2020 Vision

Since March 11, we have lived in a hodgepodge of COVID precautions, COVID hysteria, COVID counter-reactions, and COVID exhaustion. 

The coronavirus got upstaged, but did not go away, when the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis touched off a new round of racial justice riots. 

Absorbed as we have been in feeding these sorrows into our national appetite for angst, we gave scant notice to a new light in the heavens.

Comet NEOWISE near its closest approach to Earth. Photographed from Joshua Tree National Park, California, 21 July 2020 by Kalpa Semasinghe. Photo licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

The comet popped out of the void on March 27. Since then, it has waxed through almost four months of dawns. Now, in July, after sunset, it is on the wane. 

Soon, it will return whence it came, leaving us . . . here.

Photo by Fernando @cferdo on Unsplash.

Oh, C/2020 F3 NEOWISE, what tidings do you bring? 

Optics

Last Monday I bought a pair of Nikon 8×30 binoculars. I wanted something my wife, daughter, grandchildren, and I could use in the future. Comets come and go, but birds are perennial. Still, it was the comet that spurred my purchase. 

I wanted to see NEOWISE. 

What if it was a harbinger?

Back in 1961, the Wilson-Hubbard Comet appeared for a few days in late July. 

As I trekked through a cattail marsh to my sleeping cabin at Scout camp, its pale cone of light hung in the sky over my right shoulder. The haunting evanescence, seen by naked eye, has dwelt with me near sixty years.

Night Sky

Even longer ago than that, we lived in a small town in Illinois. We were many miles from Chicago, or even Peoria; light pollution was unknown. Every cloudless night, the black empyrean glinted with a billion gems.  

You could—and I did—lie on the grass and stare at Orion, the Dippers, Cassiopeia, the Seven Sisters, and the teeming brilliance of the Milky Way. 

One summer night I lay on the lawn for hours and saw with my own eyes—as if it had not already been taught in school—that our Earth rotates beneath not only the sun and the moon, but beneath the whole firmament. One by one the constellations sink beyond the west while others creep out from under the east.

Beyond that simple truth, I had no grasp of the thing. Intuition failed me as a natural philosopher.

When I heard the learn’d astronomer, 
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me, 
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them, 
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room, 
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick, 
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself, 
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, 
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
—Walt Whitman

Astronomy

In days of yore, the farmers, shepherds, and sailors kept company with the night sky. They looked up to fathom its meaning. They gave its regions fanciful names out of folklore and national myths. 

Ptolemy scans the heavens, guided by Urania, the muse of astronomy. 1508 engraving by Gregor Reisch. Pubic Domain.

They relied on heavenly bodies to guide their ways on Earth.

They saw that the stars hold fixed relations with one another, all but a recalcitrant few that wander as if by whimsy through the celestial field. These few they called “planets”—a name that means “wanderer.”

Claudius Ptolemy (c. 100-170) worked out a math to map the planets’ paths. This was a feat. 

The challenge was that the planets, as viewed from Earth, seem to halt and go backwards from time to time, apparently at irregular intervals. Unavoidably, Ptolemy’s geometry to account for this oddity was complicated.

In the Middle Ages, Ptolemy’s complex model of planetary motion coexisted with Aristotle’s simple construct of the sky as a sphere of crystal in which the stars were embedded. Aristotle’s notion addressed the changeless reaches of space, while Ptolemy’s pinned down the meanderings of the planets against that space.

Astronomer Copernicus, or Conversations with God, 1873, by Jan Matejko. Public Domain.

Come the Renaissance: The sky, like all things else, got re-examined. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) wrote a book, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium—On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres. He hesitated to publish his theory, so controversial was it. When, on his deathbed, he set loose his manuscript, it knocked over Ptolemy’s applecart, placing the sun at the center of the universe and making of Earth a mere planet—just like the tiny ones that blundered about the nocturnal sky, only closer.

Kepler in 1610. Unknown artist. Public Domain.

The Copernican view—which took almost a century to become accepted science—required a new model for the motions of planets. Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), a human calculating machine, figured the true orbits of the planets, which turned out to be elliptical, not circular as had always been assumed.

Comets

The permanent stars were fixed in crystal and the desultory planets ranged along an elliptical racetrack. 

Comets were something else again.

Noble stargazer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) observed the Great Comet of 1577 and recorded thousands of position fixes as it passed by. The comet’s trajectory did not fit his system, nor Kepler’s, nor Copernicus’s, nor Ptolemy’s. 

It turns out that comets are adventitious travelers from the far reaches of our solar system.

They arrive all of a sudden and make a big splash. Then they depart, leaving us none the wiser.

Still, they have been taken as portents. 

“I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’”

Mark Twain, 1909

Harbinger

On Wednesday, with my new binoculars, I drove west out of Madison. On a curve of County Highway F between Mount Horeb and Blue Mounds, parked cars lined the road. People sat on the roadside bank in lawn chairs, facing northwest, waiting for the show. 

I tucked my Toyota into the parking lot of Brigham County Park and walked back down the hill to the curve where the comet-seekers sat. Without a lawn chair, I lowered myself heavily to the grassy slope and gazed northwest. 

As the sunset faded, the stars came out. Once the sky darkened enough, it was easy to find the comet at some distance below the Big Dipper.

Looking for a reprise of Comet 1961 V (Wilson-Hubbard), I was disappointed. NEOWISE, even through binoculars, was only a vague streak rising from a pinpoint of light. Once my field glasses had found it, I could also see it without magnification, a mere smudge.

Muttering, I walked back to my car. 

And as I trudged uphill to the parking lot, the whole panoply of Heaven arched above me—millions of stars, diamonds on a black velvet sky. It took my breath away. Or maybe it was the hill.

The panoply of Heaven. “Night Sky” by adrianmichaelphotography is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Reaching the parking lot at the top of the hill, I let my breath catch up with me as I scanned the whole sky. Jupiter gleamed above the southern horizon. The binoculars gave me two of its moons, standing off from the planet’s blue-white orb. 

#

Dear Reader, we have imprisoned ourselves in city lights. Away from our industrial glow, the cosmos burns as it always did. But it’s over our heads; we must look up. 

By what lights do we steer? The halogen vapor haze of shopping malls, or the shy twinkles of the universe? 

Back home, I stood in my yard. To the northwest, beyond the man-made glow, hung the same comet we had seen in the country. 

You just had to know where to look.             

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

1620, or 1619—Which Will You Have?

WARNING: Your New Favorite Author is a 75-year-old, white, male Christian. I have been blessed many times over; from non-white, non-male, non-Christian perspectives, I am no doubt a person of privilege.

#

What a difference one year makes.

The Good Pilgrims

When I was growing up, America was a good place. It had started being good in December 1620, when the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts. 

They brought with them a simple, heartfelt form of the Christian religion, a genuine desire to prosper, and a sincere intention to deal justly with the native inhabitants.

They were also rumored to have brought freedom, democracy, constitutional government, separation of church and state, the right to bear arms, and sundry other blessings.

The holy people who brought us all our blessings. “The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1914) by Jennie A. Brownscombe. Public Domain.

Some of those attributions are far-fetched or at least asterisk-worthy, but the point is: Long before the official start of America in 1776, the Mayflower crowd of 1620 had already laid the keel of a “good America”—good in the sense of prosperous, and good in the sense of virtuous.

The Bad Slavers

Last August, the folks at the New York Times gave us a series of articles known collectively as “The 1619 Project,” challenging this venerable narrative; 1619 being the year when twenty or thirty African slaves were brought to the English colony in Virginia.

“Landing Negroes at Jamestown from Dutch man-of-war, 1619. Illustration by Howard Pyle. Public Domain.

The point of the Times’ project is to show that America is not so good after all, with a legacy of slavery that began even before the Mayflower set sail. 

Thus you might say that when the Pilgrims arrived, their adventure to America was already pre-stained, and no agent since—not the blood of 700,000 Union and Confederate soldiers nor the sweat and tears of thousands of Civil Rights Movement marchers and sitters-in—has been enough to scrub out the stain. 

America: Good or Bad?

Dear Reader, in case you are only just now arrived from a distant planet: There is a fierce battle raging at this moment between partisans of the Good America of 1620 and the Bad America of 1619. 

Far be it from me to wade into that donnybrook. I do not fight battles. I let others fight while I stand off to the side and observe. It’s what I do.

In this role, I shall merely note:

  • 1. It’s not remarkable that 246 years of slavery makes a blot on the scutcheon of us Mayflower folk. If the Pilgrims brought real freedom and democracy, why were those blessings not shared promptly with our darker-skinned brothers and sisters?
  • 2. The noble intentions of white Colonials—sentiments enshrined in the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the Constitution (1789)—ring a bit hollow because of the big asterisk of slavery, which was not abolished until 1865, and the other big asterisk of post-Reconstructionism, which withdrew most of the promise of Emancipation after 1876.
  • 3. We will never get to enjoy our Good America of 1620 unless we face, and face down, the Bad America of 1619.

Point 3 reveals my agenda.

What is the Point?

I would dearly love to get beyond all this palaver. Get beyond all the guilt, the mutual recriminations, our slow national marination in the brine of our past sins. 

So, how can we do that? 

If we wait for all racial incidents to cease before we begin to do the difficult work of repairing the relations between white and black Americans, we will never start.

If, having started to repair our racial divide, we allow ourselves to be diverted from this work by new racist outrages, the nation’s healing will never gain momentum.

If we fail to recognize and condemn racial violence, that failure will undermine any attempts to build a successful multi-racial society.

How can we build that society in the face of continuing racially inspired violence? How can we do that when people of color have good reason to fear any dealings with those we pay to keep order in our society?

I do not have a clue.

I am pretty sure we won’t solve the problem by calling names; by issuing petitions and manifestoes of solidarity; or by shelling out money to make whole the scars of past generations’ brutal experience .

I think we will all have to get used to recognizing and confronting racial animus locally and in particular, wherever we encounter it.

I have no better answer. People tell me the problem is systemic; but how can you address it, except one person and one situation at a time?

#

I expect to live another 75 years. By that time I will be 150. If race relations are still abysmal in the United States, I will die deeply disappointed. 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Our Lady Under Canvas: Further Adventures of Milo Bung

These days, I try to stretch my legs. Long walks are good exercise. You don’t even need a face mask, if you stay six feet from everyone you meet.

Mary shrine. Photo by Fastfission, licensed under CC0 1.0.

My walk took me so far yesterday that I stumbled into Milo Bung’s neighborhood. Milo was out in the corner of his yard, working on something. I stood and ogled the object of his labors. It was a large, shapeless mass. A canvas sheet, I guessed, draped over . . . aha!

Milo had thrown a grayish tarpaulin over his Holy Mother grotto.

The item in question is an imitation rock face, five feet high, with a niche scooped out of its front. In the cave-like niche stands a plaster Virgin Mary in blue and white robes, arms outspread to the faithful. It’s a familiar lawn manifesto in our part of the country, where dwell many devout Roman Catholics.

Milo is not one of those. 

I do not know what religion he professes, if any. But the house’s previous owner had installed the little shrine. Milo, being Milo, had left it alone. Now it was covered with a tarp—a house-painter’s dropcloth, yet without spot or stain.

Virginal.

“What are you doing?” I cried. 

“Does that look like a rock to you?” 

“It looks like a dropcloth hung over your Virgin Mary.”

“I mean, if you didn’t know she was under there—would you think it was a boulder? A natural rock outcropping?”

“No. I’d think it was a tarp covering something.”

Milo frowned. He switched on a noisy air compressor at his feet, picked up a hose nozzle, and sprayed the canvas with something wet and gray and pulpy. 

Peace

After a few minutes he shut off the racket, set down the hose, and inspected his work. “That’s more like it. Should set up pretty quick.”

“Milo,” I asked, “why do you want to make your Holy Mother shrine into a featureless rock?”

“I heard they’re tearing down statues these days, and I didn’t want mine to be one of them. The rock is temporary camouflage. You know, till the fad passes.” 

I sighed. Conversations with Milo always include a sigh. 

“Nobody,” I pointed out, “is going to come around and tear down your statue of Jesus’s mother.” 

Milo waggled the inactive hose nozzle at me. “But then, I wouldn’t have thought they’d mess with General Grant, either. Or Francis Scott Key. I’m taking no chances. I kinda like the old gal, smiling there on my lawn. She makes me feel peaceful.”

The notion of Milo Bung, pacified, brings to mind a hibernating armadillo. He is not exactly a cauldron of pent-up mayhem in his normal state.

The Areopagus. Photo by O.Mustafin, licensed under CC0 1.0.

He resumed spraying.

Iconoclasts

I had to concede, as he worked at it, that the agglomerated mess looked less and less like a piece of canvas. It began to assume the gnarled gravitas of the Areopagus in Athens. 

“You think making your shrine into a big rock is the answer?” I asked. “How do you know the Visigoths won’t came along one day and demolish your boulder?”

“Nah.” Milo gave the nearly-finished promontory an extra squirt of sauce. “I’ve been studying these folks. They only tear down representational art. 

“They are iconoclasts.”

This conversational pièce de résistance left me staring at Milo, all flumberbusted.

“You can look it up in your Funk and Wagnall’s,” he said.

I left him there, putting the finishing touches on his art, adamantine and virginal.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Heg’s Message for 2020

Last Tuesday, I posted a jeremiad. It was my first response to the destruction of a venerable statue here in Madison, Wisconsin.

Friends who saw this lament commented, “Well, at least now, from your blog post, I have learned about Colonel Hans Christian Heg.” Meaning, they now know the name of the man whose statue was destroyed.

But if that’s all you know of Heg, then you need to know quite a bit more before you can begin to understand just why his story happens to be especially important right at this moment. 

So here goes:

Immigrant

Hans Christian Heg’s father, Even Hansen Heg, was an enterprising man who owned and operated a hotel in Drammen, Norway. In 1840, encouraged by letters from two acquaintances, Sören Backe and Johannes Johanneson, Heg took his wife and four children to join Backe and Johanneson at Wind Lake in the new Muskego Settlement in Racine County, Wisconsin.

Heg built a huge barn. It became a social and religious center and a place of first haven for Norwegian families arriving at Muskego. With its burgeoning population of Norsemen, Muskego was a place where new arrivals could adjust to America bit by bit, learning the new language and customs at an unhurried pace, because almost the whole community spoke Norsk. In 1847, Even Heg joined with Backe and editor James D. Reymert to start America’s first Norwegian-language newspaper, Nordlyset (The Northern Light).

Abolitionist

But by then, Even’s eldest son, Hans Christian, had already mastered the language and customs of America. In 1848, at nineteen, he became an active worker for the Free Soil Party, which opposed extension of slavery into the new states west of the Mississippi. The Nordlyset meanwhile had also become the party’s house organ in the Norwegian community.

Colonel Hans Christian Heg. Public Domain.

At age twenty, Heg answered the siren song of gold and joined the army of Forty-Niners headed for California. After two years there, and just when his prospecting was starting to pay, he received word of his father’s death. Since his mother was already dead, duty to his younger siblings called him home.

He took over the family farm at Wind Lake, married, and immersed himself in Free Soil politics. When the party merged into the new Republican Party, Heg became a Republican. In 1859, he was elected state prison commissioner, a post in which he worked to promote vocational training for prisoners. Two years later, with Republican Abraham Lincoln elected president, the states of the South seceded. The Civil War began. Heg resigned his prisons post and started recruiting fellow immigrants into the Union Army. His “thousand Norsemen” were mustered into service as the 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, under Heg’s command.

Soldier

Bronze statue of Heg, by Paul Fjelde. Public Domain.

After leading the 15th through major battles at Perryville, Kentucky, and Stones River, Tennessee, Heg was shot through the gut at Chickamauga, Georgia. He died the next day. His body was shipped back to Wisconsin and buried in the Lutheran churchyard near Wind Lake. In 1925, the Norwegian Society of America commisioned Norwegian-American sculptor Paul Fjelde to create a nine-foot bronze statue of Heg in uniform. The society gave it to the state of Wisconsin and it was installed on the capitol grounds. There it stood, honoring Heg and his regiment for 95 years, until a mob—ostensibly seeking racial justice—tore it down, dismembered it, and threw it into Lake Monona on June 23, 2020.

But Wait—There’s More

If the information just given is all you know about Colonel Heg, you’re still missing the point. For context is everything.

As stirring and sad as Heg’s story is, it’s far from unusual. The reasons why it’s not unusual form the heart of the story. The statue destroyed last week was not so much a tribute to Heg as to the spirit shared by Heg and his comrades-in-arms.

Heg was one of at least 360,000 Americans who gave their lives wearing Union blue and who therefore can be said to have died in the fight against slavery. They were mostly white men, but increasingly as the war went on, many black soldiers also served and died.

Heg commanded the only all-Norwegian regiment in the war. But the 15th Wisconsin was hardly the only ethnic regiment. 

Germans

Prussian troops storm the revolutionaries’ barricades at Alexander Platz, Berlin, 1848. By JoJan – Own work; photo made at an exhibition at the Brandenburger Tor, Berlin, Germany, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17630682.

Many Germans had come to America as political refugees after the Revolutions of 1848-49 in the German states. They and other German-Americans populated all-German units such as the 8th and 68th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiments, the 52nd New York German Rangers, the 9th Ohio, 74th Pennsylvania, 32nd Indiana, and 9th Wisconsin infantry regiments.  Each Northern regiment had approximately one thousand men. Counting all who served in these ethnic units, and many more who served in ordinary regiments from the states where they lived, some 200,000 of the Americans who fought for the Union had begun life in Germany.

Irish

Green Ensign of the 1st Regiment (69th N. Y. Volunteer Infantry), Irish Brigade, Union Army. Public Domain.

The Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s and 1850s brought a million and a half Irish people to America. Recent Irish immigrants serving in the Union Army numbered 150,000. Some served in all-Irish regiments like the 37th New York Volunteers and the 90th Illinois Volunteers. The 63rd, 69th, and 88th Infantry Regiments of New York formed the core of what was called the Irish Brigade. The brigade was shredded at the Battle of Fredericksburg, its effective force reduced from 1,600 to 256 men. In the whole course of the war, the Irish Brigade suffered the third greatest number of combat dead of all brigades in the Union Army.

Others

New York’s 79th Infantry Regiment was made up of recently-arrived Scots, who wore tartan kilts as part of their uniforms.

Other ethnic units had soldiers who had come to America from Italy, Switzerland, Hungary, Poland, France, and Spain. 

Many immigrant soldiers joined the fight in mixed units of ordinary Americans. 

My great-great-grandfather, Anders Gunstensen—a second son of a second son who came from Norway in 1853 because he could not inherit the farm—settled in central Illinois, where Norwegians were scarce. There was no local Norwegian regiment to join. The unit he did join—Company K, 106th Illinois Volunteer Infantry—was an outfit from Menard County whose other soldiers all had Anglo-American names, except for a handful of Germans and Irishmen. 

Motives

I wrote a novel, Freedom’s Purchase, a fictional account based on the lives of Anders Gunstensen and his wife, Maria. In making up the plot, except for a few dry, statistical facts—such as Anders’ membership in the 106th Illinois—I had no information about Anders’ and Maria’s lives in America. No letters, no diaries, no heirlooms. So I was free to speculate that a large part of Anders’ motive in serving was a strong opposition to slavery in his adopted land. I dare anyone to prove otherwise.

African American soldiers at an abandoned farmhouse in Dutch Gap, Virginia, 1864. By Unknown author – Library of Congress CALL NUMBER: LC-B811- 2553[P&P], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3819873

But the assumption is not far-fetched. It was demonstrably true of many immigrant soldiers in the Civil War, like Hans Christian Heg. 

Most or all of the African Americans who volunteered as soldiers had fighting slavery as a prime motive. They joined regiments such as the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry—the unit celebrated in the film Glory—and various federal units known as United States Colored Troops.

Why?

What’s the point of all this? 

I said when you knew more about Colonel Hans Christian Heg and understood why he was not unusual, you would know the point of the story. What does that mean?

Here it is: Millions of men, women, and children braved long, perilous voyages in sailing ships from Europe to America in the years before the Civil War. Whether they fled famine, political persecution, or simple economic hardship, they came to America hoping for a better life. 

They sought not only the material wealth of this blessed country. They hungered also for the democratic, republican political system of the new nation that had electrified the world with its revolution of 1776 and its constitution of 1789.

Upon arrival, they found themselves part of a dynamic nation, strongly swayed by recent immigrants like themselves. When that nation was threatened with extinction, they came together to save it. 

In 1862, Abraham Lincoln told all Americans, “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.” And they believed him. 

These immigrants, whether they ate lefse, potatoes, or sauerkraut, came together in a joint cause. People who grew up in autocratic monarchies like that of Sweden/Norway (joined as a single country at the time) and those who came from German states jockeying for prominence in post-Napoleonic Europe came together for a complex of reasons. It was imperative to save the Union and high time to end the system of slavery. 

They joined forces with Anglo-Americans whose ancestors arrived on the Mayflower, with recent immigrants from other lands, and with undaunted, agitated African Americans whose friends and families still wore chains. 

They did something special for themselves, for black people in America, and for all of us  descendants. What they did, they did at the cost of their lives. Or they left arms or legs or facial parts on bloody fields and lived out their days hobbled. 

What they achieved was noble in conception but turned out to be a far cry from perfect when put through the wringer of a racist society. Their battlefield success was only one phase of a longer war—a struggle for freedom, understanding, and decency that is still being waged today. 

Those immigrant soldiers of the Civil War, men like Hans Christian Heg, did not solve all the big problems they inherited from America’s slavemasters. But they came together; and what they did, they did together. They kept the Union together to face the internal struggles of later times.

We have a gigantic task ahead of us—the formation of a better society—a task which can only be accomplished bit by bit.

The only way it can possibly be done is together.

That is why we should remember Hans Christian Heg and his many brothers in arms. That is why they are important.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer