‘Change is inevitable, and not always good’

By Cathie Shiff

Breakfast at the Country Café and I need something to read. Leafing through a mountain of coloring books, I find a National Geographic magazine. “Perfect,” I murmur as I return to my table by the window. Before I open the cover, I glance at the publication date; April 1980. 1980?! This isn’t a magazine, it’s a time capsule.

At the Country Cafe, a magazine as a time capsule. Photo by Cathie Shiff

I now had the opportunity to travel back in time, accompanied by a croissant and a cup of decaf. Would I be surprised at how much our lives have changed? More importantly, what has happened to the people and places featured in this issue published almost 40 years ago?

I’m drawn to the small print on the inside cover. The left half is an organizational roster for the National Geographic Society, and in 1980 two Grosvenors were still on staff; Melville Bell as chairman emeritus of the board of trustees and Gilbert M. as a society vice president and editor of the magazine. Other board members were J. Carter Brown of the National Gallery of Art and Supreme Court Justice Warren E. Burger. There were no women except for Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson who was there because, well, she was Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson.

The other half of the page was the masthead for the magazine. So many names listed in every department. There were 20 photographers who were surely working their dream job, kept in check by two supervisors. Interestingly, of the 22 cartographers listed, almost a quarter were women. The advertising department had a robust staff with offices in key US cities, including Detroit.

Speaking of Detroit, the facing page featured an advertisement for the latest Cadillac sedan, a blocky behemoth touted for aerodynamics “fine tuned in a wind tunnel.” While “every electronic convenience is standard,” there was not a word about fuel economy. Other automobile ads elsewhere in the magazine did cite mileage figures, including a two-page spread featuring the latest Honda Accord. You got 25 mpg city, but no electronics and such a tacky dashboard.

I was reminded of how communications have changed when I saw the ad for an electric typewriter which highlighted a new-fangled “correction key.” This stunning technological advance was sold by none other than Sears. Another page featured a lone video cassette juxtaposed with an untidy stack of photographic slides and 8 mm movie film reels. Free yourself from yesterday’s technology by transferring your memories onto VHS video. The company could do it for you for a nominal fee, or you could pick up a kit at your nearby FotoMat kiosk.

Another advertisement reminded us that true love is eternal, and what better way to express it than with a diamond-studded ring from DeBeers. Yes, that DeBeers, the cartel founded by Cecil Rhodes himself to maintain high gem prices when the rich finds in South Africa meant that diamonds were no longer rare. Because the corporation needed a supply of cheap labor for the mines, no company profited more from Apartheid. By 1980, Nelson Mandela had already been in prison for almost 20 years, and he would not be released until ten years later. Apartheid finally ended in 1993.

One of the feature stories in this issue was about the state of Texas. Back then, there were already fences along the Texas-Mexico border, including a sturdy one near the busy San Ysidoro-Tijuana crossing and a flexible fence, dubbed the ‘Tortilla Curtain,’ along longer stretches of frontier. The author quoted a border patrolman named Mike Williams who questioned the effectiveness of a border wall. “If a man comes all the way from the Mexican interior, he’s not going to go home when he sees a little fence,” he said.

The next article told the story of a man returning to visit his native Estonia, which was still under Soviet control. Fast forward to 2017: Estonia became fully independent from Russia in 1990. However, under the Vladimir Putin regime, Russia once again is the giant bear at their door. In an interview published last Sunday in the Washington Post, Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid characterized Russia as a threat to her nation. Others must share her concern because a contingent of NATO troops has just arrived in the country.

A story about Nepal focused on the hundreds of rhesus monkeys that lived at Katmandu’s Swayambhunath Stupa temple complex. Because the animals were considered sacred, they were fed and pretty much left alone. The back-to-back 7+-magnitude earthquakes that killed 9,000 across Nepal two years ago also damaged the site, leaving the grounds strewn with bricks and many buildings with obvious structural damage. However, repair efforts are underway, and the complex is open to visitors. And, yes, the monkeys are still there.

A photograph accompanying the story about Oursi, a district in Sahel region of Upper Volta, featured the kind of image that drew schoolboys to National Geographic before the internet. A lovely young tribes woman is pictured bare-breasted, standing before the limitless horizon of the Saharan southern rim. Much has changed for that young woman.

Upper Volta is now called Burkina Faso, and international efforts to eradicate the guinea worm that affected so many people seems to have succeeded. Now, the greatest challenge facing her country is climate change. In the past 20 years, the average annual rainfall has dropped by almost eight inches, devastating vegetation and killing trees in the Sahel region. Violent dust storms now sweep the countryside. While the nation once produced enough to feed its 18 million people, more than 330,000 now face food insecurity, the first step toward famine.

The cover story was about the rich aquatic life in the Strait of Georgia which lies between mainland Canada and Vancouver Island. In 1980, it was called a “paradise for sport and commercial fisherman,” and there were pages of startling photographs of sea creatures such as strawberry anemones that “carpet large bottom areas of the strait.”

It is still an aquatic paradise, home to orcas and to glass sponge reefs that were once believed to be extinct. Commercial fishing also remains important, but fish population figures are a mixed bag. Herrings are rebounding, while the sockeye salmon population in the Fraser River, a tributary to the strait, collapsed five years ago. Given the threats to all sea life by rising ocean acidity and temperatures, there is currently a proposal to make the 135-mile-long body of water a national marine conservation area.

I return to Rappahannock County with a start. My cup is empty and the croissant is long gone. What do these stories tell us? That change is inevitable, and not all of it is good. That there are some things over which we have control, and others that we don’t. That the things we love are worth protecting. That our missteps can come with a bill to pay. Speaking of bills, it’s time to pay mine. By the way, I’ve got a great deal on some VHS cassettes.

— The writer is a resident of Amissville


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