hear you are — [murmur]

murmur[murmur] is a documentary oral history project that records stories and memories told about specific geographic locations. We collect and make accessible people’s personal histories and anecdotes about the places in their neighborhoods that are important to them. In each of these locations we install a [murmur] sign with a telephone number on it that anyone can call with a mobile phone to listen to that story while standing in that exact spot, and engaging in the physical experience of being right where the story takes place. Some stories suggest that the listener walk around, following a certain path through a place, while others allow a person to wander with both their feet and their gaze…

All our stories are available on the [murmur] website, but their details truly come alive as the listener walks through, around, and into the narrative. By engaging with [murmur], people develop a new intimacy with places, and “history” acquires a multitude of new voices. The physical experience of hearing a story in its actual setting – of hearing the walls talk – brings uncommon knowledge to common space, and brings people closer to the real histories that make up their world.

Being cellphone-impaired, and far from Toronto, I’m reduced to listening to the stories on the website, but they still convey a sense of the city and its history. The site’s a well-designed example of integrating oral history, geographic information systems, and mobile phones.

Yale Russian Chorus tours Quebec

My son, Stephen, writes this about the Yale Russian Chorus tour in Quebec:

In March 2009 the Yale Russian Chorus went on tour to Quebec. We sang at a variety of venues, including Laval University in Quebec City and both Francophone and Anglophone retirement homes in Montreal. The contacts we had made with the Russian Orthodox community in Montreal allowed us to end our tour with an exciting concert at St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral. We stayed for most of the tour at the house of Paul and Sandy Gauthier, whom my family had met on our sabbatical to China.

To publicize these events, we had the privilege of appearing on Radio-Canada twice. The first was an interview I did over the phone to advertise our first concert, at St. Elizabeth Catholic church in North Hatley.

Halfway through our stay in Montreal, we drove to the CBC/Radio-Canada building in Montreal to appear on the morning show “C’est bien meilleur le matin”. After discussing the history of the Russian Chorus with the host, Franco Nuovo (and surmising possible connections to the CIA), I rejoined the group to sing our version of the Russian folk song “Po moriam, po volnam” (Across the seas, across the waves)

Muzzling science

I know the world of universities and research is pretty small in the greater scheme of things, and therefore not discussed much on the TV news or in newspapers. As a result, it may not be obvious how much Federal policies since 9/11 have impacted research and higher education.

For example, consider this comment from a discussion list regarding a venue for the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) conference:

Canada as a north American venue has a lot of appeal for many of our members for various reasons, one of the more important ones being visa issues (most say it’s easier to get visas for Canada than the US, and also some are uncomfortable with the fingerprinting procedure in the US and don’t want to do that).

The AoIR will probably not meet in the US next time. This is happening for other conferences, especially in the newer fields, such as Internet Research.

Put that together with new restrictions on access to scientific and technical information, new barriers for students and researchers from other countries coming to the US, cutbacks in support for research at both the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, gag orders on scientists (as we saw last month at NASA), distortions of scientific findings (as in the global warming case), and politicizing of scientific review committees. The result is a negative climate for research and higher education. The impact is already evident to researchers and those in higher education, and the impact on the larger economy is beginning.

For the European Union, this is a terrific opportunity to surpass the US. They’ve already initiated a major new research program openly promoted as a way to take advantage of the US policies and to lure the most promising young researchers away from the US. It’s also opened doors for India, China, and other countries.

There are of course national security arguments made for each of these new policies. But there is even stronger evidence that they actually weaken national security. For example, the clampdown on access to scientific and technical information is making it harder to develop responses to biological warfare. It’s also very hard to understand how losing our leadership position in science and technology will make us stronger.

What’s perhaps most worrisome is that muzzling people and information in this way means that it is increasingly more difficult to have open debate about the worth of the policies. As with the Patriot Act or the Detainee Treatment Act, the new laws come with criticism-proof provisions.

Someday, we should ask whether the effort to protect what we value is actually destroying it.

Quetico, August 1963

Here are some photos from my trip to Quetico Provincial Park in August 1963. Notice the water damage on the 35mm slides, which is explained by the story that follows the photos.


In August of 1963, our Explorer Post 52 traveled to Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park just west of Lake Superior on the Canada-U.S. border for a wilderness canoe trip. In order to get to Quetico, we journeyed for three days from Fort Worth in what was even then an old, yellow school bus. We stayed in Air Force bases, sleeping on the gym floors and experiencing steam baths for the first time.

This was a year of changes, including the arrival of the Beatles in the US and the assassination of President Kennedy. But the trip was the major event in my life that year.

It was a wonderful trip in many ways. We stayed up most of one night watching a rare display of the Aurora Borealis, which filled the sky for hours. The sun was shining, the fishing was good, and there was great singing, story-telling, and endless argument about the meaning of life around the campfires. It was good exercise, too, especially with the canvas packs of those days. On portages, one of us would carry the canoe, one a food pack, which weighed 110 pounds in the beginning, and one all our gear–cotton sleeping bags, canvas tent, and clothes.

The Storm

We had been out for at least a week when the storm came up. It was on the Basswood River, but in a wide section, like a long lake. When the storm arrived, we decided not to risk a crossing and pulled into a cave a the base of a huge granite cliff with pictographs. “Picture rock” on Crooked Lake was shown in the September 1963 National Geographic, and I recall seeing the Basswood cliff when I returned from the trip.

I held my canoe onto the rock under this 100-foot cliff, as did Fred Moyer, our guide. The other two canoes held on to us, locked together to avoid capsizing.

After a few minutes, I released my grip on the rock for just a moment to tighten my poncho. As I did, lightning struck a solitary tree at the top of the cliff. The current traveled down the cliff to our cave. Everything went suddenly white, for some indefinite period. If you told me today that it was ten seconds or just one, I wouldn’t be able to dispute it, because time didn’t exist for me then. I could feel the charge in the air, and am still sensitive to changing electrical conditions. When I’ve felt that while canoeing, I get very nervous.

The current reached Fred’s hand, which was still touching the rock. His canoe, which was the only wood and canvas one, was shattered. Bob Cocanower and Gary Rall were the two scouts in Fred’s canoe and they both suffered physical injury from the lightning: Bob’s arms were paralyzed and Gary’s legs. Fred was killed instantly.

After Fred died, Chuck Borgeson and Duane, the guide from a companion group, took his body to the ranger station (see Bobby’s account, too). I must have gone into shock, because I went to sleep later that morning and slept until the next day. We, of course, cut the trip a short from what was planned originally, but not by much, because there wasn’t an easy way just to exit from such a remote location.

Aftermath

The accident was reported in Texas newspapers as “lightning strikes Scout group, at least one killed.” Naturally, our parents were distraught, but unable to learn much about what had happened for several days. This was well before cell phones and we had no portable radio.

It’s sobering to realize that I was the only one other than Fred holding on to the rock just before the lightning struck. If I hadn’t let go to pull my poncho, all 12 of us might have died, because it would have completed an electrical circuit connecting all our aluminum canoes.

We managed to complete the trip without further mishap, but aspects of it are still vivid for me today. After the wilderness experience, we went to Winnipeg and found a restaurant that offered all-you-can-eat lunches for 49 cents. After two weeks of vigorous exercise and eating our own cooking of dehydrated potatoes, we were hungry beyond any measure a restaurant should have to endure. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that we put them out of business.

References

Coalson, Bob. The Fred Moyer incident. Post 52 history: Charles L. Sommers Canoe Base.

Olson, Sigurd F. (1963, September). Relics from the rapids. National Geographic, 124(3), 412-435.