For archaeology buffs like me, it was fascinating to learn about the work of a woman named Sarah Parcak, who has been taking the archaeology world by storm in recent years with her use of satellite technology to unearth amazing new sites. I first heard about Parcak's work in Egypt. One might think virtually every inch of earlier civilizations had already been unearthed in what is probably the most explored region in the world. But using satellite data, Parcak has uncovered not just a tomb here and there but entire cities never before known, including probable new pyramids still beneath the sands. With the click of a button, Parcak turns what appears to be a barren landscape into an entire city. There are hundreds of buildings, temples, large public squares, graveyards, etc. never before seen or even speculated about by Egyptian researchers. It is, quite literally, magic, via science.
Another of Parcak's initiatives has been to locate more Viking sites in North America. To date, only one such site has been confirmed, at L'anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland that has been dated to 1000 A.D., basically obliterating the myth that Columbus discovered the new world. I visited L'Anse aux Meadows way back in the 1970s and was so enthralled by that discovery that I have since written two novels about the Vikings. In one of my mysteries, I imagined the discovery of another Viking site in a bog in Nova Scotia. Turns out I wasn't too far off. Parcak has located via satellite what looks to be only the second such site in North America. It is located on the southwestern coast of Newfoundland, an island offshore actually named Point Rosee.
Parcak and colleagues, using suggestive satellite images of rectangular construction to direct their searches, began test digs on Point Rosee that turned up evidence of a hearthstone likely used for working iron. This method was used by the Vikings and is the basis for the belief that the site was Viking. It is only the second pre-Columbian site for iron working found in the Americas. The excitement of the archaeologists involved is infective. One can only imagine the new realms opening up in the study of archaeology as a result of satellite technology.
Another, equally fascinating, archaeological discovery was made about a dozen years ago deep in a flooded underground cave system in the Yucatan of Mexico. The long, connected caverns go for hundreds of miles beneath the surface. Thousands of years ago, these caverns were not flooded and were visited by Paleoamerican people. Here, in a deep underground pool, Explorers found the bodies of dozens of long since extinct creatures like saber-toothed tigers, cave bears and giant sloths. And, incredibly, they also found the skeletonized body of a fifteen-year-old Paleoamerican girl. She had for some reason, probably searching for water, in what was then a very dry climate, worked her way deep into the caverns where she likely took a fall and died. After her remains were recovered they were dated to thirteen thousand years of age, among the oldest remains ever found in North America. It was the first discovery ever of an early human in direct association with the remains of the animals they must have actually hunted.
About half of the young girl's bones were recovered, along with her remarkably preserved skull. She clearly lived a life of incredible hardship. She was rail-thin, suffered from a poor diet and had serious injuries to some of her limbs. Scientists were also able to determine that she had given birth prior to her death. The most stunning find of all was enough of her DNA to confirm the idea that a single group of Asian emigrants gave rise to the earliest American settlers and to the Native American populations of North America.
As a fiction writer, I am always reminded of the old saw that truth is stranger than fiction. It's one reason that I have used archaeology as part of the impetus for my books. I inherited this interest from my mother, who wrote murder mysteries in the 1960s and 70s. Her books were set among the ancient Hittites of Turkey and the early Maya civilizations in Mexico. What might she think today, I wonder, if she knew about our fifteen-year-old Paleoamerican ancestor found in the Yucatan. I can see her planning her next mystery.
1969. That year seems impossibly far in the past now. It was a time filled with turmoil in our country, much as we are experiencing today. I was nineteen that year and fifty years later, only vague images remain of my life at that time. I was a college student, a Vietnam war protester, an occasional environmental activist and, of course, a sex-crazed teenager (weren't we all?).
A recent cleaning of the attic turned up many old family photos and, much more evocatively, a diary kept by my parents during the year of 1969 when they traveled across Europe and lived in Spain. For some of that trip, I accompanied them, before I had to return to college in early September. For those who no longer recognize the word, diary, it is an old fashioned habit that people used to have before their attentions were grabbed forevermore by their smartphones. Somehow, I cannot imagine my own son poring over the list of emails that I now leave in my wake.
The diary stretched from July 2 of that year to the following April of 1970 and ranged across a good deal of the European continent. It was well over a hundred pages long, written in longhand, my parents taking turns writing in the ledger each night. I think it is an unusual compendium because both my parents were university English professors and the range of their experiences and reflections are beautifully and evocatively written. It was not at all like the diaries of the 1800s in which the most prominently featured comments were about the weather and the crops and who was sick. One other feature of the diary is that my father's handwriting is much harder to decipher than my mother's. I've read other old diaries, and this can be a significant issue for later readers. If you keep a diary, please write legibly.
Still, so many things were evocative to me, not least of which was to be able to detect the personalities of my parents in their words. It sent chills down my spine. The early trip was arranged around preparing to drop me off for two weeks in Denmark, where I planned to bicycle by myself across country, staying in hostels. Demark may not have been the best choice. I was surprised at once by how cultivated this small country was. There was virtually no place to set up my small tent for occasions when I didn't reach a convenient hostel. Pedaling tiredly late into the evening, I would finally find a small clutch of trees at a crossroads between enormous cultivated fields. I would laboriously lift my bike down into what was little more than a culvert and set up camp. On one of these occasions, I was finally settled, lying in my sleeping bag and writing in my diary (yes, I kept one too--more about that later), when it suddenly seemed that the ground all around me was moving. I stared in disbelief as hundreds of three or four inch long snails all seemed to be creeping toward me.
I never broke camp more quickly in my life. It felt like something out of the Walking Dead. It was nearly dark, and I had no alternative but to load up and continue biking into the night until I finally found a place that I could collapse without having to deal with escargots. Like many awful old memories, of course, I got to relate this story to family and friends for the next half century.
Just shortly before my parents' diary was found, I had actually come across my own diary from this same period. It was quite enlightening to read my mother's worries as she saw her only son head off alone into the wilderness. Well, Denmark was hardly wilderness, but her worries came across vividly, and it was fascinating to read my own tales of travail side by side with her thoughts. One of my biggest problems with my two week bike ride was the wind. It seemed to blow off the ocean on all sides at fierce levels and always against me. Those flat, cultivated fields, offered no protection. I fought the gales daily. At times, I became so frustrated that I would stop, turn around and try to go in the other direction with the wind at my back. It never worked. The wind seemed to change constantly. I never escaped it.
It was also interesting to read about how much fun my parents were having as they trolled around Europe. While I fought the winds and the snails and hunger--I could often find no place to buy food-- they stayed in beautiful hotels, had wonderful meals in exotic little restaurants, climbed about fabulous museums and chateaus and cathedrals and met many interesting people to talk to. It was quite a contrast.
Later, when I rejoined them for our final six weeks of travel together, through Norway, Sweden, France, Austria and Spain, I got to realize what hardships I had entertained in my windblown travels. Friendly and talkative, my parents practiced their language abilities, which mainly consisted of relatively poor French, on whomever they encountered. One memorable passage, written in my mom's hand, told of a meal we shared in a restaurant with two delightful young Frenchwomen, who had just returned from a Moroccan holiday and were full of travel lore about Spain and Africa. My mother wrote in the diary about these two young women: "Very friendly to Chris. One gave him her address and told him to come stay with her and learn French next year!"
I have utterly no memory of this event. What a terrible memory for a nineteen-year-old boy to lose. That's the sort of thing diaries can bring back to life.
I recently finished a biography of Albert Einstein, written by Walter Isaacson. It took a good two months to read because it was long, but also because many sections about his discoveries were in depth, and I found myself reading them slowly, going back, reading them again, and so forth.
Of course, I'm not a scientist, much less a physicist. But I found that reading sections about concepts of which I had little understanding, I still managed to gain insight into the man, and how he thought and collaborated with others. He visualized problems in what he called thought experiments; some of the greatest thinking ever done by a man. In a short period in 1905, he wrote most of his greatest papers about the theory of relativity. He was only twenty-five years old at the time and fully employed in a Swiss patent office. He kept that job for many years, as he was unable to get a permanent position to teach, even in a high school. This was after he was recognized as one of the world's greatest physicists and was also partly the result of the prejudice he experienced because he was Jewish.
Einstein's greatest weakness, he freely admitted, was his mathematics. As a result he collaborated with some of the great mathematicians of the day, as they tried to prove his revolutionary formulas.
During the time I was reading about Einstein, I was given a book written by my cousin's husband. Daniel Goode is a musician. The book is a collection of musical reviews written over a number of years. The author has been a progressive musician his entire career. On one occasion, he visited my sister's home and spent much of his time wandering through the woods with an antenna sprouting out of his hat, so he could pick up the sounds of bird calls. It made perfect sense, given the work that he did, but it was definitely an interesting look. On another occasion, I was invited to attend a concert in Manhattan, a work he had composed for orchestra and buildings.
Let that sink in for a moment. There are many buildings in New York City that are constructed of metallic materials. If you bang on them, they make distinctive, musical sounds. Thus, the orchestra played on a street that had been closed off for the performance, which included drummers tapping on the buildings with various drumsticks, as part of a full, orchestral performance. There was a very large crowd gathered to listen, and I couldn't help thinking how strange if felt to be part of this extraordinary musical happening.
Anyway. the book of musical reviews really opened my eyes to an entire realm of music that had gone largely unnoticed by me for most of my life. I had heard of people like John Cage and Philip Glass of course, who had invented their own forms of music, perhaps Minimalism, perhaps something else. But I found reading about the intricacies of how such music was conceived and constructed to be fascinating, not unlike reading about Einstein's formulas. There were vast realms in both instances that I had never before contemplated.
It goes to prove that it can be enlightening to read about things one knows nothing about. The body and mind absorb what they can in some sort of strange internal manner, almost as a process of osmosis that stimulates thinking and carries one off into unexpected realms. I think this sort of stretching of the mind is what often leads to the most original creative thinking. I've always thought of music and mathematics as being related in some manner. I've know many individuals who excelled in both. Einstein, by the way, was a talented violinist.
As I've said, I'm no scientist, but I've always been interested in the sciences: biology, physics, astronomy, archaeology, geology and so forth. And in reading books and science journals about these disciplines, I've managed to absorb a lot of what I've read, even in areas I've never formally studied. And I've used many of these concepts in writing my own books.
Serendipity plays a large role in creative thinking. Reading the right book at the right time, or listening to the never before heard tones of music performed on buildings, can lead to some of the most interesting revelations.
By the way, Philip Glass composed a "portrait" trilogy, one of which was titled, "Einstein on the Beach" (1976). The other two portraits are "Satyagraha" about Gandhi and "Akhnaten" about the Egyptian ruler. The settings of the pieces, as Daniel's career vividly illustrates, can be all important. The "Akhnaten" staging involves a 12-person troupe of jugglers in spandex catsuits.
Mr. Glass, now 82, has never liked the term "Minimalism," to which he is inevitably connected. In a recent interview with The New York Times, he was asked about his legacy, and whether his music will endure. He replied, "I won't be around for all that. It doesn't matter."
I've lived most of my life in my home town. There are many good things about this. Continuity. Old friends everywhere. I know where the mustard sardines are.
But entering my market also brings back memories of the generations I've known who are now gone, the result of shopping in the same place for more than sixty years. Usually, I'm thinking of other things when I shop. What to buy for dinner for my wife and me. A plumbing problem in my house. Something I'm writing. So I am always startled when I bump into people I know and have to, quickly, remember their names. Is this someone who was a friend of my parents or a friend of mine when I was in high school, or in college, which was also in my home town? Or maybe this person is a friend I worked with in one of the businesses I ran in my twenties in the area. Or perhaps even an employee of mine back then or someone who bought ice cream from me at my ice cream shop or who came to the college bar I ran in those days called The Wild Oat. Or someone who once attended a book signing of mine or who I served with on some board or who I played tennis with, possibly even for years. The list seems endless.
I feel my mind becomes a very imperfect computer as it runs through the possibilities when I see someone I may not have encountered in forty or even fifty years. And occasionally, I see a ghost.
I run into someone who reminds me of an old friend of my parents. Someone I know, or at least am pretty sure, has been dead for a quarter century. But there they are. Not a ghost but real.
Many people look alike, of course. Add in the factor of seeing someone who must have changed greatly in twenty-five years, and you have a conundrum. Is this the actual person I thought was long gone? I try to recall if I once saw their obituary. Or perhaps it's someone who resembles what the ghost looked like a quarter century ago. Or could it be their son or daughter who reminds me of them?
Despite my own rambling thoughts, I often think about many of these people when I'm shopping. I used to run into my old high school physics teacher and my old band director frequently enough that I actually knew who they were each time, and I greatly enjoyed having a chat with them over the cauliflower. Incredibly, they also remembered me! Incredible because physics and band were two of my worst high school experiences. Perhaps students like me are always the ones they remember. Now they are both gone, and I miss those encounters. But sometimes, from behind at the checkout, I'm certain that person ahead of me in line is my old physics or band teacher.
Today, the generations who were friends or colleagues of my parents and whom I talked to often in the store are also gone. Now, old high school friends are starting to go away as well. And this, if anything, is more difficult. It reminds me of my own mortality.
Where will it all end? Will I beat the odds and become one of the ninety-year-olds myself? Someone who will help others to place themselves at some point in their own life trajectories. "You'll never guess who I saw in the supermarket today," they will say. "Old Chris Angus! I thought he died twenty years ago!"
Little boys love to hear about gruesome stuff. I'm neither little nor a boy anymore, but I still share that fascination. A lot of that interest came from my mother who wrote murder mysteries that often focused on archaeological subjects. She wrote a book about an ancient culture in Turkey called "Death of a Hittite" and another, "Dead to Rites" set amongst the brooding Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza in Mexico. An English professor, she loved the sciences all of her life. She had a curious mind.
As a "little" boy of thirteen or so, I was fortunate to travel to many of the world's most fascinating archaeological sites in the company of my parents. From Stonehenge to the Lascaux Caves to Pompeii to the Parthenon to the ancient cities of Troy and Ephesus, I soaked it all in. Actually, there were times in our travels, usually to museums, chateaus, cathedrals or city stuff like the Eiffel Tower and the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, when I grew bored and asked to be left behind to read Archie comics in the back seat. Museums were sometimes the exception, however, as they were where I could encounter mummies, the strange, ash-cast bodies of Pompeii, dinosaur bones and so forth.
So when it came to ruins, ancient paintings, bog bodies, Viking longboats or falling down castles in Scotland, I was often the one leading the way. They couldn't hold me back with wild horses. I loved the stuff.
Much of it has shown up in my books as it did in my mother's mysteries. Bog bodies became one of my earliest fascinations, and I recently wrote a mystery focused around the idea of a bog body uncovered in Nova Scotia. This required a certain amount of literary license, since virtually no real bog bodies have been found in North America. There are plenty of old remains of course, Incan sacrifices preserved in the high Andes Mountains of Peru, cave dried Anasazi skeletons in the American southwest, the famous Windover skeletons uncovered in Florida and even the nine-thousand-year-old bones of Kenniwick Man of Paleo-Indian age found along the banks of the Columbia River in 1996. But bog bodies not so much. The reasons probably have to do with culture, climate and glaciation.
Kenniwick Man became embroiled in a decades-long court battle between scientists and Native Americans who insisted the body was one of their own, a highly questionable claim, and demanded that it be reburied. The legal battle has continued for more than twenty years. Still, the courts have allowed study to be permitted. You can see Kenniwick Man and listen to a description of him, the daunting injuries he sustained and where he may have come from. He does not appear to resemble American Indians. Reconstructions have suggested he may be more closely related to Polynesians or even the Ainu of Japan.
You see the extent of my little boy fascination with such things.
It so happens that literally in the backyard of my father's boyhood summer home in Nova Scotia where I have vacationed all of my life, there are bogs that stretch for many miles. I fell in love with them at an early age and it felt as I was writing my book that all those bog bodies I read about and saw in museums when I was a boy had been nothing more than training to write this book. That is one of the great wonders of writing, how experiences long in the past suddenly reappear during the act of plumbing one's brain for inspiration.
I am hardly alone in my infatuation with long dead bodies. We see it everywhere in our culture. I have barely pricked the surface of this subject as a result of staying mainly in North America. We haven't even discussed perhaps the most famous ancient body of all, that of Otzi, the 5000 year old Neolithic man who melted out of a glacier in the Alps in 1991.
But that is another story for other little boys.
Watching Ken Burns's Vietnam history, now showing on PBS stations, brings back so many memories of another time when Americans were at odds, much as we are today.
I was in college from 1968 to 1972 and marched all over, including at the Moratorium in Washington D.C. in the fall of '69. I remember that morning joining thousands of others as we marched to the Washington Monument. At every corner, the crowd grew larger. Then there were speeches and music. The song that moved me the most, I think, was Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In, swaying along with hundreds of thousands.
Later that evening, I unintentionally found myself near Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, co-founders of the Yippies and members of the Chicago Eight, as protests heated up with police. North Country residents will recall Abbie Hoffman for his later efforts on behalf of the protection of the St. Lawrence River.
People were so tired of Nixon and then LBJ and the endless lies that our soldiers were making progress, the depressing lists of daily body counts and comments from our government that “victory was at hand.” It was Neville Chamberlain all over again, with LBJ trying to appease the American public.
Less than a month later, the first draft lottery was held. Anyone who was the age to be in that drawing remembers their number. Mine was 188, a lucky draw that was never reached. I sat at my cousin's house and we watched the drawing on TV. He was two years older than me and his number was in the 30s. It cast an early pall over the evening. The first date selected was September 14th. You can look at the actual drawing we watched nearly half a century ago on YouTube.
I still remember the strange sensation of watching a white, middle aged, Republican Congressman pull the first number out of a glass bowl, numbers that could mean a quick ride to the other side of the world to fight people we had no quarrel with.
It's well known today how many managed to avoid the draft: Bill Clinton received a high number (311) but there were still questions about how he got deferments; George W. Bush went into the National Guard – an almost impossible position to get without connections; Dick Cheney got five deferments, Donald Trump received the same number, including one for bad feet. The split between those who had power, influence and money and managed to avoid the draft and those who did not, primarily the working class, poor and non-college educated, labeled the entire process a complete sham.
All these memories came flashing back as I watched the Ken Burns film. Yes, I knew people who died in Vietnam. Yes, I had friends who served and managed to survive. My college roommate served two years in Vietnam. Like many others, when he came home he went somewhat wild for a time, enjoying his good luck. He gave me a pair of stinky, kangaroo skin boots that had belonged to General William Westmoreland. My friend had been selected as one of a few soldiers assigned to help the General clean out his rooms after he was replaced by LBJ following the Tet Offensive in 1968. My roommate happened to be the only one with the same size feet. Incredibly, fifty years later, I still have Westy's boots stinking up a corner of my barn. Like Burns's film, they remind me of this horrible piece of American history.
One of my close high school friends in those days got an appointment to West Point. I was astonished when I heard. Of course, it was a way to also avoid the draft. He spent two years at West Point and then before starting his third which would have committed him to five years' service after graduation, he dropped out. Thus, he had served his two years of military service and avoided going to Vietnam.
I visited this friend at West Point. This was about 1970 and I was already sporting long hair and dressed like a member of the Woodstock generation. I ate in the huge dining hall with hundreds of cadets all in spit-polish uniforms. While I shoveled in my meal, the plebes had to sit ramrod straight and ask permission of the upper classmen for each bite they took, eating in squares. That is, raising one's fork straight up in front of one, then moving it straight to the mouth, then back out with the empty fork and down to the table, where they awaited permission to take the next bite. The absurdity of it all has never left me. Did this sort of thing really make good soldiers?
Later, I was introduced to one of my friend's buddies who was a senior at the military academy. He had just received two weeks leave, the first he'd had since arriving at West Point more than three years before. How was he going to spend the time? He planned to hike across Death Valley.
In my junior year at college, we had a sudden influx of West Point transfers who, like my friend, dropped out before committing to five years in the military. They were among the wildest students on campus. After being forced to abide by the strict regimen of cadets for two years, they were ready to party and did so.
Burns's film relies primarily upon interviews with the soldiers, civilians and protesters of the period; the horror of teenagers fighting in the jungles of southeast Asia, the turmoil in American society as it split between supporters and ferocious opponents of the war, the many battles of the 1960s over civil rights, women's rights, environmental protection and the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King.
Ken Burns has brought back those sad days, more powerfully almost than I can bear. And I wonder what it all portends for our current partisan climate.
I've read a great deal about Winston Churchill, from biographies to historic accounts of the period to memoirs by family and cabinet members and employees to Churchill's own books that won him the Nobel Prize in literature. My latest discovery is this memoir by Mary Soames, Churchill's youngest daughter. It is a charming, intimate and very revealing look at her father. These sorts of books give a much more rounded impression of the great man, one of the twentieth century's most important figures.
Mary was younger than her other siblings by a considerable number of years. She came on the scene several years after the loss of her parents' other youngest daughter to illness at the age of two and a half. This was a terrible blow to all the members of the family and so Mary was considered a great gift. Born in 1922, she spent most of her young life growing up at Chartwell, Winston's much loved country home outside of London. It was a magnificent, rambling, brick Victorian house set in the beautiful countryside with great views of the weald on all sides. Churchill spent a good deal of time refining his artistic abilities by painting the home and its surroundings. He also spent a good deal of time trying to figure out how to make enough money to maintain and, indeed, keep the home. For Mary, it was an idyllic childhood surrounded by loving family and great numbers of animals and pets. As she grew older, she became aware of her father's unusual standing among figures of government. Chartwell, and later Chequers, the Prime Minister's official country residence, became thriving gathering places for a large number of famous guests who descended with great regularity. Famous artists and politicians were everywhere. Guests ranged from the financier and advisor to American presidents Bernard Baruch, Harry Hopkins and Averill Harriman, who worked for Roosevelt, generals, admirals, the actor Charlie Chaplin, Lawrence of Arabia and on and on.
As World War II approached, Mary had a ringside seat to the approaching storm across the English Channel. She overheard many secret conversations held by her father as he rose to First Lord of the Admiralty and finally to Prime Minister. This book is steeped in the history of the period and even those who know a great deal of this history will find much intimate detail and background to the overarching story of world war.
Mary writes about the "fevered activity and commotion" as the home front geared up for the impending conflict. She mentions the impact on the very first night of the war, September 3, when a German U-boat torpedoed the liner Athenia en route from Glasgow to Montreal with heavy loss of life. The Athenia was considered the first ship lost in the war.
I have a personal connection to the sinking of the Athenia. My former brother-in-law, Arch Miller, was a passenger on the ship. He was about eight at the time. Along with his mother and brother, they were traveling to visit relatives in Canada. I've spoken at great length with Arch about the incident, which he remembers vividly even now, almost eighty years later. He had been wandering alone on the ship when it was struck. He remembered a strange booming sound and the shudder of the ship. Then everyone was running around in a panic. He stumbled about for some time before managing to finally locate his mother and brother. They made it onto a lifeboat and watched as the ship sank. Hundreds lost their lives. I hadn't thought about this incident in some years until there it was, mentioned by Winston Churchill's daughter, no less, in her memoir. What a strange feeling to learn of the impact this incident had on the Churchill family. It certainly had an impact also upon my brother-in-law.
I later looked online at pictures of the Athenia's lifeboats being picked up by other ships. Any one of those childrens' cold faces could have belonged to Arch.
Mary would go on to play a role in the war, serving as a gunner in the women's auxillary, helping to shoot down German V-1 rockets then landing in London. She later served in Europe and rose to the rank of Captain, in command of more than two hundred battery soldiers at the age of 21. She also played a unique fly-on-the-wall roll during her father's rise to power, describing the momentous debate in Parliament in which Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was driven from office, paving the way for her father's rise. She spent time at luncheons with the likes of Lord Mountbatten and attended the Potsdam Conference as her father's aide-de-camp, arranging an historic dinner between her father, Harry Truman and Joseph Stalin, whom she remembers as "small, dapper, and rather twinkly." Hitler reportedly hatched a plan, never consummated, to hire spies to seduce Mary in order to gain access to secret British war plans.
One has to wonder how all of this must have affected her. Mary was just seventeen at the outbreak of the war and twenty-two at its end. That's quite an introduction to adulthood. But thanks to this fascinating memoir, we now know exactly how she felt about it all. The book is a real treat for WW II history buffs like me.
Humans seem to crave connection to famous people, celebrities, politicians (God help us all), actors, athletes. More recently, the phenomenon has take a strange turn with the frenzy given to potentially famous people on American Idol and various reality shows.
As a writer, I have always been a bit star struck when it comes to my favorite authors. I've collected stories about them and relished the personal connections I've had with a few. I corresponded for a time with John McPhee and had a long connection with some well known local heroes in this area, Paul Jamieson, Anne LaBastille, Barbara McMartin and Maurice Kenny.
I was strongly influenced by Edward Abbey for a period. That man could write. His journals are filled with brilliant passages, including some incredible descriptions of Edinborough, Scotland written when he was in his early twenties. He had a real passion for life and for telling the truth as he saw it. He could also be a bit of a cad, cheating on his wives and girlfriends. At least he seemed to be honest about it. What is the point, he wrote, of books that describe a hundred different positions when all a man really wants is a hundred different women. He believed men and women were entirely different creatures and marveled that the two managed to get along at all.
I wrote to Abbey to tell him how much I enjoyed his essay Blood Sport, about his distaste for hunting and also his book The Monkey Wrench Gang. His post card reply came from Oracle, Arizona in 1988, less than a year before he died. The handwriting was frail and meandering and made me fear for his health. Still, he appreciated a fan enough to take the time, and I still treasure that card. Abbey had two children the last five years of his life. He was full of love for them and regret that he wouldn't see them grow up. One has to wonder what those children think of the father they have virtually no memory of, their poor, driven, joyful, passionate, angry father. In truth, when they read his work, they will probably learn more about him than most people ever do about their parents.
My father, who taught English at St. Lawrence University, told a wonderful story about the famous actor John Carradine. Carradine claimed to have made more than 400 movies, though probably the number was closer to 225, if television is not counted. He was a great Shakespearean actor, one of the most prolific character actors in Hollywood history and the patriarch of an acting dynasty that included four of his sons and three of his granddaughters.
Carradine came to St. Lawrence to speak to drama classes in the late 1950s or early 60s. A notorious alcoholic, the great man was three sheets to the wind most of the time, hardly able to stand. One evening at a dinner party with the President of the university and various other dignitaries, someone tried to introduce Carradine to a young faculty member by the name of Bates. The actor couldn't understand the name, which was told to him repeatedly. Finally, after many attempts to get him to understand, a frustrated Carradine drew himself up to full height and in a loud, southern drawl declared: "Ah! Master Bates!"
An early mentor of mine, Paul Jamieson, was the Dean of Adirondack writers and a well-known St. Lawrence figure. He was a colleague of my father's in the English Department. To our collective astonishment, Paul and I discovered that we had once been in love with the same woman. At the same time. No mean feat, given that Paul was forty-seven years older than me. Here's how it happened.
Many St. Lawrence people will remember Christa Makosky, wife of another admired SLU faculty member, Don MaKosky. Paul describes Christa in his memoir, Uneven Ground. She was a beautiful, slim, tanned woman of about thirty at the time, who had grown up in some difficulty in her native Germany during the war. She had a charming accent, was a chemist by profession and was a talented artist. Christa became a frequent outing companion of Paul's on hiking and canoeing trips in the Adirondacks. He grew to admire her inquiring mind and her ability to appreciate the tiniest details of the natural world, as well as her artistic mindset. Eventually, Paul wrote that he thought he had fallen in love with her. But, he declared, "There was no future in it," since she was married and he was twice her age.
Also at this time, I joined Christa and her husband and my mother in renting a cottage for a week at Cape Hatteras. Christa knew everything there was to know about the sea and beach life. She explained to me in great detail the strange, prehistoric beasts that were everywhere on the beach, the horseshoe crabs. As a boy of sixteen, I developed a crush on her, as I followed her about, she beautiful and tanned in her bikini. But, as with Paul, "There was no future in it," for she was twice my age.
Thus, Paul and I were both in love with the same woman at the same time from our vastly different age perspectives. I have always thought this to be one of the amazing coincidences of my life, that Paul, who came to mentor me as a writer and whose love for the Adirondacks influenced me greatly, should have written his memoir and asked me to review it, thus leading to the astonishing discovery of our mutual love. Paul was quite taken with this story when I first told him my own connection with Christa.
Sadly, Christa died in her early thirties. Paul's remembrance of her is beautifully written, heart wrenching and full of melancholy for a bygone era in the Adirondacks. It is well worth looking up and reading. He owned several of her paintings, proudly displayed in his home and includes in his essay a wonderfully humorous selection of her sketches from their outings that show just how talented Christa was.
One more story. My good friend and retired Anthropologist John Barthelme told me about having dinner with former SLU president Patti McGill Peterson. Peterson had previously asked John if he could come over and make cider from the apples on her trees. At the dinner, John's wife said to President Peterson in a loud voice: "I understand John is coming over to squeeze your apples tomorrow."
Ah, those St. Lawrence presidential dinners! Someone should install a taping system like the one in Nixon's Oval Office. The best secrets are the ones that eventually get revealed.
Having lived just outside the boundaries of New York State's Adirondack Park most of my life, it has had a profound impact on me, both as a source of natural wonder and as inspiration for my writing. I'm not alone in this. Many writers have absorbed the wonders of the natural world here and used it in their work. Writers like Anne LaBastille, Harold and Adam Hochschild, Barbara McMartin, S. R. Stoddard, Philip Terrie and Bill McKibben. And many others cut their political and activist teeth in the fight to protect this vast wilderness. Leaders like Howard Zahniser, Laurence and Nelson Rockefeller, Paul Jamieson, Clarence Petty, Frank Graham Jr. and Alfred L. Donaldson. These are just a handful of names in a list that could encompass many hundreds if not thousands of others.
The Adirondack Park requires a constant infusion of new writers and activists to describe and protect the Park and to inspire new generations to appreciate our natural heritage here in New York State. Throughout its often tumultuous history, saviors have appeared at crucial moments to fight the forces that insist on exploiting this great resource. At various moments, forest fires, logging, commercial development and political expediency have threatened the Park. But public and private watchdog agencies have, mostly, risen to the challenge. Still, vigilance will always be necessary, for nothing in this world is forever, least of all the constitutional provision that the park remain "forever wild." There will always be those driven by greed who will constantly probe the limits of our protections, constitutional or otherwise.
Like many writers, I began by relating my wilderness experiences inside the Adirondack Park in newspaper columns, book reviews, essays, articles, books and even the odd encyclopedia entry. My first decades as a writer were heavily influenced by the Adirondacks, by the people who lived there and by those who worked to increase awareness and appreciation through their creative efforts as writers, artists, craftsmen and photographers and by the activists and bureaucrats who labored in the trenches. The great wilderness advocate and writer, Edward Abbey, whom many consider the father of the modern environmental movement, once wrote about how much he admired those who did the hard work of protesting, marching, writing letters to editors and confronting politicians. He admired those people much more than those who simply wrote about it.
A number of years ago, I described the efforts of the radical environmental group, Earth First! to declare that the Five Ponds Wilderness Area south of Cranberry Lake should be completely off-limits to man. I wrote: "I could not disagree more strongly. I believe it is possible for people to visit these areas with minimal damage if--IF--they are not allowed to use motorized vehicles and if other backcountry rules, such as proper disposal of wastes, careful tending of fires, and so forth, are followed. But if no one is allowed to see a beautiful place, how long can it be before there is no one left to care about it? Out of sight, out of mind. Then the only people who know about the spot are those who disobey the rules and go there on their dirt bikes and in their 4 X 4s. A pristine river that people can see develops fierce partisans who will fight to keep it that way. A river no one can see only develops developers.
I spend a lot of time researching my books. I'm currently working on a mystery set in Nova Scotia. It will be the second in a series that begins with the release of my book MISERY BAY in May, 2016. One of the elements of this new book deals with the discovery of a bog body found in my mythical village, Misery Bay.
Bog bodies are generally found in northern European climes, from Denmark to Ireland, Scotland, Germany and so forth. Virtually no well preserved bog bodies have been found in North America. This seems hard to believe but has to do with climate, glaciation and other factors. 168 bodies were found dating back some eight thousand years in Florida. Called the Windover Skeletons, these ancient bodies are not true bog bodies for they are almost completely skeletonized, though some of the brain material has been preserved. In fact, hundreds of peat sites dating from Paleoeskimo or Archaic times up to the historic period have been found, along with many artifacts, in Newfoundland and Labrador. But preserved bog bodies are not among these treasures.
Red Bay, Labrador, a small village I visited many years ago, was considered the whaling capital of the world from A. D. 1550-1600. Many bodies were found in the Basque Whaler's cemetery at Red Bay. While most of these were buried in shallow, well-drained soil that would not lead to preservation, nearby, more bodies were found in a peat bog. These were preserved more like the bog men found in Europe, but because of shallow burials and partly aerobic conditions, the preservation of bone and soft tissue was poor.
I've continued to research bog bodies in North America and in doing so, I came across a fascinating item that illustrates the serendipitous nature of research. The researcher often comes across completely unexpected information. In 1867, a pair of loggers were trying to unearth a tree located in old peat deposits in Ontario. Attaching their team of horses to try to pull the log out, the workers pulled up a blanket of peat in the process. What they found was nothing less than Samuel de Champlain's astrolabe. The instrument, used for navigation, had the date of 1603 on it and was in remarkable condition.
While it is impossible to prove definitively that it belonged to Champlain, historians believe there is little other explanation. Champlain was the only traveler in the region at that time. The Astrolabe was found along the Ottawa River, where it is known that Champlain had portaged with his men in the year 1613.
This is the sort of thing a novelist can't resist, and I will have to figure out a way to introduce this amazing object into my current tale. The astrolabe now resides in the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. I'll have to go visit it some day. Here is what it looks like (you will have to scroll down to page 7 to see it). http://www.historymuseum.ca/learn/research/resources-for-scholars/essays/archaeology/archaeological-discovery-in-organic-terrain-in-canada/
A Child in Hitler’s Backyard
On Hitler’s Mountain By Irmgard Hunt
Imagine growing up in the ethereal beauty of the mountains of Berchtesgaden—steps away from Adolf Hitler’s alpine retreat, the Berghof. We have all seen images of the Fuhrer standing on his terrace overlooking the mountains, brooding about his war plans, meeting with his generals or frolicking with Eva Braun. Here is a look at that life as seen through the eyes of a young child, Irmgard Hunt, whose incredible life began in that improbable place and time and who, after the war, would escape from the closed minds of many of her friends and family by dint of her intellect and hard work.
She immigrated to the United States in 1958 where she married a young American doctor. Irmgard became an American citizen in 1968 and went on to an astonishing and accomplished career. She graduated from Columbia University in 1982 and received an MPA degree from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in 1985.
Irmgard spent more than thirty years working for the Nature Conservancy and as U.S. Project Director of the Environmental Partnership for Central Europe. In this capacity, she worked with people and organizations in the Czech and Slovak Republics, Hungary and Poland to establish a foundation in each country that would support local environmental groups with grants and training. It was hoped the increased capacity of the nongovernmental sector would speed rebuilding of withered democratic societies and alleviate environmental degradation. Irmgard went on to become an international consultant for clients ranging from The World Bank to USAID. It was an improbable career that took her from a three-year-old child who once bounced on Hitler’s knee for news cameras to an advocate of democracies the world over.
Her book is an extraordinary reminiscence of a time and place that is no more. But it also helps explain how Hitler managed to kidnap an entire country through his electric speeches and ruthless control of the Fatherland. Within Irmgard’s own family, there were intense arguments about the Fuhrer as his power grew in the 1930s. Her grandfather detested Hitler. Following Irmgard’s selection by Hitler to sit on his knee for photos, her family became locally famous for this event. She basked in the admiration for her encounter with the man she would one day consider a monster.
There were many clues to the real Nazi character as Irmgard was growing up. A neighbor’s retarded child was taken from the family and probably killed. Others, including many Jews, disappeared into a new kind of prison called K.Z. or Konzentrationslager—concentration camp. Already in 1933, local papers where Irmgard lived were calling for a boycott of Jewish businesses and publications. Later came Kristallnacht (night of broken glass) of November 9, 1938, when storm troopers, with help from the public, destroyed some two hundred synagogues, homes and shops belonging to Jews throughout Germany and Austria.
Irmgard lived the first eleven years of her life under Nazi rule. Her memories of these early events, no doubt embellished by things she was told by her elders, would haunt her as she grew older and began to see the way things really were. She recalls being fearful that her home might be taken away as Hitler’s men had taken away so many others in order to secure the mountain retreat of the Fuhrer. Yet, she remembers her mother telling her that all the S.S. men guarding Hitler and watching, seemingly, her family’s every move, also provided protection and that they were fortunate to live on a mountain free of crime.
On Hitler’s Mountain provides a unique perspective on the manner in which Hitler managed to rise to power and control the minds of so many. All seen here through the eyes of a young girl, as later interpreted by her adult, and highly educated, self. This is one of those remarkable gems of a book that enables the reader to gain further depth of understanding of one of humanity's darkest moments.
I’ve always wished I were an artist. The gene seems to have passed me by. Both my parents were amateur artists. But the closest I ever got was when I once tried to draw a political cartoon strip. The strip was funny or maybe poignant (I thought), but the characters were little more than stick figures and pretty poor ones at that.
There are few members of the creative arts who seem to get more enjoyment from what they do than artists. Okay, musicians also seem to have a great time, but mostly because they’re always partying. Actors obsess way too much. Don’t get me started on writers.
Having no talent really shouldn’t stop me. I understand that. Look how much enjoyment Churchill got from his art, even though he didn’t take it up until he was forty and never took lessons or studied technique. When would he have had the time? Like many things he did, he worked it out pretty much on his own. Though he got quite good at it, he could be dismissive of his painting skills: “They are only of interest in having been painted by a notorious character!”
However, renowned painter Sir Oswald Birley once concluded: “If Churchill had given the time to art that he has given to politics, he would have been by all odds the world’s greatest painter.” He was, in fact, a decent artist and of course had the added advantage of already being famous so that, nowadays, his paintings can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, as a number recently did at a Sotheby’s sale. The top item in the sale, The Goldfish Pool at Chartwell, went for 1.8 million English pounds.
It’s difficult to be talented at the highest levels in more than a single discipline. Of course, there are those who have done so and Churchill is among the first examples that come to mind. He was a genius in military and tactical planning, in politics, in literature (Nobel Prize winner), in oratory and still had time to save the free world. He was not a genius at painting, however.
Someone who probably did feel he was a genius at most things he did was Adolf Hitler. Many comparisons have been made between the two greatest rivals of the twentieth century and their artistic abilities. Hitler is most often described as a failed painter. He was rejected as an art student but produced hundreds of paintings, including many done at the front during World War I. Following the Great War, he gave up painting for politics. Would that he had only been successful at art and gone on to teach the subject in Austria. Instead, he became the greatest art thief in history, looting the great chateaus, castles and museums of Europe. His plans to create his own museum after the war were never realized, and it’s hard to imagine tourists flocking to see his looted art collection built upon the destroyed lives of so many.
Though I’m no art critic, I believe the differences in their characters are clearly displayed in their work. While both preferred landscapes to portraits, Churchill displays greater depth and more vibrant use of color. One can see his passion and love for what he was doing in his work. Hitler, on the other hand, was much more pedestrian, his colors often flat, his portrayals of buildings much more functional, with little sign of emotion. Indeed, some of the university people who rejected his work suggested he might make a better go of it as an architect.
No doubt Hitler would be furious to hear about the sort of prices Churchill’s works command today. The Fuhrer has never come close, though as another “notorious “ figure, his paintings still bring interest when they appear on the market.
Perhaps some day when I’m older, I’ll retire and take up painting. But I’m not holding my breath. Desire alone may not be enough. There must be a whisper of talent somewhere within. I think Churchill had that whisper. I’d much rather identify with the passion of Churchill than with the cold, utilitarian approach of Hitler.
I'm currently working on the sequel to my book FLYPAPER, which is a thriller about a world pandemic. Friends keep asking me how I can write a sequel to a book in which everyone in the world dies. I understand this might give one pause. However, there were a handful of survivors left after the pandemic ran its course. And no one ever understood what caused the terrible disease. Was it the result of strange genetic anomalies found in human DNA? Was it caused by some extra-terrestrial life form? Or was it the result of the mysterious actions of Buddhist monks thousands of years in the past? To the mind of a thriller writer, these questions leave a vast area of possibility for a sequel.
The new book, as yet untitled, is, like FLYPAPER, set globally, from the United States to Europe to Asia. But the center of the story is focused in the vast, poisoned landscape surrounding the Aral Sea, located on the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Here, on an island in the center of the Aral Sea called Renaissance Island, the Soviets operated a test site for bacteriological weapons for more than sixty years, beginning in 1948 and lasting beyond the fall of the Soviet Union. The variety of lethal agents tested here included smallpox, tularemia, brucellosis, anthrax and plague, among many others. After the bioweapons program ended in 1991, the site was abandoned and a good deal of the infrastructure of the island was dismantled. However, many of the containers holding the spores of anthrax, plague and other bacilli were never properly stored or destroyed.
For fifty years the Aral Sea has been receding as irrigation canals built to develop cotton plantations in the desert diverted water from the Amu-Darya River. Where there was once a vast inland sea, there is now a desert filled with landlocked freighters and fishing boats. Once the island ceased to be separated from the mainland, animals could leave and transport their diseases with them. The drying up of the landscape allowed leftover pathogens to be blown on the winds. Nearby residents began to experience eye diseases, TB, digestive, kidney and neurological disorders and skin illnesses. It has become one of the world's nightmare places to live.
What better setting could a writer of history-based thrillers ask for? In the new book, we get a look at the world ten years after the pandemic struck. A handful of survivors are spread across the globe. The flora and fauna of this new world, now freed from the impact of humans, has begun to flourish once again, and our survivors have begun to look for ways to reconnect the isolated pockets of humanity. A strange radio signal emanating from the Aral Sea attracts the attentions of survivors from as far away as England, the Americas and central Asia.
Hidden beneath the biological laboratories of Stalin's Russia, lies something more, something inexplicable. It has been studied by an international coalition of scientists for fifteen years and still, they have no idea what it is they are studying. These scientists, present at the Aral Sea since before the pandemic of FLYPAPER, once again face the threat of being overwhelmed by mysterious disease. How and whether they will escape impacts our present day survivors now being slowly drawn into the web of mysterious signals emanating from beneath the poisoned soils of Mother Russia.
And it will also affect the lives of a mysterious and previously unknown species of unrelated but very human-like people who have somehow managed to survive in the shadows of humanity for millions of years. Are these strange new people destined to replace even the last vestiges of man on Earth?
And so, the thriller takes hold of the author.
I recently discovered at my favorite used bookstore, a little volume called "Churchill's Last Years" by Roy Howells, published in 1965, the year of Churchill's death. Howells was Sir Winston's personal attendant during the last seven years of his life. It is such an interesting and revealing portrait of the great man's character. All of the characteristics we associate with Churchill, his temper, irascibility, charm and wit are, if anything, amplified by the challenges of old age. We see how depth of character, even in its least exemplary moments, can sustain us through the process of aging that we all must go through.
More books have been written about Churchill in a short time than perhaps any other figure. I've read many of them, but this is, in many ways, one of my favorites, because it gives an unusual take on a subject whose life has been explored exhaustively from birth to death. Here I learned many details about his life at the Churchill country home at Chartwell and at their town house in London at Hyde Park Gate, about who his close friends were, what his daily routines consisted of and how he coped with everything from minor domestic problems to serious health episodes.
Still very active in his late eighties, Winston enjoyed trips to the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, gambling at Monte Carlo, vacationing on Aristotle Onassis's luxurious yacht, visiting the House of Commons and painting prolifically. On the Riviera he was visited by Charles de Gaulle, Greta Garbo, the author Somerset Maugham and Prince Rainier and Princess Grace. There is no question his voyages on the luxury yacht Christina in the company of a wide variety of luminaries were among Churchill's favorite pastimes. Onassis and his wife Maria Callas went to great lengths to provide everything the great man might conceivably wish for, from fine brandies and cigars to private showings of the latest films. The yacht contained gold bath taps made in the form of dolphins. It had its own small hospital, air conditioning, a mosaic dance floor that converted to a swimming pool at the touch of a button. At the center of the salon was one of Sir Winston's landscapes. The best steel bands in the Caribbean played specially for the former Prime Minister.
For excursions ashore Winston was provided with his own picnic basket containing whisky, soda and ice and perhaps a bit of expensive caviar, forbidden by his doctors. The ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn and her husband were among favored guests with Mr. and Mrs. Churchill. Winston went ashore at Gibraltar where he fed the apes on the Rock. During the war he was responsible for having the animals smuggled in as their numbers were diminishing. The belief was that when the apes left the Rock, so too would the British. He visited with the Yugoslavian leader, President Tito, who came out to the yacht for lunch. On the island of Crete, he went ashore and toured about, no doubt contemplating the fierce battle that took place there in 1941 between German paratroops and the British defenders.
One of the things I found most astonishing was how devoted people all around the world were to Churchill even twenty years after the war. He was the most famous man in the world, the savior of western civilization, the embodiment of the spirit of the Commonwealth. Everywhere he went, hundreds lined up to catch a glimpse as he entered a hotel or restaurant, took a stroll or tried to set up his easel in a private spot to paint. When he broke his leg from a fall and had to be whisked off to hospital and then to London on a special plane, police guards on motorcycle stopped traffic to ensure his passage. When he went to see his daughter Sarah, an actress, perform as Peter Pan in the Scala Theater, there was always a stir as he entered, sometimes causing a delay before the performance could begin. He was presented with awards wherever he went, as often as officials could get him to sit still long enough to receive them. He flew to Paris to receive the Cross of the Liberation from General de Gaulle who declared it was for his "decisive contribution to saving the freedom of the world."
Winston's many foibles are illuminated in depth in this book. He went to bed in the early morning hours and slept, or at least remained in bed till noon or later. Each morning he had breakfast in bed, usually consisting of steak, bacon and eggs and occasionally fresh salmon, while his favorite pet, Toby, a large green parakeet was allowed to fly about the room and peck at whatever happened to be on his master's plate. He drank prodigious amounts of alcohol of nearly every variety throughout the day and smoked as many as a dozen huge cigars. Perhaps because of these habits, he brushed his teeth three times a day taking a good fifteen minutes over each brushing. He was a fastidious dresser, much enamored of formal uniforms for various occasions from meeting the Queen to attending Commons. However, his nightgowns and sleeping attire were famously odd and he could be utterly indifferent if he had a sudden need to rush out into the hall from his bath to whether or not he happened to have any clothes on.
Churchill was a character, writ large. Perhaps it's not a requirement for great leaders to also be great characters, but Winston certainly broke the mold when he set foot on the world stage.