Thursday, November 14, 2013

Vikings - The Other Side of the Story

Whenever the topic of Vikings is discussed, images of violence and aggression come up in the conversation; this is because the Vikings are known for killing and plundering all over Europe and beyond. The word Viking actually means to go on an expedition to plunder, and no one knew this better than the people of Europe during Medieval times. Anyone who saw a Viking ship approach tried to protect themselves but were usually underprepared for the barbaric fury which met them when the Vikings got out of their vessels and on to the shore.

The Vikings soon discovered it was more profitable to attack European towns on Sunday morning when most of the village was attending Church. That way everyone was in one place, no one had weapons, and all of the gold, tools and usually food and drinks were kept there. The Vikings simply had to walk in, take the gold, burn nearly every book or record they could find, take a few slaves, kill everyone else and burn the place down.

With all of their fierceness, it is significant to note that the Vikings were also called by another name, Norsemen. When they were Vikings they were plundering and killing, but when they were Norsemen, they were planting crops, herding animals to pasture, raising families, and preparing for the winter months. They lived like most of the people of the world during this time.

While doing some research on the Vikings, I found that around 900 BCE, the Vikings ruled Northern Scotland, The Hebrides, Faroe Islands, Orkney Islands, Shetland Islands and Isle of Man; they continued to live at these remote locations for about 500 years. This caught my attention because I had previously written a blog about Skara Brae, which was discovered on the Orkney Islands. As I looked for these islands on maps I was impressed with the isolated locations the Vikings settled in. These small islands are in the middle of the Norwegian Sea - all by themselves. No one else dared sail so far north during this time. I looked further for pictures of these locations I found them to be some of the most dramatic and incredible places in the world.

These islands contain huge rock formations with vertical cliffs that drop to meet the white waves of the sea far below. The tops of the islands are covered in verdant green as a result of the cool, moist breezes from the surrounding waters. There are also many rivers along the top edges of these beautiful islands with waterfalls that plummet hundreds of feet down to join the sea.

Staring at these photos, I am transported back to 900 BCE and I can see the Norsemen and their families, living on these isolated islands. During the warm days, they work together to plant seeds to provide fresh food to eat with their meals. They always plant more than is needed so they can hang extra onions, garlic and various herbs from the rafters of their homes betwixt the dried fish; each are a necessity during the cold, winter months, so far north of the equator. They keep baskets of turnips and parsnips in the corners of their home to prevent them from rotting in the wet air too quickly. This way they have a variety of food to eat during the winter months. During the summer the Norsemen put their dried fava beans, peas, apples and berries into earthen jars and tuck them away to be eaten on days when it is too icy for plants to grow.

I also see children of all ages chasing and playing with the animals around their homes. The baby goats and lambs entertain the small children for most of the day as they dance and fight along the lengthy, lush plateaus. Older children work to milk the cows and goats to provide a drink with their meal and to make butter.

I envision the Norsemen eating their two daily meals, one after working for a few hours each morning and the last after the work is complete in the evening. Bread is not a staple for them as it is over much of Europe. This is because they live so far north, which makes it difficult to grow any grains.

The lives of the Vikings were centered around oceans, seas and ships. When the rest of the world was afraid to sail into unknown waters, the Vikings set out with their fabled sunstones and found their way around unmarked waters. Living on these majestic islands near the top of the world, everywhere the Norsemen looked, they saw miles and miles of endless water. Some days the entire family stood on the high bluffs of their island and watched violent storms with dark clouds and high winds come from over the waters and fall on their homes. Other times, the women and children watched anxiously for any sign of a returning ship filled with men from their town; a ship that would be filled with gold, tools, new foods and different people from foreign lands. As the Norsemen looked out over the waters each day, they would have lingered some nights, until the sky became deep black and filled with countless stars. They needed to be familiar with the night sky early on, so when they went “a Viking” they would know how to navigate their ships in unmapped waters.

When a Viking’s life was over, they did not leave their love of sailing and ships behind them. Those that were buried were left in an enclosure made of large rocks, carefully placed in the shape of a ship. That way the noble Viking could sail out of this world and on to Valhalla – their ultimate waterway destination. Sailing as Viking warriors and noble Norsemen.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Don't Be a Pilgrim

I tell my history students that the past is always changing. It is not that the actual events are altered, but our perception of them changes. This happens because as additional information is discovered we gain a more complete picture of events that happened long ago. One of these changes is the stereotype that the Pilgrims were the pillars of American values. The original story states that the Pilgrims came to America for religious freedom, made friends with the Indians and had the first thanksgiving. This is basically true but the Pilgrims were not the tolerant and open-minded people that they are honored to be. All of the valued American ideals that are attributed to the Pilgrims were actually characteristics of the Dutch.

In the 1500s most of Europe was under the oppression of the Catholic country of Spain. Many Europeans were seeking religious freedom because of the spiritual reformation that had swept through Europe. At this time the Netherlands were one of the countries welcoming these religious exiles to live among them. The Dutch, in the Netherlands, fought to be released from the Spain's control and gained their freedom, which gave them the right to sail all over the world. As a result, the Dutch prepared to jump into world trade and set up colonies around the world.

The Dutch were very dissimilar from most of Europe because they were welcoming to those who were different from them and tolerant of their diverse values and ideas. They were also open to new ideas. Upon entering the world of trade, the Dutch came up with the idea to use joint stocks to fund their global trade ventures. This allowed more people to earn money from the trade they were conducting instead of simply permitting a few of the rich to get richer. The Dutch also devised a new design for a ship, which was less expensive to build, sturdier, and less likely to capsize in a storm.

New ideas in science were beginning to circulate in Europe at this time as well, and many countries were unaccepting of these concepts because they were considered to be blasphemous. One such unacceptable idea came from a man named Galileo who proposed that the earth revolved around the sun. No one would publish his papers about these unique ideas until he approached the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. The Dutch were intrigued with this new way of thinking and not only published Galileo's papers, but also opened up the use of their university telescope for those interested.

Since the Pilgrims were looking for help to get to the New World, they moved to the Netherlands along with the other religious and political exiles. The Dutch welcomed them and made plans to send the Pilgrims across the ocean to the young Dutch colony of New Netherland. But, as the Pilgrims enjoyed a temporary settlement while awaiting their voyage they became uneasy with life among the Dutch. Their chief complaint was that their children were becoming "too Dutch;" or in other words, their youth were becoming more accepting of others cultures, and the Pilgrim leaders were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the differences between the people living around them. The Dutch were very welcoming to those who needed help, tolerant of those who were different from themselves, and open to new ideas and ways of thinking; the Pilgrims could not deal with the diversity and acceptance that the Dutch thrived on. So, the Pilgrims moved back to England where diversity was not as prevalent, and eventually sailed to the New World on the Mayflower.

Meanwhile, the Dutch sent about 30 families on the ship, Nieu Nederlandt, to live in the recently established colony of New Netherland - known today as New York. The people that came to this colony resembled the cultural climate of the Netherlands in Europe - many languages, cultures, and beliefs - a variety of people living side-by-side starting out a new life in the New World. Even though the people who populated New Netherland were not all Dutch, they identified themselves with the Dutch culture. In her book New Netherland in a Nutshell, Firth Fabend stated that the diverse group of colonists called themselves Dutch because they liked the characteristics that were associated with the Dutch way of life. Fabend listed these traits as: inclusivity, tolerance, the value placed on civic concord, pragmatism, charity, humanism, liberty, literacy, and the relatively enlightened Dutch attitude toward women (Fabend, 115).

The Pilgrims settled in the New World, south of the colony of New Netherland and their voyage had led them to a place where they could have the freedom to worship as they pleased. The ironic thing is that the Pilgrims would not allow anyone in their colony to have freedom to worship as they pleased; for those living in the Pilgrim's colony, it was necessary to believe as they believed and conform to their way of thinking. If a colonist had a different way of looking at the world, especially religiously, the Pilgrims banished them from the colony. The only place these exiles could go in the New World was to the colony of New Netherland, where they were welcomed and given land to live on.

In the beginning, the Pilgrims made friends with the Indians and learned how to survive in the New World; however, in the end, they used up the friendship and took advantage of the Indians. The Dutch had a few war filled years with the Indians but for the most part had a civil relationship with them. The directors of New Netherland even had to establish laws to prevent the Dutch colonists from baking too much bread for the Indians, because it diminished their own supply of wheat.

The Pilgrims carried out the unthinkable during the mid 1600s in the New World by outlawing Christmas for twenty-three years. They were afraid of pagan beliefs creeping into their way of life and did not appreciate the different cultural activities that had found their way into Christmas from others parts of the world. The Dutch in New Netherland, with the help of Sinter Klaus, never missed a Christmas in the New World. Instead of being afraid of Christmas corrupting them, they used each December to help the poor and little children to find a bit of happiness during this yuletide time of the year.

So, the next time you gather around a table with family and friends to celebrate all that you are thankful for, don't be a Pilgrim; instead, remember the Dutch of New Netherland. Remember the kindness and tolerance the Dutch showed to those who differed from themselves. Remember that they were the ones who were brave enough to think outside of the box and do things a bit differently from others. Remember that a lot can be learned from being open-minded to new ideas and that there is nothing wrong with being unique.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Places of Learning

Last summer my husband and daughter attended a science conference at Berkeley University in California. I went along to enjoy San Francisco with them in the evenings and wandered about by myself during the day when they were in classes. The first day I stopped by the university library to see if they had any books on the colony of New Netherland - my favorite place in history. As I checked the computer catalog I realized the library had 932 books about it; more than I had ever had access to. I quickly wrote down several call numbers and eagerly went to find some new information. To my bitter disappointment, nearly all of the books I wanted to research were in a place called "The Stacks" and were only accessible to Berkeley students and non-students who were doing research. Since I fell into the second category, I went back to the main desk and found that I needed to be interviewed to have access to these books. After two interviews I received a guest card and was granted access to the protected section of the library. I immediately found the first several books on my list and immersed myself in New Netherland.

I devoted each morning to the library that week to learn more about New Netherland. I spent my first hour, each day in the reading room of the main library and then descended the spiral staircase; to go four stories underground and devour any information I could find about New Netherland. I soon recognized this building, the main library, to be a place that reverenced learning. Upon entering the oversized, ornate doors, the halls were adorned with marble floors, pillars and display cases. These glass cabinets were filled with old books and journals that related to various topics; all opened up for examination by anyone who wanted to stop and examine them.  After passing the display cases, I ascended the wide marble staircase to the reading room each morning to organize my thoughts and review what I had learned the day before in The Stacks. I absolutely loved the reading room and always spent the first several minutes just sitting at a table and looking around. This room was unquestionably a place of learning. The walls were filled with books in heavy wooden bookcases. The long tables and heavy chairs were also made of solid wood. The high ceiling was arched and decorated with ornate designs that were painted and carved into the wood. Each end of the arched room was made of glass, oversized windows that welcomed the sunlight in each morning and opened the mind up and learn everything it possibly could.

Not all places of learning are this obvious. I recently read an article about the brilliant scientist, Jane Goodall. She is known for her tireless work with chimpanzees but I found that she has other interest also. When she was a young girl, Jane had an insatiable interest in plants. She studied what leaves do, how seeds are transferred and what environments they grow in. Goodall's place of learning about plants was on a large branch of a favorite beech tree in her yard. She spent hours reading, drawing and writing about the world of plants while perched in her tree. Before ascending the tree each day, she filled a small basket that was attached to a long string, with "a book, a saved piece of cake, and some homework" (Smithsonian, March 2013, p 75). As a 12-year-old girl, Goodall filled each page of her "nature notebook" with observations and drawings about plants simply because she loved learning about plants; not because it was an assignment she was obligated to do. The learning she acquired while sitting in her beech tree - her place of learning - has remained an important part of her life. During her years in the jungles studying chimpanzees, she simultaneously paid attention to the plants around her. Jane recently wrote a book, Seeds of Hope. The basis of this book began in the branches of a tree - Goodall's place of learning.

The scientist Charles Darwin also had a place of learning where he spent his time studying. Although he gathered a great deal of information during his voyage on the HMS Beagle and began to formulate some ideas about the workings of natural selection, it was at his own home, fifteen miles outside of London, where he spent time pondering, experimenting and learning. Down House, on its twenty acres, was a place of learning for Charles, his wife Emma, and their children. Their home was organized with daily routines that made it run like clockwork. "Yet it was also a liberal house, always slightly untidy, muddied from the passing of children and their dogs and cluttered with the saucers and jars of perpetual natural history experiments" (Smithsonian, February 2013, p 62). Darwin's home was his place of learning and a remarkable feature was that he invited his children to help oversee his experiments. As his children fully participated in Darwins experiments, their home became a place of learning for them as well. At Down House, most surfaces were covered with books, bottles and microscopes-there was something to be observed and learned at every corner.

Darwin was particularly interested in barnacles, carnivorous plants, bees, and worms. His curiosity of the natural world carried over to his children who were always willing assistants for his experiments. As soon as they were old enough, they were recruited to "observe seeds growing on saucers arranged in window sills, or to play music to worms, or to follow and map the flight path of the honeybees across the Down House gardens" (Smithsonian, February 2013, p 65). What a delightful place for learning to occur!

These three places of learning are only the beginning. Our own places of learning are all unique, and no matter where they are found, we can gain infinite information as we ponder and study topics we desire to learn more about. Mahatma Gandi suggested to, "Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever. If we will carry this attitude with us to our own personal libraries, beech trees, and homes, we will achieve a love of learning that will last us our entire lifetime; and in the end, we will have enjoyed the world a bit more because of the understanding we have gained, and can leave behind the gift of increased knowledge to those who follow after us.
Smithsonian Magazine, "Darwin in the House," February 2013, pages 60-67.

Smithsonian Magazine, "The Roots of a Naturalist," March 2013, pages 75-79. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

What was New Netherland?

I have been working on an article/curriculum for the New Netherland Institute in New York. They just put up a new website and included my work on it.

The article is broken into sections that center around basic questions concerning the colony of New Netherland for students of middle school age.

Take a minute to read a little bit about my favorite place in history. 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Write it Down

We live at a time when it easy to share every thing that is going on in our lives with anyone we want to share it with. We can text, tweet or Facebook (to name a very few) any information or pictures about what we are doing in our lives. These bits of information usually include brief statements about what we cooked for supper, which movie we watched, how far we ran that day or a quote we thought was inspirational. But with all this sharing, we never really communicate how we feel about the things we are doing. We end up leaving behind a list of facts instead of a complete picture of who we are. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy technology and share a lot of tidbits about my daily life through cyberspace. However, I still think it is important to spend time often with the older technology of pen and paper and record what we think and feel about the things we are tweeting and texting about all day. 

In his book, "The Greater Journey," David McCullough shared an example that illustrates the value of keeping a daily journal. During the 1830s many Americans went to Paris to study art, medicine, and literature because Paris was the hub of knowledge for these livelihoods at this time. Unfortunately in 1870 war broke out in Paris; violence and terror enveloped everyone living there as they survived a yearlong siege on the city. Many of the Americans escaped Paris by train, on foot and even in hot air balloons, to safe locations; only a few remained in the city. One individual that stayed was Elihi B. Washburne. He was the American minister to France so he had some authority to help the people of Paris during this time. Washburne spent every waking hour dealing with stressful situations, trying to protect, feed, and calm the citizens of Paris. Besides this work, he consistently worried about his own family's safety. They fled the city but he did not have any way of communicating with them. Washburne literally worked from the break of day until midnight every single day, with hardly a minute to himself.

Despite this exhausting schedule Washburne managed to write detailed entries in his journal every single day. Interestingly, Washburne was almost the only person in Paris who kept a detailed journal of what was happening during this time. Nearly all of the information we have about Paris during this siege comes from one man’s personal journal.

McCullough declared:

“No one could yet appreciate . . . the immeasurable value of the diary [Washburn] had kept day after day through the entire ordeal . . . writing often at great length late at the end of an exhausting, horrible day. The daily entries might have been abbreviated notes only, telegraphic in style, something to be ‘worked up later’ as a memoir. But Washburne was not so constituted. He wrote with clarity, insight, and such great empathy for the human drama at hand. If [Washburne’s] decision to stay [in Paris] and face whatever was to come had resulted only in the diary, he would have made an enormous, singular contribution” (McCullough, 328).

Journals are primary source documents. For a historian this means that the information found in personal journals is the best it gets. Journals allow us to read firsthand accounts of what happened to people during pivotal moments in history; as well as what their everyday lives were like. Each journal is also valuable because it gives a different perspective to a situation. So when these many perspectives are combined, a more complete picture of the past can be pieced together. Lewis & Clark, Adrian Van der donck and Alexander von Humboldt wrote some of my favorite journals. Their consistent entries record what they experienced and what their thoughts were about the adventures that unfolded before them.

I am also lucky enough to have some journals of my grandparents and others, which I treasure. Sometimes their entries are about doing laundry, being sick, or dealing with finance - seemingly common events. However, since they shared their thoughts about normal occurrences, their lives are not simply narrowed down to a list of what they did each day. Instead, their journals are a window into their lives, how they felt, what they worried about, what they enjoyed, etc. All of these details bring to my mind a broader image of who they really were and I feel like I know them better.

We will all be gone someday and none of us have power over this eventual ending. However, we do have power over what we leave behind. We can leave abbreviated sentences in cyberspace; or we can bestow a vivid, a full, and a living picture of our lives. An image we have carefully written, one that those who come after us can read, can reread, and treasure.