Monthly Archives: April 2014

“The Log of a Cowboy – A Narrative of the Old Trail Days” by Andy Adams

Reading “Badluck Way” (see April 17) reminded me of this wonderful memoir of cowboy life in 1882. Like Bryce Andrews, Andy Adams worked with cattle. Unlike Andrews, he didn’t get to stay in one place. Adams drove cattle from Texas to Montana as part of a crew of about a dozen men. The work was so hard that each cowboy used a string of 10 or more horses. The cattle herd being driven numbered several thousand. The possibilities for things going wrong were numerous and complex. A stampede was one of the most dreaded types of mischance.

This book is old fashioned and straightforward. The teenaged Adams sought out the adventure of a cattle drive and he recounts it (after the fact – the book was originally published in 1903) with energy and precision. Much of it is charming. Consider his discussion of how to determine who got the ONE extra egg available on the unusual occasion when a nest of turkey eggs had been found. Adams having found the eggs, he said “I felt that the odd egg, by rights, ought to fall to me, but… I yielded. A number of ways were suggested to allot the odd egg, but the gambling fever in us being rabid, raffling or playing cards for it seemed to be the proper caper. Raffling had few advocates.” Said one of his co-workers, “Poker is a science…What have I spent 20 years learning the game for?” There follows ten pages of description of card playing, tale telling and singing… I felt like I knew each man on the crew.

If you enjoy Western literature, don’t miss this first class book! In addition to telling a gripping tale, it provides extensive information about geography, ecology, climate, agriculture and sociology.


“Simple Courage – A True Story of Peril on the Sea” by Frank Delaney

On April 16, 2014, the Korean ferry Sewol capsized with 459 passengers on board. Within a few hours, 174 people were rescued. Thereafter, no survivors have been found. The magnitude of this disaster is mind boggling.

The Captain of the Sewol left the ship. He survived, and has been arrested and charged with many counts of dereliction. The debate over whether a captain must stay with his ship rages on.

The contrasting tale of a Captain who stayed with his ship is told in Simple Courage – A True Story of Peril on the Sea by Frank Delaney. Simple Courage is the most gripping piece of non-fiction I ever read!

The SS Flying Enterprise carried both cargo and passengers when it ran into a vicious North Atlantic storm in December of 1951. The Enterprise suffered a cracked hull and its load shifted. Against the odds and at their own peril, other ships came to its aid. Captain Carlsen transferred his passengers and crew to one of these ships. In the wild surf, the ships could not draw close, so the passengers and crew had to plunge into the water and be hauled into life rafts. This operation is described in detail. Each passenger was paired with a crew member, and they jumped holding hands. The only death, from start to finish, was that of a passenger who apparently suffered a heart attack upon contact with the icy water. After assuring everyone else’s safety, the Captain asserted his intention to stay on board while a long-shot salvage was attempted.

Then came a “plot twist” which you would reject in fiction. With no warning and at great risk to his own life, a young sailor jumped from a tug boat to the Enterprise, which the rescuers already considered doomed. The Captain and his companion stayed on the ship through an extended attempt to tow it to port, and left it only shortly before it finally sank from view.

I would tell you to read this book, but in fact it is available in an audio version recorded by the author. Frank Delaney is Irish and is highly regarded as a story teller as well as a writer. I’ve heard that the recorded version is wonderful.

“Eternal Father…hear us as we cry to Thee, for those in peril on the sea.” The Navy Hymn, 1861.


“Peace Pilgrim – Her Life and Work in Her Own Words”

It’s time to tell this story, which is a small part of a strange and wonderful item of local history…

In 1993, I moved to Cologne, New Jersey. Cologne is an unofficial neighborhood, with a post office but no boundaries, located in sprawling Galloway Township. I moved to a small farm, on a street with more woods than houses, and rather little traffic. The nearest town is Egg Harbor City, three miles away.

One evening a woman bicycled into my driveway and introduced herself as Helene Young, representing the March of Dimes. We had a pleasant chat about the neighborhood, and the changes she had seen in the decades since she started collecting for the March of Dimes.

Helene wore a t-shirt bearing the name and logo of what I recognized as a “radical” film company. This was unusual in conservative Cologne, and I was curious. I asked about it. Helene replied, “They came to make a documentary about my sister. My sister was known as Peace Pilgrim. Did you ever hear of her?” 

Indeed I had! I had heard of a woman who travelled on foot and refused to identify herself except as Peace Pilgrim. She would show up, talk to people and groups about the importance of inner peace, stay in people’s homes, and then walk away. She carried no money and no possessions. You couldn’t contact her. If you were lucky, you might meet her. She was a mystery, a wandering “holy woman” or extreme eccentric. One of a kind…

That was all that happened at the time. Helene left on her charitable rounds. I wrote down her name and noticed her small house near the post office. I found and read the book Peace Pilgrim – Her Life and Work in Her Own Words, and recommended it to a few friends. 

That might have been the full extent of it, but one evening I walked up my street to Germania Cemetery and wandered around reading the gravestones, which carry many familiar local names. And there I found Peace Pilgrim’s grave, marked with both of her names! I was moved by it, because the mystique surrounding her hidden identity was so powerful. I stood there for a while, looking around, wanting to be sure I could find the grave again.

I decided to bring the children from my Quaker congregation to see Peace Pilgrim’s grave. One sunny day we met at the Cemetery, a dozen or so kids and adults. We read from the Peace Pilgrim book, talked about her unusual ministry and ate a picnic lunch. Someone produced paper and crayons and made a rubbing of the grave marker. It was a happy outing!

After that, events took on their own momentum. Barbara R, one of the picnickers, was especially impressed by Peace Pilgrim’s life and message, and she struck up a friendship with Helene Young. Steps were taken to preserve the clippings and other documentation of Peace Pilgrim’s travels.

Barbara decided it was wrong for Peace Pilgrim to be unknown in Egg Harbor City, the town where she was grew up. Now there is a park dedicated in her name, and annual events celebrate her life and message.

Helene Young, now almost 100 years old, continues to ride her bike along my street and up to the Cemetery where her sister and other family members rest. Her circle of friends includes many who are fascinated by Peace Pilgrim and her message. I count myself lucky to be Helene’s friend and neighbor.

What about the book? By all means, read it! It is not a “polished” offering. You can also find several web sites to fill out detail, and form your own opinion of Peace Pilgrim’s unique life and message.

“Badluck Way – A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West” by Bryce Andrews

This book is so good I don’t know where to begin. Andrews recounts his year (2006 – 2007) as a cowboy on a ranch next to Yellowstone National Park, where wolves were reintroduced in the 1990s. “Conservation ranching” was intended to permit the coexistence of wolves and cattle. Andrews got caught up in the harsh battles that this experiment precipitated.

One literary device that Andrews has totally mastered is foreshadowing. I could feel the violence gathering, but didn’t know what was going to happen. The climax of the book carries tidal wave force. 

Andrews’ descriptions of land, animals and plants are detailed and vivid. He also discusses ranch work extensively. I can’t imagine how three men carried so much responsibility. Andrews slept out many nights, on the ground or in a truck bed, to protect the cattle herds.

I’m glad I read this book in hard copy (thank you, public Library) because I frequently needed to refer to the map of the ranch.

I’m going to nominate this book as a future “common reading” at my College. It’s engaging. It could lead to productive discussion in a wide range of classes – ecology, political science, sociology, public policy, business, geography and more. Psychologically, it’s an account of personal growth and reaction to challenges. It deals with an important conundrum which is unresolved.

It’s hard to think of another book that presents both sides of a difficult situation with so much depth. This could be one of the new “environmental classics” I’ve been seeking.

“A Year By the Sea” by Joan Anderson

I downloaded this book because I hoped it might be a feminist, contemporary version of The Outermost House by Henry Beston, which is also set on Cape Cod. Wrong! Nature appears in this book only as a backdrop to the personal growth of the author. A Year By the Sea is subtitled Thoughts of an Unfinished Woman. Well, I am an unfinished woman, too, and I’ve got my own thoughts to keep me busy.

I’m thinking about whether I should take a vacation on Cape Cod. I fear it has been developed beyond bearing, like Ocean City, Maryland and Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. So I guess, when I get a chance, I’ll head for Chincoteague, Virginia, and try to enjoy it before sea level rise obliterates it. If I’m going to have a life crisis like Joan Anderson and need to run off for a season or a year, I better do it soon, before Chincoteague disappears. 

“No Impact Man” by Colin Beavan

Last August, when I wrote about Cities Are Good for You by Leo Hollis, I noted Hollis’ reference to No Impact Man by Colin Beavan. I was dismissive because the thought of living very “simply” in New York City struck me as silly. But I just read the book, and was more impressed than I expected to be. (I agree with Hollis in thinking solutions to our environmental problems are likely to arise from the cities.)

First consider the subtitle, The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes… Sounds like he managed to undertake this without taking himself 100% seriously. Whew! The last thing the environmental movement needs is more dead serious gloom and doom. Reading Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature in 2007 shut me down emotionally for months.

Colin Beavan was much more engaging. It takes nerve to begin an experiment in radical simplicity when there is a toddler in the house. Beavan’s wife Michelle alternated between a high level of cooperation and occasional rebellion, as in “It’s YOUR project”.

Beavan started with a plan. He worked in stages, rather than trying to change his whole life at once. For starters, he wanted to produce NO trash. Challenging for a family that was living on take-out food! They were buried in packaging. Next came travel, from taking the stairs instead of the elevator (6 floors) to re-evaluating holiday travel plans. It got much more complicated that the usual problems associated with figuring out which relatives to visit.      

With respect to food, Beavan wanted not only to avoid excessive packaging, but also to limit himself to food grown within a 250 mile radius and to stick to a vegetarian diet. He found out considerable effort was involved. I don’t think I would be happy eating that way. Beavan was surprised that he would have to learn to cook.

I won’t review the family’s steps with respect to overconsumption. 

A few months into the project, Beavan turned off the electricity in his apartment. This was what attracted my attention when I first heard of this project – fear of fire. I still think using candles in an apartment is too risky. Changing your schedule to take advantage of daylight is great, but hard in winter.

Along the way, Beavan wanders off into occasional reflections about life, families, nature and the future. I enjoyed this.

Such a book inevitably causes the reader to start making comparisons. How am I doing compared to this dude? My lifestyle doesn’t look impressive, but I give myself a pat on the back for certain things. Thirty years of composting! Two sons who don’t own cars. A small house only a few miles from work. Food wise, I’m in a gray area. I’m an omnivore. But I cook, and cooking (have you noticed?) is now a subversive activity.

I wonder if NO IMPACT MAN ever met PLANET WALKER, aka John Francis, whose book Planet Walker is subtitled 22 Years of Walking, 17 Years of Silence? I met Francis at a neighbor’s home. A generation older than Beavan, he’s now a semiretired environmental icon. He seems content.

Beavan’s last effort during his one-year project was to find ways to improve the environment. He started by picking up trash, then moved on to organizations and politics. His comments on organizations and their members make interesting reading.

And then? After the no-impact year was over, Beavan looked back over his year of living “according to rules” and reconstituted a more moderate life style. I look forward to seeing what he does next.

“College (Un)Bound – The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students” by Jeffrey Selingo, Editor at Large, “Chronicle of Higher Education”

This recent book (2013) contained many familiar themes, because when the Chronicle of Higher Education speaks, my colleagues listen, and they often circulate articles with added comments. Most of what this book covers was familiar, but it is useful to read it systematically.

This book sounds a clear warning to colleges and universities – adapt or go out of business. Yes, “business”. Higher education is no longer a sector above the economic fray. With state tax support shrinking and unlikely to recover, public colleges are driven to act like their private counterparts, for better or worse. Selingo emphasizes the positive by giving examples of colleges that have made major changes. (Aside from passing reference to Princeton, New Jersey schools are not mentioned.)

The people who really need to read this are PARENTS. Maybe my family would have made different decisions if we had seen all of this information 7 or 8 years ago (but maybe not). Selingo points out that high school students base their college choices more on emotion than considered judgment, and parents hate to disappoint them. IT’S ALL ABOUT THE MONEY. Decisions are often made under pressure of deadlines, and before the full price is known.

My conclusion is that it is still worthwhile to get a Bachelor’s degree, for two reasons. It will increase your lifetime earnings, and the “college experience” in all its wonderful variability engenders personal growth. But I would add many caveats to this if advising friends.

That said, everything about college is changing. Selingo lists the following “disruptors” of higher education:

  • college indebtedness,
  • withdrawal of state support,
  • demographics (not enough 19 year olds),
  • availability of alternatives and
  • the “value gap”, the difference between the cost of college and it’s perceived value.

What, no mention of technology?! Actually, that gets an entire chapter, as well it should. But today’s students take it for granted, and heaven help any faculty member who doesn’t get on board.

Selingo brings up a topic close to my heart – ratings systems. I hate them! My college is completely under the spell – we have to participate, and we have to “look good”. I would not recommend that students and parents base their decisions on any of the existing systems. Selingo offers some better ideas.

I recommend this book for everyone. We are blessed with choices and options, and need to approach them thoughtfully.

“The Vikings” by Robert Wernick

Sometimes i just want to read something different! This book, downloaded on impulse to my Kindle, served very well.

The Vikings were totally omitted from my long ago history classes. Maybe they were too scary? But now, with all the educational emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) we should study the Vikings as masters of science and technology. The science they developed was navigation, and the technology was ship building. With these advantages, they conquered vast areas and amassed great wealth. I didn’t know they were the ancestors of the Normans, who conquered Britain and thus created English, and to some extent the modern geopolitical map.

I especially enjoyed Chapter 5, Pioneers in the Land of Ice. Iceland, Greenland and the colonization of North America fascinate me. The Vikings who tried to colonize North America GAVE UP in the face of resistance by the native people. The Greenland colony failed when the Little Ice Age reduced Viking mobility. And Iceland struggled through, ceding its independence to Norway in the process.

I visited Iceland about 15 years ago, a three day stopover after a trip to Scotland. It was June, and barely got dark at night. I hope to go back one day and get out of the capital city to see farms and smaller towns. I’ll travel to Scandinavia when the price comes down, or I win the lottery.

The “Wolf Hall” Trilogy by Hilary Mantel, books 1 and 2

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are books one and two of an as yet unfinished trilogy. They are in a category I find utterly irresistible, namely historical fiction about the Tudors. What makes that crazy family so fascinating?

I found this trilogy on a list of “Novels All Educators Should Read” by Richard Trama. “Especially educators who want to be effective advisors.” Okay, now I begin to get it. A student, or any other young adult, needs to develop his or her “voice”, which is a reflection of identity. The Wolf Hall trilogy, set in the Tudor era, is about Thomas Cromwell, whose rise from blacksmith’s son to most important councilor to the throne of England is (at least as interpreted by Mantel – the historical record is sketchy) a stunning example of a person who “made himself up”. Certainly Cromwell was bold, intelligent and socially adept. Lucky, too. These two books bring us as far as the fall of Anne Boleyn and the rise of Jane Seymour, third wife of Henry VIII. Having peeked at Wikipedia, I know that the third book will show us Cromwell’s downfall and death.

Mantel writes some eerie descriptive prose. Best, perhaps, is her description of an incident in which Cromwell’s patron unwittingly triggers Cromwell’s defenses. Cromwell is suddenly, unintentionally, ready to sink a knife into his employer. Both manage to back off. But we don’t learn how Cromwell became such a dangerous man.

So… how does Mantel compare to Philippa Gregory? I’ve read half a dozen of Gregory’s novels. I find the two authors equally compelling. I’ll eagerly read the third book of the Wolf Hall trilogy, even though I know how it will end.