St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year's Resolutions

River Road Ramblings: Week of Jan 1, 2012

Happy New Year! We had a nice Christmas and New Years at the Hanson hilltop estate here in rural Pine Island, out in the edge of the Great Plains of MN. The weather was mild, although windy, and not speck of snow is around. Santa was good to us getting high speed Internet and Netflix so we can waste time very fast this year.

New Years really should be a time for renewal. Folks should think about the past year and vow to do better. Some years, I have been so near perfect the past year, I really had little need for resolutions and so made ones like “I will not take up smoking this year.” This year I have two things to consider: continuing with the RRR column and improving my health.

Seven people wrote, called or emailed me saying overall they wouldn’t be bothered if I continued the column, something I took to be in favor of continuing it for another year. Of course, with 7000 newspapers sold in a good week, seven responses is about the same percent as the interest we get on our bank CDs. However, the quality of the seven folks was very high!

The milestone of turning 65 coupled with my limited knee mobility drove home that I am in the declining part of my life. My lifestyle, put into an Internet life expectancy calculator, gives me 15 more years. I tried adjusting the factors—adding a higher level of exercise, losing weight, and other life style changes, but at most, they added a single year. Of course, this is the average, so some of us 65 year old men will make less and some more. What I could do, I found was improve the quality of the years ahead of me (and no, that doesn’t mean getting a new wife).

Micky Mantle, who came from a family of men who died very young, said as he reached his 60s "If I'd known I was gonna live this long, I'd have taken a lot better care of myself."

Well, I have taken care of myself pretty good except for being overweight much of my life. I was born on the hefty side. Mom tells me when I was a baby and growing up, I was always hungrier than my three brothers (who, like my parents, were relatively slim folks much of their lives—a few expanding a little after retirement). When I look back, I was just as active as my brothers, just I always wanted to eat more before I was full. I think of it as one of the way we were different—like how we favored different music and liked different school subjects and had different hobbies.

Two times in my life, I lost weight and for some years, was in the normal range. The first was in getting in shape my HS senior year when I finally got permission to go out for football (my parents thought farm work was more important than after-school sports and worried I might injure a knee, which I did). The grueling HS workouts starting at home in July and extending into the fall in addition to the farm work brought me well into the normal range.

I started to fill out again in college, and so one summer while working at Stokely’s in the field crew driving a bean picker did a month on the Metrecal liquid diet. Metrecal came in cans—each tasted like a flavored milkshake. I drank four cans per day for a month and dropped the extra 20 pounds and then was able to stay close to that weight for several years until after I got married.

Women seem to have built into their nature the urge to feed. It shows up in feeding people, animals, birds and cash registers. I had controlled my weight by carefully keeping only limited types and quantities of food available in my refrigerator and cupboard coupled with being a student with jobs that kept me too poor to eat out. I know myself—if there is rich food around, I eat it. I believe it is a genetic predisposition I have, like Bill Clinton’s inability to stay away from women and George W Bush’s need to start wars.

Mom is an excellent cook. We grew up with wonderful food. Mom was always entering and winning recipe contests. She wrote a weekly food column for many years. She continues to experiment with new recipes and loves to bake cookies and other things to give to her children and grandchildren. She makes food that looks and tastes very good! Having diabetes the last few years, she has to be careful of her diet, but she certainly gets a lot of joy out of serving rich food to others. If you visit, you must eat something before you leave. She didn’t always have food as a child, so wants to make sure we don’t ever have to go through what she did.

For Mom, 1930 was a hard year. Her father died in the spring, leaving her 25 year-old mother with 5 children to care for and no income other than a pittance from the county. By December, her mother couldn’t take it anymore—probably had a nervous breakdown—and abandoned the family without saying anything after a last meal of soup made from potato peelings from the neighbor’s garbage.

Mom, at nine, was the oldest. She begged food from the neighbors to feed her younger siblings including a baby, expecting her mother to return anytime. After a week or so, when a neighbor found out, Mom and her brothers and sisters were collected by the sheriff and adopted out.

I have told you this before, but although Mom was adopted into a good home where food was good and plentiful, I think she never got over having gone hungry and feeling the responsibility to keep her younger brothers and sisters alive. Her granddaughter, Amanda, collected her recipes in a cook book called “You Look Hungry,” something she tells us whenever we quit eating before we are stuffed.

At home on the farm, there was a lot of work that burned off the calories even with large meals. When I married and became a teacher and later a computer programmer, that changed—I had a no exercise job. I had to force myself to exercise, something that has been hard to do—especially in the winter when your daylight hours belong to the boss.

That coupled with a wife who, like my mother, enjoyed cooking and always believed in full refrigerators and cupboards, I let my weight gradually creep up. Mostly I was moderately overweight—not serious enough to limit my activity or bother my health.

Two years ago when I fell and broke my leg and messed up the knee, my life style changed again. No longer could I walk comfortably and do the things that normally kept me busy, and with the inactivity I expanded to where it is actually changing my health for the worse. I can tell it without my doctor telling me, although she feels free to let me know too.

So hitting age 65 coupled with 2012 getting underway I am ready to try to change. My resolutions are to drop some weight and resume a more vigorous lifestyle. In February, when I get a new knee, the second part should be easier. I always liked walking. As a scout leader well into the 1990s, I did a lot of backpacking and hiking and was quite active overall. I miss it.

My goals are modest: lose 25 lbs in 2012 and be physically active for an hour per day (walking, cutting wood, gardening or something where I actually get my heart rate up).
My left knee, the one that has never been injured, is perfectly fine, so if the right one works again, the exercise part should be much easier.

I talked to a dietician who encouraged me to aim for a 20-25 lb drop in weight over a year, I suggested liposuction as a lazy man’s way to lose the spare tire. It seems ideal; go into the hospital, take a nap while a vacuum cleaner sucks out the fat, and walk to the store and buy a new belt.

“Your insurances won’t cover it. It can cost between four and eight thousand dollars. For some reason, weight loss done that way doesn’t seem to help your over all health. In a study a few years back, medical researchers found that abdominal fat is an indicator of cardiovascular health (the more you have, the more at risk you are for heart attacks, high cholesterol, diabetes, etc). This in mind, they performed liposuction on a group of people with abdominal fat in order to see if it helped their degree of cardiovascular fitness. Unfortunately, they discovered that the belly fat is just an indicator of cardiovascular unhealthiness, but is not a cause -- there was no change in their health. You are much better off to lose it the old fashioned way!”

Well, I am even cheaper than I am lazy, so the idea of spending as much as $400 a pound to lose the weight by surgery is unthinkable! However, money is a good motivator. It gave me an idea.

“Margo, it will cost me $400 a pound to have liposuction. That would really wreck our budget. How about if I instead go for a $100 a pound reward for losing it myself and when I lose 20 lbs I can spend $2000 off budget?”

Margo has been getting worried as she has watched me expand and my mobility has decreased and my life expectancy lowered. If I die ahead of her some of the retirement income will drop—all of my social security for instance. She also worries about having me dependent on her or in a nursing home, so she made a proposal.

“If you lose 25 lbs and keep it off for six months, then I will take $2000 out of my Thrivent Lutheran life insurance policy and give it to you.”

When she was born, her father started paying $32 a year for the premium on a $2000 life insurance policy for her. When we married, he turned it over to her and so for 64 years the premium has been paid and with interest has built up to $12,000 in the event of her death.

According to Margo’s rules, January 1, 2012, I am to weigh in at the certified scale at the local feed mill and the project gets underway. Each month I return and get a signed weight ticket. When I lose 25 lbs I continue for six more months to prove that it stays off. Then I get the money.

Since I am aiming for two pounds per month, it is unlikely any of you except Mom will notice I am wasting away right in front of your eyes. What I expect to get out of this is not a longer life, but a more healthy and vigorous one as I tumble into my declining years.

Heaven, if I ever get there, will be filled with the most delicious foods imaginable. I will be able to eat my fill without worry of gaining weight and turning off my 70 virgins.

Here’s hoping I become a less substantial person during 2012!

Rambling out of the Newspaper

Rambling out of the Leader

Thank you to all of you who let me know you read the column after last week when I rambled all over trying to decide about doing it for another year. With that encouragement, and an offer to run an advertisement to support the column for the next several months, I had pretty much decided to continue into year number eight of the column.

However, on the way to that decision, I came up against a set of Leader newspaper management policies that changed my mind in the opposite direction. As a result of this, the column will continue, however, not in the Leader.

I think writers who are published in a newspaper should be rewarded for their work just as much as a secretary in the front office, the person who drives the forklift or the reporter who covers a county board meeting or a football game.

The Leader, an organization that prides itself on its grass roots beginnings and cooperative history does not treat some people who write for the paper reasonably. It expects them to write for free.

Certainly writers plugging the Festival Theatre, the Fort, Caregivers, animal shelters and political press release should not be paid. These articles are worth a great deal to the sponsoring organization and in fact probably should be considered advertising and charged for the space.

However, I am of the opinion that regular columnists who are not in it primarily to plug a business, are in a different category. I think they should get paid. Some years back they did get paid. Nowadays it appears local newspapers don’t believe anything is worth publishing from local writers unless it is obtained free.

In my own case, I never got paid, but was allowed leeway to plug some events, books, the River Road Ramble, and, if I could find a sponsor, to sell an advertisement that got printed with the column and I got the money. It didn’t happen very often, but at least I felt I could get some money if I went out selling ads—so I felt paid.

I learned in 2011, some of this just last week, that no longer could I do the plugs, the ads or anything that was like an advertisement in the column. A new policy that says writers who are not on the staff are not worth paying in any way, including a free subscription, and they better tread carefully so they don’t infringe on the really important people in the newspaper, those who sell the advertisements.

As an alternative to the ads, which I had occasionally sold to Anderson Maple for $25 redeemable in merchandise at the store (and had lined up for Jan – April 2012), I asked the Leader for $25 per column payment in 2012 all to be paid to the Luck Historical Society as a donation. The museum is my favorite non-profit and although I give a lot of time to it, I don’t have much money to help them.

Not possible was the response; if we pay you then other columnists will want to be paid too—and our policy is no payments to writers of your type. Management, the Co-op Board and the Business Manager, Douglas Panek, appear to have come down hard on columnists like me, who thought their columns were worth something.

I spend at least 6 hours a week writing the RRR column with the reward mostly some small amount of fame and my platform for plugging things I like. The fame is not important—I don’t allow my photo with the column to make sure I am mostly anonymous on the street. I do like to visit with you each week, but I am not so vain as to assume removing my column will hurt the Leader.

I encourage my fellow columnists who are not writing to publicize an organization to take a stand. Assume there are 5 unpaid columnists of my type. It would cost the Leader $125 per week to pay them each $25 (and some, like me, might even find their own sponsors). Divided among the 7000 papers sold each week, that amounts to under 2 cents per newspaper. You can put in your 2 cents by contacting the Leader if you agree with me. The cost of RRR split among the 7000 papers is about one-third of a penny each week. Seems pretty darn cheap to me.

The manager of the Leader is Douglas Panek. You can email him at The Co-op Board includes: Janet Oachs, Charles Johnson, Ann Fawver, Merlin Johnson and Carolyn Wedin. They are in the phone book. I think you should tell them that it is a reasonable thing to pay some non-Leader staff for articles, even if it is just the pittance I asked for!

I doubt anyone on the Leader staff could have written as good an article as the one Boyd Sutton wrote last week on the responsibilities of carrying a concealed weapon. It surely would be worth $25!

For a donation of $25 per week payable to the Luck Museum, the RRR column is up for sale to any newspaper including the Leader. The column continues regularly on the Internet. If you are interested in what we are doing or the history research underway go to and catch up with Margo and me.

If you don’t do the Internet ask a friend to print it out or go to the public library and read it, or use your persuasion with your local newspaper manager or board member!

The Internet is liberating. There is no limit of pictures that can be added to the column, no limit of a once the week publishing date, and no editor chopping of sentences, changing the words and screwing up the photos!

Margo and I hope you have a good 2012. We will see you online, if not anywhere else. Russ Hanson, The River Road Rambler is now appearing in full color and expanded from at It has been an interesting seven years and Margo and I will miss all of you. I like the idea of going out thinking I am doing it on principle!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Writing a weekly newspaper column

Rambling into 2012?

Dictionary Entry: “ramble.” Part of Speech: verb. Definition: talk aimlessly, endlessly
Synonyms: amplify, babble, be diffuse, beat around bush, blather, chatter, depart, descant, digress, divagate, diverge, drift, drivel, dwell on, enlarge, excurse, expatiate, get off the subject, go astray, go off on tangent, go on and on, gossip, harp on, lose the thread, maunder, meander, prose, protract, rant and rave, rattle on, stray, talk nonsense, talk off top of head, talk randomly, wander.

As the River Road Ramblings blatherer-in-chief, we try each week to meet the spirit of the above dictionary definition, spurred on by reading the list of synonyms, we labor mightily to produce something new, exciting and rewarding to you.

However, year end is a time for reflection, a time for resolutions of self improvement. Thus, we pause to consider the future of the column. This week you can share in what goes into the yet unmade decision whether we continue for another year or not.

We will diverge for a moment to tell you about the “writers we.” Newspaper writers, kings, popes, and doctors tend to use the word “we” when we really mean “I” or “you.” Dr. Hyde asks “and how are we feeling today?” This started with kings who believed they were divinely chosen to rule and so when giving a new law used “we” to indicate God and I (the King) are behind it. We newspaper people rate our authority only slightly lower so too use “we” sometimes when we mean “I.”

Next I should tell you about digression, one of the definitions of rambling. A good writer sets a theme or goal for his writing—where he is headed and goes bull headedly in that direction. One of my rambling columns may head off with good intentions to get somewhere, but then wanders into side trips along the way making the journey more important than the arrival.

My favorite rambling book is “Tristram Shandy,” a free e-book found on the Internet written in the mid 1700s, where the author writing his own story takes half of the book to reach his birth. Having free access to almost any book written that is out of copyright (before 1923) is, for me, the most wonderful thing that the Internet brings—provided free by the company Google.

We began writing a weekly column in the Leader January of 2005. Since then we have continued supplying 52 columns per year for 6 years. Over the years, about 25% have been stories written by other folks, and 75% my own work. Doing some quick calculations: 52 weeks per year multiplied by 6 years equals 312 columns. Twice we failed to connect with the Leader, so really there have only been 310 columns. Of that, I have put together over 225 of the total.

Bernice Abrahamzon, who has written for the Leader for more than 40 years, is never impressed when I total these up at the writers group!

The column started at about half of a Leader page, but quickly expanded to most of the page. A good writer writes his piece then brutally edits it down to get the point across concisely. Someone writing rambles has an awful job of trying to figure out what to toss and what to keep, as likely there is no point to it at all, and the value of it lies in the overall effect—like looking at a surrealistic painting. Note: this paragraph says the same thing as an earlier one, but it is an important point for you to understand, so I won’t edit it out.

The average word count is about 1500 per column, although last year was closer to 1750 as my rambling expertise has progressed. Over the past six years I have come up with slightly over one third of a million words. To put that in perspective, it is equivalent to the number of words in the first ten books of the Bible (and the authors of those books were helped out directly by God while I had to do mine on my own).

My writing, as analyzed by Microsoft Word, has a Flesch Reading Ease level of 61.8, where 60.0–70.0 means it should easily understood by 13- to 15-year-old students. The 9.6 grade level corresponds again to the same age range. These are calculated using words per sentence and syllables per word equations.

My average letters per word comes in at 4.4. That is pretty amazing when you consider the Leader’s copy editors carefully remove the four-letter-words I sprinkle through the column for emphasis.

Eight percent of the time I use passive sentences. That means I write, “The large wood pile had been split by Margo” rather than “Margo split the wood in the pile.” Passive sentences are meant for reading by retirees in the afternoon as they relax and nod off. Active sentences are preferred by younger folks whose ambitions have not yet been subdued by management.

After stalling a little telling you about the technical aspects of a typical column, we plan to get back on track here to the why’s and wherefores of the whole thing.

Following Charles Dickens lead, we will first go to RRR Past. So, why did I start the column? The first year was to assist the Sterling Eureka and Laketown Historical Society, based in uptown Cushing, WI, celebrate the 150th anniversary of Sterling Township.

For you purists out there, a township in Wisconsin is actually a land division made by the surveyors to sell the land in the old days shortly after it was stolen from the Indians. The Town of Sterling is the correct name for the elected government overseeing the land, which in the case of Sterling, covers nearly two townships of land. (this is an example of a digressive paragraph that could be edited out of the column. However, if I remove it, a few of you will think I am ignorant. Marcus Aurelius said, “we fear more what our neighbors will think of us than what we think of ourselves,” a guiding principle for this column.)

Well, getting back to the point, history is interesting to a small group of people, those who have pretty much lived their lives and now in retirement haven’t much else to do other than think about the past. The occasional columns that were not pure history, but included some chatter on personal doings were better received than the history only stories.

“I skip to the end of the column where you tell what Margo is doing,” was a common comment I got in the first year or two when we were concentrating doggedly on local history, and adding a personal note at the end. To meet the perceived public clamor, the column drifted in that direction, still with the attempt to be historic, or at least nostalgic in tone, and a little humorous but never historically funny.

Having exhausted most of my researched history and printable personal experiences from the past, and stories passed on from readers and becoming too busy as well as too lazy to do new local history research, the column in the past two years has evolved even further into the present. Often it is no more than “What I did on my vacation,” the assignment every school kid dreaded each fall.

Mine never varied; hauled hay, swimming school, Bible school, and shoveled manure. Hardly inspiring, although as I look back, shoveling manure was some of the best training I had for being a good employee and a creative writer.

So now we come to RRR future. We return to question, “Do we continue for another year?” We can break that down into “Is there any value in the column?” which further breaks into “Is there any value in it for me?” and “Is there any value in it for the Leader?” and “Is there any value in it for you, the readers?”

As a science kind of guy, I like to make decisions rationally, based on accepted scientific principles. According to Manfred Max-Neef, an economist, there is a set of human needs that must be met for humans to be comfortable in life. His list: subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity and freedom. I think he has gotten it reasonably well, although I would put sex as a separate item instead of hiding it under affection.

Therefore, writing the column for another year must fulfill one or more of the above list items, for me, for the Leader and for you, or we all should drop it.

If the Leader paid me for the column, then I wouldn’t be asking these questions—I would instead be negotiating a raise for 2012. I would also know the Leader’s position as to the value of the column. However, they don’t pay me—they assume my needs for creation and identity are enough to keep me at it, and it fills one of the 60 pages each week without cost or effort for them.

I think items 4-8 are in some ways being met for me through the column. It is rather fun to be notorious while trying to be creative. I tell Margo “having a weekly deadline to write something forces me to do something with time I probably would otherwise waste anyway.” Occasionally, although rarely, a reader will comment on something or tell me they liked a column, and for a moment I think it might be worthwhile.

What do you think?

I read mostly everything in the Leader each week. As a retiree, I have the time and the patience to read almost anything except long winded political letters or rambling articles without clear points. I like to find out if Carrie has gotten things figured out, to read Joe’s jokes, to find out what Dr. Ingalls is musing on, to get uplifted by Bernice and Sally, and so on right though the last page. I think of the columnists as my friends, although I don’t know most of them.

Email me at riverroadrambler @ or contact me (and order a 2011 collection of the best Ramblings plus for just $18 ) to Russ Hanson, 15937 County 27 Blvd, Pine Island MN 55963. I just put that book as well as the first Trade Lake Book history on where you can order printed copies nicely bound. All profits go to the Sterling Eureka and Laketown Historical society of Upper Cushing.

Margo is off to Christmas with her folks in West Bend. I had planned to go along, but my leg is questionable for that long of a ride in the car—it is still pretty sore from the hardware removal in preparation for the new knee, and I’m just not up to being on my best behavior for a whole week with those Germans down there where you have to eat raw spiced hamburger just to be polite (writing a very long sentence bumps my writing to a higher grade level, especially if the words are humongously syllabled—this paragraph came in at grade level 22 (PhD) although the whole column is exactly average for me!).

Happy New Year! We will leave you with two quotes from Mark Twain, my favorite author. “We can secure other people's approval if we do right and try hard; but our own is worth a hundred of it, and no way has been found out of securing that.” And, “I have been complimented many times and they always embarrass me; I always feel that they have not said enough.”

River Road Ramblings column moves from newspaper to blog in 2012

We are moving the River Road Ramblings newspaper column from the Inter-County Leader after 7 years of weekly columns to right here! The constraints of weekly limited space newspapers has become too hard to meet. Welcome! Tell you friends!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Hardware removed from Russ' leg

Merry Christmas 2011

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the Hanson 2011

In December of 2011, Russ reached the last major milestone in his life—age 65 with Medicare and Social Security kicking in. Officially he is a senior citizen now! Margo is only 6 months behind.

We have been retired for a few years already, so turning 65 was really much of a change other than Medicare. The first test of it will be Russ getting a new knee in February. 22 years ago he damaged the knee skiing and two years ago further damaged it and broke the leg in a fall. The leg bone is healed up strong, but the knee has been a real pain. Hopefully it will be ready for mid-March and maple syrup season.

We had a good maple syrup season last spring and sold much of our syrup at the local farmer’s market along with some other garden and orchard produce. Every Friday we set up our stand and sell a little and visit a lot with neighbors and lake folks coming through from the Twin Cities. It is fun and keeps us qualifying as a small farm business—useful for tax purposes.

We spent 6 weeks in Louisiana last January and February getting away from the frozen north. We pull our tent camper and stay in state parks where the temperatures are more like October in the north. We have lost our enthusiasm for winter in the Arctic MN and WI area.

Margo is in good health for as old as she is. She goes in a few times a year to get botox shots in her vocal cords so she can talk. Without it, they tighten so much she can barely force out words. With them, she can talk freely, but with a somewhat whispery, husky voice. She is very active and keeps busy caring for her old husband.

She spends some time visiting with her parents in the West Bend, WI area. Her mother, Myrtle, has been in a nursing home with Alzheimers for 6 years. She occasionally remembers a little, but mostly has lost her memory. Merlin lives in West Bend and is very active in the American Legion. He serves on the honor guard at funerals of his fellow WWII soldiers. He is 86 years old and doing well.

Scott continues to work in the skiing business, working near our Pine Island, MN home for Welch Village. He got off to help with maple syruping this spring. We have pretty much given up on having any grandchildren, as Scott seems to be happy as a bachelor.

Margo and I spend most of the year at our cabin in NW Wisconsin. We open it up in mid March for maple season and close it in early December when it gets too cold for the water system to work – not really winterized. Russ’ relatives mostly live in that area including his mom, Alberta, who turned 90 this year. She lives at her home of 70 years on the farm and is doing well—still gardens and takes care of her self and has help from her sons on home maintenance.

Russ continues to write a weekly newspaper column, somewhat centered around local history. He has been doing this for 7 years. He collected the year’s stories in a book again this year and published it. You can find it on Amazon books under River Road Ramblings—the name of his newspaper column. You can read the whole weekly newspaper at the web site look on about page 39 of the newspaper called the Inter-County Leader. You can read some of his older books on local history at by searching for St Croix Russ Hanson.

Russ and Margo volunteer at two local history societies and museums. One is at Luck, Wisconsin, the onetime Duncan Yo-Yo hometown where the wooden toys were made. Russ is also active in the local genealogical society helping folks learn about their family history.

We spent a few weeks on the road in August driving out to Seattle to visit our cousins there and in Oregon. Traveling west across the prairies is a quiet and pleasant drive, and visiting our cousins a lot of fun. Cousin Sally lives in Seattle. We stayed with her a week and had fun seeing what city life is like. There sure are a lot of places to visit and things to do. It is confusing though, as they mix up dinner with supper and lunch with dinner, etc.

We had planned to go south again this winter, but with Russ’ knee operations, we may not make it. He has been trying to get up ambition to work on arranging the research he has done on the Hanson family to write a family history. He started with Adam and Eve Hansson and got to Noah Hansson, but many of the records seem to have been lost in the Flood! It is hard to get started putting it all together.

Cousin Diane Shoemaker Wilcox wrote a semi-fictional account of Great Grandpa Charles Hanson coming from Sweden to America. I helped with the fragments of stories and details I had heard about his life. Her story guesses what life may have been like in Sweden 150 years ago and why he came to America – it is quite interesting. If you would like a copy, email her at Diane is descended through Olaus-Charles-Lathrop(Lote)-Alma and as her mother was a first cousin of my father, we are second cousins. My theory is that anyone 6th cousins or closer must be willing to share their spare bedroom with visitors!

Margo and I use Facebook to keep up with friends and relatives. We also have email. Margo is and I am We have gone into the Internet for most of our contacts rarely phoning or writing real letters anymore. It is quite amazing to have as Facebook friends cousins in Norway and Sweden.

Hope 2012 will be good for you and your family.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Last Roundup

Alfalfa plants thrive where nothing else but sagebrush lives

The Last Roundup

As we arrived in lush Seattle, where the streets are lined with peach and pear trees, the wild blackberries grow in every ditch with 2-inch diameter fruit, and everything is shockingly green after the long drive across the dry western prairies; the yards and town squares beautifully flower-spersed with plants that would have long ago been eaten by deer or bugs in Wisconsin; we are in the land where window screens and air conditioners are unknown.

Seattle certainly outdoes Cushing for number of attractions, however, I will miss this Saturday’s adult soapbox derby there down mainstreet. Seattle has better hills for it, but not the attitude!

We brought along a case of syrup, 10 pounds of Burnett Dairy cheese, and some homemade raspberry jelly as gifts from Wisconsin to our cousins who only remember Wisconsin through stories from their parents and grandparents (i.e. the year the rutabagas failed in Cumberland; the Cushing marsh mosquito plague of 1939; the dry years in the Great Depression drought when the Holsteins were so thin that it took two to make a shadow, etc.—funny how adversity stories persist longer than any others).

We managed to get out to Seattle without any car trouble at all with the 1991 Olds. It is just about ready to turn over 100,000 miles and came from Margo’s Aunt Lou as a final gift as she made her own final trip. The Olds sailed flawlessly through the hot Dakota prairies, climbed energetically into the Big Horns where Custer made his last stand, cruised through Montana roads where “prudent speeds” are the limit and intersections along the roads littered with flowered crosses representing deaths of folks who thought they could make it across before the next car cruising at 95 got there, and then zoomed up the Cascades without even shifting the V-6 down from overdrive and finally veered through the switchbacks coasting down to the end of the U.S. of A.

Gas price ranged from $3.57 to $3.99 with the average about $3.75. Here in Seattle, it is $3.85. Overall, the Olds made about 28 mpg with spurts of 30 on the plains with a tailwind. I changed the oil (synthetic for better mileage), aired the tires to 32, and put in a new air cleaner before hitting the road. The engine control module (computer) that I replaced seems to work perfectly. The GPS only led us astray half a dozen times as we wandered the back roads seeking adventure—only to end at closed gates private road signs; the GPS egging us on; Margo worrying about crazy westerners and their gun racks in the back window of their pickups, and the Rambler ready for adventure, duct tape at the ready to patch the oil pan.

We kept costs low by tenting and sandwiching our way through the West. Our 40 year old tent is still sound; the cots we bought last year comfortable and high enough so the rattlers sleep under them; and with the screened windows, we managed to see many falling stars from the ongoing meteor shower last week though the cloudless western skies.

The trip across country was consistent in one thing—everyplace from SD north has had a wet late spring and relatively wet summer so far with a two weeks delay in everything growing from apples to wheat. Most of the northern midlands have been hot and humid too. The Missouri River Valley flooded extensively due to the huge snowfall in the mountains melting and coming down the river, and water is still high in the rivers out here.

The woman stopping traffic on Hwy 12 for construction waits of ten minutes, told us about the nearby windmill farm, one of dozens we saw beginning just west of Rochester, MN. “Most of them aren’t running now, too much water going through the power dams out here from the big melt in the mountains. Water generated electricity is cheaper than wind. Did you know that inside each of the huge towers is a 374 step circular staircase to the top? Some people complain about the swishing sounds, but I think they are good for the future.”

I mentioned we were retired, and not in a rush so the highway construction delay didn’t bother us. “I should be retired too,” she replied, “our ranch went bankrupt a few years ago after the drought. Started in 2002 and lasted seven years out here. We raised riding bulls for the rodeo. The water ponds went down and the bulls died from the water. We didn’t know then, but the drought concentrated the salt and it killed our stock and we had to sell out. It is easy to get a job out here with all the oil work and such, but there is a lot of unemployment too. Too many of the younger folks don’t pass the drug tests and can’t get hired. Gets on their record and they can’t find a job.”

Generally speaking, the crops we saw looked good. Corn and beans dominated through Minnesota and eastern South Dakota. Winter wheat farther west is being harvested and looked good. Sunflowers were beautiful and healthy. Many fields had bare areas, drowned out due to the extra water. Although there is a drought to the south, the northern 1/3 of the country seems to have good crops.

We stopped in a small café midway through Montana. The parking lot was littered with battered pickup trucks so we knew it was a hangout for local ranchers. As we drank strong coffee and waited for ranch style eggs (everything thrown in with the eggs from restaurant leftovers for the past week) we listened to the conversation at the nearby extended old guys table.

“I miss the big roundups of the old days,” said a weather beaten lanky old fellow with well worn cowboy boots, cigarette yellowed teeth and a sweat stained Stetson. “Nowadays we just bring alfalfa bales to the cattle—don’t drive the cattle down from the high summer range anymore. The roundup era is over.”

As a farm kid, and someone who still dabbles in farming in Wisconsin, one of the biggest changes we see now over a few decades back, are the weed-free fields along the road. In a vast 1000 acre field in the plains you can wear your eyes out looking for a single weed. In farming, the Roundup era is upon us.

This comes from the “Roundup ready” plants, beginning in the late 90s, that have dominated the past decade of farming all over the world. Monsanto, a big chemical and seed company, spliced a gene into all sorts of farm plants that makes them impervious to their herbicide, Roundup, that normally kills everything it touches. Farmers have enthusiastically adopted this technology and no longer cultivate crops to get rid of weeds. To learn more about Roundup and farming I turned to the Internet.

Wikipedia is a “grassroots” encyclopedia of the world, thus a wonderful place to turn for information on crops. It is being built by people who have expertise and are willing to share it on the Internet. Each article is submitted and then undergoes ongoing and continuous review by readers and is updated as needed. If I wanted to submit a topic, for instance, the history of Cushing, WI, I could do it, and others could review and modify it after a discussion of the changes. What makes Wikipedia work is that experts from all fields of endeavor have taken it seriously and worked to make it useful.

I looked at Roundup. There is some discussion of problems with the chemical in our environment—not at all clear what harm it might do, but the main problem is the number of weeds which are no longer killed by it, the “super weeds.”

Evolution as seen by scientists, is an ongoing process where living things adapt better to their surroundings. Every time sex occurs, potential for a new and unique combination of genes arises from male and female species (plants and animals). The offspring are very very close to the parents, but yet different in some ways. In the billions of new and slightly different pigweed seeds formed each year, a few are enough different to no longer be killed by Roundup.

Sometimes the differences are not just from normal variation, but from a mutation (an accidental change in normal genes—like a cat with an extra toe). The change, if it is inherited by the next generation and favorable for survival (i.e. an ice age starting where cats with bigger feet can hunt better), will gradually spread as it gives the plant or animal an advantage.

Already, in the US, super weeds are found in 13 states, in 63 types of weeds and are rapidly spreading, forecasting the end of Roundup as a useful weed killer, the end of the Roundup era. (Note: the exact same process is happening with antibiotics and bacteria growing into super bugs predicting the end of the antibiotic era that began in the 1940s).

Monsanto, the inventor of Roundup and Roundup ready crops (the first being soybeans released in 1996 from the Middleton WI facility), is working on plants resistant to 2,4D, an old herbicide used since the 40s. It is the broad-leafed weed and brush killer you can buy in the store. 2,4D and 2,4,5T were the two chemicals mixed 50-50 to make Agent Orange, the defoliant used in Vietnam to clear Vietcong jungle hideouts; the chemical that also ruined the health of many of my friends who were sprayed with it while in Vietnam. Replacing Roundup by 2,4D will be controversial.

Although the farmer in me admires a vast weed-free field, and the homeowner in me admires a pure grass lawn, the scientist in me worries about what is going to happen when super weeds spread. Some kind of new plant needs to be found that solves some of the problems of current farming for the future, a plant not so dependent on artificial sprays and fertilizers and genetics to survive. It got me to thinking what kind of plant it should be.

The ideal plant for farmers would be something that is a perennial (you plant it once and it continues to grow each year—like the alfalfa plant). It would, like the alfalfa plant, fix its own nitrogen from the nitrogen in the air. It would, like the alfalfa plant which can have roots as deep as 50 feet, grow a tremendously deep root system to get moisture and food from far below the soil while breaking up the hardpan that occurs when farmers plow the top 8 inches of soil. It would be, like the alfalfa plant, adapted to drought, heat, resistant to harsh winters, spring back rapidly from repeated harvestings, resistant to disease and bugs, high in protein and work as a single food source for animals providing most of its needs, competitive with weeds, harvestable in different ways (i.e. greenchop, silage, dry hay and sprouts), produce more nitrogen than it needs, thus creating fertilizer for a future crop on the same field. An ideal plant, if it is ever found, would be a great thing for farmers!

The above paean to alfalfa came about as we drove into the far western dry prairies and continued to see alfalfa fields growing in land that otherwise, without irrigation, supported only sagebrush. Alfalfa plants, with their purple to gray blooms lined the road ditches and freckled vast dry prairie fields; a crop that thrives where little else survives.

May your own taproots be deep, your resistance strong, and your tolerance great. May you thrive in adverse conditions. I like to think of these columns as helpful bacteria doing a little bit to remove fertilizer from the air and spread it about your feet, some weeks deeper than others, as we all ramble into our own last roundup, ready or not.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Seattle or Bust

We headed on a motor trip to Seattle Monday via Hwy 14 through southern MN. Stopped near Balaton to put a geranium on Great Great Grandpa Olaus Hanson's grave at the Syllerud Church on Current Lake and ended up in Watertown SD to visit Cousin Ruby Hanson in the memory unit of a nursing home. She is 92 and having memory problems--short visit but she didn't know us.

Set up the tent in Pelican Lake Recreation area and pulled out the bedrolls at 3:00 am to watch the Perseid meteor shower--about one every 5 minutes in the clear night sky.

Heading north today to avoid the Black Hills and Sturgis -- motorcycle rally there this week. Probably take 212 up to 12 and cross SD today.

Gas price ranged from 3.57 to 3.79 in western MN and SD with most at 3.69. Our first tank got us 430 miles at 29 mpg. Not too bad for a 91 Olds Cutlass with a V-6 loaded full with camping gear and gifts!

We drove through Tyler MN on Hwy 14--big sign on the edge of town advertising their yearly aebleskiver dinner--celebrating their Danish Heritage. Three weekends ago, Margo and I spent a Saturday in Luck making Aebleskivers celebrating their Danish history!

Breakfast at McDonalds with two shrinkwraps each and senior coffees! $5.34 for a decent breakfast and good coffee!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Rambling down the River

Chuck and Tim, a couple of Bone Lake friends, have been asking to take a guided trip down a stretch of the St. Croix River since last year. Everything finally came together last week and we took a short run down from Hwy O to Sunrise, about eight miles. We used my old aluminum canoe, the last of the Grumman’s manufactured at Minong for the Links. I got it cheap after the wind picked it up and impaled it on the point of a pontoon boat. A little body work and some marine epoxy has made it riverworthy for 25 years. It is totally lacking in a keel—a wonderful river rapids canoe, but skitters like a leaf out on a windy lake.

Tim took the bow paddle and Chuck the stern as I filmed and narrated from cushions in the bilge. As the pilot, captain and guide and story teller, I didn’t have time to help. I did give plenty of canoeing instruction—you know my great great grandpa was a whaler back in Norway and I inherited the sea in my blood. They wanted the full historical account of the river, so I passed it along from my firsthand knowledge.

“The 1837 treaty with the Ojibway opened the area to logging and settlement. The first logging was by John Boyce in the winter of 1837-1838 just upriver from where we put in on the Snake. The Indians hadn’t heard about the treaty and hindered his efforts; then the rapids at St. Croix Falls broke up his log rafts and the old accounts says he left the area discouraged, not getting his logs downriver.”

“Well, Mom’s cousin, Mae Carnes, who lived here on the WI river bank, married Rex Boyce of Sunrise, MN just across the river from their ferry business. I don’t know if he was related to John Boyce—likely was as the name is pretty uncommon. Rex’s father, Silas, married Prudence Clover, one of the Clover’s from Sunrise and the Barrens. Her brother was one of the Sunrise boys who walked back home from the deep south after they were mustered out of the Civil War in 1865. I think they took most of a year for the walk—guess they thought it would be a chance to see the country! Probably a good way to get rid of post traumatic stress.”

“Down river a little farther, near where Wild Mountain is, my grandpa’s Uncle Clint Beebe farmed pretty close to the river. Grandpa lived just south of Nevers Dam on the Wisconsin river bank—where Duane Larson lives now. At that time you could use Nevers dam as a bridge so going to visit back and forth across the river was quick. You could cross at Nevers, Sunrise, Highway O (Rush City Ferry) and of course the toll bridge at Grantsburg or the free bridge at St. Croix Falls. Minnesota and Wisconsin folks weren’t so separated as they are now.”

“Nevers Dam was built at the head of about 6 miles of rapids to the south. Originally, there was a ferry across the river there. Charlie Nevers lived on the Wisconsin side. His wife was one of the missionary school educated Ojibwa women. They are buried over on Hwy 87 at the cemetery south of Eureka—Pleasant Hill. The loggers bought up all the river banks from St. Croix Falls way up river so they could flood it and run their logs down. John Robinson told me his grandpa owned to the bank near Wolf Creek. Had to sell when the loggers built Nevers and flooded the area.”

“Normally we would have put in at Hwy 70 by Grantsburg. Didn’t want to spend all day on the river, so we jumped in where the Rush City Ferry went across on Hwy O. I talked to LeRoy Hedberg last week. He said the Grantsburg bridge toll bridge was bought by the state in the early 1950s. He was the very first driver and vehicle to go across free. He was working for Shoholm in Grantsburg—made chicken egg crates and later snow fence. He had a load of egg crates—you know those wood kind that fold down flat, and happened to be there when they had the ceremony to open it as a free bridge. It was in the paper—his 15 minutes of fame! Reminds me—Don Davidson was one of the last trucks to go over the Osceola bridge before it dropped into the river I think. He hauled cattle to South St Paul.”

“Great Grandpa Carnes and two brothers homesteaded in West Sterling on the sand barrens near the river. They called it the barrens because it was mostly open and easy to farm. The little topsoil over the sand dunes soon wore out and blew the farmers farther east. Grandpa did a little farming, some logging and some preaching. His family took over the Sunrise Ferry and ran that until it closed. During the Prohibition and for some years after, there was a steady business hauling the moon-shiners big cars loaded with booze across the river at night as they made their runs to the Twin Cities.”

“Another Grandpa owned 260 acres of land just up from the river at the county line. A couple of creeks came out of springs further up along the shore—Davis and Lagoo creeks named after old settlers. Big springs boiling out of the bank one going north toward the river and one south. Grandpa sold it to some sportsmen in the 1940s, Milard and Shepard, I think, and they called it Lagoo Camp after the old creek and loggers. I think they sold most of it to the DNR last year, maybe except where the trout ponds are.”

“Dad and his brothers lived there and trapped the east bank just south of the county line during the Depression winters; along here where all the little creeks and springs tumble down into the river. There were few jobs in the winter and trapping gave them adventure, some money and something to do when they weren’t needed on the farm. ‘I can work all day long for a farmer and make a buck; I can catch a muskrat and get 50 cents, a skunk for a dollar, and be my own boss,’ said Dad.”

“Anyway, you see these two islands ahead in the River. They mark where Polk County starts. Dad told me that he and his brother Lloyd trapped on them back in the 30s up to 1940—last year was the big Armistice Day Storm. He said the islands were actually just big piles of logs and trees that had jammed on some rapids and gradually sand covered them over and these silver maples grew on the sand. He said they trapped down in holes between the old logs to catch beavers, mink, otter and muskrats. Clarence and Elias Blair trapped the land to the south of him.”

“They called the muskrats, ‘bank rats’ because instead of making a house of cattails, they made holes in the river bank. The fur buyers paid a premium for the St. Croix muskrats over regular pond ones. A little bigger or better fur I think it was. The beavers live in holes in the bank along the river too rather than brush houses.”

After Nevers washed out in 1954, Uncle Lloyd helped with the demolition of the old pine dam. He bought some of the old logs and sawed them to build his house up the River road. He said they were still sound. When Uncle Alvin was living on the river I the 1930s, he pulled out some of the waterlogged pine deadheads and dried them and sawed them for lumber too. Turned out to be good lumber. Lots of them were floating out there when we swam at Sunrise in the 60s.”

“Back in the late 1960s when Senator Gaylord Nelson and others were pushing the Wild River concept, the St. Croix was considered for inclusion. It was pretty much wild as most of the land immediately along the shore was owned by Northern States Power company—left over from when the loggers built Nevers Dam and had to buy up the shoreline above the dam so they could flood it. When the dam washed out in 1954, NSP held onto the land. Darn nice of them to give it to the government for a park!”

“Well, there were hearings in Sterling at the Town Hall to inform the local people about what was being planned and to get their opinion on whether it was a good idea or not. Dad was chairman of the Town during that time – or at least part of the time. After some meetings the general opinion was expressed by one of the local people who said ‘if Northern States sells it, the rich folks from the Twin Cities will buy it all up and put up no trespassing signs and all of us who have enjoyed fishing, hunting, swimming and boating will be shut out. If the Feds take it over, it will probably get more crowded, but we will still be able to enjoy it.’ Sterling went along with the idea and even traded some land the town owned closer to the river for some further away. At that time, the state still owned most of section 16 in east and west Sterling—the school sections. I think they traded some of that. The county traded land too.”

“When we used to come out swimming at the Sunrise ferry area after a hot day of haying, Floyd Harris was still pasturing the area—rented it from NSP. Everybody called it ‘Floyd’s big pasture.’ The place was open and like a mowed park when the cows kept it grazed and the brush and trees in check. We had the idea that the Wild River area might end up with the whole thing looking like a mowed park—didn’t have much idea of what wild meant, I guess. Anyway, it was disappointing at first; the beautiful open areas became brush as the pastures grew over; the beautifully mowed Nevers area turned to just brush. Few scenic river vistas from the road anymore and very limited car access. But it does look pretty nice from a river canoe. Just takes a while to get used to—the idea of wild. Even the Indians didn’t like it too wild, they helped keep the barrens open by burning it if nature didn’t do it often enough. They liked some prairie animals in the big woods.”

“Nevers Dam went in about 1889 or so and out in 1954. I remember it pretty well. To understand the need for it, just think of a flush toilet. To get the big logs through the rapids at St. Croix Falls, where they jammed, you backed up water and logs at Nevers and flushed them down. Exactly like a toilet!”

“One of Grandpa’s cousins, Violet Beebe—the family that lived over by Wild Mountain, married Rupert Fisk. I think Rupert’s dad, Chester, worked on both Nevers and the St. Croix Falls dams. Violet’s sister, Marie, married a Colby from Taylors Falls. That family, if I remember it right, was one of the first to build a house in that town. If you live in an area very long, you get connected to most of the other people around too.”

With the trip over in just a few hours, and some time to spare, I took Chuck and Tim for a tour of the Sterling Barrens. We drove up to the DNR’s Sterling Firetower on Fox ridge where I spent the summer of 1970 honing my philosophy of life during the long damp summer where we had no fires at all in our district that season. You got paid for looking for smoke out the window 100 feet above the top of the high ridge. I set a record for distance viewing, reporting the black smoke from Penta Wood Products smokestack 25 miles away at Siren. My philosophy of life came from Satchel Paige, the great black baseball pitcher; “Don’t look back, they might be gaining on you,” although while in the tower I changed it to “don’t look down…”

I took them to the Old Settlers Cemetery at the mouth of Cowan where it joins Trade River. George Williamson was mowing the cemetery getting it ready for Memorial Day. The little chapel looks great after having been burned and then rebuilt a couple years ago. The Sterling Homemakers are planting some flowers and shrubs out there this year. George has repaired some of the old pipe fence that had rusted out. It looks pretty inviting for eternal repose, although out there the abundance of bugs, mosquitoes, deer flies and ticks convinced people to be buried eight feet deep. George—I printed out a copy of the few old church records—just have to remember to give them to you to put in the church.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Wisconsin Public Teacher's Unions -- A personal history

Let’s Stick it to the Union

Down here in the Deep South, the news is full the turmoil all over the world as people rise up against rule by dictators and their families. You can hardly turn on the news without seeing pictures of huge crowds protesting in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya etc. People seem to have been successful in their protests in all the places except for Wisconsin, where the Fitzgerald, Koch and Walker families seem firmly entrenched. For idealogical reasons, they have taken a budget balance problem and turned it into an attack on public unions. As a former teacher and thus a public union member, I got bothered enough to try to explain, from my own experience, how public unions came about and why they are so important to their members. Get ready for a teaching moment!

Back in 1973, I became a school teacher. It was very hard to find a teaching job in those years with all the baby boomers coming into the market. I had a degree from River Falls in Physics and Math, and had spent another two years in grad school at UW Madison learning how to be a teacher and getting certified. Margo and I sent out 100s of applications to schools in the Midwest, and finally got an interview and then a job on Washington Island, WI., the smallest school district in the state of Wisconsin, out in Lake Michigan.

Washington Island was the most property rich school district in Wisconsin (dozens lakeshore mansions owned by absentee Chicago and Milwaukee millionaires), but the school district paid the lowest wages in the whole state; levying the lowest property tax rate in the whole state. “The rich people might not come here in the summer if we raise their taxes,” was the school board’s argument for continuing to use their two-room 100 year old schoolhouse with a few lean-tos tacked on.

There were only a half dozen teachers K-12, some of them part time. My salary was $7,000 for 9 months of teaching. I had 4.8% of my salary withheld for the Wisconsin Retirement fund and the school board contributed a matching 4.8% in my name. I had no other benefits including no health insurance. They offered the same salary for the next year. Costs of everything were about 30% higher on the island than the mainland—really impossible to live on the salary.

Rodger Meyer, my HS physics teacher from St. Croix Falls explains salary negotiations back in the 60’s. “When I started teaching we had to go before the school board individually to plead for a raise in wages, which were pathetic. Some farmer on the board would moan and groan and say, ‘You are asking for more than I’m making.’ Our teacher’s organization was run by the school superintendent and the school board (management). When I got involved in trying to form a teachers union without management, the school board wanted to fire me.”

Not being able to live on my Island salary and with Margo expecting, I searched around for other teaching jobs with health benefits and managed to find one on the mainland, at Goodman, WI, a lumbermill town on Highway 8 near the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. My salary was $7800 and I had some health benefits. I stayed at Goodman for three years and in that time became a member of the Wisconsin Federation of Teachers, a branch of the American Federation of Teachers. The AFT was one of two teachers unions in Wisconsin; a very small one compared to the Wisconsin Education Association union.

I was chosen a member of the teachers bargaining team. We held meetings with the school board and administrator on a new contract every two years. Most of our negotiations were over pay, benefits and working conditions. We decided, at Goodman, with the agreement of the school board, that instead of a raise over one two-year contract, the district would pay both their 4.8% and our 4.8% pension contributions. As I remember that way gave some tax benefits. We paid all of our health insurance (in those days the whole cost was something like $50 per month). Next time we negotiated instead of a raise, the school would pay the health insurance, again for tax advantages. When I hear folks now complain that teachers get retirement and health benefits paid, you have to remember that was what both parties negotiated; these issues can be re-opened and changed at any contract renewal.

We did not have the right to strike. If we couldn’t come to an agreement with the school board, then there was nothing we could do. Teacher strikes were illegal in Wisconsin under the 1971 bargaining law that mandated good-faith bargaining on both sides of the table. However, there was nothing in the law that forced compliance for either party.
The old contract would just stay in effect.

It was very frustrating, because the school boards would tell us—there is no money or maybe there is $20,000 available more for the whole school next year and ask “How do you want to divide it?” and they meant that was what was available for new equipment, books, salaries, benefits etc. School boards believed this was bargaining in “good faith.” They could raise property taxes if they wanted to but that was done at the annual school meeting. The board could have explained the need for more money, but often chose to let the folks opposed to taxes of any kind dominate the meetings.

The 70s were a time of high inflation, and each year our buying power got less. A decent old mill house cost only $30,000 in Goodman, but the bank told us we couldn’t afford it based on their rule of a house should cost only 2 and one half times ones salary. Margo was home with our new baby and there were no jobs for her available anywhere nearby.

I liked teaching at Goodman. It was a smaller school, good teachers and decent (if old) facility. I just couldn’t afford to live on the wages. We teachers looked to our union to help us out by giving us a stronger voice at the bargaining table.

Gaylord Nelson pushed through a bill in Wisconsin that public workers including teachers had the right to organize and negotiate contracts for their labor back in 1959, but with no right to strike there was no way to force school districts or other governments to settle—they could just stall if they chose to, and many did.

From 1970-1977, there were 30 Wisconsin teacher strikes (and over 100 public employee strikes) that occurred including the infamous Hortonville strike of two years length where 84 teachers were fired. . These strikes were illegal, and often ended in strikers losing their jobs, but they continued. With the increasing number of strikes and labor problems with teachers and other public employees, many legislators were beginning to think about improving the process.

The big Wisconsin teachers union, WEA, joined with the AFT and started lobbying the state legislature for a bargaining process that gave teachers (and other public employees) a more even chance at negotiations. I was selected from my school to go to a meeting with our local Assembly representative and, with the WEA representative, talk to her about the problems and our proposed solution, binding arbitration.

“We have run into a real dead end in our ability to bargain with local school districts. They don’t have any reason to negotiate; if they do nothing they win. We are very frustrated with this, and you can see the result; strikes by teachers, even when they know it is illegal and they could be fired. We are to the point where it is strike or quit teaching and get better paying job.”

“We are proposing this: We negotiate until both the board and union are stopped at their last offer. The state appoints a neutral mediator to come in and try to move along further negotiations. If the mediator certifies that there is no hope for an agreement then we each make a written last best offer that is submitted to a panel of three persons for arbitration. One arbitrator comes from the union; one from the school board and one from a pool of independent, neutral state arbitrators. The arbitrators are only allowed to choose one plan exactly as it was submitted—no changes allowed, by a majority vote.”

“We think that forcing each group to submit its last best offer, knowing it will be take it or leave it by the arbitrators, will force each side to move closer together, and that in most cases, when this last offer is presented, one side or the other will take it right then.”

Well, that passed in 1977, with the vote of our representative (a Republican) and it worked pretty much the way we figured it would. Teachers or school boards, seeing each other’s real last offer often did take it. When the process went all the way to arbitration, it did help the lowest paid districts, because the arbitrators tended to look at the surrounding school districts for comparisons in making the decision. Strikes disappeared. Since 1978, there have been no public employee work disruptions in Wisconsin and for the most part, governments and workers have gotten along smoothly.

Well, I moved on to Amery Wisconsin in 1978 and taught in the High School there. A bigger school meant more money ($10,000). The first year was great. I liked the larger school, and the innovative spirit amongst the teachers and administrative staff. It was an excellent school district, and I lived close enough to Dad and Mom that I figured I could afford a house—of course it would be on their land and with wood from our forest and sawmill, but at least a chance to own a home of our own!

Well, my teaching career hit a snag in February 12, 1980, a Tuesday, at 1:30 pm. My afternoon Math 9 class had 35 students (way too many!). A normally quiet student, Don (not his real name) , a small, skinny, shaggy, shy boy started talking in the class, seemingly to no one, just talking loudly. His voice was slurred and I couldn’t understand anything he said. It was totally out of character for him.

“What’s wrong Don?” I asked. “Nothing, …,” with some more unintelligible stuff. “Do you want to go to the sick room and talk to the nurse?” He shook his head no, but got up and sort of lurched across the room and out the door. A student said “He and his friends were doing drugs at noon.” I followed him out the door into the hall. I asked “Are you on drugs?” He looked at me, as if he planned to say something, and then pulled back his right hand, made a fist and hit me squarely on the jaw. I was shocked; it was totally unexpected. It didn’t hurt, as he seemed to have little strength in his arm. “Don, whatever is wrong, you won’t fix it by hitting me. You go down to the office right now and tell the principal what happened.” This happened in sight of many of the students.

I talked to the principal after class. “I think he is on drugs. It is totally out of his character, and I didn’t provoke him at all.” The principal had sent him to the sick room. He called a meeting with the parents, both working full time, with the husband on the road most of the time as a salesman. A few days latter we met. The parents took the position, very insistently, that it must have been my fault, as their son just couldn’t have just hit a teacher. I told them of my suspicion he was on drugs. They got angry and accused me of making accusations without any proof. Don was given detention for two weeks (had to stay after school for an hour), and stayed in my class. I was upset after the verbal raking over from the parents and felt the principal had not stuck up for me. Why was I left feeling guilty for a kid punching me. There was no question that I had touched Don at all or provoked him, as several students who had seen it all told the principal in interviews as I was investigated.

That weekend, I searched the Twin Cities job ads in the newspapers. I updated my resume and wrote a glowing letter about my imagined and real experience in computers and shot off an application for a computer scientist job at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. I finished the school year, got the new job and left my career in teaching, shaking the dust off my feet on the way out. I look back and am actually grateful for Don’s punching me into a better job than teaching. My pay immediately doubled! Sadly, Don was in county court within a year and now 30 years later is still trying to get his life free from drugs and the problems they caused to him and his family.

Getting an education is how we poor farm kids made it into the lower part of the middle class. Many of us went into teaching, thinking it honorable profession; a respected way of making a modest living. We knew if we stuck by it for 35 years, we would get a modest pension. Luckily, our pension money went into an account that politicians couldn’t touch—so in Wisconsin our pension fund is totally funded. I even get a small amount each month from my 6 years of teaching—the money gaining interest over the 30 years it was invested in the account. The depression starting in 2008 dropped the amount I get from the investment, but, unlike in many states where pensions are badly underfunded, the independent retirement fund is sound.

I think it was wrong headed of Governor Walker and the Republicans to attempt to change the bargaining laws for public employees without first asking them to help solve the problem. Public employees are truly our neighbors, friends and relatives, not our enemy. Many of our local farmers and business owners depend on a public employee spouse for health insurance for them and their kids. Public employee unions should have been given a chance to help solve the problem. They are not our enemy! Wisconsin’s new political leaders seem to have two core principles: tax cuts for the wealthy and wage cuts for everyone else.

What few decent jobs that are still available to us will soon disappear if politicians continue to attack unions and workers. Remember, the only reason why workers have things like health care, pensions, 8-hour days, minium wages, workplace safety, unemployment insurance, and a say in their wages is because unions have fought the battles for everyone for the past 100 years. Without the things won for us by unions, we would all be fighting for a greeter’s job at Bigmart or flipping burgers nearby right up to the day we went to the poor house.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Grand Isle LA

We rambled to Grand Isle, LA state park, sort of the deepest south you can get into the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana. Very windy and about 50 degrees meant walking the gulf beach was pretty cold. We were looking for BP oil spill evidence. The beach has been and is scraped regularly with a big loader that piles the debris (sea weed, drift wood, and misc) in small piles away from the beech. We found a few small pieces of tar -- about the size of a silver dollar or less--but not much evidence of what was a lot of oil 6 months ago.
Tourism is pretty much down yet after really bombing last summer. Local businesses are hoping things turn around this spring and summer.
It is an interesting area--all the buildings up on stilts; a big Exon oil refinery and helicopters coming and going from oil platforms in the gulf.
We are here for 3 days before heading back inland.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Shivering Oranges

Shivering Oranges

It turned cold down here and so instead of moving a little north into Mississippi last week, we went a little south to Bayou Segnette State Park on the SE edge of New Orleans (pronounced naw-lins) last week. The temperatures dropped to 33 overnight twice, and it rained and blew reminding us of an April shower. This was “break into normally scheduled programming” weather for the locals!

Heated shelters opened for homeless and those without heaters; winter cap and coat drives were on for the poor; a 15-car pileup closed a Baton Rouge icy bridge; schools were closed and road workers shutdown until temperatures rose above freezing the next afternoon. At our park on the edge of the Big Easy, several neighboring RV’ers stopped over to worry about us freezing in our popup trailer.

We have an electric space heater and use an electric blanket in the camper and can stay comfortable down to zero outside, so it was no problem. Our neighbors, mostly southerners, hunkered down in their big heated vehicles waiting it out. However, a sprinkling of us Canadianers and Midwesterners bantered about in short sleeves and baseball caps, “won’t see dis nice weather in Manitoba til May.” “Ja, you betcha, Ma’s in der gettin lathered up with SPF 30—she burns if it gets above freez’n.” “Ja, dose Canada da grees are bigger dan da US ones, much worser,” and so on.

Along the entrance road to the campgrounds, a new flood wall is taking the place of the old breeched one; stronger, prettier, and topped with 12 feet of concrete to let New Orleans, much of which is at or below sea level, get through the next big 100 year flood. With Katrina, the levees failed and nearly 80% of the city flooded. We drove through the northeast part of town where boarded up houses and flood damage mixes with repaired homes and businesses. Lots of empty buildings.

We put on our light winter jackets and tromped the French Quarter at 10 am Monday, wondering why hardly anything was open, the restaurants not cooking, and the streets empty except for the beer, liquor, wine and food trucks refilling the hundreds of bars and restaurants from the weekend crowds and garbage trucks hauling away the evidence.

We managed to get a beignet, a square donut without the hole, the specialty of Café du Monde along the waterfront. Canvas walls rolled down and flapping in the cold wind, the few customers inside gave themselves away with the familiar “eh’s” and “uff da’s” of the far north. Rugged Japanese tourist families roamed the empty parks, preying on strangers to take their pictures as they lined up in front just about anything.
We walked to Bourbon street, and through the even more colorful areas of town; all buttoned up waiting for a warm night. The stiff east wind rattled posters promising floozies, booze, and jazz inside the door, shaking them as if the scantily clad women were shivering. Margo clutched her purse in reaction to TV news warnings of packs of I-pad, I-phone and purse snatchers prowling the porticoed old streets.

We warmed up in museums; the old U.S. Mint and the Louisiana State Museum with exhibits remembering Katrina and the history of New Orleans. The Katrina display was new, with dozens of film clips running live reports gleaned from the Courics and Brokaws of disaster. Whipping palm trees, crashing waves, floating cars and houses backed by a deep rumbling soundtrack in darkened rooms with lights flashing like lightning. One theater screen was an askew house wall; behind framed windows of were TV screens showing hurricane footage as if we were looking right through the windows.

A few shops were open, selling dried alligator heads, voodoo dolls, tee-shirts beads and tourist gimcracks. Margo had a hard time finding a tee-shirt tame enough to wear in Cushing. In all, it was rather disappointing to see the French Quarter so deserted. Cold weather is hard on iniquity.

Another cool rainy day, we drove south to the ocean in Placquemines (plack a min) Parish, a finger of land stretching far into the Gulf. Highway 23 parallels the west levee on the Mississippi extending 60 miles south of New Orleans. We were after evidence from the big spill.

Here and there were rows and fields of orange trees, some bare and some bearing. Only one fruit stand was open. “There are about 500 acres of orange trees in this area with about 100 trees per acre. There are many small owners, but my boss is the biggest with 100 acres or so and rents more. We raise tomatoes (they had some fresh picked ones for sale) and lots of cool weather crops now, broccoli, cabbage, lettuces, greens. We have yams, and other things on hand. We will be planting our 2011 gardens starting in a few weeks,” the short mid-thirties, bundled up woman tending the stand told us.

“The orange picking season started in late November and we will be picking fruit for about 6 more weeks as different varieties ripen. We raise Samatsu, Navel, Blood and a few other varieties of Oranges. My boss raises and sells thousands of orange trees each year to other states. There used to be more orange growers around, but it keeps dwindling. Each season is different; this year we have a good yield, and the price is pretty good. We have some lemon and grapefruit trees, but mostly oranges”

“We have to spray the trees for bugs and diseases that attack the tree itself. The fruit doesn’t get wormy like apples because of the thick rind. However, in the last few years a disease that makes brown ugly spots on the orange fruit has come in and we have to spray with copper, a fungicide, to keep it from spoiling the looks of the fruit.”

“Oranges can stand cold weather, it makes the fruit sweeter if we get some before harvest time. It can get down to about 18 degrees for up to 4 hours without damage to the tree and fruit, something that very rarely occurs here. The trees are pretty tough!”

Our intention, as we drove Hwy 23 south, was to follow it to the Gulf and see if we could find a souvenir BP tar ball to bring back for show and tell at the Men’s group. Another RV’er told us they had camped at Grand Isle, a state park a little west of where our road would lead, and all they found was a few tar balls along the beach—nothing else from the spill at all.

The whole road south of New Orleans followed the Mississippi west bank levee and the big shipping channel that lets ocean boats up river You couldn’t see the water over it from our road, but you could see huge ocean liners and tugs sticking above the ridge, only a few hundred yards away, as if they were in another lane of our highway. Occasionally we turned out drove to the top of the levy to see the rusty ships headed to and from the ports to New Orleans.

One roadside area was piled high with vast mounds of black crushed coal, the size of coarse road rock. Next was a series of high wheat elevators, the round concrete ones you might see along the Mississippi in the Twin Cities.

“Barges coming down the Mississippi, loaded with western coal sent by train to the Mississippi and loaded up north are unloaded here, piled and then reloaded on to big ships headed to other countries as is wheat and corn. Lots of it comes from Minnesota,” said the attendant at a gas station-casino nearby. Casinos here are often just a few slot machines in a room off a restaurant or gas station. If they really wanted to get my business, they would turn the gas pumps into slot machines; you pay for your gas and throw in an extra dollar to get a chance at getting it all back!

The last 25 miles of the road had some big flat drained fields, pasture to large herds of cattle. Although the grass was mostly brown, clover was bright green and the cows were out grazing. Occasionally there were forests of live oak or other green leaved plants, short and ocean wind blown along with marshes and a continual string of housing; mostly trailers and manufactured and messy, often up on stilts.

Oil production facilities lined the last 10 miles of the road. Vast security fenced lots filled with cars and helicopters support the offshore drilling/pumping platforms. Fenced crude oil tank farms; pipelines running helter skelter, and one huge huge Conoco-Phillips refinery, separated from the Mississippi by levees obscured the wetlands.

Five miles from the end of the road was the first hill we saw a limitless flat land of water and tidal marsh. A prominent hill far ahead turned out to be a “sanitary landfill,” truly oxymoronic. Windblown garbage littered the road, and atop the huge pile, trucks unloaded; bulldozers pushed and compacted and thousands of gulls dove in for food scraps before it all was covered with a layer of dirt.

The ugly scene set the pattern for the last few miles of the road into the Gulf. Narrow roads turned to gravel, one side the tidal ponds and hundreds of shore birds wading in abandoned pipes, hurricane strewed tin roofs, and other man made waste; the other side fenced lots filled with oil company tanks, pipes, equipment; much of it salt water rusted, ugly and abandoned and other lots still in use, security fenced and just plain ugly. It reminded us of a vast wrecking yard and dump that had been placed in some of the most pretty wetlands you can imagine.

Oil production here has been ongoing for 75 years with the bulk of the efforts starting in the 1950s and then as the easy-to-find oil in the shallow marshes ran out, pushing on out further and deeper into the ocean living the litter of old fields, tanks and equipment behind. Debris dumping appears to have been going on just as long!

“The junk is mostly just as bad as you go out into the Gulf waters,” a local man fishing along the road at the end told me, “but it doesn’t look so bad as it is underwater! Most of this land is still owned by the oil companies and although it looks abandoned, is still used at times; the pipelines from farther out come through here, pointing to ugly rusted huge pipes and junctions coming along the roads and the rusting tanks nearby. Maybe they will clean it up someday. It would make a wonderful wildlife refuge.”

“The main problem here with the spill was the local fishermen were told they couldn’t fish or collect seafood in the Gulf around here anymore. They just opened it up again last month. They couldn’t make a living, and of course the businesses who depended on them had trouble too. There was some oil cleanup around here—out farther from the shore, but that’s gone except for a few tar balls on some beaches. Can’t see anything left. Some folks are still bothered about eating the fish and shrimp and stuff they catch here, but most seem to think it is OK again. The oil dispersants (detergent like chemicals dumped to break up the oil) are more worrying for us than the oil itself,” said a fisherman holding his rod and reel fishing in a small tidal pool lined with debris and opposite a rusted old security fence surrounding an abandoned oil tank farm when I stopped to talk.

“About the only think left you can see from the spill are all the lawyer signs along the road trying to get us to hire them to get money from BP!” he laughed. “Lots of folks have applied for BP money to cover their losses. Twenty billion from BP has corrupted many honest folks and attracted lots of scum in a greedy feeding frenzy. That brings in the big sharks with law degrees. I think the money might hurt us more in the long term than the oil spill!”

We plan to ooze along to another Louisiana park for this our 5th week on the road. Right now we think that we will head back north at the beginning of March, but it all depends on Margo. Last week we parked over a fire ant hill, and after a few days they figured out there was fresh meat in her bunk and bit her up a lot before I got them under control. By tying her hands, I got her to stop scratching the raw skin and am spraying her down with benzocaine regularly until the stinging subsides. By the time you read this she should be fine, or in the hospital.

Black History

When we travel, I like to have a purpose, something I want to learn about. This trip south, on the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, I decided to try to find out if the Civil War did any good in solving the problems with slavery in the south. My rather weak recall of history is that although the slaves were freed, they were treated badly for the next 100 years, and only the Civil Rights laws and movements of the 1960s brought about real change, but things are fine now.

The first place we explored was Hammond, LA. This town has been in the news recently. Local Justice of the peace, Keith Bardwell, made the news in October 2009 for refusing to officiate at the wedding of an interracial couple. This town was the 1980s initial setting for the fictional town “Sparta” in the first season of “In the Heat of the Night.” In that TV show, black northern cop Virgil Tibbs (Howard Rollins) comes to work in a southern white town with police chief William Gillespie (Carrol O’Connor), exploring contemporary racism, modern policing, and other issues. I remember it as a good show.

Hammond is located in Tangipahoa Parish (Louisiana’s name for a county) east of Baton Rouge. It is mostly rural, crossed by freeways with a lot of urban mall sprawl. It has 70% white and 29% black people. Median income is about $30,000 with about 30% living under the poverty line. Total sales tax rate is 9%, split locally and state wide; property taxes on a $250,000 house were about $2,000; state income taxes are based on income level, 6% over $50,000. Louisiana is rated as a low tax state, but the ratings seem to represent a low income state where taxes are relatively high on lower income folks and relatively low on high income folks.

The week started with Martin Luther King Day, something taken seriously here where 30% of the folks are black. We chose to visit a local Black History museum. It was a very interesting, very professional and privately financed museum showing black folks history from their lives in Africa and the history of slavery from transport, sale, plantation life, Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Civil Rights era ending with a display of current black leaders including President Obama.

We were led on the tour of the former blacks-only school by a teacher who had taught there named Adelle. She was 82 years old, strikingly handsome, with long black and white hair parted in the middle, flowing widely on each side. She spoke in very educated English; a school teacher’s precise enunciation, fluent, yet with passion. I started by saying “My great great grandfather gave his health to free slaves and his oldest son his life. One hundred and fifty years later, we are here to find out whether it was worth the effort.”

Adelle tells the rest. “After the war, there was a time that black folks did well—as long as northerners were in control, the Reconstruction. We had the vote, elected blacks to all levels of government and things were headed in the right direction. By 20 years after the war, the Federal government soldiers pulled out and local white folks took over again and proceeded to strip us of all of our rights. We lost our right to vote, lost our integrated public schools, and over the next 20 years, the whites took control of everything and made rules, down here they are called Jim Crow laws. They enforced everything with violence; the Ku Klux Klan rode around burning, shooting and terrorizing any black folks who spoke out.”

“They separated kids into separate schools. White folks paid taxes that went to white schools; black folks paid taxes for black schools. Blacks were poor and so our schools were poor. Black schools when I went to school in the 1930s ran only a few months a year, because we had to work in the fields with our parents to make money. “

“If a black man complained, he got lynched. There were hundreds of lynchings of black people down here. The whites ran around with sheets over their heads, the Kluxers (Ku Klux Klan) burning, shooting and scaring black folks who complained.”

“We had a few black colleges. I went to one for two years to get a teaching degree. Then, in 1952, I got a job teaching in a black elementary school. We got the old desks, books, and supplies from the white schools when they got new things. My salary, $51 per month, was half of the white teachers on the other side of town.”

“We did a good job with the children who did come to school, but many didn’t stay in school. Even with an education, black people couldn’t get a decent job down here—just in the black school or black hospital. Women worked as house servants; men as field hands and day laborers on plantations. You complain, you got fired.”

“We couldn’t stay in the white hotels, couldn’t eat in the white restaurants, had to sit in the back of the bus, couldn’t vote without getting in trouble. I got married and my husband didn’t dare look at a white man or woman straight on without worrying about getting arrested or a visit by the Kluxers. We sent our two daughters north for an education and they both work in good jobs, lawyer and business, but not around here. Still not possible down here for most black folks.”

“This building was the Mooney School, the local black school until 1968 when the school district was told by the court it had to integrate black and white. They had claimed that they had separate but equal schools, but they were not equal, not even close. They shut the school down here, because whites wouldn’t send their children to such a poorly built school. “

“Do you know that the local district is still under court orders because instead of really integrating, they have continued to play games with boundaries of districts that keep schools either white or black. Last March the court found they were still out of compliance and ordered more changes.”

“After the black school, this building, closed in 1968, few black teachers got jobs in the new supposedly integrated schools. I did, and what I remember most was the big boost in my salary! The schools really have never been integrated here; white folks with money moved their kids to private schools or new neighborhoods where new schools were again white. When the black schools closed, it was really hard for a black teacher or coach to get a job in the new schools—still is even with a court order that 1/3 must be black, never got near that. “

“You see this picture. ( She showed us posters of the 20 -30 black folks marching up main street in 1966.) Dr. King started us on non-violent marches to try to get our rights. That’s me. She pointed out a tall strong looking young woman marching in the front of a street following mounted police with angry looking white people lining the streets. I marched in those times. We got attacked many times by the whites along the side, throwing stones at us and sometimes punches. The white police pretended to try to protect us, but they were on the other side too. We registered to vote, and then politicians had to worry about our vote too!”

“It is certainly better now. There still is racism; white folks down here don’t give up their prejudices and privileges easily. But it is not out in the open like it used to be. They don’t lynch us anymore, we can vote now without being attacked. “

“I was so excited when Mr. Obama got elected president. I had always taught my students that if they worked hard, they could become president of the US, but inside none of us really believed it. We were trying to give the children a good education, and we did, in our black schools, but there just wasn’t opportunity for decent jobs down here“

“When Mr Obama got elected, I just knew I had to go to Washington DC to see it. I was 80, but I told my daughter I had to go! She tried to talk me out of it; but she hasn’t seen what it was like to be black in the south like I have—to be treated second class so much of your life that it just becomes part of you. I just had to go and be part of the biggest thing that ever happened to me in my whole life. She realized I was going to go what ever she said, so she took off work and we got to be in the huge crowd at the Capitol for inauguration day. We stood all day long in the huge crowd, so excited we didn’t even have to go to the bathroom. We milled around the area and managed to see President Obama as he got out of his car. It was so wonderful to see a black man president of the US. If I had died right then, it would have been worth all of the trouble and bother of 80 years of being black in the south to see this happen!”

“It is hard for me to see President Obama criticized. I think underneath a lot is really racism. It isn’t gone from here. It is much better, but, my how hard it has been to be black here for 82 years. I hope my grandchildren don’t have to see how people can have raw open hate for people just because of skin color. I think that is why some people are so vicious in attacking President Obama.“

“Religion has been a consolation for me. Whites wouldn’t let us worship in the same churches, so we have our own. I never could understand why, when we were all Christians, that white people thought making slaves out of us was right. Sometimes I think religious folks can be the worst when it comes to treating others decently.“

After the tour, Adelle and three other retired teachers who had taught in the segregated visited with us. I told them, “Up north, we don’t have discrimination in our churches.” Adelle said “It must be nice where women can be ministers or priests; gays are welcome and your preachers don’t rail against scientists and Muslims.”

Raising Cane

It’s hard not to feel a little guilty having enjoyed mostly sunny mild weather through January down here in Southern Louisiana, while getting emails from up north telling about 32 below and snow. If we were there, we would be burning fuel trying to keep warm, adding to the increasing cost of energy and dumping carbon dioxide into the air. Helping the environment by sacrificing the comforts of home for strange places and tropical climates does give us a warm feeling of doing our part over those of you who just ordered another tanker load of fuel for February.

We had one pleasant 3-inch rain overnight, the rain drops falling on the canvas over our bed in the pop-up camper soothing our slumbers and drowning out the roar of frogs, gators and owls. The temperatures have ranged from a few days in the 40s to a sweltering 75 last Friday that brought some mosquitoes to life. Made us nostalgic for Wisconsin and Minnesota. There are individual orange and grapefruit trees in yards here and there and a few orange groves—the oranges appear to be ripening, but none for sale yet. Almost 100% of the fields in the 30 miles around the area we have explored are in sugar cane.

Lake Fausse Pointe State Park is on the edge of the Atchafalaya Basin, just west of the levee that channels the Atchafalaya river into a 20 mile wide, 150 mile long swamp. At the north end is a big set of gates that controls the Mississippi, allowing the US Corp of Engineers to run water down the current Mississippi channel, or divert some to the old Mississippi channel, now called the Atchafalaya River. Without the diversion project, the Mississippi would have already changed its main channel to the Atchafalaya years ago.

The area is honeycombed with old and new oil wells, the area underlain with natural gas and oil that has been pumped since the 1930s. In the 1950s to 1970s, huge dredges created cross channels to allow access to new well drilling. This has changed some of the freshwater marshes into saltwater, as the ocean has flowed into the deep channels. We are far enough away from the oil spill (to the south east of us) that the only effect are the claims for BP oil money being distributed to those who can prove financial losses from the spill. The locals in that area have gone pretty much hog wild making claims—some fraudulent, some wildly exaggerated, and some legitimate. There is 20 billion to be distributed of BP money, and every crook from Texas to Florida has managed to put in some kind of claim to confuse the legitimate ones. The folks down here take after their politicians; corrupt as you can possibly be.

The Mississippi has been channelized most of the way south from Iowa and thus runs through faster. Before this, the silt coming downriver deposited at the mouth of the river, creating the huge swamps and marshes that are here. Now it rushes through and dumps the silt out over the continental shelf, into deep water and so the land along the southern Louisiana coast is gradually disappearing rather than building up—29 square miles per year according to the U.S. Geological Survey. One Wisconsin township is 36 square miles, so almost one township is disappearing each year. This has been going on for 50 years or more. It would be a good idea for some of the farmers up there in Wisconsin and Minnesota to revert to their high erosion, clear field plowing to bring back the days when tons of topsoil ran down the streams and rivers into the Mississippi, or Louisiana may just disappear altogether.

Where we are camping is about 50% under water. Built up roads and natural ridges are surrounded by standing water and bayous (Indian name for streams) and cypress swamps. The whole of the area is ranges from about 3 feet above sea level to sea level. It seems to me that if everyone in WI and MN melted the ice cubes in their refrigerator and ran them down the drain, we would surely be under water here. Most of the buildings are up on 8 foot stilts anticipating the spring floods that come most years.

This area is almost exclusively in sugar cane fields—large, flat corrugated fields, some having been in sugar cane since it was first introduced here in 1751. We toured a museum at Jeanrette that was devoted to the sugar cane industry—they advertise the town as “Sugar City.” As a farm kids and maple sugar people ourselves, Margo and I were fascinated by the sugar cane growing and processing going on in the area.

Sugar cane fields are laid out in ridged rows about 18 inches high and 6 feet apart. The water table is high and with frequent rains, the ridges allow the plants to be up out of the water. Water drains down the troughs and into larger drains and out of the fields without drowning the cane. Farmers have special disks, pull graders, and cultivators to make and handle the ridges. These ridges and drains are called the “bank system.”

Wikipedia says: “Sugarcane cultivation requires a tropical or temperate climate, with a minimum of 24 in of annual moisture. It is one of the most efficient photosynthesizers in the plant kingdom. It is able to convert up to 1 percent of incident solar energy into biomass. In prime growing regions, sugarcane can produce 20 lb of biomass for each square meter exposed to the sun.”

“Although sugarcanes produce seeds, modern stem cutting has become the most common reproduction method. Billets (chunks of stem that look like bamboo with at least one junction where a sprout will form) harvested from a mechanical harvester are planted by a machine which opens and recloses the ground. Once planted, a stand can be harvested several times; after each harvest, the cane sends up new stalks, called ratoons. Successive harvests give decreasing yields, eventually justifying replanting. Two to ten harvests may be possible between plantings.”

In Louisiana, one-third of the land is fallow, waiting to be planted, and the rest in sugarcane. Every 11 months a harvest is made in the fall. Cane here is harvested 3 times over three years off the same root before a total replanting. One third is replanted each year. It seems, that like alfalfa, it gradually produces less each year. Planting is in the fall when the tops of the sugar cane stalks are available to be spread in the ditches between the ridges; then the old ridges are disked over the stalks and make a new set of ridges. Cultivation is not done after the first season.

Monsanto and other cane seed producers are tinkering with the genes in the cane plant and expect to have a “Roundup-Ready/Bt” plant available by 2015. Growers are debating whether consumers will balk at genetically modified sugar products. Sugar beet farmers in NW MN are already into a legal debate over the use of “Roundup-Ready” beets there. Sugar cane is sprayed for pests and fertilized quite heavily.

Slaves were brought to this part of Louisiana primarily to work on sugar plantations. It is a year around effort with harvesting lasting from about September to December. In the old days, everything was done by hand with the aid of mules. Nowadays, it is highly mechanized with expensive harvesters that cut the stalk, clean away the leaves and any dirt, cut it into billets and have it ready for processing at large central sugar plants, often farmer’s co-operatives. Much of the cane sugar here ends up as Domino brand.

Farmers traditionally have burned the cane fields in the fall to get rid of the leaves and smaller stalks parts and just leave the juicy canes. It is a real controversy here because of the nuisance to the neighbors and our higher rates of respiratory problems. A letter to the editor in the local newspaper last October describes it: “Giant smoke plumes all around the horizon; black ashes falling like snow. I knew that the burning had begun because I awoke with my sinuses full. Sure enough, when I left for work, I could see the angry plumes. Nothing like the familiar view of insecticide-laden haze all around!”
“Oh and it’s good for the economy, too. The hospitals, pulmonologists and respiratory therapists will all benefit from an increased load of lung patients (asthmatics, COPDers, sinusitis patients) flooding through their doors. “

Bigger farmers who can afford a $150,000 harvester don’t burn anymore, but smaller ones can’t afford it and still burn. The harvester cuts the stalks into billets, which are delivered at the factory where they are washed, ground, crushed and pressed to give up the sweet cane juice. Then many steps of filtering and boiling and crystallizing are done to end up first with raw sugar, sort of a brown looking sugar, then more of the same to end up with pure white sugar. Molasses and bagasse (pronounced as two words-bag gas) are the byproducts. Bagasse is the fiber left and is burned to fuel the boilers. Molasses is sold for mixing in animal feed and for the grocery. Inside the sugar warehouses, huge trucks and loader tractors handle the sugar—looking like the activity in a gravel pit. Eventually it is bagged and shipped to retailers. Some local cooks insist that cane sugar is better for cooking with than beet sugar.

I was hard pressed to find out the actual profit for a sugar cane farmer in Louisiana, but it appears that on a very good year, when the yield is good, the harvest season is not too wet, the sugar content is high, a profit of up to $300 per acre can be had; other years are break-even only or losses that are somewhat covered by insurance programs. In a radius of about 40 miles from the park, we saw only sugar cane fields. Rice has moved further west and north. There appears to be no crop rotation in this area.

Sugar was very profitable in the 100 years before the civil war. Labor was from slaves and huge land holdings made some planters immensely rich. They built large mansions, known here as ante-bellum plantation homes. There are still many around to tour.

We toured “Shadows on the Teche” in nearby New Iberia. Most of these plantation homes are the same—huge columns supporting porches at the front and back; storage and servant quarters on the 3rd floor, family living quarters on the second, and office, dining, kitchen, parlor and library on the main floor. The ceilings are 12 foot or so the heat will stay at the top of the room. Each room has a fireplace for heating, the only built in item. The rooms are furnished with hardwood wardrobes, sideboards, beds, tables, fine woodwork, expensive curtains, paintings of the ancestors, expensive china and porcelain objects and statuary in the gardens.

Each house was originally surrounded by outbuildings including a separate cooking building, a smokehouse, servants quarters, and housing for the animals. The tour guides are always very careful to use the word “servant” when they mean “slave.” The local tour guides almost completely ignore that the whole plantation culture and life of leisure portrayed was on the back of black slaves. In touring a dozen or more of these homes over many years, I have never seen a black person as a tour guide. Tourist from the north ask questions about slavery, and the tour guides generally say something like “most masters were good to their slaves and treated them as part of the family. When the Union soldiers came through they destroyed the culture.”

In almost every slave owner’s plantation (Shadows on the Teche owner had about 300 slaves), many of the slave children were “mullattoes,” product of the white male owners having children with the slave women. White wives looked the other way and continued to insist that the southern plantation culture was above that of the money-grubbing businessmen of the north, the Yankees.

When the war came, this area was a battleground and had a lot of destruction. After the war, the former slave owners had to convert to a hired labor role. Blacks who had hoped to become land owners and farmers in their own right, were for the most part pushed into plantation jobs that barely paid enough to live on. The white folks did what they could to keep black people uneducated, without the rights of a citizen (voting, holding office, fair trials…). They succeeded for 100 years and only since the 1960s have things begun to change for the better down here.

The area is backwards in terms of education, housing, salaries etc. Just about any measure comparing states puts Louisiana and its southern neighbors of Mississippi and Alabama at the bottom. “People down here kept black folks down for a few hundred years. You can’t prosper as a state doing that,” said Leon, a native Louisianan and retired school teacher who was RVing near us. “That and our history of mostly corrupt politicians at every level, make us more like a third world country. There is a third factor too, we are a very religious people – about 1/3 Catholic and most of the rest fundamentalists. Our church leaders teach us that our reward will be in heaven. I think this gives us an excuse for not improving our own condition here.”

Probably the most striking thing you see down here on the back roads are the water filled ditches filled with floating litter; the Styrofoam, aluminum, plastic and paper wastes that you see folks chucking out the windows. Towns and cities have made great efforts to clean their litter, but my how ugly the rural areas next to them are. Beer, Mountain Dew and McDonalds seem to predominate, but if it comes in a package of any kind, you will see it in the ditches of Louisiana. Margo thought we might volunteer to pick up some garbage along a stretch of waterfilled ditches. “Well, be careful of the poisonous snakes and the gators,” warned Leon, dampening her enthusiasm significantly.