25 October 2007

Summer's End

Back now to autumn, leaving the ended husk

Of summer that brought them here for Show Saturday

The men with hunters, dog-breeding wool-defined women,

Children all saddle-swank, mugfaced middleaged wives

Glaring at jellies, husbands on leave from the garden

Watchful as weasels, car-tuning curt-haired sons

Back now, all of them, to their local lives....

--Philip Larkin (1922–1986), British poet. “Show Saturday.”

How do I know that the summer has gone?

The humidity in Maryland drops low. Finally, by some time in October, the crisper and golden days of autumn are upon us. Dusk arrives more swiftly, by dinnertime, and the night begins to stretch like a tired worker, yawning and preparing for rest. Pumpkins are ripe for picking and carving. The fields of corn dry into husks and abundant apples, pears, and squashes are juicy flavors for mealtime.

October was my favorite month of the year in the Ohio Valley. As I raked our front yard and sidewalk, I loved piling the richly-colored maple and oak leaves into huge stacks and jumping into them. There would be powerful storm clouds on the horizon as the winds whipped leaves around the playground behind my house. I always loved it when summer came to an end. I greeted the full-on fall with relish. There was delight in the mysteries of shadows and magic of dressing up on Halloween. There was playing outside in the fading sunlight, knowing that winter's frost would soon be draping the sash windows of our Victorian house each morning. I was passionate about burrowing into my covers if I woke up early, in the coldness of dawn. It does not take much for me to be poetic or romantic about this time of year.

And, yet, this misty month of October presents a great quandary for my life today. October is the month where I am scrambling to fulfill my employer's needs in preparation for our largest fund-raiser of the year, which comes every first weekend in November. This is followed by a myriad of autumnal educational programs. I love all of these programs and would enjoy them immensely if it weren't for the sheer weight of days filled with more to do than time to do it.

So for me, summer's end is marked now with frustration, anxiety, and a sense of never completing all of the tasks I need to do within a day. I come home and fall asleep on the couch long before my normal bedtime or arise earlier than I normally must, my brain buzzing like a honeybee. Winter is near, draw in your honey now!

My Celtic ancestors who lived in cold, dark places of the British Isles believed that the beginning of winter was the first of November. For them, the harvest had to be completed by villagers just in time for the cold winds off the North Sea or Irish Sea to set into a permanent chill. The great festivals celebrating the fruits of worker's lives in produce or in craft. As the nights began to extend their reach and shorten the time a person had for her or his day's labor. A new year dawned on November 1st, so on the eve before they celebrated one last time as the sun seemed to leave them and the moon loomed large.

This evening at the end of the old agricultural year, October 31st, has morphed into an important commercial holiday of Halloween. But not too long ago, Halloween was All Hallow's Eve, a night when spirits of the ancestors walked and the doors to the land of the fey opened for mortals. (The Celts believed the fey, fairies, inhabited hollow hillsides). Mysterious and unusual things might happen. The Fey might play tricks. You might carve a turnip with a scary face and leave it on your doorstep to keep the fairies and wicked creatures of the night away from your family. Ancestors, however, were set a place at the dinner table in case they happened to walk by. They were the honored guests of the final feasts of summer. The recently harvested vegetables and fruits and freshly butchered meat was abundant still.

I do think deeply of my ancestors at the end of every October. Lately my grandfather, Walter H. Simpson, has come to my mind often. He passed on to the next world one October day, having already walked this earth ninety years. He was ready to go and had a long, full life behind him. He would probably council me that I work too hard. A hard-working man himself who built successful businesses as a mechanic and electronics repair man, my grandfather knew how to spend time at home doing the things he loved and surrounded by his family.

When he left us, he left me and my cousins and his children parting gifts. My inheritance from his equitably distributed small fortune, bought me out of my graduate school debt, paid for my car loan, funded a dissertation research trip to England, and enabled me to begin a small investment account. I never was able to thank him in life for these gifts of his labor, because I never knew his plan for his estate until a year after he died. So every Summer's End for the last ten since he passed on, I thank him with a candle lit in his honor and a photograph of him standing proudly in front of the gas station he managed on my hearth.

Wally -- which is the name by which I have come to know him through my grandmother's scrapbook -- was a tuba player in a riotous Roaring 'Twenties jazz band in Cincinnati called The Charlestonians. He recalled fondly to me playing "Tiger Rag" at top volume so that the police would not hear the bar fights in the background. (This was during Prohibition, mind you.) He was friendly with the brothers Machnowitz, the Lithuanian Jewish family from down the street. He may have surprised some when he ran off and eloped with an elder Machnowitz daughter. She was Ida, a willowy flapper with a gypsy-gleam in her eyes. A bold act for a pair who were not from the same traditions, at a time when anti-Semitism raged. Their romance of the mid-1920s is documented in her scrapbook, carefully pasted in with that awful acid-laden glue. They are laughing in groups with their friends and her siblings by the poolside or on the street corner. Like all teenagers they have the confidence and swagger of the young, who think they will never grow old. Some of these photos have faded or begun to disappear and pages are torn. Ida and Wally's memories survive, but sooner than me, some of those images will be dust.

These are my thoughts as Summer draws to a close and becomes November, the first month of Winter by Celtic reckoning. Long, cold Winter begins a new year. Ancestors and memories now deepen as shadows. The drawing the darkness around us like a cloak allows us to reflect upon the mysteries of life and of oblivion. Time is fleeting, but it must be faced. Come what may, Summer's end is a time for me to turn and look back over my shoulder to contemplate the long line of time behind me.

We are reformers in spring and summer; in autumn and winter, we stand by the old; reformers in the morning, conservers at night.

-- Ralph Waldo Emerson. “The Conservative,” Nature, Addresses, and Lectures (1849).

15 October 2007

Foodways: An Environmental Post for Blog Action Day

I've decided to participate in Blog Action Day, an opportunity for online authors to unite by posting their thoughts focused on one particular issue. The issue chosen this year is the environment. All I need do is write something relating to this topic and the environment is the topic on which I harbor deep-rooted beliefs and opinions. I have considered myself an environmentalist since sixth grade, the year I began some serious study on solar energy.

Solar energy isn't the topic I'm writing about today, but all life, and therefore, all food comes ultimately from the sun's energy. Back on August 31st I posted about my first foray into cooking fresh and local food. Today's entry continues on a similar theme, with the added information I have learned in the past five weeks.

Foodways is a fairly new word in common usage. Foodways of Austin, Texas website provides a useful definition of this rather academic term:

The term foodways refers to the culinary practices of a people and land, historical and popular. Food plays a defining role in local and national cultures. What people eat and how they eat it reflects numerous factors, such as landscape, societal, spiritual, artistic, psychological, political, economic, and other conditions.

I first heard this term in several cultural history courses back in the early 1990s. Now foodways is becoming a very important branch of humanities scholarship. Today (October 15, 2007) I attended a foodways lecture by culinary scholar Michael Twitty who has been exploring the intersection of West African cooking traditions of his ancestors with Chesapeake cooking techniques favored by enslaved peoples living in Maryland and Virginia. The program I attended at Historic London Town and Gardens was an opportunity for educators and living history interpreters to learn about hearth-cooking practices of African Americans from their earliest arrival as slaves in the British colonies in North America.

You may be asking at this point, how do foodways relate to my topic: the environment? The practices of acquiring, storing, and preparing food and of preserving foodways traditions relates directly to the land and to local practices of agriculture. One of the most fascinating parts of Mr. Twitty's presentation was his summary of the agricultural cycle that followed the seasons. He said that enslaved African Americans kept a "calendar of food dates" in their head, so that they might supplement the meager diet provided by their British masters. They also learned to use their wisdom of hunting, fishing, and gardening as well as their culinary traditions memorized by generations of West Africans. He argues that seasonal food preparation, foraging and cooking were necessities for enslaved peoples to survive the rigors of the oppression underwhich they lived.

Mr. Twitty also responded to a question about daily foodways practices. Again, he has taught himself the wisdom of people who labored hard and long hours by listening to the stories of his grandparents and of their generation and by reading diaries that survive from former slaves. He sees the carry-over of certain foodways from West Africa, such as the men's tradition of roasting and frying. Another West African tradition he observes in Enslaved Maryland culture is the tradition of the elder women preparing stew and hoecakes to be served to farm laborers for lunch and cooking one-pot meals for family dinners when the field hands have returned for the night.

What I find most fascinating about these ideas is their practicality and common sense. It reminds me that even people with Northern European ancestry have forgotten the ways living with the land and with the cycles of nature understood by their ancestors. As someone of likely all Northern European descent, I am on a journey of my own to discover the foodways known by the ancestors who emigrated to the New World.

I'm doing my best to seek as many local and organic foods as possible. I am also learning more about seasonal cooking and food preparation. Does this mean I'm going to start cooking with lard and molasses? No! My clean bill of health from my doctor just proves that cooking with olive oil and watching my sugar and carb intake is the best possible thing for me to be doing if I want to stay healthy long-term. But the point is, that local and organic foods are just better for you and better for the health of our planet as well.

My friend N. shared a news article about the 100-mile diet with me after my August post. I don't think I'm going to go giving up coffee, imported teas, chocolate, etc. and be quite that extreme, but I do believe that patronizing farmer's markets and local farm stands is a great thing to do for the environment. Buying local produce and limiting transportation costs or driving where possible is also something that everyone in the U.S.A. should consider doing more often. I have a good friend who is a member of a farm co-op that harvests local fruits and veggies and splits the harvest share among its investors.

All and all it's been a tough year for farmers and gardeners in much of Maryland. We don't feel the drought as our ancestors might have done who ate only local food, but the drought will have an impact on availability of local produce we like. The more we eat from the land where we live, the more we appreciate the impact we have on our environment through choices we make every single day.

As I tasted Michael Twitty's Cowhorn Okra Soup today, I remembered the goodness of eating foods grown right here in Maryland. {By the way, I'm normally disgusted by okra. But Mr's Twitty's home-grown okra is of an heirloom variety and not the slimy stuff I have come to associate with a nasty, stomach-turning "Ick!"} Mr. Twitty's personal stories and his emphasis on the importance of ancestral cooking traditions reminded me of the culture that surrounds the foods my family always likes to eat at harvest time.

I am in the beginning stages of a project to learn about my own Scots-Irish ancestry and my ancestors who came from the Old World, perhaps sometime back in the mid-18th century. I think that learning about what they ate is almost as important is reading what they wrote. So much of culture is transmitted through the preparation of food. We remember well the home-cooked foods of our families, don't we?

Below are several resources that are helping me to begin the process, and I hope to add more to this list as I continue my research.

What can you do to preserve your own foodways and culinary traditions? Cook a feast for friends or family with local foods. Dig out and prepare your grandmother's or grandfather's best recipes. Or share your thoughts and memories in comments to this post.

Slainte! ("To your health!" in Scottish Gaidhlig)

A Few Resources

Culinary scholar, Michael Twitty's Afro Foodways website.

Kentucky Foodways: Traditional and Modern by Elizabeth Mosby Adler

Our Immigrant and Native Ancestors:Southern food evolved from many ethnic influences, from The Culture of Southern Food website.

There appears to be a new book about Renewing America's Food Traditions that is available for download online. A sustainable living organization is using it to promote it's efforts to preserve heirloom plants and native animal breeds for Americans.

09 October 2007

Scraps of Life

I believe in the power of images to tell stories. Sometimes when a person organizes and selects from images at hand, the images change their meaning, are transformed into a new, private language of symbols.

My mother, who is both a fine artist and professional designer, taught me how to create collages at a very young age, probably as young as four or five years. My first collages included dried beans, macaroni, rice, and buttons stuck to pieces of scrap cardboard with Elmer's glue or paste. My Mom carefully oversaw and encouraged my progress as a mixed media artist. My favorite collage object in the early years was the pasta shaped like spoked wheels or cart wheels!

Time and time again I return to collage techniques and dabble in this artform. I add and embellish my skills and my choice of materials each time. My production in collages and photomontages is not consistent through any one period of my life, but I often fall back on these techniques as handy ways of stirring up new meanings from a cauldron full of images. I most often make these artworks for myself or for a family member's gift or card. When I need to express myself through images, I find collage to be the most powerful tool in my arsenal of creative techniques.

In high school I loved cutting up fashion magazines to make outlandish and subversive symbolism. This phase of my creativity culminated in a three-foot high Stop-sign shaped collage piece made in my freshman year at Harlaxton College for my "fundamentals of art" course. I suspended this collage piece from the ceiling in our gallery area. The Stop sign was divided in half and each half faced a different direction, so that a view could see designs from facing all four compass points. The four surfaces of the sign were covered with collage elements from fashion rags and printed pop media. I was definitely approaching the end of my "Hannah Hoch" phase by the time I completed that year abroad and came back to study commercial photography at an art college in my hometown. Hannah Hoch, for those who don't know her, was a Dadaist artist from Germany who used fashion magazine images to subvert their power as exploitation and crass consumerist propaganda.

In photography school, I made photomontages and assemblages of photographs. The type of photographic assemblages I most often made are often termed "joiners," that is, the art of arranging photographic images in overlapping panoramic scenes to form a natural perspective view of the landscape or scene. This was my "David Hockney" phase, appropriate since Hockney coined the term "joiners" as a art photography technique involving his specific brand of photomontage.

Next, in my late college years and throughout graduate school, I entered into a "cubist phase," which is to say that I was highly influenced by Picasso and Braque and their famous critic and promoter Clement Greenberg, who helped the artists to popularize modern collage techniques. For me, this was a kind of serious "getting back to roots" phase where my collages often followed simply geometry. By this point I was well-trained as an art history scholar, so I knew the artists to look for when I sought inspiration. In addition to Picasso and Braque collages, I found German artist Kurt Schwitter's "merz" collage particularly meaningful. Schwitters picked up refuse off of the sidewalks and incorporated it into his collages. Joseph Cornell's mysterious boxes filled with collage elements impressed me when I first saw them at The Art Institute of Chicago, and later at other museums. Once I actually co-organized a spiritual collage workshop at a church retreat, and everyone who came from ages seven through ninety, had a great time expressing themselves through collage. Collage is everywhere these days with layer upon layer of visual media surrounding us in the urban landscape and cyberspace.

Now I am entering a new exploration in manipulating images for my own expression. In the past month, my collage output has taken an unexpected turn all because my colleague A. introduced me to the world of Victorian die-cut scraps during the summer. She organized two workshops on Victorian holiday ornament-making to help our volunteers plan and prepare for making authentic decorations for the museum's Christmas trees for two late nineteenth-century exhibit spaces. She brought in specialists who collect and reproduce the look of Victorian ornaments to teach us the techniques. Each of the presenters had her own favorite types of ornaments, but both utilized pieces of die-cut printed paper scraps that the average Victorian matron and her children purchased for craft supplies.

Suddenly a whole new world of collage imagery has opened up for me. I have long wanted to make "altered art" books or objects, like the ones I've seen in craft galleries and art shows. Yet I lacked the sense of where I want to begin and of what images to use. These die-cuts, printed to fulfill the needs of Gilded Age crafters provide me with a brilliant spark of ingenuity. I now on a quest to purchase Victorian die-cut examples and wheel in my mind are already turning on the possibilities for collage-making.

I've learned that many people used the die-cuts for paper cards and holiday tree ornaments, but they also applied them to pieces of furniture and other objects. There are many names for this. You might find a term arte povero, "poor man's art" in Italian sources, while it's called lacque pauvre, "poor man's lacquer" in France and jappaning in Britain.

What appeals to me about these printed faces, animals, floral arrangements, and holiday scenes, is their direct link to the cultural past -- to life a century ago -- in a period when printed news media dominated the intellectual culture of the day, as opposed to virtual media. I think I have found the tools to tell history of a period I know well from my art history scholarship as well as from a personal fascination. There is an inherent appeal for all things relating to Victorian antiquarian scholarship. Now that was a culture that appreciated (and exploited) other cultures past and present for their exotic qualities. A large part of my personality can relate to that sense of longing for something different, something other and, perhaps a bit strange and extraordinary.

Clement Greenberg's legendary essay "Collage" is now free and accessible online.

An online article about "The History of 18th Century Decoupage," by Studio D.

The Victorian Scrap Gallery by Dee Davis and Gail B. Cooper. The contents are featured in Google.com's online book gallery (follow the title hyperlink).
D. Blumchen is a treasure-trove of reproduction Victorian scraps and nifty crafting catalogue.

01 October 2007

Time Travel to Mount Vernon

Have you ever wanted to travel back in time?

I was lucky enough to be able to get as close to time travel this weekend as current technology permits, by becoming a re-enactor at a large colonial-era event taking place at Mount Vernon this past weekend.

The concept of time travel has appealed to me since my childhood. I think a large part of my insatiable interest in history relates to the strong desire to know what it is like to live in a different era of the past or of the future.

I read a lot about time travel in science fiction novels and avidly watched the British TV series Doctor Who, about a race of super-genius beings who harnessed the power to travel in time and space. The fact that the show is the longest-running and most-revived British television programme in the genre of science fiction tells me that there are other people out there who share my wacky hope that hurling through time aboard your TARDIS ship would be the ultimate adventure travel trip.

I had a gifted teacher for advanced placement U.S. history in high school who brought the past to life by having us read Civil War diaries, newspaper entries, court records, etc. All of a sudden history class was far more than merely a boring list of names, dates, and events to memorize in order to regurgitate on an exam. It was a powerful link to real people who lived, breathed, and once walked this earth. I strongly suspected that teacher was a Civil War re-enactor. The idea of re-enacting as a hobby grew in the 1960s and has taken many forms including renaissance faires, ethnic festivals and battle re-creations of many different periods.

All of this exposition is my confession that at last I have finally become what I long wanted to be -- a living historian instead of a book-learned historian. Museum educators who work on interpretation of historic sites like me have a natural edge when it comes to making the transition from academic historian to living history re-enactor. Many living history volunteers with whom I've had the pleasure to work over the past five years have been generous with knowledge and advice about what it takes to become a re-enactor. Members of the First Maryland Regiment have slowly turning my mind around to the possibility. Over time, they have become my friends and have shared their knowledge of eighteenth-century life with me. I have also met other museum professionals and colleagues who believe in the power to make history live through living history interpretation at historic sites.

You cannot imagine how intimidating the idea of becoming a living historian has been for me. You would think that someone who lives and breathes history and who also harbors this desire to become a re-enactor, would find the transition simple. Not so. History courses teach you nothing about how to wear five layers of clothing in summer weather; how to purchase your first set of stays (like a corset); where to go to buy accurate straight-lasted shoes; how to hold your posture differently if you are a common person than if you are a gentlewoman; or to speak like someone from out of the past. No, all of these things are not taught in graduate school.
I am lucky enough to have the benefit of friends from several living history organizations and experienced character interpreters who have provided me with advice and encouragement. They have taught me the practicalities and helped me to feel comfortable wearing historic attire as it is intended to be worn. They take all of my questions seriously and often share much research and re-enactor lore. Fortunately, my Girl Scout training did teach me something of surviving in a camp outdoors and cooking over a hearth. At least I was ready to cook when asked to help prepare the stew and spiced sweet potato and apple dishes.

It is difficult to find words to describe what camping out overnight at George Washington's Mount Vernon is like. Beneath a just-recently full moon, the bustling camp was lit in lantern- and fire-light as we finished putting up our tents on Friday night. The uppermost tower in the house was light all night and the great sword of the constellation Orion the Hunter hung above me as I woke before dawn for a stroll down the hill to the necessaries. The temperature was perfect for autumn camping.
In daylight hours, the encampment was filled to the brim with more 18th-century folk than tourists. Children played hide-and-seek and giggled with each other. Women cooked, baked, washed dishes, gossiped, and had afternoon tea with Lady Washington (Mary Wiseman) on the bowling green. Infantrymen, rifle sharpshooters, and artillery troops drilled and demonstrated their training to all assembled in the valley below camp. On Saturday evening the good folks at Mount Vernon allowed the parent re-enactor organization, The Continental Line, to hold a large party for all re-enactors to celebrate the Line's 20th anniversary. It's difficult to say but there could have been one thousand re-enactors taking part during the weekend's events, certainly from every one of the former 13 colonies. I met a lady from Massachusetts during the hearth-baking class and several folks from a New Jersey unit. All volunteers. All driving to Virginia on their own dime just for the chance to be a part of this event.
For two whole days, you might have stepped into another century as a visitors walking along the plantation's main pathways. You could stroll into camp and talk to folks, watch the military drills or interact with 18th century gentlefolk going for a stroll around the grounds. For two entire days I soaked up every minute of not sitting in front of a computer, not answering phone calls, not watching t.v., but rather just living in the moment. That moment ,with the fight for liberty hanging in the balance, seems all the more real when it's enacted before your eyes and you are part of it.