Fighting Over History

It’s been almost five years since the 2017 Unite the Right Rally when white supremacists descended on Charlottesville carrying torches and Nazi flags chanting “blood and soil” and “you will not replace us” as they fought to preserve two confederate monuments scheduled for removal – statues of generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

On that hot August day when Heather Heyer was killed, I was visiting my hometown of Clarksburg, West Virginia, the birthplace and boyhood home of Stonewall Jackson . His statue graces the Harrison County Courthouse, the most prominent location in town, which is odd considering West Virginia seceded from Virginia to join the Union during the Civil War.

I admired the Jackson statue growing up, passing it frequently on my way to visit my dad, whose law office overlooked the courthouse. My friends and I played in the Civil War trenches on Lowndes Hill and thought of Stonewall as our town’s connection to history and a reminder that even small town boys like us might do something others would remember and celebrate.

But what happened in Charlottesville caused me to look deeper into the history of these confederate statues – how and why they came to be, what they represent, and how we should understand them today. Like most journeys, it’s been full of unexpected discoveries.

Both the Clarksburg Jackson and the Charlottesville Jackson were crafted by the same artist, Charles Keck , and placed outside of courthouses. The Charlottesville Jackson was installed first, in 1921, and was larger and more prominent. The Clarksburg Jackson was a study for the larger statue, and installed in 1953, shortly after the artist’s death.

Like so many confederate monuments, the Clarksburg Jackson was championed by the Daughters of the Confederacy, the group most responsible for these Civil War monuments and the perpetuation of the mythology of the Lost Cause.

Approximately 1,500 confederate monuments were erected during the Jim Crow era, most on public land, and they continue to be built. Surprisingly, 35 have been constructed in North Carolina since 2000.

The Daughters continue to perpetuate a false history that downplays slavery as the cause Civil War, while glorifying the Old South, it’s heroic defense of state’s rights and the southern way of life against the overwhelming forces of the north.

Harrison County historian David Houchin has done a wonderful job documenting the effort to bring the Jackson statue in Clarksburg in 1953, 90 years after Jackson’s death, an effort that was not without controversy even then.

One of the things I found most disturbing about the statue’s dedication was the singing of Carry Me Back to Old Virginny, a song written by the famous minstrel James Bland, and the state song of Virginia until 1997. It’s a catchy tune, but I find it hard to understand how a group of well meaning people, including a christian bishop and the chief justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court, whose son WIlliam Haymond was one of my favorite college professors, could sing this song.

Could you sing a song whose lyrics were written in the voice of a former slave whose “old darkey’s heart” harkens back to a time of harmony on the plantation, where the “cotton, corn and tatters grow,” and the ” birds warble sweet,” and “massa and missis” are remembered fondly.

But such is the power of the Lost Cause, a mythology whose purpose is to distort history, not represent it. And their goal in erecting these monuments was not benign. It was meant to legitimize the order of the day, which was segregation. Unfortunately, belief in the Lost Cause is alive and well today, as is belief in its cousin, The Great Replacement.

Thankfully, people are pushing back, including young scholars like Steven Cody Straley whose thesis is believed to be the first scholarly study of Stonewall Jackson monuments in West Virginia. In in, Straley outlines how Stonewall was legitimized as a “white, male, Christian, native-born, chivalrous figure” and became a popular and beloved example of a “true West Virginian” whose “rise to prominence in the state during the early 1900s coincided with a period of intense racial discrimination against African Americans, as well as an influx of foreign immigrants into the state.”

In sharing his work, Steven expressed hope that it will lead to “constructive studies and conversations about the Lost Cause in West Virginia going forward.” I hope that happens.

I’ve done a great deal of reading and soul searching since the Charlottesville riot and the deaths of George Floyd. Before that time, I never questioned the legitimacy of the Jackson statue in Clarksburg. I do now. These statues should not grace our public buildings, they should be moved to museums, where they can be used to educate, inform and help us move toward a future where all people are treated with dignity and respect.

Yes, we have come a long way…. but we still have miles to travel. Here are some books that were helpful to me. I hope you enjoy them too.

  • Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow by Henry Louis Gates
  • No Common Ground: Confederate Monuments and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice by Karen L. Cox
  • Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture by Karen L. Cox
  • Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson by S.C Gwyne

Visiting Bivalve & Shell pile

Along the banks of the Maurice River in southern New Jersey, the towns of Bivalve and Shell Pile were once the epicenter of New Jersey’s oyster industry, whose rise and fall is expertly told at the Bayshore Center in Bivalve. The museum was closed the day I visited, but Teri Watson, the Director of Donor Relations & Volunteer Services was kind enough to show me around.

Each year, millions of bushels were harvested, shucked, and shipped to dinner tables up and down the East coast. The highpoint for oystering in this area was the late 1920s, when over 6 million bushels were processed, largely by a community of African American workers from nearby Shell Pile.

For some, prosperity reigned for almost 80 years and nearby Port Norris was once the home of oyster millionaires. Others were not so lucky, and I was particularly interested in learning more about the lives of the African American workers who shucked for untold hours each day to feed their families during the height of Jim Crow.

Fortunes of both rich and poor changed in 1957, with the arrival of MSX. The parasitic oyster disease was accidentally introduced via a shipment of pacific oysters, which are naturally immune. Unfortunately, the eastern oysters were wiped out overnight, with just 10,000 bushels harvested the following year.

The region has never fully recovered and some communities, like Shell Pile are gone. A few years before the shanty town was leveled, a New York Times reporter visited in June of 1978 and gave the following description.

"The wooden shacks are more reminiscent of William Faukner's Missippippi than of Brendan Byrne's New Jersey- mean little shacks built on hundreds of thousands of clam and oyster shells, shacks that contain no water, no toilets, no central heating, where crumbling walls are patched with Coca-Cola signs, where rats scramble under floor boards and seagulls cry above the plastic bottles and moldering garbage that assault the reed grass."

Oysters are still harvested in Delaware Bay, but production rarely climbs above 100,000 bushels. Thankfully, the nearby Rutgers Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory is working to advance aquaculture here and others places.

Plan ahead when you visit and consider a 2-hour sail on the restored 1920s schooner AJ Meerwald, New Jersey’s official tall ship. You can also have lunch a the Oyster Cracker Café.

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If you are still feeling adventurous, consider a hike along the Maurice River Bluffs, a Nature Conservancy preserve about 8 miles away. The trails are easily navigated, with views of the river and New Jersey’s largest contiguous wild rice marsh.

Climbing Absecon Light

At 17 stories, Absecon Light is the tallest lighthouse in New Jersey.  My 82-year old mom said she was game to climb, so up we went, stopping periodically as we navigated the 228 spiral metal steps.

Absecon Light opened in 1857, the first of three lighthouses built in southern New Jersey. Prior to the light’s construction, Absecon was known as Graveyard Inlet, and with good reason.  In the decade prior to its opening, 64 ships were lost off the Absecon coast, including the passenger ship Powatan, which sank in 1854, with 311 immigrants and crew lost.

“Nearing the end of its journey, the Powhatan

 encountered a hurricane-like snowstorm near Long Beach Island, New Jersey. The storm was one of the worst in the state’s history, and the crew struggled against the powerful and dangerous currents. On the morning of the 16th, the ship was forced closer to the island and hit the Barnegat Shoals, just 100 yards offshore from present-day Surf City.

Because of the weather, a lifeboat station six miles away was unable to send help. As word spread, a small crowd gathered on shore. Throughout the afternoon the Powhatan

 was pummeled by huge waves and fierce winds. Finally, the ship was slammed against the shoals around 5 p.m., and a large hole was punched in the bow. The Powhatan

 began to break apart, and passengers, some already dead, began to be washed overboard. Eventually the vessel broke in two. The crowd on shore searched among the bodies for signs of life, but none was found.”


US Army engineer and future general George Meade, best known for defeating Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg, designed the structure which features a first order Fresnel Lens that utilizes prisms to magnify light and guide ships that were up to 23 miles away, an amazing technological accomplishment for that period. 

The most interesting part of our visit was our delightful conversation with volunteer lightkeeper and tour guide Buddy Grover, who met us when we reached the top.  Buddy is 93 years old and climbs 171 vertical feet several times each week, sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm with all who visit.

Absecon light is in downtown Atlantic City, within site of the boardwalk and casinos – but visit soon- as a $3.5 million rehab project is being planned to ensure that “Dear Abby” as Buddy calls her, will shine long into the future

A Rainy Weekend in Ocean City, N.J.

It was an ideal beach day when we arrived – 90 degrees and sunny – then the rain moved in and it’s been falling steadily for 36 hours now, with temperatures sinking into the 50s.  Certainly not the most promising start to summer.

We are making the most our wet and soggy weekend. Yesterday, we visited the Ocean City Historical Museum to learn about the history of a place that has marketed itself as America’s Greatest Family Resort since the early 1920s.

Ocean City, originally known as Peck’s Beach, is an eight-mile-long barrier island that was once covered with red cedar and wild cherry and used as a staging area for whaling operations beginning in the 1700s and later as a site to graze cattle.

Development began in 1879 when four Methodist ministers rowed across the bay to establish a Christian retreat and camp meeting. Growth exploded after that and during the summer, the population swells to 150,000 plus.

Notable residents over the years have included film star Grace Kelly, who summered here throughout her life, returning each year after marrying Prince Rainer of Monaco.  Her family’s summer home still stands at 26th and Ocean.

The Pulitzer Prize winning poet Steven Dunn also has a home here, as does the writer Gay Talese, whose 1968 Esquire article Frank Sinatra Has a Cold is considered one of the greatest magazine stories of all time.

We had dinner at Yianni’s, great food and a relaxed vibe, but if you want a drink, be forewarned, Ocean City is one of only 32 dry towns in New Jersey, a fact the owner remined me off when we tried to open our BYOB.

We visited a few other notable sites, including: The Flanders Hotel, designed in the Spanish revival style where our niece Alex and fiancé Vish will be married in October and Lucy the Elephant in nearby Margate. Lucy is the oldest surviving roadside tourist attraction in America, standing six stories high. She was built in 1881 with one million pieces of wood covered with 12,000 sq. ft of tin sheeting to promote real estate sales and attract tourists.

Ambush at Five O’Clock
By Stephen Dunn

Published in the New Yorker on January 26, 2014

We were by the hedge that separates our properties
when I asked our neighbors about their souls.
I said it with a smile, the way one asks such a thing.
They were somewhat like us, I thought, more
than middle-aged, less dull than most.
Yet they seemed to have no interest
in disputation, our favorite game,
or any of the great national pastimes
like gossip and stories of misfortunes
about people they disliked.

In spite of these differences, kindred
was a word we often felt and used.
The man was shy, though came to life
when he spotted an uncommon bird,
and the woman lively, sometimes even funny
about barometer readings and sudden dips
in pressure, the general state of things.
We liked their affection for each other
and for dogs. We went to their house;
they came to ours.

After I asked about their souls
they laughed and stumbled toward an answer,
then gave up, turned the question back
to me. And because I felt mine always was
in jeopardy I said it went to the movies
and hasn’t been seen since. I said gobbledy
and I said gook. I found myself needing
to fool around, avoid, stay away from myself.

But my wife said her soul suffered from neglect,
that she herself was often neglectful
of important things, but so was I.
Then she started to cry. What’s the matter? I asked.
What brought this on? She didn’t answer.
I felt ambushed, publicly insensitive
about something, whatever it was.

It was a dusky five o’clock, that time
in between one thing and another.
Our neighbors retreated to their home,
but the woman returned
and without a word put her arms
around my wife as if a woman weeping
indicated something already understood
among women, that needn’t be voiced.
They held each other, rocked back and forth,

and I thought Jesus Christ, am I guilty again
of one of those small errors
I’ve repeated until it became large?
What about me? I thought. What about
the sadness of being stupid?
Why doesn’t her husband return
with maybe a beer and a knowing nod?

Published in the print edition of the February 3, 2014, issue.
Stephen Dunn is the author of, most recently, “Whereas.” He received the Pulitzer Prize for “Different Hours” in 2001.

An Afternoon in BrooklyN

We’re fortunate to be among the fully vaccinated and it was delicious to spend a low-key afternoon visiting family. Our son Gavin and his girlfriend Emily recently moved to a beautiful new apartment in the trendy Park Slope neighborhood. After a quick tour and a visit to the building’s magnificent roof deck – with it’s commanding views of the Manhattan skyline – we headed out for a walk.

Prospect Park is a 526-acre urban oasis and home to Brooklyn’s only lake, which has a dog beach, and will no doubt be a favorite destination for Mori, their year-old Cockapoo who led us through the park’s meandering paths joyfully sniffing everything in site.

Gavin and Emily live across from the bandshell where a text-based, public art installation features a message of hope and resilience inspired by the poetry of Lucille Clifton ” Come celebrate with me/That everyday something has/Tried to kill me and failed.” After a year of dodging COVID, we can all relate!

The park was filled of walkers and people picnicking in the spring-like weather. We visited a farmer’s market in Grand Army Plaza . In addition to the normal selection of fruits and vegetables, bundles of Pussy Willows were for sale, their furry catkins one of spring’s most reliable harbingers.

Another highlight was the selection of hand-crafted spirits on sale. We took home bottles of potato vodka from Barber’s Farm Distillery in the Catskills and bourbon from King’s County Distillery , made nearby in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Our visit ended with take-out from Ha Noi. The Bahn Mi sandwich was quite good, and I’m sure we will be back.

Lemongrass Chicken Banh Mi: Easy Homemade Recipe | The Woks of Life

Merrill Creek Reservior

Merrill Creek is a 620-acre reservoir in the uplands of Warren County, built in 1989 by a consortium of utility companies. In summer, Merrill Creek’s 15 billion gallons are used to replenish river water that evaporates cooling the 14 power plants located between here and Philadelphia. We visited on a recent Sunday afternoon.

Merrill Creek Reservoir |

It’s a peaceful spot and indstrial use was far from apparent, but thermoelectric plants are vorascois consumers of water, accounting for 49 percent of total water use nationwide, about 200 billion gallons of water per day – nearly three times the daily volume that roars over Niagra Falls!

The Salem Nuclear Power Plant in Lower Alloways Creek, New Jersey, on the Delaware River.
Salem Nuclar Power Plant

As Diane and I kayaked across the open expanse of water, I felt a little jittery , wondering about the entrance to the 4 mile long tunnel to pipeline system connecting Merrill Creek with the Delaware. Trust me, it wasn’t a pleasant thought and I imagined myself being sucked into a gaping whirlpool like the one at Lake Berryessa, never to be seen again.

I kept these thoughts to myself as Diane enjoyed the sun and water, blissfully unaware of what lurked beneath. Her attention was focused on a group of 20 double-crested cormorants floating nearby.

We stayed far away from the damn, which is 280 feet high. There was a great deal of opposition to its construction, especially from familes living near the base. Who can blame them? In 1889, a much smaller 70-foot earthen damn failed, sending 4 billion gallons of water downstream, killing 2,200 people in the Johnstown Flood.

The Johnstown Flood

If you travel to Merrill Creek, be sure to take a ride on New Jersey’s first concete highway, a portion of today’s Rt. 57 that was orginally built in 1912 with cement from Thomas Edison’s nearby factory. For the histrory lover, be sure to visit the 1755 Shippen Manor , built by the family that owned and operated Oxford Furnace.

Oxford Furnace, New Jersey - Wikipedia

After sunset on Merrill Creek Reservoir.
Merrill Creek at Sunset

Wheels Turn at Dawn

My Bianchi Impulso and I have traveled 1,400 miles along the backroads of Hunterdon County since April, with 90,000 feet of climbing and 120 hours in saddle. Most rides begin at dawn, that magical time of day when new light spills across dark fields. I swear – there’s hope in that morning light – a freshness and vitality that works its way into you as you ride.

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on

I have long understood these morning bike rides are more than just exercise – they’re opportunities to encounter the beauty of the natural world, and just maybe, if I’m lucky, welcome awe into my life.

Awe is a tranformative emotion – an overwhelming feeling of reverence produced by an encounter with something grand, sublime or powerful – be it a sunset, the flow of a river, or the murmuration of starlings as they wheel across the sky.

Time spent in nature often leads to awe. Nature also inspires joy, wonder, and even love as Michael McCarthy describes in The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy. Others are writing about this too, and there is a growing body of research documenting the benefits of awe.

You don’t have to convince me of the benefits of awe. So many bike rides lead to one of these liminal moments, a flash of insight when distance and time falls away and the barriers separating me from everyone and everything crumble.

In those moments I feel my connection to the body of the world with an honesty and intensity that takes my breath away. I want to stay in that wakeful place forever, but the connection always fades. That’s the way of life – you touch but cannot hold – yet the memory of that embrace inspires your best self.

Yesterday, I felt the familiar stirring as I descended after a short climb. The air was cool, still ladened with mist and the scent of damp. I was riding in shadow, but the sun was spilling across the road ahead and I could see the seedheads of grasses illuminated in the bright morning light. They were covered in dew, each one a shimmering diamond. I breathed in sun, bike, body, earth and knew it was enough; I was enough. I was firmly placed in this moment and could not be shaken. There was nothing to strive for, nothing to want, nowhere to be….. but here.

100+ Best 法器 images | vajra, buddhist art, buddhism

For the Love of Pizza

New Jersey is know for pizza, with six of the country’s Top 100 Pizzerias located in the Garden State, but our favorite pie shop is our own back yard, courtesy of a stout brick oven built 15 summers ago.  

The oven was born from Diane’s passion for cooking and her interest in artisinal bread, which led her to Alan Scott’s classic book The Bread BuildersScott died in 2008, but his book helped launched   the construction of thousands of DIY brick ovens all across the world.

The Bread Builders: Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens by [Alan Scott, Daniel Wing]

Our oven took a summer to build. It was heavy work and gave us both newfound respect for masons and bakers too. In the end, it was worth the effort, especially on nights when family and friends gather around a glowing hearth to enjoy one of life’s simple pleasures –  gourmet pizza, scented with wood smoke, accompanied by icy cold craft beer and good conversation.

All four of our kids were home this weekend, and it took about six hours and 20 pieces of firewood to heat up old smokey.   With the exception of a passing shower, the rain held off and a waxing gibbous moon gave off just enough light. 

In total, we cooked 16 pizzas, 8 frocassias and a roast chicken.  We also managed to finish growlers from our two favorite local breweries: High Rail Brewing in High Bridge and Sunken Silo in Lebanon.

If you don’t have time to build your own oven, you can still enjoy bread from one of the Alan Scott inspired oven’s that offer bread for sale, by visiting Bobo Link Dairy & Bakehouse in Milford, NJ.  Be sure to pick up some of their artisinial cheeses that are amazingly good.

Kayaking the Delaware

The Delaware River is the longest free flowing river east of the Mississippi. It begins along the western flanks of the Catskill Mountains, where the East and West Branches join together and journey south for approximately 400 miles until reaching the Atlantic Ocean at Cape May, NJ. I’m fortunate to live near this amazing body of water and have enjoyed numerous outing on the river this summer.

In 1881 writer and naturalist John Burroughs , a friend of  Walt Whitman, was one of the first to write about the joys of this great river after he built a boat and set forth on a 50 mile solo trip down the Delaware’s East Branch from Arkville to Hancock.  Burroughs memorializing his trip in an essay entitled Pepacton: A Summer Adventure, reminding us all that you don’t have to go far to find adventure; the ones that are close to home will do just fine. 

In preparing for his trip, Burroughs asked an important question regarding traveling companions when he wrote: “Whom shall one take with him when he goes a-courting Nature ? This is always a vital question. There are persons who will stand between you and that which you seek: they obtrude themselves; they monopolize your attention; they blunt your sense of the shy, half-revealed intelligences about you…….” Burroughs preferred dogs and boys, for their “transparency, good-nature, curiosity, open sense, and a nameless quality” that he believed were “akin to trees and growths and the inarticulate forces of nature.”

I’m fortunate to have a wife who is also my best friend. She embodies all of these qualities and more and was delighted to join me for a kayak down the river, including a jaunt through some Class I rapids in the section between Reigelsville and Milford.

I grew up rafting the Cheat River in West Virginia, which is especially exciting at high water,  so getting wet doesn’t bother me.  And today, we managed to get wet when Diane’s boat was pinned in the rocks and needed a little bit of untangling.  Fortunately, we were on our way in no time – filled with awe as a Great Blue Heron swooped low, glidding  close to the surface looking to make a meal from one of the 45 species of fish that live in the Delaware .  We were also attentive to the Ospreys that nest in the  Noxkamixon Cliffs that rise 300 feet above river’s surface north of Upper Black Eddy along senic PA Route 32 that passes through Washington Crossing further downstream,  a place commemorated in Emanual Leutze’s famous painting of George standing in the boat that is on display at the Met.

If you want to plan your own Delaware River adventure,  a great place to start is online, with the Delaware Water Trail Map . You can also order  a set of waterproof river maps, which I highly recommed.  If you don’t have a Kayak, tubing is another option.

And when your time on the water is over, be sure to visit one of the Delaware River Towns , each has its own special charm.  Once this COVID crisis is over, we hope to visit  Canal House Station in Milford, NJ  In Mach, they were one of 4 restaurants in New Jersey named as a 2020 James Beard Award Semi Finalist.  You can follow their acclaimed blog Canal House Cooks Lunch for ideas to inspire your own cooking.

Nockamixon Cliffs | The Wild Edge
TheNockamixon Cliffs
Kayaking | Delaware Canoeing | Kayaking The Delaware River | White ...
It’s Class I Rapids but it can get bumpy.
Osprey flying home with a fish
An osprey at work
Photo by Craig Adderley on Tranquility along the Delaware River

Reflections on travel and the joy of being alive