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October 8th, 2018

Indigenous People’s Day is a day to honor native communities: a day to honor indigenous history, survival, and culture, and to acknowledge the history of the United States as one formed through colonization and genocide.

In honor of Indigenous People’s Day, OSU Press Griffis publishing interns Zoë Ruiz and Carolyn Supinka share two recent press books on indigenous culture.


Zoë’s Pick: Native Space by Natchee Blu Barnd

Native Space

 

How do Indigenous communities and individuals sustain and create geographies within the boundaries of the settler colonial nation of the United States? How does this occur through place-naming, daily cultural practice, and artistic activism? Published less than a year ago, Barnd’s Native Space explores these questions through an interdisciplinary approach, draws on his experiences in Corvallis, and focuses on Midwestern Plain states of Kansas and Oklahoma.


In Native Space, Barnd argues that while “the Indian” and “Indianness” serve to create White space in concrete ways, Native geographies reclaim Indigenous identities, assert relations to the land, and refuse settler colonialism claims. I highly recommend Native Space to readers interested in comparative ethnic studies, indigenous studies, cultural studies, and cultural and critical geography.


 

Carolyn’s Pick: Legends of the Northern Paiute as told by Wilson Wewa, with James A. Gardner


Legends of the Northern PaiuteI love legends, so I was interested in Legends of the Northern Paiute as soon as I saw it on the shelves here at the OSU Press offices.


This book shares origin stories like the creation of the human people, why the rat’s tail has no fur, how the stars got their twinkle, and why Coyote howls at the sky. The stories are written in the conversational style in which they are traditionally told in Paiute communities during the winter storytelling season in the Great Basin.

Wilson Wewa first encountered these legends as a child when they were told to him by his grandmother, Maggie Wewa, and other tribal elders. In this book, Wewa, a spiritual leader and oral historian of the Warm Springs Paiute, shares twenty-one previously unpublished legends.


Wewa, along with collaborator James Gardner, recorded these stories from in-person recollections and edited them out loud so as to remind readers how these stories were originally told: out loud and in community with others.

 

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From mapmaking practices in Kanaka Hawai‘i Cartography to the uses of myrtlewood in Ethnobotony of the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians, OSU Press publishes books that promote education and scholarship on indigenous culture.  Take a look at our website for a full list of OSU Press books on indigenous studies.


We hope you pick up one of these titles to celebrate and study indigenous culture any day of the year.

October 2nd, 2018

Today we are joined by guest blogger Matthew Svoboda, Director of Choral Activities at Lane Community College. As part of a project called "The Room Upstairs," Matthew has been scoring original music inspired by the poetry of Hazel Hall. Together with photographer Laura Glazer, he recently visited the Northwest Portland home of Hazel Hall, where she spent much of her life confined to a wheelchair. Tag along, and peek inside...

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Finding the Room Upstairs: A Visit to Hazel Hall's Home

By Matthew Svoboda, Director of Choral Activities, Lane Community College

This summer my friend Laura Glazer and I had the chanMatthew Svoboda in front of the Hazel Hall house in Northwest Portland. A “poetry garden” and memorial to Hall are next to the historic home.ce to visit with Neale and Trish Langman who have made their home at the Hazel Hall house in Portland. I had long been curious to see where Hazel Hall had lived and written and was so pleased that Neale and Trish were open to a visit. Our visit was prompted by a sabbatical project I am currently working on with Laura and several other collaborators. The project, entitled The Room Upstairs: Uncovering the Life and Poetry of Hazel Hall, will result in new, original music composed for dance and will premiere during Collaborations 2019* at Lane Community College in March 2019. The music and dance unfold in three movements titled after Hall's three books of poetry: Curtains, Walkers, and Cry of Time.

I scored the piece for cello, violin, and piano and mapped it to the larger themes of each volume of poetry. CurtaiA street-level view of the second floor windowns includes an entire section of poems devoted to the subject of sewing and needlework and to the physical attributes of her interior space. The music unfolds slowly and introspectively. I specifically chose cello to be the featured voice of this movement because its melancholy timbre recalls the elegiac feeling of Hall’s poetry and the bowing motion suggests the motion of sewing. Walkers is largely addressed to the various people whom Hall viewed from her second story window as they walked by her house. Here the music picks up tempo and becomes more interactive, with themes being traded between instruments that also shift roles as the music unfolds. And Cry of Time, published posthumously, speaks to transcendental themes, with poems that touch on Hall's reckoning with her own mortality, the limits of her art, and the solidarity she felt with other women. The music for this movement begins in anguish but progressively moves to resolution. The initial theme from Curtains returns but in a transformed state. After its presentation, it gradually ascends in a dance-like interplay that brings the work to its final close.

Many years earlier, I became intensely interested in the poet Hazel Hall when I came across a poem of hers, Maker of Songs, in Cracking the Earth, the Second Floor Window25th Anniversary edition from Calyx, published in 2001. The poem attracted me immediately because of its use of musical metaphor. A short bit in the back told me a little about her--that she was "confined to a wheelchair for most of her life" and that she “spent her days doing needlework, viewing the physical world through a window and a small mirror propped on her windowsill, and writing poetry that transcended her circumstance.” As I was curious to learn more, I reached out to John Witte who had edited The Collected Poems of Hazel Hall and included his own fine introduction about her life and work. John and I talked about Hazel Hall over a nice meal together, which furthered my interest and curiosity. I began to research whatever I could find about Hazel Hall at the University of Oregon library and later paid a visit to her former home in Portland, but only to the outside. This was all many years ago, before life got busy with a new child, a new job, and the responsibilities of home ownership.

Seeing Hazel Hall’s former home first hand several years later was an illuminating experience. As might be expected, the house has changed since she lived in it up until her death in 1924. It is now divided into two separate residences, with Neale and Trish living in the part where Hazel had spent most of her days. There has also been some remodeling and updating to the entrance and kitchen, and carpet now covers the floor in the main room that faces the street. Yet, even so, artifacts and features of the house remain from her time--light fixtures, the lattice window, a room upstairs. Standing in the main room and looking through the lattice window, I could get a clearer sense of how Hazel might have done her needlework or gazed around her house or to the street below to find inspiration for her poems.

Trish and Neale Langman are the current tenants of the Hazel Hall HouseThe four of us conversed on many topics while visiting together and seeing their home. I came to learn that Neale and Trish, both artists, had moved into Hazel's home from New York City a decade earlier, sight unseen. Only later did they learn about Hazel Hall and her interest and background in sewing as a means to a livelihood. This was particularly intriguing because Trish, a textile artist, has made her studio in the room upstairs, which Hazel references in her poetry as a place she couldn’t visit. This room upstairs in turn became the inspiration for the title of our collaboration—a tribute to a remarkable poet who was also unseen as she gazed out at the world from her window.

For more information on The Room Upstairs: Uncovering the Life and Poetry of Hazel Hall, visit the project website: www.hazelhall.net.

 

 

*Collaborations 2019 is March 7-9 and highlights the original work of dance faculty, guest artists, and dance groups in our community in collaboration with musicians, videographers, and designers. Produced annually in Ragozzino Hall on the main campus of Lane Community College, Collaborations celebrates the many voices of dance in our community. More information will be available in late 2018 via the Hazel Hall project newsletter; sign up for it here.

 

July 5th, 2018

Today's guest blogger, author R. Gregory Nokes, muses on the legacy of Peter Burnett, an influential early Oregon pioneer and the first elected governor of California.

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I’ve been wondering how Peter Burnett, dead these 123 years, would have reacted to my new book, The Troubled Life of Peter Burnett: Oregon Pioneer and First Governor of California. Would he hail it as a validation of a life of struggle, or denounce it as grossly unfair?

I asked myself this question after receiving a note from one of his descendants. She said after reading the book that she wished Burnett had been more successful in the many roles he played during his life.

The Tennessee-born Burnett had accomplishments, but they have been largely overlooked because of his more widely publicized failures, most notably as California’Photo of the author by Deston Nokess first governor in 1849-1851. He resigned before finishing his term in the face of widespread public ridicule for his anti-black policies and some tone-deaf decisions, such as changing California’s Thanksgiving observance from a Thursday to a Saturday, presumably for his own convenience.

He was ridiculed again for a pro-slavery ruling while serving on the California Supreme Court in 1858. The book also tracks his lack of success as a merchant in Tennessee and Missouri, and his resignation as the first captain of the 1843 wagon train to Oregon after just seven days on the trail. At first glance, there wasn’t much about which he could legitimately boast.

The reason I wrote the book was because I wanted to know more about this restless man, who seemed to be everywhere, running the fledging Oregon government, the new California government, serving on courts and legislative bodies in both places, gold-mining, leading wagon trains, building cities, and more, and not staying in any one position too long.

Indeed, in deciding on a title, I was tempted to use The Leader Who Could Not Lead, an apt description of Burnett’s successes and failures. A self-taught attorney, he was handsome, well-spoken and intelligent—people comfortably turned to him for leadership. But responsibilities seemed to overwhelm him, and he too often failed to deliver, disappointing many of those who supported him.

In later years, after finally retiring from public life, he found success as a banker and became deeply involved in the Catholic church.

We can’t know, of course, what Burnett would have thought about the book—he died in 1895. But my guess is he would have privately appreciated it, while publicly denouncing it.

After all, he’d been virtually forgotten by history. His portrait does hang with those of other governors in the California State Capitol in Sacramento. His name also appears on a frieze around the ceiling of the Oregon House of Representatives in Salem. But very little has been written about him in depth, either in Oregon or California. And what little is written, focuses on his racism, underscored by his dogged attempts to exclude African Americans from Oregon and Washington.

My book also focuses to a considerable degree on his racism, including such onerous policies as advocating whipping for blacks who refused to leave Oregon— remembered as “Peter Burnett’s Lash Law.” But there was more to Burnett than his racism, which, for someone raised in a slave-holding family, might be understood—if not forgiven.

The Troubled Life gives Burnett credit for his relentless campaigning for the first American governments in both Oregon and California, for helping organize the 1843 wagon train from Missouri to Oregon, and another wagon train from Oregon to California, and for his role in helping establish the city of Sacramento. Earlier in his career, while still in Missouri, he was one of the defense attorneys for Mormon leader Joseph Smith following the 1838 Mormon war.

But probably most important to Burnett, rather than any single accolade would be that the book recognizes his place in history. We know Burnett wanted recognition because he frequently boasted of his achievements, perceived or otherwise. Among notable exaggerated claims was that he fathered California statehood. “I believe I have a right to claim the responsibility of making the first public movement toward the formation of a state government,’’ he wrote a colleague, Samuel Thurston, in 1850.

He also claimed he headed off a possible attack on the 1843 wagon train, that he wrote most of Oregon’s first laws, and that he kept John Sutter out of bankruptcy, thereby saving Sutter’s extensive Sacramento Valley land holdings, including Sutter’s Fort. While Burnett tended to exaggerate, most of his claims had at least a kernel of truth.

My book, for better or worse, makes him somebody, rather than nobody. And Burnett, raised poor and living in the shadows of wealthy relatives, desperately wanted to be seen as somebody.

R. Gregory Nokes 

Photo of the author by Deston Nokes

June 26th, 2018

As Pride Month comes to a close, author Michael Helquist reports on some hometown pride that was a long time coming.

 

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Although no organized LGBT community existed at the time on the West Coast, Equi lived openly with women in intimate relationships. In 1915 she and her lover, Harriet Speckart, adopted an infant together in what was one of the first occasions when a publicly known lesbian legally adopted a child.
 
Marie Equi had been little known in her hometown of New Bedford until the last few years. When I took my book tour to the city and to the greater Boston area, local enthusiasts asked why they had never heard of her.  I spoke at the New Bedford Public Library, the Rotch-Jones-Duff House & Garden Museum, and was interviewed on 1420 WBSM radio. I’m excited that Marie Equi is receiving more recognition in her home town and in Massachusetts and that the National Park Service has recognized her historical significance.
 
The Marie Equi exhibit continues through June.  The New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park office (with the exhibit) is located at 33 William Street, New Bedford; open from 9am to 5pm Sunday through Saturday, closed on Wednesdays. (508) 996-4095 for more information.
Michael Helquist
For the first time, the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park of the National Park Service is recognizing LGBTQ Pride during the month of June.  The inaugural Pride exhibit features Dr. Marie Equi, the longtime agitator for social and economic justice who spent her early years, 1872 to 1892, in New Bedford along the southeast coast of Massachusetts. The exhibit, curated by Aneshia Savino, presents descriptions and photos of Marie Equi with five primary themes from her life as an Activist, Daughter, Doctor, Lesbian, and Mother. Participants at the exhibit’s opening night were offered pins with Equi’s likeness to wear.
 
Born in 1872 on Second Street along New Bedford’s famed whaling waterfront, Equi was the fifth child and fifth daughter of John Equi, and Italian immigrant from Tuscany, and Sarah Mullins, and Irish immigrant from County Tyrone, Ireland. Four additional children followed. She attended grade school in New Bedford but had to drop out of high school to work in local textile mills to help support the family. Equi later homesteaded in Oregon, self-studied her way into medical school, and became an early woman physician in Portland.
 
Equi was a strong advocate of women’s rights. She used her professional standing to help drive the campaign for woman suffrage. She also believed in reproductive rights and was jailed with birth control advocate Margaret Sanger for distributing pamphlets about limiting family size. Her passion for justice also led her to provide abortions to her patients. She protested unjust working conditions for laborers and aligned herself with the radical labor union, the Industrial Workers of the World.  She objected to World War I and lectured against unfair wartime measures.
May 29th, 2018

"Words Marked by Place" by Jarold RamseyIn his new book, Words Marked by Place: Local Histories in Central Oregon, Jarold Ramsey interrogates what “local history” is and how it is related to mainstream academic history. Through both theory and example, he presents a chronological collection of key episodes as well as the colorful but little-known events in central Oregon history, from nineteenth-century exploration to the railroading and homesteading era to the era of community-building and development that followed. Ramsey briefly discusses his philosophy of looking at history through a “zoom lens” below.

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On March 24, 1944, a P-39Q "Airacobra" fighter plane crashed during a training flight, north of Madras, Oregon, killing its young pilot, 2nd Lt. Robert Cranston of Green Bay, Wisconsin. As a first grader coming home that day from our nearby country school, I was an eyewitness to the crash.

After the immediate horror of it subsided, I kept wondering, for years, who the poor pilot was, where he came from, and what had gone wrong with his flight that afternoon. When, over sixty years later, I finally did discover his identity and at least some details of the accident, I felt compelled to write out Cranston’s story as fully as I could for the record—and in the course of that work I decided that the essay would be part of a new book on Central Oregon history, a sort of follow-on to my New Era: Reflections on the Human and Natural History of Central Oregon (OSU Press, 2003).

But with a difference: along with further interpretive reflections on our region’s rich but largely unstudied history, I wanted to ponder self consciously the subject of local history itself. How does working with the history of particular places and homelands relate to researching and writing about history on a national or global scale? Involvement in local history—I had become very engaged in the doings of our Jefferson County Historical Society since moving home to Madras in 2000—occupies a lot of good people, I discovered, energetically doing a wide variety of worthwhile things in the name of history—not just scholarship and writing, but also museum work, archiving, re-enacting notable local events, organizing centennial programs, and so on. My perception that such work can be in its own way historically valuable, stimulating, and fun, and that most academic historians ignore it, or view it with disdain, whetted my intention to look sideways, theoretically, at what my friends and I were trying to do to preserve and celebrate our home country’s legacy.

Part of the challenge in trying to find meaning in what we call history, whether on the global, national, or local scale, is keeping in view both the forest and the individual trees; that is, maintaining as much as possible a sort of dialectical double focus on the material, using what I call a "zoom lens." In the case of the Airacobra crash, determining after more than half a century the details of Cranston’s death was certainly a challenge in itself. But to tell anything like the whole story, I came to realize, was going to require that I "zoom" my focus beyond just Madras Air Field in 1944 (and my childhood memories) out to what was happening then nationally—how the Army Air Corps was operating, how they were training their pilots, how small ancillary airfields like the one in Madras were supposed to function as parts of a larger military enterprise, and so on.

And conversely I persuaded myself that the story of what happened to Robert Cranston (and his fiancée in California and his family in Wisconsin) might, if I told it properly, add a small measure of concrete meaning and human value to historians’ big-picture efforts to show how the Air Corps operated during World War II. And beyond that, what the American war effort was all about. There is, I came to believe, some important truth-value in the truism "All history is local"; and if so, the proposition can cut both ways.

One other feature of Words Marked by a Place came out of this theoretical interest in my historical material. That is, I resolved to show what can be done with it in other than conventional, academic ways. So along with scholarly essays on early Central Oregon exploration, railroad-building, homesteading, the political origins of Jefferson County, and the like, I’ve offered (I hope usefully) an example of localized historical fiction, some dramatic renditions of local events in the form of skits (written for performance at various centennials in Madras and the county), and an attempt to gather and historically interpret distinctive localisms I grew up with. These are colorful words and expressions that may point to the evolution over more than a century of a Central Oregon dialect—in a phrase from William Carlos Williams that has become my book’s title, "words marked by a place."

I’d like to hope that the book itself, in its verbal dimensions, is expressively "marked" by the unique region whose histories it celebrates.

May 22nd, 2018

As a young man during the era of unprecedented social and political upheaval that was America in the late 1960s, Malcolm Terence, author of Beginner’s Luck: Dispatches from the Klamath Mountains, desired a more active role in the world than his job at the Los Angeles Times was providing him. He left his journalism job in search of activism and adventure that culminated in his living at Black Bear Ranch, a commune in a remote corner of the Klamath Mountains. His memoir, Beginner’s Luck, chronicles his life as a journalist, hippie, communard, timber worker, and environmentalist. Below, Terence shares how his search for activism and adventure began.

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"Beginner's Luck: Dispatches from the Klamath Mountains" by Malcolm TerenceAbout 50 years ago I left the world of news reporting. I was still a young man from a newspaper family so I’d been writing for papers since I was in my early teens. It was small papers and then big, even the biggest—the Los Angeles Times. But somehow it seemed that the world was changing faster than the world of news. South Central Los Angeles exploded in the Watts Riots on August 11, 1965. My beat was the West Side, far from the unrest in South-Central. “Unrest” understates it. Thirty-four people died, most killed by police and National Guard. Over a thousand were injured. I watched hundreds of families escape from the war zone to Santa Monica beach, where they set up camp. It was safer than home.

When things settled down, I told my editors about the camps that had blossomed and asked them why they thought the big populations of black people on the West Side had not joined the melee. They just shrugged. I offered to write a piece about why the West Side Black neighborhoods—we called them ghettoes—had stayed peaceful and they said to forget about it. News coverage has come a long way since those days.

Not too long after that I decided that my newspaper work was making me miss what was going on in the world so I left it behind. Pretty soon some musician friends invited me to be their business manager and I couldn’t resist. Their background was avante garde and multicultural and their politics were revolutionary. A perfect mix for rock and roll. Record companies guessed that they could make money with us so we quickly had recording contracts and bookings across the country. Who knew there was a market for revolutionary culture? But a year plus of that and it became a grind. There was continuous friction between the musicians, who were each very talented.

Then we played San Francisco and I met the Diggers. They were a theatrical gang who didn’t just talk changing society. They lived it, and they immediately won the attention of the national media. And my attention, too. I’d wearied of all-night recording sessions and back-to-back bookings, always on the threshold of imaginary fame and wealth, but never quite there. Before long I was in the mountains of Northern California at a commune just getting started. It was a different world. So I bailed on music much like I had on newspapering. You’re not very patient in your mid-20s. That’s where my book Beginner’s Luck: Dispatches from the Klamath Mountains begins its tales.

Remember that the world was spinning like a brightly colored top in the 60s and no one knew where it would land. People were organizing around issues of race and gender and against the war going on in Asia. A few years earlier, 1964, Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, had run for the presidency against Barry Goldwater, and one of his campaign slogans was that a vote for Goldwater was a vote for a land war in Asia. Johnson won, but four years later our country was waist deep in a war in Vietnam. In other words, the world was going crazy, America was divided and it occurred to many young people that they needed to resist the corrupt insanity.

Sound familiar? Change the names of the presidents and move the land wars over a little way on the globe. It is some comfort that young people today are getting organized and standing up, just as we did 50 years ago.

History is written by the winners, they say. I’ve tried to write a history of the rest of us, as I lived it and watched it happening around me. I like that the young people around me—Native and white alike—are continuing the work that my generation began. That’s certainly another book.

May 15th, 2018

"All Coyote's Children" by Bette Lynch HustedIn her first full-length work of fiction titled All Coyote’s Children, Bette Lynch Husted explores some of the questions that have plagued her all her life about living in America and the implications of being an American non-Native inhabiting this land. Through lyrical prose, Husted crafts a story that considers the complex life of a white family living on a ranch surrounded by the Umatilla Indian Reservation. She weaves an unforgettable tale of cultures and families caught in the inescapable web of who they are and what they have inherited. Today, Husted shares how she has grappled with these issues through writing and considers some of the events and environments that resulted in this remarkable novel.

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“We’re not just joining two people here today,” the Umatilla spiritual leader said. “We’re joining two families.” My son, wearing a ribbon shirt and moccasins, looked as happy as I’ve ever seen him; the bead and shell wedding veil he was lifting from his bride’s head was one he had made especially for her. His own heritage is mainly Celtic and Northern European; the bride, who is Umatilla-Cayuse and Apache, was a former student and my own longtime friend. Could it be this easy? Was this the answer to the troubling questions about America I had been asking all my life?

Well, no. (For one thing, there are issues of blood quantum and tribal survival.) But it did make me happy, and thinking about what that spiritual leader said is part of what led to a novel set on the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

For years I had been grappling with my questions in memoir—my first book was subtitled Living on Stolen Land—but All Coyote’s Children is my first sustained work of fiction. I wrote much of it in the community room of a public library surrounded by homeless people trying to stay warm and Natives seeking Internet access. There were students, too, job-seekers, readers, people researching genealogy. And one man who, we would all learn later, had murdered a young woman as she worked in the motel across the street.

A library is a good place to think about your neighbors.

I wanted to write a story about a white family who recognizes the complex inheritance of their history. Could they live with integrity on land taken from its inhabitants? Almost all of the continent fits this description, but I imagined this family’s home on a ranch surrounded by the Umatilla Indian Reservation—a situation that happens more than people might realize; maps of reservations are often checkerboarded with privately owned land.

Bette Lynch Husted and her extended-family granddaughter.I knew there would be challenges. Most of us struggle to talk about race. What if we say the wrong thing? And there’s the issue of appropriation: Native people are understandably weary of non-Natives speaking for them or even about them. But inspired by that spiritual leader and the neighbors of my Eastern Oregon community—and with help from Natives and non-Natives alike—I found this story.

The bride at that wedding, my beautiful daughter-in-law, took the photo that inspired the cover of All Coyote’s Children. The view is one she sees every day from her family home at top of Thorn Hollow grade, where she and my son were married. The little girl in the author photo is my extended-family granddaughter, a gift even greater than writing fiction. Which is saying a lot, because writing a novel—meeting the people who live in this story—may be the closest I will ever come to experiencing magic.

May 9th, 2018

R. Gregory Nokes' "The Troubled Life of Peter Burnett"When R. Gregory Nokes began his research for The Troubled Life of Peter Burnett: Oregon Pioneer and First Governor of California - the first book-length biography of Peter Hardeman Burnett - he hoped to provide insight into the oftentimes illogical behavior of this influential, though not well remembered, historical figure. Peter Burnett’s resume is quite impressive: he helped organize the first wagon train to the Oregon Country, served on Oregon’s first elected government, was Oregon’s first supreme court judge, opened a wagon road from Oregon to California, helped develop the city of Sacramento, and was elected the first U.S. governor of California. But, with the exception of the wagon road to California, he did not excel in any of these roles. In order to provide Burnett’s perspective on his decision-making and failures, Nokes embarked on a lengthy journey to locate Burnett's personal correspondence. He describes this journey below.

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There must be personal letters. Mustn’t there?

I was working on my new book about Peter Hardeman Burnett—The Troubled Life of Peter Burnett: Oregon Pioneer and First Governor of California—whose behaviors in office frequently defied logic.

I was hoping to find personal correspondence that might explain his state of mind at given points of his career. For example, didn’t he know he would subject himself to ridicule by changing the day of Thanksgiving in California from a Thursday to a Saturday to attend a dinner in his honor?

To be sure, I had found letters, dozens of letters. Indeed, it seemed Burnett, who for a time led the first major wagon train to Oregon in 1843, couldn’t stop writing letters. Many of his letters were to newspapers on such issues as encouraging emigration to the West, promoting territorial status for Oregon, promoting statehood for California, and similar weighty topics. A one-time slaveholder, his advocacy of exclusion laws to ban blacks from the American West was well known.

A letter he wrote to the New York Herald in 1845 on his experiences in Oregon ran to 125 pages and was printed in serialized form. Another to the Weekly Tribune in Liberty, Missouri, took up seven columns of newsprint. Burnett’s second address to the California Legislature as governor on January 7, 1851, filled twenty-seven pages of the Legislative Journal.

But nothing personal.

There were hints of events and slights that shaped his later life in his 488-page autobiography, Recollections and Opinions of an Old Pioneer, completed in 1880. He told how as an adolescent he was sent by his parents, who were poor, to live with wealthy relatives in Tennessee, who, intentionally or not, made him feel inferior. Two girls he fancied wouldn’t give him the time of day, which he seemed to blame on his poverty and shabby clothing. As a result of these slights, perceived or otherwise, he resolved to become rich.

That much I could glean from his autobiography. And while it served as a useful guidepost to Burnett’s life, it is for the most part self-laudatory in the extreme, glorifying his successes, while entirely ignoring his failures, of which there were many.

But where was the private correspondence, letters to family and friends? After he shot and killed a black slave breaking into his store in Tennessee in 1830, did he share his feelings of remorse with anyone—he said he felt remorseful.

Burnett was separated for six months from his wife, Harriet, when he left Oregon for the California gold fields in 1848. He must have written to her and their six children during their separation. One would think someone would have saved those letters.

I visited the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, which had a file of Burnett’s correspondence as governor. But, not surprisingly, it was official correspondence—some of it quite interesting, such as Burnett calling out the militia in response to reports of attacks by native tribes on emigrants—but nothing personal. Indeed, a letter of supposed congratulations to a general for arranging peace talks with several Nisenan chieftains in El Dorado County was so stiffly written it might be read as insulting.

Historical societies will often preserve troves of letters written by early leaders, but I found little for Burnett. While I still had plenty of material for my book, that important personal touch—such as Burnett’s thoughts on resigning as governor—would be missing.

Burnett's desk: Finally a lead (Courtesy of Judge Paul Bernal, museum chair and official historian of the City of San Jose)Resolved to go without, I had written two-thirds of the book when I finally got a lead. I stumbled on the internet—if one can stumble on the internet—across a 2014 copy of “Trailblazer,” a publication of the California Pioneers of Santa Clara County, featuring a photo of Burnett’s desk. The accompanying article said the desk was on loan from a Burnett descendant, Francisca Burnett Allen of Los Gatos, to the Roberto Adobe and Sunol House Museum in San Jose. Burnett had lived in San Jose while governor.

The author of the article, Judge Paul Bernal, put me in touch with Ms. Allen, who herself didn’t have any letters, but knew of another descendant, Emily Douville of Antioch, California, who had some letters.

Ms. Douville proved to be more than helpful. She had twenty or so letters left by her late mother, who had always intended to write a book about Burnett, but never did. Ms. Douville texted copies to me in Oregon. Most were written by Burnett to a brother, George, in Lafayette, Oregon.

I finally had what I needed to apply a human touch to Burnett’s character. Among revelations were his growing discouragement as governor and longing to return to civilian life: “The work for me is tiring and it is hard for me to keep along,” he wrote George on September 2, 1850. “My mind is too much occupied. I shall be glad when my time is out. I hope I shall never be in such another predicament.’’ He resigned four months later on January 9, 1851.

Other letters revealed his sadness at the death of two of his children, of his wife’s trip to China, a complaint about another brother who hadn’t repaid a debt, and illnesses affecting both himself and Harriet, which he wrongly thought would bring his premature death.

Of course, Burnett almost certainly wrote more letters to more people, including Harriet. Maybe those letters gather dust in an attic or closet somewhere, and will turn up someday. But it’s also quite possible they were destroyed, lost or discarded.

Mine is the first book ever written about Burnett, whose promising early career was doomed by his own faults, among them his prejudices. But it doesn’t mean there won’t be another. One of the exciting things about being an author of nonfiction history is drawing on the work of previous writers and knowing that others will come along and build on your work. So perhaps some future writer will locate other letters with material for another book on Burnett. But my work is done.

May 3rd, 2018

New author Mehana Blaich Vaughan explores resilience, community, stewardship, responsibility, and sense of home in her book, Kaiāulu: Gathering Tides. Just as Kauaʻi’s unique and colorful rivers and streams flow into the stunning Pacific Ocean, Vaughan’s interviews with more than sixty Hawaiian elders, leaders, and fishermen and women gather together with clear and vibrant prose. Vaughan's book is a deeply personal tribute to a community based not on ownership, but reciprocity, responsibility, and caring for the places that shape and sustain us. Below she shares an example of the resilience of this community – Kaiāulu – in the face of natural disaster.

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Kaiāulu: Gathering Tides by Mehana Blaich VaughanIt is one am and I am awakened from sleep by rain so hard it feels like our roof will cave in. It has been raining all day, for a month really off and on, here in Haleleʻa, on the north shore of Kauaʻi. But this rain is different, this rain thunders. Minutes later my husband’s radio starts going off. He is a fire fighter on our small island and the radio is relaying the 911 calls from nearby Hanalei valley. Hanalei is known for its long crescent beach, lined by vacation rentals, consistently rated one of the best beaches to vacation on in the world. The flatlands behind the sand are cut by two rivers, feeding into the wetlands behind the town. Tonight the rivers are lunging out of their banks, the increasingly frantic calls coming from near by the usually placid Waiʻoli stream. “The water is two feet from our door and rising quickly. What do we do?” We hear the firemen trying to respond, radioing in that they’ll need to evacuate the shelter at the local elementary school as it is flooding too, but they can’t get there because the highway is under ten feet of water. I am up and texting friends in low lying areas to see if they are alright. They are awake and watching the waters approach, grateful for our concern. Then our cellphones go blank. The next afternoon thunder and lightning lash the island bringing more flooding. The rivers rage café au lait, scenic waterfalls thundering under the roadways, tiny rivulets swelling to tear homes from their foundations. Landslides close the highway in six separate locations cutting off each valley, each community one from the other.

Now, two weeks later the two-lane highway along our coast is just slowly opening to a shuttle operating twice a day for residents. Over 600 tourists were boated and helicoptered out of their vacation rentals in these isolated communities in the days after the floods. Residents are now slowly emerging from their valleys for the first time, and official Red Cross or FEMA assessments are only just beginning to reach them.

But the community has not been waiting. Within days of the flood boats mobilized to run food, water, and supplies down the coast to cut off areas. Off duty firemen, the only emergency responders in some areas, worked four days straight to be sure people were alright. Neighbors helped one another to muck out houses, and haul away wet mattresses, couches and other wreckage. Community members with excavators and bobcats went to work clearing mud as high as the power lines, to make it possible within four days, for state crews to access the roads.

When asked how her family survived the most recent hurricane on Kauaʻi, Aunt Anabelle Pa Kam responded:
“I guess the way we grew up, because we never had money, money was nothing to us. You know, everything was hand-me-down. And I was happy to have the hand-me-downs. We didn’t need anything new. We learned survival. That’s how, when [Hurricane] Iniki came, we could live. We didn’t need anything. We could live off the land. And that’s what I teach my children and my grandchildren, how to live off the land” (Anabelle Pa Kam 2015).

This is the community, our Kaiāulu, that is the focus of this book. This excerpt, describing how the people of our area got through past tidal waves and hurricanes, resonates with everyday life for many in Haleleʻa now.

I hope that readers will enjoy this book, and that it will help us all to consider how we build resilience, connections between neighbors, and responsibility to one another, and to the places we call home in our changing world today.

April 24th, 2018

"Penguins in the Desert" by Eric WagnerScience and narrative, research and anecdote, objectivity and passion, all brilliantly coalesce in Eric Wagner’s new book Penguins in the Desert. Wagner depicts some of the most pressing environmental and biological questions facing us today through the lens of the largest penguin colony in the world outside of Antarctica. His accessible and charismatic prose takes readers into the desert of Punta Tombo alongside renowned scientist Dee Boersma to study penguins and chronicle scientists in the field. Below he provides candid insight into the process of drafting a book as captivating as the penguins he studies.

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Outtakes from Penguins in the Desert

I. 2008

When [my wife] El and I first visited Dee Boersma in her basement lair at the University of Washington to learn about the penguins of Punta Tombo, there was a moment midway through our chat when Dee fixed me with a look in the way she sometimes does.

“What are your goals for going to Argentina?” she asked. Or something to that effect. We were all sitting around a table in the middle of the lab.

“I want to write a book about it,” I said, flush with daring. To be completely honest, I did not know how true this was until I said it.

“Why?” Dee asked.

“I don’t know,” I confessed. “I just do.”

“Hmm,” Dee said. She leaned forward and rested on her elbows. “Will you finish your PhD if you go?”

Why stop being so unwisely forthcoming? “I… I can’t promise that,” I said.

“We’ll see,” Dee said, and sat back in her chair. She and I stared at each other for a few moments. It was hard for me to hold her gaze. It can be. El may have shifted a little. Who would win this staring contest? In the end I guess we both did, each in our own way.

II. 2010

Cute Penguin in Punta Tombo by Eric WagnerAfter El and I returned from Punta Tombo and while I was working on my PhD, I did a fair amount of freelance magazine writing. For reasons that are still unclear to me Dee tolerated this, but she was also befuddled. Who of sound mind and body, being presented with the opportunity to work with her, and on penguins no less, could possibly think about anything else? But I enjoyed the various stories I cobbled together. They gave me an opportunity to go other places and think about other things.

Once I was writing an article about another biologist I know who runs a citizen science program around dead seabirds. Like Dee, she is a powerful personality. I interviewed her at her home in Seattle, and when we finished with the formal talk, I sat at her kitchen table while she made tea. It was a mild Saturday, mid-morning—the essence of a weekend. One of her cats was twining around my leg and purring.

“So what do you want to do when you finish this thing?” Julia asked. “Thing” in this case was my doctorate. In a few months I would defend.

“I really want to write a book about Dee and Punta Tombo,” I said.

Julia chuckled. “Dee’s not going to like that,” she said. People often reacted this way when I told them I wanted to write a book about Dee and Punta Tombo. I think they could hardly believe Dee would allow anyone but herself to write about her penguins in any meaningful way. I knew she had misgivings about my project, but she had not (yet) expressly forbade me from pursuing it. In any case, I was prepared to live by one of her oft-deployed dictums: it is better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

“I think she’s basically okay with it,” I said.

“Uh-huh,” Julia said. “Well, if you do it, you should wait at least a couple of years. Right now you’re too close. You’ll need some distance.”

“Good advice,” I said. I did not intend to take it.

III. 2015

Penguins in Punta Tombo by Eric WagnerA few years passed. I finished my PhD in 2011. (“I knew you would,” Dee said.) El gave birth to our daughter in 2012. Other adventures and misadventures. Then I finally sat down to write a book about Dee and the penguins of Punta Tombo. I had my journals and sheaves of photographs and copies of the field notebooks and access to Dee’s entire body of work, and some rocks from Punta Tombo laid out on my desk along with a penguin bone or two. Over all of this presided a little plastic penguin figure I had found in a drug store. I hadn’t been to Punta Tombo for years, but I had a sensible plan for what I thought would be an act of painstaking reconstruction.

I opened my journals. They smelled like Punta Tombo. I paged through them. Their creases were still gritty with sand. I looked at the pictures. I could sense the wind and heat in and around the moments they captured, hear the penguins calling. I flipped through the field notebooks and remembered the pencil in my hand as I scribbled data while El called out chick measurements. I listened to the music we had listened to down at Punta Tombo and felt how I had felt. Sometimes I just sat at my desk, dizzy with nostalgia and longing.

IV. 2017

Last year, I was talking with a geography professor who also happens to be named Julia and is good at asking penetrating questions. She had one now. “Why is it,” she asked, “that when science writers write about scientists, the scientist usually ends up being either quirky or heroic?”

I felt immediately defensive. This was when I was just finishing up the penguin book. What had until then been a private, intimate process was about to become much more public, and I was struggling with feelings of authenticity, or its lack. Others of Dee’s students had spent more time at Punta Tombo than I had. They were better scientists than I was and knew more about penguins than I did. Certainly Dee knew a whole lot more about penguins than I did. Yet I was about to present myself as something of a penguin expert. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. And now here was Julia, asking, in effect, if I had caricaturized Dee. Rendered her inauthentically, in other words.

My mouth may have flapped open. I hemmed and hawed and said something about the ways we talk about science. Most of the scientific stories we tell today are quest narratives. There is a person, or a group of people, and there is some question or problem, and they are trying to solve it, or, if not solve it, at least learn a little more about it. The scientists are the subjects, they are the ones pushing the light into the darkness, and so they are the heroes. (If you want them to be something else, set them in opposition to one another—then one of them can be a villain.) Also, when I was in school, a common complaint about those massive introductory biology textbooks was the way they presented science as a steady march from discovery to discovery, with little of the wrong turns and mistakes and frustrations and everything else that makes it a human endeavor. I wanted to show the human side of what can be an opaque process, and that meant dwelling on its rough edges—the quirks.

Julia seemed satisfied with that answer.

Later, I thought more about Dee and what it is to render someone authentically, and the relationship between honesty and discretion. There were stories I could have told that would not have flattered her. There were stories I could have told that would not have flattered me. I chose not to tell them for various reasons. Nobody is perfect. Certainly Dee is not. Certainly I am not. Punta Tombo is a place of imperfect beasts. But there is the urgency to this environmental moment, and it is focused on these penguins of Punta Tombo the way a magnifying glass focuses the sun. Dee has watched the colony decline by 40% in the thirty-five years she has done research there. She has watched the penguins suffer from the effects of climate change and poor fisheries management and relentless development pressures. To work as hard as she has for so long in such circumstances strikes me as heroic. Dee is also one of the most charismatic people I have ever met, and her charisma expresses itself in amusing ways at times. So yes, in my telling, she is both quirky and heroic. Can’t this also be true?

El in Punta Tombo by Eric WagnerV. 2018

Now I have been asked to write this short piece about what it was like to want to write about Dee and the penguins of Punta Tombo, and I realize it is too soon to say. Best to wait a couple of years. I need some distance.

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