Episode 6 of the Oral History Center’s Special Season of the “Berkeley Remix” Podcast

 

Shanna Farrell:

Hello and welcome to The Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Founded in 1954, the Center records and preserves the history of California, the nation, and our interconnected world. 

Lately, things have been challenging and uncertain. We’re enduring an order to shelter-in-place, trying to read the news, but not too much, and prioritize self-care. Like many of you, we’re in need of some relief.

So, we’d like to provide you with some. Episodes in this series, which we’re calling “Coronavirus Relief,” may sound different from those we’ve produced in the past, that tell narrative stories drawing from our collection of oral histories. But like many of you, we at the Oral History Center are in need of a break.

We’ll be adding some new episodes in this Coronavirus Relief series with stories from the field, things that have been on our mind, interviews that have been helping us get through, and find small moments of happiness.

Episode 6

Amanda Tewes:

Hello, everyone! This is Amanda Tewes.

I was an avid podcast listener even before we all started sheltering in place. These days I’ve doubled down. But instead of listening on my commute, I catch up with episodes during my daily walks. And I’ve been sharing some of my favorite podcasts dealing with history, memory, and archival audio on the Oral History Center blog. 

Today I’m going to tell you about a new podcast I’ve been listening to called Wind of Change, which was recently featured on the blog. You’re going to want to buckle up for this wild ride.

German heavy metal meets Cold War intrigue. If you’re looking for a fun listen during shelter-in-place, I highly recommend the podcast Wind of Change!

Following a rumor that the German band the Scorpions’ 1990 hit song “Wind of Change” was actually written by the CIA as Cold War propaganda, investigative reporter Patrick Radden Keefe turned this long-form piece into an eight-part podcast series documenting the song’s influence on politics and popular culture, as well as its potential connection to American clandestine operations. Throughout, Keefe toys with the tension as to whether or not this kind of CIA involvement in songwriting is likely. After listening, my takeaway is that it’s just wild enough to be true.

Many Americans haven’t even heard of the Scorpions. And if you’ve heard of them at all, it’s due to their song “Rock You Like a Hurricane.” You know the one. 

But this German band that sings in English has diehard fans all over Europe and Asia. Formed in 1965 in Hanover, Germany, three of the five band members have been playing together since 1978. And they continue to tour internationally.

And what makes the song “Wind of Change” so fascinating is its resonance with the zeitgeist of 1990. The song was supposedly written after the band played in Moscow in 1989 and was released shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

For many, the song represents the “change” happening across Europe that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. But as Keefe points out, “Wind of Change” isn’t just the soundtrack to the end of the Cold War, but also a song with modern resonance. When he saw the Scorpions live in Kiev, Ukraine, alongside huge crowds, Keefe was reminded that the country was actually still at war with Russia, trying to maintain its post-Cold War independence. 

For Ukranians at least, “Wind of Change” is not just nostalgia, but a sort of call to arms. 

Keefe’s previous work inlcudes his 2019 book Say Nothing: The True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, which the Oral History Center chose as its inaugural book club pick. (Make sure to check out that conversation!) In Say Nothing, Keefe explores the challenges of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, alongside the murder of Jean McConville and the Boston College Belfast Project oral histories. In Wind of Change, Keefe encounters similar challenges working with former spies as he did with former revolutionaries in Ireland: lies and obfuscation. 

The delight of listening to this story in a podcast format is the ability to hear the song itself, the enthusiasm from live Scorpions audiences, archival and new interviews, and to provide some (but not enough for their taste) anonymity for former clandestine officers. But Wind of Change offers more than just great audio, it also takes the listener on a journey into how to investigate a thirty-year-old story, following oddball leads – even to a G.I. Joe convention – and invites skepticism about what information to actually believe. Indeed, the podcast also questions the nature of storytelling around this rumor and its own role in continuing the myth making around the CIA. But Keefe also wonders: how do you uncover something that (if true) was among the top CIA secrets during the Cold War? As an oral historian, I would add that these events have also been diluted by memory and time, and those who can speak to the true origins of “Wind of Change” may no longer be able to do so.

Part cultural history and part investigation into Cold War operation, Wind of Change also documents the CIA’s other attempts at cultural influence. From Louis Armstrong to Nina Simone to Doctor Zhivago, Keefe reiterates the CIA’s long history of using popular culture to convey the principles of Western democracy and undermine communism. Further, Keefe points to the very nature of rock and roll as ripe for use as propaganda: the genre was effectively banned in the USSR, so the act of listening to the music itself was a proxy for political rebellion.

The podcast Wind of Change is not just a fun listen about a campy band and Cold War CIA operations, but also a compelling story and a great distraction. Listen to all eight episodes of Wind of Change right now on Spotify.

You’ve got the song stuck in your head now, don’t you?

Stay safe, everyone. Until next time!

Farrell:

Thanks for listening to The Berkeley Remix. We’ll catch up with you next time. And in the meantime, from all of us here at the Oral History Center, we wish you our best.

This episode includes music by the Scorpions and Paul Burnett.

 


Episode 5 of the Oral History Center’s Special Season of the “Berkeley Remix” Podcast

Lately, things have been challenging and uncertain. We’re enduring an order to shelter-in-place, trying to read the news, but not too much, and prioritize self-care. Like many of you, we here at the Oral History Center are in need of some relief.

So, we’d like to provide you with some. Episodes in this series, which we’re calling “Coronavirus Relief,” may sound different from those we’ve produced in the past, that tell narrative stories drawing from our collection of oral histories. But like many of you, we, too, are in need of a break.

The Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center of the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Founded in 1954, the Center records and preserves the history of California, the nation, and our interconnected world.

We’ll be adding some new episodes in this Coronavirus Relief series with stories from the field, things that have been on our mind, interviews that have been helping us get through, and finding small moments of happiness.

Our fifth episode is from Shanna Farrell.

episode 5

When the shelter-in-place order was issued in mid-March by California Governor Gavin Newsom, many thoughts ran through my head. One of the milder ones — the kind that comes from the part of me that tries to find a silver lining in bad situations — was that I might have more time to read. I’ve always been an avid reader, mostly of fiction and narrative non-fiction, and often find myself counting down the hours until I can return to my book.

But in those early days of the global COVID-19 pandemic, I couldn’t concentrate on many things other than the news. My working hours bled into my free time as I tried my best to knock projects off my to-do list and remain productive as the world crumbled around us. 

And then one day I found myself staring at my bookshelf, the myriad of colorful spines calling to me. A soft pink cover caught my eye. I pulled Severance, a post-apocalyptic book by Ling Ma, off the shelf and cracked it open. The novel follows Candace Chen as a flu pandemic hits modern-day New York City. I call New York home, so it hit close, and was strangely cathartic. It didn’t hurt that the book is beautifully written and Ma’s prose is absorbing. It allowed me to escape in a way that worked with my limited focus. 

Back in the groove, I next read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, another post-apocalyptic novel about a global flu pandemic. This one split the timeline between when the pandemic hit Toronto, Canada, and twenty years in the future. In it, the author uses oral history as a device to connect the timelines. Every time I encounter the term “oral history” in literature – be it fiction or non-fiction – my heart quickens, never knowing if it’s being misused. 

As I read the fictional oral history interview transcript interspersed throughout the second half of Station Eleven, I was delighted, and deeply impressed, that Mandel seemed to understand that oral history is a type of long-form, recorded interview. This deepened my appreciation for both the writer and the book, discovering that there are people out there who don’t blur the lines between a clearly-defined methodology (about which I’ve mused on the OHC’s blog), taking the time to do their due diligence before employing a term they’ve heard about in passing. 

Ever since I read World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie Apocalypse by Max Brooks, I’ve loved when authors use fictional oral history interviews to tell a story. I find the interviewer and narrator exchange, the chorus of voices, and the details from the past an engaging way to draw the reader in. Many times, I feel like I’m in the room with them.

My colleague, Amanda Tewes agrees. “I like that the familiarity of oral history draws me into a story (almost as if it was real) and allows the author to toy with memory in a way that is difficult when juggling many characters,” she’s told me. 

This brings us to our next OHC Oral History Book Club selection, picked by Amanda, which embraces the trend of oral history as a literary device in fiction. We’ll be reading Daisy Jones & the Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid, which the New York Times calls “a gripping novel about the whirlwind rise of an iconic 1970s rock group and their beautiful lead singer, revealing the mystery behind their infamous breakup.” 

Daisey Jones & the Six

The story unfolds through a series of fictional oral histories. The format is the kind we often find on the pages of Entertainment Weekly or Vanity Fair, inspired by the hallmark oral history book Edie about Edie Sedgewick. Daisy Jones & the Six is a best-seller, a Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick, and is the basis for a new mini-series from Witherspoon’s production company. 

This time around, we’re inviting you to join us for the June installment of our book club. On June 15, we’ll be holding a virtual meeting. We’ll be discussing the book, the use of oral history in literature and pop culture, and more. Please join us for a bit of escape during these deeply difficult, challenging times. 

We’ll be meeting on Zoom on Monday, June 15 at 11am PST/2pm EST. Please send me, Shanna Farrell, as RSVP via email if you’d like to join us. My email is  sfarrell@library.berkeley.edu, which you can also find on the OHC’s website.

Until then, happy reading and stay safe!


You’re Invited to the Summer Edition of the OHC Book Club

Oral History, Literature, and the June OHC Book Club Selection

Daisey Jones & the Six

When the shelter-in-place order was issued in mid-March by California Governor Gavin Newsom, many thoughts ran through my head. One of the milder ones — the kind that comes from the part of me that tries to find a silver lining in bad situations — was that I might have more time to read. I’ve always been an avid reader, mostly of fiction and narrative non-fiction, and often find myself counting down the hours until I can return to my book.

But in those early days of the global COVID-19 pandemic, I couldn’t concentrate on many things other than the news. My working hours bled into my free time as I tried my best to knock projects off my to-do list and remain productive as the world crumbled around us. 

And then one day I found myself staring at my bookshelf, the myriad of colorful spines calling to me. A soft pink cover caught my eye. I pulled Severance, a post-apocalyptic book by Ling Ma, off the shelf and cracked it open. The novel follows Candace Chen as a flu pandemic hits modern-day New York City. As a native New Yorker, It hit close to home, and was strangely cathartic. (It didn’t hurt that the book is beautifully written and Ma’s prose was absorbing.) It allowed me to escape in a way that was right for the limits of my focus at the time. 

Next I read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, another post-apocalyptic novel about a global flu pandemic. This one split the timeline between when the pandemic hit Toronto, Canada, and twenty years in the future. In it, the author uses oral history as a device to connect the timelines. Every time I encounter the term “oral history” in literature – be it fiction or non-fiction – my heart quickens, never knowing if it’s being misused. 

As I read the fictional oral history interview transcript interspersed throughout the second half of Station Eleven, I was delighted, and deeply impressed, that Mandel seemed to understand that oral history is a type of long-form, recorded interview. This deepened my appreciation for both the writer and the book, discovering that there are people out there who don’t blur the lines between a clearly-defined methodology (about which I’ve mused on this very blog), taking the time to do their due diligence before employing a term they’ve heard about in passing. 

Ever since I read World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie Apocalypse by Max Brooks, I’ve loved when authors use fictional oral history interviews to tell a story. I find the interviewer and narrator exchange, the chorus of voices, and the details from the past an engaging way to draw the reader in. Many times, I feel like I’m in the room with them.

 My colleague, Amanda Tewes agrees. “I like that the familiarity of oral history draws me into a story (almost as if it was real) and allows the author to toy with memory in a way that is difficult when juggling many characters,” she says. 

This brings us to our next OHC Oral History Book Club selection, picked by Tewes, which embraces the trend of oral history as a literary device in fiction. We’ll be reading Daisy Jones & the Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid, which the New York Times calls “a gripping novel about the whirlwind rise of an iconic 1970s rock group and their beautiful lead singer, revealing the mystery behind their infamous breakup.” 

The story unfolds through a series of fictional oral histories. The format is the kind we often find on the pages of Entertainment Weekly or Vanity Fair, inspired by the hallmark oral history book Edie about Edie Sedgewick. The book is a best-seller, a Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick, and is the basis for a new mini-series from Witherspoon’s production company. 

We’re inviting you to join us for the June installment of our book club. On June 15, we’ll be holding a virtual meeting. We’ll be discussing the book, the use of oral history in literature and pop culture, and more.

RSVP to sfarrell@library.berkeley.edu if you’d like to join us for our book club via Zoom on Monday, June 15 at 11am PST/2pm EST.

Until then, happy reading and stay safe!


Episode 4 of the Oral History Center’s Special Season of the “Berkeley Remix” Podcast

Lately, things have been challenging and uncertain. We’re enduring an order to shelter-in-place, trying to read the news, but not too much, and prioritize self-care. Like many of you, we here at the Oral History Center are in need of some relief.

So, we’d like to provide you with some. Episodes in this series, which we’re calling “Coronavirus Relief,” may sound different from those we’ve produced in the past, that tell narrative stories drawing from our collection of oral histories. But like many of you, we, too, are in need of a break.

The Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center of the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Founded in 1954, the Center records and preserves the history of California, the nation, and our interconnected world.

We’ll be adding some new episodes in this Coronavirus Relief series with stories from the field, things that have been on our mind, interviews that have been helping us get through, and finding small moments of happiness.

Our fourth episode is from Roger Eardley-Pryor.

Episode 4

This is Roger Eardley-Pryor. I’m am an interviewer and historian of science, technology, and the environment at Berkeley’s Oral History Center. For this episode of Coronavirus Relief, I want to share stories with you about the very first Earth Day in 1970, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary.

Mercy, mercy me! Earth Day turned 50 in April 2020. A half-century ago, on April 22, 1970, environmental awareness and concern exploded in a nationwide outpouring of celebrations and protests during the world’s first Earth Day. That first Earth Day drew an estimated twenty million participants across the United States—roughly a tenth of the national population—with involvement from over ten thousand schools and two thousand colleges and universities. That first Earth Day, on April 22, became the then-largest single-day public protest in U.S. history.  The actual numbers of participants were even higher. Several universities, notably the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, organized massive Earth Day teach-ins, some of which they held in the weeks before April 22nd to avoid overlapping with their final exams. From New York City to San Francisco, from Cincinnati to Santa Barbara, from Birmingham to Ann Arbor—millions of Americans gathered on campuses, met in classrooms, visited parks and public lands together, participated in local clean-ups, and marched in the streets for greater environmental awareness and to demand greater environmental protections. Even Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson was surprised. And it was Senator Nelson who, in the fall of 1969, first promoted the idea for nation-wide teach-ins about the environment. He called Earth Day in 1970 a “truly astonishing grass-roots explosion.”  In the fifty-years since, Earth Day events have spread globally to nearly 200 nations, making it the world’s largest secular holiday celebrated by more than a billion people each year.

But this past April, despite years of planning for Earth Day’s fiftieth anniversary, the novel coronavirus—itself a world-wide environmental event—disrupted Earth Day 2020 plans across the planet. We were not able to celebrate Earth Day’s golden anniversary as previously planned. Instead, we can commemorate it with recollections—and lessons learned—by those who attended and organized the first Earth Day events in 1970. The Oral History Center’s archives list over seventy interviews that mention Earth Day.

I’ve selected here a few memories of the first Earth Day from our Sierra Club Oral History Project, a collaboration between the Sierra Club and Berkeley’s Oral History Center, that was initiated soon after that first Earth Day. These Earth Day memories from Sierra Club members begin with experiences in the streets of New York City, they include memories at the forefront of environmental law, and they conclude with a Sierra Club member who was inspired to activism at the University of Michigan’s first-ever Earth Day teach-in.

We’ll begin with Michele Perrault, who in the 1980s and 1990s was twice elected as president of the Sierra Club. Back in 1970, Michele Perrault lived and worked in New York City as an elementary-school science teacher. New York City was the site the nation’s largest celebrations of Earth Day, which captured nationwide media attention given that NBC, CBS, ABC, The New York Times, Newsweek, and Time Magazine were all headquartered in Manhattan. Perrault, who was then twenty-eight years old, taught in the demonstration school at the Bank Street College of Education. Bank Street College was founded more than 50 years earlier, in 1916, by a women named Lucy Sprague Mitchell, a child education reformer and, before that, Berkeley’s first Dean of Women. The Oral History Center has a great interview with her, too. But back to Michele Perrault.

For her part, Perrault told me—during her oral history—how she organized “a Bank Street program out in the street for Earth Day in New York City.” … “we had our own booth, and I had the kids there … Mostly we sang songs and danced around and had some visuals and books that people could read or get, and we had some pamphlets from the [Bank Street] College that talked about it.” In the process, Perrault and her students joined hundreds of thousands of other Earth Day participants in the streets of Manhattan. John Lindsay, the Republican mayor of New York, had closed traffic on Fifth Avenue for Earth Day, and he made Central Park available for gigantic crowds to march and celebrate together. The New York Times estimated over 100,000 people visited New York’s Union Square throughout Earth Day.

Earlier in 1970, Michele Perrault joined student teachers to plan Earth Day teach-ins in New York. That’s when Perrault met René Dubos—a famous microbiologist, an optimistic environmentalist, and a Pulitzer-Prize-winning author who first coined the phrase “Think Globally, Act Locally.” At that time, Michele Perrault served as education chair for the Sierra Club’s Atlantic Chapter in New York, for whom she had recently started a newsletter called Right Now!—a monthly publication full of ideas for environmental educators. Two copies of Right Now! are included in the appendix to Michele Perrault’s printed oral history, which is available online, like all of the Oral History Center’s interviews.  In one edition of Right Now!, Perrault recalled René Dubos’s advice for the upcoming first Earth Day.

 Dubos “stressed the importance and need for people to take time to reevaluate what is needed for quality of life, to sift and sort alternatives—perhaps not in existence now, to look in a new way at what the future could be like, and then devise plans for making it so.” Perrault added this: “We, as teachers, need to ask new questions about our own values, about our own social and economic systems and their relationship to the environment, so as to enrich the present and potential environment for children.” 

In 1971, less than a year after Earth Day, Perrault organized at Bank Street College an education conference titled “Environment and Children.” She invited René Dubos as the keynote speaker, and she remembered: Dubos called for stimulating environments for children that offered “the ability to choose, to have variety, to not just be in one place where everything was static around them and where they weren’t in control. [He] had a big paper on this whole issue of free will and being able to make choices, and how the environment would influence them.” Years later, after moving to California, Perrault took her own children on annual backpacking trips deep into the High Sierra Nevada mountains where they could run wild and free, stimulated by natural wilderness.

Michele Perrault was recruited to the Sierra Club shortly before Earth Day by a guy named David Sive, a pioneer of environmental law in New York, whose children Perrault taught in her science classroom. The Sierra Club Oral History Project includes a great interview with David Sive from 1982. Another Sierra Club member and trailblazer of environmental law is James Moorman, Moorman shared his own memories of the first Earth Day during his oral history in 1984. Back in 1970, Moorman had then recently joined the newly created Center for Law and Social Policy, or CLASP. CLASP is an influential public-interest law firm in Washington, DC. In the late 1960s, Jim Moorman was a young trial lawyer who brought two cases that became landmarks in environmental law. The first was a petition to the US Department of Agriculture to de-register the pesticide DDT. The second was a suit against the US Department of the Interior challenging construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. For the pipeline case, Moorman pioneered use of the National Environmental Policy Act (or NEPA), which had just been enacted in January 1970. Based on NEPA, Moorman demanded from the Interior Department a detailed Environmental Impact Statement for the pipeline project.

Moorman recalled: “the preliminary injunction hearing for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was originally set for Earth Day. … when the judge first set the hearing, I said, ‘Holy cow! He set the hearing for this on Earth Day and he doesn’t know it, and the oil companies don’t know it. I’m going to get to make my argument on Earth Day. That’s fantastic!’ But then there was a postponement, and the argument didn’t occur until two weeks later. But it was wonderful anyway.” Jim Moorman won his case. But Congress directly intervened to approve the pipeline by law. Nonetheless, Moorman’s injunction forced the oil companies to spend more than three years and a small fortune on engineering, analysis, and documentation for the project. The final Environmental Impact Statement for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline stretched to nine volumes! Moorman’s legal intervention helped produce a safer pipeline that, today, is still considered a wonder of engineering.

In the year following the first Earth Day, Moorman accepted a new job as the founding Executive Director of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, now known as Earthjustice. It was one of the nation’s earliest and remains one of the most influential public-interest environmental law organizations. Moorman directed the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund through 1974, and he worked as a staff attorney with the organization through 1977. That was when he became Assistant Attorney General for Land and Natural Resources under President Jimmy Carter. But in his 1984 oral history, Jim Moorman reflected on the importance of the first Earth Day for environmental law: “The fact is Earth Day came rather early in all this [environmental law] movement. We’ve been living on the energy created by Earth Day ever since.” Mike McCloskey—also a lawyer—couldn’t agree more.

Back in 1970, Mike McCloskey was still getting used to his new his role as Executive Director of the Sierra Club, a position McCloskey took up in the wake of David Brower and held through 1985. In the first of Mike McCloskey’s two oral histories—that first one from 1981—McCloskey recalled the Earth-Day-era as “a very exciting time in terms of developing new theories [of environmental law]. Our spirits were charged up. The courts were anxious to make law in the field of the environment. There were judges who were reading, and they were stimulated by the prospect. They were eager to get environmental cases.”… “what became clear over the next few years [after Earth Day] were that dozens of, if not hundreds, of laws were passed and agencies brought into existence.” He’s right. A few months after the first Earth Day, President Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency. Over the next few years, Congress passed a suite of landmark environmental statutes—including an amended Clean Air Act; the Clean Water Act; the Safe Drinking Water Act; the Endangered Species Act; the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act; the Toxic Substances and Control Act and many others … all of which—thus far—have avoided extinction.

Mike McCloskey remembered the first Earth Day in 1970 as an explosion of the environmental consciousness that had grown steadily throughout the late 1960s. In 1968, not long before Earth Day, conservationists like McCloskey thought the best of times had already happened. The creation of Redwood National Park in California, North Cascades National Park in Washington state, and the passage of both the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the National Trails System Act, all occurred in that revolutionary year of 1968. McCloskey recalled, “We, at that moment, thought this was some high point in conservation history and wondered whether much would happen thereafter.” In January 1969, President Richard Nixon came into office. McCloskey and other Sierra Club leaders remembered: we felt “very defensive and threatened, not realizing that we were on a threshold of an explosion into a period of our greatest growth and influence.” By 1970, instead of a plateau or even a decline in environmental efforts, Sierra Club leaders saw the American environmental movement experience what McCloskey described as “a tremendous take-off in terms of the overall quantity of activity, enthusiasm, and support with Earth Day. … it was just an eruption of activity on every front.”

But much to his surprise, with Earth Day in 1970, McCloskey also saw how many traditional leaders of the conservation movement were quickly regarded as “old hat and out of step with the times.” In their place, he witnessed how people “emerged at the student level, literally from nowhere, who were inventing new standards for what was right and what should be done and whole new theories overnight. For instance, I remember hostesses who were suddenly saying, ‘I can’t serve paper napkins anymore. I’ve got to have cloth napkins.’ Someone had written that paper napkins were terribly wrong—and colored toilet paper was regarded as a sin. But all sorts of people from different backgrounds coalesced in the environmental movement. People who were interested in public health suddenly emerged and very strongly.” One such person was Doris Cellarius.

In 1970, Doris Cellarius lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with her children and husband, Dick Cellarius, a professor of botany who was then teaching at the University of Michigan. According to Doris, she and Dick were both members of the Sierra Club in 1970, but mostly for hiking and social engagement, less for activism. The extraordinary events surrounding Earth Day in Ann Arbor changed everything. As Doris explained: “Earth Day came as a great shock to me because it had never occurred to me that the environment didn’t clean itself. I thought that water that flows along in a creek was purified by sunlight, and I guess I didn’t know a lot about where pollution came from. When I learned at the time of Earth Day how much pollution there was and how bad pesticides were, I instantly became very active in the pollution area of the environment.”

In the wake of Earth Day, Doris Cellarius drew upon her master’s degree in biology from Columbia University to become a leading grassroots activist and environmental organizer, especially against the use of pesticides and other toxic chemicals. Within the Sierra Club, she became head of several local and national committees that focused on empowering people in campaigns for hazardous waste clean-up and solid waste management. In her oral history interview from 2002, Doris Cellarius reflected on the impetus behind her decades of environmental activism: “I learned at Earth Day there was pollution. So, I think, having learned there was pollution, I decided that people should find out ways to stop creating that pollution.” Doris Cellarius wasn’t the only person whose life was changed by the events of Earth Day in Ann Arbor.

As a graduate student in forestry, a young Sierra Club member named Doug Scott co-organized the nation’s very first Earth Day teach-in at the University of Michigan. Their teach-in included the cast from the musical Hair, the governor of Michigan, several US Senators, as well as a public trial of the American car, which the students convicted of murder and sentenced to death by sledgehammer! I strongly encourage you to read the Sierra Club oral history of Doug Scott, who not only witnessed these events, but helped make them happen.

Fifty years ago, in 1970, the dynamic events surrounding the first Earth Day reflected how environmental issues could rapidly mobilize new publics for radical reform and institutional action. Indeed, the small organization created to nationally coordinate the first Earth Day took the name Environmental Action. Denis Hayes, the then-twenty-five-year-old national coordinator for Environmental Action, announced on Earth Day, “We are building a movement … a movement that values people more than technology, people more than political boundaries and political ideologies, people more than profit.” This exuberance for a new kind of environmental movement, according to historian John McNeill, arose “in a context of countercultural critique of any and all established orthodoxies.” But, at its root, Earth Day—and the flowering of concern for Spaceship Earth and all travelers on it—constituted “a complaint against economic orthodoxy.” According to John McNeil, “It was a critique of the faith of economists and engineers, and their programs to improve life on earth.” For new adherents to this ecological insight, the popularity of Earth Day’s events contributed collectively to “a general sense that things were out of whack and business as usual was responsible.” That all sounds terribly familiar today.

This year, on the golden anniversary of Earth Day, life all across the planet is out of whack and business as usual has come to a sudden stop. From climate change to the novel coronavirus to the deteriorating condition of American politics, a slew of increasingly complex and interconnected problems affect us all. But perhaps, this moment—like the one in 1970—offers a unique opportunity to think how we might begin things anew. Perhaps, as René Dubos advised on the first Earth Day in April 1970, we in 2020 can “take time to reevaluate what is needed for quality of life, to sift and sort alternatives … to look in a new way at what the future could be like, and then devise plans for making it so.” May it be so. May you help make it so. 


Episode 3 of the Oral History Center’s Special Season of the “Berkeley Remix” Podcast

Lately, things have been challenging and uncertain. We’re enduring an order to shelter-in-place, trying to read the news, but not too much, and prioritize self-care. Like many of you, we here at the Oral History Center are in need of some relief.

So, we’d like to provide you with some. Episodes in this series, which we’re calling “Coronavirus Relief,” may sound different from those we’ve produced in the past, that tell narrative stories drawing from our collection of oral histories. But like many of you, we, too, are in need of a break.

The Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center of the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Founded in 1954, the Center records and preserves the history of California, the nation, and our interconnected world.

We’ll be adding some new episodes in this Coronavirus Relief series with stories from the field, things that have been on our mind, interviews that have been helping us get through, and finding small moments of happiness.

Our third episode is from Amanda Tewes.

Episode 3

Greetings, everyone. This is Amanda Tewes.

As we are all still hunkering down at home, I wanted to share with you a few selections from Robert Putnam’s classic book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Now, I can’t say that this book is a personal favorite of mine – in fact, it brings up some not-so-fun memories of cramming for my doctoral exams in American history – but it has been on my mind lately, especially in thinking about our shifting social obligations to one another in times of crisis, like the 1918 Influenza Epidemic or the heady days after 9/11. 

Putnam published Bowling Alone in 2000, following decades of what he saw as degenerating American social connections, and much of the book reads like a lament of a changing American character. 

In the context of our current moment, the following passages stood out to me:

……………………………………………………………………………………………………….

The Charity League of Dallas had met every Friday morning for fifty-seven years to sew, knit, and visit, but on April 30, 1999, they held their last meeting; the average age of the group had risen to eighty, the last new member had joined two years earlier, and president Pat Dilbeck said ruefully, “I feel like this is a sinking ship.” Precisely three days later and 1,200 miles to the northeast, the Vassar alumnae of Washington, D.C., closed down their fifty-first – and last – annual book sale. Even though they aimed to sell more than one hundred thousand books to benefit college scholarship in the 1999 event, co-chair Alix Myerson explained, the volunteers who ran the program “are in their sixties, seventies, and eighties. They’re dying, and they’re not replaceable.” Meanwhile, as Tewksbury Memorial High School (TMHS), just north of Boston, opened in the fall of 1999, forty brand-new royal blue uniforms newly purchased for the marching band remained in storage, since only four students signed up to play. Roger Whittlesey, TMHS band director, recalled that twenty years earlier the band numbered more than eighty, but participation had waned ever since. Somehow in the last several decades of the twentieth century all these community groups and tens of thousands like them across America began to fade.

It wasn’t so much that old members dropped out – at least not any more rapidly than age and the accidents of life had always meant. But community organizations were no longer continuously revitalized, as they had been in the past, by freshets of new members. Organizational leaders were flummoxed. For years they assumed that their problem must have local roots or at least that it was peculiar to their organization, so they commissioned dozens of studies to recommend reforms. The slowdown was puzzling because for as long as anyone could remember, membership rolls and activity lists had lengthened steadily.

In the 1960s, in fact, community groups across America had seemed to stand on the threshold of a new era of expanded involvement. Except for the civic drought induced by the Great Depression, their activity had shot up year after year, cultivated by assiduous civic gardeners and watered by increasing affluence and education. Each annual report registered rising membership. Churches and synagogues were packed, as more Americans worshipped together than only a few decades earlier, perhaps more than ever in American history.

Moreover, Americans seemed to have time on their hands. A 1958 study under the auspices of the newly inaugurated Center for the Study of Leisure at the University of Chicago fretted that “the most dangerous threat hanging over American society is the threat of leisure,” a startling claim in the decade in which the Soviets got the bomb. Life magazine echoed the warning about the new challenge of free time: “Americans now face a glut of leisure,” ran a headline in February 1964. “The task ahead: how to take life easy.” …

…For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century a powerful tide bore Americans into ever deeper engagement in the life of their communities, but a few decades ago – silently, without warning – that tide reversed and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current. Without at first noticing, we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities over the last third of the century. 

Before October 29, 1997, John Lambert and Andy Boschma knew each other only through their local bowling league at the Ypsi-Arbor Lanes in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Lambert, a sixty-four-year-old retired employee of the University of Michigan hospital, had been on a kidney transplant waiting list for three years when Boschma, a thirty-three-year-old accountant, learned casually of Lambert’s need and unexpectedly approached him to offer to donate one of his own kidneys.

“Andy saw something in me that others didn’t,” said Lambert. “When we were in the hospital Andy said to me, ‘John, I really like you and have a lot of respect for you. I wouldn’t hesitate to do this all over again.’ I got choked up.” Boschma returned the feeling: “I obviously feel a kinship [with Lambert]. I cared about him before, but now I’m really rooting for him.” This moving story speaks for itself, but the photograph that accompanied this report in the Ann Arbor News reveals that in addition to their differences in profession and generation, Boschma is white and Lambert is African American. That they bowled together made all the difference. In small ways like this – and in larger ways, too – we Americans need to reconnect with one another. That is the simple argument of this book.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………….

There is a lot to find discouraging these days, but I actually have been heartened to see the ways in which Americans – and individuals the world over – have been committing and recommitting to each other and to their communities. Citing a “now more than ever” argument, folks are setting up local pop-up pantries with food, household supplies, and books; some are reaching out to their neighbors for the first time; and of course, we are practicing social distancing not just to keep ourselves safe, but also our communities.

Witnessing these acts, I have to wonder if Putnam’s argument about a decline in social obligations and connectivity was just one moment in American history and not a full picture. What will the historical narrative about this time be? Are we now experiencing a blip in social relations, or is this a great turning point? I’m hoping for the latter.

Stay safe, everyone. Until next time!


Episode 2 of the Oral History Center’s Special Season of the “Berkeley Remix” Podcast

Lately, things have been challenging and uncertain. We’re enduring an order to shelter-in-place, trying to read the news, but not too much, and prioritize self-care. Like many of you, we here at the Oral History Center are in need of some relief.

So, we’d like to provide you with some. Episodes in this series, which we’re calling “Coronavirus Relief,” may sound different from those we’ve produced in the past, that tell narrative stories drawing from our collection of oral histories. But like many of you, we, too, are in need of a break.

The Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center of the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Founded in 1954, the Center records and preserves the history of California, the nation, and our interconnected world.

We’ll be adding some new episodes in this Coronavirus Relief series with stories from the field, things that have been on our mind, interviews that have been helping us get through, and finding small moments of happiness.

Our second episode is from Shanna Farrell.

Episode 2

These are strange, challenging times that we’re living through. As we shelter in place near and far, trying to reduce our chances of contracting the coronavirus, each day brings news of something else, the dust barely settled from the day before. It’s forced us to adapt quicker than we thought possible. Or maybe that’s just me.

As the fallout from this global pandemic unfolds, I’ve been watching as an industry I love – food and beverage – has begun to collapse. Bars and restaurants all over the world, including in the Bay Area, have closed their doors indefinitely. There are over half a million restaurant workers in San Francisco alone, many of whom are scrambling to stay on their feet. My partner, who manages a bar in the heart of a thriving neighborhood, was temporarily laid off, along with over 1,000 other employees in his company alone.  But as their income and health insurance evaporated, people in the service industry have banded together, creating fundraisers and support groups. Maybe there is hope in the dark.

This community-driven spirit is one of the reasons why I cherish the food and beverage industry. It’s also made me think about Rebecca Solnit’s 2009 book, Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. Solnit chronicles how people pull together in times of crisis from the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake to 9/11. As a realist who tries my best to be optimistic, I’m hoping that we can all take a page out of this book – restaurant industry and beyond – and emerge from this pandemic stronger than when it found us. 

Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of Paradise Built in Hell, a chapter called “The Mizpah Cafe” about the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.

The Mizpah Cafe

The Gathering Place

The outlines of this particular disaster are familiar. At 5:12 in the morning on April 18, 1906, about a minute of seismic shaking tore up San Francisco, toppling buildings, particularly those on landfill and swampy ground, cracking and shifting others, collapsing chimneys, breaking water mains and gas lines, twisting streetcar tracks, even tipping headstones in the cemeteries. It was a major earthquake, centered right off the coast of peninsular city, and the damage it did was considerable. Afterward came the fires, both those caused by broken gas mains and chimneys and those caused and augmented by the misguided policy of trying to blast firebreaks ahead of the flames and preventing citizens from firefighting in their own homes and neighborhoods. The way the authorities handled the fires was a major reason why so much of the city–nearly five square miles, more than twenty-eight thousand structures–was incinerated in one of history’s biggest urban infernos before aerial warfare. Nearly every municipal building was destroyed, and so were many of the downtown businesses, along with mansions, slums, middle-class neighborhoods, the dense residential-commercial district of  Chinatown, newspaper offices, and warehouses. 

The response of the citizens is less familiar. Here is one. Mrs. Anna Amelia Holshouser, whom a local newspaper described as a “women of middle age, buxom and comely,” woke up on the floor of her bedroom on Sacramento Street, where the earthquake had thrown her. She took time to dress herself while the ground and her home were still shaking, in that era when getting dressed was no simple matter of throwing on clothes. “Powder, paint, jewelry, hair switch, all were on when I started my flight down one hundred twenty stairs to the street,” she recalled. The house in western San Francisco was slightly damaged, her downtown place of business–she was a beautician and masseuse–was “a total wreck,” and so she salvaged what she could and moved on with a friend, Mr. Paulson. They camped out in Union Square downtown until the fires came close and soldiers drove them onward. Like thousands of others, they ended up trudging with their bundles to Golden Gate Park, the thousand-acre park that runs all the way west to the Pacific Ocean. There they spread an old quilt “and lay down…not to sleep, but to shiver with cold from fog and mist and watch the flames of the burning city, whose blaze shone far above the trees.” On their third day in the park, she stitched together blankets, carpets, and sheets to make a tent that sheltered twenty-two people, including thirteen children. And Holshouser started a tiny soup kitchen with one tin can to drink from and one pie plate to eat from. All over the city stoves were hauled out of damaged buildings–fire was forbidden indoors, since many standing homes had gas leaks or damaged flues or chimneys–or primitive stoves were built out of rubble, and people commenced to cook for each other, for strangers, for anyone in need. Her generosity was typical, even if her initiative was exceptional.

Holshouser got funds to buy eating utensils across the bay in Oakland. The kitchen began to grow, and she was soon feeding two to three hundred people a day, not a victim of the disaster but a victor over it and the hostess of a popular social center–her brothers’ and sisters’ keeper. Some visitors from Oakland liked her makeshift dining camp so well they put up a sign– “Palace Hotel” –naming it after the burned-out downtown luxury establishment that was reputedly once the largest hotel in the world. Humorous signs were common around the camps and street-side shelters. Nearby on Oak Street a few women ran “The Oyster Loaf” and the “Chat Noir”–two little shacks with their names in fancy cursive. A shack in Jefferson Square was titled “The House of Mirth,” with additional signs jokingly offering rooms for rent with steam heat and elevators. The inscription on the side of “Hoffman’s Cafe,” another little street-side shack, read “Cheers up, have one on me…come in and spend a quiet evening.” A menu chalked on the door of “Camp Necessity,” a tiny shack, included the items “fleas eyes raw, 98 cents, pickled eels, nails fried, 13 cents, flies legs on toast, 9 cents, crab’s tongues, stewed,” ending with “rain water fritter with umbrella sauce, $9.10.” “The Appetite Killery” may be the most ironic name, but the most famous inscription read, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may have to go to Oakland.” Many had already gone there or to hospitable Berkeley, and the railroads carried many much farther away for free.

About three thousand people had died, at least half the city was homeless, families were shattered, the commercial district was smoldering ashes, and the army from the military base at the city’s north end was terrorizing many citizens. As soon as the newspapers resumed printing, they began to publish long lists of missing people and of the new locations at which displaced citizens and sundered families could be found. Despite or perhaps because of this, the people were for the most part calm and cheerful, and many survived the earthquake with gratitude and generosity. Edwin Emerson recalled that after the quake, “when the tents of the refugees, and the funny street kitchens, improvised from doors and shutters and pieces of roofing, overspread all the city, such merriment became an accepted thing. Everywhere, during those long moonlit evenings, one could hear the tinkle of guitars and mandolins, from among the tents. Or, passing the grotesque rows of curbstone kitchens, one became dimly aware of the low murmurings of couples who had sought refuge in those dark recesses as in bowers of love. It was at this time that the droll signs and inscriptions began to appear on walls and tent flaps, which soon became one of the familiar sights of reconstructing San Francisco. The overworked marriage license clerk had deposed that the fees collected by him for issuing such licenses during April and May 1906 far exceeded the totals for the same months of any preceding years in San Francisco.” Emerson had rushed to the scene of the disaster from New York, pausing to telegraph a marriage proposal of his own to a young woman in San Francisco, who wrote a letter of rejection that was still in the mail when she met her suitor in person amid the wreckage and accepted. They were married a few weeks later. 

Disaster requires an ability to embrace contradiction in both the minds of those undergoing it and those trying to understand it from afar. In each disaster, there is suffering, there are psychic scars that will be felt most when the emergency is over, there are deaths and losses. Satisfactions, newborn social bonds, and liberations are often also profound. Of course, one factor in the gap between the usual accounts of disaster and actual experience is that those accounts focus on the small percentage of people who are wounded, killed, orphaned, and otherwise devastated, often at the epicenter of the disaster, along with the officials involved. Surrounding them, often in the same city or even neighborhood, is a periphery of many more who are largely undamaged but profoundly disrupted–and it is the disruptive power of disaster that matters here, the ability of disasters to topple the old orders and open new possibilities. This broader effect is what disaster does to society. In the moment of disaster, the old order no longer exists and people improvise rescues, shelters, and communities. Thereafter, a struggle takes place over whether the old order with all its shortcomings and injustices will be reimposed or a new one, perhaps more oppressive or perhaps more just and free, like the disaster utopia, will arise. 

Of course people who are deeply and devastatingly affected may yet find something redemptive in their experience, while those who are largely unaffected may be so rattled they are immune to the other possibilities (curiously, people farther from the epicenter of a disaster are often more frightened, but this seems to be because what you imagine as overwhelming or terrifying while at leisure becomes something you can cope with when you must–there is no time for fear). There are no simple rules for the emotions. We speak mostly of happy and sad emotions, a divide that suggests a certain comic lightness to the one side and pure negativity to the other, but perhaps we would navigate our experiences better by thinking in terms of deep and shallow, rich and poor. The very depth of emotion, the connecting to the core of one’s being, the calling into play one’s strongest feelings and abilities, can be rich, or even on deathbeds, in wars and emergencies, while what is often assumed to be the circumstance of happiness sometimes is only insulation from the depths, or so the plagues of ennui and angst among the comfortable suggest. 

Next door to Holshouser’s kitchen, an aid team from the mining boomtown of Tonopah, Nevada, set up and began to deliver wagonloads of supplies to the back of Holshouser’s tent. The Nevadans got on so well with impromptu cook and hostess they gave her a guest register whose inscription read in part: “in cordial appreciation of her prompt, philanthropic, and efficient service to the people in general, and particularly to the Tonopah Board of Trade Relief Committee…May her good deeds never be forgotten.” Thinking that the place’s “Palace Hotel” sign might cause confusion, they rebaptized it the Mizpah Cafe after the Mizpah Saloon in Tonopah, and a new sign was installed. The ornamental letters spelled out above the name “One Touch of Nature Makes the Whole World Kin” and those below “Established April 23, 1906.” The Hebrew word mizpah, says one encyclopedia, “is an emotional bond between those who are separated (either physically or by death).” Another says it was the Old Testament watchtower “where the people were accustomed to meet in great national emergencies.” Another source describes it as “symbolizing a sanctuary and place of hopeful anticipation.” The ramshackle material reality of Holshouser’s improvised kitchen seemed to matter not at all in comparison with its shining social role. It ran through June of 1906, when Holshouser wrote her memoir of the earthquake. Her piece is remarkable for what it doesn’t say: it doesn’t speak of fear, enemies, conflict, chaos, crime, despondency, or trauma. 

Just as her kitchen was one of many spontaneously launched community centers and relief projects, so her resilient resourcefulness represents the ordinary response in many disasters. In them, strangers become friends and collaborators, goods are shared freely, people improvise new roles for themselves. Imagine a society where money plays little or no role, where people rescue each other and then care for each other, where food is given away, where life is mostly out of doors in public, where the old divides between people seem to have fallen away, and the fate that faces them, no matter how grim, is far less so for being shared, where much once considered impossible, both good and bad, is now possible or present, and where the moment is so pressing that old complaints and worries fall away, where people feel important, purposeful, at the center of the world. It is by its very nature unsustainable and evanescent, but like a lightning flash it illuminates ordinary life, and like lightning it sometimes shatters the old forms. It is utopia itself for many people, though it is only a brief moment during terrible times. And at the time they manage to hold both irreconcilable experiences, the joy and the grief.

——

Thanks for listening to The Berkeley Remix. We’ll catch up with next time, and in the meantime, from all of here at the Oral History Center, we wish you our best.

 


New Special Season of the Oral History Center’s “Berkeley Remix” Podcast

Lately, things have been challenging and uncertain. We’re enduring an order to shelter-in-place, trying to read the news, but not too much, and prioritize self-care. Like many of you, we here at the Oral History Center are in need of some relief. 

So, we’d like to provide you with some. Episodes in this series, which we’re calling “Coronavirus Relief,” may sound different from those we’ve produced in the past, that tell narrative stories drawing from our collection of oral histories. But like many of you, we, too, are in need of a break. 

The Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center of the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Founded in 1954, the Center records and preserves the history of California, the nation, and our interconnected world.

We’ll be adding some new episodes in this Coronavirus Relief series with stories from the field, things that have been on our mind, interviews that have been helping us get through, and finding small moments of happiness. 

Our first episode is from Amanda Tewes.

The Berkeley Remix Special Season
The Berkeley Remix’s Special Season for Coronavirus Relief

Hello, everyone. This is Amanda Tewes, and I am an interviewer with The Oral History Center. The State of California, including my home in Contra Costa County, is under orders to shelter in place for the foreseeable future, so I am coming to you today from the inside of my closet.

This is a trying time for everyone, but I’ve had the opportunity to stand back and acknowledge my incredible privilege in being able to work from home, in being confident that I can afford my next rent payment, in knowing that I have quality health insurance. I can comfortably practice social distancing because I am not on the frontlines of this pandemic, offering medical care or even trying to feed the hungry and newly-unemployed. In fact, I have friends in these fields, and thanks to them I have a front row seat to how COVID-19 is exacerbating the social problems we ignore every day.

As a historian, living in the time of COVID-19 is a bit surreal. I am constantly thinking about what to record about this moment. What will be important for future generations to know? How will we talk to children about something that could become their first and most formative memories? What moments will prove most monumental? Will we even recognize a turning point when it comes?

I don’t yet know the answers to these questions. I do know that I feel a bit like a boiling frog. Every day — no, every hour — brings new and distressing information, and restrictions that seemed incremental have landed us in a situation I couldn’t even have imagined two weeks ago.

What I can tell you is that even while I am social distancing at home and trying to find ways to reduce anxiety, I am also trying hard to stay connected with the world around me, to absorb all the news — good and bad — and to reach out to those I care about. This is a moment to share our various vulnerabilities and to connect with our neighbors — even virtually.

In that spirit, I want to share with you some of my vulnerabilities as an oral historian in a behind-the-scenes look at a recent interview. As interviewers, I think we push some of the human experience out of our minds when it comes to producing oral histories, because we are — rightly — focused on documenting the stories we record with narrators, and on the historical nature of our work. But, “this is a people business,” as my colleague, Todd Holmes, likes to say, and both the interviewer and narrator bring a lot of baggage into each situation. Sometimes literally.

In November 2019, I traveled to Delaware for an oral history with a woman I was very excited to interview. But even though I’ve lived in Massachusetts, I’m never enthusiastic about traveling during the winter. I’m a California girl through and through.

So with reluctance, I packed my recording equipment and winter coat — the real one, not my NorCal one — and flew across the country. 

I have a checkered record in winter air travel, so I’m always nervous about this. But traveling with recording equipment is doubly stressful. I carry on my purse with my computer, as well as my camera and microphones and SD cards. However, I have to check my camera tripod stand and the stand for my portable light. The light itself I try to gently squish into my suitcase, which is difficult when you need to pack bulky sweaters.

You’ve probably guessed where this is going. I flew from Oakland to Philadelphia, but my suitcase did not. I looked around the empty luggage carousel and thought, So I guess this is happening.

True, I was lucky that my tripod bag arrived. This meant that at the very least, I could put my camera on the tripod and conduct an interview. But what about my interview outline nestled safely in my suitcase? What about the carefully-curated professional winter wardrobe I packed for the two days of interview sessions? Oh, those were long gone, the airline company told me. If I was lucky, I would be reunited with them before I left the East Coast.

After racing to the rental car location, I had to find an open store at 10:30 at night. I was woefully unprepared to complete this mission in rural Pennsylvania — or was I in Delaware already? I bought emergency hygiene products and the first sweater I saw that wouldn’t interfere with my lavalier mic.

Before falling into a fretful sleep, I texted my narrator about the situation and the potential for delays for our first session, depending on any lingering issues I faced in the morning. It was fine, she assured me, all would be well.

The next morning after I drove to the interview location in rural Delaware, I parked at the top of a hill and lugged my equipment what felt like a mile in the cold. In fact, my rental car was kind enough to warn me that conditions were freezing. 

When I extended my hand in greeting, my narrator started coughing up a storm. Oh God, I thought, is she even going to be able to sit for these interviews? Was the baggage situation an omen? No, she assured me, she had brought supplies like cough syrup and tea. She could make it through.

After two sessions separated by a short lunch, it was apparent that the cough medicine wasn’t working. My narrator was truly sick and soldiering her way through my questions — sometimes forgetting her train of thought. I was also distracted by the outline I printed with a hotel printer clearly in need of new toner. On top of which, I felt so unprofessional in my travel jeans and ill-fitting, new sweater that I found it difficult to feel “authoritative.” All in all, we were a miserable bunch.

I left that interview and drove directly to the airport to the luggage I was assured was waiting for me — maybe, probably, depending on the service personnel who answered the phone. After a two-hour round trip to the airport and my recovered suitcase in hand, I figured the situation could only improve.

But then I woke up the next day to a text from my narrator. Her car wouldn’t start, and she would be late because she needed to pick up a rental car. Why couldn’t we catch a break here?!

When we finally met up, my narrator and I coughed and sputtered our way through the final interview session, hoping that we hit upon the most historically-salient points of her life and work.

I think it’s safe to say this was not my most technically proficient oral history interview. To make matters worse, my narrator was herself a practitioner of oral history. But when I reviewed the transcript from this interview just a month or two later, instead of feeling utterly horrified from a barrage of bad memories, I kept laughing to myself and actually took stock of what I learned from this experience.

I learned to be patient in the face of unexpected and even frustrating interview circumstances. But most importantly, I learned to be patient with myself. Even though I am a professional oral historian, I am also human. Life happens. I don’t always get to be perfect.

And even though this was far from my best oral history interview, it was an accurate snapshot of a moment in both of our lives that influenced the way the story was recorded and how it will be remembered.

We don’t know what tomorrow brings. So even in these trying times, I hope you can still find reasons to laugh, and to show patience for yourself and others. 

Stay safe, everyone. Until next time!


OHC February Book Club Discussion Questions

The Oral History Center launched a new book club in 2019, where we read a book that draws on oral history interviews.

Our February selection is Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich. We’ll be discussing the book next week and posting a not-so-transcript of our conversation shortly after.

Voices from Chernobyl

 

Here’s the discussion questions if you’re following along:

  1. Narrators in this book often point out where their stories diverge from official narratives about Chernobyl.  What role do politics play in telling stories about Chernobyl (even after the fall of the Soviet Union)?  And how does this compare to other oral history topics?
  2. Why is it important that Alexievich shared these stories as oral history “transcripts,” rather than as narrative prose that employs quotes from oral histories?
  3. Alexievich does not always provide names or much information about narrators. Why do you think this is, and how did that impact the way you read the book?
  4. If this collection of oral histories has a thesis, what do you think it is? What story is Alexievich trying to tell?
  5. How did you think about the cultural practice of storytelling in these communities represented in Chernobyl, as compared to Western communities?
  6. Do you consider this to be oral history? Why or why not?
  7. What impact did this book have on your perspective about the potential of oral history?
  8. If you have memories of the Chernobyl disaster, how do these stories compare?

OHC’s Inaugural Book Club: A Not-So-Oral History Conversation About “Say Nothing”

As oral historians, we’ve heard a lot about the Belfast Project, which collected interviews with people who were on both sides of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, and the implications that it had for ethics, transparency, and best practices for our work. Interviews were recorded, confessions to crimes were made, and the transcripts were archived at Boston College. And then they were subpoenaed, spurring endless questions and conversations about what we can and can’t promise to our narrators. (For more details, this paper outlines the history of The Troubles and the case in detail.)

But, in the summer of 2019, Patrick Radden Keefe published Say Nothing, a book outlining the case and the use of oral history, challenging what many of us thought we knew. Here’s the description from his publisher, Penguin Random House:

“In December 1972, Jean McConville, a thirty-eight-year-old mother of ten, was dragged from her Belfast home by masked intruders, her children clinging to her legs. They never saw her again. Her abduction was one of the most notorious episodes of the vicious conflict known as The Troubles. Everyone in the neighborhood knew the I.R.A. was responsible. But in a climate of fear and paranoia, no one would speak of it. In 2003, five years after an accord brought an uneasy peace to Northern Ireland, a set of human bones was discovered on a beach. McConville’s children knew it was their mother when they were told a blue safety pin was attached to the dress–with so many kids, she had always kept it handy for diapers or ripped clothes.

Say Nothing
Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe

The Not-So-Transcript of the Not-So-Oral History of Our Conversation About Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe

Shanna Farrell: Let’s start with your favorite parts of the book.

Amanda Tewes: For me, it’s always really fascinating to hear about history from a memory perspective. This book reminded me of an extension of Portelli’s The Death of Luigi Trastulli and the idea that there are all these events but everybody disagrees on what happened. They remember it differently, but he’s bringing together a story based on not only the history, but also the memory, and how that clouds perception even today.

Martin Meeker: Admittedly, I listened to it and didn’t read it.  That’s actually one of my favorite parts—listening to it—because the gentleman who read it has this amazing Irish accent. It’s quite enjoyable. 

Roger Eardley-Pryor: It’s so good. His accent is beautiful. It put another layer of enjoyment on it. 

Meeker: But, what I really liked was that this is a story that I think a lot of oral historians think they know something about. It became clear pretty early on that it’s not only the story the oral history project, but one that really needs to be put in the context of the larger Troubles in Northern Ireland. Even though they move the project to the United States, they couldn’t they couldn’t move The Troubles out of it.

Eardley-Pryor: One of the things that I really loved about the book was the memories that it inspired in me. I studied and lived in Ireland in 1999. It was a year after The Good Friday Agreement was signed and Gerry Adams was on TV a lot representing Sinn Fein and forming this Peace Coalition. I remember walking through Belfast and one street had tri-colored Irish Flags painted on the curbs and flags that run between buildings, so you’re clearly in a Catholic space. And then you’d turn the corner and the roads are all painted red white and blue with the Union Jack with British flags flying between the houses. And, what I also loved about this book is how you follow individual characters through their own journey with The Troubles. That was just so Illuminating. 

Meeker: Shanna, did you have a favorite part of it? 

Farrell: My favorite thing about this book was the pacing of it. I really liked how he doled out the stories, which is something that I like in fiction a lot. One chapter tells one story and then you pause and go to another character. 

Meeker: I noticed how it unfolded, too, which worked really well for a nonfiction book. The historical actors are not usually characters, right? They’ll appear, they’ll make their contribution to history, and then they’ll disappear. But the people in this book get woven back into the story. You’re introduced to Dolours Price and Ed Moloney and Brendan Hughes early on and then they’ll come back in. You really get us a sense of their role in this long, unfolding history that covers decades. It’s really artfully done. 

Farrell: It really engaged me. It was definitely a page turner.

Meeker: It would be interesting to talk to the author, Patrick Radden Keefe, to figure out how he came up with the process of integrating the story of the tapes into the book. Did he decide beforehand that they would be a pivotal part of the story? You rarely get a nonfiction writer to spend that much time talking about the research methodology. But as it turns out, the research is a big part of the story. 

Farrell: Yeah, and super dramatic. I think that’s why it’s part of the story. That was actually one of my questions. Could this have been a book without oral history and the existence of the Belfast Project?

Tewes: With this particular book, no, because he does seem really taken with the idea of memory and the differing accounts of who said what when. The same person could have several different accounts. It seems to have been an important part of the book. So oral history, I think, made it that much richer. I’d like to know like how he decided to use oral history and at what point he decided to drive the narrative by adding dialogue to these characters, which he’s really taking it out of previous conversations and oral history. 

Meeker: That’s really fascinating to me. 

Eardley-Pryor: I was surprised at the end where they describe the sources. I thought he only had access to Brendan Hughes’ and one other person’s actual transcripts, right?

Farrell: That one of my big questions. I wasn’t sure whose oral histories he had access to. That brings me to my next question: what did you know about this case or project before the book, and how did this challenge what you thought you knew?

Tewes: As Martin said, I think this is something a lot of oral historians think they know. I remember when the case happened in 2013. I had taken my IRB test in 2015 and it was already part of the curriculum about why this was a problematic approach to doing oral history. So, I’d read a few articles and thought I understood what was going on. But, clearly there was a lot more happening behind the scenes and the politics in Ireland were just as important as what I was reading about in Boston College’s approach to the project. I feel like the way oral historians had discussed this was really divorced from the larger context. 

Meeker: Yeah, I’d agree with that. I think that my perspective around the mainstream oral history discourse about this seemed to be: “How dare they try to take these sacrosanct interviews that are under seal? We need to marshal our resources and fight.” Oral historians tended to link it to academic freedom, which I always thought to be a strange argument, but, I followed it. This book shows that the story is far more complex than that and the behavior of those who were running this program was pretty reprehensible. It is a really important case study, I think, for graduate students or anyone interested in oral history dealing with anything that’s sensitive to know that you can’t promise anonymity in this way. 

Eardley-Pryor: I had the same reaction to how this book flipped my understanding of the ethical issues involved in the oral history case. Initially, I thought how dare the British government come in and take advantage of this project when the people who participated in it were protected.  The ethical flip is actually that the project itself was structured in a way that they couldn’t protect the narrators. The real challenge was how the project was organized, not how the British government demanded access to it. 

Tewes: The book outlines what the people were promised, but where’s the official document?

Eardley-Pryor: They had different points of view, right? The Unionist interviewer thought for sure that everything was sealed tight until everyone was dead. The IRA interviewer, McIntyre, seemed to say it’s when the individual dies that we can release their transcripts. That’s totally different for people involved in the same project, right? 

Farrell: Right. It was a little fuzzy if they were going to release the project when everyone interviewed died, but when Brendan Hughes died they released his tapes and that seemed to be a violation of what they were told. But one passage [on page 286] says, “The men had also never decided just who would be allowed to access the interviews. The conversations had always been about ‘the future students of Boston College.’ But the history department at the college had not known, until the publication of Moloney’s book, that the project was happening at all. In fact, the archive had been so secret that almost nobody at Boston College, apart from [Tom] Hachey and [Bob] O’Neill, knew that it existed.”

Meeker: This brings up an interesting point. The project was always with the library, not the History Department. I’m not sure the History Department should even be brought into it. I would hate if there was an ethical problem in our office and someone from the History Department was interviewed about it. They’d say that they are the historians on campus and didn’t know about it.

Tewes: I just wanted to point out that they did not actually release the tapes when Brendan Hughes died. They released a book written about the transcript of the tapes. When we start getting technical about subpoenas for transcripts and tapes, it’s like there was always an edited version they were presenting.

Eardley-Pryor: Just as this entire book is an edited individual subjective take on the topic. They only had access to three oral histories of the whole project. All of the storytelling in this book is based on Keefe’s own research interviewing the actual people who worked on the project. He interviews Anthony McIntyre and talks about having dinners with him and his wife.

Farrell: Yeah, there were two interviewers on the project, one was who was supposed to interview the British Loyalists.

Eardley-Pryor: The British Terrorists.

Farrell: And the other interviewed the Republicans, so it was the IRA versus the RUC. 

Eardley-Pryor: McIntyre did the Irish interviews and it seemed like the author of this book had a real buddy-buddy relationship with him, sitting down to dinner with him and his wife, having cocktails together, asking pointed questions like “This is my theory, but what actually happened?” Keefe writes that McIntyre wouldn’t say yes or no, but wouldn’t deny things.

Meeker: But was there a record of exactly what the project leads said to the people who are being interviewed? I vaguely remember there being something in this book about that, but he does talk about the ambiguity. He says [on page 286], “in fact, there were quite a few fairly important points upon which their original conception of the project had been ambiguous. For instance, Wilson McArthur, Anthony McIntyre’s counterpart, who conducted all the interviews in the loyalist community, had been under the impression, as he was gathering the oral histories, that none of the interviews would be made public until all of the participants had died. He was caught off guard by the news that Moloney intended to publish Voices from the Grave just a few years after the last interviews had interviews had concluded, thereby revealing the existence of the archive when the first participants had died, rather than waiting decades until the last ones had.” I wonder if there were forms or if this was just ‘this is how we’re going to do the project’ and maybe they forgot to mention part of it.

Farrell: Well, there was a legal release. But I think one of the arguments that people make against the people who organized the project was that they weren’t trained oral historians. And that’s a huge problem. 

Eardley-Pryor: It’s a big problem. 

Meeker: It’s also interesting to think about sources. Gerry Adams wouldn’t talk to him.

Farrell: That’s not a surprise. He had to rely on the members of the IRA who served alongside Gerry Adams. He had the complete unredacted transcript of the Brendan Hughes interview, which Keefe said became an indispensable source. But apart from that oral history, no one would share any of the interviews with him. He never had access to the oral histories of Dolours Price. 

Eardley-Pryor: So he only had access to Brendan Hughes’s oral history and that’s it? 

Farrell: That’s it. Everything else was like telephone through McIntyre.

Tewes: Another researcher did an interview with Dolours Price, so he got the transcript from her.

Meeker: He did do interviews on his own. He interviewed the McConville kids.

Eardley-Pryor: And people who did their own memoirs. My sense from reading it was that he had done a ton of outside reading of other people’s own stories within the IRA.

Farrell: Here’s an interesting follow-up from the “Notes on Source” section: “Several years ago, Boston College started informing people who had participated in the project that they could have their interviews back. The university, burned by its own carelessness in handling such incendiary material, wanted to jettison its responsibility as custodian of the tapes. Many of the participants took the university up on it. One of them was Ricky O’Rawe. One day, he received a box from Boston College containing the recordings and transcripts of his conversations with McIntyre from more than a decade earlier. At first, O’Rawe could not decide what to do with them. Then he had an idea. He took the CDs and transcripts into the study in his house and lit a fire in the fireplace. Then he opened a nice bottle of Bordeaux and poured himself a glass…O’Rawe tossed his testimony into the flames. Then he drank the Bordeaux and watched it burn.” This is very descriptive. 

Eardley-Pryor: That’s why I love his writing.

Tewes: That’s crazy because Ricky [O’Rawe] wrote his own book [Blanketmen]. So yes, he had his own perspective, which was maybe pared down a bit, but he clearly was comfortable sharing some level of his interview. 

Eardley-Pryor: What was in those tapes that he wasn’t comfortable with?

Tewes: Right? 

Eardley-Pryor: That’s the curious part. 

Meeker: I think it’s also like the title of the book: say nothing. Both the IRA and the Loyalist sides were sworn to secrecy under the penalty of execution, which was the whole reason that Jean McConville got in trouble to begin with, true or not. All of these people were shown to be talking about secret things and recording them. 

Tewes: I’m glad you brought that up because we’ve been talking about the legal and ethical problems on the project, but as a narrator, I’m wondering if they felt comfortable with the person who is interviewing them and what their intention for participating in this project. For Dolours Price, I am a little bit convinced that there is some sort of self-destructive purging of the sins that she hoped it would come out. In many ways, she seemed to be tempting fate, even at the end, before she passed away. 

Meeker: Like she would admit to a murder? 

Tewes: Yes

Farrell: Because she did on tape.

Tewes: Yeah.

Eardley-Pryor: In the second interview especially. There’s a desire for truth.

Tewes: I felt both Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price were upset by people saying nothing. Gerry Adams was no longer part of the IRA and now there are different version of history. 

Eardley-Pryor: And they are Catholics, too. I wonder if there’s some sort of confessional aspect to it as well.

Farrell: Or Like atonement?

Meeker: Oh, interesting.

Farrell: It’s confession. 

Tewes: Quite literally.

Meeker: Yeah, there wasn’t a mention about relationship between interviewing and confession. 

Farrell: No, but that would have been really interesting. 

Meeker: I’ve always thought about that connection. That’s so Foucault: the pleasure of the interview as confession. 

Tewes: I don’t know if this is a question that you were thinking about Shanna, but I was really struck as an interviewer trying to understand someone like McIntyre’s thought process behind the interviews. Keefe mentions that McIntyre was not an impartial person in this situation, and he was never meant to be. I wonder what would have happened if there had been an impartial interviewer, or at least someone a bit outside the system, in that room with them. Would those stories have come out? Would this have become a legal case?

Eardley-Pryor: It’s a really good question. Could the Belfast Project have happened if there were impartial participants doing the interviews?

Meeker: I think that’s an important question. Would any of these people have agreed to be interviewed in the first place? 

Farrell: Has this book changed the way that you think about oral history?

Eardley-Pryor: It changed the way I think about narrating a story using oral history. This book was great. I thought Keefe told a great story that was a page-turner based on really great research.

Tewes: I have a greater appreciation for the IRB process. I was on the other side of this debate before reading this book, actually. I thought the IRB review was defunct for oral history because it didn’t understand what we do and we have our own set of ethics. But, if an IRB panel had heard any of this from Boston College, I know they would have shut it down. They could have prevented a lot of the issues that came up after. I realized it’s not only for people who aren’t familiar with oral history, but for people who are trying to work outside the system that is set up to protect our narrators, and ourselves, legally.

Meeker: This contributed to thinking that I’ve been engaged with about oral history and the feeling I’m getting from a lot of my interviews lately. I feel like there is an increasing concern with image. People are unwilling or uninterested to discuss more controversial things or things that could possibly be controversial at some point in the future. Some of my interviews, despite my best efforts, are turning into public relations exercises. That’s not the kind of work that I want to do.

 Farrell: It’s made me think a little bit more about the agency of oral history and the power of being a narrator, what that experience is like for them. It’s almost like oral history was a character in the book because it had such strong agency to create a lot of these things. It’s more powerful than I think sometimes we give it credit for, mostly because this is what we do every day. It made me take a step back and think about the potential of projects that we could do here at the Oral History Center. 


OHC Advanced Oral History Alum Spotlight: Meagan Gough

by Shanna Farrell

@shanna_farrell

Meagan Gough attended the Oral History Center’s Advanced Summer Institute in August 2017. We recently caught up with her to see how her time with us helped her develop her project around the Semá:th First Nation in British Columbia, who an indigenous to Canada.

Meagan Gough
Meagan Gough

Q: You attended the Summer Institute in 2017. What were you working on when you joined us?

MG: The Semá:th Traditional Use and Occupancy Project (“TUOS”) invited the participation of Semá:th community members from the Semá:th First Nation in British Columbia, Canada to document their connection to, and care-taking responsibilities over, natural and cultural resources within Semá:th traditional Territory and beyond. The TUOS project combines oral history interviews, GIS Mapping historical research and community engagement and events to accomplish the following goals:

  • To record and map how access, use and occupancy of important cultural and natural resources is determined and understood by a diverse group of Semá:th Knowledge Holders made up of men, women, Elders, youth, political and spiritual leadership.
  • To add layers to the existing historical record about Semá:th culture, history and identity through the transmission of two main types of Semá:th oral history: Sqwélqwel (genealogy or “true news”) and sxwōxwiyám (stories of long ago, origin stories).
  • Engage Semá:th Knowledge holders in vision for future caretaking of land, water and air to reflect Semá:th history, culture and protocol.
  • Assert Semá:th Right and Title through policy and practice, including Specific Land Claims.
  • Celebrate and promote Semá:th cultural identity, knowledge
  • Strengthen the capacity of the Semá:th Lands & Resources Department to respond to development referrals in Semá:th Territory.
  • Draw upon community input to create and support opportunities for lands-based activities and programs in the community.
  • Support seeking solutions to the mental health and suicide crisis in community using lands-based teaching and oral history.

 

Q: How did your time at the Summer Institute inform your project?

MG: Participation in the Advanced Institute provides  a unique opportunity for general learning, reflection and engagement with oral history methods, practices and projects but also to workshop our own individual projects. This allowed us as participants to move between the macro and big picture methods, debates and teachings of oral history which inform our work and the practical individual application of this knowledge into practice in our own projects.

I found this to be a deeply enriching experience, particularly because my small group was comprised of scholars and researchers from diverse disciplines. As a scholar who draws simultaneously from disciplines of cultural anthropology, history and oral history, the input provided to me about my project during our small group presentation was extremely helpful and came into practical use since. Given the central importance of oral record in the Semá:th community,  I came to the Advanced Institute with questions about ideas of how to engage community youth and elders using oral history interviews and storytelling to draw upon this record.

One suggestion was an Elder-Youth storytelling circle. A version of this became one of the central activities in Phase 3 of our project. Our Elder-Youth Storytelling event invited Elders and Youth to take turns in the roles of speaker and listener: We matched Youth and Elders and first the Elders shared lands based knowledge and oral history. The youth then had a two week period to reflect upon and interpret this oral history and present it back to the Elders and the group via a medium of their choice: writing, poetry, spoken word, song, dance, performance, and visual arts were all encouraged. The Elders then assumed the roles of listener. The circle had multiple goals: to fortify relations between Elders and Youth, to provide a unique opportunity for the transmission of traditional and historical cultural knowledge, and to encourage the exploration of the dialogical elements of such an exchange. How did the youth interpret the stories? Did the speakers feel their stories were understood as they intended them? The Youths’ art projects are currently displayed in the Semá:th Band office.

The second primary way that participation in the Institute informed our project was the inspiration I took from some of our key presenters, especially the Oakland Chinese Community Oral history project. This is where I learned about the concept of a Storymap – a digital multimedia platform to preserve and present community maps. In 2018 and Phase 3 of TUOS project, we commenced the creation of our own Storymap. Through the use of oral histories and photographs shared via TUOS interviews with Semá:th Knowledge Holders, the Semá:th Genealogy Mapping Storymap was aimed at using geneology to map the movement of ancestors of the Semá:th First Nation.

 

Q: What is the status of the Semá:th Traditional Use Study now?

MG: We have received successful funding from BCCI our funding agency, and commenced Phase 4 of the TUOS project. To date, we have recorded over 25 oral history interviews with Semá:th Knowledge Holders, as well mapped over 500 traditional use sites. We have created a database to archive and preserve this information so it may be used by Lands Department staff to respond to the overwhelming number of referrals from government and industry involving Semá:th Lands. We have also conducted historical and archival research and created a Semá:th historical photo collection, also housed in the database. We have hosted a number of community events which sought to seek input from Knowledge Holders as well as to keep them informed about the status of the project.

 

Q: You’ve described the Summer Institute having ripple effects on your work. Can you tell us more about this?

MG: My participation in the Advanced Institute was, without exaggeration, by far the most enriching professional experience I have had in terms of a course or workshop. Having practiced oral history interviewing for over 15 years, I came away generally feeling inspired, refreshed and also extremely appreciative of having my practical workshop questions answered. I was able to continue to build upon the input of my small group colleagues to integrate it into our project. I made professional contacts from around the world, some of whom have gone on to become friends. The ability to workshop our projects with a small group truly allows a deep insight into the workings of other oral history projects and by virtue of listening how technical, ethical and practical elements are addressed and resolved. The ripples of my participation are evident in tangible form via the practical application of my learning at the Institute into the creation of the Storymap as well as our Elder-Youth Storytelling Circle Event.

 

Q: What’s next for the project? What’s next for you?

MG: We are currently in Phase 4 of our project, we are building another “layer” of our Storymap this year which maps how traditional caretaking responsibilities extend far beyond the borders of reserve (reservation) lands across the Province, country and Internationally into the United States. We are also contributing chapters to a forthcoming publication exploring hidden histories of British Columbia. (Working title, stay tuned!) The interviews are being used in a number of capacities, asserting Right and Title to Lands, including specific land claims, on reserve lands based policy, negotiation with industry and Government.

For myself, I have just become a first time mom, so life is busy and I am full of joy and gratitude. As I write this now, I consider it a dispatch from “babyland” a unique space of the spirit and one which provides a new lens on everything in life. I hope to share the beauty and power of listening, of stories and of learning with my baby as she grows. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Berkeley Institute and all those whose hard work make it come to fruition. “All things Flow, Nothing Stands Still” – there is always something more to learn, another story to listen to, another perspective to understand. Oral history is endlessly inspiring!