4th of July, 1054

We Americans can get awfully full of ourselves, especially on this, the most patriotic day of our year. Yes, three cheers for independence and freedom, and for fireworks and hot dogs on the bar-b-que. I do love all these things.

(Skip this paragraph if you’re as tired of righteous indignation as I am, but…) I won’t get into the fact that this country was occupied long before we came along, and that it’s been feeling a lot less free of late. I won’t rant about how the entire system is rigged for the 1 percent, and how we fight amongst ourselves rather than show that small percentage that by dint of sheer numbers, they shouldn’t be the powerful ones. And… blah, blah, blah.

Happy 4th of July.

But I did think that perhaps we might gain a little perspective by seeing that something else really amazing happened once upon a 4th of July. It’s something that most of us don’t even know about, but it was ever so much more spectacular than any fireworks display that we can put on.

I’m talking about SN1054.

Yeah, I know. That’s not a very gripping name. It doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue. But it certainly kicked some cosmic butt when it exploded.

According to Chinese astronomical records, July 4, 1054 was the first day that this supernova was observed from this planet. It was also recorded by the Japanese, and is found in a document from the Arab world as well. It may even be recorded in a pictograph by the Ancestral Puebloan people that is located in current day New Mexico. At a time when global communication didn’t exist, it seems that all eyes were focused skyward.

There was good reason for this. This supernova seems to have remained visible in the daytime sky for two weeks, and was still visible by the naked eye at night for two solid years before it finally faded. Can you imagine? Man, I’d have loved to have seen that!

And the best part about it is that even amateur astronomers can see the gorgeous remnants of this supernova today. It’s called the Crab Nebula. It’s in the constellation Taurus, and you can find a detailed description of how to spot it here, if you have access to a telescope. (Or you can cheat and use a star gazing app on your phone.)

The Crab Nebula is the first astronomical object that was ever identified with a historical supernova explosion, according to Wikipedia. That’s pretty impressive.

This gorgeous nebula is about 6,500 light years from us, and it’s estimated that the main star must have blown up about 7,500 years ago. But for me, at least, it will forever be associated with the 4th of July.

The Crab Nebula in Taurus

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Big History

If you took any history classes in high school or college, especially if you are of a certain age, those classes most likely revolved around human history, or even more arrogantly, white upper class male human history. You couldn’t be blamed for thinking that nothing existed outside of the salons of Europe until we “discovered” America.

Yeah, if you’re like me, you had a brief obsession with dinosaurs. But you probably didn’t consider that history. You thought of it more as paleontology. You certainly didn’t classify the big bang as history. That was astronomy.

Yes, we are taught to put everything neatly in their own little boxes. Geology, archaeology, biology, chemistry, physics, genetics, environmental studies, psychology… each has its niche, and never the twain shall meet.

But you know, that’s kind of like studying individual trees without examining the forest. It’s like focusing on one book without ever looking up at the wonder of the library. How short sighted of us.

Thank goodness there is now an academic discipline that looks at the big picture. It’s called Big History, and instead of focusing on the 10,000 years humans have been around, it looks at time from the Big Bang to the present.

Granted, biting off a 13.8 billion year chunk of time and trying to swallow it whole is no mean feat, but in a lot of ways, it makes a great deal of sense. An interdisciplinary approach is much more three dimensional. How could one possibly study the fossil record, for example, without understanding geology? How can we ever have a grasp of the cosmos and our place within it without looking at the many causes and effects that intertwine with one another?

You can’t understand human migration without a grasp of climatology. You can’t comprehend the elements that make up life on this planet without having a sense of chemistry. It’s macrohistory, not microhistory. It looks for common themes across a variety of disciplines.

Oh, to be young and have the time and the energy and the wide-eyed innocence to be willing to rack up debt and go back to college! It’s such an amazing time to be learning. Rock on, big historians!


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The Not So Wild West

Most people, when they think of the American West, think of gun fights in dusty streets in front of saloons, Indians kidnapping helpless white women and children, and gangs robbing banks. Hollywood has done a great job of perpetuating these myths, when in fact, shoot outs were relatively rare. Our modern society is much more violent than the wild west ever was, as long as you set aside the gratuitous genocide of a million Native Americans in order to take their land.

According to The Culture of Violence in the American West: Myth versus Reality, although government oversight and protections were not prevalent in areas that were not yet granted statehood, people would often join groups for mutual protection due to their extreme isolation, and create constitutions of their own. In many cases, people who violated these rules simply had to be threatened with ostracism to bring them back in line, because in the remote vastness of the west, isolation could mean certain death.

This article goes on to say that interactions with the Native Americans were relatively peaceful until 1865, which coincides with the end of the Civil War. Before then, settlers were more interested in trading with them, as a profitable pursuit, and tradesmen realize that it’s bad form to kill off the customers. Therefore it was generally agreed that native people had a right to their own land.

Efforts to obtain land were negotiated by treaty until right after the war, so violence wasn’t considered the ultimate solution. (Whether those treaties were fair and enforced is another story entirely.) But in 1871, Congress voted not to ratify anymore treaties, and the violence greatly increased after that.

After the Civil War, railroads really took off. This meant the acquisition of land, not only for tracks, but also for acquiring the iron needed to make these railroads, and the towns needed to support them. The generals who practiced a successful scorched earth policy in the American south now turned these same policies on native villages, with the same result.

This fascinating article goes on to conclude:

“These men utilized the state’s latest technologies of mass killing developed during the Civil War and its mercenary soldiers (including the former slaves known as “buffalo soldiers”) to wage their war because they were in a hurry to shovel subsidies to the railroad corporations and other related business enterprises. Many of them profited handsomely, as the Credit Mobilier scandal revealed. The railroad corporations were the Microsofts and IBMs of their day, and the doctrines of neomercantilism defined the Republican Party’s reason for existing (DiLorenzo 2006). The Republican Party was, after all, the “Party of Lincoln,” the great railroad lawyer and a lobbyist for the Illinois Central and other midwestern railroads during his day.”

So, rather than the shoot-em-up culture that you see in the movies, we really need to think of the west as a relatively peaceful place, until greed and politics, coupled with the violent experience of a bloody war, swept in and changed it entirely.

Some more fun facts, according to this article:

  • There is only documentation of 8 bank robberies in the 15 Western states during 40 of the “wild West” years.

  • The vast majority of Westerners did not wear anything similar to the Stetson cowboy hat we think of today. The bowler was much more common.

  • Cowboys were much more likely to carry a shotgun or a rifle than a six shooter. They thought of guns mostly as tools to protect cattle.

Also, according to Noam Chomsky, the shoot-em-up Western folklore took off after the Civil War because gun manufacturers were seeing a severe downturn in business now that they weren’t producing for the war machine. They wanted people to think it was necessary to have a gun for protection, they wanted them to think men were basically lawless and violent, and they wanted them to feel manly while using guns to protect their women and children. So they created a wild West culture that didn’t really ever exist, to boost sales.

I know. I know. This is all very disappointing. It’s fun to romanticize history. Especially when the truth is so much more gruesome. But the vast majority of the violence in the west had more to do with greedy land grabs, racial prejudice, and political manipulation than lawless, independent-minded early Americans sowing their wild oats.


The West

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A Barn Razing

For 100 years, this barn looked over a field in Kent, Washington.

The barn.jpg

It was a proud barn, a working barn, for much of its life. Before its retirement, it was home to two horses, lovingly referred to as “Mr. Ed” and “Mr. Red”, along with a crazy four-horned Jacob Sheep (“Jake”), a small goat named “Billy”, and an aggressive goat called “Beavis” (because “Butt-Head” seemed too rude.) The barn kept them warm, and sheltered them from storms.


And then, one day, just like that, the farmer and his animals went away. The land was sold to the city with the stipulation that it remain an undeveloped public park, and the barn stood alone and abandoned for the next 9 years. But its neighbors still loved it, despite the meter-high mounds of pigeon poop that had accumulated inside over time.

Inside barn.jpg

The city was not nearly as in love with the barn as its residents. They feared squatters and arsonists. They feared liability if anyone were to break in and get hurt. So they scheduled it for demolition.

As the clock wound down toward its demise, someone removed the upper barn door. For many months the barn looked as if it was cold, wounded and crying out. Save me. I don’t want to go.

Barn Door Missing.jpg

Winter barn with no door

Soon, some of the wood on the side was stolen, and graffiti artists moved in. It was an undignified end for such a grand structure. Some people have no respect, and no sense of history.

Barn graffiti

And then, on the thirteenth day of March, 2019, it happened. The barn was torn down, piece by piece. Here’s a time lapse of it.


It was a sad day. It was strange to see how quickly it all ended after such a long-standing legacy. Things fall apart. The center does not hold.

The one bright light in all of this is that the wood and the rusty metal roof were salvaged and will be used to build yet another barn somewhere in Eastern Washington. So in a way, our beloved barn lives on. There will be animals for it to shelter once again.

Some day, years from now, people will walk their dogs across this field and not even realize what came before. But some of us will always see this as the place where a beautiful barn once proudly stood. And, oh, it will be missed.


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Goodbye Seattle Viaduct

On Saturday I bid adieu to Seattle’s iconic Alaskan Way Viaduct, along with the Battery Street Tunnel. Both of them were not considered up to current seismic standards, and are being replaced by the new State Road 99 Tunnel, which is scheduled to open today. Read more about it here.

It turns out that I wasn’t alone in wanting to say goodbye. It’s estimated that 100,000 other people walked the tunnel and viaduct this weekend. I’m sure many of them felt a lot more nostalgic than this relative newcomer did. The viaduct had been around since the 50’s, after all.

I was enjoying taking in the view for the last time, and marveling over the massive construction project. I had also expected a different kind of celebration. I was disappointed.

I was expecting food trucks and vendors and souvenirs. There were more port-a-potties than there were food trucks, and there wasn’t a single souvenir to be had. There were a few musicians here and there, and a smattering of antique cars. That’s about it.

I did enjoy checking out the graffiti in the tunnel. I think the city missed a great historic opportunity there. The tunnel is eventually going to be filled in with the debris from the viaduct and sealed off. They should have handed out sharpies and allowed people to write on the walls. Imagine what a treasure trove that would have been 500 years from now, what a time capsule, if we humans have managed not to completely destroy life as we know it. Archeologists would have been fascinated with what we found important enough to say, one day in time, back in 2019. So while others were feeling nostalgic, I was feeling kind of sad at historic opportunities missed.

And then I ran into a coworker. He was standing mid-tunnel, next to the office door. That’s a room most people don’t even know exists. I certainly had no idea. So he let us peek inside. How many people have come and gone in that office over the years? I wonder. I felt privileged to get a glimpse of this lonely little room.

But even better, my coworker had a sharpie. And I took advantage of it.

So, if you are reading my humble little blog post 500 years from now, first of all, nice to meet you. Second of all, if you’re excavating the Battery Street Tunnel, just outside the office door, you might still be able to see my graffiti. “Barb Abelhauser, Bridgetender, 2019”. That was me. I was there. In that tunnel. Saying goodbye.

Here are some pictures from the experience.

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Developmental Greed

I’m very grateful that most cities now have rules in place that require developers to have archeologists examine their land, especially in historically sensitive areas, before they’re allowed to build upon it. Most builders, of course, consider this a massive nuisance, and a waste of their time and money. But if these requirements didn’t exist, a lot of history would be lost to us, and we would miss out on opportunities to discover more about who we are and where we came from.

Those of you who think government already meddles too much in our business need to think again in this instance. Laws, rules, regulations, none of these things would be necessary if we could all be counted upon to do the right thing. Unfortunately, greed seems to be the primary motivator for most people.

Here’s a prime example: The Miami Circle. Once upon a time, a developer planned to put a high rise on some very well-placed real estate in downtown Miami, which he had purchased for 8.5 million dollars. Unfortunately for him, some archeologists discovered what Wikipedia describes as “the only known evidence of a prehistoric permanent structure cut into the bedrock in the Eastern United States”

Much time and political wrangling occurred while everyone tried to figure out what to do about this situation. Needless to say, the developer was not pleased. And he was no doubt losing quite a bit of money while everyone was spinning their wheels.

Finally, the State of Florida decided to buy the land back from him. I agree that he deserved to be made whole. No doubt about it. And that would probably mean giving him more than 8.5 million, considering all the wasted time. But the guy asked the state for 50 million. Because he could.

I have no respect for this guy. I mean, yeah. I could see where he might want 15 million. But 50? Come on, dude. You’re holding the Florida taxpayers for ransom.

The state finally gave him 26.7 million for the site. It’s now on the National Register of Historic Places. We are still learning more about the Tequesta Indians, who were the original developers of this site. The wood found there may be 2000 years old. You can watch an interesting documentary about the site on Youtube here.

We would never had the chance to learn all the fascinating things we’ve learned from this discovery if one greedy developer had been allowed to have his selfish way.

The Miami Circle

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What Thanksgiving Was, Is, and Should Be

When I was little, they taught me in school that the first Thanksgiving was a feast shared by the Pilgrims and the Indians, and it was a celebration of peace and friendship. We would take construction paper and cut out Pilgrim hats and feathers, and turkeys and cornucopias, and feel all warm and fuzzy because of all this love and cooperation.

I hope they don’t perpetuate that myth in schools anymore. Even as a kid, that description struck me as a little weird. Which tribe? No one could or would ever say. And why would Native Americans be thankful that we invaded their land, spread disease, and basically took over? Would you be wanting to party if someone did that to you? Gimme a break.

In fact, as long as there has been farming, people have celebrated the end of a successful harvest in one form or another, all over the world. And these celebrations, by definition, came about sometime at the end of harvest time, which in this climate falls in the middle of autumn. In fact, until Abraham Lincoln decreed it, various states celebrated on different days each year. So no one really knows when the first Thanksgiving was.

Also, as long as people have had some type of spirituality, they’ve given thanks when things have gone their way. A fruitful harvest. The birth of a monarch. And sometimes these celebrations were more nefarious. For example, one such celebration occurred in 1588 after the defeat of the Spanish Armada. I’m sure the Spaniards weren’t feeling quite as thankful. Victory in battle was often a time of thanksgiving, losers be damned.

An obvious candidate for the precursor of our current holiday, and one that very few of us know about, is described in this article. There was a horrible slaughter of 700 members of the Pequot tribe in which men, women, and children were surrounded and brutally “subdued”. An annual day of Thanksgiving was then declared by the slaughterers, members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It’s no wonder that many Native Americans have a problem with this holiday.

Nowadays, I don’t think most non-native people look at Thanksgiving as some sort of historical event that we are commemorating. And the majority of us are too far removed from our food chain to actually be giving thanks for a successful harvest. We just look forward to the day off, the great big meal, and the football. We also either anticipate or dread the family visitors. Another more depressing trend these days is the glorification of the need some people feel to shop.

People may try to twist this day into some warped justification of genocide, or some attempt to feel patriotic about our occupation of this land, or the desire to take advantage of a really big sale, but the reality is, we’re celebrating the same way the ancient Egyptians did, and probably the same way even more ancient peoples did long before the Egyptians existed, because a good harvest has always meant the difference between life and death, and that’s definitely something to celebrate.

I must confess that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Good food, good company, no gift-giving pressure. Just a time to be grateful for love and abundance. That is how I choose to celebrate the day.

I refuse to take this time to glorify and perpetuate the misguided deeds that lead to this country’s founding. Regret for our brutal past is with me year ‘round, even though my family didn’t get here until the 1930’s. It doesn’t merit a feast.

If you choose to give thanks on this day or any other, Happy Thanksgiving.


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