Wednesday, August 25, 2010

By This Wing: Letters by Celia Thaxter to Bradford Torrey about birds at the Isles of Shoals 1888 to 1894 Edited by Donna Marion Titus

Why I read it: Annual trips to the Isles of Shoals, and I lived at the time in the hometown of Bradford Torrey.

Summary: Pretty self-explanatory title! Celia lived at the Shoals part-time, and began a correspondence with fellow nature writer Torrey after finding a killdeer wing on the island. They maintained a correspondence until her death, never meeting face to face.

My Thoughts: What was Torrey's problem?

Bradford Torrey is certainly an interesting historical figure, one of the giants of 19th century American nature literature. Celia was right there with him, not nearly as prolific, but beloved for what she did write (An Island Garden, Among the Isles of Shoals, and numerous articles for popular magazines of the day). For parts of seven years they kept up their correspondence, trading copies of books, discussing birds and wildflowers, with Celia asking, pleading, eventually begging Torrey to make a visit to the Isles of Shoals off the Maine and New Hampshire coast. She begged until her final letter to him in 1894, less than a month before her death.

But Torrey never showed. Why?

He prided himself on his ambling, his Thoreau-like walking and appreciation of nature. Did he have a fear of boat travel? It's the only thing I can come up with. The Shoals are now, and have been for more than a century, a Mecca, a pilgrimage point for folks interested in history and nature, in spiritual rejuvenation. In other words, it was right up Torrey's alley. He lived in Weymouth, Massachusetts, three hours from the Shoals by boat (the town I live in now). She even sent him boat schedules, but no, he never appeared.

I guess to find my answer, I'll have to read the other side, find out more about the life of Torrey. I visit the Shoals annually, stand in Celia's Garden, which is still there, despite the fact her house is gone. Perhaps I'll find my answer there, but I think, instead, I'll find all the more reasons why he should have made the trip.

The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation by Jim Cullen

Why I read it: Just loved the concept from the moment I read it.

Summary: The author traces the concept from the Puritans to the modern day, touching on the Declaration of Independence, upward mobility, home ownership and more.

My Thoughts: I agree with the author. The topic is certainly one worth researching, ruminating upon and writing about. Apparently, according to his own notes in the book, some of the academics to whom he spoke said he was dealing with a topic unworthy of a historian's time.

Phooey. Let's move on.

The American dream is, of course, personal in nature. Is it truly possible to trace the idea's history? Yes, in general terms. While not every Puritan may have had the same exact dream, they all had a general one: freedom from religious persecution. How they further interpreted that notion individually could fill a volume unto itself. But the author chose to follow the dream over time, through Thomas Jefferson's ideals to Abraham Lincoln's birthplace, to Plessy vs. Ferguson, to Martin Luther's King's assassination. The same strains can be followed: a place of our own, personal freedom, the chance to grow unbound by the repressive forces of governments.

Comedian Eddie Izzard once commented that the American dream is to make all the money in the world, stick it in your ears and blow raspberries at people. An interesting image, and not that far from the truth. Cullen states that a current general dream includes moving to the coast, particularly California, and making money without effort (i.e. being "found" in Hollywood). There's no doubt that many, many Americans think this way. Maybe Eddie Izzard is right.

The follow-up question to the book must be this one: has America filled the bill? Is it in actuality a place where one person can dream, and reach heights unachievable elsewhere in the world? Does it offer the freedoms for which we've always strived ("we" being a strange term in itself, used by everyone from the first settlers to last week's immigrants)? Or does that change with each presidential election?

Whatever the answer, I know I have my dream, and that thus far the only thing holding me back from reaching my goals is me. I believe in my personal version of the American dream.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Remembering Lubec: Stories from the Easternmost Point by Ronald Pesha

Why I read it: Annual trips to Lubec each year, and I know the author.

Summary: Lubec, Maine's history is told through West Quoddy Lighthouse, its sardine canneries, school days, local families, the building of the Roosevelt Memorial Bridge to Campobello and more.

My Thoughts: I don't often get angry at the Coast Guard. But this made me mad as hell.

It's not Ron Pesha's fault. After all, as he says, since he's from "away," he can be no more than a chronicler and researcher of the local history of Lubec, although I think he has obviously short-changed himself. He writes as if he was there all along.

The situation is this one: the Coast Guard visited Lubec in the mid-1970s and exhumed the remains of Hopley Yeaton, the captain of the first revenue cutter and known as the Father of the Coast Guard, from his family farm for reinterment at the Coast Guard Academy in New London.

Good God! Why?!

Is a memorial monument not enough for the Academy? Would anybody look at it any differently if they knew that Yeaton was not actually buried at the Academy, a place he had absolutely no connection to other than the fact that more then a century after he died New London became the learning ground for the young men and women who were training for duty in a service that a century later grew out of the service with which he once sailed?

Yes, they got their permissions from family members - whatever that means two centuries after his death - but it left a void in Lubec. I can tell you one thing. If the Coast Guard ever gets the notion of moving the body of Captain Joshua James from my hometown, the bulldozers will have to go through me.

Coast Guard history is spread across the country, and each duty station can be a learning station for the men and women who serve. I've introduced hundreds of Coasties to Joshua James' gravesite over the past decade and a half. The men and women who serve at Jonesport should have the option of visiting Hopley Yeaton's gravesite where it originally was in Lubec, understanding him in his context, his surroundings, rather than meeting him in New London.

Sorry Coast Guard, you got this one completely wrong. And sorry, Ron. I promise you a thorough, proper review in print. You did excellent work.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Not Enough Angels: A Memoir by Vincent Lubrano

Why I read it: I sat on a panel at a library event with the author, and was entranced by his story.
Summary: World War II veteran Vincent Lubrano remembers the thirty months that changed his life for good, spent with the United States Army, mostly in France after D-Day.

My Thoughts: Another ho-hum World War II memoir, right? No. I’ve always maintained that World War II is the biggest story that has ever unfolded on this planet, comprised of millions of individual stories, and that every angle, every perspective is worth a read. Everybody alive during that period has a story to tell of who they lost, what they did, and where they were when.

I had the pleasure of meeting the author at a recent event, and was impressed with his approach to the topic. To be fair, though, and he would tell you this fact himself, he never fired a shot in anger during his time in service. His lot was guarding pipelines and almost operating teletypes (the war ended before he was incongruously forced into that role in the Pacific, never having seen a teletype machine in his life). He was no Audie Murphy, but then, neither would Audie Murphy have been had he been assigned to guard duty behind the lines.

Instead, much of what the author shares with us has to do with romance. A young man wearing an American military uniform in Europe in World War II had many opportunities to find love, in its many forms. He found his, although he tried to downplay it, especially to himself. Suzanne was her name, a French farmer's daughter who took a liking to him. But the cruelty of the war, the unpredictability, the suddenness, meant it was not to be. They spent some wonderful times together, but his unit moved before he could get word to Suzanne, and after a few letters that stretched across the Atlantic after the war, Suzanne faded from Vincent's life.

Decades later, when his wife encouraged him to write his wartime memoir, he said “Not without Suzanne.” It took him two years, but he tracked her down, in the same Normandy town in which she lived when she knew him.Their story is one of "what ifs," of how just a slight change in direction at a moment's notice can alter a life forever. Problems with his landing craft kept him safe from D-Day, meaning that other men went and died in his place, if fate is to be believed in. He, in the end, was lucky enough to carry an angel on his shoulder throughout the conflict, when there were obviously not enough to go around.

Buffalo for the Broken Heart: Restoring Life to a Black Hills Ranch by Dan O'Brien

Why I read it: A love of the outdoors, and a fascination with the wide open places of the west.

Summary: The author, an Ohio boy turned Great Plains rancher, converts his ranch from cattle to buffalo, keeping in line with his desire to return at least his corner of the land to its original, pre-European settlement state. He recounts the history of the land and its use, including stories of those early settlers, and hints that there is much more to the restoration than just the introduction of the buffao herd. His life gets reinvigorated, too, after a divorce that left him angry at himself for letting his life run away from him.

My Thoughts: These are the words I grew up to, the poetry of Schoolhouse Rock. Westward expansion was not, to a six-year-old in the mid-1970s, told through the theories of Frederick Jackson Turner, but instead impressed upon us by "Elbow Room."

"The trappers, traders and the peddlars,
The politicians and the settlers,
They got here by any way they could,
The Gold Rush trampled down the wilderness,
The railroads spread across from east to west,
And soon the west was opened up for good."

I remember the visual vividly: a train rushing across the continent crushing trees, clearing the way for America to follow in its wake. Perhaps in three and a half decades our sensibilities have changed, but back then, the trampling of the wilderness, and all of the species of birds, mammals and other animals associated with it, was seen by most as nothing more than progress.

Dan O'Brien is fighting the good fight to bring back the wilderness.

Long before he was involved with buffalo, he had a passion for peregrine falcons, helping with their reintroduction to the land. Of course, all of these animals are tied together in some way. We forced domesticated cattle onto the land, creatures bred for centuries to graze on the green grassy fields of Europe, hoping that they would thrive in the unpredictability of the open Plains. Whether or not it has worked is up for debate; yes, Americans eat a lot of beef, but the land, the ranchers and the cattle have suffered in many ways.

Cattle tend to overgraze their land, at least in comparison to buffalo. That habit leads to habitat destruction for numerous species of animals that historically have thrived on the plains, shrubland birds and more. What the author has done by reintroducing the buffalo is restore the old habits of that creature, more nomadic browsing, scraping for pockets of water, trasforming the land.

The book is eye-opening for East Coast huggers especially, those of us who grew up in large cities and look to the west for the mythic American cowboy. The author tries to debunk the myths, and rightly so, but there is some truth in the historical vision. There is romanticism in the solitude of the Plains, in the thought of living life your way, of unchaining one's self from the world of cubicles and commutes. Sure, it has its hardships, but some of us would certainly take a crack at it, even if it's just an even swap for stresses in life.

I hope that the author has found happiness in the end. I get the sense that his thoughts were at the right depths when he penned this title, that he could use his solitude for healing and not end up pondering suicide, as so many others have, including some close to him. At least in one sense, his transformation has been completed. Check out the Wild Idea Buffalo Company at your leisure.