Monday, December 27, 2010

12,000 Rag Paper Pages

          Everyone knows about the Pilgrims coming to the New World on the Mayflower and settling on the Atlantic Coast.  However, there was another group of colonist that came to the New World in 1624, a few years before the Pilgrims, they came from Holland and settled the Dutch colony of New Netherland (now New York).  For various reasons, the details of this remarkable group are not common knowledge to many people.  One of these reasons deals with the fact that those who conquer write the history books.  This early Dutch Colony was eventually taken over by the English and as a result, history books usually do not begin a detailed history of this area until it became New York under England’s rule.
            A remarkable detail about the New Netherland colony relates to the records they consistently kept. The history of New Netherland was recorded on 12,000 rag paper pages and these brittle sheets have been under careful translation since 1974 by Dr. Charles Gehring.
            The account of how these 12,000 pages have been preserved is incredible as they and have “suffered many brushes with destruction over the centuries” leaving them physically difficult to read because of their poor condition.[1]  Their unbelievable journey began after the English took over the Dutch colony, and seized their records. After the merger of some of the New England colonies in 1686, some of the pages were lost and two years later when New Jersey and New York were joined the Dutch records were moved to Boston, the new administrative center.  In 1690, they were sent back to New York and most likely some pages were left behind and lost on the way as they were carried in the back of a wagon along a bumpy road on their way to Boston.  In 1741, during the slave insurrection in New York City, a fire started in the fort where the Dutch records were kept.  The Governor, hoping to save them, ordered the windows to be broken and the Dutch records to be thrown out into the street, however, reports of that night say that papers were “seen blowing down the street in a strong wind.”[2] 
            During the Revolutionary War the Dutch documents spent months in the holds of two British warships moored in the New York Harbor.  Here they were submitted to “many nautical perils, including dampness and the gnawing of rats.”[3]  After their time in the damp ship’s hold, they were sent to the Secretary of State’s office in New York, and then relocated to Albany when it became the capital in 1797.
            Finally, in 1881, the shuffled Dutch records went to the Manuscripts Division of the New York State Library for what was thought to be a safe location.  But in March 1911, disaster struck as the west end of the State Capitol burned; this was where the State Library was located. The aged Dutch pages that were not destroyed were singed and piled in charred, baked and water-damaged stacks that were frozen along their black edges from the water used to put out the fire. Ironically, the English records that were seen as being more important than the Dutch records, had been stored on the top shelves where they were more easily assessable while the Dutch records were stored on the lowest bookshelves. As a result, when the shelves collapsed in the fire, the English records fell on top of the Dutch records and actually protected them from further damage.[4]
            As I have read and reread the account of the arduous path of these long forgotten rag pages, I am interested in what stories are hidden within them and what parents, landowners, merchants and children are waiting to be discovered as these 12,000 rag pages continue to be translated a little bit every day.

[1] Peter A. Douglas, Dutch Renaissance: The Story of the New Netherland Project  (New York: New York State Library, 2009), 5.
[2] Douglas, 6.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid, 7.

Monday, December 20, 2010

All Year Long

            During the Christmas season, many focus their actions on helping those around them.  There is an abundance of giving, thoughtfulness and kind acts, however, by the time January comes, many of those good intentions have turned to hectic schedules, paying for seasonal overspending, and going through each day without a holidays on the horizon. 
            But there are individuals who continue to give to others and share their talents all year long, no matter what season it is.  A few years ago, one of our sons was in the hospital for a series of operations over a year’s time.  These surgeries were accompanied with a great deal of worry and strain to our entire family.  At times I was the only one sitting in the hospital at his bedside for days at a time as my husband was working full time to keep up with the doctor bills.  While I was in the hospital, I spent the hours helping my son get about again and I always brought handwork to do and books to read.  But despite all of my preparations, there was still so much time that seemed to stretch out forever.
            During one of these eternally long intervals of time, and during a dreary time of the year, one of those “giving” individuals came to the hospital wing we were staying in.  He brought two items with him, a stool and a guitar, which he quickly set up in the hallway close by our hospital door.  Soon he began playing soothing, peaceful melodies; none that I recognized but that let my mind float easily between unruffled thoughts.  The songs had no words and at times he would softly hum along.  He played for about 45 minutes, then packed up and left with a smile on his face.  I know he had other things he could have been doing, but he chose to spend a bit of his day to help people he was not even acquainted with.
            I do not know what occurred in this man’s past that compelled him to spend his time singing to a silent crowd.  Maybe he had spent time beside a hospital bed in the past and wanted to return to favor to someone who had stilled his anxious mind. Maybe he simply loved music and wanted to share it anywhere he could.   It really doesn’t matter which event caused this musician’s compassionate acts that day in the hospital, however, it makes me take a moment to think about what experiences of my past will effect the activities I participate in today.

Monday, December 13, 2010


            He has many names, Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, and simply Santa.  Whatever name you call him, this magical being came from the Dutch character Sinterklaas.  He wears a long red cape over his white bishop’s robe and a red mitre hat and comes riding his gray horse named Amerigo.  Sinterklass and his horse arrive in the Netherlands in mid November on a boat from Spain, usually bringing mandarin oranges. The feast of Saint Nickolas is celebrated on December 6th as it is the Name Day of the Saint Nicholas.  Many European countries and some in Latin America celebrate Name Days on a specific day of the year that coordinates with a person’s given name.   This first began, as Catholic believers who were named after a particular Saint celebrated that Saints Feast Day.  For Saint Nicholas, the patron Saint of children and sailors, Feast Day is December 6th, thus the arrival of Sinterklass in the Netherlands on that day.
            In early times, this Feast was an opportunity to help those in poverty and money was left in the shoes of the poor.  Later this tradition of giving changed from giving money to giving presents, which were left in many of the children’s shoes, rich and poor.  In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas Eve, December 5, is a main gift giving day of the season and before going to bed, children leave hay and a carrot in their shoe for Amerigo; when they awake the next morning, they find candy and a small gift in their shoes.
            Traditional Sinterklaas treats include: hot chocolate, mandarin oranges, chocolate coins and chocolate filled pastries branded with the first letter of the child’s name - written in chocolate.
            During World War II, in the difficult times of the German occupation of the Netherlands, Sinterklass came to cheer up the entire country, not just the children.  In 1941, the Royal Air Force dropped boxes of candy over the occupied Netherlands from Sinterklass to lighten the hearts of those oppressed with the war during the holiday season.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Kindness of Strangers

           I recently read a book by Timothy Brook, Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World.  I was immediately intrigued by his reason for writing this book from the viewpoint he did.  He described when he was twenty years old, cycling across the Low Countries beginning in Amsterdam.  On the second day of this ambitious journey, the evening sky began to darken and rain started to fall heavily making the road quite slick.  As he peddled along the drenched street, a truck got too close to him and he was forced off the road and into the grass.  Although he was not hurt, he was covered in mud and his bike was bent, needing some repair.  Since there were no bridges nearby to hide under, he went to the nearest home to ask if he could simply get a few minutes out of the rain.  The old woman who answered the door had seen his mishap, she hesitated for a moment then opened the door and invited Brook into her home. He recalled, “All I wanted was to stand for a few minutes out of the rain and pull myself together, but she wouldn’t hear of it.  She poured me a hot bath, cooked me dinner, gave me a bed to sleep in and pressed on me several of her dead husband’s things, including a waterproof coat” (Brook, 1).  The next morning she fed him the “best breakfast [he had] ever eaten” and gave him some postcards of local sites, urging him to stop in town and look around before biking to his next scheduled location.  Brook followed her advice to take the scenic route into the Dutch town of Delft; this detour ended up being the main “jumping-off-point” of his entire book.  Because of the kindness of this one woman, Brook was introduced to a world he did not know existed; that one simple act of kindness made all the difference for him.
            Just as Brook experienced unexpected kindness, recently I was the happy recipient of the kindness of a stranger.  My oldest son is across the country right now serving the people of Minnesota and it was his birthday last week.  Of course there was no way I would be able to cook him his favorite food on that day as I had all the years he was growing up.  However, near his birthday, I received a call from an area code I did not recognize and soon found it was a stranger offering her kindness to my son.  She discovered it was his birthday and wanted to cook him a birthday meal of his favorite food to show her appreciation for all of the help he had given her and her husband during the past few months.  I was touched by her desired to do something so kind for my son and in a roundabout way, for me.
            Although these seeming simply experiences are not earth shattering or influential to thousands of people, they become part of our own personal histories and are the stories that are told again and again to those closest to us.
Brook, Timothy. Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World. 

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Let it Snow!

            Winter is coming and snow is beginning to fall in some parts of the world.  I don’t live where we get much snow but I am always delighted when I have a rare opportunity to experience it. It you are lucky enough, you can catch a glimpse of an individual snowflake on a dark coat sleeve or glove and see the unique shapes of these delicate water crystals.
            One man who was particularly interested in snowflakes was W. A. Bentley from Jericho, Vermont aka “Snowflake” Bentley. Bentley was born in 1865 and was a self-educated farmer, however, he “attracted world attention with his pioneering work in the area of photomicrography, most notably his extensive work with snow crystals” (Blanchard, 261).  After years of experimenting, Bentley figured out how to adapt a microscope into a bellows camera.  Because of his invention, during a snowstorm on January 15, 1885, he obtained the first photomicrograph ever taken of an ice crystal.  He continued with this obsession and captured detailed pictures of more than 5,000 snowflakes during his entire lifetime.  It is because of Bentley we know that no two snowflakes are alike.
            When Bentley was sixty years old, he recalled his early days:  “I never went to school until I was fourteen years old. My mother taught me at home. She had been a schoolteacher before she married my father, and she instilled in me her love of knowledge and of the finer things of life. She had books, including a set of encyclopedia. I read them all.  And it was my mother that made it possible for me, at fifteen, to begin the work to which I have devoted my life. She had a small microscope, which she had used in her school teaching. When the other boys of my age were playing with popguns and sling-shots, I was absorbed in studying things under this microscope: drops of water, tiny fragments of stone, a feather dropped from a bird's wing, a delicately veined petal from some flower.  But always, from the very beginning, it was snowflakes that fascinated me most. The farm folks, up in this North Country, dread the winter; but I was supremely happy, from the day of the first snowfall-which usually came in November-until the last one, which sometimes came as late as May.” (Blanchard).
            Bentley said, "Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated.  When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind."
            During the next snowstorm you experience, take a moment to look at it through new eyes.  Study those tiny, wet miracles and be amazed!
Blanchard, Duncan C. “Wilson Bentley, The Snowflake Man,” Weatherwise, 1970, 260-269.