Friday, October 7, 2016


Journey To The Desert's Edge, Part 11
Note: this is the eleventh in a series of occasionally appearing entries focusing on deserts in general and the drylands of West Texas in particular

“One reason that Texas is so drought prone is its latitude, the same latitude as the Sahara Desert.  As in the Sahara, large high-pressure cells can sit over the state for weeks or months at a time and block storms and incoming moisture.  The cause of these cells is not well understood but possible influences are solar storm cycles, ocean temperature cycles (El Nino and La Nina), and global warming.”-- Andrew Sansom, Water In Texas: An Introduction, 2008

Men’s lives in a place have always been influenced by climate: a truth...
For centuries, the western Concho Valley of Texas has been a sparsely land due to its harsh and demanding climate.  When the Spanish explored the area in the 1600s, they found people we know today as the Jumanos, some of whom lived in small rancherias along the river and some of whom practiced a more nomadic lifestyle.  By the latter half of the Seventeenth Century, the Jumanos found themselves displaced by the Lipan Apache who for a time, controlled barren lands between the Colorado River of Texas and the Rio Grande.  Next came the Comanche...

The concept of large permanent settlements came fairly late to this land of short grass and cactus.  It wasn’t until 1870 that a thousand people lived in what is now present day Tom Green County and most of those made their homes near Fort Concho, one of several remote military outposts established after the Civil War to bring law and order to western Texas...

The Lipan Apache, seen here in a painting by George Nelson, changed their lifestyle after the introduction of the horse and abandoned the traditional wikiup dwelling in favor of the tipis favored by Plains tribes

In the dry country surrounding the Fort, ranching became a way of life.  Later settlers tried their hand at farming.  Both activities were heavily dependent on the sporadic rains occasionally falling on sun-baked land.  Both activities would ultimately disrupt the fragile ecology of a semi-arid desert.  But these are stories for another day...

Uncertainty is the name of the game when it comes to knowing what happens tomorrow (or even later today): a second truth...

As a consequence, astrologers and other folks with prognostication skills in fields like tea-leaf analysis and sheep entrail reading have enjoyed steady employment for millenia.  The problem is that accurate predictions based on planetary locations one day are usually followed by multiple weeks of being wrong.  It’s a flaw that encourages skepticism among scientists who tend to believe theories should be considered faulty if reality disproves predictions based upon those theories...
Man's attempt to foresee changes in
weather dates at least to the days
of the ancient Babylonians


Science really doesn’t like uncertainty but efforts by scientists to provide us with a clear picture of Earth’s future climate is no easy task.  This difficulty may offer some comfort to those who prefer to ignore the overwhelming evidence of global warming.  But the facts do not take the side of climate ostriches who believe that we’re merely having a couple warm years before things go back to normal.  Sea levels are rising, Arctic ice levels are decreasing, lower troposphere temperatures are increasing...

Where global warming leads the United States in terms of long term effects is a mixed bag.  Models show average daily temperatures will continue to rise but will do so unevenly both in terms of time and location.  Frost free times of the year and growing seasons will lengthen, especially in the western half of the United States.  Projections for precipitation are that it can be expected to increase in the winter and spring in the north.  But the rains and snow are likely to decrease in the Southwest during those seasons as well.  Heat waves will be more common everywhere with periods of drought lasting longer in the already arid Southwest.  For those who dislike frozen winter days, there is the promise that cold waves are likely to become less intense over time.  Those who live along the coasts can expect sea levels to rise and for hurricanes to become stronger and more dangerous...

A good deal of global warming can be tied to an increase in greenhouse gases (which include water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone) in the atmosphere.  Greenhouse gases absorb and emit radiation in the thermal infrared range.  This is not necessarily bad-- the radiation from greenhouse gases in the atmosphere raise a planet’s surface temperature to a level above what it would be if the planet had no atmosphere.  Without an atmosphere, Earth’s surface temperature would likely be about 0 degrees Fahrenheit...
West Texas sheep rancher as depicted in a mural
by Stylle Read


But too much atmospheric warming is not a good thing.  Our planetary neighbor Venus enjoys mean surface temperatures of about 863 degrees Fahrenheit thanks to the greenhouse effect and an atmosphere which is roughly 96% carbon dioxide...

Overwhelming numbers of scientists believe human activity, particularly human activity increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, is a major factor in the global warming now taking place.  Lest the reader be tempted to believe this assertion is a new-fangled notion fostered by enemies of the energy companies, we note Alexander Graham Bell expressed concern in 1917 with our continued fossil-fuel use as ultimately causing a terrestrial “hot house effect” versus a “greenhouse effect”... 

The level of carbon dioxide emissions generated by human activity is particularly critical in understanding future climate on earth.  Studies of ice core samples reveal a carbon dioxide concentration of about 270 parts per million (ppm) in the years immediately before the Industrial Revolution.  By 1960, the level had increased to 313 ppm.  By 2013, carbon dioxide concentrations were at 400 ppm.  This rapidly rising number (and attendant global warming) can be traced primarily to human activities such as burning fossil fuels and tropical deforestation...



Global warming travels with problems for humans, the species largely responsible, for it and the severity of future climate changes it brings may be in the hands of those same humans.  In terms of the effects we noted earlier, we might point out rising sea levels impact the habitability of coastlines.  Likewise, higher temperatures and the likelihood of increased precipitation in some areas and prolonged drought in others affect agricultural production...

Dire predictions for the future of the planet as a whole set aside, we all have a localized interest in what changing weather brings.  What does global warming mean for me, I ask... 

My home is a semi-arid area at the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert with an average annual rainfall of about 20 inches.  This average, however, may not entirely what it would be if man let Mother Nature take her own course.  For roughly two decades, cloud seeding operations have been used to enhance area rainfall.  A study conducted for the city of San Angelo suggests rainfall during the 1985-1989 period increased at least 25% in seeded areas during the months seeding operations took place...
Ranchland in the western Concho Valley


What effect cloud seeding ultimately will have on area rainfall averages remains to be seen.  In the fifty years prior to consistent cloud seeding, San Angelo averaged 19.08 inches of precipitation per year with individual years totaling as low as 7.41 inches and as high as 40.40 inches.  Since folks began injecting cumulus clouds with silver iodide, annual average rainfall has increased to 21.58 inches with individual year extremes ranging from 9.21 to 32.93 inches...

(Compounding the difficulty of short-term assessments of long-term climate change as it occurs in the Concho Valley is the fact precipitation in the dry country is erratic.  While a given year’s rain in semi-arid regions is usually within ± 50% of the statistical average, there is no guarantee amounts that actually fall will be in that range.  Additionally, the monthly deviation from statistical norms can be (and usually are) significant.  The month of May offers a good example.  With an annual average rainfall of 02.82 inches, May sits statistically as the “wettest month of the year” for San Angelo.  But actual monthly totals from 2005 to 2016 range from 0.12 inches to 9.12 inches.)
Alexander Graham Bell, father of the
telephone and prophet of global warming


Although cloud seeding likely helps raise reservoir levels, it makes analyzing effects of global warming on natural precipitation patterns and evaporation rates in this sector of Texas more difficult.  This is dry country by nature--  we can look at data collected by the Texas A&M agricultural research station near San Angelo over a 54 year period and see the site’s 19.20 inches of precipitation was offset by a potential evapotranspiration rate of 71.34 inches.  Any increase in average annual rainfall derived from either cloud seeding or precipitation pattern changes induced by global warming may not prove to be as useful as hoped if rising temperatures lead to higher evaporation rates...

Scientists suspect rainfall may gradually lessen in already arid South and West Texas.  As temperatures continue to rise and warm air blankets the state for longer periods of time, meeting points between cold and warm air masses will shift and push seasonal rains more to the north and east...

Probably a lot of long hot summer days for my part of the world down the road...








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Fine Art America now features painting, drawings, and photographs by twenty-two artists who celebrate majestic and uncompromising landscapes, settlements, people, plants, and flora and fauna scattered across the vast emptiness called West Texas.

http://fineartamerica.com/groups/west-texas.html



CREDITS

Note: All photographs and information for this essay were located through Google Images, Wikipedia and readily available general information sources such as Enclcopedia Brittanica, without authoritative source or ownership information except as noted: photographs of Stylle Read mural and Concho Valley ranchland by Louis R Nugent; George Nelson Lipan Apache painting from http://www.forttumbleweed.net/apachepass.html ; water supply sustainability from https://data.globalchange.gov/assets/36/96/d21cee93238d81f9ea1404f06c5d/ECO_water_risk_index_V2.png; average Texas summer temperature increase from http://images1.dallasobserver.com/imager/u/745xauto/7439644/climatemaps.jpg ; Alexander Graham Bell photograph from  http://www.telcomhistory.org/vm/Images/AGB1867.jpg ; Information on general effects of climate change from  http://climate.nasa.gov/effects/; the Future of Climate Change from https://www.epa.gov/climate-change-science/future-climate-change; evidence for global warming from https://www.skepticalscience.com/evidence-for-global-warming.htm; rainfall increase from cloud seeding from https://www.tdlr.texas.gov/weather/weatherfaq.htm; nature of semi-arid precipitation patterns from http://www.fao.org/docrep/t0122e/t0122e03.htm; future rainfalls likely more to north and east from https://www.texastribune.org/2014/07/14/state-only-planning-bigger-texas-not-hotter-one/

Friday, January 8, 2016


Saints, Cowboys, And Buffalo Soldiers

"General Orders No. 1, issued in February 1881, abolished all military districts in the Department of Texas.  (Colonel Benjamin F) Grierson took note of the service of the black soldiers from 1878-1880 of the Tenth, Twenty-Fourth, and Twenty-Fifth (Cavalry Regiments) from his headquarters at Fort Concho in the District of the Pecos.  They had constructed and maintained three hundred miles of telegraph lines, guarded over one thousand miles of wagon roads, and marched 135,710 miles.  They had conducted the successful campaign against Victorio and the Mimbres Apaches.  They had made the district so safe that settlers flocked to western Texas."-- Debra J Scheffler, The Buffalo Soldiers:Their Epic Story and Major Campaigns, 2015

 
Bartholomew J De Witt, whose beloved wife Carolina Angela Garza died in 1866, paid $320 for 320 acres of land in the arid quarter of Texas west of the 100th meridian and south of the 32nd parallel around the time a nearby military installation received its third and final name in 1868...
Angela Garza De Witt and her patron saint, Angela de Merici,
overlook the Concho River in John Noelke's 2005 sculpture,
Las dos Angelas, located behind the visitor's center in downtown
San Angelo 
 
Fort Concho (after brief incarnations as Camp Hatch and Camp Kelly) sat near the junction of the Middle and North Concho rivers at a site meant to overcome a lack of water for troops and horses--  the major deficiency of Fort Chadbourne which had been established in 1852 in what later became Coke County to protect stage coach routes and the few European descent settlers in the harsh and dry region...


Wagon train settlers headed west pause for a respite at Fort Concho in this
undated photograph from the late 19th Century
 
The renamed military outpost would play a key role in settling the American Southwest.  Its soldiers were charged with protecting settlers and keeping the route to El Paso del Norte open at the same time they mapped the four hundred miles of desert separating the Army garrisons of Fort Concho and Fort Bliss, working in conjunction with men assigned to even more remote and isolated locations such as Fort Stockton and Fort Davis...

Most of this grueling work fell to a group of men called Buffalo Soldiers..


Stylle Read included this realistic depiction of a Fort Concho soldier in the
harsh and unforgiving West Texas desert in a 2012 mural devoted to the military
heritage of San Angelo
 
Where there are soldiers, there are goods not readily available in military commisaries and Bart De Witt established a trading post in an area referred to as “Over The River” to meet the needs of troops and settlers alike.  The collection of shops and saloons that sprang up soon took the name San Angela, either in honor of De Witt’s wife, her patron saint (Angela de Merici), or a relative of the family who was a nun in San Antonio...

Santa Angela became the town of San Angelo, thanks to a mishap with the Post Office which resulted in a bureaucratic sex change for a town known for gamblers, prostitutes, and saloons.  Among the rascals who added to the misdeeds committed in the dusty desert settlement were the card sharps Carlotta J Thompkins aka Lottie Deno aka Mystic Maude (and the prototype for Miss Kitty on the Gunsmoke television series) and John Henry “Doc” Holliday, a dentist best remembered today for a 30 second gunfight at the O K Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. This outlaw past and reputation as a dangerous frontier city eventually worked its way into popular American music as “San Angelo”, a gunslinger ballad by Marty Robbins, who told a similar story about an outlaw and his lover in El Paso...

Born into Kentucky wealth, Lottie Deno chose the
life of gambler in San Angelo and other western
frontier towns.  She is said to be the inspiration for
Gunsmoke's Miss Kitty
 
But, long before that, in 1866, following the Civil War, Congress found itself impressed by the bravery of the 180,000 or so black soldiers who’d seen service in the Union Army and decided to form cavalry and infantry regiments composed of African-Americans. Several regiments were consolidated after their creation and, by 1869, these men were assigned to one of four regiments: the Ninth United States Cavalry, the Tenth United States Cavalry, the Twenty-Fourth United States Infantry, and the Twenty-Fifth United States Infantry.  They were relatively well paid for the times-- Buffalo Soldiers enlisted for five years with a starting salary of $13 per month...

Despite the dangerous duties assigned these men, their ability to lead themselves and plan complex military operations was questioned.  White officers commanded them with few exceptions, the most notable of these being Henry O Flipper, who, in 1873, became the first black man to receive a commission from West Point...


Henry O Flipper, circa 1900.  Despite his mistreatment
by the military, Flipper went on to a long and successful
career as an author, engineer, and political advisor
 
[Flipper was eventually forced out of the Army in what now appears to have been a racially motivated court martial involving the disappearance of post funds entrusted to his care.  Acquitted of charges of embezzlement, he was nevertheless found guilty of “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman” and dismissed from the service in June 1882.]

Sadly enough, a number of white officers, including George Armstrong Custer of Little Bighorn infamy, refused to command black soldiers.  In Custer’s case, he believed them inclined to cowardice and consequently considered it below his dignity to ride alongside such men.  His distaste for black soldiers was so great that he turned down command of the Tenth Cavalry, a Colonel’s position, and instead accepted a Lieutenant Colonel’s duties with the Seventh Cavalry...

Among those who disagreed with Custer’s assessment of African-American courage and fighting skills were Native American tribes of the Desert Southwest and the Great Plains who first referred to the black infantry and cavalry troops as Buffalo Soldiers.  It was a term bestowed with respect.  Disagreement exists as to whether the Cheyenne or the Comanche first used the term.  Several theories have also been advanced to explain the origin of the Buffalo Soldier nickname: the curly black hair of the soldiers, their ferocity and bravery in battle, the buffalo hide coats they wore in the winter...


10th Cavalry soldiers on the parade grounds of Fort Davis
 
Regardless of how they got their name, black Buffalo Soldiers made the Great Plains safe for white settlers at the expense of the red man in quick order, building roads and telegraph lines and escorting mail between skirmishes with the native settlers.  The focus of their duties then shifted southwest to the dry country of West Texas.  In April 1875, regimental headquarters for the Tenth Cavalry were transferred to Fort Concho (which simultaneously also became home base for the Ninth Cavalry)  where its soldiers continued the work they’d begun on the Kansas plains at Fort Leavenworth...

Soldiers assigned to Fort Concho were primarily responsible for patrolling the previously mentioned southwestern quarter of Texas, a land of desert grasslands dotted with xeric shrubs as well as large stretches of barren country almost entirely lacking in vegetation.  Readers who are familiar with the western half of Texas would appreciate the difficulty of their duties even if the hard country of the Concho Valley and Trans-Pecos had been the only area of responsibility for these men.  But they also found themselves traveling northward to the equally harsh regions of the Llano Estacado and Panhandle to fight Comanches or map the sparsely populated landscapes...

One of the greatest miltary challenges the Tenth Cavalry faced came in 1880 when it became part of the campaign against the Apache chieftain Victorio and his band.  Led by Colonel Benjamin Grierson, who had commanded the regiment since its founding in 1866, the Buffalo Soldiers of the Tenth Cavalry marched ten thousand miles of desolate country to successfully engage Victorio’s men at Tinaja de las Palmas and Rattlesnake Springs...


Benjamin Grierson commanded the 10th Cavalry from
its beginnings in 1866 until his retirement from the
Army in 1890, refusing numerous offers of transfer to
less grueling assignments
 
[Eventually killed in battle in Mexico, Victorio was, like Cochise, a son-in-law to Mangas Colorado whose torture and murder by American soldiers in January 1863 while under a flag of truce inflamed the Apache. Victorio’s sister Lozen was also highly regarded for her courage in battle, her skill as a horsewoman, and what seems to have been a kind of prophetic ability and clairvoyance allowing her to see things at a distance and forecast the outcome of events.  After her brother’s death, Lozen allied herself with Geronimo and continued to battle for her people until her own death from tuberculosis in 1890.] 

Grierson also wore the hat of commander of the Military District of the Pecos from 1878 to 1881.  When he relinquished those duties, he noted “a settled feeling of security, heretofore unknown, prevails throughout Western Texas.”  A year later, in 1882, the regimental headquarters of the Tenth Cavalry was transferred deeper into the desert to Fort Davis in Texas across the Pecos to contend with the remaining threats posed to settlement...

Lozen, sister of Victorio and a fierce warrior in her own
right, was said to possess supernatural powers of prophecy
and clairvoyance
 
The tenor of the times was such that Grierson, originally a music teacher who lacked West Point credentials but who’d overcome a personal fear of horses to prove his mettle during the Civil War, was viewed by his peers with a certain disdain not only for his unwavering support of the black soldiers he commanded (from 1866 until 1890) but also for his strong respect for the Native Peoples he fought...

While the role of the Buffalo Soldier in settling the frontier is slowly becoming more widely known, the fact that about one in four post Civil War Texas cowboys was a black man (with Mexican cattle hands being at least as numerous) still eludes most of us.  British born film documentary producer John Ferguson suspects the lack of cowboys of color during in the movies and television shows from the heyday of Hollywood westerns lies at the root of our general ignorance about the role minorities played in taming the frontier...


Mario Van Peebles in Posse


One notable example of the lack of color in Hollywood is John Ford’s The Searchers, a 1956 film starring John Wayne as a Civil War veteran whose niece has been abducted by Indian.  The Alan Le May novel on which Ford based his film was inspired largely by the story of Brit Johnson, a black cowboy whose wife and children were taken prisoner by the Comanche in 1865...

Despite this under-representation of the black role in settling the American West, the movie industry didn’t totally ignore the subject.  A sampling of these films: in the 1920s, Bill Pickett, an African-American cowboy credited with inventing the “bull-dogging” rodeo event starred in a film produced by the Norman Film Manufacturing of Jacksonville, Florida.  Herbert Jeffrey, who later toured with Duke Ellington, played the lead in 1939’s Harlem Rides The Range. In 1972, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte teamed up for Buck and The Preacher as a wagon-master and con man leading freed slaves west.  A quest for vengeance drives 1993’s Posse with Mario Van Peebles...


Despite the fact that the last soldiers marched away from Fort Concho in
June 1889, it remains among the best preserved frontier outposts in the nation.
Local merchants and historical re-enactors have staged an annual "Christmas at
Old Fort Concho" event since the 1980s to recall San Angelo's beginnings
as a rough and tumble Old West haven for outlaws

Black cowboys, especially those born into slavery, often found a better life on the range than they could have elsewhere in a state that had allied itself with the Confederacy.  The reason for this was fairly simple.  Survival of men working together in the hard land of the American West depended on trust.  A man had to rely, like a soldier in combat, on the man next to him.  Too much prejudice could easily prove fatal.  As cattle driver Charles Goodnight said of his friend Bose Ikard, born into slavery in Noxubee County, Mississippi, “(I) trusted him farther than any living man.  He was my detective, banker, and everything else in Colorado, New Mexico, and the wild country I was in”...

Historian Mike Searles has noted the range offered another form of equality for former slaves-- there were few bosses to tell him what to do.  A black cowboy often had the unenviable task of being the one to break unridden horses.  But you might also find him as the camp cook or the man whose job it was to sing softly and keep restless herds calm when there was a hint of a desert thunderstorm on the horizon...

 


 

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Follow and Like Louis R Nugent Photography on Facebook @ louisnugent22.

 

CREDITS

Note: All photographs and research for this essay were located through Google Images or Wikipedia and other readily available public materials, without authoritative source or ownership information except as noted: photographs of Las dos Angelas, Christmas at Old Fort Concho, and Stylle Read mural by Louis R Nugent; Still of Mario Van Peebles in Posse (1993) from http://ia.media-imdb.com/;  Lottie Deno from http://www.legendsofamerica.com/; 10th Cavalry at Fort Davis from http://tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/programs/buffalo-soldiers/; wagon train at Fort Concho from http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/forts/images/travellors.html; origin of Buffalo Soldier nickname and racial prejudice against black soldiers from http://www.buffalosoldiers-amwest.org/history.htm; Custer comments from http://www.deseretnews.com/article/496071/BUFFALO-SOLDIERS-GOT-THE-LAST-LAUGH-ON-CUSTER.html?pg=all; chronology of Fort Concho: http://www.fortconcho.com/forms/A%20Fort%20Concho%20Chronology.pdf; http://www.vq.com/buffalo-soldiers/; http://texasalmanac.com/topics/history/frontier-forts-texas; Grierson’s comments upon relinquishing his command from Fort Concho: A History and a Guide, James T Matthews, Texas State Historical Association Press, 2013; black cowboys from http://www.cnn.com/2012/11/15/world/black-cowboys/; Black Cowboys, Teresa Paloma Acosta, Handbook of Texas Online; Mike Searles observations from http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-21768669; black western films from http://www.separatecinema.com/exhibits_harlem.html

 

 

Friday, December 18, 2015


Buck And Icarus

"I often asked him how he managed to stay up in the air.  He never could understand why we could not do it.  He just took a leap, held his breath, and stayed up."-- Nandor Fodor quoting Romola Nijinsky, Between Two Worlds, 1964
 

Nandor Fodor puzzled over many things.  One of those puzzling things was a mystery associated with the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky whose audiences often wondered if, for a few moments, Nijinksy somehow temporarily suspended the laws of gravity.  Fodor, a Hungarian born lawyer turned psychoanalyst, mulled the possibility that there was something to an ancient Hindu belief a person could somehow awaken the Anahatu Chakra through meditation and breath control and briefly walk on the air...


Vaslav Nijinsky
 
The famous ballet dancer was not the only person reputed to have some secret way of briefly suspending the natural laws of the universe.  In 1868, a Scottish medium named Daniel Dunglas Home allegedly levitated himself in the presence of Lord Adare and strolled out of a room through one third story window of the aristocrat’s home and back into it through the window alongside it...

Since nearly a century and a half has passed since D D Home, the son of a Scottish carpenter, enthralled the high society of Europe (receiving audiences from Napoleon III and Pope Pius IX), we have no way of proving he whether was charlatan or a minor miracle worker.  We can say that he caused a bit of a rift between two noted poets-- his admirer Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her skeptical husband Robert Browning who made the effort to write to the London Times to denounce the man he referred to in one of his poems as “Sludge the Medium”...

British medium Colin Evans captured in an infra-red
image as he allegedly levitates during a 1938 seance
 
Of course, the notion that man could somehow break the bonds of earth through some mechanical means appealed more to those of a scientific bent than the idea that a chap might simply will himself into the sky through some esoteric mumbo jumbo.  The Roman poet Ovid told the story of Icarus, ill-fated son of the Greek master craftsman Daedalus, in his Metamorphoses.  Father and son had been imprisoned by King Minos of Crete for whom Daedalus had constructed the infamous Labyrinth which housed the murderous Minotaur.  Daedalus fashioned a set of wings for himself and Icarus, warning his son not to fly to close to the sun lest its heat melt the wax holding the feathers together.  Children rarely heed the wisdom of their parents and Icarus was no exception when he discovered the freedom of soaring like a bird above the ocean...

The Fall of Icarus, Peter Paul Rubens, 1636
 
We should not find ourselves surprised that men have long desired to rise up into the sky, either through some man-made apparatus or in a magical way.  The desire appears in our dreams and daydreams.  Fantasies of flight attracted Sigmund Freud’s attention.  He saw them, at least in males, as the product of sexual impulses whose normal channels have been blocked.  The desire also expresses itself covered in the more socially acceptable cloak of religion-- on one occasion, Saint Joseph of Cupertino, in the words of one witness, “rose into space... and flew like a bird onto the high altar where he embraced the tabernacle”...

The holy man of Cupertino is not the only religious figure said to have the power to float in the air or fly.  Sister Mary of Jesus Crucified, an Arabian Carmelite, rose to the top of trees in the garden of a monastery in Bethlehem.  Similar accounts popped up in stories told about Saint Dunstan and Saint Dominic and a number of other righteous priests and nuns.  The religious fanatic Girolamo Savonarola, supposedly floated in his dungeon cell during his devotions as he awaited noose and flame.  Shamanic traditions of Central Asia speak of men who transformed themselves into birds so they could quickly move from one place to another...


Magician and Pretty Girl With No Visible Means of Support
 
Levitation has no adherents in the modern scientific world.  Mystical speculations about interfaces between man and the divine or states where human consciousness can twine together with the elements and fundamental forces of the universe don’t lead to tests whose results can be duplicated.  In the material world, levitation is fraud, delusion, or cleverly done trickery...

But the dream of flight lingers even in the material world of testable propositions...

In 1886, Jules Verne speculated that perhaps it was time for man to begin to think about moving past travel in balloons which began one hundred and three years earlier with a five and a half mile flight over the French countryside for the course of about a half hour in a balloon designed by the Brothers Montgolfier.  Verne tells the story of Robur the Conqueror who has mastered the technology necessary to achieve heavier than air flight.  The novel telling the story has its moments of action and conflict and adventure but isn’t quite as exciting as a 1961 movie in which Vincent Price, playing Robur, is an idealist bent on ending tyranny and violence by bombing warring nations into a lasting worldwide peace.  Robur himself, of course, would be the benevolent ruler who insured harmony continued to exist between the conquered nations of Earth...


Flash Gordon and Dale Arden preparing to take on...

 
Ming the Merciless (as portrayed by Charles Middleton)
 
When Verne penned a sequel to his story in 1904, Robur had become a madman akin to the character portrayed by Vincent Price.  His new thirty meter long craft, named (appropriately) The Terror, could travel hrough the skies at a mind-boggling 200 miles an hour.  This was considerably faster than the first sustained flight by a powered and controlled aircrat, a flight of 120 feet covered in twelve seconds at Kittyhawk, North Carolina, by the Wright Brothers on December 17, 1903...

Aviation through the clouds above the mountain peaks of this world offered adventure aplenty to those seeking to cross oceans and polar ice caps-- and for those who simply wished to travel from New York to San Francisco in less time than it took a locomotive to drag railroad cars across a continent...


The gentleman known as Daniel Dunglas Home
to Elizabeth Barrett Browning and as  Mr Sludge
to her skeptical husband Robert Browning
 
The frustrated lad who could find no proper way to express his affection for a lovely lass could now dream of becoming a virile hero on distant worlds instead of indulging in the fantasy of hovering over a playground, thanks to the reality of aircraft travel in the real world in which he was just another pimply-faced kid with a squeaky voice and an after school newspaper delivery route...

In August 1928, a pulp magazine called Amazing Stories published Philip F Nowlan’s novella, Armageddon: 2419, whose hero Anthony Rogers found himself starring in a comic strip several months later as Buck Rogers.  In the novella, Buck brought some old fashioned American values to the future.  He was born in 1898, fought the Germans in the Great War, returned home to work for the American Radioactive Gas Corporation, and then found himself waking up in the 25th Century after he being exposed to one of those radioactive gases in a Pennsylvania coal mine.  Despite the fact that the United States has been conquered by Mongol Reds, young Rogers fortunately meets the very lovely rebel Wilma Deering and joins her in the battle to take America back from the Communists...

Dale Arden learns about obedience the hard way
 
Buck and Wilma eventually travel into space where they encountered Tigermen on Mars and other hostile alien life forms.  The Buck Rogers comic strips (which debuted on the same day as the Tarzan comic strip) have no record of any meeting between these two heroic Earth people and the equally heroic interplanetary trio of Flash Gordon, Dale Arden, and the half-crazed Doctor Zharkov who kidnaped Flash and Dale after inventing a rocketship he hopes to use in preventing a collision between Earth and the planet Mongo whose despotic ruler Ming the Merciless could easily put Fu Manchu to shame in any contest of villainy...

During the Great Depression days of comic strip and pulp fiction interplanetary flight, the kid who dreamed of flying as a substitute for kissing pretty girls had no shortage of role models: Superman, like that daring young man on the trapeze admired by those fellows not willing to admit they were smitten by those curvy Gibson Girls, flew through the air with the greatest of ease-- and he could move faster than a speeding bullet.  Clark Kent, aka Superman, had his Lois Lane who admired him as chastely as Dale and Wilma did their swashbucklers.  And there, too, was Doc Savage to emulate, a two-fisted scientific genius whose ability to soar in the sky came strictly through his skills as a pilot.  Doc was too busy stopping would-be dictators to pay much attention to girls but even he had to admire his lovely cousin Pat who could outdraw any gunslinging outlaw and rarely found herself bested in hand-to-hand combat...


Doc Savage rescuing a Damsel in Distress
as he tries to stop the reign of terror
created by The Metal Master, a fiend who
has learned how to cause steel to melt

Patricia Savage as we meet her in Brand of the Werewolf,
her first adventure shared with her cousin Doc

 
No idea is rarely without many facets.  This is particularly true when we think about our desire to escape the force of gravity.  As we ponder the notion, we encounter scientific skepticism that the mind can somehow suspend the laws of physics, scientific faith in humankind’s ability to study the natural world and learn truths that will allow us to work within nature’s rules to fashion commonplace realities that would have been miracles to ancient peoples, questions of religious faith, psychological ponderings on sexuality and dominance, and pop culture analyses that may or may not contain valid insights...

Among the last category, we offer this idea for consideration.  While we may see hints of sublimated sexuality in the comic strip fictions, we also glimpse something else:  an incipient feminism where Wilma Deering and Dale Arden and Pat Savage stand beside men as warriors in their own right.  The sexual prowess and intellectual skill of these women hover over them like a barely noticed halo in the 1930s...

Times do change and by the 1970s, Dale Arden had become Dale Ardor.  But that’s another and much sexier story...

 
By the mid-1970s, tomboy Pat Savage was still as two-fisted as she was in the 1930s but now prone to offering up a little sexual teasing to her notoriously girl shy cousin when she,Doc, and the rest of the crew uncover the secret of the Loch Ness Monster in the 1976 Marvel Comics graphic novel, The Earth Wreckers

 

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CREDITS

Note: All photographs and research for this essay were located through Google Images or Wikipedia and other readily available public materials, without authoritative source or ownership information except as noted: Vaslav Nijinsky from Between Two Worlds, Nandor Fodor, Parker Publishing, New York, 1964; the levitational abilities of Daniel Douglas Home from The Supernatural, Douglas Hill and Pat Williams, Hawthorn, New York, 1965 and Harper’s Encyclopedia of Mystical and Paranormal Experience, Rosemary Ellen Guiley, Harper, San Francisco, 1991; Freud and fantasies of flight from Fantasies of Flight, Daniel M Ogilvie, Oxford University Press, 2003; religious expression of fantasies of flight and levitation from Shamanism, Mircea Eliade, Princeton University Press, 1964 and An Encyclopedia of Occultism, Lewis Spence, Citidal Press, New York, 1993; illustration of Pat Savage from The Earth Wreckers, Marvel Comics, April 1976; Vaslav Nijinsky in costume from National Public Radio (http://www.npr.org/assets/img/2013/05/29/3202983_archive.jpg)

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Woman Behind The Most Influential Book No One Actually Reads

"Never utter these words:  'I do not know this-- therefore it is false.'  One must study to know, know to understand, understand to judge."-- H P Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled, 1877

 Trivia lovers constantly seek to impress others with obscure facts for reasons probably best (and better) known only to themselves.  This truth can be verified by anyone who has suddenly been asked by the resident know-it-all to state, for the record, the average distance between Jupiter and Pluto, the atomic weight of Molybdenum or the occupation of Theda Bara's father...  

We arm you with our own fact of minimal value or interest:  July 1878 was the month and year when the first Russian born woman was granted citizenship by the United States government.  The lady in question didn’t really wish to while out all her days in the land of the free and the home of the brave.  She, in fact, desired to travel to India and stay there for an indefinite period of time, possibly even take up residence.  But the British were a suspicious lot and she thought a new nationality on an already well-worn passport would allay the notion that this visitor to the crown jewel of their Empire was, in fact, a Russian spy...

Madame Blavatsky and the Logo of her Theosophical Society
 
Exactly who and what Helena Petrovna Blavatsky was (or was not) remains a matter of debate.  Toward the end of her life, the British Society for Psychical Research issued its opinion of her activities in India:  "For our part, we regard her not as the mouthpiece for hidden seers, nor as a mere vulgar adventuress; we think she has achieved a title to permanent remembrance as one of the most accomplished, ingenious, and interesting imposters of history"...

More charitably, we will say Madame Blavatsky (HPB, to her followers) co-founded the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875.  Partners in this venture included lawyers Henry Steel Olcott and William Q Judge.  Known as "Colonel" for services rendered in the American Civil War, Olcott was blessed with an inquisitive mind that pondered subjects as varied as methods to improve agricultural yields and claims made by the spiritualist movement.  Attorney Judge specialized in commercial paper cases when not pursuing esoterica...

The goals of the Theosophical Society (which continues as an active and significant force in the occult movement to this date) cannot be quickly summarized without doing the movement grave injustice… 

HPB and Colonel Olcott


Blavatsky believed all faiths and sets of religious belief contain core spiritual truths that could be recovered through a combination of direct revelation from the Divine and meditative and/or occult practices designed to isolate these truths from the dogma surrounding them.  A God Who is the Source of all, an immortal soul, and a possibility of total spiritual enlightenment are among these core truths...

In July 1878, preparing to travel overseas with a reinvented identity, H P Blavatsky refused to take credit as sole author of the weighty Isis Unveiled, published the year previous.  She had written much of the book herself, she confessed to her supporters, but she’d also simply assembled pages which appeared mysteriously in her study, as many as 50 per night.  The truth of the matter: a Great Lodge of highly evolved spirits, an invisible brotherhood, had chosen her to be their instrument to guide mankind to higher states of consciousness...

Born in 1831 near the village of Yekaterinoslav, Helena Petrovna's father served the Tsar as an artillery officer.  He descended from aristocratic German stock.  This was well and good but her mother had the better blood lines-- her noble family traced itself to Prince Mikhail of Chernigov.  In turn, Mikhail claimed Rurik, the legendary Norseman credited with founding the Russian state, as his ancestor...

Theosophical Society Headquarters, Adyar, India, 1890
 
Several things about HPB's childhood hint at the woman she becomes...

Her mother and grandmother, also named Helena, provided strong role models.  Mother wrote novels whose heroines strove to break free of the emotionally constricting lives society expected of them.  The Russian literati compared her to George Sand (aka Amandine Dupin, Baroness Dudevant), the scandalous French novelist who advocated free love and had an affair with composer Frederic Chopin.  Grandmother,  aka the Princess Dolgorkurov, studied the natural world and earned academic respect for her botanical studies...

Blavatsky (her married name) demonstrated disturbing hints of genuine telepathic and precognitive abilities while growing up at the family estate near Odessa.   More upsetting to her relatives was HPB's distinct democratic streak.  The girl simply did not care if the new friend she brought home to dinner was an unkempt peasant child or the equally odious offspring of a peddler...

These factors-- strong female role models, psychic phenomena, and indifference to her social standing-- appear to have come together in her mid-teen years to create HPB.  At sixteen, she discovered her late grandfather's library and began poring over his books about medieval occultists, hoping to make sense of her own paranormal experiences.  A year later, she ran away from home to spite her governess and promptly married a General decades older than herself.  Three months after exchanging vows with the old soldier, Helena walked away from the marriage...

Thomas Edison would eventually be among the many persons
who made the acquaintance of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky.  An
agnostic on the question of the survival of the human
personality after death, Edison toyed with the idea of creating
a machine that would capture spirit vibrations if they existed.
 
Four decades and three years later, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky would die far from New York, India, or Holy Mother Russia.  She would move to the next plane of existence in London...

Those 43 years spanned a time of incredible technological progress and the atheistic intellectual challenges posed by Charles Darwin and Karl Marx.  They simultaneously twined with serious attempts by educated men and women to find a scientific basis to believe in a teleological universe-- or at least locate reasonable hints lives had some meaning and we could hope to continue beyond the grave...

The British were in the forefront of this search.  Since the appearance of the London Dialectical Society in the late 1860s, many intellectuals in the land of Angles and Scots had investigated claims of contact with spirits, thought transference, glimpses into the future, and similar phenomena.  At the suggestion of physicist William Barrett, a Society for Psychical Research was formed in 1882... 

The city of Wurzburg where HPB worked on The Secret Doctrine


The society attracted the attention of natural scientists like William Crookes (discoverer of the element Thallium) and Oliver Lodge (noted for studies in electromagnetism), as well as students of the mind Sigmund Freud and psychologist William James.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Scottish physician best remembered for creating Sherlock Homes, belonged to the group.  Like Doyle, Lodge had a very personal interest in knowing if the soul continued its existence after death-- both had lost family members to the horror of the First World War…

Another thread of research co-existed with organizations interested in finding any hard science that might explain paranormal events.  This thread consisted of esoteric societies whose goal was to isolate, refine, and reunite the divine spark in mankind with the Ultimate Source.  It is probably fair to say these magical orders were more in search of mythic truth rather than scientific fact... 

Members of these esoteric orders were well educated, well-to-do, often with some sort of connection to Masonic lodges.  Perhaps the best known of these societies is the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn whose members included William Butler Yeats, Bram Stoker and Arthur Edward Waite...

Adherents of societies such as The Hermetic
Order of the Golden Dawn were inclined to
odd costumes.  Here, a member seeks to
embody Isis
 
For Helena Petrovna (whose Theosophical Society was closer in intent to the purpose of the Golden Dawn than the goals of the Society for Psychical Research) the 43 years during which she attached Blavatsky to her name were simply a magnificent adventure, a rollercoaster whirlwind of activity.  There were shipwrecks off the Egyptian coast, treks to remote monasteries in Tibet, voyages to New Orleans to learn secrets of voodoo…

But, above all, there was the grand stay in India where the invisible (and probably non-existent) Ascended Master and Secret Brother Koot Hoomi assisted HPB in creating a lucrative business as a spiritual adviser… 

Then came the British Society of Psychical Research to examine her claims.  Oddly enough, their experts determined Master Koot apparently used HPB's own hand and ink to write his messages from The Great Beyond...

Denying wrongdoing, the disheartened HPB left India.  She penned another book in Europe, The Secret Doctrine, spending time in Italy and Germany as she did so.  Then it was on to Belgium.  Then London.  One hopes she found her way to a joyful reunion with Koot Hoomi in the world beyond this and that the Ascended Master enjoyed traveling as much as she did ...

HPB's magnum opus, Isis Unveiled, remains in print today, thanks to the Theosophical Society that she, Olcott, and Judge organized well over a century ago.  It is a massive work consisting of two volumes (Science, 657 pages, and Theology, 848 pages).  One suspects that very few of HPB's critics or devotees have actually read this collection of writings despite its impact on New Age thought.  This is a shame, considering Volume 1, page 327 (Science) offers the definitive discussion on the subject of the astral body of apes...     

Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes and member
of the Society for Psychical Research, found himself at odds with
colleagues who considered this 1917 "Fairy Photographs" to be
a blatant hoax


 
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CREDITS

Note: All photographs and research for this essay were located through Google Images or Wikipedia or other readily available public materials, without authoritative source or ownership information except as noted: HPB/Theosophical Society logo from http://www.richardcassaro.com/