Friday, July 28, 2017

On Some Recent Reading





An interesting contretemps appears in the letters section of the July 2017 Scientific American. The dispute is documented under the title "A Cosmic Controversy". To the extent that I can follow the debate, the divisive issue is nothing less than the applicability of the scientific method to cosmology.

In February 2017, Anna Iljas, Paul J. Steinhardt and Abraham Loeb published a Scientific American article called "Pop goes the Universe." This essay reports on mathematical speculation that the universe did not begin with a "big bang" – that is, an extremely rapid expansion – but instead "with a bounce from a previously contracting cosmos." Mathematical models based on a "bounce" predict that our universe is a bubble among an infinity of other bubbles, each representing another universe. The laws of physics in our universe may differ radically from the physical and mathematical laws applicable in other universes. This cosmology implies an infinity of universes derived and functional according to an infinitely varied set of constitutions defining their physical characteristics. In this setting, the authors say that inflationary cosmology "cannot claim to be evaluated using the scientific method" and, further, assert that the proponents of standard form inflationary cosmology" have "discard(ed) one of (science’s) defining properties: empirical testability". Thus, inflationary cosmology is "some kind of nonempirical science."

This argument is met with outrage in a letter signed by 33 astrophysicists and cosmologist affiliated with Cambridge, Stanford, MIT, the Planck collaboration and others. The scientists are international – there are French, American, British, Canadians, and Russians represented by the letter. I assume the writers are a who’s who of cosmology – the list of authors includes Stephen Hawkings. The gist of the correspondence is that all of the participating signatories believe very strongly in empirical science and the scientific model. They adduce several arguments for the proposition that empirical test data (or observed natural phenomena) support their "Big Bang" inflationary cosmology. Several paragraphs argue that mathematical predictions as to the mass-density of the universe predicted by their inflationary cosmology have, in fact, been confirmed by measurements of fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background radiation. In this context, they cite measurements made by satellite experiments, specifically the Planck satellite and the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe. (A cynical observer might say that these 33 scientists are obligated to maintain that their cosmology model is testable to support very substantial public and private grants as well as other funding upon which their livelihood is based – for instance, the scientists affiliated with the "Planck collaboration" would seem to have an investment in the "Planck satellite." If there’s nothing to test, then, no money needs to be dedicated to experimental work.)

The authors of the original article (Iljas, Steinhardt, and Loeb) respond that "the outcome of inflation is highly sensitive to initial conditions." Therefore, they write that "inflation generically leads to an eternal inflation and, consequently, a multiverse – an infinite diversity of outcomes." Further, they note that "if inflation produces a multiverse...(in which) ‘anything that can happen will happen’... it makes no sense whatsoever to talk about predictions." The cosmic bounce that Iljas, Steinhardt and Loeb imagine as the inception of our universe also "gives an infinite diversity of outcomes with none preferred over any other."

In fact, the adversaries to this controversy seem to be talking past one another. Indeed, I’m not convinced that there is any dispute. Stephen Hawkings and his 32 allies seem to be saying that within our universe, a place constitutionally governed by knowable physical laws, evidence suggests that everything began with a rapid inflationary expansion, a Big Bang. But there may be other universes in existence that have a wholly different morphology, are governed by different mathematical laws, and that, therefore, have different characteristics. We can’t know about these universes – at least, at present and, therefore, their characteristics are a matter for speculation, but not scientific study. Hence, the controversy between the two groups of scientists turns on the definition of "reality." For Hawkings et. al., reality is defined as the system that we can empirically test, that is, subject to mathematical analysis with objectively replicable results – in our universe, Hawkings et. al say that the "scientific method" is alive, well, and useful (and supports a rapid inflationary model). Steinhardt and company take a larger view – for them, reality contains an infinite number of universes in which anything is possible. If anything is possible, then, the scientific method does not deliver a true or useful outcome in all universes – if this correct, and the three "bounce" cosmologists believe it is mathematically plausible, then, reality defined as containing multiverses does not always follow principles that are objectively testable.

Simply stated, objective empirical evidence supports Hawkings’ view that our universe proceeds from a Big Bang. The three dissenting scientists, probably, wouldn’t contest this notion. Their analysis however asserts that "reality", a concept infinitely larger than the inflationary universe in which we happen to live, contains an infinite number of universes and, therefore, an infinite number of places where the scientific method doesn’t apply – that’s because there are infinite number of universes where our rules don’t exist or where there are no rules at all.

This point, I think, is conceded in this text from the letter signed by the 33 physicists. Thus: "...although the possibility of a multiverse is an active area of study, this possibility in no way interferes with the empirical testability of inflation. If the multiverse picture is valid, then the Standard Model (rapid inflation from Big Bang) would be properly understood as a description of the physics in our visible universe, and similarly the models of inflation that are being refined by current observations would describe the ways inflation can happen in our particular part of the universe..."

These arguments spiral into metaphysics in part as a result of the mathematics of infinity. This morning, as I was brushing my teeth in my basement toilet, I noticed a black beetle, about a half inch long, trying to burrow into the space between the carpet and the baseboard of the wall. I thought about killing the beetle by crushing it with a magazine or rescuing it by lifting it off the carpet and hustling it outside. The conflict between these two ideas paralyzed me and I didn’t do anything. But there is a universe in which I crush the beetle and flush it down the toilet – not one universe, in fact, but an infinite number of them. And there is a universe in which I rescue the beetle, iterated an infinite number of times. And there is a universe in which the beetle is brushing his teeth and I am wriggling into into the crevasse between the carpet and wall – in an infinite number of those universes, the beetle rescues me and sets me outside; similarly, in an infinite number of those universes, I am crushed and flushed down the toilet. Finally, there are an infinite number of universes in which the beetle and I occupy different spaces but are also in exactly the same location – that is, violating rules of our universe – but consistent with the rules of another universe, or, more properly stated, an infinite number of such universes where separation in space is exactly identical with occupying the same space. There is a universe where you apprehend this argument by telepathy alone, a universe where this text was typed by a million million monkeys hammering away at a million million typewriters. And there is a universe where this sentence contains a typographical era and a universe in which the typographical error states the exact name of God.



Anton Gag (rhymes with "jog") was born in Bohemia in 1859 and migrated to the New Ulm, Minnesota about 20 years later. A skilled artist, Gag earned his living by painting and making murals. His art work decorates the dome and walls of the New Ulm Catholic church.

New Ulm was attacked by the Dakota Indians in the summer of 1862 and was the site of ferocious house-to-house combat. The beleagured German settlers ultimately repelled the Dakota army, probably more than 1500 warriors, but the town was burned to the ground with many casualties among the defenders. The town’s heroic defense is an important subject in Gag’s work – there is a majestic canvas by the artist in the State Capitol showing a war party of bronzed Indians, heroic figures with classical proportioned bare torsos attacking the burning village. The Dakota warriors led by a chief on a beautiful white horse have taken cover in a corn field and smoky flames rise from the outbuildings of the city. In the Brown County Historical Society, there is a barrel head from a beer cask painted with a lively impressionistic scene of combatants huddled behind a barricade of beer barrels similar to the one that has been here used as a commemorative canvas: smoke rises from the defender’s rifles and orange flames gut buildings and the attacking Indians are a sort of colorful wave rising around the chief on the white horse. The paint on the barrel head is impasto, thickly applied, and it has an embattled quality. Gag’s most ambitious painting is a panoramic mural, made to be unscrolled frame by frame, for a paying public. The mural shows various scenes from the Dakota Conflict of 1862 and was designed and painted by Gag with several other New Ulm Bohemian artists. The panorama is in a poor state of preservation and there are no funds available to conserve an object with literally incendiary subject matter – many of the images are lurid portraits of Dakota atrocities. It is a shame, however, that this impressive work can no longer be seen – the panorama was designed to be illumined by candle or gas-light projected through the huge scrolls translucent panels; therefore, the paint application is extremely dainty and subtle and the panorama’s pale translucent washes give the impression of a giant, exquisitely executed water-color. No matter how lurid the massacre shown, the landscape is always gorgeously rendered and gives the impression of the fresh, vivid light of dawn.

Gag raised 7 children in a big Queen Anne style house in New Ulm. You can visit the place, now open as a museum. The museum is not so much concerned with Anton Gag as with his talented daughter, Wanda. Gag passed on the secrets of his craft to Wanda and regarded her as exceptionally skilled. He probably understood that her graphic sense and design skills exceeded his own. Anton Gag died of tuberculosis when his daughter was 15. He left with these dying words: "Was der Papa nicht tun koennt’, muss die Wanda hab fertig machen." – that is, "What papa couldn’t do, Wanda will have to complete."

Wanda Gag went to enough school to earn a teaching license. She worked for one year in a country school, then, moved to Minneapolis where she attended the Institute of Art. Ambitious, obviously talented, and stylish in the manner of a Twenties flapper, Gag ended up in Greenwich Village in New York. Pictures show her sporting a black helmet hairdo, a ‘bob’ like that of Louise Brooks. Gag collected older man as lovers, generally kept the peace between them, and worked on engravings and etchings. She sold her graphic work through the Weyhe Gallery, a New York institution owned by Carl Zigrosser (one of her boyfriends). Her engravings are highly atmospheric, sculpturally modeled still lives – she cuts linoleum blocks into images of the barn interiors, rustic equipment, furrowed fields, and, in one remarkable image, a stair well at Macy’s with a firehose coiled like a great serpent.

In 1926, Wanda Gag published a highly celebrated autobiographical essay: "These Modern Women – a hotbed of Feminism." At that time, she was affiliated with the artists associated with Edward Steichen, including Georgia O’Keefe. Her 1928 children’s book, Millions of Cats, was a triumph – it remains in print today. With the book, Gag pioneered the use of double-panel illustrations for children’s books. She wrote the somewhat macabre story – it features cannibal cats – and cut the woodblock letters explaining the colorful prints that comprise the book. The book won the Newberry Award and assured Gag’s continuing fame. In 1935, Gag consolidated her reputation for feminism with a children’s book: Gone is Gone: the Story of a Man who wanted to do Housework.

Gag despised the saccharine style used to animate Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. She was generally familiar with German fairy tales and their harsh "magical realism" from her childhood growing up in New Ulm. Carl Zigrosser gave her a book of Grimm’s Maerchen in the original German and Gag was fascinated by it. This book inspired her involvement with Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, an interest that resulted in her translations with illustrations in four volumes between 1936 and 1947 – the last published posthumously. Gag died of lung cancer in June 1946.

Carl Zigrosser wrote the Foreword to Gag’s last book, the posthumous More Tales from Grimm (1947). Zigrosser was himself an immigrant to the United States from Austria. He operated galleries that sold prints in Greenwich Village and was a fixture of the avant-garde scene in that neighborhood until the Depression. In 1936, he published a compilation of famous graphic works under the title Six Centuries of Prints. This book became a best-seller and went through many editions. On the strength of this volume, Zigrosser was appointed curator of prints, drawings, and rarebooks at the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Arts. He continued in that role until the sixties. His last publication was a catalog-raisone of the graphic works of John Marin.

In the Foreword to More Tales from Grimm, Zigrosser recounts that he "was delighted when the German edition of The Tales which (he) gave her in 1931 bore such beautiful fruit." Zigrosser says that he edited the book with Earle Humphreys – Gag married Humphreys, with whom she had lived since 1931, in 1943. (A free spirit, Gag moved from New York to "All Creation" farm at Milford, New Jersey – she continued love affairs with others notwithstanding her commitment to Humphreys.)

Zigrosser notes that Gag had completed all of the illustrations for the volume, along with the translations, and that they existed in pen-and-ink iterations. He observes that some of the pictures published in the book are not entirely finished. Then, he states:

Mention should be made of the drawing for The Soldier and his Magic Helpers ... because it reveals how Wanda Gag, in spite of her capacity for meticulous detail slipped up in a minor point. In the text, the Blower always functions through his nostril, whereas in her preliminary sketch he is definitely shown blowing through his mouth. Undoubtedly had she lived, the artist would have noticed the discrepancy and corrected it in the final drawing. It will be interesting to discover how many readers are sharp-eyed enough to discover the lapse.

The drawing at issue shows a plump figure wearing a Phrygian hat seated on a floral ornament, a kind of hybrid flower and tree that represents a wooded hill. The figure’s cheeks are puffed out and Gag has sketched a widening stream of air, shown as a curved and straight dashes emitted from the man’s lips, crossing an open space, and, then, spinning the rotor of a distant windmill located on a grassy knoll. The windmill’s motion is similarly depicted by some rotary streaks connecting the blades.

I disagree with Zigrosser and think the picture is complete. In the text, a soldier encounters a "man holding a finger over one nostril while blowing mightily through the other." When asked what he is doing, the man says that he is blowing air to turn the rotors of "seven windmills...two miles from here."  

Let’s assume that Wanda Gag illustrated this passage literally. She would have to show the plump figure with a hand to his nose, pressing shut one nostril. From the other nostril, she would show a stream of air, made visible series of lines and arcs curving toward the remote windmill. As the picture is now printed, the image shows a stream of air turning a windmill. If Gag had drawn the image according to the text, the picture would show a peasant expressing a stream of mucous from his nostril across the air at a windmill. The dashes and arcs that we construe as "wind" or "breath" would read instead as the flight of snot through the air. This would be unacceptable in any book, let alone a children’s volume. Thus, I think Zigrosser’s speculation on this point is not only wrong, but painfully wrong, displaying a sort of naviety that makes me question his qualifications to interpret and assess imagery in general.

In Anton Gag’s paintings of the Battle of New Ulm, one staple feature is a burning windmill. It is interesting to think of the burning windmills painted by Anton Gag in the context of the little toy windmill with rotors spinning because of the gust of air blown at it by the seated figure.



In the effervescent multiverse originating at the Big Bounce, there is presumably one bubble in this champagne of variegated world in which God exists and His adversary, Satan. Perhaps, this is our world. So among the literal-minded inhabiting this planet, the question arises: What is the distance between Heaven and Hell? (It’s a question that Carl Zigrosser might ask.)

In William Langland’s Piers Plowman, the 14th century poet tells us Christ "knighted ten cherubim and seraphim" gave them "myghte in his majeste", taught them the truth of the Holy Trinity, and, as archangels, expected them to be "buxome at his biddying" and "nought elles." (In this application, "buxom" derives from the Old English "buhsam". "Buhsam" stems for the verb "bugen" – to bend or be pliable. It’s not clear to me how buxom morphed into a term for having large breasts.) Lucifer, who was the "loveliest" of these beings of light, "brake buxumnesse" (that is, become disobedient) and fell from the fellowship of angels, in the likeness of a fiend, into a "depe derke helle." More thousands of angels than could be numbered fell likewise into Hell. These angels fell because they believed Lucifer’s lie that he would be like "the most high" - et similis ero altissimo – a point that the poet tweets to us in Latin. According to Langland, all those who hoped for this "none Heven mighte hem holde,/ But fellen out in fendes liknesses (ful) nyne days togideres" – "Heaven could hold not a one of them, but they fell, in the likness of fiends, for a full nine days together." We are told that this fall took place before God "staked out Heaven" so that it became stationary and stable and "stonden in quiete."

Thus, Langland establishes the dimension between the pearly gates of Heaven to the "deep, dark Hell" as being "nine days fall." We can calculate the distance between Heaven and Hell assuming that there atmosphere between the two places and that a creature in a "fiend’s likeness" falls outstretched like an unconscious human. A human being in free fall will reach a terminal velocity of 122 miles per hour in about three seconds. Falling for nine days, accordingly, Lucifer (presuming that he has a generally human shape) travels this distance: 9 x 24 x 122 miles per hour or 26,352 miles. The circumference of the earth is 24,941 miles.

A favorite passage in Milton’s Paradise Lost seems roughly parallel. This is the fall of Mulciber, Milton’s name for Haphaestus or Vulcan, described at Book I, 740 et. seq. Milton is chronicling how the rebellious angels, after their fall, became identified with pagan deities or demons. In Milton’s imagination, supernatural figures in world mythology correspond with fallen angels. Milton notes that the hierarchies of angels and archangels resided in a heavenly palace, "a towered structure high". The "hand" of this tower’s architect is also demonstrable in the "ample spaces" with "smooth and level pavement" under an "arched roof" that is Pandemonium. The architect of both the heavenly towers and the "brazen" and vast Pandemonium is Mulciber, well-known Milton tells us, "in ancient Greece and in Ausonian land." Mulcibar was thrown by "angry Jove/ Sheer over crystal battlements" so that he fell "from morn to noon, from noon to dewy eve/ A summer’s day..." Milton says that the Greeks believed Mulcibar pluunged into "Lemnos, the Aegean Isle...dropped from the zenith like a falling star."

Mulcibar’ fall lasts only half a day – from dawn to sunset. The space between Olympus and the earth is "fabled" to be 12 x 122 miles per hour or 1460 miles – about the distance between New York City and Wichita, Kansas. What accounts for the discrepancy between Langland’s estimate as to cosmic distances and Milton’s account of Mulcibar’s fall? First, Mulcibar’s plunge is from Heaven to Earth; the rebel angels fall from Heaven to Hell, that fiery realm, apparently, being very far beneath Heaven. Second, Milton is committed to a scheme that glorifies Christian mythology in comparison with the mythologies of the ancient pagans – thus, his cosmos is larger, more complex, and his heros bigger and more powerful, whilst his demons are more titanic and terrifying than those known to the ancient world. Everything in Milton is – to use advertising parlance – Bigger, Bolder, Zestier. Hence, it is not surprising that Milton pictures the cosmos known to the ancients, a world that is merely "fabled" as he points out, as conspicuously smaller than the vasty heights and depths of the Christian universe.

And, in fact, Milton observes and confirms Langland’s measurement at line 50 in Book I. There, Milton tells us, "nine times the space that measures day and night / to mortal men, he (Satan) with his horrid crew / Lay vanquished, rolling in the fiery gulf..." "The space" that measure day and night would seem to be one rotation of earth, or one 24 hour day. Milton suggests that Satan and the fallen angels are motionless, immured in fire and despair where "(they) lay vanquished, rolling in the fiery gulf." My impression is that there are no landmarks in the fiery gulf that separates Heaven from Earth and that the "rolling" devils are, in fact, falling through a featureless void – this explains the odd notion of their "rolling" and the curious use of the word "space" for "time". Space and time, of course, are related in the movement of an object and, therefore, I read Milton’s account of this nine day hiatus between the fall of Satan and his rebel angels and Satan’s wakening to consciousness in the flaming great dungeon and furnace of Hell as measuring the depth of the fallen angel’s plummet from Heaven down to Hell. This allows us to draw a comfortable correlation between Milton’s cosmogony and that of William Langland in Piers Plowman.


The windmill burns because it is in Hell.

On July 27, 2017, the great Satan, Donald Trump, in his White House Pandemonium tweeted something about denying transgender people the right to serve in the military. The tweet was taken as yet another indication that President Trump was willing to "brake buxomnesse" with respect to the ordinary conventions of political discourse and deliberation.

Of course, the news commentators reported that this was a distraction that Trump was advancing to divert attention from the ever-deepening, if still inconclusive, scandal involving his campaign’s collusion with Russia.

One of Trump’s surrogates was asked whether tweets, presumably the product of a moment’s whim, should be construed as establishing national policy.

The surrogate, pivoting away from the question, said this: "Well, if you are asking me if Trump’s practice of disintermediating is a good thing or a bad thing. I think it is an unmitigated good thing."

Hence, the surrogate was saying that disintermediated communications – that is, tweets – are an unmitigated good thing..

The surrogate was pretty sure that the interviewer didn’t know the meaning of "disintermediate". Perhaps, he thought that the interlocutor would construe the word as meaning that the best mediation between two positions is via something that has been "disinterred" or "excavated" – hence, I aim to negotiate toward your position by "digging something up" and interposing that cadaverous entity as a mid-point between us.

In fact, "disintermediate" is a wholly legitimate term from the dismal science of economics – it simply means to devise a distribution system from producer to consumer that eliminates the so-called middleman. In this context, the word means to communicate directly with someone without intermediaries. Clearly, the Trump surrogate thought that the word had a sexy sound and that it "dissed" or disrespected the media.

Thus, just another day in Hell.


Wednesday, July 26, 2017

On Algific Talus Slopes


The forbidden exerts a powerful lure. Who has not encountered a no-trespassing sign when hiking alone on a remote trail? What impulse do you feel? When I see signs of this sort, almost always I climb over the fence and walk another two or three-hundred feet to see what the no trespassing posting protects. Nothing incites trespass more than a no-trespassing sign.

Some years ago, I saw an internet note that the Nature Conservancy had acquired a tract of land in Fillmore County – that is, about forty to fifty miles from where I live. This site was notable because it contained an algific talus slope, one of the rarest landforms on earth. Of course, I wanted to see this place, but the Nature Conservancy’s website advised that the property was off-limits and, indeed, such a valuable resource that its location would not be identified. Human access to algific talus slopes inevitably, it seems, results in their destruction. None of this deterred me from driving around rural Fillmore County for eight hours, exploring the back lanes in hope of finding the place. I was unsuccessful, of course – the site was hidden and stayed hidden in the lush hardwood forests tangled together in the green and nameless ravines.

Recently, I read another posting, noting that the Nature Conservancy, a non-profit consortium that acquires fragile habitats to protect them, had purchased another algific talus field, again concealed somewhere in the driftless region of Fillmore County. This site was called "Bluebell Hollow." (The other location was named, I think, "Saxifrage Hollow".

This internet information inspired me to set forth again to search for algific talus slopes in northern Iowa and western Wisconsin. I made this expedition on Thursday and Friday, June 1 - 2, 2017. This was at the time that President Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate Accords claiming those voluntary agreements to be disadvantageous to American business and, therefore, workers. In announcing the United States withdrawl from the climate accords, President Trump said that he had been elected to serve "the people of Pittsburgh not Paris". Radio commentators were quick to point out that the City of Pittsburgh had voted for Hilary Clinton by a margin of 80 percent.



What is an algific talus slope?

"Algific" means "cold-producing." "Talus" is small, fractured rock that has broken from exposed bedrock and rests at the foot of the cliff from which it has fallen. When talus has slumped into its angle of repose, it is called "scree." In rare circumstances, cold air vents through the talus slope. This can occur on north-facing slopes in an area characterized by karst geology.

A karst landscape is one comprised of limestone bedrock. Rain penetrates cavities in the limestone producing a mild acid that dissolves subsurface rock into caves. Where these caves have partially collapsed, the landscape may be cratered with sinkholes. Algific talus slopes arise when rainwater enters cave systems through sinkholes piercing the bedrock. Water flowing in underground passages is cooled to a temperature that equates to the average annual temperature both day and night in the climactic zone. In Minnesota and Northern Iowa, this means that cave temperature, and the water flowing through those caves, is cooled to about 37 degrees – this is the temperature of subterranean water in all seasons. When water in cavern streams seeps through cliff walls, it cools the fractured stone through which it is seeping. This results in moist vents leaking refrigerated air through the cliff face and its talus slope – the result is an "algific" or cold-producing field of scree-talus. Winter snow and ice are retained much longer in the crevasses in these slopes and, accordingly, the cliff-side continues to be cool throughout the year – these talus slopes exude cool air at temperatures about 37 degrees to 50 degrees even when the ravines and densely wooded valleys are steamy with summer heat.  

An algific talus slope is a micro-climate – the cold, steep cliff face with its bed of talus is an island of arctic or sub-arctic climate. As a result, these places harbor plants and animals that can not survive in the adjacent, much warmer woods. The most notable cold-climate animal found on these slopes is the inconspicuous Iowa pleistocene snail. Thought to be extinct before 1955, colonies of these snails were found thriving in the loose rubble of algific talus slopes. The slopes also blossom with plants otherwise unknown to this area – flowers and ferns that characterize the tundras of northern Canada and Siberia. Examples of this plants are the Golden Saxifrage, Walking ferns, the Limestone Oak fern, the Rose Twisted Stalk, and the delicate Northern Monk’s Hood flower.

Algific talus fields have been identified as unique for only 30 years. Prior to that time, the landform did not enjoy any distinction and had not really been named. (In popular culture, algific talus fields are sometimes termed "ice caves" – but this describes only a limited subclass of these landscapes.) In 1985, it was thought that there were approximately 600 algific talus slopes in southeastern Minnesota, northwestern Iowa, and western Wisconsin – the majority of identified locations where in the driftless region of Iowa, that is Clayton, Winneshiek, and Allamakee counties. These sites are highly sensitive to human interference – anything disrupting the ventilation of cold air through fissures in the hillside will destroy the site. Simply climbing on an algific talus slope may rearrange the rock, dislodging scree to block crevasses through which the cold cave air is exhaled. To a significant extent, the talus slopes can’t really be studied without destroying them – a researcher collecting snails, for instance, or rare ferns on the scree slope may well cause collapse of ancient structures that have resulted in the existence of the algific landform in the first place. Since the phenomena was named, the number of slopes is said to have decreased from 600 to as few as 200.

When I set forth on my expedition, I had one serious disadvantage: I didn’t really know how an algific talus slope looked. I knew that they were at the base of north-facing limestone bedrock cliffs. But I couldn’t exactly picture what these places would be like. Similarly, I have no idea what golden Saxifrage or Northern Monk’s Hood or any of the exotic plants growing on these rock slopes look like and, so, would be unable to identify them.

I had some notes as to places where it was admitted that these slopes existed. And, so, I set off to inspect them.



A weekend before my principal expedition, I commenced my search at Beaver Creek Valley State Park. This is a Minnesota State Park located in a remote hidden valley in Houston County, the State’s most southeastern county bordering with Iowa to the south and the Mississippi and Wisconsin to the east.

I have downloaded from the State Park’s website a transcript of a MP3 program that you can access with your cell-phone. The program’s audio track is commentary on a nature trail that hikers can walk at the park. The very first station on the loop trail is marked with the numeral 1, inscribed supposedly on a wooden bench. The notation for this location, stop #1 says: Because it is relatively well-camouflaged you might not be able to see the algific talus slope in this area, but there is one around here.

The day is clear at the meridian, fleecy shreds of cloud dispersed to the horizons on all sides so that you feel that you are driving under a great celestial amphitheater. Not only is the talus field at Beaver Valley well-camouflaged, so also is the park. No signs mark its entry – the ubiquitous "dead end" signs on gravel lanes in these hollows don’t necessarily mean that a park is hiding behind that marker, although this is the case with Beaver Valley. In most instances, narrow winding roads just dead-end on someone’s property between a collapsing chicken house and an old barn. According to my cell-phone map, the park commences just on the other side of a landmark called Schech’s Mill. The road runs in a swampy wetland between two ridges and I can see the high, ungainly mill beyond several lagoons next to a small creek running between dirt banks. The mill looks like the Frankenstein monster, clumsy and rectangular, painted a scarlet red and about to fall face-forward, it seems, into the tiny unassuming creek. Beyond the driveway to the mill, the grave road runs through a gate and into the farmyard of a man who has gone just ahead of me in his pickup truck – a fellow with the neck-beard and scrawny aspect of an Amish crackhead. I turn around as his dogs assault my car. Surely, the park is around here some place.

After a few more false starts, I locate the park entrance – indeed, it is marked only by a yellow "Dead End" sign. The State Park is a narrow valley with bluffs with stony cliffs rearing up over a creek-bed. The creek sings between the hillsides and ends, ultimately, in a arena made by hills with a swamp at its center. The algific talus slope is supposed to be near the rustic bench marked #1. But the first bench, I encounter, a little brown settee overlooking the creek is unnumbered. I follow the trail and reach several intersections marked on the park map, but can’t find bench #1. Indeed, the first bench that I encounter is #7, the numeral painted in yellow on the side of the bench. The next bench is #11 and not located anywhere near where landmark #11 is shown on the trail map. With Jack, I spend the next two hours hiking through the woods cupped between the hills, but I never find Bench #1 – indeed, for some reason, the first five benches are entirely missing. Perhaps, they were swept away in one of the periodic floods that ravage these entangled and green valleys. Or, perhaps, a cabal of naturalists who want to hide these talus slopes from casual onlookers such as myself has, in fact, suppressed these landmarks, concealed them within a shed at the park headquarters.

After our hike, we go to the other end of the park, where the rims of the valley are tied more tightly together. This is where the so-called Big Springs supplies its water as the source of the creek running between the bluffs. The Springs are downhill from a grassy lawn on which there is an (unnumbered park bench) – below there is a pond the size of a small room, half of it floored with white sand and the other decorated with a green filmy bed of sea-weed. At the edge of the pond, water is bubbling up from the base of a gloomy-looking cliff. The cliff is shrouded in growing ferns and, a few yards, upstream, there are little green grooves in the moss where water is sliding down from the porous rock.

A sign near the Big Springs remarks that the valley contains "seven algific talus slopes (ice caves)". Is "algific talus slope" a synonym for "ice cave"? This seems incorrect to me. But I don’t know.



A week later, I drove to Iowa to search for algific talus slopes. My first stop was an exhibit on this unique facet of northeastern Iowa geology said to be located at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.

Cedar Falls is about a two-hour drive in the country from Austin. The sky was absolutely cloudless and it was warm, low 80's with high humidity. On the radio, President Trump was making a speech. He said that he was withdrawing the United States from participation in the Paris climate accords. "I have been elected to serve the interests of Pittsburgh, not Paris," Trump said, citing the agreement as disastrous for the American economy.

The University of Northern Iowa (UNI) is all new – it looks like the university has been manufactured in one fell swoop on prairie once at the outskirts of Cedar Rapids within the last several decades. If there was previously a shady quadrangle and old ivy-covered buildings, they are not in evidence today. In fact, the entire campus, as far as I can see, is treeless, a flat preserve of concrete Brutalist buildings with big grey pillars marked with imprint of the forms used in their construction. No signs show the lay-out of the buildings and the place is eerily quiet – the sidewalks between the big shoals of concrete are entirely empty. At the center of the place, a sinister carillon tower rises over a huddle of three or four story classroom buildings. The tower seems an artifact of UNI’s earlier aspect, perhaps, before Dutch Elm disease stripped the trees from the place.

It takes me some aimless wandering to find the Rod library where the algific talus slope exhibit is located. A breathless internet account of the exhibit, written by some eighth grade girls, says that the exhibit is "very cool" and that, when you press a button, the diorama exhales into your face cold that simulates one of the sedimentary stone vents on the north-facing talus slope. The Rod Library is another pile of raw concrete, air-conditioned and, apparently, empty – I don’t see anyone moving among the steel stacks where the books are displayed. The UNI museum is down the steps on the basement level. It consists of two elongated rooms displaying yellowing posters of rock ‘n roll shows – faded images of neatly groomed boys wearing identical blazers. Some old guitars are on display in cases. Outside the music exhibit, there are African drums and a sort of carved wooden lyre from Nigeria. A corridor leads past a glass wall. Behind the glass wall, I can see artifacts resting on shelves, mostly preserved birds and pelts or curious crystals, a few weapons as well, and items of Victorian clothing – it seems to be a panorama, as it were, of the museum’s holdings, none of which are on display.

A fat woman with her arm in a sling sits in an office to the side of the corridor. Above her, on a broad shelf, two stuffed lionesses glare down at me. I ask the woman about the algific talus slope exhibit and she shrugs. "I don’t know about that, but, maybe, Darrin does," she tells me. She gets up and leads me to a door opening into the warehouse space with the industrial steel shelving. Darrin is a heavy-set young man wearing blue nylon gloves over his surprisingly small and dainty hands. He has granny glasses and sports a white lab coat and he, also, has an Amish-style neck beard.

Darrin shakes my hand, still wearing his blue latex gloves. I wonder what he has been handling with those gloves. He takes me back into the office where the woman with the injured arm is sitting idly behind her desk. "We gave the slope to a conservation official," he says adding: "In Winneshiek County." "Winneshiek County?" I ask. "Yes," Darrin says. "That’s closer to where they are located." I nod my head. The county seat of Winneshiek is Decorah and, indeed, that is a place where a number of algific talus slopes are located. "Where did it end up?’‘ I ask. "I’ll give you the address," he says. The young man types a few words into his computer, still working with the blue latex on his hands. Then, he calls to the woman with the injured arm – "Can you get me the file please?" A few moments later, she glides into the room with a single sheet of paper in a numbered manila fiber. "It went here," Darrin says.

The address is: "Barbara Schroeder, Winneshiek County, Conservation Board, 2546 Lake Meyer Rd., Fort Atkinson, Iowa 52114." Darrin writes this address on a yellow post-it note and hands it to me. I thank him. "She was very, very happy to receive the exhibit," Darrin says. In a little glass case, there is a stuffed baboon infant. Next to the baby baboon, on a slightly higher shelf, there is a mount of a baby bear, stuffed so that the creature seems to be smiling.

Outside, on the deserted campus, I look for a toilet. I got into the Maucker Student Union. It’s a concrete bunker splayed out between slabs of vertical cement, all pocked like osteoporotic bone. The Union was designed before the Americans with Disability Act – it contains innumerable levels and steps, so many that I can’t tell where one floor ends and another level begins: the structure is a sort of vertical Piranesi-style maze, empty except for a studious-looking woman conducting what seems to be a job interview with another younger woman in one of the wells beneath the various slanting ramps and concrete balconies. A couple of students on work-study are pushing vacuums through a cafeteria carpeted with a brown fabric. It’s a bewildering place with flights of steps leading to places midway between levels, small pedestal, ledges the size of a grand piano, elevated walkways, the whole interior now rationalized with long wooden ramps suturing the different levels and sub-levels and half-levels and quarter-levels together.

Outside, a pretty co-ed is spraying water on some plants growing alongside the arboretum. The sun is bright. The girl is working next to Wright Hall, an older building – on the lintel above a side-door, deeply incised letters read: DO NOT DO WHAT HAS ALREADY BEEN DONE, a curious motto that, I must confess that I don’t understand.



The Bixby State Preserve, the site of the most readily accessible algific talus slope, is a couple of counties to the east, north of the main freeway to Dubuque. This is the territory where the Zeilingers, the maiden name of my father’s mother, resided. The Zeilingers were all German-speaking theologians, educated in Oelwein and Dubuque, Iowa, pastors who topped-off their Lutheran theological studies, as it were, with a semester abroad at a Evangelisches Kirche seminary in Dresden or Wittenberg. As far as I know, these were very learned, rigidly conventional, and abstemious clergy – although they ceased their European studies at the time the United States entered World War I, the Zeilinger’s spoke German at home, at least through the era of the Great Depression. I suppose that the Zeilingers wooed their women in the watery, green parks of northeastern Iowa, at picnic tables perpetually cooled by nearby algific talus slopes where they quaffed lemonade and, on rare festive occasions, Falstaff beer. I thought of old postcards showing creeks with shaggy bluffs above them and little gazebos in cleared meadows near the water – the old postcards had been hand-colored with mellow tints that seemed like the sun setting so as to suffuse the landscape with a golden radiance.

The Bixby State Preserve is three miles north of the tiny village of Edgewater. The lane that leads to the park is called Franklin Avenue in Edgewater. The lane leads past a particularly cheerless trailer court. Trailers are supposed to be temporary housing, yet, these old, grey mobile homes seem to have been on the edge of this little village since log cabin days – dilapidated and antique, the trailers are scattered haphazardly among mournful trees. A few yards away, there is a spooky-looking house made of yellowish fieldstone with round barrel-shaped towers.

The lane is marked "minimum maintenance" although I didn’t think it was difficult to drive, just scary because narrow and winding through a dense woods and, then, alongside a stony creek bed with forty-foot sandstone walls comprised of cyclopean blocks furry with moss. It’s one-lane and I don’t know what would happen in you met an oncoming car on that path down the steep slope and through the canyon. Where the gorge levels out, there is a big two-story stack of field stone, a sort of massive chimney that once, I suppose, named the State Preserve but that now gestures inarticulately, a mute giant, at the traveler. Beyond the road dips to cross the creek and there is a parking place on the edge of an odd oval-shaped clearing. A single fire-pit dimples the clearing and, at its upslope side, the CCC erected long ago a big shelter, heavy rustic timbers with field stone walls. The clearing is hemmed in by steep wooded slopes on all sides and the air is heavy and congested. A stone trough with shallow steps, maybe a hundred of them leads through uphill behind the shelter. It’s a strange path, only a foot wide and clogged like a drainage channel with dead leaves and twigs and, at the top, there are some dark boulders with trees growing through them and another ruinous CCC shelter, this one without roof, crumbling walls supporting lightning-slashed fallen trees. I went up the little trough-like set of steps, explored the CCC ruins on the slope and, then, descended again to the curious little meadow. Another trail ran through the high-grass to a sod bank, cut down to the mud where water splashed over some rocks. The stream looked to be about a foot deep and people had heaped some stepping stones in the current, but the water was sluicing over their top and some of the rocks were covered with moss. The creek nudging against some of the flat stones, haphazardly stacked atop one another, caused them to wobble palpably. Beyond the crossing, I could see a trail, muddy-looking, winding away into the trees. On the Internet, I had seen pictures of rough columns of black slabs of rock with a gabled threshold built into the hillside – this was the ice-cave and, apparently, the algific talus slope. But I didn’t see that structure anywhere nearby.

I picked up a half-dozen loaf-sized pieces of sandstone and dropped them in the water to enhance the crossing, but when I tested my new stepping stones with the tip of my tennis shoes, they wobbled unsteadily. I was alone and didn’t want to fall in the creek and, so, after several attempts to cross the eight-foot stretch of running water, I gave up. Biting gnats were swarming up from the mud around the creek and there were stagnant puddles swarming with sperm-shaped black tadpoles. If there were algific talus fields around, I didn’t see them.

I drove back up the narrow track to the rolling cornfields and, then, the town of Bixby. Then, I went across the high lands, huge valleys opening on both sides of the road, watersheds were streams or rivers were flowing toward the Mississippi about 15 miles distant. I stopped briefly in Elkader where the Turkey River is forced over a dam and hangs like a silvery veil in the middle of the town, an old arch bridge humped up to cross the water. Ancient brick buildings lined Main Street including one of them with an eccentric steeple that looked like the spear-shaped sting of a manta ray. (Elkader is named after Abd al-Qadr al Jazar’iri, an Algerian sheik who resisted the French occupation of his country – the men who founded the village in 1848 admired al-Qadr and named the place after him. When the Turkey River flooded a few years ago and devastated part of the city, the Algerian government offered relief.)

A few miles later, I passed through the tiny river-town of McGregor and, then, followed a narrow blacktop at the base of high bluffs overhanging the west channel of the Mississippi. There’s a big bridge by the river-boat casino at Marquette arching up and across to Prairie du Chien. All the public buildings in Prairie du Chien are made from butter-colored local sandstone, a very soft and yielding kind of masonry that makes the structures glow faintly in the dusk. An old fort sits on a terrace over the river and the courthouse is also built of soft, glowing sandstone as well as the old Villa Louis, situated on a mucky island that seems always flooded or at risk of flooding.

I checked-into a Motel SIX on the south side of town. The room was humid with bad air blowing from the swampy airconditioner.



The Night Clerk recommended that I take the old river road through town and eat at a place called "The Barn" on the northside. "It is beyond the little nine-hole golf course and the marina," the girl told me.

The road ran through the flood plain where the City of Prairie du Chien has bought out and relocated the old housing, demolished the ancient river-front warehouses and taverns and brothels. The highway twists along the river, so close that the Big Muddy has flooded fields up to the shoulder of the road, even extending fingers of murky water across the oncoming lane. As I approach one of the areas where half the road is flooded, a Bald-headed Eagle swoops down, a great moving vector of talons and beak and wings, slashing like a saber the surface of the pool of flood water covering half the highway. Whatever the bird was seeking for its supper, it was unsuccessful, sailing over over the line of trees half-drowned on the edge of the channel.

"The Barn" is the kind of place that you find only in rural Wisconsin and it is highly recommended for that reason. The dining rooms are immense, acres of darkness within rustic-walls, timbers supporting the bare roof overhead and pilasters of logs cut in half and polished along the walls, tiny candles in apple-shaped glass goblets flickering on the tables. I came into the restaurant through the bar, climbing a flight of eight or nine heavy-set log steps and, inside, there were two bar-maids wearing bikini tops and cut-off jeans sluicing cold beer into big frosty mugs for the customers sitting around the pine-wood bar. In the tavern, a big window opened out to the road running parallel to the river and some lagoons where boats were stranded, one huge barge landlocked in an elbow-shaped pond that had now dried-up – the big prow and high shelf of the cargo-holds sitting incongruously in the middle of field where goats and sheep were grazing.

My prime-rib came with salad bar and a thick barley-soup and there was also asparagus, perfectly seasoned and cooked. Everything about the restaurant was praise-worthy. People know how to eat in Wisconsin – the food is simple, portions are massive, and everything is nourishing and fresh. And you get to eat in a broad room with retired farmers and their children, big men in feed caps and crowds of blonde children and equally blonde wives, even the old ladies sporting platinum blonde hair, two or three generations gathered at the big tables, the salad bar glowing under daisy-colored lights and, through some chinks in the log walls, you can look out into the long, blue twilight, some horses in a pasture, the high shaggy bluffs covered with green trees as if the restaurant were in the jungles of the Yucatan.



The next morning, I drove south through intersecting river valleys and, then, up onto the farm land occupying broad ridges, farms set at about the interval that you can see across in green shelter belts, small villages with their church steeples dwarfed by the big fat grain elevators on their outskirts. After some missteps and a few false leads, I dropped down into a channel between the bluffs and rode it down to Glen Haven, a hamlet built where the steep, slender valley opens out onto the river-bottom.

By all evidence, Glen Haven shouldn’t exist. The steep-walled valley has no level ground and the houses, mostly crumbling bungalows are tilted. The main street runs between a half-dozen ancient brick commercial buildings, stacks of red or brown stone with limestone cornices perilously perched atop them, and there are no sidewalks, just deep concrete-walled drainage channels running parallel to the road on both of its sides – this means that the bungalows and the commercial buildings are accessed by stepping across little wooden and metal drawbridges. The houses next to the wall-like slopes of the valley seem to be dug into the cliffs – people park their cars in dripping grottos. At the base of the town, where the hillside levels out there is a big berm, probably 25 feet high, an earthwork to which the asphalt road leads. The road, in fact, goes right up the side of the berm and, from the crest, the traveler is alarmed to see that there is nothing on the other side of the dike but a broad, turbulent-looking channel of the Mississippi River – the road expands into the asphalt apron of a boat-launch and it drops precipitously into the brown flood that here is about the width of two football fields. The lay-out reminds me of certain villages that I have seen in north Japan where the driveways descending down from the homes where the fishermen live drop directly into the cold and stormy ocean.

According to internet sources, there is an algific talus slope under the protection of the State of Wisconsin 1.2 miles north of Glen Haven on Dugway Road. Dugway Road is not hard to find – it is the only road running north, parallel to the river from the hamlet. This is also a "low maintenance" road but, certainly, easy enough to drive unless you encounter an oncoming vehicle. The road slides along the very base of high river bluffs, occupying a terrace that is about 35 feet above the grade where the railroad tracks run. The road winds, has no guard rails, and a mistake could be catastrophic here, but the way is reasonably graded and the lane has been patched in places where floods pouring down ravines have ripped it apart. About three-quarters of a mile from Glen Haven, the dirt road passes under some overhangs, rock actually extending out over the lane so that, for a hundred feet, you feel as if you are driving in a tunnel. Local kids have covered the sandstone with graffiti.

Nothing marks the nature reserve. I drove for three miles, found no sign of the reserve, reversed my direction, and stopped, at last, in a swale among swampy lagoons festering with mud and rotting vegetation, a place where a watercourse, dry on this day, snaked down between two overgrown bluffs. This was, perhaps, the nature conservancy, but I found nothing there – another elliptical or oval clearing had been opened in the impenetrable woods and, even, a little lawn planted there, a mowed green grass patch with a fire-pit at its center. To the south were low, shaggy cliffs abutting a hip-high thicket of fiddlehead ferns. A path ran up the valley to a gate on which there were posted very alarming No Trespassing signs – the gate wasn’t much of an impediment: it wasn’t attached to a fence, just some iron bars hanging on a rusty hinge with a few strands of errant barb-wire wrapped around a metal post. The No Trespassing sign declared that anyone entering through the gate, or around it, would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Next to the gate, there was a bucket upturned with a piece of lathe piercing its bottom, a makeshift sign declaring: ALL HUNTERS ENTER HERE! These seemed to be contradictory messages. I slipped between the bucket and the gate and walked down a muddy trail for a hundred feet. The trail was clear, but I couldn’t see that it led anywhere, and, so, I went back to my car parked in the grass on the edge of the oval clearing. If there were algific talus slopes here, I didn’t see them or couldn’t reliably recognize them.

I felt oppressed by the claustrophobic meadow ringed by the blackwater of the swamp and the low, overgrown cliffs. The air felt unclean and I didn’t like the faint animal cries coming from the thickets. We all want to interact with Nature, doesn’t want to interact with us. Heraclitus wrote: "Nature likes to hide." And, in any event, what would it be like to really interact with Nature. How would that encounter end? I retreated to my car and, then, drove north, another five winding one-lane miles to a place where another, broader valley descended down into the river bottoms. There was an asphalt road in that place and it led me back to Prairie du Chien and, then, across the river to Effigy Mounds National Monument.



On the Iowa side of the Mississippi, the landscape north of McGregor is intricate with high bluffs hanging like green clouds over the great river’s channels. The bluffs are transected by narrow valleys where tributary rivers, most particularly the Yellow, plunge down to join their waters with brown flood of the Mississippi. On the west side of the bluffs, the river and creek beds spread out like capillaries or the branches on a tree, a complex network of narrow and steep valleys, some of them with palisade cliffs, and knobs of land up to tillable acreages where there are scattered farms. It’s an area that feels very wild and remote, with unmarked roads snaking up gloomy, jungle-like ravines. Because this part of northeastern Iowa is so poor and rocky, so much up and down without level ground, large expanses of the area have never been cultivated – this means that hundreds of Indian mounds dot the hilltops and the terraces above the Mississippi and other rivers flowing into its two great channels. In most parts of the Midwest, these mounds were eradicated, plowed under when the sod was broken, but the woods are so dense in northwest Iowa that tracts of archaeologically significant earthworks, some of them dating back to a thousand years BC can still be seen.

These monuments were not the object of my expedition and so I will scant my description of them in this essay. It suffices for me to say that I spent three hours hiking the high bluffs in Effigy Mounds National Monument, a steep climb up switchbacks to the rolling, densely wooded hilltops where the mounds were built. There are three scenic overlooks above the river along the trail that I hiked. In this area, the riverside bluffs are so vertical that, from atop them, the hiker has the sense that he ran fast enough and flung himself wide of the stony cliffs underfoot, he might be able to dive straight down into the river, the great looping channel marked with enigmatic buoys at its center.

Internet information advised that there was a newly discovered Algific Talus Slope in Yellow River State Forest, a tangled octopus-shaped woods located about 12 miles north of the National Monument. I asked the park ranger at the desk about this place. "Talus slope?" he asked. "Those are all over. If you hiked up to the bluff-top mounds you passed over some talus slopes."

"But are they algific?" I asked.

The younger park ranger said: "He means cold-producing."

"Oh, I don’t know about that," the older man replied.

I said that I had been looking for them. "I was down on Dugway Road," I said.

The older man looked at me and squinted. "You drove Dugway Road?" he asked.

"Yes," I said. "Is there an algific talus slope there?"

"Don’t know that," the older man said.

"I was at Bixby," I said. "Yesterday."

The younger park ranger was relieved. "Well, if you were at Bixby, then, you’ve seen an algific talus slope," he said. "That’s where you go to look at them."

"But I didn’t see any," I said.

"Did you see the ice cave?" He asked.

"No," I said.

"It’s just on the other side of the creek. Just a few hundred feet from where you cross the creek," he told me.

"It was flooded," I said, "I didn’t cross the creek."

"Oh, that’s too bad."

"Well, what about Yellow River?" I asked.

"Don’t know anything about that," the older man said. The younger park ranger chewed on his lip a little.

Some elderly people hobbled into the museum. They were too old to hike up the steep trail to the effigy mounds, mostly bears and a bird, above us on the bluff top. The younger park ranger told them that the movie about the mounds shown on rotation in the small auditorium next to the wildlife displays was about to begin.

I went into the museum and looked at the exhibits. The star of the museum is the so-called New Albin tablet, a pentagonal shard of polished red pipestone about five inches tall and two inches wide. On the smooth surface of the tablet, a stylized human figure has been incised into the shiny red stone. The artist cut the human figure as an etching or intaglio into the catlinite, a fine, mirror-smooth specimen mined at the ancient quarries 300 miles to the west. The figure either has the head of a bird or wears a raptor as his headdress – his esophagus or windpipe has been drawn as a column around which his broad-shouldered, geometrically stylized body has been incised. The figure wears a loin cloth and it appears that a zig-zagging discharge of lightning emanates from his groin.

The thunder god is displayed in a round or convex case at the head of some columns of ceramic shards. The tablet was found in New Albin, a tiny village on the small, muddy terrace overlooking the swampy North Iowa River, a couple miles from its confluence with the Mississippi. It was 1915 and someone was shoring up the foundation of a house – the basement had collapsed due to the sandy soil and the tablet was found buried in that sand.

Returning to the rangers at the front desk, I asked them if the famous glaciere or ice cave in Decorah, Iowa, fifty miles to the west was part of an algific talus slope. "Could be," the younger man said. It was obvious that he and his sidekick had exhausted that topic of conversation. "Will be 88 degrees tomorrow," the older man said. "Yahoo," the younger pare ranger replied.




My notes told me that an algific talus slope existed along the Oneonta or Trout Run Trail, a hiking path in Decorah, Iowa. In fact, one internet reference suggested that there was some kind of display, a marker or plaque directing attention to the talus slope and advising as to its unique characteristics. I reached Decorah around 2:50 pm, but found that it was difficult to orient myself in the city and that the places where my notes told me to search weren’t clearly marked on the map. The algific talus slope was said to be marked on the Trout Run or Oneonta Trail in Phelps Park just off "Dug Road." The road name bothered me – another algific slope in Wisconsin was supposed to be accessed by Dugway Road. Was it possible that there were two roads relevant to my search with such similar names? Or had I written one of these notes down wrong?

Decorah’s city limits extend far beyond the town itself and the town’s residential and commercial buildings are scattered between several intersecting valleys. As far as I can determine, the town’s streets make a shape a little like a hollow Iron Cross with a tangled wood-overgrown hilltop in the middle of the municipality. Big steep bluffs rise up precipitously from the river bottoms where several spring-fed streams collide and join with one another – the green mass of the bluff where Phelps Park is located rises up over the valley and town like the fin of a shark.

Immediately upon entering the city limits, far from the town itself in an idyllic valley adorned with a trout stream, I encountered signs directing me to Trout Run Road. The valley was wide enough for there to be a few acreages planted in corn between the stony heights and there were pretty and graceful pedestrian bridges over the stream. (Decorah is a college town and kids were zooming around on bicycles on the paved trails.) Trout Run Road ends where silvery water plunges down a sort of stepladder above the old Teutonic-looking buildings of a trout hatchery – from a distance, the place with its castellated tower and Gothic windows looked like a brewery, a bit like the Schell’s buildings in a similarly green and shady ravine at New Ulm, Minnesota. There were a lot of people scrutinizing the trout in the hatchery and just downstream of the aerated ponds, kids were gathered the grassy banks of the river casting their fishing lines into the rippling creek. This wasn’t the place that I was seeking and so I used the map on my phone to navigate through the valleys to Phelp’s park.

One-way streets protect Phelp’s Park and its hard to find the way up to the heights. The place occupies the summit of the high bluff dividing the downtown from the bucolic pastures and meadows of the college to the north. Houses line the streets up to the old park where there are some gazebos on the rocky slopes and a grassy mound with tennis courts ascending to a wooded conical mound. Next to the park, an old mansion occupies public land – this was once the home of the brick manufacturer whose construction materials built the town: there are some beehive-shaped kilns where the bricks were fired. The steep slope overlooking the flood plain to the north is sheer and densely entangled with trees and vines. A trail, the so-called "Trout Run Trail, initiates in a curious stone walkway between two 19th century observation towers. This trail is marked at one mile and it runs just below the top of the hillside, along a cliff plunging down precipitously 120 feet to the valley floor. The trail is narrow and, in places, treacherous and the consequences of a misstep at many locations during the hike could be deadly. After about a half-mile skirting the tree-covered escarpment, the trail dips into a dell, a little wild and rockgirt canyon where there is a fairy tale arched bridge made of field stone and some old steps leading down to the span over the gorge and, then, ascending again up the side of the steep hill to the head of another stony and wooded ravine deeply cut into the bluff and about a quarter mile away. The trail climbs over the ravine, reaches a meadow on the top of the bluff and, then, peters out in fields overlooking a tract of suburban housing. In the dell, I saw a few clefts in the rock that might have been venting cold air, and, when I held my hand near those fissues, I imagined that I could feel a temperature gradient, but it certainly wasn’t obvious to me that these steep, black cliffsides, always shadowy and damp with their depths filled with ferns had anything to with an algific talus slope.

On my way back to the parking lot at Phelp’s park, a garter snake poised to cross the trail hesitated, politely waited for me to pass and, then, slithered away downhill. I looked down the sheer slope and could see a river below, rippling with white lacy rapids, and what appeared to be a broad asphalt trail between the base of the cliff and the stream. I looked at the clock on my phone – it was still about 3:30 and so I thought I would drive around the base of the bluff, following the roads closest to the bottom of the hillside. That would be my last hike and I would, then, visit the ice cave and depart for Austin, about two hours away.



At the base of the bluff, on its north side, water spilled down a concrete channel, dropping brightly over a weir at the top of the slope. The water slid downhill and, then, fell foaming into the river that was undercutting the dolomite bluff. A bridge spanned the watercourse and the lane ended at a parking lot. A flat trail, surfaced with asphalt led from the parking lot to the base of the cliff and, then, ran parallel between bluff and the river, banks about 12 feet above the water.

A box riveted to a post offered a guide to the Nature Trail and its numbered features – this was the Oneonta Trail. Feature number 16 was an algific talus slope. A couple bicyclists were spinning down the trail and there were two college boys debating politics as they walked side-by-side through the shadow and shade.

About an eighth of a mile from the parking lot, the asphalt path spanned a gash in the steep hillside, where torrents had torn open the bluff, cutting the slope to its quick of fractured dolomite slabs. A big sign announced that this was an algific talus slope, north facing and vented so that cold air maintained temperatures of 30 to 57 degrees on the broken rock faces. Vines dangled down into the steep dell and fallen boulders clogged the bottom of the canyon, pinning deadfall from trees dropped from above. On the sign, a diagram showed how an algific talus slope is made, water percolating down through sinkholes atop the bluff and, then, freezing in innumerable fractures in the porous hillside. The deeply cut ravine was impressive but I understood that the sign was intentionally inaccurate – this was just a steep and wild gorge. The sign’s author did not want to casual onlookers to know that the slope itself was another two-hundred yards down the trail, marked with a little post dug into the ground beside the path.

The post, numbered with a yellow 16, was at the foot of a 45 degree angled slope, densely overgrown with ferns and broad-leafed deciduous plants. The slope extended from the trailside uphill about twenty or thirty feet to where the grade increased sharply into a limestone cliff. Some small cracks cleft the cliff but I could see that the angled slope, was comprised of rubble shaped roughly like broken bricks, a heap of loose rock concealed under the tapestry of dense ferns and broad-leaf plants. There were no flowers, nothing really extraordinary to direct the eye to the algific slope, itself not at all dramatic, just a slumped steep hillside rising to the base of the shaggy cliffs. The densely green ramp rising up to the sheer cliff was at the angle of repose that you would expect if a load of bricks were spilled off the top of the palisade and left in the natural position into which they had fallen. The algific slope exuded a faint breath of winter or early spring and smelled like a wet basement. It was obvious that the vegetation cloaking the slope was different from the grasses and wildflowers on the other side of the asphalt path – clearly there was a temperature differential resulting in one type of flora on the north-facing slope and another, different sort of plant-life, more like what you might see on a prairie hillside above the swift-flowing brown river. The vents exhaling cold onto the slope were not dramatic. Up on the cliffside, there were some overhangs and deep dents in the rock, winter chiseling into the slope, but, below, there were no grottos or deep crevasses – rather, the whole slope was porous, a loose heap of rubble.

I had been at this exact site many years ago, before the path was paved, and, in fact, then it was merely a mucky game trail, winding along the foot of the cliff. I recall the grass in the Fall when I hiked along that way as being higher than my head and laden, I suppose, with deer ticks and, therefore, Lyme disease. The path ran close to the talus and I recall skidding and slipping in the loose rubble under its net of green fern and broadleaf roots. But there was no sign, no marker of any kind, and I had walked past the slope without knowing what it was. Even, now, the slope was inconspicuously marked – the big diorama-sized sign down the trail was, at least, 200 yards from this place.

I took some photographs with my cell-phone. Later, I examined them and they showed nothing - some green shadow, a fern curling as if to invite me to look more closely, a shard of rock protruding from a mat of green...


The rocky bluffs around Decorah are sieves and water trickles through them. There are springs everywhere, places were water bubbles out of mysterious hollow in the rock. Seeps and oozes abound, moist moss glistening in the leafy shadows. The town’s ice cave is so famous that it has a road named after it – this is the largest glaciere east of the Rocky Mountains. A river meanders through the valley and the afternoon is very humid. There’s a small parking lot beneath the stone cliffs where the cave is located. Some old stone steps lead up to an alcove in the cliff-face. Tilted slabs of sandstone for a high shadowy recess, a majestic gate twenty feet high opening into the rock. The actual cave entrance is at the base of that stone gate, a narrow cold crevasse that you would have to stoop to enter and that seems to divide into two descending fissures a half-dozen feet under the rock lintel. A sharp wedge of stone cuts the crevasse in two. I take two steps into the darkness and, then, sense the black mud underfoot, and recognize that I am unable to see anything, even, here at the very entrance to the chamber. So I retreat.

I’ve stood at the threshold of this cave, perhaps, five times in my life and have never been properly equipped to enter. The essential equipment that I have lacked is courage and the resolution to go into the darkness.

Some children are hooting on the sheer hillside overhead. Below the cliff, in the parking lot, three girls wearing bikinis get out of their old car. On their feet, there are flip-flop sandals. They are carrying towels as if for a trip to the beach. The girls go up the old fieldstone steps, whisper to one another, and, then, the vanish into the crack in the rock.

The ice cave is not an algific talus slope. First, there is no tilted slope and no mat of tangled vegetation. I don’t see any talus gathered at the foot of the cliff. And the hillside is south-facing. Algific talus slopes are found beneath north-facing cliffs.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

On East St. Louis Toodle-Oo




It was sheer coincidence that I visited East St. Louis on the hundredth anniversary of the deadly race riot on July 2, 1917. If I had known about the race riot, I certainly would not have driven to East St. Louis on that day, or, indeed, any other day.

The day after our inadvertent visit to East St. Louis, Jack and I toured Scott Joplin’s house. An African-American lady led us through the old house, admitting that there wasn’t a whole lot to see. She put the emphasis where it should have been – on Joplin’s music. His biography is both sad and lacking in any real drama – after brief fame, things went from bad to worse to the musician – and there weren’t really any relevant artifacts in the house. Adjourning to a small room with a player piano, the tour-guide threaded rolls into the machine and, then, energetically pedaling, drove the bellows that produced the music. Joplin’s tunes are infectious and, generally, short: they end before you are properly oriented to the complex syncopated rhythms. We listened to four tunes, including one of Joplin’s most popular rags, "Bethany".

The tour-guide was aggrieved that a "hater" had taken her picture and posted it to face-book. "Take pictures of anything you want but not me," she said. A month before she had experienced a disheartening encounter with a self-proclaimed "Newanderval". "Everyone knows that there ain’t no ‘Newandervals," she said. "Humans came from the Olduvai gorge in East Africa and simple." One of the people on our tour was a music professor from New Hampshire. He nodded his head sagely and commented on the beauty and complexity of Joplin’s music.

Before playing the "Bethany" rag, the tour-guide showed us the tune’s sheet music. The cover shows a beautiful woman wearing dark clothes. The woman looks like a widow and seems to be brooding; she is melancholy and seems to have lost something. "People always tell you that this woman is ‘Freddy’," the tour guide said a little disdainfully. (Freddy was Joplin’s much-beloved second wife who died of tuberculosis only ten months after he married her.) "This ain’t Freddy," the tour guide said. "We showed the picture on the cover of this music to some of Freddy’s family members. We tracked them down. And they told us that Freddy was several shades tanner than this lady." The woman on the cover of Bethany could be White – it’s hard to tell since the picture is printed in sepia, but she looks pale. The tour guide flashed the old sheet music defiantly – "One thing I know is that this ain’t Freddy." This seemed to be her bete noir; she mentioned it several times during the hour that we spent in her company.

During the tour, the Black lady said that "music is mathematics and mathematics is common to all people – it draws all people together." She made an enigmatic mention about "whatever all happened in East St. Louis." She paused and said: "That was once a vibrant city – you know, Miles came from there." She assumed that we all knew that she was talking about Miles Davis. She said that Ike and Tina Turner had played a famous concert at "Our Lady of the Shrines" – I assume she meant "Our Lady of the Snows", a place in Belleville, Illinois next to East St. Louis that we had visited the day before. It was hard to imagine Ike and Tiny shaking up that place, now as still and fragrant and deathly as a mortuary. In the newspaper, I had read something about a bell that warned people in the ghetto that the White mob was approaching. The bell had been rung for the first time in 100 years the day before, July 2, 2017 – but, at that time, I didn’t understand the significance of the bell chiming over the True Light Baptist Church near the Eads Bridge in East St. Louis.

From Chevy Chase’s Vacation, I knew that East St. Louis was a dangerous place. In the movie, Chevy Chase gets lost on his road-trip vacation and finds himself in East St. Louis and, when he gets out to ask for directions, hoodlums strip the tires from his car while his family waits in the vehicle for him.

In a book of historical photographs, I saw an image of the grave of a three-year old Armenian child, little Alphonse Magarian. The Magarian family lived next to a nasty brothel in East St. Louis and no one could get any sleep because people were always coming and going, mistaking the numbers on the houses and drunkenly hailing the Magarians out of their beds and, in the alley, there were shootings and knifings, women hooting in the darkness like owls, and the sound of ragtime piano tinkling at all hours. Mr. Magarian complained to the police but they ignored him. He complained again with the same results. On his third complaint, the police raided the joint, shook down the girls and rousted out the patrons. The next day, someone kidnapped the little Magarian boy, sawed off his head, and left the decapitated three year-old on the stoop of his parent’s tenement. The child is buried in Belleville under a headstone that states his name and gives these dates: Sept 3, 1913 – Sept. 8, 1916.

On July 2, 2017, Jack and I crossed the river on the freeway bridge from St. Louis to Illinois and, then, stopped at Cahokia. It was hot and humid as we climbed the huge mound and small nondescript grasshoppers buzzed through the air around us. From atop Monk’s Mound, an immense Mississippian-culture earthen monument, we could see St. Louis, the big arch gleaming and poised defiantly over the river. Collinsville, Illinois, where the ancient city of Cahokia is located, is a suburb of East St. Louis except that for all practical purposes East St. Louis has ceased to exist so Collinsville is effectively a suburb of no place at all. The mounds are on a State highway that runs along shabby storefronts with hand-painted Spanish signs, a few Mexican groceries and some auto-lube places selling oil and car parts and, then, salvage yards in the groves of willows and oak, everything here subject to flooding and the soil as dark as dark chocolate and the cicadas howling overhead and the oil and transmission fluids seeping out of the smashed cars piled up in their hundreds and thousands among the trees – it’s all polluted now, all "brown field." The museum at Cahokia is very impressive and contains a mock-up of the village dwellings of the Indians who once congregated around the sixty or seventy ceremonial mounds and the wood-henge post circle for observing the seasons. There are some beautiful ceramics in the site-museum, although these are mostly copies or casts of originals kept in the Fine Arts museum in St. Louis. The birdman tablet shows a figure with a sharp beak and wings, probably a ceremonial dancer – the birdman shaman is inscribed in deep, lucid incisions into a polished piece of red pipestone; on the back of the tablet, the surface is striated, probably to represent scales. The great serpent, I think, with its catfish jaws and skull represents the Mississippi river, here at the center of a valley so broad that you can not see its limits. The museum is politically correct to a fault – it doesn’t mention the fact that human sacrifice was committed here at Cahokia on an industrial scale matching the slaughter in old Mexico on the blood-stained Aztec pyramids at Tenochtitlan. There is a film called "City of the Sun" and it is excellent. The film concludes with a superb coup de theater – the screen goes black and we hear the sounds of bullfrogs and birds trilling; then, the screen soundlessly elevates, rising up to reveal the life-size figures of pre-Columbian Indians standing amidst their reed and grass huts, children playing and women grinding corn and dogs prancing about in search of food scraps as an old grandfather sits cross-legged chanting to the rising sun. This is the mock-up in the museum and you have seen it from above and, even, perhaps, traversed the walkway through the exhibit, but, nonetheless, it is a great surprise to see the thing from this angle and lit as if the sun were rising, figures seeming to emerge from a damp mist. The lighting causes us to see the Indians clearly but the tourists wandering around the exhibit are mere shadows. It is as if we have become insubstantial and ghostly, as if the ancient city has been resurrected and its people brought back to life and all of our modern world reduced to a mere, fleeting dream.

The staff at Cahokia invites you to take a ten-mile hike around the site – it is, of course, immense. But it is blazing hot outside and, so, instead, we follow the voice-prompts on Jack’s smart phone to the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows. This is religious site consecrated to a miracle said to have occurred in Rome about the third century A.D. A childless couple prayed to the Virgin, imploring Our Lady that the woman might conceive and deliver a child. The Virgin appeared and said that she would give them a sign that their petition had been granted. "What is that sign?" they asked. The Virgin said that snow would fall and cover the Esquiline Hill – a miracle since it rarely snows in Rome and, certainly, not in the month of August. Of course, the skies darkened and snow flakes appeared and made white the Seven Hills of Rome and, later, a child was born to the couple. The National Shrine occupies a tilted landscape of several bluffs – a couple of churches marked with flamboyant, twisting aluminum flames rising over their rotunda like a rooster’s comb are concealed within deep hollows in the hillside and there is an amphitheater with seats cut into the slope and an altar on a stage beyond a little moat of green, algae-covered water. The altar also bears a pentecostal flame of twisting aluminum, curving into a helix like a vast DNA molecule and rising three for four stories above the pond. A singularly cheerless brick motel, looking like some sort of military barracks built during the first years of the Cold War, sits on the crest of the hill – on the evidence of the parking lot, it is wholly empty, untenanted, no guests at all, except, for ghosts. A long, flat office building has been built on a terrace below the nightmare oven-like motel. Jack and I entered the building and walked through it – a long wide corridor with institutional carpet passing between locked conference rooms. At the end of the corridor, there is a huge painting of Cardinal Mazenod, the founder of this oblate order, and the patron of dysfunctional families. The air in the administrative building had the scent of a nursing home at dinner time, a vaguely fecal aroma of boiling cabbage and roasting meat, and there was a cafeteria, also almost completely empty, with big windows opening onto a vista of a wooded grove where a one-lane asphalt track winds through the Stations of the Cross. We took the drive and found that each Station had been removed so that the road passed steps and platforms and, then, pedestals without anything mounted on them, bare plinths like altars to unseen and unknown gods.

We took Illinois 15 W from the sepulchral shrine down to a gas station in a place called Alorton. The gas station was of a breed unfamiliar to me, a "Step & Go", and it occupied a one-story white building that seemed conspicuously re-purposed from some other use, perhaps a Dollar General store or a pharmacy. I drove among the pumps and found that almost all of them were shrouded in plastic sacks – the sacks covered the pump attachments themselves and seemed to have been in place for time sufficient for the elements to have shredded those bags. I found a single pump that seemed to be operable. The credit-card reader on the pump didn’t work and, so, I decided to go into the Alorton "Step & Go" and pay for my gas with cash. Jack had already entered the store, searching for the rest rooms.

The interior of the "Step & Go" was surprisingly large, airy, and vacant. Along one wall, glass windows set into a two-by-four frame opened into a view of a laundromat. Two bewildered-looking junkies were sitting at a picnic table in the laundromat and, behind them, a washer was spinning clothes, a blur like the rotor of an old prop-driven air-plane. The air stank of disinfectant – it smelled like a porno place and there were some buckets on the tile floor, placed to catch water dripping through the ceiling. A White woman with a pitted and sorrowful face sat enthroned among a thousand bottles of hard liquor – she was the cashier, selling booze and candy and chips, and managing the gas pumps. I paid the woman 10 dollars and went out to the pump. The pump wheezed a little and spun its numbers back to zero but no gas came from the spigot. I went back into the "Step & Go". A couple of cars had pulled up at the pumps and some Black girls dressed like whores got out, shook their shoulders like wet dogs, and, then, went into C-store. A junkie appeared from nowhere and walked crookedly among the pumps. I noticed that there was a tiny white-frame building, apparently mobile and mounted on wheels pulled up against the side of the laundromat – a sign on the door said "Alorton Police." I went back into the "Step and Go". The hookers were buying hot dogs from the rollers under the heat lamps in the middle of the double aisle of candy and potato chips. The woman said that she would fix the problem and that I should go outside, hit the pump hard against the concrete, and try again. I went back outside. A couple more curious junkies had roused themselves from a vacant lot and were perusing the cars pulled up at the gas station. A bad hombre driving one the cars got out of his vehicle and, in defiance of the ‘No Smoking at the Pumps’ sign, lit a Swisher Sweet. The pimps knew enough not to waste time trying to buy gas here. I beat the pump against the concrete pier and tried to get some gas again – no luck. This place was making me nervous. I asked the haggard clerk for my ten dollars back and she sadly refunded the money. I went to the cooler to buy a can of pop but the place didn’t seem to sell soft drinks except for energy drinks and Gatorade – everything else was malt liquor and cheap beer. On my way out to the car, I noticed that the "Step & Go" was selling Nyquil bottles from a bin conveniently located for impulse buys – two bottles for three dollars, such a wonderfully cheap price that, for a moment, I contemplated stocking up on that soporific cough syrup.

"Get me out of here," I said to Jack and he programmed his cell-phone to take us back to St. Louis. The girl’s voice on the phone told me to drive down W 15. We were going into the heart of East St. Louis except that the heart has been ripped-out and no longer exists. The road ran between abandoned factories, now reduced to their barren brick cores. We passed a church that seemed to have been bombed and, then, a liquor store with its roof burnt-through and fallen into its interior. At some of street corners, empty houses stood in lawns of prairie grass dotted with wild flowers. Everything was spacious and empty. No more than one house remained standing on each block and none of the homes were occupied. All of them were windowless with masonry falling onto overgrown sidewalks and hedges turned into tropical forests. There were no businesses anywhere, not even any traces of businesses – no gas stations, no C-stores, no groceries, no restaurants, not even any liquor stores. In some places, you could look across the vacant fields to the hills, here and there the ruins of factory or railroad terminal like a wrecked aqueduct in the Roman campagna.

"I don’t like the looks of this," I said.

Jack said: "Well, she is leading us to St. Louis."

I recalled the German tourists led by their car phone into an impenetrable desert badlands in Death Valley and, thus, left to perish in that wasteland. "I think she is going to get us killed," I said. (Although I didn’t know it at the time, East Saint Louis is the most dangerous city on earth – in terms of murders per capita it is more dangerous than Juarez or Honduras, the two places that have the highest murder rate outside of East Saint Louis. The city has an even more horrific rate of violent rapes.) I looked at the dense underbrush between ruins – "this is just a body-dump," I said.

The telephone calmly told us to drive another thousand feet and turn on 15th Street. At the intersection, there was a pointlessly flashing yellow light – there were no cars moving anywhere. In fact, the only vehicles that I saw were burnt-out and without wheels, sitting next to open charred cellars.

15th Street was eerie. It ran for a dozen blocks through a sort of jungle. Huge shrubs shrouded wreckage that we really couldn’t see. Sidewalks and driveways led nowhere. It was like driving on a lane in the Yucatan – huts were visible in the undergrowth but there seemed to be no people. During the last five blocks, we passed intersections that were blocked by corroded dumpsters, other roads rendered inaccessible by heaps of rotting garbage or piles of haphazardly dumped concrete rubble. Some shapeless piles of brick stood atop low mounds in tangled undergrowth.

"This is getting worse," I said.

"In three-hundred feet turn left at Piggott," the woman’s imperturbable voice said.

At Piggott, there were some ruins in which cardboard had been tacked up to cover holes in the walls. The cardboard was marked with hand-written ads for beer and whisky. Smoke rose from a howitzer-shaped barbeque machine and four old black men were sitting side-by-side on folding chairs next to a half-collapsed brick wall. A couple big, rust-eaten cars that looked as if they might be drive-able were parked along side the ruins. From a precarious second-story balcony, a woman with her hair up and wrapped in a bandana looked out over the intersection.

We turned. "She is going to get us killed," I said.

The road ran six more blocks through wasteland to a huge gleaming bridge. The St. Louis Arch loomed overhead – the great stainless steel arch towered over the grey and brown river and the desolate grain elevators marooned on the Illinois side. For a moment, it seemed that the arch was about to take flight, that it was an animate thing, only temporarily confined to earth. The arch seemed to be insulting – it was a huge domed knuckle giving the finger to prostrate and abject East St. Louis.

A hundred years before a White mob had gone berserk in East Saint Louis and massacred some unknown number of Black men, women, and children. In late May, 1917, East Saint Louis was a vibrant city, housing, perhaps, 50,000 people. World War One had increased industrial production and many men had enlisted. This meant that the metal foundries and aluminum factories in East Saint Louis were short-handed – there were more jobs than workers. The manufacturing plants recruited African-Americans from the deep south. In 1917, two-thousand people were arriving in town every month and almost all of them were Black.

Since the great railroad strike in 1877, East Saint Louis was heavily unionized and labor - management relations were tense. Samuel Gompers denounced the new workers recruited from the deep South as "scabs" and "union-busters" and called for the workers to take action. There was some rioting in May, 1917 and Federal troops were called-in to keep the peace.

During the evening of July 1, a group of White men drove through what was called the "Negro neighborhood" firing randomly into the people living there. Several Blacks were injured and, so, the people on those streets armed themselves. The next afternoon, a sedan moved slowly through the Black neighborhood. Someone glimpsed a gun and so the African-Americans in the area opened fire. When the fusillade ended, two police detectives occupying the sedan had been killed and several other people in the car were wounded.

This shooting triggered an assault on the African-American neighborhoods that was protracted and vicious. Mobs of White men and women surrounded Black people on the street and clubbed them to death. White women beat Black mothers and girls with iron bars and left them to die on the sidewalks. People were set afire, lynched, beaten into shapeless pulp. The cry resonating through the mob was "Let’s get a nigger." The streets of East Saint Louis echoed with gunfire. Journalists covering the riot noticed that the White mobs were not content to merely shoot down the Negroes – rather, they felt the need to smash them to bits, pulling up paving stones to brain women and children, dragging corpses behind their cars through the streets, and hanging mutilated bodies from street posts. No one knows how many people perished – the official death toll was reported at about 50 with innumerable people injured; the NAACP estimated that the rioting killed as many as 250.

During the race riot, some young men fled the burning waterfront on rafts, crossing the river to Saint Louis. City police and troops made no attempt to stop the bloodshed. Indeed, it was reported that the armed police shot down dozens of African-Americans as they tried to flee churches and fraternal meeting halls that had been set afire. At least, 8000 refugees poured across the Eads Bridge. But, as would occur later during Hurricane Katrina, the White cops in St. Louis intercepted them, barricaded the bridge, and let people pass through only after they had been subjected to humiliating searches for firearms and other weapons. The St. Louis Post Dispatch, to its credit, reported "eye-witness" accounts of the "massacre of Negroes." One headline read: "Mob’s utter brutality a striking feature of the rioting" and the story recounted how dazed, and half-dead black men were dragged to trees, lynched, and set afire. In a story published on July 3, 1917, the St. Louis Post Dispatch described the mass exodus across the Eads Bridge: "There were Picaninnies carrying pets; one little boy hugging a small chicken. There were white-haired men and buxom mammies..."

The White mobs in East St. Louis had become a little too exuberant. Hundreds of freight cars were burnt down to their iron wheels in the rail yards and half of the Caucasian-owned businesses were in ruins. W. E. B. Dubois came to town to investigate the depredations and a year later some 34 people, mostly Black, were set for trial on charges of murder, attempted murder, mayhem, and riot. The first couple trials involving White defendants resulted in acquittals. And, so, the legal proceedings were abandoned. But, as if in retribution for its wickedness, East Saint Louis now lies totally destroyed. It’s tallest structure, the Spivey building, remains standing, but it is gutted and a decomposing ruin. Elsewhere not one stone remains set upon stone and the great Arch broods over the wreckage, a city more smashed and defunct than old prehistoric Cahokia five miles away. Of course, the perversity of this judgment is that it was a largely Black metropolis that has ultimately perished here – in other words, the victims of the 1917 riot have suffered a second insult: now, their city itself is gone.

For supper, I went to Laclede’s Landing, an entertainment district comprising a few blocks of crumbling river-front buildings to the north of the Gateway Arch park. Twenty years ago, Laclede’s Landing was vibrant, a place full of music and the smell of barbecuing pork. Now, it’s mostly padlocked – except for a couple of brew pubs, the place is deserted and the upscale Sushi cafes are abandoned. Leaving Laclede’s Landing, I turned in the wrong direction. A wrong turn on the St. Louis waterfront has only one outcome – you find yourself whisked across the river to East Saint Louis.

This wrong turn led me onto the Eads Bridge. The bridge spans the muddy waters and ends at a modest casino on the Illinois side of the river. The casino is on the north side of the bridge, showing some white walls and a flash of neon. South lies East Saint Louis except that there is nothing there to see – just vacant fields running to the brick shells of buildings and the sad spire of the Spivey tower.

We make a u-turn and returned to St. Louis. Crossing the water, I heard in my mind an instrumental from Steely Dan’s Pretzel Logic – "East St. Louis Toodle-oo", goodbye to old East St. Louis. This version of Duke Ellington’s tune features Walter Becker imitating a muted trumpet by singing through synthesizer; Jeff "Skunk" Baxter plays guitar manipulated to mimic a slide trombone. (The instrumental is one of two songs dedicated to jazz on the record – the other takes us across the State to Kansas City for "Parker’s Band", referring, of course, to the great Charley "Bird" Parker.)

When I got home, I located some recordings of Duke Ellington’s original song on You-Tube. In my view, the best is a recording on the Brunswick label made on March 17, 1927. This version is not the best-known: Ellington recorded the song again, only a week later, for Columbia and that up-tempo account of the tune is the one that most people have heard. But on March 17, 1927, Ellington’s band plays the song very, very slowly – the effect is that of a dirge. Bubber Miley’s deep-plunger muted trumpet makes an unearthly sound, indeed, a spectral "toodle-oo" above the mournful orchestra.

Farewell: East St. Louis.