Friday, February 26, 2010

Conserving old things (really old things)

I am at heart a conservative--I want to conserve the past that has survived into the present and allow it to survive into the future. I believe in roots and feeling grounded in the world as a recipe for sanity and I believe in understanding how we got to where we are as a way to understand where we are going. Change fascinates me--to imagine how wildly different the landscape around me has been and will be and how different the fabric of life has been over time. It's a drama of loss and gain. Around here, in Chicago, the recorded past is shallow, the change dramatic. There's a lot to exercise my imagination on.

But last week, I entered an entirely different timescale. Last week, I was among the redwoods in Big Basin State Park near San Jose. The individuals there have stood, drinking in their Pacific mists, for over two thousand years--outliving thousands of generations of squirrels, outliving fires, and outliving whole epochs of human history.

They barely outlived human greed--and the aching desire Americans seem to have to cut all things down to size. A plaque along the trail hinted at the drama played out a hundred years ago.

According to Leonard McKay on, Andrew P. Hill came to California in 1867 at the age of 14 with his uncle, his father having died on the overland trail. He became an unsuccessful painter (apparently specializing to some extent in portraits of chickens) who moved into photography. When he photographed a forest fire in 1899, the dramatic picture got picked up by a London newspaper, which then commissioned photos of the astoundingly large trees seen in the fire. In the process of searching for old growth groves to photograph, he realized that they would all be gone in a couple of years, and he launched a campaign to save the trees here in Big Basin--some of the oldest and tallest. The legislature was reluctant to spend the money and offend the lumber interests, but he found donors to guarantee additional funds and powerful supporters to drive the political will. It took everything he had, but in 1902, it became the first state park in California--just in time. Rebuilding San Francisco after the earthquake of 1906 clear cut enormous stands of timber in the West, but these trees in Big Basin remained. The earthquake ruined Hill, who lost his studio, his equipment, and all his art. He died in 1922, without money but with an amazing legacy.

But conservation is never a fight that's over. Change is relentless. The redwoods are still in danger--though the danger is slower than a lumberjack's saw and more subtle than a cry of "timber." 

A study just came out in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that there is far less fog since Hill won his fight. According to the study, coastal fog from the cold ocean water has declined by one-third since 1901 because the cold ocean water is warming. The redwoods need the fog to survive the dry California summers.

There was fog on the hill between San Jose and the park last week as we drove over, but it was ominously sunny in the park itself when we were there.

It might not hurt the giants, but they are fairly sure it will hurt the young trees, which wait as tiny sprouts at the foot of a mother tree. When the mother falls, they shoot up as a circle of siblings. 

It's these future generations that are at risk--both theirs and ours. As I learned from Thoreau, every choice we make has meaning in the world. Every time I take a carbon footstep, I'll think of Big Basin. We can't control climate cycles, but we can control ourselves. For more on the study,

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Mystery of Arthur W. Klein

On the corner of 55th Street and South Shore Drive, in front of the 5490 building, there's an aging concrete pillar, taller than a person, with a plaque attached to the top. I walked past the pillar for 25 years or more on my way to the Point before I really noticed it. There is lots of random clutter on our street corners. I finally paused one day to read it."Arthur W. Klein, Lt. USN, 1905-1944" With a Gold Star above his name.

It's a memorial to a man killed in action. In the war, a family could put a gold star in their window if their father, husband, son had been killed in action. For the Klein's, a paper gold star in the window was obviously not enough to mark their loss. According to Stephen Treffman (War Bonds), there were several of these concrete posts once scattered throughout Hyde Park, erected after the war.  All the others have rotted away and been torn down. Only Arthur's remains.

Google has been no help at all. Whoever memorialized Arthur didn't list him in the WWII Monument Registry. His service record doesn't pull up in the online services. He's not the Arthur Klein who died in the Army in 1944 and earned the Distinguished Service Cross. I assume he's not the Arthur W. Klein who enlisted from the Bronx--and seems to have survived the war, dying in 2003 in Crystal River, Florida, not far from the National Cemetery in Bushnell.

So, there's only the information on the plaque. He died in the Navy in 1944--so he might have been anywhere in the world. German U-boats were still active in the Atlantic, hunting the convoys of troop ships and materiel, but the big action was in the Pacific. Maybe he was there. He was born in 1905--old for World War II--and in the Navy. That almost certainly meant he'd volunteered since that's how you got into the Navy. Most of the draftees were fodder for the infantry. And as an officer, he'd entered the service with an education. 

Some day, I hope to stumble on more information, but in the meantime, when I walk by, I give Arthur a nod--and thank him.  

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Missing Miss I Will

If you can't find it on Google it ceases to exist.

There was a Ray Bradbury story I read years ago about how all the literary characters in novels end up living on Mars, but when the book they were in ceases to be read, the characters fade from view leaving a hole in the community. I've just discovered such a hole--Miss I Will has disappeared.

I learned about Miss I Will in the Eagle, the most wonderful bar in the world, which once operated where Giordano's now is in Hyde Park. In the middle room, there were two large murals from the 1930s, facing each other across the room. On the south wall, was the 1930's skyline of New York, with Miss Liberty prominently in the middle. On the north wall, was the skyline of Chicago around the time of the Century of Progress, with Miss I Will in the middle, looking rather like a starlet or a chorus girl from the Gold diggers of 1933--hair all bottle blonde and marceled. She was smiling, close up, from somewhere out in the lake in front of the skyline of Chicago. I always liked the face-off between the ladies. I hope that wonderful pair of murals found a good home.

I've been looking for her, wondering if I'd hallucinated her, when I finally stumbled across her on a poster for the Century of Progress. I admit I preferred the Eagle version. This one is scowling out at us, clearly not very happy about the state of things, and the welcome is reduced to a crook of the finger. Maybe it's the NRA eagle that's landed on her head that bothers her or the dispossessed Pottawatomie (wearing a Plains Indian headdress) behind her.

I always liked the idea that Chicago was represented by Miss I Will--so much persistence, so much determination. I think we need her back in town.