Monday, June 25, 2012

Colorado Forest Fires: Perspective

So my state, like many others, is dry and burning - partly due to lightning, partly due to human beings.  The smoke is constantly in the air, the news covers little else, and I have Inciweb open all day long.  The High Park fire is along a stunningly beautiful canyon and river, the Waldo Canyon fire is where I went hiking as a kid, and the Weber fire is near Mesa Verde, one of the most humbling ancient sites in the country. 

Being a history geek, I wanted context, perspective, a sense of where this fits, so I hit the Colorado historic newspaper archive to see what turned up.  Here are a few of the gems I found.

Record Journal of Douglas County, June 3, 1939
From 1939, a fireworks-ban story so relevant that it could have been reprinted yesterday, with virtually no changes to the wording.

From 1944, a prescient prediction that the helicopter developments made in WWII will revolutionize firefighting in difficult terrain.

Record Journal of Douglas County, Oct. 6, 1944

And finally, a scene so dramatic that the current fires seem quite tame in comparison:

Though there is comfort in seeing the cycle of forest fires, the differences between then and now are also startling.  The idea that so many mountain lions and black bears would pour out from a fire, and that the firemen would stand so brutally against them, is pretty much unfathomable today.

As they fought these fires, they were looking at them in a really different way - the timber was a resource to lose more than an ecosystem to cherish.  There was no questions of letting things burn - these were assets to be protected.

And there clearly weren't the structural concerns that are at the forefront of even the most remote of Colorado's forest fires today.  The forest were places to work, and possibly play,
but not to live - summer cottages are lost, but not homes.

Record Journal of Douglas County, July 3, 1908
So on the one hand, we seem to value the forests in a more ecological way today, appreciating their value as an environment without as much of the timber industry factor.  On the other hand, the increased proximity of people and forest means that there aren't these dramatic animal scenes, because the forests are relatively empty. 

It reminds me of another burning, best told by Douglas Adams in his book Last Chance to See, of the Sibylline Books.  All the knowledge of the world is contained in the books, but the price for them is more than the people are willing to pay, so the Sybil burns half the books.  Finally, the people are desperate for the knowledge, but only one of the twelve books remains unburned.  They pay all they have for the one book that remains, never knowing what they lost to the fires in their earlier greed.  Adams likens the story to our environment - who knows what knowledge we are losing in our destruction of rainforests, arctic tundra, coral reefs, and timberlands? 

The WWF is trying to record our most beloved places, if you haven't told a story yet, do so at Earth Book 2012Mine is about the grasslands of Wyoming.  Celebrate the wild places we still have, and the brave people fighting to protect them and the homes nearby.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Wedding Wednesday: Copper Plate Quest: Norton and Douglass

This is the second entry on the copper plates used in my wedding.  The first yielded a great story, but not any reconnection.  This one, I'm happy to say, can be reunited.

It is the copper plate from the wedding of Ollave Norton and Raymond Douglass in 1918.   Raymond was born in 1894 and died in 1978, Ollave was born in 1897 and died in 1979.  Their whole lives were spent in the Greater New England area. 

Before they married, Ollave was a teacher in Nashua, New Hampshire, and after their marriage, they lived in Somerville, Belmont, and Cambridge Massachusetts.  Here is a picture of their 50th anniversary party, in 1968.  They are on the far left of this picture.

But while their lives centered on Boston, the plate somehow went on EBay, and ended up at my wedding in Colorado.

I contacted the owner of their family tree on Ancestry, and she sent me the anniversary picture.  Her mother and aunt, Raymond and Ollave's daughters, are still alive and looking forward to having the copper plate back where it belongs.  So it is about to make the journey to Rhode Island, a little closer to where it started.  I hope the Douglass family will enjoy having this little bit of history.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Thankful Thursday: Isaac Newton and Personal Democracy (Bransons, Part IV)

Newton, By William Blake, 1805
I wrote about William Newton and my imagining about the son he named George Washington here.

But he also had a son, born in 1825, named Isaac Newton Branson.  Isaac was born almost 100 years after the death of his namesake.  So I've always been curious about why that name was chosen, and how it related to the feelings William had about the American revolution.

Newton's Principia was translated into English in 1729, and the concepts of natural law he laid out were key to John Locke's concepts of individual liberty.  In turn, Locke's philosophies were foundational to the United States' founders and their documents.

Summaries of Newton's work and biographies were  available in South Carolina, where William was raised.  Perhaps his education included the works that informed the country, like those of Locke and Newton.

It certainly informed William Blake, in his epic poem Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, published around the time Isaac Newton Branson was born. Blake was a supporter of the American Revolution himself, helping Thomas Paine to escape Britain.  But Blake saw Newton as the personification of a sterilized scientific world, not as a hero.  He wanted the new country to be a spiritual Eden, not a scientific one, and for him, Newton represented the worst extension of European thought.
I turn my eyes to the Schools & Universities of Europe
And there behold the Loom of Locke whose Woof rages dire
Washd by the Water-wheels of Newton: black the cloth
In heavy wreathes folds over every Nation
Such is the complexity of Isaac Newton's ideas - that they can almost simultaneously inspire such strong negative emotions in Blake, while inspiring such a positive image for William Branson that he and his wife give the name to their son.  But probably this dichotomy is also a reflection of where the United States was in the early days of the 19th century.  It was potential embodied as a nation, and it wasn't clear which way it would go.  

The French Revolution was more predictable, exterminating one royal lineage only to name Napoleon as emperor.  But this American version was not.  George Washington refused the title of king, saying:
“If you have any regard for your Country, concern for yourself or posterity, or respect for me, to banish these thoughts from your Mind, and never communicate, as from yourself, or any one else, a sentiment of the like Nature.”
And so all the big ideas and philosophical differences were brought down to a personal level.  William Branson was able, in a democratic country that was only a generation old, to define the future he wanted through the names of his sons.  The names, I think, reflect his gratitude for his country as well as his aspirations for it as a whole, and for his sons in particular.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Wedding Wednesday: Copper Plate Quest: Hamilton and Spurr

My wedding colors were copper and purple.  It's hard to find copper decorations, so we bought antique copper printing plates from other people's weddings on EBay, set them in the table decorations, and put mirrors at each place so people could read the backwards letters.  These copper plates were used to print wedding invitations, and then given to the couple as a keepsake.  They were usually made into plates or ash trays, though this first one is flat.

For us, it was a great way to get strangers talking at the table, and get my historical geekiness into our wedding.  But it's been ten years, I am cleaning out the basement, and the time has come to find out about the families on these copper plates, and try to get them to their proper homes.

So this is the first in a series of Wedding Wednesday posts, about the invitation shown here.  The picture of the plate is challenging - the copper is shiny and the words would be hard to read even if they weren't backwards, so I've created a facsimile in as close a font as I can find.  Here is the text of the invitation to Mary Clark Spurr and Rev. Alexander Hamilton's wedding:

The year before they married, they both had traveled to Europe - she returned on Sept. 5, 1908 to New York from Liverpool.  He returned to New York from Glasgow on Nov. 4th, 1908.   In my imaginings they met at some event in England, charming each other in scenes out of "A Room With A View" or Henry James novels.  I'm sure there were beautiful dresses, parasols, and a garden party or two.

Mary was 31 and Alexander was 61 when they were married - it was his second wedding.  He was the great grandson of the founding father Alexander Hamilton, and she was a Mayflower descendant (biography).  He was also a well-known Episcopalian minister.  They had two children.  Alexander died in 1928 and Mary died in 1952.
Alexander Hamilton, from Wikipedia

I would love to pass this piece of family history back where it belongs, so let me know if you are or know a descendant of Alexander and Mary.