Hurricane Harvey Interview on CBC

For those who have been reading the posts I have recently done since Hurricane Harvey made landfall, I thought it might be of interest to see this video clip of an interview I did with Canadian Broadcasting Corp. two days ago: 

Jim Schwab

Natural Solutions for Natural Hazards

Boulder Creek, Boulder, Colorado

Boulder Creek, Boulder, Colorado

It has taken a long while in our modern society for the notion to take hold that some of the best solutions to reduce the impact of natural hazards can be found in nature itself. Perhaps it is the high cost of continuing to use highly engineered solutions to protect development that has often been sited unwisely in the first place that has finally gotten our attention. Particularly after Hurricane Sandy, however, the notion of using green infrastructure as part of the hazard mitigation strategy for post-disaster recovery began to gain traction; green infrastructure was highlighted in the federal Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Strategy. These approaches are also known as natural or nature-based designs. They involve understanding the role natural systems play in reducing damages and in using that knowledge to deploy such solutions as part of an intelligent game plan for improving community resilience.

But where should community planners and local officials get reliable information on the best and most proven strategies for implementing green infrastructure solutions?

About a year and a half ago, researchers from The Nature Conservancy (TNC) approached me about involving the American Planning Association (APA) Hazards Planning Center in a project they were undertaking with support from the Kresge Foundation to prepare such information in the form of a green infrastructure siting guide. In the end, they also involved the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM), the National Association of Counties (NACo), the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the Boston-based design firm Sasaki Associates to assist with this effort. Over the past year or more, we have all met regularly to discuss what needed to be done and our progress in making it happen. We produced case studies, strategy briefs, and other material to populate the project’s web-based resources.

Bioswale in a subdivision development in Boulder County, Colorado.

Bioswale in a subdivision development in Boulder County, Colorado.

Last month, after all that teamwork, TNC unveiled its new website for the project, called Naturally Resilient Communities. For those interested in knowing how trees, living shorelines, dunes, coastal marshes, and oyster reefs, among other types of natural infrastructure, can help mitigate natural hazards like coastal storms and urban flooding, the website provides a serious and interactive introduction to the subject matter, backed up by numerous resources.

What is especially valuable about the website design is that it allows users multiple avenues into the specific types of information they need. Not all natural infrastructure solutions are born equal. Some are more appropriate in certain settings than others. Some work best in inland river valleys, some along coastlines, and others in mountains or high plains. Some coastal solutions work well in the rocky coastlines of California or Oregon, while others work better along Atlantic or Gulf Coast shorelines. Applying such solutions is largely a matter of learning what works best in a specific natural environment in the face of specific hazards—riverine flooding, hurricanes, thunderstorms, or other threats that communities face. It is critical to adapt the solution to the problem.

Accordingly, the website, largely the work of Sasaki Associates with vetting from the other project partners, allows users to approach the information by deciding which strategies they wish to investigate or which part of the United States is relevant. They can also look at considerations such as cost, the geographic scale of the solution (neighborhood, municipal, regional), and the type of community in question. These are precisely the frames of reference familiar to most urban planners and civil engineers who are most likely to be involved in implementing natural infrastructure projects. The emphasis throughout is on the practical, not the ideal or the ideological. A particular approach either works or does not work, but it does so in very specific settings, such as a neighborhood in a city along one of the Great Lakes or in the Southwestern desert. Context is the central question.

This memorial to Gilbert White, the pioneer of modern floodplain management, marks the high point of flooding along Boulder Creek.

This memorial to Gilbert White, the pioneer of modern floodplain management, marks the high point of flooding along Boulder Creek.

Establishing context is why the project put considerable emphasis on case studies, which cover a variety of communities around the nation. Specify, for example, Rocky Mountain West as a region and riverine flooding as a problem, and the site gives you a case study from Boulder, Colorado, that examines the alternatives considered and solutions adopted for flooding along Boulder Creek and discusses the involvement of the city and the Denver-based Urban Drainage and Flood Control District to implement a stream restoration master plan. One can also find case studies from Florida, Ohio, and numerous other locations. One can also, however, explore sections of the website devoted to additional resources and funding

sources to support green infrastructure projects. These allow the user to connect to other websites and some PDFs for additional information.

Go explore. I admit to taking pride in our involvement in this effort. It is, I think, a welcome resource and great learning tool for planners, engineers, local officials, and the interested public.


Jim Schwab

Salute to Studs


Studs Terkel, Nelson Algren, Mike Royko, and a "woman friend no one has identified. Photo provided by Richard Bales, given to him by Algren's "first bibliographer."

Studs Terkel, Nelson Algren, Mike Royko, and a “woman friend no one has identified.” Photo provided by Richard Bales, given to him by Algren’s first bibliographer, Ken McCollum.

I’ve been holding on to this piece for a week. It’s not that I wrote it and then sat on it, but that I am writing it now based on an A&E feature I encountered in the Chicago Tribune last Sunday. I didn’t actually finish reading the article until today. My real reason for delay is that I spent the week going to work, participating in seven job interviews for a new position at APA, trying to finish work on a manuscript, all while slipping not so quietly into a diagnosis by Friday of acute bronchitis. In short, at the end of each day I had no energy to write anything. So thank the antibiotics and the inhaler. I’m on the mend, but still less than robust and vigorous. But I can get this done.

The article, “Studs forever,” by Rick Kogan, a long-time WGN radio host and journalistic observer of the cultural scene, tells the story of a remarkable and worthy effort by a team of relatively young archivists led by Tony Macaluso at WFMT-FM, which long hosted the Studs Terkel Show, to digitize some 5,600 recorded radio shows that Studs Terkel left the Chicago History Museum after his death in 2008, at age 96, after decades on the air on WFMT-FM in Chicago. Terkel led an amazing life, leading an early television show in the 1950s, hosting his hour-long interviews on a daily basis, and producing 18 books, mostly of oral history, but also some remarkably literate commentary on music, the arts, and other topics. In 1985, he won a Pulitzer Prize for The Good War, his oral history of World War II. He was both an activist and a Renaissance man. When he wasn’t busy with all that, he appeared in the occasional movie, such as Eight Men Out, the dramatization of the 1919 Chicago Black Sox World Series scandal. Studs’s intellect covered the waterfront.

The article notes that only 400 of those hours of tapes are digitized so far. You can find them at, and more will be coming, but additional resources are needed for such a gargantuan task. What is being saved for public consumption is a treasure trove of insights solicited by Terkel, in his unique interviewing style, from some of the leading lights of his time: Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Bob Dylan, Jacques Cousteau, Cesar Chavez, James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Mike Royko (one of his closest friends), Bill McKibben, and who knows how many others prominent in their day. The interviews are more than just routine; they are the probings of a very curious, passionate mind, drawing the best from his subjects. They are lively elucidations of topics that remain vital: the role of art in the modern world, civil rights, free speech, racial justice, and the environment.

I say all this because I feel I owe Studs Terkel a great deal myself. He shaped how I saw my job as a writer and interviewer—not that I ever matched his skill and prolific nature—just that I learned.

Sometime in early 1984, maybe late 1983, I’m not sure, I showed up in the office of my adviser for the Journalism master’s program at the University of Iowa, John Erickson, to discuss my master’s project. At the time, I was the only person in the entire university with the oddball aim of getting two master’s degrees simultaneously in Journalism and Urban and Regional Planning, both of which were completed in 1985. The Midwest farm credit crisis was beginning to manifest itself substantially by then, and I told Professor Erickson that I wanted to produce and publish an oral history of the farm crisis. Erickson, aware unlike me that no one in the program’s history had yet turned a master’s project into a published book, never batted an eye. He suggested some resources on oral history and interviewing techniques and encouraged me to get to work. Lacking Amazon in those days, I visited Prairie Lights Books and placed a special order for the recommended reading, which showed up about two weeks later. And I got busy.

Along the way, I discovered this trailblazer in oral history named Studs Terkel and began reading his books: Working; Hard Times; and Division Street: America. I could not put them down. They remain classics, in my opinion, part of the American literary canon. And I learned both the value of asking the right questions in an interview and the art of shaping that interview into an engaging piece of literature. Aided by that inspiration, I turned that master’s degree into a book: Raising Less Corn and More Hell: Midwestern Farmers Speak Out (University of Illinois Press). But that was not until 1988, three years after I left Iowa, after Erickson and others on the comps committee told me my first 140 pages were enough, you’re graduated, do the rest later, and after my planning background helped me turn much of the same material plus other research into a consulting study for the Iowa General Assembly. But that is another story, involving another professor, John Fuller, in the School of Urban and Regional Planning, who was then employing me as a graduate research assistant. It was also in the course of my travels in conducting dozens of interviews that I met my future wife, Jean, in Omaha.

Image from Wikimedia ( By New photo (ebay) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

That would be enough to give Studs an honored place in my memories, but after my second book (Deeper Shades of Green: The Rise of Blue Collar and Minority Environmentalism, Sierra Club Books, 1994) was released, he invited me onto his show. In view of the unquestionable prominence of so many other Studs Terkel guests, this was for me a huge honor. When someone with his track record and guest list, such as it was by 1995, brings you to his radio show, someone like me, a minor author at the time, is likely to feel this is a golden opportunity. And it was.

Studs, I learned, would not take me or my book any less seriously than any of his other guests. I was part of numerous radio and television interviews about both books, so I know how most interviewers work, and Studs was nothing like them. My book sat there alongside him, well thumbed, with post-it notes hanging from numerous pages, making clear he had read it thoroughly and knew what he wanted to ask. No one needed to give him cues; he had marked it up, backwards and forwards. I was impressed. I felt I had joined his pantheon, worthy or not. I responded in kind. I don’t know; I may have been good or I may have been mediocre. It’s twenty years ago now. But I was there.

About two years later, I began a two-year stint as the president of the Society of Midland Authors, of which Studs Terkel was long a member (as is Rick Kogan). SMA was another group that had honored him for his contributions. The radio show was ultimately not the only time I met him, but certainly the most important occasion.

So now I realize the scope of the legacy of which I became for one day an infinitesimal part, but one treated that day by Studs as just as important as every other guest, because that was his way. On the way out of the studio, he insisted on giving me an autographed copy of Race. He was as genial as they come, a great human being—with that probing mind that seemed to know no limits. This is one archive that deserves to live on.

It will take a while to complete the museum’s project, which benefited initially from a $60,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, but will probably need more before it is done. Kogan notes that you can also find videos at


Jim Schwab

A Century of Midwest Literature

Robert Loerzel, immediate past president of SMA, helps introduce the day's events. He was preceded by current SMA president Meg Tebo.

Robert Loerzel, immediate past president of SMA, helps introduce the day’s events. He was preceded by current SMA president Meg Tebo.

Yesterday (May 2), a modest crowd celebrated 100 years of the Society of Midland Authors with speakers, panel discussions, and readings of authors past at the end of Society of Midland Authors Week, as declared by the Chicago City Council. Unfortunately, the event had to compete with the National Football League (NFL) draft ceremonies just a couple of blocks away in Grant Park, a contingency not foreseen when it was originally planned. While the NFL undoubtedly generates a stupendous sum of revenue even in the process of tagging star college players for professional opportunities, I would humbly argue that the literature of those celebrated at the University Center conference facility on State St. has done more to help define Chicago’s image than football ever will. Professional football shouts its presence from the skyboxes of Soldier Field. The novels, poems, and nonfiction narratives of Chicago and Midwestern writers insinuate their way into our consciousness slowly but pervasively and persuasively, like rainwater percolating into soil. Mind you, I do not dislike sports and spent Friday afternoon at a Wrigley Field rooftop party. But my understanding of real life was never altered nearly so much by a football game as by a really good book. And a few of those books were even about major sports figures.

With that in mind, I am going to divide this article into two parts. In the first, I will describe the centennial itself, which was preceded the night before by SMA’s annual book awards banquet at the Cliff Dwellers Club, which has long offered a home for many literary events, especially including those of SMA. In the second, I will describe my own small role in helping kick off the centennial as the first reader of a past author, poet Vachel Lindsay. I deliberately, several months earlier, asked the rest of SMA’s board of directors to “send me to Heaven” by letting me perform Lindsay’s art. They accommodated me, and I was grateful. The effort was part of a segment of the program in which past presidents of the society chose past SMA members and Midwestern authors whose works they would read, at short intervals between the invited speakers.

The Program

Many people save the best for last, but the best may have come first in some ways. That is saying a good deal because the program lasted from 10 a.m. until nearly 5 p.m.

The Gettysburg panel in action.

The Gettysburg panel in action: From left, Peck, Burke, and Knorowski.

Carla Knorowski, CEO of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation, in Springfield, Illinois, led the first panel discussion by describing her work as the editor of Gettysburg Replies: The World Responds to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The foundation asked potential contributors to write essays of 272 words, the precise length of the manuscript of the famous speech that is on display in the Lincoln Library. Their essays could discuss Lincoln, the Civil War, or any other aspect of the speech’s meaning that touched their souls, as long as they matched Lincoln’s brevity. The library further challenged them to submit their work in longhand, though surely many used the word count features of their computers to guarantee the length before committing their prose to cursive writing. But many found the cursive exercise humbling in an era in which such skills have been lost to many in the younger generation. Lincoln had no such advantage except that he chose the length, which established his unique ability to say so much in so few words. Lincoln was, the panelists said, a Midwestern literary genius in his own right. In the end, Knorowski and her team at the foundation had to choose the best 100 of more than 1,000 submitted essays, some of which arrived as poems, most as essays, and which included as authors every living ex-president, one Holocaust survivor, and numerous others whose observations are well worth the price of the book, which was on sale in the back of the hall.

After her opening presentation, Knorowski was followed by two of those essayists, Chicago Alderman Edward Burke, an author in his own right, who spoke later of Chicago’s storied literary history, and Graham A. Peck, associate professor of history at St. Xavier University in Chicago. Burke noted the political machinations of the Republican convention in the Wigwam in Chicago in May 1860 that made it possible to nominate a lesser known regional leader, Lincoln, in the face of strong national support for William Seward of New York. Without those machinations, of course, the nation would never have elected Lincoln nor grown to respect and love this unique political figure. Peck, on the other hand, noted from his essay that “wisdom, restraint, and self-sacrifice were in characteristically short supply” in Lincoln’s time, but that the true reason for celebrating Lincoln’s words are “with us still: the tentative, incomplete, and unrealized human commitment to freedom, which binds us equally profoundly today, and calls out insistently, everywhere, for a new birth in service of human dignity.”

Haki Madhubuti, who was also founder of Third World Press.

Haki Madhubuti, who was also founder of Third World Press.

Such comments raise the question of exactly how we perceive that commitment in 2015. If a later presentation by 73-year-old poet Haki Madhubuti seemed at times halting, at times even stumbling, there was no doubt he was speaking with conviction and concern about the fate of young African-Americans amid the turmoil of recent events, notably the very recent controversy over the death of Freddie Gray in the custody of the Baltimore police. Asked if he had any hope after his seemingly grim presentation of the state of the black community, Madhubuti stated forthrightly that he saw it in young people of all races who had not been corrupted by the racism of America’s past.

Rounding out the morning was Rick Kogan, journalist and SMA member, who recounted much of the colorful history of Chicago literature and journalism, and said of the future of the written word, “I am hopeful but scared at the same time.”

In addition to the oration of Ald. Burke, the afternoon consisted of three panels involving reporters (Steve Bogira and Jonathan Eig), children’s authors (Blue Balliett and Ilene Cooper), and novelists Christine Sneed, Carol Anshaw, and Rosellen Brown. But surely, due to a conflict that took me to Chuck E. Cheese for a granddaughter’s fifth birthday, I missed the treat of the day. On my way out, I personally excused myself to Dr. Martin Marty, a long-time professor of the history of religion at the University of Chicago, and the prolific author of at least 40 books (but who’s counting?), some of which have won literary awards. I quietly explained my circumstance as he sat in the back of the room, awaiting his turn, and with typical gracious humility as a fellow grandfather, he assured me the birthday was more important. So I asked him later what he had spoken about, and I got this third-person response, which made me laugh hard enough that I have decided to reproduce it in its entirety, with his permission:

Martin Marty, long-time member of the Society and happy possessor of a “lifetime” achievement award, used his twenty-one minutes to introduce readers to a non-existent figure, Franz Bibfeldt. He is available, amply, by the Google route; there are thousands of references to him, and he has many devotees around the world, despite his handicap: he doesn’t exist. Marty explained his light-hearted approach to demonstrate how the world of academic theology does not always take itself too seriously.

Bibfeldt was an invention of Marty in 1951, on the eve of his graduation from theological school and preparation to enter Christian ministry. It was a satire on eccentrics and eccentricities in “the system,” but when the hoax was exposed, not all of the exposed took kindly to it, and they wanted Marty punished. He had been scheduled to his first call to London, and that was canceled. The seminary dean had to follow disciplines, but Marty appealed to the seminary President, a kindly soul who said that instead of London MEM would be assigned to assist a senior minister of note, to be his mentor. It turned out to be Grace Lutheran in River Forest, whose call stipulated that the pastor assistant had to work on a doctorate. That is how, after a couple of years, Marty wound up at the University of Chicago to which, after ten years in pastoral ministry, he returned for a 35-year teaching career. Marty claimed to have made good on his observation that this non-existent person had greater influence on his career than anyone else.

Franz Bibfeldt? Many articles online detail his theology and fame. In a world where too many theologians and other scholars take themselves too seriously, and define things too sharply, Bibfeldt wanted to please everyone. Some would call him “wishy-washy,” but Marty & Co. treat him as someone who agreed with everyone. He knew the famous book by philosopher Soren Kiekegaard; it was called Either/Or. Bibfeldt wrote Both/And, and when criticism came, he wrote Either/Or and/or Both/And.

The book The Unrelieved Paradox has just come out in a second edition from Eerdmans. The final essay in the new edition was by Jean-Luc Marion, a fan of Bibfeldt, who flew from the Sorbonne to Chicago and back again, to deliver the annual Bibfeldt Lecture, held, of course, on April Fool’s Day.

All of which serves appropriately to prove Lincoln’s alleged observation that God must have had a sense of humor.

Kindly submitted in earnest honesty,

Jim Schwab

The Readings

Several of us throughout the day provided readings of former Midland Authors. As I noted above, I would have begged for the honor of presenting SMA founding father Vachel Lindsay, but I did not have to. The rest of the board and officers agreed almost as fast as I offered. I would also note, before going further, that SMA had founding mothers as well, among them Harriet Monroe and Edna Ferber. The list of those who saw fit to found this organization in 1915 is virtually a Who’s Who of Midwestern literary lights of the time.

But Vachel is a particular challenge for a modern presenter. A forerunner of today’s performance poets, his work was rhythmic, often accompanied by musical instruments, and so highly susceptible to public presentation that Lindsay became known for his “Poems for Bread,” which involved his bartering a reading of his work to some farm family in Illinois in exchange for a bed for the night and breakfast in the morning. His work was so close to the working-class fiber of the Midwest that long-time Socialist leader and presidential candidate Eugene Debs was a big fan. How do I know? Bernard Brommel, former SMA president and author, and long-time professor of speech and communications at Northeastern Illinois University, who wrote a book about Debs, told me so.

So how to get this right? I chose two poems by Lindsay, short enough to stay within my allotted five minutes while providing sharply contrasting views of the influence of religion in his life and career. First was “The Unpardonable Sin,” which I used as prelude to a blog post last fall. It is an angry anti-war poem written in the midst of World War One. Second was a celebratory poem, “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven,” meant to honor the founder of the Salvation Army after his death. The first could simply be recited, but required entering into the mood of its creation. The second took a little more: a search of the Internet to find renditions of “The Blood of the Lamb,” the tune to which it was set, to get the rhythm and tone right. Soon enough, I discovered a podcast of a recording of the song by none other than Woody Guthrie, in many ways a contemporary of Lindsay. That gave me the best possible sense of the underlying performance style that I could acquire.


That said, the second poem is designed for musical accompaniment by banjos, flute, and tambourines. I had none of these available for this modest performance, so I asked the audience to clap in rhythm when I raised my arms, and to stop when I lowered them for the softer stanzas. I am pleased to say that they accommodated me warmly, including Ald. Burke.

With that in mind, I provide links below to the two poems in their entirety for the edification and enjoyment of this blog’s readers. I enjoyed myself thoroughly; I hope you will too.

The Unpardonable Sin

General William Booth Enters into Heaven

Lindsay’s work is available in various reprinted editions, some of which I have read in their entirety. I acquired my Vachel Lindsay addiction in a high school creative writing class in the late 1960s. I have never submitted to rehab for this happy addiction, so rehab has done nothing for me.

P.S.: If this article inspires you to support the Society of Midland Authors, their website allows you to buy some great swag in the form of shirts, keychains, mugs, and tote bags. And you thought I was above this sort of appeal? 🙂

Jim Schwab

In the Name of God

This is the sin against the Holy Ghost: – To speak of bloody power as right divine,
And call on God to guard each vile chief’s house,
And for such chiefs, turn men to wolves and swine:-

To go forth killing in White Mercy’s name,
Making the trenches stink with spattered brains,
Tearing the nerves and arteries apart,
Sowing with flesh the unreaped golden plains.

In any Church’s name, to sack fair towns,
And turn each home into a screaming sty,
To make the little children fugitive,
And have their mothers for a quick death cry,-

This is the sin against the Holy Ghost:
This is the sin no purging can atone:-
To send forth rapine in the name of Christ:-
To set the face, and make the heart a stone.

Vachel Lindsay


Illinois poet Vachel Lindsay, one of the founders in 1915 of the Society of Midland Authors ,with which I have long been involved, penned this poem, “The Unpardonable Sin,” in the midst of World War I, as a screed against the presumption of those who would claim to be committing murder and mayhem on behalf of Almighty God. It has become a classic because it states the obvious so simply while confronting a tendency that has been all too prevalent in human history—the quest to justify one’s own cruelty in the name of God.

I doubt that this poem will have any influence on the leaders or followers of Islamic State, if they even are familiar with it. For starters, it is posed primarily as a challenge to Christians who would justify war in the name of Christ. Nonetheless, I would maintain that, despite its context amid a war that tore Europe apart, it has more universal meaning that condemns any attempt to justify war in the name of a deity, no matter the faith involved.

This is not the subject matter I have most typically addressed in this blog, but I was appalled, though not surprised, to read this week that Islamic State, in an English-language e-zine called Dabiq, actually stated in blunt terms that it has a right to enslave and sexually abuse captured Yazidi women whose husbands ISIS has killed or taken prisoner, on the grounds that “even cross-worshiping Christians for ages considered them devil worshipers and Satanists.” It goes on to note that the women were divided among Islamic State fighters, some of whom sold them into slavery. And all of this is supposedly endorsed by the Koran. One could go on with the grim details, but the fundamental picture seems obvious.

Once we have deemed another group of people subhuman because of their differences in belief, or race, or ethnicity, or whatever excuse we have, their feelings matter not a whit because Allah, or God, has given us permission to treat them as mere chattel or to kill them outright. In cases of what we now euphemistically call “ethnic cleansing,” God has supposedly given us permission to wipe them off the face of the earth.

The whole idea behind this makes many, if not most, of us recoil in moral revulsion, but we need to do more than that. We need to come to grips with the fundamental illogic that makes parts of the human race function in this way. There is an essential arrogance behind all this that cannot be ignored, nor can it be ascribed solely to one radical group or one religion. Christianity has too much to answer for in its own history to assume such a stance. It was only 150 years ago, as the Civil War was winding to a close, that many clergy in southern churches in the U.S. still found it possible to use Holy Scripture to justify slavery. Their “unpardonable sin,” in Vachel Lindsay’s phrasing, was to provide cover for an entire society that was racist to its core and used perverse religious logic in many cases to excuse unspeakable cruelty. There is a scene in the movie Twelve Years a Slave, based on the Simon Northup book in the 1850s, in which the sadistic slave owner to whom Northup has been sold stands in front of his slaves with a Bible and reads from Proverbs , “The servant who does not serve his master will suffer many lashes.” He proceeds to note, in a matter-of-fact tone of voice, that “many lashes may mean 40, or 100, or 150. This is holy scripture.” The fact that his slaves are not permitted to learn to read this scripture on their own to find the context from which their cruel owner has extracted this gem is more than ironic. It was a deliberate element of a system of subjugation.

So now we have ISIS resurrecting all the worst tendencies of every religion of every time in justifying the subjugation of other human beings, at a time when intelligent human beings have been hoping and praying that such notions have become a thing of the past. Sadly, that appears not yet to be the case; we have a long struggle ahead of us to expunge such logic from the human race once and for all. Too many people are still hanging on to too many prejudices and looking for justifications of one sort or another. And the most unpardonable of all, as Lindsay suggested, are those that justify their hatreds in the name of the Creator.

What lies at the core of this problem? I once heard Dr. Martin Marty, the theologian and long-time professor in the University of Chicago Divinity School, quote someone—I cannot remember whom—as stating that “a fanatic is someone who is determined to do for the Lord what the Lord would surely do for himself if only he were in full possession of the facts.” As absurd as that notion sounds on its face, it is all too real as human motivation. Somehow, we get it into our heads that a God whom Christians, Jews, and Muslims all describe as omnipotent, omniscient, and loving nonetheless needs the intervention of humans to solve problems that He has failed to perceive and remedy. And if this God is not taking care of business, well, then, it is up to us to do it for him. It is as if we are rushing to defend the honor of a helpless lady rather than worshiping a force far greater than ourselves. Here, God, let me help you by destroying these infidels.

Except that those “infidels,” however defined, are fellow human beings. And in order to get to the idea that these fellow human beings are lesser creatures who need to be slaughtered, enslaved, raped, or maimed, we have to cultivate the notion that the same God who created them and the entire universe somehow passionately hates a part of his creation so badly that he needs our help in getting rid of them.

I don’t care what passages out of the Bible, the Koran, or any other text some fanatic can extract or twist to construct this logic. If you believe in a deity who created the universe, that logic is an insult to the Almighty. And we need to grow up and accept the fact that it is all too easy to manipulate scriptural passages in isolation as justification for our own moral shortcomings. God does not hate the humans He created. He may very often be disappointed in their utter failure to achieve their own high moral potential, but what He does about that is his business, not ours. It is not our right to kill, injure, or enslave based on any differences among us.

There remains the problem of what to do about the people who insist on inflicting such injury on other people. When our own daughters were growing up, I did not endorse or employ corporal punishment because I do not think it is an appropriate remedy and certainly not the best. That said, I had no hesitation about using physical restraint to prevent them or their friends from doing harm to themselves or each other. I once gang-tackled one of our daughters in our living room to stop her from running away when she did not want to confront a serious issue in her life.

I think the same principle applies in both domestic and international situations where violence threatens to dominate people’s lives. Police are allowed to use force to prevent violence, for the same reason. None of this is because God wants us to hurt someone, but because there are times when we need to prevent such harm. The challenge in facing an insurgency like that led by Islamic State is that it inherently involves such complicated scenarios that may produce collateral damage. It is nearly impossible to find surgically sterile solutions; every option seems to leave blood on our hands. Even inaction, as President Barack Obama, like his predecessors, has learned on the job, can leave blood on our hands. There are few perfect solutions. But at least we can avoid the unpardonable sin of presuming that what we are doing is in the name of God. Far better to settle for the more humble proposition that, however imperfectly, we are simply seeking to reduce the level of pain in the world, and ideally to increase the volume of love and mutual respect. That is a goal that will ennoble any human being, no matter what faith he or she professes.


Jim Schwab

Trees for Metropolitan Chicago

Would you imagine that the trees in the metropolitan Chicago region provide compensatory value of $51.2 billion? This is the calculation produced through i-Tree, a free software program provided by the U.S. Forest Service to estimate tree canopy and the ecological services it produces for our communities. This is not a seat-of-the-pants calculation. There is a great deal of science behind it, as I have learned over the last two decades in interactions with the Forest Service and the larger professional community devoted to advancing the subject of urban forestry. There is a substantial technical literature these days about the benefits of the urban forest in terms of air pollution filtration, reduction of stormwater runoff, reducing soil erosion, reducing urban violence by providing a calmer, more pleasant environment, and enhancing real estate values. In short, trees have serious economic value. At the American Planning Association, we cited much of this research five years ago when we released Planning the Urban Forest: Ecology, Economy, and Community Development, a Planning Advisory Service Report we produced using a matching grant from the Forest Service.

The value of that document for urban planners has made it popular, and we have participated for several years at a national level in the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition. But the important work on the urban forest occurs at the local and regional level. Think globally, but plant your trees locally.

A full room listens as Lydia Scott outlines data behind the Chicago Regional Trees Initiative.

A full room listens as Lydia Scott outlines data behind the Chicago Regional Trees Initiative.

It was a great honor, therefore, to be invited as one of about 100 participants to the kickoff meeting July 30 of the Chicago Regional Trees Initiative at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois. The arboretum itself is the result of an environmental vision long ago by Joy Morton, the founder of the Morton Salt Company, who had a love affair with conservation—and put out serious money to launch the arboretum to prove it almost a century ago. I learned a good deal about this interesting man when reading a biography of him, A Man of Salt and Trees: The Life of Joy Morton, as a biography judge for the Society of Midland Authors’ annual book awards. The book was one of our 2010 finalists in that category.

Outside the Thornhill Education Center, a view of the gorgeous grounds of the Morton Arboretum.

Outside the Thornhill Education Center, a view of the gorgeous grounds of the Morton Arboretum.

Morton Arboretum is now leading this initiative with the help of numerous organizational partners and donors, nearly all of whom were present for the meeting, which lasted from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m., including a working lunch.

I will not go into the Regional Trees Initiative in great depth right now, but I intend to follow it more deeply in the future on this blog. Not everything is ready yet; an intended website is not yet up, the logo is still in development, and working groups are being formed. Lydia Scott, the director of the Regional Trees Initiative, appears to have a hard-working staff behind her along with solid institutional support. One of our group activities that morning was to sit at our respective tables and hatch ideas about what was most needed to make the initiative a success. Those ideas were added to a folding wall image of trees as branches, and then leaves were added with individuals’ names after we were asked what we and our organizations were willing to do to help. The people attending represented a variety of local governments in the area, regional organizations like the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus, and educational and civic organizations.

What we learned over the course of the morning was the quality and distribution of information concerning the regional urban forest, which is decidedly uneven, leaving room for improvement through such an initiative. The city of Chicago, it turned out, had by far the best information concerning its urban forest, whereas in many other communities a more thorough tree census is still needed. But there are substantial resources to draw upon, such as “Urban Trees and Forests of the Chicago Region,” a Forest Service research report freely available online. The larger issues often relate to the uneven commitments, and distribution of resources, among the 248 municipalities in the region. A few have excellent plans for local forestry management, but many have none. There is room for both the U.S. Forest Service and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to improve outreach with technical assistance, but there is also a burning need for an effective outreach campaign to educate both public officials and citizens on both the importance of the issue and the best means of moving forward. For purposes like that, the Communication Work Group is one of several the initiative has established to mobilize the resources of its many partners in the effort. That is why we were all there.

While I was busy in the meeting, my wife and two grandchildren were busy enjoying the arboretum. which includes some nice children's facilities and a cafeteria.

While I was busy in the meeting, my wife and two grandchildren were busy enjoying the arboretum. which includes some nice children’s facilities and a cafeteria.

I plan to return to this subject in the future as the initiative progresses, particularly as RTI rolls out its website and other communication tools. Regular followers of this blog know that I attach considerable importance to this subject as a key element in the quality of urban life. If you live in another metropolitan area, what’s underway there to pursue similar goals?


Jim Schwab

Preserving a Tradition


On Tuesday evening, May 14, I had the special pleasure of receiving an award from the Society of Midland Authors. Every year in May, the Society holds a banquet in Chicago at which it bestows its annual book awards in six categories—adult fiction and

nonfiction, juvenile fiction and nonfiction, poetry, and biography. The awards have gone to some highly decorated authors and to some who have never received an award before, and to many who never received one again. But always, the awards recognize the best that Midwestern literature had to offer in the prior year. I have served many times over the past 20 years as a judge for those awards, in either adult nonfiction or biography, and I have had the privilege of announcing the award a few times. I have bestowed the award on people like Garry Wills (James Madison) and Kathleen Norris (Dakota: A Spiritual Geography).

In addition to the book awards, the Society has incorporated into its ceremonies an award for literary criticism by absorbing it from the now defunct Friends of Literature. And, when the board feels there is a deserving recipient, it also provides a Distinguished Service Award to someone members feel has made significant contributions to the organization. As was noted the other night, there have been stalwarts in the past—more than a few of them, it seems, because the Society in 2015 will celebrate its centennial. Established in 1915, benefiting in its earliest history from a honorary visit by William Butler Yeats, the Society’s founders and early members included the likes of Vachel Lindsay, Harriet Monroe, Sherwood Anderson, Edna Ferber, and Carl Sandburg. How do you beat that combination? The century that followed brought more luminaries—Gwendolyn Brooks, Studs Terkel, and Scott Turow, among them. I am sure I am missing many others, but you get the point. We counted among our membership the best of the Midwest, and they have often spoken to us, and speak to us still, at monthly programs and yearly banquets. As president of the Society, from 1997-1999, I once paired Scott Turow and Jacquelyn Mitchard for a program on “Hitting the Jackpot with Your First Book.” The Society hit the jackpot, too, with a splendidly lively program.

In the midst of this rarefied company, it is a bit humbling to get any award at all. But the board felt my time had come because I had served, at various times, as president, vice-president, membership secretary, treasurer, book judge, and board member, not to mention newsletter editor. It was pointed out that I gave the newsletter its current name, Literary License. That was not hard. The title came in one of those moments one suffers of instant illumination. Big deal: It happens to writers all the time, right? Well, not exactly. It happens after a writer lets his brain cogitate on a problem long enough that all the bad ideas drift to the bottom, like silt in the river, fertilizing and facilitating the one good idea that finally rises to the top.

And I guess that’s mostly why I got this honor. It’s not about me, at least not completely or even primarily. It’s about the inspiration and perspiration involved in wanting to see to it that a deserving organization that has long been an essential part of the Chicago and Midwestern cultural scene gets to last into a second century, to respond to new challenges. Because the Society is an organization into which writers with at least one published book “of literary merit” must be invited, it is precisely the type of organization that is capable of stumbling into irrelevance if its leadership allows the membership to age and mellow until no one can remember its heyday anymore. In the late 1990s, as membership secretary, I would hunt down new authors eligible to be invited, and bring dozens of nominations to each meeting of the board of directors for approval, to assure that the pipeline was full of new blood, and the organization stayed fresh and relevant, and it did and it has. That tradition of recruitment of those often less noticed has continued under other leadership for more than a decade since I served as president, and I don’t worry about it so much anymore. New members join every year.

Still, I can’t say as many responded to our invitations as I might have liked. As my late friend Timothy Unsworth once told me, “Jim, there’s a high nut factor in any group of artists.” I learned that first-hand one day when a prospective member contacted me. “Is it too late to join?” the person wanted to know. He had a letter of invitation I had sent him, but it had gotten lost in his mail pile until he had rediscovered it, two years later. I told him there was no statute of limitations on such an invitation. The guy joined. Years later, when we awarded the biography prize to Sam Weller, for The Bradbury Chronicles, he related a similar incident during his work with Ray Bradbury. At Bradbury’s home in Los Angeles one day, Welller stumbled upon a $200,000 royalty check buried in a mountain of papers. When he reported it to the author, Bradbury merely said, “I wondered where that was.” Some of our nuts are very prosperous. And a quirky joy to work with. I am simply proud to have had the opportunity to help such an organization survive.

As for my own service to SMA, some of it was simply a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In April 1999, as I was completing my term as president and contemplating a more relaxed role as a mere past president and board member, Tim Unsworth called to say that he had been diagnosed with colon cancer. Tim was the treasurer and wanted to know if I would be willing to take the job off his hands while he dealt with his medical challenges, which ultimately overcame him. He clearly felt I was the one he could trust to take over and do the job right, but it had not been what I was looking forward to.

On the other hand, how could I refuse?


Jim Schwab