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Herstory

Virginia Bartlett unveils the voices of frontier women in the University of Pittsburgh Press' Keeping House: Women's Lives in Western Pennsylvania, 1790-1850.

Bed sheets. Farm tools. Tobacco. Medicine. Holy water. German native Liwwat Boke assumed these would be the necessities for her life in the New World, so she packed them in trunks and suitcases and boarded a boat to Baltimore. She arrived in 1834 prepared to journey across the frontier to meet her husband, Natz, in Ohio. Determined to cross the Allegheny Mountains and the forested land of Western Pennsylvania, she set out with strangers in a modified Conestoga wagon pulled by a team of horses. The rugged turnpike road was so torn up in places that they had to get out and walk.

Although many women made the same journey before her and had similar experiences on the frontier, Boke knew that her literacy was unusual among her contemporaries. Realizing that her journey was carving a path that others would follow for years to come, she decided to keep a journal. She sketched the wagon and the countryside and wrote about day-to-day travel experiences like the night she spent in a one-room tavern: "The pillowcase had been on 5 or 6 years, I reckon, so I pin'd over my handkerchief-& put night gown over my frock."

Boke's story is just one of many treasures found in Virginia Bartlett's book, Keeping House: Women's Lives in Western Pennsylvania, 1790-1850, copublished by the University of Pittsburgh Press and the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania. In her book, one of the few to focus solely on the experiences of Pennsylvania's frontier women, Bartlett wanted "to bring women's history together in one place and then draw a picture of what life might have been like." She takes us through their many challenges: boarding wagons, riding horses, encountering the forest, crossing the Allegheny Mountains into new towns they could finally call home.

But the real spice of Keeping House is its record of the everyday--candle-making, mothering, washing, cooking, weaving--which Bartlett found documented, surprisingly, in manuscript cookbooks. Bartlett brings us to the edge of the hearth in a one-room house crowded by a spinning wheel, a washboard, and a cradle-settee, where the open fire slowly browns homemade bread. The woman stands over the handmade kitchen table making pumpkin pudding, her family's favorite dessert and a delicacy on the frontier since the ingredients were unique to America, and so, new to the settlers:

Stew a fine sweet pumpkin till soft and dry. rub it through a sieve mix with the pulp six eggs quite light a quarter of a pound of butter half a pint of new milk some pounded ginger and nutmeg a wine glass of brandy.

Not only did the women jot down recipes for cakes and pies, but also remedies for ailments like burns and insect bites. A rattlesnake bite remedy that was "never known to fail" required the application of a thick coat of mud to the wound every 10 minutes. For an asthma attack, they cut a section of hair, drilled a hole in a sweet apple tree, placed the hair inside, and plugged the hole.

Bartlett found that although the people feared fatal diseases like smallpox and tuberculosis, few took advantage of the smallpox vaccine that was available as early as 1731. Instead, they honored the popular religious belief that vaccination was a "distrust of God's ever-ruling care."

But not all women allowed their actions to be dictated by the clergy. In a society where sex and intimacy were taboo topics, Bokewrote about her conjugal relationship as she and her husband dealt with the pressures of their new life on the Ohio frontier: "In the surge of sexual desires and pleasures, one comes alive with strong feelings. One does not often find strong emotions in this forest, and therefore, they are precious and welcome."

It was Boke's wisdom and outspoken ways that became Bartlett's greatest inspiration in writing Keeping House. Her story is the thread that weaves the reader through the uncertainty of life in the 1800s. The strength and courage required of Boketo persevere seems extraordinary today. But for Bokeand the other women of the frontier, it was simply what it took to live their lives.


Rain Forest Crunch

The survival of a wealth of plant species in a Panamanian rain forest may paradoxically depend on the very creatures that destroy them. Pitt biologist Walter Carson is deep in the tropical understory on Barro Colorado Island to see what happens when the balance of nature shifts.

Walt Carson's biggest threat while studying plant diversity on Panama's Barro Colorado Island is the giant tropical ant. In three years working in the understory of the rain forest, he and his research team have seen only two deadly snakes. One of his assistants had 3,000 ticks spread over her body, 50 or 60 actually buried into her skin. Another was bit by a scorpion. But the giant tropical ant--two inches long and one-half inch thick with a sting so potent, so painful, it can incapacitate its victims for nearly a day--is the inevitable bane of a rain forest ecologist.

Carson has been lucky. So far. Though looking warily over his shoulder for those tropical creepy-crawlies, the assistant professor of biology is keeping a much more discerning eye on what is threatening plants in the rain forest.

What the giant tropical ant is to the rain forest ecologist, herbivores and seed predators are to the rain forest plant. The voracious animals and insects prevent vegetation from climbing to a much coveted treefall gap in the forest canopy--a plant's only escape from the shaded understory into the nurturing light of day. But ants, spiny rats, peccaries, and other natural enemies are ironically what maintain the unusually high plant diversity on the dim forest floor, at least according to a hypothesis proposed 25 years ago by renowned tropical ecologists Joe Connell and Dan Janzen. An acre in a temperate forest, such as the Allegheny National Forest, may have five tree species. In a tropical forest like Barro Colorado Island (BCI), there are usually more than 50. By attacking the species that produce the most offspring, herbivores and seed predators make room in the understory for other species to germinate. But, according to the hypothesis, a few plant species could dominate--if the ranks of animals and insects were to dwindle.

"We're finding that's exactly what's happening," says Carson, five years into his 15-year, National Science Foundation-funded study, the first large-scale test of the hypothesis explaining rain forest diversity. Using fences and insecticides to remove animals and insects in parts of the rain forest understory, Carson is finding that a few plant species are, indeed, taking charge.

It took Carson and his team, including several Pitt undergrads, 18 months to haul, by hand, the treated wooden posts and plastic-coated galvanized steel fencing from a nearby village, through 3.5 kilometers of hilly, humid terrain and into the rain forest. To keep out animals, they built 18 exclosures, each about one-third the size of a football field, both on BCI and in the nearby mainland forest on the Gigante Peninsula. Within the fences, they tagged each tree 50 centimeters or taller, determined their identities, measured their heights and stem diameters, and mapped their locations--34,000 trees in all.

The fences effectively took care of the predatory creatures, but to guard against insects, the researchers needed insecticide--only permitted on Gigante, and intensely screened for safety by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Yet, Carson ran into a rather unexpected problem--no way to collect water (in a rain forest?). The dry season there--well, relatively dry--lasts from December to March, and though an ideal time for a scientist to take measurements, a tough time to spray insecticides that need to be mixed with water. Carson thought about digging wells. He thought about building an irrigation system. But he ended up choosing a much simpler route. And thus, set up to collect precious rainwater on the rain forest floor, amidst tree trunks and peccaries and giant tropical ants, are swimming pools--shipped directly from Sears to Panama, each one decorated with multi-colored cartoon dinosaurs.

Carson reluctantly calls himself a "rogue" ecologist. Dinosaur-trimmed pools seem reason enough. But spraying insecticide in the rain forest?

"I'm an experimentalist," he says. "I want to do anything I can to help understand how these forests work."

Carson admits that some of his environmental colleagues are raising disapproving brows. But if the Connell-Janzen hypothesis is correct--if high tropical tree diversity is truly supported by predation and herbivory as Carson is finding--then the plant life in these tropical forests could be seriously at risk. The over-hunting and poaching happening in Panamanian rain forests may diminish the plants' natural enemies, and thus the plants themselves. The natural warp and woof of competition may threaten individual species, but only for a time. Carsons research into this precarious balance may help retain a more secure ecosystem for the future.


Head into Africa

In the transition to more democratic forms of government, African lawyers are being confronted with international trade and investments--areas they didn't cover in law school. As part of the Sister Law School Program, Pitt's School of Law is sharing its expertise to help African law students get a head start.

The end of the Cold War was felt on the African continent, too. With the once-impending communist threat nearly gone, doors had been opened for new ventures with the United States. In that context, Pitt law school dean Peter Shane traveled to Nairobi, along with a delegation of other American law school deans, to meet with their East African colleagues. They discussed law and history, change and differences.

But Shane was much more impressed by what they all held in common--impressed that lawyers from different countries, distant in miles and tradition and modernity, could share stories about their profession. In spite of the recent transition to democracy in Africa, the East African lawyers described issues--pressing legal issues--nearly identical to those facing their American counterparts.

"When they talk about environmental protection, they're talking about a very different scale and context than we are in Pittsburgh," Shane explains. "When they talk about wildlife preservation, they mean something very different. But the fact is that they really are interested in environmental protection as an issue. They're interested in issues of gender equity. They're interested in issues of interethnic conflict and its resolution. They're interested in economic development. If you put a group of American law deans together, they would talk about the same issues."

Though they share concerns, the African and American lawyers do not share the same legal system with which to deal with these problems. In the transition from colonial governments to independent nations, Africa has found itself, for the first time in centuries, "an actor on a world stage," says Shane, with a need to attract international trade and investment.

But their lawyers had never been educated for this new range of transactions. Shane's trip to Nairobi was the first phase in a program meant to remedy that.

Last year, the American Bar Association launched the African Legal Initiative Sister Law School Program--an effort, through faculty and student exchange, to strengthen ties between law schools in the United States and law schools in eight African countries. For Pitt, one of the 16 founding US schools, the program offers opportunity for research across cultural boundaries. But for the University of Nairobi and Moi University, the two Kenyan law schools working directly with Pitt, the program brings curriculum and library development, teaching, and research--a chance for African law schools to be enriched by the experience and innovations of their American counterparts.

Shane sees the benefits for Africa extending far beyond institutional advancement. Committed to internationalizing the rule of law throughout the world, the ABA believes this program will ultimately strengthen democratic governments in Africa by helping to strengthen their legal systems.

"If you have a well-trained legal profession independent of the government," explains Shane, "that is a very important form of security for individual rights."


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