Voices from a Troubled Land: A Short Memoir

As crises have, at times, fashioned my past, so do dreams, at times, inspire my present.

Last night I had a dream about a reunion of participants in the "Global Walk for a Livable World", an event which I had helped organize back in 1989. In the dream, we were going over the remaining documents and other effects. Some of the characters were hazy reconstructions, and some were outright fabrications. Interestingly, Joan Bokaer, the founder of the Walk, was not present. One other person (whose face and first name are all I remember) turned out to be in charge financially, and showed up later in the dream to sign some papers.

I don't remember much beyond that, but upon waking, I felt a sudden urge to see what remains on the Internet from my early years in Flagstaff. More specifically, I was curious about my final Big Mountain project, which was also my very first major Web project: Voices from a Troubled Land, a collection of photographs and letters from Diné (Navajo) elders to the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs. I still have the prints which I had scanned for the Web document I built.

Greyhills Academy originally hosted the document, but that link is now gone:


Fortunately, the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine still has a copy at this link:


Just as suddenly, as I perused this source of gushing nostalgia (toward which, despite its serious subject, I honestly feel that I no longer offer a valuable contribution), I experienced a desire to write a somewhat honest essay about the events that led to my settling down in Arizona.

So how did I end up in Flagstaff? My short answer to that frequent question is that I was passing through town, decided to stay while I was working on a writing project, and accidentally landed a job that transformed into a career. The long answer is more complex, and what follows is an attempt to flesh it out more fully.

Ever since I was a very young Star Trek fan, I dreamed of having an electronic computer. By 1973, I disliked writing by hand, enjoyed electric typewriters (but hated correcting mistakes), and found myself wishing for something similar to what would become known as a word processor. In the 10th grade, at West High School in Green Bay, I discovered the PDP-11 computer (more properly, a Teletype Model 43 teleprinter that connected to it over the phone). Shortly thereafter, I began learning, over my lunch period, how to program in BASIC. That summer (1979), I submitted a program to a state-wide programming competition and won 3rd Place; the following summer, I won 1st Place. With money earned at McDonald's, I bought my first genuine digital computer: a Radio Shack TRS-80 with a Z80 microprocessor and 16K of RAM. As far as I was concerned, it was my first, crude glimpse of what Paradise could be.

Since the early 1970s, I've also been an avid reader of Science Fiction. My infatuation with Microbiology most likely had its origins in James Blish's "Surface Tension", Theodore Sturgeon's "Microcosmic God", and Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain. That love was cemented by a delightful museum of Microbiology in Abilene, Kansas, called the "Microzoo" (I still have a poster from that would-be roadside attraction, which unfortunately no longer exists). Somehow, after the 8th or 9th grade, I became acquainted with a Microbiology teacher at the University of Wisconsin in Green Bay. In return for doing chores in the lab, I learned such basics as aseptic technique, serial culture, culture media preparation, Gram staining, and so forth. The laboratory became my playground, and I was having a wonderful time.

This is where, depending on one's point of view, things either went horribly wrong, or horribly right. Had I gone the other direction, who knows where I would be today?

I decided to pursue a degree in Microbiology. The coursework was a breeze for me, and I even designed and helped conduct a Microbiology class geared towards Nursing students. I joined Mensa, published a satirical pseudo-underground rag called the "Circular File", graduated in 1985 with nearly straight A's, and had sky-high GRE scores. What I had failed to recognize by that time, however, is that I didn't have an exceptional aptitude for designing scientific experiments. All I really wanted to do was play around in the lab, and that would contribute to my eventual downfall.

During that same timeframe, I continued to buy and/or play with various computers, including a Tandy 100, of which I still have the fondest memories. However, none of the Computer Science courses in college appealed to me. I never did do any actual computer-related coursework during the 1970s and 1980s.

As graduation approached, a poster for Wayne State University in Detroit caught my eye with its mention of semisynthetic Ribonuclease research, and I decided to apply for their Ph.D. program in Biochemistry. I moved to Detroit, aced again most of my classes, met friends (and wow! a lover) through Mensa, and had lots of fun.

Towards the end of 1988, however, my life was in crisis. I was on a teaching assistantship, which I loathed, and was writing grant applications, which I despised. I was running out of courses to take, and had discovered fatal flaws in my dissertation project. I was also smoking too much weed. Earlier that year, I had participated in an East Coast peace march called the "National Pilgrimage to Reverse the Nuclear Arms Race": it was an annual event affiliated with Brandeis University, and I had been participating in it each year since 1984. It was at the 1988 event that I met Joan Bokaer, who announced plans for a walk across the U.S, and eventually around the world, promoting environmental awareness and sustainable living.

In a nutshell, I ran away. Dropping out of Wayne State, I went to Ithaca, New York, to help organize the "Global Walk for a Livable World". The office eventually moved to Los Angeles, where the Walk was to begin, and I participated in the Walk itself until April of 1990. By then, I had reached another crisis: I was living off of my credit card and desperately needed a form of income, since my fundraising efforts had come to nothing.

At this time, while the Walk was passing through Northern Arizona, I took a side trip with some others to Black Mesa, where residents were resisting forced relocation due to the encroachment of Peabody Coal's mines (as opposed to the more well-known relocations associated with the Navajo-Hopi partition). I was captivated by the land, the people, and the various issues surrounding them. Vowing to write a magazine article on the resistance, I stayed in Flagstaff, intending to support myself with temporary jobs. I applied to a temp agency, passed a computer competency test, and was about to accept my first assignment, when a unique opportunity arose from an unexpected direction: a short-term contract with an environmental consulting firm to perform some hydrologic data processing for Peabody Coal.

How perfect! Here, I would learn directly from the environmental staff at Peabody Coal, and was certain that I could incorporate their insights into my article. Eventually, I did finish that article, and tried unsuccessfully to submit it to various magazines, including Mother Jones. It was a piece of crap. Not a word of it survives. Yet I stayed in touch with a group involved in the Big Mountain resistance, and Voices from a Troubled Land came from that. Shortly thereafter, internal political strife caused the group to break into two. Although I continued to render computer assistance to both groups for a while, their continual sniping at each other wearied me, and finally I dropped out.

Did anything good come out of all this? Well, back when I was still at Peabody Coal, I participated in a pilot GIS project, which grew from there. In late 1990, GIS was still a fairly obscure technology, known to few college students outside a Graduate-level Geography department. But I immediately fell in love with it, and in 1999 became a GIS application developer for the local gas utility company, which I remain to this day. Do I regret not majoring in Computer Science? Would I have discovered GIS any sooner? Would my programming skills be that much better today? Would I have ended up in Flagstaff? What so be the actual relevance of those questions, I like where I am and what I'm doing, at least for now (until the next crisis comes along).

May 29, 2013

The Circular File