Apr 302011

Herewith a “What it’s like living here” essay & photos from Liz Blood who has taken an adventurous turn and fled her native Oklahoma City for the exotic wonders and mysteries of South Korea where she is now teaching (Liz and students pictured above). What is unique about this piece is that it’s about discovery and newness, not about a place Liz knows well or loves from habit, but a place in which she cannot even make out the words on the store signs. Everything is new, she feels awkward, nothing is easy. Going out to buy instant noodles at a convenience store is an expedition into the unknown. Liz’s words are fresh and revealing in their honesty and detail.


What It’s Like Living Here,

from Liz Blood in Gunsan, Jeollabuk-do, South Korea



There are marks everywhere that you don’t understand—on cars, buildings, flyers in your mailbox. Squares, circles, upside down Y’s—sometimes it looks more like a game of Tetris to you than a language.  This makes almost everything a real chore, but none so much as getting a meal. What will you order? How will you order? Are you even sure that’s a restaurant? When you first arrive in South Korea you don’t go out to dinner alone. Instead, you walk down the cold, granite steps of your apartment building, through the air-compressed sliding glass door (which you’re sure came from the set of Star Trek), and head out onto the street for the nearest convenience store.

As you leave your building—which is called Dreamplus, a fact you find funny since you’ve had so few dreams since coming to this country—you consider the sliding glass door and the ease with which it moves. Whooosh. It took you six or seven trips out that door to realize the sensor was above it and that, when the door wouldn’t open, a simple wave of the hand would suffice. All that jumping around and on and off the steps was unnecessary. Perhaps, one of these days, you will move with such ease, act right on cue. Like the door or even the children in your English classes, you will know the proper response.  I’ll have a beer, the pork dumplings, and kim chi soup, please.

But, until then, you simply round your corner in Jigok-dong—the name of your neighborhood, which you say proudly because it is one of the only things you can say properly—and walk into the 7-11 to find a pack of instant noodles. You choose any one of the packages without drawings of shrimp or fish and place the noodles on the counter, not even bothering to listen to the cashier tell you the amount—the register’s screen points outward, the numbers glow neon green. You breathe easy and relish the convenience.

Read the rest of this entry

Apr 282011


Dear Nick and Chris:

Fuzz from the poplar sticks to the windshield of our Ford. In the courtyard of our building, the birch bursts with pollen and I sneeze when hanging out sheets to dry on our balcony. The sky glows, the days lengthen, you both grow long and lean. A strange time, perhaps, to write you about Christmas, but your father’s gone, and writing this to you fills the hole he’s left.

You’re at an age where you’re interested. You’ve asked how a twenty-year-old man from Siena and a nineteen-year-old art history student from New York met. As an answer I’m writing you about the Christmas of 1977, the first Christmas the two spent together. A bizarre Christmas, with the young woman shut in a monastery—not unlike poor Pia de’ Tolomei in TheDivine Comedy (whom I’ll tell you about later)—while the young man came and went when curfew lifted. In a strange way that Christmas echoes the challenges facing us this spring. We’re here, stuck in Milan, going to school. Your father’s off to Egypt, making a living, returning on short monthly visits.

But you were both born in an advanced age. So before you read about Christmas consider:

In 1977, Siena was a different place from the one you find now. Thirty-odd years ago, no exhaust-belching tour busses clogged the narrow roads. No umbrella-toting guides led tourists up steep Medieval streets. No greasy clouds of McDonald’s fried air hovered in narrow passageways. Back in those days vegetables and fish were sold in the Piazza del Campo. Souvenir shops were few. Iran hadn’t happened. Frost still hobbled relations with Russia. The Red Brigades had assassinated several public figures but were still plotting the murder of Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro. In the Siena of that time, Americans were considered an exotic breed from a futuristic, hedonistic place. In that place your mother, me—one of the supposedly advanced, wanton Americans— in 1977 met an Italian on a cobblestoned street near a Renaissance fortress and found that love in a foreign language and culture is anything but easy.

The girl you’ll find in the following collage seems very young, her choice of fancy words an effort to hide a naïveté that today seems antiquated but then was typical of her age and her background. You might find it hard to believe she’s your mother, just a couple years older than you are now.

Reading, reminiscing, reflecting on how conflict was resolved. That’s why history matters. But you know that. Your teachers at school have already told you.

I’m enclosing sixteen excerpts from a journal and class assignments together with old snapshots and this letter:


1. The semester is over! Three months have flown by. Segments of time have been consumed yet the waxing moon grows whole again.

Christmas is almost here. Classmates are packing their bags, getting ready to go home and back to their previous lives across the ocean. I’ll miss Elisabeth and Brian, but gloat when considering Rachel’s departure. No more competition from her re: Mauro. I long to say, “I’m staying…you’re going,” but curb the urge. The semester has flown by with an alacrity that’s impossible to comprehend. At the end of the next short term, I will be in her position.

2. During the Christmas holidays, while the Ticci family (my hosts when school’s in session) suns on the beaches of Sicily, I’ll retire to a monastery and embark on a trip to the 13th century and the contemplative life. On Thursday I’ll be locked away behind big iron gates.

The monastic solution to the holidays was Mauro’s idea and I agreed because it’s quite economical to rent a monk’s cell—information my guidebooks neglected to tell me. So while the Ticcis are gone, I’ll pay a pittance to stay at Monastero Ventoso, on the outskirts of Siena.

The Padre Superiore has given me a room by the main entrance. Reserved for stray visitors, it boasts two twin beds—iron bedsteads with old-fashioned mattresses stuffed with wool—a night table with an iron lamp, a high window, a crucifix, a cherry wardrobe, a small desk. A print of the Madonna hangs over the desk.

Don’t get the wrong idea. The Padre has no hotel business on the side. When we met he stressed his convent is a place of prayer and meditation. He said I mustn’t be a disruptive influence. I promised not to disrupt anything. But permission was granted only when Mauro’s parents, well-known members of the parish, vouched for me. I was surprised they went to such lengths considering their feelings for me, the son-stealing American; Mauro said it was nothing, his father made a short phone call.

The Padre will stretch curfew past the usual hour of 8:00 p.m. to allow me to eat dinner elsewhere. At 10:00 p.m. sharp the gates will be locked. If I’m late, I’m out. The gate will be unlocked again at 7 a.m.

Honor and virtue; silence, solitude and prayers; curfews and gates heavily clanging shut. These are the themes I have confronted so far in arranging my new lodgings. Fierce and monumental. Worthy of the Middle Ages. Worthy of Pia de’ Tolomei, the 13th century Sienese noblewoman who perished while locked up in her husband’s castle.


2. Dressed up in Christmas finery, Siena bewitches. In Via Montanini two hundred Christmas trees flaunt their red ribbons. The Banchi di Sopra glitters with garlands of green fir and gold pine cones. The Via di Città leading up to the Duomo shimmers with candles and blinking lights. Under these gaudy displays, shop windows—lavishly arrayed in seasonal glitter—beckon. They persuade wallets into emptying their contents for last-minute purchases. I spent too much on gifts for Mauro’s family and now have to wire Mom for more cash.


3. I transferred my belongings from the Ticci’s to the monastery with Mauro’s help. Then it was on to Mauro’s home for lunch. I brought his mother a bunch of exuberant pink lilies that had been steamed open in a greenhouse in the hills behind San Remo.

His family, unlike the lilies, acted formal and stiff. Mauro’s mother took the flowers and smiled, but only with the bottom half of her face. His father, after a quick “bon giorno,” disappeared into the far reaches of their home. His grandmother, a small wrinkled lady, frowned when I tried to shake her hand, disapproving of my presence at lunch. Mauro said afterward that back in her day, women needed an engagement ring on their finger before they could meet a young man’s family.

At the table we made conversation:

“So, Mauro, your friend isn’t going home for Christmas?” his mother asked in rapid Italian, figuring I wouldn’t understand.

“I have another semester to go and the fare’s expensive.” I said, answering for myself.

I could have told her I’d had an invitation to go Paris to visit an uncle—expenses paid by the uncle—but decided to stay in Siena because of her son. Instead, I decided not to fan the flames of her dislike and said nothing.

When wine had melted some of the frost in the atmosphere, between the two meat courses of fagiano and cinghiale  (pheasant and wild boar that the head of the family had shot), Mauro’s father told me of his hobby. He opened his weapons cabinet behind the dining room table and showed me his hunting rifles, bullets and knives. Then he took me down the hall to see his boar’s head wall trophy.

Hunting, blood-letting—his favorite past-time. His eyes shone when he told me he especially enjoys hunting wild boar. The dogs, the chase, the kill.

4. It’s lonely in this monastery. And cold. Since curfew I’ve shivered in this bed with the lumpy mattress and thin blankets, reading melancholy stories of Pia de’ Tolomei, the noblewoman Dante relegated to Purgatory in the Divine Comedy. Apparently accused of infidelity and confined to a remote spot in the swamplands of Maremma by her husband, she languished and died there almost 700 years ago.

Like Pia I don’t see anyone, I don’t hear anyone. The monks live in a different section; I’m exiled to the wing near the head office where matters such as interviews with female boarders are conducted.

Tonight the howling of the wind keeps me company.

At least Pia had a maid.

La Pia de’ Tolomei, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

5. On tiptoes, in my flannel nightgown with the lace around the neck, I peer out the tiny window over my bed.

The wind has ceased moaning and groaning and whipping past corners. No lone moto, no car, no pedestrian sputters or clips through the night. No one but me sees that the heavens glow with a majestic full moon that dispels, with its brilliance, the shadows of the sleeping town waiting for Christmas to arrive.

Cypress trees block much of my view but I imagine Siena quietly spread over the hills south of me. Close by are several brick high-rises built in the 60’s. Far off, toward the centro storico stand the black-and-white-striped bell-tower at the Duomo, the brick-and-marble Torre del Mangia in the Piazza del Campo, and the red bell-tower at San Domenico. Three far-off friends.

As I sink down to the mattress I wonder. How many Christmases did Pia linger at her solitary window before she succumbed to loneliness?

This monastery. Pia’s story. Mauro’s hostile parents. They’re casting a pall on the joy of this season.

Snow at the Duomo

6. Today, Christmas, Mauro gave me a small gold ring with a red stone and a card with a sonnet by Pascoli in impossible Italian. Then he said we were fidanzati but that we wouldn’t mention it to anyone right now. They wouldn’t understand. I agreed, but wished he’d stand up to his parents and tell them how he feels about me instead of keeping it a secret.

I gave Mauro a glossy book of New York City with photographs taken by famous photographers of the last twenty years.

He’s never been out of Italy.

He flipped through the photos not speaking. Then he slapped the book shut, coughed and squeezed my hand and said he’d like to visit me in New York some day.

I coughed too and retied the lace on my boot so he couldn’t see my face.

I don’t want to think about leaving. I don’t want to think about impossible visits in New York some day.

When I bought the book, it seemed perfect. Now I wish I’d given him something else.

7. Mauro and I went to visit the Palazzo de’ Tolomei this morning and study it. I’m writing an essay over the holidays for Italian culture class.

Affixed to the side of the austere building hung a small plaque, high up, engraved with two somber, melancholy lines from Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy:

Ricorditi di me, che son la Pia:
Siena mi fè; disfecemi Maremma:
Purg. V 133-134

(Remember me who am La Pia; me
Siena, me Maremma, made, unmade….
translation by Dante Gabriel Rossetti)

I’d admired the Tolomei Palace innumerable times, but the building had seemed just another beautiful remnant of Siena’s illustrious past. Now that I’d been reading about one of its inhabitants, it had acquired significance. As I stared up at the diamond-paned windows on the piano nobile with Pia’s sad words echoing round the piazza, I wondered. Pia had been “made” here. She’d been born and grew up within this edifice’s aristocratic walls. Once she had looked out over the square where I was standing. But how and why she’d been “unmade” in Maremma was a mystery that had attracted attention throughout the centuries and would likely never be solved.

In addition to the two lines reproduced on the plaque, Dante writes just two more lines about Pia. In them he alludes to who is responsible for her death: her husband, Nello Pannocchieschi.

salsi colui che ‘nnanellata pria
disposando m’avea con la sua gemma
Purg. V 135-136

(…This in his inmost heart well knoweth
he With whose fair jewel I was ringed and wed ….)

But Dante doesn’t explain why or how Pia dies and what Nello’s role is. No late 13th-century historical records to clear the matter. For centuries scholars have disagreed as to the nature of Pia’s sins. That Dante considered her a sinner up until the very last minute when she repented (but without receiving last rites) thereby saving herself from hell and the Inferno is clear, otherwise she wouldn’t be in Purgatorio. But was she an adulteress? Or was she guilty of some other crime? And was she thrown from a window in a castle in Maremma on Nello’s orders, who some say wanted to marry someone else? Or did she die of illness and solitude?

When I asked his opinion Mauro said he thought she’d cheated, gotten caught, said she was sorry but her husband rightly turned a deaf ear. Instead, I preferred the line of reasoning of one of the most popular legends. According to this version of events, Pia’s husband shut her up in his castle in Maremma because an associate—whose advances Pia had rejected—told Nello she’d been unfaithful but gave false evidence to back the charge. Locked away in swampy, mosquito-ridden Maremma marshlands, Pia got sick with malaria. In the meantime, Nello discovered the lie, returned to release her but instead arrived in time for her funeral.

“I don’t want to finish in the same way,” I said after giving Mauro my opinion. “Expiring on the outskirts of Siena.”

“I knew this Pia trip was going to end up back at the monastery,” he said, frowning. “I thought I was doing you a favor keeping you safe at night.”

Safe at night? Since when was safety in Siena an issue? And then I understood. He didn’t trust me.

“It’s not you I don’t trust,” he said when I asked.  “It’s the men here. This is Italy. You’re American.”

I’m a twentieth-century Pia. And Mauro? He’s a twentieth-century Nello Pannocchieschi.

8. I spent the early morning writing in my cell. My neck was stiff after a bad night in the bumpy bed.

At ten thirty weak sunshine and a watery blue sky beckoned. I put down my pen, stretched, grabbed my coat and began a tour of the gardens.

To one side of the main building stood leafless trees, un-pruned hydrangea bushes replete with last summer’s flowers (though now brown and stiff), a potted lemon tree swathed in plastic to keep it warm on cold nights. I picked a dried rosebud from another bush in need of care.

“Signorina, what are you doing?” asked a voice from behind. I turned. It was the Padre. He frowned at the dead flower in my hand.“This area is off limits. Didn’t I tell you this already? You must stay along the gravel drive to the front gate.”

“But what’s wrong with a little walk? I’ll be quiet.”

“The brothers are in the vegetable garden. You must not disturb them. And please don’t pick anything else.”

“But, it’s dead,” I said.

“It’s not your place to say or to pick,” he said.

Pia de’ Tolomei, by Stefano Ussi

9. Signora Rossi makes wonderful meals every time I’ve been invited.

“I’m sorry if she feels obligated to extra fuss,” I said to Mauro.

“No,” he said. “She can’t help it. It’s her way when we have company.”

Today’s lunch menu consisted of the following:

crostini misti (paté and prosciutto hors d’oeuvres)
gnocchi alla romana  (au gratin dumplings made of semolina wheat),
coniglio e gobbi fritti  (fried rabbit and gobbi—a celery-look-alike from the artichoke family),
crostata all’albicocca (homemade apricot jelly tart),
panforte, panettone and pandoro (Christmas cakes),
ricciarelli  and cavallucci  (Christmas cookies),
espresso caffé,

“I always cook like this, doesn’t everybody?” she replied when I complimented her skill and generosity and trouble on my account.

“No!” I said, belching softly into my napkin and unbuttoning the top of my skirt.

Soon after, Mauro and I fell asleep sitting up on the living room sofa. His grandmother found us. She jabbed me in the ribs with her finger and hissed something I didn’t understand at Mauro.

Then she yelled. “Get up!”

His mother came running in.

“What is going on in here! What are you doing?”

10. We are going to Pisa tomorrow for the day. Mauro will come and pick me up at 5 a.m.; the Padre Superiore will open the gates early so that I can get out in time to catch the train.

Such magnanimity in bending the rules! Perhaps he is glad to be freed of my presence for the entire day.

I, too, am happy to be leaving the claustrophobic atmosphere at Monastero Ventoso and the glacial stares of Mauro’s possessive family.

I don’t know how much more of this medieval nightmare I can take.

11. I’m in disgrace. The Padre Superiore called me into the office where he first interviewed me. A blond hair has been found in the spare twin bed in my room. Between the sheets. The sheets, in addition, were wrinkled. Clear evidence that someone has been sleeping in that bed.

“Was it Mauro?” he wanted to know. “Someone else?”

I denied any and all knowledge of any blond-haired persons sleeping in the spare twin.

“By the way,” I wanted to ask when the interrogation wound down, “what were you doing snooping?”

12. The Padre Superiore hauled me in again today for more questioning.

“Signorina,” he began, clearing his throat. “Have you thought about our talk yesterday?”

“Yes, of course I have.”


“How can you be sure there is no explanation other than I’m guilty of some crime? What if someone else used that bed before I got to the monastery?” I thought of Pia and false accusations.

“If you change your mind, please come to see me.” He said, staring at his fingernails.

“Don’t you think you should consider that there may be another explanation?” I said, thinking of Pia and her untold version of events, how she hadn’t been able to defend herself, how defenselessness had caused her demise.

But the Padre answered me with a chilling, “How long did you say you were staying here? Was it until the 10th, after the Epiphany?”

“At the very longest. I may be leaving even sooner, if I can make alternative arrangements.” I bluffed, wondering where I’ll go if he kicks me out.

13. Mauro tried to have curfew extended last night so we could celebrate New Year’s together but the Padre Superiore refused. He intended it as punishment, and perhaps as a moment for me to reflect, repent, recant.

I went to bed at 11 p.m. after drinking a Campari soda I had smuggled in. I felt very sorry for myself.

I should walk out, but after paying rent here and buying Christmas presents, I have no money left for a hotel. Mom’s cable hasn’t yet arrived.

14. “What to do about the monastery?” I asked Mauro as we walked in circles around the Castello di Belcaro, an exquisite spot outside Siena where tradition has it nobles once holed up to escape outbursts of the plague.

“What did he say exactly?”

“He said there was a short blond hair in the spare bed.”

“Mine.” Mauro swallowed. “Who do you suppose inspected the linen?”

“I don’t know.”

“Maybe things will die down.”

“He’s a bloodhound, after a scent. He’s not going to give up.”

“Funny isn’t it? ” said Mauro.


“You were late,” Mauro said, tugging at my hand, “it was your fault.”

I hadn’t woken up in time to catch the early train to Pisa and was not waiting by the front gate like we had arranged.

“But you were the one who breached the walls,” I said. He’d come to my room and had thrown rocks at my window—a misdemeanor. Then, when I opened it, he’d climbed in—a more serious offense. While I finished drying my hair, he’d sat on the twin bed—definitely a felony. And then the rumpling began. A crime of such gigantic proportions that if brought to the Padre’s attention he would lock us up and throw the key into the murky depths of the goldfish pond out back.

“Try telling him all we did was cuddle for a minute before running for the later train. He’d never believe it.”

“You’re right, as a matter of fact, I almost don’t believe it,” agreed Mauro.

15. Entering the Padre Superiore’s study, I found him writing at his desk.

Sinking back in his chair, he studied me. “You have something to say?” he asked.

“I’ll be leaving tomorrow, on the 6th, four days earlier than planned,” I said. “I wonder if I could have a refund on my rent? I’m broke.”

“You want a refund. I’d be glad to give you a refund. But first, is there nothing else? Isn’t something weighing you down?”

“No. I have nothing to say except that I’ll never forget my stay here.”

“It will be hard for us to forget you, as well.” He took his glasses off and put them on the desk. “We had you stay here as a favor to the Rossi family. I’m considering telling them what has happened. What will they think?”

I bit my lip. I wanted my money back. But on the other hand, I didn’t need it back that badly. Mauro said he’d help me out until my funds from home arrived.

“You’d be too late,” I said. “Mauro has already told them. Signor Rossi found it distasteful that someone scrutinized my sheets. But we all had a good laugh. He knows we didn’t do anything wrong.”

Later I told Mauro. We were sitting in his white sedan in a dusky lane near an abandoned school with shattered windows and a missing door where nuns once taught. Rumor has it they abandoned their newborn babies in the woods beyond.

“It was a stroke of brilliance to tell him you’d already ‘confessed’ to your parents, don’t you think? But, suppose I exaggerated too much? And he wants to tell your parents his side of the story?”

“He won’t. His best course is to keep a low profile. And then, even if he does talk to my father, what is the worst that can happen?”

“Your parents will be sorry that they went out of their way.”

“No, they won’t because they know I was home every night.”

“Vindicated only because you have an alibi. Not because anyone believes me.”

“By tomorrow at this time, the monastery will be a closed chapter. It was a bad choice. But it’s almost over.”

“Thank god,” I said, exhaling.

“You know, I’ve been thinking.” He leaned across the seat and brushed my bangs out of my eyes.

I waited for a while and then he told me. He wants his parents to know how he feels about me. That this affair isn’t some boyish infatuation.

I wondered about his change of heart. Had Pia and her unspoken thoughts and words affected him?  Had the mystery of her life and death—one without truth and trust—swayed him? Had the monastery showed him that he should speak up?

Somehow—although he didn’t say—I figured this were so.

16. It’s a holiday, the Epiphany, and here’s mine:

Skip living in Medieval establishments such as castles and monasteries.

Pia died a lonely death in one, I was embarrassed and humiliated in one.

No wonder the guidebooks don’t recommend them.

Albergo Castellini—a modest two-star—will do. Mauro’s lending me the money. I’ll pay him back when Mom’s cable comes through.

He says not to worry. He doesn’t want the money. He says he’s hoping to see me smiling again.

Right now I’m waiting by the front gate at Monastero Ventoso. It’s 8:25 a.m. and he’s late, but only by 25 minutes. He’ll be along soon, as soon as he’s through telling his parents.

Boys, your father came along right before lunch. He took me to his parents’. We had a multi-course meal—your grandmother’s way of expressing emotion—and then another, after that. And then many more.

Since then we’ve faced difficult challenges—we’ve done some climbing so to speak. Most of our climbs have been without guides. The air’s been thin, the water’s been scarce, the sun’s been hot, we twisted our ankles, skinned our knees and once ended up badly dehydrated, but somehow we’ve always reached a scrap of shade.

We’re climbing again, all four of us. Your father’s on one side of the Mediterranean. We’re stuck on the other.

But we’ll make it. We can say we love each other.

Your father texted me a minute ago. Here’s what he’s typed in this new, poetic language he’s learning:

“Sabah Al Khair Habibti.” 

It means ‘good morning, my beloved.’

After thirty-odd springs together, I think ‘good morning, my beloved’ sounds incredibly fine.

                                                                                     –Love, Mom

–by Natalia Sarkissian

Apr 272011

Tucked away in the pages of Numéro Cinq are skillfully told stories that pull us inside. The best of these hold us tight and whisper things that haunt our thoughts, urging us to care more deeply. Robert Semeniuk tells such stories with his photographs. He has been a photojournalist and human & environmental rights activist for 3 decades. I met Robert and his wife, musician Ruta Yawney on Bowen Island a few months ago and today I am honored to introduce you to Robert’s work. Each of the images shown here is excerpted from a story. These particular stories about the Inuit of arctic Canada, preventable blindness in Ethiopia, war affected children, and AIDS in Botswana are elaborated in image and word on Robert’s webpage.

— lynne quarmby

Five Photographs

By Robert Semeniuk


Tea time on the cariboo hunt

Gaza boys playing ‘Arab & Jews’

Continue reading »

Apr 262011

Herewith a gorgeous and protean reading of Joseph Conrad’s story “Youth” by the noted Dutch maritime historian and scholar J. N. F. M. à Campo. “Poiesis of the Past” is a special paper, prepared and delivered as a farewell address, which thus contains personal as well as scholarly and critical perspectives, which, yes, accumulates critical vectors not always available to the pure literary critic and thus reaches beyond the conventional approach. Joep à Campo teaches World History and Historical Research Methods at the Faculty of History and Arts of the Erasmus Universiteit, Rotterdam. He received his PhD degree cum laude in 1992 (Rijksuniversiteit Leiden). His dissertation has been published in English as Engines of Empire, Steamshipping and State Formation in Colonial Indonesia (Hilversum 2002). He has published widely on research methods, historical consciousness, economic, maritime and cultural history. His current research topics are Maritime History of Indonesia, Memo-history, Conradian studies, and Tango studies. NC has the great privilege of publishing this paper due to the good offices of our mutual friend, Haijo Westra, of the University of Calgary (see his essay on dg’s novel Elle here).




A historian’s reading of the short story ‘Youth, a narrative’ by Joseph Conrad

By J.N.F.M. à Campo



Farewell paper for the Center for Historical Culture

ErasmusSchool of History, Culture and Communication

18 January 2011

Foreword: a personal note

… and I remember my youth and the feeling
that will never come back any more …

Joseph Conrad, Youth: a narrative

The closing of my academic duties is an appropriate opportunity for looking back on my lifelong engagement with history. As a mirror of my reflections I have chosen the short story Youth: a narrative written by Joseph Conrad, pseudonym of Joseph Korzeniowski, in 1898. It offers an opportunity to overlook some central themes in my work, and also to hark back to some formative experiences in my own childhood.

I was born and raised in the roman-catholic countryside of Southern Limburg in the after war years amidst deserted weapons and recurrent stories of the war, the content and flavour however varying according to the temperament of the narrators.[1] There was a stark contrast between the rural and industrial sectors in the region, where natural hills contrasted with mine deposits, and where the traditional countryside was interspersed with modern mining villages, called colonies, inhabited by migrants from all Europe. At the age of six I migrated to the IJsselmeer polder, and the change from the luxuriant hillside to the chilly plain below sea level was felt as a real break. For days on end I roamed the reclaimed bottom of the sea and stuffed my trousers-pockets with clay pipe bowls lost by former Zuiderzee fishermen, daydreaming of the flat bottomed vessels that once had sailed above my head, over the past as a bygone yet nearby world. The sense of loss was as captivating as the sense of innovation. Memorable were the frequent trips to the encapsulated former islet of Schokland, nearby ultra-orthodox fishing-villages like Urk, with their old houses and inhabitants in traditional costume, or to Staphorst where children were literally tightened on leashes against the dangers of the modern world.

As a showcase of post war economic innovation, the polder was set up as a social project for national integration based on planned denominational segregation (verzuiling) of settlers from all over the country. It accentuated the contrast between old and new land, tradition and modernity, historical growth and social malleability. Just like the native surroundings, the new setting provided many incentives for social diversities and historical consciousness. History also intruded from the outside. The most exiting images were exotic glimpses from Indonesia, which were gleaned from disparate sources ranging from visiting missionaries to picture books with wonderful colour-plates. At the local gymnasium I became acquainted with mythic, narrating and analytic history as exemplified by Homeros, Herodotus and Thucydides respectively. From the interest in the canonized history in school, however, I was much detracted by Sam Cooke’s 1960 hit ‘Don’t know much about history … But I do know that I love you …’

Gradually the relevance of history for contemporary problems dawned upon me. History popped up in discussions about the cold war and its fire-blazes overseas, decolonization and deconfessionalisation. It became clear that historical imagery is not just carefree musing, but is involved in mental maps, social attitudes and political choices, – that history does matter indeed. The present was experienced as history. That background became the motivation for studying political science and modern history and the moving spirit of my academic activities.

My research focused on the maritime history of Indonesia, as a meeting ground of eastern and western history. While I was dedicated to an academic attitude and writing format of solidly fact-based history, I intermittently turned towards the fiction of Joseph Conrad, in particular his stories set in the Eastern seas. It proved inspirational because of its critical stance towards common contemporary historiography, and it helped balancing fact and fiction, romance and reality, documentation and imagination. As an academic historian, however, I felt puzzled, challenged, even provoked by his assertion that artful fiction is ‘nearer truth’ than academic historiography. Before addressing this statement, I want to summarize and discuss a historical reading of one of his short stories, Youth: a narrative, first published in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1898. It was included as the first story in the 1902 volume Youth, a Narrative; and Two Other Stories, the other stories being Heart of Darkness and The End of the Tether, featuring maturity and old age, respectively.[2]


Continue reading »

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. This experience has been elaborated in my research report on historical consciousness in: De Nieuwste Tijd 10 (2000) p. 87-114.
  2. Ian Watt (1979, 133-34) maintains that the ‘relatively slight’ story – relative to Heart of Darkness – owes its success to the ‘relative simplicity of its story, characters, and theme’. While appreciating its charm, he regards Marlow’s romantisation of ‘youth’ and its confirmation by the audience just trite rhetoric. Jocelyn Baines (1993, 73) called the story ‘a gorgeously romantic evocation of the impact of the East’. Richard Ambrosini (1991, 80) regarded the tale just a ‘nostalgic song of lost youth, a wistful regret for the passing of time’ and thus they have skipped its significance as critical discourse.
Apr 192011

Last month Prairie Schooner announced its annual literary awards, and Nance Van Winckel, who has already appeared on the pages of Numéro Cinq several times for her poetry, video art, photocollages and off the page pho-toems, won the Edward Stanley Award for nine poems that appeared in the magazine’s summer issue. It’s a huge pleasure to offer here three of the prize-winning poems. Nance is one of my favourite co-workshop-leaders at Vermont College of Fine Arts, a hip lady with a wry sense of humour and knowing grace. —dg


Three Edward Stanley Award-Winning Poems

By Nance Van Winckel


You Might Remember Her From Earlier

Sawing into my September mind, one step
and I’m on the crowded path, shoving
toward the vortex. Information in the place
of grief. Trafficking in it. The shirt had
a name, but the man didn’t. Girl, that’s
one lousy anti-Lazarusian report.

The boss wants newer news. Scrubbed
news. In fewer picas. Enter the underground,
pass through the turnstile, everyone trying
to say they told me so. Part of a horde
on pause in a train, I sat under my book’s
black awning. How I loved those cold mornings
of the early pages—turning up
the marble hallways of the vast B.C.


Negotiable Instruments

Work For Food, his sign says, so we
put him in our truck & truck him
to the building, condemned, & give him
a sledgehammer & a ham-on-rye & ditto
the same unto ourselves whose butt tattoos
read Work Will Make Us Free & we three
fall upon the struts & joists, we beat back
& swing low, we dig out & haul ass
so rubble is again as it’s always been
the rule of the world, until he whom
we carried with us we may carry away
& refeed and high five & bid adieu so he
may turn his sign at last to the flipside
that tells us to Have a Blessed Day.


The Red Line

The Mommy says her Little Man eats, page

by page, whatever romance she’s reading.

Eats headlines and bugs from the yard.

The train rattles around us

and every time the doors blow apart, Little Man leans

to lick the breeze. He leaves no unturned stone

uneaten. Everything’s fire-roasted, taste-

tested. What amplification

he gives space when his mouth opens. He may be

one part per trillion of the world,

but he plans to ingest the other

999.9 billion. He has

the stomach for it, for all us scarfed and hatted,

stuck in a paragraph of dashed hopes.

As the stops yank us in or push

us out, he sees me and nibbles

at my grudge. Little cloud in Little Man’s eye

is all that finally puts him to sleep,

and sleep on him is just too terrible

a beauty to behold. For even

asleep, Little Man punches the Mommy’s breast,

sure it’ll never empty, sure

he’ll always stay a bee

upon the white flower.

—Nance Van Winckel

(Post Design by Mahtem Shiferraw)

Apr 152011

Herewith an excerpt from Juan José Saer‘s novel The Sixty-Five Years of Washington translated by Steve Dolph and recently published by Open Letter Books.  Two friends walk stroll an Argentine city, relishing tales of a wild party neither of them attended (one cannot escape the allegorical parallel with Latin American colonial self-deprecation). They reminisce about the past, expose their anxieties, jump proleptically into a future filled with repressive violence. (See Richard Farrell’s review here.) In this flashback scene, the main character, Angel Leto, has gone away to the countryside with his mother. Leto is returning home on a Sunday evening to discover his father’s body. In their absence, Leto’s father has committed suicide.


from The Sixty-Five Years of Washington

By Juan José Saer

Translated by Steve Dolph

They’ve left behind the wide, residential section of the street and are now walking down a narrow, treeless sidewalk where more and more frequently the windows and doors of businesses sit open. Bringing the stem of the unlit pipe to his lips, the Mathematician distractedly starts stroking them with the tip, its bowl hidden in his closed hand. He doesn’t say anything now. Above his eyebrows, on his smooth forehead, his skin wrinkles a little, into horizontal furrows, and be–tween the two little blonde brushes appear two oblique fissures, forming a vertex at the bridge of his nose. Leto, meanwhile, remembers: Isabel, the past year, Lopecito, the wake, the closed casket, etc.—and five days before all that, that is, before the wake, Lopecito, etc. no?—as we were, or rather I, yours truly, no?, was saying: green wheat, already so tall, from the bus window. He has left Rosario Norte an hour before, with his mother. They’re on their way to Andino, to his maternal grandparents’ house, to spend the weekend. It’s a Friday in late spring. They left Rosario at 1:00. When they leave behind the San Lorenzo industrial complex, the land fills with tall green wheat, fields of flax, and, sometimes, yellow sunflowers right up to the shoulders of the road. Every once in a while they pass a farmhouse, with its windmill and eucalyptus, which interrupts, as they say, the fields, the same way stations divide the scant towns in two like a river or a railroad would in other places in the world. A parallel dirt path separates, in the country, the geometrical grains from the road—and on that path, every once in a while, a solitary carriage travels, hardworking and unreal, which the bus, as slow as it is, leaves behind with ease. He, helpful and enthusiastic, went along to the station. That man who, ever since Leto has had use of his reason, has always been silent, distant, shut away with his unsuspected chimeras in his radio workshop, for the last month or so seems to have broken the bell jar that separated him from the outside world, and has come with them, seeming euphoric, close, warm, and open. Leto observes him at a distance, incredulous. At first the change was so sudden that, in his skepticism, he was sure it was some kind of joke, or a tactical transformation, but his persistence and his conviction to the role were so intense that Leto’s initial incredulity was replaced with doubt—is he? would he?—all that, no?, telling himself at the same time, but from then on without concrete ideas or words and almost without realizing it, though not only his mind but also his whole body are for some reason saturated with those senses that more and more resemble the shudder or the silent beating or the contraction of nerves, temples, veins, muscles, telling himself, he would say, but in that way, no?, that if it was a comedy the intended audience was Leto himself, because for Isabel, Lopecito, and the rest, who were convinced in advance, no persuasion was necessary—he, Leto no?—the only one who suspected that the man had something up his sleeve, that the man had realized—and decided I was the last obstacle to demolish before his magical circle could finally close, the straggler he had to force in before sealing, hermetically, from the inside, the capsule, and launching it into the interstellar space of his own delirium, Leto thinks, this time with clear and well-formed thoughts, walking, next to the Mathematician, always to the south, on the shady sidewalk, where, more and more frequently, the windows and doors of businesses are open. On a bright, warm, and calm November afternoon, the bus drives past rectangles of blue flax, of yellow sunflowers and green wheat, leaving behind, slow and regular, the repetitive uprights of the telegraph poles, while Leto, sitting next to the window, candidly observes Isabel who, in the seat ahead of him, calmly and serenely flips through the latest issue of Ms & Mrs. The comedy that Leto, after several weeks, has convinced himself is real, produces a tranquilizing and at the same time euphoric effect in Isabel, inasmuch as her old phantasms of marital bliss, upward mobility, sexual satisfaction, economic stability, familial harmony, religious tranquility, and physical well-being have seemed, in recent weeks, to have found their long-awaited substantiation, de–spite the resistance of a hostile world. Isabel’s attention, detached from the intense perfection of the land, is fixed on the page—a weight-loss plan? the horoscope? an interesting recipe? the opinions of a movie star? sentimental correspondence? Leto doesn’t wonder anymore, feeling nonetheless, indifferently, definitively perhaps, the abyss that separates them. The magazine, elevated almost to her chest, lets him see the belly which, under a modest skirt, ends at the vertex that the crossing muscles form with the pubis—he was in there, for nine months, and then funneled out, fell into the world. What should he feel? First of all, the ubiquitous mother, the amazing plain, fascinates him just then more than his own; the vast world, so indifferent, nevertheless seems more familiar than the one he was raised in at home. His coldness isn’t quite hatred—still, the censure he himself ignores, buried for a long time, feeling now that it’s too late to want them to have been different, makes him see his own feelings as though they were controlled remotely by others, an older and distinct species—not hatred, no, but instead a sort of quiet and curious outrage that makes him observe them constantly to see how far they’ll go, with the wild hope that, after so much time, with laughter and a shift in pose, they will finally say: Okay, that’s enough, show’s over, time to start being our real selves. He, the kind and helpful man, has gone with them to the bus station, in Rosario Norte, has given the impression, for the last month, of being something else, not his real self, but still very different—his concentrated detachment has become lightheartedness; his distracted indifference, friendly attention; his limp and depressive inertia regarding his family and work, enthusiasm and projects. The day before, he came out of the workshop with his eyes tired from connecting so many thin cables and adjusting so many tiny screws, and while he helped Isabel get dinner ready and set the table, he told Leto that next week, when they came back home, they would go fishing together; they would cross the river on a canoe with Lopecito and camp on the island for a couple of days. He even rang up Lopecito who, of course, sounded excited. And in Rosario Norte, just as they were getting on the bus, he, that man, reminded him: on Wednesday, at the latest, because Lopecito was busy Monday and Tuesday, they would row to the island. In fact, Leto has to put effort into showing that he finds the outing as attractive as Lopecito and his father seem to, but the slightly irked, wary curiosity these altered people inspire allows him to give himself over, to persist, with the same affected detachment one would use to observe the behavior of a colony of laboratory mushrooms, in acting out the different scenes of the comedy, hoping to finally unravel the heart of the plot and its characters. Many years later he will understand, from the overwhelming evidence, that the so-called human soul never had, or will ever have, what they call substance or essence, that what they call character, style, personality, are nothing but senseless replications, and that their own subject—the body where they manifest—is the one most starved of their nature, that what others call life is a series of a posteriori recognitions of the places where a blind, in–comprehensible, ceaseless drift deposits, in spite of themselves, the eminent individuals who, after having been dragged through it, begin to elaborate systems that pretend to explain it; but for now, having just turned twenty, he still believes that problems have solutions, situations outcomes, individuals personality, and actions logic. Leto observes, with some pleasure, the countryside through the window. Every ten or fifteen kilometers the bus stops at a station for a few minutes to drop off or pick up bags of mail, travelers, the ticket taker, the shopkeepers returning from their restocking trips to Rosario, the packets of newspapers and magazines, the passengers going from one town to another, few compared to those coming from Rosario, as though contact among those towns were prohibited and it was only possible for them to connect by way of the abstract and distant city, those towns on the plains, squared off like the country, regularly and strictly consisting of two rows of houses, most of unplastered brick, four blocks long, one on each side of the highway and separated—each row of houses, no?—from the bus station by a wire fence, a windmill, and a wide dirt street—and on the ends of the four blocks, two lateral streets that close the quadrilateral and rise slightly at the shoulder, towns that are, to put it one way, like a miserly concession from the plains to roughen, at brief and regular intervals, its simplistic, monotonous geometry. To Leto those towns are childhood—that is, in his case, the coming and going by train or by bus, the vacations, in winter or summer, at his grandparents’ house, his grandfather’s general store with its big, dark shelves, the colored fabrics, patterned with flowers, stripes, polka dots, blocks, or with little black and white flowers, stacked on top of each other and lined up diagonally in the cases, the carefully situated yellow bags of sod, the logo and the letters of the brand repeated on several rows, the pyramids of identical cans of preserves, piled up at the back of the store, the bins of caramels, the rows of cigarette packs organized by brand, the ones with blonde tobacco on the left side of the case, with black tobacco in the middle, toscanos, toscanitos, matches, loose tobacco, and rolling paper on the right, the big bins of sugar, of lentils, of garbanzos, of noodles, the rows of dried cod, stiff and covered with rock salt, the harvesting bags smelling of leather and oil, the bottles of wine, by type, by brand, by size, the glass cases with toiletries, the cooler, the scales, the wood countertop, smooth, dark, and weathered, the calendars and the cardboard advertisements with pictures of movie stars, of soccer teams, funny or artistic drawings, the shoeboxes, the kerosene cans and cooking alcohol in the storeroom, next to rows of detergent, flour, salt, oil, and above all, the boxes of Quaker Oats with the drawing of a man holding a smaller box of Quaker Oats with a smaller man holding an even smaller box of Quaker Oats with an even smaller man holding, no?, an even smaller, no?, to infinity, no?, like . . . no?, childhood, we were saying, or rather yours truly was saying, or rather, that is to say, no?, childhood: internal construction and external wandering, convalescence of nothing, corporeal truth versus social fiction, hope of pleasure versus generalized deception, just like that thing on Sundays, the pursuit, torture, and murder of grasshoppers and frogs between the trees in the back yard, the terrifying nights under the crucifix hanging on the headboard with dried olive branches from the last Palm Sunday, the white nightgowns of his aunts, cousins, grandmother, his uncles drinking cold beer under the trees, the afternoon, the whistles of the express passing through town and filling it with fear, the childhood Leto is already starting to tell himself, without words or concepts—not even with images or representations, no?—Isn’t what I had expected. It’s still not what I think it should be like. This can’t be all there is.

Ultimately, as they say, and to say it a second time, though it’s always the Same, no?, every thing. He even rang up the man he calls his best friend, Lopecito, to suggest going fishing on the island the following week. And Leto, on the bus, is willing to let himself be carried along, with a somewhat uneasy sense of calm, through those warm and beautiful spring days, to the following Wednesday, on the island near Rosario. That anticipation saturates the entire weekend: arriving in the town, crossing the streets and the bus station, passing the windmill, arriving at his grandparents’ house, the dinner, the evening walk through the town, the croaking of the frogs, the intermittent song of the crickets that has always attended, and no doubt preceded, the human night, the intermittent, phosphorescent glow of the fireflies, the smell of the paradise trees, the family gathering on Saturday with the relatives who have been arriving from nearby towns in cars or on the bus, the organized abundance, formed by identical objects repeated over and over in the store, the night spent under the crucifix, the mass, the cookout at noon on Sunday, the women’s flower-patterned dresses, the walk around the station with the cousins, and more than anything else, the perfect hour on the plains, the afternoon, and also, every once in a while, in little outbursts to someone in the family, Isabel’s foolish declarations of her marital bliss, her upward mobility, her sexual satisfaction, her economic stability, her familial harmony, her religious tranquility, her physical well-being, which he lets run on like background noise whose fictitiousness intrigues him less than its obstinate and emphatic repetition. That insistence betrays her uncertainty, the same way that, on Sunday night when the bus arrives at Rosario Norte, the thing she murmurs, slightly distracted, Hopefully he hasn’t made anything for dinner because I could pop after everything we ate in Andino,could be translated, Leto thinks, into a way of saying the opposite, because the fact of him waiting with a warm dinner would help dispel the uncertainty that’s working on her and which is of such a curious nature—when it manifests itself externally, it always appears to be the opposite.

The man is not at the station, It’s good he didn’t come, murmurs Isabel, after scrutinizing the walkway and the entrance. It’s good he didn’t come because anyway we don’t have suitcases and the train leaves us a block away. Leto, who after so many years has become an expert in the art of pretending he hasn’t heard anything, or of responding, almost inaudibly, with vague monosyllables, to every irrational, or, as he refers to them privately, false bottom argument laid out by Isabel, turns the conversation to fresh eggs, their bouquet of flowers, the greasy chorizos just made at the farm stand and plied on them in the town.

Slowly they leave the train, walking away from the palm trees lining the avenue to enter the dark, tree-lined block that separates them from their house. Isabel isn’t, Leto thinks, in any hurry to get there, as if through some physical inertia her body, contrary to her reason, were trying to express things more truthfully. Twice in a single block she stops for several minutes to talk with neighbors who, sitting in folding chairs on the sidewalk near their front doors, or leaning out a window, have come out to enjoy the cool night, while Leto, keeping a polite distance, with the basket of eggs and chorizo in one hand and an unlit cigarette in the other hand, asks himself if she isn’t trying to gain time so that he, who she supposes innocent of machinations and exempted from her intuition, will overtake her and get home first—and all of this in spite of the fact that, to the outside world, they are just a mother and son, a silent twenty-year-old young man, coming back, respectable, straightforward, and a little tired, from a weekend in the country, neighborhood people, apparently the husband is an electrician who works on televisions and doesn’t mix much with the neighbors, the boy studies accounting, and she’s still pretty even though she’s around forty, the men more or less silent and withdrawn, while she sometimes maybe has the habit of talking too much, like she can’t stop, or she’s trying to hide, to cover up, with words, deep dark fissures which her words, despite her intentions, open at their multiple, secret edges. But she doesn’t give up. Leto waits, patiently, or a little callously, rather, at every stop, and when they get to the house, which is dark, silent, and lifeless, and he slides the key in the lock, and turns it, he feels again, coming through the door, the trail of the snake, the indefinite but distinct presence of the scorpion, whose signs, weakened in the previous weeks, have returned, unequivocal and palpable. When he turns on the light, this presence draws him, sucks him, slowly, toward the bedroom, and when he sees the man sprawled on the floor, his skull shattered by the gunshot, the revolver still in his hand, the floor, walls, and furniture splattered with blood, with chunks of brain, hair, bone shards, he says to himself, calmly and coldly, So that’s what this was. Specifically, this meaning the days, the nights, the time, the body, the world, the thick beating life, how the man, in his little electrical workshop, had dismantled them, detaching and separating them into separate pieces, colored cables, copper wires, gold screws, spreading them over the table to inspect them one at a time, neutral and merciless, limiting himself to reaching what he no doubt considered objective conclusions, and later, during uniform and meticulous hours, putting everything back together according to the indisputable logic of his delirium. To achieve his goals he had to construct the comedy, setting a stage, the visible universe, and making all of his so-called loved ones take part, modifying the plot sometimes to convince the most reticent, as had been happening for the previous weeks with Leto, whose mistrust had forced him to make appearances outside his “workshop,” transforming his personality slightly and preparing, with Lopecito’s unconditional support, when he swallowed whole the supposed week of fishing on the island, for Leto, his reticence becoming hope, to fall, on his return from the country Sunday night, from an even higher rung. Put briefly, and by the man himself, no doubt to himself, and no doubt without words as well, more or less like this: When I say dance, everyone dances. No excuses.

Two or three days later the autopsy reveals that he shot himself on Friday at around 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon, meaning that he said goodbye with a grin at the station, reminding him before he left that on Wednesday they would cross to the island with Lopecito, then, still grinning, boarded the train back to their neighborhood, walked the block between the train stop and the house at a calm and regular pace, and no doubt without losing his grin entered the house, crossed the hallway, shut himself in the bedroom, and without hesitating or losing the fixed, vindictive grin, blew his brains out.

—I call that an insolent suicide, said César Rey, a few months later, at the bar Montecarlo, in the city, while they watched the sun, through the window, rising into a cold autumn dawn. And Rey can speak with authority because the day before, in fact, he had gotten a hotel room, intending to slit his wrists, but at the decisive moment he had suddenly changed his mind, and after leaving the hotel, he had run into Leto at the arcade’s bar, where they proceeded to go on a bender.

—The insolent suicide, says Leto, shaking his head. Isabel and Lo–pecito were left stupefied by the event—in the director’s absence they no longer knew exactly what role they played in the comedy—but Leto himself thinks he has known how to conserve enough cold blood to keep him from the path of the gunshot, though the suspicion of having been the primary target for the last few weeks could be, without his realizing it, proof of the opposite.

The insolent suicide, he thinks, discreetly watching the Mathematician, whose eyebrows indicate a laborious reflection that Leto cannot know, and is not interested in knowing, but which is more or less the following: Where does instinct come from? Does it belong to the individual or the species? Is there continuity between individuals? Does the latter individual take over the instinct from the point where the former left it or does he reconstruct, from zero, the whole process from the start? Is it substance, energy, reflex? What is our idea of instinct? How was it first formed? By whom? Where? As opposed to what? What, in a living thing, isn’t instinct? And then, forgetting Noca, Noca’s horse, instinct, the images he has built up thanks to Botón’s story on the ferry, the previous Saturday, on the upper deck, images of Washington’s birthday at Basso’s ranch, which he didn’t attend but will remember for the rest of his life, the other questions, always stirring, underground, and sometimes rising to the surface, suddenly, that follow us, form us, lead us, allow us to be, the old questions first brought up in the African dawn, heard in Babylon and asked again in Thebes, in Asia Minor, on the banks of the Yellow River, which sparkled in the Scandinavian snows, the solilo–quy in Arabia, in New Guinea, in Königsberg, in Mato Grosso, and in Tenochtitlán, questions whose response is exaltation, is death, suffering, insanity, and which stir in every blink, every heartbeat, every premonition—who planted the seed of the world? what are the internal and the external? what are birth and death? is there a single object or many? what is the I? what is the general and the particular? what is repetition? what am I doing here?—that is to say, no?—the Mathematician, or someone else, somewhere else or at some other time, again, though there is only one, only one, which is always the same Place, and always, as we were saying, once and for all, the same Time.

—Juan José Saer; translated by Steve Dolph

Apr 152011

Elegant Uncertainty

A review of Juan Jose Saer’s The Sixty-Five Years of Washington

By Richard Farrell

The Sixty-Five Years of Washington
By Juan José Saer
Translated by Steve Dolph
Open Letter Books

To be clear: the soul, as they call it, is not translucent, it seems, but murky.
—Juan José Saer

WHEN IS THE LAST TIME you went on a good walk with a friend? Cell phones off, eyes fixed on the path in front, minds alert and the conversation buzzing?  A good walk opens the ears and the heart to storytelling, creating a sacred space in between two individuals as they make their way.  Juan José Saer invites us on such a walk in The Sixty-Five Years of Washington.  But, reader be warned: this is no ordinary stroll and this is no ordinary novel.

The Sixty-Five Years of Washington follows Angel Leto and “the Mathematician” as they walk through the city center of Santa Fe, Argentina. “Suppose it’s October,” the narrator begins, “October or November, let’s say, in 1960 or 1961, October, maybe the fourteenth or sixteenth, or the twenty-second or twenty-third—the twenty-third of October in 1961 let’s say—what’s the difference.”  This uncertain narrator interrupts frequently and becomes a third protagonist in the novel as he narrates the journey, conversation and thoughts of the characters and supplies ongoing, humorous commentary.  The conversation quickly turns to the sixty-fifth birthday party for Jorge Washington Noriega, a party which neither man attended.  Washington is an elusive character; we don’t know much about him.  He writes lectures on the Colastine Indians (“Location, Lineage, Langauge & Logic”); he was arrested once, and avoided prison by going to a mental hospital; he throws wild birthday parties for his younger friends. The Mathematician heard his version of the party a week earlier from one of the attendees, Botón, as the two men rode a ferry.  Leto hears his version from the Mathematician.  The reader, of course, hears all of these accounts from the narrator. The party attracted les enfants terribles of Argentina, young artists, poets and political activists ready to disrobe, fight and snort coke into the wee hours of the morning. You want to be at this party, but, like Leto and the Mathematician, you can’t attend, so you must be willing to accept a re-telling (hyphenated emphasis intended throughout) of the event as the men stroll through the city.

This device of re-telling is crucial. By not going directly at the events the way a traditional narrative might, Saer creates distance between the characters in the novel and the dramatic action.  This recursive structure forces us to question the very idea of what happened at this party, and, on a deeper level, what is happening in the novel. Saer challenges the notions of verisimilitude and truth.  And with this technique, the re-telling of the events at the party mimics our reading of the novel itself (of any novel, really), by recreating a version of reality through the description of events not directly experienced by the characters or the reader.  Saer seems to be jack-hammering at the foundations of storytelling.

Continue reading »

Apr 142011

Johannah Rodgers is a brilliantly witty, protean experimental author/artist and culture critic. Please take the time to visit her web site (click on her name) and marvel at some of the work on display there. See especially her little book 10 Things You Need To Know About Writing, her drawings of places, her word drawings, and her provocative and idiosyncratic “Highly Subjective Recommended Reading Lists.” Rodgers is the author of the book, sentences, a collection of short stories, essays, and drawings, published by Red Dust, the chapbooks, “The Coop Articles: Dispatches from the Park Slope Food Coop 2004-2007” and “necessary fictions,” published by Sona Books, and numerous short stories, essays, and reviews, which have appeared in Fence, Bookforum, Fiction, CHAIN Arts, Tantalum, Pierogi Press, and The Brooklyn Rail, where she is a contributing editor.  She lives in Brooklyn, NY and teaches writing and literature courses at The City University of New York, where she is an Assistant Professor in English at The New York City College of Technology.

The excerpt here published is from her futuristic, hypertext novel DNA.



from DNA

By Johannah Rodgers

“For does not society modify Man, according to the conditions in which he lives and acts, into men as manifold as the species in Zoology?”

— Honore de Balzac, Introduction to the Comedie Humaine

February __, 2075

I have identified four individuals in a ten block radius with whom I share the same genetic code.  I will begin profiling each based on the information  collected to date, as well as through direct observation to determine which are the best candidates for complete identity theft.

February __, 2075

I can’t say that I completely dislike myself, but there are times when I wonder whether I shouldn’t be something more than I am.  These moments then lead me to speculate that it is not what I’ve done, but who I am that is the problem.  And, based on the statistical overview of those in my common gene pool, i.e., all of those individuals conceived from sperm A51326 and egg C84327, I am, in all five categories of comparison—total net worth, happiness index, number of children, square feet of living space, professional recognition—clearly well below average.  Why this would be when we share 99.9 percent of the same biochemistry can only be attributed to non-biological factors.  In other words, “nurture” issues, i.e., how we were raised, which has led to some slight differential in the various choices that each one of us has made over time, resulting in, ultimately, who we are now.  What all of this means is that it is purely for reasons of chance that I am who I am today, as opposed to, someone else, i.e., one of those who are, to borrow from the clinic-approved language, my “code partners.”

Continue reading »

Apr 122011

Here’s the first in a series of science essays from NC’s resident scientist (also painter, author, musician, mountain woman), Simon Fraser University gene biologist Lynne Quarmby, who promises to lead us into that fierce nexus of mystery, art, literature, beauty and science. Lynne has already contributed aphorisms, a “What it’s like living here” piece and paintings to the pages of NC. It seems only fitting that she now extend our reach into the laboratory, into the cell and atom. Lynne wrote her own short intro to the series. DG could do no better.


It’s amazing all
this motion going
on and
water can lie still
in glasses and the gas
can in the
garage doesn’t rattle.

—AR Ammons

Have you ever watched a sunset and reminded yourself that you are standing on a ball that is spinning and that you are flying backwards away from the sun? It totally changes the experience. Try flying into a “sunrise”-– that’s really wild. On the evolutionary timescale, it has been the blink of an eye since Copernicus realized — and Galileo observed — that we have day and night because we live on a spinning world that orbits the Sun. We’re still trying to get used to the idea.

Our direct sensory experience of the world evolved with us; in our hearts the world is what our sensory organs tell us it is. Our senses are superbly effective for helping us function in the everyday world—that’s why we’re still here—so it’s understandable that when science reveals something counter-intuitive or paradoxical, we have difficulty integrating the new ideas into our worldview. But if we can recognize and acknowledge that our direct biological senses, as wonderful as they are, give us only a tightly pinched and cloudy view of the world, then we open ourselves to unimagined beauty.

From where I view the spinning world—as a cell biologist—I see our experience of the world expanding so much that what it means to be human is changing as profoundly as it did when Copernicus and Galileo bumped Earth out of the centre of the Universe. Our intellectual peripheral vision has picked up on the shift, but as usual, our spirits and souls are lagging behind, as though they fear that there isn’t a place for them. —LQ

Stem Cells and the Fountain of Youth

By Lynne Quarmby


I hope I die before I get old
—Pete Townshend (from “My Generation”)

In some societies the aged are venerated, in none are they envied. The inevitable decay of our bodies and minds is something we prefer not to contemplate. There is nothing appealing about decreased mobility, loss of muscle and bone mass, reduced immune function, decreasing liver, kidney and brain function, decline in ability to respond to stress and an increasing susceptibility to stroke, heart attack, diabetes and neurodegenerative disorders. A dollop of increased wisdom seems meager compensation.

Everyday we are witness to the inevitability of decay; our buildings and roads crumble, landscapes erode and holes appear in our socks. It is something we know more deeply as we grow older: if we manage to dodge the proverbial bus, our bodies will decay until one day we die. The idea of reversing this decay goes entirely against our experiential knowledge of the world. Yet time and again the tools of science reveal that the world is not as it seems. We are learning that ageing is not simply the inevitable decay we’ve assumed it to be.

Our bodies are not static structures. The cells lining our intestine turn over approximately every five days. Similarly, our skin cells last on average two weeks, our blood cells a few months and the cells in our liver turn over approximately once/year. The average age of our muscles is estimated at 15 years. Cells of the heart are longer lived, but they too turn over. There is a large variation in the lifetime of our brain cells: Olfactory neurons are short-lived, but the neurons of our visual and cerebral cortices may be the ones we were born with. The average age of the cells in an adult has been estimated to be something like 10 years.

Old cells die and new ones are born. The dying cells are those that have done specialized service (filtering urine, absorbing glucose, detoxifying drugs, secreting milk, engulfing bacteria, detecting odors, and so on). At the end of their life span cells undergo a process known as apoptosis, or programmed cell death, and housekeeping cells clear the debris away. New cells go through a program of specialization (known as differentiation) and assume the duties of the old cells.

The new cells are born from adult stem cells that reside in special niches in every tissue. Stem cells can divide indefinitely and with each division one of the daughters replaces the stem cell and the other becomes a progenitor for the differentiated cells of the tissue. Embryonic stem cells have the potential to produce any cell in the body – that is how we develop from sacs of cells – but so far as we know, adult stem cells are restricted in the variety of cells they can produce.

About five years ago scientists discovered that adding extra copies of a specific set of genes could convert differentiated adult cells (from your skin, for example) back into pluripotent stem cells – called iPSCs for induced Pluripotent Stem Cells. These cells earned the name “pluripotent” because their daughters can be enticed (by various combinations of hormones) to become any of a wide variety of differentiated cell types. iPSCs were big news medically because they suggested the possibility of grow-your-own replacements for diseased or damaged tissues. The original iPSCs caused cancer (in mice) and while it isn’t clear yet whether we will be able to overcome all of the problems that are hindering the use of iPSCs in tissue regeneration, these cells have already become hugely valuable for research. Ageing is one of the research areas that is benefitting from iPSCs.

Continue reading »

Apr 112011

Joe David Bellamy is the legendary founding editor of the magazine Fiction International, at one time champion of all that was new and bold in American writing. He is also a former president of both the AWP and the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines, and he served as Director of the Literature Program of the National Endowment for the Arts in the early 1990s. A prolific author in his own right, Bellamy won the Editors’ Book Award for his novel Suzi Sinzinnati,and his collection of short fiction, Atomic Love, was an AWP Award Series Selection. His other books includeAtomic Love, Literary Luxuries, and The New Fiction. His essays, fiction and poetry have been published in: The Atlantic, The Nation, Harper’s, Narrative, Paris Review, Saturday Review, The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, and some seventy others. It’s a pleasure and privilege to present here the opening chapters of his just published family memoir Kindred Spirits.



Beulah Pearl Bellamy


The Most Beautiful Woman in the World

After the death of my mother made me an orphan in middle age—my father had died twenty-four years earlier—I developed a sudden interest in genealogy that was close to an obsession. I realized, fairly quickly, that this obsession was probably a certain form of bereavement, but that did not lessen its intensity. Suddenly I was overwhelmed with the feeling that my mother’s life and the immediate past of my whole extended family was in danger of being lost forever, as the far past was already lost. I was perhaps the first person in my lineage, a lineage that was undoubtedly ancient—as ancient as everyone else who is alive today—with the opportunity to discover whatever past was there, and I felt I had to take a stand about it. In spite of all the usual distractions, I was simply going to do it. I felt it as an important responsibility.

I was not interested in genealogy in order to prove that I was somebody, the legitimate heir to the English throne perhaps, or a descendant of the Pilgrims. The fact is I had come from a rather large extended family, and now—with the death of my mother—most of them were gone. I remembered them all vividly, mostly with affection, but no doubt I was feeling lonely. I had had children of my own, a daughter and a son, but they were out of the nest starting their own families now, living far away. I wanted to reclaim the sense of having a family once again.

Who were we anyway? We were, I supposed, an ordinary middle class family from the American Midwest, a family of white people, vaguely English (or Irish, I thought) with a little bit of German and Swiss from my mother’s side. We were basically standard whitebread Americans, just plain folks, people somehow without ethnicity or real history, yet people who had been lucky and privileged enough that, in the latter part of the twentieth century, we had been taught to feel a little bit guilty about being so white and so bland, so lacking in any specific cultural identity, as if we had reached whatever middling level of economic security we had attained through almost no effort at all, simply because we were white and ordinary.

In a tangible sense, I didn’t know who we were. I felt we needed to identify ourselves more clearly and fully, find out where we came from, when and under what circumstances we arrived in the places we called home, and pass this information on to future generations of descendants. This information was perishable, after all—some of it had surely perished already. It would be ignorant and careless of me not to do what I could to find out what was left and make it permanent, if possible—put it on a CD or bury it somewhere deep in the bowels of the Library of Congress—so that it might survive. Of course, I wouldn’t have minded if my ancestors all turned out to be decent and accomplished. But if there were horse thieves or worse, I wanted to know that too. I was determined to be ruthless—I wanted to know the truth, even if it might be unpleasant.

The last time I saw my mother, about two months before she died suddenly from a heart attack in 1998, we had spent an afternoon going through boxes of old photographs from her attic, many of which she had inherited from her own mother. She had pictures of herself as a child that I had never seen before—she was an adorable little girl—and as a ravishingly beautiful young woman, or so she seemed to me. At one point, marveling at the pictures, I blurted out something about her having been “the most beautiful woman in the world,” and I felt at the time that I probably should not have said it in spite of the fact that she seemed pleased and I felt it was true. It seemed a little silly and self-indulgent saying something like that to this sweet, wizened 79-year-old woman with age-spots on her forehead who was hardly a beauty of any kind at the time. What immoderately well-loved son does not believe his mother is beautiful? Still, after she died, I was more grateful that I had made that one rash statement than anything else I may have said that day.

She showed me pictures that afternoon that amazed me. For the first time in my life, I saw a photograph of my great grandmother, Hannah Siple, my mother’s mother’s mother. She was so far away in time; she had died long before I was born, and her life had been tragically sad. But I felt so close to her at that moment. Her life had made my life possible. I was certain we would have been close friends, if only because she resembled my mother so completely. I don’t quite know how to express this, but I wanted to speak to Hannah Siple. I wanted to be able to tell her that her misery had not been entirely in vain, that life she had set in motion had gone on and was going on still. That photograph of Hannah Siple was a revelation for me and led to a search for many other photographs—as many as I could find of all my missing family members.

Why did it take me so long to learn about Hannah Siple’s life and to come to a point in my own life that I could focus on her and come to include her in my idea of the family I had inherited? My family, like so many others, seemed to accept the tacit conviction that there was no way to know, finally, who our ancestors were. If our immediate relatives could not tell us about them, we assumed we would never know. When they did try to tell us what little they remembered, perhaps we were too young and preoccupied to listen.

Perhaps our ancestors had been so engaged in simply living their lives, of hacking their way through the wilderness, they forgot their history—or they never knew it—or they died before they could pass it on. It takes only one lost generation to engender oblivion. Perhaps because so many of them were living on the very edge of civilization, without the resources of civilization—including, in some cases, literacy itself—and perhaps suffering too from a kind of permanent homesickness, having left behind their own extended families—they let it slide away. Americans are, after all, the offspring of banished peoples—revolutionaries, renegades, rebels, and rabble-rousers—nonconformists, adventurers, indentured servants, slaves, religious fanatics, the offspring of murdered martyrs, and opportunists—the dispossessed from every corner of the world. Certainly my ancestors were exactly that sort of people—people, in some cases, who might have wanted to forget their pasts.

Or—as in the case of Rolla and Harriet, my mother’s parents—each inherited lovely, thick family histories, Rolla Zutavern for his mother’s family, the Spaldings, Harriet for her father’s family, the Kagys. There is evidence that they did read these genealogies. But perhaps, for them, the contents of these volumes seemed a little abstract and musty, something very far away. And the family histories they did inherit, though valuable, were hardly perfect. The Kagy genealogy listed my grandmother (the owner of the book when I discovered it) as dying when she was nine days old! Actually, she lived to be 89. The Spalding genealogy listed Mercy Mary Adams as if she were just any little Adams hausfrau who happened to marry a Spalding, and it said nothing about her incredible lineage (more about that to come)—because her lineage was not known to the collator (or to anyone else in the family).

Perhaps there are any number of plausible excuses for the muddle we had gotten into as a people apparently without a knowable past. But now all that has changed.

What I didn’t know at the time was that my sudden interest in genealogy coincided with a revolution, and that revolution is even bigger than the popular phenomenon that struck in the late seventies with Alex Haley’s Roots. Twenty years after Roots, family history hit the internet. All over the world, websites were launching, and they still are. The Mormons, with their enormous repository of genealogical data kept safe inside the Granite Mountain Vault in Utah—nuclear-bomb-proof and climate-controlled—were about to go on-line. Then they did!

Suddenly, through the Church of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) at familysearch.org, it was possible to access information on more than a billion-and-a-half of the seven to eight billion humans who ever lived on the planet and who left names or records behind. Suddenly there was the U.S. Genweb Project, which made it possible to access a great many county birth/death/marriage/ probate/land and court records from almost any county in the U.S. in the comfort of your home via the internet. Suddenly there was Ancestry.com for census information and for archived family histories on-line. Suddenly the vast record holdings of the New England Historic Genealogical Society were available on the internet.

Suddenly it was possible to join a user group on-line where everyone involved was a cousin you never knew you had and the avowed purpose was to discover more about your common ancestors. Suddenly everyone and his uncle had a family history site on the web that listed the several trees within that family—with regular updates as new information was discovered and recorded. According to several sources, genealogy is now the second most popular subject area on the internet after pornography!—and if you try to access the LDS site on a Sunday afternoon, you will find out just how true this is. You can almost feel their huge servers straining under the torrent of hits.

With the help of the access to multiple worlds of knowledge made possible by the internet and the computer, genealogy might become the human equivalent of the genome project or constructing the first replica of the DNA molecule. Instead of looking at the two or three immediate generations of a family or a person—only those living or those whom the living remember—what if we could stand back at some greater distance from the teeming, then lost, lives within a family and examine ten generations or twenty generations or thirty generations? Not just one line of twenty or thirty generations but multiple lines or every single line—the whole picture. What giant patterns might emerge? What genetic tendencies might become clearer? If one could accomplish such a study within one’s own family, what better path to greater self-knowledge could one possibly find? What better way to understand one’s own inclinations and aptitudes?

What I am here to report is that such a thing is now possible, and I have done it—with unexpected results. It is a humbling experience to uncover and then to understand and to come to terms with the hundreds, the thousands, whose lives preceded one’s own. I started out by wondering how I could have made the choices I did that defined my modest life in my peculiar field, given that my immediate ancestors seemed so unlikely—and so unlike me. I ended up seeing exactly why I had made so many of the decisions that defined my life. I wish I had known sooner just where I came from. It might have made the choices easier.

Of course, it is one thing to find out and prove the names of one’s ancestors, and quite another to learn something worth knowing about the lives they lived. The names themselves seem valuable to me, and I still want to find more of them; but the names have little interest to anyone not in the immediate family, and sometimes not even to them. But the lives—if they can be learned—can be revelations. To discover the lives, if possible, became my goal; and what an enormous effort it took.

It’s true—one of the pleasures of genealogy is in solving mysteries—in finding where all the bodies are buried—and another is the purely clerical enjoyment in the working out of a gigantic crossword puzzle, filling in all the little boxes. But these are boxes that count for all time once you get them right, and the satisfaction of resurrecting some long forgotten soul, whose life was absolutely necessary to your own, and restoring them to their rightful place in the historical record, is gratifying.

Of course, some of what one finds out there is not all it seems—even the Mormon researchers are fallible. Their belief in the importance of the family and the sheer grandeur of their vision is admirable, and the work they have done to preserve records is an incalculable service to humankind. But their genealogy program is, after all, an arm of their missionary effort. Each church member is admonished to seek out his ancestors in order to perform various religious rites that will assure all can meet again in the Celestial Kingdom. Such motives coupled with the fact that even the uneducated among them must perform the same rituals may not be the best prescription for accuracy. Some observers are simply suspicious of any motivation that is not purely scientific.

Genealogical research is like any other research—its quality depends upon the experience, intelligence, care, and unbiased attitude of the researchers.

There are other good reasons why, up until now, genealogy has had a dubious reputation—somewhere between pseudo-science and fanaticism. In the early part of the 20th century in America many fraudulent genealogies were prepared for the nouveau riche who wished to prove they were descended from European aristocracy. If you could afford to pay a “genealogist,” you could receive impressive “proof” of such descent, and the Mormons had nothing at all to do with it. Unfortunately, some of these fictitious trees are still in circulation, and their presence, like bad science, mucks up the whole and sullies the reputation of the enterprise

Also, there is the age-old problem of paternal descent. Even if one finds good evidence from the record that so-in-so’s parents were Mr. and Mrs. So-in-So, how could anyone ever know with certainty it was true? You could be relatively certain that the child’s mother was actually the correct mother—if the record said so. But what about the father? Certainly you could never know that part with scientific exactitude. Therefore, why bother? Genealogy seemed to its detractors nothing more than an excuse for self-deception, wishful thinking, or self-aggrandizement. But now we have DNA testing! A father’s link to the next generation can be proven scientifically.

Even with the immense resources the internet makes possible—and the many breakthroughs and leads it may generate—there comes a time when there are no new sites to find, no one with good information you haven’t already talked to, and every new FamilyTreeMaker CD is just another dead end. You are in terra incognita, and that is when you are on your own and you have to start doing the original research yourself—traveling long days to distant courthouses and libraries, filling out National Archives forms and waiting for weeks for some tiny tidbit, making dopey phone calls to bewildered elderly cousins residing in nursing homes. And that is when you find out just how full of holes, lies, and not-so-inspired suppositions everything else you have found up until then may have been. It turns out there is an incredible lot of junk on the internet too—and sometimes in people’s recollections.

Nevertheless, in a few short years of working in the new world of information access and internet genealogy—plus taking my research to several remote courthouses in Virginia, to the LDS Library in Salt Lake City and the Daughters of the American Revolution Library in Washington, DC, to family reunions, to Jamestown, to Plymouth Rock, to the New York Public Library, to FamilyTreeDNA.com, to ancient houses and graveyards, including the site of the oldest brick house in America—I can now say with absolute surety: I know more than I ever thought I would know about my family and its history. In fact, I know more about my family than any member of my family has ever known before in the history of the world—and more than all but a handful of contemporaries have ever known about any family. I’ve located over 2000 direct ancestors and tens of thousands of others, and I know their names and, for some, I know about their lives.

This book is a family saga, and the saga of many, many families. It is not just about finding one’s great grandmother. It’s also about finding her great grandmother, and hers, and hers, and hers—back into time farther than you could have imagined—and grandfathers and great great great grandfathers too—with a degree of accuracy never before achieved. The acquisition and salvage of these lost generations is now attainable.


A Magical Relationship

My parents near the time of their elopement in 1938

Sometimes the barest genealogical details seem to suggest a story. I started to appreciate that when I first came across my relation to the Bulkeley family in 16th-century England.

Frances Bulkeley, born in 1568, had died in 1610 at age 42, and her sister Sarah Bulkeley, born in 1580, had died a year later at age 31. Yet both had lived long enough, according to the record, to bear children who outlived them, who carried on and bore children of their own. I immediately started to wonder what might have caused these sisters to die so young; perhaps they had died in childbirth or from the plague. I imagined that Sarah, the younger sister, who was my father’s ancestor, must have been devastated when Frances died and probably had no inkling that she would be dead herself within a year.

I imagined the sisters as very close—I imagined that Frances, who was twelve years older than Sarah, had been like a mother to her; and I imagined Sarah grieving for her, in particular, for that reason, grieving more than the others and grieving for a longer time.

I felt lucky to have scraped by myself, because if Sarah had not married Mr. Oliver St. John in 1597 and given birth to a son in London in 1604, I would not be here today to tell about it. I felt astonished to realize that I had had ancestors who were contemporaries of Shakespeare. But, of course, everyone who is alive today had ancestors who were contemporaries of Shakespeare. Of course they did.

The day I discovered the Bulkeley sisters was a red letter day at the LDS site. The line I was following went all the way back to 1300 with incredibly detailed documentation. The Bulkeley sisters were descendants of William De Bulkeley, born after 1300, and Maude Davenport, daughter of Sir John Davenport and Margery Brereton. Sir John Davenport and Lady Margery sounded like the kind of people I wouldn’t mind claiming as members of my family, even if they did live seven hundred years ago.

In 1938, my father, a direct descendant of Sir John Davenport and, later, of Sarah Bulkeley, turned down a humped back country road near Bloomville, Ohio. He was a lonely, divorced 30-year-old vacuum cleaner salesman from the Ohio River town of Portsmouth, a branch manager with a new car and a rakish reddish mustache. He turned in the driveway at my grandmother’s farm and knocked on the door. While he was attempting to sell my grandmother an Airway vacuum cleaner, he noticed my mother’s picture in a gilt frame on top of the piano and he said, without hesitation, that she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

My grandmother informed him that the woman was not a woman at all but only her eldest daughter Beulah, who was not yet twenty years old. My father replied that her daughter had the loveliest eyes he had ever seen on a human face, including any movie star she would care to name. She might not realize it yet, he said, but her daughter was indeed a woman. Half an hour later, my grandmother bought the vacuum cleaner.

My father was an affable, persuasive man who was not above flattery, but he seldom lied about his true feelings. A few weeks later he stopped by unexpectedly at the Zutavern farm—to see how the vacuum cleaner was performing, he said. My 19-year-old mother, who had returned from college in the meantime, was on the phone when he walked into the room, accepting a blind date. After she hung up, he said spontaneously: “It’s really too bad you accepted that date because I was going to ask you out myself.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” she said. “I can break it.” There was a kind of instant recognition between them that the attraction they felt for each other was serious.

After they had been out a few times, my father tried to coax my mother to return with him to his hotel room. But she wouldn’t go. My father said it was very discouraging to him that she didn’t trust him. My mother said: “Oh, I trust you, Jim, but my mother always told me that I should never do anything that might have the appearance of evil.” (I never heard her say anything even faintly like this again.) Two weeks later, they eloped!

My parents were deeply, romantically, in love their whole lives together; and they stayed in love for the better part of four decades—until my father died—and, of course she never stopped loving him after he was gone. They held hands in public like teenagers, even in their sixties.

Now here comes the scary part of the story. One day while I was working on my mother’s Spalding line, I found that Benjamin Spalding, her gggggg grandfather had married a woman named Olive Farwell, born in 1647 in Concord, Massachusetts. Olive’s father was Henry Farwell, an Englishman, and her mother was named Olive Welby, born in 1604 in England. Olive Welby was the daughter of Richard Welby and Frances Bulkeley.

When I hit upon the name Frances Bulkeley, it didn’t register at first. I had been plowing through hundreds of names, and I remembered that I had seen the name Bulkeley, a possible precursor of “Buckley,” before. But it had been a while since I had been working on my father’s line, and I was not sure where I had seen it.

The truth came to me in the middle of the night, and I got out of bed to compare the genealogical lines on my various print-outs. The connection caused the hair to stand up on my arms and on the back of my neck as if a chilly wind had blown in through an open window. My father was a direct descendant of Sarah Bulkeley, who died in 1611. My mother was a direct descendant of her sister Frances Bulkeley, who died in 1610, and who, I imagined, had been so deeply mourned by her younger sister Sarah.

In other words, roughly 400 years earlier, two daughters of Rev. Edward Bulkeley and Olive Irby, Frances (1568-1610) and Sarah (1580-1611), married, gave birth, and died in England. Their respective descendants were born, grew up, moved from place to place, married into several different families, had children, and died. Roughly 375 years after their births, my father (Sarah’s gggggggggg grandson) married my mother (Frances’ ggggggggg granddaughter). Need I add that, during their lifetimes, my parents had absolutely no idea about this connection, though, had they known, I think it would have delighted them.

If it is true that—in some respects—we are born to fulfill the unrealized dreams of our ancestors, then was there something of Sarah’s longing to be reunited with her departed sister Frances in my father’s love of my mother? and something of Frances’ almost maternal love for Sarah in her love for him? Who can say?

—Joe David Bellamy

Praise for Kindred Spirits


“It’s easy to understand the temptations of genealogy, the apparent promise of being able to locate oneself in space and time, acquiring, if one is lucky, a bona fide sliver of something like divine perspective. What’s remarkable about Kindred Spirits is Joe David Bellamy’s ability to make a private quest into a work of fascination and suspense for his readers.”

—Kathryn Harrison, New York Times Bestselling author

“Kindred Spirits is a wise, wild ride, written with wit and energy and charm, and packed with stories that read like fiction. By the last page you’ll have read a surprising history of America, and you’ll have a new notion of just how eerily connected we all are.”

—Josephine  Humphreys, author of Nowhere Else on Earth

“I really enjoyed this book! Joe David Bellamy’s Kindred Spirits is so engaging, charmingly inclusive, and skillfully and tenderly spooned out, there is real comfort here in the universal message that many of us may quite possibly be at least cousins.

An exceptional and compelling new breed of memoir, history lesson, genealogy tutorial, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, personal meditation, and fireside seat-gripper, Kindred Spirits is rich with stunners and head-spinners that both entertain and leave the reader pondering the nature of chance and destiny that inform all of our origin tales. It will be hard to read this and not decide you are related to Joe David Bellamy.”

—Steve Amick, author of The Lake, the River & the Other Lake and Nothing But a Smile

Apr 102011

My mother’s forebears, McCalls and McInnises, settled in the cradle of Long Point Bay on the north shore of Lake Erie in the 1790s and early 1800s. I grew up about 20 miles away, still in Norfolk County, at the edge of the Great Norfolk Sand Plain about a 200 metres from a long low hill, the remnants of the Great Galt Moraine, a glacial deposit left at the end of the last Ice Age. (There is something about growing up around geological features called “Great” that tends to inspire delusions of grandeur.) I was raised on tales of the old days from my mother and grandmother, stories that infected me with the family collecting mania and a fanciful feel for the countryside which to me is steeped in drama, blood, superstition and comedy. Over the years I’ve been gathering a library of texts about Long Point and Norfolk County.

I have used Norfolk County folklore and history in several pieces of fiction and nonfiction. “A Flame, a Burst of Light” is short story about prisoners of war returning from a disastrous prison camp in Ohio in 1814. It was originally published in The New Quarterly and is included in my book of stories Savage Love. “The Sun Lord and the Royal Child” is a short story about the scandalous behaviour of archaeologists, the Neutral, and the Southwold Earthworks. It was originally published in Ninth Letter and reprinted in Savage Love. “Swain Corliss, Hero of Malcolm’s Mills (now Oakland, Ontario, November 6, 1814″ is about the 1814 battle. You can find it in my book A Guide to Animal Behaviour. “Turned into a Horse by Witches” is about Dr. Troyer, the famous Long Point witch doctor, and is also in A Guide to Animal Behaviour. My essay “Possum” about my great-grandfather John Brock and St Williams was published in The New Quarterly. And, of course, some of the scenes in my novel The Life and Times of Captain N. take place on the Lake Erie shoreline. The character Hendrick Nellis is based on the real Hendrick Nelles. The character Mary Hunsacker is based on Mary Sitts who is buried in the pioneer cemetery in Boston (Norfolk County).

Here is a brief version, something to give you a taste of the mystery and beauty of the place. The order is roughly chronological, but for emphasis and poetry I have slipped elements in where they don’t belong. The texts by various McCalls and McInnises are family documents.

—Douglas Glover


Just off Grubb Reef the wheelsman turns the ship fourteen degrees more to the southeast to clear the Southeast Shoal Light which stands on the reef formed by Point Pelee as it slopes down into the lake. Once safely round this point, the ship sails out into the open lake, and heads northeast (the course is ENE 1/8 E) straight across the middle of the lake for Long Point, 133 miles away. Lake Erie, Harlan Hatcher.


Viewed from a distance the Point appears as an attenuated tree-clad fringe on the horizon. The great outer portion is almost uninhabited, for as yet no road penetrates its wild seclusion. George Laidler, “Long Point, Lake Erie: Some Physical and Historical Aspects.”


On de Gallinée’s map of 1670 this spit is grossly indicated and named “Peninsula of Lake Erie” (Coyne, 1902). On a map dated 1763 (Charlevoix, 1766) it is indicated as “Long Pt.” Later it was known as “North Foreland” (Smyth, 1799). The peninsula is now generally known as Long Point. L. L. Snyder, “A Faunal Investigation of Long Point and Vicinity, Norfolk County, Ontario”, Contribution No. 4, Royal Ontario Museum of Zoology, Transactions of the Royal Canadian Institute, 1932.


The interpreter Etienne Brulé is believed to be the first White to have contacted the Neutral. This probably occured in 1615-16 when he accompanied a party of Huron journeying to seek military aid from the Andastes in Pennsylvania against the Onondaga. The Hood Site: A Historic Neutral Town of 1640 A.D. National Museum of Man Mercury Series Paper No. 121.


From Haldimand county westward the shore of Lake Erie takes them form of three big scallops with as many big sand spits at the apexes. The centre of the scallops are marked by high bluffs which are constantly shifting inland. Conversely the spits are gradually extending farther out into the lake using the sand made available by the erosion of the shore.

It is not surprising to find the longest of these spits built off the shore in Norfolk county opposite the great Norfolk sand plain; Long Point, as it is called, is built from the west at the eastern apex of the biggest scallop. A smaller spit built from the east is growing out to meet it, threatening to confine a section of the lake that even now is called Inner Bay. The conformation of Long Point is clearly apparent from a map. It is fabricated loosely from a succession of sand bars which run at an angle to the long axis of the spit. Marsh or open water appears between the bars. The Physiography of Southern Ontario, L. J. Chapman and D. F. Putnam.


The presence of pre-ceramic sites in Ontario has been established. On typological grounds, as well as characteristics of sites, there appear to be at least two branches or, possibly, time levels involved. In the Lake Erie periphery are small sites, usually located on high clay knolls and at elevations of 775 feet or higher. On such sites the emphasis is upon scrapers, with very few projectile points. A Preliminary Report on an Archaeological Survey of Southwestern Ontario for 1950, Thomas E. Lee.


The first aborigines to occupy southwestern Ontario were probably Mound-Building Indians who had reached their peak chiefly in Ohio and had trickled from there into the peninsula about the time of Christ. They were a people of high culture. Though no mounds attributed to them have so far been found in Norfolk County, nevertheless many of their artifacts have been found there. These people disappeared just as mysteriously as they had originated. “The Indian History of St. Williams” (unpublished), C. M. McCall, 1960.


When they reached Lake Erie, they saw it tossing like an angry ocean. They had no mind to tempt the dangerous and unknown navigation, and encamped for the winter in the forest near the peninsula called the Long Point. Here they gathered a good store of chestnuts, hickory-nuts, plums, and grapes, and built themselves a log cabin, with a recess at the end for an altar. They passed the winter unmolested, shooting game in abundance, and saying mass three times a week. Early in spring, they planted a large cross, attached to it the arms of France, and took formal possession of the country in the name of Louis XIV. This done, they resumed their voyage, and, after many troubles, landed one evening in a state of exhaustion on or near Point Pelee, towards the western extremity of Lake Erie. La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West, Francis Parkman.


We slept that night on the bank of this river, about two leagues from its mouth, and it was at this place [Walsingham Swamp] that (we heard toward the east voices that seemed to us to be the voices of men calling to each other. We ran to the river bank to see if it was not our men looking for us, and at the same time) we heard the same voices on the south side. We turned our heads in that direction, but at last were undeceived, hearing them at the same time toward the west, which gave us to understand that it was the phenomenon commonly called the hunting of Arthur. [Next day they cross Big Creek and drop down to Long Point.] Narrative of de Bréhant de Gallinée, Easter, 1670.


Probably the best known site long considered to be Neutral was called the “Southwold Earthwork,” located about seven miles north of Port Stanley…Its leading physical characteristic was its “walled” construction, and when an ossuary was found there, it seemed further to fit into the Neutral pattern. The Neutral Indians, A Source Book, Gordon K. Wright.


The location of the Indian villages near the north shore of Lake Erie, and the absence of any indication of the Thames River, coupled with its fairley accurate knowledge of the Lake Erie tributaries, would seem to point to a highway of Indian travel, nearly coinciding with the present Talbot Road, — which latter, as we are told by early settlers, followed an Indian trail. (Cf. Mitchell’s map of 1756 or 1757, and Galinée’s Journal.) N. D. des Anges, Alexis, St. Joseph, and St. Michel would be all on or near this main trail, except the first, which would be on the trail from Brantford to Port Dover. According to Sanson’s map, Alexis coincides with the Southwold Earthwork; it is the only village on the map answering the description of Tsohahissen’s village. “The Country of the Neutrals from Champlain to Talbot,” James H. Coyne


We coasted along the North Coast of the Lake of Erie, being favour’d by the Calms. Upon the brink of this Lake we frequently saw flocks of fifty or sixty Turkeys, which run incredibly fast upon the Sands: and the Savages of our Company kill’d great numbers of ’em, which they gave to us in exchange for the Fish that we catch’d. The 25th [August, 1687] we arrived at a long point of Land which shoots out 14 or 15 leagues into the Lake; and the heat being excessive, we chose to transport our Boats and Baggage two hundred paces over-land, rather than coast for about thirty-five Leagues. Baron Lahontan, 1687.


Drive along the backroads of the Carolinian zone, hemmed in by Lakes Huron and Ontario along its ends, and Lake Erie to the south, and at first the woods may not strike you as all that different from those further north. Sugar maple and beech are common, and other familiar species such as basswood, ash, and oak occur in abundance as well. But look a little closer, and you begin to see other trees — sassafras, tulip tree, pawpaw, red mulberry, sour gum, wild crab. Some species, with names like cucumber tree and Kentucky coffee tree, seem very much out of place in the Canadian arboreal roster, for their main distribution ranges far to the south, even reaching to the Gulf of Mexico.

Look at the shrub layer and you see even more southern specialties — stoneroot, running strawberry bush, wild yam vine, bittersweet, and bladdernut. And as Paul Catling of Agriculture Canada points out, the southern flavour adds spice to other plant groups as well, even sedges and grasses, and aquatic plants such as yellow lotus…

This distinctive vegetation also affects the wildlife of the Carolinian zone. Several birds reach the northern limit of their breeding range here, including Acadian flycatcher, Carolina wren, blue-grey gnatcatcher, red-bellied woodpecker, and yellow-breasted chat. Bill Judd of London, a naturalist who has explored the woods of that area for decades, reports that over 50 species of insects and spiders are restricted in Canada to the Carolinian zone. Even fish are affected by the climatic factors that control the vegetation — southern species such as green sunfish and lake chubsucker reach their Ontario limits in this region.

From the cattail marshes and sandy spits of the Lake Erie shoreline through the hardwood swamps and arid dunes of the townships further inland, Carolinian Canada presents a diversity of habitats, all sharing a southern affinity. But it is from the trees that the name Carolinian is derived. Originally the term was applied to the forests of the coastal zone along the Carolinas; then, in his 1898 classification of U.S. life zones, C. H. Merriam extended the zone into southern Ontario. The term is now seldom applied to the broad belt of eastern deciduous forest that stretches between the Appalachians and the Mississippi valley; it is only in Ontario that its common use has continued. Ron Reid, “Exploring Canada’s Deep South,” Seasons, Summer, 1985.


The Louisiana of today is but a single State of the American republic. The Louisiana of La Salle stretched from the Alleghenies to the Rocky Mountains: from the Rio Grande and the Gulf to the farthest springs of the Missouri. The boundaries are laid down in the great map of Franquelin, made in 1684, and preserved in the Depot des Cartes of the Marine. The line runs along the south shore of Lake Erie… Parkman.


The true Iroquois, or Five Nations, extended through Central New York, from the Hudson to the Genesee. Southward lay the Andastes, on and near the Susquehanna; westward, the Eries, along the southern shore of Lake Erie, and the Neutral Nationa, along its northern shore from Niagara towards Detroit; while the towns of the Hurons lay near the lake to which they have left their name. The Jesuits in North American, Francis Parkman.


The Attiwandaron occupied that part of southwestern Ontario which lies south of an imaginary line drawn from Goderich on Lake Huron to Oakville on Lake Ontario. In addition they had four frontier villages east of the Niagara River and claimed a small area west of Lake St. Clair. A recapitulation of various early estimates of the Attiwandaron population shows that 35,000 is the most likely figure.

In 1640, when the first overall attempt to evangelize the Attiwandaron was made by the sending of Fathers Brebeuf and Chaumont from Huronia, a journey of six days was required to reach the nearest village. The two priests put the total of Attiwandaron villages at 40…

In Ragueneau’s Relation of 1644 it is recorded that in the previous year the Attiwandaron threw 2,000 of their warriors into the lands of the Mascoutin beyond the Detroit River. They captured a large town and raided the country. 800 captives were dragged home. Yet in the winter of 1650-51 — following the destruction of the Petuns and Hurons in 1648-49 — the Five Nations of the Iroquois were able to completely annihilate the Attiwandaron by throwing 1,400 picked warriors against them. McCall.


The Attiwandaron (“people with speech a little different” as they were termed by their kin the Hurons) formed the van of the Iroquois migration that first entered Canada, via the Detroit River circa 1200 A.D. (an apparently accurate estimate of the period by Parker the historian). They were the mother nation of the Iroquois, and were so well satisfied with the peninsula that they chose it as their permanent home. The Petuns and Hurons to the northward (from and including the Bruce Peninsula to Lake Simcoe), the Five Nations of the Iroquois in what is now New York State and the Iroquois tribes temporarily living along the St. Lawrence in Cartier’s time were all offshoots. As the professional archaeologists in Canada still have the obsession that all the aborigines of this country are the descendants of primitive Siberian tribes who crossed over to North America via Bering Strait, they have made practically no effort to find a different origin for the Iroquois. But the Smithsonian Institution (of Washington, D.C.) has shown that the earliest known Iroquoian sites are in Arkansas, and that slightly later ones are in Missouri, Indiana and Ohio. This would indicate a northern thrust for corn-growing areas — corn having been considered of the utmost importance by the Iroquois (in its parched state having been the ‘iron rations’ that enabled the Five Nations of the Iroquois alone to conquer more territory than did the ancient Romans). My study of the ‘horned-serpent’ legends of the Iroquois has positively convinced me that the Iroquois came northward from Mexico. Furthermore it is my opinion that they could be the lost Toltec who are known to have disappeared from Mexico in 1064 A.D. McCall.


In 1625 Brulé returned to Neutral territory and lived there until the following year, visiting the towns west of the Niagara River, but probably not those east of the river. The Neutral Indians, A Source Book, Gordon K. Wright.


Journeying southward five days from the Tionnontate towns, the forest traveller reached the border villages of the Attiwandarons, or Neutral Nation. As early as 1626, they were visited by the Franciscan friar, La Roche Daillon, who reports as numerous population in twenty-eight towns, besides small hamlets. Their country, about forty leagues in extent, embraced wide and fertile districts on the north shore of Lake Erie… Parkman.


Attiwandarons, Attiwendaronk, Atirhagenrenrets, Rhagenratka (Jesuit Relations), Attionidarons (Sagard). Parkman.


Still a different concept of the early days of the Neutrals is to be found in the traditional story of them. According to tradition, they were the parent member of the Huron-Iroquois stock, since it was a Neutral maternal family which transmitted the title of “Mother of Nations” — “Djigohsahse,” who was said to be the lineal descendant of the first woman on earth.

Although the Jesuits recorded that the Erie Nation was known as the Nation of the Cat, it is interesting to note that Morgan learned from the Iroquois of his day that the Neutral Nation had long been known to them as the Cat Nation. Morgan wrote: “It is a singular fact that the Neuter Nation, who dwelt on the banks of the Niagara River, and who were expelled by the Iroquois about the year 1643, was known among them as the Je-go-sa-sa, or Cat Nation. The word signifies ‘a wild cat’: and, from being the name of a woman of great influence among them, it came to be the name of the nation.”

At two days’ journey from them [the Cheveux Releves or High Hairs or Ottawas] in a southerly direction, there is also another tribe of savages, who produce a great quantity of tobacco. These are called the Neutral nation; they number four thousand warriors and inhabit a district westward of the lake of the Onondagas from eighty to a hundred leagues in extent. These however assist the Cheveux-releves against the Fire People, but as between the Iroquois and our tribe they are at peace and remain neutral. Samuel Champlain, Works.


The bedrock that underlies this part of Ontario is some of the youngest in the province, dating from only 500 million to 350 million years ago. The older shales and limestones surface along the Niagara Escarpment, but the bedrock is exposed in only a few other places, notably on Pelee Island and at the Oriskany sandstone site west of Cayuga. Beneath the glacial debris that covers most of the zone are bands of sedimentary rocks, rich in nutrients that give rise to fertile soils.

The tracks of recent glaciation were left be a series of advances into the Ohio valley over the last million years. As the final set of glaciers withdrew from southern Ontario about 12,000 to 14,000 years ago, it did not move smoothly. Instead, it split along the central highlands of southwestern Ontario and withdrew in two main lobes — one in Lake Huron, the other in Lake Erie. The Erie lobe actually retreated in a southeasterly direction, melting back from the highlands into the Lake Erie basin. Where the glacier hesitated, it left a series of parallel moraines along its front. These moraines now form low hills in the central section of the Carolinian zone, as well as in a few other isolated spots.

As the glacier melted, it released enormous quantities of water, which pooled in a series of glacial lakes. The westerly counties of Essex, Kent, and Lambton were covered for a time by Lake Whittlesey, which smoothed the ridges of the till and deposited clay in the hollows. Later, glacial Lake Warren covered almost all the Carolinian zone, forming the clay plains of Wentworth as the fine suspended sediments settled out of its murky waters. Where the rushing waters entered these lakes, sand deltas were built up, which created the sand plains now found in Norfolk and eastern Kent counties.

As the glaciers ploughed their ponderous way to and fro over Canada, the vegetation patterns followed, retreating southwards before the ice, surging north again in periods of warmth. Fossils of 100,000 year old trees and other vegetation found in the sand beds atop the Don Valley brickyard in central Toronto show that Carolinian species existed in Ontario in the final mild period between glaciers. But at the time of the last glacier, most of these species had retreated to warmer climes of Alabama. Nor did they return immediately, for the first colonizers of the newly created landforms were the grasses and sedges of a tundra community, soon followed by a forest dominated by spruce. In this habitat, mastodons and woolly mammoths roamed. Fossils of these giant elephant-like beasts have been found in close to 80 locations in Ontario, all in the Carolinian zone or just to the north. Reid.


Scholars have not previously recognized or fully appreciated the magnitude and complexity of historic Neutral Iroquois society. Indeed, in comparison to the extensive research paid to the Hurons and to the League Iroquois, the Neutrals, who were once the largest early 17th century Iroquoian grouping, variously have been downplayed, misinterpreted, or even ignored altogether. “Tsouharissen’s Chiefdom: An Early Historic 17th Century Neutral Iroquoian Ranked Society,” W. C. Noble, Canadian Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 9 (No.2) 1985.


Yet this people were abundantly ferocious, and, while holding a pacific attitude betwixt their warring kindred, waged deadly strife with the Mascoutins, an Algonquin horde beyond Lake Michigan. Indeed, it was but recently that they had been at blows with seventeen Algonquin tribes. They burned female prisoners, a practice unknown to the Hurons. Their country was full of game, and they were bold and active hunters. In form and stature they surpassed even the Hurons, whom they resembled in their mode of life, and from whose language their own, though radically similar, was dialectically distinct. Their licentiousness was even more open and shameless; and they stood alone in the extravagance of some of their usages. They kept their dead in their houses till they became insupportable; then scraped the flesh from the bones, and displayed them in rows along the walls, there to remain till the periodical Feast of the Dead, or general burial. In summer, the men wore no clothing whatsoever, but were generally tattooed from head to foot with powdered charcoal…

Southward and eastward of Lake Erie dwelt a kindred peoople, the Eries, or “Nation of the Cat.” Little besides their existence is known of them. They seem to have occupied southwestern New York, as far east as the Genessee, the frontier of the Senecas, and in habits and language to have resembled the Hurons. They were noted warriors, fought with poisoned arrows, and were long a terror to the neighboring Iroquois. Parkman.


This tradition, apparently, can be traced back to about 1625 A.D., the year Etienne Brulé visited there. Brulé, so near as we know, was the first European to visit the area and to be entertained by the Neutral Indians who lived there at the time. Although the details of Brulé’s visit were never recorded, relationships must have been reasonably cordial, for shortly after his visit, one of the local damsels bore him a daughter. By the time she reached her early 20s the girl had attained some prominence in the community. She had become what a less strident age would have called a medicine man; and at her early death, when she was buried in the village cemetery…, the tools of her profession were buried with her. Three of the sucking tubes which she used in the curing ceremonies were carefully placed in the grave, just above her left shoulder…

For example, Grave No. 9 contained the bodies of 57 individuals — 26 adults and 31 sub-adults. One of the adult females, incidentally, was the medicine woman mentioned above, whom we suspect might be the daughter of Etienne Brulé. All that we really know, of course, is that that timing is right, and that she is half-European. For the gross morphology of her skull — that is, its general appearance — is distinctly European, while her dentition, with equal assurance, is Indian. Grave furniture for No. 9 consisted of seven sucking tubes, four turtle shell rattles, four clay vessels, one antler comb, two lumps of red ochre, some animal bones which probably had some ritual significance, 20 copper beads, 274 shell beads and 421 glass beads. “Some Bones of Contention”, W. A. Kenyon.


The immediate post 1638-40 smallpox period saw the Neutral Iroquois population depleted by half, and perhaps as much as two-thirds. Noble.


The term Neutralia, which was coined in St. John’s, Newfoundland,in 1972, replaces the name Attiwandaronia coined by Harris in 1895… Noble.


The Indians, it is well known, ascribe mysterious and supernatural powers to the insane, and respect them accordingly. The Neutral Nation was full of pretended madmen, who raved about the villages, throwing firebrands, and making other displays of frenzy. Parkman.


Demons in troops appeared before him [Brebeuf], sometimes in the guise of men, sometimes as bears, wolves, or wild-cats. He called on God, and the apparitions vanished. Death, like a skeleton, sometimes menaced him, and once, as he faced it with an unquailing eye, it fell powerless at his feet. A demon, in the form of a woman, assailed him with the temptation which beset St. Benedict among the rocks of Subiaco; but Brebeuf signed the cross, and the infernal siren melted into air. He saw the vision of a vast and gorgeous palace; and a miraculous voice assured him that such was to be the reward of those who dwelt in savage hovels for the cause of God. Angels appeared to him; and more than once St. Joseph and the Virgin were visibly present before his sight. Once, when he was among the Neutral Nation, in the winter of 1640, he beheld the ominous apparition of a great cross slowly approaching from the quarter where lay the country of the Iroquois. He told the vision to his comrades.

“What was it like? How large was it?” they eagerly demanded. “Large enough,” replied the priest, “to crucify us all.” Parkman.


“Last summer,” writes Lalement in 1643, “two thousand warrior of the Neutral Nation attacked a town of the Nation of Fire, well fortified with a palisade, and defended by nine hundred warriors. They took it after a siege of ten days; killed many on the spot; and made eight hundred prisoners, men, women, and children. After burning seventy of the best warriors, they put out the eyes of the old men, and cut away their lips, and then left them to drag out a miserable existence. Behold the scourge that is depopulating all this country!” Parkman.


Their turn was now come, and their victims found fit avengers; for no sooner were the Hurons broken and dispersed, then the Iroquois, without waiting to take breath, turned their fury on the Neutrals. At the end of the autumn of 1650, they assaulted and took one of their chief towns, said to have contained at the time more than sixteen hundred men, besides women and children; and early in the following spring they took another town. The slaughter was prodigious, and the victors drove back troops of captives for butchery or adoption. It was the death-blow of the Neutrals. They abandoned their cornfields and villages in the wildest terror, and dispersed themselves abroad in forests which could not yield sustenance to such a multitude. They perished by the thousands, and from that time forward the nation ceased to exist. Parkman.


…In his letter to a friend in Angers, written on July 18, 1627 from the Huron Bear tribe village of Toanchain and after his three-month stay in Neutralia, Recollet monk Joseph de la Roche recorded: “This man [Tsouharissen] is the chief of the greatest credit and authority that has ever been in all these nations…It is unexampled in the other nations to have a chief so absolute. He acquired this honour and power by his courage, and by having been many times at war against seventeen nations who are their enemies…” Noble.


At this juncture, certain sections of the traditional oral account can be introduced. It has been remembered that Tsouharissen was an only child of the respected and renowned woman Tahinya, who died shortly after his birth. Although of noble lineage and the highest ranking turtle clan, he was reared as a commoner. Early in his childhood Tsouharissen exhibited special talents, including an edetic memory, adult knowledge, a quick inquiring mind, and intuitive abilities. It is remembered that when he was asked as a child what his spirit wanted, he replied, “I want to know how the Sun comes to me in the morning — I wish to have a piece of the Sun to carry with me always.” This astonishing request was finally fulfilled when Tsouharissen was introduced to the elderly, renowned Cherokee priest-chief Tsouhahachonka who came north to see this boy wonder and arrange for his religious training. Eventually, the child-man guided the elderly priest as instructive companion on a journey northward (probably Lake Superior), where: “on the eastern face of a mountain top, at the first rays of the rising sun, he cracked open the rock face and a piece of pure crystal glass fell to the ground. The child picked it up, and it is said that when he held it up to the Sun, sparks flew from his hand. The priest bowed to this child-man — this one with the memory — this leader of the people. The priest bowed to the holiness of the reincarnate of the Sun Creator.” (Anonymous 1983-84)


After his years of religious training, Tsouharissen became an all-powerful warrior-priest-chief of his people. The oral account clearly indicates that the Neutrals did not dissociate the concepts of priest and chief in him, and the honorific title of Tsouh signifies his high priestly status. His name, arissen, means “the Sun’s Child.” Noble.


The oral tradition relates that Tsouharissen had multiple, concurrent wives: his first three were politically ascribed marriages, while the fourth was a genuine matter of love (Anonymous 1983-84). The first wife, a local Neutral lady of the highest ranked turtle lineage, bore him one male child and two females, but none showed exceptional abilities. The second wife was a Cherokee woman renowned for her “fleetness of foot,” and she bore him two female children. The third wife, an Algonkian from northern Ontario, was blessed with a remarkably retentive memory and intuitive abilities; she had two daughters. Tsouharissen’s fourth wife was a beautiful young Tuscarora lady whom he brought to Neutralia in late spring, 1641, after the Jesuit departure. This wife gave birth to a daughter, born in the same winter month (January) as Tsouharissen; she became his favourite child, and when she exhibited intellectual, intuitive, and religious abilities, Tsouharissen chose this youngest daughter to succeed him as paramount Neutral chief, just as his own female cousin had been chief of the Cherokee (Anonymous 1983-84).


It is recounted that Tsouharissen’s first wife became so jealous of the fourth wife and the intended succession that she murdered the youngest daughter. In total grief and embarrassment, the fourth wife went into the woods and committed suicided. Enraged and grief-stricken at this atrocious act, witnessed by some men returning from a hunt for new born deer, Tsouharissen assembled and put to death the first wife, all her family, her brothers and sisters, their husbands and wives and their brothers and sisters and all their children. The entire royal lineage was eliminated…

Cyclical instability associated with succession has been noted to be a chronic problem in many chiefdoms, and the historic Neutral Iroquois case serves to underline the fragility and importance such matters have for successful perpetuation of a chiefdom. In this case, Tsouharissen’s tragic domestic affairs fragmented and destroyed what might otherwise have become an ongoing powerful native social order. As it was, the Neutral chiefdom finally collapsed in 1653 at the hands of the League Iroquois, some seven years after Tsouharissen’s probable death in 1646. Noble.


After the expulsion of the Neutrals, what had been their country remained an unpeopled wilderness, being described on the French maps as “the Iroquois beaver ground.” Owen.


While it is true that the Great Lakes are tideless they may be regarded as inland seas because of the immense areas they present to stormy winds. Over long periods they are subject to fluctuations in level of several feet, chiefly owing to variation in the annual rainfall. This variation, the contour of the coastline, the strong winds and the currents that they produce account for extensive erosion at some places and the emergence of land at others. Currents sufficiently strong will carry sand and gravel in suspension and deposit it when retarded by shallow waters or a projection of the land. The gradual accumulation of sand borne by wind and water will give rise to shoals and beaches further along.

In course of time shore processes reduce the smaller irregularities and tend to straighten old shorelines by building spits out from the land and bars across bays, thus gradually closing them with a nearly continuous barrier beach of loose waste. A relatively abrupt change in shoreline direction turns a longshore current out into the lake and forms a flying spit. At first the bar is narrow and ridge-like, then it lengthens and broadens. As the apex advances into deeper water its progress is slower, so giving time and opportunity for storms to modify its extremity. In general the apex tends to turn inwards because of currents from the deeper water offshore. The broadening and hooking encloses a number of lagoons between the inner bars that are built up at successive intervals. These dry up and in time become covered with drifting and deposited waste.

When streams from adjacent uplands flow into the waters on the inner side of a spit its growth on that side is materially aided. Silt and debris discharged into a lake or bay will distribute most of its coarse deposit along the shore. Nearly all the fine will be carried out and settle in deeper water. Waste deposited below the wave base will gradually accumulate in front of the mouth of the stream and build up a shallower level. This forms a suitable bed for the growth of marsh grass, bullrushes and other freshwater plants, usually taking the form of a delta. Their thickening roots become a matted and tangled mass that holds sand and mud carried by the water, whose reduced circulation is sufficient for a time to encourage the growth and extension of the grasses. The intervening water courses gradually become narrower and more sluggish as they are encroached upon by the grasses and the sediment deposited by the waves and high water. Later they disappear, leaving ponds here and there, and when the water level recedes they become dry land.

Sand blown forward from a beach will gather into drifts like waves and ridges a short distance from the water’s edge. These dunes sometimes present a cliff-like face. Strong inshore winds create an updraft in front while the air above the crest blows almost horizontally. Near the edge, where the drafts meet, vortical whirls rotating inwards are produced and cause the conveyed sand to accumulate close behind. Sand dune slowly overwhelm the marshes and woodlands on the lee side or earlier-built portions of bar or spit. George Laidler, “Long Point, Lake Erie: Some Physical and Historical Aspects”.


This version is taken from a book also unnamed, written by a Detroit Wyandot, P. D. Clarke, who is said to have obtained most of his information from an old woman of the Big Turtle clan of Wyandots at Amherstburg.

It commences, “About the latter part of the first decade of the eighteenth century, a war party of Wyandots started down Detroit River in twenty canoes, accompanied by two canoes manned by Chippewas, for Long Point, where they expected to find some Senecas.”

At Long Point they discovered “footprints in the sand, which, they supposed, might have been made by a party of Senecas.” Soon “the whole party of Senecas made their appearance round the point, and the greater portion of them pushed directly into the lake.” Immediately the Wyandots eft their moorings and manoeuvred for position. When the Senecas realized they could not surround their foes and drive them ashore, “both parties prepared for the impending attack.”

Then followed a sharp exchange of threats, given in full, between the opposing chiefs. After this “the Wyandot chief donned his conical-shaped panther-skin cap, and addressed a few words to his followers reminding them of their wrongs and how some of their nation were destroyed in the east and the north by the Senecas and their allies; meanwhile, dropping little by little, bits of tobacco and some substance from his medicine bag into the deep beneath him, invoking the god of battles to be with them during the approaching struggle.” Before his rite was ended, “came a shower of arrows, as thick as hail, from the enemy, accompanied by some rifle bullets that whistled over their heads.” The fire was returned “with barbed arrows and firearms,” thus ending the first phase.

As Clarke’s language is so picturesque, the story is best ended in his own words, as follows: “But one regular volley was exchanged, for they were soon at close quarters with their tomahawks. Shouts after shouts mingled with the savage yells of both parties rent the air, and rendered the deadly conflict doubly horrible. The surface of the blue lake was tinged with the blood of the combatants. The battle lasted but a short time. The Senecas were killed to a man. Not a Wyandot was slain.” C. M. McCall, “An Early Indian Naval Battle Off Long Point,” The Simcoe Reformer


At the extreme southeasterly limit of lot number thirteen, in the Township of Charlotteville, the high bank of Lake Erie makes a bend almost east and west for a few hundred yards and then follows a course a few degrees south of west. This bend forms a bold bluff of about one hundred and fifty feet in height. Its base is traversed by a small stream of pure water, fed from springs from the side of the high bank, near the angle farthest from the lake shore.

The base of the bluff is the apex of a triangular piece of land, composed of marsh, swamp and a narrow strip of upland, bounded on the east and south by water and on the west and north by the high bank.

From the base of the bluff to the extreme [southerly] point of this [ ] tract of land is about three miles, and from this point to its northwest angle is about two miles, and from there along the base of the high bank to the bluff is about three and a half miles.

This strip of land is known as Turkey Point. The marsh on the west is called the Back Marsh and the marsh on the east and south is called the Front Marsh.

It received its named from the early settlers on account of the great number of wild turkeys that used to roost in the hemlock and alder trees along the bank of the ridge and in the swamp adjacent thereto. Here the wild turkey had every environment suitable to its wants, abundance of shelter and protection from iots natural foes, and abundance of food from the seeds of the black oak, beech and maple trees near by. During the summer season, they fed on the seeds of the June grass and on the grasshoppers; in the autumn on crickets so numerous in the open glades of the plains to the north. The Indians were accustomed to burn off in the spring the dead grass and leaves over these plains, so that the grass would grow thicker and afford better grazing for the deer.

In the early days of the pioneers, the settler, with his wife and family, used to drive in their wagons along the bay shore to the end of Turkey Point, and fish by driving their wagons out into the water a short distance. With a long cedar pole they could cast their lines into the channel, known among them as the Deep Hole, and in this way the extreme end of Turkey Point was called Deep Hole Point. The northwest angle of this parcel of land, at the coast line, in front of lot umber four, was called Goose Roost, because wild geese used to roost there. A line drawn from Deep Hole Point to the most northerly point of Ryerson’s Island, called Mohawk Point, is the division between the Outer and Inner Bays of Long Point.

In the geological formation and structure of Turkey Point, we find lake sand and shells of fresh water bi-valves and gastropods, proving clearly that it has been formed by lake sand, by the waves of the adjacent waters and by the winds. When an east wind prevails, the waters are driven up the lake, and the water level is lowered in the bay. The waves, washing and breaking on the shore, form sand bars a short distance from the shore and the first west or southwest wind that follows, returns the waters and carries the sand some distance towards, often upon it, adding several feet, in places, to the shore and which, in some instances in my own recollection, have formed a sand bar across a small inlet or outlet, and which sand bar afterwards became the shore proper, to usurp, gradually, in the same manner, more of the water’s domain. The space of shallow water so separated from the bay afterwards filled up, and is now marsh, gradually becoming dry land. “Turkey Point”, W. J. W. McInnes


Monday (August) 24th — Embarked at 5 o’clock with a strong wind at N.E. Sailed at a great rate. Sea very high, especially to Point Bass (Point a la Biche on French Maps, now Turkey Point), off which came a canoe of Mississengeys, nine in number, all naked. They only came to get something; then returned. At Point Bass, it makes a great bay, through which we sailed about ten miles to Grand Point, where we were obliged to row and sail through bulrushes and a great meadow, to the bank which divides the lake; makes the Great Point the passage or carrying place, which is now cut open a little by Major Gladwin; is not above forty yards across…

Tuesday 25th — …At nine, Mr. Bream came to our camp. He had been round the Grand point, which he says is twenty-two miles long from the carrying place; very low toward the end, which is swampy, and about two miles broad; lies mostly S.E., and is about a third of the lake in length. William Johnson’s Journal, 1761.


One of the first white settlers walking over this locality gathered more than a bushel of arrow points and wondered why they were so plentiful, and more than one hundred years after him, a farmer, while digging post holes for a fence, unearthed several of these flat and nearly square shaped stones, the Indians used to sink their nets.

A few mounds, longer than wide, and two or three excavations, circular in shape, and not very far distant apart, stones of various shapes and sizes, formed by some hidden secret we do not possess, of rock of various strata, altogether foreign to the locality, are all that remain to us, as evidence of the red man. “Turkey Point”, McInnes.


It was January, 1772, when trouble began with some Ojibwas, Mississagas and Ottawas. He [David Ramsay] was compelled to furnish them rum, his life was threatened, his goods plundered, and at last his hut was attacked by night. He killed and scalped three Ottawas, according to his own story, the other Indians having departed previous to the attack. One of those scalped was a woman. When the ice broke up, he and his brother, a boy of seventeen, put his furs and other goods, chiefly deerskins, into the batteau, and set out for Niagara by way of Lake Erie. At Long Point he was forced by the ice to go ashore and camp. Some days afterwards Indians came to the same place and at once began the quarrel with him, chiefly over rum, which he was compelled to furnish them. They threatened his life, and actually seized and pinioned him, tying his arms behind his back and his hands up to his neck, and making him sit by the fire. To make a long story short, Ramsay, in the end, got the better of his assailants. His brother had been able to help him in the struggle, owing to the fact that he had been less carefully watched. It is easy to imagine the effect of rum as a factor in the battle. Ramsay killed his guard and four other Indians, including a boy, scalped them, and got away with his brother. James H. Coyne, “David Ramsay in Long Point Legend and History”.


If the tradition handed down in the first Smith family be true in fact, no doubt would remain as to who was the first white man that established a residence in Norfolk, remaining and afterwards becoming the first settler. This man’s name was William Smith, familiarly known in pioneer times as “Uncle Billy” Smith… It is said that “Uncle Billy” left the parental roof the year following the settlement at Fort Erie, and wandered up into Long Point country where he lived among the Indians. This was in 1786, some four or five years previous to the earliest date claimed for the first settlement. Owen.


…the situation of Long Point is eminently suitable for a fortified post and naval arsenal for Lake Erie, and the establishment of one here would conteract the one held by the United States at Presque’ Isle. A harbor could be constructed on the island near it. It possesses every facility necessary for an important centre of military operations…The settlers to be brought in should be brave and determined Loyalists, such as those from Pennsylvania and Maryland, who at the end of the war were associated to support the cause of the King, and who had sent an agent to ascertain what arrangements could be made for their removal to the province. A strong settlement there would effectually separate the Mohawks on the Grand River from the other Indians. Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe in a letter to the Home Government in London, September 20, 1793.


[Summer 1794] The heavy Batteau was transported from Queenston around the Falls to Chippawa, a distance of 12 miles. Supplies were added to those brought from New York and they once more started on their journey bidding goodbye to the last vestage [sic] of Civilization. They were 12 days making a 100 miles, not bad travelling in those days taking the current of the River & Lake, adverse winds and an unknown coast into consideration. When my Father came within the Bay formed by Long Point, He watched the coast for a favourable impression and after a scrutiny of many miles the Boat was run into a small creek, the high Banks sloping gradually on each side. Directions were given to the men to erect the Tent for my mother.

My Father had not been long on shore before He decided that that should be his home. In wandering about He came to a small eminence [sic] which would (when the Trees were felled) command a view of the Harbour. He gazed around him for a few minuets [sic] and said, “here I will be buried,” and there after 18 years toil he sleeps in peace. “Historical Memoranda,” Mrs. Amelia Harris.


My Father had a couple of Deer Hounds and he used to go to the woods for his Deer, as a farmer would go to his fold for a sheep. Wild turkeys and partridges were Bagged with very little skill or exertion, and when the Creek and Lake were not frozen He need scarcely leave his own Door to shoot Ducks, but the great sporting ground and it is [s]till famous, and the resort of sporting gentlemen from Toronto, Woodstock, and indeed all parts of Canada West, is at the head of Long Point Bay. I have known him several years later return from there with 20 wild geese and a hundred Duck, the result of a few days’ shooting. Pigeons were so plentiful as late as 1810 and 1812 that they could be knocked down with poles. Bears and Wolves were plentiful and the latter used to keep up a most melancholy howl about the house at night, so near that my Mother could scarcely be persuaded that they were not under the window. The Cow, for security, was tied to the Kitchen Door every night, during the day she accompanied the men to the field they were chopping and fed upon brouse which kept her fat and in good heart, the men making a point of felling a maple Tree each morning for her particular benefit. Amelia Harris.


At first it formed part of the Western district, an extremely indefinite province. Previous to the Treaty of 1794, which came into effect in 1796, the Ohio and Mississippi rivers formed the boundary line of Canada. By that treaty the line of division waas drawn in the middle of the lakes.

The Surveyor-General described the Western district as follows in 1796 (in the early part of the year): “On the south it is bounded by Lake Erie; on the east by a meridian passing through the easterly extremity of Long Point, and comprehends all the lands north-westerly of these boundaries, not included within in the bounds of the Hudson Bay Company or the territory of the United States. The boundary which divides it from Louisiana is not well known after it reaches the sources of the Mississippi.” L. H. Tasker, “The United Empire Loyalist Settlement at Long Point, Lake Erie,” Ontario Historical Society Papers and Records, V.II, 1900.


The country is thickly timbered, the chief trees being oak, beech, pine and walnut. Making our way through the forest we reached the lake at a place which, from the abundance of wild-fowl, is named Turkey Point. A ridge or cliff of considerable height skirts the shore for some distance. Between this and Lake Erie is a wide and gently sloping beach. The long ridge of hard sand (Long Point proper) encloses a safe and commodious harbor. The view from the high bank is magnificent. Altogether the place presents a combination of natural advantages and natural beauty but seldom found. Here we have laid out a site of six hundred acres for a town, with reservations for Government buildings, and called it Charlotte Villa, in honor of Queen Charlotte. Lord Simcoe, summer 1795.


Judge Ermatinger commenced by painting a vivid word pictures, describing the surpassing natural beauty of Turkey Point, one could almost fancy himself the first visitor to the region, so primeval, still and grand the scene. A trail leads down the crest of the hill to the level land 150 feet below. A little to the right is the road constructed by the soldiers when the Point was garrisoned, and it affords a safer descent, and a view narrowed by the cliff, but heightened in beauty thereby. Upon these heights was the first capital and chief military depot of the London district. A court house and jail and fort, red-coated foot soliders and more sombrely dressed court officials, litigants, and witnesses, were once familiar objects there. The civic officials during sessions of court lodge at Hatch’s Hotel below the hill, where a fisherman’s dwelling now stands. No trace of any of the buildings referred to now remains, save the almost obliterated fitches which surrounded the fort, or a few broken bricks from the chimneys…In 1795 there were four settlers, when Governor Simcoe visited the point, and, it is said, contemplated making it the provincial capital. Certain it is, however, that it was intended to be the site of one of the great cities of the province. A large tract of land was set apart for this purpose and it still held by the government. But the city did not materialize. It is as the site of ancient Carthage, but more desolate, though nonetheless beautiful. The place was know as Turkey Point, Port Norfolk, Charlotteville and Fort Norfolk. The two first names designate the low lands and harbor, and the two latter the uplands and fort. “Turkey Point, The Ancient Capital of the London District, Paper read by Judge Ermatinger before the Elgin Historical and Scientific Institute,” The Simcoe Reformer, Dec. 18, 1936.


The most important aboriginal site near St. Williams is that of the Attiwandaron village that covered probably the whole of the present Newkirk Cemetery and the field east and southeast of the same. It location was ideal — close to Long Point Bay, but far enough inland to be protected from enemies prowling about in canoes. Not only was it mostly on sandy soil, but it was well watered — the never-failing spring creek at the east, Mud Creek at the south and the latter’s northern bend at the west. To the northward was endless fairly level ground on which corn, beans, squashes and tobacco could be planted. The surface of the field is still marked with blackened spots from the fires of the long houses. McCall.


It was on July 14, 1796, that Thomas W. Welsh, first justice of the peace, first land surveyor, and first registrar of deeds for Norfolk, wrote out an oath of allegiance for the settlers of this district by signing which they promised fealty to King George III, and evidenced their intention of banding together for the defence of the new land to which they had recently come. Most of them came to Canada to be under the Union Jack.

In 1798 one return was inscribed “Return of Captain Thomas Welsh’s Company of the Regiment of Norfolk Militia, commanded by Samuel Ryerse, Esq.” This was the first mention of Colonel Ryerse, first Colonel of the Norfolk Militia… “Review of the Norfolk Regiment since 1796,” Enid Johnson, The Simcoe Reformer, 1950.


…the Norfolk Militia was organized into two regiments early in 1812. Lieut.-Colonel Joseph Ryerson was in command of the Militia at the time and continued his command of the First Regiment, while Lieut.-Colonel Robert Nicol was named to command the Second Regiment. Each unit was called upon to form two Flank Companies for active service in any part of the Province, each Company to consist of three officers and 37 other ranks. Johnson.


Lt.-Col. and Quartermaster General Nicol in 1812 surveyed the harbor and delivered a chart of the same to Sir Isaac Brock. Nowhere on the bar is the water then less than eight feet deep. Col. Nicol recommended the fortifying of Turkey Point, as in his opinion, it was the only place on Lake Erie where a naval depot and shipyard could be established. The colonel also recommended a survey of the harbor by officers of the engineers and royal navy and the construction of two frigates and two sloops of war with some gun vessels, a recommendation upon which action as commenced but afterward abandoned. Col. Nicol afterwards lost his life by falling one night over the precipice into the Niagara river while superintending the construction of Brock’s monument. Ermatinger.


In the spring of 1812 the first hanging took place at Turkey Point, when a negro, convicted of larceny and incendiarism, suffered the extreme penalty of the law. Ermatinger.


General Brock addressed a gathering of Norfolk men at the Culver Tavern about two mile south of Simcoe and from that spot the detachment proceeded to Dover and boarded boats, which could accommodate 400, and the remainder had to march to the relief of Amherstburg. Major Salmon and his men went by water, and had an extremely uncomfortable voyage. As a result of this expeditions behaviour at the capture of Detroit both Major Salmon and Lt.-Col. Nichol were awarded the Gold Medal for Distinguished Conduct. Johnson.


In May 1814 we had several days of heavy fog. On the 13th, I think, the fog lifted. We saw seven or eight ships under the American flag anchored of[f] Ryerse with a number of small Boats floating by the side of each ship. As the fog cleared away they hoisted sail and dropped down three miles below us, opposite Port Dover. Of course, an invasion was anticipated. The Militia under the command of Col. Talbot were immediately ordered to assemble at Brandtford [sic] a distance of thirty miles by 10 A.M. the next day, which they did, with a good many exceptions of Officers & Men. The general wish was to try & prevent the American landing and expressed indignation at being ordered to a safe distance from all danger. On the following morning, the 15th of May, as my Mother and myself were at Breakfast, the Dogs made an unusual barking. I went to the door to discover the cause. When I looked up I saw the hillside and the fields as far as they eye could reach covered with American soldiers. They had landed at Patterson’s Creek, Burnt the Mills and village of Port Dover and then marched to Ryerse. Two men stepped from the ranks, selected some large chips, came into the room where we were standing and took coals from the hearth, without speaking. My mother knew instinctively what they were going to do. She went out and asked to see the commanding officer, a gentleman rode up to her and said he was the person she asked for. She entreated Him to spare her property and said that she was a widow with a young family. He answered civilly & respectfully and regretted that his orders were to Burn, but that He would spare the house, which He did, & said in justification that the Buildings were used as Barracks and the mill furnished flour for British Troops. Very soon we saw [a] column of dark smoke arise from every Building and what at early morn had been a prosperous homestead, at noon there remained only smouldering ruins. The following day Col. Talbot and the Militia under his command marched to Fort Norfolk. The Americans were then safe on board their own ships & well on their way to their own shores. My Father had been dead less than two years, & little remained of all his labors, excepting the orchards and cultivated fields. Amelia Harris.


After killing the first Indian, I cut lead and chewed above thirty balls, and above three pounds of Goose Shot, for I thought it a pity to shoot an Indian with a smooth ball. David Ramsay to Patrick Campbell, 1793.


Specimens of wapiti antlers taken on Long Point are now in the possession of Mr. M. M. Smith, who resides in Simcoe, Norfolk County. It is estimated from casual hearsay accounts that wild wapiti disappeared from the region between one hundred and thirty and one hundred and forty years ago. Snyder, 1932.


About the end of the same month, part of the British prisoners taken at the battle of Lake Erie and during proctor’s retreat were landed at Long Point, having been purposely detained for more than a month in an unhealthy situation at Sandusky, to prevent them joining General Drummond in time to take part in the campaign. They were almost naked, most of them without shoes, and many of them suffering from ague. The surgeon sent to meet them reported that very few of them would ever be fit for duty again.

“At the first sight of our poor fellows,” he wrote on October 7 [1814], “it was with difficulty I could repress my feelings of pity at their miserable condition and of indignation at their treatment which was the cause of it.

“The further we advanced, the scene of misery deepened and from wretchedness in appearance we arrived gradually to the very essence of everything miserable, nakedness, uncleanliness, disease, and death.”

A month later the remainder were put on shore in much the same condition. Major Muir wrote on that occasion:

“On the 25th October [1814] three vessels anchored in the bay and a boat came ashore, and I was informed that the prisoners were on board, but many of them were sick. Soon after the boats arrived at the beach with some dead, others dying, and one half of them unable to help themselves in any manner whatever. In short, we lost six men and one woman that night…” Brig.-General E. A. Cruikshank, “The County of Norfolk in the War of 1812”.


One Ramsay, before and after the Revolution, traded with the Indians of this region up to Detroit. Dr. Troyer believed in magic, and had a mineral rod, by which he divined where gold was buried. About 1790, when Ramsay was coming from Detroit with two men and his boat loaded with furs and gold, he had a dispute with Indians living at Port Stanley, where they had large corn fields, over his refusal to furnish them liquor. They followed him from the land down to Port Burwell and the carrying place, and Long Point to the end of the peninsula, and prevented him doing any further trade. At the portage he buried his money in an iron chest and killed a black dog and buried it over the chest as protection. This was Ramsay’s last trip. About 1817 Dr. Troyer and his son, Michael, having found out by his divining rod where the treasure was, went out towards evening to dig it up. I saw them going out in the boat. My father was the only one I know about that they consulted but he was a believer and would not go. The Doctor afterwards told me that they dug down to the box. The Doctor was a Tunkard. He held a Bible open and a lighted candle to keep away the Evil One. Michael dug and tried to pry the chest out of the ground, when a black dog rose up beside the chest — grew bigger and bigger, until the light went out, and then they took to their boat and went home. As told to James H. Coyne by Simpson McCall in 1893.


The fort at Turkey Point, called Fort Norfolk, was from 150 to 200 feet square with an open square of yard in the centre. The building was one story in height, about seven feet clear. Rooms, with loopholes at intervals, were ranged around the inside of the walls, the centre being an open quadrangle. Married soldiers occupied shanties erected conveniently near the fort. Detachments of the 19th Light Dragoons and of the 37th Regiment were stationed there during the War of 1812-1814. Ermatinger.


Lake Erie is two hundred and forty-six miles long, and sixty broad at its widest part. The depth averages from fifteen to eighteen fathoms over its whole extent, and, in consequence of this remarkable shallowness, it becomes rough and boisterous when the wind blows strongly from any point on the compass. At these times a very high and dangerous surf breaks upon its shores, which, in many places, resemble the beach of the sea, being strewed with dead fish and shells, and infested with aquatic birds of various kinds. Often during storms the Lake is covered with such a think mist, that it is impossible to see to the distance of ten yards from the shore. The waves then roll with terrific violence from amidst the cloudy obscurity, and suggest to the imagination the appalling dangers which threaten those vessels that are exposed to the tempest; for the navigation of the Lake is rendered highly dangerous, by reefs and projecting points of land, and by the nature of the banks, which, towards its western extremity, are so bold and precipitous, that when a vessel is driven upon them shipwreck becomes almost inevitable. John Howison Esq., Sketches of Upper Canada, 1821.


In the early days, these notes explained further, the four corners, now the main intersection of the village, were not opened and the site was covered with a black ash swamp. The road to the west turned at the top of the hill where the United Church now is, and followed the creek around, coming out on the hill where the old jam factory now stands and proceeding westward. “St. Williams Noted for its Forestry Station,” Jean Hall Waldie, The Simcoe Reformer.


Disastrous collision & loss of life. Propellor Cataract collided with brig Oxford off Long Point. Lost — captain John Lee & wife, 2 children, seamen. The Christian Messenger, June 12, 1856.


We regret to learn that the schooner A. Gilmour, Capt. Brown, of Kingston, and bound for that port, as wrecked in the gale of Saturday last, in Long Point cut, near Port Rowan. The Captain, his son and two of the hands were drowned. “Wreck and Loss of Life,” Caledonia Advertiser, Nov. 12, 1856.


He was roused from his sleep by the beating of invisible arms; cold draughts rushed through his apartment, no matter how carefully he closed every crevice against the air; horrible noises, groans and cries made the night hideous. Adele S., “The Legends of Long Point Bay,” The British Canadian, March 2, 1870.


Rising quickly, the doctor inserted the peg in the knot-hole, hoping thereby to capture Mrs. M., as he knew the queen of witches usually left a place last. Horrible were the screams that were heard outside and in the house. The doctor lit the lamp, and discerned, crouching in one corner, a beautiful girl whom neither he nor his companion had ever seen. She maintained a perfect silence, and young N. took her down stairs, followed by the doctor. A stormy discussion took place between Mrs. N., her son, and the doctor –the two elders wishing to at once treat the witch as the doctor’s books demanded; but N. interfered, and declared she should remain — that she was too beautiful to be punished. Doctor Troyer departed in a great rage, and for months he would not speak to N. Meanwhile, the girl remained at the N.’s, and enchanted everyone with her beauty and agreeable ways. She never could be induced to mention where she came from, and who she was. Finally, N. married her, and, to the surprise of all who knew the circumstances of her strange appearance, she made an excellent wife and mother. The years wore on, and the N.s prospered, till one unlucky day, during some house-cleaning, the peg in the knot-hole was unwittingly removed by one of the children. With a terrible scream the mother vanished, and never was heard of again. The chain which bound her to the place was broken, and she returned where she came from. N. mourned sincerely, and tried in all ways to find some trace of his phantom wife. Finally, after some years he married again, and the trouble was almost forgotten. Sometimes, however, at night, mysterious noises were heard, and the next morning traces of some person having been in the house were found, the children’s clothes were mended, and many little offices performed. After they were grown, she never appeared. Adele S., “The Legends of Long Point Bay” The British Canadian, March 2, 1870.


Port Royal, which is situated near the mouth of Big Creek, on the high land just before it dips down to the Long Point marshes, was the centre of lumber trade activities in the fiftiers and sixties of the 19th century. As one old-timer put it, “You could walk anywhere on Bog Creek, at any season of the year, on a jam of logs.” All about lay the great pine country, whose sandy slopes when denuded of their mantle of trees, became hills of menacing blow sand, “not worth fifty cents an acre for farming.”

Companies leased certain sections of land and as the timber was cut the logs were stamped with the company’s mark and put into big Creek. The river [drivers were strapping Irishmen, few of them under six feet tall. That was the day when three hotels did a roaring business in Port Rowan.

The logs were received at Port Royal and bound into rafts. Tugs, which could not navigate the creek, waited outside in Long Point Bay, and took the logs to the sawmills of Tonowanda and Buffalo. “Wealth of Logs Floated to Lake on ‘Big’ Creek” Mabel Burkholder, The Simcoe Reformer, 1945.


During the severe storm of Saturday last, a large American vessel — the Jersey City — was wrecked on the north side of Long Point. The crew and passengers, to the number of seventeen persons, succeeded in reaching the Point — but only to perish of cold and fatigue, unable to kindle a fire. “Dreadful Shipwreck on Long Point — Seventeen Lives Lost” Norfolk Messenger, Nov. 29, 1860.


In 1861, the alarms caused by the Fenian activities in the United States on becoming known here, occasioned the beginning of the reorganization of the militia. Four rifle companies and two infantry companies were formed. In 1866, the new unit was styled the 39th Battalion of Infantry which name was used until the First Great War. Johnson.


Across from the St. Williams planing mill stands a house which was pointed out to me as the first one built in the village. Erected in 1832 by Peter Price, one of the first pioneers to settle on the present site of St. Williams, this pleasant and attractive home is still occupied. It was once known as the “House in the Wilderness,” due to the heavy growth of shrubbery and trees in the old days. Waldie.


The McCalls were a Scottish clan from Argyleshire. Donald McCall came to America in the year 1756 with the regular British troops who were sent over against the French at the beginning of the Seven Years’ War. He was a private in Montgomery’s Highlanders, and took part in the capture of Louisburg in 1758, and served also under Wolfe at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the taking of Quebec. With a detachment of the regiment he was afterwards sent up the lakes. From the Niagara River the party came along the north shore of Lake Erie in batteaux, and when near Turkey Point had an encounter with some French and Indians. Their enemies fired at them from the shelter of the woods, but the plucky Highlanders promptly ran their boats ashore, defeated and chased them inland as far as where the village of Waterford now stands. On their way back they encamped for the night on what is now lot 18 of the 4th concession of the township of Charlotteville, near the present residence of Simpson McCall. In the morning the solders improvised some fishing tackle, and in a short time had caught out of Young’s Creek all the speckled trout the party could eat.

In 1763, after the Treaty of Paris, being discharged on the breaking up of his regiment, he settled in the State of New Jersey, where he lived until the breaking out of the Revolutionary War. He immediately joined the King’s Regiment, and did not retire from military life till after the surrender of Yorktown.

When he returned to his New Jersey home he soon found that he was regarded as an alien and shunned by his neighbors. Not caring to remain, in 1783 he made his way to New Brunswick and settled on a small allotment there.

In 1796 a party from New Brunswick, led by Donald McCall, came west to the Long Point settlement. He was selected as the leader because he had previously visited the country. Among the party were the loyalists Lieut. Jas. Munro and Peter Fairchild. They landed at the mouth of Big Creek on July 1st, 1796, and took up land in various localities.

The old leader, remembering his adventures with the French and Indians, and the episode of the speckled trout fishing alluded to above, made his way inland to the identical spot where the camp fires of his Highland regiment had been lighted forty years before.

His family consisted at the time of five sons and three daughters — John, Duncan, Daniel, James and Hugh, and Catherine, Elizabeth and Mary. Duncan, being already married, settled near his father, on Lot 23 of the 5th concession. On the 26th July, 1796, a son was born to him, the first white child born in the county of Norfolk. This child (Daniel) served afterwards in the War of 1812, taking part in the Battle of Lundy’s Lane and in a skirmish at Malcolm’s Hollow (Oakland), where the British were outnumbered and driven back by General McArthur. Tasker.


There are people in Port Rowan today who have a distinct remembrance of having seen this witch trap in Dr. Troyer’s bedroom. But in spite of this defensive means the witches would occasionally take him out in the night and transform him into various kinds of animals and compel him to perform all sorts of antics. One night the witches took him out of a peaceful slumber, transformed him into a horse and rode him across the lake to Dunkirk where they attended a witch dance. Strange as it may appear, Dr. Troyer believed all this, yet, aside from witchcraft, he was considered a sane man. He is described as wearing a long white flowing beard; and it is said he lived to be ninety-nine years old, and that just before his death he shot a hawk, off-hand, from the peak of the barn roof. E. A. Owen, Pioneer Sketches of Long Point Settlement, 1898.


McDonald was terrified by the melancholy wind stirring the tree-tops, owls hooting, wolves yelping, then the heavy tramp, tramp of a vast multitude, inarticulate voices of men, the crashing of boughs and snapping of twigs, and then the rush of some great unseen host. Soon there was the sound of combat in the air with an opposing multitude, followed by groans of the wounded and shrieks of the dying. James H. Coyne, “David Ramsay in Long Point Legend and History”.


I shall now lead you a ramble through Long Point, which is a tract of country different in appearance from any I have yet described. When I first visited this part of the Province, the sudden change which took place in the aspect of nature seemed like magic. The soil became light and sandy, the forests had dwindled away, and natural groves and copses met the eye in their stead. The fields were beautifully level, and the uncultivated lands had more the appearance of a pleasure-ground than of a wilderness. The trees being small and few in number, and distributed in beautiful clumps, did not at all suggest the idea of a forest… John Howison.


…wide plains covered with small oaks stretched on either side, whole forests of these scorched and burnt up trees with their brick-red withered leaves, unvaried by a speck of green or any fresh foliage, followed one another, their parched and thirsty appearance exciting an oppressive feeling of hopelessness lifelessness and drought such as one may be supposed to experience travelling the desert sands of Africa. The Canadian Journal of Alfred Domett, 1833-1835.


Long Point abounds with game of various kinds, and the woods, from their openness, are favourable for pursuit of it. Partridges spring from the copses, and deer often bound across the path of him who traverses the forests. Immense flocks of passenger, or wild pigeon, frequent this and other parts of Upper Canada during the spring and autumn; and myriads of them are killed by firearms, or caught in nets by the inhabitants; for they fly so close, and in such numbers, that twenty or thirty may sometimes be brought down at a single shot… John Howison.


The Atlantic was another of the fine side-wheelers in the immigrant trade of the 1840s and 1850s. She was making her regular trip from Detroit to Buffalo in August 1852. She stopped at Erie to pick up about 200 Norwegians who were going to Quebec. The ship was so crowded, however, that she had to leave seventy-five of the Norwegian company on the Erie wharf. She was running in the after-midnight darkness and fog a few miles off Long Point and nearing her destination when the propeller-driven Ogdensburg, going west, hit her on the port side just forward of the wheel. There was no apparent damage, since the Ogdensburg had reversed her engines before the collision, and both ships went on in the fog and darkness, thinking all was well. The Atlantic steamed on two miles and suddenly began to sink. Her passengers were awakened and told to prepare to abandon ship. They threw overboard settees, chairs and mattresses for life preservers. The fires in the boilers went out with a hiss of steam. The process of abandoning ship was proceeding in calm order when the Norwegians suddenly went mad. They could not understand a word of English when the captain tried to direct them and explain what was happening. They started leaping overboard in the darkness in spite of all efforts to restrain them. The ship went down at two-thirty in the morning. The Ogdensburg had stopped for repairs after the collision. She heard the terrified shrieks of the drowning Norwegians two miles away. She rushed back to the scene in time to pick up 250 of the passengers. More than 300, most of them Norwegians, were drowned. Hatcher.


The seine netters’ fishing grounds are the Inner Bay whence they gather in a great conglomeration of coarse fish including perch, mullet and carp. The carp are shipped out alive in tank trucks to Toronto, New York and Chicago to meet the demand of the Jewish trade.

As they tend their nets the fishermen propel their dories about the bay by punting, due to the shallowness of the water which ranges from six to eight feet in depth, with a few channels about 14 feet deep. By June 1 the seine fishing season is concluded until fall. “Picturesque Port Rowan,” Jean Hall Waldie, The Simcoe Reformer.


Whitefish are now unknown in the waters of the Inner Bay, though the early settlers called the bar, a short distance from Deep Hole Point, White Fish Bar on account of the numbers of white they caught there. So much then for the filling up of the beautiful bay. In place of the white fish, we have the carp, properly styled the water hog… McInnes.


Not all wrecks were caused by treacherous weather and shoals. At various times ‘wreckers’ are known to have worked from the Long Point beaches. They were unscrupulous, ghoulish opportunists who lured vessels to their doom by using false beacons where captains were expecting the guiding beams of a lighthouse. Before anyone on the mainland was aware of the tragedy, the wreckers would strip the hapless vessel of her cargo and gear and make good their escape.

The area near the bay entrance to the Cut was a favourite area for their operations. For example, in December 1860 the schooner Greenbush was coming down the lake in a stiff blow, easing along the south beach as her captain watched for the red light that identified the wide mouth of the Cut. Picking it out, he ran towards the pounding surf and deeper water that the light marked for him. Suddenly the stout little schooner shuddered from bow to stern as her keel bottomed hard on a shoal. Her bow crashed even more heavily on the next sand bar, then a following sea lifted her stern high and swung it shorewards, leaving her heeling precariously to starboard. Too late the captain realized that a wrecker’s false light had lured him into the treacherous shallows far up the beach from the Cut. Not one of her crew of thirteen survived. Harry B. Barrett, Lore and Legends of Long Point.


…the report of the Ontario Game and Fisheries Department for 1909 which states that “a number” of elk was introduced by the Long Point Company in 1909, one of which escaped and was killed in November of that year. Snyder.


With marvelous rapidity it became an open common and a resort for the idle and dissipated. The place was shunned by sportsmen of the better sort. With steamboats and tugs on the American side of the lake and no railway on the Canadian side, Long Point was more easy of access from Buffalo and Erie than from any Canadian City. “Morrissey and Heenan” had their prize fight there and more recently “Dwyer and Elliot.” A brothel had a temporary location — the inmates supplied from Buffalo. Rev. Dr. Ryerson, Chief Superintendent of Education in Ontario, who had shot there from boyhood, wrote the Government that it was then impossible for a respectable man to go there, and ruin for any young man to shoot there. That immorality, drunkenness, and a low tone was prevalent throughout the place. Edward Harris, Recollections of Long Point, 1918.


Here Bill Price’s powder flask burst, when loading his gun. It is not certain whether he had been using brown paper for wadding or smoking his pipe at the time. Before the accident he had a very handsome face. This was Peter Price’s favorite son. He might have reached any position in Ontario had he not been so devoted to the marsh. Edward Harris, 1918.


But even there the canvas back, red head, widgeon and mallard ducks are met by the market hunter, with his pump gun, in his skeg boat, and with a string of one hundred decoys, are slaughtered in vast numbers and sold. Turkey Point, Dr. Walter McInnes.


Norfolk County is noted for having several plants growing in it naturally that are not found plentifully anywhere and that are not found elsewhere in Southern Ontario. Norfolk’s lake-tempered climate and variety of soils have much to do with the great number of different plants found within its borders.

Let us imagine that it is early morning on a day in late June and that we had camped the previous night on the north shore of Long Point Bay. On going down to the lake to wash we notice the umbrella-like leaves of the American Lotus standing in the shallow water. Later in the year these plants bear wonderful, large, lemon-yellow flowers possessing a very sweet scent… Robert Landon, “A Jaunt Among Norfolk’s Wild Flowers” The Monocle, May, 1929.


Much of the land around Long Point was a desolate sight a generation ago. The thick stands of white pine were cut off and the sand lands were cleared for agriculture. The results were inevitable: the thin soil was quickly exhausted, sand blew over the fields, sifted out from the roots of stumps, exposed barren limestone outcropping and drifted over the roads. Farms were abandoned and the buildings fell into ruins. Harlan Hatcher.

—Collected and edited by Douglas Glover


See also John Cardiff’s Norfolk County genealogical site Norfolk Genealogy which contains a trove of news clippings, photos, as well a minute historical data for individual families.

I have used Norfolk County folklore and history in several pieces of fiction and nonfiction.

“A Flame, a Burst of Light” is short story about prisoners of war returning from a disastrous prison camp in Ohio in 1814. It was originally published in The New Quarterly and is coming out in my book of stories Savage Love .

“The Sun Lord and the Royal Child” is a short story about the scandalous behaviour of archaeologists, the Neutral and the Southwold Earthworks. It was originally published in Ninth Letter and reprinted in Savage Love.

“Swain Corliss, Hero of Malcolm’s Mills (now Oakland, Ontario, November 6, 1814″ is about the 1814 battle. You can find it in my book A Guide to Animal Behaviour.

“Turned into a Horse by Witches” is about Dr. Troyer, the famous Long Point witch doctor, and is also in A Guide to Animal Behaviour.

My essay “Possum” about my great-grandfather John Brock and St Williams was published in The New Quarterly.

And, of course, some of the scenes in my novel The Life and Times of Captain N. take place on the Lake Erie shoreline. The character Hendrick Nellis is based on the real Hendrick Nelles. The character Mary Hunsacker is based on Mary Sitts who is buried in the pioneer cemetery in Boston (Norfolk County).


Apr 092011

David Rivard is an immensely talented, award-winning poet and another old friend from my early days at Vermont College of Fine Arts. The first time I visited the fabulous Hope Cemetery in Barre, VT, I went along with David Rivard and Francois Camoin, Francois taking book jacket photos amid the extravagant folk art granite headstones (granite cars, soccer balls, lovers). It’s a huge pleasure to use Numéro Cinq to reach back in time and capture those moments. Here are four gorgeous poems from David’s new poetry book Otherwise  Elsewhere, just published a couple of months ago by Graywolf Press. Including Otherwise Elswhere, David is the author of five books of poetry. The others are Sugartown, Bewitched Playground, Wise Poison, winner of the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets in 1996 and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and Torque.  His poems and essays appear in the American Poetry Review, TriQuarterly, Ploughshares, Poetry London, and other magazines.  In 2006, he was awarded the O.B. Hardison Jr. Poetry Prize from the Folger Shakespeare Library, in recognition of both his writing and teaching.  Among his other awards are fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Ranieri Foundation, and the NEA.  He teaches in the University of New Hampshire MFA program.

See also Ron Slate’s review of Otherwise Elsewhere at At the Seawall and Ryan Sanford Smith’s review  at White Walls/Black Ink. Here is a David Rivard interview at Agni and a short David Rivard essay on writing that originally appeared American Poetry  Review.


Four Poems from Otherwise Elsewhere

By David Rivard

Note to Myself

Having survived self-
esteem (both low & high), like

out of a to-do
list for civil war
in the heart—

been a back-stabber (when said
back was my own), or

lucky Darwinian
holder of
the Ace of Spades,

in my mind—
Getting to see myself
as a green midge

as a pine tree looming like
a fetching samurai

at the edge
of a meadow—I get a little
tired–& strangely

everywhere I go
seems one
step closer to wherever I

I was when I left for
wherever I thought

I wanted to be.
Given the round
ranginess of earth, always

thinking of myself—tho
that’s it for me now. Enough. No
more, thank you. No, really.


Working Black

The part of Stockholm I saw at 22, I saw as an employee & thief
more or less—an American sweating in clogs & kitchen whites—
booster of those clogs from a Gamla Stan stall, a shoplifter
of Icelandic sweaters, book thief—Gravity’s Rainbow, Justine
I worked day-shifts as scullery boy for Claes & Eva at the restaurant
Hos Oss, pot scrubber, peeler of turnips & potatoes, blade sharpener—
“working black” the Swedes said, meaning for most foreigners
off-the-books &untaxed, the welfare state scammed, meaning
for others that you had vanished, you were a Vera or a Paulo
or Damishi who had fled from your home in some southern dictatorship
fearful that you might be “disappeared,” so perhaps you no longer
existed anymore, or didn’t deserve to. “If people believe,”
Berndt had said, “it’s only because they wish for themselves to see,”
tho the chef was speaking of having had the dead appear to him
as bewildering presences, travelers trapped on the blank screen
of his broken television, souls stored in a paranormal peepshow.
Meanwhile I mopped tiles or whisked a bowl of whipped cream
as the middle-management of Gulf Oil drifted over
from a nearby office tower for pea soup & thick pancakes & jam
every Thursday lunch—there was a sad gentility & boredom
sunk deep in the witch-hazel faces of these sober businessmen,
far from the tripping & mobilizations of dumbstruck America
1975. Faces unlike my own bearded & baffled face.
What is the taste of raw potato in a steamy northern kitchen?—
the iron earthiness of your mother & father outgrown, left behind.



“Anodyne lingerie” was Amy Dryansky’s
way of describing it. “The sufferers of giganticism
are out in the fog with their mallets,” wrote
David Blair. Meaning what Snyder meant perhaps
by “spring-water in the green creek is clear,”
a crib from Han Shan. Meaning otherwise
“trouble no more,” as sung by Sister Rosetta Tharpe
or “now it’s your turn, mister!”—as any babysitter might say—
even if it is unquestionably true that no one should ever
promise anything so vague & huge—a youngish
woman with a macaroon talking to a toddler,
her voice the galvanic bath it all floats in. It. All of it.
“Solitude, my mother, tell me my life again,”
wrote the uncle of Czeslaw Milosz last time he saw it.
A blissful state of mind, or an anxiety attack. It
has a need to be called by its rightful name
or explained because it can’t see itself clearly,
plus is terribly changeful. In any case, “Grazie” is
still the best way to say goodbye to it. And it wasn’t fooled
when my brother referred to it as a “piece of cake.”
Perhaps the best advice ever given about it can be found
in these lines by a sadly late & formerly high-wattage
earthling: “When you come to something,” he said,
“stop to let it pass, so you can see what else is there.”
“It’s murder,” my doctor likes to say, & it is,
but it still wants you to love it back. My mother
dealt with it by telling the four of us, me, my
brother & two sisters, “go ahead, do whatever
you want.” By which she meant we should do
exactly what she thought best. As if that should
have put it to rest. Thankfully, it did not. Grazie.


What We Call Childhood

What we call childhood isn’t
what a child would call it—
so she doesn’t
speak of how she was the most sensitive girl in the convent school kindergarten
or that the god who was a panhandler
wore a fly’s face
and that whenever he dawdled beneath the striped
awning of the shop selling cut-rate shoes & her class
had to walk by him as it happened
on the way to the public library
she would cling to her teacher then & cry
steered off by the old nun’s fingers, she doesn’t mention
why her bedspread changed to blue
each July, the sky lighter blue, the screen door green,
her stepfather’s beach house having been rehabbed under the influence of sea light,
sea light & contractor kickbacks,
she doesn’t say she was
a girl by the first week of 6th grade summer vacation well-known
as a primitive freelancer whenever she rode her old 3-speed English racer
handless downhill to the anchorage;
none of it gets talked about, certainly
not the angora sweater
and the Chinatown bracelets
or those evenings
3 winters later when she danced in front of her bedroom mirror
with headphones on & always inside of the sight lines
because she was wearing blue mascara
and somehow that
had given her the idea to break into the empty summer cottages
with her rustbelt boyfriend; she doesn’t even
say she liked how her legs got long
in a kick-pleat skirt but hated her dark hair
for curling if it threatened rain—
and likewise
her whole childhood, it’s all kept in play,
so no one will ever feel free to tell her what it was worth,
not even on that autumn moor
where against all odds a narrow sandy road
gleams at midnight.

—David Rivard

Apr 082011


Editor’s Note (Jan 17, 2012): Lynne Tillman’s story collection Someday This Will Be Funny, from which this story was excerpted at NC last spring, was named one of the best books of 2011 by Publishers Weekly.

Here’s a sly, witty, fiercely intelligent, sexy, hilarious, knowing, playful and wise short story, “The Substitute,” from Lynne Tillman’s brand new collection Someday This Will Be Funny (May 1 pub. date). Lynne is an old acquaintance, “friend” would be a bit presumptuous; though we have known each other and corresponded sympathetically now and then since 1992 when I reviewed her sly, witty, fiercely intelligent, hilarious, knowing, playful and wise novel Cast in Doubt for the Washington Post Book World. Of that book, I wrote in part: “…Lynne Tillman writes with such élan, such spirited delight and comic intelligence that it is difficult to take anything but pleasure….” Believe me, this woman has some moves.

Lynne is the Writer-in-Residency at the University at Albany. She has published five novels, three story collections and a book of essays. Mirabile dictu, her current publisher, Red Lemonade, is simultaneously bringing  four Lynne Tillman novels back into print: Haunted Houses (1986), Motion Sickness (1991), Cast in Doubt (1992) and No Lease on Life (1998). This is amazing, a coup, and a sign that somehow publishing lives, nurtured by innovators and risk takers. Richard Eoin Nash, the man behind Red Lemonade, describes the imprint as “a pilot for a massively ambitious program, to create a new platform (part webapp, part business process) for independent publishing, combining the best of editorial judgment and publicity moxie with community input into acquisition and promotion, and combining the tradition publisher/retailer process with digital publishing and limited editions. That’s called Cursor and that’s the platform powering Red Lemonade.”

Read Lynne’s story, buy the books (stock up before the next recession), check out Cursor and Red Lemonade. Read about Lynne on Slate; read an interview in BOMB, another interview in The Millions. More recently, an excellent interview and collection of links .




She watched his heart have a small fit under his black T-shirt. Its unsteady rhythm was a bridge between them. Lost in the possibilities he offered her, she studied his thin face, aquiline nose, tobacco-yellow fingers. In the moment, which swallowed her whole, she admired his need to smoke. She wouldn’t always, but not being able to stop meant something, now. Certain damage was sexy, a few sinuous scars. He’d be willing, eager maybe, to exist with her in the margins.

She’d set the terms. Ride, nurse on danger, take acceptable or necessary risks. Maybe there’d be one night at a luscious border, where they’d thrum on thrill, ecstatically unsure, or one long day into one long night, when they’d say everything and nothing and basely have their way with each other. She wasn’t primitive but had an idea of it—to live for and in her senses. She’d tell him this. Then they’d vanish, disappear without regret. She was astonished at how adolescence malingered in every cell of her mature body.

Helen met Rex on the train. She taught interior design to art students in a small college in a nearby city. He taught painting. She liked it that he sometimes smelled like a painter, which was old-fashioned, though he wasn’t; he told her he erased traces of the hand (she liked hands), used acrylics, didn’t leave his mark and yet left it, too. Still, tobacco, chemicals, alcohol, a certain raw body odor, all the storied ingredients, reminded her of lofts and studios and herself in them twenty years before, late at night, time dissolving.

Between Rex and her, one look established furtive interest, and with a fleeting, insubstantial communication they betrayed that and themselves. They were intrigued dogs sniffing each other’s tempting genitals and asses. Being an animal contented her lately, and she sometimes compared her behavior with wild and domestic ones. Reason, she told an indignant friend with relish, was too great a price to pay daily.

Her imagination was her best feature. It embellished her visible parts, and altogether they concocted longing in Rex. She could see it; she could have him. She couldn’t have her analyst. She held Dr Kaye in her mind, where she frolicked furiously in delayed gratification. But Rex, this man beside her—she could see the hairs on his arms quiver—engaged her fantastic self, an action figure.

Rex’s hands fooled with his cigarette pack. Her analyst didn’t smoke, at least not with her, and she didn’t imagine he smoked at home, with his wife, whose office was next door, she discovered, unwittingly, not ever having considered that the woman in the adjoining office was more than a colleague. Cottage industry, she remarked in her session. Dr Kaye seemed amused. Maybe because she hadn’t been curious about the relationship or because it took her so long to catch on. That meant more than what she said, she supposed.

Rex’s hands weren’t well-shaped, beautiful. If she concentrated on them . . . But she wondered: would they stir me, anyway. She shut her eyes. She liked talking with her eyes shut, though she couldn’t see her analyst’s face. Dr Kaye wore a long tie today. It hung down over his fly and obscured the trouser pouch for his penis.

When she first saw him, she was relieved to find him avuncular, not handsome like her father. Men grew on trees, there were so many of them, they dropped to the ground and rotted, most of them. Dr. Kaye hesitated before speaking. She imagined his face darkening when she said things like that. Whatever, she said and smiled again at the ceiling. I like men. I’m just pulling your leg. She could see the bottoms of his trousers.

When she approached him on the train, Rex had a near-smirk on his lips, just because she was near. She liked his lips, they were lopsided. If he didn’t speak, she could imagine his tongue. He might push for something to happen, actually, and that was exciting. Her heart sped up as Rex glanced sideways at her, from under his . . . liquid hazel eyes. She squirmed, happily. Hovering at the edge tantalized her. The heart did race and skip; it fibrillated, her mother had died of that. What do you feel about your mother now? Dr. Kaye asked. But aren’t you my mother now?

They flirted, she and Rex, the new, new man with a dog’s name. Did it matter what he looked like naked? They hadn’t lied to each other. Unless by omission. But then their moments were lived by omission. Looking at him staring out the window, as if he were thinking of things other than her, she started a sentence, then let the next word slide back into her mouth like a sucking candy. Rex held his breath. She blushed. This was really too precious to consummate.

Dr. Kaye seemed involved in the idea. He had shaved closely that morning, and his aftershave came to her in tart waves. She inhaled him. She—Ms. Vaughn, to him—weighed whether she would tell him anything about Rex, a little, or everything. With Rex, she wasn’t under any agreement. She measured her words for herself and for him, and she told him just enough. He was the libertine lover, Dr Kaye the demanding one. With him, she drew out her tales, like Scheherazade.

First, Dr. Kaye, she offered, her eyes on the ceiling, it was the way he looked at me, he was gobbling me up, taking me inside him. I liked that. Why did I like that? Because I hate myself, you know that. Then she laughed. Later, she went on, I pretended I didn’t see him staring at me. Then I stopped pretending. In her next session, she continued: He wanted to take my hand, because his finger fluttered over my wrist, and his unwillingness, no, inability, I don’t know about will, I had a boyfriend named Will, he was impotent, did I tell you? His reluctance made me . . . wet. She sat up once and stared at Dr. Kaye, daring him. But he was well-trained, an obedient dog, and he listened neatly.

Rex was sloppy with heat. Their unstable hearts could be a gift to Dr. Kaye. Or a substitute, for a substitute. She trembled, bringing their story—hers—to Dr. Kaye in installments, four times a week. It was better than a good dream, whose heady vapors were similar to her ambiguous, unlived relationships. Not falling was better, she explained to Dr. Kaye; having what they wanted was ordinary and would destroy them or be nothing, not falling, not losing, not dying was better. Why do you think that? he asked. This nothing that was almost everything gave her hope. Illusion was truth in a different guise, true in another dimension. Dr. Kaye wanted to know what she felt about Rex. I don’t know—we’re borderline characters, she said. Liminal, like you and me.

And, she went on, her hands folded on her stomach, he and I went into the toilet . . . of the train . . . and fooled around. She laughed. I was in a train crash once . . . But the toilet smelled . . . Like your aftershave, she thought, but didn’t say. Say everything, say everything impossible.

Looking at Rex reading a book, his skin flushed, overheated in tiny red florets, Helen wondered when the romance would become misshapen. Her need could flaunt itself. She wanted that, really, and trusted to her strangeness and his eccentricity for its acceptance. Or, lust could be checked like excess baggage at the door. They’d have a cerebral affair.

But their near-accidental meetings sweetened her days and nights. They were sweeter even than chocolate melting in her mouth. Dark chocolate helped her sleep. She had a strange metabolism. How could she sleep—Rex was the latest hero who had come to save her, to fight for her. If he didn’t play on her playground, with her rules, he was less safe than Dr. Kaye. But Rex was as smart, almost, as she was; he knew how to entice her. She might go further than she planned.

Dr. Kaye’s couch was a deep red, nearly purple, she noted more than once. Lying on it, Helen told him she liked Rex more than him. She hoped for an unguarded response. Why is that? he asked, somberly. Because he delivers, like the pizza man—remember the one who got murdered, some boys did it. They were bored, they didn’t know what to do with themselves, so they ordered a pizza and killed the guy who brought it. The poor guy. Everyone wants to be excited. Don’t you? She heard Dr Kaye’s weight shift in his chair. So, she went on, Rex told me I’m beautiful, amazing, and I don’t believe him, and it reminded me of when Charles—that lawyer I was doing some work for—said, out of nowhere, I was, and then that his wife and baby were going away, and would I spend the week with him, and it would be over when his wife came back—we were walking in Central Park—and I said no, and I never saw him again.

One night, Rex and she took the train home together. When they arrived at Grand Central, they decided to have a drink, for the first time. The station, its ceiling a starry night sky, had been restored to its former grandeur, and Helen felt that way, too. In a commuter bar, they did MTV humpy dancing, wet-kissed, put their hands on each other, and got thrown out. Lust was messy, gaudy. Neverneverland, never was better, if she could convince Rex. How hot is cool? they repeated to each other, after their bar imbroglio.

Helen liked waiting, wanting, and being wanted more. It’s all so typical, she told Dr. Kaye, and he wanted her to go on. She felt him hanging on her words. Tell me more, he said. The bar was dark, of course, crowded, Rex’s eyes were smoky, and everything in him was concentrated in them, they were like headlights, he’d been in a car accident once and showed me his scar, at his neck, and then I kissed him there, and I told him about my brother’s suicide, and about you, and he was jealous, he doesn’t want me to talk about him, us, he thinks it’ll destroy the magic, probably . . . stupid . . . it is magic . . . and he wanted me then, and there . . . But she thought: Never with Rex, never give myself, just give this to you, my doctor. She announced, suddenly: I won’t squander anything anymore.

The urge to give herself was weirdly compelling, written into her like the ridiculous, implausible vows in a marriage contract. Dr. Kaye might feel differently about marriage, or other things, but he wouldn’t tell her. He contained himself astutely and grew fuller, fatter. He looked larger every week. The mystery was that he was always available for their time-bound encounters, in which thwarted love was still love. It was what you did with your limits that mattered. She imagined she interested him.

Listening to her stories, Dr. Kaye encouraged her, and she felt alive. She could do with her body what she wanted, everyone knew that; the body was just a fleshy vehicle of consequences. Her mind was virtual—free, even, to make false separations. She could lie to herself, to him; she believed in what she said, whatever it was. So did he. To Dr. Kaye, there was truth in fantasy. Her half-lies and contradictions were really inconsequential to anyone but herself. He might admit that.

But the next day, on the train, Rex pressed her silently. His thin face was as sharp as a steak knife. He wouldn’t give her what she wanted: he didn’t look at her with greedy passion. There was a little death around the corner, waiting for her. She had to give him something, feed his fire or lose it and him.

So she would visit his studio, see his work, she might succumb, Helen informed her analyst. She described how she’d enter his place and be overwhelmed by sensations that had nothing to do with the present. In another time, with another man, with other men, this had happened before, so her senses would awaken to colors, smells, and sounds that were familiar. Soon she would be naked with him on a rough wool blanket thrown hastily over a cot. Her skin would be irritated by the wool, and she would discover his body and find it wonderful or not. He would devour her. He would say, I’ve never felt this way before. Or, you make me feel insane. She wouldn’t like his work and would feel herself moving away from him. Already seen, it was in a way obscene, and ordinary. She calmly explained what shouldn’t be seen, and why, and, as she did, found an old cave to enter.

Dr. Kaye didn’t seem to appreciate her reluctance. Or if he did, in his subtle way he appeared to want her to have the experience, anyway. She knew she would go, then, to Rex’s studio, and announced on the train that she’d be there Saturday night—date night, Rex said. He looked at her again, that way. But she knew it would hasten the end, like a death sentence for promise. Recently, Helen had awaited Timothy McVeigh’s execution with terror, but it had come and gone. No one mentioned him anymore. Others were being killed—just a few injections, put them to sleep, stop their breathing, and it’s done, they’re gone. Things die so easily, she said. Then she listened to Dr. Kaye breathe.

Saturday night Helen rang the bell on Rex’s Williamsburg studio. All around her, singles and couples wandered on a mission to have fun. Soon they’d go home, and the streets would be empty. Rex greeted her with a drink—a Mojito—which he knew she loved. His studio was bare, except for his work and books, even austere, and it was clean. The sweet, thick rum numbed her, and she prepared for the worst and the best. There was no in-between.

His paintings were, in a way, pictures of pictures. Unexpectedly, she responded to them, because they appreciated the distance between things. Then, without much talk, they had sex. She wasn’t sure why, but resisting was harder. Rex adored her, her body, he was nimble and smelled like wet sand. He came, finally, but she didn’t want to or couldn’t. She held something back. Rex was bothered, and her head felt as if it had split apart. But it didn’t matter in some way she couldn’t explain to Dr. Kaye. She heard him move in his chair. She worried that he wasn’t interested. Maybe her stories exhausted him. Rex called her every day. She wondered if she should find another man, one she couldn’t have.

—Lynne Tillman


Apr 072011

Herewith the inaugural instance of a new Numéro Cinq series, the NC Interviews. Our first interviewee is my old friend Mark Anthony Jarman and our first interviewer is contributor Mary Stein. Mark and I knew each other at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the beginning of the 1980s. A long friendship with legs—last September, late one night (maybe early morning), Mark and I sat in his backyard with my publisher Susanne Alexander, drinking beer under the stars in Fredericton, New Brunswick, like old times. He edits fiction for a venerable Canadian magazine called The Fiddlehead which, in the 1970s, published some of my first short stories (and another story is coming out in the summer, 2011, issue). Mark has written a book of poetry, Killing the Swan, a hockey novel, Salvage King Ya!, four story collections, Dancing Nightly in the Tavern, New Orleans is Sinking, 19 Knives, and My White Planet, and nonfiction book about Ireland called Ireland’s Eye. He teaches at the University of New Brunswick and lives in a very large house fronting the Saint John River. His story “The December Astronauts (or Moonbase Horse Code)” appears in Numéro Cinq’s Best of Vol. 1.


Mixes and Collisions: A Numéro Cinq Interview with Mark Anthony Jarman

By Mary Stein


MCS: Why don’t you start by telling me a little about your relationship to writing poetry versus writing prose. It seems it’s been decades since you’ve published a collection of poetry. Have you continued to write poetry since Killing the Swan, or does your prose writing satisfy your poetic impulses?

MAJ: After I published Killing the Swan, I had the feeling it had gone into a vacuum, and decided to put the same images and ideas into prose if I could manage.  There are things in poetry you can do that you can’t in an essay or story, but I feel it’s a very good influence on the latter in terms of editing, compression, attention to language, imagery, odd juxtapositions, implication, developing an eye and ear, etc.  I also feel there is too much weak poetry around and I don’t want to add to it; perhaps the government could pay us to not write poetry rather than fund more.  Great poetry is great, I was influenced by Eliot, Richard Hugo, Denis Johnson, Philip Levine, Sharon Olds, and had good teachers, PK Page, Phyllis Webb, but a lot of poetry strikes me as pointless.  Maybe I’ve been to too many bad readings.

MCS: In Burning Down the House, Charles Baxter writes, “Fiction writers get resentful, watching poets calling it quits at 9:30 a.m.” Do you ever lapse into moments of “poet envy” or does the fiction writer’s tireless pursuit of the right-hand margin suit you?


MAJ: I do torment the poets I know, teasing them that they can whip off a poem before breakfast whereas a story rarely happens quickly.

Continue reading »

Apr 062011

It’s a pleasure to introduce Cynthia Newberry Martin’s lovely contribution to the Numéro Cinq “Childhood” essay series. Cynthia is an author, a current Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA student and publisher of the terrific writing blog Catching Days, one of Powell’s Books “Lit Blogs We Love,” where among other delightful things she has a terrific series of posts called “How We Spend Our Days” in which well known writers give readers the lowdown on a typical working day. Her fiction, essays and book reviews have appeared in Contrary Magazine, Storyglossia and Six Sentences, among other places. She has been an NC supporter from the very beginning and has contributed also to our “What it’s like living here” series.



by Cynthia Newberry Martin

“She sees that she has before her an important task: to understand that all the things that happened in her life happened to her…That there is some line running through her body like a wick.”

–Mary Gordon, The Rest of Life

It’s 1962

You’re four. You’re living in Atlanta, Georgia. On February 20th, you stand by your parent’s bed, just taller than the mattress. You stare at your mother. She turns you toward the TV. Look, she says. You’ll want to remember this. That’s John Glenn in a space ship, going around the earth.

You’re five. It’s your first day of kindergarten at Spring Street Elementary School. You wait with the other kids under the awning. The principal rings the bell. You line up. At recess, you ask a girl her name. Dee, she says. You will be best friends until seventh grade when you switch to a private school because your parents say desegregation and busing are going to change things. You play troll dolls at Dee’s house after school. Her grandparents are there, but not her mother who is divorced and works. Henry’s mother comes to the classroom to give puppet shows in French. You love the sound and the magic of the words. Sixteen years later you will major in French and Linguistics. It’s Sunday, June 3rd, and everyone is quiet. Even outside you have to be quiet. Across the street are cars. Miss May’s sister died in the plane crash. In Paris.  Hundreds of people from Atlanta are dead. Your parents will never let you fly on a chartered flight. You will see the cross when you fly into Orly Airport five years later and again ten years after that.

Continue reading »

Apr 042011

Here is a gorgeously bittersweet new poem by Sydney Lea whose ninth collection of poems, Young of the Year, has just been published by Four Way Books. Syd is an old friend from my early Vermont College of Fine Arts days (see my introduction to his fine essay “Weathers and Places” published earlier on NC). I also interviewed him when I had my radio show, The Book Show out of WAMC, the Albany, NY, public radio station. Somewhere in the Black Hole of a crawl space accessed through my sons’ bedroom there is a box of tapes I saved from that show. I always mean to dig out the interview and replay it—lovely talk of dogs, birds, hunting and nature. Syd tells me he wrote this poem after watching the movie Away from Her which is based on an Alice Munro short story called “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.” The movie stars Julie Christie and the Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent whom I have always admired, especially his great and underrated movie The Rowdyman. Pinsent plays the bereaved husband of a woman who suffers from dementia, forgets him and, in a mysteriously touching reversal, finds new love in the home where she is kept. In my mind, Sydney Lea and Alice Munro have a great deal in common; they are both achieved artists in whose hands even the most difficult things are elaborated with force, delicacy and apparent ease. Syd’s poem captures beautifully the wistful mystery of lost memory and love, the strange turn (just sailing away, it seems) of the long-loved one into the open sea.



By Sydney Lea


She wonders if it’s cliché to think of the husband
with whom she’s lived for decades,
most of which she’d call, all things considered,
a pleasure — if it’s cliché to imagine her partner
a ship at the lip of a clouded horizon.

In fact he’s sailed the whole way over.
And then she wonders why she should wonder this,
why it would make any difference, trite or fresh?
And what does she know about ships?
Early on, as they sat one morning together,

he felt in his pocket for his car keys,
held them up against the kitchen’s skylight,
whispering “Bullet. Bullet.”
It passed, they embraced, both a little uneasy,
but he left for work as always.

For what seems to her now quite a while they kept it away,
that morning, unmentioned, conspired into absence.
After all, there seemed nothing
that either could do about it then, and nothing
of course to be done today.

What does she know about ships, about sailors?
No, nothing either,
though once as a girl she was carried out on a bay
in a rich friend’s yacht. The cold white spray
flew gunwale to gunwale. And there’s more she remembers:

they all could have slept in the boat’s tidy cabin
in comfort, if that had been part of the outing’s plan.
And the tiller wheel was made of such dark lovely wood,
and everything else on board
showed some sort of glass or some bright brass fitting

and the life-rings that hung on the taffrail
were stenciled Claire C., the name of the boat.
It all made her feel she could never want anything more
when it came to beauty. That gleam. That air.
He had beauty as well.

back when he was the young man she chose
to live and sleep with ever after.
They made children together. They said they were blessed.
The beauty, which changed of course with the decades, was nonetheless
beauty. She still supposes it so,

though it swamps her soul
to watch him sink out of reach, unheeding.
Why can’t she call him up? Why can’t she call him to her?
Her mind shifts back to her girlfriend’s father,
who kept inspecting a tiny crack in the sleek sloop’s hull,

no matter his pretty wife’s counsel
that he relax, that he live for this day
of wheeling seabirds, foam and speed,
sharp-edged, slam-bang clouds,
heady squeaks and snaps from mast and mainsail.

The husband worried, the husband
insisted it might be only a matter of time
before that inconspicuous fissure turned into much more.
He was looking for something to do about it there
and then — as of course he couldn’t.

He said he hated to think of his treasure,
his own Claire C., beyond recall, to imagine the day
when off it might be
— he used the cliché —
to Davy Jones’s locker with her. Forever.

—Sydney Lea

Apr 032011

Christopher Ryan, Ph.D. & Cacilda Jethá, M.D.

Sex at Dawn: the Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality
Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá
Harper, 416 pp., $25.99
ISBN 9780061707803

John Gardner’s lovely On Becoming a Novelist claims that readers have two big incentives to get through long blocks of prose: story and/or argument. In Sex at Dawn: the Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, Christopher Ryan (PhD) and Cacilda Jethá (MD) offer a little of the former and plenty of the latter. With kilos of scientific homework, not home-wrecking confessions, they tell the polyamorous story of human evolution as an argument for contemporary tolerance for open relationships and other strategies for more sexual-social-spiritual contentment and less work for divorce lawyers.

Those of us who teach know that few lessons are as powerful as Thomas Kuhn’s revelatory paradigm shift. Ryan and Jethá start their polyamorous argument in a double bind: Western culture has been so thoroughly and punitively mired in the monogamy paradigm that even the scientists (from Darwin to Stephen Jay Gould) who should be helping create an accurate reflection of open human sexuality often misinterpret, misrepresent or misguide us with physiological and historical evidence that should be a clear argument for some divisions of sex, love and family. To their credit, Ryan and Jethá (a couple) turn this challenge into a key opportunity for this measured, informed account of human sexual mutability. This wake of human intellectual development and the social management of knowledge (plus 65 pages of notes and references) make Sex at Dawn much more than a martini-soaked argument for a key party.

Taccola’s Piston, 15th century

The antagonists of the Sex at Dawn story are (recent, proprietary) monogamy, close-mindedness and unwise policy. Its various protagonists are human and (other) primate anatomy, evolutionary survival, wide-eyed history, and brave honesty. In emphasizing that humans, our closest primate relatives, and proto-humans are physiologically hard-wired for polyamory, Ryan and Jethá make a historical and biological argument, not a revolutionary one. With fact after fact they demonstrate that we almost always have been polyamorous and are physically if not evolutionarily equipped to be so. Citing past precedent and current failure, their argument is much more palpable and significant than any proselytizing campaign. Sex at Dawn doesn’t argue that we should convert to polyamory; it argues that we almost always have been polyamorous and should be again given our current failure at monogamy. Their citation of Schopenhauer’s 1851 essay “On Women” gains additional relevance as we consider contemporary divorce rates, what American literature profs Carmine Sarracino and Kevin M. Scott call The Porning of America, and the global sex trade: “In London alone there are 80000 prostitutes [in 1851!]. Then what are these women who have come too quickly to this most terrible end but human sacrifices on the altar of monogamy?”

Ryan and Jethá’s attention to human sexual anatomy is crucial to their argument that if we want healthier bodies, relationships, and societies we should revert to polyamory. Their comparisons to other primate genitalia and sexual behaviour foreground that theirs is an argument from science, nothing faddish like ‘alternative lifestyles.’ A handy diagram summarizes their repeat and varied attention to the large penis and testicle size of polyamorous humans, bonobos, and chimps (where males aren’t too much bigger than females) compared to polygynous gorillas, where males tower over females to fight off other males then impregnate multiple females with their (relatively) miniscule penis and testicles [truck size joke anyone?]. Gibbons are monogamous and equally sized between the sexes, but they also don’t shag very often and don’t, unlike randy humans and bonobos, ever copulate facing each other. The testicle size issue is illuminating. Male gorillas fight to be the one inseminator of multiple females, so they have put their evolutionary work into arm and chest strength and have “kidney-bean sized” testicles buried up in their bodies. The primate playahs (humans, chimps and bonobos) have evolved sizeable testicles to frequently produce large volumes of ejaculate so their sperm, not their arms, compete within females who have multiple partners.

Vanessa Woods’s public image of the high-empathy bonobo.

Ryan and Jethá’s attention to male and female anatomy is illuminating [oh the back-pumping male penis; oh the attacking acids in the first spurt of male ejaculate], and they augment it with genuine curiosity and intellectual history. In a truly remarkable connection they observe the intellectual taint of biases and reception chronology shared between our current (misinformed) monogamy paradigm and the massive research preference for chimps over bonobos. Genetically, humans are equally similar to combative (and horny) chimps and cooperative (and really horny) bonobos. However, chimps were discovered and brought into comparative research earlier, and various lasting comparisons were cast. Their quotation of Frans de Waal’s Our Inner Ape is a cri de coeur for the social improvement, not just sexual adaptation, Ryan and Jethá advocate:

I sometimes try to imagine what would have happened if we’d known the bonobo first and chimpanzee only later or not at all. The discussion about human evolution might not revolve as much around violence, warfare, and male dominance, but rather around sexuality, empathy, caring, and cooperation. What a different intellectual landscape we would occupy!

As a (rational and compassionate) argument, Sex at Dawn draws as much evidence from history and anthropology as it does from anatomy. In a forthcoming book of poems about evolution, I use a corporeal dramatization of planetary evolution to illustrate the same evolutionary timeline so central to the Sex at Dawn argument. Stretch your arms wide and imagine the creation of Earth at your right fingertips. For the vast majority of planetary history, past your left shoulder, only bacteria existed. Sex didn’t evolve until past your left elbow, as complex plants began to reproduce sexually. Dinosaurs roamed around in the palm of your hand and humans arrived in just the end of your fingernail. Ryan and Jethá treat that fingernail paring forensically and anthropologically, stressing that the vast majority of proto-human and human evolution was spent pre-agriculturally in hunter-gatherer tribes. Nomads who needed to band together to survive were evolutionarily rewarded for cooperation and sharing. The vast majority of human history was spent sharing food, genes and child-rearing. Ryan and Jethá compare early humans and twentieth-century hunter-gatherer tribes in which rotating sexual partners meant any man could be the father of various children and therefore all men provided for all children. Later they contrast that cooperative child rearing with the high divorce rates and the very large fraction of single-parent families in contemporary America, citing studies which show that single-parent children under-perform on “every single significant outcome related to short-term well-being and long-term success.” As Ryan points out in one of his two stimulating appearances on Dan Savage’s sex-advice podcast, only with the very recent human switch to agriculture did humans shun cooperative, communal ownership (and polyamory) for private ownership of land, seeds and their heirs (through monogamous marriage).

How Reymont and Melusina were betrothed / And by the bishop were blessed in their bed on their wedlock. From the Melusine, 15th century.

While the thoroughness, variety and balance of Ryan and Jethá’s case are crucial to demonstrating what to many will still be a radical thesis, the abundance of evidence actually becomes a rhetorical challenge. Admittedly, logic and organizational ease do favour a loosely chronological development from proto-humans to (racier) later chapters on the West’s policing of the female orgasm. In general, the first half is more anthropological and the second, much more gripping half, is anatomical. Readers interested in—forgive me—hard persuasion may appreciate anthropological example after example, but there’s a risk of losing sight of the argumentative forest for its evidentiary trees. References to South American tribes, remote Chinese communities and enlightened Indian provinces are important reminders that divisions between sex and love are healthy and that human behaviour, not just anatomy and bonobos, favour multiple sexual partners. Nonetheless, chapter after chapter of anthropology may prevent readers from getting to the later, better chapters. Without Sex at Dawn, who would know that “By 1917, there were more vibrators than toasters in American homes”? The argumentative foreplay is great. For a while.

—Darryl Whetter


Photo: Nicole Dixon

Darryl Whetter’s latest book is The Push & the Pull, a novel of bicycling and bisexuality. In April 2012, he will release a debut book of poems about evolution (including the evolution of sex). He’s also at work on a novel about polyamory.


Apr 022011

Kate Reuther is a former student of mine, a lovely writer. Between packets we used to exchange childcare horror stories, taking comfort in being wry and witty about stress and everyday domestic catastrophe. All our children seemed to have survived, so it can’t have been that bad. Now I just remember the camaraderie of those emails. This is an atypical “What it’s like living here” piece. It’s what Kate calls (apparently this is a new word, perhaps not an entirely new form) a charticle. Apparently, she tells me, there are also listicles, although I haven’t seen one yet. Kate is one of those rare creatures who enjoys teaching middle school.  She is a graduate of Yale and the Vermont College MFA in Fiction program.  Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Madison Review, Brain Child, Salamander, and The Ledge.  A life-long New Yorker, she lives in Washington Heights with her husband and two boys.



To live here is to constantly question my own sanity and I have lived here my entire life. It’s not possible to leave anymore.  I am permanently warped.  I am ruined for anywhere else.
The subway — the pee-soaked man sharing my bench, the garbage heat, the windy grit in my eyes, the milky plaster leaks, the rat tunnels, the crush of sticky skin,  the “Fuck you looking at?” The subway — ancient engine of democracy and speed, dog-eared paperbacks, roving Mariachis, warm stranger’s shoulder, rocking me home after three gin and tonics.
I worry about the children, what this soot and hurry and perpetual tightness are doing to their brains.  When they want to run, they run in a circle through the kitchen, past the table, past the television, and back into the kitchen.  “Light feet!” I yell.  They do not know what it’s like to run under an emerald canopy, or through a field, wheat without end, opening and opening and opening…. There are no children running through fields in the countryside.  There are children playing Halo in finished basements.  There are children drinking Malibu rum in the backseats of Dodge Durangos.   There are children smoking Marlboro Lights in Chick-fil-A parking lots.  There are children texting each other: MEET U @ MANIC PANIC.  My boys are better off.
Green — When I unexpectedly find myself before a windowpane of trees or an undulating mountain range or even just a square of lawn, the clamp inside my chest eases open.  Right now the only green I see are desiccated Christmas trees planted in dirty snow banks. I get my green in concentrated doses, Central Park doses, friend’s sister’s East Hampton’s house for the weekend doses.  And I appreciate green more this way, sighing like a character from a musical when the wind plays with with the winking leaves in the afternoon sun.  If I lived with trees all the time, they would look like work, like a mess to dig out of gutters, all wet and black and rotten.
The possibility, no probability, of a washer and dryer inside my own home. My parents failed to get out. When my mom got pregnant, they bought a house at the end of a dirt road inside a primordial pine forest in Warren, N.J.  Every morning, my mother would waddle along my father’s crunchy tire tracks, sighing tearily in the shards of sunlight.  No neighbors.  She would have liked to make her excursion into a loop-walk rather than an out-and-back but the intersecting pavement was miles away and the woods were featureless, like black crosshatches.  No elves.  My mother walked until she reached the splintery remains of an orange plastic cone, abandoned in the run-off ditch, then she turned around, walked back to the house, and got back into bed.
The endless schlep – sweating inside of a matted, down coat, lugging a stroller up a metal staircase, bags banging my shins, bags bruising my hips, bags inside of bags in case I buy something and I need another bag.  Sometimes I turn the bags upside down in the front hall of our apartment and litter the carpet with my burden: one mitten, a travel size bottle of Purell, a Ziploc bag of baby-wipes, a half-knitted scarf, an uncapped Cherry Chapstick, an aluminum water bottle (the earth!), a Ziploc bag of Pirate Booty, a Lawrence Block mystery, two chewed pieces of gum, a Lego alligator, a Ziploc bag of apple slices (brown), a plastic water bottle (the earth!), a wooden J train.  If I lived elsewhere, I would leave it all in my car. Where is “elsewhere” anyway?  Not Westchester or Long Island or Connecticut – I’d be bored out of my mind.  Not DC – bunch of wonks.  Not LA – traffic.  Yes, there is a middle, a big ocean-less middle, I’d get lost driving from the placeless place to placeless place to my women’s book club at Panera Bread.  I need my feet on a grid, landmarks in the sky.  And fuck Boston.
Scott – He is always so bruised, hunched, angry, disappointed, TIRED.  If he can’t make it here, there is something wrong with this place. Scott – He likes his supergeek job, his Muay Thai muscles, his Banh Mi bread, his collaborators from the land of jazz and gin.  Scott is digging into the city wearing purple Air Force Ones.
People are jealous because I pay only $317 a month to park my car in a garage. “New York City. Just like I pictured it. Skyscrapers and everything.”
Adventure!! A new color to the sky, new minerals in the tap water, new slang for soda pop and sandwiches, new tax codes, new friendly debates about the best route home. I’d still be the same anxious, angry person, only disoriented, lonely, and hungry.
It will happen again. It happens everywhere.
My sons running naked on a beach. When I find a local like me, I want to run my tongue up under his jaw line, taste the brack of blacktop and cloudy hot dog water.  “Do you remember ‘The G-Spot Deli’ on 86th and Amsterdam?”  “Yeah, what were they thinking?”
My mother said, “Never hang your purse from the hook on the back of the toilet stall door; robbers will reach over and snatch it while you have your pants down.” My mother said, “If you feel scared, go where there are people.”
There’s no nobility in pointless suffering.  Arrogance is a lousy reward. When I look at the sun through my closed eyelids, I see a ridge of red skyline.  I think it’s the West Side, as viewed from the reservoir, my fingers gripping the old chain link, my thighs pink and goose-bumped in the February cold.
Bruce Ratner Mariano Rivera
A porch, preferably a wraparound porch, with a pink jasmine bush, a string hammock and a weathered red stool we use as a table for iced tea.  Glass pitcher.  Plenty of ice. How much space do human animals really need?  Isn’t this better?  Isn’t this enough?
I could spend my whole life debating this and never leave. I could never leave.


—Kate Reuther


Apr 012011


Sometimes I imagine getting a verbal ass-whoopin’ from Edward Abbey.  I find it best to picture him half-naked and sunburned, next to some beat-up pick-up truck parked precariously halfway off the side of a gravel road.  There’s not a single tree in sight.  His beard is dusty and his thick hair snarled from a days-long sojourn down by some unnamed creek in a copse of cottonwoods.  I detect the faint smells of bacon and tobacco, with a touch of permeating campfire smokiness.

As I sit there in my shiny black Jetta, prescription sunglasses on my face and REI gear in the trunk and backseat, I listen attentively to the tirade.  Maybe I get one like this, from near the end of Abbey’s most famous work, Desert Solitaire (1968):

Take off your shoes for a while, unzip your fly, piss hearty, dig your toes in the hot sand, feel that raw and rugged earth, split a couple of big toenails, draw blood!  Why not?  Jesus Christ… roll that window down!  You can’t see the desert if you can’t smell it….  Turn that motor off.  Get out of that piece of iron and stretch your varicose veins, take off your brassiere and get some hot sun on your old wrinkled dugs!

Despite the fact that I don’t have “dugs” or varicose veins (yet), and even though I like to consider myself just a smidge closer to nature than most of the folks Abbey rails about in Desert Solitaire, I need this kind of dressing down from time to time.  I may not agree completely with everything Abbey wrote, but he was mostly right—abrasive, but mostly right.  That delicate, tenuous, and sometimes counterproductive balance is the hallmark of Abbey’s life and writings.

Desert Solitaire centers on Abbey’s several summers as a seasonal park ranger at Arches National Monument.  When it was published in 1968, Abbey had already written three novels, but this was his first foray into nonfiction.  It firmly established him as a cult figure among environmentalists with a radical streak, and was followed by more than fifteen other works, including, most notably, the 1975 novel The Monkeywrench Gang.  His writing is often credited with inspiring a new wave of 1980s environmental groups that took the battle for nature from the courtroom and hearing room (a la the Sierra Club) to the treetops and logging roads and dams (a la Earth First!).

Desert Solitaire is an early hint at this kind of activism.  One evening, after being visited at his dilapidated ranger’s trailer by a survey crew marking a new paved road into Arches, Abbey walks out into the desert and removes all the surveying stakes and flags.  But that is the single act of civil disobedience he performs in the book.  Of course he dreams of blowing up the Glen Canyon Dam when he reaches the end of his rafting trip down the then-unimpounded Colorado River, but most often Abbey focuses on the simple pleasures of being outside.

In many passages his rants become paeans.  Pieces of petrified wood are “agatized rainbows in rock.” Rainstorms come down “not softly not gently, with no quality of mercy but like heavy water in buckets…drumming on my hat like hailstones and running in a waterfall off the brim.” Ample praise is reserved for the humble campfire:

One breath of juniper smoke, like the perfume of sagebrush after rain, evokes in magical catalysis, like certain music, the space and light and clarity and piercing strangeness of the American West.

And the noontime sun is:

like a drug.  The light is psychadelic, the dry electric air narcotic.

The book as a whole dances in a point-counterpoint between the beauty of nature and the threats brought by humans, specifically by the United States Government and the National Park Service.  In the chapter entitled “Polemic: Industrial Tourism and the National Parks,” Abbey rails against improvements—roads, visitor centers, etc.—being made in what he feels should be mostly inaccessible, immersion-in-nature sanctuaries.

Why is the Park Service generally so anxious to accommodate…the indolent millions born on wheels and suckled on gasoline, who expect and demand paved highways to lead them in comfort, ease and safety into every nook and corner of the national parks?

These improvements, underway during Abbey’s Arches summers in the late 1950s, were collectively known as Mission 66, a massive National Parks infrastructure program spearheaded by landscape architect and Park Service Director Conrad Wirth.  The goal was to improve visitor knowledge of and access to the parks in time for the 50th anniversary of the service, in 1966.  Mission 66 did change the face of the parks, from the mostly rustic, dirt-road, wood-and-stone character which Abbey experienced at Arches to the full-service, restrooms-and-vending machines vibe at the main visitor centers today.  The Park Service’s chief landscape architect Thomas Chalmers Vint pushed for contemporary design in the parks—a legacy that includes the spiraling, concrete, seemingly Jetsons-inspired Clingman’s Dome observation tower in Smoky Mountain National Park and the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center in Rocky Mountain National Park, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Studio and sporting an abstract bas-relief metal skin.

Abbey was dead-on prophetic with some of his specific fears, as listed in Desert Solitaire.  The geological formation called the Waterpocket Fold was incorporated into Capitol Reef National Park in 1970 (though it remains roadless, so whether its incorporation is a bad thing can be debated). Glen Canyon Dam did flood Cataract Canyon, create the rapidly silting Lake Powell, and make Rainbow Arch easily accessible to the motorboating masses.  And yes, the surveyors did reset their stakes and pave the road into Arches National Monument (which became a full-fledged National Park in 1971).

I once took an Abbey-lite but still slightly ill-advised hike off the end of that paved Arches road, in the heat of midday with very little water.  I was there from Indiana with college landscape architecture classmates.  We parked at the Devils Garden Trailhead and hiked out to Landscape Arch.  Stunned by the impossibility of the rock vaulting through the hot air, my friend Mark and I decided to head farther out along the trail.  Our colleagues returned to the vans to relax.  It was about 3 miles one way to Double O Arch and we had a few hours. On that quick hike we experienced the complete isolation and stillness and thirst and sun-scorch that Abbey describes throughout Desert Solitaire.

And here we come back to the almost-right-ness—for me—of Edward Abbey.  The Mission 66 version of the National Parks is the one I grew up with.  For five summers in high school and college, I would arrive with my church youth group at the Wrightian Beaver Creek Visitor Center to plan our hikes for the week.  In college, I climbed the Clingman’s Dome tower with a few close friends escaping the flatness of Indiana.  In every case (including my Arches hike), I watched people sort themselves by desire and ability.  Some, yes, would stay in their cars, as Abbey says, “like sardines in a can,” while others would venture a few miles on the well-trodden paths, while still others would heft their packs and disappear for a week, or more.

In fact, I studied landscape architecture, initially, because I wanted to design National Parks.  Though now I design different things, I still feel strongly that everyone should be able to access nature.  So, though I agree with Abbey that we shouldn’t pave over the parks and wilderness areas, I also believe that giving people encounters with nature is important to the eventual preservation of wilderness.  If Thoreau said, famously, and if Abbey echoes that “in wildness is the preservation of the world,” then I say: in education and experience is the preservation of wildness.

And Abbey would be happy to know that the Park Service has begun managing even larger crowds by (gasp!) restricting automobile access.  Most of the Grand Canyon’s south rim road is closed to private vehicles, and portions of Yosemite Valley are also bike and bus only.  Abbey suggests these specific ideas in his “Polemic” chapter.

As to Abbey’s context in the mid-century environmental movement (and the other writers profiled in this series of essays), Desert Solitaire came out the same year the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was passed, and four years after the Wilderness Act.  Both of these laws preserve, as roadless and undeveloped, certain American land- and water-scapes, including many of the rivers Abbey lists in his book as under threat.  Abbey arrived on the heels of Loren Eiseley (from whom he could not be more different—in demeanor and prose style), Rachel Carson, and Joseph Wood Krutch (whom Abbey admired greatly and was the last person to formally interview). Abbey is regularly referred to as the “desert Thoreau,” but comparisons to John Muir are more apt.  Both men are associated closely with the National Parks (Muir with their inception in the late 1800s and Abbey with their ongoing preservation in the face of development in the 1950s and 1960s) and both were profoundly affected by their failures to stave off dam construction (Muir with Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley and Abbey with Glen Canyon). This latter similarity is brought to light in the recent essay collection Sex and the River Styx by Edward Hoagland, a slightly later, along with Wendell Berry, contemporary of Abbey’s.

Perhaps most notable in this context is Abbey’s activism, or rather his tacit support of extreme environmentalism.  He associated with Earth First!, the group that pioneered the tree-sit and once unrolled a massive image of a crack down the face of the Glen Canyon Dam. This direct-action aspect of the environmental movement still makes occasional headlines today, as activists harass whaling boats and blockade logging roads.  In fact, Abbey’s very prose reinforces this in-your-face stance.  Desert Solitaire, like Muir’s writings but unlike Thoreau’s and Eiseley’s, speaks directly to the reader (see the example at the top of this essay), often with provocative language deliberately designed to incite feelings of some kind.

As I write this, a long Minnesota winter—the longest winter I can remember—is (hopefully) melting into the rivers.  In addition to reading Desert Solitaire, I recently watched, thanks to Oscar buzz, the movie 127 Hours, which traces Aron Ralston’s famous desert ordeal (days spent trapped in a canyon; amputation of his arm with a pocketknife), a story more intense but remarkably similar to Abbey’s experience in the chapter called “Havasu.”  I also watched, thanks to my toddler son’s tastes, the animated movie Cars, about a sleek modern racecar stuck in a small Route 66 desert town bypassed by Interstate 40 (“see how the old road moves with the land,” says Sally Carrera, the lady Porsche soured on big-city life, “while the interstate cuts right through”).  These three stories juxtaposed evocatively with each other and contrasted with the horrid weather outside.

I realized I was in a rut.  Previously so diligent about getting my son Ethan outside no matter the weather, I had begun hustling him to the car in the morning for the drive to day care, then into the house at the end of the day.  I had initiated Friday night movie night instead of moonlight walks around the lake.  I was moving into my “sardine can” and taking my son with me.

On the whole, Abbey is farther into the wilderness world (and the extremist world) than I am.  Nevertheless, I like to be lectured by him, from time to time, in my mind’s-eye, as it is always beneficial to be ranted at by someone who doesn’t exactly share your beliefs—someone who can catch your interest with some common feeling, then challenge you.

Desert Solitaire is entertaining and beautiful front to back, both during the natural history descriptions and during the rants.  It gives me the inspiration to get outside, right along with the requisite kick in the pants.  From now on, when I find myself driving too much, sitting inside too much, or standing by while commercial interests encroach on the limited wilderness we have left, I’ll conjure Desert Ed.  I’ll picture myself at the side of some nowhere road, with Ethan strapped into his expensive car seat and Edward Abbey boring his eyes into mine, saying something like:

How dare you imprison your little children in your goddamned upholstered horseless hearse?  Yes sir, yes madam, I entreat you, get out of those motorized wheelchairs, get off your foam rubber backsides, stand up straight like men! Like women! Like human beings! And walk—walk—WALK upon our sweet and blessed land!

Proceed to the next essay, Edward Hoagland, who, 40 years after his seminal The Courage of Turtles, has just published his 21st book: a melancholy essay collection called Sex and the River Styx), or return to the Table of Contents.

—Adam Regn Arvidson

Mar 282011

Okay, brace yourselves. The dog has cancer of the penis. The dog’s name is Scruffles. (The goat in the photo is not in the story.) There is a mythic carnival ride called the Wonder Wheel. A friend runs over a woman’s leg while driving drunk and ends up in an L.A. jail. Rip Van Winkle is here. And those mushrooms. Trinie Dalton gets the conventional short story by the neck and gives it a shake. She has written and/or edited five books, and her fiction includes Wide Eyed (Akashic), Sweet Tomb (Madras Press), and the forthcoming Baby Geisha (Two Dollar Radio). “Escape Mushroom Style” will be in Baby Geisha and was previously published in the #6 issue of an Australian journal called The Lifted Brow.


The animal hospital looked out upon the Wonder Wheel, an antique ferris wheel constructed of enough metal to build four skyscrapers. Plate glass windows in the waiting room gave the office, where Scruffles and I awaited a meeting with a soft tissue surgeon, an airy feel. But carnival views don’t make cancer fun. I stroked Scruffles, panting at my side with a golf ball-sized tumor hanging off his dong. Snake skinned ladies, men with gorilla wives, fire-breathers, poodles riding tricycles, elephantitis—it had all gone down here on Coney Island. Penis tumors were probably old hat. Made sense that a polluted beach would be a mutant culture hub. The world’s oldest roller coaster loomed three blocks away. Was this vet going to be Siamese twins? Suddenly, it was moronic instead of ironic that I had considered administering dog cancer treatment at a facility bordering a decrepit amusement park. It was more moronic that I lived nearby.

“Scruffles?” I asked, scratching his woolly, red left ear. “Will you feel like a freak if we operate?”

Scruffles wagged his tail. Any question involving upped intonation at the end of the phrase produces in him a hope for fish.

I kept this appointment because I needed a surgeon’s opinion.

The receptionist called us in. The doctor was not a Siamese twin but rather an emaciated man whose head reminded me of a calavera azucar, a Day of the Dead sugar skull. He groped my dog in a twitchy way and recommended something horrible.

“I’m not removing anything except the tumor,” I vowed, petting Scruffles as I committed to keeping his body intact.

“He’ll die,” the surgeon said. Who was he to issue the death sentence?

I slammed the office door on the way out.

Soft tissue surgeons are too obsessed with slicing to know what you do and don’t cut. It’s just not right. Amputating a dog’s penis is ludicrous, I fumed in the taxi home. Scruffs panted, which I took as agreement. What would I tell people when they ask where my dog’s organ went?

A week later, I left Scruff at home with three chew toys and took the train instead to ride the Wonder Wheel, whose cars, every quarter rotation, swing out on railings to the edge of the wheel’s circumference. These cages, called the Danglers, dangle you over the boardwalk like a hooked worm being lowered into a lake of big mouth bass. My brother and I, swinging every two minutes, questioned how long our corroded cage would hold. We needed a meaningful conversation during our limited time together, while he visited. Today, we cried a lot. Privacy was non-existent in this city, and we needed some. At least on the Wonder Wheel we had a car to ourselves.

“We’re breaking up,” he said, of him and his girlfriend. Tears welled.

“Don’t amputate,” I said, meaning, don’t cut her out of your life. “It’s not an ending, just a change.”

Break ups or terminal illness, what’s worse? Why compare? This was our discussion as our car teetered above skeeball players and kids ramming bumper cars. The toxic Atlantic was on the left, and the veterinary hospital lurked right. From up here, New York was semi-manageable, as microscopic as the toadstool world I prefer to live in.

“That’s where they told me Scruffles had four weeks to live,” I pointed down at the speck of an animal hospital, starting to cry. Wind whisked away my tears.

“That’s some sad, salty rain,” I said of my tears melodramatically falling on people below.

“Forget that vet,” Lolly said. I nicknamed him Lolly when we were kids, because he had a big head on a skinny body, like a lollipop. “Scruff’s a survivor.”

“You’ll live too,” I said.

“Have you tried natural remedies?” Lolly asked. We gripped the bars sealing our metal cage and swung.

“Next week I take Scruffles to the herbalist,” I said.

I have over a thousand mushroom photos under my belt. Last time I counted I was nearing four digits, so I began excursions to Rip Van Winkle’s home turf, the clove where Irving’s character allegedly fell asleep. Downy, purple Cortinarius, a favorite fungus, grows under hemlock between blue slate outcroppings there. I may be approaching twelve hundred shots. I take road trips to my hideaway hills upstate after heavy rains. I’ve collaged my images, written amateur essays, and attended lectures at the natural history museum about how genetic mushroom identification is outmoding Linnean taxonomic charts common to field guides. The mycological society recently performed a play there riffing on Doctor Faustus, in which nerds portrayed mushroom collectors haunting Faust, who sold his soul for a lifetime supply of morels. Now, that’s Coney.

Coney is the word I use to describe the grotesque and twisted, something so disturbing its funny. Something New York, something convoluted, something ill-flowering, like a wart. A friend who just returned from China was telling me over a shrimp salad dinner that markets in Beijing sell grubs-on-a-stick. That’s Coney. He handed me a menu he’d lifted from this Beijing restaurant called Escape Mushroom Style that listed fifteen pages of mushroom-based dishes—our collective reverie—minus one page of various sheep dick entrees. Coney.

I used to peddle organic produce at health food conventions. Frequently, my booth was across from the reishi booth, always the most sparsely attended table. Littered with finger-like, brown, red, and orange striated conchs alongside pamphlets printed in Mandarin, the reishi table was considered by most to be mysterious and sketchy.

“Is that a mushroom cult?” people whispered as I fluffed up kale bundles.

Reishi contains anti-cancer agents, and is a detoxifier that has been used in tea, powder, and extract form for thousands of years. It’s a preventative. I was confused about why people avoided eye contact with the reishi promoters, as if looking at or thinking about cancer cure would promote neoplasmic growth. Aversion to disease and the oddities surrounding it is weak. One cannot stay well without facing illness. Camped next to these mushroom enthusiasts for days straight, I read their literature, heard the miracle tales, and thanked Coney I didn’t have cancer. Chinese medicine is righteous. I stored the mushroom’s healing potential in the back of my mind, like a chestnut.

It was during this healthy period that I selected Scruffles from a box of barking pups. His spotted paws won me over. A proud new pet owner, I headed to the local new age bookstore and bought pet books with wolf covers, to study canine acupuncture and flower remedies. At the time, I lived three thousand miles away. For over ten years now, Lolly and I have taken turns parenting this dignified canine.

Thursday after the Wonder Wheel tears, I took Scruffles to a Chinese herbalist in Manhattan. She had long, black hair, and her hands and arms were ringed with silver and copper jewelry. She smelled friendly, like bok choy fried in ylang ylang.

“He looks really well otherwise,” she said. I inhaled her positivism as I would a fresh chanterelle.

“How long does he have?” I asked, grasping my tissue just in case.

“Years if the herbs work,” she said. “But you must remove that tumor soon.”

“Tuesday,” I said, committing to a date. She was the doctor to trust.

We left with a sack of herbal tinctures, a list of foods Scruffles could eat, and recipes for his home-cooked meals. Scruffles and I now eat the same stew: poultry laced with turmeric, sea salt, carrots, and other “cooling” veggies. Twice daily he gets syringes full of serums, multi-vitamins disguised as cheese powder, and Indian rhubarb extract alternating with aloe vera juice poured into his purified water. Bad tap water may have caused all this. When Scruffles was young, I put citrine and smoky quartz crystals in his water bowl, at least, and hoped for the best. Nowadays, I dose both of us with everything because it can’t hurt. We are on a permanent wellness kick.

I mediate trauma in unproductive ways. I twiddle my fingers, or apply lipstick only to immediately remove it. I cook food and forget to eat it. After deciding against radiation, which meant thousands of dollars and a month of anesthetizing the dog several times per week, all my dreams cropped up stinkhorn. Those putrid mushrooms that I most detest because they look like dog dicks, sprouted out of Scruffles’ coat, appeared in salads and stir-fries I ate. Came out in the tap with the water.

Years ago, when I toured the Kew Gardens mycology archive, the director opened one of Charles Darwin’s herbals and displayed a 150-year old stinkhorn. He told me that Darwin’s daughter considered it pornographic. Cancer is Coney porno. I couldn’t translate these stinkhorn visions. I hoped the visions meant that Scruffles’ pain was transferring into me. Healing is exorcism, a withdrawal and transference of the unwanted. I wanted to be the medicine woman who could kill, neutralize, and dissipate my dog’s mutating cells. Step one was to physically remove the growth; step two was to escape the Coney.

Two weeks after the procedure, Scruffles and I drove north to the foot of the mountain where Van Winkle passed out on ale. I called Lolly on cellular from the rock Rip might have napped on and explained a theory.

“Tie some feathers in your hair,” I said. “Crow, eagle…anything but pigeon. The feathers will fortify you.”

“You’re regressing,” Lolly said. “I haven’t heard these mystical hippie theories since you were a vegetarian ten years ago.”

“Look,” I said. “Feathers can’t hurt. Put them on your dashboard if you can’t bear wearing them.”

There’s a comical scene in I Love You Alice B. Toklas, when Peter Sellers shows up in a fringed leather jacket for his conservative brother’s tuxedo wedding. He’s covered in feathers, and the movie is one big happy ending from there.

“We’re talking on cell phones,” Lolly said. “Feathers are retro.”

“Is Rip Van Winkle too retro for you?” I asked.

I considered chucking my phone into the stream running five feet over where Scruff was drinking. A woodpecker hacked at an elm tree. I’d have to email everyone for their numbers again, plus I couldn’t talk to Lolly. The golden handcuffs.

“Your cell phone is probably giving you cancer right now,” Lolly said.

“Luddite,” I said.

“Aren’t you the Luddite, avoiding the city? Call me when you forgive civilization,” Lolly said. “I’ll be at the bar with my scotch on the rocks.”

I didn’t lodge in a tee pee. I shacked up in a Catskills dive motel. A junky walked laps around the building, and whole families manned lawn chairs on the motel room porches. A pimp ran girls between his grass green sedan and his room. I had mushroom guides sprawled out on the bed, where Scruff and I watched M*A*S*H reruns.

“Feeling okay?” I asked him, petting him beside me on the bed. Every time I looked at him my eyes went automatically to his shaved crotch, and I felt nasty. His six-inch, stapled incision looked clean and was healing properly.

Scruffles smiled and hung his tongue out. He was tired from hiking. I refilled his bowl of water and set it beside him.

Next morning, we headed out early. We didn’t see Rip as I’d hoped but it was a breezy autumn day, and planks crossed wet meadows to preserve plant life. Mushrooms sprouted on every dead tree trunk: oysters, maitake, sulfur shelf. Scruffles peed on rocks as we bushwhacked up a ravine. We shared turkey sandwiches again in that special hemlock grove.

My cell phone sounded so out of place. West coast: I answered.

“Will you accept a collect call from L.A. County Jail?” an operator asked.

Lolly was drunk driving, hit a fire hydrant and a lady at a bus stop. Luckily, only her leg was broken.

“How do you run over a leg?” I asked.

“I don’t remember,” Lolly said. “She has a leg cast. I need five grand,” Lolly said.

“That’s my feather money,” I said. “I want to show Scruffles a good time instead of radiation.”

“I’m in prison!” Lolly said.

“Give me a minute to think,” I said. Scruff’s ears were perked up, ready to think too.

“Good boy,” I said. “Find some money.” Mr. Van Winkle’s buried treasure?

Money-wiring plans were made, and I folded my phone shut, slid it into my pocket. Coney phone. The woods and the city are the same some days. If bad news was bricks, I’d live in a fortress.

Scruffles licked my calf. I threw some rocks and packed it up.

On the path back, Scruffles located a shiny polypore whose skin actually reflected sunlight. It was a brown-red conch with ochre stripes edging its rim. Reishi? Different from the brown, whose velvetine skin you can carve pictures into. I snapped it off the tree trunk and carefully put it in my pack to shoot and I.D. later.

The nearest Catskills bail bonds place was across from Kozy Kitchen, a Coney diner decorated with baskets of silk flowers and gingham fabrics. I wired all the cash I had in the world and planted myself in a booth for coffee. Scruffles was tied up outside. Cranked on caffeine, I then wandered down the block to the scented candle shop, to soothe myself with the smell of beeswax until Lolly called with release news. My sibling is loveable but he gets sailor-style drunk. One D.U.I. ago, he fell asleep at the wheel and drove into some park’s tennis courts. I get jealous of people who rest assured that if they go unconscious someone will be there to help. Scruffles would rescue me, if he could.

The dog and I stopped for one more overnighter on the way back to Coney. I was broke now, and I wanted to show Scruffles one last good time. He wags his tail at motel room doors and stares at their doorknobs until I let him in. Then he jumps on the bed and readies himself for television. Knowing he truly appreciates my meager gifts brings me joy. I charged the motel on my credit card just to get this reaction out of my dog, which must say something bizarre about me.

“You’re blocking the view,” I said, on the king size with Scruffles as the sun set, watching nature documentaries. During commercials, we took turns with the remote; he can change channels if he paws it hard enough. How will I face life without this guy? I took the polypore out to identify it. It was glossier than Ganoderma applanatum, the reishi I knew. Soft, corky, flat, zoned, red-varnished cap with white to dull brown pores…in its stalked form, this is the ancient Chinese ‘mushroom of immortality,’ also called the ‘herb of spiritual potency.’ Red reishi, or Ling Chih: Ganoderma lucidum. An even better anti-cancer.

“You found Ling Chih,” I said. “Good dog.”

Scruffles licked his chops. Coneylicious. Fortified for impending night, it was back to the city in the morning with red reishi and my Frankenweenie.

—Trinie Dalton