A World We Can Trust

Our series on “Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood” will resume next week with Installment 5: Submit.

“Jesus answered with these words, saying: ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’ . . .  This was said so tenderly, without blame of any kind toward me or anybody else.”—from Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich (1343-1416 or later), English mystic

We find ourselves thrust into an age when the foundations of the world seem to crumble. We wish we could re-anchor our world, put it on a firmer footing. But all hope seems foolish.

May I offer a word of good news? There is something simple—not always easy, but radically simple in concept and execution—that each one of us can do to help set the anchor.

Let us restore Trust.

How often have we seen intractable disputes between nations or between factions moved toward resolution by the use of “confidence-building measures”—small things that begin the restoration of trust? Small things that lead to big things later on.

I would be the apostle of that which is minute. I wish to insist that what is tiny, accumulated relentlessly, sooner or later rules the great.

#

Once we trusted our government more than we do now. Once we trusted our churches more than we do now. Once we trusted our news sources more than we do now. Once we trusted our police more than we do now.

Once we trusted our neighbor more than we do now.

“Trust” by Pro-Zak is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

I am old enough to remember when it seemed we trusted one another in general, with a few exceptions. Now it seems we regard one another through slitted eyes.

None of this happened overnight. I have watched the seepage of Trust from our society, bit by bit, most of my adult life. I cannot precisely measure the outflow, but there can be no doubt that it happened. 

This will not be news to you. You know it, too.

#

A  young friend of mine, involved in our community’s nightly street disturbances, posted this justification on Facebook:

i think something people dont understand is that these protests and riots aren’t dangerous. spray painting city property is not dangerous. marching in the streets is not dangerous. 
it gets dangerous when police start a fight
arguably, rolling dumpsters to the courthouse and setting them on fire really isn’t that dangerous. it was very controlled. we aren’t idiots.

Okay. Point taken.

So forget windows broken, stores looted, buildings torched. Forget the potential for people to be maimed or killed. Those, after all, are large issues; whereas I am, by my own admission, the apostle of the small.

My young friend is quite right to focus on the trivial, as in “spray painting city property is not dangerous.” But let us examine that modest claim. Wouldn’t it depend on who or what you might think is endangered? It’s true that painting slogans or graffiti on a public building does not directly threaten anybody’s life or limb. 

Protestors spray graffiti in Washington, D.C. Photo by Vic Reinhardt, OhioOakTree, March 21, 2009. CC BY-SA 4.0.

But something even more important is endangered: Trust.

“Wait. Did you just say Trust is more important than life and limb?”

Indeed. For when we endanger life and limb, only one person is affected—or maybe a few people. But when we weaken the Trust that is our society’s glue, we harm everyone.

When we take somebody else’s stuff and spray paint our own message on it, we have taken what is not ours to take. In so doing we have dissolved a smidgen of the mutual trust that society absolutely requires in order to function.

When did we stop knowing this?

Any time we encroach on someone’s property or person, we are tearing down the house we all live in.

By the way, that is the reason bullying is so roundly condemned. Not only for its physical effect on the immediate victim, but because of the harm done to all of us when it is tolerated—leaving us exposed to a more dangerous world we do not entirely trust.

#

“But, it was city property.”

Okay, but city property is ours only in the sense that it is also everybody else’s. We own it in common with all other citizens. How do we arrogate to ourselves the right to paint it with indicia of our own choosing?

In doing so, we harvest more than the physical results of our vandalism. For our fellow citizens will now trust us less than they did. Or rather, since they may never know exactly who wielded the spray paint, they will now trust people in general less than they did.

It would be the same if we set a dumpster fire. We steal somebody’s dumpster and damage it with flame, smoke, and ash. We release smoke and probably a vile smell into our common air. 

We loudly champion the environment, but look: We have just committed a gross act of pollution. The air is not ours alone to foul. It belongs to everybody. 

Have we forgotten such elemental concepts? Have our parents failed to teach them to us?

The direct effects of encroaching on other people’s rights are as nothing compared to the erosion of trust that eventually affects us all. 

Vandalism, arson, and looting may destroy physical property, sinking the efforts of those who created that property in the first place. But far harder to repair is our broken trust in fellow members of our community.

#

“Thank you for your touching concern, but I can look out for my own reputation. The trust of my fellow citizens is not as important to me as you may think, Old Timer.” 

Ah, no, Grasshopper: If it were only a matter of your reputation suffering at your own hands, I would not mind hanging you out to dry. But something far greater is at stake.

Namely, our future happiness, and that of our children and grandchilden.

Because trust, or lack of trust, does not exist in a vacuum.

When we transgress against what is not ours, the markdown of trust does not accrue to us alone. 

The general Trust that keeps society glued together is all one common tissue. Our little bit of it is part of the common pool. 

Whenever we squander trust through our own actions, no matter how trivial, the total Trust throughout society goes down. Whenever our conduct vindicates the trust others place in us, the world’s general level of Trust is increased. 

That quantum—the summation of small bits of responsible or irresponsible conduct—makes the difference between a High-Trust Society and a Low-Trust Society. 

In a Low-Trust Society, everybody locks everything up. Properties of any size at all are guarded by walls topped with barbed wire and broken glass. Cameras lurk everywhere. Shops and offices have small windows or none at all. Strangers are always suspect. A large and aggressive police establishment is required, because nobody is to be trusted.

A High-Trust Society has less need for such precautions. Store owners can display fine merchandise in large picture windows. There is a plenitude of goods and a smaller propensity to steal them. The police, such as they are, may seem more like Andy and Barney in Mayberry. People, in general, are more relaxed.

We would rather live in a High-Trust Society than in the Low-Trust version.

#

“But you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. All this talk about small virtues is just a smoke screen to maintain the horrific status quo. You’re defending racism.”

It’s understandable that people may think some violation of others’ persons and property is the small, justifiable price to pay for a more perfect society. If a little spray-painting or dumpster-burning saps Trust, then police brutality really zaps Trust. And what about racial discrimination? Does it not automatically send Trust down in flames?

Well, yes. But those are large things, which I hesitate to address. Remember, I am only the apostle of the small.

However, if we should wish to speak of the large: How does it cure the enormity of a race-based murder to pile a thousand little dumpster fires, vandalisms, and angry speeches or social media screeds on top of it?

Please consider: The murder will never be cured. It is too late to restore the victim to life. The chief complaint voiced after each such tragedy—the dreaded future prospect—is that the community continues to live in fear. 

Fear is a terrible thing to live in. 

Trust is better.

Every act that encroaches on persons or property reduces the total Trust in our society. This includes not just things done in the heat of demonstrations or riots. It also includes acts of larceny, coercion, intimidation, or brutality committed in the course of everyday life. And it includes offenses, large or small, that are done by law enforcement officers who should know better. 

All such encroachments—not just those motivated by racism—are bad. All of them make it harder for us to function as a society of people who mostly trust one another. 

It is mistaken to think that our graffiti or our dumpster fire is okay, or even laudable, because it is not a racial slur or a police shooting. Two wrongs, in all human history, have never yet added up to a right. 

#

What I Am Not Saying:  I am not saying we should simply trust one another, regardless of the evidence of our experience. 

What I Am Saying: I am saying that to get more Trust in society we must first act in ways that engender trust, not in ways that dissipate trust.

What I Am Not Saying:  I am not saying we should not protest wrongdoing. 

What I Am Saying: I am saying we will not cure a great wrongdoing by means of lesser wrongdoings. 

To restore Trust to our world requires millions of acts of decency, not contempt, by millions of people, over the course of many years. That’s the kind of army one might hope to join.

But an act of vandalism in the streets is the same category of thing as the police shooting of an unarmed black man. They are both the same kind of act.

They are misguided aggressions which degrade the community as a whole, leading not to a better society but to a Lower-Trust society, and thus a worse one. 

No matter how loud we may shout that we are fighting for justice and opposing injustice, our misguided aggressions shout louder to the contrary.

#

Small, seemingly unimportant, acts of incivility and barbarism are major contributors to the sweeping malaise of our society, which boils down to a deficit of Trust.

Our world lacks Trust because so many of us, so often, fail to be trustworthy. 

If each one of us undertook, as a personal mission, to treat other people and their property with unfailing respect, we could begin to restore a world we can all trust.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

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

Desiderata

“Desiderata” is Latin for “things desired.” Often in difficult times, the thing we most desire is peace.

Max Ehrmann. Fair use.

The prolific, inspirational writer Max Ehrmann (1872-1945) of Terre Haute, Indiana, penned a prose poem that was published as “Desiderata” in 1948. It is the only one of his works to achieve enduring fame, and that only after his death. 

For its tone and diction, and because it once appeared in a church publication with the legend, “Old Saint Paul’s Church, Baltimore AD 1692,” it is often assumed to be ancient, maybe even Scriptural in origin. “1692,” however, meant the date of the church’s founding, not of the poem’s writing.

Inspiration

“Desiderata” is neither Biblical nor liturgical nor even very old. But, like Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, it stakes a claim to an authenticity of its own. It swept the nation in 1971, when a voice artist named Les Crane released it as a spoken word recording. That was at the height of our nation’s internal turmoil over Civil Rights and the Vietnam War. The serene, contemplative tone of the piece may have boosted its popularity.

Today we are again in a time of stress and conflict. Perhaps Mr. Ehrmann’s poem will be of some use to you. At least, it constitutes good advice.

Desiderata

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Love . . . is as perennial as the grass. Photo by Мария Волк on Unsplash.
Do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Photo by Rendiansyah Nugroho on Unsplash.

Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

You are a child of the Universe. Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy. 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Unsocial Media

Never thought this blog would become a soapbox, but here goes—

For decades, we have decried “loss of civility” in our public discourse. 

Confucius said we would be less confused if we called things by their right names. What we commonly call “loss of civility” we ought to call “viciousness.” 

“Confucius” by Gimli62 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Recently, as an antidote to the throbbing toothache that social media has become, I posted on Facebook the following:

ATTENTION

This brief message is my own. It is not a pre-manufactured meme that I picked up somewhere, or a quote from somebody else that I thought would be fun to appropriate for my own use. This is the actual view of Larry F. Sommers.

We are called to love one another. The most elementary way to practice this commandment is to be kind and forbearing.

What does “kind and forbearing” mean? It means we do not speak ill of others or wish ill to others, even those who are not present with us. Even if they are public figures such as politicians or movie stars whom we do not know. Even if they are unknown members of the general public whose views disagree with ours. Even if our speech is not really our own but is copied from somebody else, such as a professional manufacturer of nasty memes. Even if our speech is only on social media, and everybody else on social media is speaking the same way. Even if the targets of our invective spoke ill of us first.

Our society’s public discourse has become a cesspool of narcissistic, poisonous invective. Nobody will cure that unless we do. Let us be generous in our estimates of one another, and act and speak accordingly.

Blessings, and thank you for your attention to this matter.

I probably should have added, “Even if they are in a category of people we have decided to dislike.”

Kindness Controverted

I hardly thought this manifesto would be controversial, nor was it meant as an experiment of any kind. But it turned out to be an experiment, and an illuminating one at that. 

Many of my friends agreed in general with my remarks, but some added caveats. None spoke directly against kindness and forbearance. But they did seem to think there were larger issues at stake in our human conversations.

Their implication—or was it only my inference from their remarks?—is that sometimes, in the pursuit of justice or of holiness, we must employ vilification.

I disagree categorically. What could be a larger issue than our need of kindness and forbearance? 

The only thing I said was that people ought not to speak ill of one another or wish ill upon one another. I did not suggest revoking the First Amendment.

Justice and Injustice

Micah the prophet, Russian icon from first quarter of 18th century. Public Domain.

“. . . and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”—Micah 6:8. 

I’ve always felt the prophet’s words “do justice” referred prima facie to one’s own acts, as in “deal justly with others.” But some folks would interpret those words as mandating that we police injustices commited by other people as well. 

This interpretation proposes that when we see injustice in the doings of others, our perception is true and accurate. The absurdity of this assumption is just what Jesus was addressing when he said, “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” 

I will stipulate that if you can transform your neighbor’s acts through the use of sweet reason, you may be onto something. But the moment you resort to obloquy, it’s a sign your case is weak.

Horace Greeley. Matthew Brady photo. Public Domain.

Apart from the aforementioned sweet reason, we have not even the ability, much less the authority, to compel others to do right. And calling names will not help. Nor will venting our anger with such colorful expressions as “Fuck you!” or “Fuck (So-and-so)”—phrases I see often in what passes for civic discourse on the Internet.

Even milder expressions may cross over from reason to invective. Horace Greeley (1811-1872), teetotaler and Republican, is reputed to have uttered: “I never said all Democrats were saloon-keepers; what I said was all saloon-keepers are Democrats.” This nice distinction matters little. Whether you’re a Democrat or a saloon-keeper, you know that Horace Greeley has consigned you to the deepest circle of Hell.

Besides the business about a log in one’s eye, Jesus also said, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” No wonder the Book of Proverbs tells us to guard our mouths.

Control

God has placed us in a very large world, a large world inside an even larger universe. In that universe, and in that world, a great many things take place—almost an infinite array of different objects, patterns, and events. There are more people, more cultures, more habits, more motives than you can shake a stick at. 

You need not be a cultural relativist, or an amoralist, to see that in this vast carnival of life—in what Delmore Schwartz called “the scrimmage of appetite everywhere”—almost the only thing we may control is our own conduct. As a corollary, almost the only way to influence the conduct of others is by our own example.

Feel free also to look at this from the other end of the telescope. By absolutely relinquishing the cheap options of calumny and hostility, one is freed for the grander game: The slight chance to improve others’ ideas and attitudes through patient, persistent persuasion. (SPOILER ALERT: Such persuasion is a lifetime project and offers no guarantee of success.)

Unbridled Passions

Modern American society has canonized the practice of giving free rein to one’s passions. But I am here to suggest that not every emotional impulse need be shared with others, especially if it be shared in the manner of a bludgeon. Society will work better when more of us cultivate a studied reticence, giving only blessing and encouragement to our friends—and making everybody, as much as possible, our friends.

High principles which require ad hominem salvos for their defense may not be such high principles after all. If they cannot be advanced by calm and logical argument, perhaps they should be exchanged for others that can be. 

O Inky Wretch,” you may ask, “do you always practice what you preach?” 

Of course not; I am only human. But, with great persistence, I do try. 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Into the Blogosphere

DEAR READER: This is a re-post of the first entry to this blog on 12 April 2019. You can judge for yourself whether subsequent posts have fulfilled the original intention. Of course, to do that, you would have to read them all, which is definitely encouraged.

“In my dotage, I am reduced to bloggery.”—King Lear, Act VII, line 4,926

King Lear and Cordelia, by Benjamin West (1793) / Folger Shakespeare Library, Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the best way to tell you about that, as Michael Hauge would say, is to tell you how I came to write this blog.

I was a happy, successful septuagenarian. But—from the time I wrote a detective story on a pencil tablet in third grade, when I was supposed to be doing something else—I had always meant to be a writer of fiction. What with one thing and another, I just had never gotten around to it.

So I quit my day job to write fiction. I had something to say. Just didn’t know what it was. Now, if you have an itch like that, nonfiction won’t scratch it. Something about fiction gives you an opportunity to tell the truth.

My approach to writing fiction is what the psychologists call a “projective technique”—akin to journaling, role-playing, or inkblot-guessing. I just thought, “I’ll start writing, and see what comes out.” 

What could possibly go wrong?   🙂

Early Success

Within a couple of years, I was lucky enough to get a few short pieces published: a dog essay in Fetch! magazine and three “Izzy Mahler” stories, about a young boy growing up in the 1950s, published electronically by the Saturday Evening Post.

Meanwhile, I started thinking about a historical novel based on Anders Gunstensen and Maria Nybro, my great-great-grandparents, who came from Norway to Illinois before the Civil War. 

Fast forward to Now, and I have a good first draft of that work, Freedom’s Purchase. All I need to do is make it a lot better, and then pitch it to agents and publishers.

The Writer’s Life

But—STOP THE PRESSES! It turns out that to be in the writing game in a serious way, you must become a Major Literary Figure before the ink is dry on your first paragraph. You can’t simply write something great, publish it, become rich and famous, and then go on to your next triumph. That’s not How the World Works.

You must let other talented writers see your work and critique it. This is a vitally necessary step, if you want to avoid writing unprintable dreck. But when others spend time and effort to read and critique your stuff, you must do the same for them. Reciprocity rules. That means that from the outset of your writing career, you’re sending drafts to fellow writers, receiving and responding to drafts of theirs. 

For researching subject matter and for familiarization with the literary landscape, you find yourself reading more and more books—things you would not have read otherwise. You write and submit thumbnail book reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.com. You subscribe to writers’ magazines and literary market websites.

You’d better attend a writers’ conference now and then. Two great ones are hosted every year in my home town by the University of Wisconsin–Madison. They cost money and time, but it’s necessary money and time. Writing can be a lonely business, and a solid bond with your “tribe” of fellow writers will help see you through. 

And what of querying and pitching—researching agents and publishers, and learning the best ways to approach them? The material they receive is so voluminous that you need to find ways to make your submissions stand out.

“You and what army?”

And finally—or, perhaps, initially—you need an “author platform.” Platform is a code word for a large band of fanatical followers. (This could include you, Gentle Reader!)

Book publishers try not to take unnecessary risks. They do want to publish great writing. But, as between a Great Writer with an Army of Rabid Fans and a Great Writer who is just, well, a Great Writer—they’ll take the former. It all but ensures a certain number of sales. If you were a publisher, you’d feel the same way, n’est-ce pas?  

There was once a golfer with a platform that just wouldn’t quit. His name was Arnold Palmer. His fans were known as “Arnie’s Army.” I could use an army.

“What’s it All About, Alfie?”

At some point, a writer starts thinking like this: Why am I doing this? Writers don’t make fortunes, unless their name is James Patterson. Writers are lucky just to get advantageous publication. Still: If one must write, one writes. And it would be good to have lots of people read what one writes. 

So, hoping to zero in on why people might want to read what I write, I plumbed the depths of my psyche (both inches) and concluded that what I have to say to people is always rooted in a general awareness of our common past.

A noted poet, T. S. Eliot, wrote 

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

–“Little Gidding”

That sense of better-late-than-not-at-all recognition of the world is what I seek, in personal memories from my long life or in the delving into events that no one is still alive to remember.

To cultivate my author platform, therefore—so that people beyond my family may take an interest in my books when they are published—I hereby launch this website, larryfsommers.com, including this blog, titled “Reflections.”

If you come back from time to time you’ll encounter various kinds of content:

  • Ruminations on “the writer’s life.”
  • Narratives of past events, sometimes written as fictional vignettes.
  • Mentions of good books recently read.
  • News and chat from my widening circle of fellow writers.
  • Tales of success (or even of well-curated failure!) in the literary lists.
  • Pretty-much-brilliant observations and insights on the passing scene.
  • Occasional adumbrations of the Judeo-Christian faith that informs and animates all of these things in my life.

Be brave enough to stick around through several posts, and you’ll catch on. I’ll try to post something new every Tuesday. Hope to see you often.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

“F” Is for Franklin

His name was Franklin. Most folks around the small town of Knoxville, Illinois, called him Frankie. 

Frankie on the gridiron

He was the youngest of five children. At Knoxville High School he played football and basketball and ran track—as had his brothers Lloyd, Stanley, and Edward before him. He was a regular kid, good-looking, with a winning smile.

He graduated from high school in May 1941. Seven months later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and the United States went to war against the Axis Powers. Frankie enlisted as an Army Aviation Cadet on 3 April 1942. 

Aviation Cadet Frankie

In December, while he was in his year-long pilot’s training, his brother Stanley was killed flying a B-17 in the Southwest Pacfic. Frankie graduated from Advanced Flying School and was commissioned a second lieutenant 12 April 1943. After a week-long home furlough and a brief training assignment in Florida, he left for England. 

They sent him to RAF Chipping Ongar, near London, home of the U.S. Army Air Forces’ 559th Bomber Squadron, 387th Bomber Group, Medium. On 1 August, 1943, after 68.6 hours of training flights in the squadron’s twin-engined B-26 Marauders, he flew his first actual bombing mission. Through the end of August, he flew five training missions and five more combat missions, totaling 20.5 hours. 

His seventh combat mission was on 2 September 1943. By this time he was the regular co-pilot on Aircraft 41-31629, Janet’s Dream, captained by First Lieutenant William F. Vosburgh. 

Janet’s Dream and her crew, Frankie second from left

Over Bergues, France, Janet’s Dream took flak—anti-aircraft artillery fire—in her right engine, and Frankie’s war ended. The Marauder broke up and crashed, killing Frankie, Vosburgh, and two others. Two back-end crewmen bailed out and became prisoners of war.

Hap Arnold’s letter

Frankie’s eldest brother Edward, a pilot for Pan American Airways, paid a visit to Frankie’s unit in England. He collected Frankie’s things, talked with his commander and fellow fliers. Frankie had been well-liked, a “regular guy” and was the “banker” of the outfit—always had a few bucks he could lend to a fellow aviator in need.

“Hap” Arnold, Commanding General, Army Air Forces, sent my grandparents a letter that read almost as if he knew young Franklin William Sommers personally. 

“It has come to my attention that Lieutenant Sommers, a highly regarded graduate of the Advanced Flying School at La Junta, Colorado, was a brave and conscientious officer. He attained success in his effort to perform his duties in a superior manner and his commanding officers were pleased with his accomplishment of difficult tasks which they entrusted to him. Amiable and dependable, he made friends easily, and he is keenly missed in the activities of his group.”

Though doubtless they knew it was War Deparment boilerplate, this stately prose must have given them some comfort.

Frankie was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart. His remains were buried in Plot A, Row 14, Grave 32 at the Normandy American Cemetery, Colleville-sur-Mer, France.

Frankie was 20 when he died, unmarried and childless. 

I was born almost two years later, never having known my Uncle Franklin—who now lives on only in my middle name, and in a few yellowing letters and photos. 

#

All of that was three-quarters of a century ago. What has it to do with today?

Through life my friends have generally known me as Larry Sommers; but when I launched my writing career at age 70, I did so as Larry F. Sommers. I thought it had implications for author branding. “Larry Sommers” was plain vanilla; but “Larry F. Sommers” was premium vanilla. 

Besides that trivial consideration, I’m starting to understand that my name is more authentic with the “F” included. Authenticity can’t be manufactured; it can’t be designed, can’t be faked. Authenticity is that ineffable quality of actually being who you really are.

Second Lieutenant Franklin W. Sommers

My middle name, Franklin, claims the patrimony of my uncle’s remembrance. It is not something to be shucked off lightly. This man I never met gave his life for me before I was even conceived. He gave his life for all of us—one of many who did so in a dark chapter of the world’s story. 

Unlike those many others, Frankie, and his older brother Stanley, were mine. I am bound to them by two bloods— the blood of kinship and the blood of sacrifice.

We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Our being is entangled in those we remember and perpetuate—ancestors, forerunners, pioneers of our civilization. 

Whatever authenticity we may possess is a mix of individual traits with old associations. We are the sum of our present selves, our past, our family’s past, and our people’s past. 

I never knew Uncle Stanley or Uncle Franklin. There is no need or mandate for me to carry their  baggage, the burden of young lives so casually cast on history’s ash heap. Yet, wearing their mantle on my shoulders makes me more the person I am, not less. 

You can be an atom, bouncing along in a hostile universe; or, with God’s grace and your own awareness, you can purposely pitch your tent along the route of the grand parade. You can be one with your uncles, with your aunts, with Mister Lincoln, with Frederick Douglass, with the signers of the Magna Carta, with Leif Erikson and with Homer, who sang the tales of Odysseus the adventurer. 

You can be part of all the glory of the human condition, but then you must be part of the pain also.

That, Gentle Reader, is what I mean by “seeking fresh meanings in our common past.” 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Making Firewood

Hardships bring us back to the essentials.

Bereft of people to see and places to be, I turn to the dwindling wood-pile in the rack along my garage wall. 

A couple of years ago our friend Kevin rebuilt our old miscellaneous junk depot, making it into a newly inviting sunroom. It’s an awkwardly long space with a lot of windows but no connection to the furnace that warms the rest of our house. So Kevin installed a cast-iron woodstove at the far end of the room.

The author at work by his woodstove. Lacey the spaniel as Sancho Panza.

That woodstove has become a great blessing to Your New Favorite Writer. It means I can write in the calm of our sunroom in warm weather, in the cooler times of spring and fall, and even in the deepest part of winter.

But the cost is: Procuring enough firewood and splitting the logs to stack for drying and burning.

Into the Trees

Old-timers say firewood warms you twice: First when you cut it, haul it, and stack it; and second when you burn it.

I like to get logs for free, rather than pay money. From time to time, someone in the neighborhood has a tree felled; usually this work is done by hired arborists. If the homeowner does not want the wood, the wood cutters must haul the logs to a dump for disposal—an added expense I can lighten for them by taking some logs off their hands. It never hurts to ask.

After hauling a few heavy, 4- to 6-foot logs home in the back of my SUV, I need to cut them to fireplace lengths. I use a small, seven-pound Stihl chainsaw with a 14-inch bar. Small beats large where chainsaws are concerned. Schlepping a 23-pound, 20-inch murder machine around a tangled logjam will knock the stuffing out of you in half an hour. Very few men or women who are not woodsmen by trade can put a large chainsaw to good use. And fatigue will make the urban lumberjack a danger to self and others.

The essential tool.

The timber is sawn, ideally, into 16-inch segments; then the real fun begins. Logs need to be split (1) so they’ll dry more efficiently, for the bark holds moisture in; (2) so they’ll fit conveniently in the stove; (3) so they’ll burn more readily as flames lap at their exposed innards; and (4) so Your New Favorite Writer may enjoy the satisfaction of cleaving a pillar of wood with the bite of a sharp axe.

Verse in the Vernal Heat

Robert Frost in 1941. Fred Palumbo photo. Library of Congress, New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. Public Domain.

Robert Frost waxes lyrical over chopping in his poem “Two Tramps in Mud-time”—

Good blocks of beech it was I split,
As large around as the chopping block;
And every piece I squarely hit
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.
The blows that a life of self-control
Spares to strike for the common good
That day, giving a loose to my soul,
I spent on the unimportant wood.

Scavenging for wood seldom brings me “good blocks of beech” that fall “splinterless as a cloven rock.” Quite often I’m using, by turns, my axe, a heavy splitting maul, or even wedges and a sledgehammer to demolish a twisty, knotted specimen of brutish maple or fruitwood with desperately cross-tangled fibers. It’s frustrating to try to smash such a godforsaken glob of sylvan perversity to flinders.

Larry the logger levitates lumber. Jo Sommers photo, used by permission.

But, ah! when I do score a nice chunk of straight-grained hardwood—such a joy to plummet the steel down upon it and pick up the halves on either side, to set the halves again on the chopping block and knock them into clean, glistening quarters. If you have ever done this kind of elemental work, then you know the peace it bestows.

Splitting wood adds rest and harmony to the soul.

Some of my neighbors use hydraulic splitters that can shiver a timber to its component parts in seconds. I have no quarrel with this efficient practice. I just like my way better.

Pride of Axemanship

Frost mentions a pair of bystanders who watched him at his beech-splitting chore: 

Men of the woods and lumberjacks,
They judged me by their appropriate tool.
Except as a fellow handled an ax,
They had no way of knowing a fool.

So there’s that, too. Pride, you see, rears its ugly head. I am proud of the little wood lore I have gained over my 75 years on God’s green earth, starting as a Boy Scout and continuing to the present day. Whatever small skill of axemanship I possess has been earned through uncounted hours of practice on “the unimportant wood.”

Let us say, rather: The importance of wood may be more in its first warming than in the second.

A beautiful Danish woodpile. Photo by BKP, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Owing to my amateur status as an axeman, and also to the amateur status of some of the trees I scrounge, my woodpile is far from a thing of beauty. Unlike those geometric wonders of forest engineering you see gracing the pages of coffee table books, my woodrack has all sorts of bent and twisted knots and gnarls, wood of all descriptions protruding rudely to snag the sweater of a careless passer-by. It’s almost disgraceful.

But here’s the thing, Gentle Reader: I intend to burn up all the evidence.

The motley wood in my garage.

#

The menace of this season’s global pandemic, with its mandated idleness, has simply led back to roots, and branches, that are dear to me for their own sake. 

Here’s hoping you likewise may find blessed paths to pursue as we patiently await good tidings from our common future.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer