Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Old House Has A Voice:

My dad was the seventh son of a seventh son, a genealogical fact with mystical associations. He had a leg-puller's delight in this curiousity, bringing it up occasionally to demonstrate that he was of course too humble to claim a supernatural ability to cure "the King's itch" and certain aliments of horses, but there it was. Seventh sons of seventh sons are also alledged to have "the second sight", a type of extra perception, a blessing or a curse, depending on how you look at it, that penetrates the very necessary boundary between the mundane world of our constantly projected desires and the other world of elemental realities. The situation does call for some humility.

Truth being stranger than fiction begs the point, both being exceedingly strange, but I have noticed that my personal delight in the curlicues of advanced fantasy can obscure potent facts. I was aware, during work on The Changeling & the Bear, for instance, that The Old House, as we called my father's homeplace, had a voice, but I assumed that voice was entirely a child's fantasy ~ one of many magical things I remembered about my odd childhood. That conceit blinded me to part of what The Old House had to say. (Given the territory we're in, you'll have to overlook my mixed metaphor. It is more mixed than it appears.)

(The Old House scene from KET's video of The Changeling & the Bear)

My usual method for research on a project is to begin following a thread through bibliographies. One of threads that I'm following leads through recent books by archaeologists concerning artifacts found deliberately buried beneath the dwelling places of slaves. These buried accumulations appear to conform, in procedure and content, with the practices of West African religions or philosophies, depending on your semantics, potential proof that these practices endured the cultural crucible of the diaspora. Some understanding of whether and how the cosmologies of Africa traveled to Dutton Hill is required before I can imagine what Pete may have thought about the spring bearing his name, and if the saying "You'll always come back." originated with him, what the resonance of that statement might imply. That's what lead to me an intriguing book, Crossroads and Cosmologies by Christopher Fennel.

Here's a bit from the introduction by Robert Farris Thompson, author of Flash of the Spirit, another essential book in this thread:

"This is the first text on Afro-American archaeology in which we are rewarded with discussion of those all-important Kongo spirits call bisimbi or basimbi. They live in the forest (nfinda), and they live in the water (maza). Bisimba form the highest class of the dead. They led such powerful lives that when they died, they came back, died, and came back once again. Fennel elaborates: "[simbi] originated as the souls of living persons, which evolved through multiple cycles of death and rebirth as living person, then soul, then ancestor, then simbi." Honoring their power, God transforms them into the immortal pools or waterfalls or mountains. Citing Laman, Fennel continues, "As the basimbi (from simba, to hold, keep, preserve) safeguard the country, man could not exist anywhere without them."

And this...

"A later chapter involves the careful glossing of a single German-American log cabin in Virginia and its visual trove. Under this house Fennel found a small figure of a skull with a cross and initials. A credulous researcher might announce, "Aha: this obviously connects with skull figures of the late Son Thomas of black Mississipi, and certain face jugs of black South Carolina." But the cabin was the residence of frugal German-Americans. Patiently excavating and sifting all kinds of evidence, Fennell devotes an entire chapter to proving the skull and its sings derived from German-American traditions, not Kongo or any other."

My cousin Barbara brought her trove of family history over last Sunday, so that we could share it. Her mother, Gertrude, was one of my dad's older sisters. I never knew her, and thus had no idea she was such a dry wit. Hilarious actually. She also had an interest in her ancestry and dropped an interesting quote in a letter, "Mom says that the Duttons were all low down dutch." - with low down dutch underlined to accentuate the humor. Dutch in this case is an Anglo-American corruption of the word Deutsch, ie German. My aunt Gladys, longing for membership in the DAR, faked geneaology to avoid the then negative wartime association with anything German. But my great great grandfather David Dutting, (the spelling changed on the 1810 deed for the first part of the farm that he purchased) was likely to have been much more Germanic than she would have preferred.

"Many of the German immigrants who eventually moved into the upper Potomac and northern Shenandoa area came from the broad region of the Palatine districts of southwestern Germany. The Palatine states, located along the Rhine Valley and the area of modern-day Switzerland, suffered extensive disruptions and instability during numerous wars of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries." ... "Between 1702 and 1727, approximately 40,000 to 50,000 German immigrants arrived in Pennsylania.."

(This view of a forest in the Palatine region looks much like eastern Pulaski County.)

"...German families settled in seperate farmsteads, rather than concentrated villages, a change from their settlement patterns in southwest Germany. Yet they tended to settle these farms near one another, and they maintained local social networks in which they provided one another with labor, equipment, products, and loans of currency. ... German families in this region (the Shenandoah Valley and north Loudoun Country Virginia) also tended to pass on family wealth through a system of "partable inheritance," similar to that employed in southweat Germany, to provide as much to all their children as they could. Under this approach, the male head of the household typically bequeathed a portion of the family wealth to each child, while arranging for the family farm to pass largely intact to one son for continued operation."

"... the family farmers of both the German and Quaker communities in north Loudoun County shared several characteristics, including lifestyles of frugality and industriousness. They tended to be more successful farmers than others in the county, including the larger-scale Anglo-American farm operators. Members of the German and Quaker communities practiced crop rotations and used manure to fertilize their farms in a way that boosted the productivity of their farms above that of others in the region during the late 1700s"

In Fennel's discussion of Germanic magic traditions, he quotes this description: "The universe was peopled by a hierarchy of spirits, and thought to manifest all kinds of occult influences and sympathies. The cosmos was an organic unity in which every part bore a sympathetic relationship to the rest. Even colours, letters and numbers were endowed with magical properties."

There is plenty for me to ponder in all this, but the part of Fennel's book that really struck my eye was his lengthy investigation into determining how the architecture of the cabin he excavated was linked to building traditions in Palatine Germany. Much of what he described also pertained to the floor plan and construction of The Old House, the larger part of which was built in 1875, by my great grandfather, when my grandfather was 14. And it so happened, that because of Barbara's visit, the significance of the design of The Old House was already haunting my brain.

This because my Aunt Gertrude, when she was a teen, had made an album, "My Home and Family", as teens sometimes do, an accumulation in book form of objects and writing that she felt defined her identity. She, or perhaps my dad, whom she described as "the baby, quiet, the drawer", had drawn a picture of The Old House, and this was presented as practically the first aspect of her identity.

How teasing it is that she ALMOST describes why one window is larger than the others! This is just one of the many mysteries concerning The Old House; alas, all that I have time for this morning. Much was lost when The Old House burned, but it seems likely to me now that more remains than I will have time to comprehend. That's the thing about the two worlds - the mundane world is what our limited perceptions can percieve; the real world is so much bigger.


Alan Evil said...

I have a slight insight into the different window and door sizes. A fellow carpenter was showing me a very old (built before the Civil War) elementary school in New Orleans that was being rehabbed (back before Katrina so I don't know if it survived though it was in the Garden District which got little or no flooding) and he pointed out that as you looked down the hall all the doors were different heights and all the transoms were different sizes as well. After letting me puzzle over this for a moment he told me why: the carpenters didn't have standardized rulers, they used their hammer handles to measure lengths. It is very likely that more than one carpenter was working on the house and they each had different "rulers."

Dan Dutton said...

Gertrude's text could be construed to be sarcastic/critical that in this case, as in so many more, people "intend" to fix things & then never do.

I think it a little less likely that there were multiple carpenters with independent decision making - this was a very isolated area in 1875 when the house was built - there probably would have been few people besides family members to work on it. Gladys stated that the house was built by her grandfather (Daniel 1) - her father, Daniel Hoskins, would have been 14 and probably worked on it. He would go on to become a finish carpenter.

But probably the best evidence is that there is a carpenter's manual from the old house, from the mid-1800s (best guess so far - the title page is missing) with some rafter angle calculations, probably made for the old house, drawn with drafting tools in the back pages. I'm guessing the book belonged to Daniel 1 & was passed on to his son, Daniel Hoskins. In any event, the book has sophisticated mathematical formulas for calculating every sort of building plan. Beyond having standardized rulers, you'd have to have an excellent grasp of geometry, math, and some algebra to use the book ~ and apparently they did, since the rafter pitches are calculated by degree in the pencil notes on the back page.

I wonder if Gertrude's comment is a veiled reference to her father's mental instability. I'll know more when I get his hospital records from the asylum archives. I don't know the time frame of that situation yet.

SBD said...

I believe the Dutton House was by design.... the odd window,more likely what was left or...... we just like things odd!

Dan Dutton said...

There must have been some reason that Gertrude singled out the window - in a way you have to read her entire book to get her slant on things like this. There was a story behind the different window, and it must have made an impression on her teenage mind for some reason. This is the first page of her description of her "Family and Home" & she used much of it to say "Notice the window." For some reason it made a point that she thought needed to be made & it wasn't a virtue, or, I think, a deliberate quirk. It had to do with someone not doing what they were supposed to do.

Dan Dutton said...

On the other hand, the text can be read as they MEANT to, but ~ poof ~ things don't turn out as planned. That would fit with something she wrote about her father in one of the letters- "We may all turn out like Pa before it's over."

I'm starting to see the historian's method - proof or describe all the possibilities - as a potential artists tool, but it's certainly a strange one. The aesthetic choice becomes frame of focus. What troubles me about it is the absence of the body, of a responsive gesture in a world of ghosts - which makes me think that dance would help this project. Ack.

Alan Evil said...

Last week PRI's The World had for its Geo Quiz the site of recent archaeological finds of African-American bundles hidden in 18th century homes in Annapolis MD!

Dan Dutton said...

It is simply incredible to me now that I didn't think of doing our own archaeological dig at the site of Pete's cabin. There are now some incredibly ugly huge houses on the site, and no doubt their bulldozing destroyed whatever may have been there. I never thought about how rare slave/free black home sites actually are, or how much, potentially could have been uncovered till I started reading the (very) recent archaeological papers on similar sites. SIGH! As long as I'm self-flagellating - that I never thought to quiz my dad about EVERY WORD that Pete told him seems nuts. Even an account once removed of Pete's experience would now be the equivalent of historical gold for many many researchers. Why we never thought of the importance of this boggles me.

Cebah tells of finding an intact cream pitcher at that site, which a big (ha!) woman who was walking with her snatched before she could lay a hand on it. What I wouldn't give to look at that object! Alas, removed from context it lost its story. But it does tell that Pete and Jennie (I did find out she was from Virginia) had some pretty tableware - cream pitchers are artistic frou frou really - they're not a practical container for storing of cream.