a boat passing

hidden currents
churning, water
neverstill yearning to
yearning to,
yearning to,
curling to
cuuuuuuurl water

Decoration Day

The Martyrs of the Race Course dedication from the USslave blog
Memorial day has been set aside for the living to remember the dead.

It began in 1865 -- 150 years ago this month.

The Civil War had just ended when what is now thought to be the first memorial celebration began.

As Historian David Blight wrote for the New York Times a few years ago:

By the spring of 1865, after a long siege and prolonged bombardment, the beautiful port city of Charleston, S.C., lay in ruin and occupied by Union troops. Among the first soldiers to enter and march up Meeting Street singing liberation songs was the 21st United States Colored Infantry; their commander accepted the city’s official surrender. Whites had largely abandoned the city, but thousands of blacks, mostly former slaves, had remained, and they conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war. The largest of these events, forgotten until I had some extraordinary luck in an archive at Harvard, took place on May 1, 1865.

As Blight tells us, the freed slaves of the city got to work digging up the bodies of 257 Union soldiers. These men had been dumped into a mass grave at a Confederate prison camp located at Washington race track. They worked for two weeks to dig proper graves, landscaping the cemetery and intering the dead with the honor they deserved.

They called them the Martyrs of the Racecourse -- recognized them as men who had died fighting for their freedom. On May first, after the reburial, there was a parade of thousands through the streets of Charleston lead by black children singing and carring flowers to decorate the graves.

Afterwards they did what we do on Memorial day, enjoyed picnics in the fine spring weather.

The first spring of peace a year later -- those first flowers blooming amid the grief-filled anniversaries of wars end  -- brought out many to mark graves with their sorrow.

In April of 1866 a group of women came out to mark the graves of the those that had fallen at the battle of Shiloh. Deep in the south, the final resting places of the Union dead had gone untended. Disturbed by the bare and neglected stones, the women Columbia, Miss. placed flowers in memorium of the Union as well as the Confederate dead.

In the wake of the Civil War -- in May of 1866 the town of Waterloo, New York. Flags around town were flown at half-staff and business closed to remember those who died in the Civil War.  The great conflict had been a big bloody war in what was still then a small country. It didn't take long for every family to be personally touched by casualties of the conflict. The graves that were decorated on that day were men and boys known to the living on a first name basis. According to the Department of Veteran's Affairs, that was the birthplace of the holiday.

It was a war when brother fought brother, but it was also a war that ended with burning resentment smoldering in the ashes, still glowing in the aftermath of the Confederate surrender. The war had ended in April, barely end a year before, followed by the murder of President Lincoln. This first decoration days were small and local.

Yet, thus began the reknitting of a country that had been rent asunder during the conflict. Twenty-five other communities -- mostly in the South -- claimed to have originated decoration day ceremonies that April with such simple acts of honoring the dead of both the North and South.

In 1868 Decoration Day was officially established by the union veterans organization the Grand Army of the Republic by Maj. General John Logan.

That year they stood at the home of the opposing Confederate general -- Gen. Robert E. Lee -- and gave speeches. His family home lay just across the river from the nation's capital. By then it had been taken to form Arlington National Cemetery. Flowers, hymns were sung and prayers said for those who had gave the ultimate sacrifice under arms, regardless of what uniform they wore.

So Decoration Day as it was then called, was moment of healing, of respecting and reminding those who survived of not only what was lost, but what was needed to move into the future. By World War I the holiday was expanded to honor all those who died in service to the country.

Yet it does us well to remember that the origins of the holiday are in honor not of kin and neighbor, but the unknown martyrs that lay in unmarked graves. Men and women who sacrificed for us, without ever knowing our names.

A century and half on from the end of the Civil War we still find ourselves a nation divided. We still take up sides in increasingly inflexible ideologies. Whereas the nation has often had a leadership suffused with veterans to guide us, today they are few in number and have been on the decline. Veterans serve to bring needed perspective when the authorization for putting troops in battle is up for debate. We honor them and rely on their leadership.

Like so many, I didn't serve in the military because I didn't have to. Others went off to serve in my stead. Others have gone off for generations to fight for those of us here at home. I guess I always thought that this was a day to decorate the grave of a loved one who had fallen in service to our country.

What I have learned is that it is more profound than that. These first celebrations were anonymous. Those that lay in an unmarked mass grave in Charlotte and untended stones in Columbia. This day honors their sacrifice because they took up arms to fight for the lives of people they would never meet - for they fight and die for something greater than themselves.

We do not need to know their names to honor them. We need only pause to honor and try and understand the greater arc that can bring us together.


Read David Blights "Forgetting Why We Remember"
Read my traditional memorial day post "One of Many on Memorial Day"

The Mental Landscape of Mt St Helens

Gather us together - any of us that lived here on that sunny blue-sky day in May 1980 - and we will tell you where we were, what we were doing the day "the mountain" blew.
Thirty-five years ago today, she changed the way we thought about our landscape as dramatically as she rearranged the landscape itself. We can no longer take these snowy white gods for granted.

We have been told in no uncertain terms.
Before that year, of course, Mt. St. Helens wasn't "the mountain," but just one of several that dotted the view, along with Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood - Loo-wit, Pahtoe, and Wy'east in Native American legend.
Loo-wit was a magic mountain of slow time - berry picking in the spring and summer and a cool mountain lake for swimming. She of the generous campfires. She of youth and beauty - the prettiest of the mountains, it was always said.
It was jagged Hood - Wy'east - that had been rumbling longer, with little quakes now and then just to let us know he was sleeping, not dead.

According to legend, Wy'east was one of the great spirit's two restless, quarreling sons. The sons made the ground shake as they hurled rocks at each other. Covered with skiers, painted in Portland landscapes, Hood was the mountain everyone said would one day blow. He was the one we feared.
Loo-wit - St. Helens - was the peacemaker, the homely old woman granted eternal beauty. Loo-wit -- less developed and less visited than Mt. Hood -- we took for granted her peace and hospitality.
But in the spring of 1980, St. Helens woke up, rocking and fuming, sending us smoke signals that something big was going to happen. The local news ran daily updates from her press conferences. Geologists issued warnings.
She had been at this for a few months - long enough for it all to become kind of a nervous joke.

In fact, we joked about it that Sunday morning, May 18.
In Lyle, Wash., a little town tucked in where the Klickitat meets the Big River, it was Pioneer Days - the annual parade and picnic celebration. On a plateau above town our 4-H leader Gail Farris, was orchestrating barrel racing and pole-bending events from the little booth in the open air arena, while we waited our turn in the field outside.
I don't remember any sound - distant thunder if anything. The first thing I recall is Gail reading a report that Mt. St. Helens had had a major eruption, and we all made a joke. Nervous laughter. The event went on. I remember thinking about volcanoes and what an eruption looked like. The only kind I'd ever seen were Hawaiian volcanoes - fountains of lava. I remembered scenes of scientists taking samples a few feet from the lava rivers. I didn't think we'd be close enough to feel any effect.
It was finally my turn at pole bending. I remember whipping around the final pole to face west, toward the finish line. I saw it then - like the biggest thunderhead I could imagine, only dark, dark gray, and low to the ground. It was so massive, so muscular - a mountain in the sky.
It seemed to be moving fast, coming our way - and my horse and I stopped dead in our tracks, frozen for long seconds, staring. Then we bolted for the gate. Outside the arena, horses and people moved like excited bees outside a hive. We rushed our horses into the barn, pulling off their saddles.
The ash began to fall like a sinful snow. My dad, a volunteer emergency medical technician and always prepared, handed out surgical masks. We drove the short distance home worrying about our horses, worrying about our friends. The windshield wipers made a sickly scraping sound against the ash.
We sat in our little trailer, tried to watch TV. We saw the gray destruction sweeping along the Toutle River - houses and trees destroyed by the lahar, an instantaneous melt of 1,000-year-old glaciers. The ash-engorged flood of flowing concrete scoured the mountainside, like a freight train, destroying or incorporating everything in its path - forests of trees, houses, bulldozers - and even crushing steel bridges. We saw the mushroom cloud looming high in the air. Live TV from Yakima, Wash., showed the city to the east of us cloaked in inky black. Outside it was dark, like dusk in midwinter - nothing like the May morning of a few hours earlier.
Later we heard them read the names of the missing. Then the dead. Snowplows pushed the ash off city streets in The Dalles, Ore. We shoveled it, swept it, but it just floated up in a gritty dust.
Pretty white St. Helens - we called her "The Mountain" now - had torn herself in half, sullied herself in dark gray. Her trees lay prostrate to her, her new geography unrecognizable. She continued to crack and rumble. And for a while we wondered if worse would come. Eventually the fear of another big eruption quieted in our minds.
The ash stayed with us, floating up from the hooftracks as we rode our horses through the fields, and blowing out of the vents in our car.
We see St. Helens every now and then when we cross the Astoria Bridge. My wife, Amy, will point to the blunted white figure upriver when the clouds part just right. But we don't think of her much, except when we sit around with friends and play "Where were you when ..." It's like the Kennedy assassination, or the Challenger disaster, or 9/11 for us old Northwesterners - a permanent landmark in our memory.
The eruption launched a revolution in science, a greater understanding of how ecosystems survive such events, how nature can recover from devastation. How chaos is the melody of vigorous life.
It changed our thinking too. In many ways, Loo-wit taught us more about life than death. In this generous fire, we learned so much.
Love of nature is nothing without respect. Loo-wit seduced with youth and beauty, but it was her power that made the ground beneath our feet. Mountains - our mountains - are living things, and we are frighteningly humble in their presence.
It's hard to believe that was 35 years ago. 
It is hard to believe we could ever take a mountain for granted.
A version of this essay originally appeared in the Christian Science Monitor in 2005. You can find it online in its original form here. 

Immigrant Song

My grandmother came to the US on the Gripsholm.
She was just 18 years old. 
The natives have been complaining about the immigrants for a good 500 years at least.

The first explorers didn't stay long and so they weren't too much of a problem. They would come when the weather was nice, but one winter was about all they could take.

My people first arrived on these shores in 1644. The Gagné brothers had packed up their families and sailed across the Atlantic to New France. They were the early French colonizers of the New World - which, let's face it, was someone else's old world at the time.

Unlike the Coureur des boisVoyageurs and soldiers that had come to Quebec before them, they were coming to stay, to colonize the King's few acres of snow. They were to be a counterbalance to the growing population of English and Spanish colonizers.

Pierre did not live long after his arrival, but Louis carved out a farm above the St. Lawrence river. Both brothers had sailed from La Rochelle with children and pregnant wives in tow. Louis and his wife Marie leased the land from a corporation, but by 1650 a different corporate land owner --Company of Beaupre -- gave him a land grant provided that he build a house on the property by the following year.

If you go to the town of Sainte Anne de Beaupre in Quebec today, you will find a house built on those stone foundations. This house measured just 24 by 22 feet, but the walls are two feet thick.

The home the Gagne brothers left behind in France
(source Gagnier History Website)
The Gagne bothers were pioneers -- immigrants sent by the King to make a new life in a strange world. They braved a dangerous journey with their young children and pregnant wives in search of a better life with hope of a brighter future than they faced back in Ige.

Some were welcoming in the in the land they found, but not everyone. Louis was one of eight people killed and captured by Mohawks in during the Beaver Wars in 1660.

His widow, Marie, was 41 years old and the mother of eight children at the time of his death.

Despite the passing of Pierre and Louis, the Gagnes were fruitful and multiplied in the new world. One of Louis and Marie's sons -- Ignace Gagne born in 1656 in Quebec -- is the father of a long line of "greats" leading directly to my Pépé.

My grandfather, Joseph Gagné was born in Quebec more than two centuries later in 1911. He grew up, for a time at least, as a migrant worker. Moving back and forth across the northern boarder with his family to the United States to work in the textile mills of New England.  When he was 18, he decided to stay in the United States and found work as a mechanic. Eventually he became a chauffeur for a well-to-do family in -- ironically -- New Rochelle, New York. There he met a recent Swedish immigrant named Edith Marta Palmgren who worked as a cook in the big house.

Edith had left her family behind and boarded a ship to the New World when she was still a teenager. No one was calling it the New World by that time, but America still was a land of hope of a better life. Many people watched their children sail across the seas to find a better life.

They were married, had children. During World War II, Joseph -- still a Canadian citizen -- continued his job for Electric Boat building submarines. On the 4th of July 1943, their daughter Alice was born.

Alice is my mother. My mother tells the story of how they didn't bother getting their US citizenship until much later - until after their children had graduated high school.

Patrick Cooper Hunt fled Ireland in black 1849. Starvation was all he left behind. He had an Uncle in New Jersey, so he sailed for the Port of Philadelphia in search of a better life. He was 19 years old. Ireland at the time was occupied by England. The native Irish were oppressed. The legal system did not recognize their language. Indeed, family lore has it that Hunt was just an anglicized version of the Gaelic -- since his Gaelic surname would have been made illegal .

Patrick Cooper Hunt and his children did well in the US. His great - grandson worked for NASA and military designing things that go into space, and things that go boom. My father John Hunt designed a lot of other things too, of course. He even designed that grocery checkout scanner that you find in every store.

Researching my family history left me with a lot of great stories to tell. Sure, I have roots that go deep on American soil.

Yet the idea that strikes me most is how my story is a story of immigrations. Centuries apart, young fathers and mothers, teenagers often, gambling on the unknown in hopes of improving their lot.

That is what immigrants bring -- the search for something better. They struggle, risk, strive and hope for a better life.  They come to the United States -- often exploited, working long hours at the worst jobs -- sacrificing to create a future for their children. They build businesses, they invent things. In so doing, they help the economy of the entire nation.

Given the short sighted nature of our politics and our nation's failure to invest in the education and infrastructure that will build a better world, a little immigrant thinking is not such a bad thing.