This site contains a variety of short and longer poems, along with some essays and travel narratives. Most were written for a specific occasion or about a specific person or place. I hope some of the entries may resonate with your experiences. Enjoy!
Eating Out in Twenty-Nine Palms, Honoring National Service
—by Jinny Batterson
During part of our most recent political transition, in late 2016, I spent several days in the desert interior of southern California, exploring the area around Joshua Tree National Park. From a small vacation rental home in the town of Twenty-Nine Palms, my husband and I could drive several miles uphill to a park entrance. We could explore the park’s trails, marvel at its unique geological formations, view the large members of the yucca family that gave the park its name, and experience the variety of its altitudes and desert landscapes. Toward the end of our stay, a heavy wind kicked up, making hiking less appealing, so we spent some time indoors, learning about the town. At the Chamber of Commerce, we watched a film about the town’s history and viewed displays and pamphlets. We learned that the town’s first growth spurt had come in the wake of World War I. Then, a sympathetic veteran physician specializing in lung ailments had begun to recommend the climate around Twenty-Nine Palms to fellow veterans suffering from mustard gas exposure or tuberculosis. The dry air and moderate altitude provided an ideal setting for recovery. Several hundred veterans filed homestead claims in the area.
We also learned that a large modern U.S. Marine base existed nearby, in the opposite direction from the park. Soldiers could be stationed there for periods ranging from a few months to several years, with over 50,000 military personnel receiving training the preceding year. We drove out to the base gate—the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center/Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Command—but were unable to enter without an approved escort.
That evening, we ate in town at a small local restaurant that catered to a burgers-and-milkshakes clientele. When we first arrived, the restaurant’s central area was completely filled by a set of pushed-together tables where a dozen young people, five men and seven women, were chatting and ordering food. They looked fit and tired, primed to enjoy a simple evening meal. Several were wearing matching sweatshirts with the initials “NCCC” on the back. I guessed they might be members of some rock climbing club, since the park was a mecca for climbers. After a bit, my curiosity got the better of me and I walked over to one end of their table.
“What does ‘NCCC’ stand for?” I asked. “Are you a rock climbing group?”
“No ma’am,” responded one of the young men. “We’re a team from the National Civilian Community Corps. We’re on our way back to our base in Sacramento after an eight-week assignment helping repair homes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana that were damaged by last summer’s floods.”
As my husband and I ordered our food and waited while it was prepared, half a dozen young men with short haircuts arrived and settled into two booths nearby. They were in civilian clothes, but I guessed they might be on leave from the marine base: several barber shops in town advertised “Marine haircuts,” and these fit the bill. The men talked quietly among themselves as they too ordered and waited for their suppers.
Both the Marines and NCCC volunteers I saw at dinner in Twenty-Nine Palms were training and practicing to meet whatever threats and emergencies might require a military response, civilian action, or some combination of the two. I was grateful for their service, as I remembered previous generations of Americans who had participated in larger numbers in either military or civilian service—the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930’s depression years, or the military draftees of the 1940’s World War II era and beyond. Surveying these young service men and women at supper in 2016, I also imagined what it might look like for similar service again to become a bigger part of our American society.
Various bills introduced in Congress since 2003 have attempted to create a framework for some sort of mandatory service component for young people, including a modest monetary stipend and educational funding assistance. Our nation’s physical and educational infrastructures are aging. Elements of our natural environment are threatened. The needs are great; the potential even greater. On this Presidents’ Day, let’s renew the value of public service as part of our heritage and responsibility as Americans. From the loftiest tasks to the most humble, each of us has something worthwhile to contribute. When a service ethic is lacking, we are all impoverished, and not just monetarily.
Hauling Rocks Uphill —by Jinny Batterson
My particular piedmont town has experienced dramatic population growth in the past half century—nearly a thirty-fold increase. However, the steepest slopes of our region, sculpted as it is with lots of hills and gullies, restrict or defy human building. These areas have often been allotted to park use, with bicycle and walking paths at their base: greenways. As a recent arrival, I’m not sure, walking our greenways between tract home developments, condos, and apartment complexes, what our landscape looked like when far fewer people lived here. One thing I’m fairly certain of, though: in times past, there were fewer jagged rocks lining our freshets and streams.
A large granite quarry sits at the north edge of town. Throughout the area, many recesses in our ravines are filled with angular mid-to-large-sized rocks trucked in from the quarry. Rocks line our bridge approaches and help terrace the steepest washes. These rocks aren’t nearly as scenic as naturally rounded river stones would be, but they help reduce erosion and serve to slow run-off when we have sudden downpours, which happens fairly often these days. Over time, some of the stones get covered with vegetation, leaves, or mosses, and blend better with their surroundings.
Geologists have elaborated a plate-tectonic theory of earth’s crust that goes a long way toward explaining our peaks and valleys—as tectonic plates collide, mountains are pushed up. Elevations shift. Former sea beds get elevated. Yet, over geological time, even the tallest mountains are worn down by erosion, their rocks dissolving into sand or soil or carried back still-formed into the seas.
Until I moved here, much of my context about hauling rocks came from an ancient Greek myth and its modern French retelling—the story of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was a Corinthian king who, on multiple occasions, fooled the gods and cheated death. When he finally did die, as even tricksters must, the gods took their revenge by condemning him to an eternity of pushing a large rock uphill, only to have it roll back down again once he’d reached the top. French author Albert Camus wrote a widely quoted 1942 essay in which he claimed that much of modern life had exposed mankind to Sisyphean tragedy, but that embracing life’s challenges was a way to live fully, anyway: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
For the past year or so, I’ve been engaged physically in a small-scale rock hauling effort of my own, shoring up the pad surrounding our heat pump, trying to reduce erosion and run-off in our fairly steep yard by hand-carrying surplus rocks up from a nearby floodplain. My landscaping efforts are not perfect, but they seem to help a little. This past Christmas, I visited a small mountain resort town in California and stayed at a country inn whose previous owners had laboriously hauled lots and lots of rounded stones from nearby creek beds. They used the stones to craft a huge stone-and-masonry fireplace, plus a massive interior wall that was as beautiful as the fireplace was functional.
The present era seems to be a time when many of us also are engaged in figurative rock-hauling. Institutions of self-government that we long took for granted seem under stress, eroding, being carried downhill toward a totalitarian sea. It can seem daunting to write one more letter, attend one more demonstration, make one more phone call, have one more discussion across ideological lines, pray one more prayer. And yet this work is just as necessary as physical rock-hauling. Even when human societies get warped by fear and hatred, it’s still necessary to continue—we, too, must stay happy in the struggle toward the heights.
Welcoming the Year of the Rooster —by Jinny Batterson
Cock-a-doodle-doo! (Or maybe wo-wo-wo!, the Chinese Mandarin equivalent.) This Saturday, January 28, 2017, will mark the beginning of the Year of the Rooster according to the Chinese lunar calendar. People of Chinese background throughout the world may gather to celebrate what is known in most Western countries as Chinese New Year. This festival has been celebrated for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It remains China’s most important annual festival, even in modern times. Visiting extended family is an important part of festival traditions, somewhat like Thanksgiving in the United States. (For more traditions, check out a recent series in the English-language version of China Daily. (http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/culture/2017-01/22/content_28023167.htm). In previous blog posts, I’ve written about personal experiences of living in China during two different sets of New Year’s festivities, and also about the meanings of various zodiac years. (Spring Festival in Lipu, Beasts of the Chinese Zodiac, More New Year…)
As China’s economy has developed and more and more Chinese families have spread out geographically, this period of the year has also become known for the largest human migration on the planet. In 2017, nearly 3 billion trips are expected to be taken by Chinese in, from, or to China during the period between January 13 and February 21. People will travel by automobile, motorcycle, train, plane, boat or any other way possible. A feature in a recent edition of China Daily chronicled the journey of one migrant worker who was going home by bicycle. He’d left his temporary restaurant job in Shanghai on January 12 for Chongqing, a distance of over 1,000 miles. He expects to make it home by January 27, New Year’s Eve.
Different employers, schools, and institutions in China vary somewhat on the timing and length of holiday break awarded for this most important festival of the Chinese calendar, but nearly everyone gets at least a week of time off. China has nearly 280 million migrant workers, typically young adults who’ve left their birthplaces in rural areas to seek better job opportunities in China’s burgeoning cities but want to get home to visit family at Spring Festival, as it’s called in China.
Wealthier Chinese families increasingly use this time to travel internationally. According to an online travel service, Chinese will travel to 174 destinations outside mainland China during the holiday period. Within China, favorite spots include the tropical tourist city of Sanya, Hainan, dubbed “the Hawaii of China.” Although Sanya flight and hotel prices peak during the holiday, winter-weary travelers from colder parts of China still flock here to swim, snorkel, or just lie on the beach in the sunshine.
Within the U.S., there will be Chinese New Year celebrations in many major cities, including the dowager of all celebrations—an annual parade and festival in San Francisco that has been held since the 1860’s. Disneyland in Anaheim, California will hold two full weeks of celebrations, hosted by cartoon figure Mulan, plus Mickey and Minnie Mouse in Chinese costumes. For sheer glitz, it will be difficult to beat Las Vegas, where several hotels are vying for the most extravagant display. Lunar New Year parades will also be held in Washington, D.C. on January 29; in Chicago on February 5; and in Orlando, Florida, on February 11.
So, wherever and whenever you choose to celebrate, Happy Year of the Rooster! Some of your Chinese friends may appreciate a Mandarin Happy New Year greeting(pronounced roughly shin-nyen how): Xinnian Hao !
What’s New in Fake News: Choosing Our Facts (2) —by Jinny Batterson
In an earlier blog post, written not long after last fall’s elections, I retold a surprise encounter with a Trump supporter while visiting family in California, the “left coast.” This veteran of stints in the Marines and the U.S. Coast Guard played down Trump’s divisive rhetoric. (“He’s just a brash New Yorker,” the man told me.) He was upset about Hillary Clinton’s misuse of a private email server and, above all, concerned about illegal immigration. He quoted facts and figures, both historical and current, to bolster his anti-immigrant arguments. He claimed that 750,000 “illegals” made up 10% of the population of New York City, taking jobs and housing from more deserving legal residents. When I mentioned the proportion of our national food supply harvested by immigrant labor, he shunted my concerns aside—that was old news, he said. During World War II, there was a shortage of native-born farm workers, so immigrants were brought in to pick crops, but nearly all of them had been sent home during the Eisenhower administration. I did not have ready answers, but thought some of his statements were likely exaggerations.
Shortly after our conversation, I used a borrowed computer to look up figures via Google for “illegal immigration to New York City.” The closest match I could find was a Newsmax article from September, 2015 that appeared near the top of the retrieved list. It mentioned the 750,000 figure, but for New York State as a whole, in 2012, with an undocumented proportion of less than 4%. Since the new year, I’ve repeated my “illegal immigration to New York City” query, and also done further Internet research on farm labor trends. As of January 19, 2017, the lead site from a Google search on New York City illegal immigration was a sponsored advertisement for an immigration lawyer. The second highest site came from Wikipedia, with a host of disclaimers at the beginning of the article, much of which was written in 2014. This article cites a 2005 estimate of 535,000 “illegal immigrants” in New York City, sourcing the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a lobbying group formed during the 1980’s to advocate for reductions in both legal and illegal immigration to the United States.
Further research about immigrant farm labor trends produced the information that a “bracero” program (from the Spanish term for manual laborer) for Mexican temporary farm workers was in place from 1942 to 1964. The number of braceros peaked at 445,197 in 1956, during the Eisenhower administration. The program was replaced in 1965, as part of an overall reform of the immigration system, by a program of temporary “H-2A” visas for immigrant farm workers. Recent estimates from multiple sources put the proportion of undocumented workers in the seasonal farm labor force at over a million—somewhere between 50 and 70% of 2.4 million temporary farm workers. According to a Wikipedia article most recently updated on January 17, 2017, there were approximately 140,000 seasonal farm workers certified under the “H-2A” program in 2015.
Most “news” articles these days have an explicit or implicit editorial slant. Each of us is enabled to “choose our facts,” about immigration or any other issue, from among a huge number of available sites, given the continuing explosion of information in Internet, television, radio, and print sources. It becomes more important than ever to attempt to develop a balanced perspective. As I continued struggling to expand my views after my encounter with the Coast Guard veteran, I found a brief online talk by Swedish journalist Andreas Ekstrom about bias in Google search results. Two of the most important factors in Google rankings of the relevance of a query result, he explained, are: 1) similarity of search terms, and 2) the number of accesses to a particular site. Relevance is monitored and recalculated frequently, so the same query done several weeks apart can produce widely differing results. For example, the 2015 Newsmax immigration article for New York that showed near the top of my results list in November, 2016, no longer made the first screen of results in January, 2017.
If we are to maintain a representative democracy, Americans of all political persuasions will need to become more diligent about how we access news. It may take some time in our hurried lives to distill actual information from the plethora of opinions and “fake news” that so often masquerade as the real thing. It will be increasingly important to distinguish the trustworthiness of news sources; often, we’ll need to pay more attention to when an article was published and how recently it has been updated. Above all, we will need to continue to choose our “facts” carefully.
Winter Beach Respite —by Jinny Batterson
Just after New Year, we packed the car: layers and layers
Of casual clothes, plus assorted toys and games.
We headed for one of the barrier islands that
Dot the Atlantic from the Carolinas to Florida.
We’d spend a few days at the beachside condo
Of old friends, a final annual chance to reconnect
Before tax season swallowed them
And potential citizen activism swallowed us.
We arrived to balmy weather, with time for a brief
Beach stroll before sunset. Little view yet of the miles
Of downed vegetation and splintered piers and decks,
Remnants of Hurricane Matthew’s October impact.
It was after dark before our friends arrived, having
Battled urban traffic on their different trajectory east.
A brief political discussion gave way to reminiscences:
The guys had known each other since youth.
One afternoon proved too chilly and windy for outdoor activity,
But often we walked–carrying binoculars to hone in on shore birds,
Or exclaiming as our more experienced friends pointed out the
Dolphins that sometimes trolled for fish in the breakers at low tide.
A morning guided excursion took us through parts of this island
Once owned by Gullah families descended from slaves.
Before resorts and tourism took over, they earned decent livings
Farming or fishing or ferrying neighbors to and from the mainland.
Predictions of an approaching winter storm cut our idyll short.
Several days of shivering and stabbing at recalcitrant ice have
Partially diminished our relish for January in the Southeast,
But not entirely. Our beach respite memories remain.
Still Subtle and Various and Human… —by Jinny Batterson
The year 2016 has provided quite a roller coaster ride, especially in U.S. politics. Now that the year is nearly done, I’m trying to be more philosophical about this year’s largely negative political campaigns and their outcomes. While trying to avoid stereotyping anyone as a typical voter in any contest, I did pay attention to one exit polling result: the lopsided divide among those who said they favored change when casting their vote for president.
What gives me some hope for change is that recent conversations I’ve been having with family, friends and acquaintances of various political persuasions have been getting deeper without getting rancorous. My sample size is small. However, among those with whom I’ve gingerly broached the subject of American politics, what stands out are the variations in both motivations and reactions. I’ve not found consensus. Nevertheless, the opinions I’ve heard are more subtle and more nuanced than much of what I read and hear in the media, neither entirely elated nor entirely despairing, often including varying traces of spite, cynicism, skepticism, and indifference.
Though in theory I’m now part of the older, wiser generation, I find myself wishing that my parents’ “greatest generation” were still around in large enough numbers to impart wisdom and to exert more influence on our media mix. The views of some live on in their writings. I like some of the lesser-known volumes authored by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, whose early life was sheltered and privileged, but who came to maturity as global politics darkened during the 1930’s. She and her aviator husband Charles Lindbergh had for several years sought solace and privacy in England after the kidnapping and murder of their eldest child in New Jersey in 1932. By 1939, Anne was back in the U.S., tending a growing household while struggling with her husband’s strong isolationist opinions, viewing events in Europe with increasing alarm. Parts of her journals from the period were published much later, in 1980, as War Without and Within. I found the lead-in to her entry for September 2, 1939 especially compelling:
“The Germans are steaming ahead into Poland; all negotiations are off. Even the news becomes not diplomatic but military, not subtle and various and human but clear and cold and metallic.”
Tomorrow we’ll start 2017 with a fair number of possible problems and threats on our horizons. We will also have various experiences, opinions, and expertise with which to cope with them. Some choices will seem stark; others may be difficult. Still, we will have the capacity to remember in coping with lots of our issues that we as Americans and as citizens of the world can be subtle and various and human, if we choose to do so.
U.S. Election Day is over a month behind us. Depending on our traditions and beliefs, we may be preparing to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or just the returning of longer days. Many Americans are beginning to feel our way toward a future–a future still very unsure. During the final days of the fall campaign, I began to see a new crop of political slogans, advocating a particular vote as a way to “drain the swamp of D.C. politics.” I’ve been tossing around various dream versions of what “draining the swamp” in a wider sense might look like.
Usually I’m more of a word person than an image person, but I have several cartoon images in my mental collection that may be relevant. All are accessible via Internet. The first is a 1971 Walt Kelly panel from his long-running cartoon about Pogo the possum and his beloved swamp, a mythical variation of the Okefenokee. Pogo is treading across a morass of human-generated trash near his swamp home, stepping carefully to avoid hurting his feet. Beside him, Albert the alligator is waxing eloquent about pristine wilderness. Pogo is having none of the hype.
“We have met the enemy,” he retorts, “and he is us.”
The second cartoon is a 1976 strip by New Yorker cartoonist Dana Fradon, giving a baseball style box score for a supposed game between realists and idealists. Though some innings are scoreless, in most, the Realists make between one and six runs, while the Idealists are held to no score. However, at the end of the game’s nine innings, the final score reads: “Idealists 1; Realists 0.” The third cartoon was sent to me by a friend last summer. I haven’t yet been able to trace its original source–I believe it first appeared in 2014 in a Quebec-based news outlet. It shows an audience for a sermon or speech of some kind.
“Who wants change?” the leader intones. All hands go up. The follow-up question: “Who wants to change?” gets no hands at all, only a series of downcast looks.
Pogo and Fradon’s baseball players and the 2014 speech audience help me stay hopeful that our badly divisive election may have the unintended consequence of helping bring us together. We sorely need to drain the noxious elements of our personal and collective swamps, while retaining the generativity of the diverse wetlands they also represent.
Perhaps this election can draw us to deeper service. Our nation’s founders were realistic enough to know that we are not likely ever to create a totally perfect union, yet idealistic enough to begin our Constitution with the phrase “to create a more perfect union.” In the best tradition of our founders, and of more recent visionary Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., may we use the day of service we’ll celebrate as his holiday on Monday, January 16, 2017, to stop obsessing about who “won” the election. Instead, may we rededicate ourselves to the spirit of service that has meant so much for the progress and maturation of our beloved and varying country. If each of us will reach out to help and be helped by a person or group we would not normally associate with, we can begin the needed process of healing ourselves and each other, in the true spirit of draining the swamp.