Happy Birthday, Carleton!

Carleton College was founded on October 12, 1866 – exactly 150 years ago today. Actually, that’s not quite accurate: the institution was founded as “Northfield College” on 10/12/1866; five years later, its trustees renamed the college in honor of a key donor.

Anyhow, the college is celebrating the sesquicentennial of its founding – and its 150 years of history – in a typically low-key but fun way, with events such as a “Town-and-Gown Celebration” in downtown Northfield tomorrow, a convocation on Friday by Minnesota’s favorite humorist Garrison Keillor, a carnival and fair on Saturday, and a little birthday video featuring scores of students, faculty, and staff – including me and my cowlick. I’m talking trash to our bizarre, unofficial, worse-for-wear college symbol, a bust of the German Romantic poet Friedrich Schiller, who has also appeared with Bill Clinton and Stephen Colbert.

Schiller and Tassava
Schiller and Tassava

I’m glad I wore my sesquicentennial button that day!

Quirks like Schiller and birthday videos remind me of other ways that Carleton’s culture has bound me – and, I hope, others who love the institution – to the college. I couldn’t possibly list all the examples that have come up in the eleven years that I’ve worked at 1 North College Street (7.33% of the college’s lifetime!), but for me, the deal was sealed in summer 2006, when the college held a farewell party for a wonderful but falling-down piece of outdoor sculpture called Twigonometry. (Anyone interested in public art should check out the gallery of photos of the piece in its prime.) Twigonometry stood gorgeously and mysteriously at the north end of the Bald Spot, where kids like toddler Julia could wander through its chambers and arches, swirling in an organically alien way:

Julia and Twigonometry
Julia and Twigonometry

What kind of place holds a farewell party for a four-year-old sculpture made from branches and twigs? The kind of place that I hope lasts another 150 years.

Custer the Bastard

On our family trip to the Black Hills in South Dakota, I was – but should not have been – surprised by the volume of stuff related to George Armstrong Custer, famous for getting killed with all his men at the Battle of Little Bighorn by a massive Native American army that was, among other goals, fighting the encroachment of white settlers in places like the Black Hills – Ȟe Sápa in Lakota

As it happens, I’d seen T.J. Stiles’ new biography of Custer at the bookstore back home in Northfield, so I picked it up, eager to learn more about this famous figure, whom I only knew as a Civil War officer and an Indian fighter. Understanding Custer as more than those two roles is Stiles’s task and accomplishment. 

Stiles expertly structures the book around a series of “trials” (including several actual trials: courts martial for various offenses) that Custer precipitated and endured over the course of his full but short life. (Custer was only 36 when he was killed and mutilated at what the Indians called “Greasy Grass.”) Beyond Custer’s undeniable skill as a battlefield commander in both the Civil War and in various theaters of the Indian Wars, the man was, in brief, a bastard: a vicious disciplinarian, a philandering husband, an inveterate gambler, a preening dandy, a failed stock speculator, a Confederate sympathizer, an scheming careerist, an out-and-out racist… 

Stiles makes clear that in all these things, Custer was both a product of his times and a producer of them – as everyone is, though not usually to such an extreme and often appalling degree. Custer shaped and was shaped by a rapidly-changing America where what we might call a rugged individual (at least if he was white and male) was being submerged in an increasingly sophisticated, urban, and anonymous society, one more familiar to us, 150 years after Custer’s ignominious death, than the one into which the man had been born.

By the end of the book, I at least was eager to see Custer get what he had coming. And there Stiles dodges, holding Little Bighorn at arm’s length by examining the disaster through an official inquiry into its cause. Fittingly, part of that cause was Custer’s impetuosity and bloodlust: he wanted to exterminate the Indians whom he saw impeding the rightful expansion of the United States. Instead, the Indians forestalled that expansion, at least a little, by exterminating Custer’s force – and in a neat trick of history, assuring that he would never be forgotten.

I’m gonna party like it’s 1999

Two quick Prince stories.

I think the first time I really liked a song of his was when I started hearing “Raspberry Beret” on the radio while traveling by bus to a Catholic youth camp in Wisconsin in 1985. Prince was big by then, and I knew some of the classics off “Purple Rain” and earlier albums, but “Raspberry Beret” stood out. “If it was warm/she would be wear much more” seemed so *dirty* to twelve-year-old me. And to this day I sing “In through the out door out door” whenever I see a door marked for exit only. Wait, was that line dirty too?

Second story: On New Year’s Eve 1998, Shannon and I went to a party thrown by my grad school friend Michael and his then-girlfriend Julie. It was probably the first time I’d ever had whiskey – knowing Michael, probably Maker’s Mark. It hit me like a ton of bricks.

A drink for Prince

At midnight, I was still tipsy when Julie put Prince’s “1999” on the stereo, because can there be a more perfect moment than NYE 1998 to sing along to “I’m gonna party like it’s nineteen ninety-nine”? No, there cannot. Listening to the song, my buzzing mind went back to that bus trip in 1985. Two loops of my life tied together with Prince.

I’ve still never seen *Purple Rain*, though.

Whatever Floats Your State

Vivi’s fourth-grade social studies project was a “report” on one of the United States of America. Kids could choose among various forms for this report, and she chose to make a “float,” which is in principle and reality a pretty cool alternative to a poster or even a paper. For whatever reason, she selected Idaho as her topic, which was nice since – after two trips out there – I feel like I know a little bit about the Gem State. It’s called the Gem State, for instance.

Predictably, the effort of assembling this float was a bit overwhelming for my smart little perfectionist. Some tears were shed on the way to making the final product resemble the image in her head. I tried to avoid doing much to help her, and wound up mostly just scaling back some of her overly ambitious ideas. But the final product was pretty neat, displaying all the required info (capital, date of joining the Union, nickname, state bird, etc.) as well as some other cool stuff about Idaho and a very realistic paper potato.

Idaho Float
Idaho Float

The Pitchy Blackness

I’m finally reading *Danny the Champion of the World* by Roald Dahl, which both family and friends have said is great. It is, not least because the book includes paragraphs like this one, which stopped me as cold as an unrideable hill in the middle of a fatbike race.

The Pitchy Blackness
The Pitchy Blackness

Scareading

For several months now, the girls have been encouraging me to read some Neil Gaiman books. Okay, maybe *luring* me into etc. etc.
Creepy Tomes

Earlier this week I finally picked up *Coraline*, expecting to read a few chapters before bed. Three hours later I finished it, thoroughly creeped out.

After giving myself a few days to recover, I started *The Graveyard Book* on Friday evening. I was able to stop reading at midnight, which gave me the pleasures of some creepy dreams that night and of enjoying a little whiskey while finishing it tonight. If anything, Bod’s ordeals were even scarier than Coraline’s, though nothing can top this exchange between Coraline and her eye-buttoned other mother:
I Put Her Back

*Shudder*.

How Well Do You Know Your Dad?

I couldn’t resist this meme-y questionnaire that was floating around Facebook, and luckily the girls were into it, too. No real surprises here, which is probably good! (Neither one mentioned beer in any response!)

J = Julia, age 11, sixth grade
G = Genevieve, age 9, fourth grade

1. What is something I always say to you?
J: “How was your day?”
G: “I love you!”

2. What makes me happy?
J: Biking
G: Biking

3. What makes me sad?
J: Not biking
G: When I’m sad.

4. How do I make you laugh?
J: “By doing weird stuff.”
G: “By tickling and being super strange.”

5. What was I like as a child?
J: A fat baby
G: Chubby

6. How old am I?
J: 42
G: 42

7. How tall am I?
J: 5’10”
G: 5’10”

8. What is my favorite thing to do?
J: Bike
G: Bike and snuggle with me.

9. What do I do when you’re not around?
J: Bike
G: Bike

10. What am I really good at?
J: Biking
G: Cheering me up

11. What is something I’m not good at?
J: Punishing Genevieve
G: Getting mad [“You never get angry.”]

12. What do I do for a job?
J: Grantwriter
G: Grant writer at Carleton

13. What is my favorite food?
J: Pizza
G: Pizza

14. What do you enjoy doing with me?
J: Biking
G: Biking

Blue Monday Art (Guest Post by the Girls)

**JULIA**: What a great morning: Muffins and art and snagging the window chairs at Blue Monday. It made me appreciate how pretty and quiet Northfield is on a Sunday morning. The red Raleigh outside the window had “Townie”written all over it. Northfield is a bike town, even in January. I have to admit, that bike is nice, but the owner would get more admiring glances if she rode a Salsa Beargrease. 🙂

Julia's version

**GENEVIEVE**:
A perfect morning always starts with a sketch, and a beautiful Northfield scene in the background lit a match of ideas. And so my drawing began there. The bike immediately caught my interest. It was my kind of challenging sketch: complex and not too colorful. Of course, I would have put more effort into the art (although I put plenty into this one) if it were a green and black Salsa Beargrease!

Genevieve's version

Crush Snow at the Snow Crush

I was happy on Saturday to race again, this time in the inaugural Snow Crush event at River Bend Nature Center, a gorgeous and well-run educational preserve on about 750 acres of prairie, woods, and river floodplain in Faribault, just south of Northfield. I’ve been to RBNC many times, most often for school field trips but also just to enjoy the landscape, which is pretty great for walks and mountain biking. 

The Snow Crush races were RBNC’s first foray into bike racing, so the center’s staff worked with the local MTB club, Cannon River Offroad Cycling and Trails (CROCT). Together they put on a hell of a good event, including presentations on winter cycling, vendor booths, beer from a local taphouse and coffee from a local roaster, demo bikes for adults and kids, and two races on a great five-mile loop – a one-lap race for "beginners" and a three-lap race for "experts." Notably, all the race registration fees went to RBNC and CROCT, which was pretty great. 

I went down to the race with my friend Dan, a good athlete who was eager to race his brand-new fatbike. We formed up at 1:00 sharp for the expert race, looking into a westerly breeze that was taking the -1° F air temp down to something like -10°. Though I didn’t know how my legs would feel five days after the big ride at Tuscobia, I couldn’t resist going out pretty hot when the race started. 200 meters later, I knew my buuuuuuuurning legs were not in fact ready for race pace!

I pulled back a little and focused on a sustainable effort as we left the short opening pavement section and hit the snow. The track was in good shape everywhere except a few corners, so I was able to ride pretty smoothly throughout the first lap. A couple guys went by me, but they didn’t get too far ahead, and then one took a spectacular crash when he missed a turn. I avoided laying it down and took note of spots where I bobbled, trying to remember them for the second and third laps. The best bit of the lap was a set of downhill switchbacks that could be descended at a decent speed and didn’t require much braking. My friend Jim Wellbrock was shooting photos at a choice spot in this section, which meant that I got a rare photo of myself riding. 


Lap one went by quickly, despite a couple headwind sections, and ended with a fast run down the hill we’d started on and then quick whip through the finish area. I saw the leaders going out on their second lap and gave a wave to a couple friends. Heading out for lap two, I felt much better – like a bike racer. Back on the snow after the pavement stretch again, I could see another rider in front of me – black jacket, dayglo orange and pink bike. Whenever I could, I counted the seconds between the moment Orange passed a certain spot and when I did.

The gap was 30-some seconds when I first noticed him, but crept down into the high 20s when we crossed the bridge over the Straight River (a spot where racers could be traveling in both directions, requiring my friend Todd to do some traffic control). The gap was in the low 20s on the only real climb in the back section, then the teens as we reached a long straightaway at the far end of the loop. I was jazzed. Orange got away a bit on the fun switchbacks, but when we came back toward the front section, he was close enough that I could read the text on his jacket. As we crossed the train tracks that seemed to be about three-quarters of the way through the lap, Orange was five seconds up. I took note of the time on my computer so that I’d have a sense for the last lap of how many minutes were left to race from that same point. I got onto his wheel on the long gentle uphill that came right after the RR tracks, a moment that CROCT maestro Griff Wigley captured.

I sat in for a few minutes as we rolled toward the lap zone, recovering, then went around Orange just as we crossed the lap line – and immediately bobbled in soft snow on the next corner. "Sorry!" I called back to him. I dunno if he had to put a foot down, but he was right behind me as we rode up the pavement section for the last time and onto the snow. Checking my computer, I saw that I’d hit the RR tracks about seven minutes before, so I figured that a hard push from that spot at the end of the lap would mean maybe six minutes of riding to the finish line.

The fact of being on the last lap was motivation enough to press a bit right there. Maybe I could catch the next guy in front of us! I bombed a fun straight downhill that came immediately after the turn onto the snow and tried to hammer the subsequent flat straightaway. Zooming through a very low tunnel under the railroad tracks and then through a gorgeous stand of cottonwoods, I could sense that Orange was close, but not too close – I couldn’t see his shadow. Over the river, up the climb, down a drop to a little bit of prairie, back up a gradual slope to the far-side straightaway, and then through the switchbacks again. My back was getting sweaty, finally, and I could feel the familiar sense of constriction on my cheeks where an icebeard was forming.

Glancing back from the bottom of the switchbacks, I couldn’t see Orange anymore, but I didn’t trust my glance. Maybe he was still there, and I somehow didn’t see him or his insanely bright bike. Going over the bridge across the Straight for the last time, I got up out of the saddle to fight a little harder against the headwind. Some softening track slowed me down a little as I rode along the edge of an open area, but then the trail took me onto some singletrack through woods that I didn’t recognize, even slightly! Bizarre to have ridden it twice in the previous hour but have no memory of it.

That mystery section ended in sight of the railroad crossing. Six minutes! Up out of the saddle again. Up the grade where I’d latched onto Orange. Through some twisty stuff, including a couple soft spots where I managed to find good lines. Looking up, I could see the volunteer at the spot where we jumped onto the trail back to the finish area. I figured I had two minutes of riding left, all of which I could do standing in my biggest gear. It felt great to really be hammering – first up a small incline and then down the hill where we’d started the race. I slowed to take the last turn, a sharp mushy thing, then got up again to sprint myself to the finish line. I crossed in 1:22, good for tenth place – a very satisfying result given how I’d spent the previous weekend.

Cooling off, I hung out for a bit in the River Bend interpretive center, watching other racers finish and running out to cheer my friend Dan when he came through – happy, tired, and well icebearded. The overall atmosphere was great, with smiling racers, warm volunteers and sponsors, free-flowing beer and coffee, and some spectacular bikes. It was easy to feel like I’d spent the afternoon doing just the right thing.

Jumbo Wild

Wednesday, I watched Jumbo Wild, an accomplished and moving documentary about the ongoing fight to keep a developer from building a massive ski resort in a pristine valley in the Canadian Rockies. The place took its wonderfully odd and fitting name from a failed late-1800s mine.

The film is gorgeous, full of jaw-dropping vistas of the mountains in all four seasons. And while from the first the filmmakers are arguing against this particular project – which would, let’s be honest, ruin any wildness in the Jumbo Valley – they are also pretty good at respecting the perspective of the developer. (They are markedly less respectful of Canadian provincial and national government officials who seem weirdly eager to advance the project almost no matter what.)

Against that perspective, the film advances at least* three separate but interconnected points of opposition. White Canadian locals don’t want to see big money come in and permanently alter the valley where they live. Scientists – represented principally by a grizzly-bear researcher – think that the project would irreparably damage the region’s ecology, fragmenting one of the last big chunks of wilderness in the Canadian West. And members of First Nations oppose the project for the way it would literally profane a sacred space where they’ve lived for generations.

All of these views are woven artfully and engagingly together in a film that concludes just where you thought it would: in a vigorous call to defend wild places. Jumbo Wild a wonderful film that anyone interested in wild areas will love.

 

* I say “at least” because a) the film is sponsored by an outdoor-clothing company with a vested interest in wildlands recreation in places like Jumbo and b) the landscape is present in the film in such a way that the mountains, snow, and trees offers powerful opposition of their own.

“Still Alice” and Technology

Tonight we watched Julianne Moore’s Oscar vehicle, Still Alice. The film is very much worth your time. Playing an Alzheimer’s patient in cruelly early decline, Moore was outrageously good, of course; she won the Academy Award for her performance. The movie is a complete tearjerker, and tears were jerked on our sofa. But I was surprised that end of the movie was much less depressing than I expected, given both the movie’s plot and much of the material to that point.

Though very much a family drama (albeit one in which the central character gradually dissipates), the film handled technology in an interestingly compelling way. Apple laptops and phones are everywhere. Alice uses her laptop to talk via video with her daughter and to deliver lectures in her day job as a professor at Columbia. (Though: the idea that she would be teaching a lecture course? ha! And that her lecture slides would project automatically? ha ha!)

Even more than her MacBook Air, Alice loves her iPhone. She plays Words with Friends on it against another daughter, she gets in trouble with her husband when she doesn’t answer it, she tries to make it part of a suicide scheme, and she finally misplaces it and then never really picks it up again – her electronic brain gone like her actual mind. The parallel was quite affecting and humanizing, and testament to the power of the story.

Homing Instincts

Northfield Geese
Northfield Geese

Bernd Heinrich’s Homing Instinct was a great book to read in the early fall, when Northfield’s skies are full of geese and ducks wending their way south – after long, leisurely stops in our ponds and creeks. The book’s subtitle – “meaning and mystery in animal migration” – suggests that Heinrich will explore animals’ instinctual seasonal movements, and indeed much of the book does deal with that topic. In the first section – “Homing” – Heinrich tells staggering stories about how various birds, insects, and mammals find their way over distances that are extraordinary on both their own scales (bees that thoroughly master acres and acres of forest and field) and on global ones (eels that breed in the Sargasso Sea but live most of their lives in coastal waters in North America and Europe).

The science that underlies human understanding of these animals’ movements is amazing, but the animals’ own comprehension of the world is far more so. Loggerhead turtles apparently navigate incredibly long distances by reading tiny changes in the earth’s magnetism. I was impressed by the Heinrich’s stories, by scientists’ efforts to comprehend animal migration, and by the animals’ own skills, but I was also depressed by the realization that by wrecking the planet, we humans are directly and indirectly destroying animals (and of course plants and other kinds of life) that are so much more complex and mysterious that we do or perhaps ever will know. (Here my wonderings ran to bison, which in their herds before the Great Slaughter may or may not have migrated seasonally or on another schedule across hundreds or thousands of miles of North America.)

The book’s subtitle is misleading though in that much of the second half of the book concerns animals’ homes, not their movements. Here, Heinrich deals with all kinds of birds’ and insects’ nesting behavior and structures as well as a few mammals (pointing out that very few “higher” mammals actually build homes!). The center of this second section – “Home-making and Maintaining” – is a long, engrossing description of Heinrich’s own efforts to understand the spiders that lived in his Maine cabin. Their web homes are both shelters and tools, which – as Heinrich shows – the spiders used in sophisticated and, frankly, terrifying ways. This chapter – like the “Sun, Stars, and Magnetic Compass” chapter in the first section – are standout natural-history essays.

In the book’s third and last section, Heinrich changes register dramatically, writing at length about his own “homing instincts” for what sounds like a gorgeous patch of Maine woods. I was at first put off by this change from animal to human life, but gradually, Heinrich shows how his drive to live there, and not somewhere else, is continuous with the instincts and drives of the animals he’d discussed earlier in the book. This section is a lovely way to bring the book home.

Tour de Hamilton

I traveled this week to Hamilton College in upstate New York for an annual conference of grant writers who work at liberal arts colleges like Carleton. This meeting rotates each year from one college to another, but it’s always both informative and fun, with good speakers and panels as well as tons of well-spent time with friends and colleagues.

Since the host is different each year, the program usually includes a campus tour, which I always enjoy. Colleges are almost by definition beautiful places, and I have a professional curiosity into what particular institutions emphasize in their infrastructure – and how they pay for their buildings and grounds.

Of all the tours I’ve taken, I don’t think I’ve enjoyed one more than Hamilton’s. The guide – a senior economics major – was knowledgeable, funny, and extremely adept at walking backwards, and the campus was stunningly beautiful, both on its own and thanks to the gorgeous autumn weather.

A beautiful footbridge over a beautiful ravine that separates one beautiful side of campus from the other.
Footbridge

The "Rock Swing," a weird but interesting contraption that supposedly can be manipulated in such a way that it carries people standing on the yellow ring up from this basement spot to the second floor of its building. Seems dangerous, which is probably why it’s bolted down now.

The cavernous and gorgeous concert hall.
Concert Hall

A memorial (and former gate?) to Kirkland College, a short-lived women’s college that Hamilton spun off in 1968 and absorbed in 1978.
Kirkland College Memorial

The street-facing side of the amazing new Kennedy Center for the arts.
Kennedy Center Facade

A dam! Better than Carleton’s dams.
Dam

Everywhere you looked on campus, you saw amazing trees like these:
Autumn Trees

A cool dining hall styled, I think, to look like an Adirondack lodge.
Soper dining hall

An arresting mobile in a corner of the science building.
Science Mobile

The college’s science building was updated recently with a gorgeous new facade, which houses a functional atrium and looked damn good at dusk.
Science Building Facade

Even the old buildings like this residence hall looked amazing.
Dorm

A well-situated statue of the college’s namesake, Alexander Hamilton, a real bastard who would’ve visited the campus if not for that whole deal with Aaron Burr.

The bell tower of the college chapel.
Belltower

A neat sculptural map of campus (as of the 1990s) that by tradition Hamilton students should not walk over, lest they curse themselves to never graduating.
Do not cross this map!

That footbridge again…
The Footbrdge Again

What a great way to walk a couple miles.

National Bison Day!

Today, November 1, is National Bison Day, a semi-official date that recognizes the historical and ecological importance of the North American bison.

Yellowstone Bull (photo by and courtesy of Stephany Seay)
Yellowstone Bull (photo by and courtesy of Stephany Seay)

I’ve been obsessed with buffalo for a couple years now, so I really like the idea of a day “for” them and for what they do or should represent to us as Americans: strength, freedom, wildness, beauty, but above all the value of nature.

As amazing as they are as symbols, bison are even more amazing as animals. They are huge and fast and strong and gorgeous, but almost as adaptable as humans to a variety of ecosystems and landscapes. Though the giant bulls get a of attention, a herd is actually led by its mature females, who collectively assure the group’s survival in the face of often incredible odds – from harsh winters on the Great Plains or the challenge of fording a spring river to eluding the killers who nearly exterminated Bison bison in the 19th century or simply finding good places to graze all summer long.

The U.S. probably contains more bison right now than at any time since the Great Slaughter. Though almost none of the American herds are truly wild right now, every year sees the establishment of new conservation herds (e.g., in Alaska, Illinois, or Minnesota) and the growth of existing ones, such as the already-massive but ever-expanding herd at the American Prairie Reserve in north-central Montana, which (as their new annual report describes) has grown from 16 buffs in 2005 to 600 this year – and looks to grow to 1,000 animals by 2018.

All is not rosy for American bison, however, even and especially for the herd that is most prominent in the American imagination: the animals of Yellowstone National Park. Though the bison there are justifiably famous as wily survivors of the Great Slaughter and as the denizens of a spectacular place, they are also subject to enormous, awful abuse. Montana law allows state officials to take brutal and often fatal steps to control the buffs that, seeking forage, migrate out of Yellowstone National Park. This control is supposedly necessary to keep the buffalo from infecting domestic cattle (as fragile a species as one can imagine!) with diseases that would harm the state’s beef industry.

"In Hiding" (photo by and courtesy of Stephany Seay)
“In Hiding” (photo by and courtesy of Stephany Seay)

Scientific research shows that this is not a serious concern, but every fall, the hazing and hunting starts again, terrifying and killing dozens of the only truly wild buffalo in the United States. Thankfully the brave activists at the Buffalo Field Campaign in West Yellowstone, MT, work to stymie this abuse and to end this national disgrace. Using BFC’s resources, I periodically ask the governor of Montana to repeal the state law that gives cattlemen control over bison and advocate for a more scientific (and humane!) management plan that allows bison to roam like other wild animals (elk, antelope, moose, deer). National Bison Day seems like a perfect time to do this again.