Amazon, which used to be an online bookseller, before which it used to be a rain forest (I have a guitar with a thin little slab of Brazilian rosewood on the headstock-I am allowed to travel away from the United States with this guitar but cannot return with it, on account of certain complex international laws arising from the “used to be” nature of the aforementioned rain forest), before which it used to be merely a large river, before which it used to be an unusually tall sort of woman (??????) of the personality type commonly designated “A” (standing for “Amazon”?),has become a company that makes movies.
Because Amazon is the quintessential “Let’s make it happen on the Internet” company, the idea is that all of us will make these movies together.
So Internet User “A” (not ??????) submits a concept for a film and gets paid ten thousand dollars.
Then Internet User “B” (I. U. B) volunteers to re-write it and gets thirty-three thousand dollars, hoping that their name (“Internet User B’s”) will appear in the credits, in which case he or she (or they) gets two hundred thousand dollars.
Then I.U. “C” volunteers to write “additional dialogue” and gets, maybe, half-a-million dollars, because, the way I read it anyway, every new creative participant appears to make a higher figure (sort of a backwards Amway).
Then I.U. “D” volunteers some old curtains and I.U. “E” says “My uncle has a barn!” and ta-da (!) there’s a show! Brought to you by you! And ??????!
A month ago I was under a deadline to submit a proposal to become Internet User “B” (the two-hundred thirty-three thousand-dollar Internet User) and failed to deliver May’s Backstage Graffiti column. For that failure I apologize to you, my inter-galactic readership (who, if you each sent me a cashier’s check for a nickel, I wouldn’t have to be revising I.U. “A’s” film concept and instead could be writing a Backstage Graffiti column every single day because I’d be so “rolling in it,” as they say).
On the subject of failure, I want to tell you a story you’ve never heard before. I learned it from Clive Romney, whom his friends call “Biff” (it’s a thing in the Romney family, where guys named “Richard” are called “Stim” and guys named “Orville” are called “Smab”-there’s even a guy in there they call “Mitt,” don’t ask me where that came from).
It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely scenario: a couple of hundred Jewish immigrants-butchers, bakers, cabinetmakers, tailors, furriers, merchants, accountants, clerks-only a couple who’d ever farmed-forming the Jewish Agricultural and Colonial Association and buying 6,000 acres of raw land in a high desert valley in central Utah (quite near Gunnison)-and setting up a colony, a colony with a Very Big Agenda-an agenda that, if it were a bank, would be called by the current administration “too big to fail.”
Let’s make it even crazier. Let’s say that the colonists range from Revolutionaries to Labor Zionists to devout Orthodox Jews to fugitives from the law, such as one who was wanted for punching out a Jew-baiting landlord. Many just wanted out of the tight, ratty tenements and sweatshops and corporate cubicles (just kidding) of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston-wanted a life where they controlled their own destiny.
Utah’s government was practically begging these folks to come, partly to justify the cost of the sixty-mile-long Piute Canal it was digging right past the site. The Board of Land Commissioners (hereafter “BLC”) promised a canal full of water, and Benjamin Brown and Isaac Herbst took that as pretty good assurance that their dream of a Jewish utopia in Utah would succeed.
On September 10th, 1911, exactly 100 years ago last, um, September 10th, the advance party was met at the Gunnison train station by an open wagon driven by Ben Brown. Nine men and two women jumped in and headed south through town, singing Ukrainian folk songs at the top of their lungs, letting everybody know that a new era in Gunnison’s history had arrived-and managing, somehow, not to get arrested.
After a few dozen choruses they saw in the distance four white tents that would be their home for the next eight months until they could build something a little more durable. They foresaw that for a time their life would be intense (“in tents,” little humor to lighten up history), but hey, it wasn’t a tenement. The wagon slowed to a crawl up the long hill. The raw earth was tree-starved and spiked with occasional sagebrush, shadscale, and thin grass. Small stones and large rocks littered the tract-you’ve heard of the “tip of the iceberg.” This was scary.
The first morning in camp, dressed in Russian workers’ caps and peasant blouses, they all went to work. Isaac Herbst led the surveying team, laying out roads and farms and castles in the air. The six-man land clearing squad hitched two teams of horses to an iron rail and began dragging the rail across the land to scrape off the sagebrush. Of course the rail just bounced over the rocks, so they had to go after those by hand.
They’d bought a new $4,000 gas tractor to scrape, level, plow, and harrow the land. But the tractor broke down so often that it was about useless, and since none of the colonists knew how to fix it, it was back to muscle and horsepower. They dug irrigation ditches, and in five months had 1500 acres ready to plant.
They didn’t work only to survive. There was something bigger, and this is what makes the story worth telling. All the men worked (in Ben Brown’s words) “twenty-five hours a day,” (would you buy land from a guy that casual with math?) because they felt their efforts now had implications for all Jews everywhere. They saw themselves as the vanguard of a movement that would change the direction in lives of tens of thousands of people. “Let us make a good go of it here,” said one, “and you’ll see the whole [Jewish] people returning to the land.”
These folks were wildly diverse, a whole lot more than Republicans and Democrats or Utes and Cougars, and way more diverse than their pretty diverse Mormon neighbors. But they were family, sharing blood that had bound them for thousands of years. Still, they were about as different from one another as any dozen people could be. But common purpose and the sheer mountains of work dwarfed ideological differences.
You could see the progress. Long days of sweat had reclaimed the desert and readied it for new life. Satisfied and confident, they snapped photographs of themselves and their accomplishments and mailed them east as postcards to family and friends.
Encouraging letters returned, inspiring the pioneers in their work. For people disgusted by the squalid tenements they’d left behind, the Utah environment was intoxicating.
Isaac Friedlander recalled a trip into the mountains to gather firewood which, in his words:”evoked in us a religious exaltation. We are amazed by the concurrence here of summer and winter. Below, Indian summer warmth prevails, while the wooded ridges and high crevasses are mantled with snow. But the ultimate thrill of religious ecstasy seized us when a sudden clap of thunder was heard to arise somewhere in the depths of the mountains, and then it faded away.
“We sang and danced for joy. Benjamin Brown mounted a massive stump, spread his arms heavenward and spoke to God like a prophet. These shouters and jumpers could have been mistaken for a sect which comes into the wooded mountains to adore their God. Although we felt like insects in comparison, we felt greater than our ordinary selves…
[Author’s note: Remember this idea.]
“…because we had had this transcendental experience.
“Very little wood was gathered that day; our wagons returned half empty. But our hearts brimmed over with happiness and song-the happiness of freedom from care and from anxiety for the morrow.”
Barney Silverman wrote, “…the evenings and nights were exceptionally cold during the winter, but that did not hold back the pioneers from venturing out from their tents. They were well repaid for their courage in more than one way. The sky they beheld was not like anything they ever saw back East. The sky was always clear blue and studded with myriads of stars and they looked so near and so bright.”
During the winter of 1911-1912, keeping warm, mending harnesses, fixing machinery and endless discussions occupied “tent time.” They wrestled big questions in the long winter evenings: “Does God exist? Will capitalism crumble under its own weight? What the heck shall we name this place?” No, this last was a big question, too. It was gonna be a big colony. They formalized the objectives and purposes of the colony:
At first the colony would only grow and sell crops. Later they would build a cannery. From these beginnings a town would grow where every branch of agriculture, commerce, manufacturing, and mining would thrive. But it wouldn’t be just a town-there were already towns a-plenty. This would be a New Society rooted in all these economic endeavors that would revitalize the Jew in his own as well as others’ eyes.
As the Architects of the Jewish Economic and Social Future in America, the colonists had issued a call. It was appropriate that they name their bold experiment “Clarion.”
At the end of February, 1912, wheat, oats, corn, and alfalfa were in the ground. By the end of March 1500 acres were just waiting for water from the promised Piute Canal. Toward the end of April, the farmers smiled as green sprouts broke through the soil. Then their smiles relaxed a little as they looked toward the still-dry canal. Then came the strong winds, dust storms, heat, flies and mosquitoes, and it began to require something of an effort to smile.
They hired in a mechanic, but the tractor still ran according to some rebellious and apostate Philistine spirit of its own. They dug wells, but all were dry, so they hauled water in barrels up from Gunnison. 1500 acres’ worth of water. In barrels. From Gunnison.
When it came to this whole Piute Canal idea, the BLC (Remember? Board of Land Commissioners?) had a good deal more faith than works. It was promised for mid-April, delayed until May 3rd. The water that appeared that glorious morning disappeared by afternoon. The canal was dry for the next two days.
A small stream reappeared May 6th and flowed for six days, then vanished for three days. This spitting and stopping and mostly evaporating continued through the summer.
The colonists built a concrete cistern to store this trickle of canal water. They dug for days on a ditch from the canal to the cistern, hollowing out a hill for support on three sides, building forms, and pouring concrete. The night the reservoir filled with water, an ear-splitting boom shook the colony. Men and women rushed from their beds and found the unsupported wall, built without reinforcing steel rods and with poor cement, shattered in large pieces on the ground. They abandoned the wall-dropped it like a hot potato. A very large, hot, concrete potato.
Grasses and willows stabilize a canal’s banks. This canal had none. Muskrats and gophers merrily nibbled through the dirt sides-the bank broke in six places and left the colony dry for thirty-five days. Twice that summer, a little bit of water touched the 1500 acres.
The area first cultivated was poor land, used even today only for grazing, testing the sights on deer rifles, and maybe photography. “When the water hit it,” said a Mormon farmer, “why, it was just like sugar. It just melted. There was no sod so the water just ran off… and took the ground with it.”
Salt Lake City Jews organized the Utah Colonization Fund to raise money for Clarion. The Mormon Church gave $500 to the fund. To show their gratitude, the handful of colonists organized a “Pre-harvest Festival” on August 18th, 1912, and more than a thousand people showed up, including the board of the Utah Colonization Fund, Utah Governor Spry and Philadelphia Rabbi Isaac Landman. There’s no record of the BLCmaking an appearance. But in their defense, there’s no record of the BLC having been invited.
This “Pre-harvest Festival” turned out to be inappropriately named-within weeks an early frost killed 83% of the first harvest in Clarion. They didn’t even make enough money to buy seed for the next year, let alone pay for a festival.
In early September, the colony’s first child was born. One birth can eclipse a lot of discouragement. The colonists felt that the worst was now behind them. Eastern Jews clamored for the opportunity to come west and become part of the colony. But old problems still festered and brand-new, unforeseen, difficulties would raise their ugly heads.
The bad harvest and the admission that the soil on which Clarion was located was not much more fertile than asphalt led some to question Ben Brown’s leadership, if you can imagine that.
Communally-held lands were split up into privately-held farms. That was a great leap backward. While agreeing that there was no particular quality to the land, colonists still argued over the quality of the bits they received.
The Salt Lake Jewish community raised another $10,000 and Jews in the East pawned whatever they had of value to sustain Clarion.
But the power of the pawnbroker ain’t much against the power of nature. I’ll let the colonists tell us about the historic storm of August 9th, 1913.
“…the first sounds of the howling wind grew louder by the minute. Then came the rains not in heavy drops, but in heavy columns of water. The mixture of the howling winds and the tremendous deafening roar of the flood, sounded like the very mountains were crumbling and were rolling over the colony down into the valley below…
“Heavy runoff from the mountains combined with the rains over Clarion to fill the dry washes leading to the canal. Conduits had been dug under the canal to empty the washes in the case of storms, but the water flowed in such volume and velocity that the conduits under the canalclogged with debris. The water rose OVER the canal, breeching its banks, and flooding the ripening hay, alfalfa, and wheat fields. Gravel, tree limbs, stones, and sand covered the land, burying the crops.”
The next morning it appeared “as if it had hailed rocks all night.The place looked like the aftermath of an earthquake.” The water had gouged existing gullies deeper and carved new ones which “cut some farms in two.
Another storm struck on August 27th. Maturing crops and the irrigation canals were ravaged again. Another storm in the fall and yet another early frost thinned the fields even more. (Is there any such thing as a “punctual frost”?) With the harvest money up the chimney, furniture, dishes, books, heirlooms, and tools were sold to buy food and clothing and to pay debts.
Have you tried the “barley, beans, and potatoes diet”? They did, with results our fashion magazines might celebrate-but they couldn’t afford magazines and didn’t know how fashionable they were. The Ayer off family ate cats to stave off hunger. The Furmans ate pigeons. Kosher laws were not strictly enforced.
It was about then that the boards on everyone’s new homes, boards that had fit together so nicely when they were first built, became so warped and twisted from the hot sun and severe storms that they parted in large cracks. The winter wind whistled through as though the walls were woven of grass. The people were demoralized, divided, robbed of hope, and the dream seemed as warped as those boards on their once-new homes.
Nathan Ayeroff the cat-eater wrote “To be on the land, to be free, to work for yourself, not to have a boss or a foreman; to breathe fresh air all the time… How could you leave a place like this and go back to New York, to the factory?”
The banks cut off credit and demanded immediate payment of all delinquencies. Everybody left. Everybody.
All this time you’ve been sitting at your computers like baby birds in the nest with your craws open to gobble a happy ending. Well, it might take a little imagination, but here it is, as unlikely as it is lovely:
The children and grandchildren of those Clarion pioneers, scattered over the globe from Miami to Haifa, cherish every scrap of information they can find about the colony. I’ve met some. They gather to discuss the experiment and come like faithful pilgrims to the site of Clarion. They celebrate the time in Clarion as a high point in the history of their families, a time of sacrifice and dedication and people becoming greater than their natural selves.
Clarion died young, not much more than a thousand days old. But they were days of dreaming, days of pushing shoulder-to-shoulder against the stubborn elements, days of wounding and days of forgiving, days of vision and hope and victory over pettiness and differences. From the get-go they were clustered at the gates of Mordor hoping against hope, but for them there were no hobbits roasting rings in the fires of Mount Doom. It’s a wonder that they held onto the unyielding soil as long as they did. But hey.That they failed in Clarion is their history. That they dreamed and struggled and were greater than themselves in Clarion is their legacy. Even as they walked away from the dying flame of Clarion, the embers of the dream continued to burn within them, a fire shut up in their bones. And it’s not evident in the lives of their posterity that they felt any shame in defeat.
So maybe we’re really talking about the appearance of failure. How did the death of Jesus and the death of Joseph appear to the leering onlooker? A little like failure?
“He that ascended up on high, as also he descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things, that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth; Which truth shineth. This is the light of Christ.” (D&C 88:6 & 7) He descended to understand our failure, not His. He has none. But the redemption He brings enables our failure to shine, our weaknesses to become bright strengths.
Maybe one of our less useful weaknesses is to fear the appearance of failure. When Willard “Mitt” Romney refuses to apologize for being successful, everybody cheers. When any of us refuses to apologize for being unsuccessful, we are looked at askance. Yes, askance. This was the mode of looking employed by many in the Great and Spacious Building. Askance.
Let me be clear (for ten years I have heard inter-galactic digital whisperings: “Please, let this guy finally be clear”). Failure, per se, is not entirely worthy of writing home about. It has to be a stepping-stone to a two-hundred thirty-three-thousand-dollar writing gig. Or a pilgrimage from Haifa. Or an exodus to the Rocky Mountains by seventy-thousand Mormon pioneers, the publishing of peace throughout the planet, and the blossoming of temples on every earthly hilltop. Or an awakening to our need for Christ’s atonement, at least.
If the appearance of failure has raised its appalling head in your life because, well, you’ve actually sort of failed, how bout this? My friend Janece Krahenbuhl gave us a stunning sermon in sacrament meeting a few weeks ago in which she courageously confessed to being human. To firing on fewer than all cylinders.To having missed the Perfection Train by days and days. To needing a Redeemer. To believing His love is sufficient to make everything right. As consolation, she offered these words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who is, I am told, a smart dead person.
“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.” And I (and I’m sure Janece) would add, “to know the truth about needing a Redeemer, which truth shineth.”
It was so comforting to hear those words. They were so exactly what I needed on that day of the year, in this day of my life. I can’t quite manage to see Emerson’s face among thoseghastly apparitions at the windows of the Great and Spacious Building, so I’m taking his definition and running with it. I have failed enough to need to be redeemed, but it’s nice to imagine that I might have succeeded enough to be worth redeeming.
Of course, if you don’t laugh much and kids don’t like you and you’re kind of neither here nor there on the subject of beauty and you’re okay with unredeemed social conditions and believe that people should darn well prove that they deserve it before you lift a finger to ease their breathing, I just don’t know what to tell ya.