Earth Day 46

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Today is Earth Day 46. Given the state of the planet, I’m not sure whether to celebrate or commemorate the occasion.  Either way, I’d like to share a couple paragraphs from the chapter “The First Earth Day–and Still Counting” in A Bushel’s Worth, followed by a story for Earth Day today. I’ll be reading from Dirt: A Love Story tonight at Wolverine Publick House in Ft Collins at 7 PM. Please join me and authors Laura Pritchett and Jane Shellenberger for Earth Day 46.

The first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, was organized by Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson to bring national attention to the growing problems of environmental degradation through grassroots actions focused on issues in local communities. On Earth Day, people were asked to demonstrate care for an earth whose gifts of clean air, water, and soil could no longer be taken for grant- ed. Earth Day would not only create awareness of the steadily declining health of the environment, but bring hope of a better future for the planet.

Our fifth grade class decided to join the first Earth Day celebration by turning the hard dirt outside our classroom into a beautiful garden of grass and flowers. All it would take, we thought, were some shovels and a few seeds. On April 22, we showed up with tools—the girls wearing pants, which wasn’t normally allowed—and worked like crazy all day to get that small square of soil ready for the plants we imagined would grow there. Mr. Osborn even let me run the block home for my wagon to haul away rocks and trash. With rakes and hoes in our young hands, we scratched tiny furrows in the soil to plant our hopeful seeds. A little water, a little weeding, and we’d have our first Earth Day garden. At the end of the day, we were dirty and tired, but proud to be part of something bigger than ourselves. . . .

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On that first Earth Day in 1970, were we optimistic or just naive? We didn’t yet now of the much larger environmental problem looming, I think I can say “literally,” on the horizon. I mark Earth Day each year to remind myself how these ideas that were so radical in 1970 are mainstream today, if not yet implemented. In a small step to move outside a framework that privileges humans over the rest of the planet, I’ve decided to quit saying “humans and the environment” (as in, “harmful to humans and the environment”). Instead, I’m going to say “the environment, including humans.”

To remain hopeful, I try to see the world through my grandson’s eyes. At three and a half, he loves animals and playing guessing games with his grandparents. Last week, he quizzed me: “Grandma Kayann, what’s the smartest mammal?”

I went with his favorite first: An elephant?

“No, it lives in the ocean.”

A whale?

“No.”

Then I remembered he’d just been to the San Diego zoo. Dolphins?

Yes! I’d gotten it right, so I thought I’d take the game a little further: What about humans? They’re mammals.

He shook his head. “No, they’re not very smart.”

My daughter and I had to smile at his three-year-old savvy. Even though it seems he’s right, his viewpoint still contains some hope.

Maybe the animals will save us.

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Noah Liked Horses

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I don’t know a lot about my Great-grandfather Noah Lawrence Short. He died ten years before my father was born, so Dad never met his grandfather. What I know comes from the few records I’ve found (with help) on ancestry.com and other genealogy sites and from a handful of photographs handed down from my great-grandmother to my grandfather to my father to me.

When I write about my family’s history, I’m always conscious that my ancestors were real people, not just characters in books. Their lives were complicated by factors that are hidden to me by the passage of time. I might study an historical period but that doesn’t mean I know or understand it in the way I know and understand my own. Old documents and photographs only portray what’s on the surface of someone’s life. We can try to read them for clues about our ancestors—indeed, that’s part of the fun of genealogical research—but some things will always remain hidden from our view.

Still, acknowledging the hidden depths of a person’s life that can never be recovered should not stop us of from sharing and honoring what we do know. For my great-great-grandfather Noah, I have dates, records, and photographs, a few pieces that fit together into the pattern of a life.

Noah Lawrence Short was born April 5, 1878, in Donaldson, Indiana, to George Washington and Mary T. (McBroom) Short. I have no photos of Noah as a child but he does appear in the 1880 census with his parents and two sisters, Margaret (older) and Amy (mistakenly recorded as Emma). The 1890 U.S. census was lost in a fire (an accident I routinely curse), so I have no other trace of Noah until 1899 when he enlisted for the Spanish-American War. He was 21 years old, his shining young face both expectant and hesitant in this official photograph taken in Kansas before he shipped out to the Philippines.

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Noah’s military record states September 17, 1899 for his enlistment but the photo is dated 1898 on the back, one of those inconsistencies that drive genealogists crazy. We have no family stories about his service, but this photo may have been taken while he was in the Philippines.

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Noah served until June 30, 1901, when he was discharged for a gunshot wound to his right thigh, a fact that came to light recently with the discovery of Noah’s discharge papers. Interestingly, a later record for Noah’s hospitalization at the U.S. Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in South Dakota lists “mustard gas” as the cause of military discharge. He was diagnosed in 1911 with “tuberculosis pulmonary chronic far advanced Active C,” a condition which plagued him for many years.

Despite those problems, Noah married, raised a large family, and ran a dairy in Missouri Ridge township, Williams County, North Dakota. Noah and Mabel married in LaPorte, Indiana, on February 19, 1902.

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They had two sons in Indiana before moving to Missouri Ridge, perhaps to be near his younger sister Amy, who had come first with her husband. His younger sister Toot also came with her family. Here’s Noah and Mabel’s first home in Missouri Ridge. I don’t know whether my great-grandparents homesteaded or purchased their land outright. Either way, their beginnings were humble, as were most people’s who had come to North Dakota to farm.

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The original barn on the Short property burned down in the early years; the big red barn that replaced it became a landmark and was known as the Short farm even after the family had left.

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My grandfather Russell was the third son and first child born in North Dakota, in 1906. Living on a dairy farm was hard work but left some time for play, as seen in this photo of the two older boys, Lawrence and Howard, and a friend.

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On the back of the photograph, someone has written, “Noah Liked Horses.” Even though he’s not in the photo, his love of horses is evident in the number and beauty of horses he raised. Noah worked with horses in the dairy, delivering milk early each morning with a horse and wagon to nearby Williston.

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Noah and Mabel were active in the school, built their home, and raised their children. This photo taken after a school Christmas program in 1911 shows Noah in the back middle holding his son Clifford who died the summer after the photo was taken. Mabel is at the very right of the photo with her hand on my grandfather Russell’s shoulders. Howard and Lawrence are the two boys in white shirts at the left of the photograph.

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Here’s a 1915 photograph of Noah with a woman I first believed was his older sister Margaret visiting from Indiana (the photo was developed there). Recently I figured out that she’s not Margaret (who seems to have died young) but Pansy, Noah’s younger stepsister from his father’s second marriage. Judging by Noah’s clothes, he must have enjoyed some success as a dairy farmer.

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The next photo was a puzzle to me until my great-aunt recognized the older gentleman as my great-great-grandfather George Washington Short with his second wife, Flora. This photo may have been taken on a family trip to Indiana. Although someone has written, “I don’t know what year this was— about 1923 or 4” on the back of the photograph, the number and dark lettering of the license plate dates the trip to 1922, given that in those days, plates were renewed each year. A little bit of genealogical sleuthing helped figure that out. The two younger boys between Mabel and Noah are Wilbur and Lloyd, both of whom died young.

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In May 1925, after the birth of six sons, Noah and Mabel finally had a daughter; they named her after her mother. But in June, Noah was admitted to a military hospital in Hot Springs, South Dakota, and remained until he was discharged in January 1926, “against medical advice.” By then, Noah’s health must have suffered enough to send him to a military hospital in Denver, where he died November 1, 1926, at age 48. I’m still working with state officials to find his death certificate.

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Sometimes I look at these old photographs of my Great-grandpa Noah and wonder if he was surprised at the way his life was shaped by the small and large circumstances he couldn’t control. He died much too young, leaving Mabel to raise the son and daughter still living at home. I wish he’d been alive for my father to know so we’d have a few stories to pass down. Instead, we have only records and photographs to piece together a man’s passions—horses, farming, and family.

 

 

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Thoughts on Squash in Winter

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We’ve all noticed it lately: more light. On the Colorado Front Range where the sun drops abruptly behind the mountains rather than drifts slowly to the horizon, we notice when the days get longer and 4:00 isn’t twilight anymore. Longer days mean shorter nights for the cold to settle in and more time for the sun to warm the frozen earth. By the third week in January, even the chickens take note of the increased sunlight to start laying again.

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At Stonebridge, we’re eating our winter fare from storage vegetables grown last season—the tail end of the harvest when meals are both simple and inventive. Take winter squash, for example. We usually store our winter squash in the closet of an unheated bedroom where it won’t rot or freeze. Yesterday I spotted a few butternut hanging out in the cool room of our barn. I thought they may have frozen since they weren’t covered with a tarp like the other vegetables we store there (onions, carrots, garlic, leeks, and roots). I tested one with my thumbnail. Seemed okay. Why not make Thai butternut soup?

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I’ve written about this soup before (check it out here if you want the actual recipe). The first time I made it was for a January yoga and writing retreat at the farm. Thai butternut is the perfect soup for mid-January: savory and filling from the squash, garlic, onions, and ginger, with a tangy dose of citrus from the lime juice and lemongrass. Now I get hungry for this soup every January–plus it’s a good way to use the storage vegetables in the barn and closet.

The hardest part about this soup is peeling the squash. Most of my winter squash recipes involve baking squash first to use as an ingredient rather than peeling them. I generally enjoy the textures and smells of fresh vegetables as I prepare them, but I don’t love peeling squash, I decided once again as I stood at the sink for longer than I’d like. I do know what makes it easier: my Japanese vegetable peeler, the kind that doesn’t swivel.

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John volunteered to quarter the large squash  first. (I’m not sure whether he likes doing it or he’s worried about my using the knife.) I cut each of those sections in halves or thirds, depending on the curvature of the piece. Smaller pieces are easier to peel; if you get them too small, you’re likely to peel your fingers. About like this is good:

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Cutting and peeling a squash reminds me of the time my Grandma Short brought a big Hubbard squash to our house when I was a kid. I wrote about that squash in A Bushel’s Worth but I mis-remembered who chopped it. Recently a family photo surfaced of my Grandma Smith with a hatchet and Aunt Lola holding the squash on the ground for Grandma to whack the tough thing. In the book I debated whether the squash was hard because of the variety or because my Grandma Short saved her own seeds (squash cross-pollinate with others within their species). We’ll never know but that was one thick-skinned cucurbit.

Besides craving its warming flavors, I like to make Thai Butternut soup so I can use my vintage juicer, just like the one Grandma Smith used to juice lemons for her meringue pie. I do buy fresh limes for this recipe, if I think of it beforehand. Like chocolate, salt, and olive oil, I forego my buy local habits for this recipe because fresh lime juice enhances the flavor but a good bottled juice is fine too. Similarly, if I happen to see fresh lemongrass, I’ll pick it up, but I’ve also used dried (raised by farm members) to great success.

If you don’t have an immersion blender, borrow one for this soup. I resisted buying an immersion blender for many years—just another appliance to store—but it’s worth every penny for the time and mess avoided ladling soup into a food processor.

Last night’s soup was perfect for a cold winter’s night. I’m sure our version isn’t authentically Thai—especially when served with baking powder biscuits—but the recipe is pretty simple once the squash is peeled. Tonight we’ll have the leftovers with some Thai veggie rolls I’ll pick up from our local restaurant. When you make enough for leftovers, a big pot of soup becomes fast food.

Someday I’d like to write a book on storage vegetables, the kind that only need a cool, dry place to get them through the winter. (A heavy box covered by a blanket in your garage can even work.) Winter squash will be on that list, especially butternut with its solid upper section providing a larger flesh-to-seed ratio than other squashes. Eating storage veggies is one way to hunker down in the winter—you don’t have to go to the store to get them!

Cinnamon finds her own winter storage food–in the compost pile

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May Your Days Be Sunny and Bright, May Your Nights Be Filled With Light

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Dear Pearlmoonplenty Readers,

As the solstice approaches and preparations for holiday cheer proceed with estimable vigor, these back-of-Christmas-card messages from a hundred years ago offer curious glimpses into the season’s joys and tribulations.

The first contains a complaint folks today can appreciate, even with all our “time-saving” devices:

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I’m not sure whether the next card is gossiping, joking, or complementing the receiver, but it seems an odd holiday sentiment:

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This writer makes good use of a leftover Christmas card, although the message is a little confusing regarding “the Baby”:

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Apparently all kinds of images appeared on Christmas cards 100 years ago, just as they do today. I’m glad this young man wanted to visit his grandmother, even if his reason seemed less to do with her than with his current circumstance:

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This creative homemade card (look closely at the candles) contains the best message of all, one I wish to share with you in this season of light, laughter, and love.

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Until the New Year,

Kayann

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A Fowl Thanksgiving Under a Gemini Moon

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Even before this week’s full moon in Gemini brought promised tension and chaos, our Thanksgiving preparations yielded a few glitches: the cornbread mix wasn’t gluten free after all, necessitating another trip to the busy store; too much liquid in the pie crust made the dough tougher than usual; and the Thanksgiving napkin rings were nowhere to be found–annoyances that slowed us down a little but didn’t jeopardize the coming feast.

On Wednesday morning, my yoga teacher warned us that the Gemini full moon could make Thanksgiving interesting. “Great,” said a friend. “Just what I need to hear with 18 people coming for dinner.” Those of us with big Thanksgiving plans resolved to summon flexibility and remain open to changes that might prove improvements on traditions rather than problems.

I went home to finish the pumpkin pies (from our Winter Luxury pumpkins) and set the table. John was gone when I arrived, on his way to deliver onions and carrots to the community food share for Thanksgiving dinners. The phone rang. “Do you know anyone with a German Shepherd,” asked my elderly neighbor, “ because one’s here right now killing my chickens and ducks.” Horrible! I’ve seen dogs kill chickens and it’s a terrible sight. I didn’t know anyone with a German shepherd but told her I’d watch for the dog as she hung up to call 911.

After putting the pies in the oven, I went out to our Sunflower community room to set the long Thanksgiving table, a task I always enjoy. The dishes are from my childhood, my parents’ pottery wedding dishes with a harvest design. My younger sister and I stood on stools at the kitchen sink to wash those dishes for years until a dishwasher and Corelle came into our home.

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I use my Grandma Smith’s silver plate, too, and set beeswax candles in her old blue canning jars down the center, reminding me of all my farming grandparents and the delicious meals they’d provide. In the middle of the table I placed the new pumpkin centerpiece made from canning jar lids that John’s mom had sent. We were sorry she’d miss celebrating with us this year.

Soon John appeared at the Sunflower Room door, opening it just a crack, which seemed odd until he said, “There’s a dog out here. A huskie.”

“Oh, no. That must be the dog that killed the neighbor’s chickens. Can we catch it? Is it safe?”

The dog seemed friendly enough and came to John when he called. We were cautious, though. Strange dogs make me nervous, “strange” meaning both unfamiliar and odd-acting. This dog seemed more the former than the latter, but it’s wise to be careful around any stray dog, especially one that’s just killed something. John held the dog’s collar and read the owner’s name, phone number, and address while I wrote it down.

Since the dog was docile, we decided to tie it to the tree with the goat rope until someone could come get it. I unwound the rope from the pen, the goat watching warily the dog from the top of the overturned barrel where she likes to climb. We carefully attached one end around the tree and the other to the dog’s collar–and let go. As soon as it realized it was tied, the dog lurched and jumped, trying to get free.

When we called our neighbor, the animal control officer was already there and came over right away. “I know that dog,” she said as she approached it under the tree. “He gets away a lot, but he’s never killed livestock before.” The dog seemed happy to see her as she switched our rope for her lead.

“What will happen now?” I asked.

“The owner will get a ticket and he’ll have to keep the dog in his own yard somehow. He’s a nice guy; I’m sure he’ll compensate for the chickens and ducks.” We were glad to hear that; lost chickens and ducks meant considerable lost income for our neighbor.

After lunch, Thanksgiving preparations continued. I finished setting the table and preparing the Sunflower kitchen for the next day’s cooking (we use three ovens for the feast). On the way back to the house, I stopped in the barn to check on the 30-pound turkey in the barn fridge, the only cold place large enough to hold it. John had turned the fridge up when he’d brought the turkey home. I’d felt ice crystals on the skin under the packaging the day before and turned the temperature down again. I wanted to be sure the turkey was properly thawed because discovering a frozen turkey on Thanksgiving morning isn’t fortuitous.

Truthfully, we didn’t need a 30-pound turkey. Three of the fourteen of us at the Thanksgiving table are vegetarians anyway. I thought I had ordered a 25-pound organic turkey from our local health food store but somehow my order ended up in the “over 25 pound” category. I wasn’t even sure it would fit in our oven, not to mention having to get up an hour earlier Thanksgiving morning to give those extra five pounds time to roast.

I opened the barn fridge door, expecting the top shelf to be full of turkey. The top shelf was empty. The second and third shelves (too small for the turkey anyway) were empty. I even looked in all the fridge drawers and door shelves where a 30-lb turkey obviously could not hide. I looked all over the barn, thinking John had left the turkey out accidentally. Having previous experience with objects de- and re-materializing, I even looked back in the fridge again to be sure I wasn’t overlooking something. Still no turkey.

What to do but go ask John if he’d brought the turkey in the house. No. So where’s the turkey? For a moment, I wondered whether that morning’s dog had gotten into the barn and dragged the thing away. Nah—it would have made more of a mess.

Then I remembered it was Wednesday, the day the food pantry people come for the veggies we donate to community families every week. The person picking up surely must have thought the turkey was another donation. That made sense—but we were still short a turkey. The pantry only runs until noon on Wednesdays. Now three o’clock in the afternoon, surely we were too late to get the turkey back.

Every Tuesday, I send an email to the wonderful friend who picks up our veggies to tell her what we have. I looked back at that week’s email and saw that I had mentioned that the turkey was on the top shelf because I needed to let her know the veggies were on the second shelf rather than the top this week. Once I re-read the note, I realized that she must have sent someone else for the pick-up. Even though the turkey part of the message was vague, I knew she would never have interpreted it to mean “take the turkey.” On the other hand, someone less familiar with our arrangement certainly could think a turkey donation accompanied the vegetables.

Since the pantry was closed for the day, I tried to call and email my friend but couldn’t reach her. Now the need for logistics took hold. It wasn’t that we minded the turkey having gone to the pantry, but we still needed a turkey—and it was 4 PM the day before Thanksgiving. Would we really be able to find an organic turkey at this late hour? I called the store where we’d bought the missing turkey. No, they were out—but they hoped we could find one.

John jumped in the truck for his second trip of the day to the neighboring town while I called to reserve a turkey—hopefully. Yes, they had an organic turkey—21 pounds, which was plenty—and they’d hold it for him. When John got home, he said everyone in the meat department had a good laugh about our “donation.”

I was glad, in fact, not to cook that big turkey. We had plenty at our Thanksgiving meal, with most of it—potatoes, leeks, squash, onions, carrots, beets, herbs—grown on our own farm. We rushed around getting everything on the table until, finally, we could sit down to eat as I whispered “What have I forgotten?” to John. The gluten-free cornbread stuffing was especially good this year with Oregon hazelnuts from John’s mother (see recipe below). I had forgotten to cook the kale ribbons for the beet-farro salad, but no one missed it. If I had to forget something, that was the thing to forget. We were complete, seated by a fire in the wood stove as the snow fell gently outside.

Before we recited our annual grace together, I asked everyone to think about all the Thanksgiving dinners sharing something from Stonebridge, from vegetables on the table to the wine we’ve grown and vinted—to the turkey in the barn fridge. We laughed a little at that thought before giving thanks with a poem of gratitude by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

For each new morning with its light

For rest and shelter of the night

For health and food

For love and friends

For everything [that] goodness send

We are thankful.

Between the meal and dessert, a few of us headed out for a breezy farm walk. Dusted with snow, the grass in the prairie flower garden waved like white caps on the ocean. I love the winter garden for its call to rest instead of weed.

IMG_5688After the heat of the walk turned to chill, we headed back to the Sunflower Room for pumpkin and pecan pies, dishes to wash, and games to play. As the sun set and the snow fell, everyone went home, and John and I took the leftovers into the house. He’ll make turkey soup with the roasted vegetables and turkey; I’ll make soup from the remains of the spiced squash scooped out from its skin and pureed with coconut milk. With all the leftovers (including pumpkin pie for breakfast), we won’t need to go anywhere for a wintery while.

When my pantry friend called to apologize for the mix-up, I told her not to worry about it. Other than the stress of the moment when I worried we’d have no turkey at all, everything turned out well. I didn’t have to wrangle a 30-pounder into our oven and another family had a nice organic turkey that should make lots and lots of post-Thanksgiving sandwiches. I’d learned my usual precautionary paranoia comes in handy sometimes when it says “check the turkey” the day before rather than 6 AM Thanksgiving morning. Imagine our surprise if it hadn’t gone missing until then—a circumstance for which we offered thanks. And we have a good story with which to remember this very Thanksgiving, a time of chaos exchanged for a time of deep bounty, a reminder of gratitude for all we have and can share. For this and so much more, we are thankful.

 

Stonebridge Gluten Free Cornbread Stuffing

Makes enough for a 9 x 13 cake pan (Serves 15 but double if you’ve got a big crowd and want some inside the turkey too)

Ingredients (veggies and nuts can be prepared the night before and stored in the fridge):

1 package Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free Cornbread Mix (read the package carefully to be sure it’s GF)—prepared two days ahead of time in a square pan as directed and cut vertically into ½ inch rows in the pan to dry (cover lightly with foil as it dries). I prefer Bob’s Red Mill Glute-Free to his non-GF cornbread—it rises higher and has a moister texture for the stuffing.

3 large carrots, grated, about 2 cups

3 leeks, sliced thinly, about 2 cups

1 ½ cups chopped roasted hazelnuts (any nut will do, but hazelnuts are especially good)

One 32-fl oz carton organic vegetable broth

Fresh rosemary and dried sage, chopped finely, a tablespoon or so or both, depending on your herb tastes

Salt and pepper to taste (a tsp or two salt and some cranks of pepper)

 

Preheat oven to 375. Place a piece of parchment paper on the bottom of a 9 x 13 cake pan and oil the bottom and sides, especially the corners (or just oil really well without parchment).

In quite large bowl, mix the cornbread cubes (breaking them into ½ cubes when needed), grated carrots, sliced leeks, chopped hazelnuts, herbs, salt, and pepper. Pour the box of veggie broth evenly throughout the mix, turning with a large spoon to moisten all the cubes.

Place the mixture in the cake pan.

Bake for 20 minutes. Cover with foil (leave it unattached for venting) and bake another 30-40 minutes (keep an eye on it for over-browning.)

For our spiced squash recipe and more on Stonebridge Thanksgivings, see the chapter “Putting By” in A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography.

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Should the Haunting Remain: A Review of An American Ghost by Hannah Nordhaus

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My first encounter with ghosts was at the Avery House, one of Ft. Collins’ earliest and loveliest homes turned event venue and arts council office where I volunteered once a week. I’d heard a vague rumor about the Avery family ghosts but wasn’t expecting to run into them on the second floor when I was alone in the house one day. I can’t say that I saw them, only that I felt their sad presence, more sorrowful than malevolent. I wasn’t frightened but I slipped quietly back down the stairway anyway, thinking it best to leave them alone in their grief.

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My second ghostly encounter was in a Queen Anne-era bed and breakfast in Denver when I woke one night to an angry spirit hovering near the four-poster bed. Although the light, or aura, I suppose it’s called, of the ghost was bright red, somehow I knew it wasn’t there to scare me and I went easily back to sleep. Since I hadn’t felt threatened and no one had ever claimed a ghost in that house before, I didn’t mention it when I checked out the next morning. If a ghost isn’t bothering me in particular, I guess I’m willing to leave it alone.

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These experiences seem to make me less a sceptic than Hannah Nordhaus in her recent book, American Ghost: A Family’s Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest. But perhaps it’s easier to believe in a former resident haunting an historic home when the ghost isn’t one’s own great-great-grandmother.

As with the best of genealogical narratives, American Ghost by award-winning journalist and historian Hannah Nordhaus is really two stories: the story being investigated and the story of the investigation itself. In American Ghost, Nordhaus researches the life of her great-great-grandmother Julia Stabb, who followed her husband Abraham to Santa Fe after their 1865 marriage in Germany. The elegant home Abraham built for Julia is today known as La Posada, a hotel believed to be haunted by Julia’s ghost.

Using family diaries, historical biographies, and government and church records, Nordhaus reveals how Julia’s life was intertwined with the early days of Santa Fe’s settlement, from city planning to religion to commerce, for the Stabbs were a leading family in Santa Fe’s history, helping establish its development from a Western outpost to an important cultural and commercial center.

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However, it’s not just Julia’s life that stands at the center of Nordhaus’ book: Julia’s death and its probable cause take Nordhaus into the realm of psychics, 19th-century “women’s cures” and charlatans, and a family history of mental illness and suicide.
This second story in American Ghost of Nordaus’s efforts to find the truth of Julia’s life and death is just as interesting as the first. Here we follow Nordhaus to some seemingly seedy places as she consults those who claim the ability to commune with Julia’s ghost. We follow Nordhaus, too, as she travels with her mother to visit her family’s burial ground in the Jewish cemetery in Lugde, Germany, and to Theresienstadt, the infamous Nazi propaganda death camp where some of Nordaus’s relatives perished. Even though these events happened after Julia’s death, the weight of Nordhaus’s family history draws us further into Julia’s sorrow.DSC_0814
Like all good ghost stories, American Ghost doesn’t attempt to persuade us as to whether ghosts really exist: we can enjoy the story while still remaining a cynic. I don’t intend this review to be a spoiler, so I won’t share what Nordhaus does and does not find. You’ll have to read the book to find out how Julia died and whether Nordhaus believes in her great-great-grandmother’s ghostly presence or not. But I will share Nordhaus’s conclusion about the role ghost stories play in our early 21st-century fascination with “reality” driven narratives: “This is what I’ve come to understand about ghost stories: it’s not so much the ghost that keeps the dead alive to us as it is the story.” For Nordhaus, “intuitive and emotional truths lie at the heart of most of the stories we tell ourselves. It is the truths between the facts that tell us who we are.”

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In American Ghost, Nordhaus does provide her great-great-grandmother Julia a voice through uncovering her story, but will gaining a voice quiet Julia’s troubled spirit and set her free from haunting the La Posada hotel? That’s a question beyond Nordhaus’s book, but one connoisseurs of ghost stories should consider. In the end, don’t we want some mystery to remain, some trace of the ghostly presence to linger? After all, we may run into one ourselves someday, leaving us with our own ghost story to tell.

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Introducing the Clarifier Project

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One cement wastewater tank, circa 1950.

Two visionary artists.

11 years.

13 birds.

325 volunteers.

450 buckets of water.

800 pounds of grout.

60,000 tiles.

Together they add up to the Clarifier Project, a community-based public art collaboration along the St Vrain river in Lyons, Colorado.

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The Clarifier Project was organized by Lyons artists Priscilla Cohan and Cathy Rivers, who approached the town about using the abandoned wastewater tank near the river for community art. Rather than view the outdated concrete structure as an obsolete edifice in need of demolition, the artists envisioned it as the basis for an ambitious cooperative mosaic.

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The design of the mosaic is based on the cycle of life symbolized by four trees made of Lyons redstone representing the four seasons along our Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. As you stroll around the clarifier tank, you can follow seasonal changes through various progressions, including the zodiac, evolving shades of flora, and varieties of birds seen at particular times during the year.

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Elementary and high school students created the ceramic leaves for the trees; local elders in The Golden Gang crafted the pottery sun; one family intricately pieced each glass-tiled bird. Individuals donated tiles, broken dishes, and many unique items to the design—a doll’s head, blown-glass paperweights, and a lipstick tube are just a few of the items among the 60,000 pieces covering the tank’s 96-foot circumference of concrete.

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The clarifier tank was the original wastewater treatment facility for Lyons. As local historian and institutional memory-keeper LaVerne Johnson reminded us at the opening, before the clarifier was built in 1950, every one had an outhouse. LaVerne quipped that the outhouses that are still around came in handy during the flood (I happen to know that the one in the old cemetery got some use, much to a patrolling police officer’s surprise).

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In fact, one of the reasons the town was evacuated was because of the loss of the entire septic system. As folks grimly joked, “People had to go because people had to go.” While operational today, the current wastewater treatment plant located just beyond the old tank is still in the process of rebuilding following the flood (a mirror in the mosaic provides a bridge between the old clarifier and the new, modern facility).

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Begun nine years before the 2013 flood that evacuated the town amidst tremendous damage, the Clarifier Project has come to symbolize the power of community to heal itself. While the rushing floodwater did reach the tank (the high water mark is commemorated with its own tile), the mosaic, which was still in process, was not significantly destroyed. Instead, the disaster strengthened the public commitment to the project’s completion.

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This past weekend marked the two-year anniversary of the Front Range flood, the perfect time to gather as a community in celebration of this amazing structure. Even our governor showed up to congratulate the artists and volunteers for the perseverance required for a project of this scope.

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The project isn’t finished; landscaping is the next phase, with plans to integrate the Clarifier into the natural riverscape.

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Our town’s healing isn’t complete, either—178 homes were lost, many of which still await demolition, and many friends and families won’t be returning to the community.

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This project, though, reminds us that beauty lies along the same river that created chaos and destruction just two years ago. I’m grateful to Priscilla and Cathy for their vision of collaborative, place-based art and to the volunteers for their hours of work. I only spent one afternoon grouting tiles at The Clarifier, but it was enough to help me recognize the power of fulfilling a dream, one tile at a time.

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