Sunday, June 24, 2018

when it’s emblazoned on your back, it’s not a hidden message, and the river rises

The river rose fifteen feet Sunday. It was still a few feet from the top of the bank, though in places where the bank is lower it took over low-lying meadows, crept into the woods. The island Josie and I walk to every day disappeared.

otter river upper peninsula

The river dropped a dozen or more feet Monday into Tuesday. By Thursday it had dropped even more. Josie and I walked our usual trail though there was little that was usual about it. It had been ravaged and swept and about halfway along a big wall of debris had been dumped across it. The wall was about eight feet high and several feet thick.

otter river upper peninsula

The first day, Monday, the wall was underwater.

The second day, Tuesday, the wall was adjacent to the water. There was a large muddy puddle in front of it. Josie walked through the puddle, began investigating the wall, looking, no doubt, for a way through. I agreed there were possibilities, but also dangers. At my call, Josie turned back. He took his time and while mucking about in the puddle, he suddenly dropped down. A look of surprise, maybe panic, flashed across his face. He paddled out of the puddle and galloped back up the trail.

Wednesday, the puddle was gone, the wall stood firm. A massive blockade of tree trunks, branches, twigs, sand, mud, pine cones. A whole town could set up in there. We turned back.

Thursday, we moved forward. We proceeded right through the wall. Walls can nearly always be breached. Josie took a lower route through a series of gaps in the debris, I took a higher route going up and around. The bank was steep. The bank was muddy. I used branches and tree trunks for handholds. For a moment, as I slipped, pulled myself up, balanced at the edge of the top of this monstrous pile of flotsam, I thought I was being foolish. I could slip. I could fall. I could get trapped by debris. And I did not know what I would find on the other side. But, once you start a journey, it can be hard to stop, to turn back, because you’ve set your course, made some kind of plan, invested time and effort, perhaps faced a challenge and whether it’s bravery or foolishness you’ve come this far, and it took me just a minute or two to climb up to the top of this wall but that was enough to propel me forward. Josie trotted on ahead, brave and fool-hardy, delighted.

On the far side of the wall, a large smooth tree trunk on its side, roots like a flower before me, needles and cones behind me, continued to block the trail. I stood on the trunk. It felt good, sturdy, and I could see all around. The trail going forward was a mess, obliterated, I was, after all, on a river bottom. But I could see possibilities.

On the island, which was connected to land by a spit of mud, it was nice to see turtle tracks.

Near the island, I wondered what canine had left those huge pawprints in the mud.

And how many nests with eggs had been swept away?

otter river upper peninsula

Chapter 35 of “Beartown,” by Fredrik Backman, begins with this paragraph:
Hate can be a deeply stimulating emotion. The world becomes much easier to understand and much less terrifying if you divide everything and everyone into friends and enemies, we and they, good and evil. The easiest way to unite a group isn’t through love, because love is hard. It makes demands. Hate is simple.
I always thought hate was hard. When I saw someone investing in hating someone or something, I thought, boy, that must take a lot of energy, be draining. And I thought it was fruitless. To what end do you hate? Then Donald Trump became president, and I saw how hate can be easy, so easy—simple—and I saw that hate doesn’t aim to be fruitful, not at all, hate aims to destroy. It has a goal. To tear down. To tear asunder. And hate used to be something I didn’t see much of—I avoided it. Looked away. Didn’t listen; didn’t respond. But that no longer feels possible. Every day now, I see hate. Every day now, I hear hate. I fumble to navigate, get through, go around, rise above. All these walls, all these lives. Just going to the store can be a little weird. The reduction of human beings to four-letter words. The chip-chip-chipping away, the relentless demeaning language of hate—the us, the them, the blame, the just get rid of them and we’ll be fine. Just send them back, and we’ll be fine. A neighbor comes to visit, it can be a little weird. Did she really just say that? We are miles apart. And that which is ignorant and destructive has been so emboldened—it is impossible not to see it, to hear it, to feel it. It takes its toll. Or maybe it’s just that my eyes and ears have been opened, like a flood, and all I want is to never hear that man’s voice again, to never have to see his words. Because it does, indeed, pull asunder.

But the wall is there.

It was easy, after all, to get around the wall of debris. But this wall, these walls—I don’t know.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

a great rush of candelilla smacking up against the wall and the flood

One night I was in bed reading an article about a canoe trip. The article was in The New Yorker. I have a subscription to the paper edition of the magazine that in essence was inherited from my father and then my mother. The canoe trip article was written by Nick Paumgarten, and the trip included a senator, a Roosevelt, and a groover. They paddled down the Rio Grande and by floating off here and there Paumgarten paints an interesting kind of boots-on-the-ground, paddle-in-the-water reality in which to set this idea of a border wall that’s been bandied about. Among other things, the article pointed out that the wall, which I personally feel is an incredibly stupid idea, would effectively change the location of the southern border of the United States and has already led to the bulldozing of butterflies. What really caught my eye, though, had nothing to do with the wall but with the Great Wax Rush of a hundred years ago.

Now wait a minute. The Great Wax Rush of a hundred years ago? How in all my great wax research did I miss the great wax rush? Am I that lousy of a researcher? Perhaps. From my wax bible I had made this note on candelilla wax:
... coats entire surface of shrub (N. Mex; SW US) ... odor of beeswax ... burns w/ bright flame ... used to harden other waxes ... raises M.P. of paraffin.
I bet I googled “candelilla wax” and got, as I did recently, a bunch of ads. Ads, of course, make my eyes glaze over. But google “great wax rush” and whoa-ho, there’s Texas Beyond History: The Virtual Museum of Texas’ Cultural History. The section “Wax Camps” offers a series of articles and a plethora of photographs, some of which will be copied here. But go to the website (all links below). It tells a fascinating tale of life on the border with candelilla, aka Euphorbia antisyphilitica, aka Euphorbia cerifera, a plant which grows nearly exclusively in the Chihuahuan Desert.

Photo of candelilla from

Much of the text and many of the photos stem from survey expeditions along the Rio Grande in the 1960s and ’70s. A man named Curtis Tunnell, once a state archaeologist of Texas and executive director of the Texas Historical Commission, was a leader of the expeditions. In 1981 he wrote the report “Wax, Men, and Money.”

Photo from

For a period of time beginning about one hundred years ago, the candelilla wax industry flourished back and forth across the border in the area that is now, on the northern side, Big Bend National Park. One reason for the rush was that the wax fetched a good price during World War I when there was an increased need for wax to waterproof tents and ammunition. After World War II, the industry’s flame flickered and activity has, appropriately, waxed and waned ever since. A steady demand, however, remains.
Wax has always flowed across the Rio Grande either because buyers on this side would pay more than the Banco or because cash was more quickly accessible from Texas buyers. It is illegal under Mexican law to smuggle wax out of Mexico, but not illegal under United States statutes to bring it into this country for marketing if it is declared with customs. Heavily laden burros have brought wax into Texas at various places, including Stillwell’s Crossing, Reagan Canyon, La Linda, Boquillas, San Vicente, Solis, Santa Elena, Lajitas, El Mulato, Presidio, and Candel├íria. It is estimated that as many as 1700 tons of wax have been smuggled across the Texas border in some years.
The process of separating the wax from the plant is simple, yet arduous. Paumgarten neatly sums it up; Texas Beyond History branches out with detailed descriptions of the candelilleros and their camps, their burros, their burlap bags and buckets, their vats and firepits. The camps were primitive.
Devices for marking the passage of time such as radios, calendars, clocks, and watches have not been recorded [in the camps]. Basic tools such as axes, hammers, and saws are apparently replaced by machetes and hammerstones. Lighting devices such as flashlights, candles, lanterns, and lamps have never been seen in the camps; moonlight and a campfire suffice at night.
Photo from

There are descriptions of the U.S. buyers of cerote (raw wax) and refining factories; tales of smugglers and smuggling operations that occurred in the dead of night—
Along the river there were many stories about burro trains of wax smuggled across and sold to representatives of the big floor-wax companies
—a story of pesos sewed into a burlap bag, flung from an airplane; an account of the regulations and controls that developed over time; the raids and the border patrols; and, of course, descriptions of the wild, weedy plant it all stems from. When cultivated, the candelilla produces very little wax. Only in the wild does it produce what we want.
The wax of the candelilla is an epidermal secretion on the stems that helps conserve internal moisture of the plants during severe hot and dry periods. The wax, which forms a scurfy coating on the stems, is much heavier in the dry season of the year and during periods of drought. Since average annual rainfall in the desert where candelilla flourishes ranges from about 4 to 20 inches, drought is not an uncommon condition. The moisture-protecting mechanism of the plant is apparently effective for, as Big Bend writer Virginia Madison has said, “You seldom see a dead candelilla plant.”
One chapter of “Wax Camps” is an update circa the early 2000s, when there is significantly less activity in the borderland wax trade. However, descriptions and photos of the production of the wax—the way the candelilla is harvested and the wax boiled out—remains much the same.
Harvesting native stands of the plant and processing the wax under primitive conditions remains the best and perhaps only method of extracting candelilla wax.
Photo from

Now, I’ve played and monkeyed with the ending of this post many times, and I might have finished this morning and posted it with a very different ending had I not been without internet service. Last night there was a great amount of rain and flooding in the area that has disrupted life, though so far it has disrupted mine very little. Internet service was restored by noon. But this morning I had trouble even tuning in local radio stations, and when I finally got the NPR station from Marquette, the first story I heard was from the Mexican-U.S. border. It was about the current U.S. policy of busting up families at the border and it made me think, among other things, of so much of the campaign literature I’ve received over the past few years. The glossy images of men touting themselves as “family men” with “strong family values.” I have often wondered what those terms mean and why anyone thinks they might persuade me to vote for them. Family man. Family values. Do you think I am an idiot? Have you ever heard of a woman being described as a family woman? I haven’t. Why not? Sounds odd, doesn’t it. She’s a family woman.

Photo of a candelillero and his burro

Distractions and tangents take me far, but so often they lead right back home. Like the present being linked to history and history leading right up to now. My original ending went something like this: I really couldn’t tell you how many people have either eked out a living or amassed a fortune from the candelilla plant [but I can tell you who lives on which side of the border], nor how many have enjoyed candelilla wax in one product or another, but it seems to me it’s like so many things: it’s there, a part of our lives, whether we know it or not.

I don’t claim it’s a great ending.

A Voyage Along Trump’s Wall (The New Yorker, April 23, 2018)
National Butterfly Center Staff Surprised by Workers with Chainsaws Prepping Trump’s Border Wall (The Texas Observer, August 4, 2017)
Texas Butterfly Preserve Contests Border Wall in Court (Courthouse News Service, December 12, 2017)
National Butterfly Center
My wax bible
Texas Beyond History, Wax Camps, Main Page
Big Bend National Park
Candelilla Institute
Trade Survey … with Special Focus on Candelilla Wax (Paper submitted at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, 2009)
A Photojournalist at the Border (NPR, Weekend Edition, June 17, 2018)
Flooding Hits Local Area, (The Daily Mining Gazette, June 17, 2018)

The flower of the candelilla. Photo from

Sunday, June 3, 2018

einstein’s head: after 71 years, he looks pretty good, but maybe someone could fluff his hair

albert einstein 1947
Albert Einstein, 1947
Library of Congress
In 1947, Albert Einstein, a member of the Faculty at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, went to Katherine Stubergh’s waxworks studio in Hollywood, California, to participate in a “live blast.” Stubergh used this term to describe the process—or event—of making a plaster mold directly on a living person’s face. Into this mold a proprietary mixture of wax would be poured in order to create a replica of the person’s head. Stubergh’s habit was to make two heads from a “live blast” mold: one for the person who had commissioned the work and one for herself. Wherever Einstein’s head—the one made for him—ended up, I don’t know, but the Einstein head Stubergh made for herself is now part of an online auction at Skinner, Inc., in Marlborough, Massachusetts. When I heard of this auction, I got pretty excited and began tracing the route the head took to get from Hollywood to Marlborough and, as well, the route one might take from Pelkie to Marlborough.

einstein wax head by stubergh
Albert Einstein by Katherine Stubergh
Images courtesy Skinner, Inc.
The head’s journey begins in 1969 when Stubergh was raising money to establish a wax museum dedicated to the presidents of the United States. Along with other pieces, she sold Einstein’s head to Herbert A. Moore of Cave City, Kentucky. The head, age 22, was packed in a cardboard box, put on an airplane, flown to the Lexington airport. In Cave City it was put on display at Moore’s Mammoth Cave Wax Museum, sometimes referred to as the Cave City Wax Museum.

In 1982, Moore sold the museum, new owners took over, Einstein stayed put. In 2010 or 2011, the museum sold again, this time to an investment company (or somesuch), and the museum closed. In May of 2012 all of the wax figures, including Einstein’s head, now 65 years old, were put up for sale by auction. Einstein’s head had a reserve price, that price was not met, and in July the head turned up on eBay. The listing is preserved at Greatest Collectibles, and if you enjoy hyperbole and want more of the story in that format I encourage you to read it. I am satisfied with telling you that after seven days, 14 bidders and 81 bids, Einstein’s head sold for $111,100.

einstein wax head by stubergh
But there was a glitch. The winning bidder didn’t have the cash. Enter Preston Evans, an auctioneer from Georgia who had bought many of the wax figures from Mammoth Cave and who had been watching the eBay auction closely. Evans stepped in and proposed a trade. According to an article at Auction Publicity, for Einstein’s head Evans traded “a 1940s-era 4-cylinder motorcycle (worth about $50,000), around 40 vintage trains (including some by Lionel), two Batman arcade games, music boxes and phonographs” and some cash. On the last day of August, 2012, Evans opened Follow the Leader Wax Museum in Warm Springs, Georgia. Einstein’s head went back on display. Less than five years later it was back on the auction block.

When Evans decided to retire, his wax museum closed. Pa. Onsite Auction, a father and son operation, handled the sale of the wax figures, and, as best I can figure, they held on to Einstein. Now, one year later, Einstein’s 71-year-old head is part of a Fine Books & Manuscripts auction at Skinner that includes all sorts of arcana and ephemera such as a John Dillinger “Wanted” poster, very old books, maps, letters, deeds, Audubon hand-colored engravings, Arabic manuscripts, autographed photos, photos taken on the moon, photos from Roseland Ballroom. The auction began May 31, will end June 8. For a few days this coming week, all items will be available for a look-see and even handling at the auctioneer’s site in Marlborough. I am sorely tempted. The route there would go through Ontario, Canada, and follow for a time the route Sheldon and Fidelia Allen, characters in my ancestral journey, reportedly took to get from New York to Illinois in 1837; Josie and I could stop and gawk at Niagara Falls; we could stay one night in Cooperstown, New York; I could visit the Heroes of Baseball Wax Museum; and, in the end, I could hold Katherine Stubergh’s Einstein head in my hands, feeling the wax, staring into the glassy eyes, lamenting the bed hair, and inspecting the signature:
Katherine, Much thanks, Albert Einstein
Now, what is that worth?

But after much deliberation and quasi-planning, the mundaneness of bad timing will keep me home. I hold on to the idea, though, that one day I will meet Einstein’s head under circumstances that must remain, only for now, unknown.

Additional Sources
Warm Springs wax-museum figures up for auction, The Newnan Times-Herald, April 22, 2017
Einstein, Dolly Parton, Wolf Man and more up for bid in Gettysburg, Evening Sun, April 13, 2017
The Mysterious Afterlives of a Wax President, MTV News, February 17, 2017
Wax museum opens in Warm Springs, Ledger-Enquirer, August 31, 2012
Mammoth Cave Wax Museum Auction,, May 9, 2012
Ohio auction to feature celebrity wax portraits, Antique Week, May 3, 2012