Vacuuming the Desert: John McNerney Tests His Idea for Finding Gold

During the early nineteen seventies, John McNerney prospected for gold in the northern Nevada deserts during summers. He came up with an idea to use accurate measurements of mercury vapor to find gold. “Mercury and gold ore often exist near one another,” John said. “Mercury is easier to detect because it lets off gasses— volatilizes—in the soil. Under a hot desert sun, the soil heats up, causing the mercury vapor to rise upward. If I figure out how to accurately measure the amount of mercury vapor, I would have a window deep down into the earth that could lead to a deeply buried gold deposit.” After many experiments, he wasn’t having any luck translating his idea into a practical system.


Audrey Headframe, Jerome, AZ. In the nineten eighties, a small gold strike deep under this head frame cause new mining to occur for a very brief few year.

John’s chance encounter with an entomologist in a bar in Tuscarora, Nevada supplied a possible solution. “He was counting bug populations by driving down the highway with a large tube stuck out of the window of his truck,” John said. “At the end of the tube was an electrified screen. As bugs stuck to the screen, the electrical resistance of the screen increased and he was able to measure their concentrations. Who knows how he came up with this novel idea. I got to thinking about it when it occurred to me that the bugs were like the mercury gas atoms. Maybe their adsorption onto a gold-plated screen would cause an electrical interference that could be measured.”

It was John’s eureka moment.

With the help of some Arizona State University (ASU) professors, John put together some gold-plated screens and headed back out into the desert. He would use the screens to collect mercury vapor. As he headed into the desert on his motorbike, he had the ingenious idea for collecting higher concentrations of mercury vapor over the soil by hooking up the gold screens to a portable car vacuum cleaner.

“This seemed to be working quite well,” John told me. “I’m out there vaccuming the desert, looking for mercury vapor. “

Then, out in the distance I notice two cowboys on horses. I figure they’re looking for stray cattle. They notice me on my hands and knees and start coming closer. Maybe they think I need help. Maybe they’re flashing on those Western movies where some bedraggled guy is dragging his ass across a sandy desert because he’s out of water. They urge their horses closer.

“That’s when the cowboys notice I have a vacuum cleaner in my hands and seem to be hosing the desert. The cowboys are dumbfounded. Nobody could think of anything to say. There is no common language for what is happening. The cowboys turn and ride away.”

(Excerpted from my book: Home Sweet Jerome: Death and Rebirth of Arizona’s Richest Copper Mining City

The Incredible Hamster Cage

The previous blog told about how John noticed qualities in people that would help him with his manufacturing processes. John hired artist Paul Nonnast to design the detector’s case based on a hamster cage that Paul had designed for a child’s pet—an incredible labyrinth full of spinning balls and intricate ramps all done with phenomenal craftsmanship and imagination. “I didn’t know much about Paul,” John said, “but that cage made me want to. It was as though he had gotten inside the head of a hamster and designed from there.”

Paul was working as an apprentice for master sculptor John Waddell in Cornville  His daughter Amy tells this story.

“Ah, that hamster cage,” said Amy Waddell. “You don’t know how many times I’ve told this story of a tall man—whose intensity scared me as a kid—eyes fixed on whatever he was working on, always sweating a little from that innate focus. I remember tiptoeing up the steep narrow splintered steps to his apprentice studio and pushed open the trap door to see all of his colorful spheres floating above me. He created magic worlds.

“Perhaps it was his idea to make it, perhaps mine, and perhaps I knew nothing about it until the moment I walked upstairs to his room one day and he unveiled it. I was very young, maybe seven or eight years old. The circular cage was a thing of beauty—about two feet in height and two and a half feet in diameter. A thin mesh ran all the way around the circular top and bottom plywood plates. There was a pole up the middle of the cage, and tiny pegs created a circular staircase from top to bottom with little kidney bean-shaped platforms that extended out at various levels. there was a large gourd strung up about an inch from the bottom, acting as a little womblike screen. Paul made a rather large habit trail in there, as well. A find ramp start at floor level, then wound up all the way around the cage.

“I was beyond thrilled. It was so beautiful. I couldn’t wait to put my hamster inside.

The hamster was in Nonnast heaven. It ran the habit-trail, drank from the large botle ffixrd to the side of his cage, ventured up the rap I rmember his little black eye and his ktle pik ears and the little fuzzy body as he traispe around his magnificangt  new digs—from pauper to royalty for no apparent reason.”

 Prospecting for Gold

Two ironies  here. The first is that although John’s mercury detector was useful as a prospecting tool, the market wasn’t large enough to bring in big sales. Nor was the market dentistry, where John’s brother Rick thought the detector might sell. In those years dentists used a lot of mercury in their fillings, and there was a big suicide rate among them. The big market turned out to be U.S. Navy submarines.


First ad created when JIC rigured the market was dentists and gold prospectors.

The second irony was that when John retired from Jerome Instrument Corporation, he turned against gold mining. One of his biggest regrets is finding the Jerritt gold mining prospect near Elko, Nevada, which John described as a most beautiful canyon that began filling with mining waste as soon as the mine opened. The Jerritt mine was shut down after it contaminated the Owyhee River and other streams with atmospheric mercury used in gold processing. The mine could re-open when it installed better mercury emission control equipment. “By that time the damage was done,” said John.

And by that time, John was living in Todos Santos, Baja, Mexico, where a large corporation wanted to mine for gold. John helped spearhead a successful grass roots movement against it. “You could say that my life has come full circle,” John McNerney said. “I used to be involved in helping mining companies find new sources of gold. The world needs metals, but mined responsibly. No one needs any more gold.”

(Some of these stories were derived from interviews with John over the years and from my book Home Sweet Jerome: Death and Rebirth of Arizona’s Rrichest Copper Mining City.  The book is the story of how Jerome AZ came back to life after it big copper mining abandoned it in 1953.

Adios, John McNerney

John McNerney, founder of Jerome Instrument Corporation (JIC), Jerome, Arizona in 1979, died on May 20 at his home in Todos Santos, Baja, Mexico. Iris, his wife was with him, as were a few of his closest friends. The lung infection he had battled with for many years finally caught up with him. He was 78 years old.

He was a 40-year friend. The sadness I feel is compounded with the recognition that as we grow old, our friends disappear around us. They become memories we carry in our hearts, but they cannot substitute for the comradeship, wisdom, stories and laughter that wove in and out of our histories as friends.

John and Iris moved to Jerome in 1973: “We bought a house for $13,000 in a desolate and empty town,” John told me. “It was all we could afford and the view was astounding. The first winter was brutal, there was one wood stove for four rooms, and no insulation. When the wind blew, the upstairs floor rippled. The cast of characters was astounding, old school bohemians and hordes of hippies that always seemed to be talking about how stoned they were. I had a patent on a mercury detector I couldn’t sell, my geology pick, and an old rusty saw. I bought a few tools and set myself up as a furniture maker.”  (Excert from “Arrival Tales” in the book Home Sweet Jerome:

John volunteered to help re-invent the planning and design policies and reorganize the fire department. Iris took a job waitressing at the old Candy Kitchen restaurant (now Mile High).

JIC: Lifting Jerome out of Economic Depression

JIC was one of the catalysts that lifted Jerome out its economic depression and ghost town ‘appearance.’ (The others were the beginnings of a burgeoning art colony and a guerilla marijuana growing business.)

JIC Circa 1980

Photo of John and Iris and JIC’s employees in 1980, just after they moved into the old Jeorme high school. Front step left: Nell Moffett Second Step: L-R: Paul Nonnast, Ester Burton, Darrell Fellers (Karen Fellers’ son) Third step: L-R: Iris McNerney, John McNerney, Kathy Davidson Fifth Step: L-R Ron Ballatore’s daughter Stephanie; Karen Gorman, Mary Nickerson, Susan Kinsella, Barbara Blackburn Sixth step: Lindsey Waddell (John Waddell’s son); Ed Dowling; Randy Murdock; Upper step: Sandra Strong, Carol Nesselrode, Pat Montreuil, Roger Davis. Photo courtesy John McNerney collection.

John invented and began manufacturing a superior mercury vapor detector. One of JIC’s biggest buyers was the US Navy, which installed them on its submarines. Their closed air environment meant that breakage of mercury-filled instrumentation could cause nerve disease. “There’s a reason for that ‘mad hatter,’ John used to joke. ‘The reason those hatters got shaking fits is they used mercury-laden felt. “

Between 1981 and 1983, John recruited fifty employees and many sub-contractors from the four hundred people living in Jerome. The need for paying jobs was enormous, particularly for many people who stayed on the sidelines of Jerome’s burgeoning pot industry, participated in town politics and wanted to find a way to support themselves and their eccentric life styles in this quirk of a town.

John had an instinctive knack for recognizing someone’s skills in one field and assuming they could adapt them to another. “Maybe tourists only saw hippies, but in the four years I had lived here, I knew that many of my employees would be those so-called hippies. Many were geniuses. This tiny town was able to spit out all the talent I needed.”

Barbara Blackburn was a former VP of Wells Fargo Bank in San Francisco, with special skills in managing personnel and setting up computer systems for tracking them. When John hired her, the only job she had been able to find was bartending for less than minimum wage. She became president of JIC. “She was a cut-loose hippie on weekends; but an extremely sophisticated financial professional during the week. She helped us grow into a first-rate company.”

Artist Paul Nonnast designed the detector’s instrument case on the basis of a hamster cage that he designed for a child’s pet hamster—an incredible labyrinth full of spinning balls and intricate ramps all done with phenomenal craftsmanship and imagination. “I didn’t know much about Paul,” John said, “but that cage made me want to. It was as though he had gotten inside the head of a hamster and designed from there.”

JIC hired my company to write their manuals and provide advertising and public relations services. (I got my promotional and writing skills in the music business when I worked as an artist’s manager for Bill Graham’s Fillmore Management.) My business partner was artist Gary Romig, my partner, who was known for his watercolors of birds (


The poster for Jerome Instrument Corporation was created by my advertising agency and illustrated by Pam Fullerton ( The Einstein quote fit John McNerney’s philosophy throughout his life.

Jamie Moffett, a renegade computer engineer, put together wiring harnesses and internal software. Jewelers and artists were hired for assembly work. “Engineers who visited JIC and looked inside the instrument were always amazed at the meticulousness of the work,” John said. “Many commented it looked like a piece of art.”

Hiring an all-Jerome crew did have an unexpected downside. “I soon found that I was hiring not just their skills but their idiosyncrasies, many of which I couldn’t even have imagined existed,” John said. “Nothing was secret; everyone hung out their eccentricities like so much laundry on a line. After work I’d meet my employees and their friends in one of the town’s two bars. A few hours later, I’d be at a meeting to figure out how to raise money for fire safety equipment. To live and work in Jerome was to experience togetherness on a scale you’ve never even dreamed of.”

In 1989 John sold his company to Arizona Instrument Corporation in Phoenix. They continue to sell the mercury analyzer:

New Life for the McNerneys

After selling JIC, John pursued his dream of building a sailboat to use on the bays near Seattle, Washington and Baja, California. I wish I had a photo of that beautiful hand-made boat. My husband and I sailed on it when we went ‘boat camping’ with John and Iris on some of the islands near La Paz. That’s where I learned the term, ‘ fishing with pesetas. ‘ John would approach a fishermen camped out on one of the shores and ask to buy one of the fish they caught for our dinner.

In the nineties, John built a new home in Todos Santos, now a somewhat quirky tourist and art haven, not unlike Jerome. Many of the old timers that still live in Jerome knew of the beaches there as surfer heaven. We knew them for their emptiness and for the whales that would come up close to shore and say hello if we stood on the beach long enough. It was as though we had summoned them.

McNerney the Activist Against Gold Mining

While living in Todos Santos, John and Iris became activists against two major threats to the well-being of Todos Santos. One was a gold mine that would have been built close to the location of the water sources for the town and in a biosphere reserve. “The proposed mine near Todos Santos was a preposterous idea: the mine would have needed to move a million pounds of rock to get a pound of gold,” said John. The ‘rallying’ slogan was Agua Vale Mas Que Oro!” (Water is Worth more than Gold!).” Carlos Mendoza Davis, the governor of Baja Sur, who was elected in October 2015, put the final governmental kabash on the mine. He agreed with protesters that it threatened to suck up water reserves and potentially pollute the aquifer with processing chemicals and mining wastes.

The other was an ambitious building development that proposes to double to size of Todos Santos. The audacious plan began with the bulldozing of thousands of mangroves flanking the beautiful crescent shaped beach at Punta Lobos and flattening the sloping dunes. Developers built a 1000-foot long, low concrete sea wall and buttressed it with large rocks on the ocean side. Not twenty-five feet from the sea wall, they began constructing the hotel and a few homes.

The beach all but disappeared. In less than a day, hundreds of years of nature’s work was destroyed by a construction boondoggle, and with it, the livelihood that had sustained many generations of fishermen and their families. The damage is irreversible. The fishermen refer to the developers as ‘tres cucarachas’ (three cockroaches).


The old beach at Punta Lobos, Todos Santos, Baja CA

sea wall:rocksP9129082

No more beach. Walls and rock. The proposed development at Punta Lobos.






Last October, a strong storm surge—not unusual there— washed away the beach right up to the large rocks and wall. “The sea wall is like the Footprint of Godzilla—blocking the drainage from a large watershed to the east and interrupting the natural ebb and flow of the sea,” said John McNerney. “Thirty foot waves from new storms will wash away the sea wall and surge right into the new hotel. Hotel owners will need to supply life preservers in the guest rooms.”

That was John: he had an uncanny ability to capsulize the absurdity of the developers in a pithy, funny statement. 


Adios, amigo. I like to think you are floating somewhere up there among the giants in the Milky Way and have found some landing for your great soul among the stars. Muchos besos. Que te vaya bien.

(If you like this story,you may want to read about the Jerome that John helped rebuild: Home Sweet Jerome:

The Affair That Spun Out of Control

JJ loved women too much. He was a hummingbird flitting from one flower to another, sucking and savoring their nectar, and never staying too long. Like all hummingbirds, he was attractive and colorful, and he had an abundance of vitality, which many of his lovers translated into sexiness. His ‘rule’ was to only have affairs out of town and always have them be one-offs. In that way, he preserved his 40-year marriage and his secret life.

His marriage had grown into a business partnership: bi-annual visits with a daughter and son-in-law, a web of friends and accomplishments and scheduled routines. Although he loved and respected his wife, they had been celibate with each other for many years and the reasons were much the same as many other couples I knew: tedium and habit. For his wife there was added a knowledge, but never certainty, of the actual details of his hummingbird nature. Every woman that came into their lives bred a certain wariness in her and a resentment that she should have to feel that way.

JJ and his wife moved to a town near Tucson, Arizona, to retire from what had been a full-time job as a math teacher, and he embarked on a new life as an artist. He rented a studio and painted middling landscapes of red rocks and cactus and semi-abstracts of nudes in garish, overwrought colors that had a lot of energy, but no internal coherence.

Every Friday night, he invited a woman to pose and dance nude in his studio so that he could paint directly from his feelings. He himself always painted in the nude. For the first year or so, he kept a strict ‘no touch’ rule. However wild these sessions were, they never got much further than the sex clubs he sometimes visited where the women would dance near him or squirm lasciviously on his lap. This self-imposed rule made him feel he could look his wife in the eye and tell her that there was nothing going on in his studio except painting.

The language with which he described his painting became increasingly suggestive. “I love the creamy lusciousness of paint, the rhythms of applying it, the emotionality of a single stroke. It’s my dance.” His ego expanded directly in proportion to the number of women who agreed to pose nude. He increasingly equated the wildness of his feelings with his feeling that he was becoming a great painter.

CC began visiting JJ at his studio when she took breaks from being a waitress in one of the local restaurants. She was young, but not pretty in any conventional way. She had a mischievous humor: friendliness and warmth mixed in with a shy neediness that attracted both men and women. CC and her husband and two young children became friends with JJ and his wife.

One Friday night, JJ invited CC to pose and dance nude. She walked into the studio and lifted off her dress. In the front were pendulous breasts with large, almost engorged nipples and shaved pubic hair. On her back was a huge tattoo of a raven, wings spreading to her ribs with a tail wrapping under her buttocks. As she turned slowly in a circle, she began to touch herself in all the forbidden places. JJ gave in to lust. There was no painting that night.

After that, painting sessions between JJ and CC became a pornographic medley, occasionally including CC’s husband (a first for JJ) and other women (his most prevalent fantasy). Sex got to be virtually the only thing on JJ’s mind. JJ was also among many men and women I knew that equated sexual heat with intimacy and sexual obsession with love. The better the sex, the greater the love. And love, real love, was the rationale for breaking all marriage vows and self-imposed rules.

When he told these secrets to me, the language of his affair was just like everyone else’s. “I’ve never felt this way before, I don’t know whether you believe in past lives, but we’ve traveled together before, she’s my true soul mate, I didn’t know I was even looking for love, she blindsided me.”

In time, there began to be a sexual frenzy about JJ that was palpable. He started putting his canvases on the floor so CC could lick his back, his neck, his buttocks and fondle him. When he ejaculated, he used his sperm like paint. “I never felt so connected to my painting,” he told me.

When he managed to get away for a day or two with CC, he ate Viagra like it was candy, just so he could keep up sessions with her that went on for 10, 12, 14 hours. He started getting up earlier in the morning so he could get to his studio and be with her for 3-4 hours before he had to open up the gallery and she had to go to work. When JJ’s wife went to visit their daughter in California, JJ brought CC into their bed. It was one of the few times. I questioned his ethics: “How could you do that,” I asked?

“It’s time that bed was used for something besides celibacy,” he countered defensively.

As the months went by, JJ became increasingly crazier, more frenzied and careless in satisfying his voracious appetites. CC began to remind me of a courtesan in a Chinese myth who was trained to empty all the sperm out of a man, until he weakened and died.

And then CC got pregnant. She knew that her husband wasn’t responsible, because he had had a vasectomy. And she knew that if she told JJ, the affair would most likely end. Luckily, she lost that baby, but bled so much and cramped up so tight that it just couldn’t go unnoticed, as she had hoped, and she had to tell both JJ and her husband.

CCs husband forbade her to see JJ again, but nevertheless, she continued to slip into the gallery just before work, during lunch, at breaks. She had to talk her conflicted feelings out. And, after all, JJ had told her she was his true love and would give her all the emotional support that he could.

But then JJ began to be conflicted. Yes, it was a love child. But no it wasn’t his fault she got pregnant. And it wasn’t even his fault that she lost the baby. She told him she was paying attention to the time of month. Yes, he was in love, but even so, marriage to his wife was a number one priority. Hadn’t he made that clear to her many times? The more divided he became, the more emotional and upset she grew. This made him increasingly withdrawn and uptight, which caused her to be even more needy. Emotions spiraled out of control.

Making love was out of the question. He began to see her tattoo as representing sorrow and dying, the raven a scavenger. Finally, he threw her out of the gallery. “What is it about the words ‘leave me alone’ that you don’t understand?” he screamed.

CC went to JJ’s wife and told her about their love affair and the abortion. It was the first time JJ’s wife knew something had happened that had only been a suspicion before. The motive was revenge, CC’s cruel way of getting back at JJ. And maybes some shred of hope that JJ’s wife would leave him, and he would fly back into CC’s arms.

JJ’s wife became angry and threatened divorce.

JJ confessed all his ‘sins’ to her: every woman he had been with in his secret life, including all the lurid details. He told her that his time with CC and with other women was an addictive and destructive drug. He vowed never to stray again.

His wife agreed to stay married. He agreed to take her to Venice and move far, far away from the scenes of his fall.

I never heard from them again. But ten years later, a friend of a friend told me that JJ and his wife were still together. For better or worse, who could say?


C.J. Grace, author of Adulterer’s Wife: How to Thrive Whether You Stay or Not ( has published a blog called Revenge is Not Sweet on her Jealous Bitch blog:

Cheating Spouses: Trajectory of the Affair

I was the keeper of secrets in my town, the one that got told stories of love affairs, big and small. They had to tell someone, you see, and they knew that I could keep my mouth buttoned. Besides, I was the one who just listened.

Secret Advice: If I did have to give advice it was always, just kiss and don’t tell. Don’t ever tell your husband/wife, and don’t ever talk about your other affairs to your new boyfriend/girlfriend. All they want to know is that he or she is the best thing that ever happened to you.

The Meeting: The language of the affair is the same. Two people meet at some crossroads of life. Love smites them. They soar like eagles, coo like doves.

Soul Mates: “He/she completes me, I’ve never felt this way before. I don’t know whether you believe in past lives, but we’ve traveled together before, he/she is my soul mate.

I’ve Been Faithful – Until Now:  I didn’t know I was even looking for love, he/she blindsided me, I’ve been married for 2, 10, 14, 23, 32, 44 years, I’ve been faithful, well pretty faithful.

It Just Happened: It was wholly unintentional; there we were just a little lit at this party. We looked up at each other and we just knew. I mean, how can you know a thing like this if it isn’t meant to be. My husband/wife was out of town, and anyway, no one even guessed because I left 15 minutes ahead of him/her.

Hyper Sex: We made love for 1, 4, 6, 8 hours. We did everything we’ve ever wanted to do and more. I never experienced anything like this, and now I can’t think of anything but the next time we’ll be together and do a few more things I just thought of.

Like Deja Vu: Of course I don’t want to leave my husband/wife, even though there are a few little things that bother me about him/her, and after 2, 4, 6, 10, 30 years, things get a little stale. I didn’t remember how good it was to feel so alive, so full of joy; laughter has come back into my life. We even laugh when we’re making love. We were never strangers, it’s like déjà vu.

Deep Understandings: We talk about everything for hours on the phone, deep stuff. He/she understands me. Still, I’m afraid my husband/wife is going to find out, and I wouldn’t want to hurt them. We have children/friends that wouldn’t understand, not after all this time. But he/she slipped under my defenses, and there we were all wound up inside each other.

More Secrets: Now all I can think about is making love with him/her. I wake up thinking about it even while my husband/wife breathes next to me, but the thing is to keep it secret, not tell anyone. Well, maybe just you, I know you won’t tell. I mean, I know how hard secrets are to keep.

Seekers: And anyway, the I Ching says my husband/wife is in transition, he/she is also seeking, so I’m giving them their space too, and if I’m super careful and keep our meetings kind of irregular, my husband/wife won’t find out.

Complete Honesty: I can freely give myself over to pleasures I never knew existed. I mean love can’t be wrong if it makes you feel so good, fills you up and makes you feel so complete. It’s like we take on each other’s thoughts and smells. We can be totally honest with each other, there’s no bullshit.

It’s Good for My Spouse Too: I want to sing and dance all day long and that’s good for my wife/husband too. I’m able to be nicer, more forgiving, I don’t get so mad at him/her, I’m in step. Everything feels so just right, so perfect.

Higher Levels: Though lately, he/she is pressuring me to take this affair to some other level. I’m not sure what that level might be. I mean, I always say how much I love him/her, and it’s not as though I haven’t been clear that my marriage is not on the table. I don’t want to do anything that will hurt my husband/wife.

All I Think About: But I’m drugged, being with her/him is just like cocaine was, one line leads to another. I’m horny all the time. I mean I even fantasize about you! Did you know that? I know how straight-and-narrow you are, but being with him/her makes me want it all the time. I don’t have to hold back anything from her/him.

In Sync with Sin: Last night we talked about spirituality, how something that feels this good couldn’t be a sin and she/he told me that the Aramaic definition of sin is being out of rhythm with the universe. Speaking of rhythm, he/she drove me crazy yesterday; I’ve never come like that, not even once (well maybe once).

More Excuses: Besides, my husband/wife, we only do it a few times a month/year. He/she feels bad they just don’t want it as much as I do. So they kind of tell me it’s okay if I see someone else, just as long as I don’t rub it in their face

Coming to the Beginning of the End: Though lately, I think my husband/wife knows something’s up because I’m so, well, just different. I feel so great all the time, and that’s what makes it all so perfect. Still, I might be reaching some beginning of the end here. I don’t like hiding all the time, this wondering when I’m going to slip up. I don’t want to risk the investments in our children/house/business. You see, everything is kind of in an upswing right now.

One Fling Leads to Another: Few of these affairs ended up being more than smoke in the wind. They petered out and then on to the next, a serial string of hot affairs and funerals that never made any lasting changes. Their problems stayed unresolved and stuck, a circle they never broke out of.

Then One Day: But there was one love affair that got out of hand. . .

(After reading C. J. Grace’s blogs and her book, Adulterer’s Wife, How to Thrive Whether You Stay Or Not (, I realized I had quite a few blogs to post on this subject as well.  My goal is to get wider interest and comments going  on the subject of adultery and its effect.  The subject is just not commonly spoken about in the media and perhaps it is because there aren’t a lot of nonfiction books about how adulterer’s wives can learn to deal with the situation.)

Malheur Occupation Redux: Confusing Rifts in Reality

The armed militia led by Ammon Bundy that occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Headquarters for 41 days are gone. Twenty-seven people have been arrested and await trial, including Cliven Bundy, mastermind of the first standoff in Nevada. The hundreds of media, members of various militia groups and array of law enforcement officers that occupied Burns and Hines for the same number of days are gone. The snow geese came and flew their temporary coops. Harney County was packed with birders in larger numbers than before. The headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge remains closed for repairs, possibly until summer.

Friends ask, “What was the occupation all about?” I’m still sifting through the emotional debris. As for others, the ill wind that blew in here still rustles up edgy nerves.

I’m a city gal. Since I moved to Hines/Burns ten years ago, I’ve been out to some of the ranches and met some of their owners, but still do not fully understand the business of ranching. My first inkling of how much I did not know came about soon after my husband and I moved here. I was out in the woods practicing tai chi in some obsidian digging grounds. For three months, I saw no one. Suddenly I sensed someone behind me and turned to see an old geezer, teeth yellowed, battered boots and Stetson, on a large horse. We looked at each other for quite a few moments. Then he bellowed: “’Ya seen my cows?” My face must have gone through quite a few changes, because he bellowed again, “‘Ya seen my cows?” I answered in starched English: “I am very sorry, sir, but I have not seen any cows up here.” He doffs his hat and away he rides. I could only imagine what he was going to tell his bunkmates about the old lady he saw waving her hands in some peculiar dance. It was the first time I recognized that finding and herding cows out on the rangelands might be a primary job.

As I ponder the occupation and its aftermath, I understood once again how misunderstood ranching life here is as seen by outsiders, including media that struggled mightily, and the armed militia that occupied the refuge and our town, so few of whom were ranchers or cowboys, even though the cause they seemed to espouse had a lot to do with ranching.

The range of ideas and emotions the occupation spurred, brought home, yet again, that there is a divide among many of us that live here in the city and the lonelier and harder 24/7 physical life lived by ranchers and their employees. It also showed me that many barricade themselves inside their separate and private islands and live in disparate worlds—emotionally and physically. No wonder we were ill-prepared to communicate with each other when life here got so shaken up.

The Malheur occupation showed us some very dangerous divides, what my husband called, rifts in reality, and their waves continue to radiate outwards.

Whose reality? The occupation revealed a confusing kaleidoscope. And so did almost every public meeting and private conversation, as people aired what they felt and thought.

What was the occupation about? At one level it was about morphing issues: first it was about a peaceful protest against the re-sentencing of father and son Hammond who were convicted of arson by a jury of peers in 2012. Then it became the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Headquarters by armed militia and their presence in town and stories of them following and harassing law enforcement, city and county officials, and employees of federal agencies and their families. Then it morphed into discussions of the occupation of FBI and a standoff mandated by them, with the intent of no bloodshed, neither to militia nor residents of Harney County. The issue morphed again as media and social media exploited the demands for the return of federal land to states, counties or private hands.

As the issues morphed, the rifts among Harney residents grew, and so did the acrimony among family and friends and businesses—almost, but not quite, inciting a hate fest. Anger and hatred were inflamed yet again following roadblocks that were set up by law enforcement against the militants and the arrests of Bundy, Payne and others on their way to John Day, and the death of La Voy Finicum, one of the inner circle, who tried to outrun the roadblocks, plowed into a snow bank, got out of his truck shouting, “Shoot me, shoot me,” refusing to surrender, and was shot. The media controversies about Finicum’s death and arrests of the militia subsumed all other issues for some time. Finicum’s wake still goes on and on as militia and family continue holding gatherings around the country. On April 24, about forty Finicum sympathizers gathered and mounted red white and blue crosses on highway easements from the place he was shot to the refuge (about forty miles).

The meme repeated during discussion of most any issue was that of government hatred.

Many here are still close to being clinically depressed. Some family members are still not talking to each other. I have heard of rifts within church communities. People that are running for local offices are wary of offering opinions on the issues mentioned above for fear of offending those who might otherwise vote for them. They spout the commonest of platitudes: “We want to improve Harney County’s economic prosperity.”

To only argue about issues is to ignore the much larger one that the occupation exposed.

On another level, the occupations was about how a very small group of armed, organized militia, some with past felony convictions, some lying about past military duty, some mentally deranged, some led by the inner voices of God, held a community in fear and loathing for 41 days at a terrible emotional and financial cost. The private, armed militias in our country are growing; they are networked into each other via video, radio stations, and social media; and they are organized and dedicated. Some of the tactics used in Harney County were sending thousands of emails to the sheriff and other county and city officials; and flooding  phones and 911 dispatch with messages.

You can see for miles at the top of the watchtower at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

Photo by Mark Graves, Oregonian. The  watchtower, guarded by armed militia, just above the Malheur National Wildlife headquarters became a symbol of its occupation.

Sadly, the private militia found sympathizers among residents in Harney County who formed a homegrown version, with Bundy’s help, called “The Committee of Safety”.

The takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and our towns exposed our human frailties. We found ourselves not only unable to cope with the occupation emotionally and physically, but very much dependent on law enforcement to save the situation. Many barricaded themselves inside their homes; others left town to escape intimidations and threats of violence. We were shaken out of our complacencies. Some very large rifts in our disparate realities were revealed, and equally, our lack of communication tools to bridge them.

At the highest level, what the occupation was about was exposing our very deep seated fears of change in a world that is rapidly changing in ways that we cannot control: increasing climate calamities, war, population migrations, dwindling natural resources, and global population growing beyond sustainability.

Historically people facing rapid, uncontrolled change have turned to blame and shame; and sought spiritual and political leaders that will ‘save’ them.

Wasn’t that what fascism, Nazism, Mao and Stalin’s brand of communism was about? Hundreds of millions were disappeared and murdered. Isn’t that also the story behind the appalling genocides in such countries as Rwanda, Serbia, Darfur, Guatemala (Mayans) and Cambodia? Many more millions were killed by militias carrying the banners of god and ethnicity.

Visiting a naval museum in Chania, Crete, many years ago, I watched a school teacher leading a first grade class to the second floor, where there was an exhibit of Nazi’s parachuting down into Crete during World War II and killing off a tenth of the population. She shook her finger at them: “Never forget. Never forget.”

We too should never forget the impacts of this armed occupation. I know what I don’t want: a minority of private armed militias ruling over my life.

What should we remember?

Our country was founded on the principles life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—not for a minority, religious or ethnic or political—but for all who find home here.

(Other blogs on this subject are in older posts.)

Climate Change in Slow Motion

Turning on the news, I learn that history begins at breakfast. Four horsemen trumpet apocalypse: conquest, war, famine and death. Yesterday’s news has been eclipsed. “Life is changing fast,” I murmur. “Can’t keep up.”

The Four Horsemen: Conquest, War, Famine and Death

“Four Horsemen of Apocalypse” by the Russian artist Viktor Vasnetsov (1887)

At a vista in Canyonlands National Park, the slow changes that sculpted this wilderness of pinnacles, canyons and rivers were occurring long before the creation of the four horsemen from the last book of the New Testament. The rocks I stand on were once ocean.

The doll'shouse formation was sculpted in slow time

View of the Dollhouse formations from the Golden Stairs in Canyonlands National Park. Photo by Hanna Flagg

In this scale, whatever legacies that ancient races left behind are lost in the detritus of petroglyphs and ruins—symbols of greatness and transience. I feel myself disappearing into the breath of the wind.

To steady myself, I start the slow movements of tai chi. The roots of the juniper and pinon coil downwards, forging pathways into sandstone. In the chalky dirt, I move carefully around the petrified logs of a pine forest that existed some 200 million years ago. The cataclysm that buried it happened quickly; yet the processes that mineralized the wood occurred particularly slowly.

Petrified wood and juniper forest

Petrified wood and juniper forest in Canyonlands National Park. Photo by Hanna Flagg/

Tai chi slows down my internal rhythms and grounds me into this present moment. The twin forests of death and rebirth at my feet remind me about the yin and yang cycles of change and the rhythms of fast and slow time. These will continue beyond any future I can project.

If this wilderness, in its pristine and natural disarray, had not been preserved so that I could visit and quiet myself down, it would be more difficult not to give in to primal bewilderment. History would always begin at breakfast. Visits of the four horsemen would fill me with dread. I would hoard my treasures, arm myself with guns, and guard my larders full of food and water. Greed and loneliness would become constant companions.

Instead, I return home purged of meanness. My enthusiasm and curiosity are restored. I have recovered equilibrium.

I continue teaching tai chi to family and friends to help them stay healthy and quell anxiety. I advise them to consume less; conserve more; seek the wild lands; and shun companies that sell death.

I write what I care about. My heart follows a path of peace.

It’s what I can do.

The doll'shouse formation was sculpted in slow time

View of the Dollhouse formations from the Golden Stairs in Canyonlands National Park. Photo by Hanna Flagg

Twelve Principles of Business Succeess

Musicians and artists ask me, “What are your business principles?” So I wrote them down and published them in my book, A Music Business Primer. It’s out-of-print, so here they are. They are particularly relevant in this ‘anything goes, whomever has the biggest bucks, lie when you can business world.’ These principles are not just for artists, but for politicians, doctors, lawyers, gallery owners and other shopkeepers—anyone that runs a business. They work to help businesses succeed. I look for businesses that are aligned with these principles when I choose vendors, sub-contractors, etc. The name of my business is Jerome Headlands Press (

Businesses are about relationships between people. Owners and their employees will develop reputations for being easy or difficult to work with: for delivering what is promised, or not, and for being ethical, or not. Bill Graham, my old boss, used to say, “Be nice to people on the way up, because you may need them on the way down.”


Diane Rapaport goes for a walk with a llama. Lisa Wolf, trains llamas and invited me for a walk in the high desert of Eastern Oregon. A well- trained llama is a pleasure to walk with. Lisa is writing and illustrating a wonderful book of stories about training llamas. Many of her business principles echo mine.

  1. Commit to making the business succeed. Without 100% commitment, the motivation to overcome challenges will erode.
  2. Work hard and provide leadership.
  3. Develop personal relationships with the people your business works with. Cultivate long-term relationships: they will earn you trust and good-will.
  4. Make it easy for people to associate and do business with you.
    1. Show up for gigs and appointments on time
    2. Keep promises you make.
    3. Return phone calls or respond to emails in a timely manner.
    4. Pay your bills on time. If you cannot, call people up and explain your situation.
    5. Be kind to secretaries and receptionists.
    6. Do not waste people’s time. State what you want succinctly and politely
    7. Say ‘thank you’ frequently. Forgive easily.
    8. When you make a mistake, apologize immediately. And do what you can to correct it, even if it costs you money.
    9. Cultivate positive attitudes.
  5. Provide value-added services to people that you to business with. It could mean giving away something for free or giving advice and mentoring.
  6. Treat your employees courteously; pay them a fair wage; be appreciative of their good work; and when you can afford it, reward them with bonuses and other benefits. They will repay you with loyalty and hard work. Training new employees costs time and money.
  7. Listen to others; find out what is important to them; listening, even to criticism, costs nothing, and you might learn something valuable by not being defensive,
  8. Ask for and invite advice. Good advice is invaluable Feedback is important, even when it is negative. Receive advice and criticism with enthusiasm and graciousness.
  9. Do every job and gig as though it were for the kingpins of your industry.
  10. Keep track of your money. Negotiate prices and services. Keep debts to a minimum.
  11. Cultivate a good reputation. Leadership in ethics, will be rewarded many times over in loyalty in people speaking well of you and dealing fairly and ethically with you.
  12. Give something back to the industry that fed you. Share information with others. Donate time or money to worthwhile causes. Count your blessings and help those that are less fortunate.