Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Oregon Coast #1

          The Oregon coast is one of America’s iconic landscapes.  Running the entire Western length of the state, its beaches are open to all, thanks to legislation championed by Republican Governor Tom McCall in l967 which granted the state zoning rights to the seashore.  In this it is unique among all coastal states.

          The northern one-third is the most dramatic, with tall prows of rock thrusting into the sea, creating explosions of waves and scores of intimate coves.  In places these thrusts of rock have been cut through by wave action over millions of years, leaving citadels and castles guarding the land to which it once belonged.   


          These headlands were created 15 million years ago by lava flowing out of what is now the intersection of Washington, Oregon and Idaho 400 miles to the east.  Lava flowed down the channel of the Columbia River, created the spectacular Columbia River Gorge, and then spread out south into rivers of lava which plunged into the ocean.  It must have looked like the lava-meets-the-sea sizzle we can see today on the big island of Hawaii.  The ocean shore was some distance to the west, tides and storms eating away until we have today’s shoreline.

          I knew none of this geologic history coming here and found that fascinating.  But there is more:  these headlands come from the same super-source of heat which created Yellowstone, according to recent geological theory. 

Those of us living in eastern Idaho know that the mammoth system of explosions, vents and geysers that made today’s Yellowstone had previously burned through the Snake River Plain from Oregon.  We knew that it was tectonic plates which slid over a giant hot spot, not the other way around, i.e. the plates moved westward over millions of years while the heat source remained stationary. 

          Now we learn that the earth also moved south to north over this same hot spot along what is now the Idaho-Oregon border.  Think of it like moving wood through a jig saw:  the blade stays in the same place but the wood is moved so as to cut north to south and then west to east.  The hot spot thus burned through 800 miles of the earth’s mantle in a pattern somewhat like the letter “Z.”  Is that clear?  It seems amazing that plates which slid steadily from east to west would previously slide north to south but I’m told this today’s best scientific estimate.

          I once had a legal client named John Masters who was credited with discovering the largest new natural gas basin in the Western Hemisphere in l977.  He had stood on a rock outcropping in Alberta and knew for a certainty that this was where a prehistoric sea tipped into the sky, trapping natural gas below.  “I could hear the seagulls singing,” he said.

          Standing on an Oregon headland knowing its heat source was now in Yellowstone might have been known to John Masters.  It was news to me.

          This revelation came from a charming guy dressed as a Coast Guard lighthouse keeper, a volunteer interpreter at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.  He gave me a written summation of the theory with sources and we discussed the progressive Republican governor and senator for whom the center was named, Mark Hatfield.

          This is my first full day on the Oregon coast and the late October weather could not be better.  I’ll be staying in tiny Depot Bay where the coastal lava wall opens just far enough to admit small boats into a completely protected harbor.  I brought with me both a bike and golf clubs but walking the beach is the better idea.

 I first explore Yaquina Lighthouse which is 95 feet tall and sits at the top of 500 feet of basalt called Cape Foulweather, so named by the first European explorer, James Cook in 1778.  The lighthouse is still in use and full of souvenirs.

The locals are distinguished from people like myself because they are wearing shorts and picnicking, incongruously, under grass umbrellas.  This couple took turns surfing in wet suits while the children make like its summer in coastal Delaware. 

Like primitive people, beachgoers continue to construct wikiups, burial vaults and dolmans or stallas wherever they go.

While Cape Foulweather is not well named on this day, these trees above the beach give you an idea of how strongly and constantly the wind blows.  La Jolla this is not but instead something more dramatic.
Besides beaches, volcanoes, wine and rain, Oregon is a great state for bridges, including the largest number of covered bridges in the West, which at one time numbered 400.  Great bridges, like public beaches, can be traced to a single individual, Conde McCullough, who headed the Oregon bridge department from l920 to 1935.  Highway One, which runs along the ocean from the mouth of the Columbia River to California, was completed in this era, requiring scores of major cuts and bridges.  This one over the Yaquina River is an example of the beauty McCullough demanded in his engineering. 

The phrase “Oregon Coast” has a magical quality for many Idahoans and Oregonians who live inland, for whom it is the closest thing to a beach.  Many come to enjoy winter storms, drink in hand behind sturdy glass, well above the breaking surf.  It is usually windy, the beaches offer more rock than sand and a day in the 80’s is rare.  Many of its towns are charming and heavily-timbered slopes hand over the shore.  For desert people like Idahoans, hiking along the Oregon Coast is fairy tale stuff: huge trees, abundant moss and fern and the chance of running into a herd of Roosevelt elk.  Catch a cloudless day, as I did, and it’s pretty special.    


In the last light of day, the lighthouse at Newport stands above the rocky beach.

Oregon Coast #2 A Biblical Lifetime

Oregon #2, Charles Vanderpool and a Biblical Lifetime

This is not a travel-related posting, as most of mine are, although it begins on the Oregon Coast. It’s a little story about a man who, with no previous experience or education, devoted 27 years of his life to re-translating every word of the Bible from Greek into English, word-by-word and side-by-side with the Hebrew.

1366 words, reading time four minutes.

For my first night on the Oregon Coast, Fodors, the travel guide, led me to the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, named not for a strand but for a famous bookstore owner in Paris.  Sylvia Beach was her name and she ran Shakespeare and Company, a Left Bank literary headquarters for Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, et al in the post-World War II heydays. It’s still going strong today.

Each of the hotel’s 20 rooms honors a famous writer.  I was assigned to Oscar Wilde, across from Dr. Seuss and down the hall from Mr. Hemingway. 

Newport is a bit of a barn as beach towns go but on the lower, Bayfront section there is a quite charming quarter surrounding the hotel, with bookstores, cafes, an art center and an Irish pub.  However only a working class bar a few steps away was showing the Notre Dame-Southern California football game when I went looking.

No sooner had I ordered than a tall fellow who seems to know everyone asks if he can join me.  I’m glad for the company but warn him that I’m nutty when Notre Dame is playing, doubly so against USC.  This doesn’t bother him.  (I’m reminded of a T-shirt I saw in way, way remote corner of  Guatemala in August which read “I’m for UCLA and anyone playing USC!”)  


Charles turns out to be a fascinating guy.  I lost track of the Notre Dame game and we talk into the night.  The next day I move up the coast but we talk by phone, I visit his home and we went to dinner. 

Charles was a poor college student, he says, failing at language and barely getting by at Valparaiso, a sectarian college not far from Notre Dame.  His early life and career were undistinguished but 27 years ago he found his life’s work as a translator and publisher of the Bible.

You’d think the world wouldn’t need another translation of the Bible.  What’s left to be done, particularly by someone with no previous preparation or aptitude?  When he said God asked him to do this I might have walked away.  When he wondered if our meeting was an accident or if he is a Messenger, well, that was not promising either.  But we kept talking.

“God has seen fit to write an instruction manual for living—the Bible.” So begins one of his books.  God “breathed” his word into earthly language; precisely what God said is of utmost importance, of course.  This is best understood through the Greek language.

The Old Testament was recorded in Hebrew but the later books were recorded in both Hebrew and Greek.  While Christ’s everyday language was Aramaic, Greek was the international language at the time and the Epistles were written in Greek to people who spoke Greek (if also another language).  The writers of the New Testament read the Old Testament in Greek, VanderPool says.  Greek was the basis for all subsequent bibles in the Latin, Syria and Coptic scriptures. To understand God’s message, Charles taught himself Greek, traveled in Greece and immersed himself in biblical scholarship, for which thousands have had better scholastic training, he readily admits.

The result is “The Apostolic Bible Polyglot,” now in its third edition.  Every word of the Bible is rendered in Greek, in bold, with the English below it.  Above each Greek word or set of words a number or numbers.  These numbers refer to Hebrew words and their English equivalent.  This numbering system was developed by James Strong in l890 in the first “Concise Dictionary of the Hebrew Bible” and contained 8,674 words .  Strong also developed a “Concise Dictionary of the Words in the Greek Testament” with 5,624 English equivalents of Greek words. 

Bibles with one or more languages in proximity are called “Interlineal” bibles and have been published many other times in history.  Van der Pool says his is “the first numerically coded Greek Old Testament.”  This allows the student to study both the old and the new testament in the same language.

Rendering the correct word and the correct understanding in English (or any other language) requires understanding the true meaning of the words in Greek and Hebrew and choosing between them, of course, and understanding the context in which they were used originally and subsequently.  An enormous task!  For example, when to choose the Hebrew or the Greek version of portions of the Old Testament?

His bible contains not only the three-part translation (1,600 pages) but an “English-Greek Index “(like Strong’s original text, perhaps) and a “Lexical Concordance.”  The Concordance contains all the Greek words, all the corresponding numbers for Hebrew words using the Strong numbering system, and—apparently—all the places that word is used.

Charles says he did not set out to publish a new bible.  It grew out of his private study.  He had a foundational text and then acquired microfilm copies of a 1519 bible and a l709 Greek Old Testament, working his way forward in time.  What he often saw were “paraphrased” bibles. 

“A paraphrase Bible does not exhibit the original language, as the translator can choose whatever English word suits his taste,” he writes.  “Each translator has the awesome privilege of choosing which vernacular word to use for the God-breathed word of the original.”  Which Van der Pool has done.

To publish hard copies he has several times sold everything he owned.  He is in Newport after selling his mother’s trailer following her death in Southern California (he had taken care of her) and investing the proceeds in his Bible and a house near the beach. I took home a first edition, a gift worth more than $100 and probably a lot more since this was his last copy of that edition.  A third edition was to be delivered within weeks, made possible by a wealthy Texan who distributed  his second edition to Texas prisons for free.

Van der Pool makes his bibles freely available on the Internet. Learning to do so is an exacting and every changing skill. He also offers free online classes on aspects of the Bible.  Understanding the true meaning of each word or group of words and the message it provides to guide people’s lives is his life’s work.   (You can get there by Googling Apostolic Bible Polyglot or

He walks with a decided limp because he needs an operation but there is neither time nor money.  On my last day he was re-siding his house hours before the season’s first storm hit. 

I asked about the accuracy of the Bible since some modern scholars have poked holes in it and modern critics such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have condemned religious texts without exception. To what extent is the story of Jesus historically accurate, I ask?

Van der Pool seemed less than interested in the dispute and the least bit defensive. It’s not on his radar.  He’s more interested in the prospect of selling his bibles and meeting other scholars in England in the summer of 2015.   

Is he a Messenger to me of some sort, the way an angel appears to someone in the Bible saying “Have no fear” and then telling someone to sacrifice their son?  (See a brilliant treatment of Job by Joan Acocella entitled “Misery” in the December 16 New Yorker.)  At our dinner Charles expresses the hope that God will “smack you upside the head;” however he’s as mystified as I am about whether there’s some larger intention behind our meeting. 

When I came to his house, my name had been added to the list of those he prays for each day.  Christopher Hitchens did not welcome believers who prayed for him but I’m glad to be remembered and to respect and commemorate the work of  Charles Van der Pool.






Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Oregon #3, The Painter Charles Gill

          How long in life are we creative?  When Philip Roth, 81, and Alice Munro, 79, retired from active writing recently and Doris Lessing died after working effectively until 89, more than a few raised this question, citing Casals, Picasso, Segovia, Auden and others as evidence that creativity continues into our later years.

          To that list add Boise painter Charles Gill, 80.

          On October 26 the Portland Art Museum opened a four month exhibit of Gill’s work, one of four northwest artists honored during the year. It seem clear from this work and his talk at a pre-opening reception that Gill is at the height of his creative power right now.

I’ve been in Gill’s studio near my home frequently, finding him at times working on a near-photographic painting of a ordinary suburban home and at other times on abstractions, whimsical figures or who-knows-what.  I came to Portland for the reception and dinner in his honor, adding Oregon Coast time before and the Portland music scene afterwards for myself.

For this exhibit, the museum’s curator of Northwest Art, Bonnie Laing-Malcolmson, chose a series called “Chips,” which refers to the little sample chips of color we bring home to try out next to the sofa.  This, she writes, is part of Gill’s fascination with “the subtlety of the mundane—quotidian acts such as shelving towels, mowing the lawn, or cleaning the garage—and likens them to the process of building a painting one stroke, blot and smear after another.”  She compares this series to the work of Abstract Expressionists--at their height when Gill began his career in the l950’s--but calls the series “firmly postmodern.”  She calls his work “unselfconscious and quietly compelling.



Gill tells a great story, in a clear voice, humorously and modestly (“praise and negative criticism are equally distracting”) which I want to reduced to digital memory.   At the reception he told of his mother leaving Caldwell in the l940’s for Tennessee, where he first took up painting at a military academy and then for Berkeley, in search of a better life for her son.  At Berkeley High a teacher urged him to read “Heavenly Discourse” which he called it the most important book he read in his teens. 

“I would not be here today with my paintings if I had not read this book.  I’d be somewhere else.  I’d be someone else.”  In the book all the great figures of history and thought converse in heaven.  Whatever was in that conversation, Gill felt liberated and empowered after reading it.  (The next day he purchased that same edition at Powell’s in Portland.  It was, naturally, less magical the second time around.)

The next turning point was just after his 16th birthday when Life Magazine published a spread on Jackson Pollock with which, Gill said, “Henry Luce wanted to expose as a cultural hoax.  The article had the opposite effect.  I remembered it vividly.” 

In 1950 he bought his first issue of Artnews (found it right between Hot Rod and Titter, conceptually speaking”) and found the other extreme of his inspiration: “Andrew Wyeth Paints a Picture.” 


When given a choice, Gill said, “I went with Pollock, de Kooning, Kline, Motherwell, et al.  (But I kept noticing Edward Hopper and Fairfield Porter in my rear view mirror).”  He finished art school in 1955 as a dedicated abstractionist.  However in between he had studied with Richard Diebenkorn, still the greatest influence on his art, who was associated with both abstract expressionism and the Bay Area Figurative Movement of the l950’s and 60’s.  “Working figurative surely got my attention but [that] band wagon quickly got over-crowded and I stubbornly resisted climbing on.”

“After two years in the army, completely away from art, I made room for an easel in my mother’s garage and made my first figurative painting.  It was like starting over.”

He described 1961 to 1963 as “The Art Dreams” years.  His dreams included versions of Impressionism, Cubism, German both the Abstract Expressionist expressionism, charcoal rendered as by Seurat and French bank note engraving.  “I took these dreams to be a very good sign that I was close to knowing what I was doing.”

He then told how, one day, he suddenly learned to paint without background music, as had been his habit, and finding that “Painting is music for the eyes….representational painting being music with lyrics and non-representational equaling instrumental music.”

“It is all about pattern recognition…an innate cognitive skill, evolved as an important tool for survival.”  At the top of the food chain, we have great capacity for recognizing, sorting and remembering patterns.  However forgetting is “a terribly important part of the process.  Imagine remembering everything!”


This is the question Gill asked us that night.  And his answer:

“I’m browsing…hunting and gathering…looking for the path through the woods, the edge of the precipice, a way around the corner, over the hill, down the rabbit hole.  I’m seeking patterns that engage my senses and give them traction, and that occasionally surprise me.”

He calls it “recreational cognition.”  It sounds like play, doesn’t it?

He concluded, “Show the same painting to ten people and they’ll see ten different paintings.  We’re all looking for different things.”

          Laing-Malcolmson writes in the exhibit program that “Charles Gill is a dedicated painter; exploring, learning, and teaching over a sixty-year career….His ability to jump seamlessly from abstraction to representational painting and to manipulate paint in a number of different ways…has kept the artist deeply engaged in his practice and has given the viewer this series of truly beautiful paintings to contemplate.”


          So what of this business of growing old in painting?  Gill was interviewed in 2008 by the Idaho writer Cort Conley for a publication accompanying his exhibit at the College of Idaho, “Inherited Furniture.”  The exhibit itself is about passage and memory.  Gill says, is “about all the stuff with which we surround ourselves, lining our nest with comfort, convenience and expedience.  Stuff we’re incessantly urge to buy, collect, arrange that eventually wears out and is thrown away.”

         Conley asks if he is aware of the time that is left “to apply your accumulated experience to your creative future?”  Gill quotes the filmmaker Luis Brunel who said “…age doesn’t matter unless you are a cheese,” and then says:

          It is as it has always been: Paint Today. Tomorrow, it will still be today again.  So paint, again.  It is always now.


Sunday, December 22, 2013

Bethine Church, Rest in Peace

          When my friend Stan Zuckerman called last night to say Bethine Church had just died I received the news calmly.  Stan has been a good friend of the family, particularly of Bethine’s son, Forrest, we had worked together on two Church political campaigns and we had visited Bethine together the week before.  She was obviously near the end of her long and productive life and we were pleased to have seen her one last time.  It was okay, it was time, we said to each other.

However as soon as I put down the phone I was sobbing.  I was not sobbing for Bethine the politician, the conservation leader, the woman being called the grand dame of Idaho Democratic politics.  That Bethine was not always an easy personality for me to deal with in the eight years I worked for her husband, gracious as she so frequently was.  I was sobbing for the woman I came to know since we both came home to Idaho in l984.

In “Being Alive and Having to Die,” a new book by Dan Cryer about Bethine’s son Forrest, Bethine is portrayed as busier as her husband’s partner and running mate than as Forrest's mother in the earliest years.  But I was mourning Bethine as the last mother I had in this world.

Neither of us said anything of the sort, you can be sure, but I knew she cared for me and tried to protect me as I entered politics myself, failed twice, and then moved near where she was living in Boise.   She was always great company, of course, but she was also always welcoming, caring and quite dear as the year went on. 

Among the many powerful and fascinating tributes to Nelson Mandela was one written by Paul Simon in the New York Times.   He recounted how his magical album, “Graceland,” had brought together the music of South Africa’s bitterly divided tribes (“Homeless” being Zulu and “Diamond’s on the Souls of Her Shoes” being Xhosa, for example) and how the project, controversial at the time of its creation, had been joyfully received by Mandela.  Simon wrote how incredible it seemed that Nelson Mandela was alive in our lifetime.  And that now he is with us only in memory.

I feel the same way about Bethine.  Yes, it was time.  But it is incredible that Bethine was such an important figure throughout virtually my entire adult life (I joined Frank’s staff in l963), that I lived under the cloak of her friendship for the last 27 of those years and that she is gone.  I will miss her.

There will be much celebration and a good time had by all when Bethine’s memorial takes place in January.   The Clark and Church families have been among the finest spirits in the history of Idaho.  I am quite confident a final gratitude will be accorded to Chase Church, Bethine’s son and her father’s namesake, and his wife Pam.  They were her constant support.

Chase tells the story of Frank and Bethine visiting countless nursing homes over their political career and of the often sad circumstances encountered.  They vowed to improve the lot of seniors and did so.  We forget that at the time Medicare was passed a majority of older Americans  lived in poverty.

In the retelling of the Senator’s life, attention is seldom paid to his role as chairman of the Senate Committee on Aging but it was an important one.  I do not know the details but I believe Church played a swing role in how Social Security is indexed to inflation and how seniors can earn or receive other income while receiving Social Security, two issues being reexamined today.  They also campaigned for hospice.  That hospice is covered by Social Security and insurance today may be traced, in part, to the Church’s—one more legacy to add to the list.

Chase Church was his mother’s constant support during the last 27 years she spent in Idaho.  He and Pam were her caretakers during recent years when she needed more or less round-the-clock support.  They moved to a home compatible with her needs and one of them was with her or close at hand most every minute.  She died at home with the support of hospice as she wished.

In a famous family, it was left to Chase and Pam to demonstrate the greatest fealty, the most generous patience and the dearest care anyone could receive and to do so with enormous competence, faithfully and with humility.   This is a service equal in its own way to that of the rest of the family.  All those who loved Bethine honor and thank him today. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Korea # 26 How the U. S. Brought Land Reform to Japan and Korea

Korea # 26 The U.S. brings land reform to Asia

I am posting again on Korea two months after leaving there because my great question about Korea and Japan--how did land reform come to Japan, Taiwan, and Korea after World War II--has been answered. 

The answer comes from a new book, “How Asia Works” by Joe Studwell.  How is it that Japan, Korea, Taiwan and China in northern Asia succeeded brilliantly after the war while Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines in southern Asia , have largely failed to develop, Studewell ask?  The answer is two-fold:  first, the successful countries developed intensive, small-plot agriculture after World War II to provide a livelihood for a vast numbers of peasants and thereby built a consumer society; second, each country then intensely and at times ruthlessly built manufacturing industries for the world market.  The unsuccessful countries did neither.

The north of Asia succeeded and the south failed not because of climate or the natural advantage of geography.  The opposite is true:  Korea and Japan’s climate is less hospitable to agriculture than Malaysia or the Philippines.  Nor can success be traced to culture, which is roughly similar in north and south Asia.  Success was the result of correct, fortuitious and timely political, economic and institutional decisions, starting with agriculture. 

In previous posts we learned that in Japan the land of large landowners was somehow transferred into the hands of their former tenants after the war (which I heard from an innkeeper whose father was one of those favored tenants).  We surmised this was the doing of the Douglas MacArthur post-war administration of Japan, which seemed unlikely.  Yet it turns out to be true, according to “How Asia Works.”  The occupying U. S. government demanded land reform.  The Japanese government then bought land from larger landowners using long-term bonds and sold it to more than one million Japanese peasants on generous terms. 

The same thing happened in Korea; however it took the Korean War and pressure on the ultra-conservative head of the South Korean government to finally accomplish in 1953 what the U. S. had tried to impose at the end of its governing Korea in l948.  Hundreds of thousands of bitterly poor South Koreans were given land.  Then their villages were given modest aid (cement and re-bar) and 15 years later Korea had a consumer-based economy.

Only because small farms finally had surplus income and thus became consumers were they able to provide surplus labor which enabled these four countries to turn next to manufacturing for export.  Hyundai and Samsung would not have been possible today without land reform breaking the economic ground and generating surplus wealth to invest in manufacturing.

The idea of imposing land reform on Japan and its two former colonies, Korea and Taiwan, can be traced to a 1945 memorandum in the U.S. State Department anticipating Japan’s surrender. Its authors, George Atcheson Jr (who was then appointed to the MacArthur headquarters) and Robert A. Fearey (a pro-land reformer working for the Office of Far Eastern Affairs), might have been trying to blunt or preempt land reform pushed by the Communists in China and Korea.  The Communist’s Nationalist opponents in China had themselves approved of land reform even if they did not implement it widely.  This carried over to Taiwan to which the Nationalists retreated after being defeated on the mainland. 

Seventy-five years ago U.S. agriculture would have been more sympathetic to land reform to benefit small farmers than it is today.  The British and the Russians alsso weighed in in favor of land reform in Japan as the war came to an end.

The one person most responsible for waging this campaign within the United States government was a Russian immigrant named Wolf Ladejinsky who worked for the State Department and consulted in land reform in Asia until the U. S. lost interest in the subject in l970, according to Studwell. 

The portion of the book devoted to small-plot agriculture is called “The Triumph of Gardening” to emphasize that farming was really gardening on a large scale.  The most important input is human, not chemical. In taking us through Japan, Korea and Taiwan, Studwell emphasizes that small-plot farming is more efficient than large-plot industrial agriculture, including growing sugar cane and rice. 

Another takeaway is that it was largely the sons of peasants who made not only agriculture successful but sophisticated export-driven manufacturing as well.  Peasant sons such as the military dictator, Chung Park Hee, who revolutionized South Korea between l970 until his assassination in l979, distrusted large landowners and established business leaders.  Upon assuming power, Chung Park Hee jailed all the big businessmen he could find and did not let them out until they promised to devote their businesses to the welfare of Korea.  He told them what they would be doing for the country and they had little choice but to do it.

The successful countries also defied advice of Washington economists, the World Bank and the International Development Fund, the “Washington Consensus,” which the southern countries largely accepted.  Successful countries’ leaders did not believe in the free flow of capital or the internationalization and deregulation of banking.  They believed a poor country had no choice but to grab control of how its limited funds and hard currency were used.  They would eventually accede to the accepted international behavior but only after they had succeeded. 

Agriculture changed in recent decades in the four successful countries but they continue to feed far more people per-acre than the U. S. while taking better care of the land. 

In the New York Times November 13, Mark Bittman, the paper’s lead food columnist, writes that while the proportion of the world’s population that is chronically hungry has decreased in the last 50 years, the absolute number has remained steady at one billion.  Moreover,  in the future, the poor will have less to eat because more of the world’s land, water and fertilizer will be devoted to raising food for animals, leaving less for the most vulnerable.

One way to prevent this is to provide to small-scale or peasant agriculture the research, energy and subsidies which now goes to industrial-scale agriculture.   Peasant agriculture is arguably more efficient than industrial agriculture, Bittman writes.  Studwell would agree. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Guatemala # 10 Bowen, Neitzsche and Pigeonpeas

The charismatic young leader of Semilla Nueva, Curt Bowen, speaks with equal urgency about corn thrashing machines, liberation theology, open pollination, Frederich Neitzsche, American politics, microbial life in the soil and the cheapest way to feed yourself in Guatemala.  In a short life he has
been in and out of the commercial fertilizer business and the biofuels business in Central America and founded and run a significant new NGO, all while thinking about life’s great questions.  He is a philosophy major in dirty jeans and well worn boots, living simultaneously in the modern world and a deeply traditional society. 

During a stretch of the summer of 2013 Bowen was honored for his work by Arriana Huffington in New York City, toured farms and research stations in Malawi, Kenya and Tanzania, then came home to Guatemala in time to plant pigeonpeas, meet with the local club of Rotary International and, for the first time in six weeks, sleep in his own bed.

September finds him preparing for the visit to Guatemala of a potential major grant-giver while getting more seeds in the ground between rainstorms and heading back to Idaho to raise money and engage with his many advisors.  It looks to be a fine time to be Curt Bowen.

At 26 Bowen has already lived in Guatemala more than five years, starting with a typical build-something-for-the-poor project by students from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, then in and out of those two businesses and, for the past three years, honchoing Similla Nueva.  He is smart, good looking and well spoken but his particular strength seems to be intellectual and physical tenacity: following a question wherever it leads, learning, consolidating and keeping relentlessly on the move.  That’s why a philosophy major knows a very great deal about the chemistry, biology and financing of small-plot agriculture in Guatemala.

I’ve known Bowen and been on his board for a little over two years.  The first year he was like an organizational teenager, very bright and knowing but still growing into his body. I wondered how long SN could hold on; financing was tenuous.  The last year has been a wonder.  That he was among a score of young leaders picked out by Huffington’s organization is one thing, but that he was identified as one of leaders of those young leaders and their spokesman is another, and no accident.  On a Huffington panel of young people talking about their work, Bowen was the most grounded, the most convincing, from what I couldsee.  Something substantial happened in the last year, certainly to the organization but at the center of all this, to Bowen.

The SN web site has a video of Bowen speaking alone in a field for six minutes virtually without interruption about Semilla Nueva’s work.  This is entirely too long as these things are supposed to go. Yet it works because of its authenticity.

It would seem to be hard for bright young people to leave the comforts of the United States or Europe and drop into the life of five acre farms, 95 degree weather and another language.  Yet going back more than 50 years to Accion International's founding, I’ve watched special people do this naturally and without great fanfare or self-importance time and again. 

I wrote in my last post about the admirable Anne Barkett, SN’s nutrition specialist.  I could equally have written about Kristin Lacy who is Bowen’s sidekick and organizational genius in Guatemala.  I’m sure I could do the same for the original co-founders who have moved on. 

Curt Bowen and Kristin Lacy at lunch after a morning of planting pigeonpeas.

Until a few months ago, SN has a single small Jeep-like vehicle to get over rough roads, all other transportation being by “chicken bus.”  SN somehow kept four or five people and all the work in the field going on less than $40,000 a year for two years, with some of the support coming from family.  Bowen made the top salary at $500 a month or so.

At least three things happened which have turned the tide in roughly the last 18 months:

First, Rotary came to the rescue, particularly the remarkable way Rotary International triples local club’s contributions.  When Bowen first sought funding from them, it seemed the least likely and most labor-intensive way to pay the bills.  He could have lost the whole thing, it seemed to me, had he failed to clear the final hurdle in what became $60,000 a year from Rotary, a near-doubling of the budget.  But he did and Rotary did it.  The organization than banished polio around the world, Rotary, has scored again.

Second, Boise’s Steve Hodges, a low-key guy who started and sold four successful start-ups, came to Guatemala, slept on the ground and got his hands dirty and ended up buying land for SN’s new research and training center.  It may be just eight acres but it is up and running and already hooked into the world’s research network for tropical agriculture which will be important to improving farm income all over the country.  All this since February.

Third, Bowen was named the winner of the Mr. Whitman Award, a one-time grant of $25,000 given to an outstanding graduate of Whitman College.

Those are big financial victories.  Behind them is a Bowen’s growing maturity and settling in.  

In the next three years, Semilla Nueva can make real progress on the greatest challenge to alleviating poverty and malnutrition in Guatemala: the productivity of very small farms.  By 2015 it could bring Guatemala into the world pigeonpea market, potentially worth tens of millions of dollars a year.  This one crop could jump income 25-30 percent on small farms, the threshold for “farmer to farmer” innovation to take hold widely.  That will be the subject of our next post on Guatemala.




Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Guatemala #9: Anne Barkett, A Champion for Guatemalan Women

The week of August 20, 2013, was Anne Barkett’s goodbye tour of the villages and families with whom she has lived on the Pacific Coast of Guatemala for the last 18 months.  She is full of good cheer and is replacing herself with Jennifer Erito, a Guatemalan, which is a great step.  Nonetheless, deciding to leave has been hard for Anne who has become something of a champion of Guatemalan women.

Anne is the blond on the back row, center left, on her last day in one of the villages.

When she graduated from Seattle Pacific University, Barkett bought a one-way ticket to Argentina.  A job on a farm proved to be a disaster; she lived in an ashram for a time; worked in an orphanage, all in Argentina; and took a job as a nanny in London, thinking she might be finished with Latin America.  “But I couldn’t get it out of my head,” she says, and soon was
working with the Mennonites at Tzacani in the Alta Verapaz region of Guatemala.  There she lived with a Kekchi family, learned Q’iche, one of the Mayan languages, and became a nutrition specialist. 
Since February, 2012, Barkett has been the food security specialist for Semilla Nueva, spending most nights in the homes of small farm families and her days teaching nutrition in the coast’s often 95 degree weather.  Guatemalan children have the worst nutrition in the Western Hemisphere, she often writes.  To correct this she and Semilla Nueva have promoted the planting and eating of three foods not regularly seen in the Guatemala diet:  

          l. Quality Protein Maize or QPM corn.  It is much more nutritious than traditionally-planted corn: rich in calcium, iron, vitamin A and protein.  Her recipes emphasize eating it in the young or elote stage.

          2. Chaya, or tree spinach.  Chaya is a tall shrub which is native to Guatemala and was eaten in earlier times but then fell out of common use.  Now it is being actively cultivated and made part of everyday recipes.

          3. Pigeonpeas.  This is Semilla Nueva’s new crop, the first few hundred pounds having been grown last year.  It has all the nutritional value of peas and beans and can be planted together with corn and sesame, plus its nitrogen-fixing properties improve the soil for future years.  Called gandul in Guatemala, it is a staple in India where it has been cultivated for 4,000 years and is now grown in east Africa.

          Anne has developed a large, attractive recipe book blending these three crops with traditional ingredients.

          On the day Julia and I tag along, we visited a family notable for owning the neighborhood molino.  A molino is a high-pitched machine that grinds corn in a hurry, replacing the ancient stone-against-stone system
that goes back to ancient times.  For about 12 cents, anyone in the neighborhood can use it at any hour of the day.

          Today’s recipes are for recado and sopa de arroz.  The recado is made by roasting garlic, sesame and pumpkin seeds and is prepared with tomatoes.  Raisins, chili and chocolate can be added and all this can be rolled into tortillas or served in a bowl. The soup is prepared with tomatoes, red peppers, onion and carrots.  Today's main course has been prepared with a generous portion of pigeonpea or gandul. 

          Corn was the staple of the Aztec and Inca civilizations and remains so today in Central America.  Corn is ground into a dough called masa.  Making a round, flat tortilla out of a handful of masa is not a simple matter, as I learned.

          Guatemala is a classic gender stereotype society.  We saw no women in the fields.  Men appear in eating areas to eat.  I was challenged to make a tortilla and the women thought it was hilarious.  Men never do this.  Mine turned out looking more like amoebas than tortillas. 

Pigeonpeas or gandul being made into dough the traditional way.

Above, Julia tries rolling corn and pigeonpeas using what looks like a cylindrical rolling pin of lava on a base of the same material--the instrument tens of millions have use to make tortillas for thousands of years.  They are cooked quickly on a griddle, the same way in household after household.

          As the morning rolls on, women roll in with their children, there is much laughter and joking and before long lunch is served. 

Anne tells one woman, Margarita, that with all the good food she is now eating her soon-to-be- born baby will come out good and strong. “Yes,” she replies, “and maybe it will come out white too.”  Guatemalans believe babies are influences by whom their mother hangs out with, or even looks at, prior to birth. 

          Anne announces her departure and introduces Jennifer, an attractive, animated and delightful woman who will replace her and who speaks briefly. 

A woman named Dina responds for the group:  “We thank God for Anne and for her sharing so much with us.  We thank Semilla Nueva for teaching us about gandul and chaya.  May God bless everyone for being here.”

Barkett has been writing a blog for some time from Guatemala and it reveals a crusading side not evident in two days of driving and visiting with her.  The blog tells of her life in Guatemala, an admirable and loving life.  It also expresses a keen outrage at the treatment of Guatemalan women.  Physical abuse, which she has seen in the homes she has lived in, is common.  Sexual assault, which she experienced three times in a two day period, is common.  The killing of women, feminicide, goes unpunished an astonishing 98 percent of the time in Guatemala, she writes. 

The sexual and gender-role revolution does seem to have passed Guatemala by.  For all its turmoil and tradition, India is making progress more rapidly than Guatemala.  Korea, another country I've studied in the last year, has a female president and is catching up quickly.  Can Guatemala prosper when it effectively neglects “half the sky?”