Aldo and the Bristleheads

Odd cowgirls get the Reds

Sand County Almanac

If we love an old-time tomato, how bad can we be... actually?

Aldo as in Aldo Leopold, who celebrated the forgotten places where small animals live their lives. Such as the drainage canal in Antigo, Wisconsin, down behind the machine shop on the way to the CNW railroad roundhouse. There was a rainbow iridescence to the water and misshapen frogs and snails just a short walk from the “Farmer’s Home,” the bar where my cousin Jack Schilleman and I would drink some beers on occasion when we had grown up. But this is about before I “grew up,” and a memory of Aldo Leopold, a naturalist and writer who made my threadbare Wisconsin hometown a place of beauty and wonder.

In rural Antigo, the 1950s saw our service groups, the redoubtable Lions, mom and pop store Kiwanians and the Rotarians — usually undertakers, lawyers, the occasional school principal — manning the barricades of Eisenhower prosperity with weenie roasts and basketball tournaments. Then came Sputnik, a recession, McCarthyism and denial. The state’s educational system was under attack as overly ‘progressive,’ and the unions retreated to urban enclaves. America was first, but nobody could rightly say what America was apart from the weenie roasts and basketball games.

As I struggled with Latin, algebra, zits and nocturnal emissions, Wisconsin was discovering TV pundits: not the closely-cropped overstuffed bristleheads of the 21st Century, but Bishop Sheen, Arthur Godfrey, Lawrence Welk and Ed Sullivan as our spiritual guides. Joe McCarthy was the senator and Mel Laird, later to be Richard M. Nixon’s Secretary of War, was our congressman. Tailgunner Joe was a loudmouth and a drunk, but Mel did his homework and became the yardstick with which I would measure future politicians. I worked as a teenage pin boy at the alleys behind Antigo’s Hotel Quigley and took a shortcut to work through the aisles of the occupied rooms. Mel would be there, packing up after his regular constituent hours at the Post Office. His door was always left open — a congressman must be above reproach — and he made his own bed before housekeeping got there. He used it to spread out the daily newspapers for clipping. “Hiya, kid,” from Mel. “Hello, Mr. Laird,” from me.

Arrivederci Martha

From A Monument to the Pigeon, Aldo Leopold, 1947.

“Trees still live that, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a few decades hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.

“We grieve because no living man will ever see again the onrush of victorius birds, sweeping a path for spring across the March skies, chasing the defeated winter from all of the woods and prairies.

“There will always be pigeons in books and in museums but they are dead to all hardships and to all delights. They cannot dive out of a cloud, nor clap their wings in thunderous applause. They know no urge of seasons; they feel no kiss of sun, no lash of wind and weather, they live forever by not living at all.”

Martha, the last of the passenger pigeons resides, stuffed and mounted, at the Smithsonian. Reconstituting the species from her viable DNA has been under discussion. For more on the extinction of the passenger pigeon, Martha, George, and their human analogs, you are invited to view “The Greatest Zoological Wonder” on Rain of Frogs (this blog).

Safe for Cows

“[...] Montague Stevens saw only the surface of the land he hunted over. His active days afield coincided with the advent of erosion in the cow country, but he did not see it. The better to keep up with his hounds, he practiced riding his horse across the cavernous arroyos which were then invading the fertile valleys, but he did not recognize the invasion as something new in history, nor did he perceive its cause: the terrific overgrazing practiced by the early cowmen. Small wonder, then, that less intelligent men still fail to perceive that something more important than bears is departing from the western range. New Mexico’s grizzlies succumbed visibly to trap, gun, and poisoned bait, but New Mexico’s fertile valleys slipped down the Rio Grande in the night. Neither will return.

“The University of New Mexico has done well to preserve this saga of how the state was made safe for cows. How the state is to be made safe from cows is a saga yet to be written...”

— Aldo Leopold in Aldo Leopold’s Southwest, edited by David E. Brown & Neil B. Carmony, University of New Mexico Press, 1990, pg. 220.


Aldo Leopold in Wisconsin

Aldo Leopold in Wisconsin

My Bohemian grandmother had a sure-fire springtime tapeworm remedy. A no-nonsense woman of old world resolve, she stood by as we drank it down, all of it. There was something vaguely adventurous about the thought of having parasites, but no cheating on the sulphur and molasses.

In Antigo, Wisconsin I would finish high school, enroll in the Langlade County Normal School, a two-year teachers college, endure eight weeks of practicum in a one room school and eventually drop out and run away to Chicago, then New York. That leaves a lot of lonely years marooned in Wisconsin unaccounted for. Scratch lonely. Science fiction paperbacks from the corner grocery and church rummage sales rounded out my social calendar, plus hiding out after school in the Carnegie endowment library when there were chores to be avoided. There I discovered A Sand County Almanac and its wondrous line drawings. The next year I would live in a sixth floor walkup on Ave. B of NYC’s Lower East Side, strange turf for a prairie boy. There I read Sand County and everything Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote.

I became aware of Aldo Leopold by misadventure. Not my death, but my father’s. Bob Hunter went out for dinner with Claire my mother in 1952 and never came back again. He choked to death, strangled on corned beef and cabbage; those were the days before the Heimlich maneuver. The popularization of the Heimlich was based upon the premise that if enough people heard about this simple life-saving riff, that someone really important might one day be saved. Just in case they had something to say. For posterity? Westbrook Pegler said so in the Hearst papers of the day. It was in the paper; it had to be so. Pegler was the bristlehead of the 1940s. If Bob Hunter had anything weighty on his mind, his posterity — me — never got to hear about it. The last, best, biggest thought Bob had shared with the family was about the New South. He died there and my mother, sister and I were stuck in a palmetto wilderness: Pinellas County, Florida. We packed ourselves in the back of my Uncle Julius’ great big pink Cadillac — potato farming had its perquisites — and Antigo, Wisconsin was the next stop.

Flashback. The same year that my pop pronounced upon the future of the New South, Aldo Leopold died. Bob Hunter would outlive him by four years.

Bristleheads, a choice?

The thought came this morning that I had survived both childhood and Wisconsin. In the 1940s and 50s America was a police state, albeit flatulent and forgetful. Nationwide, the wingnuts yet flourish. And of the Rush Limbaughs and the Glenn Becks, the Franklin Grahams — moping in their dark places, would-be gatekeepers filtering and defining popular taste. Here there be bimbos.  Thus the gargoyles of my childhood nightmares, grinning pitchmen slavering through the sleet of the family cathode ray tube, live on in our Brave New Millennium. There was no Fox News in 1952, television hardly at all north of Green Bay. No Paul Harvey. However, we enjoyed the blessings of Joe McCarthy, Bishop Sheen and HUAC all the same.

If I could choose, I guess H. V. Kaltenborn would be my bristlehead of choice. I was a kid in the 40s and who you hear first, as with Mel Laird, defines the rest as Johnny-come-latelies. Kaltenborn had those rare commodities Rush and Glenn lack: courtesy, brains and grace. I can’t help notice that over the years, the quality of bullshit has declined.

I wish we could afford all of them, these gatekeepers — the gentlemanly farmer-ecologists and the discoherent broadcast bristleheads, but we can’t, despite the high entertainment value of the wingnuts — America is broke and running out of time.

Aldo and the Silphium

“Every July I watch eagerly a certain country graveyard that I pass in driving to and from my farm. It is time for a prairie birthday, and in one corner of this graveyard lives a surviving celebrant of that once important event.

“It is an ordinary graveyard, bordered by the usual spruces, and studded with the usual pink granite or white marble headstones, each with the usual Sunday bouquet of red or pink geraniums. It is extraordinary only in being triangular instead of square, and in harboring, within the sharp angle of its fence, a pin-point remnant of the native prairie on which the graveyard was established in the 1840s. Heretofore unreachable by sythe or mower, this yard-square relic of original Wisconsin gives birth, each July, to a man-high stalk of compass plant or cutleaf Silphium, spangled with saucer-sized yellow blooms resembling sunflowers. It is the sole remnant of this plant along this highway, and perhaps the sole remnant in the western half of our county. What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked.

“This year I found the Silphium in first bloom on 24 July, a week later than usual; during the last six years the average date was 15 July.

“When I passed the graveyard again on 3 August, the fence had been removed by a road crew, and the Silphium cut. It is easy now to predict the future; for a few years my Silphium will try in vain to rise above the mowing machine, and then it will die. With it will die the prairie epoch.

“The Highway Department says that 100,000 cars pass yearly over this route during the three summer months when the Silphium is in bloom. In them must ride at least 100,000 people who have ‘taken’ what is called history, and perhaps 25,000 who have ‘taken’ what is called botany. Yet I doubt whether a dozen have seen the Silphium, and of these hardly one will notice its demise. If I were to tell a preacher of the adjoining church that the road crew has been burning history books in his cemetery, under the guise of mowing weeds, he would be amazed and uncomprehending. How could a weed be a book?”

— Aldo Leopold: A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There, 1948,
Oxford University Press, New York, 1987, pp. 44-46.

The Cherokee Purples

Here in Washington County, Maine I feed the wintering-over birds, wonder at wandering wildcats, bears, beavers and seals, moose and deer who acknowledge me, when they do, with a passing nod. My kitchen vegetable patch on the banks of the Pennamaquan gives the lie to any strictly held allegiances. Yes, I fertilize and when threatened by invasion have been known to apply lime sulphur and the occasional spritz of poison. There is this story of mine starring a race of heritage tomatoes, Cherokee Purples, an alternative past leading to a benign present where virtue is rewarded with flowers and tears, fabricated memories to paper over a shabby reality:

“... a sliver of land, tiny but important when you consider that a railroad track connected to each side of the ten-foot swath, a contested bit of Cherokee territory uncontested, then forgotten and obscured by the Civil War. The tomatoes — the Cherokee Purples — are kind of shy when it comes to publicity, and I’m not a Faulkner or a Fitzgerald. But those damned tomatoes have been dogging my life ever since I met up with them. See, people will have their little dramas that seem pretty important at the time. But the Cherokee Purples, while not indifferent to human suffering, have their own agenda. Who’s to know what’s important to a tomato? So I’ll just tell my story and let the tomatoes look after their own business...”

If we love an old-time tomato, how bad can we be... actually? Then I think about the bristleheads and return my viscera to its customary grim, tight knot.

Notes & References:

[Mel Laird note] Why should an aging hippie, beatnik, whatever, have any nice words for a Republican congressman from Wisconsin’s potato plains? Well, a funny thing happened to Mel Laird on the way to Armageddon: “During Richard Nixon’s first term, when I served as secretary of defense, we withdrew most U.S. forces from Vietnam while building up the South’s ability to defend itself. The result was a success — until Congress snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by cutting off funding for our ally in 1975. Washington should follow a similar strategy now, but this time finish the job properly...”

[H.V. Kaltenborn note] Walter Winchell had none of those graces, a man out of place who would have been right at home here in Century 21. Perhaps the reason Damon Runyon fictionalized him with a gussied-up alias, Waldo Winchester.

Leopold quotes: Chris W. Johnson
The Story: Cherokee Purple

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