Visions of the Development of Salem

By Kevin Zorn

An oil on canvas mural is displayed in the post office in Salem, West Virginia. It was painted by an artist named Berni Glasgow and its production was funded
through the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture. It is titled “Visions of the Development of Salem” and depicts a group of people
receiving mail, in the background is a village and cattle.

 

Berni Glasgow was one of more than 800 artists commissioned to paint 1371 murals, the majority of which are featured in post offices.
Often mistaken as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) initiative, these Treasury funded murals were created with the intent of fostering i
nspiration in the American people who were still feeling the devastating economic and social effects of the Great Depression.

 

It is a testament to the shift in the ideological landscape today that I cannot believe the US Government, in tandem with local governments,
was capable of doing what the WPA accomplished. Yet, here are just some of the facts: from 1935 to 1943 8.5 million unemployed men and
women were hired by the government to build over 10,000 bridges, 620,000 miles of streets and roads, 40,000 new and 85,000 renovated
buildings including thousands of schools, gymnasiums, auditoriums, playgrounds, parks, libraries, college dormitories, tennis courts, and skating rinks.

 

The WPA employed artists, writers, historians, and musicians whose work directly affected the lives of millions of Americans during some of the
country’s most painful years. Musicians hired under the Federal Music Project taught free lessons to 132,000 children and adults every week.
Those hired in the Federal Writers’ Project, in addition to their popular state tourism guidebooks, recorded over 2,300 slave narratives -
an invaluable collection for scholars and historians. Under the Federal Theatre Project 1,000 plays were performed across the country every month.
Incalculable is the number of children and adults inspired by this work.

 

Through the colossal endeavors of the WPA in both its pre-war effort and its public projects America achieved full employment by 1942,
the same year “Visions” was painted in Salem.

 

It is clear that the America many of us grew up in, the structures that supported our lives, the parks we enjoyed, the schools we attended,
the infrastructure we relied upon for travel, even the art classes that inspired the next generation of creators was largely built under the
auspices of the WPA and the New Deal.

 

This is a salient reminder that capital “H” History is not simply a collection of memorized facts and figures, dates and obscure names.
No, History is alive in the communities in which we live. It not only teaches us, it haunts us as well. It haunts us with what was
possible before and what is possible tomorrow.

 

Perhaps that is the greatest battle waged in the spectacle of media and politics today - the question of what is possible.
Our expectations are managed lower and lower. We learn that the climate crisis is inevitable, that homelesness is natural,
that workers are essential until they ask for a living wage. All to say that change is impossible. Visions of better futures recede from view.

But history haunts us with an alternative. By the time Berni Glasgow painted the mural in the Salem post office, the American
government had provided millions of meaningful jobs improving, with concrete and paintbrushes, nearly every community across the nation.

 

Nick Taylor, the author of “American Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA”, writes this: 

 

“These ordinary men and women proved to be extraordinary beyond all expectation.
They were golden threads woven in the national fabric. In this, they shamed the political philosophy
that discounted their value and rewarded the one that placed its faith in them,
thus fulfilling the founding vision of a government by and for its people. All its people.” 

 

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He stood at the base of the mountain, shielding his eyes from the unhindered sun. Squeezing the increment borer, a sturdy metal tube for sampling trees, Don Curry leaned forward and continued his hike. Halfway up he could make out the jagged edges of his destination, a small copse of ancient trees. Their white bark reflected the sun, shimmering like piles of gold in El Dorado. At the edge of the grove, Don admired the twisting knotty wrinkles that cut through the base of each tree. After strolling between the old growths and running his hand along their bark like a man choosing a car to test drive at a dealership, Don found his tree. It was no different from the others. An old, white, gnarled thing it resembled more a root system than a tree itself but to Don the strange appearance was what mattered the most. He needed a sample of the Bristlecone pine for his research involving climate change in the past. Reviewing the rings of an ancient tree provided him an informative snapshot into the history of the earth.

 

With the permission of the local forest service, Don pressed the increment borer against the stone-solid tree. Over and over he twisted the handle, pushing with all of his weight trying to get a bite on the ironlike bark. The tool continued to slide from its mark again and again. The tree would not give. If sampling the tree with a bore would not work, he thought, then it was time for Plan B. Don unpacked the chainsaw from his back and in a sputtering cough that smelled of exhaust and gasoline, the chainsaw started. In Don’s mind there was no problem with cutting down a Bristlecone Pine. On the hilltop they were plentiful and he only needed one for a sample. So he sliced into the white wood. The tree fell to the earth and Don continued to cut several sample discs. Exhausted from the hike and drained by the sun, Don returned from the mountain, samples in hand.

 

Counting the rings of the tree under the flourescent light of his lab, Don noticed something was wrong. Each ring equaled one year of growth and there were an incredible number of rings in his sample. After counting the first thousand, he was surprised to find that he’d barely gotten a quarter of the way through. At two thousand rings he was now counting through the time of Jesus and ancient Rome. Don wasn’t even halfway. He thought he might have been counting wrong, so he started again. But at two thousand four-hundred rings he was halfway again. So he continued well into four thousand rings. Four thousand six-hundred years passed, four thousand seven-hundred years as well. At four thousand eight-hundred and forty-four years he was finished. Resting in front of him were the severed remnants of the oldest tree in human history. Not only was it the oldest tree, it was also the oldest living organism in human history. It was older than the oldest sea sponge, older than the oldest clam, the tree before him had lived through the emergence of civilization itself. It saw the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the creation of Christianity, and the Renaissance. Don was horrified.

 

Articles were published maligning his decision to cut the tree. The man who named the tree Prometheus, (he named the others nearby as well) called Don a murderer. News of the event travelled across the country erupting in what seemed like a wildfire of anger and outrage. Don left the field, opting instead to study salt-flats - desolate, barren wastelands without a hint of vegetation. There were certainly no Bristlecone pines nearby.

Don Curry led a successful career in his new area of geological study and was awarded honors upon his death in 2004. Recent developments, however, have added to the story of Don Curry. In 2013 theRocky Mountain Tree Ring Research Group found another tree even older than the Prometheus. The newly found tree is currently alive and well at 5,061 years old. Its location is hidden from the general public. Don Curry can now rest in peace.