Thursday, July 19, 2018

Conservation president's legacy ours to enjoy -- July 19, 2018 column


It’s hard to escape distrust of the nation’s capital -- even at a rodeo in a little town in South Dakota.

I was learning about calf roping and steer wrestling from a former rodeo prize-winner – he had the big, silver belt buckle to prove it -- until he asked where I was from. I told him I live in the Washington area.  

“You aren’t from the government, are you?” he asked.

No, I’m a journalist, I said. That was worse.  

He peppered me with questions about fake news, news organizations’ “agendas” and why the TV networks – except Fox -- won’t give President Donald Trump a chance.

I defended my media colleagues but knew we’d be better off talking about bull riding in the ring than about bull slinging in Washington.  

I wasn’t surprised on my trip around the Dakotas that Trump is popular, but I found it ironic he’s popular among people who also revere a very different president.

Theodore Roosevelt is close to being a native son of North Dakota. He was an intellectual, a voracious reader, prolific author and historian, a believer in physical activity and the great outdoors. He was our conservation president. And he loathed incivility.

Roosevelt was vice president when he first used the proverb “Speak softly and carry a big stick” in a speech in 1901.

“If a man continually blusters, if he lacks civility, a big stick will not save him from trouble; and neither will speaking softly avail, if back of the softness there does not lie strength, power,” he said.

Four days later, President William McKinley was shot, and Roosevelt soon became president.

Long before that, though, Roosevelt, at age 24, made the long train trip to the Dakota Territory for the first time in 1883. He wanted to hunt bison before they became extinct.

Enchanted with the land and the life, he bought an interest in a ranch during the trip.

The next year, he returned to the wild, vast, silent country for solace after he suffered heartbreaking loss. His wife, who had given birth to their first child just two days earlier, and his mother died hours apart on Valentine’s Day in the same house in New York.

In his diary that day, he wrote a large X and only one sentence: “The light has gone out of my life.”

He raised cattle on the Little Missouri River, enjoying “the strenuous life” alongside cowboys he admired for their strength, work ethic and character. You can see the rugged North Dakota badlands much as he did by visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park, established in 1947 to honor the 26th president.

He used whatever spare time he had to sit in his rocking chair and read and write history. Then drought and a blizzard decimated his herd in 1886, and he went back East.

But his experiences in North Dakota changed him for good. His exposure to those cowboys led to an appreciation for the common man that would serve him well in politics and the White House.

“I have always said I never would have been President if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota,” Roosevelt wrote.

The New Yorker who went west to hunt bison before they vanished from the West also developed something else in those wild, open spaces. Long a student of animals, he became outspoken in his desire to save them.

“The extermination of the buffalo has been a veritable tragedy of the animal world,” he wrote.

He signed the American Antiquities Act of 1906 and protected about 230 million acres of public lands – establishing five national parks, 18 national monuments, including the Grand Canyon, 51 bird reserves, four national game preserves and 150 national forests.

Since then, 16 presidents of both parties have used the act to enlarge the nation’s store of protected lands. Critics, however, say the presidential power to restrict land is too great. Trump is rolling back designations President Barrack Obama made under the act.

One can only wonder what the originator of the Bully Pulpit would think of that.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Everything I thought about Mount Rushmore was wrong -- July 12, 2018 column


Like most Americans, I’ve seen Mount Rushmore all my life -- in photos but not in person.

If I had a bucket list, Mount Rushmore wouldn’t have been on it.

I love the noble monuments to Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln in Washington, but 60-foot tall presidential heads on a mountain in South Dakota? Why?      

This month I found out.

“You are going to Mount Rushmore,” friends said, before we left for a fly-drive around the Dakotas.

But passing through Keystone, S.D., closest town to the site, I had doubts. Keystone is a kitschy little tourist trap with Old West-ish d├ęcor and entertainment, T-shirts and trinkets.

Would Mount Rushmore National Memorial itself be a crass, commercial disaster?

Would making the trip to the presidents be like fighting crowds at the Louvre to glimpse the Mona Lisa – only to have the unbidden thought: “It’s small”?

President Donald Trump, who beat Hillary Clinton by 30 points in South Dakota, says his dream is to be on Mount Rushmore. Would we see swarms of Trumpians in red MAGA hats, scheming where to add his face? 

No, no and no. Mount Rushmore literally rises above. It did not disappoint.

As often happens when traveling, I learned by going my preconceptions were wrong. And, for the record, there’s no room to add another face.  

The monument is huge, majestic and serene in its stark beauty. It’s not tacky; thank you, National Park Service. Souvenirs are only in the gift shop, and some were actually made in the USA. 

The carved granite faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln have noses 20 feet long, eyes 11 feet wide and mouths 18 feet wide.

Mount Rushmore in the Ponderosa pines of the Black Hills is remote. You have to want to go there, and last year about 2.4 million people did. That’s more than twice as many as visit Shenandoah National Park annually.

Like most of America history, though, the Mount Rushmore story is complicated.

Start with the name. Charles Rushmore was a New York City lawyer who came to the Black Hills in 1885 to inspect mining claims. The story goes that he asked a local guide what the mountain was called and the man replied, “Never had a name but from now on we’ll call it Rushmore.”

In fact, the Lakota people called the mountain the Six Grandfathers. They still believe the Black Hills sacred and the monument desecration.

South Dakota state historian Doane Robinson had the vision in 1923 of colossal figures carved on peaks. He thought people would drive their new cars to see carvings of heroes of the American West.   

But sculptor Gutzon Borglum had a grander plan. Borglum, son of Mormon Danish immigrants, was talented, flamboyant and temperamental. He had started work on the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s dream of honoring Robert E. Lee on Stone Mountain, Ga., where he may have joined the Ku Klux Klan.

He fell out with the daughters and quit in a huff, freeing him for the Rushmore project.

Mount Rushmore should honor American heroes, Borglum said, and chose the four presidents.  

Exhibits at the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center under the Grand View Terrace explain 90 percent of the carving was done with dynamite, the rest with jackhammer and by hand. From 1927 to 1941, about 400 men worked on the project – and not one died during the construction.

Workers climbed 700 stairs to punch a time clock. They sat in “bosun chairs” dangling by 3/8-inch steel cords hundreds of feet up and chipped away rock to reveal the famous faces. They earned $8 a day.

On a sunny July afternoon, throngs of tourists were respectful and quiet, patriotic and apolitical.

It was refreshing after the toxic atmosphere in the nation’s capital to see people of all ages and races, from all over the country and the world, snapping selfies and admiring the labor of many to honor our democracy’s heroes.

I know now why I wasn’t impressed with Mount Rushmore before. Photos can’t capture its spirit. This memorial you need to experience in person.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Beware the Giant Hogweed and other summer hazards -- 5 July 2018 column


Nearly every summer, fun in the sun comes with warnings.

A few years ago, red imported fire ants marched into the Southeast and ruined forever the pleasure of walking barefoot in the grass. Lately, ticks and the diseases they spread have become a real and present danger not only in the woods but also in backyards.

Last month came news the giant hogweed has been found in Virginia. The what?

I’d never heard of it, but this is a plant only a demented Mother Nature could love.

Encountering giant hogweed, Heracleum mantegazzianum, you might think Queen Anne’s lace on steroids, but Queen Anne’s lace is a delicate wildflower -- or a pesky weed, depending on your point of view and where it grows. In either case, it’s harmless.

Giant hogweed is anything but. As the name suggests, it’s huge -- towering 8 to 14 feet tall -- with small white flowers that cluster into a flat-topped “umbrella” up to 2 to 5 feet across.

Like many pretty things, though, it needs to be admired from afar.

The troublemaker is its watery, clear sap. It contains chemicals called furanocoumarins, which cause human skin to be highly sensitive to ultraviolet light. Exposure to the sap and sunlight can result in the painful blisters of third-degree burns, scarring and even blindness.

Sensitivity can last years, meaning people must continue protecting their skin from sunlight or risk burn flare-ups.

If you happen to brush up against giant hogweed and it touches your skin, wash the area thoroughly with soap and water and stay out of the sun for 48 hours, experts say.

Giant hogweed had been found in a dozen states from Florida to New England to the Northwest. Then, last month Virginia Tech plant experts confirmed 30 plants in Clarke County, near Winchester, and subsequently confirmed plants in Rockingham and Fauquier counties and Alexandria.

These were intentionally planted as ornamentals decades ago, and the good news is they hadn’t spread. That’s lucky since a single plant can produce upwards of 20,000 seeds a year, giving it the potential to spread very quickly.

Giant hogweed is a toxic, non-native invasive classified as a noxious weed, which means it’s against the law to propagate, sell or transport it – not that you’d want to.
Native to the Caucasus region between the Black and Caspian Seas, it has little, if anything, to commend it.

It has long bedeviled Britain, where it was imported in the 19th century and widely planted in gardens as an impressive ornamental. Dubbed “Britain’s most dangerous plant,” it spread throughout the country, along streams and river banks, in parks and residential areas, where it crowds out other plants leading to soil erosion. Some children have used its hollow stems, which are two to four inches in diameter, as pea shooters with dreadful consequences.

Gardeners here imported it from Britain about a hundred years ago as an accent plant.

If you think you spot giant hogweed, take photos and compare them with those online. Then, contact a Virginia Cooperative Extension agent or the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Never mow it or use a weed whacker, as that would release the sap into the air.

Virginia Tech’s site is an excellent resource as is the Virginia Master Naturalists’ “Socrates Project” publication on poisonous plants. Naturalists named it to remind readers of the ancient Greek philosopher who died in 399 BC “after drinking an extract from poison hemlock, a plant widely found in Virginia today.”

Chances are good what you suspect is giant hogweed is something else – like cow parsnip. The Virginia native grows throughout the state and looks very similar, if shorter.

It and two other giant hogweed look-alikes -- angelica and wild parsnip -- can also cause mild rashes or burns, but they’re not nearly as dangerous as giant hogweed.

But it’s summer and time to get outdoors and enjoy it while we can.

Just as we survived the fire ant scare, so too can we deal with the evil giant hogweed.
Be careful out there. Don’t let a plant rob you of your summer fun.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.