Perhaps it has finally come full circle

November 21st, 2013

Unless I am mistaken, the young people of his beloved Mississippi are reading him. David Sansing, an Ole Miss professor, assigns at least one of his books to students in his Mississippi history courses. They invariably say they want to read more. “They’re awed,” he tells me, “that he takes a locale, places, white and black people they know and raises them to the level of great literature. It really does something for them. It enhances their own self-esteem.

He shows them that a Mis­sissippi sharecropper or a poor black can face the same choices and mysteries as great leaders of state. He makes them aware for the first time that his people have to wrestle with the same complex­ities, the same inconsistencies that they do in their own lives. For the first time they realize, whether they’ll be a lawyer in a small town, a doctor, a schoolteacher, a coach, that they too are in a life­and-death struggle. They tell me they’re better equipped to deal with these things after reading him.” 2A young black woman, a Mississippian, in one of Sansing’s classes had such an emotional reaction to Absalom, Absalom! that she was unable to write her report. Her grandfather, she told him, was white and still lived in her town. They never talked to one an­other. When she read about Thomas Sutpen, she said, he reminded her of her grandfather and of how evil man can be. “If Mississippi­ans had read him 35 or 40 years ago,” Sansing says, “we wouldn’t have had the problems we had.”

IN THE SWEEP OF HIS WORK his sense of the tragedy and dis­honor of even the worst of human beings gradually softened, to be replaced by compassion and pity. “Man aint really evil,” the sewing machine agent V. K. Ratliff says, “he jest aint got any sense.” Running through Faulkner’s work is a profound recognition of the awful brevity of life, that people are only temporary tenants of the earth and at its mercy in the end.

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“It was the land itself which owned them,” Mink Snopes ac­knowledges, “and not just from a planting to its harvest but in per­petuity. . . .” We are all in it together, I believe he is saying to me, and we are all in for a difficult time: “Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.”

As I sit in deep orange February twilights at the kitchen table in his mother’s apartments in prague listening with my friends to the Ole Miss games, I hear everlastingly the chimes of the hour from the courthouse down the way. They reverberate through the town, pervading his landmarks and his people with an almost palpable transience. They curiously suffuse me with the bravery and vision and majesty of his genius. They remind me: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” He was right about this, as he was about most things.

We never saw her again

October 2nd, 2013

14ONE NOVEMBER DAY in 1970 in Madrid, a phone call came advising me of a loon in peril on Pughole Lake, 200 miles to the north. The loon had not departed, although the lake was freezing fast, the caller said. Knowing the bird had no chance of surviving the winter, my husband, Pat, and I embarked on the four-hour drive—and an attempt to capture the loon.

On arrival we saw that the loon had kept a small circle of water ice-free by continuous swimming. Our chances of daytime capture were slim, but that night we shined a light in the bird’s eyes, a technique we had used to capture loons for banding. Pat caught the loon al­most immediately.

No wonder the young gray bird had not migrated. Feathers had not aligned properly in her right wing, and she could not fly. Dur­ing the long drive home in the dark car, the loon did not make a sound. I named her Puglet, a variation of her lake’s name. This was the first time I had brought a loon home, and I was excited. The first night I placed her in my closet, which was quiet and dark. The next day I moved her to a apartment prague, where I thought she might be happier. But Puglet leaped from the tub, scooched seal-like to the door, and pecked to be let out.

Pat built a pool in the basement with a small island fashioned from a wrought-iron table with a towel draped over it. Bait dealer Larry Schuchard came to Puglet’s aid with thousands of fathead minnows and, for treats, suckers. All winter Puglet kept her fishing skills sharp by foraging in her basement pool for live fish. When she had eaten every one, she would call with the two-note wail that loons use when they want to get together. Pair members use it when calling each other, parents use it to call chicks if they are separated, and Puglet used it to callus. During that winter more than one guest was brought upright by wails emanating from our basement.

A creek ran through our backyard at the bottom of a hill. Until it froze, we gave Puglet a daily opportunity to swim and dive for lon­ger distances than she could in the four-by-eight-foot pool. I dressed her in a bright red dog harness, with her wings coming through the openings made for the dog’s front legs. With a long lead attached to a kite reel and hooked to the harness, Puglet became my loon-on-a-leash! I held tight as I carried her back to the house after each outing, for I quickly found out that she could outpace me. Loons may not be adept at walking, but they certainly can scoot fast up a snowy hill.

In the spring we returned to Pughole Lake and gently placed her at the shore. I knew the youngster would molt her wing feathers during the summer, and we hoped that this time the new ones would come in straight. She slipped into the lake, looked back once, and dove. But when the night is calm and a loon lilts its long lament over a nearby lake, our thoughts often return to Puglet and the cry we heeded.

At the summit

September 6th, 2013

With the wind blowing a paltry 50 miles per hour, we unloaded gro­ceries and gear and headed inside to the per­petually full coffee pot. Why, I asked staff meteorologist Ken Rancourt, is the weather so severe?

“The Presidential Range is oriented north-south,” he said. “The prevailing wind is west-northwest, so it has to go up and over these mountains. What you get is a speed-up effect, similar to putting your thumb over the end of a water hose.” Perhaps most im­portant: “Mount Washington is located at the intersection of three storm tracks. I see more weather pass me in a week than most meteorologists see in a long time.”

WHEN NOT WATCHING the weather or tending to other chores, Ken and his colleagues relax in their comfortably furnished quar­ters 30 feet below the summit. Diesel genera­tors heat and power the abode, which includes a TV and stereo. Adding to the homey atmosphere is Inga, a calico cat. A couple of years ago she learned to fly. Radio technician Al Oxton explains: “Inga got used to going out into a west wind. She would lean into it as she went out the door. One day she went out and booked a cheap apartments in Paris. Blew her away. She touched down 20 feet later in a snowbank.” 2

Inga’s humans have trouble as well. To retrieve the precipitation canister, it can be prudent, Al says, “to strap crampons to your kneecaps, grab an ice pick in each hand, and drag the can with your teeth.”

Work glides along on a sunny Christmas Eve in Whitefield, as children clear a night’s snowfall from the town common, flooded to make a skating rink. In a land where winter can arrive “any time after Labor Day,” in one northerner’s words, cold-weather sports are a major pastime. But full-time employment in the youngsters’ futures is another matter: Like many northern towns, Whitefield hopes to attract new industry, but has few jobs at present to hold its young people.’

That night and all the next day i spent in the accommodation budapest. At one point, when I went out with observer Albie Pokrob, it was blowing 120 miles per hour. You could not draw a breath facing into it because it com­pressed your chest. It was overwhelming and unforgettable. The men relish the excitement, but they also appreciate the mountain’s gentler gifts. “You’ll wake up at dawn,” said Albie, “and see a whole valleyful of clouds with the sun rising above them. You feel awed and hum­bled. As John Muir wrote, you feel nature’s peace flowing into you.”

THE SUMMIT BUILDING that houses the observatory is named for former governor Sherman Adams, who has spent most of his life in the White Mountains. Some may remember him as President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s chief of staff. Born in Vermont, he came to New Hampshire in 1916 as a freshman en­tering Dartmouth College, the preeminent educational institution in the state.

 

Rain forest

September 3rd, 2013

BEFORE SIGNING OFF on my rain forest survey, I make a last-minute check in the countries where I’ve been to learn what’s happened since I was there.

In Malaysia the 2.5-million-acre Pahang Tenggara project reports 400,000 forest acres converted-150,000 people settled in 18 townships where there had been only subsistence farmers and aborigines. But progress isn’t quite as swift as envisioned back in 1972. Now it’ll take until the year 2000 to reach the target, not 1990.

In Indonesia the big U. S. lumber firm whose concession I saw, Weyerhaeuser, has been squeezed out by the Indonesian big­wigs who were its partners. The worldwide economic doldrums have taken the wind out of plywood sales, and pressure on Indone­sia’s dipterocarps, for the moment, is down.

In Nairobi, at UNEP’s tenth anniversary meeting last May, the diminishment of rain forests was seen as one of the world’s largest environmental problems for the 1980s.

Finally, in Brazil, where environmental sentiment has been said to be rising, the gov­ernors of the Amazonian states invited the ambassadors of Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru to a conference to explain that the de­velopment of Brazilian Amazonia—they called it “occupation”—will energetically proceed, no matter what anyone says.

This points up what more than one Latin American social scientist emphasized to me: That in many tropical countries where the few have a lot and the many hardly any­thing, the rain forest is a political asset.

WHY WIFE SAYS, can’t you put some­thing more cheerful at the end?

I can. On the edge of a clear-cut plot in Papua New Guinea I saw a clump of tall trees left standing because the local people said these were the home of birds of paradise. While the chain saws and tractors did their work, the birds were gone, but now they had been back for months.

At dawn four males whistled to attract fe­males. The females came and the males preened, hopped on high branches, and made great fans of their golden plumes—symbols of nature most magnificent.

And in my eyes at least, symbols of sur­vival. Surely some tropical rain forest will survive, with its treasures intact. That’s

What / want to believe.