Follow the people from the past, the places they lived, worked, politics, public sentiment, changing landscape, and a narrative emerges that's worth telling in fiction.
While climbing the viewing tower on Mount Constitution in Washington State, I had the opportunity to read the testimony of the men who built it and was hooked on their story. A particular sign caught my eye. It was a certificate of appreciation to one of the men who helped build the tower in 1936, thanking him for being part of an "Army of Youth and Peace" and "Awakening the People to Conservation and Recreation."
The men who built the Mt. Constitution viewing tower and much of the infrastructure at the park, served in the U.S. Tree Army, a.k.a the Civilian Conservation Corps. (CCC). They led ordinary lives during an extraordinary time in U.S. history: the Great Depression.
These men, recruited from cities, rural towns and Indian Reservations from 1933-1939, served the U.S. citizenry and had an enormous impact on cultural attitudes toward conserving the natural resources, especially National and State forests.
Their nickname: The Tree Army, is apt; estimates are they collectively planted over three billion trees across the country. They fought numerous forest fires ravaging lands that were cut over and neglected by private lumber companies, and they prevented the decimation of the Great Plains agricultural lands through their soil conservation works.
And they were paid $5.00/month and given three meals a day to do so. The rest, $25.00, was sent home to support their families. Five dollars a month may sound like a paltry sum, but during the Depression, it was a king's salary to these men. "Five dollars a month made me rich! I never had $5.00 before in my life."
They were between the ages of 17-30. Some were World War I veterans. All were on public assistance. The U.S. Surgeon General estimated that 75% of the 100,000 men they examined in one year, were malnourished, prone to disease and exhausted from stress and the search for work. As one CCC alum wrote, the men had the mark of shattered ambitions and blasted hopes written on their faces.
Although the CCC was touted as a jobs recovery program, and a way to keep men, particularly immigrants from roaming city streets looking for work, President Franklin Roosevelt also had a keen interest in preserving national park land. During his administration the Federal government acquired vast amounts of land and put it in the public domain.
Soon, CCC camps were popping up in rural enclaves throughout the U.S. where there were plenty of public work projects to be done. Besides planting trees these men built roads, cabins, lodges, rest areas, bridges, and scenic byways in the parks. And their presence played a big role in improving the economies of the surrounding towns. Local supplies, carpenters, and tradesmen were employed to help build and service the CCC camps and the local businesses: theaters, barbershops, food stores, all catered to them.
The Tree Army had an enormous impact on the recreation and tourist industry. Back in 1930 the Great Smoky Mountains National Park had about three thousand visitors a year. By the end of that decade, and due to their work, over 130 thousand visitors came to visit. Today the park welcomes over ten million visitors/year.
While reading the testimony of the men in various written accounts, one can imagine how hard it was, especially for the city dwellers, to be sent into the woods, so far from home, even if they were surrounded by awe-inspiring beauty. Most didn't have a high school education and had never traveled outside their own city neighborhoods. One man stated he and the other recruits were pensive when they landed at a Washington port to be shipped out to the San Juan Islands. They didn't believe it when they were told by their camp leader the Islands were part of the United States, instead thinking they were being deported.
When Orson Welles broadcast the War of the Worlds on radio in 1938, some of the men panicked, believing their homes in the Northeast were being destroyed by an invasion of martians. As one alum recounted, the boys from the east coast cities were screamin' and hollerin' around the camp.
After reading about the men in the CCC, I went looking for fictional accounts and didn't find many. That's when I decided it was time to tell their stories.
Olympic Mountain Range from Mt. Constitution, Moran State Park, Orcas Island.
Photo credit Wikimedia: Lee317
Brinkley, Douglas. Rightful Heritage. HarperCollins 2016.
Hill, Edwin. In The Shadow of the Mountain. Washington State University Press 1990.
Jolley, Dr. Harley. The Maginficent Army of Youth and Peace. UNC Press. 2007.
Maher, Neil. Nature's New Deal. Oxford University Press 2009.
It had always been about the brother, William West Durant, not the sister, Ella. I even titled a blog Tracking William West Durant.
William West Durant (1850-1934) was a scandalous genius, a man with a vision for the untamed Adirondack wilderness of the late 1800s.
My novels on the Durant family have two or more Points of View (POV), I thought transferring that over to a screenplay would work. Not quite. When I sent my pilot screenplay off to an editor I was surprised when he told me, pick one POV and suggested Ella (1855-1943) - the one I had a hard time finding any information about until the discovery of her scrapbooks in an attic in Pennsylvania. The challenge was to pivot multiple POVs to Ella’s lens on reality.
Firstly, and this is for those who have never converted a novel into a screenplay, I didn't know how to write a tv series with one POV if there are scenes where that person is not present. Then I thought about The Crown. Everything that happens in that tv series, even if the Queen is not present in the scene, revolves around her. The people who orbit her personal planet all impact her ability to maintain The Crown.
I re-worked the pilot, the ‘bible’ all from Ella’s POV, and sent it off. My editor tells me “strong shades of OUT OF AFRICA here”. Yay! I wasn’t aiming for that, it just happens to be a true story. So the next edit is about “make this story more about Ella. It can be done with judicious POV switches throughout the script.”
I’ve come to think of writing a screenplay as the ultimate omniscient POV. I am the god of the script, attempting to relay what's happening to Ella even when she’s not aware. And oh my….the things in store for her……
A short story that appeared in the Stone Canoe Literary Magazine February 2020
Eve popped the little blue pill in her mouth and took a draw of cappuccino, leaving a ring of currant lipstick on the white plastic lid. The hot steam bit her upper lip bringing tears to her eyes. Wet snow flakes splotched the windshield and gray clouds churned the sky. People were milling outside a cannabis shop and she wondered if weed might be more effective. She just had to get through the morning and then everything would be fine. The car clock said 7:30 am; how long before she needed another pill? Ever since Dylan called attention to her habit, she'd started to keep track and the longest lapse had been eight hours.
At 11:55 a.m. she grabbed her bag out of the desk drawer and waved goodbye to her office mates. Next stop: her apartment to pick up the cooler, Lisa, Dylan, then off for their annual trip with friends. A weekend at the edge of one of the parks near Denver. They'd been taking this yearly excursion on Presidents' Day weekend every year since college. Her anticipation sank when she pulled into her driveway at 12:30, checked her cell phone and read Dylan's text: Stuck on a big project. Leave without me. I'll catch a ride with Brittany and Mateo. Meet later
She texted back: You've got to be kidding me. Deleted it, and texted: OK, see you later. Smile emoji. Snowflake.
She lugged the cooler and food into the car and drove to Lisa's apartment, relieved to see her standing outside her door waiting, bundled in a parka, a pair of cross country skis leaning against her arm.
"He's leaving with Brittany and Mateo. Meeting us there."
"That's odd," Lisa said.
"Because Sam told me he's bringing Mateo after they get out of work tonight."
Eve put the car in gear and pulled away from the curb. She didn't want to think about how she had left work early and Dylan didn't. Why his career was more important than hers. Within an hour the Continental Divide broke the horizon.
Her thoughts wandered to work. Would her boss point out Eve's absence in a snarky remark at the next staff meeting? Her pulse quickened and she felt a bead of sweat drip down her neck. She unzipped her coat. "Help me out of this will you?" She gripped the wheel with one hand while jerking her other arm free of a sleeve. A rush of cold air made Eve shiver. Free.
"You all right? You look kind of flushed? Want me to drive?" Lisa said.
"I'm fine. Just got over-heated there for a moment." She shot Lisa a weak smile. "I'm anxious to get there and snow shoe before dusk."
"If we get there before dusk." Lisa was facing the window.
"I need to stop and use the restroom," Eve said.
Staring into the mirror over the sink she debated with herself. It was 2 pm. Her hands were shaking. A piece of hair fell over her face, blinkering one eye. The mirror had a large crack in the upper right- hand corner, black bubbles floated at the edges where the silver backing was wearing thin. In the reflection, the door to the restroom was hanging on rusted hinges.
Tugging at the strand of hair, she concentrated on her breathing. The little blue pill was dissolving in her sweaty palm. Take it now and you'll be settled by the time we get to the cabin and everyone arrives. Then you won't need another until Tuesday. She put one in her mouth, cupped her hand under the faucet to catch some water and slurped down the bitter after-taste.
"You can drive," Eve said, tossing Lisa the keys. She texted Dylan: Who's driving? Lisa said Mateo coming later with Sam.
Every few minutes she checked to see if there was a return text.
"You have bars?" Eve asked.
Lisa shrugged and tossed her phone to Eve.
"Did Sam text you? When is he leaving?" Eve said.
"I haven't heard from him since before we left. What's the matter?"
Eve turned to face the window. "Nothing. I'm just nervous about my job."
It took me days and luck, as well as technological savvy to get my parents' appointments.
I was in the middle of a webinar when my iPhone watch alerted me that Kinney Drug Company had vaccines available and I needed to go online to set up an appointment. Not for me. For my parents who are both in their early 80s. My mom has a lung condition and my dad has heart issues. They are both candidates for getting really sick from the virus. But it was only a few months ago that they both had to give up their flip phones for a smart phone and my dad still doesn't know how to use it. I can't imagine them trying to navigate setting up a vaccine.
Not only did I have a text alert I also had an email alert. So I opened up the scheduler on my smart phone, in both Chrome and Firefox on my laptop, all while trying to listen to the webinar. I kept getting a message telling me it was a Bad Gateway or something like that.
When I told my mom that New York was opening up the vaccinations to people over the age of 75 she told me not to worry, she was sure the facility they live in would have the vaccines available to the residents "real soon". Yeah, right. Kinney Drugs ran out of their first supply in five hours. And I live in Upstate NY.
My parents are lucky. They live in a nice community in the suburbs; have three of their five children living nearby, and are still able to get around to buy groceries and, before Covid, go out to eat. They are well educated, read everyday, know what's going on in the news. But they would never have been able to make an appointment on their own to get a vaccine. They are not that technologically adept. And I'm not singling out Kinney Drug company because they at least alerted me. I have been on two county health department websites and Wegmans website several times a day looking for openings. Nothing. Nada. When Kinney reached out I was like halleluja!
It saddens me to think that there are a lot of elderly people who do not have the support system my parents have and will not be able to get the vaccine in a timely manner. Or consider those who have no access to internet at home, or the bandwidth, or computer capability to get into the system, when will they get the vaccine? Who's assisting them?
When I told my mother she and dad were all set, I had made their appointment, I could sense her relief. She's been watching the news. She sees the lines. I imagine she like everyone is feeling the anxiety about supply and demand. I consider our family lucky.
And that's ok."
It has taken me a whole year - and I'm not quite finished yet - to read the Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Overstory. And it has been a struggle to get as far as I have in the book. The first part of the book introduces the reader to eight characters. From then on, each chapter, even within chapters if you can call them chapters, reveal a new point of view from characters that you are supposed to remember being introduced to a number of pages prior. It's all very confusing and I would have given up if not for the fact that the writing is so beautiful. It's about trees, but also about human connection to trees and the will of some to fight for trees to be treated as a legal entity - with rights.
The most interesting part to me has been the description of a couple who climb a mammoth Redwood in Oregon to try and save it from loggers. The vivid scenes of them swaying in the wind and watching the stars at night made me wonder if the author, Richard Powers, had actually stayed in a tree house to write about the experience.
I started the novel before Covid lockdowns, having heard some recommendations from friends. I've spent most of my career educating about and advocating for the natural world so I thought, right up my alley.
Once Covid hit and I got into the middle part of the story where the chapters intertwine various characters, my head started to spin and I lost interest. I relegated the book to the shelf in the basement where I keep books to donate to the library for their annual sale. Wouldn't you know it, the library closed and there was no sale. So when our book club met outside around a fire pit one cool evening in the late summer I was reminded about the book by a friend who had finished and loved it. "Maybe I'll give it another try," I thought.
I dug it out of the pile of books that had been accumulating all year and started reading again. I didn't bother going back to figure out who was who because I decided the best way to get to the end was not to worry if I couldn't keep track.
Life has been like that with Covid. I try not to worry too much about things I can't control (like someone else's story structure) so that I can enjoy the day to day living that is required to get by in these trying times. If I can keep my health, take a walk, talk to my family, and pet my cats, I'd say my life is pretty full. I have a lot to be grateful for. So if it takes me another year to finish this book (because I now have two more books I'm reading sitting by bed stand and on my Kindle), then who cares? I'm just relishing the writing. I'm just enjoying the pleasure of reading while I am able.
Why Don’t Banks Ask Us Security Questions We Can Actually Answer?
I was trying to log into my credit card account to pay a bill when up popped those persnickety security questions that I had forgotten how to answer. It may be I was on a device the credit card gods were not familiar with or it was just bad luck, but there I was confronted with questions that I had never seen before. Had I really told them I knew who my first-grade teacher was? Criminy, I’m a Gen Xer, how am I supposed to remember that?
By the time they locked me out of my account I was in a rage against the machine. After what seemed like an hour on the phone trying to reach a real person who sounded far away to unlock my account I was determined to try harder at remembering my past life so that I could answer the damn security questions and verify that I did indeed have a normal existence.
But then I started to wonder, whose idea was it to ask “What was the name of your first pet?” Mine was DC, a nickname for damned cat, which was what my dad called our black kitten when I first brought it home. But the credit card gods wouldn’t take DC and I thought writing out Damned Cat, damned cat, or damncat may get confusing every time I logged in so I didn’t choose that option.
Next up came what was the first movie you ever went to see? Really? If I had to think it may have been Halloween, or maybe it was Cinderella. I really don’t know, and I probably wouldn’t know next time I try to log into my account and the gods want to verify I’m a real person. Honestly, does anyone remember the first movie they ever saw unless of course it was Harry Potter? Skipped that one.
What was the first name of the date who took you to a dance? How do they know we had dates? Most dances were just that, you went, you danced. And why assume someone took me and not the other way around? The only dance I recalled ever having a date was my senior prom. His name was easy to remember. Click.
What was the name of the city of your first job. Well that is tricky. Do you mean as a babysitter or my first professional job? I moved a few times after college. Will I remember which I chose? Skip.
What was the name of your favorite teacher? I never had a favorite. Skip.
What was the color of your first car? Well if you count the hatchback station wagon my dad gave me with two hundred thousand miles on it then maybe it is gray but if you are counting the Plymouth I bought with my own money after totaling the Toyota only three months later, then it was beige. Or was that brown? Skip.
Inevitably when I give a talk about my Durant Family Saga trilogy, I get asked if I've been approached by producers who want to turn it into a tv series or movie. Usually, these people are avid fans of the t.v. series Hell on Wheels. This show had a five season run starting in 2011. It was an AMC series that was then picked up by Netflix. The setting is mid 1860s and the plot is about the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad which connected the eastern and western states in America.
I was almost done writing my first novel in the saga when someone alerted me to the series. I hated to watch it at first because I didn't want the show to taint my view of the main characters in my novel who also play a leading role in the tv series: Dr. Thomas Durant (Doc Durant) and Collis P. Huntington. In the series Doc Durant is played by Colm Meany who does an excellent job portraying him as the blustery, conniving robber baron that he was as head of the Union Pacific. Collis P. Huntington, played by Tim Guinee, is head of the Central Railroad, and Doc's arch enemy.
When Doc Durant was done with the Transcontinental he was mired in debt and lawsuits. But he happened to have acquired 1/2 million acres of land in the Adirondack wilderness to exploit. He summoned his son William and daughter Ella back home from their posh life in England to help him regain the family fortune.
When Doc Durant dies, his enemy Huntington befriends Doc's son William (a friendship that leads to William's downfall). When I discovered this I knew I had a great plot twist on my hands. I continued to watch the series as I wrote books two and three but by then, Doc Durant was dead (he dies in novel 2) and I was focused more on Collis and his relationship with Doc's son William.
My novels continue where the Hell on Wheels Series ended. I'm not one to fantasize about success or making millions, but when I realized what I was writing was a sequel to the stories of two of the main characters on Hell on Wheels, I registered my saga with the Writers Guild just to be on the safe side.
While having your books picked up for production is every author's dream, it's also a long shot. At this time, my pitch is out there - sitting in industry person's email inbox. Where will it end up? Who knows?
If I've learned anything from this process it's that a lead may take you on an incredible journey you hadn't anticipated. When I started writing the Durant Family story, I thought I was going to be writing a love story set in the wilderness, with William Durant as the leading man, and found myself tracking his family story all over the place: museums and libraries all up and down the east coast, England, and an auction house. I had descendants of the Durants provide me with family lore; a couple from Pennsylvania tell me they had Ella Durant's scrapbook sitting in their attic for over three decades and didn't know what to do with it until they read my blog about her; and an archivist at the NY Law Library help me track down a Durant sealed divorce file from 1898.
When I started this writing journey I never thought I'd be breaking the wax seal of a 100 year old divorce file in the basement of a Manhattan Courthouse; nor did I think I'd be writing a trilogy, or speaking to over 300 people each year about my novels. If I've learned anything it's that one never knows where a story might lead. You just gotta have faith it will end well.
I've used this tag line in my biographies several times and although it's metaphorical, it's also true. In my professional capacity over the years as an outdoor educator and professor teaching ecology and environmental science, I've worked alongside volunteers and students planting trees. Together we've planted hundreds of seedlings and bare root mature trees in places such as the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, the City of Syracuse parks, and the nature trail behind the college campus where I teach.
So you can imagine my chagrin when we were approached by the utility company with a request to take down the ash trees that line the front of our house. The Emerald Ash borer is wreaking havoc on ash trees in the Northeastern U.S. and our ash trees are directly under the utility wires. The emerald ash borer beetle lays eggs in the tree's bark and the larvae eat away at the phloem, the inner part of the bark that transports water and nutrients, eventually killing the tree. The borer is not native to the United States and was brought to the states accidentally in 2002 from Asia. Within the decade our trees would be dead so we agreed to let the utility take them down.
We then had to decide whether to take down the magnificent ash tree in our side yard.
This tree was planted long before we arrived, I'm guessing its age at fifty plus years. Its largess allowed it to throw shade on the back deck. Great! Except when you live in Upstate, NY and summers are so short. Half the tree hung over the driveway and in the fall it shed dead limbs and leaves like crazy. We spent hours cleaning up the mess it left on the pavement after a wind storm. So although I loved the tree we decided to take that one down as well. As upsetting as it was to see the hole in the sky when the tree was felled, this summer we've witnessed spectacular sherbet colored sunsets now that the limbs aren't obstructing the view.
It wasn't long however before the gaping hole in the landscape gnawed at me and we went in search of a new tree. I chose a redbud because I love the way their lavender flowers bloom so delicately in the spring. And they don't get that big - maybe twenty-five feet in height.
Even as we were debating whether to take the ash tree down I knew I'd end up planting another in its place; I've spent the past few decades educating and advocating for the natural world. And I'm always rewarded by the look of wonder and accomplishment that passes over people's faces after grubbing around in the dirt, digging holes, putting in a tree, heeling the rich earth back into place.
I remember one day in particular while planting thirty trees with my students in the nature trail behind campus. I was crouched over a dug-out hole, wide enough to handle the bare roots of a red maple. I was working with a student, using a shovel to back-fill the hole with dirt, when the student told me, "I've never planted a tree." He sat back on his haunches sweating and wiping at his brow with the back of his hand. "Well," I told him, "this is something you won't forget." I eyeballed the sky. "And if you do, come back one day to see how much it has grown."
While reading Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence, set in the 1870s in New York City, I remember being taken aback by a reference to a woman carrying a fan made of Eagle feathers to the opera. Oh dear, I thought. Our national bird? A protected species? Why, just recently they stopped construction of a dock near my hometown because a pair of Eagles were nesting in the trees nearby.
Then during the course of my research for my second novel in the Durant family trilogy, I came across a reference to William West Durant taking off with an Adirondack guide to shoot three Loons that had the bad luck to be stuck in a cove as it had iced-over one night in early spring (1890). Loons are heavy and can’t take off without a flyway and so, as the memoir I found at the Adirondack Museum goes, the Loons managed to keep a small opening in the ice during the night but needed the cove to melt so that they had enough space to take off. Unfortunately, they never got that chance (you’ll have to read story two to find out what happens to them). I was aghast.
My modern sensibilities get in the way of my research at times. While describing ladies’ fashions during the Victorian era I had to contend with the fact that women loved wearing the artifacts of dead birds on their hats or to adorn their outfits.
After all, it wasn’t until Boston socialite Harriet Hemenway and her cousin Minna started a a boycott against the practice of hunting exotic birds down to adorn lady’s hats in 1896 that the abomination of the practice came to light. Indeed, these two lady mavericks are credited with starting the Audubon Society to save birds from extinction.
They first heard about the plight of birds after an amateur ornithologist, Frank Chapman, wrote about his experience watching bird hunters go after an egret rookery, plucking the feathers and leaving the young to die in the trees. Chapman is also credited with surveying for birds on the streets of New York City. In one day in 1886 Chapman counted 542 hats adorned with 174 whole birds or their parts. He claimed to have counted over forty different species of birds on ladies’ hats: pheasants, peacocks, egrets, scarlet tanagers, robins, and blue jays, just to name a few.
It wasn’t until the turn of the century that it started to become unfashionable to be wearing a dead bird on one’s head, much less a bird that was considered endangered. This points to the fact that at the time, people believed our resources to be limitless, or never knew the difference and didn’t care.
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Sheila Myers is an award winning author and Professor at a small college in Upstate NY. She enjoys writing, swimming in lakes, and walking in nature. Not always in that order.