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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

December 19, 2003

Air Date: December 19, 2003

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Tales of Community (Judy Blunt)

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Judy Blunt grew up on a small ranch in rural Montana. Her family was one of a few dozen scattered across the hard-bitten farm-scape of South Phillips County. As Blunt writes, “Word from the outside, whether it arrived in a mail sack or a news report, seldom overshadowed the facts of our lives,” and stories were what kept this community together. Judy Blunt shares a story from her memoir, Breaking Clean and talks with host Steve Curwood about the moment when she was accepted into her community. (13:30)

Tales of Community (Jake Halpern)

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Whittier, Alaska isn’t a town for the feint of heart. Situated on the brink of the Alaskan coastline, the entire town consists of a 14-story high-rise. The only way into the town is a two-and-a-half mile tunnel through the mountains. Jake Halpern traveled to this remote outpost to visit with some of the residents there. He shares a story from his travelogue, Braving Home: Dispatches from the Underwater Town, the Lava-Side In, and Other Extreme Locales. (18:30)

Tales of Community (Lyall Watson)

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As a boy, Lyall Watson spent his summers on the remote southern coast of Africa, on the Cape of Storms. All the mothers of vacationing families, his own included, worried about their restless sons. Their fathers were off on distant fronts, fighting a world war. It was Watson’s grandmother who finally came up with a solution, marking the beginning of a boys’ club that was not so different from the community of early tribes. Watson shares a story from his memoir Elephantoms: Tracking the Elephant. (18:25)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve CurwoodGUESTS: Judy Blunt, Jake Halpern, Lyall Watson

[THEME MUSIC]

CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

It’s time for our annual storytelling special, and this year the theme is community. We’ll hear tales of the different ways we come together, including life in a boy’s club in South Africa, where the rules were few, yet effective during the month they spent away from adults.

WATSON: Life on that beach was easy. We lived in swimsuits and hats and we felt very comfortable there. As if we fitted into a gap in the ecology, a niche, waiting for us to arrive in this powerful and provident place. That is what pulled us together. And in the days that followed, we created a simple set of tribal rules: one: no girls. Two: no boys under 10 or over 12. And three: everything that would happen at the hut was a secret, divulged only under pain of death.

CURWOOD: A band of boys in the wild and more for the annual storytelling special this week on Living on Earth, stick around.

[MUSIC: Ry Cooder & Manuel Galban “Drume Negrita” MAMBO SINUENDO (Nonesuch – 2003)]

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.

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Tales of Community (Judy Blunt)

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studies, this is the Living on Earth holiday storytelling special. I’m Steve Curwood.

It’s that time of year when many of us feel a need to reconnect with our communities. Whether it’s taking a stroll down Main Street or catching up with a neighbor over a warm mug of cocoa. Community isn’t just the place that surrounds us but what we make of that place. And stories handed down through the generations are what keep a community alive. So this week we’re taking some time away from the news to tell stories – stories of communities and the people who hold them together. So, pull up a chair, put up your feet, and for the next hour you’ll be part of our own little radio community as we hear from three writers with stories of three very different communities.

Lyall Watson is a writer based in West Cork, Ireland. He’s author of the book “Elephantoms: Tracking the Elephant,” and will share a story about a boys club in South Africa that was a rite of passage for unruly lads. Hello Lyall.

WATSON: Steve, hi.

CURWOOD: Also joining me is Jake Halpern, author of the book “Braving Home: Dispatches from the Underwater Town, the Lava-Side Inn, and other Extreme Locales.” He’ll be taking us to the remote outpost community of Whittier, Alaska where, despite unusually close proximity, its residents barely interact with each other – and like to keep it that way. Jake, hello.

HALPERN: Hi, Steve.

CURWOOD: Finally, Judy Blunt teaches English at the University of Montana at Missoula. Her memoir about life on the open plains of Montana is called “Breaking Clean.” Judy, welcome.

BLUNT: Thanks. Glad to be here.

CURWOOD: I’m glad to have you here and I’d like to start with you, Judy. You write about how important the tradition of storytelling has been to your community in rural Montana. And before you tell us your story, I’m curious, how much did this storytelling culture shape your career?

Judy Blunt

BLUNT: I think it had everything to do with my decision to eventually write because that’s the next step of storytelling. I was raised in a very oral community. We did lots of storytelling, not very much television. Lots of card playing. Lots of just keeping track of one another by virtue of stories.

CURWOOD: Alright, well, I want you to help us keep track of that history of yours right now by telling us a story. Could you please tell your story for us now?

[MUSIC: Joshua Bell and Edgar Myer “If I Knew” SHORT TRIP HOME (Sony Music – 1999)]

BLUNT: Sure.

[MUSIC: Joshua Bell and Edgar Myer “If I Knew” SHORT TRIP HOME (Sony Music – 1999)]

BLUNT: Where I grew up, no daily papers shifted our view of the world, and television didn’t intrude until the mid-sixties. Radio broadcasts from Havre, Montana, bounced off the Little Rockies and gave all we desired of the outside – market reports, weather forecasts and a little Patsy Cline.

When the roads were decent, come Saturday we had mail. Dry summer days I climbed the windbreak after noon to watch for a mare’s tail of dust snaking south along the county road, a gray stream that hung for miles on a quiet day and at the last possible second exploded and rose like a mushroom as the mailman slid to a stop.

Ours was one of twenty-some families scattered like islands on a hundred square miles of prairie; farm and ranch folks loosely connected by crank telephones and narrow ribbons of gumbo road. Most of the neighbors I knew were the sons and daughters of farmers, a second generation distilled from turn-of-the-century homesteaders who stuck it out. They say only one in ten made the first decade. Of those who stayed, some started out as Russians, Germans, Norwegians or Swedes – first-generation immigrants. Others came from some direction – up from the south, down from Canada, all of them bearing the sound and taste of other worlds.

The prairie they settled made marginal farmland, and with extended families left behind they were forced to depend on community. No one worked a homestead alone. To stay required common focus and collective effort, a sharing of labor, machinery and knowledge. By the time their children took over, expanding the original claims and jerking the plow line from a tractor seat instead of behind a team of horses, families could no longer be sorted by nationality, religion or expectation. Parents still spoke with accents, told stories of city life, of ocean crossings and foxhunts, of sleigh rides and homemade skis, of the way dumplings were made in the Old Country. But their children, my parents’ generation, were born on the land and born to the land, and they all told the same stories of schoolhouse dances and county fairs, or runaway teams and hoppers and dry wells. Theirs was an intimacy born of isolation, rather than blood relation.

[MUSIC: Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” BEYOND THE MISSOURI SKY(Verve – 1997)]

BLUNT: Word from the outside, whether it arrived in a mail sack or a news report, seldom overshadowed the facts of our lives. We talked in facts – work and weather, the logistics of this fence and that field – but stories were how we spoke. A good story rose to the surface of conversation like heavy cream, a thing to be savored and served artfully. Stored in dry wit, wrapped in dark humor, tied together with strings of anecdotes, these stories told the chronology of a family, the history of a piece of land, the hardships of a certain year or a span of years, a series of events that led without pause to the present. If the stories were recent, they filtered through the door of my room late at night, voices hushed around the kitchen table as they sorted out this day and held it against others, their laughter sharp and sad and slow to come.

Time was the key. Remember the time…and something in the air caught like a whisper. Back when. Back before a summer too fresh and real to talk about, a year’s work stripped in a twenty-minute hailstorm; a man’s right hand mangled in the belts of a combine, first day of harvest; an only son buried alive in a grain bin, suffocated in a red avalanche of wheat.

Only time softened these facts into stories. The boy’s death became a tragic lesson. The doors to the wheat bins by our shop were never chained shut, but in the years that followed my father never missed a chance to remind us how grain slopes up the sides, how just bumping the wall can cause wheat to shift and pour down around you, pinning your feet in seconds. My father’s mangled hand became a story of a wild ride to town and a doctor who administered morphine, but not until he identified the exposed nerves by twanging each one with forceps.

Stories are the lessons of a year or a decade or a life broken into chunks you can swallow. But the heart of a story lies in the act of telling; the passing on. Listening to stories, I learned what was worth saying and what need not be spoken aloud. I learned how we remember and whom we remembered and why; how facts are shaped and colored or forgotten.

[MUSIC: Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny “Spiritual” BEYOND THE MISSOURI SKY (Verve – 1997)]

BLUNT: Few facts of my childhood remain. No one recalls my first words or when I spoke them. The patter of my first steps is lost in a blur of siblings who ran before or crawled after. What survives are the milestones, my family’s oral history of near hits and close calls, stories of five children and our first steps into an adult landscape that made small allowance for age or ignorance.

The first story about me goes like this: The summer Judy was four she trotted into the kitchen, so full of importance you could have popped her with a pin. We had company but she was holding something and I looked over to see what she’d dragged in. She had one of those big round cockleburs. She stepped up to the table with it cupped in both hands. “A cactus just calved,” she says, and holds up the baby to show it off. “I saw the whole thing.”

It’s hard telling what I have actually seen that day, perhaps a simple trick of wind and weeds. But by day’s end I have seen the eyes around a table light up with genuine respect for wit, for the art of timing, the deadpan delivery. My parents look right at me and smile. That smile is not about innocence. By age four I had witnessed a wide range of barnyard conceptions and deliveries. Cats had cats and cows had cows, and I knew why. What do they see in my yarn about cactus calving a cocklebur that makes it worth keeping and telling over and over?

I believe the truth is this: the summer I was four I spoke my first good story and was born into my community, into the collective memory of my family, into a mythology that grew more real to me than fact. For the balance of my childhood I danced and waved on the fringe of a world defined by its miracles and natural disasters, observing and imitating, trying to amount to a good story – or barring that, to tell one.

[MUSIC: Joshua Bell and Edgar Myer “If I Knew” SHORT TRIP HOME (Sony Music – 1999)]

CURWOOD: Well, we see where you started in the image business, Judy, huh?

BLUNT: That’s what stories are all about.

CURWOOD: So, I gather you moved away when you went off to the university, but your parents are still on the original ranch there.

BLUNT: Yeah, I married into that community, actually. I was there until I was 33 years old. And my children went to the same one-room country school I did for a few years before I left.

CURWOOD: Now, has the close-knit nature of this community changed since you moved away?

BLUNT: The area itself – of course, it’s taken almost a hundred years to undo the Homestead Act – and the land is reclaiming its boundaries a little more each year. It’s very marginal land and so, at this point, it’s depopulated. Fewer than about a third to a half of the number of people who lived there when I was growing up remain, and they tend to be older. It’s a land in transition.

CURWOOD: Well, we’re here listening to your story, Jake and Lyall and I. And Jake, you travel around for the stories of the communities that you’ve been into. Does this fit into the pattern that you see?

HALPERN: Yeah, I think it does. In my book I visit some very kind of hard-living places – an erupting volcano, a flood plain, a fire corridor. And one of the things that struck me that Judy was saying, you know, that this area has kind of been depopulated, and there’s only a hand-full of people that remain. I think the decision to stay, the singular decision – for better of for worse, this is where I’m from and this is where I’m going to stay – is itself something that brings people together. Because if they have nothing else in common, they at least have in common that decision, rooted in stubbornness or whatever it is, that this is my home and I’m staying here. And there’s kind of a sense of brotherhood or community that forms out of that stubbornness.

BLUNT: Almost a common defensiveness, in a sense. They have to defend their own choice to stay sometimes, because people will point out the absence of common sense occasionally. [LAUGHTER]

CURWOOD: And Lyall?

WATSON: It reminded me very much of Africa storytelling and a tribal association, almost. It’s a place, obviously, with long memories, with deep roots. It’s the kind of place that you can’t recreate, you can’t make up in just a generation or two. I loved the way that Judy’s voice changed at the moment she talked about her own story. It was a quite different tone, and it was sweet.

CURWOOD: Now, that was your mother – recalls a story, I’m guessing.

BLUNT: Yeah, that would be probably my mother’s voice. In my head, anyway.

CURWOOD: Judy Blunt, thanks for sharing your story with us today.

BLUNT: Thank you.

CURWOOD: We’ll be back with a story from the frozen North in just a moment. You’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Joshua Bell and Edgar Myer “OK, All Right” SHORT TRIP HOME (Sony Music – 1999)]

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Tales of Community (Jake Halpern)

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. This week we’re celebrating the holiday season with stories of community, with writers Judy Blunt, Lyall Watson, and Jake Halpern. Jake, the community you’re about to tell us about is not your average Main Street central sort of town. How did you first hear of Whittier, Alaska, anyway?

Jake Halpern

HALPERN: You know, I was working at a magazine, and somebody had told me that they’d heard a story about a town in Alaska that was in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness, and the whole town existed in one building. And the building got cut off from the world by avalanches and annual 20 feet of snow. And it sounded implausible. It sounded like a science fiction set. And my curiosity was piqued.

CURWOOD: So, off you went. And I gather one of the people that you meet in your story about this town is a woman named Babs Reynolds. And she’s one of the few who, I guess, have stuck it out in this remote outpost for many years. And Jake, for this segment of the show we’ve asked her to listen in to your story from her home in Whittier. Babs, are you on the line?

REYNOLDS: Yes, I am.

CURWOOD: Welcome.

REYNOLDS: Well, thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

CURWOOD: Alright Jake, now the storytelling circle here is yours. Can you read your story for us now?

HAPLERN: Sure. As I read back Babs’ lines, I hope I do your voice justice, Babs. Alright we’ll start here. Reportedly, somewhere in the remote coves of Prince William Sound, there was a fourteen-story high-rise nestled among the glaciers. This single, snowbound building was the city of Whittier, Alaska.

[MUSIC: The Ventures “The Fourth Dimension” THE VENTURES IN SPACE (EMI Records – 1992)]

HALPERN: Perhaps what intrigued me most, however, was Whittier’s lone entranceway – a two-and-a-half-mile-long railroad tunnel that burrowed beneath a surrounding wall of mountains and brought a train into town several times a week. Recently, the state of Alaska had modified the tunnel to install an accompanying road for cars and buses. People in Whittier were miffed. From what I read in the Anchorage Daily News, most residents treasured their fortified isolation. They didn’t want the road, and a few, including an outspoken diehard named Babs Reynolds, promised to fight it to the bitter end.

Whittier owed its existence to the United States Military which initially conceived it as a fortified seaport. Anchorage traditionally relied on port towns like Seward for its shipping. Yet, as World War II began, the military insisted on a closer and more secure port for its operations. In August of 1941, engineers began drilling a two mile hole through the mountains to a narrow shelf of rock on the other side which they called Whittier. The name came from the Quaker poet, John Greenleaf Whittier, whose poems often described the rugged beauty of the seasons, including the awesome power of winter.

In 1956, the military completed a fourteen-story high-rise that qualified as the tallest building in Alaska. The Pentagon hoped Whittier would be, not just a secure port but also, a lookout onto the Soviet Union, which sat a few hundred miles to the west. Yet, just a few short years later, the entire project was abandoned. Ultimately, Whittier was left to the handful of civilians who called it as home.

According to the 2000 census, precisely 182 people now lived in the city and I wanted to know more about them. Naturally, I was curious about Whittier’s avalanches and its harsh wintry environs but this was just part of it. Whittier promised to offer something new – not just a story of man verses the great outdoors, but also of man verses the great indoors.

[MUSIC: Pan American “Starts Friday” PAN AMERICAN (Kranky – 1998)]

HALPERN: After flying to Anchorage, I hired a reluctant taxi driver who navigated me across a series of snow-covered mountains and through the two and a half mile long tunnel that led to the giant tower that was Whittier, where I planned to spend the next two weeks.

The first-floor hallway is the center of daily life in Whittier, the equivalent of Main Street in a normal town. Along this vast, windowless stretch I found a series of rooms containing the post office, the laundromat, the general store, the weather station, city hall, police headquarters, and a shop called Cabin Fever. At both ends of the building there were elevators leading to the residential floors above. By the time I arrived, the first-floor hallway had shut down for the night and there was hardly a person in sight.

Eventually, I wandered into Cabin Fever which occupied a very cramped, one-bedroom apartment at the far end of the hallway, and functioned as the town’s video store and tanning salon. It was here that I met Babs Reynolds. Babs was sitting in a walk-in closet outfitted with a small desk and a wrap-around bookcase with several hundred movies, including a great many horror and action flicks. She was of medium height and buxom, a hearty woman in her early sixties, whose face was daubed with make-up and whose skin was deeply bronzed from the generous use of liquid tanner. Her clothes were all denim. Between her breasts rested a lone ornament: a small leather holster for her lighter, which hung as a necklace on a piece of rawhide. We exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes, during which time she used her necklace to light a long, brown, menthol cigarette that resembled a small cigar.

“So what do you think of Whittier?” she asked me finally in a deep, throaty drawl.

“When I first came through that tunnel I was a little spooked out,” I admitted.

“Yeah, well who wouldn’t be?” said Babs with a laugh. She reached into the desk drawer, pulled out a deck of cards, and began dealing herself a round of solitaire, which she played effortlessly, as if for the ten-thousandth time. “When I first got here I couldn’t believe it either,” she said without looking up.

“Did you think of turning around?” I asked.

“Not for a moment,” replied Babs. “I had an ex-husband on the other side who was trying to kill me.” Neither of us spoke for a moment. Babs glanced up at a small TV that was hanging from the ceiling, and as she did this, I noticed several scars on her chin. Before she came to Whittier her ex-husband used to beat her. On one occasion he broke her jaw, and the scars marked the places where a doctor had drilled several magnesium bolts into her mandible and connected them to a fiberglass brace.

Upon arriving in Whittier in the summer of 1978, Babs showed a picture of her third husband to the train crew and explained that he was out to kill her. “Back then, the train was the only way into Whittier, and the train crew controlled who got in and who got out,” said Babs. “So I told them my situation, and they told me not to worry.” In the coming years the crew made good on its promise, never letting Babs’ husband aboard an incoming train.

I chatted with Babs until closing time and as she locked up Cabin Fever for the night, I asked if I could help out with her newspaper route the following day. “Sure, that’d be nice,” said Babs. “Be downstairs at nine o’clock tomorrow and we’ll head over to the tunnel to pick up the papers. And if you’re lucky, I’ll make you breakfast afterwards.”

From Cabin Fever I headed upstairs to the local B&B where I’d made reservations--quite unnecessarily, as it turns out, for I was the only guest. I rode the elevator to the ninth floor where I met Kathy Elliot, a timid, white-haired woman who helped run the B&B.

“How’s the weather outside?” she asked. “Cold,” I told her. “I’m sure it is,” said Kathy, who went on to explain that she hadn’t left the high-rise in weeks. “I like going outside but it drains you,” said Kathy. “When you come back indoors to a manmade situation you have to acclimate. I guess it’s something like what the astronauts go through.”

“So you just stay inside for weeks at a time?” I asked.

“I’ve stayed inside for months at a time,” explained Kathy. “In the wintertime I hibernate like an old bear.”

[MUSIC: Pan American “Starts Friday” PAN AMERICAN (Kranky – 1998)]

HALPERN: I took my key and proceeded to the fourteenth floor where the B&B was located. The elevator doors opened onto one of the building’s many long, linoleum corridors. The inside of the high-rise has a hybrid of several institutional styles of architecture – part 1950’s college dormitory, part aging mental institution, and part nuclear fallout shelter – the effect was immediately confining and at times creepy. The tower has two major joints or gaps that allow the structure to flex properly in the event of an earthquake. The practical effect, however, was that of a massive wind vent, causing the entire building to creak and groan through the night. “Sometimes,” one resident told me, “in the middle of the night, you’ll sit right up in bed and ask yourself: What do I hear? And the answer is: nothing. The wind has finally stopped, and the silence is enough to wake you.”

After a restless first night of sleep, I met Babs at 9 a.m. the following morning to help out with the newspapers. She drove her weather-beaten pickup truck out towards the tunnel, and together we struggled to see through the steadily falling snow.

“How’s this road working out?” I asked finally.

“Well, it’s here, so we use it,” said Babs. “But right until that first car came through, I had to believe it wasn’t going to open.

Babs dug into the depths of her winter coat, pulled out her necklace-lighter, and lit another of her menthols.

“You got to understand, I came here over twenty years ago running for my life. Coming here I found safety and some of the most beautiful country you’ll ever see. And I wasn’t the only one. A lot of people came here running from something.”

This is something I would hear again and again in Whittier. People came through the tunnel on the run from a whole gamut of troubles: ex-husbands, ex-wives, parents, jobs, warrants, child-support, God, or just perhaps themselves. Alaska was as far away as they could go and still speak English, and Whittier was a good safe leap beyond that.

Babs popped open the driver’s side door and stepped out into a powdery patch of knee-deep snow. “I’m going check and see if the tunnel crew already dropped off the papers,” she told me. I followed her through the snow to a partially submerged phone booth. I helped her pry open the door, and inside we found several dozen copies of Anchorage Daily News. We carried the newspapers back to Babs’ truck. By now the wind was really howling, and both of us hurried into the front seat. “The way I see it, this road was done to us – not for us,” concluded Babs. “They brought us the world. Hell, we could have had the world if we wanted it, but we didn’t, that’s why we all ended up here.”

[MUSIC: Tillman and Ambient Groove Artists “Blue September” LINGO (Swiss Radio International – 1997)]

HALPERN: Two others reasons for Babs not to go anywhere were her younger sisters, Brenda and Carolyn, both of whom had followed her to Whittier. Carolyn Raye Casebeer, the middle sister, was a lifelong wanderer who rarely stayed anywhere for more than a year at a time. She had moved to Whittier five different times, and was currently living in an apartment on the tenth floor of the high-rise, which was furnished with a few Spartan items, including a wooden box with an open plane ticket in it. Brenda Tolman, the youngest sister, arrived in 1982 and had been in Whittier ever since. Brenda was a professional artist. She had a studio on the first floor of the high-rise, but she lived next door to Babs in Whittier Manor – a small snow-entrenched bungalow next to the tower.

Despite the fact that Brenda and Babs lived next door to one another and relied on each other to do everything from running the weather station to lassoing runaway reindeer, Babs told me they once went for two years without talking. “We used to pass in the hallway or ride the same elevator without even looking up,” she explained. “It was like we didn’t exist for each other.” In addition to being somewhat standoffish, the two were highly competitive, not just for my attention, but for the attention of the entire town, it seemed. Carolyn, the middle sister, explained this best.

“My sisters are like celebrities around here,” she told me when I visited her eleventh floor apartment. “I mean sometimes, you’d think they’d stopped world hunger or something,” she added with a laugh. “How much longer are you going to be in Whittier?” I asked her.

“I have absolutely no idea,” she told me. “Everything here is so simple and secure. When I’ve left in the past, I’ve thought, what have I done? Suddenly I had to start carrying a wallet again. I had to worry about rent, utilities, jobs, everything. For me, that’s the real world. I need that. But what do I know? Maybe this is really paradise and I am just too much of damn fool to see it.”

[MUSIC: Isotope 217 “La Jetee” UNSTABLE MOLECULE (Thrill Jockey – 1997)]

HALPERN: On the morning of my departure Babs offered to drive me to the airport. Around 10 a.m. we set out in her pickup truck, driving south along the snow-covered bends of Portage Valley, through a forest of trees whose branches were hung with long, delicate icicles that fell and shattered like champagne glasses whenever the wind blew. We took the Seward Highway into Anchorage, and just to kill a bit of time, drove down Fourth Avenue past the honky-tonks where Babs once tended bar. “Not much left here,” she muttered as we sped down Fourth Avenue so quickly it was impossible for me to see much of anything. About half an hour later we pulled into the airport. “I’m not big on goodbyes,” said Babs, “but you know where to find me if you ever want to come back.” Babs slammed on the breaks, stopping just long enough for me to plant both feet on the curb, and then she was gone.

[MUSIC: Isotope 217 “La Jetee” UNSTABLE MOLECULE (Thrill Jockey – 1997)]

CURWOOD: That’s a great story, Jake, thanks so much. And we do have Babs Reynolds here on the line with us right now. Babs, what did you think of Whittier when you first came through that tunnel?

REYNOLDS: The first time I came through the tunnel, I was running for my life. And when you find something secure, everything looks better.

CURWOOD: Okay.

REYNOLDS: And you have to put everything into a positive mode. And it was absolutely beautiful here, and I was free to go out and walk around on the streets, or do anything I wanted to. And so, my first thought coming into town was, wow, this has got to be the greatest place in the world.

CURWOOD: Well, what kind of person comes to Whittier and stays, Babs?

REYNOLDS: Well, I don’t know if they’re really stupid, or they’ve just got a lot of guts and they want to do something really different. [LAUGHTER] You know? Or if they’re forced into it. I was pretty much forced into it and made the best of a bad situation.

Obviously, I’d lived in Anchorage for quite a while. I knew lots of people on that side. I had quite a social life over there. You know, having been in the bar business and stuff. And it was just totally different coming over here. It was like opening up one door after you’ve closed another one.

HALPERN: I just want to add that there are other people, obviously, besides Babs in Whittier. And the reason, I think, that I was drawn to her to write about her is because through her kind of extraordinary will power, she’s made Whittier a homey place for herself. Her apartment is incredibly welcoming. The video store and tanning salon that she’s set up is one of the few places where people interact. The same goes for the burger stand that she created. And what impressed me about Babs, was that, to my mind, in a very kind of inhospitable place, she had really worked hard to carve out a nice home for herself.

CURWOOD: Yeah, I mean, it would occur to me that this isn’t a place that would ordinarily attract a lot of gregarious people. That they go off to the end of the planet so they can be by themselves, and want to keep to themselves. In fact, I’m surprised that you got people to open up and tell you their stories.

HALPERN: Well, Babs helped me on that. She really did. I think after I befriended Babs, I think people’s suspicion of me kind of – you know, I was the guy helping Babs out with the newspapers, or whatnot. And she really kind of gave me a stepping stone into the community, which is…

REYNOLDS: Yeah, plus nobody ever stays at my house, and I let him camp here. I guess everybody figured, well, if I would let him stay in my house, he must be alright.

CURWOOD: Ooh, you got the tongues a-waggin’ there, huh?

REYNOLDS: [LAUGHTER]

CURWOOD: [LAUGHTER] Jake, I want to get our other storytellers to comment here in just a moment, but I have to say there’s one description you have of the city which really just grabbed me. And it’s this quote, that “it’s not just the story of man versus the great outdoors, but also man versus the great indoors.”

HALPERN: Yeah, that’s the thing that you’re struck by in Whittier, is that the people who make it are people that essentially don’t freak out at being inside and kind of contained. And a lot of people are not as strong as Babs. I mean, it’s kind of a well-known phenomenon of people just cracking – kind of the claustrophobia doing them in. And so the irony of this is, you know, Alaska is the last frontier, but in this town, to survive, you have to be able to make it indoors.

CURWOOD: Judy, now you grew up in a small town, in a town that’s getting smaller and smaller. What similarities do you see between rural Montana and the high-rise community of Whittier, Alaska?

BLUNT: I thought it was interesting, the similarity between when they started to put gravel on the road to my community south of Malta, Montana. And there was a lot of resistance to that because it suddenly struck everyone after they’d argued for a long time to get new roads in there so that they could get out, that those roads went two ways. And if they could get out, that meant that other people could get in. And suddenly they had to start locking their fuel pumps and worrying about kids being able to drive out of town and wreak havoc in the rural communities.

CURWOOD; And Lyall, Lyall Watson, what are your thoughts?

WATSON: I’m intrigued by Whittier, but – because I’m not afraid of being alone, I spend a lot of my time on my own – but being in a small community, in a closed, weather-bound condition, would give me cabin fever. I think that’s a great name for a bar. If I were there long enough, I’d be in a chronic state of perpetual claustrophobia. It happens to places that Kurt Vonnegut’s describes as “grand falloons” And he meant artificial associations of small numbers of people that is never going to work.

CURWOOD: So, this place strikes me as a wonderful retirement home for former submarine workers, long-term space station inhabitants, that sort of thing. What do you think, Babs?

REYNOLDS: Well, it’s bad in the wintertime, and when the people get really old, a lot of them have had to move out of here because they’re not able to get in and out of their vehicles because there’s so much ice.

CURWOOD: Uh ,oh. So, what are you going to do as retirement approaches?

REYNOLDS: I’m going to keep all my jobs on the ground floor.

CURWOOD: [LAUGHTER]

HALPERN: Babs, you should tell him what your plan is for when you go, down at the burger stand.

REYNOLDS: [LAUGHTER] Well, people keep asking me if I’m going to retire. Now I’m only 65 so, you know, I’m not looking at any kind of a break here anytime soon. But probably the best think that could happen would be if I was down cooking hamburgers in the summertime and I just fell over and died. And my sister came down and threw me on the grill and barbecued me and my ashes went out to the ocean. And that would be perfect.

CURWOOD: [LAUGHTER] Well, Jake Halpern, I want to thank you for your wonderful story. And Babs, thanks for taking this time.

REYNOLDS: Thanks for visiting with me.

CURWOOD: Still ahead, a story of a boys club in the wild. You’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Pan American “Tract” PAN AMERICAN (Kranky – 1998)]

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Oak Foundation, supporting coverage of marine issues, and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. Support also comes from NPR member stations and the Noyce Foundation, dedicated to improving math and science instruction from kindergarten through grade 12, and Bob Williams and Meg Caldwell, honoring NPR's coverage of environmental and natural resource issues, and in support of the NPR President's Council.

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Tales of Community (Lyall Watson)

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. It’s our holiday special, and this year the theme is community. Authors Jake Halpern, Judy Blunt and Lyall Watson are here to share some of their stories on that theme. And Lyall Watson, it’s your turn now. Your book is a memoir, really. And part of it is about your time in this wild community of boys that you were part of there in South Africa. Could you please share that with us now?

Lyall Watson

WATSON: Sure. True communities are rare. They can't be forced or legislated into being. They have to grow naturally. I learned this valuable lesson as a child in Africa, coming of age around the end of the second World War.

I was just ten years old and running a little wild as a result of lack of paternal supervision. The fathers of all the boys in my age group had gone off to fight on distant fronts. Some never returned, and those who did were struggling to rebuild professions and trades disrupted by six years of war. So we saw little of them, even when our families and friends took traditional summer holidays down on the remote southern coast of the Cape of Storms.

[MUSIC: Yulara “Horizon” COSMIC TREE (Higher Octave – 1998)]

WATSON: This is where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet and create a unique habitat – one with its own idiosyncratic weather and peculiar fauna and flora. A relatively undisturbed sanctuary at the foot of Africa, isolated by mountain ranges and deserts from the turmoil going on in the rest of the continent. A place where leopards and baboons, buffalo, bushpig and even elephants still lived unfenced. Being there was a privilege, a glimpse of the last of the best of times to be young.

We were, however, at an awkward age, too old for toys and too young for girls. A restless generation, ripe for disaster, rescued only by the fact that being bad in those innocent days wasn't a big deal. But our mothers worried about us anyway and wondered what to do until my pioneer grandmother came up with a brilliant solution to the problems of all the families with unruly sons.

[MUSIC: Conundrum “Joko” TEA (Junkwagon Records – 1999)]

WATSON: She commandeered a wagon and team of oxen from a local farmer and did the unthinkable. She loaded up the wagon with a dozen of the most turbulent pre-teen boys and supplies sufficient for a month. And then she drove us herself, of her own hands, out to an old fishing hut on a remote beach many miles from the nearest road or habitation, and then she just left us there.

We had heard many things about this ramshackle hideaway. It featured very largely in the stories told by our grandfathers who had gathered there whenever they could to enjoy all male weekends with good brandy and outrageous lies about all the fish they had ever caught. And now it was ours.

The hut was nothing more than a one-room driftwood shack in the dunes. Inside there was a wooden floor with gaps between the planks large enough to provide ventilation and to let beach sand trickle back through. That, and a small collection of battered pots and pans.

We liked it right away. And when we had unpacked the supplies Ouma had provided for us, we discovered that these consisted largely of flour, sugar, soap, candles, matches, fishing gear, a few canvas water bags, and a bedroll and one change of clothes for each of us.

[MUSIC: Yulara “Wren’s Peace” COSMIC TREE (Higher Octave – 1998)]

WATSON: The adventure began with a long swim at the far end of the narrow beach where breaking waves curled up around rocks covered up to the high tideline with large black mussels. These proved later to be one of our mainstays, available in all weathers, but by sunset that night we had caught several large galjoen - fish that also feed on the mussels - and grilled them over slow-burning coals on the beach not far from a seasonal spring of cool fresh water at the base of the cliffs. And that evening we dined and drank entirely off the land and enjoyed a huge surge of pride in this newfound discovery of an ability to support ourselves.

Foraging is heady stuff. It changed all of us in fundamental ways. We were very soon aware that what we were doing set us apart from all the other boys who were getting fed, and driven about, and told what to do. We were drawn together by the very act of breaking the bread which we had ourselves baked. The pride it brought was shared and, in just a matter of days, we began to think of ourselves as some sort of tribe.

When the Dutch landed at the Cape in 1652 to establish the first farming settlement there, they were met by a ragged group of people. These were small and tawny-colored with peppercorn curls of black hair. They wore loincloths, leather cloaks and leggings, and lived there, right on the beach, collecting shellfish, crayfish, fur seals and an occasional beached whale. The colonists called them strandlopers or "beachwalkers," and judged from the huge midden mounds of shells that they had lived in this way for a very long time.

The Dutch were also very dismissive of such "savages" who scavenged for food, and ate it raw, and slept out on the sand. But we admired their ingenuity and were very taken by what we knew of their lifestyle. Beachwalking, we discovered, was an entirely reasonable and honorable profession. And because any half-decent tribe has to have members and a proper name - we voted unanimously to become the new "Strandlopers" and vowed to meet every year for a month.

So it was, and in the days that followed we also created a simple set of tribal rules: one: no girls; two: no boys under nine or over twelve; and three: and everything that happened at the hut was a secret, divulged only on pain of death.

We saw that first season out triumphantly. When Ouma came back on the appointed day with her ox-wagon, she said we looked different.

[MUSIC: Yulara “Horizon” COSMIC TREE (Higher Octave – 1998)]

WATSON: It wasn't just a matter of a lack of grooming, all the families noticed the same thing. Even their most awkward offspring returned from the hut with a new maturity, a different bearing, and every single one of them refused to talk about the experience at all. Even the curiosity of younger brothers was turned side with the same tight-lipped response : "You just wait until you turn ten."

In retrospect, our decision to repeat the adventure every year was a vital one. It meant that a continuous culture was born, or at least reinvented, and we never had to start from the beginning. We were all just Strandlopers and proud of it. A different tribe, democratic while it lasted and happy to make things up as we went along. Our society was never large enough to splinter into factions or small enough to come to blows, because our group size, by happy accident, was very close to the optimal size for all such successful foragers in history. The distinctions that did emerge amongst us were all based on merit and ability.

[MUSIC: I Am Walking “Shi Ni Sha” NEW NATIVE MUSIC (Narada Productions – 1997)]

WATSON: Petrus, for instance, was born to fish and seemed always to know where and when to go and what kind of catch to expect. Boetie, a tough Afrikaner kid, grew up on a large bushveld farm and he automatically took charge of setting snares for rabbits and guineafowl, which he stewed by burying them in clay cocoons beneath our evening campfire. And I found myself slipping easily into the role of storyteller and keeper of the old and newly minted Strandloper traditions. It was my job when disagreements did arise, to arbitrate by dredging up historical or fictional authority which absolved us all from having to take sides. So the words "This is how it was done!" always ruled the day and still leaves me with huge respect for the power of tradition and precedent.

Looking back, I am amazed by how well it all worked. Young boys are better known for rebellion than collaboration. But, in hindsight, I am also aware of several factors that did favor cohesion. Life on that beach was easy. There was always something to eat, something different almost every day. The climate was kind, we lived in swimsuits and hats, and felt so comfortable there. As though we fitted into a gap in the ecology, a niche waiting for us to arrive in this powerful and provident place.

That is what pulled us together. And now, half a century later, I am delighted to learn that we were not the first to be touched by its magic. Recent archaeological discoveries on that same Cape coast have now shown that others, perhaps even our direct and distant relatives, lived there in much the same way almost 100,000 years ago.

Foraging and fishing, hunting and gathering, finding food easily, they had time for other important things such as playing, dreaming, dancing, singing - all the activities necessary to grow big brains and produce some of the world's first real art objects. They were safe on the sheltered Cape coast, they waited for the right moment to rejoin the march of human history, bursting out and spreading north out of Africa into Eurasia as the first true communicants - Homo sapiens.

[MUSIC: Yulara “Horizon” COSMIC TREE (Higher Octave – 1998)]

CURWOOD: Lyall, that’s such a wonderful story, and it’s such a contrast to see this sort of innocent and peaceful community take shape while most of the world, your parents included, are focused on a world war.

WATSON: It was a time capsule, I think. We stepped into it quite unwittingly.

CURWOOD: Huh. What effect, if any, did the war have on how you decided to run your club?

WATSON: We knew nothing of it. When we were on the farm we didn’t have any communications at all. And I only learned about the world war, and what happened, and why it happened, 15 years later.

CURWOOD: Tell me a bit about returning with this different bearing. You can’t exactly call it the wilderness, but the wild beach there, the wild coast.

WATSON: It’s something like what the people who saw the first astronauts come back, and step out of the shuttle. There’s that long look, that thousand mile look. That’s what we had. We’d done something we didn’t know about. We didn’t know how we had come to do it. We just sort of fell into a pattern, and the pattern was right. And when we found we could look after ourselves, and we didn’t need to have someone look after us, we didn’t need to be told what to do, we worked out what was right to do, and it worked so extraordinarily well.

HALPERN: Lyall, I wanted to ask you a question, which is, as you were describing the beach, I was think of “Lord of the Flies.” And, you know, schoolboys who end up in this place kind of fending for themselves – there are some similarities, but of course that goes horribly wrong. I was just wondering what you thought it was about your community that kept it, in fact, not only from going wrong, but made it so harmonious.

WATSON: It was so important to us. Even though we were there for one month at a time through three or four years, the years between nine and being a pre-teen. We never told anything about anything we did there. Nobody ever broke that. It was such a sacred thing, and I think that if we had been there non-stop, we might have gone the way of the pig’s heads on sticks. That didn’t happen to us. There were wild pigs in the woods, and we liked them, because they showed us were water and where the fresh fruit was to be found.

CURWOOD: [LAUGHTER] Judy?

BLUNT: Well, I think it’s – my father used to say that boys were like pups. You have to keep them busy or they’ll get into trouble. And I tried to imagine what might have happened to our community, had all of the fathers been absent suddenly. And it would be devastating. Our mothers, and, you know, combined with the children, might have kept the farms and ranches going, but it would have been not as sustainable. But we came up being a part of the very real business of living. The jobs that we had were not games, they were not chores, they were parts of the real business of ranching. And we stepped into those roles at a very young age, right about the age that Lyall is talking about, about ten. We started what my father would call making a hand. And there’s something about this maturity that develops when one begins to do what you know in your heart are important jobs, that these are meaningful occupations. It can grow you beyond your years, as far as maturity goes. And I think, probably, some of those same lessons that the fathers weren’t there to teach the boys were lessons that the boys taught one another in their forming of community.

WATSON: That’s absolutely right. And I credit my grandmother with thinking about this and inventing the idea. It was so outrageous, you know, it couldn’t happen now.

BLUNT: Oh, no.

WATSON: Parents wouldn’t allow a bunch of 10 year olds to be sent off into the wilderness on their own. These are dangerous times, or perceived to be dangerous times.

HALPERN: Lyall telling the story makes me think of another aspect of home and community which is that it’s fleeting, that is sometimes vanishes with time. We want to hold onto it and keep it close to us but that sometimes it’s just gone. Reminds me actually of the end of “Remembrance of Things Past,” where the main character is going back to Paris after he’s been gone for a long time and he said, “Alas, the streets are as fleeting as the years.” And it’s very poignant. It just evoked a feeling for me.

WATSON: Writing about it brought a lot back to me – things I hadn’t thought about for 30 or 40 years. And I enjoyed that experience.

CURWOOD: Lyall, I have to ask you, what happened when you turned 13? I mean, since no one under nine or over 12 could participate in the club, what was your first summer like, being 13 and not being able to go back to this community?

WATSON: Awful. I missed it. But I was then getting to the stage where I was in my last two years of schooling, and I had to work, and I had a girlfriend, and times had changed. But I cherish the memory of it.

CURWOOD: Well, I’d like to thank you all for sharing your stories with us today. Lyall Watson is author of “Elephantoms: Tracking the Elephant.” Lyall, thank you very much.

WATSON: I enjoyed it enormously.

CURWOOD: Judy Blunt is author of her memoir of rural Montana, called “Breaking Clean.” She also teaches at the University of Montana. Judy, it was a pleasure, thank you.

BLUNT: Thanks, thanks for having me.

CURWOOD: And Jake Halpern is author of “Braving Home: Dispatches from the Underwater Town, the Lava-Side Inn, and Other Extreme Locales.” Jake, thanks for being here.

HALPERN: Thanks for having me, Steve.

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