One More Time

I’m about to head off on another international reporting trip, this time to Peru’s Cordillera Blanca, where the receding glaciers are quickly changing the landscape. This is an economic story, not just an environmental one — tourism is the third largest industry in Peru, behind mining and resource extraction, and in many areas the snowcapped mountains are the primary draw. That is true of the Ancash region, where Peru’s highest mountain range sits. Tourism has been a crucial part of the economy there, but as the glaciers melt that is changing things. I’m going down there to meet with the people affected, from the restaurant owners to the mountain guides. I made connections when I was there several years ago, and now this tim I’m going to tell the story.

One Step Closer

I spent this morning at superior court attending the plea and sentencing hearing of Trevor Ferguson, the 24-year-old Tamworth man accused of giving the man convicted of murdering Krista Dittmeyer a ride home from where he dumped her body. I wasn’t supposed to go, but it worked out that I had to. It worked out to a great opportunity.

I say this time and time again here on LPJ, but I love shooting photos. Photography is actually what first got me into newspapers. I’ve always loved it, but in my current role I find myself shooting only on rare occasions. Our fantastic photographer Jamie Gemmiti winds up scooping most lens opportunities.

Not without reason, either. Given the choice I would hire him to shoot photos over me. He really is great at his job.

But every once in a while I still get to trigger the shutter. Today, at the hearing, because I didn’t know it was my responsibility, I showed up late. Things hadn’t started yet, so I didn’t miss anything, but I was just sitting down when Ferguson walked into the courtroom. I scrambled to get his face as he entered, but I missed. I got a shot or two of his back with the judge in the background, but nothing that was a standout photo.

I new this was going to be a big story (since I was writing it), so I had to have something. I was positioned next to the door he came in through and would leave from, so I figured I had one more chance. The hearing proceeded, and I took notes without ever turning off my camera or putting on the lens cap. It sat next to me on my camera bag. Both it and I were ready for action.

The hearing came and went (read the story here), and then he was being ushered out. This was my shot at a good photo.

Then everything changed. Ferguson was lead over to the gallery, where right in front of me members of his family were sitting. An older woman rose and clasped his face. I could hear them barely, but my hands were on my camera, not my notebook. I shot and shot and shot as she hugged him and he hugged her back as much as his cuffed hands would allow. It was a gentle moment in a story that is all around sad. I found the shot I was looking for.

Ferguson will be in jail for at least the next six years. Anthony Papile, the man convicted of murdering Krista Dittmeyer, will be in jail for at least the next 42. A third man, Michael Petelis, still has to go before a judge. Dittmeyer will be dead for eternity. I’m not sure there is much of silver lining here, except that I got a chance to shoot a front page photo. Small consolation, all things considered.

The Art of the Superfund

If you get a chance take a quick look at my story about Kearsarge Metallurgical Corp., the valve company in Conway that became a Superfund site that cost American taxpayers $5 million to clean up. It was fun to research and write. It was not intended to be the weekend feature, but my editor liked it so it got drafted. It started from the question, “Are the people who made this mess cleaning it up?” It ended with the realization that the Superfund program, originally meant to be funded by the companies that risk contamination, has become a program funded by the public. It becomes a little easier to care about policy, I think, when it’s in your back yard and it’s your money that’s cleaning it up.

The Essence of the Written Word

I came to the cities in a time of disorder
When hunger ruled.
I came among men in a time of uprising
And I revolted with them.

I ate my food between massacres.
The shadow of murder lay upon my sleep.
And when I loved, I loved with indifference.
I looked upon nature with impatience.

In my time streets led to the quicksand.
Speech betrayed me to the slaughterer.
There was little I could do. But without me
The rulers would have been more secure. This was my hope.

– Bertold Brecht

I saw the last section of this (revised) poem on Facebook the other day when a friend posted it alongside a story about a Chinese dissident who had barricaded himself into his home to avoid persecution. I read it and immediately put it into Google to find the author.

Bertold Brecht was a German writer born around the turn of the century. He lived through both World War One and World War Two, although he got out of Germany for the second war. When I read this poem (which is only really the middle section of a longer poem, with a couple lines deleted) the words stuck in my mouth. They felt heavy, like they meant something regardless of context.

It’s so rare to see powerful writing, particularly in the everyday. It’s something I’ve been working on, hopefully with success.

I was going through emails the other day tossing out old ones and I came across one I wrote to the former editor at NHPR about the mess in Transvale Acres following the Irene flooding. Check it out:

The fact is most of the lots originally were campsites and were never supposed to be anything more. People bought them and built illegally because they knew they could never get building permits for so close to the river. The neighborhood is private, without town roads or infrastructure, so the development largely happened under the radar. They built everything without talking to the building inspector, so half the houses were shacks jacked up on cinderblock stilts. People obviously knew it was happening, but town officials going back 40 years ignored it.
It’s hard to fault the current administration for a problem they inherited. Officials don’t like to talk about it, but they tried to deal with the problem before the storm. They looked for ways to clean up the neighborhood, but without funding to compensate property owners for the homes they would have been forced out of they didn’t get anywhere.
Then the storm came. The emergency declaration gave the town the deep pockets it needed to finally address the problem. It took political will for town officials to step up and enforce regulations their predecessors ignored for four decades, but most people think it was the right thing to do. 22 people had to be rescued out of Transvale Acres on the night of the storm. The question has come up: What happens if durring the next flood a firefighter dies trying to rescue someone out of sub-standard housing that the town allowed to stand? It may seem draconian now, but over the long term it’s the right move.
The real fault here lies with the people who built houses illegally 30 years ago and the officials who ignored it then. Everyone else is a victim. Sure, illegal construction happened more recently, but by that point the problem had become too widespread: What’s the point of issuing a violation for an illegal porch if the house it’s attached to isn’t supposed to be there? The town, and the homeowners who bought from the original owners, were in an impossible situation.
So that’s the story: the situation sucks, particularly for homeowners, but the town is stepping up and doing the right thing for the first time in decades. And although it’s going to be painful, without the storm there would have been no mechanism to compensate these people.
I like to thing it’s strong writing. Her response was this should become part of the script (the script, however, never got written). I keep playing with my writing to see what I can make it. It’s nice once in a while to feel like you’re writing with weight, not just to get the basics of an idea across.

One More Adventure

So if you’re wondering why LPJ has been quiet for a bit, I’ll tell you — I just got back from a trip to Yosemite Valley, Calif., were I climbed El Capitan, the largest granite monolith in the word for a travel piece I’m working on. It was a crazy trip that had me sleeping 2,000 feet up a rock face.

It’s called the best rock climb in the world, and when it was first climbed more than 50 years ago it took 18 months. We spent four days climbing and spent two nights on the wall. I’d hoped to do a radio piece as well, but the amount of work it took just to climb every day made that impossible. I will, however, be writing up a killer account of the climb, and I will weave into it the story of the first ascent.

I have another such adventure planned for several weeks from now. It will include work on a story about the disappearing glaciers of South America and the effect that has on the economy there. Again, I’m toying with doing it for radio as well as for print, but we’ll see. I’ve already got one media outlet lined up, and I’m working on more. One adventure after another — just the way I like things.