The Rain Has Finally Come, No Shots Were Fired

Back in my American Studies grad school days I remember reading about homesteaders in the Plains states who had settled their land during a cycle of higher than normal rainfall. They had good crops for the first couple of years before drier, normal conditions returned year, after year, after year. The result was drought and crop failure and crushed dreams. In those days of limited meteorological knowledge some of the settlers, in their desperation, took to shooting up at grey clouds in a futile attempt to make it rain.

I remember reading this and feeling somewhat embarrassed for our brave pioneers. Who could be so dumb right? But lately I have felt a small bit of their desperation. I am probably not the only one here on the drought-stricken East Coast this summer who secretly wished he could shoot up at the clouds and make it rain. It was as if Mother Nature had forgotten how to rain. I don’t farm, I don’t have a lawn to keep green, and I don’t live in an area that faces immediate water shortages so I had no real reason to feel so desperate about our lack of rain.

I think my desperation was born out of an overwhelming fear that the whole world is out of kilter. Drought, wildfires, floods, hurricanes, war, terrorism, pandemics, the ever worsening mortgage crisis, the incredible shrinking dollar, the ever expanding federal debt, the rise of new world powers, the decline of our own power, apathy, distrust, incivility. Most of these things have impacted the world in various combinations and in various intensities for probably all of recorded history. And it is hubris to think that we are living in unusual times.

But the thing that makes it all seem too much to bear is that we have far more information about our opportunities and constraints than sentient beings on this planet have ever had. What we lack is the willingness to do anything constructive with that information. Why are there so many things that we refuse to deal with? I sit here typing this with my windows open listening to the steady rain that eluded us all summer. It sounds wonderful.

I only wish I could send some of it to California. But I can’t. No one can.

We continue to act as if we can outsmart the planet. We continue to overpopulate and to farm areas that have insufficient water supplies. We continue to build whole communities in flood plains along the Mississippi. We continue to build multi-million dollar vacation houses in hurricane prone areas. We continue to eat up valuable farmland and natural areas with ugly sprawl. We continue to pollute the air and the water. We continue to burn fossil fuel at an alarming rate. We refuse to use the technology and knowledge that we already have to do anything about anything–unless of course, it makes more money.

We seem hell bent on creating a Mad Max future. Does it have to be that way? Our cloud-shooting forebears at least had the excuse of ignorance. What’s our excuse?

Four Women Who Rocked the 60s and Changed the World

The recent deaths of writer and urban planning iconoclast-turned-icon Jane Jacobs and feminist godmother Betty Friedan has me pondering how four women altered the contours of American life. I realize that the conversations I have had about these four women and this post are not particularly original thought, but bear repeating anyway. For one other discussion of the topic (minus Julia Child) see this article in the The Nation.

Jane Jacobs (1916-2006)
When journalist Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961 she helped pull the urban planning profession from its darkest days of “slum” clearance and the worst excesses of 1950s urban renewal. Originally decried by planners of the day, Jacobs’ view of what constituted the components of a healthy neighborhood and a healthy city is the standard by which they are still judged today. Jacobs’ description of her Greenwich Village neighborhood and the ways in which it nurtured its residents provided a powerful example in favor of mixed-use, mixed-income, walkable neighborhoods that are the mantra of virtually every municipal planning department today. Like the other three women discussed here her work is not without its flaws. But, like the others, her clarion call woke up a sleeping nation and defined the terms of discussion for going on fifty years now.

Rachel Carson (1907-1964)
The marine biologist/zoologist, professor, and author’s 1962 book Silent Spring stood the US and the world on its ear about the connection between chemical pesticides and the degradation of the environment. Her book woke up America and kicked off the modern environmental movement. Of course she has her detractors even today (not being a scientist I am not going to try and wade through the arguments), but the fundamental truth is her work put environmental issues firmly on the policy table and in the minds of the American public.

Betty Friedan (1921-2006)
The 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique ushered in the modern feminist movement. Despite the book’s somewhat limited prospective of the white, college-educated, middle class woman (i.e., the typical Smith graduate), the notion that the sexist, conformist expectations of the times had trapped most women into a life of unfulfilled potential had near virtual universal application. (One could also argue that suburban sprawl contributed greatly to the imprisonment of women in the 1950s, but that is the topic for another post.) Friedan’s writing and her co-founding of the National Organization of Women (NOW) and National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) set the U.S. on an unstoppable path toward the as yet unfulfilled equality of women in America.

Julia Child (1912-2004)
When I was a child in the 1970s the whole family would gather around the TV on Sunday afternoons to watch The French Chef with Julia Child on PBS. We never made any of her recipes but we sure liked watching. Her show, which began in 1963, and her contribution to the popularization of TV cooking shows is not the most impressive change she brought to American life. Julia introduced Americans to recipes and ingredients that were anathema to the post-World War II salt, pepper, and paprika school of American cooking. When her show began Americans were gorging on TV dinners and canned vegetables. Thanks to Julia and others in her circle or under her influence, we have so much to choose from today when we head to the grocery store. Not all of the “food” created by scientists but those fabulous ingredients that no one had heard of thirty years ago.

For you big fans out there, you must check out her kitchen which on display at the Smithsonian in Washington DC. I’ve been there five times myself.