Category Archives: History

The Upper Peninsula

Recently we visited Michigan.

Grand Marais and Lake Superior

Michigan is two realms, downstate and the U.P. as the locals call it, where we visited.  They call themselves yuppers, for U.P., the Upper Peninsula.  It’s the North Country, well north of Toronto, heavily wooded and bordered by Lake Michigan and Lake Superior.  My wife has an old friend who is from Grand Marais, a tiny town on the south shore of Lake Superior. It is 40 miles to the nearest supermarket or hospital.

Patty grew up there, and like most natives, had to leave to make a living.  After a career, she went back home.  I can understand why.  The U.P. is a magical place, and Grand Marais, with its 400 people, is one source of the magic.  The land, the lake, the history, and the yuppers combine to make a spot unlike any other.

Historically a fishing and logging town, it is now a retirement and tourist community.  The campground, with its tents and RV’s, has as many people in summer as the rest of town.  There is a K-12 school with 28 students, a few stores, restaurants, and motels; small houses with no fences, some new houses seeming out of place, and that’s about it.

The people talk funny.  Lots of Finns and Swedes settled there, and that Nordic accent prevails.  No one says yes, it’s yah.  The word the becomes da, and the vowels are round.  They are friendly, open, welcoming people with no pretensions.  I fell in love with them.

The land is second growth timber, still supporting a logging industry.  The trees are a mix of hardwoods and conifers.  The larger trees are about 24-30 inches in diameter.  Walk into the woods, and there are old stumps around four feet across.

The Old Coast Guard Station, now the National Lakeshore Ranger Station




We did some wandering at the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, just west of town.  The Park Headquarters is in the old Coast Guard Station in town.  The lakeshore has a waterfall, views of the lake and its lighthouses, the sandstone bluffs giving the park its name, and the log slide.  It is the first National Lakeshore.


Lake Superior Log Slide

The log slide was used to slide logs into the lake from sand dunes about 175 feet above the lake.  There is a trail with wooden steps leading down to the waterfall and the lakeshore.  We watched the young people frolicking in the water and running/sliding down the log slide.  The beach is rounded cobbles up to about softball size.  Just away from the beach is sand with people looking for agates that formed from water trickling through ancient basalt lava flows.

Another day we went blueberry picking in a logging clear cut.  Lots of blueberry plants were hiding in  west the bracken.  We kept an eye out for bears attracted to the blueberries. The berries went into pancakes and muffins.  Driving off the pavement is a bit dodgy due to the sand.  We had to back down one hill.

Another notable thing was the silence.  I live in the city, with a constant background of noise.  Grand Marais was quiet.  I am sure the town is even quieter in winter with three or four feet of snow on the ground on the rare day with no wind.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore


The logging and fishing history is important, but the shipwrecks are a thing of legend.  The south shore of Lake Superior is a lee shore.  A lee shore is when the shore is leeward (downwind) of a sailing vessel.  In the days of sail, Lake Superior schooners were often blown onto the south shore by the fierce north and westerly winds.  It is difficult to sail upwind in a big blow, and the lake is famous for its storms.

Lake Superior Schooner

You probably know Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”.  Ships under power weren’t immune to the storms.  Standing on the shore of that immense lake, I could feel the draw of that big lake, and began to appreciate both the beauty and the danger.  Today, the shipping is well offshore.

I never felt I could fall in love with flat country, but I do love the U.P.





As part of our week in Breckenridge, we did a day trip to Leadville over Fremont Pass.  This country figures in my life.  My father grew up in Leadville, and I worked at the Climax Molybdenum mine one summer when in college.  Breckenridge is low country, around 9600 feet.  Leadville is over 10,000 feet in elevation, the highest incorporated city in the U.S. Climax is at the summit of Fremont Pass, 11,360 feet in elevation.  Some years, it doesn’t snow in July.   

Climax, Elevation 11,300 Feet

Climax, Elevation 11,300 Feet

Climax is at the foot of Bartlett Mountain, once one of the largest bodies of Molybdenum in the world.  Moly is used in alloying steel and as a lubricant.  Moly alloyed in steel makes it tougher, useful in high stress applications.  It’s first big use was in gun barrels during WWI.  Much of Bartlett Mountain is gone, hollowed out, crushed, had the metals removed, and the tailings dumped into a once beautiful glaciated valley.  Common with most mining operations, Climax has gone through several boom-bust cycles, and is currently just limping along.  Leadville is limping as well, still dependent on mining. 

I worked at the Storke level, 300 feet down the mountain from the original portal and mill.  I lived in a company hotel there. There was once a company town, but it went away as the milling operation took the land.  The store and the beer joint were still there in the mid-1960’s.    

I worked as a miner.  Drill, shoot, and muck.  That’s mining.  The drill was a jack leg, a pneumatic rock drill with a leg attached to be extended as the drill hole got deeper.  It was powered by compressed air, and had a water feed to keep dust down.  Drill holes in the face, load them with explosive, shoot, then remove the broken rock (muck).  I plan to go into the whole operation some time.  I did it for the money, and I can now say I was a miner. 

Leadville is down the pass.  What a place.  First gold, then a lot of silver, then bust as the silver market collapsed.  Mining has always gone on, from small independent operations to massive developments supporting a fairly large town.  My grandfather lived there for about twenty years as a railroader, a good Union job.  Born in 1903, my dad grew up there until 1918 when the railroad went broke and the family moved to Grand Junction.  Growing up, I heard lots of Leadville stories.  I will tell some more sometime.  If you go down the hill from the hotel on Harrison Avenue, the house at the bottom on the right is where my father grew up. 

Mining Hall of Fame

Mining Hall of Fame

When we visited, we drove around and I bored everyone with Leadville stories.  We ate at the Golden Burro, where I ate in the 1960’s, and went to the mining museum.  If you have any interest in mining, that’s the place.  Mostly, mining is taking metals and fuel from the earth and leaving a mess.  Leadville has lots of messes.  The worst ongoing mess is the water.  As it comes out of the mines it is highly acidic and loaded with toxic metals in solution.  It will have to be treated forever, at least in human terms.  Mining built Colorado, and we will always deal with the legacy.  Oh, what a mess we made.

Cops and Repression

Cops are a constant presence in our lives.  When I was a young kid, the town marshal in Fruita drove a red Ford pickup with no lights or siren.  It wasn’t long before there were real police with a cruiser.  I have a lot of interactions with police officers because I am a lousy driver.  


The first really negative interaction was during all the demonstrations following the invasion of Cambodia in 1968.  We peace creeps stood across the barrier from helmeted Fort Collins police officers who could hardly restrain themselves from bashing heads.  They were putting up with a lot of verbal abuse.  The cop across from me was hyperventilating.  Fortunately, nothing happened. 

Cops today are shooting people and getting shot.  Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore showed the nation how the police are an instrument of repression in some cities.  Fortunately this is not always the case.  After 9-11, Denver Water placed armed guards at the gates to the water treatment plants.  Most of the guards were retired or off duty Denver Police Officers moonlighting.  They usually worked one shift per week, and I got to know many of them at the plant where I worked. 

It was a shock to me to discover that most of them were really nice guys.  That did not fit my stereotype of cops.  A couple of them, however, were not nice guys.  They were right wing bullies filled with fear and anger.  The hate they projected was almost physically tangible.  They did not make eye contact and their speech was formal with an undercurrent of menace. 

I am sure every police department of any size in the land has a contingent of those fellows.  They are the enforcers, using violence to deal with undesirables.  They are relatively safe form reprisal because of the need for police to provide mutual support to one another.  There is a code of silence and even lying to cover for a fellow officer.  This is more common in some departments than others. 

These men serve as instruments of repression, usually to minorities.  Their self-appointed job is to keep undesirables in line, using any method they think they can get away with, including the USA, their targets are usually black, with Latinos and other minorities as alternate targets.  

Ferguson Riot

Ferguson Riot

At one time, most of the racial repression came from groups like the Ku Klux Klan, with their cross burnings, beatings, and lynchings.  Today, those groups have waned, and another means of repression has replaced them-rogue cops and rogue police departments.  Cops and police departments have always been part of the system of racial repression, but now they are the default lynchers.  There are no cross burnings on South Table Mountain in Golden these days. 

This system has run into trouble because almost anyone with a smartphone can record police violence and get the recordings to the media.  The code of silence is broken.  In times of unrest like today, the violent incidents are on the television screen every evening, just like the atrocities in Vietnam were in the 1960s.  Change in technology has made those conducting the new lynchings vulnerable.  The old system of other cops and prosecutors allowing the lynchers to get away with their brutality is not gone, as  Baltimore has recently shown, but it’s days are numbered. 

It may be that one factor creating the Trump phenomenon is the breakdown of repression.  The white working class, already hit by the loss of industrial jobs, is facing competition from people who were once sentenced to remain at the bottom.  White working class men once had those minorities to look down on.  Now the minorities are on the City Council and the police department.   


More on Discontent

The Age of Steam

The Age of Steam

Our economy has been one of change since the beginning.  When the railroads came to Colorado in 1870, a lot of teamster jobs hauling freight from Omaha and Kansas City went away.  The automobile would not have happened without the new petroleum industry.  Coal retained its strength from powering locomotives, heating homes, and fueling industry.  Industry and manufacturing grew, making the American economy one of the largest in the world.

What a combination, land, natural resources, transportation, a growing population of people with ambition, mobility, and a willingness to try something new.  Some were left behind.  Native Americans, African Americans, and those new citizens in the Southwest who were once part of Mexico with its traditional ways.  As always, immigrants ended up at the bottom because of language and discrimination.

There were troubles.  Low wages, a turbulent labor history, drought, an unstable business cycle creating panics individuals were helpless to influence.  There were some adventures the government engaged in, such as Cuba, the Philippines China, Japan, all the trappings of empire.  In many ways the American West was an empire, won at the expense of those who were living there.

John Deere

John Deere

Agriculture was becoming more mechanized, displacing people who moved to the cities to work in industry.  All the change continues.  There is a tremendous amount of wealth in Silicon Valley, not so much in Michigan.

The West has been boom-bust from the start.  The fur trade collapsed, but the gold rushes started.  The government started giving land to the railroads and individuals.  The short grass prairie boomed with hopeful wheat growers, then the droughts came.  Oil and gas grew and grew, and grew.  As old fields played out, new oil fields were discovered.  A couple of big wars really heated things up.

It all looked great.  Yes, lots of change, but people could find good jobs and things steamed along.  The real upheavals were when the business cycle threw millions out of work.  The 1930’s were a terrible time, but a war healed all that.

The West That Never Existed

The West That Never Existed

The 1950’s seemed like a golden age.  Lots of jobs, the U.S. Ruled much of the world, and television built a myth of stability, prosperity, and a bright future for everyone.  the myth came from relative prosperity and the ubitiquous westerns on television promoting a life that never existed.

The 1960’s brought social upheaval accompanied by a growing shift in how people made their living.  Steel mills closed, imported cars were on the roads, and computer-driven automation started taking industrial jobs.  The word Yuppie became a term of derision, but the Yuppies were the wave of the future.  They possessed education and a skill set many people could or would not obtain.

The skilled trades fell out of favor. It is college or else.  The trade jobs are filled the way they have always been filled, by immigrants.  This time however, the immigrants are not easily assimilated Europeans.  They are Latin, and and bring their culture with them.  Many are just not as interested in assimilating, and many are undocumented.

All this change leaves a huge segment of our society out of the good life.  Many are rural, where big mechanized farms haven taken jobs.  Many just do not have social and intellectual requirements to move into the new economy.  What’s left?  Low-paying service economy jobs, often for an out of date minimum wage inadequate for one person, let alone a family.  It is hard to build a life mowing lawns and doing kitchen work.  Much of the time jobs that used to be stepping stones have turned into dead ends.

The trouble is just beginning.  Those people marginalized by an economy where they don’t fit can be radicalized and turn to violence and terror or Donald Trump, which may be same thing.  The discontent is just not with the marginalized working class.  There are lots of well-educated people from middle class families making pizzas and living in their parents’ basement.  They thought they were doing the right thing going into debt to get an education and found nobody wants them.

This is still a rich country.  There is a huge imbalance in the distribution of wealth which has to change.  The change agent must be government.  A true progressive tax structure and an end to the massive influence of special interests in government are desperately needed.  The nation has the resources to provide everyone with an income providing them some dignity and the flexibility to enhance their station in life.  Given a decent income, most will seek ways to do even better.

We will always have the wealthy and the poor.  Now, there is too much concentrated wealth for a few and too many poor.  Trying to revert to an American utopia which never existed will only add to social instability.

Happy Days Are Here Again

Happy Days Are Here Again

There should be no food banks or coat drives.  There should be no one sleeping on the streets.  People with mental health problems should not be cast out.  Everyone should have the time and resources available to build better lives for themselves rather than being trapped in poverty.

In other words, we need a new time of progressive change, not an attempt to return to a myth.  How to pay for it all?  A realistic progressive tax system to redistribute income.


Roman Empire

Roman Empire

As I moved along in my history studies I heard a lot about developing a historical perspective.  It means acquiring a long view about historical processes.  For example, how the civilizations on the Italian peninsula evolved from Etruscan influences to Greek colonies to the start of the Roman city state with a political system somewhat modeled on Greek city-states to a republic, evolving with the growth of the empire and the need to defend the borders which tended to generate a more autocratic government which became increasingly corrupt and unable to check the invasions of Germanic tribes which led to collapse and the Dark Ages.  How is that for a synopsis?

Just about every statement I made about Rome has been debated, supported, refuted, and revised for centuries.  It is my perspective, however, and provides a framework, however tenuous, for my thinking about the development of European civilization.  Many of the conflicts in what was once the Roman Empire and it’s fringes have roots over two thousand years old.  I draw on my views of ancient empires in thinking about current developments in our world.

Geology also requires developing perspective; probably more than history because of the vast expanse of time.  We think of two thousand years as a long time historically, but it is less than a blink in geologic time.  The earth is over four billion years old.  What we can think of as written geologic history, the  evolution of life forms leaving a fossil record, is 600 million years old.  The

2013 Colorado Flooding

2013 Colorado Flooding

2013 Colorado floods, viewed as a rare catastrophe, is only one of many thousands of similar events that carved canyons, moved rivers, filled basins that continue to subside, and provided habitats for ever-changing life forms.  Bring back the mastodon and the Sabre-Toothed Tiger!

Geologists think that Colorado was formed by island arcs similar to those archipelagos south of Asia colliding with the Eurasian continent.  Here, island arcs from the south docked on the Wyoming Craton, some of the oldest rocks in North America.  This happened a very long time ago, before life emerged.  If you want to see this transition I recommend the

Wyoming Stromatolite

Wyoming Stromatolite

Snowy Range road in Wyoming.  You can find stromatolites, fossilized algae.  These fossils predate the Paleozoic, and are older than anything in Colorado.  Yes, geologists use the word docked, if you can imagine India docking on Eurasia. The transition between the Wyoming Craton and the younger stuff is called the Cheyenne Belt.

Now here is some serious history.  Since Colorado became one land mass, mountain ranges have come and gone, oceans have advanced and retreated, new life has evolved and gone extinct, and the whole deal has skidded around on the earth.  All the skidding has moved at about the rate your toenails grow.  That is not very fast, but after a few million years it begins to add up.

Trail Ruts at Guernsey WY

Trail Ruts at Guernsey WY

One of the problems of moving in next to Wyoming is that Yellowstone is there.  200 miles north of Denver is Guernsey, Wyoming, home of some interesting human history.  Guernsey is on the Platte River and the Oregon-California Trail.  Hundreds of thousands of people traveled the trail seeking new opportunity.  The trail stays close to the river in most places, but at one point the banks narrow and the trail climbs up about 20 feet through what looks like soft sandstone.  The Rock is so soft the wagon wheels formed axle deep ruts.

Yellowstone Volcanic Caldera

Yellowstone Volcanic Caldera

The rock is not sandstone.  It is volcanic tuff, deposited by ash clouds from the last time the Yellowstone Supervolcano blew, about 640,000 years ago.  On the highway it is about 380 miles.  Four feet of hot ash from 380 miles away.  It must have gotten pretty nasty here in Denver.  That volcano is going to erupt again.  We don’t know when, but the magma continues to bulge and recede in the area around Yellowstone Lake, which formed in the caldera.  Now that is historical perspective.  I live in a place that is going to be cooked and buried some day.

For those of you in coastal lowlands, along the West Coast, near St. Louis, Salt Lake, or anywhere between Tibet and Australia, there will probably be cataclysms occurring sooner than Yellowstone erupting, but nobody knows for sure.

The Colorado Plateau Part Two


Colorado Plateau Country

Colorado Plateau Country

There is a lot of beautiful country on the Colorado Plateau, but there is the other side.  The term many use is the stinking desert.  My home town has an annual rainfall of about eight inches.  Before the Utes were run out and ditches were dug, the Grand Valley was a sparse desert.  The irrigation projects made much of the valley green, but north of the Highline Canal is the desert.  It is a fairly barren desert, not like the Sonoran Desert with its green saguaro cactus.

Mancos Shale Soil

Mancos Shale Soil

The soil, if you can call it that, is fairly infertile, high in salts, and high in toxic selenium.  It’s called the Mancos Shale.  The Mancos Shale, called the Pierre Shale east of the Rockies, runs from South Dakota to central Utah.  It is an ancient sea floor, Cretaceous in age, of the inland sea covering much of North America.  Shale is mud rock, laid down as the sea advanced and retreated over millions of years.

The lower part of the Bookcliffs and the valley floors are Mancos Shale.  In its natural state it is a scrub grassland, supporting small populations of deer, antelope, prairie dogs, sage grouse, cottontails, and some Bison.  When the Northern European Americans arrived, they saw grazing land.  The sheep and cattle came.  The ranchers did well for a few years, but their expectations were unrealistic for such a dry area.  Soon, most of the good grass was gone, replaced by cheat grass and sagebrush.

The area between Delta and Grand Junction is a prime example.  My father, born in 1903, lived in Grand Junction after 1918.  He told me that at that time, there were extensive stands of tall bunch grasses.  They are gone.  That desert is one of the most barren stretches I am aware of.  It is hilly, so irrigation water went to flatter areas.  It is close to towns, so lots of ranchers grazed their stock on the land.

Much of the Mancos shale country is BLM land today.  In the old days, the Land Office and the Grazing Service leased land to ranchers.  There were allocations on the number of head allowed on each segment, but there was little enforcement.  The grass mostly disappeared.  Thus, the stinking desert.

I-70 from Palisade to the west of Green River, Utah is on the Mancos.  Highway Six from where I-70 veers south almost all the way to Price is on the Mancos.  Travelers on those highways have the bare Bookcliffs and the bare desert floor to look at for over 200 miles.  Their impression was what tended to keep the canyon country to the south relatively isolated.  Locals had all that magnificent country mostly to themselves.

Art in Salt Creek Canyon

Art in Salt Creek Canyon

The a uranium and oil and gas booms of the 1950s built a large network of roads and opened the canyon country up for tourism.  Those flat deserts remain empty, along with the mostly shale country of the Bookcliffs and the Tavaputs Plateau to the North.

When I went to Arches in the 1950s, we drove down two tracks winding through the sand.  This year during the height of the season, cars were lined up literally for miles.  Canyonlands National Park is also crowded, people lined up.  I remember going there and often seeing no one.

From Green River to Hanksville is mostly flat, dry desert, with 70 miles from the highway turnoff to the Maze District Ranger Station in Canyonlands.  The greater part of Navajo country in southern Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona is fairly flat desert.  Monument Valley is flat desert that happens to have some rocks sticking up.  Have you ever driven from Albuquerque to Flagstaff on I-40?  Flat desert.

Henry Mountains

Henry Mountains

The Colorado Plateau does have some other features.  Mountains, tall, green, and wet, supplying water to the desert.  Three ranges of mountains, the La Sals near Moab, the Abajos, known to locals as the Blues, and the Henry Mountains, near to nowhere.  The La Sals are the tallest, over 12,000 feet.  The Abajos and the Henrys stretch to 11,000 feet.  They stand in contrast to the red rock country surrounding them, and provide a welcome relief.  People go there in summer to cool off and enjoy the wildlife.

Geologically, the mountains are Laccoliths, formed by a neck of molten magma rising to a weaker junction between two layers of sandstone.  At that junction the magma moves laterally, forming a mushroom shaped dome of igneous rock in the domain of sandstone.  The overlying strata usually erode away, leaving the igneous core.  The Henrys are the type location for Laccoliths, being the subjects of the earliest study, and displaying the domed shape.

Salt Creek Canyon

Salt Creek Canyon

The three ranges are important to ranching, providing water, hay farming, and a summer range, with the stock wintering on the desert.  Salt Creek, draining north from the Blues, has a canyon with year-round water, arches, and Ancestral Puebloan ruins and rock art. The canyon also provides access to a park in the midst of the Needles District of Canyonlands.  I like that park because it was never grazed.  It provides a look at the land before cattle came, trampling or eating everything, mangling stream banks, and bringing alien species like cheat grass.  No I won’t tell you where it is.  Go look for yourself.


Rock and Roll in the Sticks

1958 Chevy

1958 Chevy

Western Colorado in the late 1950s and 1960s was a cultural backwater of the first magnitude.  I-70 did not exist, making travel to Denver at least two hours longer than now.  In Grand Junction, there was one television station and two radio stations.  The Junction had the Daily Sentinel newspaper, and Fruita had the Fruita Times, a weekly with stories about the bridge club.

Things were on the move in the land.  Rock and Roll had appeared, but not in our neck of the desert.  The only contact we had was the Ed Sullivan Show, which introduced Elvis to the world.   The local radio stations weren’t interested.  They were making money playing Patti Page, the Andrews Sisters, and Doris Day.  The raciest they got was letting Johnny Ray cry.

At first, we found Lucky Lager Dance Time on KNBC in San Francisco, but you needed a good radio, and there better not be any lightning between the Junction and California.  Then, salvation!  KOMA!  As soon as the sun was down, KOMA boomed in from Oklahoma City.  Rock and Roll ruled the sticks.  And the sticks were extensive.  KOMA dominated Oklahoma, New Mexico, Rural Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming, and neighboring boondocks.

That radio station was our lifeline to the rock and roll youth culture developing in the country.  This was not the Beatles and the Stones.  It was Buddy Holly, Elvis, the Everly Brothers, all those Phil Spector bands, and some R&B, like Chuck Berry and Little Richard.   KOMA was top 40, no obscure bands, just the big stuff.  Yes, there was country and western, and Grand Junction even got a station later, but country was mostly confined to the pool halls and beer joints around 1960.

There was the KOMA band circuit.  There were several rock and roll bands that traveled the region, playing in small town Grange Halls, Legion Halls; anywhere the band could rent a hall.  Sterling, Roswell, Scott’s Bluff, Colby, Torrington, Hot Springs, Alliance, Garden City, Trinidad, all those little towns starved for anything from the outside world.  The only band on the circuit I remember was Spider and the Crabs.  They advertised their gigs on KOMA and kids came to the dances from all over.  KOMA made money from the ads, and bad rock and roll ruled the boondocks.

Several of us would buy a case of Coors bottles, go to Grand Junction, listen to KOMA, cruise all evening drinking beer, and throw the empty bottles at highway signs on the way back to Fruita.

Was that youth misspent?  No, not at all.  I am writing about it now, aren’t I?  Rock and Roll survived, and all was well until the mid-1960s. Here’s to KOMA in Oklahoma!  The station is still in business, still playing rock and roll.

Aggression and Fear

baby fearFear is part of life.  We are wired to react to threats in a number of ways.  Fight, flight, freeze, hide, cry for help.  In our society, there is little to fear.  In most of the country there is little violence.  Sometimes we experience a flash of fear in traffic, or when we slip on the ice.  For the most part, however, we are safe.

Why, then, to we have a culture of fear?  Gun and ammunition sales are booming, security system companies are busy, people are taking self-defense classes, and living with fear and anxiety on a daily basis.

Within our generally safe country there are acts of violence.  School shootings, workplace violence, robberies, gang shootings, random killings, on and on.  These acts, if horrific, are but a small part of life in a country of 314 million people.  They just do not affect most people.  The only time I have been truly terrified was when I was caught in a lightning storm when hiking above timberline.   I have never run so fast as that day.

The most important fear creator is television.  It is hard to get good video of a drop in the unemployment rate, but easy to show police cars, fire engines, ambulances, yellow crime scene tape, and bodies on gurneys.  The longest running TV shows are cop shows and doctor shows, with lives hanging in the balance every week.  “If it bleeds, it leads”, the mantra of local TV news.

Yes, they are showing real violence, but I have personally never been a victim of violence.  As a volunteer firefighter, I did see the aftermath of terrible accidents, but we were there to respond to those events.  In my daily life in the same area, I never saw an accident.

Life has always been marked by violence.  We are wired to deal with it.  Adrenalin, anger, the need to assemble in groups for mutual protection, all are part of our DNA.  In watching elementary school children in a park, I was always struck by the boy’s tendency to pick up a stick at the first opportunity.  The girls would respond to aggression from boys,  but tended not to initiate aggressive behavior.



Are the boys hunters or warriors, or are those behaviors modifiers of the same thing?  I am currently reading about Ancient Greece.  The tales are of war or the challenges of dealing with a dangerous world.  Very few cultures have not been violent to some degree.  There is always peril, whether from the neighboring tribe or the saber-toothed tiger.

Fear has always been a part of life.  Today, despite all the turmoil in the world, in this country we enjoy one of the safest countries and times ever.  The prevailing mindset, however, is fear.  Growing up in the 1950s I ran all over town and always walked the seven blocks to school.  Today children are accompanied by an adult when on the street.  It is more and more unusual to see unaccompanied young teenagers out on the street.

Because of some events in my early childhood, I have never felt safe.  I always have a strategy for dealing with a threat (back against the wall).  I have never in my threescore and ten years had to deal with a threat.  Because of my impulsivity and deep-seated anger I have sometimes initiated aggression, but usually calm down before getting myself in big trouble. I do seem to be getting better at letting go of the anger.

Is that the answer?  Aggression breeds aggression?  Especially with childhood abuse?  The old Johnny Cash song, A Boy Named Sue, is an example.  Father knew he would abandon his son, so he named the boy Sue in order for him to be abused and have to fight back to survive.  Abandonment and the target of aggression became that boy’s life.  He grew up to be angry and aggressive.  The song implies that is a good thing.  It is not.

When children grow up in a loving, fairly safe home with the knowledge they are loved and respected, they are able to deal with threats in a healthier way, knowing they will always have a refuge.  We need to provide love, compassion, support, and respect for all children.  A lot of that exists here, but how about the Sudan?  It is a sad world.  Work to end injustice and violence everywhere.  Foster compassion.

The Middle Ages

Reims Cathedral

Reims Cathedral

Currently I am reading about the Middle Ages in Europe.  They were a long, long time ago.  The languages were different, nation-states did not exist, the Black Plague struck, warfare was almost constant (what’s new?), and the One Church was the only way to save your soul.

Things were beginning to change.  Cities were growing, trade increasing, and the crusades, for all the harm they did, expanded Europe’s horizons.  The opulence of the church and the nobility was on the increase and the great cathedrals were built.

All this was created on the backs of the mass of people on the bottom.  For them, life was a constant struggle for survival.  Crop failures, disease, exorbitant taxes to support the Church and the adventures of the nobles; and the depredations of invaders were a constant threat.

For the nobility, the demands of the church and the ideals of chivalry ruled behavior.  Both systems had ideals too high for anyone to meet.  As a consequence the standards were honored in the breach, with the threat of eternal damnation or revenge from a cuckolded fellow noble.

It seems that every institution was corrupt.  As always, the people at the bottom supported the grandeur of the nobles and the church.  The nobles were required by the chivalric codes to go to war for glory, loot, and to honor his chaste love for a maiden.  A knights role was to prove his valor and greatness in battle.  He was also to marry in order to produce male heirs and cement alliances with other noble houses.  There were also social obligations, and the competition to display more grandeur in hunts, holiday celebrations, wars, and tournaments was the center of their lives.

The church was also a participant in medieval opulence.  The gothic cathedrals, the riches members of the hierarchy displayed, the children sired by priests and bishops, the power alliances made by clerics from the nobility, and always, the display of riches meant to show the Kingdom of God to the masses, were terribly expensive.  The source of the wealth for all this in an agrarian society again came those at the bottom of the social hierarchy.  No tournaments, no hunts, just ceaseless toil with the tax collectors taking most of their produce.

The fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries saw accelerating change.  The universities were growing, with knowledge increasing due to contact with the Moslem world, where much classical learning was preserved that were lost to the west during the invasions of the dark ages.  This was important, as Aristotle’s world view was more rational and practical than the Platonic cave.  Most of Aristotle came to the west in translation from Arabic.

Trade increased, cities grew, government began to be more centralized; and the influence of a growing mercantile and manufacturing middle class began challenging the power of the landed aristocracy.  The increase in commerce also meant the spread of ideas.



Warfare, previously the domain of the nobility also changed as archers and pikemen, all commoners, began to mark the end of the armored knight on his war horse.  An arrow or the sharp end of a pike held by a man on foot could bring an armored warrior down.  Another innovation, gunpowder, meant the end of castles and city walls.  A lead ball is effective in penetrating armor.  This change in technology made the chivalric code of the stalwart knight engaging in singular combat obsolete.

The technical innovation most important in ending the Middle Ages was the printing press.  Books were scarce and expensive when they were laboriously copied by hand.  Literacy was most common in the church and with some of the nobility.  A library of 100 volumes was a rare thing.  Most books were in Latin, the language of the educated.  The bulk of the population was illiterate.

When printed books became available at an affordable cost, often in the vernacular rather than Latin, literacy blossomed.  With literacy, people began thinking for themselves, with two consequences, the Protestant Reformation and an explosion of creativity in art, learning, science (Then known as Natural Philosophy), and politics.  The Renaissance had arrived.  Change, which was gradual for centuries, accelerated.  Conflict, a given in any historical period, continued, made more lethal by the changes in technology.  The western world changed.












For all my life I have wanted to know why.  I want the answer, to understand the big picture.  That led me to history.  I am not sure, but maybe understanding the past can give us a glimpse of the future.  At the least, history has helped me understand what is going on now.

As to history, there are a lot of mysteries.  History is told by the victors, and we know much less about the losers, but their lives were every bit as important as the winners.  Here is an example.

I have been interested in Central Eurasia for decades.  What we call western civilization has interacted with the people of the steppes for many thousands of years.  The standard view is that the barbarians of the steppes raised horses, sheep, and cattle and fought among themselves until a great leader, Chingiss Khan for example, unified them and they then invaded civilized cities on the periphery.   Scythians, Vandals, Visigoths, Goths, Mongols, Huns, Ughyurs or Turks, they all had only conquest, loot, rape and slaughter as goals.  Those invasions affected China, Persia, Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and Europe.

Well, yes, some of that did happen.  Much of the conflict, however, came from the peripheral societies invaded the steppes.  All the standard reasons for invasions: conquest, riches, land, slaves, and something for the army to do. Alexander, for example, invaded everywhere he could, including the steppe.  The Great Wall was built to protect territory taken from the nomads and was used to keep people in as much as protection from invasion from the nomads.

The people of the steppe had cities, vast grasslands, cattle, sheep, horses, furs, and trade goods from west and east of the steppe.  They needed trade with the periphery, and the periphery needed their livestock and trade goods.

The Silk Road was a lifeline for the nomads.  The nomadic cultures were warrior cultures, yes, but they were foremost herders and traders. Just about every culture of any size is a warrior culture.  The United States is a warrior culture.  Just ask Native Americans, Cubans, Filipinos, and Mexicans.

The difference with regard to the Eurasian steppe cultures is that the people of the west call them barbarians.  What is a barbarian?  They have different clothes, religions, languages, and values.  They are Others, so they are barbaric.  Who were the barbarians, the Moslem tribes in the Philippines trying to defend their homeland from invaders or the U. S. Army doing the invading?  Maybe Custer was the barbarian. The Lakota surely thought so.

Romans, Greeks, Celts, Persians, and Hittites saw the invading horsemen as barbaric, but they surely did their own invading.  It is prejudice, viewing others as barbaric.  One of our most enduring prejudices is calling people barbarians because they fight and kill, for whatever reason.  All cultures fight and kill, and commit atrocities.  It is only when the other guy is doing it that it is barbaric.

So, let’s not get too self righteous when various factions act out their age-old animosities in the Middle East.  Don’t call their acts barbaric unless we have never done the same.  You can check with the Modocs or the Seminoles to make sure.