Monday, July 27, 2015

Podcasting Equipment Enthusiasms and an Update

I've been on a Matterhornesque learning curve the last couple of weeks, having upscaled my little podcasting operation to a Porta-Booth Pro and a Yeti microphone. Suffice it to say that I figured out how the zippers work and I've been duly impressed by the power of acoustic foam. Oh, and that the Yeti works best with a pop filter. For those of you who are podcasters, yes, though it costs about the price of a pair of Italian shoes (ouch) I warmly recommend the Porta-Booth, which is well-made, effective, and, indeed, portable. As for the Yeti, since I don't yet have my pop filter, for now I am back to recording using my iPhone's dictation app.

> Read Mark Frauenfelder's review of the Yeti microphone for Cool Tools

>Watch this customer's video review of the Porta-Booth on amazon (I don't know this guy, "Your Acting Coach," but his very detailed video convinced me to buy the booth).

Meanwhile, I stand by my assertion that podcasting is easy peasy; certainly, you do not require fancy equipment to get started with a basic writer's podcast. 

I'll be offering a workshop on Podcasting for Writers at the San Miguel de Allende Writers Conference in February 2016, and in the meantime, my ebook, Podcasting for Writers & Other Creative Entrepreneurs is available in the Kindle store. I'll be updating it later this year with more about the Porta-Booth and the Yeti. 

Today I posted something my publisher, Literal Publishing, has been asking for a while now: my reading of a excerpt from my book, Odisea metafisica hacia la Revolución Mexicana (translation by Agustín Cadena). Yep, it's in Spanish, and you can listen in to that podcast anytime here.

Check out my latest Marfa Mondays Podcasts (apropos of my book in-progress about Far West Texas):

#18 Lisa Fernandes, Barrel Racer at the Pecos Rodeo

#17 Under Sleeping Lion: Lonn Taylor in Fort Davis

#16 Tremendous Forms: Paul V. Chaplo on Finding Composition in the Landscape

#15 Gifts of the Ancient Ones: Greg Williams on the Rock Art of the Lower Pacos Canyonlands

>> Get all the Marfa Mondays Podcasts here.

In-progress (***diet now!***): Marfa Mondays #19 Israel Campos, Pitmaster at Pody's BBQ in Pecos

Monday, July 20, 2015

New Transcript for the Podcast "A Conversation with Michael K. Schuessler About Pita Amor, Elena Poniatowska, Sor Juana, and "La Peregrina," Alma Reed

Michael K. Schuessler is one of the most knowledgable, dedicated and prolific scholars of the Mexican art and literary history. His fascinating and very fun podcast interview, for my occasional series, Conversations with Other Writers, recorded and posted back in 2012, now has a complete transcript.  

> As always, you can listen in to this podcast anytime for free on iTunes and Podomatic.

> Check out more Conversations with Other Writers, among them,  Sergio TroncosoRose Mary Salum, Edward Swift, Sara Mansfield Taber and Solveig Eggerz. How often do these come out? Oh, la de da, when the planets align and the spirits move me. (That's why I call it "an occasional series." These days my focus is on the Marfa Mondays Podcasting Project and my book in-progress on Far West Texas.) But for maybe this fall... I have another Conversations with Other Writers podcast interview in mind... a crunchily crunchy one... If you'd like to be alerted when any new podcast is posted, I invite you to sign up for my free newsletter which goes out every other month-ish.

I am this close to posting #18, my latest Marfa Mondays Podcast, a very fun and informative interview with a barrel racer at the West of the Pecos Rodeo in Pecos, Texas; in fact, I'd hoped to have it ready this afternoon. But I still need to edit my introduction and sign-off. Stay tuned for this one this Wednesday.

UPDATE: Just posted: Marfa Mondays Podcast #18: Lisa Fernandes, Barrel Racer at the Pecos Rodeo

Friday, July 17, 2015

Guest-Blogger Diana Anhalt's Favorite Books That Inspire Poetry

< Diana Anhalt >

They say that books are magical objects. Certainly some take a long and mysterious while to reach this reader. I had heard about Diana Anhalt's A Gathering of Fugitives: American Political Expatriates in Mexico 1947-1965 when it first came out in 2002, but it wasn't until a dozen years later that, after finding it by happenstance at Tepoztlan's La Sombra del Sabino bookstore, and more happenstance, a deliciously free afternoon  I delved in, and with increasing admiration and fascination, devoured it. 

>>You will find A Gathering of Fugitives on my Top 10 List of Books Read in 2014 and also on the ever-growing list of Recommended Books on Mexico.

The author of three chapbooks Shiny Objects, Second Skin, and Lives of Straw— Diana Anhalt is also a superb poet. Her work has been nominated for this year’s Pushcart Prize and her book, Because There is No Return, is forthcoming from Passager Press (University of Baltimore). 

>>Read some of Anhalt's poetry on Kentucky Review's webpage: "Desaparecido" and "Inventory".

Since I'm in Mexico and I also write poetry, you might imagine that we hang out. Well, in cyberspace; alas for me, after many years in Mexico City, Anhalt moved to Atlanta, Georgia to be closer to family. That said, recently, and happily, we found our work  her poem and my translation of a poem by Agustín Cadena  keeping company in Sarah Cortez's anthology Goodbye, Mexico: Poems of Remembrance (Texas Review Press, 2015).

I asked Diana to share her favorites on writing poetry. May they inspire you!


1. Sometimes I am convinced I write poetry because I hated Math. Throughout high school I spent my math classes memorizing poems from my literature textbook: Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Amy Lowell, William Rose Benet, Joyce Kilmer…  So, certainly, the books that influenced me, although I no longer remember their titles, and drove me to write poetry, were the high school literature textbooks commonly used during the 1950s.  

2. Then, once I started writing in the ‘60s, an inspiration and a frame of reference became John Ciardi’s How Does a Poem Mean (Houghton Mifflin, 1959)

3. One collection I refer to time and time again because so many of its writers spur me to write is A. Poulin’s  Contemporary American Poetry (Houghton Mifflin, 1985)

4. When it comes to the craft itself Lewis Turco’s The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics  (University Press of New England, 2000) is indispensible.

5. I also find Annie Finch’s A Poet’s Craft (The University of Michigan Press, 2012) helpful, though sometimes overwhelming.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

On Francisco I. Madero as Medium: An Interview with Rev. Stephen A. Hermann, Author of Mediumship Mastery

The astonishing thing about Francisco I. Madero's Manual espírita of 1911 is that it lays out his philosophy so passionately and precisely, and yet, with counted exceptions (among them, Mexican historians Tortolero, Guerra de Luna, and Rosas), apart from cursory mentions, historians have told us nearly nothing about this text, its origins, broader esoteric cultural context, and profound implications for understanding Madero's actions as leader of the 1910 Revolution and as President of Mexico. My translation of Madero's Manual espírita— the first into English and, as far as I have been able to ascertain, into any language— is included in my book, Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book, Spiritist Manual.

>>Click here to view a one minute-long Mexican government video which gives a very basic idea of the official version of Madero's importance in Mexico.<<

Madero was a medium in the Spiritist tradition of the late 19th and early 20th centuries of France and Mexico. In Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution I write about Madero and his Spiritist Manual not as an academic historian, but as his translator and as a creative writer who has lived in and written about Mexico for many years. I presumed that most of my readers would encounter Madero's ideas about communicating with the dead extremely peculiar, even disturbing. For the most part this has been the case. To give one of several (to me, amusing) examples, one prominent Mexico expert who shall remain unnamed felt moved to inform me that, though he very much enjoyed my book, he would not be reading Spiritist Manual. 

That said, I am grateful to have been invited to speak about it at the Centro de Estudios de la Historia de México CARSO, Mexico City's National Palace, Rice University, Stanford University, UCSD Center for US-Mexican Studies, and elsewhere, and to date, historians of Mexico and other scholars in these audiences have been both thoughtful and generous in their comments.

To my surprise, however, the Internet has brought my and Madero's books another, very different audience, one that encounters the Spiritist Manual as, shall we say, a vintage text out of a well-known and warmly embraced tradition. 

In his review for the National Spiritualist, Rev. Stephen A. Hermann writes, "Anyone interested in the history of international Spiritualism as well as as mediumnistic unfoldment will find this manual invaluable."

With the aim of providing further context for Francisco I. Madero and his Spiritist Manual, I asked Rev. Hermann if, from the perspective of a practicing medium and teacher of mediumship— and author of the just-published Mediumship Mastery: The Mechanics of Receiving Spirit Communications— he would be so kind as to answer some of my questions about Madero as a medium and about his philosophy.


C.M. MAYO: In your book, Mediumship Mastery, you distinguish between two broad types of mediumship, mental and physical. "Automatic writing" you categorize as both. Francisco I. Madero was a writing medium, that is, a medium who channeled messages from the spirit world through his hand and pen onto paper. Can you explain this? And, is this type of mediumship still common today?

Madero practiced automatic writing in which spirit personalities would control the movements of his arm and hand to write messages. It is common for many people, not knowing the difference, to confuse automatic writing with the phase of mediumship known as inspirational writing. With inspirational writing the medium's conscious and unconscious mind are very much involved with the process. Genuine automatic writing occurs typically quite rapidly with the medium unable to control the movements taking place. The conscious mind of the medium is not involved in the process and the medium could even be engaged in a conversation with others while the writing is produced.

In the period that Madero developed his mediumship the practice of automatic writing, the use of planchette and table for spirit communication was quite common for many mediums. Madero was heavily influenced by the writings of the French Spiritualist Kardec, whose classic Medium's Book was widely used by students of spirit communication as a standard for mediumistic unfoldment. 

As a phase of mediumship automatic writing is not commonly practiced the way it would have been a century ago. In most countries around the world most mediums practice mental phases of mediumship such as clairvoyance, clairaudience and clairsentience (psychic seeing, hearing and sensing). There are also many mediums who practice controlled speaking or trance channeling.

C.M. MAYO: How how would you, as a medium, evaluate Madero's mediumnistic notebooks? (These are preserved in his archive in Mexico's Ministry of Finance; in my book, I quoted from some of them, communications in Madero's handwriting signed by "Raúl," "José" and "B.J.").

STEPHEN A. HERMANN: I was impressed by Madero's dedication to God, the spirit world and his mission to help Mexico. He certainly appears to have lived by higher spiritual principles. The communications that he received I feel were genuine and indicate the great effort of teachers in the spirit world to use him as a positive influence in the material world. I would love to see all his notebooks published and your book distributed even more as Madero's work is an excellent example of a politician motivated selflessly out of love and duty.

[C.M. MAYO: The mediumnistic notebooks have been transcribed and published in volume VI. of Obras completas de Francisco Ignacio Madero, edited by Alejandro Rosas Robles, Editorial Clío, Mexico, 2000. For more about the work of Alejandro Rosas Robles and other Mexican historians on Madero and esoteric philosophy, see my post Lifting the (Very Heavy) Curtain on the Leader of Mexico's 1910 Revolution].

C.M. MAYO: It seems that by the time Madero became president he was no longer channeling written messages but instead relied on "inspiration" or telepathic communication from spirits. My understanding is that Madero considered this an advance in his mediumnistic abilities. Would you agree?

STEPHEN A. HERMANN: A student of mediumship is always progressing and as such the manner that his or her mediumship functions will evolve accordingly. I assume that Madero would have put considerable effort into growing as an individual as well as enhancing his own mediumistic skills. It is not that one phase of mediumship is better than another. All spiritual gifts are ways for the spirit personalities to bring love and healing to people in the material world. It is very common for mediums to develop new phases of mediumship as they gain experience and are ready. Madero was very progressive in all aspects of his life.

C.M. MAYO: One of the questions I invariably hear in any presentation or conference about Madero and his Spiritism is that, if he really were hearing from spirits, why did they not warn him about the coup d'etat of 1913, so that he could save himself? (Perhaps because as President coping with the challenges of governing, he no longer had the peace of mind to listen?) In Mediumship Mastery (p. 154-155) you write, "While warnings might be given in order to prevent a mishap, telling the recipient negative information such as he or she is going to die next week or be involved in a serious accident, generally would not come through with controlled regulated mediumship." Can you explain and/or elaborate?

STEPHEN A. HERMANN: Madero would have been under great stress so it is very possible that his own mind would not have been receptive to warnings given by his guardians in the spirit world. On the other hand, we do not know the full picture in terms of his karma or lessons in this lifetime. Madero performed great works when he was physically present. I am sure that these great works would have continued in other realms after his physical death.

C.M. MAYO: In the introduction to your book, Mediumship Mastery, you mention that you trained as a hypnotherapist. From his personal library we know that Madero was intensely interested in hypnotism. Would this knowledge have enhanced his abilities as a medium and as a political leader? And if so, how?

STEPHEN A. HERMANN: Kardec and many of the pioneers of the Spiritualist movement studied Mesmerism and altered-states-of-consciousness. The awareness of inducing trance states is crucial for the development of mediumistic ability. For example, with clairvoyance the more the medium is able to place his or her mind into a receptive state and get the analytical mind out of the way, the easier it will be to receive as well as accurately interpret spirit messages given in this manner. Mediumship mastery requires considerable discipline on the part of the medium. Hypnosis is an effective tool for helping student mediums train their minds and open up as instruments for the spirit personalities to work through.


C.M. MAYO: Spiritism developed in France from the root of Anglo-American Spiritualism. As a medium who has practiced and taught in various countries from the U.S. to New Zealand and including in the Philippines, do you see important differences in these traditions, Spiritualism and Spiritism, today?

STEPHEN A. HERMANN: Spiritism and Spiritualism are branches of the same tree. A Spiritist is a Spiritualist who follows primarily the doctrine found within Kardec's writings. Anglo-American Spiritualists do not limit themselves to Kardec's writings and as a whole have not officially embraced the concept of reincarnation. The Spiritist approach generally places more emphasis on higher philosophy and less on phenomena or providing evidence of survival as the Spiritualist approach emphasizes. I think as a whole the Spiritist approach tends to be more progressive than what is found in many Spiritualist churches. However, Spiritists can be a bit dogmatic in adhering to Kardec's writings.

C.M. MAYO: In your chapter "Spiritiual Healing" you discuss psychic surgery in the Philippines. Though Madero does not discuss psychic surgery in the Spiritist Manual, in my book, Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution, I mention the Filipino and Brazilian psychic surgeons as well as some Mexicans including Niño Fidencio and Doña Pachita because they are well-known in Mexico and I felt they represented traditions that could claim at least some tangly bit of roots in the early 20th century Spiritism of Madero. Would you agree? Also, have you practiced and/or witnessed any psychic surgery yourself?

STEPHEN A. HERMANN: There have always been mediums or healers in all cultures. The Philippines were a Spanish colony for almost three hundred years. Many of the leaders of the revolution against Spanish rule were involved in the practice of Spiritualism. Kardec's writings were again a major influence in this part of the world.

I teach mediumship and healing worldwide and the Philippines is one of the countries I regularly visit. Over the years I have witnessed and experienced many remarkable physical and emotional healings with my own mediumship as well as the mediumship of others. With healing God is the healer and we are only vehicles for God's unconditional love to work through. Yes, I practice psychic surgery with the help of spirit doctors. However, I do not pull blood and guts out of people and drop it in a tin can as many Filipino healers do.

C.M. MAYO: My understanding is that Spiritism arrived in the Philippines with Spanish translations of Kardec's works. Presumably many of these came out Barcelona, an important center for esoteric publishing (and indeed, many of the books in Madero's personal library were from Barcelona). When I discovered that Madero's 1911 Manual espírita had been reprinted by Casa Editorial Maucci in Barcelona in 1924, I immediately wondered whether any copies had made their way to the Philippines and so played some role in the spread of Spiritism there. Do you know anything about this?

STEPHEN A. HERMANN: I do not know anything about this. Don Juan Alvear in 1901 founded the first Spiritist center in San Fabrian, Pangasinan. I have worked at this center many times and the energy is amazing. Alvear was a great political leader, educator and prominent intellectual. Like Madero, Alvear authored a book on mediumship and was a hero of the revolution. His statue is outside the government building and across the street from the Spiritist center he founded.

[C.M. MAYO: See Hermann's blog post about some history of Spiritism in the Philippines here. And for more about Spiritism in the Philippines, a subject on which I am admittedly very foggy, one place to start is Harvey Martin's The Secret Teachings of the Espiritistas.]


C.M. MAYO: In many places in your book, Mediumship Mastery, you quote from the Bhagavad-Gita.This was a work that fascinated Madero; he not only mentions it in his Spiritist Manual, but under the pseudonym "Arjuna"— the name of the warrior in the Bhagavad-Gita— he wrote articles about it and was planning a book about its wisdom for the modern world. The Bhagavad-Gita also had an important influence on Gandhi, Emerson, the Theosophists, and many others. One of its many teachings is about reincarnation. In your book's chapter "Past Life Readings," you mention that you have recollections of some of your past lives and also have received communications from spirits about others' past lives. Would you elaborate on reincarnation as explained in the Gita?

STEPHEN A. HERMANN: The Bhagavad Gita is a conversation between the Supreme Personality and Arjuna. I try to read it as much as possible. Life is eternal as the personality continues into the world of spirit. The Bhagavad Gita explains the science of connecting with the Godhead and how to cultivate devotion or love of God. Every seven years pretty much all the molecules in our physical bodies change. So we are always changing physical bodies. Based on our consciousness at the end of this physical life we will end up having to take another physical birth. The Gita explains the process of transmigration and how we can ascend to higher levels.

C.M. MAYO: Like Madero in his Spiritist Manual, in your book, Mediumship Mastery, you advocate a vegetarian diet. Is this an idea that came to Spiritualism / Spiritism from Hindu philosophy?

STEPHEN A. HERMANN: Higher teachers on both the physical and spiritual worlds always advocate vegetarianism as it is very bad to hurt animals and cause suffering to others. A true follower of Jesus would not want to hurt others as would a true follower of Buddha. There is only one God and we are all God's children. I am sure Madero was influenced by Vedic teachings which is why he loved the Bhagavad Gita.


C.M. MAYO: What surprised you the most about Madero's Spiritist Manual?

STEPHEN A. HERMANN: I really loved reading the Spiritist Manual. It didn't really surprise me as I am familiar with everything he wrote already. However, I especially loved reading the extra sections about your research and his notes, etc. I think you did a fantastic job.

.C.M. MAYO: In terms of his understanding of mediumnistic unfoldment—or anything else—are there any points where you would disagree with Madero's Spiritist Manual?

STEPHEN A. HERMANN: Madero approaches mediumship heavily influenced by Kardec's Medium's Book. Nothing wrong with that as Kardec's work was way ahead of it's
time when it was published in 1861. However, the methods and approaches used by the spirit personalities to communicate, train and interact with mediums have greatly improved.

Back in the early years of Spiritualism there were no teachers of mediumship. Mediums learned through trial and error and with the assistance and input of teachers in the spirit world overtime created structured approaches to the unfoldment of the various phases of mediumship.

Madero was brilliant and had he not have been murdered his mediumship would have expanded even more. Love, harmony, enthusiasm, and higher purpose are the qualities needed to create the best conditions for successful mediumistic communications. Madero possessed all these qualities and more.

In the early years of Spiritualism there was much physical phenomena or manifestations of spirit power that could be directly experienced through the five physical senses. Nowadays, people are much more intellectually oriented and as such the mediumship practiced is mainly mental or telepathic in nature. It is not that one method is better but just better suited for the age. The methods for training mediums have greatly improved and expanded in the last 168 years.

C.M. MAYO: As you were reading Madero's Spiritist Manual, or before or afterwards, did you ever sense that you were in communication with / sensing Madero's spirit? Is there anything you would like to say about that?

STEPHEN A. HERMANN: I would think that Madero most likely would have been around you a lot when you were researching and writing the book. I do not know if he was around me when I was reading the book, but I do feel that he and I would have a lot in common if we were to meet. I think we would get along pretty well as I can relate to where he was at in terms of his mediumship and his spirituality in general.

C.M. MAYO: In your book, Mediumship Mastery (p. 9) you introduce the subtle bodies that interpenetrate the physical body. As I read it, this is a somewhat different explanation from given by Madero where he, following Kardec, talks about the "perispirit." Can you explain?

STEPHEN A. HERMANN: The perispirit is the subtle or astral covering. Madero uses Kardec's terminology. We have a physical body with subtle bodies interpenetrating it. After physical death the soul continues to function through the astral body and travels into the spirit world.


C.M. MAYO: My experience has been that not all but most people either dismiss mediumship as impossible or, believing it possible, are frightened that, in calling on the spirit world, they might encounter negative entities. In particular, the Catholic and many other churches sternly warn against dabbling in conjuring spirits, especially with Ouija boards. In the introduction to your book, Mediumship Mastery, you write, "In all my years of working as a medium, I have never experienced anything negative or that made me feel uncomfortable. My experience of mediumship has always been genuinely positive, loving, and comfortable." It would seem, from my reading of the Spiritist Manual, that Madero would have agreed. But has this been the case for others you know?

STEPHEN A. HERMANN: Mediumship is all about love and healing. However, training is important as is proper motivation. Someone could have a bad experience with mediumship if they dabble in it or go about doing it in a superficial way. Spiritual mediumship is completely orchestrated by higher spirit personalities. Mediumship is not a board game for drunk teenagers to play at 2 AM. Like attracts like.

C.M. MAYO: In your book's final chapter, "Dealing with Skeptics," you write, "People who are closed off and negative for any reason, which would include hardcore skeptics, are exceptionally more difficult to work with as the energies are not as strong, the links to the spirit world weaker, and the connections more incomplete and vague."

It seems to me that U.S. Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson, who disdained Madero as mentally unbalanced and who, for his support for the coup d'etat that ended with Madero's murder in 1913, has gone down as one of the archvillians of Mexican history, had much in common with the rigidmindedness of celebrity skeptics such as the Amazing Randi. Would you agree?

STEPHEN A. HERMANN: I don't know Randi personally nor do I know the US Ambassador of that period. Who knows what motivates people on a deeper level? However, Randi does seem very closed off to higher consciousness and intuitive ability. I suspect that Ambassador Wilson was motivated completely by lower, selfish interests and as a result would have cut himself off from higher spiritual influences.

Skeptics are not necessarily immoral or callous individuals. They just do not often believe in the mystical and are highly suspect of claims that do not fit their rationalist view of the world. I appreciate skepticism as many people are completely gullible and easily misled. It is important to not throw out your intelligence when dealing with mediumship as there is a fine line with genuine psychic impressions and your own imagination.

> Visit the webpage of Rev. Stephen A. Hermann, author of Mediumship Mastery

> Visit the webpage for my book, together with a transcription of Madero's Manual espírita, in Spanish, Odisea metafísica hacia la Revolución Mexicana.

> Visit the webpage for Resources for Researchers

Catherine L. Albanese's A Republic of Mind and Spirit: 

Monday, July 13, 2015

Mexico: Sunlight & Shadows, edited by Mikel Miller with Michael Hogan and Linton Robinson (Cover Painting by Erick Ochoa)

A shout out for Mikel Miller et al's new anthology, Mexico: Sunlight & Shadows, Short Stories and Essays by Mexico Writers which includes a cornucopia of works by Mexico-based English language writers, including Yours Truly with an excerpt from "Bahía de los Ángeles: Bay of Angels," a chapter of my book Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico. 

I'm also thrilled to mention that the cover features the painting "Demon and Angel" by Todos Santos artist Erick Ochoa. I met Ochoa an age ago through my amigo, Michael Cope, a brilliantly accomplished painter, Ochoa's teacher, and owner of Galeria de Todos Santos. (Miraculous Air has a chapter dedicated to Todos Santos and much to say about Cope and other artists in Todos Santos.)

More about the anthology edited by Mikel Miller et al

More about Miraculous Air (available in paperback and Kindle)

More about Erick Ochoa and Michael Cope and the Galeria de Todos Santos

More about Blue Demon

P.S. It was just after I'd written Miraculous Air that I happened upon the then little-known Far West Texas town of Marfa, which seemed to me a doppelgänger of Todos Santos, and so sparked the idea of writing another travel memoir. I didn't start my book about Far West Texas until more than a decade later, however (a novel and a biography of sorts intervened). It's a work in-progress, and I'm posting podcasts as I go — mainly of interviews. 
Listen in anytime to "Marfa Mondays" podcasts here.

***UPDATE: A glowing review by James Tipton for MexicoConnect

Monday, July 06, 2015

The Pecan: A History of America's Native Nut by James McWilliams


The Pecan: A History of America's Native Nut 

by James McWilliams
The University of Texas Press, 2013
ISBN 978-0-292-74916-0
Hardcover pp. 192

Crisply entertaining and chock-full of crunchy research by a food historian, this apparently delicious little book on America's native nut (and isn't the cover charming?)  is a horror story. 

It opens, as the darkest do, with a sunny scene of innocence. Clustered along river bottoms in what would one day become Texas, groves of pecan trees rained down their bounty for wildlife and indigenous peoples. For centuries, pecans were their superfood, dense with calories and nutrition. In the 16th century, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, the conquistador who shipwrecked en route to Florida and wandered west, found the Guadalupe River "a river of nuts" although he had no word for them but "walnut." The name "pecan" dates from the late 18th century.

Those are not pecan trees at Monticello
The pecan did not do well further north. Thomas Jefferson planted some 200 pecan trees in Monticello; none survive. Where nuts were wanted, European walnut varieties proved more popular and versatile, so the pecan was left to do what it had always done, thrive in its wild state along river bottoms, mainly in what is today Texas. Notes McWilliams, "unlike any other fruit-bearing tree in the age of cultivation, the pecan managed to evade the cultivating hand of man for centuries after humans began exploiting it for food."

Yum! Buy the pie at Royalty Pecans
In the nineteenth century, as ranching and cash crops such as cotton, corn and wheat spread across the South and Midwest, many pecan trees disappeared; nonetheless, a large number of pecan groves survived, especially in Texas, because they clung to riverbanks and bottoms, and proved able to survive a flood other crops could not. 

Farmers found wild pecans not only delicious as snacks for themselves, but good pig feed, and bags of them, easily gathered, could be sold in new markets in San Antonio, Galveston, and New Orleans. In the second half of the 19th century, Texas took the lead in pecan production, but not from formal orchards; for the most part, farmers gathered wild pecans.

How to sell more pecans? The market wanted uniformity, thin shells, and dense nut meats. Even the most magnificent pecan tree's seed, however, would not "come true," that is, bring forth a tree producing equivalent quality nuts. The solution was grafting. As early as 1822 one Abner Landrum detailed his own successful experiments with pecan grafting in the American Farmer. It seems no farmer bothered to emulate that experiment. The market for pecans was still marginal and, as McWilliams ventures, "it was simply more macho to run a ranch with cattle than to turn that land over to pecans."

The Big House at
Oak Alley Planation
In the mid-century 19th century, in the Oak Alley Plantation in Louisiana, a slave gardener named Antoine successfully grafted an orchard of more than 100 fabulously productive pecan trees. Decades later, the plantation's new German owner, Herbert Bonzano, brought the nuts of those grafted pecans to Philadelphia's 1876 Centennial Exposition. And thus, like so many other fruits before it, the pecan was at last, if slowly, on the road to industrial production a road, like that to Hell, paved with good intentions.

For a time, farmers relied on wild pecans, resisting experts' advice to graft pecans, perhaps out of innate conservatism and a reluctance to becoming dependent on nurserymen. Attitudes soon changed. After a series of insect plagues in the last three decades of the 19th century decimated major cash crops, the USDA championed chemical insecticides that, "lo and behold, worked." Writes McWilliams, "The USDA was no oracle, but as pecan farmers recognized, history showed it could make life much easier for those who tilled the soil for a living. So long as they would listen." Listen they did. 

The 20th century brought increasing industrialization in pecan production. After World War I, writes McWilliams, "pecan trees were becoming carefully managed commodities rather than natural aspects of the southern landscape." As for shelling, an important source of employment in San Antonio in the 30s, after some labor unrest, this was given over to machines. 

In World War II the U.S. government gave the pecan industry a push, promoting the nuts as nutritious replacements for meat; and after imposing price ceilings to help promote consumer demand, buying up millions of pounds of surplus pecans (many fed to schoolchildren). By the late 1940s, pecans were no longer holiday treats or just for pralines, they were in everything from cakes to cookies to pies, even salads. McWilliams: "The aristocrat of nuts had become a commoner."

McWilliams brings the pecan through the rest of its 20th century history with mail order, frozen foods, processed foods, chain restaurants, granola, and ice cream; its oil extracted for lubricants in clocks and guns, its wood milled for basketball court flooring, its shells collected for mulch, barbecue chips, plywood, pesticides, and more. By 2011, when the author tours a Texan pecan farm, he is stuck with dark wonder:
"First, the entire operation is a streamlined model of mechanization. Vehicles designed to fit snugly between seemingly endless rows of perfectly aligned pecan trees spray pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides; they lay mulch, prune trees, apply fertiziler, and harvest nuts. Other machines disk the soil and smooth the turf between the trees so that fallen nuts do not elude harvest. At times helicopters are even brought in for the purpose of keeping frost from icing the nuts. Propane cannons are on hand to scare off crows. It occurred to me as we drove from orchard to orchard that there was nothing 'natural' about a contemporary pecan orchard. I was looking at a factory in the field."

Texas Pecan Growers Association
Recipe for Traditional Pecan Pie
Oh, but it gets stranger. The money isn't so much in the pecans as it is in shipping trees from the nursery to China. In 2001, Chinese did not have a word for pecan. Today pecans are a popular health food in China, available everywhere from airports to gas stations. It seems a question of time before the Chinese outstrip the U.S. in pecan production.

The future of the pecan, a "chemically saturated activity," whether in the U.S. or China or elsewhere, looks grim. Arsenals of insecticides are increasingly necessary to combat aphids, beetles, weevils and more. These chemicals also threaten bees and other pollinators (and without them, our food supply as we know it may collapse). Plant diseases are also becoming increasingly resistant to chemical assault. The soil degrades. At some point perhaps when China has become the top producer; perhaps when some insect or fungus has wiped out enough orchards; or in the wake of some ecological or economic jolt it may become unprofitable to continue producing pecans in the U.S., the grafted and chemically attended ones for the mass market, that is. What then will have become of the now few stands of wild pecans? The good intentions of many decadesye olde single-minded "economic development"— have brought this once thriving wild nut tree to a state of such fragility that, concludes McWilliams, "we may well lose yet another natural thread to the past."