The Iron Bridge, Coalbrookdale

David Morse

David Morse
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The Rat Historian

The tavern had disappeared. One day it was standing there by the Willimantic River, facing the old toll road; a solid brick building that served as the gateway to the town, its wagon yard receiving the stagecoach and the dusty teamsters arriving with loads of sulfur and saltpeter and charcoal for the gunpowder mill across the river. And then it vanished, not in a flash and a roar -- the way the powdermill went up in 1777, killing the sole operator Roswell Moulton, in the prime of his youth -- but fading gradually, imperceptably, from memory.

By the 1970s even long-time residents of Willimantic who drove past the building, by then painted a hideous mint green, knew it as simply a big old run-down house. Discerning observers could guess its antiquity from the thinness of the bricks, whose wavering courses followed the subtle tilts in the granite foundation with a precision born of fatigue, and from the way the house sat slightly askew in relation to a street that had altered its course over the years. But as a tavern it had disappeared, as surely as a spool of thread might roll under a bureau and be lost among the dust-mice.

As my own fortunes became entwined with the building, I had occasion to ponder this phenomenon, and I realize now that such disappearances are not at all uncommon in human history. We are regularly struck with amnesia, losing track not only of very large objects -- the ancient city of Troy, for instance, buried under its own garbage -- but whole bodies of knowledge. Pieces of Stonehenge were hauled away by farmers and used as hearthstones for generations before someone rediscovered its significance; the Chinese learned to cast iron a thousand years before the Europeans, and then forgot the secret in a period of political upheaval. For that matter, open a newspaper and you will see that our kind has utterly forgotten the horror and stupidity of war.

Now that I have given the matter some thought I realize that this forgetfulness is no mere aberration, but an ineluctable -- perhaps necessary -- dynamic in the human condition. And if, as I suspect, we actively forget, then why? To what end?

That is what the rats taught me. Or at least those are the teleological questions they raised.

For the reader who may be squeamish about matters rodentia -- who may be more interested in the small treasures that we turned up, lost within the larger one, or in the mechanics of how I and my stalwart crew of carpenters replaced the rotten joists and refastened the wide chestnut floorboards -- let me assure you that all things are intertwined in this story, as in an old house: the wainscoting is attached to the plaster, and the plaster to the lath, and the lath to the studs; and the story of the rats is intimately connected to that of the humans.

When I purchased the building in 1984, with the idea of renovating it, holes in the masonry and in the ramshackle cellar doors provided easy entry for rodents; so I wasn't surprised when Diane, one of the tenants, took me aside.

"Big suckers," she said. "Sometimes I'm walking across the bridge and I look down and see them swimming over here. They seem to be coming from the old Threadmill."

An exterminator hired by the previous owner had put out poison. I would have preferred traps, not liking poison and not really wanting them to die inside the walls. But the attic and cellar were already littered with the little blue plastic trays of poisoned grain, some faded, some fresh, as well as earlier trays made of cardboard -- pointing to a history of such efforts. I could only hope that a few more rodent corpses wouldn't add appreciably to the bouquet.

In the meantime the magnitude of the project alternately depressed me and filled me with excitement, as we began uncovering fireplaces and original plank walls under the layers of beaverboard and sheetrock. The age given on the real estate agent's listing-sheet was simply "old." But as usual with an old house, the cellar and the attic tell the true story. The half-hewn log joists in the old part of the cellar suggested eighteenth century origins, while the sawn rafters in the attic showed where the roof of the new 'el' had been joined to the original; and in the new section, above the second-floor ballroom -- which had been partitioned and a dropped-ceiling added sometime in the mid-nineteenth century, to judge by the nails -- one could see the remains of the original vaulted ceiling; massive curved joists rising out of the gray fluff of cellulose insulation like the ribs of an upside-down ship, fragments of plaster still adhering to what remained of the hand-split chestnut lath. The first time my flashlight beam illuminated those phantom ribs I felt my heartbeat quicken.

From the physical evidence we surmised that the original building, with its Georgian fireplaces, was built sometime in the l700s, while the "new" side, with the ballroom and a Federalist fireplace at each end, had been added in the early 1800s.

What few written records I could find corroborated these dates: in 1755, David Young petitioned the Connecticut General Assembly for "license and liberty" to open a house of public entertainment a few rods from the new gunpowder mill; in 1822, a brick building -- apparently the addition -- was erected by one Guy Hebard; and in 1825 the town's first post office was located in the old section, above the original kitchen. This was the extent of the written record.

We worked in the cellar for six weeks before ever getting to the ground floor; and over the next several months we went through the two empty apartments on the "new" side -- replastering; restoring the old paneling and wide floorboards in the downstairs apartment; upstairs, in the ballroom, removing the later partition walls and the dropped-ceiling, and restoring the lath in the forty-foot long vaulted ceiling so that a team of plasterers could go to work.

While all this was going on, tenants continued to live in the two apartments on the old side. The upstairs apartment was occupied by Diane and Ray, who took a keen interest in the whole project. The downstairs apartment belonged to Carol, an Hispanic welfare mother with four young children who was waiting to get on the list for public housing assistance.

Carol's apartment contained the original kitchen fireplace -- concealed by late nineteenth century tongue-and-groove beadboard, thick with paint, blocked in turn by a large combination gas cooking stove and spaceheater, to the right of which stood a hotwater heater. I could hardly wait to remove that beadboard, pretty sure that we would find not only the big cooking fireplace, but a beehive oven as well.

Whatever pangs of guilt I felt watching Carol's children play with their rabbits on the kitchen linoleum -- knowing that I was removing four apartments from the pool of affordable housing, knowing that the cost of the renovation would translate into high rents -- whatever financial worries haunted me as I exhausted my savings and took out new loans, I confess I couldn't keep my eyes off that beadboard.

In the meantime I worried about the rats. Carol's youngest son was barely a toddler -- reminding me of my own son, who had been an infant when my wife and I moved from Iowa to a Brooklyn tenement and read newspaper accounts of rats attacking babies in their cribs. For me that remains a paramount distinction between mice and rats, why the one is simply an annoyance and the other triggers my adrenalin: the fact that rats will attack people. But submerged in this is the class issue. Anyone can have mice. But rats, thriving on hopeless neglect, afflict mainly the poor. After sealing off the possible entries into the cellar -- replacing the old cellar doors with steel hatches, pouring a concrete floor, and plugging the various chinks in the stone foundation, I felt confident that nothing larger than a mouse could get in.

It wasn't until late winter that we progressed to the old side. Carol had found a place to move into by the end of the summer, so her apartment had been empty all fall, but I had delayed opening up the kitchen fireplace -- both as a practical matter, so that we could keep the gas-and-gas stove in place for the winter, and because the project as a whole seemed so overwhelming that I needed to save a little drama.

One spring day, when the forsythia was blooming, I sent out invitations for an 'opening' -- which I billed as a sort of 'wine, cheese, and crowbar' affair. The public was invited, and the town's First Selectman, Hanna Clemmons, agreed to be on hand to cut a ribbon. I typed up a press release for the Willimantic paper, "The Chronicle", in which I suggested that a fireplace boarded up for perhaps 150 years might contain almost anything. This was partly a spoof on Geraldo Rivera's much-publicized preparations for opening Al Capone's safe before national television cameras, but mainly it was an opportunity for the community to observe our progress.

When the day arrived, all was in readiness: the stove and hotwater heater had been removed, the gas pipes rerouted, the floor swept, and a table installed with bunchbowl and flowers. People crowded into the kitchen. Hanna Clemmons, a tall dignified woman with iron-gray hair, cut the ribbon, and I went to work with a crowbar.

All we found, among the ashes and bird skeletons, was a dozen or so dessicated rubber balls -- the legacy of some bully with an accurate arm, I suppose. I dumped the balls into an empty five-gallon grout bucket. If anyone was disappointed they didn't let on as they filed out. A friend eyed the grout bucket slyly as he shook my hand. "You've got a lot of balls," he whispered.

Later I realized it could have turned out a lot worse. The following Monday, while I was running an errand at the lumberyard, the crew started taking down the kitchen ceiling. When I returned the air was full of dust; the men were standing knee-deep in broken lath, plaster and assorted debris, wearing goggles and dust-masks. I put on a mask. Larry, a Colt worker on strike whom I'd hired as a laborer, presented me with a rusty pocket-knife that had fallen down with the debris. "You should've seen the rats' nests," he said.

"Look up," said Arny, the lead carpenter.

I looked up and saw eight or ten nests crowded up against the main carrying-beam. As I write about it now, I have a sinking sensation in my stomach. But at the time there was the excitement of discovery -- the pocket-knife, with its single thick blade and rosewood handle; dozens of clay marbles and other artifacts. Also among the debris were several dried rats, the carcasses hard and flat as old shoe-soles. I was just as glad they hadn't turned up at the wine and cheese.

For nearly an hour the four of us sifted through the rubble, saving out objects. But I had to remind myself that this was not an archaeological dig. The clock was ticking, as they say in the building trades. So after this pause, which cost me about fifty dollars, we loaded the rest of the debris into the dumpster and started nailing up firring strips for the new ceiling. Later, after the others had left, I sat down with the buckets of stuff we'd collected, remembering as best I could where we had found what, and tried to make sense of the chaos.

An individual rat's nest -- even undisturbed -- doesn't appear to be very well organized, even compared to a squirrel's nest, which it resembles except for the materials used. Basically it's a conglobation of trash about the size of a basketball, its size and compactness being partly a function of temperature, I learned; the warmer the environment, the looser the nest. It's made up of whatever old rags, yarn and other soft stuff was available or could be produced by shredding paper and cardboard. Among these soft materials are certain decorations -- trinkets that apparently seized the rat's fancy: buttons, marbles, dominos, and assorted metal objects.

One explanation I've heard offered for these harder furnishings is that rats need to gnaw constantly in order to keep their fast-growing incisors from growing too long and curving into their brains -- a compelling motive, but one that fails to explain those hard objects that showed little sign of gnawing or seemed entirely untoothsome; more suitable for rolling about or nuzzling. Mice, I am told, make noise for the sheer enjoyment of it. With rats it may be a case of simple curiosity: they drag something home and play with it until they lose interest, much as we do.

Whatever their reasons, the rats in the tavern were collectors. Not Great collectors; not as compulsive as I imagine genuine western packrats, or Neotoma, to be. These were your ordinary Old World rats who had come over as stowaways -- first Brown rats and, later, the larger Norway rats, which spread from Asia to Europe and then to this country in the Eighteenth Century. But over the span of a couple of centuries they had managed to accumulate an impressive hoard.

From the stuff that could be dated, and from what I've since learned since about the nest-building instinct in rats, which appears in the third week of life, I assume that the nesting materials got swapped back and forth. In a single nest I found a tobacco stamp from a French cigarette pack dated 1896; a scrap of newspaper alluding to German attacks on shipping during World War I; a matchbook promoting Victory Bonds from World War II; a bubble gum card displaying the four young Beatles.

It was also possible to trace the gradual expansion of the rat colony through the ceiling, from a starting-point above the kitchen fireplace. The hollow enclosure around the chimney had provided the first access from the cellar up to the ceiling. One could see how, after they'd gotten up there, they had lived for a while in a narrow void, then gnawed through the first chestnut joist close to where it was mortised into the carrying-beam, which opened up the next space for colonization; and so forth, northward, until the succession of three or four such subdivisions may have held easily a hundred rats. Most of the nests were clustered against the carrying-beam, like houses on an avenue -- perhaps because the beam, supported for its entire length by a bearing-wall below, offered special solidity and made it more difficult for the human occupants to hear the commotion overhead, and possibly because the carrying-beam address conferred special status within each rat clan -- being closest to the exits and the food supply.

The fireplace opening had been sealed by the beadboard; under that was a sheet of tin nailed tightly at the edges, which had never been breached. But the wall above the mantel was a different story. I probably wouldn't have broken into it, if it weren't for my antipathy for sheetrock and my wish to replaster around the mantel, once it had been restored.

This required first pulling away the old sheetrock and then removing the loose plaster from the original chestnut lath. Behind the strips of lath I could see the main flue, and joining that from the right was a smaller flue which slanted downward across the top of the beehive oven to meet the small heating-fireplace in the corner of the adjoining room, sometimes referred to in Colonial houses as the 'borning room'.

Every available space within the cavity was filled with the detritus of rats' nests; shredded newspapers and oddments of rags crowded against the lath. I removed a couple of loose pieces of lath, and working from a stepladder, began extracting the stuff. By the time I had filled several grout buckets, I realized there was quite a good-sized space there -- nearly six feet wide and four feet deep. With the brick flues surrounding it on three sides, giving off warmth, it must have remained cozy all winter. Completely out of the reach of cats or humans, it was surely rat heaven. The rats had inhabited this lair with such enthusiasm over the years that their urine had dissolved the lime mortar in the bricks and eventually caused the top of the diagonal flue to collapse -- which could have led to a disastrous fire; but there were no signs of charring above, so it's possible the corner-fireplace in the borning room was no longer in use.

I could have refastened the lath and plastered right over it without touching most of that awful tangle. However, for hygienic reasons it seemed best removed. And of course I was full of curiosity. Surely this was where the Rat King had resided; or if rats didn't have kings, then at the very least it was the locus of movement and had served, much as Young's Tavern had in the early days of Willimantic, as the gateway for expansion. The Rat King -- either a larger individual rat or a mass of two or three dozen rats with their tails inextricably knotted together, in either case fed by younger rats -- appears in rat lore as an effort to explain their collective prescience, in avoiding traps and poison and also in anticipating harvests. Scientists have a different explanation: individual rats are capable of detecting poisons in amounts as small as two parts per million, and they transmit this information to the colony -- sometimes by urinating on the tainted food; sometimes by vocal or other forms of communication.

How could I plaster over such an opportunity?

The truth of the matter is I have always been drawn to trash. As a child, I used to scout the neighborhood on trash pickup days, rescuing bicycle wheels and once a whole Lionel train, which needed only cleaning and oiling before it was working as good as new. "Old Hawkeye," my father used to call me. Later, as an adult living in New England, I was always attracted to those collectors who are almost a regional type -- whose appetite for outworn goods far exceeded any rational bounds.

Alix Cohn, in nearby Norwich, was such a collector -- already a legend in his fifties when I first met him; and I followed his career for twenty years. A great walrus of a man, with big hands polished by the constant handling of objects, he filled a succession of cavernous buildings to the rafters with hundreds of chairs, dressers with swollen drawers, appliances of every vintage, horsedrawn sleighs, an enormous plastic cowboy -- most of it without aesthetic or any other obvious value. That was what impressed me most, and drew me to Alix and his hoard -- that completely irrational attachment to things, to the point where it was no longer even a parody of materialism; it went beyond selectivity of any sort.

Alix would buy anything. The City Council -- whom Alix railed against, calling them Fascists and Thugs -- could not understand why he insisted on purchasing unregistered firearms, illegal spaceheaters, piles of motorcycles with gas still in their tanks in violation of fire codes; why he let everything spill onto the sidewalks. I was appalled that he would buy Nazi memorabilia; antique-lovers were anguished at the sight of Windsor chairs falling to pieces under his leaky roof; booklovers despaired over the moldering books. But Alix was beyond all that. "Buy, buy, never sell," he used to say. His was the blind acquisitiveness of the rat. Caring and not caring. And crafty. Beyond this compulsion, he realized that eventually everything has value. Yesterday's kitsch is tomorrow's heirloom. A defunct outboard motor, an incomplete Parcheesi set, a plastic beer-clock: all will someday slip into the realm of the 'collectible' precisely because they are worthless, because nobody saves them. Alix understood the value of valuelessness.

I couldn't help but think of Alix as I picked through that cache. Alix was dead by then; but even alive he wouldn't have had the patience for this picking and sifting; Alix moved on a far grander scale, leaving it to lesser folk -- the fire marshals and police, to enforce their petty ordinances; antiquarians such as I to rise to his defense -- to noodle about in the particulars.

Here I was, perched on this stepladder, scooping out this dreck -- like Boswell gleaning what scraps he could from Johnson's table, but without the excuse of Johnson's erudition; without even the antic charm of Alix's megalomania -- yet fascinated by the possibilities in it. It should have been a humbling experience. This was surely the pits: here I was, scavenging after rats!

And yet who but the rats of Young's Tavern were the most faithful custodians of its history? The humans had left few written records. The first map of Willimantic wasn't drawn until 1833, more than half a century after the tavern was built. As for artifacts, the place was picked clean. I was told by a past tenant that in the 1950s someone had even carried off the grate to the old post office window. The same tenant, who had lived here as a girl, asked if I'd found any of the snuffcans. The attic, she said, was full of them. Copenhagen, she thought. But by the time I bought the place the attic had been cleaned out. Humans -- owners, tenants, tradespeople -- had removed anything useful or convertable to cash. The building itself had been forgotten. Which left the rats, those indiscriminate collectors -- curious, but nonjudgmental -- to tend the archives.

My own choices of what to save were more parochial -- narrowed by my tastes at the moment I intervened. To someone approaching the trove from a hundred years in the past or future, many of the objects I threw away -- a red plastic milkcarton top, for instance -- might have proved more entertaining than those I saved.

Among the articles I saved were the following: the pocket-knife; two metal snuffcans of a tall cylindrical shape; a lamp wick-holder made of soldered tin; and a small linen sack containing an 1860 Indian head penny and an 1837 Liberty penny. (On the 'tails' side of the older penny were two sharp indentations which I decided, upon close inspection, might have been made by rodent incisors. Rats' jaws, I later learned, can exert a pressure of 24,000 pounds per square inch. Apparently a single bite had been sufficient to inform the rat that the contents of the bag were inedible. I was impressed with the authority of that bite -- with both its power and the fact that none of the other rats had felt it necessary to gnaw through the bag or to sample the coins further.

None of these objects was valuable, in the way value is generally assigned to things. None would have been listed as property in a will of the day. The pocket-knife turned out to be relatively recent, late nineteenth or even early twentieth century; and the oldest item -- the tin wick-holder, which had belonged to a whale oil lamp made in about 1830 -- was one of the humblest.

One item alone might have been valued enough in its day to be inventoried. This was an L-shaped sterling silver handle attached to a piece of bamboo, five or six inches long and chamfered at the other end, as if to slip into a metal ferrule or sleeve. Probably it belonged to a riding crop, carried in the fashion of the day as a "swagger stick" by some gentleman guest. I like to think that it was left at the tavern by an officer in the French army commanded by General Rochambeau, who marched past the tavern in August of 1781, on the way to join General Washington's troops at Yorktown. Perhaps it was left to pay a gambling debt. Maybe it got broken and was put aside, awaiting mending -- left on a windowsill, let's say, and then knocked to the floor, or shunted to some out-of-the-way place and forgotten, so that it became fair game for rats. Eventually its disappearance must have provoked consternation. Accusations. Who knows? Humans blaming each other, while the rats lay panting in delicious silence.

Well. This is cheerful enough, this speculation. But there is a dark side to it all, inherent in the fact that the tavern was riddled with their activity.

Here was the kitchen fireplace, which I'd always taken for the heart of the old tavern -- more than the formal fireplace at the other end, that had warmed the tap room -- the place of intimacy, where stagecoach drivers loitered to sample the stew or spear an apple from the griddle; where boots were dried and troop movements discussed, voices dropping occasionally to a whisper; and just beyond that facade of familiarity, separated by a few inches of plaster and lath and pine molding, lay this other ventricle, this foul rag and boneshop, with its crooked recesses sprawling into darkness beyond reach.

But it wasn't the metaphor, it was the fact, that haunted me. I took refuge in cartoon imaginings, of an animated Rat King strutting around with the sterling silver swagger stick as a sceptor. But it was the degree of infestation, realization of which grew only slowly -- as we took down the ceiling in the borning room and discovered still more nests on that side of the carrying-beam; and culminating in my opening up the fireplace wall -- that seized me with a cumulative horror.

I cleaned as far as I could reach inside the lair. I couldn't bring myself to climb inside -- partly because of its odd shape, with the flue angling through it, but mostly because I found it too oppressive. Instead I vacuumed as far as I could reach, stuffed fiberglass insulation into what crannies I could, repointed some bricks, and scattered a few tablespoons of boric acid around inside. But even after the new plaster had been smoothed to its final sheen, and the old fireplace with its Georgian mantel and beehive oven began looking really splendid, the fact remained that these two communities had existed side-by-side for several human generations, several hundred rat generations; and though the rat colony may have been decimated at intervals, every individual trapped or poisoned or driven away, and though the humans may have forgotten, the rats had always returned.

Pheromones; trails of scent: these could be obliterated in time. But was there something else operating in the rat intelligence -- some collective rat memory that transcended the human? What pieces of information got transmitted from one rat generation to the next?

Even now, with the restoration of the tavern complete, I remain on my guard. Rats, after all, have been known to gnaw through cement to get into granaries, and can squeeze through a space no larger than a quarter. Walking through the basement not long ago, I stopped suddenly in my tracks, thinking I smelled a rat. I set traps. To my great relief it turned out to be a pair of field mice. But the fact remains that nothing I did in the way of carpentery or masonry would prevent a determined rat from returning to that lair. With any human habitation, it is mostly a matter of time.

How do I explain my fascination with rats?

To be sure, the scale of destruction is impressive: in the United States alone this year, rats will destroy several billion dollars' worth of property; in the world at large they will consume or contaminate about one fifth of all food crops planted; throughout history, human deaths caused by rat predation and rat-borne disease outnumber those from all wars. And yet none of this fully explains the curious position the rat seems to occupy in the human psyche -- certainly in mine.

I believe it is rooted in the intimacy between the two communities. When I tried to learn more about the nesting habits of rats in the wild, I found an abundance of data derived from laboratory rats and a few articles about urban rat infestation, but almost nothing about "wild" rats. After a while I realized that the natural habitat of rats is the human habitation. We are their "wild." From the earliest human encampments, the relationship between rat and human has been commensal, meaning literally that we share the same table.

Rats bespeak a subterranean self -- furtive; scuttling in the periphery of one's vision; a reminder of the forgoten past and unknowable future that outflanks reason. Hindu iconography depicts rats attending the elephant-headed Ganesha, god of prosperity, a reminder that wealth and poverty are but aspects of the kharmic wheel. This recognition seems healthy to me, in Jungian terms, and in ecological terms. If we in the West did not try to make them invisible, we might learn as much from the rats in our ghettoes as from those in our laboratories.

But Western iconography tends to be more linear, resisting this cyclical view: when the rat gnaws through the taproot of the Tree of Life in Norse mythology, the world will end; rats appearing in seventeenth century Dutch paintings presage household decline; and today, the collective we -- who are at least vaguely aware of the stories of rats that flourished on the island of Enewetok after nuclear bomb tests during the 1940s and '50s made it uninhabitable to humans -- have turned the rat and the cockroach into emblems of the ultimate human folly.

Rats raise the issue of human survival because they prosper in our dereliction -- which brings us back to the tavern and our habit of amnesia.

Assuming that a certain amount of forgetting is necessary in order for humans to process the plethora of information that inundates us, then our basis for discriminating between 'essential' and 'nonessential' information assumes enormous importance to our survival. Today we are so immersed in change that we have difficulty even monitering it. We no longer live across the river from the gunpowder mill; we live inside a slow-motion explosion in which nothing remains fixed.

The destruction of our physical world is difficult to fathom. Complex forest eco-systems are falling before the bulldozer; ancient beatbogs are being mined to extinction, prehistoric glaciers broken up for cocktail ice, thousands of species disappearing before their existence can even be noted. And if this is happening to the natural world, what is happening to the frail web of information we have created?

What do we save from the explosion?

Facts are all too perishable, as I discovered while sifting through the brittle crumbling papers in the state archives in Hartford, which like most collections suffers from inadequate funding: faded letters in David Young's handwriting, penned probably with a turkey quill, demanding payment from the Connecticut General Assembly for his expenses quartering the powdermill guard; documents so fragile that I'm sure my own breath contributed to their destruction; documents which I may have been the last person to read, which may exist even now only in my memory or in my own barely intelligible handwriting.

Information recorded electronically is far from safe, as anyone who has worked with computers knows. Much of the written and photographic record of our era is disappearing even as I write these words: acid papers are crumbling, eclectromagnetic tapes are decomposing, photocopies and color film emulsions are fading into blankness or being eaten by mold; tons of documents are being shredded. Proportionately more may be left from the 1860s than from the 1960s. As threatening as the physical perishability of storage media is the sheer volume of information proliferating around us.

Traditionally, art and religion have helped us glean meaning from chaos -- to project symbols and bits of information across generational lines. It was from geographic details found in "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" that Heinrich Schliemann located Troy under the rubble. What was lost, literature found.

As the tavern reappeared, I felt a pride of stewardship. But it was finally a humbling experience; for though I wrested it from the rats and from anonymity, I recognize that in some larger sense the rats are also its stewards -- part of its future as much as its past.

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© copyright David Morse, 2003-2011