Monday, February 27, 2017

A different kind of Russian tragedy
M. Walter Pesman

 This seems to be the classic portrait of Pesman--whose book was the bible most wildflower lovers in Colorado used throughout most of the 20th Century.

Denver Botanic Gardens have reissued Meet the Natives (considerably enhanced by Dan Johnson, Associate Director of Horticulture here) in a twelfth edition--but the first ten had only M. Walter Pesman's name on the cover. Upon his death, Pesman signed over the book and its royalties to Denver Botanic Gardens--so naturally we have a special place in our hearts for him.

It could be argued that Pesman was Godfather of Horticulture in Colorado (if one gives Saco Rienk DeBoer the title of our spiritual father). Both giant figures in Colorado horticulture spanned much of the 20th Century.  Both were giants on our local scene, and even partners for a few years (since both were Alpha males the partnership was probably doomed). Both were born in Netherlands and both came to Colorado (separately--they only met when they were here) because they contracted Tuberculosis in Europe, and the semi-arid Climate and altitude of Colorado were deemed salubrious for comsumptives. It worked, both recovered from the disease and lived rich, rewarding lives to old age....You  can read a bit about both (click on Saco's name above for the Wikipedia account and click on M. Walter Pesman to get a fuller account of his life.

What this blog is really about is something other than their rich, rewarding and influential professional lives (both were presidents at various times of various local Horticultural clubs, and if you read the minutes of those clubs you will see how both constantly stressed the importance of botanic gardens--they both were instrumental in the creation of Denver Botanic Gardens, and I doubt if my workplace would exist if they hadn't done such constant lobbying--so they are spiritual fathers to myself and my colleagues as well!).

The story I want to tell is one shared with me by his daughter. She had approached me to help with her (successful) attempt to have her father's biography included in Wikipedia. We met on several occasions and she spoke at length to me about Michiel: I've been collecting stories about him in a sort of casual manner (he's not just a hero of mine, after all, but a significant antecedent). One story she shared concerned the "Russian American Friendship Association"--which may or may not be the same as the "Friends of Soviet Russia"--and the various International organizations that rose at first to help Russia during the famine of 1921. Many of these had ties to International Communism.

It is likely that Pesman had "progressive" views, like most intellectuals in the 1930's who had optimistic hopes for Communism and were either blind or ignorant of the extent of Stalin's unconscionable atrocities. According to his daughter, Pesman was not a communist, nor deeply ideological in his bias. Like many Dutchmen, he had an intense fear and hate for Hitler and the Nazi spread in Europe. When Netherlands was overrun by the Nazis, the hate intensified and by the time the Soviet Union became the focus of Nazi attacks, Pesman had become the President of the Colorado "Russian American Friendship Association" (he became president of almost any group he joined).

He began studying Russian, just as he had learned Spanish to study the Mexican Flora--but his love of Russia was mostly rooted in the fierce struggle taking place between the Nazis and Russians on the Eastern Front. I am not sure how often this organization met, nor what transacted at their meetings--I suspect much of their purpose was symbolic: to show how "Americans supported Russia in her struggle". Perhaps some money was raised for relief in Russia...there may be ways to research and find out

The upshot of all this was that he happened to still be President of this group as the Second World War ended and the Cold War began. At a certain juncture in the late 1940's Pesman came under the scrutiny of the House Un-American Activities Committee and Senator Joe McCarthy's witchhunt.

Somewhere, minutes and documents must still exist from this era documenting what then transpired, the gist of it (according to his daughter) was that Pesman was called before governmental inquiry and had to testify about his relationships with the Soviet Union. This proud man could, perhaps, have denied or otherwise distanced himself from the group he'd led. Instead, he defended himself and the Association for their valiant support of an ally during the Second World War.

I do not believe he was imprisoned. but the publicity rising from the Governmental Inquests led to Pesman losing all of his jobs with State and Federal agencies (a large part of his livelihood as Landscape Architect). So notorious had he become in the course of the decade that at the end of his middle age he found himself unemployed and unemployable.

He spent several years living off savings and struggling to find work, branded as he was as a communist sympathizer.

Once Joe McCarthy was discredited and H.U.A.C. more or less dismantled, Pesman gradually regained some contracts and was able to end his life with recognition from the community and many friends returning to the fold. He was even inducted into the Colorado Nursery Hall of Fame--posthumously I might add.

Of course, there was nothing unique about Pesman's fate in those years--dozens, hundreds--probably thousands of intellectuals were subjected to incredibly caustic courtroom interrogation, economic devastation in their personal lives, and isolation from a community that shunned them as pariahs.

Fast forward to 2017 when it appears the very President of the United States has had sustained and frequent personal and business dealings with the President of present day Russia. And it is very likely that Russian intelligence was instrumental in securing his paper thin Electoral victory (a few tens of thousands of votes in a few states would have swung the electoral college). And he lost the election by close to 3 million votes.

CNN: "The Democrat outpaced President-elect Donald Trump by almost 2.9 million votes, with 65,844,954 (48.2%) to his 62,979,879 (46.1%)," 

America is probably not unique in this sort of political and cultural Amnesia: but it's hard to believe that in a few generations we can transform so radically that a mild mannered patriotic Landscape Architects with sympathies for Russia at war can have their professional lives shattered for abstract and very likely innocent support of that ally and a few decades later (OK, seventy years later--I demur) a Television entertainer/businessman and his cabinet, (most deeply enmeshed with business dealings in Russia) can claim a mandate when a foreign power led by a malignant dictator conducted massive espionage and collusion to ensure their victory. And Republican controlled congress nods.

Our founding fathers (and Pesman too) must be churning in their graves.

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