Scared to death on the St. Johns Bridge

April 22, 2017

The St. Johns Bridge and I were born the same year–1931. I first saw it about twelve years later and have always held it in high respect as the blog I posted March 4, 2011, indicates. Today, Earth Day 2017, I read an article in the “Portland Oregonian” reporting that in the bridge’s 85-year history only one cyclist has been killed on the bridge: Mitchell Todd York, on October 29, 2016. Since I no longer live in the Portland area, my occasions to bike this bridge will not be often. My prayers are with all who ride this highway high in the sky, and especially with Mitch’s family.

Keith Watkins Historian

Once or twice a month, I bicycle across the St. John’s Bridge that spans the Willamette River on the north side of Portland, Oregon. Lots of company! Two lanes of fast traffic in each direction, more than 25,000 vehicles a day, many of them big and in a hurry because this beautiful bridge carries U. S. 30 across the river and connects two of the city’s industrial areas.

On each end of the bridge, which is almost half a mile long, a sign alerts motorists to the fact that bicycles share the roadway. This means that it’s legal for me to assert my rights to the road. And I do, but anxiously.

Pick-up trucks and eighteen-wheelers swing past me by sliding left toward the next lane of traffic. So far, no close calls, no squealing brakes, no loud horns, no harassing shouts.

Now and then I see other cyclists, most…

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Especially the alto section: an Easter meditation

April 18, 2017

Choir II by Mark Tobey

My Easter reflections this year have been shaped, in part, by Landesman’s Journal: Meditations of a Forest Philosopher, a small book I bought in Patagonia, Arizona, on a bicycle tour in February of this year. The author, Leon Landesman, chose to live the later years of his life in a small cabin located in a forested region close to the Arizona-Mexico border, with only his dog and an occasional passer-by for companionship.

Earlier in his life, Landesman had received a graduate degree in philosophy, and steady reading in a wide range of philosophically oriented books continued to be central to his life. Although antagonistic toward religious belief and practice, Landesman was intellectually invested in matters related to the soul as a metaphysical reality.

In this regard, he writes, “one can only resort to the time-honored reliance on intuition—the intuition that there is a meaning to the creation and development of one’s metaphysical soul and that it does not share the fate of the body. . .But the intuition within me tells me that my soul will return to the ultimate metaphysical source from which it came and enrich its nature” (p. 24).

I use more theological ideas to describe my stance toward reality, including death and that which comes thereafter. Landesman and I, however, have much in common in our reflections upon that which we cannot now know with certainty.

These reflections are too cerebral on Easter day when in churches everywhere the songs and ceremonies are so vibrant, so filled with new life. Christian affirmations that Jesus breaks the power of death and transforms death into a new kind of life renew our joy in living despite the inevitability of dying.

On the morning my wife of 62 years died, near three years ago, I posted a notice on our condominium door: “now singing alto in the choir of angels.” This picture language more accurately embodies the tone of my intuition about death continuing into life than do Landesman’s metaphysical words.

Early this Easter day, I remembered a print that Billie and I bought fifty years ago. Only today have I realized that it portrays that very choir in which she now sings the music of the spheres. Our family was living that year in Seattle. During the spring both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. One day we were visiting the Seattle Art Museum and found ourselves drawn to Mark Tobey’s painting, Choir II: gouache on board, 16.5 by 10.5 inches, in deep shades of maroon and gray blending into black. Long, vertical slivers of white outline an abstract design, with suggestions of Asian calligraphy.

When you look closely, the design comes into focus. Seven ranks of choristers stand almost as though each rank is superimposed upon the one beneath it. Scattered through this choir are a few members holding horns—trumpets, I suppose—but to my ear they sound like renaissance recorders made of fine wood. During the last thirty years of her life, Billie expressed the music of her soul by playing these instruments with small groups of friends, first in Indianapolis, then Phoenix, and for the final thirteen years in Vancouver, Washington.

On Easter afternoon I gathered for a festive meal with members of my family in Indianapolis. For our devotions before the feast, I revealed to them the mystery of this print that has been displayed in our family home as far back as any of them can remember. I was the one with tears and a voice breaking so that I could not speak, my grief still very strong, but everyone in the room heard the choir sing, especially the alto section.


Climate: unimportant until it matters

March 13, 2017

A review of Shared Borders, Shared Waters: Israeli-Palestinian and Colorado River Basin Water Challenges. Edited by Sharon B. Medal, Robert G. Varady, and Susanna Eden (CRC Press/Balkema, 2013).

The Colorado River system in the American Southwest and the Jordan River system in the Middle East are much alike. They flow through arid, hot regions with populations that are greater than these rivers can support. Serious efforts are being made in both regions to increase the use of these climatically limited river systems by reclaiming water for repeated use and by desalinization, but with limited success.

Because these river systems are located in regions where highly charged political systems exist side by side, continuing negotiation is needed to resolve conflicts. Challenges now faced by the Middle East and the American Southwest are case studies of what happens when people run out of water. They point to structural, political, and economic changes that should be considered even in regions that now have enough fresh water to meet needs.

Shared Borders, Shared Waters is based on the Arizona, Israeli, and Palestinian Water Management and Policy Workshop that took place at the University of Arizona, Tucson, in 2009. Sponsors included UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme and three centers at the University: the Water Resources Research Center, the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies, and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Financial support came from several sources.

The book contains seventeen chapters arranged into five sections: (1) Water development: Infrastructure and institutions; (2) Political and economic perspectives on water; (3) Learning from comparison; (4) Challenges, new and old; Climate change and wastewater; (5) Expanding water supplies: Promising strategies and technologies.

Thirty contributors from around the world are listed as authors (eight chapters with single writers and nine with two or more). Nine contributors were located at the University of Arizona, Fourteen were based at other universities in the United States, Israel, and elsewhere. Contributors came from all of the territories discussed in the book and represented several scientific disciplines, political jurisdictions, and management responsibilities.

They reached differing conclusions about the issues discussed. Most of the chapters contain charts, graphs, and photos, many in color. All were written in serious, academic prose, and several chapters challenge readers who are unfamiliar with the technical language that their authors use. Other authors wrote in styles that are more easily understood by general readers.

The book contains 276 pages of exposition, with notes and bibliographical information at the end of each chapter. In the final two pages, the editors offer five insights or “take-away messages.” First, “It is essential to find solutions that meet the needs of neighboring societies.” Second, scientific research and analysis “contribute to a better understanding of the implications of alternative approaches to problem-solving.” They provide the basis for dialogue that can lead to solutions.

Third, the scarcity of water resources is necessarily leading to innovation and “the adoption of emerging technologies.” Fourth, “factors such as geographical setting and scale, climatic conditions, history, social and cultural values, demography, political systems, economic incentives, institutional capacity, legal structure, and civil society” determine “whether a particular technology can succeed” and therefore have to be taken into consideration. Fifth, a multi-disciplinary approach must be taken if we are to resolve the challenges facing us.

The editors chose to offer blandly stated, methodological conclusions, but the book, despite its abstract and technical language, is much more interesting and challenging than these conclusions indicate. My alternative list offers five insights that focus primarily on issues discussed in these chapters and their implications for people everywhere. Read more: Shared Borders-Review


Riding with a roadrunner on the Santa Cruz River Trail

February 24, 2017

 park-sign

Even when it has water running, the Santa Cruz River is a modest stream twisting its northerly route through Tucson. Most of the year it is a dry wash, dirty brown in color, with scrubby desert trees breaking the monotony. Although the city presses hard on both sides, the riverbed and adjacent shorelines—as much as half a mile in width—resist encroachments other than street-level bridges every mile or two. It has long been a city park, with multi-use trails, on both sides much of the distance, running approximately twenty miles from near the Tucson airport south of town to the edge of Marana on the northern edge of the city.

On previous winter visits to Tucson, I have biked the Julian Wash Greenway which branches off from the Santa Cruz River Trail and runs in a southeasterly direction through the city’s southern section. Hoping that the Santa Cruz Trail would be equally satisfying for a vigorous training ride, I spent an afternoon riding in the park.

shrineAccording to the map I picked up at the Ajo Bike Shop, the trail begins at Valencia Road about three miles west of the airport motel where I’m staying. Not trusting the map, however, I rode north a mile to Drexel Road and then west to the park. To my consternation, Drexel doesn’t cross the river and I found myself on an old trail, with stenciled notes reporting “trail closed.” I continued north on the old trail another mile to Irvington Street and a bridge that took me across the river to the new, well paved trail on the west side of the river. Before pushing toward the north, I stopped to pay my respects at a memorial shrine shaded by a desert tree.

Much of the trail looks to be ten to twelve feet wide, except when it narrows for traveling under bridges. It winds its way around trees and other desert growth, sometimes close to the edge and sometimes a little distance from the drop-off to the river itself. The twisting adds to the interest of the ride and I found that I could ride as hard as I wanted. In contrast to my experience on many multi-use trails, other users were almost exclusively cyclists. I met a few walkers and one little dog trotting along, dragging its short leash, with no sign of owner anywhere around.

I saw lots of small rodents scurrying along the trail’s edge but no flying birds. The most impressive wild creature was a roadrunner, rushing across the trail a few yards in front of me, carrying something in its beak.

Near the city center, the park has been upgraded. Nicely designed information boards have been installed and wild desert growth has been replaced with carefully groomed desert trees. Nicely designed, discreet information boards list donors who have provided funding for developing this part of the park

river-bankNear Grant Street further north, near a spot identified as Julian Park, I had to turn around even though the trail runs another ten miles or so. It was late afternoon and winter days are short. Signs gave me the confidence that the map is correct when it indicates that the trail on the western bank continues all the way to Valencia Road.

At the 5:00 p.m. rush hour peak, I reached the end of the trail and was dumped onto Valencia, one of Tucson’s busiest arterial streets: three lanes of packed, rapid traffic in each direction, very rough and jolting bike lanes, and a complicated interchange with Interstate Highway 19 going to Nogales. Despite this harrowing conclusion, my ride with a roadrunner along the Santa Cruz River Trail was a fine way to enjoy the afternoon.

One other note. Later in the evening, one of my Indianapolis daughters reported that it had been warmer that afternoon in Indianapolis that it was in Tucson. Maybe I should have stayed home for the weather, but I would have missed riding with the roadrunner.

riders

 


Anna Madgigine Jai Kingsley: African Princess, Florida Slave, Plantation Owner

February 20, 2017

By Daniel L. Schafer (University Press of Florida, 2003)

schafer-annaI’ve lived all my life in western and northern sections of the United States where cultural practices of white people like me have restricted people of color. Although I have been aware of discrimination because of race, it has been difficult for me to understand the harsher patterns that existed in southern states—slavery for more than a century and legal segregation for another hundred years.

A winter sojourn on Amelia Island, which is one of several barrier islands between Florida’s northeastern coast and the Atlantic Ocean, is providing the opportunity and incentive to explore several aspects of the history of slavery that is so much a part of the American story.

In 1808 the United States prohibited the importing of slaves, but in East Florida which remained under Spanish sovereignty until 1821, slaves could still be imported and sold. Because of its deep-water port, Fernandina on Amelia Island became the primary location where ships continued to bring slaves who would be smuggled into Georgia and other states where slavery was still the law of the land.

During the years when Spanish law prevailed in East Florida, two types of slavery existed in close proximity and there was an intense struggle over which would prevail. Although the Spanish three-caste system (enslaved black, free black, and white) lost to the Southern States two-caste system (enslaved black and white), the history of this struggle needs to be kept alive.

Anna Madgigine Jai Kingsley was a central figure in this period of American history. She was born in Senegal in 1793 into a family of the ruling class and captured and enslaved by a rival African ethnic group in 1806. She was one of a shipload of slaves bought by an American slaver and transported to Havanna. Thirteen years of age, she was purchased by Zephaniah Kingsley, Jr., who was himself active in the transatlantic slave trade and a major plantation owner in Florida.

During the next five years, she gave birth to three children whom Kingsley fathered. He claimed them as his family and in 1811 granted Anna and her children their freedom. For the next thirty-seven years, Kingsley referred to her as his wife and “lived openly with her and their mixed-race children” (Schafer, p. 25). During much of this time, Kingsley also cohabited with other enslaved teenaged women, openly acknowledged their children as his own, and granted them freedom, too.

Kingsley appointed Anna as overseer of Laurel Hill, his large plantation on Fort George Island about thirty miles south of Fernandina and she directed operations during his frequent and long absences. She organized slave quarters and managed affairs in ways that were similar to those she had experienced among her own people in Senegal.

slave-quarters

After Spain ceded East Florida to the United States, the freedom and security of Kingsley’s African and mixed-race family were severely threatened. American law did not recognize their free status or their rights to inherit and own property. They constantly faced the threat of being sold again into slavery.

In order to secure their safety, Kingsley bought large holdings in the Republic of Haiti, then a free black country, and in 1836 moved his large and complex family moved to this safe location. In 1843, Kingsley died in New York at the age of seventy-eight. Anna was fifty. Three years later, she decided to return to Florida where her husband had retained large holdings.

As struggles over slavery, states rights, and southern sovereignty continued, her life became more difficult. Until her death in 1870, she was surrounded by her large, mixed race family and lived as a free woman. The war had wiped out her holdings and she “resided with one of her daughters, bereft of resources save a loving family” (Schafer, p. 111). She is buried in an unmarked grave in Clifton Cemetery in the Jacksonville suburb Arlington.

One of Anna’s great grand-daughters married A. L. Lewis, founder of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company and of American Beach on Amelia Island, a community where African Americans in the segregated South would have access to the beach.

The history of this era is complex, and an impressive body of scholarly literature is emerging to help us understand it. I am grateful for the slender biography of Anna Kingsley that historian Daniel L. Schafer has written. In easily understood language he describes the slavery patterns already existing in Africa, outlines the transatlantic slave trade, explains the economic and political conflicts in the United States that led to the Civil War, and pieces together the life story of Anna Madgigine Jai Kingsley.

His narrative is only 131 pages long, followed by another twenty pages of notes, bibliography, and index.  Schafer’s exhaustive, scholarly research is clear, but because his focus is the life story of a remarkable woman, the book is alive and deeply moving. In 2013 he published a much longer, more technical biography, Zephaniah Kingsley, Jr. and the Atlantic Slave Trade (University Press of Florida, 2013).


Bicycling on Amelia Island: the Franklintown church and cemetery

February 10, 2017

a1a

Florida’s North Coast Highway A1A is one of the nation’s most scenic roads. As it runs through the southern half of Amelia Island, in the northeastern tip of the state, it has much to offer a contemplative cyclotourist. The two-lane highway has well-marked bike lanes, in addition to a bike trail for recreational cyclists. Up-scale residential communities and resorts flourish on both sides of the highway, but the roadway itself is tree-lined, protected from the wind, and restful.

This little stretch of coastal highway also provides the opportunity to delve into the continuing interaction of race, religion, and money in the development of American culture. Part of that story is kept alive by Franklintown United Methodist Church on Lewis Street just west of A1A and four miles north of the bridge over Nassau Sound.

The story begins in 1790 when the Robert Harrison family came to the southern tip of Amelia Island and in 1796 received a 600-acre land grant from the Spanish government. Two related families acquired neighboring grants. Each plantation owned slaves, as many as one hundred, to raise crops of rice, cattle, corn, and sea island cotton.

In his 1939 account of old families and plantations of Nassau County, recorded in the WPA Federal Writers’ Program, J. J. G. Cooper wrote that the Harrison plantation had a machine that separated the seed from cotton. His presumption, based on what people told him, was that the planters had learned about this machine from Eli Whitney who had travelled on nearby Cumberland Island in 1790 or 1792.

At the time of the Civil War, the Harrison plantation had grown to 1,000 acres. Union army soldiers swept through the region in 1862, freeing the slaves, but the Harrison family deeded small tracts on the southern edge of the plantation to slaves who remained loyal to the family. Others moved a little to the north and established the community of Franklintown.

frank-placque

In 1880 Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church, an African American congregation in Fernandina Beach, the town on the northern part of Amelia Island, organized Franklintown Chapel. Eight years later, Gabriel Means, an ex-slave and Union army soldier, and his wife Edith Drummond Means donated land to the church. In 1892 a small frame building was constructed. In 1949, it was demolished because of highway A1A construction and a new frame church was built.

In 1935 a small group of black businessmen from Jacksonville established American Beach, a residential community with beach access. Their purpose was to provide a place on the ocean for African Americans who could not enjoy public beaches in the segregated south. It was just north of Franklintown and for the next thirty years these two communities lived side by side.

In 1972 a company based on Hilton Head Island bought much of Franklintown and took the initial steps to establish an elaborate ocean-fronting resort and luxury condominiums. The church had to move and was relocated on Lewis Street, near A1A in the northern portion of American Beach. A new brick chapel was constructed and the 1949 frame building was relocated to the new site and serves as the church’s fellowship hall. I am puzzled by the sign posted on this building that refers to the Franklintown Episcopal Methodist Church, which reverses the order of Methodist and Episcopal from the normal title used through history by Methodists in this country.

cem-2I have not yet learned the earlier location of this church, but I have found the original Franklintown cemetery, which is located in Plantation Point, a gated community just south of Lewis Street. On a cul-de-sac of $500,000 homes, there is one vacant lot that provides access to the cemetery. Most of the graves are unmarked, but the purpose of this tiny tract of land is made clear by those that are still identified. I was especially moved by the grave of Ola A. Williams, September 12, 1879 — August 15, 1991.

In her book The Shrinking Sands of an African American Beach, Annette McCollough Myers describes challenges facing American Beach (and Franklintown) because of the influx of wealthy people, most of them white and from other parts of the nation. The people I see while cycling through Franklintown are just like me, white and alien to the territory. Realty reports online describe Franklintown as one of the wealthiest communities in the nation.

Perhaps because of the wealth, there also is despair. I talked briefly with one old African American man sitting in the shade near a convenience grocery on A1A, within sight of the church. He sat with his back to the road, staring at the ground, munching on chips from a ripped open bag. His speech was difficult to understand, but over and over again he repeated this simple refrain: “I want to go, but I don’t want to kill myself.”

Myers, Annette McCollough. The Shrinking Sands of an African American Beach, Second Edition (Jacksonville, FL: High-Pitched Hum Publications, 2011). This book describes the history of American Beach from the 1980s through the early 2000s.


Kenneth Woodward’s Requiem for a Lost America

January 30, 2017

Responding to Kenneth L. Woodward’s Getting Religion: Faith, Culture, and Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Era of Obama (New York: Convergent, 2016)

woodwardFew people have had the opportunity that has come to Kenneth L. Woodward who devoted most of his career to writing about American religion. His base was one of the most favored journalistic posts of the half century during which he worked: religion editor for Newsweek. This position provided financial support and entrée so that he could go places, watch from the inside, and talk extensively with people who were central to what was going on.

He wrote extensively and frequently in disciplined and lively, readable language. In later years, institutional archives have made this backlog of material available for him to draw upon when needed. Among the strengths of Woodward’s reporting is that he writes as a Christian believer and as a self-aware old man, conditions he affirms in the final paragraph of the book.

“One of the blessings of old age is the clarity with which diminishing energy of mind and body allows us to see what has been our human lot all along—namely, contingency, transience, and finitude. We cannot control what may happen to us. Nothing lasts forever. We must die. These hold true for believer and nonbeliever alike. They are the existential facts of life that all religions in different ways address. In reply, Christians like myself are called to abide in Faith, Hope, and Love. What matters is that God’s grace is everywhere” (413).

Everyone interested in the life of our nation during this half century can benefit from this book of “lived history” that Woodward has written. It is clear, articulate, vivid, and filled with insight concerning the central topic, which is the interaction of religion, culture, and politics during this period.

As soon as I started reading the book, I liked it. Perhaps the most important reason is that we are close to the same age (I was born in 1931, Woodward in 1935). We grew up in an era when the United States was characterized by what he calls embedded religion, marked by a fusion of faith, culture, and politics. He grew up in a Catholic culture in Cleveland, Ohio, whereas I grew up in a low-church Protestant culture in Portland, Oregon. Although the details of church life and education differed dramatically, there was an undergirding system of values, especially as focused on family structure, transmitted by church and school, that was much the same.

The first half of the book held my attention as Woodward describes the traditional patterns and then reports on the rapid changes that occurred, especially during the fifties and sixties. He describes the entrepreneurial religion of people like Billy Graham, basing his accounts on frequent interaction with leaders of these religious responses to changes in American life.

He gives careful attention to major changes in his own church, pushed in part by the Vatican Council, and describes the dismantling of the embeddedness that had been so important in his growing up years. Changes in Catholic liturgy and debates over birth control are carefully chronicled, and Woodward’s ambivalence about what was happening is clear. He quotes from his feature essay in a 1971 issue of Newsweek to describe why he and other Catholics of the time could remain steady in their faith.

“When the Catholic faith runs deep, it establishes a certain sensuous rhythm in the soul, a sacramental sensibility that suffuses ordinary things—bread, water, wine, the marriage bed—and transforms them into vehicles of grace. In these spiritual depths, doctrine and church laws fade in importance” (92).

At this point in his book, Woodward turns in a new direction. He describes the civil rights movement, as led by Martin Luther King, Jr., in which religious faith and zeal led to public engagement and the vigorous efforts to realize religious aspirations in public life by transforming a racist society. He emphasizes the restructuring of American religion, as described by writers like Richard John Neuhaus and Robert Wuthnow.

Woodward quotes from James Davison Hunter’s book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America in order to state the central feature of the change that was occurring. “The great polarity in American religion, he argued, was between ‘orthodox’ believers who appealed to an external, definable, and transcendent authority and ‘progressives’ who tended to resymbolize the contents of historic faith according to the presuppositions of contemporary life” (179). Read more: woodward