Monday, March 30, 2015

In Spring a Young Man's Fancy Turns to No Quarter! (Part VI)

With the coming of spring, we see the release of this year's collectible US quarter designs into the wild. This blog has for a long time followed the design of these coins; first the State series, where each state (or territory) got the backside of a quarter to promote themselves, and now the "America the Beautiful" series where each state gets to pitch a particular national park, site, monument, preserve, forest, nature area, battlefield, or chunk of tarmac on this choice piece of promotional terrain.

And as I have noted before, here is our handy rating system:

Way Cool = A
Not Bad = B
Kinda Lame (Meh) = C
Very Lame = D
Looks like you can get two plays in an old pinball machine with them = E

National Homestead Monument of America - Nebraska

This one is a challenge to the coin-carvers. How do you commemorate a location that is honestly SUPPOSED to be in the middle of nowhere? One with few distinctive or redeeming features? One the really deals more with an idea than a place? I honestly think that the Nebraska Quarter rises to that challenge.

A little history. Starting 1862, the federal government passed a series of Homestead Acts which offered people free land in exchange for residency and improvement. Parties such as the Free Soil Party and the newly hatched Republicans were big on putting land into the hands of small independent farmers, as opposed to wealthy landholders. The Democrats, in particular Southern Democrats, scuttled such bills whenever they showed up, so everyone just waited until the south left the room Union and passed the bill. There were additional homestead acts to expand the area granted, and promises of planting timber, but this one in 1862 was the biggie.

The downside of the idea of "Free Land" was the fact that the land was in places like, well, Nebraska, which I believe is a Hekawi word for "Big Empty Desert Made of Grass". However, the promise of free land and the concept of the yeoman farmer, stolid and dependable, led many into the plains, where many perished from the fact that the plains were pretty inhospitable. Such founders get the nickname sodbusters, since there usually wasn't anything along the lines of stone or wood to build with. Hence, the early houses were sod.

This particular location did have wood to build (eventually) and is on the site of one of the first homesteaders. If that statement it sounds vague, part of it is because the individual who made that claim made a lot of claims over the years about being the first, and while they can determine he was among the first, whether he was exactly in first line is debated. Close enough for government work, at least.

In any event, the coin actually really cool for having to present a bunch of nothing but a idea. The mud and timber cabin dominates the center, framed by stalks of wheat, and with a small hand-pump in the middle. It actually captures the feeling of the struggle to survive on the prairie. In addition, the timber and mud layers of house should provide a good feel to the coin as well. Yeah, it's pretty well done.

Rating: A (Way Cool)

Kiatchie National Forest - Louisiana 

Well, the good news is that they chose a location pretty far inland for the site of this Louisiana quarter, making it relatively safe from rising oceans, oil spills, Mardi Gras tourists, and the ever-popular hurricanes. The downside is that this may the first time you've ever heard of it.

Kiatchie (the name is derived from the Kichie tribe that once lived in the neighborhood) is a swath of upland forest in the northern half of the state,, divided into five big chunks over seven parishes. Like the Homestead Monument, there is not a lot of define it on the back of a quarter. Unlike the Homestead Monument, there isn't as much as an idea here to crystallize around, either. So in the end, they chose a local inhabitant. The turkey. Yes, that is what that's supposed to be.

And they showed the turkey in flight, which demonstrates that you really shouldn't show a turkey in flight. It's embarrassing for everyone involved.  It looks like one of those primitive biplanes that gets shot off a catapult to get it into the air, It creates a question in the mind of the viewer: Will the next coin show a majestic swooping bird, or a tangle of feathers and bone as it augers in on a low-hanging cyprus branch. It looks like a velociraptor trying to fan-dance.

Honestly, only in my lifetime have people determined that the birds are direct descendants of the dinosaurs. Looking at the form of this splayed-feathered demi-reptile trying to scrabble its way aloft into a hostile sky, I thought it would have been obvious years ago.

Rating: B (Not Bad, but that remains one ugly turkey)

Blue Ridge Parkway - North Carolina

Here we see the classic cartoon site where Wile E. Coyote painted the picture of the tunnel on a cliff-face, built a road up to it, and waited for the Roadrunner to smash into it. The Roadrunner, of course, ran into the picture of the tunnel, not knowing any better. When Wile E. Coyote attempted to follow, armed with the knowledge of reality, he smashed into the rock wall, stunned himself, staggered off, and fell off a cliff. Humor.

OK, actually, this is one of many tunnels along the US's longest park, which threads some 469 miles through Virginia and North Carolina, with North Carolina JUST getting the bragging rights on having the biggest half. It is apparently the most-visited of the sites under the watch of the National Park Service because, well, it's a road. Started during the Depression and finished in the eighties, the Parkway snakes through some beautiful country.

The coin itself achieves something very nice - a sense of depth. The carvings have gotten better over the years, as have the designs, but this does not just use two planes of depth, but actually funnels you attention from the right, with its masonry foreground (coming out of another tunnel?) and (I'm guessing) dogwood blooms, brought along the curve of the road (no horizon line to distract - just white space, then to the tunnel itself, and down through the short tunnel to the exit. And there, very small, at the far end, you can just see ... the Roadrunner.

Beep Beep.

Rating: A (Way Cool - I really like this one).

Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge - Delaware

This quarter plays off its strengths, and pushes its waterfowl. In this case, it reveals that it is the winter nesting ground of the kaiju monster Rodan. OK, actually, that is ....

That is ...

Hang on. I'm getting this strange sense of deja vu. Almost like...

Yeah, let's hop in the wayback machine and go back a year to...

Yes!  I knew it. This actually nothing more than a reskin of the Everglades/Florida quarter from last year. I've got the swamp. I've got the two birds. They're in the same positions. Somebody threw the Florida quarter on a light table and got out their tracing paper. My god. Did they think no one would NOTICE?

I mean, I can sympathize. We are talking Delaware, here, a fully-owned subsidiary of the credit card industry. What would they put on the quarter? A listing of US household debt? But even so, if your best feature is Bombay Hook (named after the Doctor in Bewitched), the least you could do would be to show some originality. If you're going to steal stock photographs, at least show the decency to flip the image.

Yeah, I really liked this presentation, -when I SAW IT LAST YEAR. No, you don't get another chance, Delaware. You should have thought of it before.

Rating: D (Just ... Just leave. I'll be sending a letter to your parents).

Saratoga National Monument - New York

The last quarter for the year also deals with a concept as opposed to the importance of a particular place, though the place is important. In this case, the quarter celebrates the first successful pickpocket attempt in a D&D game outside of Lake Geneva.

No, actually it commemorates the defeat of the British forces, under General Burgoyne, by the American rebels under General Gates. It was the military turning point of the war. Burgoyne was supposed to sweep down from Canada and hook up with General Howe's forces coming up from New York City. And indeed, Burgoyne uprooted the Americans out of Fort Ticonderoga, so he kept his side of the deal. Howe, though, decided to invade Philadelphia instead, and left Burgoyne hanging. Another support column coming up the Mohawk River was been turned back, and this and the loss of Native American allies left Burgoyne on a very thin branch, which Gates and his aggressive major general, Benedict Arnold (yeah, that guy) lopped off the branch and forced a surrender.

So, does the coin work? I'm going to say no, since you have to label it to get any sense of what is happening here. The idea that the brocade on a sleeve indicates "British" to the user is a bit of a reach, and most folk don't remember that turning over your sword is the old-fashion-y method of surrender. Plus labeling it British Surrender might mean you're going to get some mail from Yorktown.

I think it is actually too subtle.

Rating C (Meh).

Tune in next year folks, and we get to  start the Civil War with two different coins. Plus some other places you've never heard of until now.

And Delaware ... I'm watching you. Just so you know.

More later,