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Photo: West Volusia Beacon.
Charles Peacock, a paraprofessional at New Smyrna Beach High School, tells the Volusia County School Board that he has recently been made homeless.

It pains me to think how little most of those entrusted with educating America’s children — daycare professionals, teachers, teachers’ aides — are paid. We are talking about work that any country should give the highest respect and reward.

In today’s story, a popular Florida teaching assistant confesses that he cannot find housing on his income. The shame he feels should be for us.

Kyle Swenson wrote at the Washington Post recently about the moment Charles Peacock went public.

“They called his name and Charles Peacock hustled up to the microphone to address the Volusia County School Board. The public comment period gave him three minutes. He had practiced his speech, but the 40-year-old knew that somewhere in that time frame, his emotions would overwhelm him.

“He introduced himself as a teacher’s assistant — called a ‘paraprofessional’ in the district — at New Smyrna Beach High School, a school of nearly 1,900-students near Daytona Beach, Fla. The divorced father of three detailed how overworked he and his colleagues are, how the ranks have thinned due to high demands and low compensation.

“Then he paused, knowing that his next sentences swung from workplace complaint to raw confession.

‘I myself, like most others, have to work multiple jobs in order to simply scrape by. I put in 80-plus hours each week, every week, between four jobs to barely make it,’ he said, the words bobbing along on muffled sobs.

“ ‘After four years with the county, I make a minimum salary which equates to less than a thousand dollars per month.’

“Peacock stopped, took a breath, and looked at the board.

“ ‘I personally have been made homeless,’ he said. ‘At least one of your employees — one who is great at their job, has been nominated for para of the year, who loves his students beyond measure — is homeless. Living out of his car. Crashing on couches from time to time. Getting showers at friend’s houses. I dare you to look me in the eyes right here, right now, and tell me that this is okay.’

“His three minutes were up.

“Peacock … represents a large number of Americans who struggle outside the reach of public policy because they don’t fall inside the traditional definitions of poverty. He was homeless, but he technically wasn’t poor.

“Untangling the difference for the board, or explaining it in public, was nothing compared with knowing that after the meeting that his family would now have questions.

“ ‘It wasn’t hard facing the board,’ he said later. ‘Facing my kids was harder.’

“Peacock’s typical day starts at 7 a.m. He is at the school by 8 a.m. He is done by 4 p.m., but then it’s off to a local bar where he works security. That gig ends between midnight and 2 a.m. Weekends, he umpires youth baseball games.

“For all of this scramble, Peacock estimates he makes somewhere between $22,000 to $25,000 each year.

“ ‘It was exhausting, and I was not the only one of my colleagues trying to keep this kind of schedule,’ he said. ‘We were all exhausted.’ …

“For decades, poverty experts have warned that the federal government’s official measurement misses a larger chunk of Americans. One measure that has since emerged has been pioneered by the United Way: the ALICE threshold, or Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. Since 2009, United Way and its partners have used the criteria to take a high-definition snapshot of people in Peacock’s position — those living above the federal poverty line but scrambling to pay for necessities. …

“After his divorce, Peacock could only afford to rent a bedroom in a friend’s house. The profession he had chosen — he makes $11.65 an hour — alone could not support his basic needs.

” ‘I make next to nothing doing a job that I love,’ Peacock told the board in November. ‘But when does that love get outweighed by the need to survive, and dare I say, thrive? … If I’m in this situation, how many other paras are on the brink?’

“He decided to speak before the board and publicly detail his own situation. ‘That was difficult, trying to swallow my pride.’ “

More at the Post, here.

Photo: Taylor Luck.
Elders in Salt, Jordan, play a daily game of backgammon in the town square. Salt is a new UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is known for remarkable hospitality.

Pretty much every religion adjures believers to welcome the stranger, but every day we see that the size of the need overwhelms even those who have not forgotten about that. Except in Salt, Jordan.

Taylor Luck writes at the Christian Science Monitor, “Welcome to the world’s newest UNESCO World Heritage Site, a breezy hillside town perched above the Jordan Valley that is celebrated for, well, its legendary hospitality.

“In Salt, history and economics have helped create a unique mix of cultures and faiths and a harmony of yellow-gold stone buildings and community. Don’t believe it? Simply ask the city’s elders.

“You can find them every day gathered in the Ain Plaza, formerly the site of fresh springs and now the town square in the twin shadows of Salt’s Great Mosque and Anglican Church. They will gladly tell you how their hospitality and way of life were passed from generation to generation – if they have time.

“For most of the day, they huddle around stone tables locked in intense games of backgammon and mancala, exhibiting the steely concentration of professional athletes. They say they welcome the UNESCO designation as a chance to share what they call ‘hospitality and harmony’ with the world.

“ ‘Here we welcome all, and we embrace every person,’ says Abu Ali, awaiting his turn at backgammon. He pointed to his compatriots of different faiths and tribes embroiled in matches. 

‘We don’t see Muslim, Christian, tribes, or urbanites – we see each other’s humanity, and the humanity in all who visit.’

“Dating back to the Iron Age, Salt is located strategically on the trade and pilgrimage routes between Damascus and Jerusalem, and between the Mediterranean Sea and the Arabian Peninsula. The agricultural village grew into a flourishing hillside city in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, attracting residents from across the Levant, Turkey, Arabia, the Caucasus, and west Asia.

“The constant, diverse flow of visitors and merchants created neighborhoods in which each street and hill had a mix of Christians and Muslims – Palestinians, Syrians, Turks, Circassians, Chechens, and members of local tribes all building their homes together.

“For centuries, Salt families would house and feed travelers, including merchants, Christian pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem, or Muslims heading east for the Hajj – offering at least three days of lodging, no questions asked.

“Not a single hotel was built in the town, as it was considered ‘shameful’ not to host a guest in one’s home. Only in the past two years have guest-houses emerged; but the idea of a guest paying for lodging is still highly controversial.

“ ‘Please have lunch with me,’ strangers told Jordanian visitors and a reporter, during a visit in mid-August.

“In its announcement in late July that Salt had been added to the World Heritage list, UNESCO highlighted the city’s unique makeup as a ‘Place of Tolerance and Urban Hospitality.’

“ ‘In Salt, there is not a single area here that is segregated by race, religion, or origin,’ says former Mayor Khaled Al Khashman. ‘This is very rare in this region and, historically, rare in the world.’

“The town’s traditional architecture has long encouraged community. Most of Salt’s yellow sandstone homes consisted of a single room with a domed roof, with two or four homes sharing a communal courtyard, walls, rooftop, and entrance.

“Families would sit in their communal courtyard, cooking or drinking evening tea together while their children played. Neighbors shared food, drink, and supplies, and took part in each other’s celebrations, religious holidays, and family milestones. The layout meant neighbors were often closer than blood relatives. …

“Salt resident Nadia Abu Samen, a Muslim, restored one of these compounds. … She says her mother was raised by her family’s Christian neighbors, and her uncles and aunts were given Christian first names to honor their neighbors.

“For the past decade Ms. Abu Samen has carefully preserved an abandoned compound of four joined rooms – two homes belonging to Christian families, two homes belonging to Muslim families – and turned them into a cultural center, exhibition, and cafe. She traces Salt’s trademark harmony to the ‘uniform simplicity of traditional life.’ ” More at the Monitor, here.

If your ethnicity or religion is not mentioned in the article, I hope you will visit sometime and let us know if you were welcomed. A town that has been given such a high award for hospitality has a reputation to uphold!

Photo: James Rebanks via BBC.
A farmer in England shows how regenerative farming can produce better food while fighting climate change.

There’s a farmer in the UK who hopes to change the way farmers farm in order to promote biodiversity and a healthier planet. He raises sheep.

Here’s a report by William Booth at the Washington Post: “Britain’s rock-star shepherd and best-selling author, James Rebanks, is out at the family farm, giving the tour, waxing rhapsodic about his manure. The glory of it — of the crumbly, muffin-top consistency of a well-made plop from a grass-fed cow. …

“Don’t get the man started on soil health. Rebanks is a soil geek, with the zeal of the convert. … Rebanks represents one possible future for farming, which is set to be transformed in the promise of a post-Brexit, zero-carbon world. The British government plans to strip away all traditional farm subsidies and replace those payments with an alien system of ‘public money for public goods.’

“What are these public goods? Not food. Bees! In 21st-century Britain, the goods will be clean water, biodiversity, habitat restoration, hedgerows, pretty landscapes, wildflowers, flood mitigation and adaptation to climate change. …

“This transformation could be huge: Farmland is 70 percent of England’s landscape and produces 10 percent of its greenhouse gases. There is no net-zero-carbon future without farmers.

“As the best-known farmer in the whole of the United Kingdom, Rebanks finds himself at the center of this transition. In agriculture circles, he’s a super influencer, famous for his Twitter feed. He has nearly 150,000 followers, who check for his posts and postcard-perfect videos and photos of his idyllic home in England’s poetic Lake District and the doings of his beloved Herdwick sheep.

“The shepherd riffs on the circle of life, the frenzy of lambing season, the deliciousness of grilled mutton and the wisdom of sheepdogs — speckled with rants against the alleged ruinous stupidity of industrial farming ‘where the field has become the factory floor.’ …

“He cannot fathom that the planet, and his little corner of it, has been so messed up. He also cannot make up his mind whether we are doomed or just might pull through, a feeling that resonates with many.

“He wrote two books about all this, both international bestsellers. The latest, published to stellar reviews this month in the United States, is Pastoral Song: A Farmer’s Journey.

“On one level, the book is about how cheap food culture, globalization and super-efficient, ­hyper-mechanized, highly productive modern farms (giant monocultures of beets, wheat, corn) are terrible for nature (insects, rivers, climate) and our health (obesity, diabetes) and our farmers (indebted, pesticide-dependent, stressed).

“On a deeper level, though, the pages are about healing, about how one farmer in Cumbria is trying very hard to turn his landscape into a sustainable, profitable little Eden by deploying both ancient and cutting-edge techniques. …

“British politicians make the pilgrimage to see what he has done. So do British journalists. He has made the cover of the Financial Times magazine and is the subject of a 30-minute documentary on the BBC. He pens guest columns for the right-wing Daily Mail and the left-wing Guardian. …

“The government is embarking on the biggest change in the management of its countryside since the end of World War II. No longer will farmers live on the Basic Payment Scheme. They will be paid for those new public goods; the old subsidies for ‘food security’ will end. It is a radical experiment, to be carried out on a national scale.

“Yesterday’s farms grew food and outgassed methane. The farms of tomorrow will grow food and sequester carbon. Or at least that is the idea. …

“British farmers, like their counterparts elsewhere in Europe, have subsisted for three generations on subsidies. Without the dole, government figures show, 42 percent of all farms here would operate at a loss. Most small operators wouldn’t survive without the checks. The payments — $3 billion annually — are to be phased out over the next seven years. …

“Rebanks doesn’t think the plan is nearly smart enough or big enough, or that the public understands how much it will cost to have a real impact for farmers, nature and climate. He thinks $3 billion year is ‘a drop in the bucket.’ …

“If anyone can make the switch to this new system of ‘public money for public goods,’ surely it should be Rebanks. He seems more than halfway there already. …

“His family has been shepherding in Cumbria for 600 years. His methods — moving sheep between the communal hilltop fells and the valley below — would be recognizable to the Vikings, who did the same when they settled here more than a millennium ago with a similar breed of hearty sheep.

“Over the past 10 years, with help from conservationists and supporters, he and his family — his wife and four kids — have ‘re-wiggled’ a drainage ditch and created a natural stream plus wetland. They’re planting 25,000 saplings. There were no ponds on the property before. There are 25 now, with otters. Three miles of hedgerows have been restored and 30 acres revived as a wildflower meadow. …

“He’s chopping up the farm to smaller and smaller fields — ‘it’s all hedges and edges, which is good for nature.’ He estimates he has taken 15 percent of his farm out of active production.

“ ‘Listen, the truth is there must be some letting go,’ he said. ‘You can’t drain it all and use it all for farming or grazing. You have to set some aside.’ ”

More at the Post, here.

Photo Reflections

The next time that I post photos, I hope I can include some action around the bird feeder. Although there are experts who recommend feeding the birds year-round, I usually wait to put seeds in the feeder until it’s really hard for birds to find other food. As of this moment, they are still having a good time with all the berries and naturally occurring seeds in our yard.

I continue to take outdoor walks in the cold, identifying birds with my Merlin app for birdsong. I’m also working with a grandson to learn more about birds through Wingspan, the board game. (I blogged about it here but didn’t understand then how difficult it is to learn the rules.)

Here are a few more photos: from cold, frosty walks; from a nice, warm art gallery featuring a circus of skate-egg-case performers; and from Kristina’s visit to balmy North Carolina.

Photo: Jordan Salama.
Luis Soriano and Beto, one of his two burros, set out into the Magdalena countryside with books for children who live on isolated farmsteads in Colombia.

Hannah, a friend since preschool, knows I love stories about unusual libraries. (Search on the word “library” at this blog, and see what I mean.)

I love the feeling I get that libraries have a mind of their own, that they reach out to people because we need them. This week Hannah sent me an article about a burro library. Atlas Obscura adapted it from Jordan Salama’s new book, Every Day the River Changes: Four Weeks Down the Magdalena.

“Luis Soriano was born so premature that when he arrived into the world, everyone was sure that he would die. He was born in 1972, in the very same Colombian village of La Gloria (Magdalena Department) where he grew up and made his life. His father was a cattle rancher, and his mother sold fruit and milk on the side of the road. They were hardworking campesino parents who emphasized to their many children the importance of an education over everything else.

“Luis grew up playing in the rolling fields of the Magdalena valley. La Gloria was set inland from the river by about one hour, yet the river wielded great influence upon the town. … It was said that the Magdalena dictated the rains and the floods of the nearby lowlands, which influenced the rains and the floods in La Gloria, and during droughts, the town felt the river’s pain. The river’s beaches and sandy islands yielded the yucca, plantains, and beans of the Caribbean diet — La Gloria is nearly 100 miles from the nearest Caribbean seaside town, but yes, its people will tell you, it is indeed a Caribbean place.

“Raised in the countryside, Luis learned things from the land that people from the city never understood. In the hot, humid afternoons, a line of ants hurrying across the path meant that the skies were about to open and intense rains would fall and freshen the air; at night, the sudden silence of the frogs and the toads meant that another person was approaching in the darkness. From watching the birds, he gathered certain observations about their daily routines, like which of the trees the flocks of red-and-green macaws preferred for their nightly roosts and at what hours of the day the sirirí sang its lonely song. …

“But Colombia’s escalating violence in the 1970s and ’80s meant that Luis would not be able to stay. When the paramilitaries and other criminal groups plagued La Gloria and the surrounding countryside, Luis’s parents sent him and his siblings to live with family in Valledupar, hours away. His life playing among the animals was replaced by the loud, gritty streets of a valley city.

“By the time Luis finished high school and returned to La Gloria, he decided, maybe as a product of all of this learning and absorbing in his own life, that he wanted to become a schoolteacher. He got a job in a small, rural primary school in nearby Nueva Granada, where he taught reading and writing. At the same time, he completed a remote degree from the Universidad del Magdalena.

“None of his students did any of their schoolwork or seemed to make any progress in the first few years, and Luis blamed himself for it. He thought he was a bad teacher [but] he realized that many of the children, living on isolated farmsteads that were several miles along narrow dirt paths from the nearest school, couldn’t practice reading at home because they didn’t have access to books. A teacher with limited resources himself, he decided to do the only thing he could: bring his own books to them.

“And so, before dawn one day in 1997, he took one of his donkeys and a stack of books and set off across the countryside. Covering several miles of difficult terrain, he stopped at the homes of each one of his students and read with them, before lending them the book and telling them he’d be back the next day to pick it up. And in this manner, he returned day after day, in the early hours of morning, well before school started, for he knew from experience that families living in the fields rose with the first song of the sirirí and the crows of roosters in the dark.

“More than 20 years on, he hasn’t stopped.

‘At first, people saw me as nothing more than a half-insane teacher with some books and his donkey,’ Luis liked to say. ‘Without realizing it at the time, I’d created the very same rural traveling library that the world now knows as the Biblioburro.’

“Biblioburro started out with just seventy books, all of them Luis’s own, and only one donkey. He quickly added a second donkey, affixing wooden bookcases to both of their saddles for ease of transport, and named the two animals Alfa and Beto (alfabeto, alphabet in Spanish). He started extending and diversifying each day’s route to reach more children in the area. When the beloved Colombian national radio broadcaster Juan Gossaín got wind of the Biblioburro story in 2003 and shared it with his listeners, book donations from around the world started pouring in — today, Luis boasts a collection of more than 7,000 titles.

“Yet for all the international attention, it remains a humble operation. When Luis sets off on a Biblioburro visit, he does it alone, quietly, with his two trusted donkeys. Often, he won’t encounter another person for hours as he makes his way across the rugged, lonesome terrain — an uncomfortable ride, and an even more arduous walk, beneath the merciless sun. But the children who live in these lonely places await the arrival of the Biblioburro and its stories with great fervor, running wide-eyed toward Alfa and Beto when they spot them on the horizon.

“Perhaps, in the children he serves, Luis Soriano sees some part of himself. He sees that they can beat the odds — for while Luis has easily become the most famous person to ever come from La Gloria, at the moment of his birth, you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone who imagined he would have resurged from his situation as well as he did.

“Except for one person, that is. As the story goes, his parents called upon an older woman, who was very respected in town, to come examine the child and give him her blessing. Minutes after Luis’s birth, she made her way over to the house and stood over him, looking his tiny body up and down, seeming to ponder whether he would be destined to live as long as she had. After several moments, she spoke. ‘This little one, he isn’t going to die’ was what the old woman said (though who knows if she actually believed it herself). ‘He is going to grow up and become a doctor, and he will save this town.’ “

He did not become a doctor, but whether he saved his town, you can decide after reading more at Atlas Obscura, here. P.S. I just noticed I had a short post about the burro librarian in 2015, here!

Photo: Classical Voice America.
The composers represented in the African Diaspora Music Project include (top row, left to right) Nathaniel Dett, Donal Fox, Anthony Green, and Jacqueline B. Hairston, and (bottom row, left to right) Robert A. Harris, Roland Hayes, Lori Hicks, and Moses Hogan.

During lockdown, I read an excellent biography of Black classical singer Marian Anderson and learned a lot I didn’t know about Black musicians and composers of the early 20th century. To America’s shame, most of these musicians had to seek training and experience in Europe, which was more open to giving their talents space to grow.

There are still challenges for Black musicians, especially in the classical arena, which is why Louise Toppin has created the African Diaspora Music Project.

Xenia Hanusiak at Classical Voice America has the story.

“ ‘How do you move something from being token to intentional?’ asks musical polymath Louise Toppin. This provocation is just one of the many questions that occupy the mind of the international scholar, opera singer, and activist. As a musical avatar who has performed at Carnegie Hall and Elbphilharmonie, Toppin is on a mission to recalibrate who, what, and how we program our concert seasons to enable a more equitable representation of music from composers of African descent. She is seeking a sustained and systemic cultural shift.

“Toppin’s solution? Her recently launched African Diaspora Music Project, a database that houses nearly 4,000 songs and 1,200 symphonies by composers of African descent. …

‘We need to stop presenting one movement of Florence Price for Black History Month and giving no time to rehearse it,’ she says, ‘and then spend two weeks on the Beethoven Ninth Symphony that everyone has played for the last 30 years.’ … 

“The spotlight programming on African American composers during this year’s post-COVID season openers points to recent mea culpa moments. The staging of Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones at the Metropolitan Opera on opening night represented the first production of an opera by a Black composer in the company’s 138-year-old history. Riccardo Muti conducted a work by Florence Price for his opener with the Chicago Symphony. The question arises about what happens next.

“ ‘Before the pandemic, I was talking to programmers about their programming in Black History Month,’ says Toppin. ‘You are bringing in singers of color to sing Mozart? What does this have to do with Black History Month?’

“You might think Toppin is angry or frustrated with the historical lack of representation of African American composers in programming. But in our recent Zoom conversation from her office at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance, where she is professor of music and voice, Toppin presented her case with high-octane optimism and boundless passion.

“Her life’s work is genetically pre-determined to advocacy and pushing boundaries. Toppin’s commitment continues the legacy of her father, Edgar Allan Toppin (1928-2004), an author and professor of history specializing in Civil War, Reconstruction, and African American history. His accomplishments were many. But perhaps his most enduring legacies eventuated as board president of the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. In this role, he was instrumental in turning Black History Week into Black History Month in 1976. …

“Toppin’s database is built on her lifelong commitment to her cause. She has been researching, recording, editing, and performing African American music across the globe. In October, Toppin gave a recital dedicated to the songs of Harry T. Burleigh — one of the most influential figures in the history of American song — at London’s Oxford Lieder Festival. The impetus for her database is further inspired by the vocal competition on African American art song and opera that she co-founded with tenor George Shirley. Toppin realized pretty quickly that the same repertoire kept resurfacing in the competition. So, the idea of a database to expand knowledge of the repertoire for the young singers began to take shape.

“ ‘My father’s passion for history as a public historian — not someone who spent his time just writing works for an academic audience, but hosting television and radio shows, writing for newspapers, finding ways to reach a wide audience — has deeply informed my approach and scope for this project.’ …

“Toppin’s father devoted his life to academia, but in equal parts he shared his work with his children. For the Toppin household, the line between his work and their play entwined with daily life.

“ ‘When I was a little girl, my father would take me to the library, and I would do the microfiche with him,’ says Toppin. ‘He would also take me to the stacks. He would teach me to look things up for him. He would give me a date. I could barely read, but I could manage January 1865.’ …

“Toppin began her African American Music Diaspora project in earnest during the 1990s as a way to catalog the music she had been collecting. She became a doctoral research student of Willis Patterson, bass-baritone and professor emeritus associate dean at the University of Michigan, who edited what the New York Times described as a ‘ground-breaking anthology of black art songs’ in 1977. ‘It made an international splash, and it is still selling,’ says Toppin.

“ ‘While I was organizing his music, I made sure that I made extras copies. It was part of what inspired me to start collecting. I had the foresight to see and record everything you see on the data base today: Dedications, dates, performances, biographical information, and recordings are all part of the catalog.’ ”

More at Classical Voice America, here.

You might also be interested a New York Times article on the importance of Europe for Black composers neglected at home. It begins, “In early September 1945, amid the rubble of a bombed-out Berlin, the Afro-Caribbean conductor Rudolph Dunbar stepped onto a podium and bowed to an enthusiastic audience of German citizens and American military personnel.

“The orchestra had gathered in an old movie theater functioning as a makeshift concert hall in the newly designated American zone of the city. First on the program was ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ Then came a fairly standard set of orchestral pieces, with Carl Maria von Weber’s ‘Oberon’ Overture followed by Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathétique’ Symphony. But one piece stood out from the rest: William Grant Still’s ‘Afro-American Symphony.’ When it premiered in 1931 in Rochester, N.Y., it was the first symphony by a Black American to be performed by a major orchestra.” Europe helped that happen. Continue here.

After Coal

Photo: Tom Hansell.
Wind farm in Wales coal country.

It’s possible that a US Senator who makes money off coal hasn’t gotten the message, but there are miners and mining unions getting practical about the future. This Living on Earth story appeared even before the devastation of Covid was added to the troubles of mining communities.

“STEVE CURWOOD: Some of the fiercest opposition to climate action in the US has come from regions that built their economies on fossil fuel extraction. Think Texas and Oklahoma for oil and gas and especially Wyoming, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio for coal. Those regions have been hit hard economically as coal production dropped, leaving miners out of work, and their communities with shrunken tax bases and fewer paying customers for local businesses. It’s a story that has also played out in Wales in the UK. The experiences on both sides of the Atlantic are the theme of Tom Hansell’s new book, After Coal: Stories of Survival in Appalachia and Wales. … So, Tom, how did you get involved with the story of After Coal?

“TOM HANSELL: I learned about this long-term exchange that had been started by, through the center for Appalachian studies here and learned that they were bringing students and community members over to South Wales where the coal mines had shut down in the 1980s. And so I thought that would be really interesting to go over, gather stories of how those communities had survived, bring them back to Appalachia, and start an international conversation about how communities can survive the loss of the main industry that they were built around.

“CURWOOD: Now, one of the most interesting parts of your reporting here, Tom, is about the unions. And in both places, unions have been a major part of how these coal communities’ function. And one of the things that’s really interesting about the union phenomenon, it’s like a huge, almost secular society of the people who live in these communities. …

“HANSELL: I was really interested to learn that in Wales, the unions were not just doing these gathering spaces you were talking about and building political power for the miners, but they were also providing continuing education services. There was a whole system of miners’ libraries and free courses after hours so that miners could continue their education and fully participate in civic life. [And] then other kind of cultural aspects of the unions including male voice choirs or brass bands are big things happening in the UK. In Appalachia, union halls also very much community gathering places, places where local foods are celebrated, places where you can hear great traditional music.

“But the difference between the actually complete domination, closed shop and nationalized industry in the UK and the private industry and the lesser power of the unions in the United States was also pretty much a stark contrast. … These cultural spaces, these democratic spaces, for the most part, were built up around this industry, and what is there to take their place when the industry crumbles? [People] are still gathering sometimes in churches or chapels, sometimes around arts projects. There were some interesting arts projects, particularly the higher ground of Harlan County project that I followed in Eastern Kentucky that provided really interesting ways for diverse groups of people to participate in making something new that spoke to their identity and their history and their hopes for the future. [In America, there] is a lot of community life happening, but it’s perhaps a lot more dispersed than it was in the days when union halls were the place that you went to see your neighbors. …

“CURWOOD: How do we support those communities affected by taking the economy greener and climate disruption? …

“HANSELL: The only way to get deep and lasting solutions is to reach out very first to people that have been part of an extractive economy, whether that’s the oil fields, or the gas fields or the coal fields. These places that have been built up around a single industry need other options [and] maybe need some extra support. … For most of the 20th century, there was coal that helped us win world wars, there was coal that helped build the strongest industry and economy in the world.

And very little that wealth was left behind. Most of that wealth went to corporations that were headquartered outside of the coal fields. And there needs to be some system where some of that wealth gets returned. …

“I was actually really impressed at the amount of local farming that’s sprung up really during the time of the After Coal Project. My last project was actually looking at the controversy around a coal-fired power plant in southwestern Virginia. In Wise County, Virginia. That plant eventually was built. … But it was interesting at those forums, people wanted to talk about farming and agriculture and local foods. And it took me a while to listen and to understand that when they were talking about diversifying the economy, that’s where they saw their assets.”

More at Living on Earth, here.

Photo: Folger Theatre.
Actor/director Holly Twyford got interested in a new kind of theater project during the pandemic.

How many of us began pandemic activities that we liked enough to keep? In my case, being obliged to do my volunteering via Zoom showed me there is often a greater feeling of individual connection when I can see English students’ faces up close on screen instead of in a large room. What new way of doing things did you decide to keep?

In one example, an actress was invited to teach elderly shut-ins during the down time and found she liked it. Peter Marks reported the story for the Washington Post.

“In the courtyard of an independent living residence in Rockville, Md., Holly Twyford brought her acting class to order. With the script of Spoon River Anthology in front of them, one of her students, 93-year-old Shelly Weisman, recited the words of Lucinda Matlock, a character who speaks of a marriage that lasted seven decades.

“ ‘I spun, I wove, I kept the house, I nursed the sick. I made the garden, and for holiday rambled over the fields where sang the larks,’ Weisman declaimed, as Twyford — long one of Washington’s premier actors — listened.

“ ‘I love that piece,’ Twyford said at last.

“ ‘I do, too,’ Weisman replied. ‘I love her.’

“And so it went for an hour with Twyford and several residents of Ring House, in the Charles E. Smith Life Communities, off Rockville Pike. Organized by Theater J, an arm of the Edlavitch D.C. Jewish Community Center, the class wasn’t just an exercise to nourish the artistic spirits of theater-loving seniors. It was an invigorating lifeline, too, for Twyford. Sidelined by the pandemic from pursuing her customary evenings-and-matinees vocation, the actress was hired by Theater J Artistic Director Adam Immerwahr to teach enrichment courses and earn some needed cash.

“ ‘The pandemic has been a nightmare for us who depend on large, live audiences,’ said Twyford, a ubiquitous presence on Washington stages, in everything from Shakespeare to Sondheim. When covid-19 collapsed the theater industry, Twyford lost two acting and two directing jobs.

‘I can only say Adam subsidized many out-of-work actors and directors by saying, “Hey, you should teach a class.” … That’s what he did for me.’ …

“Theater J, with only a handful of full-time staffers, took on a sizable mission, hiring dozens of theater folk to teach more than 50 classes, most of them virtual. …

“Angela Hughes, a die-hard theatergoer who lives in Northern Virginia, has enrolled in 16 of Theater J’s virtual classes. ‘It was a way to have theater in my life,’ she said in a phone interview. …

“The combination of pandemic isolation, audience fascination and artist deprivation created highly favorable circumstances for Theater J’s initiative: From July 1, 2020, to June 30, more than 700 people from 23 states and Israel, Canada and Australia took the company’s Zoom courses, according to Immerwahr. During that period, he has paid out more than $40,000 in fees to his improvised faculty.

“That might not boil down to a king’s ransom — national philanthropic organizations, such as the Actors Fund, have doled out millions. But every extra paycheck helps when one is scrambling.

“ ‘At times, it’s been serious,’ Immerwahr said of the need in the D.C.-area theater community. ‘We’ve had people who couldn’t qualify for unemployment, because they worked in seven different states.’

“Naomi Jacobson, another familiar talent to Washington theatergoers, has taught six courses for Theater J, including ‘Inside the Actor’s Process’ and ‘Inside the Rehearsal Room: “Collected Stories,” ‘the latter with actor Emily Whitworth and Immerwahr. ‘I had nine months of work lined up, and it all went away,’ she said, noting that she took her pension early to make sure she and her husband, actor John Lescault, could pay their mortgage.

“While Lescault carried on in the recording booth in their basement for his side business, narrating books for the Library of Congress, Jacobson built up a coaching practice for actors and public speakers in other professions. How she’ll balance the pedagogical pursuits with her acting life remains an open question: She is scheduled to return to the stage in September to portray Ruth Westheimer in Mark St. Germain’s one-person Becoming Dr. Ruth at Theater J. …

“It so happens that Twyford is directing Jacobson in the piece, a process they began before the shutdown. When that assignment abruptly ended, Twyford [says] ‘I did apply for a job at a hardware store, and I was turned down,’ she said. ‘I know tools and I build things, and it was really harsh to get that rejection.’

“But Immerwahr came calling, which was why on this warm August day, Twyford had driven to Rockville to teach the weekly sessions of her monologue-preparation class to students in their 80s and 90s, one at Ring House and another at its sister building, Revitz House. …

“The students had been asked to choose speeches from the script, a compendium of the more than century-old poems that make up Edgar Lee Masters’s cycle of ordinary townsfolk, narrating their personal tales from the afterlife.

“Weisman wasn’t sure at first about the material. ‘I said, “Why on earth did you pick this? It’s people speaking from the grave! We’re close to the grave!” ‘ The teacher thereby learned quickly that these pupils were not shy about speaking up. …

“Over several weeks of talking and rereading, though, she came to understand the value of immersing herself in the persona and hardships of her character. ‘As I was reading it over and over, it became much more real to me,’ Weisman said. ‘Every life has disappointment and tragedies. Lucinda didn’t dwell on it.’ …

“[Says Twyford] ‘Shelly asked me, “What have you learned about 90-year-olds?” I gotta say, talk about some role models! … These folks, they just haven’t stopped learning.’ “

More at the Post, here.

Thinking About Gifts

For the holidays, consider the Alchemist’s beautiful raku pottery, offerings from nonprofits, or generally off-the-beaten-path treasures like those at Luna & Stella.

You know that many of the things on your holiday gift list are sitting in container ships in harbors around the country, so let me draw your attention to some of my favorite nonprofits and small businesses with unique presents ready to ship right now. Do something different this year.

I’ll start with Beautiful Day, one of my favorite nonprofits. I buy gift boxes there for family members and myself because I’m so impressed with how the granola and granola bars get made at Beautiful Day. It’s all part of a training that helps refugees learn about US workplace norms so that after they finish the program they can get jobs with local companies that love to hire them. If you want to take advantage of Beautiful Day’s 15% Shop Small discount, use code SBS21 at checkout before 11:59 p.m., Sunday, 11/28/21.

Dean’s Beans, a coffee seller, is not a nonprofit, but the environmental and social justice work they do in the countries where they source beans makes me think I’m doing a good deed while drinking my very favorite coffee. Consider gifts from Dean’s for the coffee drinkers on your list.

UTEC is a nonprofit that works miracles with teens who’ve been in trouble with the law, teaching marketable skills, including how to make these handsome cutting boards.

I’d also like to highlight items from a few folks who have engaged with this blog for years. I really feel like I know them now. Pottery from the Alchemist is available as tree ornaments, coffee mugs, gorgeous raku vases, and more.

Or how about books? Blogger Laura Graves sells young adult fantasy novels from her highly imaginative Great Library series here. Francesca Forrest also writes novels, including the delightful Pen Pal and an otherworldly series beginning with The Inconvenient God, here.

You can buy singer-songwriter Will McMillan’s music on Spotify, among other places. Perhaps my favorite is the album Blame Those Gershwins that Will made with composer Steve Sweeting, here. Blogger friend Tiffany Arp-Daleo makes colorful abstract art that she turns into items such as T-shirts and coffee mugs. Check her out here.

And don’t forget Luna & Stella (my daughter’s jewelry company) and the Shop Small sale, where she’s offering 15% off through Monday, 1/29/21.

“We’re Still Here”

Photo: Washington Post.
The city of Anchorage sits on the homeland of the Dena’ina tribe. The Anchorage Museum installed “This is Dena’ina Ełnena” on its facade as part of its land acknowledgment efforts to recognize the Indigenous people of a place.

Now that more of us are paying attention to those who were living in North America before First Contact, a tool has been created that lets us check which tribes lived where we live now.

I sent my zip code by text to (907) 312-5085 and learned I live on former Nipmuc and Pawtucket land. The return text (enabled by land.codeforanchorage.org) also taught me how to pronounce Massa-adchu-es-et. Now I need to look up how the Nipmuc and Pawtucket tribes are or aren’t related to the Wampanoag, as I always thought it was Wampanoag land in this part of Massachusetts.

You can find information about the land initiative in an article called “We’re Still Here” at the Washington Post.

I was also interested in an article at the74million.org about the history that Rhode Island’s indigenous children get in public school.

“Growing up in Charlestown, Rhode Island, Chrystal Baker remembers reading a textbook in history class that said the Narragansett Indigenous people, who have lived in southern New England for tens of thousands of years, were extinct.

‘We’re not extinct,’ the young student ventured, nervous about contradicting the lesson, but feeling she had to speak up. ‘I’m a Narragansett.’

“No response came from her teacher or classmates, recalls the Chariho Regional School District alum, who graduated in 1986.

“ ‘It just didn’t matter,’ she told The 74. ‘You were insignificant.’

“Now, decades later, Baker has two children in the same school system who have navigated similar experiences of hurt and invisibility. …

“ ‘In history class, it’s mostly the history of the colonizers,’ said her daughter Nittaunis Baker, 19, who graduated from Chariho High School in spring 2021 and now attends the University of Rhode Island. 

“ ‘We didn’t really talk about Native people that much.’ …

” ‘There is no United States history, there is no Rhode Island history, without Indigenous history,’ the West Warwick mother told The 74.” Read how the state is now handling indigenous history at the74million.org.

Photo: Asher Lehrer-Small/ the74million.org.
Chrystal Baker and her daughter Nittaunis on the water at the University of Rhode Island’s bay campus, where the 19-year old studies marine biology. They belong to the Narragansett tribe.

Thanksgiving Thoughts

Photo: InsideNova.
A scene from the sixth annual Refugees’ First Thanksgiving Dinner, held Nov. 18, 2018, and sponsored by the Ethiopian Community Development Council in Virginia.

Thanksgiving can be a fraught holiday not only because of occasional family feuds but because, as more of us now know, the story of our First Thanksgiving story has been distorting reality. It was not all about Pilgrims and Indian people sharing wild turkey and pledging eternal friendship. For indigenous tribes, the first European contact was the beginning of endless tragedy.

This year Edward Fitzpatrick at the Boston Globe added to our knowledge after interviewing a member of a New England tribe called the Narragansett.

Lorén Spears, also Tomaquag Museum executive director, says, “There’s no US history without Indigenous people’s history. [People] really need to dig in and come visit places like Tomaquag Museum. … Go to the Mashpee Museum, go to the Aquinnah Cultural Center, go to the Pequot Museum, and find out the real history.”

Even if Indigenous people spend Thanksgiving with family and festivities, she says, “They still know that this isn’t always a happy time for us because it reminds us of all the trauma and loss that our communities have felt due to the conquest that took place here and how it still affects us today economically: health disparities, educational disparities, the list goes on.”

I have read other accounts of indigenous people gathering with family, making it a day of gratitude for the harvest and for community. Immigrants also make the occasion their own.

When I asked students in one English as a Second Language class about Thanksgiving, a young woman from Egypt said that last year, her first US Thanksgiving, she didn’t know anything about the holiday, but she prepared a turkey along with the family’s favorite Egyptian dishes. I said, “Well, if you had a turkey, you had Thanksgiving.” But what do I know? It’s about being thankful. Turkey not necessary.

Plenty of people don’t like turkey. When my family went to a restaurant one Thanksgiving, my Swedish son-in-law ordered beef. And Latinx immigrants have told me they like to serve ham and pineapple, with or without turkey.

Our family tends to stick with turkey, stuffing, gravy, potatoes, another vegetable, cranberry sauce, salad, and a dessert using apples. But before Covid, my sister and her husband always brought bagels and lox. And if we had a guests from another country, they would bring national dishes. Does your gathering have dishes that are unique to your celebration?

Photo: National Museum of Ireland.
Found in an Irish bog. The psalter is shown here pre-conservation – lines of psalms clearly visible.

In the miracles-all-around-us department, imagine finding in a peat bog a medieval book of psalms that looked like the monastic compilers might have had links with Egypt! Lisa O’Carroll writes for the Guardian about a book on the psalter’s discovery and painstaking restoration.

“One summer’s day in Tipperary as peat was being dug from a bog, a button peered out from the freshly cut earth. The find set off a five-year journey of conservation to retrieve and preserve what lay beyond: a 1,200-year-old psalm book in its original cover.

“Bogs across Europe have thrown up all sorts of relics of the ancient past, from naturally preserved bodies to vessels containing butter more than a millennium old, but the 2006 discovery of an entire early medieval manuscript, entombed in a wet time capsule for so long, was unprecedented, said the National Museum of Ireland.

“The book fell open upon discovery to reveal the Latin words in ualle lacrimarum (in the valley of tears), which identified it as a book of psalms. One particularly unexpected feature was the vegetable-tanned leather cover with a papyrus reed lining, suggesting the monks could have had trade links with Egypt.

“ ‘It still blows me away,’ said John Gillis, the chief manuscript conservator at Trinity College Dublin, home of the Book of Kells, the Book of Armagh and 450 other medieval Latin manuscripts. ‘It was by far and away the most challenging, most interesting project I have ever undertaken – and to put that in context, I am surrounded by these iconic manuscripts.’

“Ten years after going on display at the National Museum in Dublin, the Faddan More Psalter is one of Ireland’s top 10 treasures and now the subject of a 340-page book from the institution documenting every stage of the ‘terrifying’ preservation process for future scholars. …

“The process of stabilising the book outside the bog, drying it and then unpicking and unfolding pages where possible was painstaking. Archaeologists placed the ‘conglomeration’ of squashed pages, leather and turf in a walk-in cold store in the museum at 4C. But there was no manual in the world to guide Gillis on how to go about the task. …

“Initial examination was limited in order to mitigate further trauma. CT scans and X-rays to find 3D structures were excluded owing to concerns that they could accelerate the degradation.

“After trying sophisticated versions of freeze-drying, vacuum-sealing, and drying with blotting paper, Gillis settled on a dewatering method using a vacuum chamber installed in the museum lab for four years to minimise shrinkage and decay.

“It would take two years before all the folio fragments were in a dry and stable state before the daunting task of dismantling could begin, a process chronicled in the book out later this month, The Faddan More Psalter, The Discovery and Conservation of a Medieval Treasure.

“ ‘It was absolutely terrifying,’ Gillis said of the responsibility he felt.

‘I heard from someone in the British Museum that there was a picture of the [book fragments] on the walls in a staff area there with the words “If you think you have a bad day ahead …”

” ‘You had this nerve-racking scenario of disturbing this material, which meant losing evidence, when the whole point was trying to gain as much information as possible.’

“Many of the spaces between the iron gall letters had dissolved into the bog, leaving an alphabet soup of several thousand standalone letters. It would take months after the drying process to piece them all together, in sequence on the right pages.

“ ‘The rewards when you slowly lifted up a fragment, and suddenly beneath this little bit of decoration would appear, particularly the yellow pigment they used. It would kind of shine back at you,’ Gillis said. ‘And you’d go: “Wow, I am the first person to see this in 1,200 years.” So that kind of privilege made all the sleepless nights and racking of the brain worthwhile.

“ ‘It was the purest conservation I’ve ever carried out. There is no repair, I’ve attached nothing new. All I’ve done is captured and stabilised.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

Suzanne’s Big Sale

For friends old and new, here’s a bonus post just to remind you that this blog is hosted by my daughter‘s vintage and contemporary jewelry company, Luna & Stella.

And that she has a sale going on right now!

Please check out Suzanne’s Shop Small Sale. Everything in the Shop Small collection is 15% off through Monday, November 29, 2021: see https://www.lunaandstella.com/collections/shop-small-sale.

In addition, there are lots of good deals in the Luna & Stella Archive Sale: https://www.lunaandstella.com/collections/archive-sale. Find gold and silver lockets, charms, and contemporary birthstone jewelry for every taste. I think the chains are pretty special, too — hard to find.

Photo: Jaime Rojo/WorldWildlife.org.
“Life here for us is very fulfilling,” says Elizete Garciada Costa Soares about the Brazilian wetland. “We have fish to eat; we have bait to sell to make money for other necessities. Even if we don’t have money for meat, we can go out on the river to fish and bring back a piranha to eat with manioc flour.”

Without actually realizing it, we’ve accepted the message over the centuries that subsistence living is undesirable. But back before capitalism, having enough for food and shelter — and something to sell if a few extras were needed — could make a pleasant life. In some parts of the world it still does.

Jill Langlois writes at World Wildlife Magazine about people who build good lives from South America’s huge wetlands.

“By the time Elizete Garciada Costa Soares wades into the deep, warm waters of the Paraguay River, the sky is usually black. The tiny crabs and bait fish called tuvira, which she captures with a metal screen, come out at night, long after the hot sun that washes over the Brazilian Pantanal has set.

“It takes Soares at least an hour to reach the best spots to fish for bait, where the tuvira and crabs hide under the thick green leaves of the water hyacinths that float on the river’s surface. She’ll be gone for at least three or four days, so she brings a tent to pitch along the riverbank. Later, she will sell the bait to other fishers, usually in the nearby town of Miranda.

“Soares is well aware of the dangers of her profession — she’s had her fair share of run-ins with jaguars and anacondas in the 26 years she’s been heading out on the river to fish. But she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“ ‘Life here for us is very fulfilling,’ says Soares of herself and her husband. ‘We have fish to eat; we have bait to sell to make money for other necessities. Even if we don’t have money for meat, we can go out on the river to fish and bring back a piranha to eat with manioc flour. Here, we never go hungry.’

“At just over 42 million acres, the Pantanal is the world’s largest tropical wetland, created by the convergence of more than 1,200 rivers and streams rushing down from the eastern Andes and the high plateaus of the Cerrado, the vast tropical savanna to the east. More than 10 times the size of Florida’s Everglades, it stretches across the borders of Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay. Its primary waterway is the Paraguay River, which meanders through the three countries before joining the Paraná River and flowing into Argentina.

“The Pantanal is a landscape of extremes. Acting like a giant sponge, the upper part of the basin retains floodwaters from October to March, providing natural flood protection for the millions of people who live downstream. It then slowly drains between April and September, leaving discrete pools teeming with wildlife and providing life-giving water long after the rains have gone.

“This seasonal rise and fall, the pulsing of water in and out of the surrounding landscapes, is responsible for the wetland’s significant biodiversity. Though often overshadowed by the Amazon, its neighbor to the north, the Pantanal is home to more than 4,700 plant and animal species, including fig and ipê trees, jabiru storks, capybaras, and caiman. …

“In addition to being an environmental jewel, the Pantanal is also a tremendous resource for people, says Lucy Aquino, director of WWF-Paraguay: ‘The Pantanal is one of the most important regions in the world, in terms of services provided to humanity, and one of those regions that supplies food to the world.’

“For now, the Pantanal is relatively intact, sustaining more than 270 communities — 1.5 million people — in addition to its flora and fauna, and helping to stabilize the climate throughout the region and beyond.

“But while much of the Bolivian Pantanal is protected, the overwhelming majority of the wetland, lying in Paraguay and Brazil, is not. In all, conservation areas represent just 4.6% of the Pantanal, and its headwaters in the Cerrado are at particularly high risk.

“In recent years, roads, water management systems, hydroelectric dams, large-scale mines, farms, and cattle ranches have begun to change the dynamics of the wetland, threatening the region’s integrity. In addition to poorly planned infrastructure, mining, and agricultural development, the region faces other threats, including the lack of basic sanitation and the construction of canals for navigation.

“Moreover, by the end of the century the Pantanal is expected to be much drier and hotter, with potentially devastating results, including extreme droughts and floods, and the possible shrinking of the wetland as a whole. In the absence of a holistic vision, unsustainable development threatens to limit the Pantanal’s ability to function and to adapt to climate change, putting homes and habitats at risk.

“There is a tension between communities’ needs for development — for sanitation services and clean drinking water, for example, along with roads and hydropower dams — and the costs of such development to the ecosystem and people alike. But development done right, well-designed and sustainable, would contribute to the wetland’s conservation, says Julio Cesar Sampaio da Silva, who leads WWF-Brazil’s work in the Cerrado and Pantanal. …

“ ‘Considering the Pantanal as a shared territory and developing strategies for shared management — creating a truly shared vision for the region — is fundamental to having effective conservation of these natural resources,’ he says. …

“In 2018, the three countries formally signaled their shared commitment to sustaining those resources when they signed a landmark trilateral agreement known as the Pantanal Declaration. …

“Citing the importance of the wetland to those well beyond its boundaries, WWF-Bolivia director Samuel Sangueza-Pardo calls the agreement

‘a decisive step in integrating Bolivia, Brazil, and Paraguay’s joint commitment to maintain this ecosystem, which is fundamental for the welfare of more than 10 million people.’ …

“For Pantanal residents like Elizete Soares, that kind of commitment provides hope for the future of the only home they know. ‘The Pantanal, for us,’ says Soares, ‘is everything.’ ”

More at the World Wildlife, here.

Photo: Richard Ankrom/Brewery Art Colony.
The Freeway sign with Richard Ankrom’s correction — a stealth project to warn drivers they had to get left fast if they wanted to go north on route 5.

It may go back to leaving May Day baskets for neighbors as a child — ringing the doorbell and hiding — but I do like stealth projects. For example, when I was working on PR for a production of the musical Sunday in the Park with George about Impressionist Georges Seurat, I placed greeting cards with his famous painting around a bookshop for customers to notice or buy. I have no idea what the salespeople did when they couldn’t find a shop code.

Today’s story is about a professional sign painter and artist who saw a highway sign that badly needed fixing. He didn’t call the highway department.

As Nate Rogers writes at theLAnd magazine, “In 2001, Richard Ankrom installed a fake freeway sign in downtown L.A. in order to fix a real problem for commuters. The sign is now long gone, but 20 years later, the stunt remains etched into the soul of the city.

“In the pre-dawn hours of August 5, 2001,” Rogers reports, “Richard Ankrom got in his pick-up truck and drove out to a downtown L.A. freeway sign. He parked along an off-ramp near 4th and Beaudry Streets, stashed two large sheets of aluminum in the bushes, and took a deep breath. …

‘I was scared,’ he recalled recently, perched on an overpass, staring down at the area where this occurred two decades earlier. ‘I stood there, just to kind of calm down, you know.’

“There was no turning back now, he remembered thinking. He’d already spent the time and money to manufacture a near-undetectable replica of two pieces of freeway signage to exact industry specification. And in advance of their installation, he’d prepared a decal for his truck that read ‘Aesthetic De Construction,’ created a phony work order in case anyone approached him, and cut his shaggy blond hair to a city-worker-appropriate length. 

“He’d also already enlisted his friends from the Brewery Art Colony … to get up at the crack of dawn to document what would later become known as his infamous ‘Guerrilla Public Service’ project. … And anyway, after the signage — an Interstate 5 emblem and an accompanying green placard reading ‘NORTH’ — had been made, it had to be put up. Otherwise, what was the point? …

“For many years, if you were traveling north on the 110 in downtown Los Angeles and were intending to go north on the 5, there was no easily visible signage to prepare you for the sudden interchange. And it’s not just any interchange, either — it’s a strange corkscrew of an exit on the left side of the freeway, sneaking up on you at the end of a tunnel. Without a decent amount of warning, you would very likely miss it. …

“A sign artist by trade, Ankrom wasn’t fazed by the initial part of his project. He downloaded a Caltrans manual, cross-checking the information by assessing an easily accessible freeway sign in person. He then cut the aluminum and painted the shield and placard, essentially by hand. On the back of the shield, he signed his name. … 

“There was one part he couldn’t make himself, however, which was the circular reflectors that had to sit on top. But he was able to convince the company that made them that he needed the reflectors for a film project — which was not untrue … ‘It had to be documented,’ he said.

“Just after the sun came up on installation day, with video cameras rolling from various vantage points, Ankrom put on a hardhat and safety vest, hoisted a ladder up to the larger freeway sign apparatus, and climbed up to the plank with his work. …

“There happened to be a Caltrans crew working nearby when Ankrom was up there [but] no one questioned him. ‘They say if you’re dressed correctly and carry a clipboard around, you can get away with a lot of stuff,’ he put it. …

“Some nine months later, after he posted [the footage] on a pre-YouTube video hosting site, the story was broken simultaneously by LA Weekly and the Downtown News. (The video — a bizarre and hypnotizing behind-the-scenes look at every step of the process — is its own work of art.) Almost immediately, he had a line of media teams waiting outside his studio to set up interviews for national news programs. …

“Caltrans also weighed in after it was reached for comment by various media organizations. In a shocking moment of humility, they noted that, while they didn’t approve of Ankrom’s methods, they couldn’t deny the quality of his work. Not only would they not be pressing charges — they were going to leave his handiwork up. One Caltrans representative jokingly told ABC that they had a job application for Ankrom to fill out. …

“These days, Caltrans is less amused by Ankrom’s story than it was in 2001. When reached for comment, a representative didn’t want to talk about the specifics — instead preferring to state that they ‘very strongly discourage unauthorized persons from trespassing onto Caltrans right of way,’ and that there are ‘legal penalties and serious personal liability’ for doing so. Should you have an issue with something like signage, the representative recommends you ‘simply submit a Customer Service Request.’ ” 

More at the LAnd Magazine, here.

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