LAFAYETTE, LA —Avery Island, which draws its name from a family that settled here in the 1830s, is renowned for the Tobasco hot sauce brand that Edmund McIlhenny invented after planting pepper seeds amidst the live oaks in 1865. Another historic breakthrough credited to the family is the work his son, Edward Avery McIlhenny, accomplished in safeguarding much of the island’s subtropical landscape as a conservation preserve and especially with the rookery he built to protect Snowy egrets.
In increasing the island’s egret population from under ten when he started in 1895 to over 100,000 by 1911, McIlhenny pulled off one of the great species preservation feats in American history.
Avery Island is on the National Historic Register for its role in American commerce and conservation. It’s one of the surprising delights I encountered during the few days I was in the Lafayette area while on the way to Houston to report for ProPublica. The story of American ecological preservation is always defined by the confrontation between natural values and industrial business principles. It’s been that way since Thoreau spent all those weeks on Walden Pond. It’s been that way since John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt camped in the Sierras in the weeks prior to formally establishing Yosemite National Park. Continue reading “Coastal Louisiana’s Garden of Alligators, Zydeco, and Conservation”
BENZONIA, MI — For a long while, many years in fact, Marian Gyr disdained the mobility afforded by motorized vehicles. She walked. Everywhere. Even in the blowing snow and drifts of winter.
Everybody I know here in our little village, on a rise close to Lake Michigan, has a Marian Gyr walking story. She was well into her 80s, with two reconstructed hips, and still walking far from where she slept. How many times — more than a few — did I see her by the side of the road, her gait strong and purposeful. Often she was holding a shopping bag. If I pulled over and asked if she wanted a ride, she’d wave her arms like swatting at bugs. “I’ll walk. I’m almost there,” she’d say.
Marian drew her inspiration for walking not from the need to achieve a destination, but from the power of personal purpose. She walked just like she lived, without guile or artifice. She was a woman born in the early decades of the 20th century who transcended social strictures and personal sorrow and disappointment to become a beloved guardian of independent values well into the 21st. She was timeless in a way.
Marian Gyr died on Saturday night. She was 97 years old.
In the nearly 30 years that she was my dear friend I always thought of her as Benzonia’s Grand Lady. Walking was just the clearest manifestation of Marian’s determination to do whatever she regarded as appropriate, righteous, just, and personally satisfying.
Walking also displayed Marian’s physical sturdiness, and especially the outstanding cardio-pulmonary internal infrastructure that so adeptly transferred oxygen to her blood and muscles. She was the genesis of the Gyr gear, which is the uncommon capacity she and her sons and grandsons possess to cover a lot of ground fast, without tiring.
She was unyielding in that way. When you met her it was apparent immediately. She greeted you with a smile and bright eyes, a warm hug, and a welcome hello. It was uttered in a resonant woman’s voice that sounded like what would happen if a ram’s horn was crossed with a mandolin. It was deeper than most feminine voices, clarion and musical.
Marian’s voice, insistent and unmistakable, commanded attention. It was the voice that led chants at public protests around here to oppose injustice — the Iraq War in the early century; prosecutions of underprivileged women facing trial at the county courthouse.
It was just the sort of voice a woman needed to reach her six boys, all of them as determined and emboldened, a flipping airborne tumult of male enterprise born and raised with Marian’s same genetic repository.
Here are a few of Marian’s life transitions that I’m familiar with. She and husband John raised their rambunctious sons in Brighton, Michigan, in a house where learning, love, and loyalty were taught and encouraged. She was an elementary school teacher. She read widely, and much later helped home school two of her grandsons. Here in Benzie County she sang in the Benzie Community Chorus and she helped organize and promote the development of the Betsie Valley Trail, a 22-mile hiking and bicycle path from Thompsonville to Lake Michigan that is one of Benzie County’s primary recreational resources.
She endured unspeakable tragedy as a young mother when one of her boys was killed in a bicycle accident. Years later a grown second son also died. Grief did not buckle Marian, though, nor did the end of her long marriage. She was so capable of love, in fact, that when John got sick as an elderly man she honored his request to be with him where he lived in Switzerland. She departed Benzonia for more than two years to care for him.
After all these years I’ve come to know well four of her sons, two grandsons, daughters-in-law, and a whole bunch of her family. They all express the same devotion to each other that she did. They all are as lively, as intent on making a difference, as interested in their days as she was.
The last few years, Marian lived in Traverse City. In May last year she came down to Benzonia for a party, during which her two-month-old great grandson, Addison Gyr, was introduced to the community. It was a splendid affair. So many of the millennial young adults that my generation raised in Benzonia attended with their toddlers. Four generations were on hand. A tableau of strong family and community. Marian was joyous.
And why not. Marian Gyr lived and thrived with a surety of purpose, like gravity, or the energy of the noontime sun, or the satisfaction of a long walk. Now the steps have ended. Like everybody lucky enough to accompany Marian, I grieve. I miss her.
ROME — Spending time in Rome, Italy during these last days of 2018 provides a useful reminder of human resiliency, and a note of reasoned assessment after this terrible week of political and financial churning at home.
Remember from your history books that during the nearly 1,200 years of their empire, from the 8th century B.C. to mid-fifth century A.D., Romans suffered their share of incompetent, evil, wicked, inane, and miscreant emperors. Nero (54-68 A.D.) killed his mother and executed two wives. Caligula (37-41 A.D.) was a murderer who legalized looting. Commodus (180-192 A.D.) was dumb as dirt. Still, Roman architects and engineers, operating without 24/7 digital attention, invented the durable materials and designed great buildings and public spaces that honored a 1,000-year-old civilization, a number of which stand and are still used today. Rome developed a legal system that is the basis of Europe’s contemporary judiciary practices.
The great nation state that arose after Rome collapsed built stupendous places of worship and developed artists and sculptors who produced magnificent works that still thrill the world.
This week, like too many over the last two years, was terrible in the United States. The secretary of defense resigned over the president’s decision, made on his own instinct, to withdraw American troops from Syria. The Russians celebrated that move. Republican lawmakers gulped. The stock market is down nearly 10 percent for the year, the worst showing in a decade. President Trump shut down the government to make a silly case for building a wall along the border with Mexico. The U.S. government has no White House chief of staff, no attorney general, no secretary of defense, no Interior secretary, and too many right wing allies cheering on the disruption. Amazing.
Now Italy has its own issues, including high taxes, serious national debt, lingering corruption, and birth rates so low that the country’s population could slip to 50 million by 2050, or 10 million people less than today.
Still, as a mindful American concerned about the stability of our country and the condition of our social compact I suggest that ancient and contemporary Rome offer solace, if not a measure of hope. When compared to the 2,750-year story of Rome, one miserable American ringleader of chaos and deterioration in 242 years is, I suppose, tolerable. We just can’t let it happen again for another 242 years.
ROME — Public places all over the world are targets this century for mayhem and bloodshed. In the United States attackers armed with handguns and automatic weapons have put schools, churches, malls, music festivals, offices, and theaters in their gunsights. The country endures a mass killing every week. Hundreds have died.
In Europe the risk of domestic mass killings is not nearly as keen as the threat of terrorism, much of it linked to Islamic extremism. The century has been especially unkind to residents of the continent’s financial, cultural, and political capitals. In March 2004, terrorists attacked Madrid’s commuter rail network, detonating 10 bombs that killed 193 people and injured more than 2,000. In July 2005 terrorist bombings in London killed 52 people.
Many of the worst attacks occurred in a bloody spate of killings in Paris in 2015, among them a coordinated attack in November on six locations that killed 130 people, most of them in a nightclub. In July 2016, a truck in Nice ran over and killed 86 people. Last year 22 people died when attackers bombed a concert in Manchester, England.
One consequence of the carnage is the visible security presence here in Rome at Christmas time. Perhaps because Italian police gained such bloody experience battling Mafia families with superior intelligence capacity and investigative skill, security forces here have been exceptionally adept at intercepting and halting terrorist plots. All of Italy has largely avoided the bloodletting that has afflicted so many other nations in Europe.
Still, the armored vehicles and armed soldiers patrolling the squares and piazzas and crowded public spaces in this dense city are unmistakable emblems of the ever present threat. It’s the cost of cultural division, the dismal expense of this era of unrelenting mortal danger.
SOMERSET, KY — This is the week that Robert Mueller, the special counsel, is supposed to make public sentencing memorandums for three Trump allies who pled guilty to various illegal acts committed in and out of service to the president. From what’s been made public, and from what I know from fact-checking Seth Abramson’s book, Proof of Collusion, it’s not going to be pretty or something to celebrate.
The country has been in a state of dissolution and disruption for more than two years, the most dismal period of national unraveling in my lifetime. I never imagined that an individual, backed by power-mad legislative allies, could so easily push a huge nation so far off its moral mooring. I never understood that so many Americans would so eagerly embrace the reckless tilt. We’ve experienced 30 months of national vertigo. Mueller’s conclusions this week, I fear, will make it worse because the president, his allies, and the state-sanctioned right wing media are sure to describe facts as fiction, and investigative narrative of wrong-doing and collusion as political fantasy.
It is for those reasons and more that Thanksgiving this year was such a welcome respite. I put aside the daily grind of White House abuse and national dismay. We get in the car and drive through the mountains of West Virginia and forests of Maryland and Pennsylvania. We talk and exit the car now and again to shake the stiffness and ache out of our immobilized bones. It feels great.
As in other years, Gabrielle and I spent the holiday in New York. The Schneiders, and their spouses and children, gather at the Harvard Club once a year to spend a few hours catching up as a family. It’s one of the select “don’t miss” dates on my annual calendar. Jo-Anne Schneider, who is 88-years-old now, holds the event and issues the invitations. She was greeted this year by a 100 percent rate of acceptance. Pretty good since we come from several states. Our circle expanded a bit the last few years. In 2017 a new wife, Gabrielle. This year we welcomed Lauren and Jeffrey Lipton’s April-born baby, Samuel, and Taylor Powell’s girlfriend, Jackie Danisi.
This year also included a new landing spot. Instead of our usual Manhattan hotel room, Gabrielle and I spent two nights in Scarsdale with Grant Schneider and Larry Diamond, and their children, Margot and Graydon Diamond. We were treated to such hospitality and graciousness in their beautifully decorated and welcoming home. It had been years since I spent that much time with Grant, not since he was unmarried and lived in New York City and Boston. He did not disappoint. My younger brother is a tempest of style, smarts, energy, and opinions. He can be an irrepressible wave of ardent expression one moment. A gentle and generous welcoming breeze the next. He is the sails and rudder on his family’s ship. His composed and handsome husband, just as smart and ambitious, is the hull and keel keeping the whole thing in balance. Gabrielle and I loved it and look forward to our next visit.