Geographic memory

I’m in Redding, California now visiting my wife Beth’s parents, who moved here earlier this year. It’s an odd feeling, coming back decades later and still having geographic memory about where things are.

Dad pointed me to his old house on Victor Ave, which is still a dentist’s office today (Grandpa & Grandma sold it to a dentist back in the 70s). I stood in the parking lot on Sunday morning as he pointed out the bedroom he shared with his older brother, where he stuffed towels under the door so he could read late into the night.

Cow Creek BridgeWith a little help from my mom (“Head east on 44 and turn left…”) and the Internet (pictures…from space!), I managed to find the old ranch in Millville, east of Palo Cedro. I recognized it right away from the white fence behind the house.

What’s even odder, I realized on the drive back into town, is that Grandpa & Grandma moved from Millville into Palo Cedro by the time we visited in 1984, so my very clear memory of where the ranch was and what it looked like dates all the way back to 1979.

Beth took a picture of me next to Cow Creek, where Grandpa pulled me out of the water after I’d stepped off the shallow shoal into the deceptively deep (for a five-year-old) main channel. I wrote a poem about that a few years ago, and I now have a few more details to add from the unchanged scene I saw today, 30 years later.

I called my brother Nathan from the shopping complex where Grandpa & Grandma B got their groceries, which still has an odd windmill structure I described to Beth even before we saw it come up next to the highway. It’s a Verizon store now.

We went up to the dam at Whiskeytown this afternoon (we did Shasta Dam yesterday), and stopped for a few minutes among the ruins of Shasta — exactly as I remember them, despite several recent fires that swept through the area.

Wall

Ultimately, the only place I’ve been unable to find here in Redding is that little Mexican restaurant Grandpa used to take us to, La Casita, I think. The only La Casita in the area is way out in Weaverville, 40 miles east. Redding has changed a lot in the last twenty to thirty years, but nearly all the places I remember — and even some new ones, like my father’s childhood home — remain essentially unchanged.

Stuck in a Hanford reactor building elevator

Nuclear physics fascinates me. The creative potential of nuclear power intrigues me. The destructive potential of nuclear weapons repulses me.

French Licorne thermonuclear test, 1970

Photo from Pierre J‘s collection of French nuclear test photos taken in 1970

Back in the mid-90s, I toured the Hanford Site in eastern Washington State with a small college class. (In the contemporary national security climate, I’m surprised to learn that tours of the Hanford Site are still available from the Department of Energy.) Eight or nine of us piled into a van and drove around the site unrestricted, stopping a few hundred yards from the plutonium production reactors that the Manhattan Project used to create the core of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. The reactors themselves (in the photo below) had long since been retired and their cores “entombed.”

Hanford Site in 1960

Photo of Hanford Site taken in 1960

Our professor drove us past the trenches in which sections of nuclear submarines were stored, awaiting disposal of their reactors. We stopped again in the abandoned town of Hanford, where the only structure left standing was the high school.

Hanford High School

Finally, we arrived at the commercial power generation plant, Washington Nuclear Power Unit Number 2, where we were met by a PR man from the Department of Energy. He guided us through security checks and into the reactor building, where we were issued little badges to wear that measured our radiation exposure.

Eight stories up in an elevator, we emerged into a room overlooking the pool, control rods hanging over the water and the reactor itself immersed below.

We didn’t spend much time chatting or asking questions. We quickly turned around and stepped back into the elevator. Halfway down, the elevator stopped with a jerk.

For 20 minutes, we laughed at each other’s increasingly outlandish hypotheses about an impending catastrophe, as the PR man grew increasingly drenched in sweat. The elevator finally jolted back to life and we descended to the clinically white lobby, handed in our dosimeters, and headed back out into that unique light that seems to hang over Eastern Washington in the fall.

More than a decade later, I would write a poem that incorporated the entombed reactors, the abandoned town, and the submarines. The DOE PR man and his flop sweat didn’t make the cut.

UPDATE: Read “Cathedrals” here on Andrew-Becraft.com.

Dublin + Rain + Joyce

A year ago, I was the only person walking through St. Stephen’s Green early on a rainy Saturday, my first morning in Ireland. It was the wettest, coldest August on record, with flooding across Ireland. Every Dubliner I met accused me of bringing Seattle weather with me. I loved it.

James Joyce bust in St. Stephen's Green, Dublin, Ireland

After my flight over from London the night before, the only place still serving food was Eddie Rocket’s. Much less photogenic than a moist Joyce. When I ordered my veggie burger and fries, it just felt wrong that this was going to be my first meal on the Emerald Isle. But when the burger arrived with beets on it, the fries were served by the Polish waitstaff in a bowl (with knife and fork), and a crowd of Spaniards piled into the booth behind me, I felt a long way from home.

And that’s a good thing.

My 10 favorite museums in the whole world

Mark Twain wrote in 1869, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Truer words could not be said today. For me, a nation’s museums encapsulate its own culture but also take visitors beyond the country’s borders, helping one understand the shared connections and fascinating differences between all people. In museums, I feel connected not only with people living today, but also with all those people who came and went hundreds or thousands of years before. Museums make me proud to be a human.

Gates of Nimrud - British MuseumBritish Museum, London
http://www.britishmuseum.org/

Empire has its benefits — the systematic pillaging of world cultural heritage and its subsequent preservation. Where might key pieces of the Parthenon have ended up if Lord Elgin hadn’t carted off the best pieces? Similarly, the wholesale looting of Iraqi museums in 2003 makes Sumerian and Babylonian collections in The British Museum that much more important.

And yet, “That’s here?!” kept running through my head as I walked through the crowded galleries last August. The archaeology books I grew up reading were filled with pictures of the very objects I found myself standing next to that day.

Mixed emotions aside, The British Museum remains the favorite museum I’ve ever visited, from the stone age atlatl carved like a mammoth to the handwritten letters between residents of Roman Britain. The modest exhibit of Japanese items took me back nearly 20 years to my childhood. An amazing day only got better when I connected with a friend for the 2008 edition of the Non-Smoking Vegetarian Teatotallers’ Pub Crawl.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
http://www.mfa.org/

My favorite museum in the States, the MFA’s collection includes important early American art, key pieces of European art (the usual Monets, Renoirs, and Van Goghs), and a surprisingly excellent collection of Egyptian and Asian antiquities.

National Gallery & St. Martin-in-the-FieldsThe National Gallery, London
http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/

I never intended to visit The National Gallery, but after wandering alone from Russell Square through Covent Garden on my first afternoon in London and allowing myself to get lost, I emerged onto Trafalgar Square. To my left, St. Martin-in-the-Fields. On my right, the steps leading up to The National Gallery.

I switched my iPod from The Clash to Mozart’s Requiem (as performed by the Academy and Chorus from the aforementioned church). With an hour before the museum closed for the evening, I blew through the Impressionists (“Yup, I’ve seen a picture of that.”) and the stifling religious iconography of the Medieval period.

Instead, I lingered among the Dutch Masters until the docents began herding visitors to the exits. It was dark outside when I walked down the steps and looked up at Nelson’s Column. In the distance, the moon rose over Big Ben.

Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, Cairo

What wasn’t hauled off to the British Museum, the MFA, or the Louvre sits crammed into the echoing halls of the Cairo Museum. In August 1994, I’d just wrapped up a dig in Jordan, and was touring key sites in Israel and Egypt with archaeology professors and students. I hadn’t visited the British Museum or the MFA yet, and my first exposure to important pieces of Egyptian archaeology happened right there in Egypt.

From King Tut’s treasures and the strange art of Akhenaten’s rule to the famous mummies in their climate-controlled room (a brief respite from the 113-degree heat outside), there was more than I could possibly take in in a day.

Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, Washington, D.C.
http://www.si.edu/

Sure, the other museums that make up the Smithsonian have important works of art and fascinating displays about history and science, but nothing so elegantly summarizes the American spirit for me than the Air & Space Museum. The Wright Flyer, Apollo 11 command capsule, and Spirit of St. Louis symbolize the spirit of exploration and progress that emerge now and then from behind the darker spirit symbolized by the hulking nose of the Enola Gay…

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
http://www.pcf.city.hiroshima.jp

…which brings me to the Hiroshima Peace Museum. My grandparents visited us in Japan in 1981/1982, and I took a multi-city train trip with my Grandpa B. The apocalyptic diorama full of bomb-blasted mannequins in the museum gave me nightmares for years. “Favorite” is perhaps not the right word for this museum, but the horrors of that museum made me an unreserved pacifist for life.

National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology, Dublin
http://www.museum.ie/

Two days after visiting the British Museum, I spent a rainy day in Dublin at the National Museum of Ireland, where I learned that Dublin was founded by Vikings. Who knew? The gold hoards were certainly spectacular (with many a missing item noted as “in the collection of the British Museum), but I particularly enjoyed seeing the bog people.

Trinity College - DublinTrinity College Library, Dublin
http://www.tcd.ie/Library/

The Dublin Writers Museum north of the Liffey held my hopes for finding literary inspiration while in Dublin, but instead the tourist-thronged Book of Kells and medieval manuscript exhibits at Trinity College’s library were much more intriguing. Beyond the spectacular illuminated Bibles, the exhibits included day-to-day books from medieval Europe.

The Long Room in the Old Library building itself is a place of beauty, scented with the leather of books older than most cities in America. The room is lined with marble busts of writers dating back to the 18th century. The oldest harp in Ireland (the very harp depicted on its coins) stands to one side, along with a copy of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic from the Easter Rising of 1916.

Auckland War Memorial MuseumAuckland War Memorial Museum
http://www.aucklandmuseum.com/

Without much time to leave Auckland during my free time on a business trip last December (or to learn much beforehand — I left on 24 hours’ notice), the Auckland Museum served as my crash course in New Zealand’s natural and human history.

The dramatic effect of human migration was evident on the natural history floor, where it felt like the exhibits included mostly extinct or near-extinct species (including a cast of the famous Sue from Chicago, though humans had little to do with the extinction of the T. Rex).

Growing up as an American in Japan, my perspective and understanding of the Pacific War were dominated by those two countries. Seeing exhibits about World War II from the point of view of a third Pacific island country was fascinating.

National Archaeological Museum, Amman

A lot less shiny (and biblical) than the Israel Museum less than 50 miles across the Jordan Rift Valley, the National Archaeological Museum in Amman, Jordan nevertheless has an amazing collection spanning essentially the entirety of human civilization, from the paleolithic to the Islamic era. Jordan controlled what is today the West Bank in the early days of excavations at Jericho, and key sites in the country also include well-preserved Roman cities and the rock-hewn Nabataean capital of Petra (you know, from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).

Standing face to face with a skull on which someone nine thousand years ago carefully recreated the features of the deceased was one of those moments I’ll never forget.

Bonus: 5 more museums to visit before I die

  • Musee d’Orsay, Paris
  • The Louvre, Paris
  • Prado Museum, Madrid
  • The State Hermitage, St. Petersburg
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York