And here’s a picture of Yangzom with her mother and grandmother. She’s an actor and a prominent activist for the Tibetan cause.
We got talking about Tibet. The recent news is horrible. A young woman immolated herself in Eastern Tibet, the Chinese are forcing all Tibetans to be educated in Chinese. The magical spiritual culture of Tibet is in its endgame. Every traditional society off the modern grid is in its endgame. They will all be assimilated or wiped out in a decade or two, I observed to Yangzom, and she nodded grimly.
I told her about my l990 Vanity Fair piece on the Chinese ethnocide of Tibet (see Past Dispatches/Tibet; it’s called The Silent Killing of Tibet), which Robert Thurman, the Tibet scholar and father of Uma by Nena von Schlebruge (who was also, like Barbara Leary, married to Timothy Leary; Barbara was his last wife; I’m probably one of the few people who happen to know two of Leary’s wives) called “seminal.” Papa Bush, W’s dad, was reportedly so moved by it that he invited the Dalai Lama to the White House, the first American president to do so; the others were afraid of antagonizing the Chinese). Nothing has changed, it seems, I said to Yangzom. The Chinese are just rolling over their Western Treasure House, as they call it, cutting all the forests, mining the minerals, mowing down the wildlife and devouring it, eviscerating the gentle, otherwordly culture, and now with the railroad running from Xengdu to Lhasa, more and more Han Chinese are settling there. Tibet is a treasure house, but not in the way they see it. It’s a treasure for all mankind, a spiritual treasure.
Then I did a piece in l995 on the kidnaping of the 11th Panchen Lama boy. Then I did a thorough investigation of the controversy over the two rival incarnations of the 17th Karampa, whose lineage started the whole Tibetan tradition of reincarnating boddhistvas. My brother Nick was a follower of the 16th Karmapa, I told Yangzom. He had the first Karmapa center in his house in Katonah, New York. He had roomed at Oxford in the early sixties with Trogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a high tulku or recognized reincarnation of the Karmapa’s school, the Kagiu, who had just gotten out of Tibet and went on to become one of the pivotal teachers of Tibetan Buddhism in America. His books The Myth of Freedom and Cutting through Spiritual Materialism were major texts of the Sixties, and he founded the Naropa Institute, in Boulder, Colorado, where my niece went to college, the daughter of my sister Tonia, who is also a Tibetan Buddhist. Our family association with Tibet in fact goes back to l912, when my great-uncle Andrey Avinoff, a famous Russian butterfly collector, was one of the first foreigners to enter Tibet. He was looking for new species of Parnassius, a genus of alpine papilios or swallowtails (see Past Dispatches/Old Russia). He was also an amazing painter. I grew up with his mystical watercolors and pen and inks of Tibet and used his extensive library on Tibet to write a fifth geography report on Tibet in l957, when the Dalai Lama was still in the Potala, which I got an A+ for. It started me on the career of literary geography, going to places all over the world and identifying the natural and cultural forces that make them the way they are, that I’ve been pursuing ever since.
Yangzom explained that she was a Nyingma-pa. Her grandmother had been a nun in the Nyingma school, which is the oldest of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism. (The Dalai Lamas belong to the Gelug school, which was an offshoot of the 4th Karmapa). Nyingma monks and nuns are allowed to marry, unlike the monks and nuns of the other three. She presented me with a book she had written called Across Many Mountains, published by St. Martin’s Press. She and her mother and grandmother are on the cover. She said she was prompted to write it because her grandmother was in her nineties, and she wanted to get her stories down about her life and what Tibet was like in the old days before they were lost forever. How interesting, I said, that’s exactly why I wrote my family’s history, Russian Blood. Both my grandmothers were in their nineties and I felt the same urgency, and writing the book deepened my sense of who I was, where I came from, even though the world of Old Russia is completely gone (except for the splendid architecture of St. Petersburg, Moscow, Novgorod, and other ancient cities), the communist revolution that overthrew it having happened forty years before Tibet’s.
I read Yangzom’s book on the planes back to New York and Montreal, and it’s a masterpiece of simple, graceful, natural storytelling. By telling the lives of her grandmother and mother and herself– the tragic history of Tibet over the last 70 years comes effortlessly, powerfully, and movingly to life. Kunsang and her husband and their six-year-old daughter Sonam had escaped over the Himalayas in l959, barely surviving the freezing journey, and Sonam had grown up in India and married Martin Brauen, a Swiss ethnographer, who had taken Kunsang (now a widow) to Zurich, where Yangzom was born, and I don’t want to say anything more so I don’t give the story away. The book conveys what the Buddhist faith of the average rural Tibetan was (and still is) like better than any of the dozens of books I have read on Tibet, and acknowledges, I was glad to see, that the old theocracy was not a perfect society. Both the feudal aristocracy and the religious hierarachy were responsible for the social injustices and the exploitation of the peasants that Mao used as an excuse to annex the country and destroy its culture. What he brought, the devastation of thousands of monasteries, the torture and slaughter of thousands of monks, nuns, and former aristocrats during his Cultural Revolution, was far worse, which was also true of the USSR.
Robbi is half-done writing the screenplay, and I really hope Yangzom’s book makes it to the silver screen. I was so glad to meet her because my last involvement with things Tibetan, my investigation of the controversy over the 17th Karmapa ten years ago, had left me with a bad taste in my mouth as I confronted the Machiavellian religious politics that Tibetan Buddhism is no more exempt from than any of the other religions. It was just like the rival Popes during the Medicis, the one in Rome and the one in Avignon. Plus the fact that there is really not much any of us can do about China’s ethnocide of Tibet, had made me turn to the numerous other horrible situations where my writing stands a better chance of making a difference. But what is important and special about Tibet is not its the inevitable repugnant religious politics, but the faith and practice of its highly evolved version of Buddhism and the radiant clarity, infectious happiness, humility, and gentleness, and of its people, and their fervent desire to benefit all sentient beings, which is their gift to the world, and we must do everything to see that that this spiritual world view and way of life is not lost. I am deeply grateful to Yangzom and her book for reinfusing me with a desire to do something for Tibet. I hope the opportunity will present itself in the time I have left here.
So please read her book, musiclovas, tidebuckas, soldiers of love. I promise you that you will thank me for bringing it to your attention.
I was talking about this the other day with a long-time conservationist. Sandy, a monster hurricane whipped up by human emissions, makes a direct hit on Gotham. What more do you want to make the message clear that global warming is here and it’s real and it’s us ? But what do New Yorkers do ? Clean up and repair the damage and put it behind them, like the horror of 9/11. And Sandy is the climax of a year in which some 33,000 heat records are shattered around the country. There a big new report on the many ways global warming is changing U.S. Daily. Here’s some press on it :
Report says warming is changing US daily life
By SETH BORENSTEIN | Associated Press – Fri, Jan 11, 2013
WASHINGTON (AP) — Global warming is already changing America from sea to rising sea and is affecting how Americans live, a massive new federally commissioned report says.
A special panel of scientists convened by the government issued Friday a 1,146-page draft report that details in dozens of ways how climate change is already disrupting the health, homes and other facets of daily American life. It warns that those disruptions will increase in the future.
“Climate change affects everything that you do,” said report co-author Susan Cutter, director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina. “It affects where you live, where you work and where you play and the infrastructure that you need to do all these things. It’s more than just the polar bears.”
The blunt report takes a global environmental issue and explains what it means for different U.S. regions, for various sectors of the economy and for future generations.
The National Climate Assessment doesn’t say what should be done about global warming. White House science adviser John Holdren writes that it will help leaders, regulators, city planners and even farmers figure out what to do to cope with coming changes.
And climate change is more than hotter temperatures, the report said.
“Human-induced climate change means much more than just hotter weather,” the report says, listing rising-seas, downpours, melting glaciers and permafrost, and worsening storms. “These changes and other climatic changes have affected and will continue to affect human health, water supply, agriculture, transportation, energy, and many other aspects of society.”
The report uses the word “threat” or variations of it 198 times and versions of the word “disrupt” another 120 times.
If someone were to list every aspect of life changed or likely to be altered from global warming, it would easily be more than 100, said two of the report’s authors.
The report, written by team of 240 scientists, is required every four years by law. The first report was written in 2000. No report was issued while George W. Bush was president. The next one came out in 2009. This report, paid for by the federal government, is still a draft and not officially a government report yet. Officials are seeking public comments for the next three months.
“There is so much that is already happening today,” said study co-author Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. “This is no longer a future issue. It’s an issue that is staring us in the face today”
This version of the report is far more blunt and confident in its assessments than previous ones, Hayhoe said: “The bluntness reflects the increasing confidence we have” in the science and day-to-day realities of climate change.
The report emphasizes that man-made global warming is doing more than just altering the environment we live in, it’s a threat to our bodies, homes, offices, roads, airports, power plants, water systems and farms.
“Climate change threatens human health and well-being in many ways, including impacts from increased extreme weather events, wildfire, decreased air quality, diseases transmitted by insects, food and water, and threats to mental health,” the report said.
“Climate change and its impacts threaten the well-being of urban residents in all 13 regions of the U.S.,” the report said. “Essential local and regional infrastructure systems such as water, energy supply, and transportation will increasingly be compromised by interrelated climate change impacts.”
For example, the report details 13 airports that have runways that could be inundated by rising sea level. It mentions that thawing Alaskan ground means 50 percent less time to drill for oil. And overall it says up to $6.1 billion in repairs need to be made to Alaskan roads, pipelines, sewer systems, buildings and airports to keep up with global warming.
Sewer systems across America may overflow more, causing damages and fouling lakes and waterways because of climate change, the report said. The sewer overflows into Lake Michigan alone will more than double by the year 2100, the report said.
While warmer weather may help some crops, others will be hurt because of “weeds, diseases, insect pests and other climate change-induced stresses,” the report said. It said weeds like kudzu do better with warmer weather and are far more likely to spread north.
“Several populations – including children, the elderly, the sick, the poor, tribes and other indigenous people – are especially vulnerable to one or more aspects of climate change,” the report said.
And yet many Americans still don’t get it. They’re like ostriches sticking their heads in the sand in the currently broiling outback down under. Like alcoholics who keep on drinking even though they know it is killing them. We’re not a stupid people. What’s going on here ? I ask the conservationist, and he says there a video on Youtube of Bill Moyers talking with a guy who has the American population broken down to 15% believers in global warming, 15% non-believers, and the rest not sure, don’t know and don’t care, etc.. The deniers are largely religious fundamentalists who are heavily subsidized by the Republicans, who want to cast doubt on global warming as long as possible, so they can keep getting rich from burning fossil fuel. Just like the tobacco industry, I say. The social psychology of this societal denial is also very interesting. The lines in Genesis that it’s all there for us, the foules of the air, the fish in the sea, to conquer and consume so we can be fruitful and multiply. The idea that won the West that a tree that’s left standing, a river that isn’t dammed, wasting the asset. Also, as T.S. Eliot put it, “humankind cannot bear too much reality.” That could be in play. And just plain ignorance. That’s an underacknowledged factor in the behavior of many cultures. For many people, the whole notion that we are slowly roasting in a microwave of our own making is overwhelming, for others it is still too hypothetical– the memory of an extreme event, most of which only last a week or so– is too short for the implications to sink in. Others suffer from disaster fatigue, which causes us to shut down on all kinds of large-scale horrors, the ethnocide of Tibet and the continuing destruction of rainforests around the world being ready examples. We know about these things, we tried to do something about them, but they’re still going on and there’s nothing we can do about them, so we stop caring and focus on contributing in our local community or whatever, something with more tangible results.
The basic concept of the greenhouse effect is not rocket science : putting all this carbon dioxide and methane is trapping the solar radiation reflected off the earth and heating up the atmosphere, and when you heat the atmosphere as we’re doing with all the factory and power plant and exhaust fumes and forest fire smoke we’re pouring up into it is like heating water : it becomes more turbulent. Hence the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. Australia is currently a blast furnace, with temperatures of 105-110 degrees and fires like it’s never seen. Brook Thorpe, our intrepid Kiwi intern who got Last Look Books off the ground and did all kinds of other great things for DVW, emailed on Jan. from Sydney, where he is working for a conference and event-management company :
“The hair feels so thick, and heavy above 40 degrees Celsius (which it passed yesterday in Sydney) its almost hard to breathe. Record setting temperatures of 50 degrees are being recorded in central australia, fueling fires in some parts (tasmania, and victoria). A relative told me, three of her friends lost their houses in Tasmania to the fires. Walking home from work in the overwhelming heat on Tuesday( in sydney), I couldn’t help but wonder : so this is what “climate change” feels like? I hope not, its quite uncomfortable for people like me ( without an aircon). Although. The heat didn’t stop the tennis players in (some competiton) poor buggers!”
The Amazon, the dehydration of the rainforest by the El Nino-like warming event in the tropical North Atlantic and its degradation and savannification, the subject of my 2007 Vanity Fair piece ( Dispatch #41: The Dehydration of the Amazon Rainforest Part1 and Part 2), is already happening. Here’s an article in the Guardian :
Amazon showing signs of degradation due to climate change, Nasa warns
Rainforest area twice the size of California experiencing drought rate that is unprecedented in a century, study shows
Jonathan Watts, Latin America correspondent
- guardian.co.uk, Friday 18 January 2013 16.33 GMT
A team of scientists led by the agency found that an area twice the size of California continues to suffer from a mega-drought that began eight years ago.
With little time for the trees to recover between what the authors describe as a “double whammy”, 70m hectares of forest have been severely affected, the analysis of 10 years of satellite microwave radar data revealed.
The data showed a widespread change in the canopy due to the dieback of branches, especially among the older, larger trees that are most vulnerable because they provide the shelter for other vegetation.
“We had expected the forest canopy to bounce back after a year with a new flush of leaf growth, but the damage appeared to persist right up to the subsequent drought in 2010,” said study co-author Yadvinder Malhi of Oxford University.
The Amazon is experiencing a drought rate that is unprecedented in a century, said the agency. Even before 2005, water availability had been shrinking steadily for more than 10 years, which made the trees more vulnerable. Between 2005 and 2010, localised dry spells added to the problem.
The leader of the research team, Sassan Saatchi of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said forests will find it increasingly difficult to recover if climate change makes droughts more frequent and severe.
“This may alter the structure and function of Amazonian rainforest ecosystems,” he warned.
Although the speed of forest clearance has slowed, the Amazon continues to shrink in area. The latest study suggests the quality as well as the quantity of forest is declining due to extreme climate conditions.
At left, the extent of the 2005 megadrought in the western Amazon rainforests during the summer months of June, July and August as measured by Nasa satellites. The most impacted areas are shown in shades of red and yellow. The circled area in the right panel shows the extent of the forests that experienced slow recovery from the 2005 drought, with areas in red and yellow shades experiencing the slowest recovery. Photograph: GSFC/JPL-Caltech/Nasa
And so global warming and its denial continue, with ever more ghastly effects. As Paul Ehrlich, one of the first scientists to raise the alarm about what we are doing to our earthly home, is fond of saying, denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.
I gave this talk on February 24, 2013, at the Waccabuc Country Club in South Salem, New York. For the Westchester Land Trust’s annual Leon Levy Environmental Symposium, for whose symposium two years ago I spoke at Bedford Historical Hall (Dispatch #64: Westchester, Bedford, and the Education of a Conservationist).
A number of people came up afterwards with addenda and corrigenda which I have incorporated into this text.
The Great Estates of Northern Westchester and Their Contribution to Conservation
I am delighted to have been invited back this year to talk about a fascinating topic : the great estates of northern Westchester and their contribution to conservation. Before I start, I want to apologize for writing my talk out and reading it, as I did last time. Those of you who know me know I have a tendency to digress, and this talk is going to be long as it is. My talk two years ago at Bedford Historical Hall, which I also wrote out and read, went one for an hour and half, and this one– I haven’t timed it– could be even longer. So in the interests of getting you out of here by 8:30 so you can watch the Oscars, if that’s what you’re planning to do tonight, the loss of a little eye contact and spontaneity seems a fair tradeoff.
Secondly, I’m a Bedford Boy, and I haven’t even been that for 30 years, and I don’t think I’ve been up to the Salems more than a few times since I used to drive up to see Howland Adams in the early seventies. Howland lived on Route 35, the Old Post Road, coupla miles up from Cross River. He was one of the last of the old Yankee subsistence farmers in Westchester and was living on and working the same 100 acres that had been in his family since the Revolution. The Salems were considerably more countrified than Bedford in those days and they still are. I was in the spirit of the Sixties trying to make it as a singer songwriter and to emulate Loudon Wainwright III who grew up across the street and was doing occasional treework for my mother’s friends in Bedford, with an old McCullough clunker chainsaw that kept acting up, and I’d take it up to Howland, and he’d get it fired up and running smooth again in no time, with a few turns of a screwdriver. Every time I went to see him, he’d have a new joke. One time it was, hey alex how come mice have such small balls ? I dunno Howland, how come ? and Howland says cuz only tin percint of em kin dance. After Howard died his son sold the farm cuz he couldn’t afford the taxes and moved to the catskills. I don’t think there’s anybody like Howland in Westchester any more, but we still got a quite a few of them up in the Adirondacks, in the mountain valley where we have a camp. One of em said to me the other day, you live until you die, Alex, and that’s the only thing you to do.
Probably anybody in this room knows more about Lewisboro than I do, so I want to apologize ahead of time for any errors I am certain to commit, and would appreciate being straightened out so I can put the corrections into the text of this talk that I’ll be posting [I have in fact put them into this this post] on my web site, DispatchesFromTheVanishingWorld.com, as I did with my talk two years ago. I extensively picked the brain of my brother Nick, who spent 20 years curating the nature museum in the ward pound ridge reservation and has an almost mystical sense of this many-layered locale. He should really be giving this talk, but he’s living as a recluse in the Catskills and is off the lecture circuit. his beat up old pickup truck can barely make it into town. Just to give you an idea of the depth of his knowledge, when I told him I was giving the talk at the Waccabuc country club, he told me that that carcass of Bet, the elephant of Barnum and Bailey’s circus, lies at the bottom of deep glacial lake waccubuc. Bailey was a local farmer who became partners with p.t. Barnum, a professional showman and scam artist credited with coining the aphorism “there’s a sucker born every minute,”, and Bet died at bailey’s place in Somers which later became and still is the Elephant Hotel and was brought over to lake waccabuc on a huge sledge and a hole was cut in the ice into which Bet was dropped, never to be seen again. So there’s a project for some enterprising local diver. The elephant’s body is probably intact down there, but brittle, like the corpse of a woman who had disappeared decades earlier and was found at the bottom of lake placid. [Apparently Bet belonged to another, earlier Bailey, Hachaliah Bailey, who had a circus in the 1820s, not to the Bailey of Barnum and Bailey, who were later. Old Bet died on tour in 1827 and according to the Elephant Hotel Wikipedia entry was said to have been buried in the front yard. So Nick's story has some holes in it.]
I am also grateful to the Bedford town historian John Stockbridge and his assistant Christina Rae and to Lynn Ryan of the Bedford Historical Society, for helping with historical questions in the township, and to a thoughtful memo from Lewisboro town historian Maureen Koehl.
The reason I’ve been asked to give this talk undoubtedly has to do with the fact that my l978 book, Westchester portrait of a county, has a chapter called the days of the big houses, which is primarily about the great estates of Bedford. When I was growing up in Bedford in the fifties and lived there in the seventies, I frequented quite a few of them. Bedford was where most of them were. Some of them with their stately Georgian brick mansions and rolling meadows and lush woodlands laced with riding trails were a lot like, and in fact modeled after, the hereditary estates of the English aristocracy. The home of Robert and Margaret Patterson, for instance, which was designed by the firm of Delano and Aldrich and built over l905 and l906, had the only grass tennis court for miles around, as well as a flock of peacocks, and whenever a ball that wasn’t hit high enough smacked the tape of the net, the peacocks would send up a squawk that could be heard down in the valley below. Margaret had grown up in the house. She was the daughter of William Sloane the department store magnate, who built it, and the Pattersons left it to the county. It’s now the Aaron Copeland retreat for composers. Copeland’s son lives there and it apparently needs some serious t l c. .
The people who lived in these houses were locally referred to as “hilltoppers,” although not all of the great houses were on hilltops. Some in this uppercrust stratum were highly cultivated, like the Marquands, who frequently had Edith Wharton as a house guest, or the Bechtels, who were close friends of the poet Wallace Stevens and had a beautiful rose garden including a maze that we used to run around in as kids. Bennet Cerf, who started Random House, lived in Mount Kisco and had people like Frank Sinatra out for the weekend, and on Guard hill Road was Crowfields, the large, welcoming, book-filled country house of Cass Canfield, who was the editor in chief of Harper and Row, for whom I wrote my first book, now it’s harper collins, and further up Guard Hill his sister’s in laws was the big chateau of the Cowards of Coward McCann and Geoghan, for whom I wrote my second fourth and fifth books, shortly after which the firm went belly up. Probably due to the poor sales of my titles. On Mianus River Road and its arteries there was a colony of Hollywood and Broadway show moghuls. Selznick, myers, mankiewitz. In fact I am staying in the old Selznick place, inhabited for the last few decades by John and Francie Train. Last night they had a dinner party that included Peter and Margie Kunhardt and Ptomely Thompkins, who ghost-wrote a current best-seller, about the near-death experience of a neuroscientist, and Peter Canby, the head of the New Yorker’s famously rigorous checking department. Peter checked a number of my pieces back in the day and is married to Annie Putnam, whom I grew up with. So there are still vestiges of culture in this neck of the woods.
Both Mr. Goldman and Mr. Sachs had big houses on lots of land in Bedford. My dad played tennis with both of them, on private courts, Jews not being allowed to join the Bedford Golf and Tennis Club.
Helen Clay Frick, the reclusive maiden daughter of the Pittsburgh steel baron and art collector Henry Clay Frick, lived in austere simplicity on her thousand-acre Westmoreland Farms, half of which she gave as a sanctuary which my dad was the first president of. Many of the women on these estates were serious gardeners, and it was in Bedford that the first chapter of the Garden Club of America was established in 1938, as well as, in 1913, the first chapter of the National Audubon Society, which my dad and brother were president of and I was secretary of in the seventies, when I was the resident naturalist at the Marsh Sanctuary, which had a fantastic garden with a greek amphitheatre that Isidora Duncan had danced in. The chairman of the board of the Audubon Society at the time, Tom Kessee, lived nearby and was on the board of the Marsh Sanctuary, and Pat his widow, who went to the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia with my parents to photograph their spectacular alpine flowers, and came to my talk in Bedford two years ago. Bedford is also where the Nature Conservancy, which is now conserving wildlands all over the world, started, with the acquisition of Mianus River Gorge and its magnificent virgin hemlocks. These hilltoppers loved their land and had the sense of service, stewardship, noblesse oblige and the conservation ethos that were part and parcel of being a gentleman. The American conservation movement owes a lot to them and you can’t step into the woods around here without soon finding a winged euonymous, some paccysandra, or one of the other many plants that have escaped from their gardens and become part of the local ecology, like the starling which was introduced in central park in 1890 by Eugene Schieffelin, a bourbon brewer who thought it would be a great idea to bring all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare to America and whose descendants lived in one of Bedford’s hilltop mansions. When I taught at the Bedford Rippowam School in the seventies had his great-grandson, who was one of my students, write a report on the dramatic but disastrous success of the starling in North America. And the New York state police was started in l917 by two ladies, one of them a hilltopper, after some bankrobbers in Mount Kisco shot a random customer dead and got away with the money and were never caught, because Westchester didn’t have a police force.
If you look at a map of northern Westchester, it’s a patchwork of protected areas. There are dozens of them. Many of them are former estates or parts of estates that were given by their owners to their community. For instance, there was a great lady in Cross River named Mrs. Mommsen. She had spent her life in Brazil, and after her husband, who had been a big businessman and the American consul in Sao Paulo died, she bought eighty years here although she had no connection with Westchester. But she decided to spend her last years in America. Mrs. Mommsen didn’t know a low of people and was always glad when my wife, who was Brazilian, came over and we could all talk Portuguese and matar saudade, assuage our longing for Brazil.
After Mrs. Mommsen died, she left her land to the town and it is now the Mommsen Preserve.
The heyday of Westchester’s great houses and estates from l880 to l940, although in l966 I whiled away an afternoon at Haywire, the agent Leland Hayward’s place in Yorktown Heights, playing scrabble with his ravishing red-haired socialite wife Pamela, who had been married to Randolph Churchill and would end her days as the wife of Averill Harriman. A new crowd had moved into these mansions or built new ones when I did a story for Vanity Fair about the demographic turnover of Bedford in l999. Ivan Boesky, Carl Icahn, Nelson Peltz, Donald Trump, George Soros, Ralph Lauren, Martha Stewart, some of the biggest megabucksters in the country, were among the new hilltoppers. A lot of these houses had stories. When James Sutton and his wife the only daughter of R.H.Macy opened the front door of their just-built house on Guard Hill Road in the l880s, they were greeted by the sight of the architect hanging by his neck in the stairwell, who was apparently not happy with his creation. The mother of one upperclass Bedford family I knew in the seventies was a big horse rider. She had a bad fall that put her permanently in a wheelchair, and the family sold their estate– more of an estatelet or an estatette, being only a dozen acres– and moved to Santa Barbara. The next owner was a member of the Mafia. The estate abutted a nature sanctuary, and birds were flying into the surveillance cameras he set up and being electrocuted. Finally a delegation of distressed birdwatchers led by the formidable Georgina Cortlandt van Rennselaer, one of Bedford’s grandes dames who was actually as nice as could be and totally unhoity-toity, went to see the mafia guy. They knocked on his door and he came out a with a big piece in a shoulder holster under his armpit. Mrs. van Rensselaer, unintimidated and trembling with outrage told him, “You’ve killed all the goldfinches,” and he said, “ Lady I didn’t whack the Goldfinches. I was in Palm Beach.”
The history of the 370 acre– Leon Levy preserve, on the occasion of the opening of whose parking lot I have been asked to give this talk, is really interesting. I’ve only done a little digging, but already I can see that all the layers of human history in this part of the world up to the last 50 years are represented, and the preserve could be a fantastic field research laboratory for archaeologists, historians and natural historians. You could spend years peeling away the layers not begin to scratch the surface.
An important Indian trail went right through the ravine, with its 25 foot cliffs, and it would be surprising if there were not some artifacts in there. There’s a definite Indian cave, its roof blackened by the smoke of ancient fires, right across the street. Most of the natives who moved through the ravine were probably Kichawank, a band of Lenape Delaware that summered on the Hudson, at the mouth of the Croton River, and may have wintered on Lake Kichewan, although the only artifacts found there have been archaic, much older than the late woodlands Kichawank. They belonged to the Wappinger Confederation and spoke the Munsee dialect. To the south, in Bedford, were the Tanketiki. These are the people who
gave Chappaqua, Katonah, Lake Mahopac, Mount Kisco, and this lake and country club, Waccabuc, their names. In l644 200 mercenaries led by the infamous Indian killer Colonel John Underwood were hired by the governor of New Amsterdam to avenge some attacks on colonists settlements to the south. They crept up on a winter celebration the Tanketike were having, probably on the grounds of what is now Pepsi Beverages’s corporate offices across the Muscoot Reservoir in Katonah, not in Cross River, my brother contends, and cut down 180 of them and set fire to 500 who had fled into their lodges. they burned to death without uttering a sound, not even the children, not a cry or a whimper was to be heard, according to one of the mercenaries who was haunted by the pride and dignity of the way they went for the rest of his life . The rest of Westchester’s native people were deported to a series of reservations, in Wisconsin and Oklahoma’s Indian Territory, where my brother tracked down the last 12 of their descendants who still spoke Munsee in l985. My brother had found arrowheads and beadwork in caves in Bedford when he was a boy, and now was the curator of the nature museum at Ward Pound Ridge reservation in Cross River, and had become really interested in Westchester’s long-gone original inhabitants and taught himself Munsee and the plants they ate and used for medicine and everthing about their culture that he could find out. I’d go over to his place for dinner and he’d serve me a meal of acorns and jerusalem artichoke, with tea of sumac berries and hemlock needles (the conifer not the herb, which is poisonous). The Lenape in Oklahoma were so blown away by nick’s knowledge of their culture that they made him a member of their Chaney River Band and gave him a Munsee name which means He Who Stand Firm, which he has used ever since. It was even on his driver’s license until Homeland Security made him change it back. My brother found a magnificent bear petroglyph on a granite boulder right in someone’s back yard in Cross River, and started opening kids and adults eyes to what was really going on around here. It wasn’t just bland boring generic burbs, it was a world of endless fascination and layers waiting to be peeled. eventually he got a grant to bring the 12 Munsee speakers back to their homeland, which their ancestors had been deported from 200 years earlier, and had a healing ceremony at his museum on the reservation conducted by their shaman, a noble and powerful woman named Nora Thompson Dean. It was a deeply moving event for all of us who were there.
This is the richest temperate deciduous hardwood forest on earth, with 4500 species of higher plants from ferns on up and the natives made use of a lot of them. Not only a botanical but an ethnobotanical inventory should be made of the reserve, making use of the extensive library at the Delaware Information Center that my brother set up at the nature museum in Cross River.
Several rare endemics– purple milkweed and blue cohosh– have already been reported, and there are undoubtedly more. I did an inventory of the Marsh Sanctuary’s flora and we found all kinds of surprising things, including a vine, Dioscorea villacea, which had never been found in Westchester. The Marsh Sanctuary was one of the last remaining habitats of the endangered Muehlenberg turtle, a fact which weighed heavily in the battle over the route of 684 up through bedford in the sixties.
You probably have some rare species here too, new subspecies of butterflies and mushrooms at the very least, like I’ve discovered on our 40 acres in the Adirondacks.
During the dutch colonial period the preserve was part of Van Cortlandt manor, a vast estate granted to the poltroon ancestor of the husband of Georgina Cortlandt van Rennselaer. who had the conversation with the mafia guy. After the English conquered New Amsterdam, it was part of a section of land called the Oblong that both New York and Connecticut claimed. It had a no-man’s land frontier quality right up to the beginning of the 20th century. Cowboys banditi and rowdies as described in contemporary account raided horses and cattle and stole stuff in connecticut and sold them in new york and vice versa. Vista through the l950s had a pocket of rednecks and hillbillies descended from the them.
From the late 1600s on
Settlers from England moved up to the salems and eked out a hardscrabble living from the soil, stacking the many glacial boulders into stone walls. Indians were still part of the local mix through the 1730s.
The reserve has the remains of an old dam and mill from this period, during which its lower parts were flooded.
During the Revolution Col. Shelton and his Dragoons camped on the property for a couple of days. Major Andre, the British spy, was briefly imprisoned in Salem, and the last Wappinger sachem, who fought with the freedom fighters, was killed in the Bronx. Colonel Rochambeau and his troops in the all white uniforms of the French, marched right up 123 from vista right past the preserve.
when the war of independence was over, Jeremiah Keeler returned to Salem as a hero with a sword from LaFayette. He built the white house on the corner of Route 35 and 123 in 1795 from materials from an Episcopalian church that stood across the street and was buried in 1853 in its graveyard. His son, Thaddeus Hoyt Keeler, was the next occupant of the property until his death in 1874. Around this time the Leatherman was making appearances at farmers’ doors and pointing to his mouth meaning he wanted somethng to eat. He was such a local sensation that postcards of him were sold in the general stores. My brother thinks he represented an alternative lifestyle to the stifling puritanical dawn to dusk routine of the local farmers, a freedom to roam that they didn’t have. One of his caves is just above kimberley bridge in the pound reservation, and right next to it there was a bobcat den. My mom and I locked eyes with one of these magnificent superalert cats in the seventies.
There’s a great new book by Dan De Luca on the Leatherman that calls in question the contemporary account that he was Jules Bourglay, a Frenchman who was engaged to marry the daughter of the shoe factory where he worked which burned to the ground and he was blamed for it, and his engagement was cancaled, so he came to the New York and spent the rest of his life half-tetched walking a 34-day circuit staying inc caves and appearing at farmhouses pointing to his mouth.
The railroad and later the automobile brought a new class of people into northern Westchester– the hilltoppers. By the l914 or so motorcars had replaced horses as the way to get around, and the hayfields to feed the horses were let go, and the forest began to return. Most of northern Westchester’s forest is second growth, now a century old. Minus its chestnuts, which were killed by a blight, and don’t get any bigger than saplings any more. Their niche was filled by several species of hickory. The northeast is one of the few places in the world whose forest cover is actually increasing, and with the return of the forest big animals have become more common. My brother saw a mountain lion in ridgefield in the late seventies, and one appeared not long ago on the playing fields of New Canaan Country Day School. Bears have been making their way across Interstate 684 into these parts. There’s a den on the reservation. coyotes are increasingly plentiful and brazen, and the deer population is out of control. And the fisher cat has made a dramatic comeback. It preys on domestic cats– one more reason to keep them indoors. The main predator of deer is now the automobile, and they are the main cause of car accidents, and they are the main vector of Lyme disease. The tiny tick was only just beginning to appear in katonah in the late seventies, now thanks to the deer and global warming, it’s established itself all the way in the Adirondacks and will soon be crossing the border into canada.
Around the turn of the twentieth century the Keeler farm was bought by John Mason Craft, a famous chemist and president of M.I.T. He built a large stone and shingle house called Black Mansion that had lots of outbuildings including an ice house and his lab and a cottage for his daughter and retired there until his death in 1917. The architect is thought to have been Grovesnor Atterbury, but this hasn’t been nailed down.
In fact the latest word, from the Atterbury Society, which was sent a photo of its ruin, is that it wasn’t Atterbury. But they weren’t sent a photo of the intact elegant and original carriage house, which would give a better idea of who the architect was.
Atterbury designed the stone and shingle Tudor mansion Savin Rock, across Route 123, which J.P. Morgan, a warden of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan, built for his rector, William S. Rainsford, in 1907. Since 1973 it has been a gourmet restaurant and event destination called Le Chateau. My dad had his retirement dinner from itt rayonier at le chateau in l979.
But Black Mansion and all its outbuildings except the carriage house burned to the ground in l979, leaving only the elegant European beech and white birch lined allees and carriageways. No photographs or plans of the mansion and its outbuildings have turned up. I would start by tracking down some of the Kaplans, whom I’m getting to shortly, and finding what what images and documents and stories they may have. A lot of fascinating archaeological discoveries could be made digging up the dump and the lab and the ruin of Black Mansion itself. I’ve found all kinds of great old wine and champagne bottles and amethyst milk bottles and dark brown bottles of long-forgotten elixirs and panaceas in the dump of the old Hoare mansion in the woods above our camp in the Adirondacks, which are now part of the forever wild Hurricane Wilderness. The Hoares and their guests seem to have had a great old time back in the day, and the Crafts probably did too. Some of their guests were probably prominent figures. The next occupant of Savin Rock after Reverend Rainsford, Colonel Frederick Sansome, who had previously been the owner of Converse Farm in Greenwich, often entertained White House dignitaries.
There were some interesting people in the verdant hills and on the sparkling lakes of Lewisboro, especially– to jump ahead a generation– Henry Wallace, FDR’s vice president from l940 to l945, who was also a corn breeder, having been a boyhood protege of George Washington Carver, in Iowa, and he was an ardent spiritualist, holding seances to communicate with the dead. I wonder in if he had any in Lewisboro. Wallace kept up a lively correspondance with the Russian painter and mystic, Nicholas Roerich. They were both interested in a world governing body that would keep global peace, the future United Nations and in the hidden paradise in Tibet of Shambahala or Shangri-la.
1934. When Wallace was secretary of agriculture he sent Roerich to the Gobi Desert on the government’s dime to study the local mongolian’s arid farming techniques. The Republicans raised holy hell when they got wind of this, and
Westbrook Pegler painted Wallace as a commie and cook, when he ran for president on the progressive party ticket in l948. Wallace’s platform included universal government sponsored health care and ending the cold war and giving african americans full voting rights, and he toured the south with his party’s black candidates and refused to appear at any rallies that were segregated. He only got 2.8% of the vote and returned to Farview, his beloved farm in South Salem, where he developed hybrid corns and chickens whose eggs were soon the main ones being consumed around the world. He believed that all wars resulted from a lack of food. Few people realize that the father of modern agriculture, of the green revolution, lived right here in south salem up route 35 from howland adams. He moved here be close to FDR who was over in Hyde Park. His estate was called Farview.
After Roosevelt died, while sitting for a portrait by my grandmother, elizabeth shoumatoff, in warm springs georgia
on april 12, 1945, truman made wallace his secretary of commerce, but they fell out over truman’s soviet policy and wallace became the editor of the New Republic and attacked the Truman doctrine, which started the cold war and he predicted would usher in a hundred years of fear.
My brother remembers going to tea at farview several times with our parents in the fifties, and visiting him in the sixties, he was a striking looking man, a lean lanky lincolnesque midwesterner. The silo of the barn was strange shaped cuz top was actually a shortwave wave. He big greenhouse and was experimenting with radioactive dust got from the manhattanville project. Sprinkling it liberally on the vegetables and flowers and this was reportedly quadrupling their size. Farview, Jim Nordgren, who is a great admirer of Wallace, contends, should be on a National Monument. But his reputation will take some rehabilitation. At one point during the McCarthy witch hunt, Wallace reckoned he was the most unpopular person in America.
In 1921 Black Mansion passed into the hands of Abram Kaplan, who had prospered in the molasses and sugar business. Kaplan’s son Joel David Kaplan was convicted of murdering his business partner in Mexico in l962 and was sentenced to life in a Mexican prison, but in l971 he was swept away in a helicopter chopper that suddenly landed in the prison yard and took off before the guards knew what was happening. A movie called Breakout starring Robert Duval and Charles Bronson was made in l975 about this daring escape. I remember seeing it years ago. It was great.
Abram Kaplan’s wife found Black Mansion cold and drafty, the only heat being from the fireplaces, so they moved to the Benedict House on the corner of Route 35 and Ridgefield Avenue and only visited the property in the summertime.
After the Second World War– this comes from a history of the property that Bobbe Stulz sent me– the property was part of the area considered for the new home of the United Nations. It was thought to be a secure location with an airport close by in White Plains. [I wonder if wallace did any lobbying for it in his hometown) There was also a plan to build a nine-hole golf course. Along Mill River on the east side of Route 123, there is an old railroad bed that follows the path of the river through the preserve but the tracks were never laid. When was this done ?
By the l950s Black Mansion was all but abandoned. The furnishings were all still intact, presumably left behind by the Kaplans. On the ground floor there was a player piano and an elevator. The second floor had a long corridor leading into a big room that was lined with small beds. Some have speculated it could have been a nursery or an infirmary.
In 1959, the property was bought by the Bell/Lyden Partnership, who were basically land speculators. Two years later the partnership leased the Keeler house, barns and surrounding fields to Sheila Adams to run a non profit riding club and school with up to 18 horses, which she ran for many years.
In 1967 an easement and lease was given for a telephone relay station. The tower was referred to as “the biggest business in Lewisboro” and is still in use today.
Records from 1972 to 1984 at the Town Planning Board show a long term effort by the Bell/Lyden Partnership to develop the property with a 324 unit condominium complex called “Mill River Run.” Maps show a water tower, sewage treatment plant, park/playground, community swimming pool, and even a retail center. But the development never got off the ground.
The abandoned Black Mansion began to show signs of abuse and neglect through the 1960’s and 1970’s. Motorcycles raced up and down her stairwells and through her corridors. Furniture crashed through her top floor windows.
Then on January 28, 1979 somebody torched her. Three of her stone walls still stand but they need to be stabilized.
On April 4, 2005 the Lewisboro Land Trust, a chapter of Westchester Land Trust, issued a press release that the 383-acre property had been acquired for 8.3 million dollars and was going to be set aside as a nature sanctuary called the Leon Levy Preserve. Leon, described by Forbes magazine as a "Wall Street investment genius and prolific philanthropist," had died two years earlier at the age of 78. He had started mutual funds that managed $120 billion and a hedge fund worth $3 billion, and his net worth was estimated at around a billion dollars. It would have been more if he and his wife Shelby White hadn't given so much of it away-- some $200 million over the years. Among the many worthy institutions and causes, the couple donated a court to the Metropolitan Museum for the exhibition of Hellenic and Roman art, much of it from their own collection, funded an excavation in Israel and a grant program for archaeologists to write up their excavation reports, they founded an economic institute at Bard College and endowed a $60,000 residency at New York University for biographers, which I immediately called when I found out about to see if this includes autobiographers-- I'm 400 pages into my memoirs, and am only up to the age of 29 and could use an infusion of cash to get through the rest of it-- but sadly it doesn't. Leon and Shelby funded the creation of native plant gardens in both the New York Botanical Garden and the Bahamas. As his brother recalled, Leon had a great love of nature ever since he planted his first radish at the age of four. The year before he died, Levy published a memoir, written with my esteemed colleague Eugene Linden, called The Mind of Wall Street: A Legendary Financier on the Perils of Greed and the Mysteries of the Market. Linden is Time Magazine's long-time environmental correspondant and lives in Irvington.
If you google leon levy at the bottom of the page you can refine your search to leon levy biography center, cancer center, fellowship, information commons, professor, leon levy and shelby white court, library (of dental of medicine).
Leon Levy was an enlightened human being, in short. Someone who had tremendous energy, many interests, and who cared about the world.
I wish I had known him. But his widow Shelby White is here with today, and it was her idea to set aside the preserve in his name. She and Leon had bought a place in South Salem to which she still comes on weekends, and she is a serious gardiner. Her daffodils are among the most vibrant in northern Westchester. Five million dollars for the preserve came from the Jerome Levy Foundation, which Leon started in the l950s in memory of his father. The Town of Lewisboro put in a million, the New York City Department of Environmental Conservation another million (in return for which the town gave it a conservation easement for the 90 acres that are in the Croton Watershed), and the Dextra Baldwin McGonagle Foundation $500,000
Yesterday I spent two hours exploring the reserve with Jim nordgren and Bobbe Stultz, wlt's director of art and events . It has five miles of trails.
jim , used to be town supervisor, and was instrumental in saving the property. He has a degree from yale forestry and leads many of wlt's walks, he will be leading a walk on the preserve on march 10. It has the most magnificent hardwood forest I have ever seen in Westchester, particularly the grove of ash and tulip trees whose huge branchless boles shoot up on the slope going from the carriage house to the ruin of the mansion. Jim really knows his trees and shrubs and was able to identify red black white scarlet pin and chestnut oaks from their bark patterns and physiognomy, and all kinds of understory woody species from witch hazel to shadbush, striped maple, hornbeam and hophornbeam. In a few weeks the floor of the forest will be blazing with spring wildflowers, and songbirds will be singing their hearts out.
his thoughts, which show a deep undersanding of Lewisboro's history , before we met
there are some interesting angles that you could elaborate on, First, like every other hilltop in Westchester County during the Gilded Age, it had a mansion--the Black Mansion. The hill across the street has a mansion. Just around route 35 you can still see the remnants of the Gilded Age--a mansion now used by Four Winds as a psychiatric hospital, another that's still a private home just to the west. Another, like Black Mansion, burned--it was called Falcon Ridge--now they've name the subdivision after it.
I hiked Taxter Ridge a few months ago in Greenburgh off 287 and learned the same thing--it had a mansion owned by Jay Gould who also owned Lyndhurst, now completely disintegrated, just a foundation, an old carriage road and the Norway spruce planted in front. Another one on the adjacent hill was owned by the artist Bierstadt, and across 287 was a mansion now run as Hackley School.
I think people today have no idea what grand buildings were built in that time period--there were no income taxes, skilled immigrant Italian masons were hired for almost nothing and wanting, for security, to be paid in even cheaper lira instead of dollars. The entire area was dotted with hilltop mansions surrounded by poor dairy farmers, from just north of NY City to Newport and Bar Harbor and the Adirondacks, and most of those mansions are gone now, and, in this area if they were not subdivided, are reverting to forest.
Another angle is that next to the mansion is one of the many summer colony lake communities (Lake Kitchawan), scattered all over northern Westchester. Lewisboro has 7 lakes, Mahopac has a bunch also, all were summer colonies. These were for the poor people who didn't have the mansions, a way for them to escape the city. Many were Jewish colonies--like Goldens Bridge. These modest summer homes have all been greatly expanded and winterized. Lake Kitchawan is still very modest, and the people there don't have many options for recreation--they have used the Levy Preserve for hiking/hunting/riding/biking/ATV'ing forever--that's why it was nice to preserve it for their use.
[ATV''s the dreaded all terrain vehicles which tear up trails and muddy up streams were banned from public land in south salem a year ago.]
Then there is the natural history. Guy Hodges, a Lake Kitchawan native, found lots of native American artifacts around the Levy Preserve. Lake Kitchawan has always been a magnet for wildlife throughout time, bones of a mastodon were found there.
[actually a complete skeleton. The skull and tusks are in the nature museum at pound ridge reservation]
And the entire preserve overlays a belt of calcareous limestone, which encircles the Reservation [which is mostly a magmatic intrusion known as Pound Ridge gneiss]. This soil is less acidic and so more hospitable to a wide range of amphibians, insects and wildflowers, species not normally found in the area.
But Jim doesn’t know the Kaplan story.
I did a little digging there, being not only being an environmental writer, but also an investigative reporter for Vanity Fair, my eyebrows couldn’t help twitching with interest at the J.D. Kaplan breakout story. With a little googling and couple of emails and phone calls it quickly became very interesting. J.D. was also a millionaire he had a glucose and sugar company in partnership with a Cuban named louis Vargas jr. He was also allegedly a courier for Fidel Castro. According to various sources he was “a mixer in latin american political intrigue,” involved in “revolutionary counterrevolutionary counter counter revolutionary us cuban machinations.”
The charge of murdering his partner J.D. maintained was a complete setup. The body wasn’t even that of Vargas. But the CIA wanted him to put him out of action and may have had a hand in his conviction, and maybe it wouldn’t have terribly upset his uncle J.M., the molasses and sugar king and later owner of Welsh’s grape juice who was charged with and probably guilty of, someone who knows the family told me, funneling CIA funds through his company to leftie but anticommunist Latin American leaders like juan Bosch of the Dominican Repbulic and bettancourt venezuela and munoz marin the governor of Puerto Rico. J.M. was a sentimental old leftie, a collectivist but anticommunist socialist, like many in the Jewish intelligentsia and in fact like the CIA in its early days, which was staunchly anticommunist, but its operatives were liberal lefties, and didnt become reactionary until Nixon and Kissinger. J.M. organized the sugar cane plantations in cuba in his youth, and later converted welsh’s grape juice from a corporation to a cooperative. He started the J.M. Kaplan Fund, a big supporter of environmental and architectural preservation initiatives like Onearth, the Natural Resource Council’s excellent magazine, which I am a contributing editor of, and whose editor lives right here in South Salem and commutes to the NRDC’s office in New York. I was hoping he’d be here today but his son is in a show in new york city. In fact, ten years ago the J.M. Kaplan fund commissioned me to write up four transborder initiatives it was funding, which are posted on my Web site, DispatchesFromTheVanishingWorld.com. One was about its support of the effort to preserve the fabulous crumbling but still avant-garde art deco architecture in Havana. One of J.M.’s granddaughters, the writer Isabela Fonseca, is married to Martin Amis. I saw them at Christopher Hitchen’s memorial service in Cooper’s Union last spring. She spent four years with the Roma, the gypsies, and wrote a highly-praised book about it. Interesting family. Also socially aware and philanthropic. I wonder if J.D. is still alive. He would be 86 now. And what the second half of his life living somewhere under an assumed name was like. He married a Mexican woman named irma vasquez calderon in prison which he said in the book he wrote about his escape, The Ten-Second Jailbreak, was a “marriage of convenience.” so it doesn’t sound like she joined him. He escaped from santa martin acatilla prison august 19 1971, with a venezuelan counterfeiter carlos antonio contrereras castro. The helicopter hovered right over yard, Lowered a rope hauled em in, and they out of there, the whole thing over in eleven seconds, the guards were given pause cause the bottom of chopper was painted with mexican military colors and insignia. In the chopper was the famous lawyer vasilios choulos of san fransisco, who was the johnnie cochran of his day. He represented jack ruby, lenny bruce, abbie hoffman, jerry rubin, timothy leary and the hells angels and specialized in high profile countercultural figures who had run afoul of the military industrial complex. Choulos was convinced by j.d.’s sister of his innocence. j.d. allegedly the wrote his book in choulos’s house. From then on the digital trail goes cold.
The other thing that immediately raised my eyebrows was the name william r. rainsford, for whom j.p. Morgan built Savin Rock now the Chateau on the other side of 135. Bet Christina Rainsford’s husband was related to him, I thought to myself, and sure enough, with the help of another christina, christina rae the assistant to Bedford’s town historian, I confirmed yes christina’s husband w. kerr rainsford architect and poet was william s.’s son. Christina was a fabulous bedford lady, dear friends of my parents, maybe even a little older than georgina van rensselaer and miss frick She lived on hook road, in a gothic brick mansion there was a suit of armor when you walked in. in back below the garden a red clay tennis court and a cottage where my sister and her husband lived for first few years they were married. Christina back in the sixties I think famously lay down in front of the town bulldozers that come to pave hook road. Over my dead body, I absolutely forbid you to ruin the rural character of our beloved Hook Road, she told the work crew, and they turned around and went back to the town yard. And to this day most of hook road remains a dirt country road winding through the forest. Christina was a delightful poet, I quote in my westchester book, these verses from her poem “Imperfect Paradise” about her garden. The metre and rhyme scheme are that of “The Rubiyat of Omar Khayam.”
Wake, the coffee bubbles in the pot,
The egg is waiting, and the toast is hot.
This is no day for lingering in bed.
We must be up and dig our garden plot.
Sometimes I think that never flower grows
That blooms as long or smells as sweet as those
So glowingly portrayed in catalogues.
Why do ours never look the same ? Who knows.
Eager to learn I zealously frequent
The Garden Club and hear great argument
Concerning pesticides but oftentimes
Come out as ignorant as when I went.
Ah, my beloved, if our garden seed
Could grow and bloom with never any weed,
With never any blight or worm or slug,
Our garden would be paradise indeed.
Christina was a Nichols and she grew up in the brick Georgian mansion the brilliant currency speculator and leftie philanthropist George Soros and his wife bought in the nineties, but they have divorced and only she lives there now. I could tell you stories about that house, but I’ve gone on enough.
[post script : after my talk was over, an old man came up to me and said I had it wrong, the CIA supported Castro, and Louis Vargas Jr. was a CIA agent. I know the old man told me because I was part of the operation, which is still classified, so I can't tell you anything more, and with that, before I could get his name and contacts, he left the building. A woman I know whose husband was in the CIA during this period said he tried to convince the U.S. to support Castro, so they could use him against the USSR, but ended up being fired for making the suggestion. But would Castro have embraced the unfettered freemarket capitalist U.S.A. some
of whose most brazen and ruthless profiteers were in bed with the Batista regime he had just overthrown ? All things considered I'm glad there was a Castro a Marxist gadfly at our back door, even though Cuba suffered a lot from the boycott we imposed.
I remember going to a cocktail party maybe in South Salem in the eighties and a huge shouting match broke out between a Colombian woman who family had been wiped out by the paramilitaries the CIA was supporting, and a fanatically anti-communist IBM'r who could have been CIA. IBM was a big front for the Company. As Somerset Maugham described Monaco as “a sunny place for shady people,” Westchester could be described as a shady place for shady people.” But that would do a disservice to the many unshady people who are raising their kids there.]
Over the past two years, dozens of teens and young adults in the Welsh county borough of Bridgend have killed themselves, almost all by hanging, in an epidemic that became global news. Was it caused by an Internet cult? The malaise of life in a backwater? The author talks to “cluster suicide” experts, local adults who are frantically trying to keep kids alive, and several teens caught in the middle.
by Alex Shoumatoff
I turn off on the dodgy road to Shwt, which to the non-Welsh ear sounds somewhere between “shoot” and “shit.” A blind curve descends to a narrow stone bridge over a little river rippling through a grove of dwarf oaks. It’s a glorious, sun-flooded spring morning. The oaks are still leafless, but daffodils are out everywhere, the gorse is spattered with yellow blossoms, and the tits and thrushes are singing their hearts out. There’s nothing suicidal about this rolling, pastoral landscape, drenched with the sense of being inhabited for thousands of years, that I can detect. But a few years ago, a local 17-year-old boy left his car running and gassed himself here.
While there has always been a lot of suicide in the lowlands of South Wales, what’s been happening lately in the county borough of Bridgend is something different and very troubling. Since January of 2007, 25 people between the ages of 15 and 28 have killed themselves within 10 miles of here, all by hanging, except for one 15-year-old, who lay down on the tracks before an oncoming train after he was teased for being gay. This isn’t just a series of unrelated, individual acts. It’s an outbreak—a localized epidemic—of a desire to leave this world that is particularly contagious to teenagers, who are impressionable and impulsive and, apparently in Bridgend, not finding many reasons for wanting to stick around. It represents, if the official statistics are to be believed, a fivefold increase in Bridgend’s young-male suicide rate in three years.
Outbreaks like this are rare but not new. Plutarch writes about an epidemic of suicide by young women in the Greek city of Miletus that was stopped by the threat that their naked corpses would be dragged through the streets. Sigmund Freud, who himself committed assisted suicide, held a conference in the 1920s on teen-suicide clusters. They have happened in Germany, Australia, Japan, the U.S., Canada, and Micronesia. Psychologists familiar with the phenomenon are saying that what’s going on in Wales is a classic case of the Werther effect, named for Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, about a young man who puts a gun to his head to end the agony of unrequited love and because he can’t find his place in the provincial bourgeois society of the day. The novel’s publication, in 1774, prompted young men all over Europe to dress like Werther and take their lives. It’s also called the contagion effect and copycat suicide: one person does it, and that lowers the threshold, making it easier and more permissibe for the next. Like 10 people waiting at a crosswalk for the light to change, and one of them jaywalks. This gives the rest of them the go-ahead.
Publicity dramatically accelerates the spread of the contagion. In the late 1970s, there were a number of self-immolations in England and Wales, and within a year after the media picked up on them, the toll shot up to 82. Many of them were women in their 30s, even though mature adults have more life under their belts and are less vulnerable than adolescents to mass psychogenic behavior, and females are statistically much less prone to take their own lives. But humans in general are highly suggestible, especially when things aren’t falling into place.
This particular epidemic in Wales has followed the pattern. On January 17 of last year, the first female—and the 15th suicide in the cluster—a pretty 17-year-old named Natasha Randall, was found hanging in her bedroom in Blaengarw, a depressed former coal-mining town a few miles north of here. This was front-page stuff. The tabloids descended on Bridgend, and the story went national, then international, in less than a week. The sudden global attention precipitated—or permitted—four hangings over the next month. Three of them were girls. It is unusual for girls to hang themselves. Girls care more about how they are going to look, a suicide specialist told me. They overdose or cut their wrists. They are more prone to do it as a cry for help than to go through with it. (This is known in psychopathological parlance as parasuicide: deliberate self-harm without real suicidal intent.)
On February 19, 2008, 16-year-old Jenna Parry was found dangling from a tree in a wooded area called the Snake Pit, half a mile from her home in Cefn Cribwr, a village a few miles west of the town of Bridgend. Then there were no deaths for almost two months. Everyone hoped the epidemic had run its course, and that the kids had come to their senses and gotten a grip.
There was speculation that the victims might have belonged to an Internet suicide cult—when there was a hanging, often the person’s friends would put up a memorial page dedicated to him or her on Bebo, a popular social-networking site. In two cases, those who wrote loving eulogies were found hanging a few weeks later. The memorial pages, which brought some of the victims 3,000 “friends”—more than they had had in life—have been taken down.
The first known Internet suicide pact surfaced in Japan in 2000, and a new epidemic has been raging there since last April. About 1,000 Japanese have killed themselves by inhaling fumes created by mixing common household cleaning products. Police have asked Internet service providers to shut down suicide Web sites but have found it harder to keep people from posting the recipe for the mix or raving about how this method enables you to “die easily and beautifully.” Why these young people are so eager to die—what it is that their life in Japan isn’t giving them—is as much of a mystery as what is happening in Bridgend.
In Wales, however, the victims’ friends all say that the Internet has nothing to do with what is happening. “It’s nothing like that,” a girlfriend of Natasha Randall’s told a reporter. The victims acted on their own, she believes. “People get down, and they do it.” The Internet is just how young people communicate and, to a large extent, socialize these days. This certainly isn’t a suicide pact like the one made in 1997 by Heaven’s Gate, the cult in Rancho Santa Fe, California, 39 of whose members, dressed in matching black shirts and sweat pants and brand-new Nike sneakers, swallowed phenobarbital-laced applesauce with a vodka chaser, then put plastic bags over their heads to asphyxiate themselves.
There are many contexts in which the tragic deaths in Bridgend can be seen. The Gilbert Grape syndrome, as it could be called: the boredom, demoralization, and anhedonia of being inextricably stuck in some backwater place. As one Bridgend girl told the Telegraph, “Suicide is just what people do here because there is nothing else to do.” Another said, “I really do feel sometimes like I will never get out of here.”
In 2007, a unicef study of child well-being in 21 developed countries ranked Britain dead last. A key measure of a society’s health, the study maintains, is how it takes care of its children. Time magazine’s international edition ran a cover story about how the youth of Britain are “unhappy, unloved and out of control,” drinking more, doing more drugs, becoming sexually active in their early teens (many girls at 15 and younger), and exhibiting more antisocial behavior than ever before, due at least partly to parental neglect. In some cases, disaffection leads to violence: gang-related stabbings are alarmingly on the rise. “The British have a long propensity to recoil in horror from their children,” the story reports, and now they’re really scared of their young. Another study, by some Oxford social scientists, finds that the morale of school-age children throughout the U.K. is appallingly low. With parents failing to socialize their kids into adulthood, British youth, and other kids in the modern world, particularly in its marginalized sectors, are forming their own dysfunctional social groups. Children are less integrated, so they spend more time with their peers. “Add to the mix,” the Time story continues, “a class structure that impedes social mobility and an education system that rewards the advantaged, and some children are bound to be left in the cold.”
One social worker here tells me, “It’s surprising more of them aren’t doing it. These suicides are a symptom of a deeper societal malaise.” But why are they happening here, in this particular part of Wales?
The British tabloids have really done a number on Bridgend with their lurid headlines (two more hangings rock death-cult town; two cousins from ‘suicide town’ hang themselves within hours as death toll rises) and labels (“Britain’s bleakest town”). Official police reports were no kinder, identifying Bridgend as a “binge-drinking hotspot,” with more clubs and pubs per square mile than anywhere in the U.K. except Soho—which is no more true than the general tabloid depiction of it as a dead industrial hub. During World War II, Bridgend had one of the biggest munitions factories in the country, employing 40,000 workers, most of them women. After the war, new generations worked in its steel mills and, more recently, in high-tech Sony and Jaguar plants. Swansea, 20 minutes to the west, was immortalized by its most famous native son, Dylan Thomas, as an “ugly, lovely town,” and in the 1997 film Twin Town as “a pretty shitty city.” But Bridgend is nicer. It’s a perfectly pleasant provincial town. There are a few grim pockets of council housing, but I’ve seen a whole lot worse.
I have lunch at a Bangladeshi restaurant next to a nice couple in their early 30s. They live in Brackla, once the largest private development in Europe, and now a mix of comfortable middle-class, working-class, and subsidized housing—and the site of one of the hangings. The guy works at the Jaguar plant. It’s his day off. He says he knew Gareth Morgan, at 27 the second oldest in the cluster, who hung himself on January 5, 2008. “Not well, but enough to nod to,” he tells me. “We went to Bryntirion school together, but weren’t in the same grade. His nickname was Mugsy. He was definitely not the type.” Mugsy was, in the words of a mystified friend, “the joker in the pack. If there was ever a party, he’d be the one running around naked. He was popular with the ladies and great at football. The night before he died he picked up his kit for his pub’s team.” The friend goes on, “He wasn’t computer literate, so he couldn’t have been in a cult. He had a kid and had just broken up with his girlfriend, which might have had something to do with it.”
Breakups are a big cause of suicide in every culture. As the anthropologist Helen Fisher explains in her book Why We Love, falling in love triggers the chemical reward system in the brain, and when the object of your affection suddenly decamps, it can be like a junkie going cold turkey and drive you to madness.
Loren Coleman, the author of Suicide Clusters, writes provocatively that the Bridgend cluster “is probably merely being pushed along by the copycat effect, in which the model for suicide among impulsive, action-driven, forlorn youth has now been placed in front of them in an area that has turned grim in a downward economy reinforced in the nearly perpetual damp mists that shroud Bridgend in the long winter months. The darkness of despair can run deep. One need not blame cults, pacts, video games, the Internet, or even the media. The gloom is like the fog surrounding one at night in Bridgend, and for many, the modeling of past suicides shout out from those Welsh nights.”
Could the famously depressive Welsh be suffering from full-time sad, or seasonal affective disorder? Could they, after many generations, have internalized the foul weather so that it has actually re-arranged their genetic code and become hereditary? Could this be partly what is happening in Bridgend? Bridgend is no more perpetually socked in than the rest of Wales, but the weather could well be a contributing factor. Perhaps the problem lies more with the societal climate. The impossibly high expectations of modern consumer culture (the mansion and the luxury car these kids don’t have), lack of opportunity, loss of traditional priorities, empty time, and family breakdown are a perfect recipe for the “anomie”—disorienting rootlessness—that the French sociologist Émile Durkheim explicated in his pioneering l897 treatise, Suicide. Even back then, Durkheim noticed that industrialization was tearing people away from their traditional moorings and not putting anything in their place, that people weren’t being integrated into society, and that increased wealth wasn’t providing happiness—a problem that has become much bigger now that we have been reduced to consumer objects and our social interaction has become largely virtual.
Coleman’s spookier contention, that “the modeling of past suicides shout out from those Welsh nights,” gains increasing credibility a few days later, when I drive to the coast of Wales under a glowering, low cloud ceiling the whole way. Occasionally I glimpse the ruins of a high-walled Norman castle on a hilltop. Impaled heads were probably displayed on the ramparts back in the day, I think. A lot of blood has been spilled on this land. A lot of un-laid-to-rest souls could still be roaming around, if you believe in that sort of thing. The Vikings stormed through Bridgend, after the Romans, and before the Normans. The Welsh have been repeatedly conquered. They are a half-assimilated island in an English sea, like the French Canadians of Quebec, who have one of the highest suicide rates in the New World. Centuries of oppression have built centuries of resentment.
Fifteen hundred years ago the Celts were converted to Christianity by syncretism—the itinerant monks who were spreading the Gospel packaged it in terms of the Celts’ existing beliefs. Churches were built on pagan sites. Baptism was presented to the early Celtic converts as a ritual drowning of their pagan spirits. On the eve of All Saints’ Day (Halloween), the Celts dressed up as ghosts and skeletons to protect themselves from the restless spirits of the dead.
Kenneth McAll, a Scottish psychiatrist, maintains in his book Healing the Family Tree that the mentally ill are being tortured by their dead ancestors and that the best therapy is to identify and liberate the malevolent spirit by performing the Eucharist. The idea that these kids killed themselves because they were all mentally ill and being tormented by their ancestors, or possessed by marauding spirits, seems pretty far-fetched, but could these suicides not represent some kind of an atavistic response to the shittiness of the lives they have been presented with? What is this “other side” they tell each other they will soon be meeting up on? According to the British writer A. Alvarez’s The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, which traces the shifting cultural attitudes about suicide through history, the Druids—the magico-religious caste of the Celts, their polytheistic, animistic high priests and nature mystics—actually promoted suicide as a religious practice. They had a maxim, Alvarez relates: “There is another world, and they who kill themselves to accompany their friends thither, will live with them there.”
And this is the old Druidic heartland.
I pull up to the Bettws Boys and Girls Club, one of the places I read about. Some of the members were close friends of Natasha Randall’s and are being watched closely.
Bettws is an old farming village of a few thousand, four miles from the town of Bridgend. You come up the hill above Shwt and the club is on the left, in the old Bettws council schoolhouse. There’s a stone plaque outside from 1913 that reads, dyfal dong a dyrr y garreg, which means “Keep chipping, the stone will break.” Two boys in their mid-teens are smoking cigarettes and oozing attitude outside the door.
I’m not expecting anything here except grimness, but as soon as I open the door of the small building, I immediately get the sense that something special is going on, a powerful blast of what I will only later realize is an affirmation of life. It’s cozy and welcoming. There’s a leather sofa and some armchairs in the hallway; a cute little tuck shop and a carpentry shop built by prisoners from the big penitentiary just outside Bridgend; a music room in which a tall, lanky 19-year-old boy nicknamed Roasty (short for Roast Potatoes; his real name is Gareth Jones) is picking tricky Hendrix licks on an electric guitar; a billiards room where a group of kids are shooting pool; a row of computers that several girls are sitting at; and a room with a little boxing ring. The place is run by Neil Ellis, a 56-year-old former paratrooper. His two adorable little daughters are chasing each other around the premises. Neil’s father and grandfather and great-grandfather were all coal miners. They worked in the collieries up in the dark, narrow, misty valleys above Bettws.
“These kids have lost their tough-mindedness,” Neil tells me. “When we were growing up, you didn’t kill yourself. You dealt with it. One guy who did and left two kids was always referred to as ‘that bastard.’ It was a hard life in the coal towns, but a good one. There were accidents in the mines, and colliers died of dust”—pneumoconiosis, or black lung. But the men were proud to be wage-earners and to provide for their families. All that ended in the early 80s, when Margaret Thatcher shut the mines down because of pollution and the radicalism of the miners’ union, and because the seams were giving out.
After the mines were closed, Neil continues, people lost their houses and went begging on the street, and families fell apart. “That bastard Thatcher militarized the police and destroyed the whole social structure. If she ever showed up in the street here, people would stone her,” Neil says. “She’s as hated as Winston Churchill,” who put down a 1910 coal strike in South Wales when he was home secretary.
The B.B.G.C. is a real club. Its members drop in and stay as long as they like. Many of them practically live here, avoiding awful situations at home. One afternoon a boy tells me, “I just got thrown out by my mother because she thought I hadn’t enrolled in trade school for the fall, but I had. She told me I was a waste of space. I told her to fuck off.
Former members keep dropping by, like 18-year-old Martin Perham, who is on leave from the army and is about to be sent to “Afghan,” where Neil’s 36-year-old son, Rhydian, will soon be starting his second tour. “Martin was a challenging kid but now he’s a model citizen,” Neil tells me. “Maybe he had some run-ins with the law, but that’s a rite of passage for all these kids.” Jo, one of the other staff members, explains, “Neil took him under his wing, and little by little gave him responsibilities at the club, and respect, and turned him around. He joined the army and is coming around by leaps and bounds.”
Martin’s now got his life planned. He’s going to do 22 years in the service, then come back here and set up his own roofing business.
Neil drives me up to the valleys, where the old coal towns are and where many of the hangings have taken place. It is not hard to see why. The landscape is stark and grim. You could feel trapped here, living in one of the identical terraced houses that were built a hundred years ago for the miners and their families and extend for miles in thin ribbons hacked out of the steep valley slopes, one soul-less box of dingy gray pebble-dashing after another. Now the ones who work have to commute to the steel mills in Port Talbot, just this side of Swansea, or to the factories in Bridgend, but many are on the dole, living on biweekly unemployment checks. Even in Bettws, Neil says, “a lot of people don’t own cars, and it’s cheaper to buy a bottle of cider from the off-license than to take the bus to Bridgend, so they don’t go anywhere. Each community is a little world of its own. If some boys from the next town come looking for trouble, they’re going to find it.” But much of Britain suffers from this sort of oppressive, impersonal sameness. You find similar habitat on the continent, grimmer the further east you go. The suicide rates in Slovenia and Belarus are more than four times higher than those in the U.K. The Russian Federation has 41.25 per 100,000, while the U.K. has only 7.5, according to the most recent World Health Organization figures.
As in many rural parts of Europe, families have been living in the same place for generations, which means that their cumulative coefficient of kinship is similar to what you’d expect between cousins. This suggests that traits like suicidality and depressiveness, and the low levels of serotonin in the brain they are associated with, could be more concentrated in certain regions. A study of the brains of suicide victims who were abused or neglected as children found epigenetic changes—that is, chemical alterations on the “outside” of DNA strands, which can be caused by environmental factors. So the effect of parenting—good, bad, or nonexistent—might have a lifelong impact by determining which genes get expressed and which get “switched off.”
Black streams of slag, known as coal tips, stain the steep opposite wall of the valley as Neil and I make our way up the interminable main drag of Pontycymmer. “Twenty years ago you’d have seen a sea of black faces in the streets here,” he tells me. He points out the site of an old vaudeville hall where, he says, Stan Laurel performed in the 1920s, before he became the lanky sad-sack sidekick of Oliver Hardy.
Where Pontycymmer’s long valley comes to a dead end, we reach the village of Blaengarw, where Natasha Randall last lived, although she was seldom there. “Tasha lived in Bettws for 14 years,” Neil tells me. “Her mother and father were estranged from the time she was four, and she and her sister were brought up by their grandfather, who was the rock of the family. A few months before she took her life, her grandfather died, and she moved to Blaengarw with her father. Her sister got her own flat in Cefn Glas, and she spent a lot of time there and in Wildmill [a rough section of Bridgend], where she fell in with the wrong fucking crowd. So she had problems on problems.”
Our next stop, one valley over, is Nantymoel—barely more than a village, where three of the suicides took place. The second hanging in Nantymoel, five days after Natasha Randall’s funeral, was Angeline Fuller, who was not from there. A sultry, raven-haired 18-year-old English girl who had moved from Shropshire 18 months before, she was found by her fiancé, who said she had everything to live for. The couple had a stormy relationship, but were apparently deeply in love. Angie had tried twice before. She worked in a designer outlet store, was a Goth, and wrote in her Facebook profile, “I don’t like myself, but hey who does?” She had been on her computer an hour before taking her own life.
The road winds up and over a ridge, from which we can see down into Rhondda. “This valley is where the coal that fueled the British Empire came from,” Neil says. “And this is where I grew up and smoked dope and I couldn’t wait to get out.” Our route back to Bettws takes us through Caerau, once one of the biggest of the coal towns and now home to big social problems, and finally through Maesteg, where, Neil says, “a couple of boys done it.”
Back at the club, I find Cassie Green, Natasha’s close friend, at a computer.
Cassie is a big girl with a beautiful face, and remarkably self-possessed for an 18-year-old. “I’m from Bettws,” she begins. “My family was farmers. My father was from Sarn, 10 minutes from here. My mother was from here and her mother and father and grandparents and great-grandparents, and that’s as far back as I know. My dad’s not doing anything, and my mum goes from job to job. At the moment she’s working in a bakery in Newport. I’m an only child. My parents split when I was 13. I live with my mum, and my dad’s in Sarn.
“Tasha and I were the same age. Her mother was from here, and her mother’s father lived down the road. We had a childhood like any childhood, fun and just normal. After elementary school we went to Llanhari, a comprehensive school in Welsh that was an hour away. Tasha was always happy, always smiling, like nothing could get her down. Even if something was getting her down, she wouldn’t show it. After we graduated, when we were 16, I saw less of her, but we still saw each other on weekends. Six months ago she got a boyfriend. By that time I wasn’t seeing her so much. Kids were already hanging themselves. I knew two: Tasha’s friend Liam Clarke”—who hung himself in a park in Bridgend—“and the first kid to do it, Dale Crole. He hanged himself in Porthcawl in January 2007.”
Why did Tasha do it?, I ask.
“I don’t have a clue,” Cassie says. “It was the worst thing in my life. Liam died the month before, and her grandpa a few months before. She was doing drugs, and I heard other kids were bullying her. I know she didn’t get along with many people in Bridgend. Girls were jealous of her beauty, and she took things to heart. She had problems with her skin. She was dark-skinned, though her father and mother are white. I don’t think it had anything to do with the Internet.”
Cassie shows me her Bebo profile. She has written, “I can’t trust no one any more,” “Tasha r.i.p. I love you,” “Tasha my baby god what have you done?” She clicks on a photo of Tasha with a modest glimpse of cleavage that she says prompted the press to make salacious insinuations. “Tasha was stunning,” she says. She tells me how the press misconstrued Tasha’s message on Liam’s memorial page, “me too,” as meaning that she was planning to kill herself, too. Bebo is designed so that “me too” comes up automatically whenever you choose to copy your posting to your own page.
Cassie knew Jenna Parry, who took her life one month after Tasha. “We went to the same training school. Jenna was always happy and bubbly, a lovely person. No one knows why, but she may have done it because of Tasha, and splitting up with her boyfriend just a day or so before. They’d been together a long time. I heard it was a painful breakup. She’d tried [suicide] twice before. Jenna’s death was not as bad as Tasha’s, but I was upset.
“I love this club,” she says. “It’s changed so much since Neil came here four years ago. I didn’t go before. The kids come and they love it here.”
Besides the four other hangings that followed soon after Tasha’s death and the ensuing media feeding frenzy, there were two girls who attempted suicide. They are both from Pontycymmer, down the road from Tasha, whom they knew, so their attempts were possibly related. But in both cases it was probably more a cry for help. One of the girls tried with her cell-phone charger cord and was cut down by her father in the nick of time. She told her story to Closer, a scandal rag.
The following evening, I drive down to Bridgend so I can talk to the other girl from Pontycymmer—let’s call her Terri. Cassie and Legs (real name: Jamie Smith), a 19-year-old trainee youth worker at the club, accompany me. Terri is a small, pretty, outgoing 18-year-old. We wait for her to get off work, and I invite the three, and another friend of Terri’s, to dinner. Some of them want to go to McDonald’s, but after a heated discussion the five of us end up piling into a booth at a nicer chain restaurant near a Holiday Inn. They all order burgers and fries and Cokes. Terri is completely guileless and has no more problem than Cassie talking about what she’s been going through. It’s the boys who have trouble getting out what’s inside of them.
“I grew up with my stepfamily,” Terri begins. “My mother, her boyfriend, and his two children, and they had my brother. It was a stable, happy family situation. We went to school with Cassie and Tasha. Tasha was always, like, polite and friendly, and I was really shocked by what she done because I knew she had hopes for the future. When we were six we talked about what we wanted to be, pop stars and fantasy dream things, and Tasha said, ‘I want to be a solicitor.’ I cannot say why she killed herself. First I thought it had to do with her friend Liam Clarke, but now I think you can get obsessive that there are better things after death.”
Where does this obsession come from?, I ask.
“It’s something that develops in your mind,” she tells me. “You reach a stage in your life where you start to think death is not the bad thing you are taught to think, where you get this feeling. You’re feeling miserable being here and thinking there’s got to be a better place. I don’t believe in heaven, God, or none of that.
“We all went to the Welsh comprehensive school. I was really good friends with Tasha until we were 15. We saw each other every day, rode an hour to school and back. After we graduated, at 16, I didn’t really see her. She went to live with her father, but never slept there, and started going out a lot and moving with the druggie scene in Bridgend. We all used to smoke cannabis in school, but this was hard-core.
“I was already thinking about suicide since I was 13 and I knew others were hanging themselves. When I was 12, my family fell apart and my mother took up with this man and I didn’t get along with him. I’ve had a lot of people betray me and I find it hard to trust people, friends as well. I did try to kill myself when I was 14. I took an overdose of painkillers. I suffer from severe headaches and carried them in my schoolbag, but I got scared of what I done. We were at school and I told the nurse and she got me to the hospital in time.”
Terri’s cheerfulness and effervescence are beginning to evaporate, and a dangerously scared and fragile kid emerges. “Tasha was the seventh,” she continues, referring to the seven suicides that were well publicized at the time. “I never knew that the other six done it. I never read people’s pages. I was not aware of Tasha’s tribute to Liam, so her death came as a complete shock and surprise. Cassie told my friend, and my friend told me. I didn’t believe it for a few days. I didn’t register it, and after a while it hit me that she was actually dead. A while after Tasha did it, things started to become hard for me. I had family problems and friend problems. A girl was trying to come between me and my girlfriend and it got really stressful and I felt like I couldn’t take it anymore, all that stress on top of me, school and people. A lot of people said it’s selfish what these people done. But to me the only selfish people are the ones that drove them to it. It’s been a month since I tried to do it. I can’t really remember much about it, but I was feeling unhappy with life, sitting alone in my room. My mother was in the house. At the time I was mad at her. My head kept telling me to do it because everything was going to be O.K. So finally I tied a couple of belts and jumped off the stairs, but my head slipped through the noose. It only held me for a split second. My mother came. I fell to the floor really shaking and got up sitting and crying. For two weeks I was laid out. I still haven’t recovered, to be honest.”
Legs interjects supportively, “I was suicidal too. I thought I was going to shoot myself in the head with a crossbow.”
Terri goes on: “Tasha made me think I could do it. I felt less scared knowing one of my friends had done it. But I started to think, I don’t know if the future is bright, but that makes me curious to see what will happen, and things started to look up after I came down and got this job. I’ll be doing college next. I hope to get a job as a social worker. Now I have aspirations. I know the ability is in me to try again, but I’d have to be extremely low. I live in a dreamworld, thinking everything is wonderful, but every once in a while I snap back to reality and feel down. My mother sympathizes, but not as much as I need her to. We know someone else who didn’t have a very good family life and has been living alone since she was 15. She had really shit parents, old-fashioned, living in the past where it was acceptable to treat your kids badly, with physical and verbal abuse. People should be educated in the way they would feel if they were mistreated. I do think that having separated parents has a big effect. If people are putting you down it makes you feel like you’re a bad person. Even if it’s people you don’t like. Parents should support their kids in every circumstance, not take out their own frustration. When people do try to kill themselves, they don’t think of the effect on others, how my friends and family are going to feel. I didn’t think of that. I was so angry I didn’t care.”
There is a psychodynamic explanation of suicide, that it’s 180-degree murder. You really want to kill somebody else, usually an abusive parent or other relative, but you eliminate the abuse by killing the self. You kill the abusee instead of the abuser and try to send the strongest fuck-you message you can, usually by hanging yourself where the abuser will be the first one to find you. For the record, there have been no allegations of abuse in any of the Bridgend suicides.
The next night, my last in Wales, Neil and I take Roasty up to Cardiff to hear some live music. Roasty has never been to Cardiff at night, even though it’s only 25 miles from Bettws. As Sam, a support worker at the club who is like Roasty’s big sister, told me, “The kids don’t know all the things they can do. It’s never been explained to them, offered to them.”
Neil has a present for me in a cardboard box: a white banner with the Welsh dragon in the center, wrapped around a plastic statue of the dragon.
Bridgend’s respite from the wave of suicides lasted less than two months after Jenna Parry’s death. On April 6, a 23-year-old girl from Cardiff named Michelle Sheldon hung herself in the Cefn Glas estate, in the town of Bridgend. She had come to visit her boyfriend. Three boys found her and cut her down, but she died after three days on life support.
A few weeks later, Neil e-mails me with more bad news, this time even closer to home. One of the club’s members, 19-year-old Sean Rees, hung himself on the Top Site, a knoll just behind the club where the nicest houses in Bettws are. “He is the first one from Bettws,” Neil tells me. Tightly wound but always composed, he seems to be losing it this time. Sean was described by friends as happy-go-lucky and cheerful; he had just passed his driving test and had a job at a Sainsbury’s grocery store. He was well liked and it seemed he had everything to live for. That Saturday night, he had a row with the friends he was out drinking with and stormed off. “He hung himself from a tree in a small clearing surrounded by trees that is so peaceful-like. The police left a bit of the rope,” Neil says. “The politicians are putting together a rapid-response team, but they don’t have any counselors on the ground, so it’s bullshit, and the government won’t give us any money because we’re a private charity. We’ve had to let one of our staff go.”
He reflects: “These kids don’t have any coping mechanisms. We were raised up where you didn’t kill yourself. This is going to be a hard thing to turn around.” Soon afterward I get another e-mail from him. “The whole club has been involved in some pretty intensive anti-suicide prevention work following the death of Sean. We took a group down to Starmans [a farmhouse on the coast] for the weekend just to let them chill out. Lots of soul-searching and crying went on. The club has not been a fun place to be these last two weeks. I found out that all the young people, including Sean Rees, have a funeral song. I’ll let you know what the words are as soon as I find out.”
On May 4, 23-year-old Christopher Jones, nicknamed Whiskers, who worked at Apex Drilling and was about to become a father, was found hanging in the shed in his yard in Nantymoel. There was no direct connection with Sean’s suicide, but in the case of 26-year-old Neil Owen, who was found hanging from a tree a mile from Bettws on June 6, there was. Neil had once been Sean Rees’s roommate, before moving into a flat above the Oddfellows Arms pub, near the club. There was also a clear link to the June 7 plunge of 22-year-old Adam Thomas, a friend of both, from the balcony of his hotel in the Turkish resort town of Içmeler, where he had gone with his girlfriend to try to get over the loss of his two friends. Thomas was from Llangynwyd, a few miles from Bettws.
On June 16, Carwyn Jones, also a friend of Sean’s and Neil’s—all three grew up on the same street—hung himself in a field near the Oddfellows Arms. He was followed on August 16 by Rhys Davies, who did it in his bedroom down at Bettws Bottom Site, on the road to Brynmenyn. Davies was the last from Bettws, but on November 11, Lisa Dalton, a single mother, hung herself in Bridgend. She was battling anorexia and had medical issues. And before the grim year ended, there was yet another victim, 17-year-old Robert Scott Jones, found hung in a lot near a tennis club in Bridgend town on the morning of December 28. So it might not be over.
Neil Ellis found out what Sean Rees’s funeral song was. It isn’t an original composition but R. Kelly’s “The World’s Greatest”:
I am a mountain
I am a tall tree, whoa
I am a swift wind
sweepin’ the country
I am a river
down in the valley, whoa
I am a vision
and I can see clearly
If anybody asks you who I am
just stand up tall
look ’em in the face and say
I’m that star up in the sky
I’m that mountain peak up high
Hey I made it
I’m the world’s greatest.
To make donations to the Bettws Boys and Girls Club in Bridgend County Borough, e-mail email@example.com.
Alex Shoumatoff is a Vanity Fair contributing editor.
you gotta buck the tide
when the tide really sucks like now
you gotta buck the tide
when you washing up on the sand and stranded
you gotta buck the tide
when all hope of change all chance for improvement
is goin down the drain
you gotta buck the tide
this definitely not one of our better moments
not one of our finest hours
we’re losing the battle for the planet
to the dark powers
when apathy indifference and ignorance
are the order of the day
you gotta buck the tide
when everything you believe in
and who you are is being pulled out to sea
you gotta buck the tide
you gotta decide
if you’re gonna be part of the problem
or the solution
are you gonna put up with any more of this
air water and mind pollution
you gonna join this revolution
or sit there twiddling your thumbs
and know that what’s happening
or what’s not happening ain’t right.
you gotta buck the tide
you gotta take a side
there’s nowhere left to hide
you gotta take some pride
in what you doing here
don’t let the people who like it the way it is
take you for a ride
expose their dirty tricks and disinformation
Recognize when you being lied to
stand up and face the nation
so what’s it gonna be mothafucka
you gonna sit there fat dumb and happy
or you gonna be a tide-bucka ?
(The lyrics so far, last verse contributed by my teenage boys and their rapper friend Joseph.)
Yo ecocompanheros : The Dispatches is starting a new section called Social and Green Entrepreneurs
to recognize and promote the people who are doing it right, who are making a difference and playing an
important role in the enormous transformation that we all have to make. We’re kicking it off by introducing you to a line of green clothing that a small, grassroots outfit here in Montreal called Ecocompagnie is putting out. You can see it on their site, Ecocompagnie.ca. The clothes are made of certified organic cotton, grown in India. Every t shirt you buy keeps a litre and a half of pesticides out of the environment, according to Ecocompagnie’s sales director, Christian Piche, and a tree will be planted in one of the green corridors that are being regrown in the forests and riverbanks of Quebec. Companies are ordering Ecocopagnie’s white lab coats and collared tennis shirts. The fabric has an earthiness and a soft fullness not found in ordinary cotton. The line is designed by the Vailleux sisters, Sophie and Melanie. Sophie is Christian’s lovely conjoint, as the many unmarried couples in Montreal call each other. The clothes are being sold as part of the Earth Day celebration this Wednesday at Toi et Moi, on Laurier and Jeanne Mance, and on-line at Jourdelaterre.org. And at the happy hour celebration of Earth Say at L’Assomoir, on 112 Bernard Ouest. As Anna Lappe says, “Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.”
but I’ve been on a killer deadline for Vanity Fair, one of those twenty day straight all-nighters I have to pull from time to time, so I have been remiss about blogging. This situation will continue till the end of February.
This afternoon, I’m coming up for air for an hour or two and want to talk about some important things that have happened since my last blog.
First of all, two wonderful human beings whom I knew have died.
Alison des Forges was on the Contintental flight that crashed while coming in to Buffalo last Thursday night, killing all abroad. Alison was originally a scholar of Rwandan history who became the leading authority on the l994 genocide and a luminary for Human Rights Watch. I am looking at her meticulously, impartially researched 798-page report on the genocide,”Leave None to Tell the Story.” She was not popular with the current regime of Paul Kagame, whose soldiers also committed atrocities that she documented, chasing some of the genocidaires all the way to Kisangani and killing innocent Congolese along the way.
In l995 we drove one of my wife’s Tutsi relatives for her asylum interview with American immigration in Buffalo. Rose had grown up in Nyanza, the seat of the old Tutsi monarchy until its overthrow in l959, when it became known as Nyabisinga. Then she lived in Kigali, the capital. The interviewer asked her what the colors of the Rwanda flag were, and she didn’t know. Many Rwandan’s don’t.Then she asked her what the largest street in Kigali is, and she didn’t know that either. So he concluded that she hadn’t been living in Kigali, and turned her down. I called Alison, and she put me in touch with a Rwandese who talked with Rose and concluded from her dialect that she could only be from Nyanza/Nyabisinga. We sent the report to immigration, and they reversed their decision and gave her asylum. It took another two years to get her three children over. So Alison gave these four people a chance to have a decent life, which they have made the most of. We will never forget her kindness.
The second person who died was John Updike, the prolific novelist whose effortless facility with words and command of the English language prompted the British critic Wilfrid Sheed to compare him to Fred Astaire. We were both on the Harvard Lampoon and wrote for the New Yorker, but he was twelve years older and I didn’t meet him until 2000, when I was writing a piece for Vanity Fair about Alfred and Blanche Knopf, who founded the distinguished house that published dozens of Updike’s books and we had a delightful three-hour lunch at the Boston Ritz and promised to play a round of golf, which he called the most mystical of sports, together. He was lovely man and “cozy,” as my grandmother used to describe people who are genial and simpatico and you feel right at home with, and a real man of letters, but writing came so easily to him, it wasn’t the agonizing process it is for most writers, that I think in the end it worked against him. He wasn’t as deep as John Cheever, who chronicled the old WASP exurbs of Westchester County, New York, where I grew up. I came to know Cheever in the last few years of his life. He had worked through his demons and had a wonderful sense of inner laughter by then. He was home free.
Other developments :
In “New Jungles Prompt a Debate on Rain Forests,” Elizabeth Rosenthal reports in the New York Times that for every acre of rainforest that is cut (according to James Gustave Speth, The Bridge at the Edge of the World, p.1, half the world’s tropical and temperate forests are now gone, and the rate of deforestation in the tropics continues at about an acre a second), fifty acres of new forest are growing on land that was once fermed, logged, or ravage by natural disaster.This new, second-growth forest is blunting the effects of deforestation by absorbing carbon dioxide and offsetting the loss of the original trees as carbon sinks and the enormous amounts of greenhouses gases that the burning of the slashed-down forest is releasing. This may be true, but the loss of the biodiveristy in the primary forest is irreparable. Let’s not get too excited about this revelation. The latest climate change data shows that global warming is proceeding faster than even the most dire scenarios have been projecting, even though I think there is much more going on than the emissions we are responsible for.
Let’s not get distracted.
Eden Bromfield, a bushy-bearded pipe-smoking Ottawa-based British microbiologist and naturalist in the great Victorian tradition of Darwin, Wallace, and Bates, who is involved in the struggle to stop Hydroquebec from putting four dams on the pristine, torrential Romaine River on spec, in the hope that New England is going to buy the electricity, (we descended the Romaine last August with the actor Roy Dupuis and other members of his heroic grassroots Fondation Rivieres) e-mailed me this story in the Wall Street Journal abut how all the dfam-building in China is increasing the danger of earthquakes http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123391567210056475.html#articleTabs%3Darticle
I wrote him back, hi eden, have you heard that if all the dams the various provincial hydros in Canada have proposed are built, it will speed up the earth spins with all the additional weight of the impounded water at the top of the globe, much the way a ballerina raises her hands when she does a pirouette ? and Eden wrote,
Here are the documents presented at the BAPE, the Bureau d’Audiences Publiques Environmentales. Our Memoire discusses reservoir induced seismicity:
There was also a recent article in the Gazette about how if a certain big chunk of Antarctica breaks off, which it is threatening to do, but not necessarily imminently, it, too, will speed up the earth’s spin.
I also recall people being worried about a megaproject in the neotropics having a similar effect. Anybody know about this ?
As if things are going faster and faster, way too fast, already !
One last thing : if you’ve had a chance to listen to my song, “What’s The Drill ?” I have new lyrics to add at the very end, repeating the melody of “the inner calm, the conscious, the joy/in everything that lives/there’s no way of ceasing them” :
After the final no there is always a yes
and that’s my take I guess
How do you like it ? Should I quit my day job or what ?