike a big cat, a black bear slap will usually only tear your clothes and scratch you. You can even be near their cubs, and chances are they won’t react negatively unless they feel you are a direct threat. Serious black bear attacks rarely happen because of accidental meetings, defense of young, or because of fear.

However, black bears have attacked and killed people–dozens in the last century, several in the last five years. There’s no rhyme or reason to what causes a normally timid creature to turn predatory. What’s worse, is that a black bear that’s a killer is a stalker–deliberately stalking the person, and then moving in for the kill.

Most of our fears of the woods have to do with being stalked by the unseen. Knowing that our dull human senses can’t detect that which can smell our fear, watch our stumbling steps. In the Stephen King Book, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, a young girl is lost in the woods of Maine and struggles to survive the elements and lack of food and clean water. As she stumbles along, she is stalked by a creature, the thing in the woods she comes to think of as the God of the Lost, a creature with long, spiky teeth, half seen clawed paws.

Boom! Thunder woke her. Crack! Lightning, right overhead. And rain, lashing down. The most violent storm Trisha had ever seen. She struggled to her feet, gathered her stuff, blundered toward the rusted-out cab, and as her hand touched the door, she saw it: A slump-shouldered huge something poised across the road, with great cocked ears like horns. The God of the Lost, waiting in the rain.

In the woods, lost or no, one’s fancy grows as long as the shadows cast by the trees in the afternoon light–a fact that is sheepishly self-evident once we’re back in our nice aluminum cars, air conditioning cooling heated cheeks, and slugging down water from a plastic bottle. We pack the terror in the woods out with us, along with the rest of our trash.

I’m disappointed that I couldn’t get my picture of a black bear. Seeing fresh evidence is exciting, but not as exciting as having a picture of a Missouri black bear. I have an idea, though, where I might be able to get a bear photo this fall and will continue my quest. In the meantime, this will be last hike for the summer in the Ozark wilds. Not because of the bear: because of the heat and the humidity, the omnipresent poison ivy, and the nasty bug bites I have on my legs.

Ware pretty plants

History outdoors Places


I was disappointed Tuesday that I didn’t have the strength to climb down to see the bottom part of the Mina Sauk Falls–water falling in three tiers, like a wedding cake, 132 feet below. Even more disappointed that I couldn’t continue along the Ozark Trail another mile past the falls to see the Devil’s Tollgate, which was the real destination for my trip.

The Devil’s Tollgate is a rocky path, 8 feet wide between walls made of volcanic rock over thirty feet tall. I have found one photo of the formation, here in a web page that describes a hike along the Ozark Trail from Taum Sauk to Johnson Shut-Ins. The Tollgate doesn’t look that much from the picture — interesting to see the rocks jut out like that, and even more interesting that the path goes cleanly between. Other than that, though–it’s a path, it’s rocks.

Ah, but the Devil’s Tollgate is more than just a geological oddity–it’s also haunted.

I first ran across the legends surrounding the Tollgate while exploring for interesting hikes. One person, more adventuresome than most, actually walked the trail in the moonlight from Taum Sauk but it was when he was going through the Tollgate that he felt …an unseen presence and could hear the echo of footsteps not his own. It unnerved him so much he turned around, returning to the Falls.

A little more research dug up a rumor of a “demon” of the Piankashaw, a tribe that was forced out of Missouri by early settlers. This demon is supposed to trap and misdirect the unwary traveler, and it is true that the stretch of trail between Taum Sauk and Johnson’s has had more than its fair share of lost and hurt hikers — even a scouting troop getting lost and stranded because of sudden flooding.

However, more research turned up the fact that the “demon” is really an Indian princess, daughter to the Chief of the Piankashaw. According to the Missouri DNR (Department of Natural Resources):

…it is said that Taum Sauk, the chief of the tribe, had a daughter, Mina, who was in love with a warrior from the hostile Osage tribe. The falls were formed when Mina threw herself off the mountain to her death after her people had killed her Osage lover in a similar manner. The Great Spirit sent a bolt of lightning which split the mountain top, and a stream of water flowed over the ledges, washing away the blood of the lovers. You can still see blood-red flowers, known as Indian Pinks, that grow along the banks of the stream each spring.

I did spot the flowers on my walk, though not close enough to take photos of–pure red flowers, dainty and delicate among the rough red rocks on the path and the bright green of the foliage. I had to make do with the purple and yellow ones closest to the paths.

I could almost believe in the power of the legend when I reached the falls Tuesday. I was exhausted and my muscles were stressed from the climb, but the weather was cool and I had plenty of liquids–I shouldn’t have been as impacted as I was. I was taken surprise by the dizziness and disorientation I felt.

Was I just feeling the effects of too many days in my dish, and too little walking this last winter? Or was I experiencing the power of the princess?

Legends aside, I would be surprised to meet an Indian spirit at Taum Sauk, considering that the area is in the middle of the largest deposit of iron in the world and iron has traditionally been an inimical element to the fay. Of course, that could be the European fay–fairies and brownies and such. Perhaps indigenous spirits, all spirits for that matter, are drawn to iron rather than repulsed by it. Isn’t iron an essential element in our blood, and aren’t all spirits attracted to the living?

Going beyond the physical, there’s something inherently bound up with belief in this area, and sometimes I wonder if the attraction of iron goes beyond just parlor tricks with a nail and a magnet. I once said that Missouri was a lodestone for religion in the country; I didn’t know at the time how literal that statement was.

If this is true, and there is a spirit of a long dead indigenous maiden haunting Mina Sauk, we would be right to be cautious of the area and wary of trickery; she would have to be an angry spirit considering how much that aforementioned religion has adversely impacted her people.

The destruction of the indian way of life started with the settlers, who believed themselves the blessed of God and therefore having the right to claim the land for their own. Then the first Catholic missionaries took children away from their parents and homes to a ’school’, where they would be forbidden both their culture and their language.

In later years, whites again converged on the indigenous people, but this time rather than take away their land or faith, we wanted to become a part of it. What the early Christians started, the later day new agers continued and though the intent was seemingly positive, the effect was just as negative. An absolutely brilliant piece on Indian religion written by George Tinker, an Osage at the Lliff School of Theology, states:

Some would argue that the so-called vision quest is evidence of the quintessential individualism of Plains Indian peoples. However, just the opposite can be argued, because in Plains cultures the individual is always in symbiotic relationship with the community. This ceremony involves personal sacrifice: rigorous fasting (no food or liquids) and prayer over several days (typically four to seven) in a location removed from the rest of the community. Yet in a typical rite of vigil or vision quest, the community or some part of the community assists the individual in preparing for the ceremony and then prays constantly on behalf of the individual throughout the ceremony. Thus by engaging in this ceremony, the individual acts on behalf of and for the good of the whole community. Even when an individual seeks personal power or assistance through such a ceremony, he or she is doing so for the ultimate benefit of the community.

Unfortunately, the traditional symbiotic relationship between the individual and the community, exemplified in ceremonies such as the vision quest, has become severely distorted as a shift in Euro-American cultural values has begun to encourage the adoption and practice of Indian spirituality by the general population no matter how disruptive this may be to Indian communities. The resulting incursion of Euro-American practitioners, who are not a part of the community in which the ceremony has traditionally been practiced, brings a Western, individualistic frame of reference to the ceremony that violates the communitarian cultural values of Indian peoples. The key concern for Indian people in preserving the authenticity and healthy functioning of the relationship between the individual and the community is the question of accountability: one must be able to identify what spiritual and sociopolitical community can rightly make claims on one’s spiritual strength. In the Indian worldview, this community–this legitimate source of identity–is intimately linked to, and derives directly from, the significance of spatiality, of space and place.

To the indigenous people, the community is what mattered and what each individual did was an act to benefit the community, regardless of the nature of the act. They assumed that no matter how individualist the act, or self-serving, it must benefit the folk as a whole because a member of the community couldn’t act in any way other than to benefit the community. Therefore if the group at large had to adjust to the individual’s actions it would, because this, too, was ultimately of benefit to the community.

However, to those who follow the New Age movement, looking at this from the outside, it would seem that each person followed a lonely path to enlightenment and that the actions of the whole were focused on allowing each person a chance to express themselves individually. They could never understand that spirituality, in the Indian sense of the term, was based less on inward journeys of enlightenment and ceremonies, than on being in a specific place and time and among a specific group of people, a community, where the very act of existing is a celebration of the spirit.

White people can achieve spirituality but never achieve true Indian spirituality. Why? Because they aren’t Indian. There is no such thing as a ‘convert’ in indigenous languages or cultures.

If the New Age movement continued the work of the early Catholics, it is the third contamination of the Indian way of life that has caused the most damage, as many of the plains Indians have begun to adopt the religions of the dominant race: contamination amply demonstrated with recent votes against gay marriage by tribal council, first among the Cherokee, and last week the Navajo; votes that for these tribes and many others don’t violate the individual’s freedoms as much as they do the sense of community that forms the basis for the Indian spirituality

After all, if no individual could act contrary to community, then how an individual acts must be to the benefit of the community, and this includes the acts of those who are gay, or berdache–an increasingly obsolete European term that literally means the “two-spirit people”, conveying the concept of one body sharing both a female and male spirit.

The two-spirit people were not only accepted by many tribes, they frequently played a unique role in the ceremonies that were such an important characteristic of Indian life. To the Navajo, the two-spirit people or nádleehí were considered matchmakers, as well as lucky to have around; to the Illinois, the ikouta were manitou or holy.

In fact, it is thought that one reason some tribes don’t mention an account of two-spirit people among their communities is because they are wary of the spiritual power that is supposed to reside in those of “third or fourth gender”. To discuss those with power is to attract those with power and among the Indian folk, attracting power is all too often a chancy thing.

To go from this to votes to deny rights to gays demonstrates, sadly, the decline of the Indian way of life; spirituality worn down and giving way to the religion of the churches–the Southern Baptist, the Children of God–that have sprung up in the lands of their birth. Churches formed by those attracted to this land like metal shavings to a magnet. Or perhaps a better analogy is like rust to steel.

With this vote, those who are two-spirit are deemed to no longer be acting for the good of the community–but how can this be when the very nature of Indian spirituality is based on the concept that the individual is the community, and therefore could not act contrary to the community?

(Not all indigenous people share this new ‘modern’ viewpoint: as the comic, Sherman Alexi, a man who grew up on a reservation not 60 miles away from my home town, scathingly quipped: “If you’re against gay marriage, you know how much you have in common with Osama bin Laden? Aren’t you proud of that?”)

But to return to my trip Tuesday, luckily the path back to the parking lot was easier than the one going down, or I may still be there today. What’s odd about the path, too, is how deceptive it is in the beginning–starting out with a paved sidewalk that gives way to grass and dirt, to smaller rocks, and then eventually a rugged and barely discernable trail filled with volcanic rock where the slightest mistep could cause a badly sprained ankle or fall.

I could walk down the paved sidewalk without once paying attention to my footing or the direction I was taking, and the way was very easy. There was no particular skill needed to follow the path, as long as I was willing to stay within its borders.

On the rocks, though, especially as I got nearer the Falls, I had to watch every step I made and carefully pick my course–sometimes even having to backtrack several feet when the way I chose turned out to be the wrong path. I used my entire body while walking, digging in with my pole to provide strength to tired legs, or maneuvering my torso in such a way to provide better balance. Every once in a while I would see the faint imprint of a boot stuck in the soft mud from an earlier walker and I noticed that we all seemed to find our own best course, though we would all start and end in the same place.

Along the rocky path, the going was difficult and challenged me with each step–I had to make a conscious effort to continue and not turn back (and I would regret this decision more than once during the four hour hike). Yet every once in a while the ground would flatten out for a moment and I would feel the cool breezes from the Arcadia Valley, as I looked out over rounded green hills; or I would see a lizard among the pink granite, or a wolf spider hauling along its egg sac; discover another small, delicate spring flower among last years dead leaves.

And by the Falls when I sat on the rock and wondered whether I would have the strength to make it back to the top, I somehow found the strength, even though I had to stop every few hundred feet to rest–taking my backpack off to push a little ways in front of me because I could no longer breath with it on my back.

At the top, back on the sidewalk again, I passed two young couples heading down the trail, and was glad that I hadn’t met them at the bottom near the Falls because I would have asked them for help; I wouldn’t discover that I had the strength in me to make it back on my own. It was a gift of coincidence, and one I could appreciate knowing that I was only, according to the sign, 930 feet away from the parking lot and my car. I even mustered up enough energy to smile and assume a jauntiness in my step and a cheery “Hello, great day for a hike, isn’t it?” before they passed from view and I could resume my pained, barely noticeable shuffling of feet as I inched–ever so slowly– towards my car and ultimate salvation.

As I sit in my chair writing this, with my right leg still elevated and knee still swollen, contemplating the phone call from my roommate that today is ‘free laundry’ day at the apartments where we live and balancing an inability to move against the impetus of the word ‘free’, I think about the two topics that come to mind: the path I walked and the religion that seems to, lately, dominate so much of our culture and politics.

After all, we speak of religion as following a path: to enlightenment, to heaven, to some goal that supposedly makes the sacrifices required of the religion worthwhile. If this is true than I can’t help feel that for religion to have any worth at all, it should follow the rocky way: each person following the path has to accept and reaffirm the cost of their belief with every step they make; and with each step, the path is made anew.

Unfortunately, though, religion is too often like the paved road, where the people follow a way that is set for them, and the only decision they make for themselves is not to make decisions for themselves.

But what do I know? I’m a godless heathen.

I am going back someday to the mountains of Taum Sauk and the Falls of Mina Sauk and the way built of rocks and water and when I do I will make it all the way to the Devil’s Tollgate. Then I will see for myself if a restless spirit lives in the rocks, waiting to trick the traveler into changing direction; forcing the unwary on to new paths.

It should be fun.

History Photography Places

Shaw’s Garden

When the balance sheet for 1839 was struck it showed, to the great surprise of Mr. Shaw, a net gain for the year of $25,000. He could not believe his own figures, and so went over them again and again until he could no longer doubt the fact. Telling the story many years afterward he said it seemed to him then that “this was more money than any man in my circumstances ought to make in a single year,” and he resolved then and there to go out of active business at the first good opportunity. The opportunity presented itself very early in the following year, and was promptly improved by the sale of his entire stock of merchandise. So at forty years of age – only the noon of life – with all his physical and mental powers unimpaired and vigorous, Henry Shaw was a free man – and the possessor of $250,000 with which to enjoy that freedom….

There is every reason to believe that, with his exceptional qualifications for success in this department, he might easily have increased the $250,000 to $2,500,000 long before he had reached the age of sixty. He retired, not because he was afraid of losing what he had made, or thought he could not make any more; but because he felt he had enough, and intended to enjoy it. He always owned his money; his money never owned him.

Yesterday was cold and clear with a nice dusting of sparkly white snow on the ground; perfect conditions for visiting the Botanical Gardens.

During the winter, especially when it’s cold, the Gardens rarely has visitors during the work week. However, being a public facility, it also has to keep its paths clear and dry, which makes it a wonderful place to walk after a snow. I find the Gardens a good place to walk when I want to have a quiet time to think about things, because unlike many of the Ozark trails, I don’t have to keep my mind on the paths.

I passed two couples and a single walker yesterday but other than that had the place to myself. Even the koi had retreated to warmer climes, rather than follow me as I traversed the zig-zagged board walk. The previous days snow had built up on the bushes, and then slightly melted due to the warmer conditions. However, there was a sudden temperature drop, which then froze the snow on the plants, leaving everything coated with just enough snow to look like it was dropped on by a mad cake maker with the mother of all bowls of icing.

I always head to the Japanese Gardens when I enter the park, no matter the season. Some of the water fountains were frozen and shut down, but the water in the lake and streams circulates enough to keep them liquid. What was rather interesting to look at was the snow that had been blown around the raked gravel in the gardens, looking more like lint caught on bit of rough than what it was.

Each time I visit the Gardens, I always try and walk down a new path or explore a new corner. Yesterday I visited the Henry Shaw Mausoleum: a red brick and stained glass octagonel building surrounded by plants, and containing Shaw’s tomb and a beautiful white marble effigy. It was a bit hard to see in through the iron gated windows but I managed, and even got a fairly decent photo showing both the effigy and some of the stained glass.

Shaw effigy in marble

After seeing the effigy, I got curious about Henry Shaw, the man behind the Gardens, and when I got home looked him up. I found an annotated history of the Gardens, including several excellent photos from the 1860’s until the 1920’s. It was in this that I found the earlier quote about Shaw, made by a friend of his, as well the following photo, which was taken of him as he posed for his effigy.

The photos in the history were digitalized through a program funded by the State of Missouri library system, which leads the country when it comes to actively seeking out and putting digitalized multimedia material on the web for public access. Being the magpie that I am, I immediately became distracted by this new virtual piece of fluff and searched around to see what else was online through this program.

I struck gold when I found the site, Voices of World War II: Experiences at the Front and at Home containing photos, radio transcripts, music, and even video of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. This multimedia immersion into history is the richest I’ve been able to find on World War II, and listening to many of the radio broadcasts last night, I was surprised again and again, how the experiences of the events of the time differ from our historical perspective of same. for instance, a radio broadcast by H.V. Kaltenborg one week after Pearl Harbor showed that interest was stronger in fighting Germany, who had not fired one shot against the US, than in Japan. “If we can defeat Hitler,” Kaltenborg claimed, “we can defeat Japan almost in our leisure”–a piece of arrogance we were to pay for time and again in the war.

The site contains complete songs from the era, and even photos of the records themselves. Remember Abbott and Costello’s baseball routine? You’ll be able to hear wartime quasi-classics such as the Murphy Sisters, “You’re a Sap Mr. Jap” and the odd, surreal, When the Atom Bomb Fell by Karl and Harty in addition to more popularly known Glenn Miller music.

Among all the interviews with combatants, and recordings of actual fighting, it is still the broadcasts from the radio men of the time that had the most appeal to me, including some from one of my favorite journalists, Edward R. Murrow. This is radio, at its best and brightest.

To return to my original explorations of Botanical Gardens and Henry Shaw, it’s not just the history of the place that has forever found a home on the web–the Gardens’ famous collection of rare herbal books that Shaw purchased from another collection has also been digitalized. If you’re interested in botany or gardening or herbs; love looking through exquisitely detailed pen and ink or watercolor images of plants, as well as the finest copperplate; or have an interest in bookbinding, click here, and then be prepared to lose hours of time. I love to photograph plants and trees out on my walks, but will be the first to admit that the effort falls short in comparison. Not that I’ll stop.

After pulling myself way from the distractions of multimedia, I continued to reading Shaw’s bio. Most writings of Shaw are positive, and by all accounts, he was a kind and generous person. He never married, and once was even sued for breach of promise, but the case ended up being dismissed. Good thing, too, as it would have taken enough money to disrupt his dream of creating one of the finest gardens in the country.

Still there is a shadow among the bright flowers in Shaw’s history. Being English by birth, when he first moved to St. Louis he was against slavery; years later, however, he was the owner of eleven slaves, most likely purchased to work on the Gardens. Three of his slaves, a mother and two children, tried to run away, helped by a free black woman, Mary Metchum; they were caught on the Illinois side of the river, and Methum was subsequently tried, but nothing further is known about what happened to her. As for the slaves, he sold the mother, but there’s no record about what happened with the children.

Historians like to point out that years later, after the civil war, he was one of the few employers in the area who would employ the people referred to as ‘Bohemians’: newly freed black people who had a difficult time finding work in this former slave state. One such black ended up becoming his personal assistant until his death, though I’m not sure if it’s the black man depicted in the following photograph.

Anyone who has walked the Gardens can’t deny the benefit of Shaw’s vision for a grand garden — it is a wonderous place; one of the finest of its kind in the world, and an important component of in the education system in this state. However, his image as a ‘great humanitarian’ must be forever tarnished by the ills of owning another human being.

The reality of human failing aside, I still find Shaw’s marble effigy to be beautiful amid the stained glass and red brick, trees, and flowers. Especially the flowers. After all, flowers are blind to the color of man.