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On August 21, 1976, the joint military forces of the United States and South Korea launched Operation Paul Bunyan, a mission which involved 813 fighting men on the ground (including a platoon of South Korean martial arts experts wired with Claymore mines), 27 military helicopters, a number of B-52 high altitude bombers with their jet fighter escorts, and the aircraft carrier Midway along with its attack group of missile cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. At the heart of the mission was a team of eight soldiers armed with chainsaws! The rest of the forces were providing support for this small team of men whose mission was…to cut down a single poplar tree.
This requires some explaining.
On July 27, 1953 an armistice agreement effectively ended the Korean War by creating a buffer zone 4 km (2.5 mi) wide which runs 250 kilometers (160 miles) across the entire Korean peninsula. Although huge armies wait on either side, the Demilitarized Zone itself remains a no-man’s land, deadly for humans to tread upon (and, consequently, one of the most pristine temperate forests on Earth). Only a tiny portion of the DMZ is designated as a Joint Security Area (JSA) where people can go. Located near what used to be the village of Panmunjon, the JSA serves as a sort of neutral meeting place, where North Korean forces meet face to face with forces from the United Nations Command. Numerous military and diplomatic negotiations have taken place at the JSA (although the North Koreans abandoned all meetings in 1991 over a perceived slight), however, in the years since the armistice, the area has also been the sight of many kidnappings, assaults, and killings as the hermit kingdom repeatedly tests its boundaries like a dangerous animal behind an electric fence.
In the mid-seventies, American and South Korean forces near the JSA had a problem: a leafy poplar tree blocked the view from one guardhouse to another. North Korean commandos exploited this weakness to attack the isolated guardhouse more than once. On August 18, 1976, a team of American and South Korean soldiers was duly dispatched to trim the tree. Unfortunately a bellicose team of North Korean soldiers intercepted the landscaping team and precipitated a fight. The North Korean officer stated that the poplar had been planted and nourished by Kim Il-Sung and was therefore sacrosanct. In the ensuing melee, two American officers were killed with axes and clubs. The perfidious North Koreans rushed to the Conference of Non-Aligned Nations, and presented the incident as an American attack. With support from Cuba, the members of the conference passed a resolution condemning the provocation and demanding a withdrawal of US and UN forces from the Korean peninsula.
Gerald Ford decided the incident had to be answered in a way which asserted overwhelming force yet precluded further escalation. Hence, Operation Paul Bunyan was put together to chop down the tree under the rubric of massive armed force. Heavily armed infantry, artillery, and air assault forces were moved into supporting positions as was the Midway carrier group. The armed convoy cut down the tree (in 42 minutes) and left the 6 meter (20 foot) stump remaining. They also cleared away two North Korean barricades.
Response to Operation Paul Bunyan was swift an unexpected: Kim Il-sung sent a message to United Nations Command expressing regret at the incident. North Korea’s provocative actions along the border were subsequently muted down (although, obviously, not forever). In 1987, the stump was cut down, but a stone monument to the fallen American officers was erected in its place.
So does everybody remember Pope Benedict XVI, the German guy who was pope until last month? While I was doing research on Papal tiaras, I happened to come across his personal coat of arms. Holy smokes! Tiaras will have to wait—check out this puppy! Not only does it feature a number of ferrebeekeeper themes–mollusks, mammals, and crowns—it is ridiculously gothic and insanely colorful to boot. The coat of arms features a moor’s head wearing a crown (and how is that an appropriate thing in the modern world?), a bear wearing a backpack (!), and a large scallop shell. The scallop shell is an allusion to pilgrimages and also an allegorical story about Saint Augustine walking on the beach and having an epiphany about divinit. The moor’s head is a traditional symbol of medieval German nobility (as an allusion to beheaded Moorish foes and to suzerainty over Africa): this particular example is apparently the “Moor of Freising” from the coat of arms of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising. The bear with the backpack is “the bear of St. Corbinian” but I have no idea what he is doing. Maybe he is going to grade school?
This papal coat of arms is unusual in that it is surmounted by a bishop’s miter instead of the traditional three-tiered papal tiera (a symbol of kingship which the papacy has been phasing out, but more about that in another post). The truly important element is there however—the fancy gothic keys of Saint Peter which (according to the Catholic Church) grant access to heaven. Now if only there were a catfish… Speaking of which, below, as a special bonus, I have included the coat of arms of the infamous Urban VIII (who poisoned the birds in the papal garden because their singing disturbed his plotting) which includes the Barberini bees, and the coat of arms of the futile and immoral Pious VI, which shows a weird boy throwing up on a lily.
I would like to interrupt the parade of anteaters, crowns, demons, and obscure colors for a brief but important political polemic. It seems likely that the Federal budget sequester will take place tonight and that is very bad news.
As almost everyone now knows, this artificial crisis was created as an attempt to make America’s hostile and antithetical political parties work together to cut spending and balance the budget. Unsurprisingly creating (another) arbitrary deadline failed miserably to accomplish this task–so unstructured cuts will hit big parts of the Federal budget. Defense spending is slated to be cut by 13% and the rest of domestic spending will be trimmed by 9%. The sequester will not touch entitlements like Medicare and Social Security (which make up the majority of the budget), because doing so would be political suicide for national politicians.
Some people are ok with this, and argue that the Federal budget is out of control and needs to be reined in by some means. Nine percent and thirteen percent are not big numbers. The American military is still the largest in the world…etc…etc… This is the wrong way to think. As this article outlines, many of the budget cuts insidiously strike at our research budget which will direly impact the future not just of the United States but also of the other nations (and maybe the ecosystems) of the entire world.
The sequester will hurt basic science research. Greedy Wall Street moguls will be just fine and (most likely) people at the bottom of the economic scale will be ok too, but, in twenty years humankind won’t have nanotechnology, space elevators, immortality potions, or whatever incredible thing today’s research was meant to foster.
Private companies, the Chinese, James Bond villain billionaires…all other entities capable of fundamental research are small potatoes (other than universities—which receive much of their science money from the government). The US Government is the world’s largest source of funding of basic research money…by a lot.
Fundamental research is the one thing America is good at (well maybe we can still make pizzas, scammy software, and dumb action movies, but we can talk about that another day) and that’s okay because research is the most important thing. Nations do not become superpowers because of indomitable spirit or cool national symbols, but because of engineering, science, and innovation. Research is the critical underpinning of economic, military, and cultural greatness. It is also fundamental to humankind’s quest to understand and manipulate the universe (before it kills us and everything we care about). Social security does nothing to further that objective!
The sequester cuts resemble a farm plan which leaves out the seed corn. And what is the point of even running a farm then? So, politicians, go ahead and make cuts to the budget. Raise taxes even. National leaders, do what you have to do, but please don’t cut the most important part of the budget because it is most abstract and lacks special interest lobbyists. That is stupid…and it is what we are doing by default.
Snake week continues with a dramatic return to my native Appalachia. Up in the mountains, devout Christianity has taken on a great many colorful forms, but arguably none are quite as exciting as the rites celebrated by the Pentecostal Snake-handlers. Snake-handling in Appalachia is said to have a long history rooted in 19th century revivals and tent-show evangelism, but its documented history starts with an illiterate but charismatic Pentecostal minister named George Went Hensley. Around 1910 Hensley had a religious revelation based on two specific New Testament Bible verses. Couched in the flinty vaguely apocalyptic language of the Gospels, the two verses which obsessed Hensley read as follows:
And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. Mark 16: 17-18
And he said unto them, I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven. Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. (Luke 10: 18-19)
While many believers might chose to understand these lines as a general affirmation of Christ’s devotion to his flock, Hensley was very much a literalist (and a showman). Believing that the New Testament commanded the faithful to handle venomous snakes, he set about obtaining a number of poisonous snakes and incorporating them into his ministry. The practice quickly spread along the spine of the mountains and beyond. Even today the Church of God with Signs Following (aka the snake handlers) numbers believers in the thousands.
A service at the Church of God with Signs Following includes standard Pentecostal practices such as faith healing, testimony of miracles, and speaking in tongues (along with much boisterous jumping and testifying), however what sets the ceremony apart are the live poisonous snakes which are located in a special area behind the alter located at the front of the church. Throughout the service, worshipers can come forward and pick up the serpents and even let the snakes crawl over their bodies. Native pit vipers such as copperheads, timber rattlers, and water moccasins are most commonly used in the ceremonies but exotic poisonous snakes like cobras are sometimes included. The snakes act as a proxy for devils and demons. Handling the reptiles is believed to demonstrate power over these underworld forces. If a congregant is bitten (which has happened often), it is usually regarded as an individual or group failure of faith. Upon being bitten devout snake-handlers generally refuse treatment, regarding this as part of their sacrament.
Not only do snake handlers handle snakes they also sometimes drink strychnine to prove their devotion. Additionally (although less alarmingly) they adhere to a conservative dress code of ankle-length dresses, long hair, and no make-up for women, and short hair and oxford shirts for men. Tobacco and alcohol are regarded as sinful.
Snake handling has a long and twisty relationship with state laws. In Georgia, in 1941, state legislators passed a bill which made Pentecostal snake handling into a felony and mandated the death penalty for participants, however the law was so extreme that juries refused to enforce it and it was eventually repealed. A number of states still have old laws clearly designed to curtail the practice of the faith (often these were instituted after particularly controversial deaths, particularly those of children).
The founder of snake handling, George Went Hensley, also had a twisty serpentine course through life. After founding and popularizing the church during the World War I era, he strayed somewhat from the life of a minister. During the 20’s he had substantial problems in his home life caused by drinking and moonshining. After being arrested for the latter, Hensley was sentenced to work on a chain gang but he beguiled the guards into other duties with his likability and, on an errand to fetch water, he escaped and fled from Tennessee. He worked various occupations including miner, moonshiner, and faith healer and married various women before returning to his ministry in the mid-thirties. During the next decades, Hensley led a vivid life involving a multi-state ministry (which was the subject of a miniature media circus), various drunken fits and conflicts, multiple marriages, and lots of poisonous snakes. The odds caught up to him in Altha, Florida in 1955 when he was bitten on the wrist by a venomous snake which he had removed from a lard can and rubbed on his face. After becoming visibly ill from the bite, he refused treatment (and is said to have rebuked his congregation for their lack of faith) before dying of snakebite. When he died he had been married 4 times and fathered 13 known children. He also had claimed to have been bitten over 400 times by various snakes.
Hensley always asserted that he was not the father of snake-handling, however he certainly popularized the movement. Even today, Christians of a certain mindset can prove their faith by harassing toxic reptiles (although the religion’s legality is disputed in many states where it is practiced).
Today’s post concerns various contemporary news items regarding outer space. At first this list may seem like a bit of a mash-up, but it all comes together as a very specific polemical point.
This year has already featured a lot of space news, but, sadly, most of it seems like it could have come from the 1950s. Iran launched a monkey to the edge of outer space. South Korea placed its first satellite in orbit (which seems like a response to North Korea doing the same thing last year).
In US space news, the 27th anniversary of the Challenger disaster came and went (that was an epically bad day in 6th grade–which was hardly a picnic anyway). Additionally, America announced that its biggest space plans for the near future include landing a redundant lander on Mars which was not exactly what NASA wanted but it fit the budget and was politically expedient. Our not-very-exciting work on our not-very-exciting next generation rockets continues slowly.
Finally, in other space-related news, paleontologists discovered that a massive space event apparently bombarded the Earth with Gamma rays in the 8th century. Astronomers speculate that two neutron stars might have collided! Also on February 15th a 50 meter asteroid will narrowly miss the Earth (flying by closer than many of our communication satellites).
All of this paints a rather alarming picture of a turbulent and dangerous universe where catastrophic events can occur with little notice. Meanwhile on Earth dangerous rogue nations (not you, South Korea, we like your style) are venturing into strategically important low Earth orbit. NASA’s current large-scale projects are lackluster (although its robotic exploration of the solar system continues to be exemplary). Are we discarding our leadership position in space because of debt, political paralysis, and complacency? It certainly seems like it…
One of the problems with writing about living things is that there is a lot of troubling news from the natural world. If one writes about the many sad or perplexing issues affecting worldwide ecosystems, people get depressed and stop reading, but if one willfully ignores true problems…well, what is the point of observing and thinking about the world? I remember CNN’s online newspage used to have a Science/Nature header which was so consistently filled with news of species die-offs, ecological disaster, and worldwide blight that the whole science section was canceled. Now CNN has more room for “news” about Ashton Kutcher’s all fruit diet and a tech section with reviews of “cool gear” you can buy for your Superbowl party. Sigh….
All of which is a round-about way of apologizing for today’s upsetting (but extremely important) post concerning the mass die-off of North America’s bats. Wait! Please don’t go to other site to read about “Miley” Cyrus. Bats are actually really important. They are key organisms in ecosystems across the continent. If they all die, the rest of us mammals are also going to be in serious trouble
The culprit behind the bat deaths is a fungus, Geomyces destructans, which causes WNS–white nose syndrome. Despite its cartoonish name, white nose syndrome is a horrible death sentence for most temperate bats in North America. Geomyces destructans is a low temperature fungus (like the hideous specimens you find in neglected refrigerators). As the bats hibernate, powdery white fungus builds up on their little wings and faces. The poor itchy bats are awakened from hibernation and, because of the irritation, they cannot return to a suspended state. The little animals quickly burn up their energy reserves and die—to then become macabre bat-shaped clumps of fungus.
Geomyces destructans seems to have traveled to North America from European caves, probably on the boots or specialized equipment of spelunkers (strange troubled sportspeople who worm deep into the crushing dark of caves). Now that the fungus is in North America, it appears to be spreading by means of bat to bat contact. European bats seem to have a native resistance to the fungus, but American bats are unprepared for it and they have died in legion. Ninety percent of New Jersey’s bats are believed to have already died. As the plague moves to new colonies similar mortality is expected. Although the disease started in the middle of New York State, it has quickly spread along the East coast and it is moving west. Scientists worry that the pestilence could spread from coast to coast (although bats which live in warmer climes might be less susceptible to the low temperature fungus). Bats reproduce slowly—usually at a rate of one pup (or less) per year, so bat colonies cannot replenish like sardine schools or rodent colonies. Additionally the spores linger in caves even after all the bats have been killed.
I personally love bats. I find them endearing and beautiful (and relatable, since I have my own flighty nocturnal habits). Western culture has not been so kind and often equates the flying mammals with witchcraft, Satan, demons, and all other manner of underworld fiends (the Chinese, however, see bats as lucky—in fact one of the Eight Taoist immortals began his cycle of incarnation as a bat). A surprising number of Americans cleave to the old ways and smile at the horrifying curse that jackass cave explorers have unknowingly unleashed on our little chiropteran friends.
This attitude is a big mistake.
Anecdotally, the weather on North America has been worsening. Great storms pound our coasts, droughts scorch the hinterlands, and mighty cyclones appear everywhere knocking down forests. Imagine if, to compound these woes, vast plagues of insects descended upon our homes and crops.
Well, without bats, you won’t have to imagine. Bats are a principal predator of insects—especially nighttime insects like mosquitoes (but also a surprising number of agricultural and forest pests). Humans, being diurnal, underestimate bats, but insect-eating chiropterans eat 80% to 100% of their body mass in insects per night and they live in vast colonies (especially out west). Without bats we are liable to see great swarms of insects eat our crops and we will experience a resurgence of mosquito born ills.
An article in Daily Finance outlines some of the potential fall out of the great North American bat die-off (and if cold heartless financiers are worried about the environment, we know that something is really amiss). So how can we actually help the bats? The Federal government has allocated 1.6 million dollars to study the problem, but this is not a lot of money! Various agencies and organizations are attempting to curtail cave exploration and keep people from becoming a further vector for spreading the fungus. Making people aware of the problems bats are facing is also a useful step (which is why I am writing this). Most of all we need to care for bats before they are gone. Farmers, bankers, politicians, ecologists, and scientists all need to worry about our beleaguered friends. The mass die-off of honey bees has had a horrible effect on agriculture and forestry: the effect of a bat die off could be worse. But even more importantly bats are social mammals—like us. If suddenly 90% of them are dying off, it is a terrible portent as well as a horrible loss to the planet.
Sigh, as 2012 winds down, it is time for the annual obituary list. As in 2010 and 2011, this list is not at all comprehensive: I have left off many famous entertainment personalities (who are amply celebrated elsewhere) and concentrated on scientists, artists, writers, puppeteers, and people whom I knew personally. Even so, I have missed or omitted all sorts of names (sorry, Gore Vidal and Robert Bork). The list is elegiac and personal: an obituary not just for people but for eras of time and aspects of life which are ineluctably passed:
H. Norman Schwarzkopf, (August 22, 1934 – December 27, 2012) was a United States Army officer. Schwarzkopf was most famous for his role as commander of coalition forces in the Gulf War, but he had a long infantryman’s pedigree including two tours of duty in Vietnam, where he was awarded three silver stars (along with numerous other awards for valor). “Stormin’” Norman was famous not just for his logistical and tactical savvy but for his ability to deftly manipulate the press corps. I remember seeing him marching at the head of a mechanized infantry column during a victory parade in 1991 in Washington (an event which now seems almost as remote to present times as a Roman triumph).
Norman Joseph Woodland (September 6, 1921 – December 9, 2012) was the co-creator of the barcode. After fighting for his patent and his idea in the rough-and-tumble world of American business he ultimately became an important cog in IBM’s vast corporate machine. The first consumer product with a UPC was scanned in 1974!
Neil Alden Armstrong (August 5, 1930 – August 25, 2012) After flying combat missions for the US Navy in the Korean war Neil Armstrong spent years as a test pilot. He left the military to pursue a career as an aerospace engineer, but as the space race quickened, he applied to NASA Astronaut Corps and was accepted as one of two civilian astronauts (the other was killed in a training accident). In 1965, Armstrong was the pilot of Gemini 8–and thus piloted one of the two first spacecraft to dock with each other in outer space. He returned to space in July of 1969 as mission commander of Apollo 11. He was the first human to walk on the moon—the first person of any of us to step on a different celestial body. After the moon landing, Armstrong taught engineering, farmed, raised his family and ignored his international fame, however as the current crop of useless politicians continue to slash away at research programs and at the space program itself, he joined together with his fellow astronauts to issue a public statement that “For The United States, the leading space faring nation for nearly half a century, to be without carriage to low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future, destines our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature.”
Jerry L. Nelson (July 10, 1934 – August 23, 2012) was a puppeteer, best known for his work on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. Although not a towering hero who will be remembered for as long as humanity endures (like, oh, say, the first man on the moon) he was the puppeteer who gave voice and life to Mr. Snuffleupagus and Count Von Count (among many others).
Isaac “Doc” Ferrebee (May 27, 1928 – August 15, 2012) was a family member. He was a Staff Sergeant in the Army, a veteran of the Korean War, and worked at (the same!) metal plant for 40 years. When I knew him, Doc was a tireless gardener and a great beekeeper. I will always think of him at the edge of his sweet corn and potatoes carefully looking after his beautiful hives of honey bees.
Ray Douglas Bradbury (August 22, 1920 – June 5, 2012) was a pioneering science-fiction/fantasy writer who wrote strange moral allegories and fantasies concerning the possible future of humankind. After a childhood epiphany in 1932, Bradbury wrote every single day for 69 years: his epiphany occured when a carnival performer named Mr. Electrico touched his nose with an electrified sword (which caused young Bradbury’s hair to stand on end) and yelled “Live forever!”
Sally Kristen Ride (May 26, 1951 – July 23, 2012) was the first American woman in space. Trained as a physicist she joined NASA in 1978 and traveled to low Earth orbit in 1983 upon the space shuttle Challenger. In addition to being the youngest American astronaut to travel into space (she was 32 at the time of her flight) she also co-authored five children’s science books with her life partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy.
Maurice Bernard Sendak (June 10, 1928 – May 8, 2012) was probably the foremost children’s book illustrator of the 20th century. His work is famous for combining the dark wild passions of opera with the whimsical inventiveness of central European folklore. Somehow Sendak took these elements and created his own unmistakable visual style of great beauty and depth.
Emmet Larkin (1927- March 19, 2012) was a tenured professor of history at the University of Chicago (in fact he was my favorite professor). He studied and wrote about Irish history—most particularly the transformative role of the Roman Catholic Church in19th and early 20th century Ireland. His most widely read book was “The Historical Dimensions of Irish Catholicism”. In undergraduate school, I took his Irish history class and his class on Victorian England, both of which were great favorites thanks to vivid lectures and lively discussion. To quote one of Larkin’s colleagues, Walter Kaegi “He was a good teacher of both graduates and undergraduates…He was lively, animated and very good with Ph.D. candidates. He had definite academic standards and maintained them.” I will miss Larkin greatly because I enjoyed talking with him in class or at his office hours. Additionally he appreciated my writings and ideas and served as a last link to the glorious world of the ivory tower.
Janice “Jan” Berenstain (née Grant; July 26, 1923 – February 24, 2012) worked with her late husband Stan Berenstain to create the “Berenstain bears” a fictional family of (strangely simian) middle-class bears. The bear family worked together to face the trials and tribulations of family life in a series of fairly blunt moral lessons (spread through a diverse entertainment portfolio of books, animations, andgames). Since the Berenstain bears were hitting the apogee of their fame just as I was entering elementary school, I recall lots of Berenstain stories from those years. Although many of those stories no doubt featured healthy lessons about patience and not throwing tantrums, what I remember most was their visit to a haunted house filled with bats and animated suits of armor. That was amazing!
Florence Green (February 19, 1901 – February 4, 2012) was the last person to serve in World War I (as a waitress on an air base in England). With her death, that terrible conflict takes another step deeper into the history books and away from the living experience of humankind.
Gosh, there were some famous astronauts there. It almost seems like our heroic future in space is rapidly becoming a mythicized past.
Today Santa Claus, an undead cleric from the early Byzantine Empire, is one of the most popular and beloved figures in the world. In the Christian canon, only God, Jesus, and Mary are more recognizable than the jolly fat man (sorry, Holy Ghost). As discussed in yesterday’s post, there were many different portrayals of Saint Nicholas/Santa/Sinterklaas/Father Christmas in different parts of Europe during the late middle ages and the early modern era. As industrialization and mass media became more prevalent, these images became amalgamated into the contemporary image of Santa, a compassionate old man with a red and white suit who tends to portliness. Much of this picture comes from Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas”. Additionally a series of illustrations by German-born American caricaturist Thomas Nast filled out the vernacular picture of Santa (Nast also popularized the Republican elephant, the democratic donkey, the figure of Columbia, and Uncle Sam). Coca-Cola provided his signature red outfit. Breakthroughs in communication have further consolidated this modern identity.
The mass-produced, mass-media portrayals of the gift-giving saint show a compassionate globalized executive who runs his supernatural empire from the geographic North Pole. All the dark edges have been smoothed away from Santa: he does not whip bad children or give them fossilized hydrocarbons nor does he subcontract such punishments to devils like Krampus. Like me, Santa is a toymaker, but, unlike me, he has a tremendous grasp of worldwide logistics. A huge team of competent elves run his modernized factories and provide him with support.
Even more shockingly, after one and a half thousand years of celibacy, the devout bishop suddenly obtained a wife. Mrs. Claus is usually pictured as a matronly but vivacious partner: a kind of polar first lady who frets about child-welfare, PR, and housekeeping –unless Santa is indisposed, whereupon she seamlessly takes over the reins for her demi-god husband (or am I the only one who saw that Christmas special?).
Santa can be omnipresent, traveling everywhere on Earth in one night with help from deathless flying reindeer and a bottomless bag of holding. He hears and sees all. This globalized Santa no longer performs flashy individual miracles (like resurrecting chopped-up children from barrels of salt). Instead he has become a polished politician—relying on vast support networks to change the emotional frame of reference for the masses.
A typical contemporary movie might show Santa simultaneously helping a sad little girl connect with her estranged business-executive father, reuniting lovers sundered by mischance, saving a shelter puppy about to be put down, and finding homes for a plucky group of orphans (maybe even trying to help a lost toymaker/blogger/artist). Santa always accomplishes everything with a deft touch so that the plots all interweave and everyone discovers the goodness was always in their hearts. The solutions—kindness, generosity, love– were always obvious and Santa didn’t need to be there at all…or did he?
Santa’s tale is one of the strangest but strongest story arcs imaginable. Over millennia, Bishop Nicholas, a thin, ascetic church prelate from fourth century Anatolia has changed into a globally recognized god of generosity. The orphan child has apotheosized into the spirit of giving.
When I was growing up, the Thanksgiving story was simpler. It revolved around the pilgrims landing in Plymouth and nearly dying of famine and sickness. They were saved when a helpful native named Squanto taught them how to fish and plant maize (and convinced the Wampanoag tribe to ally with the puritans instead of destroying them). It never really occurred to me to ask how such a helpful Native-American happened to be on the scene–speaking English, no less. Where did he learn that? It turns out that Squanto’s travels to arrive at Plymouth (which was originally his birthplace of Patuxet) were far more epic and heart-rending than those undertaken by the pilgrims.
Squanto’s original name was Tisquantum and he was born in the Patuxet tribe, probably in the 1580’s or 1590’s (there are lots of approximate dates and words like “probably” in Squanto’s biography). Many historians believe that Tisquantum was taken from North America to England in 1605 by George, Weymouth and then, after spending his youth being “kept” by Sir Ferdinando Gorges, returned with explorer John Smith in 1614. It is possible that Squanto was separated from a wife and child when he was coerced to Europe, and it is also possible that he had an English wife and children. What is certain is that Tisquantum was one of a group of 27 Native Americans kidnapped by Captain Thomas Hunt in 1614. A devious and cruel slaver, Hunt intended to sell the North Americans for £20 apiece in Malaga, Spain. Tisquantum escaped–possibly thanks to help from Spanish Friars with whom he lived until 1618. The friars tried to convert Tisquantum during the time that he lived with them, but his heart yearned for home, and, when the opportunity to travel back to the New World came, he shipped back across the ocean to assist in setting up the Newfoundland colony at Cuper’s Cove (a fur-trading colony set up in 1610).
Recognized by former associates, Tisquantum/Squanto was enlisted to map and explore the New England coast with Thomas Derner. Finally, in 1619 Tisquantum made it back to his village at Patuxet. But when he got there he was in for a horrific surprise. The village had been wiped out by plague (either smallpox or viral hepatitis) and everyone he knew was dead. Bleached skeletons lay among the fruit bushes and tumbled-down shelters. Less than a tenth of the original inhabitants of the region survived and what was once a thriving society lay empty and desolate.
As the last of the Patuxets, Squanto moved in with the remnants of a neighboring tribe, the Wampanoags. Tisquantum told them of the power and strength of the English. When the pilgrims showed up in 1620, he was under house arrest but he was quickly enlisted to translate the negotiations. Thanks to his accounts of English power, the settlers came to a favorable arrangement with the Wampanoags (although it was obvious that the English were in ragged shape since many had died and the remainder had been reduced to grave robbing from the dead Patuxets).
Squanto was released by the Wampanoags and moved in with the pilgrims. He taught them to properly fertilize their grain so it would grow in New England’s sandy soil. He showed them how to plant maize and fish for local fish and eels. He helped them hunt and negotiate with the Wampanoags. Yet he remained an outsider in the Pilgrim community. Through abusive threats he earned the enmity of the Wampanoags who became convinced he was trying to usurp the chieftan’s place. They demanded the pilgrims hand him over for execution but he was saved by the unexpected arrival of the ship Fortune, which provided the pilgrims with a pretext for ignoring the Wampanoag demands. By the end of his life he was in an ambiguous position—considered an outsider by both groups dwelling in what had been his home. During a treaty meeting with the Wampanoag he came down with “Indian fever” and began bleeding through his nose (some historians speculate that he was poisoned by the angry Wampanoags). Squanto was buried in an unmarked grave—after crossing the ocean many times and moving back and forth between different cultures he was at last united with his tribe.