To the end of the road

Initially the road lies through arid volcanic terrain.

At the urging of a friend, when my husband and I were in Hawaii, we took a drive from our hotel to ‘the end of the road.’  We were staying on the west side of the Big Island around Mauna Lani.  We had flown into Kona at night and driven to our hotel through pitch-black countryside.  We had no idea what lay beyond the bounds of the property.

After a day of rest, we ventured forth to discover where we were.  There is one major road, Highway 270, that follows the coast most of the way around the island.  At the northeastern tip of the island, it ends, in the rugged region known to be the birthplace of great Hawaiian ruler, King Kamehameha.  The distance there was less than forty miles.  Just right for an afternoon outing.  We’d be able to see the little towns of Hawi and Kapaau, too.

This short drive, one of the most dramatic I ever took, was a lesson in the micro-climates of Hawaii.  The scenery was beautiful and astonishingly varied.

Lava rock (the Big Island, Hawaii), © 2014 Susan Barsy

The greatest surprise came when we drove off the hotel’s grounds.  Dry rock stretched as far as we could see.  It was the broken-up refuse from a lava flow, underscoring what it meant to be on the island’s “dry side.”  It’s much sunnier and less rainy here than on the island’s east side, which makes the west preferable for vacationing.  The resorts here are unnaturally green and flowery, making the arid wasteland just beyond a shock to see.  (Only 10 inches of rain fall annually on this part of the island, according to this interactive map from the Rainfall Atlas of Hawaii.)

Lava grass (the Big Island, Hawaii). © 2014 Susan Barsy

Once out on the highway, we could appreciate the extent of these great lava plains.  They stretched out on both sides of the road, while in the distance to our right were the heights from which the lava initially flowed.

The grass and trees that grow out of the lava.

As the lava breaks down, it supports a tough sort of grass and some scraggly trees.  We drove through this sort of terrain for perhaps twelve to fifteen miles.  With the ocean on our left and the land sloping gently up and away on our right, we followed the road’s simple ribbon as it threaded north.

The heights beyond were green and cloudy.

Sometimes, peeking over the hills, we could see places that were tantalizingly green.  There were clouds on the heights, possibly even rain.  Up to 300 inches of rain fall annually on parts of Hawaii.

We could see Maui, © 2014 Susan Barsy

Sometimes in the distance we could see a blue cloud that I later learned was Maui.

The landscape suddenly turns lush with green.

Suddenly, in the space of a mile, the landscape around us turned dazzlingly green.  The thick, tall grass was hypnotically undulating.  We saw many horses and cattle grazing.

Each mile was wilder (the Big Island, Hawaii), © 2014 Susan Barsy

Each mile we drove was wilder and wilder.  The road cut in to steep hills with cascading plants.  The clouds thickened and spread, blocking out the blue.

Massive trees, including banana, towered over the road.

Strong trees, including banana, towered over the road.  When the road crossed a bridge, it was only one lane.  Our path was hillier and tortuously winding.

We arrived (the End of the Road, Pololu, Hawaii), © 2014 Susan Barsy

Suddenly, we arrived.  Parking our car, we found the camaraderie of motorists enjoying the sense of having done a great thing.

Camaraderie at the end of the road, © 2014 Susan Barsy

Picnic baskets came out, and cameras, too.  People ambled absentmindedly, getting their bearings, heading the stiff wind, contemplating a beyond that was mysterious and foggy.

Legendary land (the Big Island, Hawaii), © 2014 Susan Barsy.

We peered toward the legendary land that had cradled a great leader: King Kamehameha, who in 1810 united the Hawaiian islands under his sole rule.  The islanders who lived here centuries ago regarded Kamehameha as special from birth; it is believed he was born as Haley’s comet passed over Hawaii.  He was given the name Paiea and hidden in these secluded valleys to secure his safety from warring tribes.  On reaching adulthood, he became a warrior, giving almost miraculous proofs of extraordinary physical strength, such as moving the Naha Stone, weighing over 2 tons.

King Kamehameha land (the Big Island, Hawaii), 2014 Susan Barsy

Today, the wonder is that anyone could grow so strong in a land so elemental and forbidding.  To travel to the end of the road is to confront the earth’s natural richness and beauty, and to be awed by the astonishing resourcefulness of the humans who made this their home.

The road, the hills, the ocean make for a spectaular and colorful vista.

We returned to the comfort of the road, satisfied.

A war with an end

Massive crowds gathered around a replica of the Statue of Liberty near Philadelphia's city hall to celebrate news of the Armistice, November 11, 1918.
On this day, many nations pause to remember their war dead, the soldiers who have served and fallen, especially those who served in World War One.

What the US celebrates as Veterans Day began as a peace celebration on November 11, 1918, with the end of the pitiless conflict known as World War One.  The announcement that the war had ended with the signing of a multinational peace agreement, or Armistice, triggered massive spontaneous jubilees in many places worldwide.  In Europe, the States, Canada, even New Zealand and Australia, vast crowds gathered in the ceremonial centers of cities to cheer the end of a struggle that had cost the warring nations many millions of lives.

This marvelous photograph shows Philadelphians celebrating the word of peace that day.  Horrible as the war was, the photograph conveys a feeling of pride, even as it commemorates a sort of war unfamiliar to us today.  For World War One had a definite beginning and end.  When the United States entered the war on 4 April 1917, it was with a formal declaration of war from Congress.  President Woodrow Wilson had struggled to maintain a stance of neutrality toward the war for the previous two-and-a-half years, during which time public sentiment in favor of the war had gradually built.

Once the US had entered the war, there was a draft.  Over a million men were mobilized.  By the end of the war, 18 months later, American forces had suffered some 320,000 casualties, the majority being wounded, with tens of thousands being lost to death and disease.  Being at war demanded something from all society, taxing the economy to its limits and requiring sacrifice on the part of civilians, as the signs around the Philadelphia square suggest.

Hence the massive outpouring of joy when the war reached a definite end, and the blessed condition known as peace was attained for a time.

Image courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia.  Click on the image to go to the source.

Democracy on the ground

Click on the image to view the New York Times interactive map of House election results.

Click on the image to view the New York Times interactive map of House election results.

This map of House election results from the New York Times dramatically conveys the state of democracy on the ground.  Because the entire House stands for election every two years, the results express the state of local sentiment better than Senate elections can.

The map does not correct for population density, so one must bear in mind that some of the vast red areas represent relatively few people.  Still, it’s sobering to contemplate the restricted appeal of a Democratic ethos.  Just think of all the Americans, living in all the varied settings pictured on this map, to whom Democratic party principles no longer appeal.  Democratic strength is extremely limited geographically, whereas, as David Brooks points out, it’s hard to deny that Republican conservatism represents the mainstream.  It’s ironic, because red regions contain many people who use and benefit from the sorts of programs and services that Democrats perennially champion and defend.  Well-being is not all that drives people to the polls.

The Democratic Party’s ethos no longer resonates with such voters culturally.  Instead, the party has become identified mainly with the coastal and urban regions where more educated people tend to gather.  Looking at this map, it’s easy to understand why ‘mainstream’ Americans resent the undue influence that urban elites exercise through the media.

Many Democrats I know, convinced of the morality and truth of their views, do not see a need to proselytize.  I once asked a liberal friend why she didn’t volunteer to canvas in Democratic campaigns, and she said, “I guess it’s because I’m right—and I think that, if other people can’t see that, there’s nothing I can do.”  It’s a shame, because the Democratic Party is becoming irrelevant to a huge natural constituency of small-town and working-class Americans who are just getting by.  In those broad regions where Democratic leaders are giving up, an important strain of political culture may one day die.

The Enduring Republican Grip on the House (NYT)

After the Red Wave: What Democrats Should Do

Republican gains in Tuesday’s elections delivered a stunning rebuke to Democrats and their party.  The GOP is resurgent, despite having teetered after the 2012 election on the verge of disintegration and decline.

The Republicans achieved this gain primarily by telling voters that, under President Obama and the Democrats, the nation has fared badly.  Republican candidates attacked both the style and substance of the administration.  They assailed a government that they styled as autocratic, expensive, and ineffective.  They railed against government intrusion, and (in the case of illegal immigration) against governmental laxness, too.  They chafed against laws and constraints they don’t believe in.  Most of all, Republicans succeeded by denigrating what will surely be regarded as this era’s most significant achievements, such as the government’s success at bringing the nation back from the brink of all-out economic collapse and at passing a radical yet tenable and comprehensive health-care reform bill.

Strategically, the GOP also took care to marginalize some of the worst kooks seeking to work their way up in the party’s ranks.  The Republican National Committee under Reince Priebus encouraged and supported more electable candidates whose messages would still resonate with conservatives.  The policy also served the goal of producing a Republican Congress that is more homogeneous and governable.  Anyway, as campaign strategy, it worked.  Even weak candidates like Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas won.

Sadly, the Democrats were afraid to be identified with their party’s strengths.  They also failed to deliver a vision of government, that, if consonant with their recent achievements, was fresh and forward-looking.  As the president’s time in office wanes, Democrats should be thinking about how to catch the next wave.  What should the Democratic Party be about, once heavyweights like Obama and the Clintons are gone?  The Dems are notably short on galvanizing up-and-comers who could breathe new life into what has become a too-staid and centrist political party.

Chiefly, though, the Democrats have failed to accommodate and adapt to legitimate criticisms of Democratic governance and ideology.  In particular, they do not seem attuned to the people’s desire for a government that, if powerful, is deft and efficient.  They have not cared enough about the national mood to break with the president and demand Congressional debate on issues like our open-ended bombing campaign against the Islamic State.*  Nor have Democrats cared enough about the middle and lower classes to attack the glaring issue of corporate responsibility, favoring a rise in the minimum wage, yes, but remaining silent on a host of policies that work against working-class prosperity while benefiting corporations and the interests of global capital unduly.

Renew themselves: in short, this is what the Democrats must do.  Dare to be a more interesting, local, peaceful, green, and economical party.  Dare to think small, and find new ways to promote prosperity that rely less on government spending and more on shrewd uses of information and technology.  Scour the countryside for young, charismatic, ardent, and innovative political thinkers.  Restore pride in American citizenship and civic culture.  And move beyond the paradigm of the social-welfare state in trying to figure out how to give a stagnant, suffering America what it wants and needs.

* The president has since called on Congress to debate and authorize the bombing campaign.


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