Written by Benjamin Clanton, Government Publications
Every year, the Government Publications Department at the University of Memphis likes to bring attention to Constitution Day to honor, as you may have guessed, the U.S. Constitution. We have all likely seen news stories debating whether a law or court ruling is ‘constitutional.’ And I am sure, like me, you have wondered: what exactly does that mean? Constitutionality can pertain to most hot button issues in our modern society, whether it be immigration reform or gun control or the power to wage war. Luckily, there are resources available through the federal government that interpret such situations in a way that is accessible to everyday citizens and not just those versed in constitutional law.
One such resource is known as the ‘Constitution Annotated,’ curated by the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress and available online at Congress.gov. This invaluable and periodically updated document provides short essays examining new interpretations of the governmental powers outlined in the Constitution and its Amendments. As mentioned before, there is always debate about what our government can and cannot legislate, and how rights protected by the Constitution, such as free speech, are affected by things such as new technologies and controversial events.
The Constitution is often considered a living document. Every year, the U.S. Supreme Court decides on cases that affect how our society will function based on this concept. Thankfully, the ‘Constitution Annotated’ provides understandable analysis through its essays on the ongoing evolution of how the Constitution shapes our lives. And, though tempting, I advise you to never skip the footnotes in these essays: they provide links to landmark court cases that, whether you realize it or not, determine how our country governs and how the Constitution protects the rights of American citizens.
If you would like to view the print version of the ‘Constitution Annotated,’ also known as the ‘Constitution of the United States: Analysis and Interpretation,’ it is available in PDF format at Govinfo.gov.
There is a wonderful display celebrating Constitution Day, put together by our very own Betsy Eckert, in McWherter Library between the Rotunda and the Government Publications Department. And while you are there, grab a complimentary Pocket Constitution to refer to wherever you go!
Written by Benjamin Clanton, Government Publications Department
Every March, numerous private and governmental health organizations from around the country promote what is known as National Nutrition Month. Individuals and businesses have become increasingly aware of what foods and drinks we put in our bodies. The past decade has seen the increased popularization of things such as organically raised meats, vegetables, and fruits (many grown locally in our own communities), along with stores and farmers markets where these items are widely accessible. Thankfully, a variety of online government resources on both the state and federal levels provide information and even recipes that reflect the want and need of Americans to educate themselves about their own health and nutrition.
So, the next time you are looking for nutrition information or a new healthy recipe, for you or your loved ones, for any meal of the day (including snack time!), feel free to peruse these online recipes and other informational resources provided by the State of Tennessee and the Federal Government.
Written by Benjamin Clanton, Government Publications
We in the Government Publications Department at the University of Memphis feel there are few more fitting subjects to explore during Black History Month than Frederick Douglass. Douglass escaped slavery in 1838 and became one of the most towering figures of his time and in all of American history. A tireless orator, abolitionist, and political commentator, he produced autobiographies, speeches, and other works outlining the evils of chattel slavery in the United States. Douglass believed that the nation needed to live up to the promises of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and shake off the scourge of slavery if it were to reach its full potential and truly provide freedom for all its people. His document “A Lecture on Our National Capital,” first given in 1875, a decade after the end of the American Civil War, was reproduced by the Smithsonian and the National Park Service and is available for check out from our Government Publications department.
In this address, Douglass’ observations of Washington, D.C, serve as a microcosm to the nation at large. He laments the affect slavery and its political influence had on the city in the past, but also contrasts it with the postwar progress made in everything from the attitude of its citizens to new building projects that made it a more livable place. Douglass acknowledges there was still much work to be done; in hindsight we know that it was only the beginning of the ongoing struggle to guarantee rights for African Americans in this country. However, Douglass conveyed a sense of optimism for the future in this lecture, stating his hope that “the best men and the best women from all sections of our widely extended country shall delight to meet and bury their differences.” If you are interested in further exploring Douglass and his place in American history, check out these government resources, along with some supplemental eBooks currently available through McWherter Library.
Written by Benjamin Clanton, Government Publications
As Halloween approaches each year, I enjoy changing my media intake up a bit, filling my days with weird and scary books, movies, and podcasts. I always enjoy things of this nature, but tend to binge during spooky season. This year, I added a long overdue read to my cultural docket: The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells. The novel is narrated by its main character, Edward Prendick, who is rescued after a shipwreck by an enigmatic man of science named Montgomery. Prendick soon finds himself an unwanted guest on a small Pacific island run by the novel’s namesake, Dr. Moreau. After encounters with what appear to be human-like ‘Beasts,’ Prendick discovers the dark secret of the doctor and his island. Dr. Moreau has been experimenting on various types of animals by using a combination of surgery (which he terms ‘vivisection,’ a quite unpleasant term when looked up) and hypnosis, giving these creations (for lack of a better term) human traits. Dr. Moreau rules over the small society he has formed using a combination of physical violence and psychological manipulation in the form of ‘Laws,’ which outline how the ‘Beasts’ should act human and suppress their animal instincts. However, as one might guess, things eventually go terribly wrong, and Prendick finds himself in the middle of a vicious and long-simmering power struggle between Dr. Moreau, Montgomery, and the ‘Beasts’ that inhabit this twisted world.
I am sure the sentiment has been said many times in various forms before, but I cannot help but think of a line said by Jeff Goldblum’s character in the film version of Jurassic Park: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they [SHOULD].” Much as in that tale, a scientist, in this case Dr. Moreau, decides to play God and create something that simply should not exist. In forming this society of ‘Beasts,’ he shows no concern for the immense physical, psychological, and emotional pain he causes his subjects. During the era in which this novel was written, there had been significant advances in medicine and surgery, with human science on the cusp of new discoveries that greatly benefit our society today. Dr. Moreau, however, uses science in a reckless manner, and causes mayhem in the process. Prendick is terrified of the ‘Beasts’ early in the novel, but eventually realizes that the remorseless Dr. Moreau is the true monster, the true source of terror in the world he finds himself trapped in. Wells was a wonderful author, and displayed an ability to reflect the anxieties and wrongdoings of his time in his fiction. The Island of Dr. Moreau is not as much scary in the traditional horror sense as it is disturbing due to its material; by the end, I felt a somber sadness as the suffering increases and the island collapses into pointless chaos. Though over a century old, I did not find the novel particularly dated, as it still serves as a cautionary tale concerning both what humanity can and should do, and how those ideas often end up clashing.
This is also a wonderful opportunity to promote a couple of great features on the University of Memphis Libraries website. First, our Virtual Book Display provides monthly lists, shaped by relevant and timely themes, for the McWherter and Lambuth branches; for example, the one for October is titled Gothic Lit + Ghosts Galore. This fun, interactive resource is a great way to find both leisure and academic reads, so check back every month to see what we are featuring (and browse lists from previous months as well). Second, there are a variety of e-books in many subjects available through the library’s website. The Island of Dr. Moreau, along with a number of other older novels, are available in this format. So if you are ever curious, use the Classic Catalog feature on the front page of our website to search for a title. You never know, you may be able to access and enjoy it without ever leaving your home!
Written by Benjamin Clanton, Government Publications
The expansion of voting rights has a long and tumultuous history in the United States, and while the journey is not over (and may never be), a number of crucial events have made voting a more inclusive right that many people cherish as one of the most important responsibilities held by American citizens. The original text of the U.S. Constitution largely left decisions concerning voting rights up to the individual states; thus, the right to vote was held almost exclusively by white male property holders in the early days of our nation. However, several Constitutional Amendments have expanded the electorate since the American Civil War. In the years immediately following the war, the Fourteenth Amendment extended the vote to all males above the age of 21 and further defined citizenship rights, and the Fifteenth Amendment seemingly outlawed the denial of voting rights based on race and “conditions of previous servitude,” laying out protections for former male slaves. In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment extended the vote to women, a long overdue protection finally given after a decades long struggle.
The 1960s witnessed a new era in the protection of voting rights, particularly for minorities in certain parts of the country. States in the American South, following Reconstruction in the late 19th century, long practiced efforts to disenfranchise African American voters through things such as a poll tax and literacy tests. In 1964, the Twenty-fourth Amendment outlawed the use of poll taxes, and the following year, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 laid out protections for minority voters, working to realize the promises made by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. The Voting Rights Act has been amended several times over the past half century, extending protections to other minorities in the United States, including language minorities and voters with disabilities. Another important step to bring more people into the political conversation took place in 1971 with the Twenty-sixth Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18 nationwide.
There are many other important moments and pieces of legislation that serve to protect voting rights in the United States, and I would encourage further research if you are interested in both the high and low points of this part of the nation’s history. The protection of voting rights in the United States continues to be a pertinent topic in our society, and will likely remain so well into the future. There are a number of questions that arise during every election cycle. Are there enough polling places to accommodate the population, particularly in urban areas? What exactly is the future of early voting and mail-in voting, both exacerbated by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic? What about the disenfranchisement of felons in many states, either while incarcerated or after release? Should a person have to show identification to vote? One would hope that voting, one of the most sacred rights held by American citizens, one that countless people have fought for during the history of this country, will continue to become easier, with more and more people encouraged to use this opportunity to have their voices heard.
And this brings a reminder: please vote! It is such a privilege to be able to do so. It is important to keep up with what is happening on any given ballot. Many people only consider a Presidential election important. But there are so many elections that happen in conjunction with and in between it. Even in a year such as this one, there are other relevant things on the ballot one should be knowledgeable about. For example, as a Mississippian, I get the chance to vote on the following on November 3: President of the United States; members of the U.S. Congress; state Supreme Court justices; a new design for our state flag; and the possible legalization of medical marijuana. So, remember, being a voter is important, but being an informed voter is vital.
If you are interested in more information on voting rights, here are some links to online government resources that you can check out!
Written by Benjamin Clanton, Government Publications
Constitution Day is observed every year on September 17 to commemorate the signing of the United States Constitution in 1787, which outlined how our federal government would operate and serves as both a functional and symbolic document for this nation and its ideals. It is possible that many people in modern day take for granted that the United States would become what it is today. However, when studying the history of the Constitution and its eventual ratification, Americans of the time debated over what the United States should actually be. Luckily, there are some easily accessible government resources available online that allow us to study the arguments for our Constitution. Perhaps the finest example of this is what has come to be known as ‘The Federalist Papers,’ which you can read in its entirety at the Library of Congress’s website. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote a number of political treatises arguing the need for the Constitution and a more refined federal government to replace the existing Articles of Confederation (which you can view here). These writings provide a glimpse into the political and philosophical arguments and counterarguments of the day concerning the formation of the United States government.
As we know, Hamilton and his allies won the day and the Constitution was ratified; the website of the Architect of the Capitol provides a glimpse into this momentous event with a detailed explanation of the painting ‘Signing of the Constitution.’ It is also important to remember that the U.S. Constitution is an ever functioning document and not simply a historical moment frozen in time. The website of the United States Congress provides us with what is known as the Constitution Annotated, where interpretations of the Constitution are displayed, particularly in a list of laws that have been deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. If you are interested in further research concerning the U.S. Constitution and its history, McWherter Library has a number of resources in its collections that are worth a look. And please visit our Constitution Day LibGuide, which highlights a number of resources available physically and online concerning the Constitution and its meaning, along with its relationship to the Census and voting rights.
Constitution Day also doubles as Citizenship Day, to serve as a celebration of efforts by people from all over the world to become citizens. It highlights the beauty of our nation at its best, where people from countless backgrounds can gather and continue the ever-changing experiment that is the United States. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services provides a variety of resources that will help those interested in the road to citizenship. The Government Publications department also provides some valuable citizenship resources, such as online access to this Civics and Citizenship Toolkit. Another appropriate resource, being that it is both Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, are the translations of the U.S. Constitution into a variety of languages that we also provide. Some of the examples include: Spanish, French, German, Chinese, and Korean. Hopefully, the resources discussed in this post will help you gain a better understanding of why we commemorate these two vital aspects of the American story.
Written by Benjamin Clanton, Government Publications
The coming of age tale has long held an important and cherished place in American literature, and the college novel has taken this genre to complex heights in the past several decades. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is arguably one of the best examples in recent memory, as it examines both the seductive and alienating aspects of the modern campus. Richard Papen, the main character and narrator, flees an unfulfilling existence in California for the small and exclusive environs of Hampden College in Vermont. There, he soon falls in with a small group of Classics students: stoic and brilliant Henry; the enigmatic twins Charles and Camilla; neurotic Francis; and oafish Bunny. Their elitist instructor, Julian, leads them in the search of beauty and knowledge, creating a bubble that exists on the edges of the school. On the surface, it appears to be a dream existence for all of them; however, a series of tragedies shows that dreams never last, and the real world always brings a harsh reckoning.
Richard remains an outsider through much of the book, despite becoming part of the group and forming close relationships with the others; he shows shame concerning his background, creating fabrications or withholding details about his past in California. Bunny, in particular, tends to needle him for being different from the rest of them, constantly cracking jokes about things concerning Richard’s past that do not add up. Bunny, in his interactions with the rest of the group, is unable to realize that things which are just a game to him are of the utmost seriousness to the others, causing constant mental strain that eventually forces a disastrous break.
The social dynamics of the group create both a unique sense of comradery and constant tensions that build up over time. The members largely come from some form of affluent background, save Richard, and already have a skewed idea of how the world works. Julian, their teacher and talisman of sorts, is independently wealthy and thus separated from the world around him in many ways. Richard even observes that the rest of the group seem disdainful of what is going on in the larger world in regards to politics and other current events. The group is also barely aware of their community beyond the Classics courses, which is already a tight nit and exclusive liberal arts college attached to a small New England community. All of this creates a sense of elitism, especially in Henry. He is content with becoming lost within the Greek translations Julian assigns, or some other literary or artistic pursuit that he alone understands or has interest in. He cuts himself off in numerous ways from everyone, including his closest friends, though we do get glimpses of humanity from him, especially when it concerns Julian.
The class and the group become their entire world. Some take it more seriously than others. It is arguable that Bunny takes nothing seriously, that life is a series of games and jokes and the only thing of importance to him is the fulfillment of base desire. Charles, Camilla, and Francis often seem along for the ride, in search of some form of comradery in a world they do not feel connected to. However, Henry, like Julian, is a true believer, though they are possibly searching for different things to believe in. Julian is clearly drawn to beauty, whatever that may mean; he finds most things in the larger world ugly and vulgar. Henry, with his youthful obsessions, seems to be searching for some form of truth that he cannot find, and most likely does not exist. The others often fall in lockstep with him, which leads them down a road of destruction and madness. And then there is Richard, who just wants to find something that matters, and clings to that idea for as long as possible until it shatters like everything else. Perhaps that is why he moves forward slightly better than the others. Despite his deceptions of who he truly is, to the others and to himself, perhaps being that type of nobody, the type of person that can shift identities as a situation necessitates, allows him to drift through the world without being consumed by its many tribulations.
Ultimately, Richard and the rest of the group are just kids, college students trying to find their way in the world. It is possible that Julian does them a disservice by cutting them off from the rest of the college’s community; he sees this as a positive and the best way for them to learn, but the subsequent isolation and loneliness eventually accelerates their deterioration. Bunny and Richard do a moderately better job in remaining connected to other people. However, Henry, Charles, Camilla, and Francis become trapped in a kind of echo chamber, stranded with each other and, often, inside their own heads. They are the ones that were in the forest the night of the local farmer’s death, which begins the group’s cataclysmic fall; they are the ones that act as the driving force for the climactic event of the novel; and they are the ones that ultimately suffer the most in the end. Richard does as well, of course, but in a different way. He always seems to be the one that is completely afloat, never fully becoming part of the tight band of friends. The others are completely aware of what came before Richard and their fateful Bacchanal. After that ideal falls apart, they are unable to find anything to hold on to and cannot deal properly with the guilt of what they have done.
I did not read this book when I was college student. I read it several years after finishing graduate school, and reread it recently, which prompted this blog post. I cannot say for sure if it would have been a positive or negative force for me at that point in life. It is easy to become lost in the Romantic aspects of the plot: the closeness of the main characters; their experiences with good books and good food; and being young and beautiful in a place that allows escape into a world of deceptively few consequences. However, this can blind the reader to all the negative aspects of that world that Tartt skillfully uncovers: the strange solitude and self-isolation, even when surrounded by so many potentially likeminded people, and the odd unreality of being stuck between youth and adulthood. One of the driving forces of the novel is that when young, one is often shocked into realizing life and its many decisions have actual consequences. Tartt’s characters, including Julian, the primary example of ‘adulthood,’ become trapped in a dreamlike revelry, and, when yanked out of it, must deal with this fact. As they discover, you rarely come out of the other side of these situations the same person, and sometimes, you do not come out of the other side at all.
Library promotion time! The 3rd and 4th floor stacks are back open for the fall semester. However, if you have reservations about browsing these areas or getting a book from upstairs, McWherter Library is still offering an Item Pickup Request service; you can find the online form here. Our workers in the Circulation Department will pull the book and notify you once it is ready for checkout. Remember: please be wearing your mask and have your University of Memphis ID card ready in order to get into the library. And most importantly: stay safe and healthy!
If you want to read The Secret History by Donna Tartt, it is currently available for checkout at McWherter Library and can be checked out using the Pickup Request service.
This has been an interesting stretch for space travel in our country, with the joint NASA-SpaceX launch of the manned Dragon spacecraft being a highlight of what has proved to be a difficult year. Also of note, June 3 was the 55th anniversary of the first American spacewalk. And June 30 is one of those fun holidays often celebrated by educators in order to promote scientific learning, Asteroid Day. In honor of these achievements and recognitions, we in Government Publications wanted to point out some aspects of NASA’s history of space exploration and share some resources that may serve as a jumping off point to any studies in these topics.
Written by Meghan Campbell, Government Publications
The International Space Station, or ISS, is mankind’s first concerted effort to collaborate outside of Earth. This satellite, which initially launched in 1998, moves at an average pace of about 17,150 mph, orbits our planet approximately 16 times every 24 hours, and is home to astronauts of differing nationalities. The ISS and its crew sustain a successful environment where progress in scientific experiments further the knowledge of space and other scientific research. At the time of this posting, there are currently 5 people living on board the ISS. Two of which, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, recently completed a historic spaceflight which ended with their boarding of the ISS utilizing the SpaceX “Crew Dragon” spacecraft.
The experiments conducted on the ISS further the achievements of mankind and prove to be consistently astounding. In the document “International Space Station: Benefits for Humanity” these experiments and the ways in which they help better life on Earth are listed. One of the experiments documented shows the progress in which the results of the tests performed on the ISS betters water filtration on Earth.
A fun fact about the ISS is that it is the third brightest object in the sky and can be seen with a pair of binoculars! To figure out if the ISS is flying overhead, NASA has set up a handy website aptly titled “Spot the Station” where one can find out the window of time that the ISS can be viewed over a particular location.
As of right now, the International Space Station is set to remain commissioned and functional above the Earth until at least 2030. Until then we can also enjoy images from the ISS and pictures of the satellite itself thanks to NASA’s generous collection of images.
One can also take a tour of the ISS alongside astronaut Suni Williams here.
NASA’s newest mission, named after the twin sister of Apollo, is Artemis. Its primary mission will focus on getting the first woman and next man on the South Pole of the moon (by 2024) in its first lunar landing mission since Apollo 17 in 1972. In addition to this, all missions that include lunar landings will also serve as missions to build knowledge and understanding of the moon and how we may use it to move forward in space exploration.
For these missions, the South Pole of the moon (chosen for its abundance of water) is the primary area of focus for the future Artemis astronauts. NASA states that one of the tasks of the Artemis missions will be to locate this water and ice and be able to utilize it. Though the ultimate goals of the Artemis missions are not only to put the first woman on the moon, but also to eventually put the collective eyes of humanity on moving toward putting the first humans on Mars.
While many publications and materials are most likely going to be released closer to the execution of the program’s first missions, the Government Publishing Office and NASA have recently released a small promotional booklet and an activity book for ages 4-12 to help the public learn about the program (both of which are available for checkout at the McWherter Library, and the activity book can also be found online in our catalog if you don’t want to come in person!). NASA’s website is another wonderful resource to fulfill any kind of curiosity about the program.
Since 1972, the Landsat missions have provided NASA, the USGS, and countless others with data that reflects the changes to our planet’s landscape as humans continue to modify the Earth’s landscape as the decades move forward. Originally known as the “Earth Resources Technology Satellite”, Landsat has about 8, soon to be 9 different models that have adapted to ever changing technology and scientific standards.
Landsat is responsible for more than 8 million images of the Earth’s surface and provides valuable data on human movement, the effects of nature and natural disasters, among so many other sections of scientific development. Its images have even helped scientists discover new species of flora and fauna!
One of the more distinct applications of Landsat is the use of its images to compare ideal landmasses that are identical to the surface of Mars so mission planners can create scenario in preparation for potential habitation of the planet. The land picked for this research just so happened to be on the Big Island of Hawai’i.
Another wonderful contribution that is available to the public through NASA and Landsat is a plethora of at home activities that can satisfy anyone’s knowledge of Landsat or anyone’s need to be occupied. These activities among others can be found here.
Written by Benjamin Clanton, Government Publications
NASA’s Journeys into the Outer Solar System
With the recent launch of two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station by a joint effort between the government agency and the private company SpaceX, the first mission of this sort launched from American soil since 2011, there exists the possibility of renewed interest in our nation’s efforts at space travel and exploration, both to (relatively) nearby places such as our Moon and to the far reaches of our solar system. The history of NASA’s unmanned missions to the outer planets, which include Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Uranus, and, once upon a time, Pluto, along with moons of the aforementioned planets, is a storied one. Pioneer 10, the first of these missions, was launched in 1973 and provided information about the solar system beyond Mars, including the first photographs of Jupiter. Check out the NASA website’s page on Pioneer 10 to learn more details about this historic mission, including a clock of how long it has been in space.
Subsequent missions have performed flybys of the other outer planets, along with other firsts for deep space exploration. The Voyager program, the first of its two probes launched in 1977, have sent back invaluable information on the outer planets, and continue to function in this regard in the far reaches of our solar system and beyond. According to NASA’s website, Voyager 1 and 2 became the third and fourth manmade objects, along with Pioneer 10 and 11, to move beyond the “gravitational influence of the Sun.” In 2005, the Cassini-Huygens mission accomplished the first successful probe landing in the outer solar system, on Saturn’s largest moon Titan. One interesting fun fact is that the New Horizons probe was launched in 2006 with the intent of a flyby of Pluto; by the time it reached this goal in 2015, Pluto had been downgraded to a dwarf planet. Nonetheless, the pictures sent back of Pluto’s surface are worth examination, and can be seen here along with more details of the mission at large. And with future missions planned, such as Europa Clipper (which is destined for Jupiter’s moon Europa), NASA will continue to be on the forefront in learning more about the still mysterious outer planets and their moons.
Interested in learning more about this ongoing chapter in NASA’s history? Here are a few resources available through Government Publications that can expand your understanding of these exciting and important missions into deep space.
‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers, winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, is a novel of conflict, both quiet and deafeningly loud. Everything in it, including a large cast of main characters, is linked by interactions with trees. At times, the book reads like a work of scientific study, with countless species of trees described in tireless detail by the author. However, there is an artistry in the natural world, something not everyone sees. Many look at a forest and see the countless resources that can come from it on a surface level: the houses that will be built from lumber; the crops that will be grown on the cleared land; and minerals underneath the ground that will be refined. Others, like several of the characters in this book, see deeper meaning in the towering trees and the forest’s undergrowth teeming with unnoticed life. Powers uses these competing visions to create an intricate and philosophical, albeit sometimes uneven, look at the relationships we develop with each other and the greater world.
The strength of this novel is its examination of the characters and their relationships to nature. For some, it is the only way they can feel part of something bigger than themselves. All of the characters Powers follows are loners in some sense. Nicholas Hoel survives, totally by chance, an accident that kills his remaining family members. Mimi Ma is devastated by the suicide of her father and the illness of her mother. Douglas Pavlicek serves in Vietnam and comes home forever damaged, a wanderer by choice with no roots. And the list goes on. The potential challenge of a book like this one is that some of the characters flourish and feel more part of the central story, while others fade to the periphery. One of the latter seems to be Neelay Mehta, who falls from a tree as a child and is confined to a wheelchair. However, his lifelong obsession with computers, fostered by his father, becomes intertwined with a fascination towards a stand of exotic trees on his California college campus, leading him to create a virtual world that people around the world can inhabit and build within. In ways, the creation becomes more important than character, serving as a mirror to the real world and the people that inhabit it, a debate between wonton consumption and the creativity that can come from working around limitations that prove necessary to extend the life and complexity of ‘the game.’
The relationship of human society to the natural world is an ongoing tension in our own society that drives the action of the novel. Many readers bring their own personal viewpoint to what they are reading, and this book certainly bets that will add richness to this particular experience. The main characters find themselves in constant conflict with the rest of the world concerning their relationships to the trees and forests they come to love. And these passions teach them to become more human, to form bonds that some of them no longer thought possible after experiencing soul-wrenching tragedy. The most touching of these links proves to be between Nicholas Hoel and Olivia Vandergriff. Both wayward souls, they meet under the most random of consequences and form a bond that seems mystical in nature. From his home in the Midwest, they head to the Pacific Coast, where they become part of a guerilla ecological group attempting to halt the overlogging of old growth forests. This is the point where most of the characters converge and become a part of the overarching plot Powers creates. Some of them go so far as to engage in ecoterrorism, as the cause of protecting the trees, and essentially the natural world, they feel at home in becomes increasingly desperate. At this point, the question must be asked: what price are they willing to pay to protect what they believe in?
There are larger philosophical and societal explorations at work in ‘The Overstory,’ and this fact makes it a heavy work in more ways than one. It is a bit of a doorstop, so if you like long sweeping epics that cover massive amounts of time and involve a wide cast of characters, pick this one up. One of these characters, Patricia Westerford, provides the spiritual compass of this tale, even though her life is dedicated to science. She feels more at home in the woods than anywhere. She is unfairly ostracized by the academic world while theorizing that trees communicate with each other, to warn each other of danger that could affect the entire ecosystem. These beliefs are eventually proven and vindicated; Patricia then writes a book that becomes a kind of linking guide for characters such as Nicholas and Olivia, struggling on the frontlines to keep the fight alive. Ultimately, the Powers’s novel explores, at least partially, the battle over who gets to determine the future of this world and how people will live in it. There are multiple scenes where characters are confronted by loggers, police officers, and other authority figures, all arguing that the cutting of the trees they are protecting creates jobs and puts food on the table for their families. However, Nicholas, after the group of characters that become ecowarriors breaks apart following tragedy, experiences a landslide that devastates several homes. Thus, what is the price you are willing to pay, or watch other people pay, for your definition of progress?
It is a question that is wrestled with in every section of this novel, the last of which is labelled as ‘Seeds.’ The plot stretches roughly to the early years of our current century and covers a time period now famous for intense environmental battles, in forests and courtrooms alike. Today, in the news, we see diatribes from multiple points of view concerning climate change, urban sprawl, deforestation, and other topics predicting a potentially dire future if human society does not take drastic action. Perhaps those seeds planted by an earlier generation, on all sides of this battle, are beginning to take root and flourish. It will be interesting to see, just like in the forests frequented throughout ‘The Overstory,’ what will grow and be created moving forward.
‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers is currently available for checkout at the McWherter Library. It is located on the first floor as part of the rotating book display in the Rotunda, near the entrance to Government Publications, which contains popular releases (if you are looking for a fun read to take a break from your studies) and themed temporary collections based on the month. If you want to learn more, please check out this fun LibGuide covering the items currently available in this display.
Written by Benjamin Clanton, Government Publications
On May 14, 1804, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and the members of the Corps of Discovery set out to explore the lands west of the Mississippi River newly acquired by the fledgling United States from France, a journey that would last over two years. Thomas Jefferson, who had negotiated the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, hoped to use the expedition to explore and map these territories and to ideally find a practical water route all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Thankfully, there are a number of easily accessible resources that allow research into the story and the findings of the Corps of Discovery. Perhaps first and foremost, you can read the voluminous journals of the expedition through the University of Memphis Library’s website from the comfort of your own home. Secondly, there are a number of government resources online that allow patrons to learn more about this significant chapter in our nation’s growth and history.
One of the lasting legacies of the Lewis and Clark expedition comes in the field of science. The Corps of Discovery encountered countless species of flora and fauna unique to the Western lands they traversed, some of which were no longer found east of the Mississippi River due to human encroachment. Some of the animals encountered included grizzly bears, bison herds, and numerous species of snakes, encounters which were written about at length in the expedition’s journals. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has produced a fun website that allows us to explore the plant and animal species studied by Lewis, Clark, and their men. After returning from the expedition, Clark, a talented cartographer, produced a new map in 1810 of what would become the American West that shed a new light on the lands of the Louisiana Purchase. Even though the expedition failed to find a water route directly to the Pacific Ocean, something Thomas Jefferson desired greatly, the map still serves as an invaluable historic resource, as shown here in this resource courtesy of the United States Geological Survey.
A wonderful aspect of modern life is that people interested in both history and the natural world can retrace the path taken by the Corps of Discovery without taking the extreme risks of traveling into an unforgiving wilderness in the early 19th century. Thanks in large part to the National Park Service, a number of sites stretching all across the United States can be visited that help us better understand the journey of Lewis and Clark and the lands that they experienced on their trek to the Pacific and back home. The website for the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail allows one to virtually explore, state by state, some of the significant landmarks of the expedition and to plan a future trip to see them in person. Another place of note in the tale of Lewis and Clark is actually right here in Tennessee, on the stretch of the Natchez Trace near Nashville. A monument there marks the burial site of Meriwether Lewis; Lewis, who was prone to bouts of depression, died of gunshot wounds, possibly self-inflicted. Historians have long debated the nature of his death, but nonetheless, it was a strange and mysterious ending to an intriguing life.
Here are some more links to further your personal explorations in this topic:
Written by Meghan Campbell, Government Publications
Sacagawea was a young Shoshone woman most famously known for her contributions to Lewis and Clark’s expedition West. She was all at once a translator, guide, and symbol of peace for the Corps of Discovery as they traveled through unknown lands. As someone intimately familiar with the land that Lewis and Clark were seeking passage through, Sacagawea helped them forage for food and speak with other Native American tribes they encountered along the way. A time or two, she also helped save precious documents that would have been otherwise lost to history.
Sacagawea was not only a valuable team member to the Corps of Discovery, she contributed to the overall success of their journey West and their return home. She also did so while pregnant, and consequently gave birth and cared for her infant son alongside her husband Toussaint Charbonneau, who served as a translator for the group. Not only this, but it is believed that Sacagawea was only around 16 or 17 when she and her husband joined the expedition.
Because of all that she contributed to Lewis and Clark’s journey, Sacagawea is highly regarded in history as a vital member of their team. She has been immortalized in various statues around the country, and there is even a one dollar coin bearing her and her baby’s faces.
In addition to Sacagawea, there is another, lesser known crew member who joined and survived Lewis and Clark’s journey to the Pacific. His name was believed to be Seaman, and he was Meriwether Lewis’ Newfoundland dog. He was known to be a constant companion, alarm system, and even a hunter from time to time. Seaman survived the entire journey with the Corps of Discovery, and even though not much is known about his fate, it is known that Lewis cared for him. It has been noted that even though the group purchased many dogs to eat throughout their travels, Seaman was never considered a meal prospect. He too has been forever remembered by having his image cast in statues around the country.
Some interesting government and library-wide resources regarding Sacagawea and Seaman both as well as general history of the Corps of Discovery can be found here: