Featured Landscape Coin Drops for 2001

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December, 2001

Cell D-41, Alcatraz. A cell inhabited by Robert Stroud while he was at Alcatraz.

We left several coins on Alcatraz that day. As we explored the scenic former prison that is now a National Recreation Area, we considered the contrast between the visibility and public mystique of Alcatraz and the more hidden prisons of today, where civil rights abuses are conducted in the comparative anonymity of isolated rural landscapes. Leaving a coin in Cell D-41 was a specific memorialization of Robert Stroud, who achieved fame in the mid-20th century as the "Birdman" of Alcatraz. Stroud's life exemplified the tense coexistence in one person's psyche of murder, and of a profoundly life-affirming devotion to the welfare of winged creatures.

Stroud first went to prison for murder in 1909, at the age of 19. In 1916 he murdered a prison guard at Leavenworth, and was sentenced to death. His mother's aggressive lobbying on his behalf reached president Woodrow Wilson, who commuted his sentence to life. The incensed prison warden of Leavenworth decreed that this sentence would be served in segregation from other prisoners, and Stroud proceeded to live out forty-nine years in prison, forty-two of which he lived in solitary confinement. As his life unfolded in Leavenworth, Stroud began keeping canaries. In the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, he used his access to the prison library to educate himself on ornithology, biology, and avian diseases. Finding discrepancies between his firsthand experience with birds and the accounts presented in books, he began his own research into avian diseases. Applying scientific method in painstaking detail, Stroud developed a specialized understanding of the diseases of canaries. He used laboratory equipment that he fashioned from scraps available in the prison, even making a microtome out of a razor blade. In 1933 he published his first book Diseases of Canaries, and in 1940 he completed a second book of 483 pages and 240 original drawings, titled Stroud's Digest on the Diseases of Birds. Although his work naturally contained errors and misassumptions given the limits of his resources, it outpaced what was known at the time about avian disease and its gaps were not understood until conventional scientific research caught up with his work long after it was published.

Stroud became deeply hated by his keepers because his public work made him famous and respected. Through the strength of his own mind and the access to knowledge granted to him by basic prisoner's rights that were observed at the time, he presented a paradox of the rehabilitated prisoner. Instead of taking credit for his rehabilitation, his keepers responded instead to the class distinction that Stroud introduced to their relationship by becoming a recognized public scientist. He first became eligible for parole in 1937, but he never was paroled. All records of his parole hearings are missing. In 1942, before his second book was published, Stroud was transferred from Leavenworth to Alcatraz, and was never permitted to keep birds again.

In Alcatraz, Stroud developed an interest in the history of prisons, and the theory of rehabilitation. Again using the prison library, he wrote a two-volume work, Looking Outward: An Historical and Analytic Study of the Federal Penal System from the Inside. But the completed manuscript was confiscated by prison officials and was never published. His legacy instead was that his fame drew public attention to the shame of the prison system, and contributed to public support for the closing of Alcatraz. We can't help but wonder whether prisons today would be forced to be more accountable for their actions if they were located on sites that feature so prominently in the public imagination. The coin was slipped through the bars of Cell D-41. --MSP Back to the main page of the Landscape Coin project.

November, 2001

Lithia Water Fountain, Ashland, Oregon.
On the misty, chill morning of November 5, we greeted the day with a walk through the center of Ashland. The town square of Ashland lies at the base of Lithia Park, which stretches up the hill above the town, disappearing into the forests of the Siskiyou Mountains. Through the center of Lithia Park, Ashland Creek flows into the small downtown and threads through a landscaped dell where tables for outdoor dining have been terraced down the wooded slopes. Lithia Park takes its name from the lithium that occurs naturally in the mineral springs that contribute to the creek. In the town square are two sets of drinking fountains. One set offers standard fresh water. But the other offers unexpurgated lithia water. The water is bubbly, sulphurous, and bitterly cold, yet so volatile it seems molten. The fresh water drinking fountains are done in vintage (or vintage-look) scrolled copperwork with delicate porcelain basins. But the lithia fountains are a set of bland high-school hallway style fountains mounted around a bare cement block.

The presence of the lithia water drinking fountains in the middle of towns suggests a few questions and contradictions. The obvious enigma, one seemingly designed to appeal to the transgressive streak, is whether or not the water has any psychoactive effect. A visit to a reference book or the local information booth clarifies that the lithium in the water is not the same substance as the related lithium carbonate which possesses psychoactive property. Yet through name association the water retains its a symbolic association with the dream-inducing properties of this fabled drug. This symbolic association resonates with the town of Ashland's central activity, which is to host the world-renowned Shakespeare festival that runs for eight months of every year on three stages just a stone's throw from the fountain.

The presence of naturally carbonated spring water in the middle of town is an expression of the extensive geothermal activity present throughout southern Oregon. Another contradiction suggested by the presence of the fountain is the stark contrast in economic productivity between Ashland and the huge countryside that surrounds it. Ashland is an oasis of luxury and tourist revenue in the middle of the poor end of a state with the highest unemployment rate in the nation. The possible exploitation of geothermal heat energy is one strategy of regional economic development that has not yet seen large-scale development. There is a striking contrast between the way the geothermal activity is a symbolic property in Ashland, and the way that activity, while harnessed on a small scale for warmth and leisure, nevertheless represents a zone of underdevelopment for the rest of the region.

The lithia waters are for the brave, not the timid. A brass plaque is mounted on the cement block above the drinking fountains. It reads:

Natural Lithia Water
Contains sodium, calcium, iron, bicarbonates, and other healthful nutrients

The coin was slipped behind the west-facing plaque where it vanished completely. --MSPBack to the main page of the Landscape Coin project.


October, 2001

John F. Kennedy Federal Building in Boston's Government Center complex.
On October 19, 2001, I (Rick) visited this site, leaving a coin on the steps that lead from the Sudbury street sidewalk up to a slightly elevated, windswept, and generally unpopulated plaza.

Built in 1967, the JFK Federal Building is a product of the late 1960s downtown redevelopment sweep that dramatically changed Boston's cityscape. Scollay Square, a venerable area known for its numerous burlesque houses and adult entertainment outlets, vanished from the map; its buildings, streets, and even subway stations disappeared to make way for a flattened-out plaza (designed by the architect I.M. Pei) in whose buildings city, state, and federal workers pursued the business of governance. Adjacent to the JFK Building is Boston City Hall (finished 1968), an inverted concrete pyramid that architects describe as "modernist/brutalist." Though Government Center was designed to function as the symbolic city center, the plaza and its buildings are uninviting, and the space has not been used as extensively and freely as it might have been. It is likely to undergo another "revitalization" within the next few years.

Despite its problems, this is "public space" of the highest order, a place where citizens come to request and receive services from their government, where elected officials, government workers, and the citizens they are sworn to serve meet officially and unofficially, and where sometimes people convene to demonstrate their differences with government policies and practices.

Soon after the JFK Federal Building was built, it became a destination where anti-Vietnam War demonstrators gathered to protest the war. Though merely one of many outposts of U.S. government power, it acquired a special function during this period - a symbol of this power that attracted dissent, anger, and counterforce. Like landscape itself, the plaza became a kind of stage on which struggles for control were acted out, and therefore metamorphosed into an alternative government center of its own, even if the power represented on the plaza never came close to displacing that represented by the buildings. The Federal government reacted. For several years, the JFK Building became a relatively high-security location, much of it inaccessible to the public, all of it monitored by closed-circuit TV cameras, until antiwar demonstrations subsided and the security forces fell into relative somnolence for almost twenty years.

When I visited in October the building was once again tightly secured. Concrete barriers were staged on the sidewalks, and wooden sawhorses regulated traffic around the entrances. I did not try to enter, but had I done so, my person and belongings would have been thoroughly searched, owing to the recent attacks on New York and Washington. To the extent that this building and its immediate surroundings still represent public space, it was space no longer freely available to the public. Whether it may ever be available again is difficult to predict at this point.

I placed the coin on the steps that lead from the Sudbury street sidewalk up to the plaza, at the same place where, as best I can remember, I was arrested along with hundreds of other nonviolent demonstrators during an attempt to shut down business as usual at the JFK Federal Building, on May 5, 1971. -- RP Back to the main page of the Landscape Coin project.


September, 2001

The Dolmen in Killingworth, Connecticut.
On September 7 we went hiking on land owned by a public land trust in suburban Connecticut. The object of our hike was to revisit a lithic formation called a dolmen. Throughout New England and the upper Midwest, these stone objects are scattered along hilltops in the woods. Their structure is a central, huge boulder supported on a tripod of smaller boulders. In the case of the one that we visited, two "legs" of the tripod were formed by the cliff on which the dolmen rested. A smaller boulder supported the third opposing point. The central boulder was about five feet high and seven or eight feet in diameter. The smaller supporting stone was about two feet in all dimensions.

The history and meaning of these lithic structures is disputed. Some scholars believe they are natural glacial formations. Other scholars believe they are remnants of a native American culture that is no longer remembered. Others, however, note the similarity between these structures and nearly identical ones located in Scandinavia. According to this interpretation, the dolmens are evidence of European contact with North America prior to Columbus. There is considerably more information about the scholarship surrounding dolmens on the website of the New England Antiquities Research Association. This site includes photographs and discussions of lithic art and other structures throughout New England. As an extension of this theory of early (pre-Columbian) European habitation, an independent scholar named Roger Jewell published a book in 2000 titled Ancient Mines of Kitchi-Gummi: A Case Study (Jewell Histories, Fairfield, Pa.). This provocative little book reviews extensive physical evidence linking pre-Columbian North America with European trade. Its thesis is that the Native Americans of 24000 B.C. to 2000 B.C. engaged in a busy copper trade with Europeans along a trading route that had one terminus in Michigan, and another in Crete, with trading points along the way through the great lakes, across the Atlantic, and then down to the Mediterranean. The book includes comparative photographs of dolmens in North America and dolmens in Sweden. It's extremely interesting, but it's hard for a lay observer to understand why these ideas are not mainstream, if the physical evidence is as overwhelming as Jewell presents it.

The land on which the Killingworth dolmen is located is layered with other historical depths. As the trail wanders through densely wooded slopes and valleys, it also passes occasional crumbling stone fences overgrown with trees and ivy. The fences are reminders that the public land trust has assimilated long-abandoned farms and pulled them within this expanse of luxurious hiking trails that serve a population that now commutes for a living rather than farms. We placed a coin atop the dolmen and another one under it. --MSP Back to the main page of the Landscape Coin project.


August, 2001

Peace Arch Provincial Park, British Columbia, Canada/Peace Arch State Park, Washington state, U.S..
On the crisp and sunny morning of August 19, we visited the U.S./Canada border site marked by Peace Arch Provincial Park. This park is open to the public on the Canadian side, and allows visitors to obliquely cross the border back and forth within the park area. There is a large picnic and recreation area a hundred yards or so north of the border, and then the park extends to a wide grassy median between the north and south-bound lanes of highway 99 (Interstate 5 in the U.S.). The grass itself renders visible an informal demarcation of the international boundary, as it grows lushly green on the Canadian side and less well-watered south of the border. In the center of this median stands the Peace Arch itself, a 30-foot-high symbolic gate between the United States and Canada. The park extends eastward another hundred yards or so, and is decorated throughout with plaques and monuments of varying shapes and sizes that commemorate different aspects of this border space.

This border area is rich with a range of demarcations and commemorations of events and sentiments that acknowledge the significance of this border. We left one coin on a plaque set into the ground at the borderline that reads: "This monument commemorates the 125th Anniversary of the 1857 - 1861 survey of the 49th parallel from the Gulf of Georgia to the Summit of the Rocky Mountains." Another coin was left at a piece of public art near the public toilets. The sculpture by Dan Klennert is titled "Ruffus Two." It is a representation of a rooster constructed from pieces of rusted farm equipment and other found metal. A third coin was placed at a granite marker proclaiming an outrageous commemoration of Highway 99: "Jefferson Davis Highway No. 99/Erected by the Washington Division/United Daughters of the Confederacy/September 1940." (!!) Another coin was placed on a sign on the extreme eastern boundary of the park. Here the park borders "0 Avenue" in White Rock, B.C. This east-west street is lined by private residences on its north side, and by a shallow, grassy ditch on the south. It is easily possible to walk along the south side of Zero Avenue for as far as sight carries, while freely moving between Canadian and U.S. territory. At the west end of the street, the park border (the border of the border!) is marked by a brown, official sign reading "Leaving United States Border."

We left even more coins at Peace Arch Park, but these are some highlights. The park itself is really a remarkable monument to the delicate balance of friendliness between the U.S. and Canada, and a vivid contrast to the other end of I-5, the militarized U.S. border with Mexico. The existence of such a park to commemorate the border of course also invites reflection on the nature of borders as abstract human constructs. The land wouldn't know a border was there if the park did not describe it in symbolic space. --MSP & RP

Addendum of September 18, 2001: The site of this coin drop has taken on new significance in light of the attacks on the U.S. of September 11. In the days since the attacks, the United States has drastically tightened its border, and has even (temporarily) closed the border with Canada. The symbolism of the open border we visited at Peace Arch park has therefore taken on a new significance. At the time we visited, it seemed unstuck in time; the sunny day seemed like one in an ongoing progression of open-border sunny days. Of course we never took the open border for granted, but it is remarkable to look back and see that the day we were there was the 24th day before the border would be closed for the first time. --MSP Back to the main page of the Landscape Coin project.


July, 2001

On July 7, 2001, we went on a day of exploration of northern Marin county. Our attention was commanded on Dillon Beach Road, west of highway 1, by a set of enormous and unearthly rocks that rose thirty feet like lumbering gray beasts out of the grassy, treeless hills near the ocean. We jumped out of the car to explore them, only to find that they were fenced off and labeled "private property." There was an established path through a gap in one of the fences, and I snuck through it to touch these great beauties. They are called Elephant Rocks, and they bear many signs of contested landscape. The barbed-wire fencing has obviously been built, stretched, and rebuilt for at least two generations. The rocks are protected from human partyers by these barbed layers, but are not protected from the wear and tear of bovine hoofs. They are apparently used for grazing. The soil around their base is scuffed and worn with hoof marks. I tossed a coin up into a high crevasse on the main rock. -- MSP Back to the main page of the Landscape Coin project.


June, 2001

On Sunday, June 3rd, I drove from Calhoun, Georgia (northwest of Atlanta) to Nashville, Tennessee. Though a distance of only about 170 miles, the trip passed through an astonishingly diverse collection of places, 22 of which I tagged with landscape coins. In Alabama, close to the Tennessee and Georgia lines, lay Scottsboro. This town, even after seventy years, has not overcome the weight of history that descended on it with the trial of the "Scottsboro Boys," a trial that awakened the attention and anger of much of the outside world.

On March 25, 1931, nine young African-American men hopped a freight train from Chattanooga to Memphis. There they encountered a group of young white men, one of whom stepped on Haywood Patterson's hand while he hung from the side of a tank car. A fight ensued; the whites lost and were thrown off the train. As the train passed through Paint Rock, Alabama, a posse stopped the train and searched the cars. Two white women, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, millworkers from Huntsville, Alabama, stepped up to accuse the African-American men of rape, and all nine were arrested for assault and taken to the Jackson County Jail in Scottsboro. The next day, a crowd of 100 gathered, threatening to lynch the nine. Four days later they were indicted for rape, and on April 6, their trials began in the Jackson County Courthouse in the center of Scottsboro. By April 9, Clarence Norris, Charlie Weems, Haywood Patterson, Olen Montgomery, Ozie Powell, Willie Roberson, Eugene Williams, and Andy Wright had been tried, convicted of rape, and sentenced to death. Roy Wright's case ended in a mistrial because some jurors held out for a death sentence even though the prosecution asked only for life imprisonment. Later, Ruby Bates would retract her claim that she and Victoria Price had been raped, and would appear at defense rallies.

This recitation of basic facts is only the beginning of a long and sad story. The International Labor Defense, the legal defense arm of the Communist Party, took on the cause of the young men who became known around the world as the "Scottsboro Boys." The cases were pursued through a long series of retrials, appeals, incarcerations, and acts of violence began. The injustice of the cases was publicized around the world. Some people distinguished themselves through their help of the Scottsboro Boys, including Judge James Horton from Decatur, Alabama, who set aside a death sentence imposed on Heywood Patterson in 1933. Ultimately, the "Boys" all left Alabama, either by escaping or by obtaining grants of parole, but it took until the early 1950s for the last one to find freedom. A long account of this history is at http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/FTrials/scottsboro/SB_acct.html.

I approached Scottsboro from U.S. Highway 72, along a pleasant greenway. Roadside signs advertised the town's biggest tourist attraction: the Unclaimed Baggage Center, a large mall-type store that sells lost airline luggage items and their contents. As I approached the center of town, traffic thickened. The Sunday flea market was in progress, set up around a four-sided square in the middle of which stands the Jackson County Courthouse. It was on this square seventy years ago that an angry white crowd had clamored for a lynching.

The flea market appeared to be a mix of what I interpreted as older and younger cultures. Elderly people sold old soda pop bottles, signs, farm implements, tools, postcards, photo albums, and scrapbooks full of news clippings. Young people sold T-shirts, flags, CDs, motorcycle parts, and an assortment of modern crafts. Most of the sellers were white, but the buyers were a diverse group. As I neared the end of my circuit, I saw an Asian mother and son running a stand that was swathed in rugs and flags. Inside, they displayed a wide selection of Confederate battle flags and T-shirts commemorating Southern identity as marked by the Civil War.

The courthouse in the center of the square seemed modern and well-preserved, and I wondered at first whether it was the same building in which the "Boys" had been persecuted. But to the right of the entrance, bolted to the brick wall, was a placque:

Erected in 1912.
J.P. Lewallen
A.C. Loyd
F.L. Rousseau
W.E. Baty
County Commissioners

J.B. Hackworth
Probate Judge

R.L. Hunt Architect
Little-Cleckler Constr. Co. Builders

Where famous injustices had occurred, antiques were now for sale. The festive quality of the market was hard to ignore, and it seemed to be functioning fairly successfully as a kind of historical eraser, depending on how one looked at it and who was observing it. I do not know how this erasure can be undone, but I left two coins at the courthouse as my own way of remembering.

One coin was left in an easily visible place, and another was left where it will likely stay hidden for many years. By then its luster will become a dull flat brown, and its discoverer will have to squint to read what it says. --RP Back to the main page of the Landscape Coin project.


May, 2001

On May 1 I had occasion to go to Fall River, Massachusetts, where I spent time seeking out and coining the Lizzie Borden residence. The crime of which Lizzie Borden was acquitted has had unparalleled reach into the consciousness of children in North America. The rhyme, "Lizzie Borden took an axe/gave her mother forty whacks/when she saw what she had done/she gave her father forty-one" has crept into the shadows and nightmares of millions of children to achieve spectral proportions. That the geographic site of this spectre can be isolated to a wood-frame house on a busy street in an economically contested city is remarkable to me. When I was a kid, I didn't believe she was real, I thought she had been dreamt up by mean grown-ups to frighten kids. So to come face-to-face with the front door had a demythologizing impact.

The site is also significant because the street it is on embodies the contestation of a city with obvious growing pains. The Bordens had been a prominent family back in the 19th century, and their house was reportedly one of the fancier ones in town when the crime was current. But now it is on a street that is marginless -- with no place to stop between the traffic and the curb. It sweeps traffic down towards the Interstate Highway that has been rent through the downtown in a big cut. The street seems to be the victim of drastic traffic increase and unkind widening. As a result, it is wide, loud, unpadded by parked cars or wide sidewalks, and has been rendered uncrossable by pedestrians within the Borden home block. The Borden house now shares its block with a nail salon; it has become de-gentrified.

That the Borden house continues to stand is a testament to the apparent resolution of a number of conflicting forces. Notably, Lizzie Borden was reportedly a lesbian who held women's gatherings in her home during the years she lived there after her parents' murders. The contrast between this history and the "proper" colonial heritage of the town is striking. A few blocks away, the American Heritage Trail runs down another main street, and is marked by center striping in red, white, and blue. (I tried to drop a coin there but the traffic was too thick.)

The house not only continues to stand, it has been memorialized by a museum within. I interpret this by drawing on the work of Kenneth Foote, whose brilliant book Shadowed Ground: America's Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy, outlines four primary ways that sites of violence and tragedy are remembered. These four ways are sanctification, designation, rectification, and obliteration. Lizzie Borden's house has neither been sanctified, that I know of, nor obliterated. If it were simply marked, that would be designation. However the fact of the museum within, indicates that the site has been rectified into a valued historical site, one that is even featured on city maps and tours. The site has therefore obviously developed a positive, if perverse, historical value for the city, or else the city would not have rectified it so.

The museum was closed to the public on the day I was there, so I was unable to coin the interior. However I slipped one coin through the mail slot in the front door, and tossed another coin into the bushes below the front window. --MSP Back to the main page of the Landscape Coin project.


April, 2001

Recently we were in a National Recreation Area near the Pacific ocean. We happened upon a hillside that had been cleared of underbrush and replanted with new seedlings, each one marked by a small flag of primary color, the assembly creating a spectacle of small red, yellow, and blue color spots blanketing the forest floor for about half an acre. The explanatory sign posted at the site read (in part): "Forest Understory Diversification Project/Area Closed for Restoration/This site is part of a multi-year study to determine the best methods for diversifying the area's historic forests with native plants....the site contains over 27 native plant species including oaks, Christmasberry, flowering current [sic], wild rose, and coffeeberry...."

Litter on the ground nearby turned out to be an empty seed packet of Lilly Miller brand 'Wildflowers of the West.' The text on the back of the seed packet read: "This mix of 18 of the most popular perennial and annual wildflowers turns a boring roadside strip into a western sunset of color. Or when planted on a steep hillside, the chore of mowing is replaced with months of colorful, low-maintenance blooms. Flowers come back year after year." The coin was placed atop a brick-lined culvert entrance at the edge of the replanted area. --MSP Back to the main page of the Landscape Coin project.

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