A Familiar Wilderness

Dahlman-front cover copyMy new book, A Familiar Wilderness: Searching for Home on Daniel Boone’s Road, is now available (University of Tennessee Press). 

It tells the story of my solo hike in 2013 that traced the route that Daniel Boone and a 30-person crew blazed in 1775, which opened the way for westbound pioneers and grew into the iconic Wilderness Road.

Writing as one who moved to northeast Tennessee after a lifetime of moving around, I wanted to better understand and appreciate my adopted home, and so I made this journey. A Familiar Wilderness is framed by my 300-mile trek between Sycamore Shoals, Tennessee, and Fort Boonesborough, Kentucky, most of it along state and federal highways that have long since overwritten the Wilderness Road.

In telling that story, the book weaves in the complex history of the road and the places it passes through, considers how the region has grown and developed from the 18th century until the present, intimately describes the locations as they exist now, and introduces dozens of people I met and interviewed (and occasionally befriended) during the journey, letting them tell their stories.

As I go, I also try to offer a close-up perspective of the region, frequently raising questions about the environmental and economic impact of “civilization,” the relationships between white settlers and Native Americans, the evolution of the region’s culture, the impact and legacy of coal mining, and more.

The response so far has been gratifying, such as from George Brosi at Appalachian Mountain Books.

For more information and to keep up with upcoming events, please visit and like the book’s Facebook page. I’d love to hear from you too. 

Affordable Care Act: Just another failure

On Day 2 of the Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare), trending headlines tell us that the ACA is off to a rough start: web sites are freezing, people are running into delays, a few states are still dealing with paper applications–that sort of thing.

It all reminds me of other governmental efforts that had difficult and sometimes disastrous beginnings, often in the face of severe opposition, including the human genome project, the space shuttle, the mission to the moon, civil rights, World War II, recovery from the Great Depression, the end of slavery, the Civil War, the American Revolution.

On the other hand, Vietnam, President Nixon’s second term seemed to start out OK …

Yes, yes–of course this is a selective list. Someone could create a list of things that started out poorly and were disasters–or vice versa: successful starts that led to ongoing success. The point, in case there’s any question, is that ultimate success–or ultimate value, for that matter–can’t be judged by early problems. Day Two is too early to tell. For my part, now that it’s law (yes, it is the law), I hope it succeeds and that the problems get ironed out as quickly as possible. A lot of people need good, dependable, affordable health care, and this is a start.


Confession: I’ve been putting off writing this post for a while, but here we are.

Apology: This blog has been on an unplanned hiatus for about a month. I’m sorry about that.

Declaration: Now it’s time for a planned hiatus.

The last month was eventful, especially because of my younger daughter’s wedding in June. (Congratulations, Rachael and Corey.) It’s also been full of normal summer things — a little bit of travel, some chores that were on hold during the academic year. It’s nice to see the shrubs in front of my house again. I adopted a couple of cats from the shelter. Some out-of-town visitors came. Good things, but before I knew it, a month came and went since my last RPM post. Hiatus by accident.

I’ve also been reading a lot. Nothing weird about that, except that in addition to the usual kind of summer reading — the want-to reads and the must-reads for my upcoming Milligan classes — much of my book time connects with the planned hiatus. I’m going back to school.

I’m starting work on a master of fine arts program in creative nonfiction at Goucher College in Baltimore. It’s a two-year, low-residency program, which works well for someone like me who wants and needs to keep working a day job, particularly one as fulfilling as teaching at Milligan College. I’ll spare you the details about the MFA, but you can go here if you’re curious.

It’s obvious that life is about to get more complicated, probably in ways I can’t even anticipate. (I’m not complaining; just stating a fact.) So I’ve been looking at my schedule and trying to find some glitch in the space-time continuum — the Higgs boson is no help here — to figure out how I can faithfully and intelligently blog about religion, politics and media while teaching full-time, pursuing this MFA, working on other writing projects, and taking care of other bits of life as they come. The bottom line is that something has to give, and it looks like it will have to be this blog, at least for the time being.

RPM isn’t shutting down, but it is scaling back. I don’t have a specific plan for it yet; I want to see how my schedule shakes down over the next few months, and we’ll take it from there. I hope to post something occasionally, and if you follow this blog or me personally on Twitter or Facebook, you’ll receive alerts when some new content goes up. (I encourage to follow me on Twitter if you don’t already. That will be easiest.) If there’s overlap with my MFA work — some piece we read that might interest you, for example, or some writing that might fit RPM — then I’ll post it.

I intend to one day reactivate RPM or a successor. I’ll let you know. In the meantime, be well and stay in touch. Grace and peace to you.

Gas prices fall. Obama gets credit. Critics apologize. (Multiple choice. Pick one.)

I noticed this afternoon that gasoline has dropped to $3.29 per gallon at a Shell station a mile or so from our house. We’re lower than the national average, but gas prices are falling almost everywhere.

The national average price for a gallon of regular last week was $3.78, according to the most recent Lundberg Survey. That’s 12.4 cents lower than it was a year ago.

So we should expect the praise for President Obama to start rolling in any day now, especially from those folks who blamed him for the spike in petrol prices earlier this year, including some fairly prominent ones. Any day now … any day …

The president can’t be credited with the drop in gas prices, of course. But that also means he shouldn’t be blamed when they go up either. We can’t have it both ways. Fair is fair, or should be, even in an election year.

Any day now … any day.

Paper or plastic? Most Americans still prefer newspapers

Dinosaurs we love

The Rasmussen Reports said last week that two-thirds of Americans still prefer reading newspapers over the online versions of the news.

That’s a surprise. Conventional wisdom says newspapers are dying, and it’s no secret that they are financially struggling. But I suppose there’s a difference between what we prefer and what we accept. I might prefer to travel on a vacation — Vermont or Switzerland would be nice — but I’ll accept a “staycation” if I need to.

So I wonder if people prefer paper but accept online news. After all, it’s usually cheaper than a newspaper subscription, sometimes even free. The Internet has made the old business model for newspapers obsolete: Paper is the most expensive part of the production cost. Ad revenue, especially from the once-lucrative classifieds, is flowing away from newspapers like a mountain stream. A lot of people produce a lot of content for a lot less money (sometimes even for free).

Bottom line: It’s getting harder and harder for newspapers to stay viable, and so while we might prefer paper, we’ll go with plastic and one day, it will feel normal. There was a time, after all, when getting news on radio or TV felt strange too. The economics seem to point to a day when most–but not all–literal newspapers will be lining the dustbins of history.

What about you? Do you like your news on paper or … um … plastic? Feel free to comment.

The Christmas Eve truce

This Christmas Eve story has always fascinated me. Hopeful and bittersweet. Men trying to be at their best in the middle of the worst. (This is pulled from today’s installment of The Writer’s Almanac.)

It was on this day in 1914 that the last known Christmas truce occurred along the Western Front during World War I. In the week leading up to Christmas, soldiers all over the battlefields had been decorating their trenches with candles and makeshift trimmings when groups of German and British soldiers began shouting seasonal greetings and singing songs to each other. On occasion, a soldier or two would even cross the battlefield to take gifts to the enemy. Then, on Christmas Eve, the men of the Western Front put the war on hold and many soldiers from both sides left their trenches to meet in No Man’s Land, where they mingled and exchanged tobacco, chocolate, and sometimes even the buttons from their own uniforms as souvenirs. They played games of football, sang carols, and buried fallen comrades together as the unofficial truce lasted through the night.

Disaster … That’s entertainment

[T]ragedy is promoted on television as if it were entertainment: the trial of O.J. Simpson for a grisly murder, the car-crash death of Princess Diana, Chilean miners trapped below ground and yes, even the combination earthquake-tsunami-nuclear calamity in Japan. It is the nature of TV that everything is promoted the same way, no matter how ghastly the event.
There are rewards for doing so. According to FishbowlDC, “The Japan tragedy sets a new record for CNN.com with more than 60 million viewers watching.”

So writes Roger Simon of Politico.com. His complaint (posted March 17) echoes Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman’s 1985 classic critique of the “Age of Television,” which includes prescient passages like this:

There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly — for that matter, no ball score so tantalizing or weather report so threatening — that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, “Now … this.” The newscaster means that you have thought long enough on the previous matter (approximately forty-five seconds, that you must not be morbidly preoccupied with it (let’s say, for ninety seconds), and that you must now give your attention to another fragment of news or a commercial.

That’s not precisely what’s going on now, in the age of 24/7 cable TV information, but Postman was on to something.

Go here to read Roger Simon’s column, which includes several other trenchant points.

Watch this space in 2011

The old year is almost over, and so is a kind of self-imposed sabbatical from the blogosphere.

In January 2011, this old blog will get a new name (well, it already has one), new content and a new focus. To play with the new name, the blog will be revving up in the new year.

RPM is Religion, Politics, Media — three topics that frequently meet and sometimes collide. I hope this blog contributes to the thinking and talking that happens around that intersection. I’ll post new reporting, brief articles, comments, links and other information at least twice a week, and will of course welcome your comments. I hope you’ll come back and visit often. Feel free to spread the word to friends, acquaintances, relatives and anyone else you think might be interested.

Bookmark the address: www.religionpoliticsmedia.com.

The planned launch date: Jan. 17, 2011. (Advance comments, suggestions, ideas and dire warnings are welcome.)

See you soon. In the meantime, a happy Christmas and blessed new year to you.

More mouths to feed: ‘Food insecurity’ grows to record numbers

Dorothea Lange, "Migrant Mother" (1936)

One of the benefits for which we can give thanks this year is that a growing number of signs say we’re pulling out of our deep economic recession.

But it’s no secret that recovery is a slow train coming for millions of Americans. Last week the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that record numbers of people in the U.S. had trouble getting enough food in 2008.

“Seventeen million households, or 14.6 percent, were food insecure,” meaning they “lacked consistent access to adequate amounts of nutritious food,” according to the USDA Economic Research Service. That’s an increase of more than 1.5 million homes in one year and the highest figure since such statistics started in 1995.

Tennessee’s food insecurity for 2008 was slightly below the national average, at 13.5 percent of households. But if history is any guide, the Appalachian counties are likely to show above-average rates when detailed figures are released in January. Poverty is typically more prevalent in Appalachia than in other regions, and the lack of enough resources to obtain basic needs is “the fundamental cause of food insecurity and hunger in the United States,” according to the USDA.

Children are especially vulnerable. Virtually every measure of poverty or food insecurity reveals that children fare worse than adults. For instance, while Tennessee’s overall food insecurity rate in 2007 was 12.8 percent, the rate was 20.5 percent among children. The general poverty rate was 14.8 percent; for children it was 20.2 percent.

In the eight counties of Northeast Tennessee, 52 percent of schoolchildren were considered “economically disadvantaged” in 2008, according to the Tennessee State Report Card. That is, more than 37,000 schoolchildren were eligible to participate in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program or other public assistance.

Of the 49.1 million people in the U.S. who lived in food-insecure households in 2008, more than one-third – 16.7 million – were children.

Such numbers are almost overwhelming, obviously too big for even the most generous individual to make a dent. The good news is that we have ways to work together to feed neighbors in need.

In this area, more than 200 nonprofit organizations work with Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee. This nonprofit clearinghouse, part of a nationwide network of food banks known as Feeding America, gathers food in bulk directly from manufacturers, grocery stores and restaurants – which helps keep costs down – and distributes it to congregations, food pantries and other nonprofits. Second Harvest distributed 6.5 million tons of food last year.

The organization itself isn’t faith based, but 75 percent of the organizations that work with it are, according to Communications Director Kathy Smith. The biggest partners for Second Harvest in at least six of the region’s eight counties are churches or church-related ministries.

Certainly we’re in the best season for food banks. The message of Thanksgiving and the warmth of Christmastime apparently make people feel more generous than other times of the year. Just this week, listeners of WCQR, a Christian radio station, donated $27,000 to Second Harvest in one of several food drives this season.

Still, the gap between supply and need is never far away.

“We’ve been able to keep up with the increased need at this point,” Smith reported on Wednesday. “But it appears to be an ever-growing need. Donations are up compared to last year, but not significantly. The food is going out the door as fast as it comes in.”

Food banks like Second Harvest welcome and rely on the extra efforts at Thanksgiving and Christmas. But then comes January. Then February, March and April. The Second Harvest Web site lists at least 17 events in November and December. But between January and April 2010? Five.

The need for food doesn’t end when the holidays are over and, as the USDA reports, more Americans are hungry now than in any recent time.

But individuals, families and small groups can help feed hungry people year-round.

“They can organize food drives through their churches, businesses or in their neighborhoods,” Smith suggested. “They can consider holding a fundraising drive on our behalf, like a dinner. And of course they can volunteer with Second Harvest. We have various opportunities through the year.”

And of course, we can donate money. The Web sites for Second Harvest  and Feeding America even include secure links for making donations online.

That’s something to chew on, all year long.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 28 Nov 2009.

A new road leading to Rome, via Canterbury

welcome matAccording to the Gospel of John, Jesus prayed intensely on the night before his crucifixion that his followers, present and future, would “be one.”

After 2,000 years, it’s obvious why he needed to pray like that. Unity is difficult, a stubborn fact reaffirmed last month when Pope Benedict XVI cleared a new path for Anglicans to enter the Roman Catholic Church.

The relationship between Rome and Canterbury has always been complex, to put it mildly.

The Anglican tradition was born 475 years ago when, in a messy mix of personal desire, European politics and theological disputes during the Protestant Reformation, King Henry VIII challenged the pope’s authority in England and, with the first Supremacy Act, the government in effect declared churchly independence. The monarch was deemed “the only supreme head on earth of the Church in England,” with the archbishop of Canterbury its primary leader.

Canterbury Cathedral

That rough beginning has evolved into the global Anglican Communion, which today claims 77 million members, making it the world’s third largest church body, after the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.  Most Anglicans in the U.S. are in the Episcopal Church.

The dispute over papal authority turned out to be only the beginning. Inevitably, Catholics and Anglicans grew apart theologically as well as structurally. Among other issues, today they differ over women in ministry, over married clergy, and, depending on which part of the globe you’re in, over gay priests and bishops. (North American and British Anglicans tend to be more liberal about such things than their spiritual siblings in the southern hemisphere.)

Even so, many Anglicans and Catholics have long yearned for reconciliation, recognizing their churches’ special if strained relationship. Church leaders have constantly talked about cooperation for almost a half century, working together when theological differences weren’t at issue. There’s even been speculation about eventual reunification. Leaders in both churches regularly express a desire for unity.

But last month’s directive from the pope indicates how far apart the two churches remain.  Benedict will establish “personal ordinariates,” bodies similar to dioceses, to oversee the pastoral care of those who want to be received into the Catholic Church and bring elements of their Anglican identity with them. (The arrangement isn’t unique, even if the situation is. The Catholic Church already includes various groups with different rites, such as the Melkite and Maronite churches, living under similar structures.)

St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

The Vatican

insists it still seeks unity, according to church leaders. Rather, the pope was responding to “many requests” submitted by individual Anglicans and Anglican groups, including “20 to 30 bishops,” asking to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church.

East Tennessee has not yet felt any impact. Neither the Roman Catholic Knoxville Diocese nor the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee knows of any Episcopalians seeking to join Catholic churches since the Vatican’s announcement.

“No one from the Episcopal Church has come at the parish level,” said Anietie Akata, head pastor at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Johnson City. “A few members have read what the Vatican issued, and there’s been only positive acceptance expressed to me.”

Hal Hutchison, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church, doesn’t know of any members in that parish heading toward Rome. He doesn’t foresee a large migration at all.

“I don’t anticipate it being a significant number in any provinces of the Anglican community,” he said. “Part of the reason they like being Anglican is they don’t have a pope. Those who are unhappy with the Episcopal Church have sought to align themselves in other ways.”

The move may have other effects, however. While high-ranking Catholic and Anglican officials talk about their desire for unity, their words may sound like whistling in the dark.

Cardinal William J. Levada, who directs the Vatican’s chief body for overseeing theological consistency, has noted that with “recent changes” within many Anglican provinces – probably a reference to the ordination of an openly gay bishop in the U.S. and other controversies about sexuality – the prospect of full unity “seemed to recede.” So instead of holding out hope for full reconciliation, the Vatican opened a road to Rome for Anglicans who no longer feel at home with Canterbury. 

St. Mary’s parish continues to pray for the unity of the church, according to Pastor Akata, “which has always been the ambition and goal for the church.”

He’s right about that. Jesus himself prayed for such unity, probably knowing how difficult it would be.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 7 Nov 2009.