Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Winter Tracks

"Winter Tracks" cover         (photo/Jan Barry)

Having grown up in the snow belt of upstate New York, winter is not my favorite season. Still, I enjoy sparkling vistas of snow and ice—as long as they’re not on my driveway, where my car slid out of control last night despite both feet on the brakes, careening in slow motion down the incline until a front tire skated into a snow-cushioned stone wall. That set off long-buried sensations of spinning around on an icy country road decades ago and slamming into a snow-filled ditch.

The cold snaps this winter revived memories in my bone marrow of trudging to school into a stiff wind in minus-zero-degree weather, back in the day when kids had to walk backwards through blizzards, to keep from freezing your face.

Yet, after the latest polar blast whiplashed the East Coast, the sun this morning sparkled on the post-storm snowy landscape. That’s the delightful part of this often miserable season, which I focused on in my latest photo book, titled Winter Tracks.

These photos were taken in recent years in New Jersey and upstate New York, while out and about after snow or ice storms, plus a memorable scene I encountered last summer of dazzling pockets of snow on a mountaintop in a national forest in Wyoming.

To view the photos in this collection, go to:

Friday, January 17, 2014

Wandering Souls

"Wandering Souls"     water color by Jan Barry

In Vietnamese culture, travelers, fishermen lost at sea, soldiers killed in battle but whose bodies aren’t found and buried at home are called wandering souls.

“Vietnam is filled with angry ghosts. Killed violently, buried without ritual, spirits roam resentfully…” notes the summary of a recent BBC documentary called “Wandering Souls” about American veterans returning to Vietnam, “haunted by ghosts of their own,” to try to help find the places where Vietnamese our military operations killed may still remain.

Besides the mountains of grief the long war I served in caused so many, I feel like a wandering soul every winter holiday season and into January, the time when my wife was dying of cancer 12 years ago, which triggered long buried survivor guilt from the war. I tried conveying that double dark night of the soul in a water color painting that I worked out in a VA Vets Center art workshop.

The painting conveys some of the raging river of grief I wrote out in midnight jottings shortly after my wife, Paula Kay Pierce, died:


I’ve seen
the other side
and the river’s
not wide—
between here
and gone

por favor!”
she said,
near the end,
like a child
in Panama
and Brazil,
her eyes
no longer
her family
around the bed,
or the home
she made,
or me

Nobody Else

Nobody else can
do my grieving
for me—
I have found I need
to go to quiet places
where she and I
loved to go—
to parks and forest paths,
canoeing spots on
secluded streams—
to find how much
of our life was her,
and how much of life is me.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Folk Scene

The Whistling Wolves (photo/

 On any given night in small towns in New Jersey, old Dutch hamlets up along the Hudson Valley and deep into back streets of Brooklyn, infectious swirls of folk music set feet thumping and hands clapping in audiences that revel in Appalachian or old country roots.

These performers look a lot like your neighbors…until they pick up a banjo, mandolin, autoharp, guitar, bass, fiddle, ukulele, harmonica, and sing or whistle—and blow your socks off. These are superbly accomplished, seasoned folk singers who raise the roof in blues, bluegrass, gospel, Scots-Irish ballads, and old-time country music, not to mention their own creations.

The other night, the Hurdy Gurdy Folk Music Club hosted two such memorable folk groups at the Community Center in Fair Lawn, NJ—Triple Play All-Stars and The Whistling Wolves. The first group included national and international autoharp champion Drew Smith, bluegrass banjo picker Rich Rainey and folksinger Robbie Wedeen. The second group featured Emily Eagan’s world-class whistling. Her band mates—Trip Henderson, Spiff Weigland and Chris O. Murphy—were adroitly and harmoniously mesmerizing on a barn dance variety of instruments.

So take a look and a listen to a couple of Whistling Wolves' renditions and a Drew Smith extravaganza:

Vets Battle Suicide

Iraq vet Matthew Jarrett on the road

Iraq war veteran Matthew Jarrett pedaled his bicycle into the new year on a freezing Texas highway, in a coast-to-coast quest to spur more public action about the epidemic of suicide among military veterans.

“Twenty-two veterans commit suicide daily,” Jarrett told a news reporter for the Austin American-Statesman in late December. “That makes me feel disturbed and uncomfortable and we need to be doing something about it.”

The Texas newspaper noted that “A Department of Veterans Affairs study found that about 8,000 veterans killed themselves in 2010, an average of 22 veterans per day. A separate review by the Austin American-Statesman in 2012 identified 266 Texas veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who died after coming home; 1 in 6 died from suicide.”

On his Facebook page, “Vet Ride for Life,” which chronicles his ride from California to Florida, Jarrett posted a New Year’s greeting that concluded: “I've read some reports that Military Veteran suicides might be higher than current statistics. Hopefully we can each do a part to try to shift the paradigm in a more favorable direction.”

On the West Coast, Jake Clark, a California National Guard vet, marked the new year emphasizing the urgency of addressing this issue with life-saving actions, such as he has sought to help provide in the Save a Warrior program at Big Heart Ranch in Malibu.

"This is a holocaust in slow motion," Clark said to a reporter for News. "Over the next ten years, the Department of Veteran Affairs estimates more than 150,000 vets will kill themselves."

That’s a projection he made from a 2013 report by the Department of Veterans Affairs that upwardly revised previous annual estimates based on death reports provided by 21 states. And that’s just a partial account, he noted. "Two of the largest states in the nation -- California and Texas -- do not report their suicide numbers," Clark added.

"You've got guys offing themselves via cop-assisted suicide. You've got guys drinking themselves to death, overdosing. There's so much that doesn't get classified as suicide," he continued. "The actual numbers aren't even close."

Clark knows the dangerous undertow of suicide first-hand. “I thought about committing suicide every day for 13 years," after serving in the Balkans conflict in Kosovo, he said. Then, as he told, he discovered “transcendental meditation, and it transformed his life. ‘Something happened two weeks after I started meditating,’ he said. ‘The idea of killing myself was gone. It was replaced with this idea of trying to build something. I knew what I needed to do was try and get this in front of other returning veterans."

In 2012, Clark founded Save A Warrior, a mindful-living program he calls "war detox."

On the East Coast, Chris Antal, a New York National Guard chaplain who served in Afghanistan, works with Soldiers Heart, a program with similar goals based in Troy, NY. “We promote post-traumatic growth,” Antal told an audience in December at the Puffin Cultural Forum in Teaneck, New Jersey. The Hudson Valley-based program’s workshops and retreats are available to “veterans, family members, service members and the community,” he said.

On both coasts and across the broad expanse of the US, other groups of veterans—including the Combat Paper and Warrior Writers projects—have been reaching out with a variety of healing programs utilizing the arts and hands-on exercises in transforming from hunkering down, feeling besieged, to helping others.

This perspective was incorporated into a writing prompt at a workshop at Under the Hood CafĂ© in Killeen, Texas, a veterans-run refuge for soldiers at Ft. Hood, which has experienced a number of military suicides. As noted in a 2012 article in War Times, the prompt was a quote from Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh: "Veterans are the light at the tip of the candle, illuminating the way for the whole nation. If veterans can achieve awareness, transformation, understanding, and peace, they can share with the rest of society the realities of war. And they can teach us how to make peace with ourselves and each other, so we never have to use violence to resolve conflicts again."

Many vets flinch at being asked to embrace “peace, love and understanding,” to cite the 1970s song made famous by Elvis Costello, Dave Matthews and others. But they get the concept of reaching out to help others, so that vets-to-vets projects have blossomed across the country, and not just in peacenik circles. Recent Combat Paper and Warrior Writers workshops in New York City, New Jersey and Philadelphia that I’ve participated in attracted active-duty soldiers.

While the military and the VA have launched program after program to address post-traumatic stress disorder—many of which are well organized—in an effort to stem rising rates of suicide by soldiers and veterans, many vets have concluded that traditional military culture is fueling this epidemic.

“The PTSD label is misplaced,” says Antal, a Unitarian minister whose tour as an Army chaplain in Afghanistan was cut short by commanders furious over his sharing on the Internet a prayer that cited what he saw as brutal actions in the war. “What leads veterans to kill themselves is not PTSD…it’s moral injury…a betrayal of what’s right,” he said.

Antal cited research and writings by Jonathan Shea, a psychiatrist at a VA clinic in Boston, who was featured last summer in a National Public Radio report on moral injury.

One of Shea’s colleagues, Brett Litz, said a recent study found that “when you sort Marines’ responses to establish their main wound, only about one-third of Marines actually have PTSD or anxiety from a traumatic, often life threatening event. Another one-third focus on loss, often the death of a close friend. And the final one-third describe a moral injury.

“Litz says of these three groups, Marines with a moral injury appear most at risk for hurting themselves,” noted the WBUR report.

While military leaders recoil at the accusation of moral injury, they have begun to target what they call “toxic command climate.” Here’s what a news investigation found when it looked at this notion last year: “Relationship issues, financial problems and substance abuse have long been known to trigger suicides, but in recent years a new term has crept into the military suicide lexicon: ‘toxic leadership.’…

“Hostile, indifferent or inadequate leadership was noted as a factor in seven of the 17 Fort Campbell suicide investigation reports reviewed by The Leaf-Chronicle and news partner WSMV-TV, Channel 4 in Nashville,” the Tennessee newspaper reported.

In 2009, the Houston Chronicle investigated a cluster of suicides by Army recruiters and reported this jaw-dropper:

“Recruiting is one of the most high pressure jobs in the military, and that pressure ratcheted to insidious extremes at the Houston station. The Army investigation found evidence of a toxic command climate that resulted in poor morale, long work hours and unpredictable schedules that put excessive pressure on recruiters' families and personal relationships. In one instance, a recruiter who failed to make his monthly quota was pressured by superiors to admit he was a failure and wanted to quit. A week later, he committed suicide.”

For more information:

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Government Foot-Dragging

Paint sludge in Ringwood stream   (photo/Jan Barry)

More than 25 years after a US Environmental Protection Agency official stated that all hazardous contaminants that could be found had been removed from a Ford Motor Company dump site in Ringwood, NJ, the federal agency is again delaying a decision on what to do about tens of thousands of tons of tainted soil that are still in the residential neighborhood next to a state park and New Jersey’s largest reservoir.

In a recent news release, the EPA announced it’s extending the public comment period for Ford’s latest cleanup plan for the Ringwood Mines Superfund site until Feb. 5. Nearly a year ago, top agency officials “reassured about two dozen Upper Ringwood residents … that the cleanup of the 500-acre Superfund site in their community is a priority,” The Record of North Jersey reported.

A quarter-century ago, in 1988, an EPA official assured residents at a public hearing that the waste site had been cleaned up by Ford contractors who excavated material at four locations near several homes. Some more material was removed a couple years later and the EPA closed the case, even though more toxic paint sludge was subsequently found in a residential backyard. But an outcry by residents and an investigation by The Record in 2005 found evidence of far-more extensive contamination, which the EPA had not required Ford to account for or remove.

As The Record noted in an October 2005 editorial, “the federal government, which declared Ringwood a Superfund site, has allowed Ford to get away with shoddy cleanups time and time again. … How could Ford get away with this for so long when the foul-smelling sludge was literally under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's nose? Both Ford and the feds must be held accountable. It is long past time for a federal criminal investigation into the sludge dumping and puny cleanup efforts.”

But, as The Record reported in December 2010, despite a request by NJ Environmental Protection Commissioner Bradley Campbell for a criminal investigation, “No charges were ever filed by the U.S. attorney [Chris Christie, elected New Jersey’s governor in 2009]. The state Department of Environmental Protection never pressed a case against Ford for the pollution that reached Ringwood State Park.”

Pressed by a residents’ lawsuit, visits to the site by US Senator Frank Lautenberg and other federal elected officials, and six years of directives by EPA to undertake more testing and excavation, “Ford contractors removed more than 47,000 tons of paint sludge and tainted soil,” The Record noted in 2010.

At issue now is what to do about more than 200,000 tons of debris laced with lead, arsenic, benzene and other hazardous chemicals that was dumped into two iron mine shafts and a landfill near several homes and streams feeding the Wanaque Reservoir.

Ford is seeking EPA approval to leave most of the toxic waste in place and cover it with an earthen cap. That would approximate the conditions at the two mines and the landfill in 1988, when the EPA assured residents that there was nothing more to worry about.

For more information:


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Global Climate Whiplash

Scientific American/Graphic by XNR Productions/Photo courtesy of Wing-Chi Poon on WikimediaCommons

Forget about “global warming”—the better name for what’s happening these days is “weather whiplash.” That’s the term meteorologists are using to describe the deep freeze that hit the lower 48 states last night on a cyclone that whipped out of the North Pole.

Weather extremes in the US in just the past six weeks have whipsawed from record highs to record lows, New Jersey’s state climatologist, David A. Robinson, told The New York Times. “The fact is it’s happened,” he said, “and we don’t know why.”

When the experts can’t say why what’s happening, I start worrying. From what I’ve gathered being in—and frequently cursing—the weather for 70 years, reporting on the weather for newspapers for nearly 30 years, and listening to and reading what various weather researchers have to say, I’d say we’re in trouble.

“Global warming is sometimes thought of more as 'global weirding,' with all manner of complex disruptions occurring over time,” Time Magazine environmental reporter Bryan Walsh wrote in a blog post yesterday, entitled “Climate Change Might Just Be Driving the Historic Cold Snap.” In his estimate, “This week’s events show that climate change is almost certainly screwing with weather patterns [in] ways that go beyond mere increases in temperature…”

If you think he’s got it wrong, consider this: “In 1988…Americans experienced unusual drought, searing heat, floods, and hurricanes—the precise events scientists predicted would occur with increasing frequency and severity as the levels of greenhouse gases rise,” noted the 2010 edition of a college textbook, Natural Resource Conservation. Frankly, I can’t even recall the weather way back then, a quarter-century ago, given the far more extreme weather events in more recent years. 

So I’m looking to some other experts—savvy practitioners of civic action.

“Today, in the absence of governmental leadership and with time for effective action on climate running out, collective action by religious and spiritual leaders and people of our many diverse faiths is badly needed,” assert the organizers of the Interfaith Moral Action on Climate, which is sponsoring a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.-inspired march on Washington on January 15, King’s birthday.

“We must move away from an economy fueled by coal, oil and gas that is destroying our ecosystem and impoverishing millions, and into an Earth-friendly economy in which we thoughtfully reduce our consumption, share our resources for the healing of those who are most in danger, and help all Humanity turn toward clean, renewable sources of energy such as solar, wind and geothermal,” says the Interfaith Moral Action on Climate group. Endorsers include Church World Service, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Jewish Climate Change Campaign, Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, Methodist Federation for Social Justice and dozens of religious leaders across the nation.

This call for action was preceded by a letter to Congress in July signed by more than 200 religious-oriented scientists, that said in part:  “As evangelical scientists and academics, we understand climate change is real and action is urgently needed. All of God's Creation -- humans and our environment -- is groaning under the weight of our uncontrolled use of fossil fuels, bringing on a warming planet, melting ice, and rising seas. ... Our changing climate threatens the health, security, and well-being of millions of people who are made in God's image. The threat to future generations and global prosperity means we can no longer afford complacency and endless debate.”

Beyond the current cold snap, 2014 already seems to be shaping up to be a very hot year for civic action on climate change issues.   

“When governments fail to do what is possible to protect the very livability of a territory, its ability to produce food and provide shelter, climate change becomes a human rights issue as well,” Mairead Maguire, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for her peacemaking organizing work in Northern Ireland, said in a statement endorsing the Great March for Climate Action. The march is planned to step off in Los Angeles on March 1, headed across the country to Washington, DC, with rallies along the way to urge Americans to press President Obama and Congress to save America’s temperate climate and other nations around the world from deadly environmental disasters.

 “As the people of the Philippines dig out and bury their dead from yet another catastrophic storm event, we have to do something big and we have to do it now,” said another march endorser, Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Koretz.

For more information:

Friday, January 3, 2014

American Journey

Pushing 70, Philip Caputo set out from Key West, Florida, headed for Deadhorse, Alaska, with his wife and two dogs packed into a Toyota Tundra pickup truck pulling an antique Airstream trailer. The aluminum airplane-inspired trailer that would be home for most of the summer of 2011 was called a Globetrotter, a moniker that also fit Caputo—the acclaimed author of a Vietnam war memoir, foreign correspondent in the Middle East and elsewhere, and borders-jumping novelist. 

“With enough time, gas money and nerve, I could drive from the southernmost point to the northernmost reachable by road,” he wrote in the preface to The Longest Road, his recently published journal of a modern day trek across America. “And possibly I would discover along the way what Inupiat Americans and Cuban Americans and every other kind of American had in common besides a flag.”

Along the way he found wanderers, settlers, drifters and homebodies of all sorts. In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, he found thousands of Americans from across the nation streaming in to help survivors of a tornado that had pulverized much of the town. Volunteering to help at a staging area for donated supplies for now-homeless residents, Caputo noticed a remarkable scene: “all the volunteers were white, all the supervisors were black. This in Tuscaloosa, where on a sizzling June day in 1963, defying a federal court order to integrate state schools, Governor Wallace stood on the steps of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama to bar two black students from enrolling.”

In another part of Alabama, a diner displayed an anti-Obamacare poster depicting the president “with a bone through his nose…superimposed on the torso of an African witch doctor, clad in a leopard-skin loincloth.”

While getting an oil change in Grand Island, Nebraska, Caputo was astounded to hear two men with Sudanese facial features speaking Arabic. At the post office, a white guy “wallpapered in tattoos” loudly muttered about “Mexicans…and Somalis and Sudanese comin’ in, and bringin’ bedbugs with ‘em.” The “Tattoo-man” claimed that the government provided cars, houses and jobs for foreigners at the local Swift meatpacking plant.

An Internet check by Caputo’s wife Leslie found that Swift had recruited Africans with refugee status to work in plants that the Department of Homeland Security had raided, deporting undocumented workers from south of the border. There was no evidence that the government provided cars or houses to the meatpacking workers.

“One of the things we learned on the trip was that the age of instant communications has not slowed but accelerated the spread of myth and rumor,” Caputo wrote of an earlier encounter with a woman in Kansas who was convinced that a bill in Congress intended to strengthen safety regulations in food processing plants would ban backyard vegetable gardens. “Because the strands of truth and baloney are seamlessly woven into the Web, it’s very difficult to figure out which is what.”       

Rather than counter passionately held myths, Caputo preferred interviewing a variety of folks he met along the way—cowboys and farmers, displaced Indians and descendants of soldiers who destroyed Native American communities, ecologists and fossil fuel-burning enthusiasts—and ask what they thought the nation had in common.

“I think the country definitely is in disarray,” said a woman wrangler at a dude ranch near Livingston, Montana. “At the same time, to grow as a country, we need to have conflict, and conflict is healthy, conflict is good. But the media has this awesome way of blowing it out of proportion.”

Caputo liked that quote and repeated in the Epilogue. Yet he was disgruntled when he encountered in scenic Anacortes, Washington, what he felt was an “out of place” face off between peace activists with signs such as “WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER” on one street corner and a pro-military group sporting Tea Party slogans including “IMPEACH OBAMA” on the other side.

One of the fuming support-the-military vets told Caputo he “feared that the country could blow apart if the economy worsened, because ‘there’s a lot of hatred of government right now. We’ve created a society of gimmes. … Gimme a house. Gimme my health care. Gimme me my social security. … We’ve got so many gimmes, who’s going to do the work?”

“I had to wonder if Dan himself might be in the gimme class,” Caputo interjected in his account of the street corner tirade. “As a retired law enforcement officer, he must be earning a generous public-employee pension; as a veteran, he was eligible for free medical care through the VA. I didn’t get a chance to ask; Dan rolled on farther and farther from supporting the troops, hitting more Tea Party talking points…”

Caputo seemed less interested in interviewing the "peaceniks," who he dismissed as staging “a ritual that had begun two weeks after 9/11 and had been going on for one hour every Sunday since, as regularly as church services.”

Creeping through traffic in Seattle, his pessimism that progress can be achieved through civic actions by concerned citizens boiled over after reading a newspaper article about how a plan to extend a light rail system to the suburbs was blocked by a real estate developer who bankrolled a political campaign. “Did the thoughts and wishes and opinions of the common man and woman count any longer,” he wrote, “assuming they ever had?”

Caputo’s search for the soul of modern America rolled across the border with Canada and onward into Alaska. As with much of the rest of the trip, his journal on the northern leg notes the passing scenery, brief encounters with local folks, life on the road with two dogs in cramped quarters and not always harmonious relations with his wife—who he conceded was usually right to counter his quirks. 

In the tiny town of Wiseman, Alaska, a local conservationist blurted out his perspective on the nation that had decimated buffalo, prairies, mountains, rivers and seashores that Caputo had noted throughout this long drive often harbor contaminated industrial age ruins.

“Trophy hunting wiped out the bulls,” the man said of a large caribou herd that the state Fish and Game Department oversaw. “They allowed the hunters to annihilate the herd.” Now the state agency was extending this policy to the caribou in his part of Alaska, selling more out-of-state hunting licenses. “In fifteen or twenty years there won’t be any wildlife resources left in Alaska,” the man said, as his wife shushed him to stop talking. “And you stop recording him,” she said to Caputo.

After traveling 8,314 miles through every variety of landscape and human activity in North America, Caputo arrived at his destination: “Deadhorse is the strangest and ugliest town in the country…where the word plant is used only in its industrial context,” he wrote.  

Here was headquarters for the massive Prudhoe Bay oil fields operations, which dominates life in northern Alaska. A tour guide who drove Caputo and his wife for an hour through drill-rig operations to the Arctic Ocean laconically noted: “’Polar bears are losing population because of decreasing sea ice,’ he said, not mentioning that global warming was shrinking the sea ice, or that global warming was linked to the burning of fossil fuels.”

Once again, Caputo seemed less interested in finding someone working to change things for the better, rather than telling entertaining stories about those who blithely rattled on about a lifestyle that uses up the terrain that sustains them and shrugs off any sense of responsibility.

At a recent reading from his book at a literary bar in New York City, Caputo entertained the audience by invoking the idiosyncratic voices of a couple of characters he met on the trip. On reading the book, I was less impressed by these stories than by the descriptions of desolation that previous cocksure characters left in their wake.

Consider these brusque notes about the final leg to return the rented trailer: “Eighty miles out of Lubbock, I picked up U.S. 180 east, a high wind blasting across the stretched-out land, dust devils pirouetting in the distance. … Triple-digit temperatures, no rain for months, range fires consuming grass … ‘Like the dust bowl days all over again,’ an Oklahoman had told me in Santa Fe.”