Stony Brook Road on Cape Cod

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Many years ago I read “The Run” by John Hay.  It’s about the alewives run on Stony Brook in Brewster, Cape Cod, Massachusetts.  We visited the stream along the old Grist mill soon after reading the book.  This year after a pre-Cape re-reading of “The Primal Place” by Robert Finch, we did a Brewster explore, including Stony Brook.  Finch lived on the Stony Brook Road near the Red Top cemetery for many years when he worked in the Cape Cod Natural History Museum on Route 6A.  Hay was a founder of the Museum.   I was just finishing Finch’s 2017 book, “The Outer Beach: a thousand-mile walk on Cape Cod’s Atlantic Shore.”  I would need more Cape reading.  So we stopped in the Brewster bookstore.

I purchased two books.  “The Lost Hero: Captain Asa Eldridge and the Maritime  trade that shaped America” by Vincent Miles.  Eldridge was from Yarmouth, south of Brewster and Stony Brook.  The other book was the real surprise, “The Prophet of Dry Hill: lessons from a life in nature” (2005), by David Gessner. When I looked at Gessner’s books, I recognized and remembered reading  “Soaring with Fidel: an osprey odyssey from Cape Cod to Cuba” (2008).

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“Dry Hill” it turns out was/is  on Stony Brook Road, near Red Top cemetery.  Small world.  The prophet was John Hay of “the run.”  He wrote over a dozen books, in his “writing shack” above a plain house on Dry Hill, a property he bought after World War II.  Hay was drawn to Cape Cod, Brewster and Stony Brook Road because the author Conrad Aiken lived there.  Hay worshiped Aiken.  I’ve never read any of his writings which include novels, essays and poetry.  I don’t think Aiken wrote directly about Cape Cod as Hay, Finch and Gessner did.  But all seemed to follow in a tradition of Cape Nature writing started by Henry David Thoreau “Cape Cod” and Henry Beston “The Outermost House.”

Gessner, an aspiring writer rented a house in Brewster overlooking Cape Cod Bay on Stephen Phillips Road.  It’s not far from the Sesuit Harbor Cafe where Diane and I had lunch the day of our Brewster explore.  The wait was too long, the picnic tables seem to be set in a dusty parking lot but the seafood was fantastic.  My lobster roll hosted an entire lobster and Diane’s grilled tuna sandwich was the best tuna she’s ever tasted.  Even the fries were tasty.

It’s the late 1990s.  Gessner fantasizes about writing a biography about John Hay.  It never happens; they become friends.  He eventually writes about the friendship. He braves the dream and calls Hay.  He was gracious and invited David to visit Dry Hill.  For about a year, Gessner visits John and his wife, Kristi.  Some days they walk around the property.  They visit the alewives run at the mill.  They drive to the beach, walk, watch birds, terns are John’s speciality,  they soak in the ocean.  John picks various Cape plants inhaling the smell of each.  They walk the dog.  Most of all, they talk.

John has a bit of the curmudgeon about him.  Since he purchased Dry Hill in 1946, the Cape has become too crowded.  Too many people, too many cars, too many trophy homes. John shares his life’s philosophy with David.  It includes “live simply so others can live.”  But central is his relationship with nature and the world.  John discovered this immersion in nature when he observed and wrote about the alewives.  Their lives and man’s life wasn’t a straight line but moved in circles.   Cycles. Seasons.  Somehow John wants to move out of self into, to be part of the natural world.  He wants space, openness, to be rooted in the land.  His tenure on Dry Hill is about sixty years. With Gessner he enjoys remembering the past.  His days and cocktail evenings with Aiken, his mentor?   I understand but I’ll need to re-read “The Prophet of Dry Hill.”

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I identified with John and Kristi’s aging limitations.  Physically and mentally it gets difficult.  A short walk becomes a challenge.  Can I make it uphill.  I’ve accepted that this morning I didn’t go on the kayak trip, three hours, up and down was too much.  And riding a bike, don’t think so.  But I can walk, sit on the beach, enjoy the sun, the surf and even today’s rain.

 

“The Prophet of Dry Hill” ends when John and Kristi move permanently to Maine.  David accepts a job at a southern university.  His bayside rental is sold and the new owners will tear it down, one old Cape house, replacing it with a bigger, newer, John would be appalled.

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I need to reread “The Run.”  And I have a copy of John Hay’s “The Great Beach.”  Maybe Thoreau and Beston.  But most of all I need to follow John’s footsteps on the beach, to the birds, the surf, the peepers in the woods,  to become one with the natural world.  The sands are shifting.  Where am I?

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Cape Cod’s Oldest Shipwreck

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The shoals off Orleans on Cape Cod where we’ve rented for the past six years is often referred to as the “graveyard of the Atlantic.”  Thousands of ships have run aground or sank there.  Another Atlantic graveyard is off the Outer Banks in North Carolina.  I also remember the shoals off Nantucket labeled “graveyard of the Atlantic.”  The Andrea Doria, an Italian ocean liner collided with the MS Stockholm in 1956 sunk there.  Forty-six people died.  Remains from the ship were displayed in the historic life saving station museum across the street from our Nantucket rental.

My first Cape Cod book this season was “Cape Cod’s Oldest Shipwreck: the desperate crossing of the Sparrow-Hawk,” by Marc C. Wilkins.  A History Press imprint, so I wasn’t expecting a lot.  They tend to be written by amateurs.  But it was a good story. The Sparrow-Hawk (named after a Cape family, Sparrow, that discovered it’s remains, we don’t really know the ship’s name) left England in 1626.  Bound for Virginia, John Fells and John Sibsey shipped off with a boatload of Irish servants/workers to make a fortune in tobacco culture. Their ship was only about 50 feet.  The Captain’s name was Johnson.  Planning was not the best.  There were too few provisions and water, especially since they were sailing the northern route in winter.  The year was 1626.

Captain Johnson was sick.  The ship (like the Mayflower) approached Cape Cod rather than Virginia.  In rough water they ran aground at Nauset between Chatham and Orleans.  Not far from our Orleans rental.  The crew freed the ship but they were grounded a second time and the ship was lost.  William Bradford of Plymouth Plantation rescued them and it is through his writing that we know something of their fate.

The rough “rowdy bunch” of Irish did not get along with the pious Puritans.  John Fells also complicated their relationship when he got his maid pregnant.  In 1627 Bradford arranged for two barks to take the group to Jamestown, Virginia.  It seems Fells and Sibsey did become involved in the tobacco trade.  Their ship, later christened “Sparrow-Hawk” was covered by the shifting sands of the Cape’s “graveyard.”

 

The “old shippe” appeared briefly in 1782 and then it wasn’t seen again until 1863 when the bones of the Sparrow-Hawk surfaced.  A local Amos Otis made drawings of of the remains.  Many Cape Codders took souvenirs from the wreck.  There was considerable interest in this “oldest shipwreck.”  In 1865, the remains were moved and displayed in Boston Commons.  Despite its history and symbolism, the Sparrow-Hawk was sold and put in storage in Providence, R.I.  Eventually the Massachusetts Historical Society gave the remains to the Pilgrim Society of Plymouth, Massachusetts.   In 2005 it returned briefly to the Cape to be displayed in the Cape Cod Maritime Museum in Hyannis.  We could have viewed the Sparrow- Hawk then.  The author Wilkins and others studied the remains in an attempt to understand the construction and history of the ship.

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The Sparrow-Hawk was returned to storage in Plymouth until recently when some Swedish scientist-historians have unpacked the remains and are attempting to date the timbers and confirm the “legend” surrounding the ship.  Was she the 1626 wreck that Bradford wrote about?  Is she the “oldest wreck” along our Atlantic coast?  Did she transport a boatload of Irish farmers and English gentlemen to Cape Cod in search of the American dream?  History is always questions.

Last week I sat on the beach at Pleasant Bay.  I gazed across at marshlands, out to the Atlantic and thought about the story and the skeleton of the Sparrow-Hawk.  A fascinating trace of history.  A voyage that brought some of the earliest settlers to these shores nearly 400 years ago.  Amazing.  Someday we’ll get to Plymouth to view the Sparrow-Hawk.

 

 

 

 

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If These Stones Could Talk

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For several years in the early 1970s, I taught American History in elementary school.  In February I addressed Black History.  There were African-American history filmstrips. I didn’t know a lot of what was presented and there were individuals I didn’t recognize.  Frederick Douglas, Marcus Garvey, Sojourner Truth, Booker T Washington.  My elementary, high school, and college history classes were far from integrated.

Later at Holy Ghost Prep and Holy Family University in History and social studies methods courses I began to abandon the Black History and Women’s History months.  My own reading had exposed me to the history of women, blacks, immigrants and the poor and convinced me that their histories should be woven into the daily texture of United States History courses.  I attempted to be inclusive.

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I just finished reading “If These Stones Could Talk: African-American presence in the Hopewell Valley, Sourland Mountain, and surrounding regions of New Jersey,” by Elaine Buck and Beverly Mills (Lambertville NJ: Wild River Books, 2018).  My kind of book.  Buck and Mills, middle age African-American women, are amateur historians and educators.

I was first drawn to “If These Stones Could Talk” because it was Local History.  Several years ago we began driving to Princeton through Pennington and Hopewell and now dog walk and farm market shop in the area.  I’ve encountered the name Sourland Mountain (actually have another book about the area).  I was also intrigued that it was an African- American story.

It’s not academic, professional but a personal history.  The authors tell their story.  How they began to research the history of African-Americans in the area and became committed to having the history of local, common Blacks included in school history curriculums.  Their book includes the slave origins of many black families in the area.  Families that have lived for generations in this section of central New Jersey.

Their research begins with their involvement with the Stoutsburg Cemetery in Hopewell.  Located on “the Avenue,” Columbia Avenue, the Black neighborhood, the authors discover war veterans, community leaders, and relatives buried there.  In the tradition of “new social” historians they weave the local stories with State and National history.  We read about slavery in the north, African-American service in wars from the revolution to Vietnam.

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This is not just a story of Black Americans.  It is the story of small towns.  So many of the individuals the authors profile are related, many to themselves. Mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, all play a role.  Several chapters are recorded oral history interviews.  Most of average people; some more famous.  Interesting is Bill Allen who discovered the body of the Lindbergh baby.  Charles Lindbergh ignored him.  And Dooley Wilson (piano player in Casablanca, “play it again Sam”) briefly lived in Hopewell.  Roy Campanella (baseball) visited Elaine Buck’s family.

Religion and church are important to the community.  There are several churches featured from Pennington, Hopewell and Skillman.  AME churches inspire a chapter on Richard Allen and the foundation of Black churches in the Philadelphia region.  Buck and Mills also describe the faith, traditions, and centrality of the church in the community.

I particularly enjoyed several chapters devoted to local living and food ways.   The slaughter of pigs and chickens, gardening, canning, holiday menus, African-American cuisine.  Recipes included.

I’m anxious to explore the neighborhoods, cemeteries, and areas described.  There is a Stoutsburg Historical organization.  Maybe I can meet Buck or Mills.  I am not finished with “If These Stones Could Talk.”

 

 

 

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Another HGP Graduation

 

June 1, 2019, 10 a.m.  I am in academic robes sitting on a small stage under a large tent.  I am attending yet another Holy Ghost Prep graduation.  I thought my last was 2014 when I retired.  But about a month ago HGP president and 1979 alumnus Greg Geruson contacted me. I had been chosen to receive the Fr. James McCloskey Alumni Award given to an “alumnus whose profound generosity, commitment, and support demonstrates a unique understanding of the mission of Holy Ghost Prep.”  My first response was to question whether I was appropriate, the typical chosen alumnus.  He responded that yes, many who received the award were trustees/donors (Quinlan, Guarrieri, Geonnotti, Naccarato, Holt) as I suggested but there were others whose contributions were more educational.  In fact five taught at HGP (McCloskey, Buettler, Mundy, Duaime, Chapman).  I was honored and accepted.

Saturday’s  weather was perfect, sunny but not too hot.  There have been the graduation years of sweltering heat or massive thunder storms.  Graduation this year was the (take a bow Ryan Abramson ‘94) a smooth, well-orchestrated event with many traditions and awards.  Diane, Jenny and granddaughter Viv were given a royal tour and special seats by Greg Geruson’s Assistant. They enjoyed the ceremony.

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While students milled about the cafeteria; faculty lined in in the main hallway.  I got into my academic garb and hung out in Geruson’s office.  There were quite a few alumni from 1969 celebrating their 50th anniversary.  I got talking to one I recognized but thought I was talking to the son, a former student when I was actually talking to his father.  I won’t mention any name but the son operates a great brewery in Ambler.  I spoke quite a bit with Greg Nowack ‘77 who would address the class of 2019.  When the graduates names were read, I recognized several family names.  Got to talk to at least one after the ceremony.  HGP is family on many levels.

Greg Geruson was joined by Ken Lorence ‘05 from the Alumni Association for the presentation of my award.  Ken took my Local History course and told me he follows my blog, reading about my current local history reads and explores.  Teachers always like positive alumni feedback.  I thought Greg Geruson provided an exceptional summary of my contribution to HGP.  He grounded my educational philosophy and style, “hands-on, experiential learning” on my Peace Corps teacher training in Bisbee, AZ in 1969 (a 50 year anniversary).  I returned to HGP as a librarian, English teacher in 1973.  He explained that in 1978 I was appointed Assistant Headmaster (one of the first lay administrators).  Later in the day Fr. Jeff Duaime ‘76 recalled my close friendship and relationship with Headmaster Fr. Jim McNally, my mentor and boss for about 10 years.

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Greg also highlighted the best of my teaching at HGP.  There was my signature Local History course with several field trips.  A 10 year involvement with Ted Hershberg’s University of Pennsylvania High School Partnership where one of my classes partnered with a Philadelphia public school class, crossing the urban-suburban divide and jointly working on a neighborhood community service project.  And then there was Ayudanica, a service project to Nicaragua founded by Rob Buscaglia.  We took mostly HGP but others to create a small community library and computer center in the village of Monte Rosa.  As Greg commented, “Both the Penn program and Ayudanica were model programs and represented returns to Vince’s Peace Corps Roots.” Greg correctly described me as a teacher and librarian at heart, positions I returned to after completing a doctorate at Temple University.  Positions I held until retirement in 2014.

Spending 4 hours on the HGP campus on graduation Saturday was a pleasant reunion for me.  Windows to the past were opened and I found many “memories in the corners of my mind.”  Although I got to speak with some faculty and staff, it was too brief.  I counted about 27 from my days at HGP.  There were also quite a few new faces. At least two people said to me how much HGP had changed — in the past five years since retirement; in the fifty-four since I graduated.  Sure there have been lots of changes, new buildings, new technologies, new initiatives.

But as I listened and walked around I found so many things have remained the same.  Is the mission of HGP different today than it was in the 1960s when I was a student?  Is the need for the fundamentals of reading, writing, and arithmetic the same?  Is the  critical thinking and ceremony that Greg Nowack spoke about any different?  Do we still hope students develop a attitude of life long learning and service to others?  Do we want alumni who think independently and stand up for their beliefs? Do we teach the value of diversity and equality?

The new science labs are great and should facilitate student learning opportunities.  But I  still remember fondly the closets of hand me down test tubes and other science glassware, dusty bottles of chemicals, bottled biological specimens, bones and stones that made up our chem and bio labs in 1965.  Fr. Leo Kettle used them to instill a curiosity and respect for science and the natural world.  As much as I like and use computer technology, I have a librarian’s love of books; reading books. I remember Fr. Marshall’s semester of American literature that led to my college major and Fr. Meehan’s  advice to journal every day.

Change is good but so is tradition. Hopefully HGP will continue to be cutting edge. And I hope the past is treasured and preserved.

I didn’t get an opportunity to speak to the graduates.  But I have a short bit of advice that sums up my educational philosophy.  It’s attributed to Mark Twain : “Don’t let schooling interfere with your education.”  If any of the 2019 graduates (or alumni) read this and don’t understand, I’m available most days along the Delaware Canal in Yardley.  Stop by.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lambertville, NJ

 

In the 1970s we lived on Old York Road in New Hope with John and Barbara Paglione. Particularly on weekends we tried to avoid the “tourist” town and began to cross the bridge exploring Lambertville.  It was still pretty much a working class community, it reminded John and me of Bristol.

Our “go to” restaurant in Lambertville for years was Phil and Dan’s, small Italian, tables set up in what was once a living room in a typical row house.  The dishes were traditional at a price we could afford. Amazing but their grand daughter showed up in one of my Holy Family College classes in the 90s,  Phil and Dan  had sold the restaurant. Several years ago when Paglione’s were visiting, we returned  —  then it was called Rick’s, but looked and tasted the same.  Rick’s has since closed.

Occasionally we splurged and went to the Lambertville House, Lambertville Station or Hamilton’s Grill  (we actually lived around the corner from Jim Hamilton).  There was also a large ACME grocery and stationary store that we frequented.  But the town was changing, quaint shops, galleries and restaurants began to transform the downtown.  NYC or a bit of New Hope gentrified Lambertville.  We even considered buying an run down Victorian with ivy growing inside through the bricks.  Someone turned it into a beautifully restored B and B.  Fortunately I think Lambertville maintained some of the small town vibe and is today much more interesting to us than New Hope.

Hamilton’s Grill became one of our favorite restaurants, anniversaries, New Jersey night, Oyster night,  special dinners hosted by Jim in his nearby apartment.  Unfortunately Jim died last year, ending an era.

We go to quite a few other Lambertville restaurants, The Boathouse (small bar across Pig Alley from the Grill), The Swan is a classic bar restaurant we’ve gone to since the 70s  (Anton’s at the Swan  is the main room, expensive dining),  El Tule (Mexican and Peruvian), Under the Moon (tapas), Inn of the Hawke, Cafe Galleria (trendy), Marhaba (Middle Eastern), Tortugas Cocina (Aztlan Mexican Grill today).  We ate at Brian’s once (the new owner of Hamilton’s) but have avoided Lambertville Station (too touristy, although their raw bar might be worth trying again.)  We recently had a nice lunch at the Lambertville House (hadn’t been there in years); spent a memorable New Year’s Eve with HGPs Gallaghers and Chapmans so many years ago.

We go to Lambertville to walk Nala along the canal, the views through town are always interesting.  We’ve spent many “gallery days” exploring local art.

This year we did the street tour of Halloween decorations (amazing, inspired by a local art teacher).  I did a historic walking tour a few years ago.

And then there is the Shad festival celebrating the spring shad run.  We would have gone this year but it was overcast with showers.  Instead I read “Another Haul: narrative, stewardship, and cultural sustainability at the Lewis family fishery,” by Charlie Groth.  The title is a clue that this is a very academic book, pages devoted to folklore, culture, storytelling, hundreds of in-text citations.  The author however spent a decade or more observing, interviewing and eventually volunteering as a crew member at the Lewis fishery.

For generations, since the end of the 19th century, the Lewis family has had a license to net Delaware River shad from an an island (named Lewis today)  north of the bridge.  Bill and his wife Mamie were the first.  In 1890, 3,500 shad were caught.  Their son, Fred (and his wife Nell)  took over and ran the fishery (the only one left) for decades.  His daughter Muriel Lewis Merserve and her husband David are now in charge.

By the 1950s pollution had all but ended the return migration of the shad to spawn upstream.  I remember reading how ship’s hulls in Philadelphia were a chemical rainbow of colors.  For several years the shad catch in Lambertville was zero.  Fred lobbied to have the river cleaned up.  By the 1970s the haul was back into the hundreds, in a good year the thousands.  I remember the return of recreational shad fisherman in the late 70s and early 80s when we lived on the river in Yardley.  One year I went fishing, gold hook, no bait, and I pulled in a half dozen migrating herring (not shad).  I pickled them; our Danish friend Ragna Hamilton declared them “delicious.”  But unfortunately it was a one time thing.  In 2017, the Lewis seasonal  take was just over 1,200.  That was with 43 hauls in 34 days of seine net fishing.

We’ve crossed the small bridge to the island several times.  But sadly have only viewed a haul once or twice  despite the number of times we’ve gone to the Shad Festival .  I remember buying cooked shad from a truck for several years.  We were told it was Connecticut shad since the Delaware River shad was too muddy tasting.  Until reading “Another Haul” I didn’t know the Lewis’s sold their catch from the first floor of the crew house, one of two buildings on the island.   Many years they have to ration;  more customers than shad.  In recent years at the Festival, Hamilton’s chef, Mark,  distributed free small pieces of shad in front on the restaurant.  Delicious.  I bought shad and shad roe several years from McCaffrey’s but Diane didn’t like it very much.  I’d like to try again.

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There may have been years when the Lewis family made a small profit running the fishery but now it’s done for family, tradition, the community, for the love of shad.  Despite the ethnographic academics in “Another Haul,” Groth provides a lot of interesting detail about the river, flooding, seine net fishing, shad, the Lewis family and Lambertville.  Some details new to me; some that reflects my personal experience. The shad run can last till June.  Hauls on the Jersey Shore happen in the evening.  I’m hoping to get to the island in the next few weeks and look for shad (maybe roe) in a fish market.

At home I can enjoy the painting “The Weir, Delaware Shad,” a Dave Sears painting we treasure.

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Changing seasons

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February is drawing to a close.  Each day there is more light.  Spring is in the air.  Today I ordered seeds from Territorial Seed in Oregon.  My first draft of federal Income tax is completed.  We’re looking to reserve our first get away in March or April, maybe to Virginia, Williamsburg area.

It’s been a dull winter so far.  Too many cloudy, rainy days.  Cold but not one good snowfall (although there is still time).  I’ve endured because of the woodstove and books.  Mornings are spent in daily routines, frequently a walk, maybe a little project.  But by early afternoon on most days I have a fire keeping me entertained and warm.

 

I’ve read a mixed selection of books since Christmas.  Dickens “A Christmas Carol” was the first.  I treasure a 1938 Garden City edition, illustrated by Everett Shinn from our years in Boston.  It was delightful.  Before the holiday, as we do every year, we watched Albert Finney in “Scrooge.”  Then the read.  Next up was a gift from our Taylor friends,  “Kitchen Yarns: notes on life, love and food,” by Ann Hood.  Another good food memoir.  Hood learned the basics from her mother and although she’s become a more adventurous cook, she consistently returns to Gogo’s meatballs and chicken salad.  Each chapter ends with recipes.  I’ll try some.

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I  decided to read a novel I’d given Diane, “Rattle of the Looms,” by Paul Lavalee.  We’d read about it in September when we explored several mill towns in central Massachuttes where Diane had relatives.  It traces the lives of several generations of French Canadians who move to the area to work in the mills.  Unfortunately there is a minimal about mill life; reads more like a soap opera.  It may have been sel-published. There are probably better books about the area.

 

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Like food books, there is always another book about books.  I’ve read many.  I had ordered “ A Passion for Books: a book lover’s treasury”  by Harold Rabinowitz.  It’s a collection of essays, poems, even cartoons about books, bibliophiles, and libraries.  I’ve written about my personal “passion” for books, so easy to collect, so hard to part with them.  I am not alone, although many of the collectors described in “Passion” dealt in rare books, first editions, special collections.  Rosenbach from Philadelphia was featured.  How do you store and organize your collection?  Do you lend books? Have you read every book you own?  Throughout the read, I heard Diane, “You need to get rid of all those books.”  (I’ve started, but slowly).

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A reread was “On the Rez” by Ian Frazier.  I may have been drawn to it after the Washington D.C. confrontation between the High School student and the Native American activist.  Much of the story is the friendship of author Frazier with an an Oglala Sioux, Le who is usually broke, borrowing money, sometimes drunk, into crazy schemes.  The Rez is Pine Ridge in South Dakota, poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, car accidents are common.   We learn a little about Crazy Horse and Black Elk (famous Oglala) and modern Native American activism in the 70s.  Frazier attempts to understand the culture.

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As a follow up I read James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans.”  A classic that I thought I’d read but maybe not.  Diane had bought the copy due to the New York State setting but didn’t get too far. It is a difficult read, flowery language, unusual vocabulary, multiple names for people and places and natives who frequently speak in metaphors and parables.  But I persevered.  The plot is the capture of two British officer’s daughters (Cora and Alice) by the French allied Hurons. The Scout, Hawkeye (in other books Natty Bumpoo) his Native friends and an officer in love with one of the girls attempt a rescue.  If the Hurons are pro-French, the Mohicans are pro-British and the Delawares seem to sit the fence.  There is a lot of killing, slaughter, scalping, and the feisty daughter Cora and the son of the Scout’s friend, Unas are killed in the end.  It was a surprising read but I’m glad I did.  Need to rewatch the recent movie.

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I don’t know the source of my next read but it was a disappointment.  Several times I was ready to give up but didn’t.  “How the Irish Saved Civilization: the untold story of Ireland’s heroic role from the fall of Rome to the rise of medevial Europe” by Thomas Cahill.  He writes about the fall of Rome ( speculations about the cause) and  the invasion of the barbarians.  A  threat to the classical world heritage.  But finally to the rescue, along come the Irish (actually Irish monks), monasteries, reading, copying, and preserving the classics of Greece and Rome.  They spread this learning throughout the emerging Europe.  Interesting but not a very good read.

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My eight book since Christmas was “Catfish and the Delta: confederate fish farming in the Mississippi Delta” by Richard Schweid.  The author lived in the Delta for months, meeting people, learning about the culture but focused on the catfish industry in the 1990s.  One of many books I’ve read about a particular food.  Of course I’ll be looking for catfish to fry in the coming weeks.  Schweid has a reporter’s style, similar to John McPhee who I wrote about recently.  He explores every aspect of the industry which replaced cotton as a primary Delta product.  From financing, raising, harvesting, processing, marketing he explores every aspect of the catfish industry including it’s ups and downs.  Lots of interesting details like how you can get cut handling the fish.  Race is another theme.  White farmers own the catfish  ponds and processing plants; Blacks work at low paying jobs that produce the catfish.  Ironically Blacks also eat a lot of catfish.  Schweid explores housing, the segregated educational system (private academies for Whites after “Brown”), the blues,  B.B. King and others (which sometimes brings the races together), mosquitoes, Delta pride and self-sufficiency but a declining, mostly poor population.  Schweid can the catfish save the Delta?

I know it’s days, weeks until Spring.  It’s warm today but 3 o’clock.  Time for a fire, new book, and glass of wine.  I’ll finish taxes tomorrow or the next day.

 

 

 

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McPhee

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Time magazine recently published a profile of John McPhee. He is one of, maybe my favorite writer.  First published in the New Yorker in 1963;  87 years old.  The Time interview takes place on the 4th floor of Guyot Hall, the geosciences building on the campus of Princeton University.  McPhee is reviewing applications for his Sophomore writing class. He’s taught at Princeton for decades.  Years ago I wrote him asking if I could audit  a class.  He responded that Princeton did not allow audits of his classes but he was giving a public lecture.  I went but was disappointed; I thought his writing was much better than his speaking.

I don’t think I realized McPhee’s childhood was in Princeton. From Time:

While growing up in Princeton, where his father was a sports-medicine physician at the university, Albert Einstein–leonine white hair and all–would watch McPhee and his buddies play ragtag football on the lawn of the Institute for Advanced Study, Einstein’s workplace. “He would stand there and contemplate us,” McPhee says. In high school he had a gig killing fruit flies and washing centrifuge tubes stained with beef blood for the university’s biology department, in the very building where his office now sits.“

I  enjoyed some of the personal stories.

“To keep sharp, McPhee tries to ride a bicycle 15 miles every other day in and around Princeton, where he’s lived all his life. During these treks, McPhee shares with his riding partners stories about the history of local landmarks, his journalistic adventures, his family. (McPhee dedicates The Patch to his 10 grandchildren.) One friend describes him as the world’s nicest know-it-all.”

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I think “The Pine Barrens” (1968) was probably my first exposure to McPhee.  “The Survival of the Birch Bark Canoe” (1982) was second.  Both of them were on a reading list I had for a junior English course at Holy Ghost Prep. McPhee’s New Yorker, magazine style combining history, science and personal observation had me hooked.

I began to read anything he published in book form.  Oranges (1975),   Encounters with the Archdruid (1977), Levels of the Game (1979), Pieces of the Frame (1979), A Roomful of Hovings (1979), Basin and Range (1982), The Control of Nature (1990), Coming into the Country (1991), Looking For a Ship (1991),  The Crofter and Laird (1992), The Headmaster: Frank L Bowden of Deerfield (1992),  The Curve of Binding Energy (1994), The Ranson of Russian Art (1998), Irons in the Fire (1998), A Sense of Where You Are: Bill Bradley at Princeton (1999),  Assembling California (1994), La Place de la Concord Suisse (1994), The Founding Fish (2003).  I’ve missed a few.

I have strong memories of many.  The geology books were not favorites but I was always intrigued by how McPhee made them interesting, especially Assembling California.  The more I learn about his life; it explained his books.  He went to Deerfield Academy after high school, before Princeton.  In Silk Parachutes (2011) which I just read, he writes about Deerfield and Lacrosse.  Diane and I have visited the historic town and taken open hearth cooking classes there several times.  I remember his fishing in the Delaware River near Trenton in Founding Fish; Bill Bradley; both Princeton connections.

Decades ago I wrote to McPhee asking if I could audit a class at Princeton, a day, a semester.  He responded saying the University did not allowbaudits of his classes but he was giving a public lecture that I could attend. I did.  Unfortunately I didn’t find McPhee the speaker as fluid or engaging as McPhee the writer.

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Last year I read Draft No. 4: the writing process (2017).    I was surprised when I recently found several McPhee books that I hadn’t read.  Heirs of General Practice     (1986) and Silk Parachutes (2011). I ordered and read both.  Still on my Amazon buy list is The Patch (2018).  This is a shelf in my library devoted to McPhee.  Most books are Farrah, Straus and Giroux paperbacks.  Somewhere there should be a hardback edition of the Pine Barrens with photographs by Bill Curtsinger.  Bill, a National Geographic photographer illustrated a magazine Pine Barrens article and later contributed to the  book.  He told a story of being high when he shot the National Geographic cover image.

Like many things in my life, it’s time to revisit, reread, reexperience John McPhee.  Maybe Princeton allows audits or I could apply for his writing class.  Dreams.

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