War with Japan, Peace, and Reconciliation: The Obon Society

We arrived home several days ago from a wonderful nine-day vacation trip visiting the north coast of Oregon. Upon arriving in Portland via Southwest Airlines, we rented a car and headed for the coastal town of Astoria.

We had several goals while visiting Astoria: chief among them was the desire to visit the terminus of the famous Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804. We were also aware of a fine maritime museum just inside the treacherous “Columbia Bar,” where the mighty Columbia River disgorges huge volumes of water into the Pacific Ocean. The “Bar” is justly known as “the graveyard of the Pacific” for the many ships lost in its treacherous waters. We were not disappointed in the quality of the Columbia River Maritime Museum.

During our nine days of travel and exploration which ended back in Portland, we experienced many interesting places and sights including the mammoth “Spruce Goose” seaplane built by Howard Hughes in the mid-nineteen forties. The “Goose” remains the largest airplane ever built…entirely of plywood! It flew but once in 1947 – for a whole fifteen seconds! It has been in drydock ever since and is now on permanent display at the Evergreen Aviation Museum near McMinnville, Oregon. Fascinating and breathtaking are applicable words to describe the experience of seeing the Spruce Goose in person!

And, yet, the most absorbing and poignant experience on our trip occurred in Astoria, our first stop along the way. An exhibit at the Columbia River Maritime Museum documented the story of the Yosegaki Hinomaru and the Astoria-based Obon Society. The Yosegaki Hinomaru is a flag of Japan carried into battle by Japanese soldiers during World War II. It was tradition to have family and friends inscribe their well-wishes and prayers on the flag for the soldier carrying it off to war. Large numbers of these flags, like their owners, never made their way back to Japan. Many of these flags were captured by American troops and brought home as souvenirs of the war.

The Obon Society is a non-profit organization founded by a husband and wife team from Astoria. The society’s mission is to facilitate the return of captured flags to descendants of those who carried them off to war. This, to provide a final chapter in the decades-long reconciliation with Japan. The society has a moving exhibit in the maritime museum explaining their work and displaying many examples of the Yosegaki Hinomaru.

I found the display most moving and thought-provoking. Above, a young soldier is wearing a sash with his flag attached, surrounded by family and friends and about to leave home, possibly never to return.

Here, a very young soldier proudly displays his Yosegaki Hinomaru on his way to war.

Many are the yellowed photographs still lovingly preserved by descendants of American soldiers – images which depict these Yosegaki Hinomaru as spoils of war, taken from fallen Japanese warriors. For the most part, these unique and personal flags made their way back to the states and were tucked away in trunks stored in the attics of countless places like Akron, Ohio, Poughkeepsie, New York, and Indianapolis, Indiana. In many cases, they lay undisturbed and undiscovered in those locations for years until found by descendants curious about the contents of those old trunks in the attic.

Here, Iwo Jima marines display their captured flag. The sharp creases indicate the many folds necessary for its owner to carry it on his person into battle.

We found this exhibit by the Obon Society to be extremely interesting and moving – a totally unexpected experience as we worked our way through Astoria’s fine maritime museum. The images speak volumes to any discussion of war and the nature of humanity. After World War II, when tensions began to subside and travel/communications were greatly improved, many American fighter pilots who flew against the Germans wanted nothing to do with their Nazi counterparts at the various “reunions” of flying warriors from both sides which began to materialize. For some of these American pilots, it took a while for time to heal wounds and attitudes toward their former adversaries. Most of the Americans eventually acknowledged that their former Nazi enemies in the skies were fighting to protect the homeland, just as they were. Many of the flyers from both sides became fast friends while acknowledging their common humanity in the years that followed.

Most touching of all in the Obon Society’s exhibit was a short video presentation titled Yosegaki Hinomaru Tsukashima Return which chronicles the return of one warrior’s flag to the younger brother of its owner who never returned from the war. What a mind-bender it is to witness the emotional reaction of the flag’s new owner as he recognizes some of the signatures that were laid down so many decades ago. Tearfully, he says, “You have finally returned home!”

To the Obon Society: Well done! Your efforts and the work of other such organizations constitute the glue which can cement the future hopes of peace on this planet. Recognition that our common humanity is far more significant than our differences is the message sent and, hopefully, received by men and women of good will.

Apollo 11: One Giant Leap for Mankind!

Fifty Years ago, yesterday, a Saturn 5 rocket lifted off its launch pad at Cape Kennedy, Florida, on one of the most audacious adventures in the history of mankind. On board were three “spacemen” adventurers who carried the hopes and aspirations of people the world over on their shoulders.

The goal: to land a man on the moon’s surface and bring him safely back to mother earth. The odds of success? In 1961, when President Kennedy pronounced his determination for the nation to accomplish this before the end of the decade, many of the engineers with experience on the program which had not yet even sent Mercury astronaut John Glenn into local earth orbit thought Kennedy’s goal… “nuts.”

By the sheer force of national will fueled by an open checkbook for NASA from Washington, Kennedy’s daring commitment was realized. With over five months to spare before the decade’s end, astronauts Neal Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin landed on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969. The confirmation came as Armstrong beamed back to earth, the message, “…the Eagle has landed.”

July 16, 1969 dawned bright and mostly clear over the Florida Cape. On that momentous day, the mighty Saturn 5 rocket with its crew of Armstrong, Aldrin, and Michael Collins, ponderously lifted from earth on a thundering plume of fire and smoke. The spectacle and the sound of it mesmerized the thousands who came to watch the launch for themselves. Even at the more distant viewing points from the launch pad, the rolling, rumbling thunder emanating from the engines of the Saturn 5 was sufficient to rattle windows and elicit speculations regarding the power and fury of whatever powers might ultimately bring about the end of the earth, itself.

Speaking less from a poetic standpoint and strictly from that of the rocket engineers who designed her, the mighty Saturn 5 at lift-off was developing 7.5 million pounds of upward thrust by expelling 15 tons per second of combustion materials from its five engine nozzles! These are incredible numbers.















     Wernher Von Braun and the business end of the Saturn 5 rocket

This was Isaac Newton’s third law of motion on full and mighty display:
    For every action, there results an equal and opposite reaction.

In full accordance with Newton’s third law, the forces within the combustion chambers, required to violently expel fifteen tons per second of combustion products from the rocket’s nozzles in a downward direction gave rise to equal and opposite reaction forces on the upper, closed walls of the combustion chambers. It is this reaction force which provides the requisite upward thrust to the Saturn 5. One can appreciate the rolling, earth-shaking thunder which was experienced far and wide during a Saturn 5 launch when the violence taking place within its combustion chambers is fully appreciated.

It is poetic justice that the fundamental principle behind rocket propulsion should stem from the fertile mind of Isaac Newton as first revealed in his Principia of 1687, the greatest scientific book ever published!

We celebrate, today, not only the complete success of Apollo 11 as a mission, but the spirit and can-do attitudes of NASA, President Kennedy, Congress, and the American people who were all-in with their support and enthusiasm for the Apollo 11 program. Those several days when space was truly opened for exploration will stand in the record of this nation as among the best of times for America, notwithstanding the array of “other” concerns which faced us then.

The cold war with the Soviets was one of those concerns, and anyone who has paid attention to America’s many triumphs in space will appreciate that a major impetus for Kennedy to issue his man-on-the-moon challenge in 1961 was the realization that space exploration meant rocket technology and rocket technology was key to our nuclear missile defenses and our national security. Despite the need for such gnawing pragmatism in the space program, the altruistic legacy of man’s exploration of outer space remains first and foremost in the consciousness of the American people.

Like Pearl Harbor, VE-day in World War II, President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, and 9/11 in 2001, Apollo 11 was one of those generational events which remain a life-long memory for those who lived through them. I remember clearly where I was and what I was doing fifty years ago. Linda and I were living in Santa Barbara, California, and I was half-way through my Masters Degree in electrical engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara. We were renting half of a wonderful hillside duplex which overlooked that beautiful city with a line of sight toward the city harbor and west to the Pacific Ocean. As we intently watched all aspects of the Apollo launch on our little 19-inch black-and-white television during those several days, I recall countless time-outs to our front terrace-porch with coffee cup in-hand where I could enjoy the city view spread out below me while reflectively musing about the wonder of all that was happening on man’s remarkable journey to the moon and back. The few years we lived there encompassed some of the happiest times and circumstances of our young married lives; the triumphal success of Apollo 11 in July of 1969 played no small part in those special times for us and continues to provide joy in recollecting.

I have just finished watching the newly released DVD movie, Apollo 11, with my two young grandsons. The movie rates five-stars plus and does full justice to the drama and excitement of the event. As the movie ended, I counseled Matthew, my older grandson, that the times, the attitudes, and the circumstances which combined to make made Apollo 11 possible will represent a marker in humanity’s timeline, a marker which will always be remembered as “One giant leap for mankind.”

As a retired electrical engineer, I take time to reflect upon the countless scientific and technical people who made the moon landing possible:

-The physicists like Galileo, Newton, and Einstein who first unmasked the nature of gravity and the laws of motion.
-The electrical engineers/physicists who tamed electricity: men like Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell.
-The metallurgists who, over many decades, came to understand the nature and strength of materials – titanium, for example, found in the rocket nozzles of Saturn.
-The “ordinary” electrical and mechanical engineers and computer programmers who designed the immense support platform of equipment needed to support a mission like Apollo 11.
-The countless, faceless, folks who are so large in number, but nevertheless provided critical skills and support in management and mission control.
-The technician who was called upon when a leaky valve on the rocket halted the countdown before launch. With, virtually, the eyes of the world upon him, he entered the rocket assembly some two-hundred feet above the pad to tighten some bolts in order to mitigate the situation. I can only imagine the pressures on this fellow who remains faceless and nameless. He has lived with quite a memory of that time and his role in it, I am certain.

And, finally, there were the dreamers, the ancient astronomers (natural philosophers) who looked to the heavens in wonderment centuries ago and asked, “How and why is this?”



“Out of Africa” / “The End of the Game”

There are few things that sadden me more than the inevitable fate of Africa’s wildlife at the hands of “civilization.” My message, here, touches on that theme while offering a broad-brush picture of Africa, past and present.

I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills,” opens the richly written and highly acclaimed memoir, Out of Africa, by Karen Blixen (pen name: Isak Dinesen). In a curious chain of circumstances, my life-long fascination with Africa and its wildlife has recently been rekindled by her story and by other recent events. Many will recall the magnificent 1985 film, Out of Africa, which starred a young Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, directed by Sidney Pollack. The story’s setting recounts the sweeping panorama that was East Africa and Kenya in the early days of its capitol, Nairobi.

It was in Nairobi that many Brits and other Europeans opened up new colonial frontiers for the British Empire. People came for a multitude of reasons: Land grants from the government, pure adventure, and the opportunity to start a new life in a new place – whatever the root motivation. And those who came and risked the hardships of raw Africa in the early twentieth century were either fools or hardy adventurers, determined and pre-destined to succeed, there.

One of those who could and did meet Africa’s challenge was the Scotsman, John Alexander Hunter, who quickly became the most celebrated “white hunter” and later game warden in Africa’s history. Hunter arrived in Nairobi from Scotland in 1908 seeking adventure and a livelihood. Indeed, there was a need for “animal control” during the early days when native Africans eked out an existence among the then-teeming wildlife that surrounded them. Men like Hunter dealt with marauding elephants and rhinos that destroyed crops of the Masai and the Kikuyu farmers. And there were the occasional man-eaters, lions which had tasted human flesh and found the taking too easy. In the early days of plentiful game, white hunters paid their bills by guiding hunting safaris of the rich and privileged. Few people had the foresight in the 1920’s and 30’s to envision the dire wildlife situation which exists today in Africa. J.A. Hunter saw it coming as he later turned to work as a game warden and “gun safety” for strictly photographic safaris. It was J.A. Hunter’s iconic little book, Hunter, that first triggered my personal African odyssey more than fifty years ago. For that story as related on my earlier blog post about J.A. Hunter, click on the following link:


One of Nairobi’s early settlers not destined to make East Africa their permanent home was Karen Blixen who published Out of Africa in 1937, six years after returning to her native Denmark. Her memoir of the years 1913 to 1931 spent on her coffee farm high near the foot of the Ngong Hills, a dozen or so miles from Nairobi, creates a brilliant collage of Africa, Kenya’s bountiful wildlife, and the inscrutable native Africans who served her and her homestead. She related well to the Kikuyu and Somali Africans who worked her farm and household, even forming close bonds with several of those who served inside her home. Nonetheless, she appreciated her ultimate limits in that regard as she noted, “On our safaris and on the farm, my acquaintance with the Natives developed into a settled and personal relationship. We were good friends. I reconciled myself to the fact that while I should never quite know or understand them, they knew me through and through, and were conscious of the decisions I was going to take, before I was certain about them, myself.”

Blixen’s eloquent depictions in the book serve not only as a personal memoir of a bigger-than-life true story, but as a brilliant tapestry of early colonial East Africa, the traditions of safari and Africa’s teeming wildlife, and the challenging surroundings which engulfed the author. Earnest Hemingway, no stranger to literary honors, thought so highly of Out of Africa and its merits that he proposed Blixen as a worthy contender for a Nobel Prize in literature.

There is another prophetic book about Africa which, despite my early naivete concerning the subject, I was prescient enough to purchase in 1965, the year of its initial publication. Its title: The End of the Game, by Peter Beard. It has become something of a cult title, yet despite the author’s unorthodox style, the book was prophetic about the end of “the game” in Africa. While expressing grave pessimism over the fate of Africa’s game animals, the book’s larger thrust is a poke at “the game” as played in Nairobi and elsewhere by the early, privileged white “invaders” from colonial Britain and Europe as they went about executing new “land grants” and confiscating land from the resident natives to build their empires. Does that sound familiar to students of the American West and its history? The pages of this book contain many glimpses of the early settlers in and around Kenya including Baroness (Karen) Blixen and her lover and platonic ideal, the storied, Oxford educated white hunter, Denys Finch Hatton. Blixen and Finch Hatton came from aristocratic, wealthy backgrounds in Denmark and England, respectively. Like so many others of privilege who comprised the early colonial settlements in Kenya, they seemed by background unfit and unprepared to deal, long-term, with the demands of African existence. Blixen and her Danish nobleman husband at the time, Bror Blixen, made the ill-informed decision to plant coffee at their farm, ignoring the fact that the land was too elevated for favorable results. That fact and a later, devastating fire that destroyed the farm’s coffee processing barn, doomed Karen Blixen’s success in Africa.

On the other hand, men like J.A. Hunter and H.K. Binks arrived in Africa already equipped with a steely inner-core and flexible attitudes, tempered by the experiences of a well-grounded, challenging early life at “home.”

H.K. “Pop” Binks came from Yorkshire and arrived in Nairobi in 1900, making him one of the town’s earliest white settlers. He lived very modestly in Nairobi with his wife “Binkie” until death claimed him in 1971. During his lifetime in Nairobi, Binks plied numerous trades, including local photographer, astronomer, and author. He exhibited the attitudes and adaptability that life in Africa demanded. I have read first-hand accounts concerning the initiative and resilience of Mr. Binks, and at least one educated voice who knew him personally claimed him to be “the most interesting person I ever knew.” In his book, African Rainbow, Binks stated: “I have been lonelier in the crowded streets of a city than in the great open spaces of Africa, with all wild things for companions.”

In 1965, I received a personal note from Mr. Binks in response to a letter I wrote to him at his Nairobi address. I had asked if he had any reminiscences of old Nairobi he could share with me – strictly because of my interest in East Africa and early settlers like him. He very kindly answered my “out of the blue” letter but explained he was already involved with a “home” publisher (perhaps his book, African Rainbow) and could not comply. He wished me luck in my search.

Needless to say, I was pleased and grateful that he cared enough to reply to me. I have kept that folded little note from Binks tucked in one of my J.A. Hunter books for over fifty years, now – a prized connection to the East Africa that once was.

Over time, Africa methodically weeded out its unfit would-be residents just as it has always done within its animal populations. Changing conditions hastened the demise of the colonials who enjoyed a privileged existence in old Africa. In a similar vein, evolving world and local conditions appear also to foretell the virtual demise of Africa’s crown jewel, its diverse animal populations, roaming free and wild.

Today, population pressure from within Africa threatens its wildlife like never before. Whereas J.A. Hunter was occasionally called upon to kill a marauding elephant or rhino intent on invading a local native village, today the local human populations expand inexorably outward occupying and fencing vast stretches of what were once grazing lands where animals roamed free. And today we must deal with organized poachers who continue to cull the finest wildlife specimens from the remaining small numbers still “protected” in game preserves.

Saving Africa’s wildlife can succeed only with world-wide support. Much lip service is paid, but a comprehensive, long-range plan and adequate moneys appear wanting.

The problems involved in protecting Africa’s wildlife are very challenging, yet, in the face of halting progress to date, it seems to me that man is a failed species, himself, if he cannot prevent the decimation of Africa’s (and nature’s) crowning glory. I venture to say, in that case, man will ultimately prove incapable of saving himself from himself. If so, perhaps we deserve no better fate as a species.

Charles Darwin’s Journey on the Beagle: History’s Most Significant Adventure

In 1831, a young, unknown, amateur English naturalist boarded the tiny ship, HMS Beagle, and embarked, as crew member, on a perilous, five-year journey around the world. His observations and the detailed journal he kept of his various experiences in strange, far-off lands would soon revolutionize man’s concept of himself and his place on planet earth. Darwin’s revelations came in the form of his theory of natural selection – popularly referred to as “evolution.”

H.M.S. Beagle_Galapagos_John Chancellor

Since the publication of his book, On the Origin of Species in 1859, which revealed to the scientific community his startling conclusions about all living things based on his voyage journal, Darwin has rightfully been ranked in the top tier of great scientists. In my estimation, he is the most important and influential natural scientist of all time, and I would rank him right behind Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein as the most significant and influential scientific figures of modern times.

Young Charles Darwin enrolled at the University of Edinburgh in 1825 to pursue a career in medicine. His father, a wealthy, prominent physician had attended Edinburgh and, indeed, exerted considerable influence on young Charles to follow him in a medical career. At Edinburgh, the sixteen-year old Darwin quickly found the study of anatomy with its dissecting theatre an odious experience. More than once, he had to flee the theatre to vomit outside after witnessing the dissection process. The senior Darwin, although disappointed in his son’s unsuitability for medicine, soon arranged for Charles to enroll at Cambridge University to study for the clergy. In Darwin’s own words: “He [the father] was very properly vehement against my turning an idle sporting man, which seemed my probable destination.”

Darwin graduated tenth in his class of 168 with a B.A. and very little interest in the clergy! During his tenure at Cambridge, most of young Darwin’s spare time was spent indulging his true and developing passion: Collecting insects with a special emphasis on beetles. Along the way, he became good friends with John Steven Henslow, professor of geology, ardent naturalist, and kindred spirit to the young Charles.

Wanted: A Naturalist to Sail On-Board the Beagle

On 24 August, 1831, in one of history’s most prescient communiques, Professor Henslow wrote his young friend and protegee: “I have been asked by [George] Peacock…to recommend him a naturalist as companion to Capt. Fitzroy employed by Government to survey the S. extremity of America [the coasts of South America]. I have stated that I considered you to be the best qualified person I know of who is likely to undertake such a situation. I state this not on the supposition of ye being a finished naturalist, but as amply qualified for collecting, observing, & noting any thing worthy to be noted in natural history.” Seldom in history has one man “read” another so well in terms of future potential as did Henslow in that letter to young Darwin!

Charles’ father expressed his opposition to the voyage, in part, on the following grounds as summarized by young Darwin:

-That such an adventure could prove “disreputable to my [young Darwin’s] character as a Clergyman hereafter.”

-That it seems “a wild scheme.”

-That the position of naturalist “not being [previously] accepted there must be some serious objection to the vessel or expedition.”

-That [Darwin] “should never settle down to a steady life hereafter.”

-That “it would be a useless undertaking.”

Darwin 1840_RichmondThe young man appealed to his uncle Josiah Wedgewood [of pottery family fame] whose judgement he valued. Scientific history hung in the balance as Uncle Josiah promptly weighed-in with the senior Darwin, offering convincing arguments in favor of the voyage. In rebuttal to the objection from Darwin’s father that “it would be a useless undertaking,” the Uncle reasoned: “The undertaking would be useless as regards his profession [future clergyman], but looking upon him as a man of enlarged curiosity, it affords him the opportunity of seeing men and things as happens to few.” Enlarged curiosity, indeed! How true that proved to be. The senior Darwin then made his decision in the face of Uncle Josiah’s clear vision and counsel: Despite lingering reservations, he gave his permission for Charles to embark on the historic sea voyage, one which more than any other, changed mankind’s sense of self. Had the decision been otherwise, Darwin’s abiding respect for his father’s opinion and authority would have bequeathed the world yet another clergyman while greatly impeding the chronicle of man and all living things on this planet.

On 27 December, 1831, HMS Beagle with Darwin aboard put out to sea, beginning an adventure that would circle the globe and take almost five years. Right from the start, young Charles became violently seasick, often confined to his swaying hammock hanging in the cramped quarters of the ship. Seasickness dogged young Darwin throughout the voyage. I marvel at the fortitude displayed by this young, recently graduated “gentleman from Cambridge” as he undertook such a daunting voyage. Given that the voyage would entail many months at sea, under sail, Capt. Fitzroy and Darwin had agreed from the start that Charles would spend most of his time on land, in ports of call, while the Beagle would busy itself surveying the local coastline per its original government charter. While on land, Darwin’s mission was to observe and record what he saw and experienced concentrating, of course, on the flora, fauna, and geology of the various diverse regions he would visit.

St. Jago, an island off the east coast of South America was the Beagle’s first stop on 16 January, 1832. It was here he made one of his first significant observations. Quoting from his journal: “The geology of this island is the most interesting part of its natural history. On entering the harbour, a perfectly horizontal white band in the face of the sea cliff, may be seen running for some miles along the coast, and at the height of about forty-five feet above the water. Upon examination, this white stratum is found to consist of calcareous [calcium] matter, with numerous shells embedded, most or all of which now exist on the neighboring coast.”

Darwin goes on to conclude that a stratum of sea-shells very much higher than the current water line speaks to ancient, massive upheavals of the earth in the region. From the simple, focused collector of beetles in his Cambridge days, Darwin had now become obsessed with the bigger picture of nature, a view which embraced the importance of geology/environment as key to decoding nature’s secrets.

In a fascinating section of his journal, Darwin describes his astonishment at the primitive state of the native inhabitants of Tierra Del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America. From the journal entry of 17 December, 1832: “In the morning, the Captain sent a party to communicate with the Fuegians. When we came within hail, one of the four natives who were present advanced to receive us, and began to shout most vehemently, wishing to direct us where to land. When we were on shore the party looked rather alarmed, but continued talking and making gestures with great rapidity. It was without exception the most curious and interesting spectacle I ever beheld: I could not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and civilized man; it is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal, inasmuch as in man there is a greater power of improvement.” A separate reference I recall reading referring to Darwin’s encounter with the Fuegians stated that he could scarcely believe that the naked, dirty, and primitive savages before his eyes were of the same species as the sherry-sipping professors back at Cambridge University – so vividly stated.

On 2 October, 1836, the Beagle arrived at Falmouth, Cornwall, her nearly five-year journey circumnavigating the globe complete. Throughout the trip, Darwin recorded life on the high seas and, most importantly, his myriad observations on the geology of the many regions visited on foot and horseback as well as the plant and animal life.

I often invoke the mantra to which I ardently subscribe: That fact is always stranger than fiction…and so much more interesting and important. Picturing Darwin, the elite Englishman and budding naturalist, riding horseback amidst the rough-hewn vaqueros [cowboys] of Chile speaks to the improbability of the entire venture. When studying Darwin, it quickly becomes clear to the reader that his equable nature and noble intents were obvious to those whose approval and cooperation were vital for the success of his venture. That was particularly true of the seaman crew of the Beagle and of Capt. Fitzroy whose private cabin on the ship, Darwin shared. Fortunately, Fitzroy was a man of considerable ability and efficiency in captaining the Beagle. He was, at heart, a man sensible of the power and importance of scientific knowledge, and that made his less admirable qualities bearable to Darwin. The crew made good-natured fun of the intellectual, newbie naturalist in their midst, but spared no effort in helping Darwin pack his considerable array of collected natural specimens, large and small, in boxes and barrels for shipment back to Professor Henslow at Cambridge. Many of these never arrived, but most did make their way “home.”

When Darwin returned to Cambridge after arriving back home at Cornwall, he was surprised to learn that Professor Henslow had spread news among his friends at Cambridge of the Beagle’s whereabouts in addition to sharing, with his university colleagues, the specimens sent home by his young protegee. Darwin had embarked on the Beagle’s voyage as an amateur collector of insects. Now, to his great surprise, he had become a naturalist with a reputation and a following within the elite circles at Cambridge, thanks to Professor Henslow.

Charles_Darwin_seated_crop[1]Once home, Charles Darwin wasted little time tackling the immense task of studying and categorizing the many specimens he had sent back during the voyage. By 1838, the vestiges of natural selection had begun to materialize in his mind. One situation of particular note that he recorded in the Galapagos Islands fueled his speculations. There, he noted that a species of bird indigenous to several of the islands in the archipelago seemed to have unique beaks depending upon which island they inhabited. In virtually all other aspects, the birds closely resembled one another – all members of a single species. Darwin noticed that the beaks in each case seemed most ideally suited to the particular size and shape of the seeds most plentiful on that particular island. Darwin took great pains to document these finches of the Galapagos, suspecting that they harbored important clues to nature’s ways. Darwin reasoned that somehow the birds seemed to be well-adapted to their environment/food source in the various islands. Clues such as this shaped his thought processes as he carefully distilled the notes entered in his journal during the voyage. By 1844, Charles Darwin had formulated the framework for his explanation of animal/plant adaptation to the environment. Except for one or two close and trusted colleagues, Darwin kept his budding theory to himself for years to come for important reasons which I discuss shortly.


Darwin published his book, Journal of Researches, in 1839. The book was taken from his copious journal entries during the voyage; within its pages resides the seed-stock from which would germinate Darwin’s ultimate ideas and his theory of natural selection. This book remained, to Darwin’s dying day, closer to his affections and satisfaction than any other including On the Origin of Species.



What Is the Essence of Natural Selection?

Darwin’s theory of natural selection proposed that species are not immutable across time and large numbers of individuals. There appear random variations in this or that characteristic in a particular individual within a large population. Such variations, beginning with that individual, could be passed along to future generations through its immediate offspring. In the case of a singular Galapagos finch born with a significantly longer and narrower beak than that of a typical bird in the species, that specimen and its offspring which might inherit the tendency will be inevitably subjected to “trial by nature.” If the longer, narrower beak makes it easier for these new birds to obtain and eat the seeds and insects present in their environment, these birds will thrive and go on, over time, to greatly out-reproduce others of their species who do not share the “genetic advantage.” Eventually that new characteristic, in this example, the longer, narrower beak, will predominate within the population in that environment. This notion is the essence of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. If the random variation at hand proves to be disadvantageous, future generations possessing it will be less likely to survive than those individuals without it.

Note that this description, natural selection, is far more scientifically specific than the oft-used/misused phrase applied to Darwin’s work: theory of evolution. To illustrate: “theory of evolution” is a very general phrase admitting even the possibility that giraffes have long necks because they have continually stretched them over many generations reaching for food on the higher tree canopies. That is precisely the thinking of one of the early supporters of evolution theory, the Frenchman, Lamarck, as expressed in his 1809 publication on the subject. Darwin’s “natural selection” explains the specific mechanism by which evolution occurs – except for one vital, missing piece… which we now understand.

Genetics, Heredity, and the DNA Double Helix:
 Random Mutations – the Key to Natural Selection!

Darwin did not know – could not know – the source of the random significant variations in species which were vital to his theory of natural selection. He came to believe that there was some internal genetic blueprint in living things that governed the species at hand while transmitting obvious “familial traits” to offspring. Darwin used the name “gemmules” referring to these presumed discrete building blocks, but he could go no further in explaining their true nature or behavior given the limited scientific knowledge of the time.

James Watson and Francis Crick won the 1962 Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology for their discovery in 1953 of the DNA double helix which carries the genetic information of all living things. The specific arrangement of chemical base-pair connections, or rungs, along the double helix ladder is precisely the genetic blueprint which Darwin suspected. The human genome has been decoded within the last twenty years yielding tremendous knowledge about nature’s life-processes. We know, for instance, that one particular – just one – hereditary base-pair error along the double helix can result in a devastating medical condition called Tay-Sachs, wherein initially healthy brains of newborns are destroyed in just a few years due to the body’s inability to produce a necessary protein. Literally every characteristic of all living things is dictated by the genetic sequence of four different chemical building blocks called bases which straddle the DNA double helix. The random variations necessary for the viability of Darwin’s theory of natural selection are precisely those which stem from random base-pair mutations, or variations, along the helix. These can occur spontaneously during genetic DNA replication, or they can result from something as esoteric as the alpha particles of cosmic radiation hitting a cell nucleus and altering its DNA. The end result of the sub-microscopic change might be trivial, beneficial, or catastrophic in some way to the individual.

Gregor Mendel: The Father of Genetics…Unknown to Darwin

In 1865, a sequestered Austrian monk published an obscure scientific paper in, of all things, a regional bee-keepers journal. Like Darwin, originally, Mendel had no formal scientific qualifications, only a strong curiosity and interest in the pea plants he tended in the monastery garden. He had wondered about the predominant colors of the peas from those plants, green and yellow, and pondered the possible mechanisms which could determine the color produced by a particular plant. To determine this, he concocted a series of in-breeding experiments to find out more. After exhaustive trials using pea color, size of plant, and five other distinguishing characteristics of pea plants, Mendel found that the statistics of inheritance involved distinct numerical ratios, as for example, a “one-in-four chance” for a specific in-breeding outcome. The round numbers present in Mendel’s experimental results suggested the existence of distinct, discrete genetic mechanisms at work – what Darwin vaguely had termed “gemmules.” Mendel’s 1865 paper describing his findings, and the work behind it cements Mendel’s modern reputation as the “Father of Genetics.” Incredibly and unfortunately virtually no one took serious notice of his paper until it was re-discovered in 1900, thirty-five years after its publication, by the English geneticist William Bateson!

Original offprints (limited initial printings for the author) of Mendel’s paper are among the rarest and most desirable of historical works in the history of science, selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars on the rare book/manuscript market. We know that only forty were printed and scarcely half of these have been accounted for. Question: Did Mendel send an offprint of his pea plant experiments to Charles Darwin in 1865, well after the publication of Darwin’s groundbreaking On the Origin of Species in 1859? An uncut [meaning unopened, thus unread] offprint was presumably found among Darwin’s papers after his death, according to one Mendel reference source. Certainly, no mention of it was ever made by Charles Darwin.

 It is an intriguing thought that the key, missing component of Darwin’s natural selection theory as espoused in his Origin of Species possibly resided unread and unnoticed on Darwin’s bookshelf! And is it not a shame that Mendel lived out his life in the abbey essentially unknown and without due credit for his monumental work in the new science of genetics, a specialty which he founded?

Darwin’s Reluctance to Publish His Theory Nearly Cost Him His Due Credit

Darwin finally revealed his theory of natural selection to the public and the scientific community at large in 1859 with the book publication of On the Origin of Species. In fact, the central tenets of the book had congealed in Darwin’s mind long before, by 1844. He had held the framework of his theory close to the vest for all that time! Why? Because to espouse evolutionary ideas in the middle of the nineteenth century was to invite scorn and condemnation from creationists within many religions. No one was more averse to a more secular universe which promoted the notion of a less personal creator, one which did not create man and animals in more or less final form (despite obvious diversity) than Emma Wedgewood Darwin, Darwin’s very religious wife. She believed in an afterlife in which she and her beloved husband would be joined together for eternity. Charles was becoming less and less certain of this religious ideal as the years went by and nature continued to reveal herself to the ever-inquiring self-made naturalist who had set out to probe her ways.

To espouse a natural world which, once its fundamental constituents were brought together, would henceforth change and regulate itself without further involvement by the Creator would be a painful repudiation of Emma’s fundamental beliefs in a personal God. For this very personal reason and because of the professional risk of being ostracized by the community of naturalists for promulgating radical, anti-religious ideas, Darwin put off publication of his grand book, the book which would insure him priority and credit for one of the greatest of all scientific conclusions.

After stalling publication for years and with his manuscript only half completed, Darwin was shocked into feverish activity on his proposed book by a paper he received on 18 June, 1858. It was from a fellow naturalist of Darwin’s acquaintance, one Alfred Russel Wallace. In his paper, Wallace outlined his version of natural selection which eerily resembled the very theory Darwin was planning to eventually publish to secure his priority. There was no doubt that Wallace had arrived independently at the same conclusions that Darwin had reached many years earlier. Wallace’s paper presented an extremely difficult problem for Darwin in that Wallace had requested that Darwin pass his [Wallace’s] paper on to their mutual friend, the pathfinding geologist, Charles Lyell.

Darwin in a Corner: Academic Priority at Stake
Over One of the Great Scientific Breakthroughs

Now Darwin felt completely cornered. If he passed Wallace’s paper on to Lyell as requested, essentially making it public, the academic community would naturally steer credit for the theory of natural selection to Wallace. On the other hand, having just received Wallace’s paper on the subject, how would it look if he, Darwin, suddenly announced publicly that he had already deciphered nature and her ways – well before Wallace had? That course of action could inspire suspicions of plagiary on Darwin’s part.

The priority stakes were as high as any since the time of Isaac Newton when he and the mathematician Gottfried Liebniz locked horns in a bitter battle over credit for development of the calculus. It had been years since Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle which began the long gestation of his ideas on natural selection. He had been sitting on his conclusions since 1844 for fear of publishing, and now he was truly cornered, “forestalled,” as he called it. Darwin, drawing on the better angels of his morose feelings, quickly proposed to Wallace that he [Darwin] would see to it that his [Wallace’s] paper be published in any journal of Wallace’s choosing. In what became a frenzied period in his life, he reached out to two of his closest colleagues and trusted confidants, Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker for advice. The two been entrusted with the knowledge of Darwin’s work on natural selection for a long time; they well understood Darwin’s priority in the matter, and he needed them now. The two friends came up with a proposal: Publish both Wallace’s paper and a synopsis by Darwin outlining his own long-standing efforts and results. The Linnean Society presented their joint papers in their scientific journal on 1 July, 1858. Fortunately for Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace was of a conciliatory nature regarding the potential impasse over priority by way of his tacit acknowledgement that his colleague had, indeed, been first to formulate his opinions on natural selection.

Nonetheless, for Darwin, the cat was out of the bag, and the task ahead was to work full-steam to complete the large book that would contain all the details of natural selection and insure his priority. He worked feverishly on his book, On the Origins of Species, right up to its publication by John Murray. The book went on sale on 22 November, 1859, and all 1250 copies sold quickly. This was an excruciating period of Darwin’s life. He was not only under unrelenting pressure to complete one of the greatest scientific books of all time, he was intermittently very ill throughout the process presumably from a systemic problem contracted during his early travels associated with the Beagle voyage. Yes, the expected controversy was to come immediately after publication of the book, but Darwin and his contentions have long weathered the storm. Few of his conclusions have not stood the test of time and modern scrutiny.

The Origin was his great book, but the book that was the origin of the Origin, his 1839 Journal of Researches always remained his favorite. Certainly, the Journal was written at a much happier time in Darwin’s life, a time flush with excitement over his prospects as a newly full-fledged naturalist. For me, the Journal brims with the excitement of travel and scientific discovery/fact-finding – the seed-corn of scientific knowledge (and new technologies). The Origin represents the resultant harvest from that germinated seed-corn.

“Endless Forms Most Beautiful” –
Natural Selection in Darwin’s Own Words

In his Introduction to the Origin, Darwin describes the essence of natural selection:

“In the next chapter, the struggle for existence amongst all organic beings throughout the world, which inevitably follows from their high geometrical powers of increase, will be treated of. This is the doctrine of Malthus, applied to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms. As many more individuals of each species are born that can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently occurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.

Darwin and Religion

Charles Darwin, educated for the clergy at Cambridge, increasingly drifted away from orthodox religious views as his window on nature and her ways became more transparent to him over the decades. Never an atheist, his attitudes were increasingly agnostic as he increasingly embraced the results of his lifelong study of the natural world. The Creator, which Darwin believed in, was not, to him, the involved, shepherd of all living things in this world. Rather, he seemed more like the watchmaker who, after his watch was first assembled, wound it up and let it run on its own while retreating to the background.

 Another viewpoint, which I tend to favor and which may apply to Darwin: God, whom we cannot fully know in this life, created not only all living things at the beginning, but also the entire structure of natural law (science) which dictates not only the motion of the planets, but the future course of life forms. Natural selection, hence evolution as well, are central tenants of that complete structure of natural law. The laws of nature, which permanently bear the fingerprints of the creator and his creation, thus enable the self-powered, self-regulating behaviors of the physical and natural world – without contradiction.

 Charles Darwin: Humble Man and Scientific Titan


In writing this post, my re-acquaintance with Darwin has brought great joy. Some years, now, after initially reading the biographies and perusing his works, I re-discover the life and legacy which is so important to science. His body of work includes several other very important books beside his Journal and Origin. Beyond his scientific importance and the science, itself, lies the man himself – a man of very high character and superb intellect. Darwin was gifted with intense curiosity, that magical motor that drives great accomplishment in science. Passion and curiosity: Isaac Newton had them in great abundance, and so, too, did Albert Einstein. Yet, Charles Darwin was different in several respects from those two great scientists: First, he was fortunate enough to have been born to privilege and was thus comfortably able to devote his working life to science from the beginning. Second, Darwin was a very happily married man who fathered ten children, each of which he loved and doted upon. Third, Darwin’s character was impeccable in all respects. His personality was stiffened a bit by the English societal conventions prevalent then, but his humanity shows through in so many ways. His struggle with religion is one most of us can relate to.

Reading Darwin’s works is a joy both because he was an articulate, educated Englishman and because the contents of his books like the Journal and Origin are easily digestible compared to the major works of Newton and Einstein. Like Darwin himself, my favorite book of his is The Journal of Researches, sometimes referred to as the Voyage of the Beagle. What an adventure.


The “sandwalk” path around the extended property of his long-held estate, Down House. Darwin frequently traversed this closed path on solitary walks around the estate while he gathered his thoughts about matters both big and small.

Richard Henry Dana’s “Two Years Before the Mast”

Occasionally, people ask how I get my ideas for these weekly posts. Patti and Dave, our very good friends from Santa Barbara, California, stopped by for a quick visit this week on their way north. They recently posed the question, and, ironically, they are the very reason for this week’s post.

Dana Plaque - El Paseo_PS4

A few months ago, Linda and I drove down to Santa Barbara to attend a reception for Patti and her artwork at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum. Patti is a successful artist and life-long resident of Santa Barbara who is well-known for her work with wood-block prints and mosaics. She has recently been commissioned to provide a large mosaic mural for the museum using ocean themes – thus the museum setting for her recent artist’s reception.

Linda and I thoroughly enjoyed the evening and the dinner with Patti, Dave, and their other friends who attended. The museum, itself, which is located on Santa Barbara’s breakwater, next to the town’s picturesque harbor and wharf, proved to be fascinating, featuring many well-conceived and executed exhibits.

One exhibit that struck my fancy showcased an 1840 first edition of Richard Henry Dana’s classic account of his seafaring experiences, “Two Years Before the Mast.” I had long known about the book and the story related by the exhibit – Dana’s seafaring voyage stopover at Santa Barbara in 1836. I had often seen the old tile-inlay, pictured here, that commemorates his visit.

I was aware of the book’s reputation not only as a vivid journal-account of his two years at sea, but also as a fine example of literary style and storytelling – this from a Bostonian with no literary background, whatsoever. The book is considered an American literary classic as well as perhaps the best seafaring account ever written; my author’s curiosity had long been piqued. Among all of those accolades, the book’s vivid early descriptions of pacific-coast ports-of-call constitute a scarce and valuable resource on life in California under Mexican rule prior to the Mexican-American War of 1846 and the California gold-rush of 1849.

The tile-inlay which is found at El Paseo in de la Guerra Plaza, an historic and small complex of shops and offices in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara, commemorates Dana’s visit to that exact location in 1836. In his book, Dana recounts in fine detail the historic wedding of Ana Maria de la Guerra to Alfred Robinson on January 24, 1836; the wedding reception was held at that very spot. The bride was the daughter of Jose Antonio de la Guerra y Noriega, one of the most prominent Californios in all of the region which is now encompassed by the southern portion of California. Prior to the Mexican War of 1846, this territory was governed by Mexico and, through land grants and purchases, de la Guerra owned some one-half million acres. Alfred Robinson was a commercial agent for Bryant, Sturgis and Company, a Boston firm engaged in the hide and tallow trade with the west coast. Alert, the ship on which Dana was traveling and working was a commercial vessel for that firm that happened to anchor at Santa Barbara at a very propitious time – Robinson’s marriage to Ana Maria de la Guerra – undoubtedly the local social event of the year, if not the decade. Because of the ship Alert’s corporate connection to Robinson, Dana and other crew members had a front-row seat at the wedding reception, held at the de la Guerra house which still stands today, less than a stone’s throw from the tile-inlay marker.


The descriptions of the wedding reception in the courtyard of the de la Guerra home and so many other aspects of Dana’s journey are written with such verve and color that I had to purchase a copy of the book for my library. I was able to find a venerable, nicely printed volume from 1930 – one with an association that resonated with me because my wife is from Santa Barbara, we lived there shortly after our marriage, and I attended graduate school there. Linda’s mother still lives there, and we go back often. Accordingly, Linda and I have a very special affection for the place: Anyone who knows Santa Barbara will understand!

On the front free paper of my book is an inscription in ink:

“Santa Barbara, Cal / August 11, 1932.”

Dana Tecolote_1

On the back inside end-paper is pasted a small, old bookseller’s ticket which reads, “Tecolote Bookshop / de la Guerra Studios / Santa Barbara.” My book was clearly purchased there, in the early thirties. The little Tecolote bookshop was a long-time Santa Barbara institution at that location – within sight of the Dana tile-inlay and just around the corner from the original de la Guerra Casa in whose patio courtyard Richard Henry Dana witnessed and recorded the historic wedding reception. I have several other books in my library containing a Tecolote bookseller’s ticket – books I purchased there in the late nineteen sixties when we lived in Santa Barbara.


The de la Guerra house today with its patio courtyard – much as it was then


The above photo by Carleton Watkins shows the Santa Barbara Mission/Church (Queen of the Missions) as it appeared in 1876. It was here that the de la Guerra / Robinson wedding was held on January 24, 1836, and it was here that the patriarch of the family, Jose Antonio de la Guerra y Noriega was buried in the church crypt after his death in 1858.

The following are excerpts from Dana’s description of the wedding and the reception which apparently went on for two or three days:

“Sunday, January 10th [1836]. Arrived at Santa Barbara, and on the following Wednesday, slipped our cable and went to sea, on account of a south-easter. Returned to our anchorage the next day.”

“Great preparations were making on shore for the marriage of our agent [Alfred Robinson], who was to marry Donna Anneta De…”

“On the day appointed for the wedding, we took the captain ashore in the gig, and had orders to come for him at night, with leave to go up to the house and see the fandango. Returning on board, we found preparations making for a salute. Our guns were loaded and run out, men appointed to each, cartridges served out, matches lighted, and all the flags were ready to be run up. I took my place at the starboard after gun, and we all waited for the signal from on shore. At ten o’clock the bride went up with her sister to the confessional, dressed in deep black. Nearly an hour intervened, when the great doors of the mission church opened, the bells rang out a loud, discordant peal, the private signal for us was run up by the captain ashore, the bride, dressed in complete white, came out of the church with the bridegroom, followed by a long procession.”

“Just as she stepped from the church door, a small white cloud issued from the bows of our ship, which was in full sight [from the mission steps], the loud report echoed among the surrounding hills and over the bay, and instantly the ship was dressed in flags and pennants from stem to stern. Twenty-three guns followed in regular succession, with an interval of fifteen seconds between each when the cloud cleared away, and the ship lay dressed in her colors, all day. At sun-down, another salute of the same number of guns was fired, and all the flags run down. This we thought was pretty well – a gun every fifteen seconds – for a merchantman [ship] with only four guns and a dozen or twenty men.”

“After the supper, the gig’s crew were called, and we rowed ashore, dressed in our uniform, beached the boat, and went up to the fandango. The bride’s father’s house was the principal one in the place, with a large court in front, upon which a tent was built, capable of containing several hundred people. As we drew near, we heard the accustomed sound of violins and guitars, and saw a great motion of the people within. Going in, we found nearly all the people of the town – men, women, and children – collected and crowded together, barely leaving room for the dancers; for on these occasions no invitations are given, but everyone is expected to come, though there is always a private entertainment within the house for particular friends. The old women sat down in rows, clapping their hands to the music, and applauding the young ones. The music was lively, and among the tunes, we recognized several of our popular airs, which we, without doubt, would have taken from the Spanish.”

What prompted Richard Henry Dana, a young, privileged descendent of early colonial settlers to set sail as an apprentice sailor on a merchant vessel as opposed to a booking a comfortable, luxury cruise?  Undoubtedly, his independent spirit and restless curiosity drove him. His journey began from Boston on August 14, 1834 and ended two years later. His descriptions in the book based on his voyage journal vividly describe the terror and the beauty of the sea. Herman Melville, another author who was no stranger to nautical tales, wrote, “But if you want the best idea of [the treacherous] Cape Horn, get my friend Dana’s unmatchable Two Years Before the Mast.”

Whether standing in the courtyard of the de la Guerra house or gazing at the tile-inlay just around the corner of the complex, the scenes Dana describes seem so believable, almost touchable. That story has rattled around in my head for a long time; it took our recent visit to Santa Barbara for Patti’s reception and the museum exhibits we saw that evening to trigger my desire to finally put it on paper.

These blog posts of mine often result from the confluence of many diverse currents all converging to produce an idea. This post is typical of that process!

A Road Trip through Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont

Linda and I have just returned from a two-week sojourn through New England with many memories, photos….and new books which will pose a bookshelf problem at home! Speaking of books and writers, we began our adventure at the Mark Twain house in Hartford, Connecticut.

 IMG_0850Mark Twain’s home in Hartford

Samuel Clemens, better known by his pen name, “Mark Twain,” built this beautiful home on the then-outskirts of Hartford in 1873 for Olivia, his wife of three years and their future family of three girls. Nothing was spared in its planning and construction thanks to Olivia’s family coal fortune and Twain’s bright prospects as a writer and speaker.

Alas, Mark Twain was as dismal at investing money as he was brilliant writing stories. Because of  terrible business decisions, Twain was forced into bankruptcy in the early 1890’s after writing such successful classics in his Hartford home as “Tom Sawyer,” and “Huckleberry Finn.” He embarked on an arduous, year-long, around-the-world lecture tour in 1895 with his wife and two daughters, Clara and Jean, in order to pay off his former creditors even though legally not responsible to do so after bankruptcy. In 1896, the eldest daughter, Suzy, who had remained home at Hartford, died of meningitis in that beautiful house. Twain and Olivia were devastated on receiving the news overseas. They were never to return to the beautiful house at Hartford after Suzy’s death; there were just too many beautiful memories of happier times, there.


I purchased two books in the gift shop at Hartford, both centered on Mark Twain’s gift for peering into the heart of human nature….and subsequently laying it bare in prose via his pithy quotes and his stories.

The first book discusses his insights into human nature, and the second is a book of resulting quotes – for example:

“Such is the human race. Often it does seem such a pity that Noah didn’t miss the boat.”

“Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”

“Everyone is a moon and has a dark side which he never shows to anyone.”

“Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”

“The lack of money is the root of all evil.”

“Man was made at the end of the week’s work, when God was tired.”

One must admire a man who has the courage to call it the way he sees it – even though his personal shortcomings may be the well-spring of his insight and wisdom.

That last one is my own little commentary on the marvel which is Mark Twain, a writer and a personality worth knowing. I look forward to reading more!

Norman Rockwell: The Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.

Linda and I had rubbed elbows with the great artist/illustrator, Norman Rockwell, once before in Arlington, Vermont. That took place in 1992 when we visited New England and stayed at the stately farmhouse built in 1799 that was once his home. In fact, the bed-and-breakfast room that we occupied was Rockwell’s bedroom! It was a beautiful interlude for a few nights, compounded by the fact that we were the only guests! That left time for leisurely breakfasts and long conversation with the congenial couple who owned the place – in front of a crackling fire in the fireplace on crisp Vermont mornings.

It was at the small museum in town that we first saw original Rockwell illustrations, many of them famously familiar. It was there, too, that we learned that he painted from “live” models – often the local town-folk. The faces and the personas in the illustrations are unfailingly “dead ringers” for the folks he used – this, based on the photo evidence. From Arlington, Vermont, Rockwell moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in the early 1950’s, and it is there that a beautiful and fitting museum was built to permanently house many of his great works.


Just beyond the museum, sits his gallery which was moved from downtown Stockbridge, where he lived, up the road a bit to its present spacious setting.


I could not resist this original, authentic Saturday Evening Post magazine cover from Nov.8, 1930 which was offered in the gift shop for a reasonable price. It is one of my favorites of the many Post covers he did. It is called “The Voyager.”


Shame on those who pigeon-holed Rockwell as merely an “illustrator” and not an artist! I am not an expert, but I recognize artistic brilliance when I see it. We all can. Has anyone better-captured the soul and spirit of his human subjects while telling their story than Rockwell? If so, I stand ready to listen and learn!

Who is Daniel Chester French?

If you said he sculpted the huge, seated Abraham Lincoln, the focal point of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, you have earned a gold star. If you also gave him credit for the beautiful, inspiring minuteman statue at the Concord, Massachusetts Old North Bridge, you should get three gold stars. We had the opportunity while at Stockbridge, Massachusetts, to visit his home and his studio – both situated on beautiful, spacious grounds and referred to as “Chesterwood.”




The actual, reduced-size plaster model of the Lincoln Memorial

The technique used to transition from smaller plaster models to larger-than-life statuary is a fascinating process, and we had a chance to learn something about it at Chesterwood – well worth the visit!

Two Great B and B’s along the way!

The Inn at Mount Pleasant Farm near Litchfield, Connecticut was both relaxing and interesting. The vantage point overlooking an endless meadow and many trees was beautiful and the conversation with super-hosts Bob and Maggie was fun and  interesting. Bob took us through the original 150 year-old dairy barn which he, a retired developer/builder had to save from danger of collapse when they acquired the farm – interesting insights into preservation/restoration.



Yes, we are having fun!

Brattleboro, Vermont and 40 Putney Road

Our last stay prior to heading south to Danbury Connecticut, near where we began our trip, was this elegant and delightful B and B run by the fun and efficient, Rhonda. Extra touches were abundant all around, evidence of Rhonda’s successful desire to be the perfect hostess.




 Rhonda’s breakfasts served in the music conservatory were a treat!

 Visiting Tasha Tudor’s Homestead near Marlboro, Vermont


My wife has long followed the life of departed author/illustrator/nature-lover, Tasha Tudor. Ms. Tudor lived by herself with her Corgi dogs in the deep woods of Vermont, choosing “the simple life” except for occasional outreaches to the most “civilized” world of book publishing.


Eschewing all modern conveniences save a water closet and minimal electric lighting, Ms. Tudor lived off the land – going barefoot, chopping wood for her stove and fireplace, weaving on a loom, fashioning garden tools from tree branches, but always painting her story of Corgi Cottage and the simple life, there. Tasha Tudor came from an accomplished and privileged background, yet somewhere along the line – while still quite young – she eschewed that life for the “simpler” one she chose. Don’t look for directions or signposts on how to reach Corgi Cottage, there aren’t any – on purpose.

Tasha Tudor’s personal story is quite fascinating, so Linda made early arrangements for the very infrequent and limited tours of her cottage and natural gardens which are conducted by the immediate family. We had a fascinating look at a different lifestyle as we toured the very rustic premises on a drizzly morning.

Her son, Seth, who was on our tour, and the rest of the family face a daunting challenge in keeping Tasha Tudor’s legacy alive and well while doing the necessary things to fund the ongoing maintenance of the property. Tasha, herself, somehow managed the delicate balance of living an isolated life (except for certain family members) while creating a name and image in the wide-world of book publishing.


 Tasha Tudor’s second book – 1942

 The Friends of Gladys Taber (FOGT) Annual Reunion

Our final stop before heading home was the Friends of Gladys Taber (FOGT) annual reunion held in Danbury, Connecticut. My post last week, A Father’s Day Surprise from Susan Branch, June 22, 2014, stemmed from that reunion which included a visit to Ms.Taber’s beloved Stillmeadow Cottage where she spent many of her happiest years. It was Susan Branch who, through her blog, introduced my wife to Gladys Taber and her wonderful commentaries on life and country living. Mrs. Susan Turnley edits the quarterly FOGT newsletter which every member receives and which features articles on Ms. Taber and current membership news.

IMG_1773  IMG_1274PS

As is quite evident by now, our New England sojourn of two weeks could rightly be termed a “literary pilgrimage” of sorts, one which was inspired primarily by Linda’s interests in Tasha Tudor, Gladys Taber, and the scenic Connecticut route 7 which she had longed to see. Being interested in writers and immersed in writing, myself, I enthusiastically signed-on to the trip somewhat to Linda’s surprise and joy; I am glad I did. We both saw a lot, learned a lot, and will savor fine memories of people and places for a long time to come.

A Father’s Day Surprise from Susan Branch

Linda and I have just returned from a two-week vacation trip through Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont. We had numerous adventures, saw beautiful scenery, and met interesting people along the way. This past weekend, our trip was capped by a “Friends of Gladys Taber” conference at Danbury, Connecticut, in honor of Gladys Taber, longtime past resident in nearby Southbury and chronicler of life in the region during the thirties, forties, and fifties. The keynote speaker for the conference was Susan Branch, author, artist, blogger par-excellence, and devoted fan of the lifestyle and philosophies espoused by Ms.Taber.


 Susan Branch signing her book for me

Linda was introduced to Gladys Taber by Susan Branch via her uniquely charming blog. Susan’s blog was initially recommended by Sally, one of Linda’s longtime friends and a kindred spirit.

As for me, I am a bit of a newbie to Gladys Taber and her story, but I have long-appreciated Susan Branch and what she does. Linda would occasionally call me away from my computer during the course of my own blogging activities to show me something on Susan’s latest blog post. Not infrequently, Linda’s call would be preceded by the sounds of great music wafting into my den – often the incomparable music of Frank Sinatra singing with the Tommy Dorsey band which Ms. Branch frequently adds to her charming visuals. Linda would call down the hall, “Come here, Alan. You are going to like this!”

I am a devoted fan of the big band era, and, in my opinion, the Sinatra/Dorsey collaboration in the 1940 time period produced some of the finest music…ever. After hearing many of my Sinatra/Dorsey favorites on Susan’s blog and learning that she is a huge Astaire and Rogers fan, as well, I recalled that most-expressive phrase from Anne of Green Gables – “kindred spirits.” I enjoy reading her unique and well-written blog posts to boot!

In this day and age, encountering someone who is both aware of and passionate about the marvelous entertainment legacies of both Sinatra/Dorsey and Astaire/Rogers is a very rare event. Fred Astaire? Probably the finest complete entertainer ever to come our way – he and, perhaps, Al Jolson. Nobody has ever done what Astaire did – and seemingly so effortlessly. Ginger Rogers? She did what he did, only backward and in high heels. As for Sinatra and Dorsey, I had a chance to briefly chat with Ms. Branch about that very subject at the conference and to verify what had been obvious about her love of their music.

 My Big Surprise

 After breakfast on Saturday morning, the large audience in the event-room at the Danbury Crown Plaza was eagerly anticipating the arrival of Susan Branch and her keynote address to the conference. The first thing Ms. Branch did upon taking the podium and thanking the assembly for their interest in Ms. Taber and their attendance was to produce a camera and take a three-shot panoramic record of the audience from her vantage point. That was quite cool…and unique.

Then, she asked the audience, “Are the parents of Ginny from California here in the audience?” Linda and I sat stunned for a moment before concluding that she MUST mean US! We raised our hands and with help from the assembled members, Susan located us toward the back of the room. She continued (paraphrased), “I have a message from Ginny: Happy Father’s Day, Dad!” The entire assembly applauded as my fallen-jaw joined forces with the rest of my face to produce a huge smile. Linda and I looked at each and laughed in amazement. How nice of Susan Branch to do that and how about that daughter of ours – Ginny, back home in California! How did she manage that?

To our great surprise, when we called Ginny from Connecticut later that day, she was almost as surprised as we were. It so happens that Ginny had commented on Susan’s blog post about her dad citing her “sweet tribute” to him. Ginny went on to merely mention that her dad (and mom) would be attending the Gladys Taber convention over the coming weekend.

Susan replied to Ginny that she would watch for us, there, venturing that we will love visiting Stillmeadow, the former home of Ms. Taber. The house tour was a scheduled conference activity for that Saturday afternoon. Fair to say that Susan Branch surprised us all with her thoughtfulness on Saturday morning!

When Linda first proposed our trip centered on this conference months ago, I probably surprised her somewhat by saying, “Sure, let’s go!” I appreciate thinkers/writers like Ms.Taber, and I decided to fully participate in this three-day event with Linda including the tour of Stillmeadow. When I heard that Susan Branch was the keynote speaker for the event, my decision was a no-brainer. I had long appreciated Ms. Branch and what she does. I had seen Linda’s signed copy of Susan’s book celebrating her twenty-fifth anniversary with husband Joe and their European trip. She is smart, she is savvy; first and foremost, it is obvious that she really cares about people and gives of herself in her blog, her books, and her public appearances.

It took hard work to build her unique niche and to earn her popular and well-deserved acclaim. Hers is a wonderful example of a success story anchored on true dedication to a cause and working hard/working smart. I like that.

Thank you, Susan, for making our Saturday morning at the “Friends of Gladys Taber” (FOGT) conference most memorable. I enjoy now having my own personalized copy of your book to remind me of the day; your keynote address was wonderful and wise – as expected.


Next week’s post on Reason and Reflection will highlight our other adventures during the two weeks we spent in New England, including more on Gladys Taber. Linda has many of Ms. Taber’s books, but lacked a copy of Stillmeadow Sampler, shown above. She had hoped to pick up a copy at the silent book auctions held at the conference in Danbury. As I suspected, a nice copy would not likely surface, there, so, before we left on our trip, I found this fine copy on the internet. It was here when we arrived home, and I enjoyed Linda’s excitement when I gave it to her that evening. Pictured with it is the delightful account of Susan’s and Joe’s celebratory tour of the English countryside, A Fine Romance.


 Linda and I at Gladys Tabers’ Stillmeadow home. It was all great!