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Some Kind of Place: Nuiqsut, Alaska

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

2013-08-03 The Storm

I. Path to the Sea
The blades of the fiberglass kayak paddles rise and fall to a rhythm as balanced as a pendulum’s. In the deafening Arctic quiet, they splash into the murky water with deep chops, the sound muffled only by the wind. Under cloudy skies, the river is a long, wide pane of gray, broken periodically by sandbars speckled with chalk-white caribou skulls. Steep banks rise on either side of the water, crowned at the top with tufts of grassy tundra. The cabins of a fish camp, where a family of Inupiat Eskimos likely spent the summer catching the year’s supply of char, burbot, and Dolly Varden trout, appear empty. Near one of the small, shingled buildings, what appears to be a small grizzly bear reveals itself as a musk ox when it raises its shaggy head to the sound of the boats, turns, and gallops out of sight.

As they slowly navigate the river, the small, rugged, inflatable crafts—weighing five pounds and collapsible to the size of a sleeping bag—add bright yellow and red to the otherwise stark aesthetic. Chelsea Ward-Waller ’12, Brett Woelber ’09, and his brother Paxson ’08 are on the Colville River, less than two miles from the Arctic Ocean.

From the start of their journey in the sweeping mountain passes and sunlit canyons of Alaska’s Brooks Range, they have come 300 human-powered miles in a month. They’ve named their trek Expedition Arguk—arguk meaning to walk against the wind, in Alaskan Inupiat—and they didn’t embark without putting a lot of careful thought into what they planned to do and why they planned to do it. Brett is a hydrologist; Chelsea, a geologist; Paxson, a media producer. All have a powerful affinity for the outdoors, for nature’s wild frontiers. They saw in Arguk an opportunity to traverse one of this country’s most rugged, remote regions, and they wanted to do so before the landscape was forever altered by encroaching development; a bridge, soon to be built by ConocoPhillips, will span the Colville River, offering easy access to the energy company’s newest drill site. “Our trip is limited,” Paxson explains, “We aren’t experts. We’re not going to provide a dry environmental assessment [of what’s going on here], what we can provide, though, is what it’s like to be here.”

And what it’s like to be out here is a discordant mash of serene beauty and perpetual discomfort. Three weeks on two different rivers means being constantly wet; something as simple as slipping on dry, five-toed socks before curling up in a sleeping bag is nothing short of sacrosanct. Campsites are often buffeted by piercing winds and require an electric “bear-proof” to be erected each evening.
To the group’s surprise, they haven’t seen many grizzlies. Several days into their first stretch of paddling on the Anaktuvuk River in the Brooks Range, a grizzly swam across the river in front of them, climbed up on the bank, stared, then darted into thicket of small trees. Still, everyone keeps bear spray within reach at all times. In Fairbanks, before beginning the trip, and after much debate and consideration, they decided on an extra measure: Brett carries a .44 magnum on his hip that has yet to leave its leather holster. Still, they’re not mentally prepared for what they encounter as they near the ocean.

Chelsea is the first to see the enormous, lumbering form. White spots (seagulls, skulls, driftwood) on the horizon are plentiful, and the landscape’s flatness often makes size difficult to judge—but a polar bear seen from less than a half-mile off is unmistakable.

Paddling ceases.

The bear’s shoulder rotates almost mechanically, and its legs move in a slow, seemingly effortless plod, yet it covers ground quickly. Then, suddenly, it disappears into the river ahead. Paddling begins again, this time with hurried purpose. Polar bears are known to attack prey by swimming underneath it, so the packrafters retreat to a sandbar in the middle of the river and get out of their boats. For several minutes, the bear is nowhere to be seen. Brett brings the .44 out and holds it at his side. Finally, it reappears on the opposite bank and continues down the shore.

Once the bear is well out of sight, the group presses on toward the mouth of the river; within a few hours, they wade into the Arctic Ocean. When they turn and look back across the tundra, what seem like abbreviated skylines of miniature cities appear at different distances across the horizon—the derricks from the Colville River Unit Alpine Oil Pool.

II. From Beginning to End
Arguk began at the Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range, where Luke Douglas ’09, Brett, Paxson, and Chelsea hiked into the Arctic National Preserve: 13,000 square miles with few named landmarks or a single trail. Navigation involved topographic maps, compasses, landmarks, and a little guesswork. With the shadows of clouds moving along with them, they passed through valleys and over steep passes, crowned with ridgelines of striated rock. They followed braided rivers, at times walking through rushing water when it proved easier than hiking over tussocks, the hillocks of thick grass that make up the vast floor of the region.

After the first week, they arrived at Anaktuvuk Pass, a small Nunamiut Eskimo village in the central Brooks Range. There, Jason Mercer, a biologist and the group’s fifth member, joined them. But they were not five for long. Luke arrived in Anaktuvuk with a badly sprained ankle and, after much deliberation, left on a flight back to Anchorage shortly after Jason arrived. The new group of four would use their packrafts to float down the Anaktuvuk River to its confluence with the Colville. Where its headwaters lay was a mystery, however, and no one in town seemed to know. After substantial wandering, they found a small, meandering channel through some grassland, began paddling and, soon enough, found themselves on a narrow river.

The landscape north of the Brooks Range changed drastically; they were suddenly surrounded by bright green, perfectly rounded hills. It looked “like you could walk blindfolded for a hundred miles without tripping,” Brett remembers, and though it seemed empty at first, more and more birds began to appear. Many were in molt and couldn’t fly, so as the boats approached, they ran down the riverbanks in large flocks, flapping their wings until just out of sight. When the boats came around the next river bend, the charade began anew and continued for miles and miles.

The packrafters then entered the National Petroleum Reserve (NPR-A), the largest single unit of public land in the United States (measuring slightly larger than the state of Maine), in Alaska’s North Slope. The region was opened for oil development in February, an event that garnered litle attention, even in Alaska.

After entering the NPR-A at the confluence of the Anaktuvuk and Colville Rivers, the packrafters spotted another boat filled with paleontologists who invited them to their camp at Ocean Point, where the saltwater from the Arctic Ocean begins to mix with the freshwater from the mountains. The next morning, they visited their dig site, where a group of duck-billed dinosaurs had been killed en masse millions of years ago. Thousands of bones spilled from the side of a bluff.

After leaving the paleontologists, the packrafters paddled through thick sea fog as they neared the ocean. Motorboats full of Inupiat Eskimos would pull alongside; a few of the natives would snap pictures of the visitors. There had been a celebration in the nearby village of Nuiqsut, population 400.  The people in Anaktuvuk Pass had warned the packrafters about Nuiqsut—an insular and protective community, they claimed.

The village’s power lines soon came into view, standing tall over the prefabricated houses arranged among a neat grid of gravel roads. When the packrafters arrived, they deflated their boats, walked past the graveyard on the edge of the village, and entered the town offices to introduce themselves.

2013-08-15 01 NuiqsutIII. The Village
Contrary to the opinion of those south of Nuiqsut, Expedition Arguk was welcomed warmly in the village. People in pickup trucks and four-wheelers waved when they passed by on the town’s gravel roads; some would stop to welcome them or ask where they’d come from and why.

Caribou and moose antlers lay unceremoniously on the tops of garages and the ice cellars outside homes. (The ice cellars are used to store whale skin and blubber after a hunt.) Subsistence hunting accounts for a large part of the diet in Nuiqsut, though there is a grocery store in town where a half gallon of Darigold two-percent milk runs for $9.99, a dozen grade AA eggs cost $6.99, and one and a half quarts of Dreyer’s Rich and Creamy Vanilla ice cream will run you $15.35.

The visitors attended Thursday night Bingo in the town hall, bringing their own sheets and markers and finding seats around one of the long wooden tables in a room full of Inupiat women and a few men. Chelsea won $100 in the first game, and she, like every subsequent winner, received the room’s applause. Several days later, representatives from ConocoPhillips held a meeting in the same room to discuss the construction of the CD-5 bridge across the Colville River to the new drill site. Door prize tickets were handed out before the meeting began, and someone translated the presentation from English to Inupiat. “There will be some blasting involved.” “The bridge will withstand flood conditions.”

The presentation ended with, “Does everyone have a door prize ticket?”

“760694.”

Clap. Clap.

A new first-aid kit.

“760675.”

Clap, clap.

A new set of kitchen knives.

Jason left Nuiqsut first, followed by Brett and Chelsea. Paxson was the last of Arguk to leave. He boarded a small prop plane, flying under the name Era Alaska. After bumping down the small airstrip, the plane lifted off the ground, slowly gained altitude, and disappeared into the fog, bound for Deadhorse, 60 miles away, where a larger plane awaited.

Some Kind of Place: Middlebury, Vermont

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

MiddOn opposite walls in my room on the top floor of Gifford in the fall of 1991: a world map with National Geographic pastel borders and a somewhat pretentious Kandinsky poster.  Between them was a dormered window through which I could crawl out onto the building’s slate roof for a crystalline view of the Adirondacks. The mountains were visible from within the room, too, but I preferred sitting on the roof, sky overhead, feeling the wind move through the valley.

Other transformational places on campus: David Napier’s anthropology class, where we debated the authenticity of Carlos Castaneda’s vision quests, and John Bertolini’s Modern British Drama class, where we lurked at the edge of Beckett’s eternal abyss. Every Tuesday at 3 am I sequestered myself in the WRMC studios for a jazz show featuring Art Blakey, John Coltrane, and Thelonius Monk, deejaying for (at best) a handful of Addison County insomniacs.

At the top of our hill, with Rt. 125 ribboning off to the east and west, we had Kerouacian amounts of time and space for reflection and introspection. It was as though the breadth and serenity of the valley demanded it. You read To the Lighthouse, and you could linger within Woolf’s consciousness for as long as you wanted and needed—the purple mountains weren’t going to distract you. You read King Lear, and you lived with it in the quiet of those long pathways of the quad. It became harder and harder to hide from a book’s implications. Each book had room to breathe. Sometimes I’d take these ruminations to the Long Trail, whose lush leafiness was only a few miles away.

There were days when I would be walking alone up the hill from Twilight and the face of a classmate or teacher would pop into my mind. Seconds later, that very same person would emerge, in the flesh, from behind Warner or down the steps from the offices in Old Chapel. Initially I was alarmed by this. But then I realized that coincidences like this happen all the time amid the churnings of a small campus.

Mostly, I liked this coziness. For a while my girlfriend and I walked into town every Friday morning for breakfast at Steve’s Park Diner. Each week we invited a different guest. Many of our professors came. Even President McCardell came once, and he chronicled the history of Middlebury football for us.

What we didn’t seem to have, though, was a political culture. My older brother was at Wesleyan, where you couldn’t walk from the library to the dining hall without encountering a sit-in or picket line.
We at Middlebury, on the other hand, seemed mostly subdued and conflict-averse. At the outset of the Gulf War, I witnessed a few dozen students assemble outside Proctor in protest. They marched with banners until someone in Gifford pointed their three-foot Bose speakers out a window, anonymously blaring “Born in the USA.” The protest dwindled, and afterwards, campus was especially quiet.  We lived in such a beautiful, peaceful place, the problems of the world felt remote.

There came a point when I needed a break from this feeling of remove. David Napier had introduced me to an ambitious group of doctors in London who shared a flat and provided free medical care to homeless people throughout the city. I took a term off and lived with them, shadowing them in their clinics. When I returned to Middlebury, I was eager for one last round of intense academic rabbit-holing. This was the perfect time for Elizabeth Napier’s transcendent class on neoclassical and romantic poetry. It helped to have a somewhat more world-wise frame of reference. Exploring the mysteries of Pope and Wordsworth in a high-ceilinged Twilight classroom for 90 minutes felt both luxurious and, if I paid close attention, relevant and essential.

That fall, I lived in a Ripton farmhouse with four friends. The land was adjacent to Forest Service property connected to the Bread Loaf ski trails. There was a pond out back where we swam every day until it froze, and I only went to campus for class and work. Arriving at Middlebury four years earlier, I’d been wary of the school’s pastoral calm. I was worried I’d get bored. That winter, snowstorm after snowstorm, our top priority was to sit by the fire and write our theses, coffeemaker nearby. We shoveled off the roof when necessary. We cherished the quiet, hardly knowing it wouldn’t last.

Lewis Robinson ’93 is the author of the short story collection Officer Friendly, which won the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award, and the novel Water Dogs. He is a writer in residence at Phillips Academy in Andover.

After the Storm

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

stormWhat does it take to rebuild from the largest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded?

Keelah and Harry Helwig lived on a dirt road in Far Rockaway, New York. When Hurricane Sandy struck, and their house broke away from its foundation, and the waters of Jamaica Bay sloshed against the living room windows, they decided they would have to swim. Harry’s mother, Dora, was in a two-story house nearby. The upper story was above the water. But then, fortunately, the boat in their driveway detached from its trailer and drifted close enough to their house that they could climb into the rocking hull. They survived the storm, but their home and all their belongings were destroyed.

“There’s our house,” Helwig said one evening in August. He was pointing at a square on a giant satellite map taped to a wall in a brightly lit school gymnasium. “Or what’s left of it.” The square was on a nub of land that stuck into Jamaica Bay, which separates the Rockaway Peninsula from the rest of the borough of Queens. “Now we’re waiting for demolition,” Helwig said. He and Keelah planned to rebuild, and they were hoping the city would help them.

The Helwigs had come to the gym for an information session about the city’s flood recovery program, run by Mayor Bloomberg’s Office of Housing Recovery Operations, which was established after Hurricane Sandy. Morgan Jones ’04 is the senior adviser for outreach for Housing Recovery in Queens and was one of the event’s organizers. He helped launch the program, Build It Back, on June 3. Its $648 million budget was allocated from the $61 billion federal Sandy recovery bill that Congress passed in January.

“The idea tonight is for people to meet with developers and find out their rebuild options,” Jones told me. A big part of Jones’s job is to make sure that people like the Helwigs apply to Build It Back. He publicizes the program citywide, mainly through social media, e-mail blasts, and events. More than 17,000 people have already applied. His work never ends. “I have a Blackberry that follows me everywhere I go,” he said. “And my wife loves that.”

Over the last year, Jones has helped hundreds of people navigate the aftermath of the violent flood. Immediately after the storm, 150,000 New Yorkers had to find temporary housing or get immediate home repairs. More than 20,000 households still need help—whether they need to rebuild entirely, make repairs, or get reimbursed for work already done. Some homeowners will be able to sell their property to the government, particularly those in the worst flood-hazard areas. So far, such buyouts have been sought only in Staten Island.

Recovery work is not for the one-dimensional. Jones became a mold expert. He learned how to start a generator. He arranged with a real-estate developer to move a wheelchair-bound boy trapped for months in his fourth-floor apartment (the elevator was broken) to a ground-floor unit. He read the fine print contained in flood insurance plans.

Sandy was the largest hurricane ever recorded over the Atlantic Ocean, with tropical storm-force winds spanning 1,100 miles, roughly the distance from Manhattan to Miami. It was the second costliest storm in American history, after Katrina. A storm of such magnitude has countless impacts and meanings. For Jones, its impact is redefined daily by its human toll. For many people, Sandy has become a historic event, a natural disaster, and a regional tragedy whose details slowly fade.

But for some people, Sandy has been a stark illustration of the changing climate and a call to arms. They believe there must be new coastal-development policies, new measures to slow greenhouse gas emissions, and adaptations to protect people from the next storm. Mark Mauriello ’79, the former commissioner of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), is among those inspired to rethink priorities. He has been a vocal critic of Governor Chris Christie’s approach to Sandy recovery. “There are two sides to the Sandy story. One is technical, and the other is human,” Mauriello explained. “And the human side is always compelling. Listening to testimony of the trauma and misery that storm victims experienced really highlights the importance of considering the increasing coastal-hazard vulnerability that we face. Shame on us if we fail to learn the lessons of Sandy and repeat past mistakes as we rebuild.”

And Then There Was Football

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Middlebury-Vintage-Football-v2It’s not all in the history books, but 1936 was a year to remember. Germany occupied the Rhineland. Italy annexed Ethiopia. The Rome-Berlin Axis was proclaimed, and in Schenectady, New York, in ideal weather conditions, a Middlebury football team, in new Yale blue whipcord pants and navy blue jerseys, beat Union, 7 to 0. Captain Bill Craig blocked a fourth quarter kick, John Kirk, sophomore end, fell on it in the end zone, and George Anderson kicked the extra point. On the Middlebury sideline, Coach Ben Beck suppressed signs of satisfaction, while across the field, Union assistant coach Duke Nelson struggled with mixed emotions.

Leon Trotsky was exiled to Mexico. The Pulitzer Prize in drama was won by Robert L. Sherwood for Idiot’s Delight; in fiction for something titled Honey in the Horn. In the Berlin Olympics, Jesse Owens won four gold medals. In Waterville, Maine, early in the first quarter, Bud Seixas broke through right tackle to block a kick on the Colby 20-yard line and carry it in. Late in the third quarter, from his own 2-yard line, Craig punted 96 yards to the Colby 2, the ball traveling more than 70 yards in the air—this 21 years and one day before Sputnik—as Middlebury won, 6-0.

The Spanish Civil War began. Japan moved against China. Joe Louis was knocked out by Max Schmeling. In Middlebury’s home opener at Porter Field, Kirk caught a 40-yard pass from Bobby Boehm in the Coast Guard end zone, and John Van Doren capped a 60-yard drive with a delayed buck as the Panthers won, 12-0.

In Germany, work was started on the Siegfried Line. In the United States, Henry Luce started Life magazine. A fat fellow named Farouk became King of Egypt. The New York Yankees beat the New York Giants in the World Series, four games to two, and in Troy, New York, Kirk grabbed a 10-yard pass from Johnny Chalmers in the RPI end zone in the third period, and late in the last quarter scored again, intercepting an Engineer pass on the RPI 10-yard line as Middlebury won, 13-0.

In England, George V died, to be succeeded by his son, Edward VIII, who would soon trade a kingdom for the woman he loved and be replaced as monarch by his brother, George VI. Japan and Germany signed an anti-Commintern Pact. At Northfield, Vermont, Middlebury—not only undefeated and untied, but also unscored on—finally gave up points, 6 of them to Norwich following a fumble. Paul Guarnaccia and Boehm scored for the Panthers as they won, 13-6.

 In Germany, Hitler got 99 percent of the vote. In the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, confounding the Literary Digest pollsters, and helping to fold that magazine, won re-election by the largest popular victory ever. Of the two states to go for Alfred M. Landon, James A. Farley said: “As Maine goes, so goes Vermont.”

At Porter Field, Middlebury faced its toughest opponent in its sixth, and make-or-break, game of the season. St. Lawrence had lost, 26 to 6, to Colgate, one of the best of the big teams of the East, but it had rolled over Wagner, 82-0, and at halftime, it led the Panthers, 8 to 0. In the third quarter, a Chalmers to Craig pass put the ball at the 1-yard line, from where Guarnaccia took it in. After an exchange, a holding penalty again put the ball on the St. Lawrence 1, and Chalmers lofted a pass to Kirk in the end zone. Another Chalmers pass to Craig made it Middlebury 19, St. Lawrence 8.

In France, Dr. Alexis Carrel, assisted by Charles Lindbergh, developed a perfusion pump, or artificial heart. In the United States, Margaret Mitchell published a heart-throbber titled Gone With the Wind. Maxim Gorki died. So did Rudyard Kipling and G. K. Chesteron. In the mud at Porter Field, Guarnaccia scored two touchdowns; Connie Philipson and Craig scored one each as Middlebury beat Ithaca, 27 to 7.

Boulder Dam, to be renamed Hoover, was completed. Eugene O’Neill was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Americans were listening to, and sometimes dancing to, “Night and Day,” “Pennies from Heaven,” “Blue Moon,” “Heartaches,” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”—which, as the Surgeon General will point out, is the least of the problems.

 At Porter Field, on November 14, after a scoreless first period and with a minute left in the first half, Boehm faded back to his own 28-yard line and threw one up for grabs. Kirk grabbed it out of the hands of three University of Vermont backs on the UVM 32-yard line and ran it in from there. At halftime, the visiting stands emptied onto the cinder track to break up the freshman “P-rade.” In the third quarter, Boehm, who did most of the carrying, scored through right guard from 27 yards out, and in the final period Chalmers, who had been returning punts like Albie Booth, ran through right tackle from the 7 to make the final score 20 to 0.

Larry Kelley, the Yale end, won the Heisman Trophy. The Green Bay Packers beat the Boston Redskins, who were on their way to Washington, D.C, 21 to 6, for the National Football League Championship. Jock Sutherland’s Pittsburgh Panthers would beat the Washington Huskies, 21 to 0, in the Rose Bowl on the first day of the new year, but who cared?

Outscoring opponents 117 to 21 in eight games, a Middlebury football team had gone undefeated for the first time. Kirk was the highest scoring end in the East and received All-American recognition from the Christy Walsh newspaper syndicate. Kirk, Jack Cridland, Randy Hoffmann, Seixas, Craig, Chalmers, Boehm, and Guarnaccia made the Campus All-State team. Anderson, John Golembeske, and Swede Liljenstein made the second team.

Those who also served were Stretch Winslow, Red Williams, Tom Murray, Sherb Lovell, Len Riccio, Ken Kingsley, Ray Stiles, Warren Rohrer, John Lonergan, Ron Meserve, Ken MacLeod, Frank Casey, and George Farrell. Never before had the Old Chapel bell rung as often, as long, or as loudly—not even when Middlebury had tied Harvard, 6 to 6, 13 years before.

W. C. Heinz ’37 wrote “And Then There Was Football” on the occasion of his class’s 50th reunion in 1987. It is printed here with permission from his daughter Gayl Heinz. Widely considered to be one of the greatest American sports journalists, Heinz died in 2008 at the age of 93. 

Pursuits: Stage of Life

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

SBOn an unseasonably hot September afternoon, Sheyenne Brown ’09 eats fried Oreos on the front deck of a Manhattan restaurant where she used to work. It’s right down the street from Columbia University, where she’s currently a third-year student in the graduate acting program.

She waves at a classmate who passes by and chats with a couple of the servers she hasn’t seen in a while. Except for her four years in Vermont, she’s always lived in New York; this is her turf.

“I entered the Columbia program thinking I wanted to do the classics, to do Shakespeare,” she says in her best, exaggerated Elizabethan accent. “But now I know I’m more drawn to projects where I interview people and tell their stories.”

Brown says she found her voice during her senior year at Middlebury in a winter-term solo-performance class taught by theater professor Dana Yeaton.

Yeaton recalls Brown as a generally quiet presence in his class, but that impression shifted when students were asked to prepare a three-minute piece showcasing a character of their choosing, a “what can you show me in three minutes?” type of thing.

Brown chose Oscar Grant, the young black man shot in the back by a police officer in Oakland, California, in 2009.

“She just walked out and dropped a bomb on the room,” remembers Yeaton. “She was Oscar Grant from the other side of the grave, all this male energy in a hoodie. She was big, and Sheyenne Brown is not big. Her character was enormous. She stunned us.”

Brown’s newfound comfort with solo material led her to explore an unorthodox theater-thesis project, A Colored Girl’s College Tour, which she performed not in one of the College’s theater spaces, but at 51 Main, the bar and restaurant on Main Street in town. The show took a hard, sometimes uncomfortable look at Brown’s experience as a black woman at Middlebury, mirrored with her much-different but equally significant semester at the historic black college Spelman, which turned out nothing like she expected. College Tour was something most in the community had never seen before.

“I was afraid to ask people for help. That’s why I did it at 51 Main,” Brown says. “I wanted people to just go down there, get their drinks, and there’s this one chair. Just me. A lot of that came out of fear. Fear that I couldn’t do what I wanted.”

The “talkbacks” with the audience following the show ended up being as long as the show itself, with President Liebowitz requesting an encore performance after the brief run sold out.
Yet after this success, Brown wasn’t sure what she wanted to do next. She was hired by Teach for America and placed at a public school in Newark, but she missed performing.When her contract was up, she enrolled at Columbia, one of only 18 students accepted into the acting program. Now in her third year, Brown has a second thesis production coming up, another solo performance—exploring her pending motherhood.

Seven months pregnant with a son due in early December, Brown says that “being a mother has always been [her] one dream. That’s why I work so hard. This is the primary dream right here, so I get to live my dream.”

She’ll perform Shower Me—what she calls her imagined baby-shower show—as a series of character monologues in November, right before her due date. “This is the solution to the fact that I’ll be nine-months pregnant when the thesis goes up,” Brown joked.

And her own mother will likely make an appearance, via projection, telling the story of her daughter’s birth. It will serve, Brown says, as a sort of abatement to her own fears about being a mother, proof that everything will work out well.

Humans: Not for Sale

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Stop Traffick is among the newest human-rights organizations on the Middlebury campus and it’s also one of the most-focused, as it demonstrated with its fall symposium titled “Humans: Not For Sale” on November 4-8.

Dedicated to harnessing students’ passions for social change by raising awareness and generating funds to end human slavery, Stop Traffick’s symposium included lectures, discussions, a spoken-word performance by a survivor of sex trafficking, and a film screening of “Born into Brothels.” There was also a dinner of Indian food (where slavery is endemic), and an engaging anti-trafficking performance in the lobby of the Davis Library.

Skinner's book was published in 2008. Bill Clinton said it is "rigoroiusly investigated and fearlessly reported."

Skinner’s book was published in 2008. Bill Clinton said it is “rigoroiusly investigated and fearlessly reported.”

The keynote speaker, E. Benjamin Skinner, a freelance journalist and author of the book “A Crime So Monstrous: Face-To-Face With Modern-Day Slavery,” alerted a packed house of students in Dana Auditorium that euphemisms have the effect of minimizing the seriousness of the problem.

“In its prose the United Nations has this extraordinary capacity to sanitize crimes against humanity through language,” Skinner explained.

“So ‘genocide’ has become ‘ethnic cleansing.’ The ‘modern-day slave trade’ has become ‘human trafficking,’ and ‘slavery’ itself has become ‘generational, collaterialized debt bondage.’”

He defined slavery as the practice of forcing others to work for no pay while they are held fraudulently and under threat of gross violence. He estimated that there are approximately 29.8 million slaves in the world today, and said there are more slaves in South Asia than in the rest of the world combined. According to Skinner, those countries are India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal.

The guest speaker, who has observed the sale of human beings on four continents, spoke for about 45 minutes about his personal experiences with slavery and then, during the question-and-answer session that followed, offered some advice to Middlebury students.

Skinner, 37, told of his friendship with “Ganu” — a man in India who, along with other members of his family, is held against his will to work. “Ganu’s slavery began well before he was born,” said Skinner. “It began three generations earlier when his grandfather took a debt the equivalent of sixty-two cents in rupees for the meager bride price of Ganu’s mother. Three generations and three slave masters later, Ganu and his entire family are being forced to work” for the same family.

Ganu and his kin blast rocks “using short-fuse explosives,” and then pound those rocks into gravel “using pikes and mortars” to go into the construction of India’s roads. They also pulverize the gravel into silica sand for use in the glass industry. “There is only one way in the modern world to turn a profit through the production of handmade sand,” Skinner said, “and that is through slavery.”

When Skinner would meet surreptitiously with Ganu at night and ask, “Why don’t you leave? Why don’t you run away?” the response was always, “Where would I go? How would I eat?” The master has ways to find runaway slaves and punish them, Ganu would tell Skinner, despite the fact that slavery is against the law.

“For men like Ganu, slavery was no mere mental construct. Slavery was his world and the master is god in that world.” The master is the taker of life but also the giver of sustenance, however meager, Skinner said, and any sustainable solution to end debt bondage such as that of Ganu and his family, has to end those relationships of dependency.

The journalist also discussed a case he reported on for Bloomberg Businessweek in which he interviewed a Javanese fisherman named “Yusril,” who had been recruited to work in international waters off the coast of New Zealand onboard a foreign charter vessel. Yusril was being held against his will to live and work in some of the harshest conditions imaginable.

Using bills of lading, intelligence sources, and shipping documents, Skinner was able to connect the fish caught by Yusril and other offshore slaves to major New Zealand fisheries that were selling the catch to U.S. companies.

“Eventually we were able to name 18 companies involved in the buying, selling, and processing of these fish. Something pretty remarkable happens when you name Wal-Mart, when you name Safeway, when you name Whole Foods, when you name P.F. Chang’s — all of a sudden action happens pretty quickly,” Skinner revealed. As a result of the investigation and subsequent news coverage, contracts were cancelled and companies’ earnings were affected. And Yusril went free.

Later, when a student asked Skinner what citizens should do to combat slavery, the keynote speaker said, “Get involved in Stop Traffick. Help build the movement. A broad national awareness has to start with your generation because [modern-day slavery] is a relatively new issue. It may not catch your Congressman’s attention. It’s not who in D.C. says slavery is important; it’s how high up it is in their in-box… to get U.S. companies to realize, ‘Hey, this matters.’”

Skinner’s theory is that trafficking is both a moral crime and a crime of poverty, and that any effort to eradicate it must end dependency relationships (such as Ganu’s with his master) and the world hunger that tends to fuel them. The website freetheslaves.net, which receives 25 percent of the proceeds from the sale of Skinner’s book, offers ways to help liberate slaves around the world and change the systems that allow slavery to exist.

He also urged the students to consult websites like slaveryfootprint.org and knowthechain.org before buying products, although he cautioned that “categorical boycotts” can have the negative effect of “depressing the opportunities” of people who live in bondage.

Money for Nothing?

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Film critics are calling the documentary Money for Nothing “the most reasoned, constructive, and accessible documentary of the post-crises genre,” (Reuters), “revealing—and damning” (The Wall Street Journal), and “a thoughtful, detailed chronicle of the [Federal Reserve's] origins, responsibilities, and shifting monetary policies” (Variety).

Last week, the film’s producer, director, and writer—Jim Bruce ’96—brought his acclaimed work to campus, and we grabbed a few minutes of his time.