Monday, August 31, 2015

Itzhak Perlman At 70

Perlman with Ed Sullivan in Tel Aviv, Israel, in 1958

Itzhak Perlman, the virtuoso violinist who has entertained us for six decades, turns 70 today.He still maintains a full schedule of appearances around the world as well as teaching in New York and serving as the artistic director and principal conductor of the Westchester Philharmonic.

Here is Perlman, the artist:

And Perlman, the teacher:

Happy birthday, Maestro! May your smile and music be with us for many years to come.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

National Park Service: America's Best Idea Turns 99

National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.
                                                                                                        Wallace Stegner

The National Park Service celebrates its 99th birthday today. It's an important day in our household.  My wife and I devoted over 55 years of combined employment toward achieving its noble mission so vividly stated in the enabling legislation of 1916:

" conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

Seeking a working balance between preservation and use was often a serious challenge but overall the work was extraordinarily satisfying. Even after several years of retirement our blood still runs green with the memories of working in eight sites and one regional office in eight states.

The journey from an idea to a resource management agency charged with overseeing more than 400 sites has been complex.  Here is part of the chapter, "Early Growth and Administration," taken from a Department of the Interior publication, A Brief History of the National Park Service (1940). It describes the national park movement leading up to the formation of the NPS.

The United States had a system of national parks for many years before it had a National Park Service. Even before establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 as "a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people," the Government had shown some interest in public ownership of lands valuable from a social use standpoint. An act of Congress in 1852 established the Hot Springs Reservation in Arkansas (which became a national park in 1921), although this area was set aside not for park purposes, but because of the medicinal qualities believed to be possessed by its waters. It was not until 1890 that action was taken to create more national parks. That year saw establishment of Yosemite, General Grant, and Sequoia National Parks in California, and nine years later Mount Rainier National Park was set aside in Washington.
Soon after the turn of the century the chain of national parks grew larger. Most important since the Yellowstone legislation was an act of Congress approved June 8, 1906, known as the Antiquities Act, which gave the President authority "to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments."
In these early days the growing system of national parks and monuments was administered under no particular organization. National parks were administered by the Secretary of the Interior, but patrolled by soldiers detailed by the Secretary of War much in the manner of forts and garrisons. This, of course, was quite necessary, in the early days, for the protection of areas situated in the "wild and woolly" West. it is a fact that in this era highwaymen held up coaches and robbed visitors to Yellowstone National Park, and poachers operated within the park boundaries. The national monuments were administered in various ways. Under the Act of 1906 monuments of military significance were turned over to the Secretary of War, those within or adjacent to national forests were placed under the Department of Agriculture, and the rest—and greater number—were under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior. Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park, established in 1890 as the first Federal area of its type, was administered by the War Department.
Under this disjointed method of operation, national parks and monuments continued to be added to the list until 1915 when its very deficiencies exposed the plan as unsatisfactory and inefficient. The various authorities in charge of the areas began to see the need for systematic administration which would provide for the adoption of definite policies and make possible proper and adequate planning, development, protection, and conservation in the public interest.

Within two years, Secretary of the Interior, Franklin Lane, had secured the help of the philanthropist, Stephen Tyng Mather, to develop a management system to propose to Congress. Mather did so promptly and by 1917 it had been established and officially organized.

For more information, NPS Historians, Barry Mackintosh and Janet McDonnell, have written an excellent brief history documenting the agency to 2005. Their work, The National Parks: Shaping the System, is available online here.

The former directors of the National Park Service have left us some candid, and in some cases historic, commentary on managing the preservation-use dichotomy referred to above. I highly recommend their books, along with a biography of Stephen Tyng Mather, if readers are so inclined:

Albright, Horace M. (as told to Robert Cahn). The Birth of the National Park Service. Salt Lake City: Howe Brothers, 1985.

Albright, Horace M, and Marian Albright Schenck. Creating the National Park Service: The Missing Years. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.

Hartzog, George B. Jr; Battling for the National Parks; Moyer Bell Limited; Mt. Kisco, New York; 1988

Ridenour, James M. The National Parks Compromised: Pork Barrel Politics and America's Treasures. Merrillville, IN: ICS Books, 1994.

Wirth, Conrad L. Parks, Politics, and the People. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980.

Shankland, Robert; Steve Mather of the National Parks; Alfred A. Knopf, New York; 1970

Here's wishing the National Park Service a happy birthday. So that friends of the NPS can join in the celebration entrance fees will be waived tomorrow at all 400+ sites. Go enjoy a park in your neighborhood!



Saturday, August 22, 2015

Leni Riefenstall: An Acclaimed And Controversial German Cinema Pioneer

Leni Riefenstall in 1933

Today marks the birthday in 1902 of the German film maker, Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003). If you were in school during the third quarter of the 20th century there's a likely chance you are familiar with her landmark 1935 film, Triumph of the Will. This legendary propaganda piece was the product of her fascination with Adolph Hitler, the National Socialist movement and his desire to document the party rally in Nuremberg in 1934. It was the second film she produced for Hitler and its success, as well as their ongoing friendship, resulted in other notable projects but nothing approached the success of Triumph of the Will. At the same time, her association with the party, its principals, and her use of the enforced labor of talented Jews brought her a brief prison term at the end of World War II. She was also shunned for three decades by the world-wide film industry.

Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler greets Leni Riefenstahl, 1934

In the last quarter of her life of 102 years she focused on still photography of nature and culture in Africa. At age 72, she developed an interested in underwater photography, became a certified diver, and went on to produce two books and one film featuring marine life.

Riefenstahl reached the heights of creativity and controversy in her lifetime. I don't expect interpretations of her legacy will change. To admire her amazing technical innovation in documentary film making one has to ignore her association with evil. It is an association she denied but the evidence in her life and work cause us to suspect otherwise. At this point we are left only with the hard evidence that she was a genius behind the motion picture camera.

Here are some highlights from her films: the 1932 film, Das Blaue Licht (The Blue Light), an early sound film - she plays the lead as well as directs - illustrating her Expressionist training, and her appreciation of nature, culture, and sense of place;

From Triumph of the Will (1934), a propaganda masterpiece;

And from the prologue of Olympia (1938) her documentary of the famous Berlin games of 1936. Image and sound quality are marginal in this clip but the intent shines through. Viewer warning: this clip contains NEAR-NUDITY and BARE BREASTS.

For an interesting assessment of Riefenstall's impact on film making, here is D.L. Booth writing in the Bright Lights Journal about the "body beautiful," particularly in the James Bond film series beginning in 1962.


portrait, Невідомо [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
with Hitler, Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R99035 / CC-BY-SA [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (], via Wikimedia Commons

Text:, Leni Riefenstall, Leni Riefenstall

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Big Blowup Of 1910: A Forest Fire Like No Other

Wallace, Idaho, after the Big Blowup of 1910

The Northwestern U.S. is in the midst of an extreme fire season that has already claimed the lives of several firefighters. On this day in 1910 the fire season was equally bad if not worse. High winds merged almost two thousand small forest fires across Washington, Idaho and Montana into a massive area of fire that burned 3 million acres of timber. This fire, known as the Big Blowup, destroyed several towns, miles of transportation infastructure, and took the lives of 87 people, 78 of them firefighters. It still ranks as the largest forest fire in U.S. history.

Result of wildfire "hurricane" at St. Joe River, C'oeur d'Alene, Idaho 

At the time of the fire the U.S.Forest Service (USFS) was a new and struggling agency in the federal government. This fire not only enhanced the agency's purpose but also gave it focus on the strategy and tactics of forest fire fighting. It also produced the USFS's first legendary character, Ranger Ed Pulaski. An article by the Forest History Society tells the story:

Fighting a fire about ten miles southwest of Wallace, Idaho, Ranger Pulaski order his crew of forty-three men to follow him to a mineshaft to escape the inferno. They barely outran the fire. Pulaski ordered his men to lie down on the tunnel floor while he hung blankets over the entrance, threatening to shoot any man who tried to flee. He threw water onto the blankets until the smoke overwhelmed him. When the men awoke the next day, all but five had survived. Pulaski’s decisive actions and his courage in the face of death made for great copy. But it was his simple desire to get home to his wife and daughter in Wallace that struck a universal cord with the public and helped elevate him into Forest Service myth almost before the fires had stopped burning. It was not long before Pulaski became a hero—though he never comfortably wore that mantle—and his story legend. His legend was further cemented when he was credited with inventing the firefighting tool that bears his name. He received no compensation for either his wounds or his invention. The only compensation came in 1923 when he won $500 in an essay contest for the account of his actions in the Big Blowup.

Pulaski's eponymous invention, a combination grubbing hoe and ax

As you read this today, there's a good likelihood thousands of pulaskis are at work across the Northwest. Behind each one stands a firefighter risking life and limb to protect our resources and populations at almost any cost. Historic fires like the Big Blow led to policies that in the past gave them no options. In the last generation or so the USFS policy of total fire suppression has been questioned given our research in fire and forest ecology and our persistent settlement in what is called the wildland-urban interface. Essentially fire can be thought of as another tool under the right conditions. With new science and news tools, decision making for fire managers is certainly more complex today but it does make what will always be a dangerous job somewhat safer.

On this historic day, and every day we have men and women assigned to forest fires, we need to keep them in mind and more. It's a risky job whether you make the decisions, fly the aircraft or most certainly dig the fire lines, and we want every one of them to come home safe.



National Photo Company Collection (Library of Congress) REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., Pulaski photo

Text:, The 1910 Fire, Great Fire of 1910, The 1910 Fires, Forest fire, the largest in U.S. History, left stories of awe, tragedy

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Yo Ho Ho And A Bottle Of Rum - Today!

Yes, you guessed it: today is National Rum Day. Americans should be very happy about this event for two reasons. First, rum as we know it is a New World drink. Its distillation first occurred in the Caribbean about 400 years ago. It became wildly popular in the American colonies by the 18th century because of its proximity to and abundance of the main ingredient. That brings us to our second reason: rum production was a massive recycling project. Rum is a by-product of the sugar industry. After all that sugar boiled off the cane juice, refiners were left with a gooey, black, and useless mess we know as molasses. Enterprising slaves discovered that fermented molasses, when distilled, produced an alcoholic beverage. Soon a new industry emerged out of a vast overabundance of the waste product from sugar production, the relatively brief fermentation period required, and a close-by market eager for cheap spirits. But there's more.

In his fascinating book, And A Bottle Of Rum: A History Of The New World In Ten Cocktails, Wayne Curtis says this about rum:

Rum is the history of America in a glass. It was invented by New World colonists for New World colonists. In the early colonies, it was a vital part of the economic and cultural life of the cities and villages alike, and it soon became an actor in the political life. 
Rum's genius has always been its keen ability to make something from nothing. Rum has persistently been among the cheapest of liquors and thus often associated with the gutter. But through the alchemy of cocktail culture, it has turned into gold in recent years. Rum is reinvented every generation or two by different clans, ranging from poor immigrants who flocked from England to the West Indies, to Victorians enamored of pirates, to prohibitionists and abolitionists, right down to our modern marketing gurus, who tailor it day by day to capture the fickle attentions of customers attracted to bright glimmerings of every passing fad.

My first serious encounter with rum didn't involve a bottle or a drink. It was 1966 and I was hiking across St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands with the intent of documenting the remains of its many sugar mills. Over the next forty years, my career returned me to St. Thomas and St. John many times where I became more familiar with the most famous byproduct of sugar production.

Though not really a staple in our household, we've come to enjoy rum occasionally. Today, we pour it in the summer to make classic mojitos when there's fresh mint in the garden. When it's time to entertain on the porch or patio, it's time to mix up a batch of Painkiller. Makes for a fine dessert all by itself and doesn't need to be powerful to be enjoyed.

St Croix [Virgin Islands] Sugar Mill                  Pre-20th century, artist unknown

What better way to celebrate National Rum Day than sinking into a comfortable lounger with drink in hand and a good book. Atlanta's high temperatures are expected to be quite seasonal -  highs in the upper 80's - these next two weeks. That's perfect  weather for an icy Mojito or Painkiller on the porch. Time to check the liquor cabinet and fridge!

Happy National Rum Day, y'all!



Wayne Curtis, And A Bottle Of Rum: A History Of The New World In Ten Cocktails, Broadway Books, 2007
David Wondrich, Imbibe!, revised edition, Penguin Group, 2015

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Woodstock 1969: An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days Of Peace & Music

No, I wasn't there but the music of a generation and more was and in many cases is still with us. So who graced the stage at the festival we have come to know as Woodstock? Here is the list according to the Woodstock wikipedia page:

The three-day festival opened on August 15 and attracted an audience estimated at 400,000 or twice what the promoters expected. In 1969, the rock critic Ellen Sander said this about the festival's significance:

No longer can the magical multicolored phenomenon of pop culture be overlooked or underrated. It’s happening everywhere, but now it has happened in one place at one time so hugely that it was indeed historic .... The audience was a much bigger story than the groups. It was major entertainment news that the line-up of talent was of such magnificence and magnitude (thirty-one acts, nineteen of which were colossal) .... These were, however, the least significant events of what happened over the Woodstock weekend. What happened was that the largest number of people ever assembled for any event other than a war lived together, intimately and meaningfully and with such natural good cheer that they turned on not only everyone surrounding them but the mass media, and, by extension, millions of others, young and old, particularly many elements hostile to the manifestations and ignorant of the substance of pop culture.

The Woodstock Preservation Alliance has this to say about the event's long-term significance to the American experience:

Woodstock was the culmination of a transformation in American popular music that had begun with [the] Monterey [Pop Festival]....Woodstock introduced the same wide diversity of talent, albeit on an expanded scale, to a truly mass audience....A subsequent documentary film...and several sound recordings helped establish what only two years before had been underground or avant-garde musical styles and ushered them into the mainstream.
Participating musicians, industry insiders, and rock critics and historians concur that Woodstock changed the way that popular music was programmed and marketed. Festival promoters noted the large numbers of fans who were willing to put up with often inadequate facilities....Promoters saw opportunities to improve their profit margin by more efficiently organizing festivals....They also understood that increased ticket prices would need to be moving the festivals from pastoral settings into sports arenas and convention centers and limiting the shows to a single-day or evening.... [Such changes] altered the festival-going experience... and thereby diminished the sense of community that many commentators considered the sine qua non of the Woodstock experience.
The development of "arena rock" marked the end of the rock "vaudeville circuit," and led to the demise of the smaller concert hall venues....The arenas also gave the upper hand to the style of music called heavy metal, represented by loudly amplified guitar based and blues-inflected bands composed almost entirely of white male musicians, whose aggressive style of playing was ideally suited for filling the audible space in arena settings.
After Woodstock, musicians apprehended the seemingly insatiable demand for their music and began commanding higher fees. It thus soon proved to be no longer economically feasible to book several major bands on the same bill....This in turn led to the segmentation of the fan base....In the years fol1owing Woodstock, however, fans were channeled into attending concerts that featured fewer acts, typically representing one or two musical styles.
Part of the Woodstock Festival's enduring legacy is the continuing efforts to counteract this trend by replicating the multi-performer/genre concert experience. Over the past three decades various parties have staged or attempted to stage successors to Woodstock, either by that name at different sites or else on or near the original site under a different name. [These efforts have had mixed success over the decades.]

Some impact I'd say.

Joni Mitchell didn't appear as scheduled but she penned a perfect description of the event, one that Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young would bring alive as a #1 hit that stills captures an audience.

Well I came upon a child of God, he was walking along the road
And I asked him tell where are you going, this he told me:
Said, I'm going down to Yasgur's farm, going to join in a rock and roll band.
Got to get back to the land, set my soul free.
We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.

Well, then can I walk beside you? I have come to lose the smog.
And I feel like I'm a cog in something turning.
And maybe it's the time of year, yes, and maybe it's the time of man.
And I don't know who I am but life is for learning.
We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.

By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong,
And everywhere was song and a celebration.
And I dreamed I saw the bombers jet planes riding shotgun in the sky,
Turning into butterflies above our nation.

We are stardust, we are golden, we are caught in the devil's bargain,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.



All quotations:

Friday, August 14, 2015

David Crosby at 74

The American singer, songwriter and musician, David Crosby,  turns 74 years old today. He may be a social and political bad boy in the eyes of many, but he remains an iconic figure in the performance and evolution of popular music beginning in the 1960s. His talents, notably his beautiful high harmony, helped propel The Byrds, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young to the top of the charts. Crosby is still on the circuit adding his signature sound --and rather strong it remains--after all these years. Considering the toll from years of unhealthy life choices both emotional and physical, we're fortunate to have him around for another generation of admirers. For me, Crosby ranks among the best of the singer songwriters.

Crosby is currently in the midst of his first solo career tour in thirty years. From all of the reviews, he's loving it and so are his audiences. Here is a sample of the poet's work performed in its golden age, first with Graham Nash, and second, with Nash, Stephen Stills, and Neil Young:

Deja Vu

If I had ever been here before
I would probably know just what to do
Don't you?

If I had ever been here before
On another time around the wheel
I would probably know just how to deal
With all of you

And I feel like I've been here before
I feel like I've been here before
And you know it makes me wonder
What's going on under the ground

Do you know? Don't you wonder
What's going on down under you?

I rarely post links to long videos but here is an exception, a one hour interview with Crosby recorded earlier this year at the Aspen Institute. If you have an interest in pop music history this will be an hour well-spent with an amazingly talented and entertaining man who lived that history most of us can only talk about.

Happy birthday, David! Sail on.


Photo:, photo by Django Crosby