Country Scribe : Eric Bergeson's Weblog

November 11, 2006


This little goldfinch waits his turn at the thistle feeder this morning.

Chickens come home to roost

Remember when the torture and abuse at the prisons was passed off as the misbehavior of rogue units? Well, it never was confined to the lower ranks, and it was never even their fault. It was ordered from the highest levels. And this is the result. As it should be. I am particularly eager to see John Yoo, the administration lawyer who argued that President Bush had the right to order a child's testicles crushed in front of his father if he thought it might produce needed intelligence, answer for the legal arguments he wrote which justified and ordained torture. The man is sick.

November 10, 2006

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Today, I saw that we had an extra day without much to do in history class, so I had some copies of the first chapter of Uncle Tom's Cabin made and we spent the hour reading it aloud.

Harriet Beecher Stowe's language is vintage 19th century, featuring long, sometimes obtuse sentences. Some of the meanings of words have changed since that time. For example, "She started." The students didn't know what meant. I think the closest thing in the modern lexicon is, "she jumped." You hide behind the door to scare somebody. When they see you, you jump. Well, back then they would "start," as in "startled."

I read the first couple of paragraphs and then had the students take it from there. One person volunteered, but after that I just asked people to read. It was very interesting. There was no relation between performance on tests and ability to read aloud. In fact, I almost hesitated to have one girl read--she had flunked both tests spectacularly and I worried she might struggle--but it was obviously her turn, and I didn't want to skip her.

Well, she breezed through difficult passages of dialect as gracefully as an Anglican vicar might breeze through the Common Book of Prayer.

Uncle Tom's Cabin brought the realities of slavery home to the reading public before the Civil War. I think the book still has the same power today.

Sons of Norway

Last night, I performed for the Sons of Norway chapter in Fargo at a banquet for their volunteers. There were about 150 people there.

It went okay. The sound system was a little rough. I have gotten used to wireless microphones, so it was a bit of a challenge holding a mike and trying to read and talk. I ended up fumbling with my notes until somebody piped up, "you must be a Norwegian!" True enough.

Sons of Norway groups are largely geriatric. I would say the average age was over eighty. I met a lady who introduced herself as the "youth director," and I sort of had to suppress my smart-aleck instincts--for in that crowd, youth was anybody pre-Social Security.

I had a half an hour to kill beforehand, so I went over to Schmitt Music to look at church organs. I used to play organ, and I have dreamt of having an Allen organ in my house.

Well, Schmitt has stopped selling church organs. However, the salesman said his church was getting rid of their organ, a Rodgers. I said I was interested. He said, head over there and take a look, the Praise Band was going to be practicing there soon, so the church would be open.

Well, the church building was brand new and enormous. In the auditorium, the organ sat in the corner gathering dust, a victim of the Praise Band, perhaps.

What a nice-looking instrument. Rodgers, for many years, was the best organ maker in the business. Virgil Fox, the late great classical organist, traveled around giving Bach concerts in high school gymnasiums using a Rodgers.

I called the pastor to see if I could play the organ sometime. It has been disconnected, but he would be happy to fix it up so I could try it out. So, I suspect I will run down there soon.

However, the thing is huge. I will have to bring a tape measure along to see if it will fit through the sliding glass door. We might have to remove the door. Whatever it takes. The price looks to be right.

I have a silly superstition I hesitate to report, because it goes against all my ideologies. However, my lucky number has always been 74 since I was in college and always seemed to get 74 as my mailbox number no matter which college I attended.

Sometimes, the number pops up more frequently than others, and then I start wondering what good thing is going to happen.

Yesterday, on the way to Fargo, I was listening to a disc of Virgil Fox playing Bach on a Rodgers. Along Highway 10 and then on 94, every car plate I saw seemed to have a 74 at the end. Then, on Highway 9, there was mile marker 74. A little later, I looked down at the odometer to see two 74s. Mmmm. Something must be up.

Then, I walked into the music store to find out that a church has just decided to get rid of a Rodgers organ, the very instrument I had spent my trip down to Fargo dreaming of playing. Ha!

November 09, 2006

Same idea, stated more eloquently

After writing the entry below, I came across this article, which fleshes out the "divided government" idea very nicely.


Quite a result from the mid-term election. The voters were cranky, as I think they had a right to be. Rumsfeld saw the writing on the wall and got out. Or, he was pushed out. Who knows. The choice of Gates is a bit odd. The hearings to confirm him will probably go a long ways towards figuring out where we are headed in Iraq.

With divided government, oddly, more gets done. The sharply partisan issues have to go on the back burner and more practical matters, the areas where some agreement between the party can be forged, supercede.

One of my students made a sharp observation: How many of those Republicans who were defeated in the House and Senate came in under the Contract With America in 1994, in which they stated they would only stay in office 12 years anyway? I wish I could find out.

Divided government resulted in budget surpluses in the 1990s. Perhaps it will result in some fiscal discipline now, although the combination of the free-spending Bush with the usually free-spending Democrats doesn't bode well.

For once, the Democrats recruited some strong candidates. James Webb of Virginia is really sharp, although he probably is a bit temperamental to go any higher. The candidate in Montana, Jon Tester, buzz-cut and all, a farmer and butcher, seems like a delightful guy.

The Republicans were stuck with some lame incumbents. They will come back stronger in two years once they cut out the dead wood. Power held too long breeds complacency. They have nobody to blame for this loss but themselves.

On the state level, Democrat Mike Hatch managed to lose despite it being a Democratic year. His problem is one of personality. Pawlenty was pushed over the top simply because he's a nicer guy, I think. Hatch gets prickly. He's also a little mean. I think Hatch would have been an effective governor, but Pawlenty had the personality.

Amy Klobuchar is probably going to be a big improvement over the somewhat bizarre Mark Dayton. I think being raised with all that money cost Dayton some perspective. He didn't seem to know what to do with the office of Senator once he got it. I don't think he's ever run anything in his life--he is simply an heir, and that doesn't prepare you for doing anything but being an heir. Sort of like poor Prince Charles.

Most importantly, we are now going to have some meaningful debate on some of the big issues. Torture of detainees. It should have been debated out loud in front of everybody long ago. The war in Iraq. Habeus corpus. Wiretapping. All these issues should now be brought to the fore. I am relying upon the Democrats to go digging.

Let's watch as the Constitution works just as Madison intended.

Nutrition scientists

A couple of weeks ago, I visited the Human Nutrition Lab in Grand Forks. Last night, I spoke to about 18 of their scientists at a retreat they were having at the Inn at Maple Crossing up by Maple Lake.

The meal was delicious. Jim and Nan are the innkeepers, and Jim cooked up some delicious salmon.

I learned some things from the scientists. One does most of his work on boron. He is attempting to find out if boron is necessary for bone development. As a part of his research, he recently traveled to Turkey, which sits on 70% of the world's supply of boron.

Turkish officials are interested in this research, of course, for if it can be proven that boron is necessary, there would be a worldwide market for the element.

Also present was a gentleman from Washington D.C. who oversees the Agriculture Department's nutrition research budget. He is originally from New York City ("you couldn't pay me to live there again," he said).

So, I just sat back and listened to some good dinner conversation. One debate centered upon food labeling, and I learned a little bit about how those regulations are changed. It is difficult. Another centered upon whether oats is gluten free or not. Some people think it has gluten (to which one out of 123 Americans is intolerant), others think the gluten comes from particles from other grains which get mixed in due to machinery which isn't cleaned thoroughly enough.

It was enlightening to be amongst some smart people who are at the top of their profession. You don't often hear somebody say, "well, I published a study on that in 1986, and I concluded at the time..."

So, the question became, what in the world did I have to say to them? The director of the lab, Jerry Combs, is a customer and reader of my column, so that is how I got the job of speaking to his employees. He claimed that I fit the "Jeffersonian ideal" for this country, which is that this would be a nation of farmers by day and scholars by night. Jefferson's vision didn't come true, of course--about one percent of our country farms today--but it is nice to know that at least I fit somewhere!

Well, since most of the scientists are from outside the area, I decided to go into a little of this area's history. It seemed to go well. I had notes, but didn't have to refer to them, so I must have internalized my argument ahead of time. I didn't have too many moments where I was grasping for words. And the audience was kindly, accepting and receptive, even though they were very tired after a day of intense meetings.

The meetings centered upon determining a future direction for the research at the lab. What are their priorities? Should they focus on studying this area's crops to see if they have any peculiar nutritional characteristics which might be marketed? For example, one farmer in western South Dakota is selling selenium-rich wheat to Germany for up to $12 per bushel.

Or, should they go after issues of national concern, like obesity? Should they concentrate upon the lab's traditional strong point, which is the role of micro-nutrients in the diet?

I don't envy them their decision. They have enough scientists to do many things, but having overall direction at the lab seems important.

Through the process of preparing the speech and visiting the lab, I feel as if I have made several new friends. I hope to check in with the lab every now and then to see what is up.

The nutrition lab exists in North Dakota due to senatorial seniority. Old Sen. Milton Young, who had been in the U.S. Senate forever, insisted that one of the six nutrition labs built in the country be in North Dakota. However, the existence of the lab here remains kind of a secret to those of us who live here.

November 07, 2006


The returns are coming in, and I have shut off the television. I can only take so much of the overly dramatic network projections. Why not sleep on it and find out the truth in the morning.

Because I recently moved from Sundal Township, which now votes by mail-in ballot, to Bear Park Township, which still opens a poll, I had to register to vote. Of course, I forgot my driver's license, so I had to make two trips.

At the poll, they had a fancy new machine which reads and counts the ballots on the spot. They had also consolidated the ballot so all offices, from United States Senate to local school board races, were on one ballot. That made things a lot easier.

The Bear Park townhall has been spruced up nicely. New siding, new sidewalk, new lawn. But the smell inside is still that wonderful old townhall smell. Makes you want to hang around, have coffee and shoot the breeze.

Across the way is an empty patch of land where the Bear Park General Store used to stand. It closed in the mid-90s. A more bleak location for a store couldn't be imagined. We used to run over there for milk and what-not.

So, things change on the prairie. Fewer people all the time. Larger farms. We may have reached bottom, who knows. Some people are moving back to get away from the hassle of the city. However, the long-predicted rush of people from the city to our pristine countryside with our fast internet connections and low crime rate has been stubbornly slow in materializing.

At least when the people do come, we'll have some nice voting machines! It is good to see some things improving, anyway.

November 06, 2006


Tonight, I visited Barnesville for the first time in my life, even though it is only seventy-something miles from home. I spoke to a senior citizens dinner.

I didn't know what they wanted me to talk about. Gardening is always safe, even in the winter. It went well. Older people are always curious about gardening, so they had good questions and we had a good time.

Earlier in the day, I gave the second test of the semester to my history classes. Some students improved, others did not.

And one cheated. Brazenly. If only students knew how obvious it is when they cheat, they wouldn't try. Beware of anybody who makes frequent eye contact with the teacher during a test. They are checking out where you are looking for a reason.

As soon as I saw that this guy wanted to cheat, I sat so he couldn't see me. I could see when his hat popped up. That was when he was checking on me. Then I would see the hat turn to the side. That is when I would move my head so I could see him clearly looking at the papers next to him.

Luckily, I made two versions of the multiple choice test. Same questions, but the answers were in a different order. So, all his work was in vain. The guys next to him had a different test. He got less than 25% of the answers right, about what he would have gotten if he had thrown darts at the test instead.

He flunked, so perhaps I should leave it at that. My instincts would be to read him the riot act, but I just don't want to hear his lies. I am sure it would be something on the, "I bought the meth, but didn't use it" line.

The other option is to question him about some of his answers. I put a lot of nonsense answers in the choices, so he ended up asserting 1) that the Constitution was written in Halstad 2) that the Monroe administration was a period of "unlimited posterity" 3) that the economic Panic of 1819 was the result of high muffin prices, and 4) that the process by which the British filled out their shipping crews was not "impressment," but "elopement."

Not sure that would be worth the effort, either. I asked him as he left how he thought he did, and he said, "I think pretty good!"


Others did poorly and I know they worked hard. That means we have work to do. I hope they can improve on the final exam. I like to see people pull it out at the end. So, if they ace the final after flunking the first two tests, their grade will improve quite a lot.

Three students didn't show. One had no excuse, just wondered if she could make it up. Another had a root canal. Another had a sick kid. I'll let them take it Wednesday, I guess.

November 05, 2006


As soon as I put a feeder out, the chickadees returned.

Until they get scared away by this noisy guy.

The day before hunting, this deer found my Cheerio-eating behavior interesting. He stared so long into the window I got self-conscious.

Up to the first day of hunting, my yard was full of deer morning and night. Every time I went out the door, something snorted and ran through the woods, sometimes in all directions.

Yesterday, they disappeared. And the hunters have only taken one deer thus far.

As the final legal rifle shots rang out at sunset last night, I stepped outside to this scene. What a sunset.

A soldier who refused to torture

An excellent article on a soldier who was caught in a bind between honor and subordination.