There are few pleasures that reward better than a good book. I read both for pleasure and to learn how authors develop characters and move their plots along. One of my hobbies is reading the first and last lines of books. How does the author grab the reader’s attention, then hold it? How does he or she use language?
Yesterday I stumbled on a $6 copy of Ken Follett’s Edge of Eternity. Many of you may know Follett from his long lasting historical thriller, Eye of the Needle. Follett bases his fictional tales on assiduous research. Edge of Eternity is a contemporary suite of stories happening on several continents. Follett weaves characters active in the Freedom Bus Rides and civil rights movement with characters in East Germany when Khrushchev decides to build the Berlin Wall. It begins in the year 1961 and moves through the ’80s encompassing the civil rights movement, assassination of John F. Kennedy, and our fears and efforts to prevent a nuclear war with Russia. I stayed up very late last night reading.
Research from Loris Vezzali, social psychologist, points to the power of storytelling, to fiction, in shaping attitudes. This NPR program features a recent study that Vezzali, et al, conducted to determine whether children who read Harry Potter novels change how they relate to stygmitized groups of people (disabled, immigrants, or “other”).
Recentresearchshowsthatextendedcontactviastoryreadingisapowerfulstrategytoimproveout-groupattitudes.Weconductedthreestudiestotestwhether extendedcontactthroughreadingthepopularbest-sellingbooksofHarryPotter improvesattitudestowardstigmatizedgroups(immigrants,homosexuals,refu-gees).Results from one experimental intervention with elementary school children andfromtwocross-sectionalstudieswithhighschoolanduniversitystudents(in ItalyandUnitedKingdom)supportedourmainhypothesis.Identiﬁcationwith themaincharacter(i.e.,HarryPotter)anddisidentiﬁcationfromthenegative character (i.e.,Voldemort) moderatedthe effect.Perspective taking emerged as the processallowingattitudeimprovement.Theoreticalandpracticalimplicationsof theﬁndingsarediscussedinthe contextofextendedintergroup contact andsocial cognitivetheory
When confusion reigns, I turn to voices of clarity to reset my “compass”. Wendell Berry is a wise Kentucky farmer, prolific author and poet, and activist for conservation of nature. Find a quiet time to enjoy this lively discussion full of nuggets of knowledge from a man whose vision provides direction for millions.
In the previous post I described my joy in visiting the Central High School National Historic Site which preserves and tells the story of desegregation in Little Rock, AK. There I bought two memoirs, one by Daisy Bates (The Long Shadow of Little Rock), the other by Carlotta Walls LaNier with Lisa Frazier Page (A Mighty Long Way). [*This link includes an interview with Mrs. LaNier and an excerpt from the first chapter, and links to purchase a copy of the memoir.]
Both memoirs brought me renewed appreciation for the personal struggles of individual Americans striving for their civil rights, and the importance of parents being involved in their children’s education. Reading both books rendered a deeper understanding of historical events through the lived experiences of my fellow Americans. The NPS Interpreter was also a powerful communicator who brought history to life–another important function of our National Parks.
On my current sojourn in Kentucky, I drove to Mammoth Park –another National Park site–preserving and interpreting one of the world’s great natural wonders. In 2016 it celebrated its 200th anniversary!
In their gift store, I headed for the books section. There I found a historical novel by Roger Brucker, about Stephen Bishop, a famous and early explorer/guide at Mammoth Park (Grand, Gloomy, and Peculiar). Stephen was a slave at the time his owners assigned him the duty to serve as a guide at the privately owned wonder. It was already a favorite travel destination for wealthy and local people. The associated hotel inn for guests owned slaves who cooked and cleaned for guests. Charlotte Brown was a slave working at the inn. It was there that she fell in love with Stephen Bishop. They would eventually marry.
The novel’s story is told through the voice of Charlotte Bishop. The narration is based in part on Charlotte’s real story. Historical documents and testimonies from people who met and knew Stephen and Charlotte guided the author in writing this delightful book. (I am about half way through.)
My point is this: if we do not know history, how can we navigate the future? Each of these National Parks sites, and the books I found there, provide citizens with living history. Our National Parks are repositories for learning and recalling great moments and individuals in history.
Thursday morning I was blessed to join a tour group from Baltimore’s Civil Rights Movement at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. They are teachers, leaders, and powerful women traveling the civil right trail — next stop Memphis at the National Civil Right Museum at the Lorraine Hotel.
Great women have made significant contributions to democratic societies. Daisy Bates is one of these women. As our talented NPS Interpreter stated today, “If it hadn’t been for Daisy, there would not have been a Little Rock Nine or desegregation as it unfolded in Little Rock.”
Daisy Bates was the President of the Arkansas NAACP at the time of the Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs the Board of Education which desegregated public schools in the U.S. Nine children were identified by the Little Rock School Board to integrate Central High School. At the time, Governor Orval Faubus was not supporting the federal mandate and called in the National Guard to keep out the black students. Daisy realized that the nine teenagers would need protection and help and she organized meetings and support to help them on the first and subsequent days of their trials and tribulations. This story, and the life of Daisy Bates, is chronicled in her memoir, The Long Shadow of Little Rock, which I am currently reading. The individual stories of the nine students are each dramatic and many are told in their memoirs. What white students did inside the school to the nine black students, following integration, and the teachers who turned their backs, is horrendous and rarely told. I highly recommend that you visit this national historic site to reset your compass on American history and the long struggle of all American people for fulfillment of basic rights. As we see today, that struggle if still in progress. But, looking back to such pillars of courage and decency as Daisy Bates gives me renewed hope for a future all of us can make happen together.
The spiritual nature of the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff was an awesome experience for me. The sight of these sacred mountains took me off guard when they first came into view, and indeed, were the focal point of the sky all the way to Holbook, Arizona. I can see why so many first nations hold these mountains in such reverence, when from anywhere for hundreds of miles the shimmering white peaks are a beacon of light and orientation. The Hopi believe the Kachina spirits live at the top of the peak. Looking at this forested hillside on the way up the mountain to Snowbowl, I can almost feel the spirits there.
This video of an interview with Rebecca Solnit, columnist with Harper’s Magazine, prolific author on climate change, environmental issues, and other culturally relevant issues, is a clear point for those of us who feel disoriented by the sweeping changes being made in D.C.
From this interview on Democracy Now on March 28, 2017, this excerpt is most important for those of us who are engaged in resisting the dismantling of hard won environmental protections and action on climate change. I recommend listening to the whole interview at the link above. Solnit has a comprehensive perspective on “where we are” and what is the work now.
What concerns me, after 30 years of activism, is that a lot of people will think, “Well, we did something today, and we didn’t see results tomorrow.” So one of the things I’ve been writing about for The Guardian and elsewhere is just trying to remind people that this is a long process, that we may be in, you know, the early stages of really redefining what democracy is going to mean in this nation, reforming the systems that were already moribund and stagnant before—you know, Trump is a consequence of a dysfunctional system, not a cause of it. So we have enormous transformative work to do. And people are actually doing it. If we keep at it, if we’re smart, if we’re skillful, if we’re more passionate about solidarity than the kind of perfectionism of nitpicking small differences, I think that extraordinary things could happen, not that they’re guaranteed. It depends on what we do. But it’s an exciting and even exhilarating moment, as well as a heart-rending and terrifying one. And those things can coexist.
A friend of mine, Mark Hainds, is a forester and author, who has challenged himself to walk the entirety of the U.S. – Mexico Border. In doing so, he is noting the conditions of the landscape, meeting the people who live there, the people who are passing over the border in hopes of a better future, and experiencing the deep peace from long hours of silent walking. Be sure to visit his site above.
On Friday morning I dropped him off at mile marker 40 on highway 82 near Sonoita, Arizona. This is grasslands – basin and range territory – home of historic ranches, antelopes, and hardy people who love the land.
To a visitor is can seem very still but to locals who know its subtle changes, it is an exciting place to call home.
Luckily, the Nature Conservancy and the Bureau of Land Management had foresight to preserve large tracks of riparian habitats (those areas where water flows near the surface of the ground, and in wet seasons, runs in streams and rivers). When you gaze out across expansive grasslands and see a line of bright green trees, you have found water.
Today I followed the traces of water across the landscape by looking for those trees. While I walked the fields and paths, small herds of tawny pronghorns on far hills bounded in the high grass, white rumps flashing in the sunlight.
At the historic Empire Ranch, I listened for the voices of families, ranch hands, and cowboys lingering in the old structures of the house, cottages, corral, and barn.
Wandering the paths into a cottonwood gallery, I felt spirits walking next to me. A time gone but with lingering energies, whispering to us modern day visitors.
What are they telling us?
Would it be a cautionary tale? The ranch was passed through many hands, each family working it for 35-50 years, then to developers, and finally into the protection of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Yet these images show a time gone by, when the big cattle ranches reigned, and then died as water receded, and the demand of beef declined.
Perhaps we live in a more enlightened time. But, that remains to be seen. Will we remember the lessons of the past, or are we doomed to repeat mistakes with forgotten memories?
The ghosts of the land whisper to us. What are they telling us?
One whose spirit speaks to me is Aldo Leopold: “Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
Well, that second novel has been “cooking” in my mind for many years, and builds on years of experiences that reach back to 1990. That year I moved to Yuma, Arizona to teach middle school students at Crane Junior High School. Yuma first introduced me to the Sonoran Desert, and naturally, I experienced the hottest part of it first. Yuma temps that first summer hit 122 degrees Fahrenheit. My friends and neighbors taught me how to stay safe while traveling, and how to get out early in the morning before the heat made it impossible.
All around the school and neighborhoods where I lived, agricultural fields stretched out in long even rows with canals as borders, while row upon row of blue water soaked into the ground, evaporating in the intense heat. Surrounded by a sea of broccoli, my school was embedded in the large-scale industrial farming operations in which many of my students’ parents labored. On these intensely hot days, I wondered at the ability of human beings to endure hard labor in those fields.
Then, the fact that the water came from the high Wyoming plateaus and Rocky Mountains was only vaguely in my awareness. Precious river water poured down through deep canyons into the dams that controlled the North American Nile, and by a complex system came to Yuma and the Imperial Valley to grow 90% of America’s leafy produce between November through March. Then, I was focused on my students’ daily struggle to learn and grow up under harsh conditions of poverty and discrimination. But, all around us was a BIG STORY about a river, its people, and how it came to be the most controlled and overused body of water in North America. Indeed, the Colorado River is so over-allocated that it no longer winds its way to the Gulf of California as it did for thousands of years. The magnificent delta region, one of the world’s largest and most productive wetlands, literally dried up and died.
This is the subject of my second novel, The American Nile: Voices of a River and Its People. I am working with a talented editor and should have a solid draft completed before I return home from Tucson in late April.
A fictional novel exploring the dramatic affects of climate change in the desert community of Tucson, Arizona
Susan Feathers will be present to sign and sell copies of Threshold during the Authors Pavilion program at the Tucson Festival of Books on March 11, Saturday from 10 a.m. to Noon. Confronted by crisis in their own world—climate scientists, politicians, and desert museum curators face the biggest challenge man can encounter—no water, anywhere. In the barrios, families and community leaders, band together as they face unbearable heat and the crushing weight of the gangs that intimidate them. Amidst the turmoil, three teens navigate adolescence to become leaders in a new world. With shifting sand underfoot, characters follow their intuition and learn new skills as they chart a way into a viable future. Threshold will make you think while it celebrates the enduring nature of communities as they search for what is lasting and true. Threshold is a powerful new western novel in the best of its tradition. Appropriate for high school classes.
“In a riveting, multi-stranded plot, Threshold translates the conceptual worry over climate change into immediate, interpersonal dramas.” –Mary Lawlor, Muhlenberg College
Such a well written and thoughtfully conceived novel regarding very poignant issues of the day; THRESHOLD is a valuable contribution. The author continues a tradition in Southwestern Literature of social and environmental consciousness –Mark Rossi, Frank Waters Foundation.
About the Author
Susan Feathers is a writer and educator with 30 years of experience communicating science to the public. She served as the Director of Education at the Sonora-Arizona Desert Museum. Her writing focuses on the importance of place in forming character and destiny. Susan is an excellent speaker with years of experience delivering programs to the public. Her blog, WalkEarth.org, now in its 9th year, has an active following.