December, 2009 Archive

Letter to the Chancellor

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

Dear Chancellor Reed:

At the advice of your office, I am submitting some input on the search for the successor of Warren Baker as President of Cal Poly University San Luis Obispo.

I have taught here since 1988 and am recipient of the University’s Distinguished Teaching Award, the College of Liberal Arts Outstanding Scholarship Award and the CSU Systemwide Quality Improvement Award.

During his tenure President Baker has led Cal Poly to become one of the country’s preeminent Polytechnic Universities. I believe the primary mandate of his successor should be to transform Cal Poly into one of the country’s leaders in Education for Sustainability”the long-term approach to integrated solutions of economic, social and environmental problems.

It is crucial that the Trustees Committee for the Selection of the President incorporate terms in the job description and advertisement that call for successful experience in leading such institutional transformation and that they make promise in advancing sustainability an important criterion for final selection.

Doing so would serve the interests of Cal Poly’s students, who seek employment in emerging fields, of the institution, which needs more cross-disciplinary collaboration in teaching and research, and of the larger community, whose health and welfare depend upon the next generations’ commitment to addressing these problems effectively. (see

In support of this opinion, I refer you to the University Sustainability Learning Objectives recently adopted by Cal Poly’s Academic Senate and ratified by President Baker:

Cal Poly defines sustainability as the ability of the natural and social systems to survive and thrive together to meet current and future needs. In order to consider sustainability when making reasoned decisions, all graduating students should be able to:
¢    Define and apply sustainability principles within their academic programs
¢    Explain how natural, economic, and social systems interact to foster or prevent sustainability
¢    Analyze and explain local, national, and global sustainability using a multidisciplinary approach
¢    Consider sustainability principles while developing personal and professional values

It also bears mention that the “Top Ten Best College Presidents” selected by Time Magazine in November 2009 are all Sustainability Champions. (

In recent years Cal Poly faculty and students have collaboratively demonstrated initiative and talent in developing major sustainability projects in and out of class”e.g. the Solar Decathlon (,
Focus the Nation (, the Sustainable Agriculture Resource Consortium (, the Business of Green Media Conference (,content=2983) ”and Facilities Departments have moved forward in conserving money and resources, thereby teaching by example ( What is now urgently needed is creative, daring and seasoned leadership at the top to articulate the vision and summon the resources to strengthen this focus.

Book Review: English Mercuries

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

Dear Professor S Marx

RQ has received a review copy of English Mercuries: Soldier Poets in the Age of Shakespeare by Adam McKeown (Vanderbilt University Press). Would you agree to write a 700 word review due no later than February 10th?

Renaissance Society of America
365 Fifth Avenue, 5400
New York, NY 10016


This book’s scholarly subject is literary works about war produced between 1551 and 1632 by English writers who fashioned themselves both soldiers and poets. Three introductory chapters frame that subject: an account of the author’s experience as an English professor and Marine Lieutenant Colonel deployed in Djibouti during 2006, where questions raised in a class he taught on Shakespeare’s Henry V generated the project, a discussion of an 18th-century pamphlet pretending to collect eyewitness accounts of 16th century warfare, and a description of similarities between the conditions of expeditionary forces under the command of Elizabeth 1 and George Bush 2. The whole book addresses what the author calls a “glaring omission”(11) by voicing perspectives of veterans then and now about war and militarism.

McKeown analyzes texts dealing with military activity during  Elizabeth’s regime. “Age of Shakespeare” in the subtitle alludes to a sentimental characterization of Early Modern England he challenges and to responses to Henry V that begin and end the book.  His readings undermine the hawkish propaganda usually associated with military writings and critique policies leading to the “calamity” of expeditionary war.  Instead, they emphasize the paradoxical, nuanced and invariably tormented experience of soldiers in battle, on deployment or returning home.

In Thomas Churchyard’s 1575 account of  The Siege of Leith, McKeown finds both a critique of the military strategy that fruitlessly sacrificed many lives and disdain for the diplomacy that eventually brought peace yet discredited the sacrifices of those who fought.

Contrasting George Gascoigne’s 1576 The Spoil of Antwerp with Alarum for London,  an anonymous 1602 play based upon it,  McKeown finds the earlier soldier’s account of the English mission in the Netherlands better informed and more judicious than the later adaptation, which converts it into anti-Spanish propaganda.

John Donne’s utterances on the subject “ask their readers to see war as both a testing ground for personal and national valor and a destructive force that ravages human pride and renders whole countries bare, peace both an Eden on earth and a state of gnawing restlessness and internal anxiety.”(19) McKeown states that the purpose of these emblematic paradoxes is to stimulate spiritual awakening, but he finds their source in Donne’s harrowing military experiences in the Cadiz and Azores expeditions.

McKeown juxtaposes John Harington’s popular translation of Ariosto’s war-glorifying Orlando Furioso with his reports on the disastrous Irish campaign for which he volunteered and with his complaints of ingratitude by “the country that scorned him when he came home.”(20)

The book concludes with an affirmation of martial virtue in Ben Jonson’s The New Inn and The Magnetic Lady, where the playwright presents exemplary veteran soldiers who, during the revival of English militarism after the death of King James, warn “Caroline England of its moral and physical unfitness to get involved in foreign war.”(20)

McKeown’s third chapter, “English Mercuries,” begins by presenting a document about heroic soldiers that lionizes Elizabethan military achievements. At the end of a long paragraph he reveals that it is an 18th century hoax often quoted to support 19th century English militarist propaganda.  “Mercury” signifies reporter, as in the names of newspapers, and “English Mercuries” is used by the chorus in HenryV (2.0.7) to describe the king’s recruits. The term appears in emblems and a familiar motto signifying the Renaissance ideal of soldier-scholar: Tam Marti quam Mercurio. But Mercury also represents a liar and thief, alluding to the unreliability of both Chorus and King, as witnessed by the play’s cynical other voices. McKeown restores the term’s honorific meaning in reference to his real soldier-poets.

McKeown’s paradoxical method is prominent in the introductory chapter, entitled “Ecole Lemonier” after the “forward antiterrorism base” in Djibouti U.S. forces shared with the French Foreign Legion.  Here, McKeown tells us, he taught Henry V to fellow marines who wanted to know if Shakespeare ever served. He describes this class to reporters and to NPR listeners he addressed in a commentary as neither “the story of one sensitive intellectual’s attempt to create a meaningful experience in a war otherwise without meaning” nor that of “a patriot who risked the censure of an elitist and hypocritical academy to serve his country and give Shakespeare back to the regulars guys fighting the war.”(12) Rather he claims, “it was a real war story by real soldier about other real soldiers fighting in a real war.”

The book concludes by repudiating the perennial use of Henry V to promote military adventurism. In the self-portrait on the back cover, the author wears no uniform, but his black t-shirt, shaved head and fierce smile convey the message, “Semper Fi.” Speaking both for and as one of the English Mercuries, he characterizes soldiers as “morally strong people¦who are not stooges of the state or servants of its whims¦They are above all products of political violence and witnesses to how people come to terms with political violence not as an idea but as an action they must commit or endure.” McKeown provides valuable insight to outsiders about what military people for five hundred years have thought about their profession.  But in this age of a volunteer army, I still fail to understand his meaning of  “must.”

Backpacking in the Grand Canyon (Day 6)

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

full photoset and slideshow

Awakening and packing on the last day of the hike was accompanied by familiar bittersweet emotions.  The amazing winter light painted a picture to remember of the fantasy world we were leaving, framed by the side canyon’s shadows, and it ignited the sparkling white limestone near the South Rim where we were headed.



On a sign detailing the history of property disputes over control of the trail leading down was taped a notice that it would be closed for some time this morning to facilitate a helicopter salvage operation.


The trail itself was wide enough to accommodate hikers side by side with the pack trains led by central-casting  mule-skinners.


Surfaced with pulverized sandstone that was soft and springy to the feet and decoratively bordered with stable boulders, it snaked at a gentle grade along ledges carved in the pink sandstone.


Travel along it was once again vertical rather than horizontal–the same stretch of canyon above and below dramatically altering as the changing angle of view hid and revealed features.



An hour or so into the ascent, we heard the thumping of a large helicopter, which appeared in the sunlight above the rim, disappeared behind a buttress and soon reappeared dangling a miniscule-looking car from a long cable.


This, the ranger had informed us, was the remains of a vehicle deliberately driven over the edge by a suicide some months earlier. 

As we ascended toward the 7000 foot elevation of the rim, the temperature dropped and the air thinned, requiring regular short pauses for breath.  Nevertheless, greeting the steady flow of daytrippers from above swelled our pride in being grubby veteran adventurers. 

A tunnel bored through the rock just below the edge marked the trail’s end.


While we stood for our portrait to be taken by some polyester-garbed fellow-retirees in the parking lot, Steve chatted with them about the football team fortunes of their shared alma-mater in Cincinnati, Ohio.


Backpacking in the Grand Canyon (Day 5)

Monday, December 14th, 2009

full photoset and slideshow

Come rain or  shine this day’s destination was eleven miles along the Tonto trail, so we broke camp early and dressed for rough weather, leaving behind a woman in the large group of hikers whom Steve had provided with  prescription painkillers he had brought just in case.  The night before she was in severe distress because of an injury to her knee, and we expected that she’d either have to be carried the distance by her friends or helicoptered out.  An hour down the  trail, carrying a full pack, Diana passed us with a smile that was still on her face when we met again at the end of our full day’s trek.


The  skies this morning were moody and unstable, reminding me of Powell’s admirable description:

Clouds are playing in the canyon today.  Sometimes they roll in great masses, filling the gorge with gloom; sometimes they hang aloft from wall to wall and cover the canyon with a roof of impending storm, and we can peer long distances up and down this canyon corridor, with its cloud-roof overhead, its walls of black granite, and its river bright with the sheen of broken waters.  Then a gust of wind sweeps down a side gulch and, making a rift in the clouds, reveals the blue heavens, and a stream of sunlight pours in.  Then the clouds drift away into the distance, and hang around the crags and peaks and pinnacles and towers and walls, and cover them with a mantle that lifts from time to time and sets them all into sharp relief.  Then baby clouds creep out of side canyons, glide around points, and creep back again into more distant gorges.  Then clouds arrange in strata across the canyon with intervening vista views to cliffs and rocks beyond.  The clouds are children of the heavens, and when they play among the rocks they lift them to the region above. (p. 256)

Rather than just depicting the landscape, his description recreates it for me. So do the photos  I snapped and later processed, which I see now complemented and enhanced by Powell’s account:





Sitting at my computer two weeks after the trip, reviewing his words to stimulate my own, I feel connected with that heroic voyager in 1870 transcribing and embellishing his watersoaked journal to prepare it for publication.

In the late morning as the trail skirted the inner canyon and rounded a turn into the drainage of Salt Creek the sky went threateningly dark. I understood why this section was named on the map as “The Inferno.”  The assemblage of fractured, knife-sharp points and ridges lining the great gash in the earth seemed to drink up light like a black hole, recalling Milton’s description of hell as “darkness visible” or Dante’s prospect of the lowest section of the underworld: “We came to the edge of an enormous sink/Rimmed by a circle of great broken boulders” (Canto XI)


It started to rain hard, but just as I unpacked my waterproof pants, to the south the clouds parted  to produce another metaphysical sign.  It emerged from the depths of the abyss below


and arched from one bank to another of  the side canyon



perfectly framing the Isis Temple on the north side of the river.


larger size image

As the sun achieved dominance and its rays illuminated the inner walls, their colorless obscurity took on a rosy-veined glow.


mirroring the pink spines clustered at the center of a barrel cactus.


In the clear afternoon, it felt like The Great Outdoors was beaming on us as we sauntered along, brimming with joy and awe.


But the blessing was also human: my old Lund companions who got these excursions going, and the gear I wore and carried, which allowed me to range comfortably and safe:

  • my Dana Designs packsack that Joe had picked out for me in Moab fourteen years ago
  • my Danner boots from Takkens that I’d just had resoled
  • my Leki trekking poles that saved my knees on the way down and now, as my wrists swiveled in the straps, advanced me from  a two to a four legged creature
  • my pretty REI tent that took five minutes to pitch and had kept the wind and rain out last night
  • my Camelback bladder that taught me the  difference between drinking and hydrating
  • my ancient REI down sleeping bag, now patched with duct tape
  • my Thermarest mattress, easily patched after having been penetrated by a sharp stick while serving as a river raft for grandsons
  • my new Brunton stove, weighing no more than a pound and able to boil a litre and a half of water in three minutes
  • my tiny headlamp that never wore out its cheap batteries but provided enough light to work and read in the dark
  • my Sierra Designs rainshell bought in Powell river in August which had already protected me in four storms
  • my two layers of well used First Lite merino wool underwear that Kenton had sent  last summer
  • my weightless cashmere scarf that Amy made me for Christmas, soft as her voice, warm as her smile

The Platform flattened and widened as we passed the last four-thousand foot buttress between us and our destination of Indian Gardens.  The panorama unfolded: a long reach of the river lined with dozens of brilliantly colored monuments intersected by Bright Angel Canyon, a fifteen-mile perpendicular corridor leading back to the snow-bedecked north rim.

larger size image

It was a moment I didn’t want to let pass.  I walked off the trail and sat in the newly washed desert gravel, stared, meditated and played my recorder.

GC 186.JPG

Then it felt time to go on.  A grove of golden cottonwood trees, incongruous but inviting, beckoned from the creek bed ahead.  The poles of an old telephone line appeared at intervals at the cliff base.  The trail broadened and showed signs of heavy travel and regular maintenance.


We trudged into Indian Gardens campground, admired the stonework of old buildings and walls and the varied assortment of large trees planted a hundred years ago by early tourism developers. We chatted with the voluble ranger who lived here in a house with TV and  power, filled our pots with potable water directly from the tap and ate dinner at a picnic table under a steel-roofed shelter.  Even though on a gentle grade and a good trail, ten hours of hiking left us ready for our sleeping bags before nine p.m.