Monday, October 31, 2011

Whistling Past the Graveyard

My husband and I love to run along the forested trails near our home. We usually do this in the morning before work, and in the winter months this involves raingear and a headlamp. We start out running along the road towards the trail with streetlights shining above us but once we reach the trail, it is extremely dark. I concentrate on the beam of light coming from my headlamp to avoid downed branches and deep puddles but always keep glancing to the sides, looking in the trees for any movement or even a set of glowing eyes. Near the top of the trail, the sides of the small canyon move in closer and there are no wide spaces. As we turn the last corner at the top, there is a series of hollows made of bushes and trees. I always make some sort of sound and flash my headlight into the darkness to be sure nothing is hiding or sleeping there. We have seen wild animals along that part of the trail but nothing too fearsome – a rabbit, some deer, a few opossums and a flock of wild turkeys. However, I still get a bit unnerved in that area.

The other morning I had to get back earlier to prepare for the day, so I ran home and my husband continued on and ran the upper part of the trail alone. When he got back he said he did it because he just had to whistle past the graveyard that day. I was curious about that phrase and did some research on it. I found that in the Middle Ages and even into the 1800s, cemeteries were often built on the edges of a town. During these superstitious times, it was believed that the spirits of those buried there would come out at dusk to haunt any one who happened to be passing by. To escape these ghostly encounters, travelers would make loud noises or literally whistle as they walked past the graveyard to keep the spirits and their own fear away until they were past the cemetery.

Robert Blair who lived in the early 1700s, was a Scottish poet who was educated in the Netherlands and Edinburgh. He only published three poems during his lifetime and is most well known for his final poem titled “The Grave.” A portion of this poem mentions the idea of whistling past the graveyard:

            Oft in the lone church yard at night I've seen,

            By glimpse of moonshine chequering thro' the trees,

            The school boy, with his satchel in his hand,

            Whistling aloud to bear his courage up,

            And lightly tripping o'er the long flat stones,

            (With nettles skirted, and with moss o'ergrown,)

            That tell in homely phrase who lie below.

As we look at amazing individuals from the past that have accomplished great things under difficult circumstances I think that we need to realize that they may have been doing a lot of whistling to make it though and keep going. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Do one thing everyday that scares you.” I think she was telling us to try to look beyond our current situations, no matter how challenging they may be and see where we could be if we just kept walking and whistling.

So, next time I run in the dark past the shadowy hallows, I will just whistle a little louder and enjoy the run. By the way, there is also a graveyard at the top of our running trail.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Skara Brae

One evening I curled up with a blanket, some hot chocolate, my Kindle, and the sound of steady rain on the back porch. I had just begun Bill Bryson’s book, “At Home: A Short History of Private Life.” After several minutes of reading, I was totally intrigued by Skara Brae, a place I had never heard mention of before.

Skara Brae was discovered during the winter of 1850 when a storm swept through Britain. Many ships were destroyed and hundreds of people were killed in just one night from the winds and stormy waters. Several hundred miles north of Britain lay the Orkney Islands of Scotland-which are so far north that they are not physically part of Scotland. After the storm raged through the waters surrounding Britain, it continued north to the Scottish islands and blew a grassy covering entirely off of a rocky area near the water. Once the islanders recovered from the storm and began to evaluate the damage, they found that the grassy area had actually been covering an ancient stone village that was amazingly intact –Skara Brae. This well preserved piece of history “consisted of nine houses, all still holding many of their original contents, the village dates from five thousand years ago. It is older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids, older than all but a handful of built structures on Earth” (Bryson). This Stone Age village was incredibly detailed and included locking doors, drains and large rooms with ten-foot ceilings. There were also built-in storage areas and dressers as well as water tanks. Hardly what one would think of when visualizing a Neolithic village.
There were no trees near Skara Brae so the inhabitants burned seaweed to keep warm and cook their food during the long, cold, northern nights. The lack of trees available in Skara Brae would have been a challenge but it became a boon for historians today, since these Neolithic villagers were forced to make their homes from stones instead of trees, thus preserving them for thousands of years.

Using my iPhone, I was able to travel through space and time and become acquainted with this distant location. I googled pictures of Skara Brae and was impressed with how well preserved it was, how beautiful the ocean cliffs, are and how far north the Orkney Islands are. I wonder how these early people got to these remote islands in the first place, where they came from, how long they lived there and how their civilization abruptly ended. I am reminded that there are so many minute corners of time yet to be discovered . . . . what an exciting challenge!