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Farm Hands

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Farm HandsFarm Hands
by Tom Rivers

The author is a reporter for the Batavia News, located in the middle of Western New York’s multi-county farming region. Agricultural news was a staple of the paper. But as the author realized, this reporting had tended to be focused on the economic impact of the farms, on the $400 million they pumped into the region, on the issues and problems of the farm owners. “Something was missing in those articles: the workers. They were rarely pictured, seldom quoted, and their contributions were largely unappreciated.”

With  about 3,000 migrant workers involved in farm work in Orleans, Genesee, Wyoming, and western Monroe Counties, and about 5,000 scattered through all of western New York, it seemed important to make their voices part of the story. This was particularly essential because, judging from the newspaper’s letters and e-mails to the editor, many readers seemed convinced that the work wasn’t very difficult, that farmers could easily fill their labor force with local labor, that no particular skill or experience was necessary.

So the author wondered — How hard was the work? What demands did it make, in terms of both skill and endurance? Was it something that local workers were avoiding for a reason? The author set out to get his own hands dirty and find out. Over the course of a year, from spring to fall, he persuaded local farmers to let him join their crews and try his ability at farm work, then to write articles for the paper describing what it was like.

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The Frozen-Water Trade

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Frozen Water TradeThe Frozen-Water Trade
by Gavin Weightman

Ice cream is surely the all-American dessert, almost as ubiquitous in winter as in summer. We Americans are known to drink tea iced, beer cold, and mixed drinks “on the rocks”. At first thought, we might assume that these tastes developed in the first half of the 20th century, with the spread of mechanical refrigeration. But they actually began almost a hundred years earlier, in the first half of the 19th century. They were dependent on the exploitation of a natural resource so commonplace that it was taken for granted — Ice.

In the cold winters of New England and the Midwest, ponds and rivers froze regularly and solidly during the heart of winter. The locals would cut the ice and store it in ice-houses, providing themselves with enough to last through the summer. It was a small-scale individual operation which flourished only in regions where nature provided the ice, and even then, only if you happened to own access to your own bit of frozen shoreline.

In 1806, a Boston merchant named Frederick Tudor had what seemed like a crazy idea. He loaded a cargo of Massachusetts ice aboard a ship and set out to sell it in Martinique, confident that it would fetch a good profit in that tropical island. That first improvised and less-than-successful attempt was ridiculed by other New England businessmen. Investors ran the other way when approached about the project.

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London Under

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London UnderLondon Under
by Peter Ackroyd

This book is subtitled “The Secret History Beneath the Streets”. It’s not a systematic and chronological history, but a series of topical meanderings, each chapter a relish of assorted tidbits and trifles. The life of a great city, hidden beneath the streets and surfaces, is considered as though we were considering the bones and blood vessels of an organism, the life lived just beneath the skin.

One bit that impressed me was this: While Manhattan’s bedrock is solid schist, London’s foundation is gravel and clay. For all the centuries of its habitation, London has been slowly sinking into the muck beneath. The surface structures of Roman Britain have gradually become the cellars and basements and underground crypts of more modern buildings. Even the rivers and streams which once flowed on the surface of the land have gone to earth over the centuries, roofed over and left to flow in the darkness under the city. When new foundations are dug, the clay “weeps”, and this watery substratum continually seeps into the city, a reminder of the marshes from which it rose. A statistic that stopped me and made me read it again — every day 15,000,000 gallons of rising groundwater are pumped out of London.

There’s an entire chapter on the greatest of London’s underground rivers, the Fleet. There was a time, long ago, when it was a navigable waterway, spanned by beautiful bridges. By the time Ben Jonson and Jonathan Swift wrote about it, it could only be described as a sewer. By the eighteenth century, it had been covered over and hidden underground, although in 1846 it escaped in an explosion of foul gases and a deluge of filthy water which flooded the neighborhood. Archaeologists have found the debris pulled from the muck of the Fleet a treasure-trove — everything from carved Roman deities to medieval toilet seats, from floor tiles to buckles, from children’s toys to decapitated skulls.

Another chapter describes how Londoners took to the tunnels of the London subways to shelter from the bombs during WWII. At first, the city authorities and the subway companies tried to discourage this behavior, fearing the presence of panicky people loitering idly underground. But it proved impossible to stop people from buying the cheapest ticket to anywhere and then riding from station to station at random. As thousands of people began lying down wearily on the platforms, blocking the way, creating a sanitation and fire hazard, the authorities decided to accept the inevitable, and set some rules to control the situation. People were allowed to shelter in a particular assigned station, lines were painted on the platform to indicate spaces to be kept clear, wooden bunks were installed for sleepers, and sanitary rules were enforced by inspectors.

There are several chapters discussing various aspects of the London Underground, one of the most legendary subway systems in the world. One is a recounting of the ghost stories that haunt the tunnels, another is a look at the explosion of art and literature inspired by the Underground. There was a 1928 silent movie called Underground which preserved a view of the life beneath the streets in the era between the wars, and a Seamus Heaney poem “The Underground” which sets the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice in the vaulted tunnels and tiled stations.

The London sewer system is the subject of a fascinating chapter. I had first read about this as one of several great engineering projects in a book called Dreams of Iron and Steel by Deborah Cadbury. Revisiting the story here, I met with bits I didn’t recall having heard before. Workmen digging the sewer line in Smithfield uncovered ashes and human bones, and were startled to realize that they had stumbled on the site of the burnings of 16th-century Catholic and Protestant martyrs. People known as “toshers” made a living off the sewers, entering at low tide from the points where the sewers emptied into the Thames, scavenging underground armed with bullseye lanterns and long protective coats with capacious pockets in which to stow their findings. Modern-day tourists who visit the sewers are dressed in waders, hard hats, and coveralls, taken on tours by guides who read them the safety rules before setting out on this strange odyssey.

Deep dungeons, gas lines, aqueducts, pneumatic tubes, buried rivers, Roman baths, medieval crypts, holy springs, air raid shelters, mudlarkers and toshers, mole men and miners, all the life under the skin of the city, flow through this little book as the Fleet flows under the streets of London.

Snow in the Cities

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Snow in the CitiesSnow in the Cities
by Blake McKelvey

This has been a very suitable week to be reading this book. The temperatures have been in the single digits, wind chills below zero, and the snow has been piling up day by day. Yesterday, Brian paid for a snowplow driver to clear out my driveway, because tackling it with a shovel in my hands was getting to be a bit more than I can handle even with Brian’s help. This morning, we had a power outage for about three hours.  Now that the computer is up and working again, it seems like a good time to say something about this book.

Reading about how people handled snow in decades and centuries past has put this week’s weather into perspective, as history always does in any case. The author describes several different responses in different eras. In the “pedestrian cities” of the 1600’s and 1700’s, the things people worried about had less to do with clearing the roads for vehicles and more to do with keeping warm in their houses. Making sure a good supply of firewood was near at hand was a concern, as was preventing the attendant house fires that often resulted. Travel between towns was often managed on horseback, breaking open a way through the drifts. Within the town, people moved short distances on foot, plowing through snow to the neighbor’s house, the barn, or the church.

By 1800, cities had grown larger, and wagons linked the city to supplies that came from the farms and from other cities. The mail, passengers, newspapers, foodstuffs, wood, all had to be hauled in. The rutted, muddy dirt roads were difficult enough without being buried in snow. The solution was an ingenious one: Instead of making an enemy of the snow, why not turn it to advantage? Replacing wheels with runners turned a wagon into a sleigh or sledge. Teams of men with horses and sledges broke open the roads and packed down the snow into a smooth hard surface which made it a delight to fly over quickly and without the usual bumps. “Good sleighing” became a common response to a snowfall.

We don’t think much nowadays about water travel as a necessity. But as folks nowadays regard a blizzard which grounds planes, so did people in the past regard a lengthy cold spell which froze ships into the harbor. For cities that depended on shipping as a lifeline, breaking open a lane in the ice to make a channel free for a ship to pass was an urgent undertaking. On the other hand, inland cities on rivers could turn an iced-over river to advantage by using it as a smooth highway, sending sleighs, horse teams, and pedestrians longer distances with more ease than they’d find struggling to break a road in heavy snow.

With the arrival of railroads and urban horsecars and trolleys in the later half of the 1800’s, came the need to remove snow from the tracks. The smooth packed snow that had always meant “good sleighing” in the past now meant clogged rails and stranded cars. The first snowplows, as we know them today, came along to clean the tracks, and with the snowplows came a battle for control of the city streets. As the streetcar companies removed the snow from their tracks, they pushed it to the side, mounding it up in what had been a smooth sleighing road. The drivers of the sleighs and sledges, defending their right to use the public roads, objected strenuously, sometimes shovelling the snow back onto the tracks. City governments often passed ordinances requiring the streetcar companies to haul away the snow to be dumped elsewhere, an expense the streetcar companies resented.

It’s interesting that most of the public effort to handle snow, up until this point, had been unconcerted work performed by the citizens. Nobody was going to come out with city-owned plows and city-employed crews to take the snow in hand. Gangs of men and boys brought out their own horses and sledges to drive through the drifts and pack them down, because everybody wanted to see the roads smooth and easy to travel. But now, in the age of mechanization of the city, it became clear that the issues were becoming too much for the random neighborhood gang to deal with. If snow had to be hauled away and dumped, people would have to be employed to do it. Similarly, large semi-public enterprises like streetcar companies would have to put up the money to protect infrastructure that the city had come to depend on.

Telephone and telegraph wires, electrical wires, and cable car wires brought down by heavy snow could stop a city in its tracks. Though privately owned, these things were a form of public utility as well, and the public had an interest in seeing service restored quickly. More and more, people looked to municipal government to take charge of the situation. More and more, we began to see the world out side the window this snowy morning in 2015. As the automobile replaced the sleigh and the streetcar, the need for snow removal became more insistent. Innovations in snowplowing trucks, use of salt and other chemicals, teams of city-employed workers, all sprang up as the 20th century passed, turning snow management into an art and a science.

My sister has been involved for years in city departments which had snow removal as a peripheral but necessary part of their function. When the city has a snow emergency, that means the Parks Department has to plow out the parks, while Environmental Services must clear the streets for traffic. Maybe having heard her talk now and then about being called out on snowstorm duties has made me pay more attention than I otherwise would, so that I am more aware of and appreciative of the magnificent efforts which make it possible for me to drive to work on a snowy day. Or which put the electricity back on, so I can post this book review.

On Looking

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On LookingOn Looking
by Alexandra Horowitz

Walking around the familiar blocks that surround the house I’ve lived in almost all my life, my level of attention fluctuates.  On a day when I’m walking to get somewhere in a hurry, I see only what is unexpected or surprising, passing by the just-as-usual without a thought. On a night when I’m prayer-walking before bed, I’m mentally distant from the distractions of houses and cars — and as I sink into prayer, I even forget the breeze on my face. But there are other days, when I’m venturing out for a walk after a week trapped in the house by weather or health impediments, days when I’m so refreshed to be out there again, when I wake up to all sorts of attentiveness beyond what is usual.

Walking in places not so familiar as my own block, my attention is usually more wide-ranging and open. New things to see mean deeper seeing is going on. But how to bring that sort of heightened attentiveness to my own familiar block — ah, that’s a good question. And that’s the question this author sets out to explore in this book. She undertakes to simply “go for a walk” around a familiar place, a dozen walks with a dozen different “guides” who will help her look at the block with fresh eyes and a new mind.

Walking with a toddler and seeing with a toddler’s eyes brings her attention to circles and triangles, a standpipe and an abandoned shoe. Walking with a geologist, she learns to see that even the sidewalk under her feet has a personality and a history. Another guide helps her appreciate the cacophony of printed lettering in her urban environment — from no-parking signs to faded advertising painted on brick walls — as something other than mental “noise”.  Walking with artist Maira Kalman, she begins to look with Kalman’s excitement at odd details, to stop trying to sweep them into a larger generalized picture — and she follows her guide through doors into buildings it had never occurred to her to enter — and was drawn into eye contact and conversations with strangers enough to be discomfiting.  One wildlife naturalist introduces her to her millions of neighbors who live under rocks and in trees — bugs and slugs, wasps and ants — while another naturalist introduces her to the urban wildlife menagerie —  squirrels, raccoons, pigeons, and rats.

An expert in the field of public spaces teaches her to notice how crowds of people move, how they “flock” and gather, how differently they walk on a crowded block or an empty plaza. A doctor who is accustomed to making diagnoses based on posture and gait takes a walk with our author and together they attend to all the various ways people stand and walk and move. A walk with a blind friend introduces her to all the senses other than sight — the kinesthetic sense of where one’s body is in relation to the objects all around, or the auditory sense which creates sonic “maps” which can tell us when we’ve entered a new and different space. Walking with a sound engineer, her ears learn to make sense of the urban soundscape which is usually only something to be tuned out if possible. Walking her dog, she pauses while the dog explores with his nose all the surfaces she cannot smell, while she uses her other senses and her curiosity to discover what the dog is trying to show her.

By the time the book ends, the author is able to bring all the richness of what her many guides taught her to her own individual walks, seeing a fresh city around her. Having tagged along, in a way, by reading the book, I wonder if my own walks will have become any richer, too.

They Who Knock at Our Gates

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They Who Knock Cover PictureThey Who Knock at Our Gates
by Mary Antin

The stories of my immigrant great-grandparents were woven all through the years I spent living in the same house with Grandma and Grandpa. Maybe it’s because of that, but whenever I hear anyone speaking dismissively of today’s immigrants, I want to rush to their defense. When I came across a copy of this little book, written a hundred years ago, I wanted to shout “Yes! That’s it!” to the author.  Mary Antin hit the target and put her finger on exactly the point that has bothered me, the sore spot that I’ve never quite been able to name in words.

This is what burns — that we’re missing the point. Those who want to restrict immigration because “they take away jobs” and those who want to encourage it  because “they do jobs no American wants to do” are both equally missing the point. They are both talking as though it’s merely a utilitarian issue. The hollow empty place inside me, the place that hungered for a satisfaction, found something solid in Antin’s discussion. The real point is that we have an unacknowledged, unexamined moral question that lies at the root of the whole tree. Who are we, and what is America? If we can’t answer that question, then we are chasing shadows, arguing trivia.

Mary Antin takes us back to the foundation, back to the Declaration of Independence, back to the roots of the American experiment. What follows, one way or another, must grow from that root, or else it is just dead wood.

I read this little book for LibriVox.  Here’s the audiobook version, if you want to listen.

In 1914, over one million immigrants arrived in the United States, following in the footsteps of approximately ten million others who had arrived in the preceding decade. Faced with so many newcomers, many of them from backgrounds new to the American mix, voices in government and in the press had begun arguing in favor of more severely restrictionist immigration policies. In They Who Knock at Our Gates, Mary Antin broke down the discussion into three basic questions. First, the ethical question — Where do we discover a right to restrict new arrivals, in light of all men’s equal natural rights as declared by our founding documents? Second, the factual questions — Who are these new immigrants, what sorts of gifts and qualities do they possess, what are their strengths and weaknesses, and what biases do we bring to our assessment of them? And third, the slippery question of individual interpretation — How shall we decide without prejudice whether immigration is good for us, as a nation and as individual citizens? Written a century ago, Mary Antin’s analysis of the “immigration question” still speaks to current readers.

The Woman Who Dared to Vote

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Woman Who Dared VoteThe Woman Who Dared to Vote
by N. E. H. Hull

Those of us who are natives of Rochester, New York, have two big hometown heroes — Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. They were friends and allies in the two greatest causes of their age. Schoolchildren growing up with these heroes learn to see that freedom means not only my freedom, but your freedom as well, that we must desire for others the same good we desire for ourselves.

We also learn more complicated truths, especially when we see how these two friends sometimes argued fiercely over serious differences on matters of tactics and priorities of timing. Yet arguing strongly for what you honestly believe to be the best course of action, though it may put you head-to-head opposite a friend, is a very different sort of argument from invective denigrating your opponent’s honor, intelligence, or patriotism. The causes these two fought about were close to both their hearts. That gave them a common core of agreement, however much their strategies diverged. They were never disrespectful of each other’s priorities, even when their own priorities were different.

Anthony and Douglass at teaIn a park near Anthony’s house here in Rochester, there is a sculpture depicting Anthony and Douglass opposite each other across a tea table, in earnest yet relaxed discussion. They look deeply involved and thoughtful, gesturing to make their points, yet also focused on each other, listening intently. When I see this sculpture, I imagine that this meeting occurred in the midst of their post-Civil War disputes, and I see in it the strength between two friends willing to hear each other out, and while yet unconvinced, to drink tea together.

Two of the greatest speeches in American oratory have their roots here in our western New York soil during those years of struggle. One was Douglass’s Fifth of July speech, given in Rochester in 1852, in which he asked bitterly, “What, to an American slave, is your Fourth of July?” The other was Anthony’s 1873 reply to the Judge at her sentencing for illegal voting, in which she passionately protested “laws made by men, interpreted by men, administered by men, in favor of men, and against women.”

There are times in history when we are ready, as individuals and nations, to expand our minds and hearts in wonderful new ways. It’s often after agony that we discover clearer vision. We see as plain and good some truth we’ve been rejecting. We see as brothers and sisters people we’ve been ignoring. We suddenly are disgusted by rot and decay we had taken for granted as normal and inevitable. We are inspired with the energy to break from apathy and build something fresh, something better.

The years immediately after the Civil War were one such graced moment. People who had worked a lifetime for the abolition of slavery saw their hopes become reality, while  people who had been indifferent to the question were inspired by the idealism of the times to become supporters, and even those who had hated abolitionism were ready to accept it as inevitable. In the aspirational mood of the age, so many hopes of other reforms began flying high. There was a general sense that this was the hour for a new age to begin. The trouble with such periods of zeal is that they eventually grow cold and die. So much seems to be achieved in sudden spurts when there is this general enthusiasm for national betterment, with long stretches of backsliding in between. For people with hopes of their own, there is a sense of urgency to these moments, a push that says, “Now — quick — before we lose the momentum –“

The women had hoped that during this wave of post-war reform, they too would become voters. Knowing that such ripe moments are brief, they chafed at advice to “wait — one thing at a time — your turn will come later.” In their agitation at risking a lost opportunity, they even threatened withholding their support from the 15th Amendment enfranchising black men, unless it also included women. When that amendment was adopted with no mention of sex, a movement immediately began to launch a 16th Amendment, specifically enfranchising women.

In the midst of all this agitation and argument, some voices began suggesting a fresh viewpoint on the problem. In 1869, Virginia Minor and her husband Francis began to say, in effect, “Just vote!” Could it be that simple? Could it be that women already had the franchise and needed only to exercise it? In 1870, Victoria Woodhull presented a memorial to Congress setting forth the same reasoning as the Minors’. The 14th Amendment, one of the three Reconstruction amendments, had declared: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States … are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The Woodhull Memorial argued that one of the “privileges and immunities” of a citizen was the right to vote. By this reasoning, the 14th Amendment guaranteed voting rights to all citizens, though it had not specifically mentioned voting.

The best way to clarify this point was to put it to a practical test. Leaders of the woman’s suffrage movement called on women across the country to turn out for Election Day in November 1872, to assert their right to be registered and to vote. If they were refused and turned away, as was thought likely, they were to file lawsuits against those officials who had denied them their guaranteed right as citizens, carrying their cases through appeals if necessary, hoping to get a definitive ruling from the Supreme Court which would settle the question in their favor.

In Rochester NY, Susan B. Anthony and fourteen other women were ready for the battle. A few days before the election, they presented themselves at a local barbershop which was serving as a voter registration location and announced that they wanted to be registered as voters. The three local election inspectors were thrown into some consternation. Their first reaction, to simply say “no”, was countered by Miss Anthony inquiring whether they had ever heard of the 14th Amendment, which she produced and read to them, along with an explanation of its present applicability. Two election supervisors were called into the consultation. One of them was convinced enough to throw his influence behind the women, carrying two of the inspectors with him. The third, while not so convinced, surrendered to the majority and the women were registered.

On Election Day, however, when they turned out to vote, they were faced with a challenge at the polls from an onlooker. The law provided that, if a voter’s eligibility was challenged, the voter might take an oath to tell the truth and then answer whatever questions were put concerning his eligibility. If the challenge was not withdrawn, the voter might still vote if he were willing to take a second oath stating that he was indeed eligible. Susan and the other women took the required oaths, and the inspectors then received their ballots as the law directed.

Letter to Stanton excerptWhen Susan got home, she quickly wrote to her friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton — “Well, I have been and gone and done it!! Positively voted –” There was a sense of giddy excitement. A precedent had just been established, one that might set the stage for larger numbers of women at future elections. The excitement took a sharp turn a couple of days later, though, when arrest warrants were served on all the voting women and on the three complicit inspectors.

We all know “Aunt Susan’s Trial” as a set piece. We visit her house, stand in the parlor where she was arrested, and gawk at her worn alligator handbag. But without context, it’s crushed into an iconic tableau, a myth, rather than an encounter with a woman as real as ourselves. This book fits the trial into a carefully nuanced context. It’s not a complete biography of Anthony or a sweeping history of the women’s movement. It provides just enough context to carry us intelligently through the situation as it stood in November 1872, when Susan and the other women went to the polls, and in June 1873, when Susan’s case came to trial.

The story of the trial is a story of legal maneuvering and counter-maneuvering. Susan and her friends campaigned on lecture platforms throughout the Rochester area arguing their cause, winning an unexpectedly large public response. The prosecution, fearing the Rochester jury pool had been biased toward the women, moved for a change of venue to the nearby city of Canandaigua instead. Susan’s legal advisor, Henry Selden, who had given his opinion before the women registered that they were within their rights in doing so, agreed to represent Susan in court. But he found himself facing a judge who seemed to have already decided the case before it was even argued. Judge Ward Hunt refused to allow the jury to give their verdict, on the grounds that there was no point for a jury to consider, and directed that the jury’s verdict be entered as “guilty”.

Susan B. Anthony had been refused the right to take the stand as a witness in her own defense, and had been forced to sit silently throughout the trial. But when the Judge asked the standard question before sentencing — “Has the prisoner anything to say why sentence should not be pronounced?” — Susan took the opportunity to burst out with one of the most famous speeches ever made by an American woman. “Yes, your Honor, I have many things to say –” And she went on to say them with spirit and directness.

I’ve been working on a recording of the trial transcript for LibriVox, and when I got to Susan’s speech, I found myself reading that entire section straight through in a single take, without careful re-recording and editing. As a non-fiction reader, I usually read in a calm and neutral tone of voice. With Susan’s speech, that just wasn’t possible. I was back there in her parlor, seeing her picking up the old alligator bag and marching firmly off to take her case to court, and she was 100% real and alive to me. Even my impossible Rah-chester accent was suddenly called into service, as I realized that Susan was a Rochester woman too, and may have sounded just like me. This time, when I spoke her words, they weren’t a set schoolroom speech — I had walked with Susan through all the events leading up to that speech, and the words arose out of all that had gone before. They were part of a whole story for me now.

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