Saturday, January 29, 2011


Returning to historic events along the road to secession in America’s first century, it can quickly be seen why the U.S. Congress of 1850 could easily be called an “equal opportunity” legislature. Before the session was over, there was something for both sides to hate when it came to the question of slavery, and what to do about it. In their effort to walk a balance between the forces of abolition and defenders of slavery, they came up with what was fondly proclaimed to be a “great compromise”, allowing California to join the Union as a “free” state (placating northern sentiments), while passing a tough “Fugitive Slave Act” which infuriated those same citizens by promising jail and stiff fines to anyone assisting people of color escaping slavery in the south in an effort to court southern sympathy. In the end, it accomplished neither.
For years, Congress had sought to mollify both sides of the controversy, first by allowing new states to make their own choice by “mutual consent” (resulting in the “Kansas Wars”), and then by parceling out “free soil” and “slave state” status in alternate doses. Now, with the Fugitive Slave act the law of the land, northern abolitionists found themselves actually required to support and enforce the very doctrine they hated.
The state of Vermont had outlawed slavery when it became a sovereign republic in 1777, and it was quick now to act to nullify the new act written in Washington. Wisconsin followed suit, setting off a nullification scare which shook Congress and the courts, beginning a slide toward some kind of a dissolution of the paper-thin union in the eyes of a growing proportion of the citizenry.
For years, northerners of several persuasions had been openly aiding escaping black slaves, either harboring them or transporting them to friendlier locations. Rather than to discourage this activity, Congress unwittingly gave it a new impetus, ushering in a phenomenon known as “the underground railway”, an unorganized but well-oiled network of co-conspirators who secretly acted as a lifeline for fleeing slaves from the southern states. From New York and New England in the east to Ohio, Indiana and Michigan in the west, a map of escape routes, beginning in border states like Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri, would have looked much like a railroad system map, even though railroads seldom played a role in the movement of this covert traffic flow.
It is popular among some present-day writers to downplay the effectiveness – and even the significance - of this piece of history, just as it is in vogue to echo the claims of the 19th century “lost cause” writers on the subject of slavery itself. In part because I grew up in Vermont where diarists and family historians had kept faithful records, and where I knew of old homes in many towns and villages which still contained the “hidey holes” in which escaping slaves had taken refuge (even within the memories of some octogenarians of my time), I hold a very different view. I believe the records which claim that more than 100,000 fugitive slaves made their way through this clandestine network, in which the state of my youth played a key role because of its border with Canada, and because of the high level of motivation of its populace. NOTE: On October 19th, 1864, the border town of St. Albans , Vermont was attacked by a troop of Confederate soldiers who had made their way to Montreal in order to wreak punishment on the people of Vermont in this northern-most action of the Civil War.
Many of the facilitators – including Harriet Tubman, who made at least 19 dangerous journeys into the heart of the south to guide escapees ¬– were free blacks who placed themselves at great risk. Members of the Quaker religion were also committed to the covert effort, and perhaps chief among those was an ancestor of mine named Levi Coffin, descended from the same settler of Nantucket who was my eighth great grandfather. Levi is credited with personally saving more than 3000 individual runaways. William Still, a prominent Pennsylvanian often sheltered as many as 30 “contrabands” a night in his Philadelphia home, acting as one of many “conductors” along the route of the “Underground Railway”.
Sympathy for the abolition movement was not exclusive to the people of the North. Only one out of ten southerners owned or traded black slaves in 1860, and it is likely that the “escape routes” began with secret help along the so-called border states. As we shall see in a forthcoming article, sentiment in favor of secession was anything but unanimous in the general population of such soon-to-be Confederate states as Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama and Georgia. In fact, the present state of West Virginia was “born” when the citizens west of the mountains voted their way OUT.

An April 24, 1851 poster warns colored people in Boston to protect themselves from “slave catchers”. Because a sizable reward was paid for the return of escaped slaves, it was not unusual for free men of color who had never been slaves to find themselves in chains and heading south.

The Levi Coffin house in Newport, Indiana is today a National Historic Landmark. This photo shows the secret indoor well which was required to sustain temporary “guests” riding the “Underground Railroad” heading north to freedom.


Their wings folded to catch the last breath of the day’s air currents, a pair of Canada Geese hold themselves aloft over waters whose exact location on the surface map of North America is written in their very DNA.
Photo by Bill Houghton

Back in 1950, Frankie Lane introduced and made popular a new romantic ballad which opened with the words “My heart knows what the wild goose knows, and I must go where the wild goose goes”. At the time, those lyrics had a special appeal for me; in fact to this day, I associate my life-long love for wild things and wild places with the message enshrined in that refrain.
By the time I reached my early teens, Canadian geese were only beginning to make a return from near-extinction across North America. The sound of wild geese somewhere overhead was enough to bring me and my brothers running from wherever we happened to be, to shade our eyes and look upward in anticipation of the heightened heartbeat which would come as we found the wavering Vee’s. “Look! Wild geese” we would shout, running to tell others what we were seeing and hearing. So unusual was such an event then, that I can still picture the exact moment and circumstances surrounding it. (One fall morning, our herd of Jersey’s was left half-milked so that we could run from the barn to look skyward in response to the cries which came to our wondering ears.)
Today, many among us have forgotten the story of human intervention which brought about the redemption of a threatened species, hearing instead of how those same geese have become such a problem in populated areas, that their unbridled rate of reproduction has actually made them a local nuisance, and a menace to commercial aviation. (Fifty Canadian geese can produce and leave behind more than two tons of excrement a year!)
My wife and I are fortunate enough to live where we overlook 80 acres of pond water which becomes a sanctuary to hundreds of waterfowl, including migrants heading either north or south by season, and others who make it their year-round home. From our vantage point, we have learned much about the culture of wild geese, especially from being able to observe a combined flock of approximately 50 Canada’s who spend much of their year here, along the banks of the Virgin river, where nearby farm lands help to provide them with the four pounds of food each adult consumes in a typical day. We also enjoy watching the Bald and Golden eagles, Red tail hawks, falcons, and other birds of prey who share a relationship with the waterfowl, and perform an important role in preserving a natural balance in the economy of species.
For one thing, we have learned something about familial loyalty, leadership, devotion, persistence and integrity. It is usual for adult geese to mate for life – a life which can last up to 24 years – and to share the demanding responsibility of parenthood, year after year. “Our” geese build their nests and hatch their eggs in the relative safety of rugged cliffs high above the water, and we have learned to watch for the change in feeding and travel habits as breeding season transitions into the “home-making” routine. The female does not begin the incubating process until all her eggs are laid. From then on, and for the next 28 days, the male does the hunting and provides security, displaying a tireless work ethic and devotion. As he departs or arrives at the nest, a great deal of conversation takes place between the two parents, but then again, wild geese are highly vocal. (The entire flock will verbally signal their mutual agreement to depart the pond each day, and similarly celebrate their approach for landing later in the day with a decidedly different chorus of honking.)
When you hear the barking of migrating geese high overhead, they are actually voicing a message of constant encouragement to each other, just as they are thoughtful about alternating the leader’s position at the point of the vee, while assuming a flight formation which protects those who follow from the vortex created from the wings of those in front. If one of their number falters from illness or exhaustion, at least one other member of the flight will remain behind with the straggler until both are able to rejoin the group. (I witnessed this phenomenon once while camping in the lake country north and west of Lake Superior.)
In years past, we enjoyed the year-round presence of two White Holland domestic geese on the pond, obviously unable to fly or mate. What entertained and educated us was the unique but obviously welcome relationship which existed between these two “strange ones” and their wild relatives from Canada. After the wild babies were old enough to join the flock on the pond, the white geese would act as surrogate parents while the real parents were free to fly away and forage together during the day. We would marvel through our binoculars as we watched the caring activities of this volunteer “aunt and uncle”, day after day and year after year. We mourned when first one, and then the other fell prey to coyotes.
Recalling all this and what I have learned from it, I am drawn to the parting line of Frankie Lane’s old ballad:
“Tonight I heard the wild goose cry / Hangin’ north in the lonely sky/Tried to sleep, but it warn’t no use/’cause I am brother to the old wild goose.”

Wild geese (Branta Canadensis) wing their way over the vast wilderness of Ontario’s Lake Superior country in an original sketch by the author. Their annual migration route might very well involve 2200 miles of celestial navigation, in some of the world’s worst weather.
Al Cooper Sketch


In the year 2011, our nation marks the Sesquicentennial of the beginning of “The War Between the States”; “The American Civil War”, or what is still looked upon by many Southern historians as “The War of Northern Aggression”. Because this chapter of our national story continues to invite dissection from a myriad of perspectives, each of these nominations has a claim on legitimacy. Despite a fascination which has spawned more than 500,000 books dealing with the subject, it is disappointing to think that a generation or two of our citizens have grown up in comparative ignorance of this seminal event in our national history, and the extent to which, one-hundred and fifty years later, it continues to leave its fingerprints on our very sense of who we are as Americans.
At the outset of a year in which HOME COUNTRY will feature a number of reflections on this segment of our history, I must confess to readers and editors a personal passion for American history in general, and Civil War history in particular. I have walked the battlefields of that conflict from the “Sunken Road” at Antietam and the “Bloody Pond” of Shilo, to the “Peach Orchard” at Gettysburg, and the “Field of Shoes” in the Shenandoah Valley. I have wept at the cemetery on “Marye’s Heights”, repeatedly at the fence-line where “Pickett’s Charge” ended , from the overlook of the “Devil’s Den” at “Little Round Top”, and again in the wilderness of Chancellorsville. From Spotsylvania and Manasses Junction to Yellow Tavern and New Market, I have been touched by the aura left to forever haunt these hallowed grounds by the events which transpired there, and felt profoundly the presence of the legions who clashed there. I feel as connected by the bonds of brotherhood with the troopers – blue and gray – who fought then as with the G.I.s with whom I shared the scorched and seared hills of Korea just over a century later.
No less a public figure and man-of-history as Winston Churchill would write of America’s Civil War, that among all of the world’s conflicts, it was the one “which was most inevitable and necessary”; this from one who had just witnessed and been a major participant in World War II.
To begin to appreciate what he meant, it is important that the true student of history does not begin the process from the standpoint of knowing how things turned out in the end, but rather from a perspective that goes back to the beginning – or as close to the beginning as possible. Those who starred in this drama, after all, had no way of knowing how it would play out.
As the framers of our Constitution labored through that hot Philadelphia summer of 1787, it became increasingly clear that at least two major obstacles were insurmountable, given the political and social landscape of the loosely-knit Confederation, and despite the fact that anything less than agreement would spell a virtual end of any long-term “nationhood”. One of those questions involved slavery which lay at the core of the southern economic system, and without which the largely agricultural nature of their society would not survive. The second question – very much connected with the first – was “states’ rights”, and the balance of powers, not only between state and federal governments, but between the then thirteen separate and independent (and very different) states.
In the end, the problem was overcome (postponed) with the Connecticut Compromise establishing two houses of Congress balanced in such a way as to protect the voting powers of small and less-populated states, and by leaving the question of slavery untouched. To give those great men their due, it was widely believed at that time, that slavery was already on its way out and would die a natural death within twenty years, (several southern states had already written laws toward that end). At that moment, no one could foresee the massive impact of immigration, which would benefit the economies of northern states while undermining the ability of the south to trade competitively with European markets without an even greater reliance on slave labor. At the same time, the western movement, enhanced by the Louisiana Purchase and the acquisition of new lands after the war with Mexico, all tended to favor the voting majorities of the North. The growing disparity – political, economic and societal – between the North and the South became the dominant factor in national and regional politics, breeding as well a thorough and deep-lying personal enmity between the citizens themselves on many levels. The two great political parties began to coalesce around the issue of abolition, leading to an ideological re-alignment giving birth to the new Republican Party which attracted abolitionists from both sides, including a Senator from Massachusetts, whose assault in the halls of Congress would shock the country.
In the next chapter on “The Long Road to Secession”, we will meet an activist Supreme Court judge named Roger Taney, revisit the “Dred Scott Decision”, and weigh the impact of a best-selling book with the title “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”.

On May 22nd, 1856, Preston Brooks, a Congressman from South Carolina, assaulted Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts in a famous caning incident on the floor of the U.S. Senate, so severely injuring the abolitionist leader (then a fellow Democrat), that he would be unable to serve for three years. The incident infuriated the North, cementing the new political anti-slavery coalition, and shocking the nation into a realization that the two sides had reached an irreconcilable abyss.

A John Magee lithograph

Sunday, January 9, 2011

FROM WHITE DWARFS TO RED GIANTS Traveling the Night Skies of Winter

With my feet planted solidly here on a speck of canyon country in Southern Utah, in the intense dark of a mid-winter night, I can see “forever”. From horizon to horizon the marvels stretch across the heavens in a visual display which has been played out since a “beginning” we can only imagine; from stars that are so old in celestial time they are in their last star-moments of life, to others so “new” they would not yet have been visible to earth’s dinosaurs.
If there is one dominating figure among the constellations of winter, it would be Orion, the great “hunter” of Greek mythology. My eyes automatically turn to this overpowering figure as I step outdoors on any clear night. It is like an old, dependable friend reminding me of the few certainties of earth life and of the age old connection between humankind and the night skies. The grand scale of this mythical figure erases any need for telescope or binoculars, unless one is focusing on the great Nebula which seems to hang from Orion’s belt, like a glowing sword; one of the most magnificent of such astronomical sights. At the upper left “shoulder” of the hourglass constellation as viewed from earth is the red supergiant star known as Betelgeuse , which is the size of 800 of our Suns and probably approaching the end of its long life. It lies about 520 light years away and glows with the brilliance of 1500 “suns”.
The right foot of Orion as viewed from earth is a blue giant named Rigel (“foot” in Arabic), which is twice as far from earth as Betelgeuse, but whose brightness shines with a luminosity of 55,000 suns! Rigel is actually a “double star”; twins bound together by gravity and birth. (Probably 80 % of all stars in our galaxy are actually “doubles”, our own sun being an exception.)
The three bright stars which make up Orion’s belt, point directly to Sirius, the “Dog Star” in Canis Major, the brightest star in the heavens. A close neighbor of ours at a distance of only 8.7 light years and a key to human navigation since ancient times, Sirius also has a white dwarf companion star with which it rotates once every fifty years. Such an impact has this conjunction had upon life on earth that it is now believed that the great pyramids of Giza were laid out in the exact similitude of Orion’s belt, with the Milky Way representing the river Nile.
Another “old friend” in the winter sky is a cluster of stars we call “The Pleiades”, (Seven Sisters in Greek). This open cluster figures importantly in the history and mythology of many cultures: To America’s Cherokees it is known as Ani’tsutsa or “The Boys”, and among many tribes it ushers in cleansing ceremonies, and the time for naming newborn children. In Japan, the name for Pleiades is “Subaru”, and the symbol for the famous car-maker contains those famous stars.
While that shiny “thumb print” high overhead in midwinter is easily seen with the naked eye, binoculars will reveal the seven brightest members of this cluster, and suggest that there are really many more hiding in the luminescence – actually several hundreds. 440 light years from earth, what you are actually seeing in the Pleiades is a star “nursery” in action; a young star system unfolding from what fairly recently (in celestial time) was a dust cloud left over from a supernova. The group of bright stars are physically related, and are moving in the same direction, although future generations of earth people will notice a wider separation between them.
Not to be forgotten in all of this is our own captive satellite – the Moon – upon which rests the earth’s tidal system and earth life itself as we know it. As it travels across our night sky along a circular path known as the great ecliptic, it presents us with an ever-evolving image, and keeps company with other planets of our solar system whose perceived journeys take them within a few degrees of the moon’s route. In January in fact, the Moon and gigantic Jupiter will appear almost in alignment for a few hours. The full moon of January has been called “The Hard Times Moon” by Maine’s Penobscot people, “The Melting Snow Moon” of the Navajo, and “The Whirling Wind Moon” of the Narragansett. To early settlers, it was known simply as “The Wolf Moon”.

Often mistaken for “The Little Dipper” because of the relationship of the brightest of its primary stars, the Pleiades has been known as “the Cradle”, the “Seven Sisters”, and “The Boys”. They lie in a very young corner of our galaxy and keep us company through the long cold nights of winter.
NASA Photo

A full moon rises out of the Atlantic ocean along Maine’s mid-coast, providing us with one of Nature’s most powerful illusions, seeming to be larger than it is because of its closeness to our horizon.
Al Cooper Photo


Among my neighbors are several hundred who recently were forced to evacuate their homes on very short notice by a set of circumstances few would have anticipated. Others chose to shelter in place and take defensive action, while others found themselves isolated wherever they happened to be by road closures which remained in place for many hours. Those same closures left some who had been away, cut off from family members and vital resources, and unable to return; all of this in an area where cell phone coverage is spotty at the best of times, and where a major power outage had occurred just hours before.
This series of “cascading contingencies” should remind us all of the importance of having a comprehensive family emergency plan, making our homes resource centers, keeping our evacuation kits up to date, and furnishing our vehicles with such necessities as will provide a level of security and comfort when we can’t get home.


My great, great Uncle, Rueben Coyte, was a figure of iconic proportions in our family, and for me, born into a world without a surviving grandfather, he was a transformational presence. Uncle Reuben – or “Icky” as he was lovingly known to us – had been a young lad when the battle of Gettysburg was fought, and I spent my earliest years curled up on his ample lap learning history as seen through the eyes of a devoted observer and master story-teller. A direct descendant of our New Jersey town’s founding pioneer family,“Icky” had witnessed eight decades of America’s emergence from colonial youth to global prominence. Some of his most fascinating stories revolved around “The Great Blizzard of 1888”, an obvious historic milestone for people of his generation and an event against which all future natural weather phenomena would be measured for years to come.
It all began with an unseasonal warm spell in early March, followed by a period of heavy rains. Shortly after midnight Eastern time on March 11th, it turned to snow, and for the next three days, it snowed without letup up and down the Mid-Atlantic coast line. In what some called “The Great White Hurricane”, the storm dropped up to 58 inches of new snow, as gale force winds gusted up to 80 miles per hour and temperatures dropped into single digits. Drifts up to thirty and forty feet in depth covered even three-story houses in many places, and reduced visibility halted virtually all human movement. Electricity was the first piece of infrastructure to go, followed by telephone and telegraph communications, gas transmission lines and water and sewer systems. Rail lines between northeastern cities were so mangled that it would take eight days after the storm passed to restore operations. (It was this disaster which led directly to the first underground rail systems or “subways” in America).
Because fire stations were immobilized by the storm, fires in New York City alone accounted for more than $25 million in damage and loss during the blizzard’s grip. Storm-caused deaths totaled more than 400, with half of those in New York City. From Chesapeake Bay on the south to Portland, Maine in the north, more than 200 ships were either sunk or grounded, with 100 seamen losing their lives.
If the known costs of the Great Blizzard were calculated in present-day dollars, they would probably come close to $2 billion!
The winter of 1888 had already made its mark on weather history two months earlier, in a storm which swept down out of the Canadian north bringing Arctic cold to collide with warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico over the high plains of Wisconsin, Nebraska and the Dakota Territory. Because the savage cold, high winds and driven snow struck unexpectedly and in the middle of the day, it came to be known as “The Schoolhouse Blizzard”. All across the northern tier of states, children became “trapped” in the one-room schoolhouses which predominated in prairie regions, in many cases entombed by cold and blowing, drifting snow, and blinding visibility. Out of that stormy turmoil came a national heroine whose name, Minnie Freeman, became a household word. When the storm blew out first the windows, and then the roof of the tiny sod school house in which she and her children were marooned, she decided to lead her charges to safety. Lashing them together with whatever ropes and pieces of clothing were at hand, she started out into the teeth of the gale, heading for a house she new sat about one mile away.
Her exploit was heralded widely by a fascinated press, and she eventually found herself deluged with adoring letters, including 80 marriage proposals. A song, “Thirteen Were Saved” or “Nebraska’s Fearless Maid” became the semi-official “Song of The Great Blizzard of 1888”.
Weather statistics suggest that if you live long enough, and happen to be in the right place at the right time, you stand a good chance of experiencing a blizzard of your own. With that recognition in mind, it is only prudent to equip the home in which you live, and the vehicle in which you and those you love travel, with a “worst case scenario in mind.

Blizzard conditions can develop very quickly, and with little warning. High winds, blowing and drifting snow, and falling temperatures can turn a “fair” day into a “white knuckle” experience for the unprepared. The most deadly blizzard in recent times occurred in Iran in 1972 with a death toll of 4000.


While there is something to be said for the biblical admonition to enjoy each good food “in the season thereof”, I find something especially satisfying in indulging in the pleasure of feasting on greens and tubers that reach their penultimate goodness long after usual harvest times. A decade ago, when still living in an alpine environment at 7000 feet in the Wasatch Mountains, I took an almost perverse pleasure in pushing the early snows of winter away from backyard grow-beds to munch on leafy vines and buried carrots and beets, in open defiance of a calendar which spoke in discouraging terms of seasonal change. Nowadays, here in southern Utah I have the pleasure of escaping to a greenhouse, where even on a wet, cold and breezy day, I can bask in the lush presence of green and growing things.
Whether home-grown or store-bought, I never cease to rejoice at the beautiful crinkly exterior of a head of Savoy cabbage as winter winds blow, and I look forward to preparing this wonder of history and horticulture. Cabbages Рin one variety or another Рhave been a part of human agriculture for at least 4,000 years, with a climate hardiness which makes them a year-round and vitamin-rich food source for many cultures. My absolute drop-dead favorite though is the Savoy, with its green-blue crumpled outer leaves and creamy-white and tender interior. Much milder and sweeter than its more common cousins, it lacks the sulfur after taste, and proves its versatility in dozens of culinary possibilities. I like steaming the large outer leaves until they are sufficiently soft to wrap around a prepared filling of saut̩ed onions, hamburger, garlic, cooked rice, chopped cabbage and tomato sauce, then to be covered with more leaves and slow-baked for a meal of stuffed Savoy.
Just this week, we enjoyed a favorite recipe for winter soup made from shredded Savoy cabbage with white cannellini beans and chicken stock, prepared with a mirepoix of minced onions, garlic, celery and carrots. Named for the corner of Europe where France, Italy and Switzerland meet, Savoy has earned its reputation as the “queen” of cabbages. (Here, I have to give a plug for FARMERS’ MARKET in LaVerkin, Utah whose produce managers seem always to find a way to keep this often hard-to-find vegetable on hand.)
Another cold-weather vegetable worth getting to know is the leek, a member of the alium family along with onions, scallions and garlic. Unlike the onion, the leek doesn’t develop a bulb at the root end, but a long thick mostly-white stem with a green wide-leafed top. It is milder, sweeter, and more flavorful than an onion, and a natural ingredient of great soups. It too has been a favorite in Europe and Egypt where its use dates back at least to the first century BC. So tied to Welsh history is the ancient leek that legendary kings required their soldiers to wear leek leaves in their head gear in battle. Even today, embossed leeks appear in some English royal heraldry.
The leek’s commercial popularity in the U.S. has been quite recent (except for those of us who love to cook, and therefore had to grow our own for years). Since it is the white portion that is most suitable for culinary use, growers commonly blanche the growing stalk by hilling earth and sand around it. After removing the root and trimming away the green leaves therefore, it is important to cut slits down the length of the leek to rinse away any remaining grit when preparing for use.
For “Leek & Potato Soup”, I use the white parts of three leeks, sliced in rings then chopped; three large potatoes, skinned and cut into ½ inch cubes; 3 stalks of celery, diced; 3 cups chicken broth; three dry bay leaves and ½ pint half-and-half. I sauté the leeks and celery in 2 tbs. butter until transparent before adding the potatoes, bay leaves and broth. Cook for about 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender, but not mushy. Add in the half-and-half without bringing to a boil, adjusting with some milk if the consistency is too thick. At this point, I remove the bay leaves (important) and blend into a puree about half of the soup, returning it to the mix so that there is a good combination of “chunky” and “creamy”. Salt and pepper carefully, garnish with chopped parsley and serve with hard rolls.

Savoy cabbage, leeks and potatoes represent a fine example of vegetables which are at their best in winter, and which, in numerous combinations, lend themselves to cold weather soup-making.

Given some protection from the harshest weather, over-wintering garden beds can be a source of leaf lettuce, kale, spinach, leeks, and such “in-earth” treats as parsnips, baby beets, and sweet-and-crunchy carrots. This garden bed of the author’s survived the first of winter’s storms at 7000 feet.