Monday, November 29, 2010

A Wise Use of Time

          When we think of explorers in the early 1800s, we often think of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and the Corps of Discovery.  They were amazing, however, there was another pair of explorers who explored the rivers, lands and people of South America.  Alexander von Humboldt and his assistant Aime Bonpland left Europe in 1799, a few years before Lewis and Clark and for five years, explored the territories that would one day be Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Cuba and Mexico.
            Humboldt’s goal was to find the interconnectedness of everything – an ambitious goal!  Humboldt and Bonpland gathered information in the fields of geology, anthropology, climatology, zoology, plant geography, terrestrial magnetism, oceanography, mineralogy, ethnography and political economy (Humboldt, ix).   They carried and constantly used forty-two different scientific instruments to allow them to observe any and all things they encountered. “They took with them . . . books, chronometers, telescopes, sextants, theodolites, quadrants, a dipping needle, compasses, a magnetometer, a pendulum, several barometers, thermometers, hygrometers, electrometers, a cynometer (for measuring the blueness of the sky), eudiometers (for measuring the quantity of oxygen in the atmosphere), and apparatus to determine the temperature at which water boils at different altitudes, a rain gauge, and galvanic batteries(Humboldt, xxiii) – quite a unique packing list.
            Humboldt not only studied nature but the different languages, cultures and societies he encountered.  When he returned, he could discuss in great detail the advancements of the Pre-Columbian culture, its hieroglyphics, pyramids, gardens and calendars and was an advocate to preserve the native languages he came across.
            Humboldt and Bonpland struggled through many experiences along the rivers of South America and at times were “caught in flash floods; abandoned by their guides; stalked by jaguars, stung by electric eels; prostrated by fever, fatigue, diarrhea and dehydration; bereft of all food; and simply, hopelessly lost” (Sachs, 61).
            As they traveled down the Orinoco River, they battled mosquitoes.  Here these maddening insects were so thick that Humboldt could not take astronomical readings to tell exactly where they were.  The mosquitoes covered the explorers’ faces and hands, stung them through their clothes and found their way into their noses and mouths.  To get a reprieve from these small tormentors, Humboldt slept on boulders in the middle of a raging river, rubbed himself with crocodile fat, buried himself in the dirt, and even sat in a smoking clay oven.  Near the end of their journey on the Orinoco River, Humboldt’s canoe had worn so thin from hitting against rocks in the water and portages, that they had to be extremely careful to keep it intact. 
            Throughout this entire treacherous journey, Humboldt delighted in the wide variety of plants, animals and cultures and kept copious notes as well as detailed illustrations.  “Everything is interrelated,” Humboldt continually stated.   
            I am amazed at all Humboldt accomplished in his life and impressed with his desire to learn all he could about literally everything.  He only had twenty-four hours in each of his days, yet his passion to learn seemed to somehow magically expand time for him.
Alexander von Humboldt, “Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent,” (1995), ix.

Humboldt to Karl Ehrenbert von Moll, June 5, 1799, in Alexander von Humboldt: Eine wissenschftliche Biographie, by Karl Bruhns, (Osnabruck: Zeller), 274.

Sachs, Aaron. The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism. Penguin Books. 2007.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

We Gather Together

            Since I was young I have sung “We Gather Together” during the Thanksgiving season.  This song would conjure up scenes of the Pilgrims surrounding a large table outside,with the Indians standing beside them; the center of the table filled with serving trays of turkey and platters of roasted corn.  Everyone in the scene was at peace with each other and enjoying freedom of religion in the New World.
            A few years ago, however, I happened to glance at the bottom of the page while singing the first verse of this hymn and realized that it was actually written in the Netherlands in 1626.  At once, I came to the understanding that this song was not about the Pilgrims at all, but instead was about the Dutch.  They had been under Spanish rule for years and in this hymn, they were expressing gratitude for escaping the Spanish so they could have the freedom to sail the seas in pursuit of trade opportunities and gather to worship as they wanted.  Years before this song was written the Dutch were at war with the Catholic King Phillip II of Spain and since the Dutch were mostly Protestants, this war was not just about lands, but also religion.
            “We Gather Together” was originally written in 1597 b y Adrianus Valerius to celebrate the Dutch victory over Spanish forces in the Battle of Turnhout - part of the Eighty Year War.  The city of Turnhout was a borderland between the Northern and Southern Netherlands and it was at this place, early in 1597 that the Dutch Cavalry defeated the Spanish Cavalry Unit.  The leader of the Dutch in this battle was Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange or just Prince Maurice.
            “We Gather Together” first appeared in 1626 as part of a collection of Dutch Patriotic Hymns.  As the Dutch sang, “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessings” they were grateful for the fact that they could finally gather and worship as they pleased which was something that had been forbidden under Spain’s Catholic rule.
            This song continued to find a place in hymnbooks of various denominations as the feelings of gratitude expressed in it are somewhat universal.  During World War II as Americans sang “the wicked oppressing, now cease from distressing” they did not think of the Spanish and the Dutch, instead their minds were turned to Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
            So as you “Gather Together” this holiday season, take a minute to be grateful for the blessings you have in your life, no matter how difficult the past has been.

Monday, November 22, 2010


           The world we live in today is busy and filled with countless opportunities – a fantastic time to be alive.  As we look back a bit at what life was like for the peasants living during medieval times in Europe, we see that their lives were also busy but they did not have the chances we are allowed today.  In J.M. Roberts remarkable book, A Short History of the World, medieval Europe is described: “Everyday life was cramped and confined by the absence of much that we take for granted.  There was nothing much for laymen to do, after all, except pray, fight, hunt [or] farm; there were no professions for men to enter” (Roberts, 231).  It is hard to imagine not having the opportunity to train for and enter a different line of work.              
            One of the things mentioned by Roberts that we “take for granted” is the chance to read.  During these earlier times, literacy was nearly non-existent and it was usually only the monks of the Church that could read or write.  This would not allow many people to improve their minds or be introduced to new ideas, truths or even captivating tales.  We must also remember that women were lower on the social ladder than men so their chances for learning were severely limited during this era.
            One detail of medieval life that contributed to the high rate of illiteracy was the fact that there were actually not many books available.  One of the great inventions of the fifteenth century that changed this was the printing press, which allowed more people access to printed material as opposed to the few copies of mainly scripture that were produced by monks.  Once the printing press caught on, the most printed book was still the Bible but soon people began to want copies of the works of great theologians and ancient authors and as more printed materials began to circulate in greater numbers, more ideas began to be shared as well, giving the people a hope in the future. 
            Even though the printing press led Europe to becoming a more literate society, many of the poorer Europeans still could not read even in the 1800s.  They might, however, have books read to them to help them understand the ideas and issues being discussed at this time.
J. M. Roberts, A Short History of the World, (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Risks of Running

             I am a runner.  I started running several years ago to get into better shape but it has turned into an activity I look forward to each day.  I also enjoy reading books about other runners and discovered Shanti Sosiendki’s book Women Who Run.  As I read the introduction, I was startled to learn that it has only been just over 35 years that women have been allowed to legally run in marathons in the United States because it was believed that if a woman ran that far her uterus would fall out.  As a result it was not until 1984 that the Olympics even had a marathon event for women (Sosienski, xix).  Today tens of thousands of women run in marathons every year  - and not one of them has lost their uterus.
            It is interesting to look back and see how limits have been put on women throughout history.  Another example of false information stopping women from being more a part of the world is the story of the amazing woman, Henrietta Swan Leavitt.  Henrietta lived in the 1800s when it was believed that our Milky Way galaxy was the center of the universe and the most significant object in it.   However, during this time larger telescopes began to look further into the heavens finding more accurate information.  One of these larger telescopes was located at the Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This telescope took photographic negatives of the night sky that were created as the telescope was aimed into the heavens and “its light focused onto a large glass plate coated on one side with light-sensitive emulsion” (Johnson, 10).  Henrietta was employed at the Harvard Observatory as a human computer, and it was her job to count and study the stars on these photographic plates.  Miss Leavitt and other women spent the day examining the tiny dark dots on the white background of space, and recording their observations in a ledger book.
                  Previous to her employment at the Harvard Observatory, Miss Leavitt attended Oberlin College and Radcliffe Academy taking various courses covering a wide range of fields of study.  Shortly before her twenty-fourth birthday in 1892, she graduated with a certificate saying she had completed a number of curriculum courses.  If she had been a man during this era, the courses she successfully completed would have earned her a Bachelor of Arts degree from Harvard.
            These women or human computers were not allowed to actually view the sky with the telescope at Harvard Observatory because it was “assumed that night-long vigils in a frigid dome required a masculine physique” (Center for the History of Physics).  However, this did not stop Miss Leavitt from contributing to the field of astronomy.
            As Miss Leavitt spent hours studying the star patterns on the pieces of glass, she eventually discovered a way to measure the distances of far away objects in the universe. She determined that there was a relationship between the brightness of variable stars or Cepheids, (those who change in brightness) and how long they remained bright.  Her discovery meant that Cepheids could be used as “cosmic measuring posts” for objects far beyond our solar system to determine how far away they actually were from the Earth.
            It is interesting to note that while Miss Leavitt made her “universe changing discovery” by studying photographic plates, she was able to do more to advance astronomy than some of the male astronomers of that era. 
            An example of this is the astronomer William H. Pickering, brother of Edward Pickering, the director of the Harvard College Observatory.  William had the luxury of looking at any time, through one of the best telescopes available; however, his theories were not as notable as Miss Leavitt’s.  He had developed an assumption that the dark patches on the Moon were due to seasonal swarms of migrating insects (Bryson, 163).
            In 1912 Miss Leavitt’s findings were published in a Harvard Circular under the name of the director of the Harvard Observatory, Edward Pickering.
Bryson, Bill.  A Short History of Nearly Everything.  Random House, New York, 2005.

Center for History of Physics. Women in Astronomy. “Island Universes”. (accessed 11 September 2009).

Johnson, George. Miss Leavitt’s Stars. W.W Norton & Company, Inc., 2006.

Shanti Sosienski, Women Who Run (California: Seal Press, 2006).

Monday, November 15, 2010

A Woman’s Work

            I think many of us view the life of colonial and pioneer women in a romantic way from watching shows like “Little House on the Prairie.”   Pa works all day and comes home tired to a warm home, a well-set table and a wholesome meal.  Everyone is happy, as they discuss the problems of the day over their perfect meal, then Pa plays the fiddle and they all go to bed with smiles on their faces.  Don’t get me wrong, I loved watching that show but through my studies, I have come to realize that life was probably not exactly like that.  Cross and Szostak’s book Technology and American Society: A History, discusses how tiring and endless work was for these women.
            I found it interesting that most colonial families were not self-sufficient, so to acquire necessary goods they had to trade, or sell excess crops and services at the market in town or at their homes or do without.  Women often ran a side business from their “backyard storage shed” where they sold or traded garden surplus, candles, linens, yarn, teas, beer, etc.
            Early colonial women were extremely involved in the financial success and well being of their lands and home and worked alongside the men.  Many of these women were responsible for making financial decisions and running businesses with their husbands and then, many times, taking over the lands and crops when the husband died or was away for an extended time for war or business (Cross and Szostak, 41).
            Some of the tasks these colonial women accomplished were to clean out the fireplace and save the ashes to make soap (Cross and Szostak, 42).  They also planted and cared for a garden as a means of providing food for their families and used the excess to trade for goods they needed.  Women also had to keep several fires of various temperatures constantly going in the large kitchen hearth in order to properly cook the daily meals.  In addition, they helped butcher pigs and collected the fat to make candles, which provided light in their homes after the sun went down. Women and children also milked the cows and separated the milk to make butter.  In each family, the wife also tended a quarter acre of flax so she could make cloth, which allowed them a means of manufacturing clothing for their families (Cross and Szostak, 45-46).
            These early women put us all to shame with our modern conveniences, as they labored to provide necessities for their families and continually worked to keep their homes in order.
Cross, Gary and Rick Szostak, Technology and American Society: A History.  (New Jersey: Person Education Inc., 2005).

Thursday, November 11, 2010

An Old Wooden Barrel

            History is all around us; you just need to take the time to find out what is there.  I went on a hike with a group to the Cascadia Indian Caves with an Oregon archeologist, Tony Farque as our guide.  Tony has spent years studying the Indians of the area and knows the history of many places in the Cascade Mountains.  As we began our hike, we left a parking lot and walked through a grassy meadow and before long, he had stopped us and explained that once right over by a stand of trees to our left was one of the first hotels in the area.  He told of its builders, dealings and the sad fact that it burned to the ground while still in business.  Then he said something that caught my attention, “So as you can see, there is history everywhere you go.”
            There really are things that happened years ago everywhere around where we live each day, we just need to know where to look in order to find them.  My husband and I run on an old railroad grade almost every day – we call it the Hinterland.  It is a beautiful trail that other people use as well and the magnificence of this spot simply takes you in as you gradually ascend the wide, flatten trail up to the top of the hill.  The Hinterland is a diverse spot, filled with golden autumn leaves in the fall, white trillium in the spring and deer fern in the summer.  Many people enjoy this ever-changing scene but most miss something that is also there – the history of the trail.
            The sides of this path are filled with trees, ferns, blackberries and flowers and if you know where to look, part of the way up the long hill is a partially covered old barrel made of wooden slats.  It isn’t much to look at and is more visible in the autumn as the leaves fall from the trees and the blackberries recede a bit.  You have to know where to look to find it but it is a reminder to me that there is history all around us each day.  This trail did not begin simply as a nice place to walk and enjoy nature, it started as a train track for a steam engine that was loaded with logs each day bringing them from the Dollar Station Logging Camp, along the Calapooia River.  The slatted barrel is near some natural springs in the area so it would easily fill, making it a good location for the tired steam engine to stop, refill its water supply and head back up the slow incline to the top of the mountain.  Each time I run by this barrel I make an effort to glance at it because it reminds me that there were people and events that happened here long before I came around and that they are part of this landscape, just as I am part of it now.

Monday, November 8, 2010

What is History?

            What is history?  Some have defined it as a list of names of important people who lived a long time ago that did not own laptops or posses the ability to text their friends.  Others argue that history is found in textbooks and on dusty library shelves where one can learn of explorers who sailed to foreign lands and politicians that won elections.  However, these descriptions of history lack a personal link as to how history is in fact connected to our daily lives.
            In actuality, history is the story of every subject that has even been – science, religion, disease, war, discovery, exploration, routine schedules and diplomacy, and on and on.  It includes narratives of great people who lived but also just as important, stories of the “little people” - those who may have not been named in the newspapers, but still made a great impact on the world around them because of what they accomplished where they resided along the historical timeline.  History is the record of wars between nations and decisions that were made which affected thousands of people.  History is also the daily routine of a mother on the prairies of Nebraska in the nineteenth century, working hard to feed and clothe her family each day and in every season.  History is following the path that leads to the ever-increasing complexity of life among nations, societies and individuals.
            History is comprised of cemeteries, museums, monuments and old journals. History is remembering your first grade teacher, your grandma’s potato casserole recipe and watching The Sound of Music.  History is sitting for hours in the back of an automobile on a family vacation and finally getting a chance to escape from the car, only to have your Dad read a big brown sign about an Indian battle that happened where you now stood.  After returning to the car, that Indian battle plays over and over in your mind for the entire next hour as you see, in your mind’s eye, the Natives lined up along the horizon, ready for battle.  History is walking into a grassy field just to see the wheel marks left by covered wagons. History is looking at the moons of Jupiter through a telescope and realizing that Galileo looked at those same faint objects and learned so much using a lesser instrument than you have before you.  History is looking at old dates and realizing that your great grandmother died three days before you were born and wishing you had the chance to meet her.  History is staring for a long time at an old photograph and willing the people who are staring back at you to tell just a bit of what their day was like.
            History is seeing the interconnectedness of all times, places and people and realizing that even though some of those lives are so distant from our own, that we have something in common.  It is recognizing that those lives that were lived so long ago were just as important as our lives today and that we are not superior because of our sizable amounts of knowledge or technological advances.  History is about bringing the people of long ago to life – putting flesh on their bones and helping others see them as tangible individuals with families, livelihoods, successes, and fears.  History is about allowing people that went before to be pleased that they have been remembered by subsequent generations. 

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Getting Lost

 My day begins quite routinely, I get up early, take some time to read, go for a run, straighten the house, plan supper and then I sit down for a few hours to study and it is then that I get lost.  I enjoy learning about the early settlers in the New World and in the past few years, I have developed a passion for the settlement of New Netherland.  As I sit down at my computer with my stack of books and notes, it is not long before I am swept away to a location far away from my time and place.  The worries of the day are forgotten, deadlines disappear and time simply does not exist for me.
            I have become rather acquainted with the people of New Netherland and if I were to meet one of them, I would be able to discuss their community leaders, understand their occupations and government, recognize a lot of their names, know who many of their family members were, the names of their towns and even the exact street some of them lived on.  I have come to understand and respect the early people of New Netherland and consider many of them to be my friends; even making the effort to know how to properly pronounce their Dutch names.
            Before I sound like I am too fanatical, let me share a favorite quote by the historian David McCullough: “Because you were born into this particular era doesn’t mean it has to be the limit of your experience.  Move about in time, go places.  Why restrict your circle of acquaintances to only those who occupy the same stage we call the present?” (McCullough, 223).
            I recently enjoyed a novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.  It was a wonderful read and the entire book consisted of letters between people in London and the Island of Guernsey just after World War II.  Juliet, an author who lived in London was writing a book about the value of reading and began corresponding with people from Guernsey who, while under German Occupation, “accidently” started a literary club.  The differences between London and Guernsey are so diverse that Juliet is soon obsessed with receiving letters each day to learn more of the people and their lives on this island.  Though she had never met them or known them previous to their correspondence, she feels as if she knows these people well and cannot wait each day to hear more from them.  In a letter to her book editor, Juliet admits, “The truth is, I am living more in Guernsey than I am in London at the moment – I pretend work with one ear cocked for the sound of the post dropping in the box, and when I hear it, I scramble down the stairs, breathless for the next piece of the story” (Shafer and Barrows, 93-94).  I can relate to this feeling, as I too cannot wait each day to see what new bit of information I will find about my friends in New Netherland.
            One day I want to visit New York because previous to being New York, it was New Netherland.  I know the shape of the land and the rivers of the area quite well, I know the tribes that use to reside there and even have current addresses of where many buildings in New Netherland once stood.  I must admit though, that I will probably be a bit disappointed once I get there because in my mind’s eye, there are no tall buildings or endless traffic.  Instead there are quiet bays with sloops lazily resting in them and there are Natives walking dusty roads with furs on their backs and wampum strung from their belts.  In my thoughts there are no streets crammed with business and cafes, only large fields filled with an assortment of crops and small kitchen gardens near quaint Dutch homes.  To me there are no crosswalks or taxis honking nosily, instead the single sound of a bell ringing to announce the arrival of freshly baked bread on market day.  
David McCullough, Brave Companions (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992).

Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, (New York: Random House, 2009).

Monday, November 1, 2010

Old Attics

             The early colonies of the New World have always fascinated me, and in recent years I have focused on the establishment of New Netherland.  These initial settlers interest me because of their ability to succeed in an unfamiliar environment and at such a great distance from their homes in the Old World.  They had to rely on themselves and each another for supplies, food, support and survival; a crop failure or illness could be devastating.
            While reading Firth Haring Fabend’s book A Dutch Family in the Middle Colonies, 1660-1800, I ran across a description of the contents of an attic in the 1790s on a farm in New York - previously New Netherland.  This intrigued me.  The narrative described the attic in this way: “Nuts of all kinds were stored in baskets and bags, apples and pears in their season, [and] bags of dried apples and beans.  Spinning wheels, . . . spare ribs and sausage, bacon and ham, bundles of broom corn for brooms and field corn on the cob for the next year’s planting, garden seeds and herbs of many kinds, boxes and barrels and chests, and irons and drums, sleigh bells large enough to be heard a mile distant, harness, tin horns, ropes and whips, stepladders and stoves, candle moulds and sausage stuffers, hand sleds and cradles . . .” (Fabend, 64-65).
            As the attic contents are listed it is simple to see their necessity for the family’s survival.  The seeds and tools inventoried clearly show the preparation for the future that was required to survive in the New World - far from a supply source.  The food items cataloged demonstrate the need to store up to survive the winter, with dried apples and beans and salted meats being eaten carefully throughout the icy months.  Simply stated, the items in this attic reveal how serious life was for these early folk.  There is, however, an item listed that captured my thoughts, attention and delight.  It was the “sleigh bells large enough to be heard a mile distant.”  What a magnificent thing, to actually own sleigh bells that would be so large as to be heard a mile away! 
            Along with all the seriousness of enduring until spring are those enchanting bells just waiting to ring loudly through the snowy countryside.  In my mind’s eye, I see a frosty home with a curl of thin, grey smoke coming from its chimney sitting in the middle of smooth, hard, white snow.  The chores have been done, the animals are all eating in the barn and the family is busy inside near the fireplace.  They are occupied stirring soup or kneading bread or whittling or cleaning a gun or sewing a patch on a torn jacket.  As they busily work side-by-side, the air is filled with humming and soft discussions of their days work; then a sound is heard in the distance.  One by one they each stop what they are doing and listen and with great excitement they recognize it as the sound of their neighbor’s sleigh bells still a mile away.  Suddenly the homely cottage is filled with anticipation as more potatoes are added to the soup and the biscuits are rolled a little thinner so as to have more to share with their guests. Projects are quickly put away and extra wood is brought in to warm their wintery guests.  As the cheery sound of the sleigh bells halt near the front door a bit of regret is felt because no dessert had been prepared to go with the evening meal.  Peering out the frosty windowpane at the visitors as they dismount from their sled, the wife notices her friend carrying a pie pan wrapped in layers of linen cloth; in it is a pie made from attic apples.  As the sounds of laughter replace the clatter of the sleigh bells all are reminded that though life is filled with hard work, there is always time to enjoy living and the sound of distant sleigh bells.
Firth Haring Fabend, A Dutch Family in the Middle Colonies, 1660-1800 (New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 1991.