Springtime!

Western springtime is different. In the east, March is “in like a lion, out like a lamb.” In New Mexico, it’s been warm and lovely since the start of the month, but soon, our spring winds will begin. Like many Americans, I think of spring as a damp, green, thawing time of year. Here, it  is dry and abrasive. Here, it was 8% humidity yesterday.

The grass is growing, my herbs are returning, and I have been itching to garden, itching to have a few square feet of lush, green eastern spring. Over the years, I have chased the spring blossoms, from lenten roses and crocuses to irises and peonies. In Virginia, I wandered Thomas Jefferson’s garden each day, seeing the new blooms and progress. This year, I’m working on my own garden. That means that, at this point, I don’t have many new images to share. I don’t know how to make mulching and pulled weeds look very beautiful. But in the spirit of what I hope to grow, here are some of my favorite spring images from years past.

 

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Book Review: The Snail Darter and the Dam (Zygmunt Plater 2013)

Rating: 5/5

In  The Snail Darter and the Dam, Zygmunt Plater describes his famous legal battle over Tennessee’s Tellico Dam, which he argued all the way to a 6-3 US Supreme Court victory in 1978. Plater and local activists  argued that the dam would threaten the endangered snail darter fish, a violation of the recently-passed Endangered Species Act. The media covered it as a case of environmentalism run amok, but the ESA appeal was a backdoor to stopping an unsound project. Despite the court victory, a congressional finding that the dam project was financially unsound to finish even at 95% complete, and the fact that the dam would submerge some of the oldest human artifacts in the country, the dam was completed and stands today. The Snail Darter and the Dam details the grueling work of grassroots activism and the hazards of bureaucracy and entrenched interests.

WHY THIS BOOK?

This summer, I read Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, a tale of water administration. Before moving west, I had no idea what skullduggery surrounded the history of water rights. Reisner’s description of the Tellico Dam battle, though brief, was intriguing. Snail Darter was written so recently by a member of the legal team, a different perspective than that offered in Cadillac Desert.

THE GOOD

Snail Darter is the story of a young law professor who follows sound and sober reason and is battered by our bureaucratic institutions. He loses his job, and works himself to exhaustion trying to achieve the impossible: getting members of the bureaucracy and government to see a deeply-flawed bureau project for what it is. He fails.

Snail Darter is the story of a region’s struggles against the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The Little Tennessee River was one of the last free-flowing rivers in the backyard of the energy bureaucracy behemoth. It was one of the last fly fishing rivers in the east. It was the site of Cherokee settlements dating back over 10,000 years, many with religious significance. It was fertile farmland. In spite of this, the TVA wanted to build a dam that wouldn’t even supply power. It was originally pitched as a way to grow an industrial city anchored by Boeing. After Boeing backed out, the TVA continued to fight for their pointless and destructive project. The locals fought the dam starting in the mid 60’s. Lawyer and author Zygmunt Plater joined the fight in 1974.

Conservatives like Sean Hannity, Antonin Scalia, and George Will still invoke the snail darter as a symbol of environmentalism run amok. How ironic—the darter was the last means for locals to halt an impractical dam foisted upon them by a federal bureaucracy.  As Plater tells it, the darter was only successful in holding up the dam because of the deep unsoundness of the project. At last, there was a mechanism to force scrutiny upon the insane project, a back door by which to achieve oversight. Opposition to Tellico Dam should have been bipartisan—it was porkbarrel without economic upshot.

People don’t remember that part of the story because the media failed. Walter Cronkite called the lawsuit “frivolous.” Respected giants like the New York Times and ABC framed the lawsuit as an intractable conflict between economics and environment rather than covering the project’s flaws. They failed to cover the situation of farmers like Nell McCall; only 3 of her 90 acres would be submerged by the reservoir but the TVA would buy her out at suppressed prices to sell to the industrial city that no longer had tenants. If we think that media is flawed today, unable to give nuance and factual coverage, well, it’s nothing new.

Plater describes the support of grassroots organizations in Washington, DC. These are the counterparts to the lobbyists of K Street, devoted and passionate people who sleep on couches or at their desks waging an unfunded but righteous battle. Plater received extensive help from Anne Wickham of Friends of the Earth, Dave Conrad of America Rivers, and others.

Snail Darter describes the “Iron Triangle” that supports bureaucracies like the TVA. In the Iron Triangle, congress, bureaucracies, and interest groups support one another in the advancement of projects, each reinforcing one another’s weak points. For Tellico Dam, connected members of congress supported the TVA, which was supported by private construction companies. These three groups can mobilize money, media, and attack dogs that a grass roots organization can’t hope to oppose. In the case of Tellico Dam, the Iron Triangle triumphed over a Supreme Court ruling, economic inviability, and a hostile president, leading to the dam’s completion in 1979.

irontriangle

From Wikipedia: the Iron Triangle, showing how congress, interest groups, and the bureaucracies have interwoven incentives.

 

THE BAD

The subject matter is depressing. But as a meat eater has an obligation to understand that his steak once belonged to a cow, I’d argue an American has an obligation to learn about the making of law. It’s ugly. And in Snail Darter, a totally awful project is built for the vanity of a few removed bureaucrats, over the protest and struggle of hundreds. But they wouldn’t have succeeded if more people had cared when it mattered.

OVERALL

Snail Darter peeks inside government and bureaucracy. It shows what happens when media fails to be the fourth estate. 40 years later, the snail darter controversy remains misunderstood.

Today, we hope the media will be vigilant and informative; we hope it will stand up to government apparatus if it abuses people. Snail Darter suggests a certain pessimism to that hope, but it also provides an instruction manual for how accountability can work. In Plater’s tale, grassroots organizations interacted with congress and tried to inform the media. Donations to organizations like the ACLU and SPLC have skyrocketed recently. That’s encouraging.

I’m not a law buff, but Snail Darter was engrossing. If you are American and have ever liked a nonfiction book, I recommend this one.

Ten Favorite Images of 2016

Better late than never! I took a little hiatus from photography for the last few months. Now that I’m back in the saddle, it’s time to pick out my favorite ten images in the past year. (Here’s my 2015 list, which focuses a little more on technique.) This year I continued my western travels, learned about lighting (not shown here), and got really into HDRs (shown excessively here).

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Great Blue Heron in Florida

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Bisti Badlands in Northwest New Mexico

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Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wash in Northwest New Mexico

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Sierpinski tetrahedron

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Eagle’s Nest Lake near Taos, New Mexico

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Looking towards Pike’s Peak in Colorado

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St. Elmo, Colorado

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White Sands, New Mexico

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Three Sisters Volcanos in Albuquerque, New Mexico

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Night sky in Taos, New Mexico

Rain in the land of fair weather

It’s raining in California. A lot.  I’ve lived in the midwest, the mountains, the desert, and the northeast, but California weather is weird. Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert (which I reviewed here) details how California’s precipitation comes in 30 year cycles. Since we only have 150 years of modern weather records, that’s 5 cycles of rain. That’s not much data. So it causes havok. In 1916, San Diego hired a guy named Hatfield to literally make it rain. Just as he started work, it rained torrentially, and Hatfield had to flee a lynch mob. (Below is the Backstory Podcast segment on this story.)

I visited beautiful Balboa Park (home of the San Diego Zoo) in endless rain. I braved bus stops without awnings and big puddles. Because San Diegans live outdoors so much, only one restaurant had indoor seating, and was full of dripping puddle people like me. It was a harrowing adventure for one from the desert. I took a few rain-speckled pictures and fled back to the museums. I was lucky they weren’t outdoors too!

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Book Review: Santa Anna of Mexico (Will Fowler 2007)

Rating: 4/5

Will Fowler’s Santa Anna of Mexico is about Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the six-time president of Mexico. Santa Anna partook in most major events in the first 40 years of Mexican independence. Americans might know his as the cruel Mexican general of The Battle of the Alamo in Texas. He was a charismatic and wily man, entwined with and representative of the problems of early Mexico. He is hated today in Mexico, with no roads or statues to his honor; Fowler presents a complex man living through complex times.

WHY THIS BOOK?

  1. Santa Anna pops up in southwestern history. He was the general at the Alamo. He lost a leg in the Pastry War. He conned James Polk during the Mexican-American War. Eventually, I had to read his biography.
  2. Although the United States has only two neighbor countries, I know almost nothing about the history of either.

THE GOOD

Go look at the heads of state of Mexico on Wikipedia. For the first 30 years, only one lasted his whole term. 19th century United States sometimes seems dysfunctional; we’ve got nothing on Mexico. How did Mexico turn out so differently? This book helped me understand that a little.

Santa Anna’s biography is a great way to learn the (ridiculously complex and confusing) early history of Mexico. Santa Anna’s personal history parallels his country’s history. Fowler splits Santa Anna’s career into four stages: Hope (1821-28), Disenchantment (1828-35), Disillusion (1835-47), and Despair (1847-53).

Fowler portrays a complex Santa Anna. Santa Anna is blamed as the man who lost Texas, the man who lost the Mexican-American War (ceding half the country to the US), and the man who signed the humiliating Gadsden Purchase (ceding some more land to the US). He was also the Hero of Tampico, fending off a Spanish invasion, and the hero of the Pastry War, in which he lost a leg. In the Mexican-American War, he returned from exile in Cuba and valiantly fought when all others seemed paralyzed by infighting. The man had more lives than a cat. He was incredibly opportunistic, but he was also brave and believed in Mexico.

Fowler also describes Santa Anna as a caudillo. The caudillo, or strongman, is a political tradition in Latin America tracing to Spain’s colonial policies. The caudillo amassed money, land, and influence regionally; if his region was nationally influential enough, he would be nationally influential. Santa Anna became the caudillo of Veracruz, the large and crucial port of Mexico.

Donald Trump has been called the “Yankee Caudillo” in Latin American press. There are parallels. Santa Anna attacked the political parties as corrupt; he claimed to stand apart from the evils of partisanship and to fight for the people. Santa Anna stayed relevant with his wealth in Veracruz; likewise Trump stayed relevance with his global brand. Both men were constantly near power, but able to claim a mantle of purity. Like Trump, Santa Anna preferred to campaign (this time in the military sense). Santa Anna rarely held power for more than six months because he didn’t care to govern. (This is in contrast to other caudillos who held power for extended periods of time.) My understanding is admittedly superficial, but learning about Mexico’s politics gave me another perspective on American politics.

THE BAD

I struggled with the first few chapters. I was constantly consulting Wikipedia or a map. If you know little Mexican history, this book is absolutely readable, but it’s challenging.

OVERALL

Santa Anna is absurd, but Fowler explains him well. Santa Anna’s antics are so intimately a part of Mexico’s early struggles for democracy.

Santa Anna, like Mexico’s early failure, is so tragic. What could Mexico have accomplished if only they had achieved the stability of the early United States? Were the United States lucky to have achieved stability from the very beginning?

Finally, the caudillo concept provides insights into much of Latin America, and perhaps into the United States.

Black History Month Reading List

One of the joys of science fiction is imagining life through other lenses. Until recently, I had overlooked the richness of lenses present in contemporary society and history. In the spirit of that joy, I challenged myself to a reading list for February’s Black History Month.

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson (nonfiction)

The Warmth of Other Suns details the Great Migration, when over 6 million African Americans migrated from the American South to the north, looking for opportunity and fleeing oppression. From 1915 to 1970, this quiet movement reshaped our country; before the migration, 10% of American blacks lived in the north, after, 50%.

This 530 page book (over 600 with the post matter) sat on my shelf for months, looking intimidating. Finally I picked it up for Black History Month. In 4 days, I’m already over 400 pages in. It’s so well written and relatable.

Binti by Nnedi Orakafor (science fiction)

Science fiction has long been a bastion of white dudes, as demonstrated by the Sad Puppies tantrums of 2015. In addition to being exclusionary, this is unfortunate because it goes against the calling of the genre to explore the human condition. The genre has shortchanged minority protagonists and it spends too little time in the vast non-white areas of the world.  A new generation of science fiction authors has brought great stories to these underserved settings and perspectives.

Nnedi Orakafor is part of the afrofuturism movement in science fiction. I read a short story by her several years ago, and it stuck with me. I’ve been meaning to read a longer work of hers, and now is the time.

American Uprising by Dan Rasmussen (nonfiction)

America’s largest slave uprising is largely forgotten today. Well-rated and about an unfamiliar topic—sounds perfect.

The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola (folk tale)

Amos Tutuola is a famous Nigerian writer of folk tales. This book has been on my shelf for years. I started it once, but then got distracted and set it down. The style is a little challenging, as it’s unfamiliar, but it’s time to read Amos Tutuola.

 

Book review: A Midwife’s Tale (Laurel Thatcher Ulrich 1990)

Rating: 4/5

A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on her Diary, 1785-1812 tells the tale of midwife Martha Ballard in 18th century frontier Maine. Every day for 35 years, Martha Ballard detailed the weather, her travels, her housework, her community, and her deliveries. If not for her diary, history would only have known Martha’s date of birth, the day she married, the day her children were born, and the day she died. Thanks to her diary, we have insight into her life and into the lives of frontier women in this time period. A Midwife’s Tale discusses rape, family conflict, the role of women in medicine, a family annihilation murder, women’s housework, sexual morays, and frontier life, among other things.

For content, this book is 5/5, it details a unique and wonderful document. For readability, I give A Midwife’s Tale a 3.5/5. Most of the difficulty of the book is inevitable; it has lots of original quotes.

WHY THIS BOOK?

Most history is written by rich older white men. In Martha’s town of Hallowell, Maine, two other diaries of the period survive, written by such men. Although she mentions the authors of these diaries multiple times, she barely appears in theirs. Her diary has roughly even numbers of men and women; theirs barely mention women. The wife of one of these men was a hatmaker; we know that from Martha’s diary, not his.

Martha Ballard’s diary is an ideal historical source. It’s a day to day documentation of her life, without narrative. It wasn’t written to entertain or titillate. It was private. To the extent that one person’s perspective and recording of the days can be honest, her account was.

THE GOOD

A Midwife’s Tale covers a range of topics. That’s part of its difficulty; it’s very broad. We learn about birth, medicine, illness and death, as one might expect from the diary of a midwife. We also learn about economics, debtors’ prison, family, the religious and political conflicts of colonial New England, sexuality, and crime.

Women of Martha’s era were tough. They had babies every other year, and said births typically kept them in bed for a week. They managed their own money, managed gardening and cloth making. Martha continued deliveries until her death at age 77, staying up long hours and traveling through all weather. She didn’t even begin her career until she was 50.

Colonial Maine is full of family squabbles, politics, and trysts. History is less chaste than we imagine when it’s recorded honestly; 38% of firstborns that Martha delivered were conceived out of wedlock. A few women even have multiple children out of wedlock, failing to marry at all. Unlike The Scarlet Letter, they are part of society too, and the fathers of their children are on the hook for support.

Martha moved to Hallowell at the beginning of the American experiment, and her life was full of changes from this. Her landlord had to flee to Canada for being a loyalist. She switches from shillings to dollars in her transactions. The town of Hallowell grew continuously while she lived there; it gave her much of her work. And the economics of her region changed with time. Her nephew was part of the Malta War, caused by economics conflicts of the Plymouth Company owning massive amounts of land and people chafing under this yolk.

THE BAD

This seems to be a recurring complaint for me, but there were too many people to keep track of. Is it too much to ask for a glossary of characters? This was especially bad in A Midwife’s Tale; people were referred to by more than one name or, with Martha’s tenuous grasp on spelling, said name could be spelled half a dozen different ways. Also, Martha had a large family and I totally lost track of who was related to her. A family tree would have been an asset.

A Midwife’s Tale is a slow and challenging read. Because Ulrich has to make (extremely well-researched) inferences, the details are presented with qualifications and caveats. While I appreciated the insight into the process of teasing  out the truth, it impacted the narrative flow substantially. This is less of a “bad thing” and more of a warning–this book makes the reader work.

 

OVERALL

This isn’t a book that tells you the narrative of a single event; it gives perspective on the lives of ordinary people as they traversed the many events of this time period. Life was complicated, but in many ways that are still recognizable today.

If you ever wonder about time travel, this book is probably one of the closest things we have to living a woman’s life in colonial Maine. It’s a unique work on a unique document and seems likely to be as timeless as the source document.