The Ice Age Trail is blazed in yellow. White blazes mark side paths that rejoin the main trail; blue indicates spurs to points of interest.
Trailblazers are innovators, pathfinders, pioneers, firsts in any endeavor. Among these synonyms, trailblazer stands alone in its focus on marking the track to guide others. Only distantly related to the blaze of a blazing fire, the second half of trailblazer comes from the blaze or white stripe on the face of a horse. Wilderness explorers chipped away bark to leave similar white marks on trees, so later travelers could follow their route. Today they use paint or signposts.
I’m thankful to the many who scout the Ice Age Trail route, acquire land rights, open and maintain the path, build boardwalks and bridges, and clear dispersed camping areas for long-distance backpackers. Perhaps most often, day hiking through unfamiliar terrain, I feel gratitude to the trailblazers who help me avoid getting lost.
My three-season project for 2022 is to walk at least part of every Ice Age Trail segment within an hour’s drive from home.
Last year I hiked every City of Madison conservation park and most of the larger Dane County parks. It was a joy to explore unfamiliar places, relish natural beauty, and enlarge my mental map of the area. This year’s forays onto the Ice Age Trail promise all that and more: a deeper knowledge of how the geological past shaped Wisconsin’s landscape.
I’ve long heard of the Appalachian Trail but didn’t know it was the first of many under the National Trails System Act of 1968. Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail joined the list in 1980. Conceived by Milwaukee conservationist Ray Zillmer in the 1950s and built mostly by volunteers, the thousand-mile footpath winds along the terminal moraine of the region’s latest glacier. It runs from Door County in the east to Saint Croix Falls in the west.
The trail passes through a mix of public and private lands. Negotiating the necessary agreements is a slow, arduous undertaking. More than half the projected trail is now complete, with finished segments connected by road. It’s a work in progress. My understanding of the lasting impact of the Ice Age is a work in progress too.
Fury, anger, rage. Whenever life seems to settle down, some new event sets off fresh tirades. Apart from letting off steam, are tirades of any use? Can a rant help change the world?
By temperament I shy away from rants, until I erupt with one of my own. Rants tend to drag on and on in circles, long past the initial need to vent. They rarely persuade anyone who doesn’t already agree. In fact, they’re likely to leave dissenters more entrenched in their dissent. Quiet stories from personal experience may carry more influence. I’m tempted to say, enough already, ranting doesn’t help. Let’s talk solutions or move on.
Yet I have to admit it’s more complicated than that. The value of a rant (if you share its viewpoint, or the danger if you don’t) lies in its power to bind and energize. It affirms like-minded listeners with a sense of rightness, community, belonging. It can stir a group to action.
When you feel an irresistible urge to rant, steer clear of dissenters and undecideds until the urge passes. With allies, rant at will, if your strategic purpose is to inflame the crowd. If you just need to get your fury off your chest, best do so with a calm, patient, trusted friend who will listen till it eases. Till you’re ready to talk solutions or move on.
Shame can get you shunned. Humiliation can get you killed.
Shame is a tool to enforce norms of moral behavior. It’s also a weapon to accumulate wealth and power at the expense of people in need, data scientist Cathy O’Neil writes in The Shame Machine (2022). She explores how and why we shame those who are homeless, obese, addicted, mentally ill, undocumented, or formerly incarcerated. Requests for aid run up against complex paperwork, intrusive questions, and insurance denials. Food stamps and free school lunches put hardship on public display. Who gains? Blaming social problems on personal “bad decisions” lets everyone else off the hook. Privatization boosts corporate income. For-profit prisons and weight-loss programs thrive on repeat business.
Humiliation is a different matter. It’s more about pride, reciprocity, and standing in the community than about morality. In the epics of medieval Iceland, law professor William Ian Miller (Humiliation, 1993) finds a culture in which reputation is all and insult is repaid with violence. Similar traits mark the honor societies of the Old South and the urban gangland. They tinge playground bullying and adult anxiety about throwing a party to which nobody comes.
Hypocrisy lies at the intersection of shame and humiliation. The politician who campaigns on family values, later revealed as a sexual predator, invites both reproach and ridicule. Humiliation is always cruel, whether or not it’s deserved. Shame, on the other hand, aimed upward at public figures who abuse their power, has potential to bring reform and reconciliation.
If only I had gotten that surgery years ago. What if I hadn’t seen the child run into the street? Human minds love to imagine a past or present world much like the real one, with one key element changed. It’s one way we learn from experience. It may also mire us in remorse or self-pity, unable to move forward.
Over a balmy California outdoor dinner, a philosopher and a brain scientist discussed David K. Lewis’s classic example: "If kangaroos had no tails, they would topple over” (Counterfactuals, 1973). What does it mean to make a factual statement about a situation that is contrary to fact? Why do we so often describe the world we know by comparing it to one that doesn’t exist?
In a recent thought experiment, I’m trying to replace negative statements like “It isn’t cloudy or cold” with affirmatives that mean the same thing: “It’s sunny and warm.” The editor in me tweaks “I can’t get that app to load” into “How to load that app is a mystery to me.” With each switch, my spirits lift. It’s as though the negative wording suggests an imaginary, alternative, cold and cloudy world in which apps load easily every time. In the affirmative, the only world I need is here and now.
Major Grey’s chutney. Earl Grey tea. The terms are generic, not brand names. They conjure up the 1800s, when English merchant ships plied the seas and the sun never set on the British Empire. Any relation between the chutney or tea and the men they’re named for is shrouded in legend.
Major Grey’s chutney. A sweet and sour relish made with fruits or vegetables, vinegar, sugar, and spices, chutney has been savored in India since ancient times. It takes many forms. Tradition says Major Grey, a 19th-century British officer serving in the Bengal Lancers in India, developed the mango-and-raisin version that bears his name. London condiment company Crosse & Blackwell began to produce it, and others followed suit. Major Grey’s became especially popular in the United States, likely because it is sweeter and milder than most authentic Indian chutneys. As for the major, there’s widespread doubt he ever existed.
Earl Grey tea. Charles Grey, earl and British prime minister 1830-34, never went to China. The earliest known English reference to flavoring Chinese tea with oil from the rind of a bergamot orange is from 1824, in a complaint about using bergamot to cover the taste of low-quality tea. Lore linking the two include that the earl received the bergamot recipe as a thank-you gift from a Chinese tea master; that his wife and/or the later Queen Victoria loved it; that bergamot offset the flavor of well water on the Grey family estate; and that Earl Grey gave the recipe to a partner of the tea company Jacksons of Piccadilly (now Twinings).
Editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, unable to find “Earl Grey tea” in print before the 20th century, appealed in 2012 for any earlier references to the term. Contributors found ads from 1884 for “Earl Grey’s mixture.” Sources from the 1850s and 1860s mention “Grey’s mixture” or “Grey’s tea,” perhaps with reference to tea merchant William Grey. The title of nobility may just be a later marketing ploy.
Image: Thomas Goldsworth Dutton, East Indiaman sailing ship Madagascar, built 1837. National Maritime Museum Greenwich, London.
Even before war with Russia, polio was creeping back into Ukraine. Last fall it paralyzed a 17-month-old girl in the northwest. Next it struck a two-year-old boy in the far southwest. Contacts tested positive. Because poliovirus is highly contagious and usually asymptomatic, one case signals a crisis. Polio cannot be cured, only prevented.
The culprit was not naturally occurring poliovirus, which circulates only in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but a mutation of a vaccine component that had passed from person to person. Counter-intuitive as it seems, the way to stop vaccine-derived polio is more vaccine. Mutation to a dangerous form takes months. In a well-vaccinated population, the weakened virus in oral polio vaccine dies out for lack of susceptible people to host it. Immunization rates in Ukraine were unfortunately low.
Health authorities in Ukraine, already struggling with a Covid surge, launched a polio vaccination response in February. War with Russia put the drive on hold. Medical supplies are running out. Bombs and battles shift health workers’ priorities. Massive population movements impede services. Refugees may carry virus unwittingly into neighboring polio-free countries.
Do not be surprised if we see more children in eastern Europe paralyzed before this is over. Basic health care is among the many casualties of war.
Image: Poster from Ukraine’s previous polio outbreak in 2015.
Two years ago, a deadly new virus kept us under siege. Barbershops and hair salons in many areas were shuttered to prevent infection. Even after they reopened, some customers were slow to return. Former clients hacked their hair off at home or let it grow out. When I see someone for the first time in a while, I’m often started by hair halfway down the back or re-styled in kitchen experiments.
These changes recall my long-ago fantasy of writing a world history based on hair. Haircuts are virtually unique among visual signs of status and identity. A short haircut is the work of an hour but reversing it can take months. That made it a rite of passage for entry into religious orders and armed forces. It could symbolize membership or belonging, commitment, dedication to God or country, and renunciation of worldly vanity. It might distinguish servants, convicts, and pageboys from aristocrats and freemen. Safer than long hair for factory work and street fights, it became a badge of honor for the London working-class youth who started the skinheads.
How will a hair-based narrative treat our present pandemic? I can imagine a world where “first haircut” conjures up images not only of small children, but of adults emerging from a period of hunkering down for health.
Image: French abbess with oversized scissors cuts the hair from a novice entering the convent. British Library, 1316.
Exploring an unfamiliar trail, I saw plastic sunflowers tucked into cracks in every park bench. Sunflowers adorn murals, sidewalks, billboards, T-shirts, and social media profile pictures. Since Russia invaded on Feb. 24, images of Ukraine’s national flower surround us as a sign of our support. Not till summer will the real blooms turn fields as yellow as the lower half of the Ukrainian flag, beneath a clear blue sky.
Big, bright sunflowers have deep roots in Ukrainian art and folklore. Grown for their seeds in Mexico, New Mexico, and Arizona for thousands of years, they were introduced to Europe in the early 1500s. They flourished in Ukraine’s hot, dry climate and rich soil. Sunflower seed oil was especially welcome during Lent, when the Orthodox Church forbade eating foods made with animal products such as butter or lard.
Ukraine is the largest exporter of sunflower oil, accounting for nearly half the global supply. Russia comes second, with nearly a quarter. Disruptions to production and trade are having ripple effects on vegetable oil availability and prices worldwide, similar to what’s happening with a different kind of oil at the gas pump. The war touches us all, but most of all the suffering people of Ukraine.
Spring! The song of robins and the throaty call of sandhill cranes lift our spirits with the bounty, beauty, and beneficence of nature. Mother Earth sustains and nourishes us. Barring human interference, she fills our every need.
Last month I mentioned a course on ancient Mesopotamia in connection with marshes. For the Sumerians and their successors, nature was how the gods expressed their anger. Having created humans to dig irrigation canals, gods punished or tried to destroy their irksome creation with storms, plagues, famines, and floods—not for moral failings but for making too much noise. Far from wanting a closer relationship with the deities, people brought prayers and votive offerings to try to fend off their wrath.
Who got it right? Are the wonders of nature the gifts of a loving planet, which needs our tender stewardship? Or mighty, capricious dangers from powers we wish would leave us alone? Both and neither. We have sunshine and showers, blizzards and tornadoes. Earth doesn’t care. How we treat it matters not to the planet but to humans now and for generations to come.
Image: Akkadian cylinder seal depicts the deities Inanna, Utu, Enki, and Isimud, 2300 BC. British Museum.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.