Josna Rege

286. Foxfire

In 1960s, 2010s, Books, Nature, seasons, Stories, United States, Work on October 12, 2014 at 1:56 am


. . . a name commonly applied to several species of bioluminescent fungi that grow on rotting wood in damp forests (like the Southern Appalachians) during the warmer months (The Foxfire Book)

This evening, feeling melancholy, hard done by, and inclined to self-pity, I went for a short walk in the damp night air. With invisible mists rising all around me, I was in that kind of mood where one begins to wallow in the miserably pleasurable certainty of being misunderstood by the whole world. Slipping on a peacoat and wrapping a woolen shawl several times around my neck, I flung myself dramatically out into the dark, stomping up the hill to the border of our town, where both the sidewalk and the streetlights end abruptly, and striding back down again, like the Grand Old Duke of York in the nursery rhyme.

On the way down I paused for a moment at the quince bush, where one small but perfect specimen the size of an apricot came off in my hand without the slightest resistance. Velvety-cold, it glowed yellow in my cupped palm as I bore it home. Just about hitting my stride as I was coming back into the house again, I reflected that if it had been a different time of day—more likely, if I had been at a different stage of life—I might have gone on walking almost indefinitely. My legs were aching, but from disuse rather than overuse, and I craved adventure, defined, on this Saturday night in October, as just about anything other than grading papers or working on my deferred taxes.


Still bundled up in my outdoor clothes—for in this ornery mood woe betide anyone, myself included, who dared suggest that I might turn up the heat—I huddled in front of my glowing laptop as if it were a fire in a cave of yore and scanned my Facebook feed, prepared to take exception to just about anything. There was a review of a new book about hoarding (which has just been added to the latest DSM) which purported to “depathologize” the practice. After all, one person’s hoarding is another person’s collecting. DSM-5 defines hoarding disorder as characterized by the persistent difficulty of discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of the value others may attribute to these possessions. I curled a misanthropic lip at those “others” who failed to value the items I chose to keep, pathologizing my perfectly harmless predilection for printed matter. Defiantly, I posted a link to the review on the page of my Facebook decluttering group and hoped, like the man in the Monty Python skit who wanted an argument, that someone would take the bait. But no one did; all it drew was a disappointingly cheery Like.

As I glared round the room in search of something else to focus my wrath on, I was overtaken by the thought of what my bookshelves would look like five, fifty years hence if the house were to be abandoned. Years ago Andrew and I had stumbled upon one such scene, in a broken-down barn in Concord in the woods of Old Road to Nine-Acre Corner (the longest street name I have ever encountered, by the way; the street sign reads, “Old Road to N.A.C”), where we retrieved a rain-soaked old medical manual and attempted to restore it, but in vain. With my eyes in soft focus, I contemplated the wall of books in the dining room, considering how rarely I actually opened any of them, and wondering what they really meant to me. It was then that the Foxfire books shimmered into view.


I plucked the first volume from the shelf and opened it—after how many years! Re-reading the introduction reminded me of the project, begun in 1966 by an idealistic and highly educated young English teacher who started a magazine in Rabun Gap, Georgia, in which high-school students interviewed ordinary Appalachian Mountain folk. These were hard-working people who eked out a subsistence living, doing everything, but everything, themselves. Their matter-of-fact accounts of their lives lit up a generation of young people who set out to learn their skills and carry on their tradition of self-sufficiency.

Aunt Arie (The Foxfire Book)

Aunt Arie (The Foxfire Book)

Aunt Arie was an elderly woman who, since the death of her husband Ulysses, had lived by herself in a log cabin with no running water, working, working, all the livelong day. The interviewer asked her:

Doesn’t being here alone bother you sometimes?

Aunt Arie freely acknowledged that it got “mighty lonesome”, that she was afraid of snakes, and that the foxes had never allowed her to keep any of her chickens: “they catched th’last one of ‘em.” She did not downplay the difficulties, but neither did she have any regrets:

We made a good life here, but we put in lots’a’time. Many an’many a night I’ve been workin’ when two o’clock come in th’mornin’—cardin’n’spinnin’n’sewin’. They want me t’sell an’move away from here but I won’t do it. It’s just home—‘at’s all. I spent my happiest days here (Foxfire 1: 30).

I looked over at the little quince, still glowing, in the wooden fruit bowl with two pears from my father’s pear tree. Tomorrow the rest of the pears had to be picked and put by before they fell to the ground and rotted. I would make pear sauce for the winter. What was the point of my anger? There was no argument to be had and no-one to have it with.



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285. Sometimes a Coincidence

In 2010s, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Nature, places, seasons, Stories, United States on September 29, 2014 at 2:58 pm


I live just west of the Quabbin Reservoir, a massive manmade body of water that serves as a major water supply for Boston. It was created in the 1930s by flooding four small towns in central Massachusetts, whose former residents still gather to remember their homes that are no more. Today the Quabbin is a pristine jewel, a home for endangered bald eagles and a haven for wildlife of all kinds.

My regular commute to work takes me round the Quabbin’s northern edge. On the way my carpool partner and I often encounter great blue herons, wild turkeys, deer, foxes, and occasionally even moose. It’s a beautiful ride that makes the longish drive a positive pleasure, at least when I’m not on automatic pilot, just trying to get there or back as quickly as possible. After some early experimentation, I decided that this route was the most enjoyable of my three shortest options, and now I take it all the time; that is, unless something unexpected happens.

On the Thursday before last, the 18th of September, I had left work early to attend a lecture at UMass Amherst to be delivered by R. Radhakrishnan, an old mentor of mine who is now at UC Irvine. The topic of the talk was “What’s Wrong with Humanism?” and I was looking forward to it very much. At the halfway point on my drive, realizing that I wouldn’t have a chance to eat anything until quite late at night, I stopped to pick up a quick sandwich; which turned out to be a mistake, since when I went to restart the car, my key wouldn’t turn in the ignition. When the kind owner of a nearby repair shop sprayed some graphite in the lock to no avail, and told me that the entire lock would have to be replaced, I gave up on what was wrong with humanism, called AAA, and waited resignedly for the tow truck to arrive.

Because I was out of my immediate area, AAA had to send a tow truck from Ware, a town that had been cut off and left behind by the creation of the Quabbin. (I think of it as rather like the child who got left behind when the Pied Piper of Hamelin led the rest of the children into the mountain, never to return. It seems—admittedly, to an outsider—that it has never since been able to thrive.) The driver was a lean, handsome man of about my age who took the whole thing in his stride and allowed me to ride back home in the cab with him once he had secured my car on the flatbed.

We took a different route from my regular one, a long, slow drive down Route 32 from Petersham through Hardwick, New Braintree, Ware, and Belchertown, hugging the eastern length of Quabbin and then coming round the southern edge. It was lots of fun taking in Route 32, little more than a country lane, from high up in the cab of the tow truck and as he pointed out notable landmarks along the way, I marveled at the fact that I had never travelled this particular stretch of the road in more than 30 years of living in the region. It turned out that he too was an immigrant and had come to the US at the same time I had, nearly 45 years ago; also that he was a Scot and was looking forward with great anticipation to the results of the referendum that night. As fellow-immigrants we talked about our parents and children, dual citizenship, belonging and unbelonging; and as country-dwellers we compared notes about the night-time low temperatures in the past week, guessing at the date of the first killing frost, while the beautiful scenery of rural New England rolled on by, conjuring up inevitable feelings of late-summer nostalgia.

That weekend, my car back on the road now, I had the occasion to take a Sunday drive up the western length of Quabbin again, to visit old friends in Royalston, one of the nine towns in the North Quabbin region. On the way back, my mind full of my To Do list for the coming week, I was suddenly brought up short by a road block. They told me that there had been a bad accident up ahead and that the road would be closed for approximately five hours, so motorists were advised to take a different route. I had only two choices: to return home by a more westerly route or to go all the way around the east side of the Quabbin. Since I had neither a map book nor a global positioning system in my car (just the other day, I recalled with some embarrassment, I had been staunchly defending my choice not to purchase one) and the days were getting shorter, I didn’t want to risk going west through a warren of tiny unmarked roads in the gathering dusk. So I took the easterly option, which involved turning around and going up and around the northern boundary of the Quabbin, and back down and around its western and southern borders—guess what, by exactly the same route I had taken the previous Thursday.

What were the odds, I asked myself, that, not having taken that route ever before, I would be traversing it twice in a three-day period? Suddenly I had a powerful feeling that this was something I was meant to do, even though I had no idea why. I turned around very deliberately, and with a strange sense of the convergences of fate, drove up, around and back down those stunningly beautiful country roads, straining to pay attention to every little detail along the way in case it turned out to be significant. Nearly an hour later I was back home, having seen nothing of note—at least nothing that I was aware of —and still wondering what it had all been about. Surely this was too odd to have been nothing more than a random coincidence?

Over the next couple of days, as late summer pivoted into fall, I shared my story with a couple of my friends and asked them the same question. They too marveled at it, and the eminently sensible explanations they offered were eye-opening for me, but were both more and less obvious than the esoteric answer I had been hoping for. Susan said, “Maybe you needed to have taken the route the first time, on the tow truck, so that you knew the way home the second time round.” Carlos said, “Maybe you should pay closer attention all the time, because you never know when you are going to need to notice something.”

It is often said that there is no such thing as a coincidence. But it is a fact that I drove that never-before-taken route twice in a three-day period. I paid attention the first time, as the friendly tow-truck driver pointed things out to me all along the way, and I certainly paid attention the second time, as I strained to find meaning in what had happened. Both times, I was forced to turn off my usual automatic pilot and take in the beauty of my region with fresh eyes. Both times the experience was worthwhile for its own sake. And both times it took me home. Riffing on Freud, one could suggest that “sometimes a coincidence is just a coincidence.” But is any coincidence ever just a coincidence? Was there something I was meant to learn and have I learned it? The answers are probably staring me in the face.

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284. Step by Step

In 1970s, 2010s, health, Inter/Transnational, Music, Nature, parenting, people, places, Politics, Stories, United States on September 26, 2014 at 11:04 pm
Helen Caldicott

Helen Caldicott

Step by step the longest march can be won, can be won
Many stones can form an arch, singly none, singly none
And by union what we will can be accomplished still
Drops of water turn a mill, singly none singly none.
                    (sung here by Pete Seeger; try it as a round)

In January 1977, I quit my job, the first job that had directly utilized my newly-minted degree in English, and embarked on what would be seven years of intense anti-nuclear activity. What on earth possessed me to do it?

I had been working for about a year as a technical editor at an environmental research firm. Well, that was what it called itself. In fact, it hired itself out to utility companies that operated coal-burning or oil-fired power pants, helping them through the environmental impact process mandated by the government under the provisions of the 1970 Clean Air Act. Throughout 1976 I labored in good faith with obscure, convoluted language (if what I was reading can be graced with that noble word) and returned my marked-up reports to the scientist-writers in the interests of clarity and truth. But as the months wore on something started to become clear, and it wasn’t the prose.

Well, it has a green cover!

Well, it has a green cover!

When the revised drafts were returned, I would look eagerly for the problem passages I had marked up. More often that not, I wasn’t able to find them. When I did, I would discover that they had been moved from the report summary at the beginning of the document into Appendix C at the very end; more often, they had simply been deleted. What finally dawned on me was that I was inadvertently leading the writers—who, it must be remembered, were ultimately working for the electric utilities who owned the power plants—to the very points that they were attempting to cover-up. It turns out that when people are lying, or twisting the truth, their language becomes as contorted as their logic. In my naïveté I had seen myself as serving the public and the cause of clean air and water by helping to deliver clear and accessible environmental impact reports. But in fact I was helping the firm, and the fossil-fuel industry it served, to identify the tell-tale passages in their reports so that they could better conceal or eliminate them altogether, circumventing the environmental regulations rather than cleaning up their act.

This long preamble is to give you some idea of my dispirited frame of mind when I drove up with Andrew to the little coastal town of Seabrook, New Hampshire in August,1976, to attend a rally in opposition to the construction of a for a nuclear power plant to be built on the tidal salt marshes. I can’t remember exactly how we had heard of the event, but I had been alerted to the dangers of nuclear power back in January of that year, before I had even started my job, while fiddling with the radio dial on a cross-country road trip. Driving up the California coast late one night, we tuned in to the voice of an Australian pediatrician, Dr. Helen Caldicott, warning urgently of the health dangers of even low levels of ionizing radiation, and the need to stop the proliferation of nuclear power as a source of electricity. It wasn’t an issue I had been aware of before, but something in what she said or how she said it awoke in me a corresponding sense of urgency, and I resolved to get involved when I returned home. As it turned out, I took the editing job instead and, coming home every night tired from the day’s work, failed to follow up on my earlier resolution until eight months later, when I attended what turned out to be the second public event organized by the then-fledgling Clamshell Alliance.

On August 1, 1976, 18 people entered the Seabrook nuclear power plant’s construction site and were arrested. (Lionel Delevingne)

On August 1, 1976, 18 people entered the Seabrook nuclear power plant’s construction site and were arrested. (Lionel Delevingne)

What I participated in that day was a support and send-off rally for a small group of 18 local anti-nuclear activists who had decided to commit civil disobedience at the construction site to draw attention to the danger posed by the proposed nuclear power plant. They had already attempted to raise their concerns through the regular legal process but had been ignored,Now they felt that they had no recourse left but to put their bodies on the line.

My own feelings of despair and disempowerment informed my emotional responses as Elders of a local Native American tribe inaugurated the rally with a solemn invocation to Mother Earth, and then each person who was about to commit civil disobedience spoke in turn about why they had decided to do so. As I watched I did not feel part of the group, but rather, a skeptical, if sympathetic, onlooker. I felt that I knew the forces they were up against and by contrast they looked pathetic, ineffectual, and naïve in the extreme. Their words and brave actions moved me to tears, but they were tears of impotent rage.

Seabrook, New Hampshire, April 30th, 1977

Seabrook, New Hampshire, April 30th, 1977

clamIn fact, what I thought was worldly wisdom on my part was a deep, self-defeating cynicism. For that little group of 18 souls in August had swelled a hundredfold just eight months later. I was part of that groundswell, giving notice at work in January and beginning to drive into Cambridge every week to work with Boston Clamshell toward the April 27th occupation, when thousands of anti-nuclear activists converged on Seabrook from all over the country for a non-violent occupation of the the building site. Every day of the fourteen days that 1414 of its members were imprisoned in New Hampshire National Guard armories, the Clamshell Alliance made history—and the front page of the New York Times. And when at last they were released on their own recognizance, they took the struggle home to towns all over the United States with nuclear power plants under construction, forming decentralized groups modeled on Clamshell. By the end of the decade the nuclear power industry was at a standstill. Although, sadly, the Seabrook nuke went on to be built, many more were shelved, stopped, or dismantled, and it would take the industry 30 years to regroup.

Ionizing radiation is particularly insidious because one cannot see, smell, or feel it, and yet the emissions from radioactive elements can continue for hundreds, in some cases thousands, of years. We used to laugh at ourselves saying, time and time again, that we needed to stop the nuclear power industry now, for the sake of our children, and our children’s children, and our children’s children’s children (and so on, you get the idea, ad infinitum), but we were in deadly earnest.

How is it that I, and so many young people like me, came to feel so strongly about something whose effects are invisible and long-term? For even if the radiation from a nuclear reactor leak were to kill you, it might not do so for 25-30 years or more, and then too in the form of a cancer whose cause was untraceable. Of course, ionizing radiation from all sources accumulates in our bodies and concentrates in our organs over the course of a lifetime, and every individual has a different sensitivity and threshold, so that it is impossible to predict how much is too much, when a battered cell will finally break down and turn against us. And beyond us as individuals, radiation builds up in our environment—the air, the water, and the food chain—the half-life of many radioisotopes extending to hundred, even thousands of years. Still, we were living in a society where narrow self-interest and instant gratification were encouraged and both media and the education system cultivated short-term memory.

Hot radioactive particles—how much can our children take?

Hot radioactive particles—how much can our children take?

I don’t remember much of what Helen Caldicott said on the radio that night, nearly forty years ago. What I do remember, though, was enough to inspire me to resign from my job. When we become parents, she said, our best, most tender, most altruistic selves look to our children’s well-being before all else. Every night at bedtime, before we tuck them into bed and read them a story, we teach them how to brush their baby teeth, so as to prevent cavities and instill in them a lifetime of good habits. But nuclear power makes nonsense of all our efforts. What is the point of each of us caring so lovingly for our own children while the nuclear fuel cycle is allowed to run rampant, releasing deadly radiation into the earth, air, and water, into our children’s lungs and their tiny, vulnerable organs? If we love our children and the planet we are bequeathing to them, it is our sacred duty to fight this menace to our future and the future of our children.

People's Climate March, September 21, 2014

People’s Climate March, September 21, 2014

So I quit my job and dedicated myself passionately to the future, the future of my still-unborn child and of us all. What sustained me for seven years after that first crucial step, though, was the joyful energy generated by working with other people to achieve a common goal, no matter how seemingly unassailable the forces arrayed against them. May the exuberant climate movement that brought 400,000 people to the streets of New York City last weekend bring the same energy to its diverse participants, for if we are to survive we are going to need staying power .

Looking south from Hampton to the Seabrook salt water marsh, and the Seabrook nuclear power plant.

Looking south from Hampton to the Seabrook salt-water marsh, and the Seabrook nuclear power plant beyond.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

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