Monday, July 19, 2010

A Book, A Boat, A Chair

I had no idea what I was going to see when I headed out early yesterday for the Adams National Historic Park. Yes, I knew I'd see the birthplace of both John and John Quincy (pronounced "Quin-zee" to locals), but that was about it. I wanted to see mostly what influence Abigail had in their lives, since she is the one I teach as an author. But I certainly got schooled. I loved it.

The birthplaces of both men are only about 75 feet apart, both humble, saltbox sorts of dwellings built in the 1600's. John's father was a strict man who wanted much from his young son, planning for him to enter the ministry, and made him study carefully. When John was in divinity school, he happened to witness the questioning of a minister who was not preaching the strict Calvinist philosophies and did not profess the required beliefs of the church. At that, young John decided that he was not cut out for the ministry because he didn't want anyone telling him what to think. He finished his education and took a job as a teacher, but disliked the work. He would often leave his younger students in the charge of his older ones and go off to observe meetings or other doings in the community. He knew this wouldn't work for long, so he saved up enough to apprentice himself to an attorney to study the law, as was common then instead of necessarily attending law school.

This was work he could sink his teeth into. His first case was a simple border dispute, one farmer's cow wandering onto another's property. He enjoyed moderate success with such cases for a while. Then, he nearly destroyed his practice by successfully defending the Tory officers who killed colonists in the Boston Massacre. I haven't wrapped my brain around why he defended them or how he won (it doesn't mesh with my impression of him as a great patriot and moral character), so I have to research that later. Certainly, soon after that, his actions proved him to be a great patriot. He was at the center of the revolution, from nominating George Washington to be commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary Army, to helping to negotiate the peace treaty with Great Britian. He spent much of his time for 10 years away from home on state business, usually in Europe. This is where we learned about Abigail: how she farmed, raised 5 children, and kept the home together, including during the war, with the British fleet within view of a hill on the farm. She secretly melted down everything pewter or lead that she could find to make musket balls (they had the little pliers-shaped tool used for that) and, when possible, she sold things out of the home that John could ship to her in quantities from Europe and she could sell for four or five times what they cost. I think that's called capitalism! All this, and writing the voluminous quantity of letters she and her husband shared---and a feminist to boot, though she wouldn't call it that.

When John went on a particular diplomatic trip to Russia, 11-year-old John Quincy accompanied his father, with his mother's parting words to warm him: "Don't disgrace the family. " J.Q. seemed to be something of a little genius and didn't have a lot to worry about. By the age of 14, he was an official for his father, acting as a French interpreter in Russia where peace talks were being held. The genius also had moral fiber; he was an ardent abolitionist and represented the kidnapped slaves in the Amistad case, who had been taken by Spanish captors. Both he and his father were eminent scholars and statesmen, perhaps better in lesser roles than presidents, but both recognized much after the fact for doing more good than harm. (Adams was responsible for the contentious Alien and Sedition Act, which makes my political hackles rise, but that's another story.)

I had no idea that we would be seeing Peacefield, the home that John and Abigail retired to after his presidency, and short trolley ride from the birthplace homestead. This was a much larger house, added to over time by five generations of Adamses before passing directly into preservation. It was full of genuine possessions of the family, including items Abigail collected from travels during and after her husband held the presidency. Two paintings of Abigail's ancestors, speculated to be the oldest paintings in America, hung in a ladies' parlor with a number of other portraits. There were Louis XIV chairs with enormously deep cushions to raise a woman above the arms of the chair when she sat; otherwise, the arms would crack the wooden hoops in their skirts or flip their skirts nearly over their heads! The men's parlor was paneled in a deep polished wood, very elegant, but Abigail added two windows to the room because the panels made the room so dark. Waterford crystal, John Adams' very eyeglasses, nicely provided maids' bedroom AND parlor: so much was there to be absorbed. But what I was completely captivated by was the books---nearly 10,000 of them! They weren't all in the house. J.Q. was very attached to his books, never getting rid of them, and he wanted a stone building to put them in because he was very worried about losing them in a fire. I think it was actually his son who got the building done, containing both his father's and grandfather's library, making it the first presidential library. It was right behind the house, and like the home, we could go inside, but there were no pictures or getting too close to anything. Still, to stand in a single room, two storied with just a scaffold-type walkway above, cram-packed with that much knowledge, was rather like being in a church for me. I've long held that libraries are the most attractive places in the world, but my theories on that usually gather me some strange looks, so I'll leave it alone here. I've been a LOT of libraries in my time, but none left me as starry-eyed as that one.

We wrapped up the tour in the garden, where the hedgerows were planted by the original Tory builder of the home, around 250 years ago. It had lovely flower varieties in it, much as the family had it. (There was one of the descendants, J.Q.'s son or grandson, who liked to look out of his bedroom first thing in the morning to admire the garden, enjoy the air...and shoot a rabbit for dinner. The shotgun was still hanging above his window!) It was nice to see something still thriving (with a lot of gardners watching over it) after all this time.

In comparison, Thoreau's Walden Pond, where I hiked this morning, would seem a great deal less stately, with its wild growth and busy activity. While most might think of remote wilderness when they hear Thoreau's name, it was his wish that every town have a place like Walden for families to come and enjoy. That was exactly why it was closed this weekend---lots of people enjoying the water, which is unnaturally high this year. On the way out to the pond, I had the brainstorm t0 pick up a picnic lunch (convenience store pre-packaged sandwich, yikes but yummy) to enjoy at the pond. Sandwiches always taste better to me when I eat them outside. Too bad there are no picnic tables! I made do with a piece of retaining wall with a lot of other folks and enjoyed watching a group of kids playing in the water. (My only torture on this trip: not being able to get in any pool or natural water because of the healing ulcer on my foot.) Even on Monday, there was a remarkable amount of activity: large family groups, canoers and kayakers passing back and forth in a group, lone swimmers crossing the entire pond, which was really more city-lake size to me. And yes, it was a very tasty ham sandwich, Fritos, and Diet Mt. Dew. After a little rest, I hiked up the trail to the original cabin site, then back to the replica near the park. It was cloudy but still humid, and I was grateful for the light breeze. I had plenty of opportunity for video and photos. One photo op I especially loved was of an old pine tree that was broken off at almost ground-level and had been left to rot. There was a gigantic knot, looking like a goiter on that tall, thin trunk, that just made me think of "The Devil and Tom Walker," how Tom comes across the Devil in a forest sitting on just such a tree. It was even gloomy looking like in the story. I hope the photo comes out well; it will be a good set-up for when we read it. The cabin was small enough that if I had tried, I could have nearly touched the two sides, but not quite. In length, it fit a partially opened door, a short bed, and a wood box. I love my solitude, but I don't think I could have made it there two years, as Henry did.

And there, my travel ends and my work begins....but I hope you'll indulge my little self-involved rumination I'll wrap up with.

Yesterday afternoon held a treat I planned for myself, my whale-watching tour, which I adored. We saw five humpback whales feeding and flipping up their tails for as long as we could stay. Maybe the best part of the trip was riding on the top deck the whole time, having three hours of travel out there with time to just be still and think, letting everything fade into a pleasant background of ocean wind, the scent of popcorn, the sound of the happy Eastern European family behind me talking and laughing. In situations like this where most people would feel alone, I seem to thrive. I began to think of how, loving this experience in a calm way a farm girl from a land-locked state should be wide-eyed over, I had been finding myself in some ways all over New England the past two weeks. Like Miss Emily, I am often less likely to put myself out there, prefering to observe quietly and thoughtfully from a hidden spot. There are many, many times when I would like to be a recluse and spend all my time on books and writing and not worry about work or money, the way Thoreau chose to do. Like Hawthorne, I don't work well with distractions, and like him, I suffer my black moods more than I would like to admit. Frost's love of the land, his ability to link emotion to the smallest of events in nature, is like a vein of gold in my spirit; though I'm completely citified now, I always retain my respect for farm life and what it taught me. The Salem Witch Trials, their poison arrows that missed the truth in perception by miles, and The Crucible remain the clearest way I know of to demonstrate how much each one of us has done wrongand can do wrong in judging others. And watching all the activities at Old Sturbridge Village, I thought of my upbringing and how much I long for the time when things were done the "old" ways. Simply put, I had come to New England thinking I was going to learn about others, and I found parts of myself in everything I learned. I will hope now that I can convert something of the joy I find in this to my students, their lives, and their futures. That's what all this has been for. What I've gained personally is my lucky, lucky fortune.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Patriot's Day

On my return to Concord today, I took a different route in. Yes, OK, it was accidental. But at least I was on the way to Concord. I came across a large parking lot with a number of cars and a sign about the Minutemen Memorial. I swung in, pretty convinced I could get a pic and dash on to Walden Pond before it was closed, since they allow no more than 1000 people in at time. But there was no statue. There were some displays around the room, but the real jewel was the multimedia presentation of the events of April 19, 1775. It broke my stride in my timeline, but it was worth it. Before I even left the building, I was thinking of how I could use the information here to help prep my students for the Declaration of Independence. Another piece of that puzzle fell into place a bit later.

Racing off to Walden, knowing I was pressing my luck to get there after 10 and get in, I thought of the things I had left. When I drove by and saw the sign "Park Closed until 3 p.m.," I knew my plan. Setting off for Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, I went in search of Author's Ridge. "Ridge" indeed! A steep paved path with handrails led straight up a sharp incline that was evidently too much for one mother; there was a stroller sitting at the foot of the slope unattended. Straight up, corner to the right, across the edge of the ridge, corner left and straight ahead is Thoreau's grave, as well as all of his siblings, none of whom married. Just across and up the path a few steps was the humble grave of Hawthorne, his simple headstone conveying nothing but his last name. It was here that I noticed the oily-sweet smell of pine needles; they were everywhere on the floor of the cemetery, having rained down from the enormous trees and been crushed by visitors. They were comforting to smell. There were fresh breezes under those trees on the crest of that great hill, so I marched onward to find Louisa May Alcott just ahead on the right, another burial with family. Finally, the Emerson family was last, a few dozen steps beyond the others. After paying my respects, I sat down on some steps to enjoy the breezes and think, not for the first time, about all that greatness resting in one narrow ridge in Eastern Massachusetts. The odds of that many great writers and authors in one town now are not safe bets!

I went off in search of the Old Manse, which was built by Emerson's grandfather, and from where he and the family watched the battle at the North Bridge in 1775. When I realized the north bridge was behind the house, and that THAT was where the minutemen statue was, I trotted off in that direction. ( They have these "Minutemen" National Parks buildings set up in a number of locations. It seemed like the old bait-and-switch to me!) Here I experienced what may be my best video to date: a reenactment of a town hall meeting to decide on the important issue of tea taxes, among other things, using three park rangers plus discussion from the audience. A little difficult to film with a little boy running between me and my subjects, but hopefully useful when it's time to study the Declaration. It was a lively discussion since a large group of students from Boston College was in the audience. I wandered this area for more than an hour and a half, and it just never seemed I could catch it all. It was an eerie feeling standing on that bridge and knowing that everything I am, have, know, or will be is because of the bloodshed that took place there. My instinct was to drop to my knees, but that might have alarmed people, and it was a very busy place. I said my prayers quietly at the apex of the bridge and trekked up to the Old Manse.

The Old Manse had a patchwork past of Reverends living there, family members staying there, roomers to help when times were tough, renters (the Hawthornes) when times got even tougher. After William Emerson came to Concord to be the new pastor, he built the house. But he died when his son was only eight, so his resourceful wife took in the new pastor as a boarder, and a couple of years later they were married. So the man Emerson knew as his grandfather, Ezra Ripley, was really his step-grandfather. This made no difference to either of them. When Emerson needed a place to go after returning home from traveling in Europe to escape despair over the death of his young wife, it was to the Old Manse that he came home, and where he wrote his first great work, "Nature." After he left, the Hawthornes rented it as their first home, moving in the day after their marriage. He called their time there a "three-year honeymoon." They were a bit sappy; this is the home where Sophia used her diamond to carve inscriptions in the windows, a practice Hawthorne joined in with as they mutually adored one another. But the most impressive stories I heard about the Manse were about Emerson's aunt, a woman who was named Phoebe, I believe, who was left with 8 children when her husband died, started a home for "rusticating" boys (reforming them) in the attic, housing up to 14 at a time, teaching them all, teaching herself 7 languages, higher math, botany, and everything else you can imagine. Thoreau credited her for all his knowledge of botany, and the president of Harvard said she could have taken over as the dean of any department of the college. One story from the family recalled her sitting at her desk in the schoolroom/parlor, using vegetables to teach the children botany, shelling peas for dinner, and rocking a cradle with a grandchild in it, all at once. I thought such superwomen only existed in movies, and in my mother.

By the time I finished there, the 3 p.m. re-opening of Walden was long past. It was nearly 5, but I drove by the park anyway. No dice. So I have a new plan. I only have that and one other site to cover: the Adams Historical Park, for Abigail Adams. I HAVE to go through Boston on the T to get there. I had already decided to treat myself to a whale watching trip tomorrow afternoon from the New England Aquarium, so I'll try to get to the Adams site early enough in the morning to take a tour then. (They are very popular and fill up fast, even more so after the success of the HBO miniseries John Adams. ) Then Monday I can trot out to Walden when everyone has left the water and gone back to work, go Fed-Ex all my collected items home, and pack it up to head for home myself on Tuesday. I'm tired and ready to be home, and yet, I know this kind of adventure doesn't come often in life. Just a little, I want it to linger.

Friday, July 16, 2010


I titled my previous blog "Skirting the Issue" and never quite got around to conveying why, and I can't leave unfinished business like that. You may have picked up on it: here I've been in the outskirts of Boston for three days, hardly coming within sight of the city, and yet I'm reeling with the effort of choosing what I can see and fit into my schedule, and what will have to go. Heat waves notwithstanding, there are a few things I must do. Today I set out for Concord, fairly certain that I had my choices down and would be good. I would eliminate anything not strictly literary, and I went right to the visitor's center, where a friendly gentleman went over a map outlining the places to see.

I started out at Orchard House, the home that Louisa May Alcott, who wrote Little Women, lived in the longest. This is the home in which the story is set, although because of the family's pervasive poverty, they moved very often, sometimes yearly, in her childhood. (Her father was a teacher who had some progressive ideas that got him in trouble over and over, but he didn't neglect the family's need. He just refused to compromise on his ideals.) I can't say that just this book made me a reader, but it is as universal an experience for girls who read as anything I can think of, and I adored it. On the advice of a teacher friend, I had to include the tour. Julie, you were so right! Orchard House is not just beautifully preserved outside, but the objects in the house are, for the most part, the genuine article. (Alcott was famous enough in her lifetime to support her parents and several other family members, and they were mindful in keeping things intact for future generations.) There was even Jo's (Louisa's) "mood" pillow on the sofa, which indicated her temperament at the moment. Stood on end, it meant all was well. Laid flat, it meant she was not to be messed with. I asked the tour guide if they sold those, and she said they did but were out, so I would have to go to the website to order one. I'm thinking that could be useful at school. On the other hand, it might just lead to torment....

Well, the Alcott home was a marvel. Just as in her books (yes, there's more than Little Women, if you didn't know: Little Men and Jo's Boys), the family was passionate about abolition. In life, they harbored at least a few fugitive slaves. Marmee was known by many for her social causes, helping the poor and less fortunate no matter what. For that matter, so was Bronson Alcott. But it left the family in desperate situations at times. When the Alcotts lived next door at the Wayside, Marmee and the girls left to live with relatives in Boston after three years in the house, rather than face another winter with too little fuel and food. Bronson eventually followed, and the cycle continued. It's quite obvious why Louisa was driven to find a way to support the family. No one begrudged Bronson his ideology and he wasn't afraid of hard work, but something had to change their circumstances. She found the way to do that. She continued her work after the abolition of slavery by fighting for women's suffrage: she was the first female registered to vote in Concord and the first to cast a ballot.

After this fabulous tour, I walked past a short stretch of trees on the steep hillside, terraced by Bronson Alcott, to the Wayside. After the wonderful exterior preservation of Orchard House, I was shocked by the appearance of this most historic of all author homes, having housed at least three famous authors. The paint was the same color as I had always seen in pictures, an elegant creamy yellow, but there were few if any parts of the facade that weren't peeling as though the paint were cooking right off at that moment. Knowing this was part of the Minuteman National Park, I was confused at the seeming lack of pride it showed. So was our young ranger guide, I believe. He stopped at one part of the tour to point out some damage inside and mentioned that under new leadership, they were getting funds rolling in to repair some of the most dangerous damage, leaking roofs being the main thing.

After the care and detail presented at Orchard House, it was impossible for this tour to compete for my attention, and yet, here I had the strangest experience. The Lothrop family began preserving the house after buying it from Nathaniel Hawthorne's daughter Rose and eventually sold it to the Park Service in 1965. (This was the only house he owned, sometime after the Alcotts, and he made at least one major change that I had wanted to see for a long time.) The Lothrop daughter who owned it last preserved the few things that she could from the Hawthorne's time there; he was a successful man in his time, and the Lothrop family recognized the importance of preservation of history. One of those items was a dining room table, of a sort you might find anywhere in a home of that time, rectangular with room for leaves to add to the size when necessary. In the low light of that room, it gleamed a rich reddish brown the color of ale, as though it had been waxed on a regular basis ever since Hawthorne's death 150 years ago. The ranger spoke of the people who were known guests of the Hawthorne family and sat at the table to share meals and discussions---the Emersons, Thoreau, the Alcott family, Franklin Pierce---and he spun a bit of magic, it seemed. The ranger confessed to being Boston Irish and one who treasured those sorts of traditions, and maybe that's what did it. But I looked at the unscarred surface of that table and I got goosebumps, and to my surprise, I got tears in my eyes. Was it all that greatness humbled by the everyday act of eating a meal at that one table that got me? My own joy at having all my family in one place sitting down to a meal together? Maybe even frustration that here was an object directly linked to so much history within my reach, and I couldn't touch it? Whatever it was, I felt a little breathless as we moved on through the house.

Hawthorne, who I love for his dark side, his torment, as much as for his gift with the language, needed a place to work without distraction, so he added a writing room as a third story and called it his "Sky Parlor." He had bookshelves built in and a writing desk and chair, but he also liked to write standing up, so he had a drop-leaf writing table installed here facing away from any windows so that he wouldn't be distracted. He had used a similar desk at the Salem Custom House where he worked earlier in life, and the ranger gave us the impression that he got in the habit there. That's what I most wanted to see, since I'm usually of the opinion of "Why stand when I can sit?" I think I understand it better now; the discipline of standing would probably make me more focused and less likely to wool-gather. It was more than worth the veeery steep climb!

I was shocked to find I had already spent half the day in just these two sights, with so much more to cover, so I decided to do things geographically and drive to the next closest site, the Emerson house. I had not been that impressed with him when I was younger, but things change when you teach an author, and teaching Self-Reliance to young people is like a call to arms for a battle they are already engaged in. When the light bulb goes on, you see their perception of life change in that moment! So I couldn't skip Emerson. But I thought about it once they let me inside, at 2:30, with no air and 90+ temps outside. It was roasting, but I made it through. It was worth it; the house had passed directly from Emerson's unmarried daughter into a Memorial Association, so it was full of things that belonged to him: his walking canes, his hat, over 3,000 books, his robes, and many paintings. He was (and is still) so respected that the town gave Emerson money to rebuild when a part of his house burned, and so much was given that they suggested he use what was left to travel, so he went to Africa for several months with his daughter while his wife oversaw construction. He was able to travel extensively, meeting Thomas Carlysle and Alfred Lord Tennyson in Europe and exploring the American West with Naturalist John Muir. He himself was revered nearly everywhere and lectured up until the last years of his life. He met Presidents Lincoln and Grant, and was greatly honored when Lincoln told him that he had come to hear Emerson lecture a number of years before. And I learned today the story of another Emerson associate, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, who was caned nearly to death on the floor of the Senate for his uncompromising stand against slavery by South Carolina Senator Preston Brooks. I'm ashamed that such a thing happened, but more ashamed that I never knew the story. This is what I love most about teaching literature: always, always, there is something new to learn. The gifts we receive, the insight, are boundless and bottomless. They're limited only by our willingness to study, read, see, think, react, respond. Emerson knew that power and was not afraid to use it, gentle man that he was. He had firm views on abolition, and when his good friend Hawthorne brought him a copy of his newest book that was dedicated to Hawthorne's Bowdoin classmate and friend Franklin Pierce, the president who fought against abolition, Emerson ripped that page out in front of Hawthorne. What kind of conviction must that have taken? What kind of love? Emerson must have known.

There were some details given today about his life that I already knew, about his first wife dying young and the death of his young son, the travel, the abiding love of home despite his many travels. What I didn't have a sense of before was of his reality. I've fallen prey to the English teacher's dilemma of raising some authors to the level of demi-god and forgetting the human presence. (It doesn't help that he was a Unitarian minister, and I'm Unitarian. He's often quoted in our services.) I've walked his halls, breathed the dust of his books, felt the weight of his spirit. I think he can be real now and take a rest from that dangerously high pedestal.

That was six hours of a sweltering day, time that flew like no other. It was enough. I found some lunch at my first real Boston Market restaurant and returned to my cool cave to rest and write---another of the world's longest blogs. Thanks for persevering this far!

Tomorrow: Walden and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. I have to try to get to Walden before everyone else on a blistering Saturday morning; they close the park at 1000 visitors and warn that it happens often when it's hot. It's officially hot! Place your bets and check back tomorrow.

Skirting the Issue

Hello, all. You may have realized I didn't post a blog yesterday, but it was not for lack of trying; my new home just had hinky internet issues last night. I am in my new digs at the Best Western in Waltham, about 15 miles west of Boston. Over the hills yesterday when I settled in, I could see a couple of the buildings of downtown. Today, it's much too hot and hazy. And that weather has settled in for the duration of my stay: 90's through Monday. I'm afraid it may curtail my just-for-fun run through the city; I don't know if it's age or diabetes, but heat seems to affect me more all the time. But let's talk about everything from the last two days. SOOO much!

As expected, yesterday I went back to Salem. So did everyone else on the eastern seaboard, apparently. I found out later that the traffic was so bad because Thursday is Farmer's Market day in Salem, and it is a big deal. And of course, as soon as I got there (even possibly before), I was lost. I was driving along in despair and frustration when I happily sighted a dark-brown frame home that I recognized as one of the most important places I wanted to visit, the Jonathan Corwin home, known as the Witch House. That's a misnomer; Corwin was a successful merchant and, as such, was given power as a local magistrate, and he did question a few people early on, but no trials were held in the home. The reason I wanted to see it was that it was the only building that remained standing from that time period. (Salem is overflowing with buildings going back to the 1700's, but this house was built in the early 1600's.) And glory! They allowed photography as long as it wasn't flash photography, so I set my camera for candlelight and off we went. (That and the Frost places are the only ones I've seen that allowed it.) I was particularly attracted to the little displays they had around the rooms, such as a variety of spoons, with relevant explanations. Most people of the time ate with their hands only, and scooped things up with bread if they needed a utensil. A few people did have spoons and possibly even knives, but forks were rare; they were used exclusively for holding a large piece of meat to be sliced and served. I was also surprised to see a double bed with a trundle bed that slid out at the foot of the bed. These were mostly used for young children. (Rope beds don't seem to lend themselves well to this, but they made it work.)

During the tour, we learned some interesting sociological details. One habit of the time was to put old shoes inside the walls of a new building area. It was thought that well-traveled shoes would protect the house from....whatever! Also, an unmarried couple could share a bed while they were courting (in circumstances such as bad weather or such) by what was called "bundling": They remained fully clothed, and sometimes a "bundling board" would be fitted down the center of the bed. (Off to the side in a bedroom, there was a little verse that claimed if a maiden lay down bundled with a man and he didn't "offend" her, he would be a faithful husband; if he did offend, he would not be faithful. No mention of what it meant of HER actions!) We saw a bread oven, which I haven't noticed in any of the other sites. It was a little nook about the size of a 9 x 13 inch pan, building deeper in the wall in a large cooking fireplace. Coals would be placed in there until it was hot, then removed before the bread was cooked. I didn't get as much witch trials info here as I might have wanted, but it was great culturally.

I moved on to hit some high points of Salem by riding the trolley, when I finally found the station, that is! It gave me an overview of so much of the city; one could spend a week there just touring historic sites, besides the months of study one could do in nearby Boston. I saw the House of the Seven Gables, though I didn't tour it since I don't teach it, and the home George Washington stayed in. There were countless maritime sites, most notably the Custom House, which was by the shore when it was first built, as it should be, but the shoreline changed as the city filled it in, three blocks worth. This tour helped me find the Old Burying Point cemetery and the memorial to the victims of the witch trials. The memorial was uniquely appropriate. It was a U-shaped granite wall, with the occasional slab built half-way out of the wall and the name and date of death of one victim on it, and how he/she died. Perhaps it was the late-afternoon light, or maybe just the mood of the place, but it seemed to draw notice: "Watch carefully! Be slow to judge!" I wanted to step to the middle of the grassy area in the enclosure of the wall and just BE there, be still there, to listen, but I thought it might look a little odd to the other visitors. :-)

That was the best possible note I could end the day on, so I headed out for Waltham with only a few dozen wrong turns and settled in to prepare for today. Ah, today! I'll post this, take a break, and be back later to serve up a first taste of Concord to you! Yum...

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Of Witches and Winding Roads

We escaped the flooding in our area today, just some heavy rain this morning. By early afternoon, I set off for Salem, MA, to begin what I knew would be a few days of research and investigation. There are A LOT of touristy things that go on down there, so I was planning on limiting it to those most visible with viable historical value. The first on the list was the Salem Witch Museum, because I knew they would have books and videos that might be helpful to me in teaching The Crucible. (Just a side note for those unfamiliar with the topic: the Salem Witch Trials were true events that took place largely because of hysteria, fear, and scapegoating. No one has ever proved that witchcraft was practiced. Instead, 19 innocent people, and allegedly one dog, were hanged. The Crucible is Arthur Miller's play, meant to dramatize the foolishness of the McCarthy hearings. This is largely where we get the term "witch hunt.") After a stop at the Visitor's Center maintained by the National Park Service to get local info and maps, I headed that way.

The outside of the building---big surprise!---was under construction, completely covering the facade with scaffolds and mesh. Despite the fact that it looked like a construction site, the inside was fine, just a bit crowded. I got there with 20 minutes to spare before the next reenactment showing, just enough time to look over a few exhibits regarding the events. I was looking at a large sign with a list of those who were arrested and those who were executed, when an older woman with three girls, aged maybe 7 to 11, came up beside me. The woman pointed out the name "Rebecca Nurse" and said, "There she is, girls. Rebecca Nurse. She was your great-great-great-great auntie." The little girls were unimpressed, I think, but I was stunned. How much more do we need to see that history continues to affect us? I talked a bit with the woman, who was very nice in asking me where I was from and what brought me there from so far away. I asked whether the line of descendence came through her family, and she said it came through her son-in-law's, so she didn't know a lot about it. She did tell me that some of the family branches had changed the spelling to Nourse, but it was pronounced the same way, adding confusion. I considered it a serindipitous meeting, just a little tidbit I can use to go back to my students to say, "See, what happened over 300 years ago still matters to someone."

The reenactment with a number of sets in a circle around the room, lighting up in succession to tell the story, was a little elementary to my taste, but it gave me some interesting questions to investigate about historical fact. Was Ann Putnam really made mad from losing two of her children plus her sister dying in childbirth? Did she REALLY start investigating ways to contact the dead? (Those ideas from the reenactment were totally new to me.) Is is true that Rebecca Nurse, possibly the most saintly person that ever lived, had chains added to hold her down when people said she was still sending out her spirit to torment them? And once the craziness died down, why did it take several years for some people to be released?

After watching and contemplating, we were guided through a short history of what we know as witches. The first, pagan midwives in the Celtic regions, were largely respected for both healing and for "charms." The same herbs could both heal and had some "magic" property, in the eyes of the early Celts. They worshiped the Earth Mother, which is probably what led to their downfall. With the Christianization of the British Isles, these women were often branded as heretics and witches. Women (and some men) continued to become victims of this thinking throughout the Middle Ages and even into modern history. The last largely publicized era of persecution of suspected witches was in Salem Village in 1692, but we all know that someone, somewhere, is always on the trail of a "witch" of some kind or another. For Hitler, it was Jews and the handicapped and gypsies. In the late 80's and early 90's, it was homosexuals. Today...take your pick. I'll get too mad if I start naming them.

I found a video produced by the Peabody Essex Museum (premiere museum in greater Boston, just up the street from the Witch Museum) and two books to help our class study of this essential piece of literature. It is the unit I most enjoy teaching, both because my kids get into it, and because it is so important in so many ways: historical, religious, literary. I won't bore you with the details, but here's this: if you've never studied or seen The Crucible, rent the version with Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder. You will see clearly why government and church must always be separate, and why circumstantial evidence is better than eyewitness testimony in some cases.

I'm saddened by the fact that it's time for me to pack up and leave my little Park View Inn. It's been a piece of sanity to come back in the evenings and be able to look out at nicely-mown grass, trees, and a picnic table after the rush of the traffic and the busy outside world. I move now to my reserved hotel in Boston as I finish up my trip there for 5 nights. I can't tell you how nervous I am! The roads, oh, the roads! There are no simple intersections of ANYthing here: it's unobtrusive Y's that I overlook and go off on a wrong direction (with no way to get back) or traffic circles that are actually squares, or elaborate Chinese-puzzle double cloverleafs. Not to mention 8-lane expressways---and all this 30 miles out of Boston! Except for finishing Salem and going to Concord and Lexington, I think it's safe to say I'll only be driving to the train station the rest of my time.

Hey, thanks again for all the comments, AND for overlooking my horrible mistakes I've found after-the-fact. Writing on the fly on a laptop has not been great for my grammar skills, but at least I have some thoughts down. It's going to be so beneficial to me later.

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

America's Stonehenge

The computer just lost my blog! I spent an hour and a half on it, and it's gone. And I have to go to sleep!

Well, this is the short version: today was America's Stonehenge, a site that has been carbon-dated to 2000 BC. It's not built like the European Stonehenge, but it can still be used to read celestial events such as equinoxes. I think it will be a good addition to my first literature unit on Native American mythology since we are particularly tuned in to that in the Cherokee nation. As far as I know, there are no other sites like this that have been excavated and researched. The Pueblos of the Southwest would be a similar kind of site, but this site is made entirely of granite, in slabs and boulders and chunks of several tons. It's hard to imagine how they might have moved those 4000 years ago; however, the construction is so careful that the chambers that still have their roofes don't leak. In addition to that, A.S. served as a stop on the Underground Railroad because it was near the post road running north out of Boston.

I spent an enjoyable afternoon on Mystery Hill doing video and photography of the site and talking to a few people, but I mostly had the place to myself. It was another good opportunity to reflect on how deep our roots run, in areas we've never even seen.

Tomorrow they are calling for flooding rains; I parked the car on higher ground and will hope for the best. I want to start on Salem, MA, tomorrow if possible. Wish me luck!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Finding Frost

(NOTE: For some reason, the wi-fi here wouldn't let me post this last night.)

No, I didn't forget you, dear blogosphere. After my travels and a visit to the Robert Frost farm yesterday, I moved on down the road to Salem, NH, and located America's Stonehenge for today's research. I found a motel set back off the highway with an excellent rate and a park-like setting, picked up some dinner, and settled in to relax. I had a TV show on that I really love. Unfortunately, I have no idea what happened because I fell asleep for two hours sitting straight up in a chair. (I had slept only a few hours the two previous nights.) I remember waking up, but I can't recall going to bed, so I certainly couldn't have written a coherent blog, although it might have been something funny to read later! And I also owe an apologetic shout-out to my buddy Harry from the Farm, to whom I promised I'd have a blog posted last night. Sorry about that, Harry!

The Frost Farm was one of the most spiritual experiences I have had on my journey so far. The house had some of the original furniture, and I was able to take all the photos I wanted. Will, Harry's brother, was our docent on the tour, was very knowledgeable about the author with direct information from Lesley Frost, the daughter of the poet. She had helped with making the Derry farm Frost's memorial, which was his request. Here I learned that Frost's grandfather bought the Derry place for his grandson because he was afraid his grandson would never have a position or vocation. Unfortunately, Frost wasn't much cut out for farming. He didn't make a very good impression on those who were actually involved in farming, partly because he seemed to be acting the part, and partly because he was financed with a $500 annuity from his grandfather. But that was not quite enough to support the family since they weren't very thrifty. He worked as a teacher at the local academy, but because of their debts, that wasn't enough, either. He had tried to get a few poems published to no avail. After a few years, Frost sold the farm and moved his family to England, where he was quickly able to find a publisher. After a time, he bought the Derry farm back, although most of time, he lived in different towns all over the Northeast as a resident poet. Included with the tour was a video of both Lesley and Robert Frost reading and discussing poetry. The footage was old, of course, but I loved it.

It was great to tour the inside, but Frost was the poet he was because of his connection to nature, and that's what I wanted to capture. In search of this connection, I set off down the path behind the barn. I had been looking forward to it the whole time I was in the house; it followed a rock wall under heavy shade, east along the edge of a meadow. Stepping into that shade I found the coolest, driest spot I'd felt in days, maybe weeks. The late afternoon sun filtered through the dense trees, and I felt completely at home. I wandered down the wall reading some of the poetry and facts included on the guide provided, but mostly I just enjoyed it. There was so little sound, just a little rustling from the trees, but I was lost in enjoyment---I couldn't even tell you whether there were bird or insect sounds, and I don't know if it's because it was so quiet or because I was in awe. The wall was just the sort that would have inspired "Mending Wall" or any number of other poems, and it was fascinating to me. When I got to the end of the meadow, I found a large boulder to sit on and enjoy the view back to the west. I knew I connected with it because I was raised on a ranch that is still the one place I can go on earth and know I can escape any stress or worry. My students feel this, too, in the rural area where I teach, and to emphasize that connection is what I wanted to do for them in visiting the farm. I hope my photos and personal experiences will show them that poetry is relevant to their lives in all sorts of ways.

That leaves today. Today was a washout---literally. We had flooding rains here, and I have the pic to prove it: my rental car with water almost up to the bumper! With the threat of rain all day, I couldn't visit my site. Later in the afternoon it began to clear up some, and the water went down. I took the opportunity to drive about 30 minutes to the coast, find a parking spot, put in 4 quarters to give me 40 minutes, and hike down to the beach to listen to the waves for a while. That sound is so relaxing to me; it always seems to make me want to sleep. It was almost cold; I had jeans and a t-shirt on and was a little cool, but there were a few people out and in the water. Just before I left, the sun came out and lit things up nicely. It was a lovely way to end the day. Hopefully, tomorrow will be just as nice.