A well-known story about the Nazi occupation of Denmark relates how, when the order went out that all Danish Jews would have to attach a yellow Star of David to their clothing, that King Christian chose to wear one in solidarity with his Jewish countrymen, and that the Danish people followed city. While the truth is that they did not, both the King and his subjects vocally opposed Nazi efforts, resisted plans to deport Jews, and organized a resistance movement that saved all but 65 of their neighbors from death. While the truth is less dramatic than the legend that sprung from it, the Danish example is still clear and worthy of remembrance and emulation.
The Star of David’s use as a way for a genocidal regime to identify those whom it targets for abuse and destruction comes to mind as one watches events unfolding in Iraq, where the self-proclaimed state known by the acronym ‘ISIS’ (Tr: The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’) is persecuting religious minorities, in this case Christians and Yazidis, is labeling the homes of the former with the Arabic letter ‘N‘ (‘pronounced ‘Noon’) to signify that the occupants are ‘Nazarenes’ – Christians. Their identification precedes their execution, sometimes after forced conversion. The focused campaign targeting particular groups for destruction meets the definition of ‘genocide,’ at least in the eyes of some observers.
While history does not exactly repeat itself, there is often a rhyme and rhythm to events. This may be true in this case, as a Lebanese television station, in a country where there may be serious danger in doing so, is joining a worldwide movement of concerned people who are displaying ‘Noon’ on social media in solidarity with Iraqi Christians. While it is impossible to know if a revue such as the Danes mounted seven decades ago (they used boats to ferry nearly all of their Jewish countrymen to Sweden), perhaps this effort will focus international attention in such a way as to deliver these people from their oppressors.
The President recently complained that the Founding Fathers created a flawed system – one where California and Wyoming have the same number of Senators – that prevents him from enacting his agenda. While he certainly is right that states have equal representation in the Senate, he misreads the intent in creating the system the way it is as a design defect. Our system is designed to kill bad ideas, to be slow enough that, while the majority does indeed rule, the minority in any debate gets its say and has its rights respected. The idea of treating states as equals is rooted in the concept of ‘dual sovereignty,’ the idea that the Federal government is supreme in the spheres of action that the Constitution – ratified by the states – leaves to it (war, printing money, trade, diplomacy, et cetera) while the states exercise sovereign power in their areas of responsibility (education and law enforcement, for example; in the latter instance, the Constitution names only three Federal crimes – piracy, treason and counterfeiting – with about 90% court action to this day being on matters of state or local jurisdiction).
(The Founders’ desire to create a system aimed at stopping bad ideas from becoming law is also the reason behind the filibuster – one Senator can stop the machinery of the Senate for as long as he can hold the floor and speak.)
Finally, the Senate’s ability to roadblock legislation – collectively or individually – is part of our system of checks and balances, again, a product of the Founders’ desire to prevent tyranny by stopping bad laws from being enacted. Each branch of the Federal government is co-equal and can check the others. This is an idea fitting for an elementary civics lesson and one, no doubt, learned, but perhaps forgotten in the heat of battle, by those who complain about the process derailing their legislative timetables. This is not the first time such sentiments have been expressed – Franklin Roosevelt, frustrated with the Supreme Court ruling parts of his ‘New Deal’ unconstitutional, wanted to pack the Court with six additional justices who would be friendly to his agenda. Even though his party was dominant in Congress at the time (1937) he proposed this, they balked at an idea that would have undermined the balance of institutional power in Washington, D.C.
Finally, one may see in the following a succinct explanation of how our system works, and works best, by stopping bad ideas from becoming law: No bill is truly law until it passes the House, the Senate, gets signed by the President, withstands court challenges and is enforced by a jury. Our system is certainly not perfect, and each of the checks and balances in it may be misused for evil or illicit purposes, but our system has given the United States a quarter-millennium of generally stable government, rising living standards and greater freedom – no mean accomplishment, and, insofar as it touches upon our Constitution – no accident (or ‘design flaw’), either.
The ‘culture wars’ and the era of either/or choices, of talk-show ‘debates’ where pundits talk over or past each other, may be drawing to a close. Once or so in a long lifetime, American politics goes through a realignment, usually brought about when the last ‘deal’ We the People’ struck to govern how we live together stops working well and the politics we have known offers no answers. Politicians, like generals, prefer to prepare to fight the last war. This backward-looking dynamic, seen today in Democrats reflexively looking for New Deal/Great Society-style solutions while Republicans try to imagine what Reagan would do, produces gridlock without solving the problems that fester all around us. Eventually, a new dynamic emerges, and the old alliances are replaced by whatever coalition offers a frustrated electorate what look to them to be better answers.
This may be happening again, as Pat Buchanan’s review of Ralph Nader’s new book argues. That Buchanan, an architect of the Nixonian ‘Southern Strategy,’ lauds Nader, an arch-liberal who was opposite him for many years, is perhaps less odd than that they have worked together before, beginning with the battle over NAFTA, a signature plank from Ronald Reagan’s platform that the Gipper included in his kick-off speech for the 1980 campaign, and extending on to opposition to the post 9/11 wars, torture, the surveillance state and the corporate bailouts of ca. 2008-9. What makes an alliance like this significant is that they can put aside hot-button issues like abortion, gun control and ‘gay marriage’ to work on problems that they see as more significant, even critical to the survival of the American polity. (They are not alone, either among the opinion-makers or in the political rank and file, as the frequent alliances of libertarians and the populist Left to stop PIPA and SOPA, in support of ‘Net Neutrality,’ and on other issues pertaining to the defense of an open internet testify. Theirs are just two of the more-prominent voices raised in protest over the course our politics has taken since the 1980s.)
Politics makes strange bedfellows; what remains to be seen is if this is just another attempt to turn a series of one-night stands into a marriage of the anti-Establishment elements of what used to be called they ‘left’ and ‘right’ into something that may become a true alternative to politics as usual. Political science is a creature of the classroom; what takes place when we apply our understanding of ‘what right looks like’ to the real world – the putting of theory into practice – is what efforts like Buchanan and Nader entail. ‘Government’ should never be a matter of theory, of taking a ‘required’ class, of rote memorization and then the post-exam ‘brain dump,’ but rather should be a seamless experience where reality informs the academy, and vice-versa. This is how our politics is supposed to work; that ‘We the People,’ may alter or abolish the existing political order when it ceases to serve our ends is a concept at least as old as the Declaration of Independence and one that does not require any form of revolution other than the peaceful one that uses the ballot box to to accomplish its objectives. It is for us to use what we learn, in the classroom as well as on the street, to make our politics better serve our interests; if we do not, then other elements in society will.
It is no secret that Michigan, like much of the American Midwest, experienced one of the coldest and snowiest winters in living memory (itself a very short time in the span of centuries and millennia) in 2013-4. One of the issues, long dormant in the bygone era of relatively mild winters, is snow removal. Headlines about city and county budgets under stress due to overtime and road salt/sand costs incurred in excess of what is planned to deal with a normal northern winter. Where this writer lives, in Charlotte, a small town in mid-Michigan, another issue the record-setting snowfall raises is: Who, if anyone, ought to keep the sidewalks clear?
Many cities have ordinances on the books requiring homeowners to clear the sidewalks in front of their homes within 24 to 48 hours of snow falling, if the accumulation is as great or greater than a certain minimum amount. Jackson, Michigan, for example, requires snowfall of 4 inches or more to be cleared within 48 hours of when the snowfall stops.
Pedestrian use of sidewalks was a major factor in Council’s 4-3 vote in favor of the proposed ordinance, which takes effect at the start of the next ‘snow season’ on October 1st and it remains in effect yearly through April 30th.
Homeowner/business responsibility for city property maintenance was the source of much push-back on this issue. Several speakers at Council meetings, as well as a majority of those who wrote to us, objected to having to clear the City’s sidewalks; the counter-argument of those of us in support was that homeowners have to mow the boulevards in front of their homes, even though that, too, is municipally-owned.
Old age and disability also figured in the debate, as speaker after speaker pointed out that many homeowners were elderly and thus unable to shovel their walks. (Figures given for the size of Charlotte’s senior homeowner community were often greatly exaggerated, with at least two citizens stating that the formed a majority of the population; one basic lesson of making public policy is to be sure of one’s facts, and a quick visit to www.census.gov revealed that only 14% of our residents are seniors, versus 20% who are school-aged children – primary users of sidewalks during the winter months. Pointing this out helped to blunt that objection.)
Humanity and common sense ought to inform policy-making, and they did here, as our Mayor and other members of Council suggested that we learn from the experience of neighboring cities and crate a volunteer group to connect residents willing to help with those unable to help themselves. For ‘snowbird’ residents who prefer warmer climes in winter, options exist to contract for snow removal when no neighbor, friend or Good Samaritan exists to care for their property. (In their own self-interest, having the sidewalk cleared would help to keep their homes from appearing uninhabited to would-be burglars.
Finally, politics is the art of the possible. One need not be a Lyndon Johnson to get legislation passed; it takes a willingness to see the other side’s point of view and to take half a loaf when a full one cannot be obtained. Such was the case here, as the original proposal, made by this writer, called for a 24-hour period after the cessation of snowfall during which sidewalks must be cleared before the City could, upon citizen complaint, take action to either write a citation or to remove the snow and bill the property-owner. (We chose enforcement via citizen complaint because the City lacks the resources to do primary enforcement – another objection raised to enacting this ordinance.) We settled for a 48-hour period, which was necessary to cobble together a majority, even though it cost one vote that supporters might otherwise have had, from a colleague who thought that too long. Two votes gained, one lost, and an ordinance enacted that was not anyone’s first choice, but was acceptable to a majority. (In recognizing that things may not go as the majority envisions, this ordinance is only on the books for three years, thanks to a ‘sunset’ provision, and will have to be re-enacted before expiration to remain in force thereafter. This makes the snow-removal ordinance an experiment in public policy, renewable if it earns it, but otherwise set to melt away if it fails to work as intended.)
With the days growing longer and the temperatures beginning their slow ascent toward the warmer regions of the thermometer, we will have all summer to plan for coordinating volunteers before the next installment of ‘Pure Michigan’ winter.
Many older American cities have aging roads, sewers, bridges, dams and other public works commonly called ‘infrastructure’ in public debate. Local taxes, often in the form of ‘millages’ on property but sometimes assessed on income, pay for infrastructure maintenance in many places; these are often the only taxes that voters have a direct say about. With stagnant real wages since the 1970s and rising levels of taxation (at all levels), inflation and public debt, many voters are wary of entrusting more of their hard-earned money to government, even though local government, composed as it is of their neighbors, is the one closest and most accountable to them. What, then, should citizens ponder when faced with the need for maintenance funding, either as voters and tax-payers or as local officials?
(Budget cutting is a popular choice for many limited government advocates, but smaller communities like the author’s – Charlotte,Michigan – have experienced the whipsaw of declining property values, which means lower tax revenue,along with state revenue-sharing cuts, even as inflation and pension-related legacy costs have risen. The easy cuts were made years ago; in our case,60% of the municipal budget pays for 16 police officers – enough to man a 24/7operation with no excess,and five firemen to anchor a volunteer department. Add the public works department – the folks who,among other things, repair the roads, and you’re up around 80%; the city manager, treasurer, city clerk and assistant, a downtown development authority director plus a shared secretary account for most of the rest. City employees make an average of $47,700 a year, their salaries are fairly modest and cutting them further than they have already been would cause hardship and possibly an exodus of those able to leave. A city like ours would have to eliminate retiree benefits and run a bare-bones operation incapable of anything but basic day-to-day operations to achieve significant additional savings to devote to street repair; thus the focus of this study is on raising additional revenue.)
Tullock (1959) asserted that one of the problems of voting behavior was the tendency of majority voting systems to favor those who vote in their own narrow self-interest, in coalition with others who do the same, in a process that he termed ‘log-rolling’ or the trading of votes for what favors one for that which favors another, to the detriment of others who display greater, more disinterested public felicity, whom Tullock termed ‘Kantian’ voters.
Since most people, including those who hold office, elective or otherwise, in government, act in what they perceive to be their own interest, sub-optimal policy outcomes are not only a possibility, but a near certainty in situations where decisions are made, directly or through elected representatives, by majority voting. Majorities form to benefit themselves at the expense of all community members, and as their interest in maintaining their peculiar advantage generally outweighs that of any individual who does not so benefit, they can easily band together to maintain their privileges by direct opposition to attempts to roll them back, or by banding together with other interest groups to trade support for the rents that each collects from the general population.
In terms of road funding, while contractors benefit from construction activity, their numbers, at the small-town level, will be dwarfed by those who prefer to use a public good – the streets – without having to pay for them. Tullock’s theory would predict that those who are asked to pay taxes for road maintenance might conclude that their tax payments would exceed their estimation of the benefits they would derive from better roads and therefore would vote to oppose funding repairs, at least for so long as the roads were drivable.
Regan (1989) examined the problems of infrastructure maintenance and identified two tendencies that worked against rational policy-making. The first is, ‘Cut the ribbon and run,’ where the positive press generated by new public works motivates their construction, but regular maintenance does not. The second problem is the existence of, in a typical municipal setting, two budgets: a general fund and a capital budget. The former pays for current expenses out of tax revenue while the latter is often bond-funded, with costs deferred over a period of years but with the borrowed money available for immediate use. This creates a scenario where maintenance is deferred and where there is more motivation among policy-makers to replace aging and under-maintained infrastructure with new public works, generating the ‘ribbon-cutting’ moments prized by politicians. Thus, it makes political, but not economic sense, to let infrastructure decay and be replaced before its normal service-life would otherwise dictate instead of prolonging its’ existence through regular maintenance, as these same political leaders might be expected to do with their homes and other personal possessions.
Regan argues (p. 184) that an explicit covenant be included whenever the full faith and credit of the public is put behind a bond issue intended to fund infrastructure: Funding for regular maintenance should be mandated, so that bond-holders have better assurance that their interest and principal will be repaid from the revenues generated by the public works they financed and that the tax-payers only have to pay of infrastructure once over its expected service life. The major downside to this approach, according to Regan (p. 185) is that non-discretionary budget items lessen public officials’ freedom of action, and thus their accountability. The existence of multiple, significant non-discretionary line items may lead to greater ills than deferred maintenance does, at least in the short term. Regan’s proposed solution, based on New York City’s charter reforms of the late 1980s, is to require a multi-year capital maintenance plan, with specific responsibility for each piece of infrastructure assigned to the appropriate agency, and a price tag for maintenance calculated by professionals from the field of work in question. This process would allow for open discussions and decisions to be made, and if funds available for all uses do not rise to the level necessary to pay for them, then a decision to cut maintenance, as ‘the lesser of two evils,’ would be made with complete foreknowledge of what that means for the future.
Public Sector Failure
The late James Buchanan, the co-author of Public Choice Theory use the term ’public sector failure’ to describe situations where sub-optimal outcomes occur as a result of the operation of the political process.
Alternative scenarios to this involve voters acting with something akin to ‘enlightened self-interest,’ which requires an initial act of trust and altruism that they expect to be reciprocated by others. Or, to borrow dialogue from a scene from the movie A Beautiful Mind where several college students gathered at a local bar are admiring a beautiful blonde woman, collective benefits can derive if everyone will cooperate and ‘ignore the blonde:’
If we all go for the blonde and block each other, not a single one of us is going to get her. So then we go for her
friends, but they will all give us the cold shoulder because no one likes to be second choice. But what if none of us
goes for the blonde? We won’t get in each other’s way and we won’t insult the other girls. It’s the only way to win.
Ground Truthing the Theories:
‘Ground Truth’ is a military colloquialism for knowing what is actually happening as opposed to what is reported in intelligence estimates. The term is similar in meaning to what one finds when a variant of it is used in social sciences.
Glaser and Strauss (1967) formulated an inductive method of social science research the termed ‘ground truthing.’ The concept is, simply, that, validating data from physical observation and measurement helps to support or call into question what modeling based on samples and statistical processing purports to be reality. Aaron Strauss (2009) developed their theory further and applied it specifically to voter perceptions of candidate statements during elections. He argued that voters validate those campaign statements on topics with which they are familiar against their own experience, effectively ‘ground truthing’ them as they weigh their choices.
What Strauss’s research suggests aligns with both experience and common sense: Voters are more likely to support proposals for projects they have some knowledge of and whose reasonableness is evident. That does not mean that asking for money will become easier, only that the chances of success in getting voters to ‘ignore the blonde’ and accept loss of income likely in excess of their individual benefit from the infrastructure it funds increases with the clarity and simplicity of the proposal being made. If we intend to continue expecting a quality of life that good infrastructure supports, absent an economic boom, then local leaders will have to convince people that the decay they see will be mended by the proposals they are asked to approve, even at the risk of being unpopular for doing so.
Buchanan, James. (1962) The calculus of consent. Liberty Fund, Inc. Indianapolis, IN.
Crawley, Western Australia. Regan, Edward. (1989) Holding government officials accountable
for infrastructure maintenance.
Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science, Vol. 37, No. 3: Restructuring the New York City
Government: The Reemergence of Municipal Reform.
Strauss, Aaron. (2009) Political ground truth: how personal issue experience counters partisan
bias. Princeton University doctoral dissertation. Princeton, N.J.
Tullock, Gordon. (1959) Problems of majority voting. Journal of Political Economy, vol. 67,
no. 6 (Dec.)
Recently, I had the privilege of spending an evening with two World War II vets – ‘General R,’ age 89, and another gentleman, 91 spry years old, who shared their memories of the war with their companions. General R wanted to join the Army Air Corps before Pearl Harbor, but he was turned down due to a lack of the requisite two years of college education. He turned to the Canadian Royal Air Force, who were more than happy to have him. After training on a cloth-winged biplane, he found himself in the cockpit of an RAF Hawker Hurricane. In 1943, after obtaining a release from the RAF, Gen. R joined the Army Air Force, which was less concerned then with college than with combat experience. Back in Great Britain, he flew many more missions until being shot down in late 1944, which provided an opportunity for him to be a guest of the Germans until the end of the war and his release.
Returning several years afterward to service, this time with the Air National Guard, he serve ed until the mid-1970s, retiring just as F-15s were being added to the inventory. From biplanes to jet fighters….
The other gent, a natural storyteller and a ‘live wire’ despite his years, spent the war with the Naval Armed Guard (not the Merchant Marine, as he quickly corrected me). He left ‘the Triple C’ (Civilian Conservation Corps) camp where he was living and working to enlist as soon as the news of Pearl Harbor reached his camp. These sailors manned armed merchant ships, and my dinner companion spent his time in the North Atlantic, in a contest with U-boats to get supplies through to the front, and to the English people who sacrificed so much during the war. The contest didn’t always end successfully, as my companion spoke of spending the night on an iceberg after his ship was torpedoed and sunk. (They did calisthenics to stay warm until a rescue ship could come to their aid.) The U-boat threat was so real to them that they slept on deck, in life jackets, on their homeward voyage after V-E day, just in case a young U-boat captain wanted to get in one last, post-surrender kill before returning home.
He closed by relating some of his post-war adventures, and then added that he wished he were 21 years old so that he could do it all over again.
It was a nice way to spend an October evening, especially as I’d said good-bye for the winter to herb and Gladys, our snowbird neighbors, who’d just departed for Florida. (Herb served in the Pacific Theater and remained spry enough to do yard work this summer, though he stopped hand-mowing his lawn a couple of years ago.)
Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to hear more memories retold, as ‘Chief M,’ a retired warrant officer, related to us, at a unit alumni dinner, his experiences in Europe as an infantryman, and how he finished the war in the Philippines, as his unit was one of several shipped across the globe after V-E Day for Pacific service and potential use in an invasion of Japan’s home islands.
My own service never involved anything as dangerous or exciting as what these combat veterans experienced. Too young for Vietnam, I was nearing the end of my service by the time we entered the post 9/11 era and my turn never came to see overseas war service. However, while the ‘hot wars’ passed me by, I did serve in Germany during the ‘Cold War,’ and once visited its crucible, Berlin, for urban warfare training in 1982 while a member of the 3rd Infantry Division. Berlin was divided then, before the Berlin Wall came down, and the West was free, while the East was under Communist rule. However, the treaties signed by the World War II Allies included visitation rights for each of the four signatory powers (the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and France). Those treaty rights were our passport to a day-trip to East Berlin. That day, spent amidst the dreary ruins of a metropolis only partially rebuilt, dreary even on its signature street, Unter Den Linden, once the German capital’s showcase, and the 24 crosses we counted that were erected in on the western side of the barrier zone to mark where would-be escapees were gunned down by East German guards within sight of the freedom that they were willing toy risk their lives to obtain, made for a more powerful education than anything written in a book could’ve imparted.
What follows are the pictures I took during that visit in the spring of 1982.
This space, and my time, are not enough to recall all the other stories, of elder relatives who served in Korea and Vietnam, and in earlier wars going back to our country’s founding, or even my maternal Grandmother’s stories about growing up in the encampment of the 42nd Highlanders, (‘The Black Watch’), and on and on. If you have the opportunity to sit next to one of those who swerved, be sure to ask about their stories, because they will pass away with their bearers and will be lost to us someday if not retold and passed down to others. Their memories are truly ‘living history’ and their retelling our texts for understanding what it was like, in each of the places they went, when they experienced military service – and sometimes war – at the human, personal scale.
Like my dinner companion on that October evening, I wish I was 21 again, so that I could do it all over.
Budingen Castle was the redoubt of the Prince-Bishops who ruled the region during late Middle Ages, through the times of the Reformation and before the coming of German unification. ‘Prince-Bishop’ refers to the dual offices combined in one person who exercise both temporal and ecclesiastical authority. Before unification in 1871, Germany was a land, and the Germans a people, but they were not a nation, in the political sense. The Reformation divided them, and figures like the Prince-Bishops played a major role in defending their territory from enemy inroads, as they had against external foes in olden times. (Bundingen, situated just north of Frankfurt, was by no means unique in this combination of secular and ecclesiastical authority, nor was the practice confined to Germany; Durham was a English ‘County Palatine’ under the authority of a Prince-Bishop for much of the Middle Ages.) Bundingen also served as a jumping-off point for ‘Volga Germans‘ emigrating to Russia at the timer of Catherine the Great.
One weekend, on a four-day pass, I had an opportunity to leave Aschaffenburg, where I was stationed with the 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry, 3rd Infantry Division, U.S. Army, Europe (USAEUR) and travel to Bundingen Castle. The pictures that follow I took while there on tour.The end of the cycle of wars begun after Martin luther nailed his ’95 Theses’ to the door of a Wittenburg church marked the beginning of the end of the Prince-Bishop’ power. Having outlived the hour of their greatest need, they gradually sunk into a respectable oblivion, finally surrendering all feudal rights and privileges with the rest of the German nobility in 1919 with the advent of the Weimar Republic. The castle has, however, remained in the same family for over 700 years and is a popular tourist attraction down to the present time.
Aschaffenburg, (West) Germany, was my home for two years as an infantry soldier in the U.S. Army’s 3rd ‘Marne’ Infantry Division from 1981-83. Like virtually every place in Europe, ‘A-Berg,’ as it was known to the G.I.’s stationed there, had seen a lot of history. Over a thousand years had passed since Aschaffenburg was settled by the German ancestors of today’s townsfolk. The city, northernmost in Bavaria, sits aside a bend in the Main River, and is also called ‘Aschaffenburg-am-Mein.’
The year of my arrival, 1981, was celebrated as the 1,000th in the history of the local cathedral, the Basilica of Saints Peter and Alexander. This basilica church added some Gothic elements over the centuries, and has served as the center of town for all of its existence. The visitor can see elements that have been added over the centuries, like layers of strata in a rock formation, each telling something of the times that authored them.
The Sandkirche is another Aschaffenburg church with some history to it. Built during the Counter-Reformation era, it features art and architecture that survived World War Two intact – alone among they city’s churches. The Rococo style is ornate and one of the finest examples of its’ genre.
A Renaissance-era castle, the Schloss Johannisburg, dominates
the skyline and is one of the leading attractions of the city. The building complex and parkways take at least a full day to enjoy and appreciate.
The cityscape, especially in the ‘Old Town,’ is medieval in character and preserves the feeling, even amidst modern intrusions like electric lighting, an air of traditionalism that is charming and genuine.
Aschaffenburg did not lack for more modern attractions, however: It boasted an underground mall, a train station and a Hard Rock Cafe, among other evening hangouts frequented by locals and G.I.s alike. Some of the historic attractions, like the Heylands brewery, in operation since 1792 (closed in 2001), where one could enjoy ‘Aschaffenburg’s Grossest Bier,’ had attractions beyond the historic, especially for young G.I.s.
History is all around us; it is certainly easier to find in the Old World. However, it can be found virtually wherever one lives, and while it may span a millennium, it’s still history – and it’s there to be enjoyed, appreciated and passed on to the next generation.
Hippocrates, ‘the Father of Medicine,’ taught his students while seated under a sycamore tree. That tree lived for centuries and was famed as the place where Western medicine was born. Although the original no longer lives, a cutting from it has been brought to life and now grows in northern Michigan. This is not the first cutting from the famous tree to be planted abroad; the original tree has itself given way to a cutting taken from itself, making the Calumet tree a grandchild of the famous tree. Other cuttings have taken root on medical school campuses, appropriately enough, and grow to become living symbols of the first medical school classroom.
Their sometimes millennial lifespans make trees living witnesses to history. Other famous trees that have survived the centuries to stand as markers of famous pasts include the ‘Major Oak‘ under which Robin Hood and his outlaw band used to gather and ‘Tree of One Hundred Horses,’ a Sicilian Chestnut which has lived for perhaps 4,000 years on the slope of Mt. Etna, only eight kilometers from the volcano’s mouth. Legend has it that a troop of 100 horsemen took shelter under its’ branches during a thunderstorm. It is a candidate for the largest tree, by girth, on Earth.
The Cedars of Lebanon were already famous when the Epic of Gilgamesh was composed near the end of third millennium, B.C. Some of the oldest denizens of Lebanon’s slopes may well have looked down on Gilgamesh as he passed by them in their youth. As the elders of the remaining stands of this once-vast wood matured, they saw their neighbors taken to build Solomon’s Temple, watched Alexander’s Macedonians pass by, and continued t as they aged o have a front-row seat to history being made in that region of the world that seems forever to make headline news.
Many other examples of famous trees come easily to mind. These examples are meant to show that history lives in them, as it was often made under their boughs, and we can stand beneath them today, on ground shaded by the same witness as when it first came to fame. With transplants like the one now taking root in Calumet, one need not even travel to the Greek islands to experience something of this; a scion of the original may be close to home. This writer looks forward to visiting the Hippocratic Sycamore on his next visit to Calumet, and while it will be the shores of Lake Superior before him, it will be easy enough for imagination to take flight, and for a moment he’ll be in ancient Kos, where this tree’s life and fame began.