Count me among the millions of those who watched the agony of Kunte Kinte a half-century ago and were deeply, deeply moved.  Roots, a story--a novel, really--by Alex Haley, affected me so powerfully that it sent me scurrying to uncover my own. Sometimes people wonder why I care about my own Dutch Reformed background. Alex Haley made me wonder who I was when I really didn't know, and ethnicity--even the lack it--is one ingredient in the identity cocktail. 

[I spent too many years reading term papers not to say anything about Haley's shameful plagiarism in that book; but that's a story for another time.] 

Kunte Kinte's story was very bitter but incredibly wholesome. White folks don't fare well in Alex Haley's portrayal of the lives of his ancestors. Roots was a main stage production that wouldn't let America look past the rising action of its own story. Me either. And even though I'd spent a number of years outside the church back then, it still hurt me to see that sometimes--oftentimes--the madmen spouting scripture did the most savage bloodletting.

That phenomenon is front-and-center in 12 Years a Slave, too, a great film that likewise creates downright beasts out of bible-toting Christians from south of the Mason-Dixon, men as deft with a whip as they are quick with proof texts. When it comes to slavery, the sullied past of evangelical America is haunting.

And it's there again in Sue Monk Kidd's bestseller, Oprah-blessed, The Invention of Wings, a powerfully plot-driven novel of two women, one of whom Ms. Kidd pulls from the pages of real American abolitionist history, Sarah Grimke. Sarah and her sister Angelina turned their back on their family, went north from their home in Charleston, and became marquee lecturers on the abolitionist circuit by forswearing their own slave-holding past. 

Fascinatingly, Ms. Kidd's novel creates something of a twin character, a slave girl named Hetty or "Handful," who is all of that. Hetty's mother teaches her that the only way to live with slavery is to keep a live portion of yourself in all-out revolt, a spitfire revolt that doesn't kill you--because it can--but maintains the fire of her own authentic human spirit.

The villians of The Invention of Wings are evangelical Christians like the Grimke's mother, who requires her slaves attend a Sunday School she serves up using a slaves-and-masters curriculum designed to perpetuate servitude. It's awful--not the book, but once more having to realize that men and women used the Bible to justify a way of life that would not have existed if it hadn't been fueled on blood.

Just once, I'd like to read a book about good Christian slave-holders. Did they exist? I'd like to see a movie that told stories about Bible-believers who bought into both Jesus and slavery, who didn't lock people in leg irons cast from their own damned fire and brimstone. There had to be some like that, don't you think? I have to think so.

A book some might call "the greatest American novel" doesn't have any either. When Huck Finn finally decides that staying with the slave Jim as Jim makes a break for freedom, he knows, inside and out, that his decision to keep going down the river, to not turn Jim in, is not only a crime in the South he's leaving behind, but, much worse--a sin. 

And that's why little Huck utters the most famous line in all of American literature:  "All right then, I'll go to hell." 

The book my parents read from when I was a boy, the Bible specifically designated for kids, an early version of Catharine F. Vos's The Children's Story Bible, made it perfectly and memorably clear that that son of Noah named Ham got himself cursed for laughing at his soused father and then went south in the family's diaspora, to Africa, where his people would live and prosper as servants of the other brothers. Slavery was that clear, that biblical.

I put out a note to faculty years ago, just to see if anyone had that fat old blue book around somewhere, and I found one. I photocopied the passage and, as long as I taught Huck Finn I brought that passage up in class to college students who seemed nowhere near as shocked as I had been at the way I'd been reared. It was a passage I remembered hearing as a boy, a biblical interpretation just as dangerous as anything those Southern Christian bigots could spout. 

It was in me too somewhere, this despicable theology of race and faith. 

Dutch immigrants to this country, I'm told, deliberately steered away from the American south in the immigration wave that populated west Michigan, southeast Wisconsin, and south central Iowa before the Civil War. Despite their own slave-trading past, those wooden shoes wanted no part of an institution that America held onto longer than most in the Western world because it clearly empowered the American South. 

A century later in a small town in Wisconsin, when the Schaap family finished supper, my father would grab our well-worn copy The Children's Story Bible and read a story or two to us kids, our own family altar.

I never had a slave, never owned a whip; but, as a boy, I knew something about slaves because I knew the story of Noah and his sons, and where specifically one the boys, that one named Ham, had gone, where he went and what he did and why it was he served us.

That's what I was told.


Ghost Town

It may well have been the very first time I used a camera for something other than family pics, an old Argus C-3 I had bought second-hand way back when I was in high school. My wife and I, still sort of newlyweds, were walking the desolate streets of an old copper-mining town in the Arizona mountains, a place called Jerome. It was 1973. 

Jerome was, back then, a ghost town. Once upon a time, the population peaked at 15,000, but, by the early 1970s, very few people still lived there. Mining fortunes had been made, I'm guessing--the open mine still gaped dangerously on the north end of town but it was not running. Almost all of those who'd pocketed the loot or run the bank or worked the drills had long ago departed. Jerome was a Twilight Zone, streets broken and abandoned lined with a hundred grotesque houses caught in their own anguished disrepair, as if being forced to undress right there on the street. 

If I go a half hour in any direction from my home, I'll run into an abandoned farm because they’re everywhere in the rural Midwest. I see them weekly, I'm sure, and they're still haunting because somewhere in the shape of things falling apart there still lives a remnant of a family's fallow dream of what could be--and wasn't.


But Jerome, Arizona, forty years ago, was no single family dwelling; it was an entire abandoned city, a mile-high mess of a metropolis almost completely abandoned. Once upon a time kids played on streets that had since grown yellow with weeds. I don't remember a single house being lived in, but there were a few businesses open in what was still discernable as downtown, a dozen old hippies maybe, selling tie-dyed t-shirts and bangles.

Jerome had visions of becoming an artist's colony back then, Main Street holding little but goofy antique knick-knacks. For the most part, nothing was afoot on its streets, nothing really but desolation; the whole place had become a kind of open-air museum, post-apocalypse. Absolutely haunting.

I loved it--look at the pics. There are tons more. Their sheer numbers say as much about me as they do about Jerome. I'd love to go back.

But I can't.


Along some Jerome street back then, we met a man who pointed up at a rundown place and told us it was his. He owned one of houses falling apart.

"What's going to happen here?" I asked him. He was a friendly guy, I remember--and he too loved Jerome.

"I honestly don't know," he told us.

"I hope it doesn't change," I said. Jerome was a ghost town, pure and simple. "I hope it stays just like this," I told him. I was just a kid.

"That's not an option," he said. "Nothing stays the same."

I think the man’s name was Sage Hericlitus. You may have heard of him.

There were only two choices, he told us--fix 'em up or let 'em rot. After all, nothing stays the same.

And that, of course, makes these old pictures--a first attempt at art on my part—quite rare. I found them a while ago when we had to make a hurried escape from a flood in the basement.

Were I to go up the mountain to Jerome sometime soon, and were I to lug some 18-megapixel camera with me down those dingy streets, what I'd shoot wouldn't be what's here. All that ruin is probably long gone, just like the kids who used to bike down the streets and the miners who climbed down into that open pit every morning.

These pics of mine were 8 x 10s, matted too. I suffered delusions of grandeur, probably still do.

Still I thought these shots were cool, so I went to Jerome’s website, found the address of the historical society, sent them a note with some jpgs, and told them that if they were interested, I’d ship the whole lot to them. We were moving, downsizing.

They were. They called in fact, told me they had all kinds of pictures of Jerome in ye olden days, but very few when it was exactly what it was in 1973. “We’d love to have them.”

So I sent them, all of them, which means that today, in some desk or on some shelf in Jerome, Arizona, a bunch of black-and-white 8 x 10s are filed nicely. Who knows, maybe there’s a shot or two up on a wall? If you ask, some docent or intern could well tell you that a dozen or more pictures were sent in by some old guy from Iowa who happened to take some random shots a half a century ago. “Aren’t they cool?” some docent might be saying, an old man maybe or an intern.  “I’d love to have been here then.”

I think that makes me an artifact.


 And that’s okay, but it doesn’t change old Heraclitus—“Ever-newer waters flow  on those who step into the same rivers.” That’s what the man said, at least one translation has it so. Of course, that old bald man was an honest-to-goodness philosopher.

Me? I’m thinking there has to be a sermon here in this ghost-town story somewhere, if I were a preacher.

But I’m not. I’m a photographer.






He came along in my life when I needed him, even though I didn't know I did. I wanted to write, but I knew little about it really. Some of my new friends, other grad students, told me that Ray Carver was coming to teach. They could barely contain themselves. "You don't know his work?" they said, as if I'd been off somewhere in foreign service.

I hightailed it to the bookstore and bought a couple of volumes of his short stories. He never wrote a novel.

On first reading, I didn't know what to make of him, truth be told. His stories had this angular sharpness that made me cringe, almost in fear, as if life could be cut us up into bloody pieces that refused burial. Reading a bunch of his stories together was like coming on a yard full of glass shards, unforgettable and alarming beauty. They were like nothing else I'd ever read.

That was 1980. Ray Carver was dry at the time, not the dead-and-gone drunk he was for so terribly long in his life. He was working on what most consider today his strongest stories, Cathedral, a collection that included the story "Cathedral," the story, he says somewhere, that changed his life, a story of hope that's in just about every anthology undergrads can buy these days.

He climbed Parnassus in the literary world, became a cult figure. Soon, there were thousands of Carvers doing what he did, or trying, writing something people began to call "dirty realism." Me too. Count me among the disciples. I could show you lean-and-mean stories I wrote back then, Hong Kong-grade ripoffs. Ray Carver, and his editor Gordon Lish, taught a generation of fiction writers how to be newly-minted Hemingways, sparse and tight and frightfully close to the bone.  

He liked me. And, if you're wondering, yes, there's considerable idolatry behind that statement. Consider it a confession. Raymond Carver liked me, liked my writing. The only way I can explain how much that meant to me back then is to say that it means as much to me today.

Yesterday's Writer's Almanac featured a Carver poem from a moment in his life that every Carver-ite recognizes, the moment Ray Carver discovered he was going to die from cancer that wasn't going away.  Here's the poem.

What the Doctor Said

He said it doesn't look good

he said it looks bad in fact real bad

he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before

I quit counting them

I said I'm glad I wouldn't want to know

about any more being there than that

Don't ask me what a poem is--I don't know. To me, this feels more like prose than poetry, but frankly I don't care because whatever it is communicates with a place in my soul few things do. There's more.

he said are you a religious man do you kneel down

in forest groves and let yourself ask for help

when you come to a waterfall

mist blowing against your face and arms

do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments

To say Raymond Carver wasn't a religious man would be shamefully judgmental and idiotic.  If "by your fruits you shall know them" is a rule of biblical thumb beyond nuance, some might judge he wasn't. He left a trail of brutal ugliness, after all. But most of us are religious in one way or another; some are, perhaps, just better at it than others. And then, of course, it's worth remembering this scripture too: not all who cry, "Lord, Lord. . ." are.

"Are you a religious man?" the doctor says. Carver replies with characteristic honesty.

I said not yet but I intend to start today

The doctor is a kind man. 

he said I'm real sorry he said

I wish I had some other kind of news to give you

I said Amen and he said something else

I didn't catch and not knowing what else to do

and not wanting him to have to repeat it

and me to have to fully digest it

I just looked at himfor a minute and he looked back

Ray Carver was not a big talker.  Trust me, he was not a stirring lecturer or a classroom stand-up comic. His ways were halting and what he said often seemed muffled. It was easy to miss some remarks. I never saw him drunk--who knows what he might have become with a quart of something running in him?  And, of course, this silent moment in the doctor's office holds the clear recognition of destiny.

He knows it. Listen.

it was then

I jumped up and shook hands with this man who'd just given me

Something no one else on earth had ever given me

I may have even thanked him habit being so strong.

The book that best documents what happened in Ray Carver's soul after this moment in the doctor's office is a book of poems he titled A New Path to the Waterfall

There's just too much in that title and yesterday's poem for me not to take heart. No one I know is God, although some presume themselves approximates. I don't know the state of Ray Carver's soul. I have no idea of what may have happened on his death bed.

But to me, at least, that Carver poem is a blessed offering I'm greatly thankful to have opened when it came in my inbox. It's gorgeously arrayed with hope.

And hope, in this world, is something I need. 

My guess is, I'm probably not alone.


Black Soil--lovely dirt


Yesterday, my neighbor came by and dumped a scoop full of black dirt on what, someday, will be--we hope--our front lawn. What some people tell me, people I trust, is that you can never have enough black dirt. 

I'm no farmer, never have been, never will be; nor am I much of a gardener, to be truthful. But there's something about that line I love:  "You can never have enough black dirt." If it was funny, it could be a Rodney Dangerfield one-liner; but it's not--it's true. "You can never have enough black dirt."

Anyway, we got it. A few days ago, we took a dying plant into a local greenhouse to get a new arrangement. The guy said he'd dig the old one out and put together some new combo for us--late season, 50% off too. He did.

But he said he put the old sad one into a spare pot he had sitting around because the old guy still had good roots. Just couldn't toss it. I like that.

Anyway, he looked up at us as if what he'd pulled out of that old pot was straight dope (this is Iowa, remember, not  Colorado).  He looked straight at me, brows furrowed. "Where'd you get that dirt anyway?" he said. 

I was being grilled. This was an interrogation.  

I hunched my shoulders and looked at my wife. "I don't know," I told him, feigning innocence. "Out of a pile in our yard, I guess."

Then, in all sincerity, deep almost religious respect, he looked me straight in the eye. "That's good dirt," he said, as if I'd better take out some additional insurance the minute we got back home. 

This really, really black and gorgeous stuff in a pile on our front yard is called "Primgahr." Don't believe me?--look it up. It's origin is O'Brien County, Iowa, just east of us, and it's just plain midnight, inky black. It's greatly beloved, as you can well imagine, blessed with a rich and well-earned reputation for producing "perfection in all kinds of grain and vegetables," one source claims.  Why am I not surprised?

This is what it looks like when it's not in a pile on my front yard.

And here's the real story, straight from the mouth of the USDA: 

The Primghar series consists of very deep, somewhat poorly drained, moderately permeable soils formed in loess on uplands and high stream benches. Slope ranges from 0 to 5 percent. Mean annual air temperature is about 47 degrees F, and mean annual precipitation is about 27 inches.

Precipitation will be higher this year, believe me. In fact, maybe the real blessing of Primgahr soil won't be so ultra-apparent this growing season because some sources insist it has to be to be drained. It's so black and dense that it retains water bountifully, which is great in drought or near-drought, but less a blessing when rain comes as it has this year. 

Josephine Donovan's novel of life among the new, white residents of Sioux County, Iowa, circa 1870, Black Soil, draws its title--and it's setting, by the way--from "Primgahr soil," which means, of course, that this very pile of dirty blessedness in my front yard is even famous. 

Well, after a fashion. Be interesting to know who were the other two or three people to read that old 1930s story in the last decade. 

If I'd been reared on a farm, if I'd planted hope every spring and worried myself sick every harvest, I'm sure I'd have thought of this long ago. But I was a professor, which means, in some very Siouxland ways, a slow learner.  

When I look out my window right now over miles and miles of prairie and think of that rich dump of black soil in my front yard, I just can't help myself, I guess. Garrison Keiler once said in Christian Century that the world would be a better place to live if everyday every last one of us would give thanks for something, anything.

This morning, I'm thankful for nothing less than lovely dirt.  


Clovis, TR, and WWJD

That's a political rally right here in Alton, Iowa, circa 1903. That's Teddy Roosevelt gesturing off the caboose of that train, making a stump speech, I'm sure, to a couple hundred locals. Good old days, right?

I didn't pay much attention to the primary races this year in Iowa. I'm just not that cranked about politics these days, when any discussion thereof brews up so much hostility you'd think that what's at the root of all the evil is money, which may well be true.

What I couldn't miss were these street signs. Any trip around the county made it clear that this Sam Clovis was the huge favorite with the locals.

Now no county in America is as true-blue Republican as this one. Two years ago, our own Steve King, a man capable of ID-ing undocumented workers by the size of their calves, won bigger in this county than anywhere in the state. 

All those Clovis signs meant he had to be, religiously speaking, the chosen, or so it seemed to this Calvinist. That's why I was flummoxed when a candidate named Joni Ernst got the Republican nod apparently for having grown up castrating hogs. Someone out flanked Sioux County Republicans--on the right? Say it ain't so.

Apparently, Clovis was the sweetheart of Christian conservatives, of which there are more than a few about. Iowa's Mr. Christian Conservative, Bob Vander Plaats, a northwest Iowan himself, supported Sam Clovis, while Ms. Ernst was a favorite of the party establishment, including the Gov, who determined she could win when Clovis--too hard-line CC!--couldn't, even if he could sweep Sioux County. 

Sam Clovis lost, but he didn't quit. He went to his website and just scratched in the word "Treasurer" instead of "Senate." He's still running, just walked back his ambitions. Watch for him. Shouldn't be difficult. He's hard to miss.

I just now read that Candidate Clovis had said somewhere that there were enough votes in the House to impeach President Obama; and, if he'd be there, he'd vote for it himself. No wonder Sioux County liked him. We haven't had a good old impeachment hearing since Clinton. 

George W got a pass, of course.  He got us into a war over weapons of mass destruction that weren't there. Thousands of people died--including 4500 Americans. Hey, what the heck--everyone else was wrong too, you know. Besides, W was a Christian. Obama's a Muslim.

Last week the South Dakota Republicans officially called for Obama's impeachment for the five-terrorist swap for that turncoat Bergdahl, the bald-faced lie about keeping your insurance under Obamacare, and seven other deadly sins. "I've got a thick notebook of impeachable offenses of the President," said the guy who sponsored the South Dakota resolution. It passed.

Among this country's conservatives, hate's become a virtue.

Research indicates the most conservative burgs in their respective states are not only close to home, they're heavy laden with wooden shoes. In Minnesota, it's a tiny place named Prinsburg, which is almost exclusively Dutch Reformed. In Iowa the hot spot is Doon, just up the road. In Wisconsin, it's Oostburg, where I was born and reared. 

What does that say?  It says that somewhere down the road of life I went far, far astray. Today, if voting laws stipulated you had to have a Dutch name to participate, Obama would long ago have been back in Oahu.

Once upon a time right here in Alton, a whole crowd of people showed up to greet Teddy Roosevelt, a candidate for President who ran on a ticket determined--get this!--to control big business. That's right. Let me say that again: "to control big business." 

If it wasn't for the mustache, you could mistake TR for Elizabeth Warren.

And he was a Republican.

And he was a Dutchman.

Look at that crowd.  It's almost embarrassing.  Wonder what they think of us in Doon?