[Not] bully!


…an almost unbelievable explosion of industrial activity driven by the newest oilfield technology, fracking, is moving dangerously close to the Elkhorn…

via Threats To The Elkhorn Ranch: A Primer | The Prairie Blog.



Dates, Names and the ‘Ecstatic Truth’

…in the fine arts, in music, literature, and cinema, it is possible to reach a deeper stratum of truth—a poetic, ecstatic truth, which is mysterious and can only be grasped with effort…

via Werner Herzog Film: Statements / Texts.

At some point, you know, this just gets to be a bunch of blockquotes…

…but I was thinking the other day about history, and how sometimes seemingly historical things get ladled into unsuspecting places. Like how the froyo guy around the corner from me always seems to be a little surprised that I didn’t spoon some chocolate sprinkles on my quivering ziggurat of mango and strawberry.

But, here, pop culture is the vessel I am thinking of.

Often a smart-sounding character in a book or movie will hold forth on esoteric historical topics, like the smug, sass-mouthed Will Hunting — “You got that from Vickers’s ‘Work in Essex County,’ page 98, right?” — in that one movie, you know, without anyone in the audience ever really knowing if there was such a book or if it even has 98 pages.

Another example is the famous “path of the righteous man” speech delivered by Sam Jackson in the movie “Pulp Fiction.” In the movie, Mr. Jackson begins by saying that he is quoting from the bible. Of course, he isn’t; Mr. Jackson’s version is more overwrought than the King James could ever be. But, in fact, his words do not diverge wildly from the original, and a broad-minded soul might say that it is probably closer to the “ecstatic truth” intended by Ezekiel’s authors.

Also interesting is that this subtle difference, the fact that Mr. Jackson is not really quoting the bible, did not exactly ripple through movie theaters with a jolt like, you know, some of what happens at the end of the bible. (Or, for that matter, at the end of some movies we could mention: “Shut your eyes, Marion. Don’t look at it, no matter what happens!”) Most viewers, I am guessing, didn’t notice. Or more likely, didn’t care.

So not only had [Terry] Gross apparently not bothered to look that verse up, Tarantino hadn’t either!

via Rondam Ramblings: The shocking truth about Ezekiel 25:17.

Still another example, and the point of the story, is a fun exchange from Season 3 of the oft-quoted here “West Wing.” The president is chiding his personal assistant, Charlie Young, for his glib approach to some college homework.

President Bartlet: You know, Charlie.
Charlie: Yeah.
Bartlet: History can’t be reduced to dates and names.
Charlie: Well, I’m pretty sure this final can.
Bartlet: Nah. I’m starting you out with a copy of the speech George Perkins Marsh used in 1845 to rouse the agricultural community of Rutland, Vermont. Then you’re going to need to study on the word “ecology,” as coined by the German biologist Ernst Haeckel.
Charlie: Am I being punished for something?
Bartlet: Better in the original German, of course, but obviously the translation will be fine.

Now, I had always been curious about the president’s reference to Mr. Marsh. I had not actually heard of him before (sorry) and was curious how much of all that was true. Did Marsh talk to the farmers in Rutland? Did it happen in 1845? Does it have anything to do with a broader view of history?

George Perkins Marsh

George Perkins Marsh (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Answer: Marsh did, in fact, deliver a “rousing” speech to farmers in Vermont. His remarks are considered to be groundbreaking in the area of environmentalism. He didn’t speak in 1845 (it was Sept. 30, 1847), but the rest of the TV version is right on. Perhaps even more right on than the balance of what can be found about Marsh’s speech on the Web.

The speech, like I said, is advertised as a clarion call for conservationism, one of the first to be warbled in the United States. I wasn’t there, but apparently his remarks, on the environment, especially, electrified the crowd of beard-pulling, syrup-sucking farmers.

Twenty years before Theodore Roosevelt was even a rude idea in his father’s mind Marsh was jabbing a thumb in the air and railing about the harsh effects of the unrestrained hand of mankind. And getting cheered for it.

But if you read the speech for yourself, you find that not quite a fifth of it refers to environmental subjects; the balance is a celebration of America, a history lesson, if you will. Marsh is ticking off the advances in the various industries, as he called them — he means modern farming, the steam engine, and like that — that were made possible by our then-young republic. In other words, President Bartlet’s notion that history is more than “dates and names” emerges immediately in Marsh’s text.

The first quarter of the speech is a straightforward endorsement of the American way of life, albeit as it was lived in the 1840s.

He begins by discussing agriculture in broad terms, and steers his audience to a compelling two-pronged point: Just as the land of America has given the world natural wonders — maize, tobacco, fisheries and gems, yadda-yadda — the operation on that land of “certain features of our institutions” has provided benefits, too. What Marsh is getting at is real estate; America was built on liberal, but clear, property rights, not “feudal tenures” and other Old World rot. The American farmer, secure in his land and free to make improvements, he says, is the foundation of the country’s prosperity; it makes everything else possible. It’s quite Hayekian.

And so on.

Having warmed to his subject, Marsh starts to nibble around the edges of ecology. He begins by musing about the unpredictability of weather and climate — “which have hitherto baffled the researches of the acutest inquiries” — but is soon addressing the clumsy footprints of humanity.

“…man cannot at his pleasure command the rain and the sunshine, the wind and frost and snow, yet it is certain that climate itself has in many instances been gradually changed and ameliorated or deteriorated by human action.”

It is a tantalizing brush with the modern idea of climate change, but in fact Marsh is mostly interested in smaller effects. He spends a lot of time talking about acclimating warm-weather plants to colder regions, for instance. And from there, he muses about what heretofore unknown or unfamiliar animals, vegetables and grains have yet to be discovered or properly domesticated for human use. (Burp.) Then he reverses ground a bit to add that there are many well-known farming techniques — use of manure, irrigation — that could stand improvement, too.

And then it comes. Marsh introduces his desire for “a better economy in the management of our forest lands.”

Trees are more valuable now as timber and fuel, he says, than they once were. But even so, he adds, too many have been cut down. He ticks off the benefits of wooded land: it shelters and nourishes (with its decaying foliage) vegetation; helps to hold fertile soil in place; and protects water supplies. What’s more, it’s beautiful. And for chrissake, he says, look what you louts are doing to it!

“…every middle-aged man, who revisits his birthplace after a few years of absence, looks upon another landscape than that which formed the theater of his youthful toils and pleasures.”

In this case, Marsh is ready to look backward. He says that forests in Europe are protected by law; in America, he laments, the only protection is “enlightened self-interest.” And so on.

Marsh is on a roll. He has more than 2,000 words to go. Where does he take us?

  • Artichokes are awful. (He really hates artichokes.) 
  • Hey, guys, stop laughing about horticulture.
  • Have some dignity, can’t you? Your houses are a mess.
  • Try to appreciate the greasy-knuckled mechanics; you need their industry to sell your crops.

Several minutes, I imagine, from the end, Marsh is talking about “the blessings of a well-ordered home,” and begins to drone on a bit, when he hits upon one of my favorite lines. He is arguing that by taking pride in their work, farmers ensure their own success. “A son of Vermont,” he says, by way of proving his point, “will find little to please in the slovenly husbandry, the rickety dwellings and the wasteful economy of the Southern planter.”

Ow. That smarts. And I’m not even from the South.

Marsh goes on, pushing the buttons of his buttoned-up Yankee listeners. He pokes a stick at “the coarser manners of the Western squatter,” and then takes a giant dump on the Middle West. “Who,” Marsh wants to know, who has seen Vermont’s “unrivaled landscapes unfolded from our every hill, where lake, and island, and mountain and rock, and well-tilled field, and evergreen wood, and purling brook and cheerful home of man — [I imagine here that he took a deep breath] — would exchange such scenes as these, for the mirey sloughs, the puny groves, the slimy streams, which alone diversify the dead uniformity of Wisconsin and Illinois!”

And so the phrase “ecstatic truth” rings on. And on.

The Strange Death of Lulu Bailey, Part 1

Now. Don’t ask me why, but the other day I was clicking in and out of the Times Machine, which I don’t know if that is just for subscribers or what. But never mind that; try to pay attention. I was clicking in and out and reading about the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand.

You know, HEIR TO AUSTRIA’S THRONE IS SLAIN, and like that.

The Times article was brief, but accurate, and gave no hint of the paroxysm of global grief to come. Anyway, I click to the next day, and the archduke’s murder is again the lede, this time in a piece discussing the conspiracy, which was headlined SEE SERB PLOT IN ROYAL MURDERS.

I click to the next day, July 1, 1914, and was surprised to see that Europe had already fallen out of the lede. And off the front page. I clicked to the next day and forgot all about the coming conflagration after reading this headline:


…Now that is what I call a brite.

I start to read the article and quickly realize I’ve missed Chapter 1. I click back to July 1, and there it is, in Column 4: WOMAN SHOT DEAD IN DOCTOR’S OFFICE.

Carman House  (LOC)

The Carman house in Freeport. (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

So. To catch you up. It’s 1914. Europe is grimly flexing its muscles for war. Mexico is convulsed by revolution. Theodore Roosevelt is hee-hawing in every auditorium that will open its doors to him. And the lede article in The Times is datelined Freeport, Long Island, and it concerns the murder of one Lulu Bailey, wife of a prosperous hat maker.

And it is a lulu of a tale, too. For the better part of July lurid headlines would appear on the front page of The Times as regular as signposts. All for a crime that no one has ever been punished for.

This is what happened. Mrs. Bailey had gone to home office of Dr. Edwin Carman, one of Freeport’s leading citizens and the owner of one of its most glamorous homes. And the good doctor was horrified to relate that some time after 7 p.m., as he was coming back into the room to see Mrs. Bailey, he heard glass breaking and then a gunshot. Mrs. Bailey sank to the ground. She was shot through the lung, and died almost immediately.

The Times article on July 1 provides a sketch of the crime. Dr. Carman reported seeing a man’s hand and a flash of fire in the window. The window screen, with hinges at the top of the frame, had been propped open. Glass from the window was found on the ground outside. The bullet that killed Mrs. Bailey entered her right shoulder and lodged under her left breast.

Dr. Carman told the police he had never met Mrs. Bailey before. Mrs. Bailey’s husband, William, when reached at his home in Hempstead, was initially skeptical that his wife was even at a doctor’s office.

Now. Obviously, I’ve already spoiled the first surprise, but it gets better.

The lede in The Times on July 2 was the revelation that, just a few hours after the death, the doctor’s wife, Florence, had removed a recording device she had surreptitiously installed in the doctor’s offices. (I know!)

It seems that Mrs. Carman did not trust her husband. In fact, she had told people in the dictograph company’s showroom that she sometimes kept an eye on Dr. Carman through the very window Mrs. Bailey was shot from. But, before you get any ideas, Mrs. Carman said she had been in her bedroom the whole time. She assured the police she had never seen Mrs. Bailey before, “dead or alive.”

Day 3’s article focuses on the search for the murder weapon. But it includes other telling details, the first of which is the obvious embarrassment of the Freeport police. The chief had boasted to reporters that the crime scene, under heavy guard, was being professionally and proficiently processed. Yet Mrs. Carman had had no trouble hauling away a large piece of electronic equipment. Chagrined, the chief brought in reinforcements, and the Carman home, which was daily thronged by rubbernecking yokels, took on the appearance of an armed camp.

Even so, the investigation was perhaps already off the rails. The hounds called in by the police to catch the scent of the killer led officers on a leisurely five-mile stroll, to no avail. The dogs “sat down and licked their paws,” the report in The Times said.

Aggressive news coverage — the correspondent for The Times bragged of having braved “a high fence and two bulldogs” in an attempt to sneak into the Carmans’ home — had forced the authorities to postpone the coroner’s inquest. New details seemed to emerge with each advancing hour. Reporters were obsessing over discrepancies in police statements and larding their reports with criticism, with special venom for the local Elks lodge — of which Dr. Carman, the police chief and the coroner were members. After a particularly snide briefing by the coroner, the report in The Times made clear that he “was not a physician.”

Above it all, there were rumors that private investigators and state authorities were being asked to take over the investigation.

Two witnesses came forward to say they saw a man in a straw hat sprinting from the Carman home immediately after the shot was fired. Another witness said he saw a mysterious “woman in white” in the doctor’s office just before the shooting. A third challenged the doctor’s claim that he speedily called for help.

There was even a bizarre, and incomplete, insinuation about the physical condition of Mrs. Bailey’s body. Apparently, one of the doctors who performed the autopsy at first disagreed in some way with the coroner about the state of the victim’s body. At the inquest, the doctors seemed to have their story straight about the “condition of the organs,” the Times correspondent wrote. “There was nothing divulged as to the rumors which had arisen in this connection.”

What rumors? Whatever they were, they were bad enough that Mrs. Bailey’s elderly mother was moved to address reporters on the subject, but only to say that before her daughter was killed no one had said anything crossways about her. “I always felt that those rumors raised since the shooting were false and slanderous,” the victim’s mother said, “and now the autopsy proves them to be so.” (Did it?!)

And, finally, it was revealed that Mrs. Carman had once confronted Dr. Carman and slapped a woman he was with. When asked about this by a mob of reporters, “Dr. Carman was visibly ill at ease over this question, and sought to curtail the interview immediately,” according to The Times report.

On July 4, the lede headline in The Times was MRS. CARMAN NOW IDENTIFIED AS THE WOMAN IN WHITE.

To be continued.

Things That Andrew Jackson Ruined

Daguerreotype of Andrew Jackson at age 77 or 7...

Daguerreotype of Andrew Jackson at age 77 or 78 (1844 or 1845). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the first things you realize about Andrew Jackson, who was the seventh president (1829–1837), is that his views on matters unrelated to race are anything but consistent. The second is that he was an irascible (definitely) asshole (probably) who was guided chiefly by the principle that it was his way or the highway. In between the tumult, his term in office was a dreary string of temper tantrums and long naps.


Mr. Jackson, in a spectacular abuse of executive power, first diminished and then destroyed the Second Bank of the United States, which passed for the central bank at the time. His initial distrust of bankers was probably rooted in his own foolish financial dealings, and his protracted conflict with the director of the bank itself was significantly personal. But Mr. Jackson also saw the bank as a corrupting influence that preyed on the lives of self-starting, hee-hawing go-getters, like he used to be himself. However, because it was an influence he could not control, he resolved to destroy it, no matter how many laws he had to break (there were a few). In the end, his rash and unpredictable behavior consigned the burgeoning American economy to occasional fits of preventable chaos over the next few decades.

The lives of American Indians

Mr. Jackson ordered or encouraged the forced removal of American Indians from their recognized territories across the Southeast, a small part of which was known as the Trail of Tears. He did not invent the idea of dispossessing the indigenous population; neither did he refine or improve upon it. Mr. Jackson wielded it like a terrible, blunt instrument, and made indelible the stain of Indian Removal on the country’s (rarely troubled) conscience. So clumsy and willful was Mr. Jackson, that when his own Supreme Court made rulings in favor of Indians who were grimly trying to hang on in Southern pine forests, he laughed it off: “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it!” He made no accommodation in new lands for the peoples he proposed to evict from the Southeast, and is culpable in the deaths of tens of thousands. Today this sort of thing is called ethnic cleansing.

The lives of slaves

It is unfair, probably, to crap on Mr. Jackson for his views on slavery, which were by no means unusual. But he sure as hell didn’t help matters. It is important to note that the slavery question seemed a lot more solvable at the end of the 1700s than it did by the 1820s, when it had fairly congealed on the American dinner plate. Louts like Mr. Jackson refused to clean it off. Southern land barons simply had too much capital tied up in chattel to make any of the so-called solutions to the problem practical. And the more this capital piled up, the more such ideas seemed to them less like solutions and more like personal attacks.


Mr. Jackson was an early and enthusiastic innovator of the peculiarly American style of patronage, sleazy machine politics that Theodore Roosevelt strained five decades later to stamp out as the commissioner of the federal civil service. The contrast with the nascent meritocracy laid down by Mr. Jackson’s predesceor, the grumpy, knee-stockinged intellectual John Quincy Adams, was stark. Mr. Jackson’s only recommendation in this case is that he had the sand to argue that his system of packing federal offices with toadies, bootlickers and canny political operatives would actually prevent corruption.

National unity

Mr. Jackson gets props for heading off a political controversy in his first term by talking South Carolina out of a tree, but his bluster and compromise solution only hardened the (probably irreversible) sectionalism that would lead to the Civil War. South Carolina, always sweating and seething, was particularly exorcised by the so-called Tariff of Abominations, which (understandably) it said singled out Southern planters — but which had in fact been put in place by Mr. Jackson’s minions in a transparent and vulgar attempt to build an electoral power base and get their boy into the White House. When South Carolina declared the tariff null and void, Mr. Jackson got up on his hind leg in what his supporters would call a heroic feat of executive leadership. The compromise that resulted was enough to satisfy Mr. Jackson’s sense of honor, and it kept the country in one piece. But it did little solve the underlying problem and mollify Southern firebrands, who were still spoiling for a fight. As Mr. Jackson himself wrote to a cousin, “The next pretext will be the negro, or slavery question.”

The dignity of the office

O.K., just kidding there.

But it’s worth adding that Mr. Jackson had a long history before becoming president of roughhousing, and he actually killed a man in a duel before earning his hero stripes in the War of 1812. And he was twice attacked as president, including the first honest-to-god assassination attempt. The lack of dignity part I was getting at was that both times he blamed the attacks on his political enemies in Congress — even though the first assailant had an honest grudge, and the would-be assassin was a bona fide loon. Mr. Jackson’s henchmen even hauled in a senator for questioning.


‘The Profligate Sense of Space Had a Hypnotic Effect’

A hypnotic prairie vista. (Credit: Ken Dewey, Applied Climate Sciences Group,
School of Natural Resources, UNL)

The archives of The Times preserve some of the best (or worst, depending on your point of view) examples of purple-prose reporting by citified pantywaists. They blink their eyes like children at prairie vistas (or vast forests or ice-capped mountain ranges) and carry on like no one has ever seen such a thing before. Pity most of all the humble cornfield, whose stalks have waved mournfully and tirelessly across pockmarked, sun-baked highways at a thousand stump speeches.

Portrait of George Bird Grinnell from Nathanie...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Travel section of today’s Times, ironically, offers a worthy entrant to this dubious Pantheon. The fairly accomplished, we are led to believe, travel writer Tony Perrottet introduces readers to the 19th century environmentalist and adventurer George Bird Grinnell, right, and in a preamble to a glowing review of the sights of rural Nebraska and Kansas provides this hard-to-believe-anyone-would-type-it sentence: “With all the changes in the West over the last 140 years, I wondered if following Grinnell’s route would offer any glimpses of the 1872 frontier.”

With all the changes “over the last 140 years”? Like world wars? Or just interstate highways?

English: Walt Whitman. Library of Congress des...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At least Perrottet did not disguise the stereotype, admitting freely that he “was a New Yorker longing for empty horizons and open skies.” The hyperbole and heavy breathing begin immediately, as if following page by page in the Handbook for Parachuting Reporters. Step 1 is to introduce a literary element totally foreign to the locale, in this case a quote from the poet Walt Whitman, left, about prairies: they “fill the esthetic sense fuller.”

Stand in one some day, fill your lungs with a deep, manure-scented breath and you will undoubtedly agree.

Perrottet’s “esthetic” sense is on full, near-hallucinatory display. “Even the modern metropolis of Omaha,” he writes of my hometown, “took me back in time.” He claims to have been stirred at dawn by “the lonely whistle of a freight train,” and then describes a stroll “through the 19th-century warehouses of the Old Market district,” below, which is now less about the 19th century than it is wine bars and so-called gastropubs.

English: Old Market Omaha, Nebraska, summer 2010

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But Perrottet did not come to Nebraska for the Bordeaux ($7.95 a glass) and charcuterie (from $9) at La Buvette. He was eager to point his rental car toward the mystical countryside. “As I was fresh from the East Village,” Perrottet writes, using an adjective and a proper noun that, I assure you, are not often used together, “the profligate sense of space had a hypnotic effect.”

Wait. It gets better:

I wound down the window, smelling “the wild lyrical drizzling air of Nebraska,” as Kerouac rhapsodized in “On the Road.” Under the midday sun the landscape can seem bleached and monotonous, but when the golden dusk catches the sunflowers, the setting is as sublime as Provence.


It goes on. (Of course it does.) Perrottet nimbly displays awe and naiveté, as in phrases like “even the remotest towns revealed their passion for history;” “the old bank had been turned into a hotel;” “oceans of undulating grass extend to the horizon;” and “the stroll was eerily idyllic, with butterflies flittering among the bluestem.”

Flittering is what happens to your brain by the end of Perrottet’s journey. I have no doubt he enjoyed it, and undoubtedly there are many places in the Plains that are profoundly beautiful. It has always been thus, but it does not seem to stop big-city clods from being bowled over. (I am talking to you, Theodore Roosevelt!)

However, I can speak from experience that rural Nebraska has almost nothing in the departments of remote towns, undulating grass and 19th-century commercial districts that, say, rural Indiana, or even rural New York State, does not. You can call it a “passion for history,” but really that is a desperation for tourist dollars. And the only thing lonelier than the whistle of a freight train is going to be the Perrottet-inspired traveler who has not fully grasped that the “hypnotic effect” derived from wide-open spaces bleeds inexorably into personal torpor.

God forbid Perrottet ever points his rental car toward the covered bridges in Madison County, Iowa.

‘In Patagonia’

In Patagonia (Penguin Classics)In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s a Penguin Classic; of course you should read it.


…I finished reading Chatwin’s book on a pockmarked park bench facing a landscaped sidewalk on the edge of Prospect Park. Behind me a menagerie of trees and shrubs dripped from an unseen rain shower like the loose greens on a supermarket shelf.

I closed the book and set it on my lap, reflecting on how Chatwin linked place to history and then back again.

In one chapter, Chatwin relates a seemingly banal letter sent by rancher in Patagonia, then reveals that the letter’s sender was the infamous Butch Cassidy. Chatwin recounts Cassidy’s Patagonian sojourn over several pages, including some informed speculation about how he met his end.

Interestingly, Cassidy, according to Chatwin, gained momentum for his chosen career only after being frozen out of ranching by the famously bitter winter of 1886-87. That spurred me in a Chatwinesque segue, reminding me of another famous American celebrated in pop culture, known for his personality and a take-no-prisoners attitude: Theodore Roosevelt.

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