Harpers Ferry

I was in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia for another training this week. Even though I’ve been there before, I don’t usually have time during the day to explore the historical park, but this time I had part of Friday afternoon, so I visited some of the historic buildings in the Lower Town. Each one, more or less, is a museum with exhibits of the park’s many themes: John Brown’s raid, the Civil War, arms manufacturing, and so on. Though the exhibits were a little busy-looking and cluttered for my visual tastes (especially after a week of hard concentration), the one on John Brown’s raid was pretty provocative. One of the videos, without going into too much graphic detail, was frank about the violence of the raid and the counter-raid, as if it was an omen of the great war to come. It raised some interesting questions about violence in the name of righteousness.

It’s too bad this sort of thoughtful reflection appears in a public exhibit about a radical antislavery action, but not in our numerous war museums and memorials. It is as if violence should only give us pause when it is not perpetrated by the state. Or perhaps fear of inflaming Southern sensitivities prompted the National Park Service to be particularly introspective when planning this exhibit.

On lighter note, one evening some of us went on a “ghost tour” of the Lower Town. Despite its rich and exciting past, Lower Town is pretty deserted on Monday evenings. I can see why ghost stories are popular there. I noticed a little extra zeal in the local businesses for Halloween decorations.

The rain

Well, it finally rained yesterday. And how. For about an hour, right in the middle of our celebration of Herbert Hoover’s birthday, the sky just opened up and dropped water and wind and fire on us. Lightning struck a tree about 100 feet from where I was holed up in Herbert Hoover’s birthplace with another ranger and a couple of event exhibitors.

While we needed the rain, I suppose we could have waited another day.

Our dark national weekend

On account of a variety of presidential, departmental, and gubernatorial proclamations, we’ve lowered our nation’s flag to half-staff four or five times in the last month. On Friday I lowered it for the shooting victims of Aurora, Colorado. We won’t raise it again until Wednesday. I feel like we abuse our flag this way, and ourselves, by being in a perpetual state of symbolic mourning. I think it cheapens the idea of official mourning  and renders it rather meaningless.

Despite the recent unpleasantness, the insincere and indulgent spectacle of leaders and commentators tearing at their clothes, we went to see “The Dark Knight Rises” on Saturday . There wasn’t any security theater— just regular motion picture theater, a crowd, and a pretty good movie. It gave me some hope that people weren’t cowering at home in reaction to the latest media event.

(The film, incidentally, is about a government unable to govern fairly, and citizens unable to carry out their democratic duties responsibly. Batman solves both problems with brutal and decisive violence.)

I’ve mostly avoided the news this weekend, and the predictable shouting about gun control. I did find today a calm, reasonable, yet passionate article by Jason Alexander, an actor, about the gulf between the Second Amendment and the unregulated self-arming of belligerent extremists. Like Jason Alexander, I’ve tried very hard to not let my dislike of gun fetishism and trigger-happy social engineering get in the way of my belief in the constitutional validity of responsible gun ownership.

Unlike Jason Alexander, I see these mass shootings more as symptoms of mental health problems (something nobody— politicians, the media, anyone— ever wants to talk about) than of lax gun control. Clearly, Colorado’s permissive conceal-and-carry, make-my-day gun laws didn’t deter this clown from assaulting those theater goers. But whatever it is about our society that produces such antisocial, hyper-individualistic berserkers with stunning regularity deserves examination as much as our gun laws.

So when we raise our flags to full-staff on Wednesday, we’ll have only completed another exercise in feigned solemnity. We’ll take a break for a while until the next appointed outrage. Meanwhile another psychopath is going untreated.


Liang’s book does not say what happened at the end of either story. What of that family of eight? What of the animals and birds crowded in around them? Did they float thus through all eternity? Did they ride the waves in their enormous boat, beneath the rain-sodden sky, forever and a day, skin and fur and feathers, until they became one with the water, the wood, and the wind?

And why salt?

Hong fails the examinations. He keeps the book.

Jonathan Spence, God’s Chinese Son

Every once in a while at work I find a Christian tract left behind in one of the buildings. I wonder if these litterbugs really think a small piece of paper is going to change anyone’s mind. Then I remember Hong Xiuquan, a disappointed Chinese scholar who, after finding such a pamphlet (about Noah’s Ark and Lot’s wife, as related in the quote above), started a quasi-Christian uprising and nearly overthrew the Qing dynasty.

Native Guard

All the grave markers, all the crude headstones—
water-lost. Now fish dart among their bones,
and we listen for what the waves intone.
Only the fort remains, near forty feet high,
round, unfinished, half-open to the sky,
the elements— wind, rain— God’s deliberate eye.

Natasha Trethewey, Native Guard

I heard on the radio that the United States has a new poet-laureate. This is not something I usually pay much attention to, except that Natasha Trethewey’s name is familiar to me. I met her when she visited Ship Island to learn more about the Louisiana Native Guard, black soldiers who were stationed there during the Civil War. Her resulting Pulitzer Prize winning poetry book Native Guard is named after those soldiers. So after hearing the news I picked up that book from the library.

Poetry, like jazz, often eludes my attempts at appreciation, even though I write an occasional doggerel verse. The poems in Native Guard are accessible to poetry non-readers like me. They weave Trethewey’s tragic Mississippi childhood (her abusive stepfather murdered her mother) with aspects of Mississippi’s tortured racial history. Trethewey’s mother and father were respectively black and white, their marriage in those days a crime in the state (a poem about this is titled “Miscegenation”).

It wasn’t Trethewey’s personal interpretation of Mississippi that I related to most, but her verbal rendering of the national park I worked at for three and a half years. In the same poem quoted at the top of this post, titled “Elegy for the Native Guards” she writes of her visit to Fort Massachusetts on Ship island:

Inside we follow the ranger, hurried
though we are to get to the beach…

I didn’t lead that particular tour, but she captured my professional existence out there pretty succinctly. Brava!

A warm fuzzy

Once a year I drive to an elementary school in the Quad Cities for a National Park Fair put on by third-graders. Each child researches a different national park and makes a display about it. They set up their displays in the gym and kids from other classes visit. When a display has a visitor, the display’s creator reads a short report of interesting facts about that park. They also hand out “souvenirs” like stickers or bookmarks decorated with the park’s name and a picture.

Third graders admire displays about national parks in a school gym.
Third graders admire each other's national park displays in the school gym.

While I’m there, I give a short talk about being a park ranger and then the kids ask me questions. Among the questions I always get is, “How much money do you make?”

The visit is usually the highlight of my work year and, lest I forget amid the routine and the bureaucracy, a good reminder of why I have that job.

Independent for president

A lady who visited the park today mentioned that it seemed like a good place to stop. She wore business dress and was alone—a sign of an incidental visitor, someone who is in town for other purposes. “Are you traveling?” I asked her.

“I am an independent running for president,” she said as she left.

That’s not something I expected her to hear, for a couple of reasons. One is that presidential candidates avoid anything related to Herbert Hoover as if its radioactive (though the occasional fringe candidate comes during the Iowa caucuses). The other that she didn’t even say who she was, which would be helpful when unknown and seeking votes. To her credit, election campaigning is not allowed in national parks and perhaps she was following that rule strictly. If so, this may a good example of how integrity doesn’t help to win elections.

A cheesy state somewhere between Massachusetts and New York

A visitor from Kansas commented that Wisconsin is not in the Midwest. It’s in the Northeast, she said.

I accept that everything is relative, that Wisconsin is northeast of Kansas, and that an equitable quartering of the coterminous states might make it part of “the Northeast”, but I have never heard it referred to as so in common usage. Being from the actual Northeast I assert that Wisconsin is certainly not a part of it.

Things I know from flies

I’ve finally given up on winter. Spring is here. It’s warm this week, with highs in the upper 70s at least through the weekend. I know the warmth is here to stay because I saw three pairs of flies copulating on the windows at work. I figure insect copulation in March is a sure sign of warm-weather optimism.

Interesting note on fly mating: they don’t move. The just sit on the window “in congress” and don’t move. They were on the outside of the window so I could walk up an watch without disturbing them. What a pervert.

Bloomington, Indiana

The snow here in Iowa held off until my plane was due to land in Cedar Rapids. We didn’t see the ground until we were fifty feet above it. I was returning from a business trip to Bloomington, Indiana. Bloomington is not a whole lot different from Iowa City. They are about the same size and dominated by big state universities. Bloomington has a good collection of unusual “ethnic” restaurants (Burmese, Turkish, Tibetan, Afghani).

A woman watches a man bowl a ball in a bowling alley
We bowled after a long day of work.

Our workshop was at the Indiana Memorial Union at the university, which combined a hotel, meeting rooms, food court, and recreation center. “Hoosiers” played regularly on the hotel’s in-house movie channel. The recreation center included a bowling alley, of which my colleagues and I made use. I could have gotten away with not leaving the building until I left for the airport today, though that would have been a little unhealthy. The Indiana University campus is pretty: an august-looking collection of limestone Italianate-style buildings. It has lots of quadrangles.

A graveyard surrounds a limestone chapel on a university campus.
This pretty chapel and cemetery were just outside our meeting room.
Sculptures with elliptical bodies and dangling tentacles hang from airport ceiling.
Neither an airport nor Indianapolis seemed appropriate for jellyfish sculptures.

On the way to Bloomington, I arrived in Indianapolis for the first time. We had a good view of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as we landed. It’s big. The Indianapolis airport is not so enormous for a large city and felt a little empty. The spacious terminal is only a few years old. There are these weird jellyfish sculptures handing from the ceiling—not ugly, just out of place—and of course the obligatory light display in one of the connecting corridors that airports of big Midwestern cities seem to like so much.

An unoccupied ticket counter in a spacious new airport terminal.
The Indianapolis airport was spacious but empty.

I noticed some changes in the Detroit airport during my layover today: signs and announcements in Chinese. On previous trips I’ve noticed signs in Japanese; I presume these signs reflect either Detroit’s actual international trade or the trade it aspires to attract.

But not a day under 61

I’ve come to expect at least a little bit of false modesty from people. A lady came in to buy a senior pass. “You have to be 62 years old,” I told her.  “I’ll have to see your drivers license. The pass is ten dollars.” That’s all automatic; we say it to everybody because we need the identification to sell the pass. Most of the folks laugh about it, some because they are way older than 62.

“I know I don’t look like I’m 62 but I am,” she said. “From all the years of hiking.”

Which was funny because she looked about 62 to me. Maybe 61.

Cicadas and carpenter ants

I work in a small park and we don’t often see big animals, but we see insects when we’re observant. This summer has been good for grasshoppers and damselflies, and the season of daddy long-legs and monarch butterflies is just getting underway. Today, though, it was all about the cicadas and the carpenter ants.

I encountered a bunch of Girl Scouts who were fascinated by something on the ground. Turns out it was a cicada emerging from a hole in the lawn. They had an earnest debate about whether it was just hatching (“they lay their eggs in the ground”) or if it had somehow been grounded by an injury (“it’s too big to be a newborn”). Ever the useful naturalist, I weighed in on the side of “just hatching” since I know cicadas live underground for a while before emerging as adults.

Later our blacksmith pointed out a little pile of sawdust accumulating in the corner of our blacksmith shop, and where they were coming from. Every half a minute or so, a black ant appeared on one of the ceiling beams and dumped a little fragment of excavated wood over the edge. There was something very anthropomorphic and workmanlike about these ants that made me laugh. Of course we’ll have to poison them; eating historic buildings is a no-no.


I saw this in a movie once:
The farther upstream you go, the crazier everyone gets.
So two New Yorkers on a fast boat brought me way out to this desert island.
There is no water and no shade
But fifty people in hard-hats and Ty-Vek suits work in slow motion
In Mississippi’s midday sun shoveling oily sand into Hefty bags.
I think the heat is getting to them.

February 2, 2011. Each year the city solicits poems for its Poetry in Public Program. Again, I dashed off a last minute verse. Again it was not selected. That’s the problem with living in a UNESCO City of Literature—too many poets.

I saw this in a movie once:

The farther upstream you go, the crazier everyone gets.

So two New Yorkers on a fast boat brought me way out to this desert island.

There is no water and no shade

But fifty people in hard-hats and Ty-Vek suits work in slow motion

In Mississippi’s midday sun shoveling oily sand into Hefty bags.

I think the heat is getting to them.

Harpers Ferry

I was in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia this week being trained to train people to train people, if that makes sense.