Monday, July 18, 2011

John Lawson’s Ironic Fate

In 1700, John Lawson was an intelligent and eager 26  year old living in London looking to travel. An acquaintance suggested that, for the ultimate adventure, he should go to the Carolinas.  He did and stayed, helping found the towns of Bath and New Bern in North Carolina. He took an intense interest in every aspect of New World life until his ironically tragic death eleven short years later. Fortunately for us, he recorded and published much of what he observed, and it remains the best and earliest account of the beginnings of North Carolina as we know it, and the end of the place as those who had lived here for centuries knew it.

Europeans settlers came to the western hemisphere with attitude and appetite and took what they wished without regard for the native inhabitants or the abundance of nature they found. They justified it all through some presumed character superiority granted by a conveniently misinterpreted religious heritage.  Pardon my bias, but many histories tread all too lightly on the obvious and look with quaint nostalgia on our “settling” of the “New World” which, of course, wasn’t “new” at all.

Within seven months of leaving London, Lawson was leading a handful of men through the interior of North Carolina, almost unknown territory to Europeans at the time. He was a meticulously observant note taker and diarist recording everything from the “hide the sun” sight of the now extinct hoards of passenger pigeons, to almost otherworldly oaks, poplars, and pines so mammoth that the Indians had no tools to cut them down. Like a muse flitting through Eden, the Carolina Parakeet, whose beauty we can only imagine, caught Lawson’s attention… and everyone else’s for that matter.  Seen one lately?

Lawson also recorded the social, political, and marital customs of the Native Americans becoming their confidante and frequent companion. He was trusted by the Indians who allowed him in their company to observe much of their life previously unknown to westerners. His observations were specific and detailed reflecting the curiosity and wonder that Lawson held for human character and the natural world. He spared no one from his judgmental eye. Rather than resort to the typical stereotyping, he leveled praise and criticism for both Indians and Europeans in every aspect of their behavior.

He described the Europeans’ deceptive and manipulative exploitation of the Indians, yet regretted that the Indians disregarded certain “Christian virtues.” He observed the extreme kindness with which Indians treated their children, yet was puzzled by the cruelty of their initiation rites for pubescent boys. He was impressed with the Indians’ style of verbal conversation and debate telling how they never interrupted another until he had finished what he had to say. And, he greatly admired the fact that Indian women never flew into verbal rages against their husbands, saying that “our European Daughters of Thunder” might learn from the Indians on this point of domestic tranquility.

But, Lawson was shaken by the extent to which Indians took vengeance in torturing their enemies. It was not just an observation of Lawson in 1709, it was also a conclusion of British soldiers in Kentucky and Ohio in the 1770’s. A case of the pot calling the kettle black?  Possibly, but it seems that the Indians were unique in considering a quick execution far too merciful for redressing certain grievances, the slower the better.

In spite of Lawson’s respect for what he saw, the flora, fauna, and certain aspects of the Indian society, he has only a faint notion that this wealth of nature and culture could ever disappear. Not that it happened over night. It was another 200 years before the clear cutting of the virgin timbers on Mt. Mitchell led some to question this indiscriminant ravishing of the land. Even in 1899 one million bushels of oysters a year were being harvested in the North Carolina wetlands, but by 2000, the yield was only 38,455 bushels.

Lawson’s talents as a surveyor, his ability to communicate with and be trusted by the Indians, and his recording of plants, animals, people, and geography made him a leader and prompted the Lords Proprietors to engage his efforts to promote North Carolina as an attractive home for settlers coming from Europe. So, Lawson wrote a book of the compilation of his journals and notes, and he returned to England to have the book published. The Proprietors hoped the book would encourage a new wave of immigrants to the Carolina shores.

Well, the Proprietors had a motive. King Charles II had given them the land of the Carolinas, whether or not it was his to give. Their charter specifically gave them the land, the forest, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, and anything under the ground (the typical gold and silver clause.) It also granted them the permission to establish local government, collect taxes from imports and exports, and particularly to sell the land that the Indians had for centuries considered their hunting territory.  If the Proprietors granted rather than sold the land, there was a yearly “quitrent” sum required of the new owners. This comprehensive plan of acquisition was  rationalized by missionary enthusiasm. “The Proprietors… being excited by a laudable and pious zeal for the propagation of the Christian faith (are granted this land) in the parts of America not yet cultivated or planted, and only inhabited by some barbarous people who have no knowledge of Almighty God.”  As far as I can tell, none of the Proprietors ever bothered coming to the Carolinas.

The stage being set for the exploitation of the land and the native population, Lawson worked within the framework of the assumption that mass emigration from Europe was a good thing, but he seemed to sense that there was something hypocritical about the set up. He commented that the Indians in general treated the Europeans much more fairly and considerately than the Europeans treated the Indians.  The Indians were also willing to give away certain hunting territory if they were guaranteed that the limits of European settlement would be honored. Well, you know that story.

Lawson’s book, A New Voyage to Carolina, is worthwhile reading. There are many versions available (even a Kindle copy,) but the one to get is published by UNC Press with an introduction by UNC history prof, Hugh Lefler. Some editions are still in the “Olde English” but Lefler transposed it to current English spelling and has added an introduction with essential biographical information about Lawson.

Minor anecdotes of life on the North Carolina coast from 1700-1709 add humor to Lawson‘s tale. For instance, he had built a cabin too close to the banks of the Neuse River near the future site of New Bern and was startled at night to hear a roar coming from below the earthen floor of his cabin. He reported it to an Indian friend who found it amusing that Lawson was unaware that alligators burrowed into the ground on the river banks, and that is what he had heard beneath his bed.

Lawson surveyed and laid out the streets in both Bath and New Bern, two of the most appealing towns in North Carolina. Bath, once the home of Blackbeard, is a place frozen in time. The sense of stillness and history there on the banks of the Pamlico River are a tonic to soothe the mania of central North Carolina’s traffic and hype.

The only thing Lawson was unable to record in his journal, once he had returned again to North Carolina from Europe, was his untimely and ironically tragic death. And here’s where history gets murky, and as they say, is written by the winners or at least the survivors to their advantage. Returning to North Carolina, Lawson’s fate was entwined with one Swiss fellow, Baron Christoff von Graffenried, who had organized a group of German religious refugees to settled what would become the town of New Bern. Graffenried’s interest, however, was not religious freedom, but the mythical silver deposits for which the Lords Proprietors kept funding expeditions.  Graffenried proudly sketched this map of his small town of New Bern on the banks of the Neuse River.

New Bern map Graffenried Blog

In September 1711, Lawson persuaded Graffenried to accompany him on a canoe trip up the Neuse. They were captured by Tuscarora Indians. Curiously, Graffenried sweet talked his way out of certain death, and Lawson, the Indian’s most articulate advocate, was executed. We only have Graffenried’s self-serving account of this anomaly. Within a couple of years, Graffenried was back in Europe never to cross the ocean again, and the cooperative relations between Tuscaroras and the settlers had gone to hell, resulting in a three year war with merciless slaughter on both sides, belying any further fantasies about what an idyllic promised land awaited the European masses. 

Last year, I took this photo of the Episcopal Church in Bath, built in 1734, a mere 21 years after the end of the Tuscarora War.

I wouldn’t presume to understand the tragedy of Lawson’s execution and the Tuscarora War, and the real story may be forever unknown, but you gotta wonder about a few what ifs?  Lawson may have foreseen this impending disaster. He had suggested alternatives to the unilateral aggrandizement of land and resources. He even suggested that inter-marriage between the settlers and Indians was the way to make this conflict of cultures work. In the few instances where this occurred some Europeans preferred living in the Indian culture.

Obviously, he believed that a pattern of fairness and justice was necessary, that treaties should be honored and promises kept. But that was asking more of Europeans than they were capable of delivering considering the pace of desperate boatloads crossing the Atlantic. The pace might have lessened if Europeans had considered cleaning up their own act at home where they were slaughtering each other in religious wars.

Well, asking the what ifs of history is not just idle musing, though I rarely see anyone bother to do it. If we don’t imagine how it could have been different, we’ll just keep making the same mistakes over and over. For instance, are there lessons here for our current dilemmas with immigration or our presence in Afghanistan.

Leaving all such conclusions and judgments behind, it’s worth noting what a change the last few years has brought with the availability of historic information on the internet. What was only available to privileged historians is now accessible to anyone. One of the most fertile resources is a website called Documenting the American South, posted by the UNC-CH library. It has more original letters from Baron Christoff von Graffenried than you’ll ever want to read. Then there’s the entire 28,000 page plus collection of documents in the NC Public Records collection. It does not stop there… the website is a never ending resource, still growing.

There is also the North Carolina Historic Sites website and Learn NC, a collection of educational publications for school kids (and good reading for adults.)  I can find more at these sites in less time than it used to take me just to put on my jacket and get out the door to drive to the library.  You could search these sites for days trying to discover the truth about John Lawson, von Graffenried, the founding of New Bern, and the Tuscarora War. Still, barely informed, my bets are on Lawson as the “good guy” in this whole mess.

Had Lawson lived longer, he might have become a legendary American character even more credible than the bumbling “brave heart” Daniel Boone.  He had a romance in Bath with a young woman to whom he left his property and possessions. In those possessions were more writings which have never been found. The romance, the daughter he left behind, and the years of potential later accomplishment short-circuited by his ill-fated canoe trip might have been the stuff of great books and good movies. But, as often happens, the best stories are buried early, and the tide of human history rolls through leaving sand and foam.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

National Whitewater Center

Appealing to both professional and amateur river enthusiasts, the National Whitewater Center near Charlotte is a one of a kind recreational park. It is the training center for the Olympic whitewater competitors. But, it is also open to anyone who wants to dare rapids and get wet, or just walk around and watch others get wet… which is what I preferred to do one afternoon last fall with my friend Erin.  It’s worth the trip just to take the walking trails and see what modern water engineering can do.

Over several acres, there are whitewater rapids that look as heart thumping as anything you might have seen in the movies.  It’s impossible to describe the power and size of these manufactured rapids without being there and seeing them. If you want to go solo in a kayak, a comprehensive range of lessons are available for any level of skill. Rather than trying it alone with training, there are group rafting rides where you can put on your helmet and life vest and just jump in.

Other activities are available from a long zip line to cliff climbing.  I’m not sure many people realize that this facility is actually in North Carolina, and it’s even more significant and unique in contrast to the NASCAR mania that surrounds it. There could not be two more dissimilar recreational opportunities side by side.

I confess, I was a complete voyeur in this visit, though I may try to return at some time and get wet.  Still, just to watch others daring the rapids is worth the trip, not to mention the superb restaurant that complements the visit. The restaurant had a feature dish I’d never tasted called fried pickles. Sounds like heartburn on a platter, but a few bites were delicious.

Friday, June 17, 2011

A Night at the NC Legislature

Talk about fun entertainment on a beautiful summer evening with mild temperatures and you probably wouldn’t suggest sitting in the visitors gallery of the North Carolina House of Representatives. Well, reconsider. June 14, was a night of drama, protest, and shouting epithets which brought home loud and clear the reality of the Republican sweep of the legislature last November.

The first sign of conflict was a line of street protesters carrying placards saying “no fracking” and “save our water.” No what? I had no idea, but my son Alex, who suggested this evening’s entertainment, said fracking was a controversial method of drilling for natural gas. The second indication of potential trouble was an excess of legislative police standing around watching visitors.

I would have been totally confused by the proceedings had not Alex elaborated on the personalities and rivalries involved. Last summer he had been an intern for the Democratic majority leader Hugh Holliman who lost his seat in the November election. Alex pointed out the deposed Democratic Speaker of the House, Joe Hackney, sitting humbly and a bit resentfully among his now minority fellow Democrats. The new Speaker, Republican Thom Tillis, clearly had an agenda to run through as he warned the gallery that any vocal protesters would be removed by the Legislative police.

The anti-fracking crowd settled in across the gallery from where we sat. Fracking, more accurately known as hydraulic fracturing, I later learned , is probably the underground equivalent of mountaintop removal in terms of invasive and environmentally destructive fuel retrieval. Basically, you drill about a mile deep, then turn sideways and blow up the earth with high pressure water laced with nasty chemicals. The drilling company is not even required to disclose what these chemicals are. So, you are injecting millions of gallons of contaminated water into the earth and further endangering the quality of any well water in the vicinity. For a better description see:

I also later learned that one of the richest deposits of natural gas, ripe for fracking, is under my house.  Not knowing all this at the time, I was a little puzzled over the passion of the anti-fracking group, and a little bit unimpressed with their scruffy wardrobe. In the 60’s our designer-casual protest outfits were a bit more colorful and creative.

A few Democrats spoke briefly and eloquently opposing Senate Bill 709:  However, the outcome was already assured as the Republican majority voted to open the door that could eventually permit fracking in North Carolina.  A couple of protesters had already dropped a banner over the gallery rail and been hastily removed by the police. After the vote, they somberly began leaving the gallery till one of them shouted out, “You have just signed the death warrant for North Carolina,” then he looked toward the Republican side and emphatically added, “Assholes.”

Ooooh, that stung the room into a breathless silence as the legislative police in unison turned toward the fellow and immediately ushered him out and arrested him. A bit shocked myself by the fellow’s style and choice of words, I wondered, “Whatever happened to the silent vigil?”

Well, Alex and I had gotten our more than our money’s worth (it was free,) and decided to take a walk downtown past the governor’s office. A full golden moon periodically appeared between the tall buildings and the air was as intoxicatingly balmy as it ever gets in June.  Dozens of late dinner patrons were sitting at sidewalk restaurants engaging in quiet conversation. When I think about what chaos and violence many parts of the world are suffering now, it was rather comforting to feel so safe on a walk down a city street having just witnessed democracy at work, warts and all. The outcome wasn’t to my satisfaction, but the people had spoken, in more ways than one.

And, I have to hand it to the protesters, they cared and showed up. Where were the thousands of us couch potatoes who should have been there opposing fracking? And, who even knew about it?  And, how many of those who voted for this Republican legislature last fall would have been in support of a proposal to fracture the earth beneath their homes? At least someone was informed and was there.

I was surprised the next morning to see no mention of the anti-fracking demonstration on the local TV news. Instead I saw the usual litany of car crashes and random murders. The only political news was the midnight vote by the house to override the governor’s veto of the budget. It turns out that Speaker Tillis’ main agenda for the evening was a surprise vote after midnight to get the three-fifths majority (five Democrats were required) and pass the budget. Possibly, he wanted to avoid a Wisconsin like gallery of irate school teachers whose jobs were endangered by the new budget. It turns out that the extra police were there in anticipation of a budget showdown rather than an anti-fracking demonstration.

As it became clear to me that the average guy has no idea what goes on in the state legislature, I started to realize that the average representative has only half an idea. As the session came to an end there was a single night when the House of Representatives had 89 bills scheduled for a vote. No one person could possibly understand what is in all those bills and make an intelligent vote in one night. There was even a ludicrous proposal to package several bills together for one vote. The legislators were so tired that the state’s most vocal anti-gun representative accidentally voted for a pro-gun bill only minutes after she had railed against it.

Many of these bills have enormous consequences. One of them appears to be part of an plan by Republican legislators to disenfranchise thousands of eligible voters. The bill requires a photo ID from voters at the polls.  It’s been called by rational fact finders “the solution in search of a problem.”  The rare instances of voter fraud has been pretty well documented.

What may look like total confusion (or boredom) at first sight, turns out to be a drama worth visiting. Take an evening and sit and watch, then have a late dinner on Fayetteville Street. In the space of the three days that I’ve paid attention, the future of our land, coastline, water quality, public safety, education, job opportunities, and sense of fairness and justice has been at stake. It’s all explained fairly well at a couple of web pages, one, the News and Observer  and two, WRAL-TV by Laura Leslie.  Also, keep informed by checking in on one of the “watchdog” groups like Democracy North Carolina  that monitors the legislature for average folk like you and me. Then get out in November 2012 and vote.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Country Doctor Museum

The fast lane has by-passed Bailey, but if you get off Highway 264 just 36 miles east of Raleigh, you can find it. Bailey is the home of the Country Doctor Museum. Small places always have stories to tell. Bailey is also where Julius Peppers, bone-crusher for the Chicago Bears, played high school football rushing for 3500 yards and scoring 46 touchdowns. In 1980, Bailey hosted a documentary reenactment of a medicine show with performers who 50 years earlier had actually been the attraction in traveling medicine shows. The 58 minute video of this of this event is worth watching.,68

The Country Doctor Museum, unrelated to medicine shows, of course, has grown from a nostalgic collection of memorabilia into an extensive documentary record of the pre-big business era of medical care. This was a time when a little bit of science was mixed with a lot of hope and faith.  The whole doctor did the best he knew for the whole person, and did it without filtering the insured from the uninsured. On display is one doctor’s account ledger listing monetary payments as well as bartered payments such as chickens or hours of labor.

In this time before specialization, doctors could actually make their own pills. The museum displays an apparatus for doctors to combine ingredients and compress them into pill form.

These ingredients would come from a large collection of compounds as is seen in this handsome wood cabinet.

To see the collection of medical devices and procedures is a little humbling as it reminds us that what has credibility as a cure one day can be dismissed later as unhelpful or even harmful. The practice of using leeches to suck from a patient whatever might be ailing him, was made more vivid by the large, decorative urn labeled “Leeches.”  There are rumors of leeches making a comeback for some medical purposes, but I think I’ll pass on that if it’s ever offered.

And, always a bit shocking, is the sight of a field surgery tool kit with its gleaming stainless saw for severing limbs. It brings to mind visions of Stonewall Jackson being relieved of  his left arm by Confederate surgeons, after being shot by his own soldiers, a North Carolina regiment. With friends like that, who needs enemies? Well, we should never have gone to war anyway.

I’m fond of visiting museums and collections, and this one has a particular appeal. My attention span is pretty short, and I can get bored easily, but it didn’t happen here. I had driven up to the main building of the three building campus late on a rainy afternoon and discovered that I was the only visitor there. I explained that I would return at another time, but Anne Anderson cordially insisted that it was no trouble to give me a solo tour.

Part of the staying power of this museum is that the founders, curators, and current proprietor (the East Carolina University Medical School) seem to have a passionate interest in the collection. They have pursued any thread of historical interest that has presented itself to the point where new donations to the collection are continually being received.

The antique vehicle collection has been authenticated as being used by particular rural doctors in in North Carolina who drove them on those legendary “house calls.” Lying in bed at home, weak and suffering, and having a doctor roll up to one’s front door has long been the stuff of old movies. However, I have such a memory as a child while having an asthma attack. My mother had called the doctor, and she said that I began breathing more easily when I heard his car stop in front of our house. In another instance of a house call, I remember overhearing a doctor reciting inspirational poetry to a despondent patient.

Several years ago I learned that there has been a revival of house calls. In 2005, a local medical practice sent an empathetic young doctor out to the bedside of my 100 year old mother.

The short stories of local history are some of the best stories we can learn, and the Country Doctor Museum presented one of these gems of small town history that I had never heard. In 1946, an African-American doctor in Tarboro, Milton Quigless, needed a hospital for his patients since neither he nor his patients were allowed to use the local “white” hospital. Against all odds, he secured a loan and built his own hospital. His expertise and skill eventually drew patients (black and white) from a large surrounding area.  Some months after visiting the museum, I was in Tarboro and took a photo of Dr. Quigless’ clinic which now stands as an historic monument.

More than just another history museum, the Country Doctor Museum made me reflect on the very personal nature of the patient/healer relationship. Something seems lost in our current high tech multi-layered health care system. I think of Dr. Peacock, who dressed like Mark Twain, in his folksy office in the back of a drug store in my grandparents home in Georgia. And, of Dr. London, who exuded warmth and confidence as he tossed the needle like a dart into my arm to relieve me of asthma. It was almost a shaman-like gift of health and spirit.

In this day when folks are “Googling” their own self-diagnoses and debating it with their doctors, that warm fuzzy trust and dependency is lost. Of course, if you read enough medical history, that may be a good thing, but in terms of feeling secure in a safe world, it isn’t. The Country Doctor Museum brings all these things to mind and is well worth the visit.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Red Badge of Courage

       If you wait long enough, everything comes full circle, not that it's always a positive human trait.  But crew cuts are back, and it's again safe to express an affection for a Krispy Kreme donut. We North Carolina natives grew up proudly thinking our local state product was a fine intermittent treat, but during the 80's when the words "gourmet" and "cuisine," not to mention “nutrition,” were imported into our culture, we learned to keep our mouths shut about the Winston-Salem donut empire. 

     My friend Dave says, "If you have ever lived in Germany (which he has), the American approach to bread products is incomprehensible."  By his report, every street corner of every small burg has a home-owned bakery with an infinite variety of delicacies, each as refined and perfectly crafted as a Mendelssohn composition. It's possible to find such a place in the U.S., but it's very rare.

      However, if you're hungry and in need in North Carolina, (a friend hurt your feelings, your were losing it in traffic congestion, or your job seems meaningless), try to find a Krispy Kreme, it's no problem. And, if the need for comfort is deep, try the "raspberry filled," which we, of course, used to call jelly donuts.

     The inspiration for these thoughts came from the subconscious, a dream I just had, (this is true) where I was buying large bags of Krispy Kreme jelly doughnuts and wandering the local landscape passing them out to friends.  The bags were dripping, sticky, and red. My hands were coated with the stuff, but no friend turned me down as they ooohed and aaahed... their lips revealing a faint, secret smile at this act of infidelity to their vow of health and fitness. Analyze my dream anyway you like, I don't care. 

     It was simpler in our past when we weren't bombarded with this encyclopedic knowledge of the molecular composition of food and the dirty details of metabolism. "Eat less, exercise more," were two rules that used to suffice for the whole issue. And, "you are what you eat," seemed a fair enough measure for making decisions that excluded a too frequent indulgence in Krispy Kremes.

     But every now and then, eating a Krispy Kreme can be the right thing to do, though being "out" about jelly donuts still requires a solid sense of self and a good support system of family and friends. Don't be ashamed, this is not a character defect; it is not a moral issue. Get a jelly donut and drip some red goo on your shirt; wear your red badge of courage proudly.  Save ethics for stuff that matters. 

jelly donut blog