Wednesday, November 26, 2008

What's in a Word?:

Bobby and I cleared a field today. He cut trees and brush; I dragged them to the burn piles. The field, once a pasture, hadn't been bushhogged in 10 years or more. Now it is ready to become a hillside meadow again, as it was when Cebah kept her milkcow there, soon to be sown in clover. Everything in Bobby's world is done for the benefit of cows.

I only had mixed feelings at one point. I was elated at the cutting of the Russian Olive trees, invaders that kill out all of the native plants and quickly make inpenetrable and barren thickets, but I'm superstitious about cutting hawthorns. There was only one small one. At least I wasn't doing the cutting. And because it was all for the cows, somehow it seemed elementally ok. Bobby may be an Elf for all I know. He certainly acts like one. It's not like we card each other.

The hawthorn was erie when it burned. The countless tiny thorns ignited first and looked like christmas tree lights. Then all the branches jetted out blue flames as though they were hooked up to a gas line. Then the tree started to sing, a long thin whistle that stayed steady until it descended just before the tree was totally engulfed in flames.

I'm sure that I'm superstitious about cutting hawthorns because I've read that they are pixiefied. I guess the idea is that if you cut them the pixie whathave you jets out like those blue gas flames, gets attached to you and havoc ensues because you're not prepared to cope with it. And I've read you shouldn't bring the flowers in the house - their subtle strange slightly musky scent is simply a slower exudate of the same pixie-form gas that we burned up all in a flash ~ Up up in orange swirls of sparks to join the spangle of stars overhead, Venus and Mars flaring brilliant to match on the western curve of the celestial orb.

My cousin John was here the other day. He'd survived the removal of a lobe of his liver, and, bless him, the first trip he made on his own was to come back to Dutton Hill to visit his aunt Cebah. He brought us an eternity of ham. While he was here I pumped him for info about my grandfather, Daniel Hoskins Dutton, in hopes of finding another clue to the mysteries of "You'll Always Come Back." Boy did I land a big one. It's all in knowing what to ask.

I brought up the seventh son of the seventh son thing. My dad was the seventh son of the seventh son of the seventh son, something which I assume rarely happens. Amongst the Pennsylvannia Dutch (which my ancestors were amongst), just being a seventh son was enough to confer the power to heal certain aflictions. I think I've mentioned that my dad joked about this to me, telling me that as a 7th son to the power of 2 (he didn't even mention the 3) - he could cure "the itch". I didn't know what that was (scrofula, technically, or "the King's Itch" as it was known in yore) - but I did know that he had the power to suggest itches by claiming that he had gotten in chicken mites and that they were crawling on him. A couple of scratches on his arm and everyone in the room felt tiny critters MIGHT be crawling on them too. If you feel them now, my apologies to you.

So I thought the whole thing was another of his elaborate leg-pullings. There were plenty, believe me. When I was about 11 or 12 he told me that if I wanted to grow a moustache ( I did.) that I could rub the white part of chicken manure under my nose and hair would grow anywhere it was rubbed. I just recently found out that he told my sister Phyllis the same thing about her boobs - (that they would grow larger, not hair.) Manure as medicine is a whole nother topic - I'll come back to it, I promise.

When I started investigating the whole hex-doctor aspect of my father's seventh-son-dom, it turned out that he had also told Phyllis he could cure thrush in babies (a throat and mouth infection) by blowing in their mouths. This also was (and still is, actually) a common method in Pennsylvania Dutch communties where "powwow doctors", as they're known, practice, or so I've read. Second hand, second hand... (I digress...) AND then, Ruth Ann told me that he said he could also cure horses of "swinney", which turns out to be atrophy, or loss of flesh in a limb. and Phyllis confirmed that he had told her this too.

But where, I wondered, did my dad hear of these things? Cebah says he only "half believed" in it himself, and I took what he told me to be a kind of comic performance - a hilarious boast delivered with, of course, total humility. Besides, there weren't any babies around with "thrush", no itching kings, no swinneyied horses, and I suppose that is exactly why I never witnessed a demonstration.

What John told me was that my dad had told him that people used to bring their horses to my grandfather to get them cured of swinney, and that he took them to the spring (!) and poured water over them. That did it.

So now I know how it is done, and who my dad learned it from, but without the uncanny seventhness, or some other key to the power, I suppose it has fled, like the hawthorn pixiegasses, back into the either from which it sprang.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Cloud Gazing:

Here's what I did Saturday ~ I painted clouds on the ceiling of what will be the Carnegie Community Art Center, which was the old library, and before that, the old (1926) Somerset Post Office.

Eight years ago I went on the Pulaski County Library Board, mainly to help get a new library built. My main responsibility was to be the looks of the new building, or aesthetics in other words, but library board members have more to do than you might think. When we went to the community to raise funds for the new building, a lot of informal promises to preserve and protect the old post office were extracted from us, and even though that is a bit of an extension of our duties as a library, we've taken it seriously. At a certain point in the process of building the new library we realized that something must be done with the old one. I suggested a community center, and as a result, I was put in charge of getting that done too.

The building was overdue for a makeover, so I picked out paint colors that I thought would compliment the wonderful architecture; dark and light gold for the walls and trim, bright white for the federalist style columns, with sky blue ceilings as a bit of whimsy. Once the painting started, our board president asked me if I'd paint clouds on the ceiling of the foyer. At first I thought that would be a bit much, but after my initial reservation I decided he was right.

The problem was finding time to do it. The center is planning to open December 4th & there's a lot to do before it is ready. Saturday my sister Phyllis was here, so she could stay with my mom, and I asked my nephew Dave to drive down and be my assistant for a day. One day was literally the only opening that I could get! I wasn't sure if it was possible, even, to paint all 5 ceiling panels in a single day. It was, but it was quite a job. I couldn't have done it without Dave.

Clouds, unless they are done with a light touch, can be very oppressive hanging overhead. Clouds of spun sugar are fun for awhile, but become cloying. Grand clouds, like Michelangelo's, cannot be equalled, but they are not the right feeling for a wedding reception, for instance. So to do these I called on my years of cloud gazing (it's true, I've studied clouds for years!) and made the lightest kind I could. This photo shows 3 of the 5 panels, awaiting the Empire style crystal chandeliers that will illuminate them.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


Busy wouldn't be the word for this wknd, but on friday I did manage to find a few minutes to make a quick sketch of Bobby, taking a break from installing a heater to keep the cattle water from freezing.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Transition Day:

Yesterday was still damp fall. There were mushrooms to pick in the bottoms, the beech tree by the studio still had a gold glow inside her copper skirt.

This morning there was a Rabbit Tracker (as in enough snow to), dusting the fallen paw paw leaves, ~

~ and by mid-afternoon the sky opened up into blue with high clouds, illumed with icy white.

Bobby led the cattle into a new pasture. He calls them with a clarion Whuk Whuk and they spread out to munch. Winter has arrived on the hill.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

You'll Always Come Back; An Album

"Presented to Sallie Dutton
by her Husband,
Xmas, 1896"

So reads the inscription on the title page of my grandmother's photograph album. The cover is blue velvet, with a design, now worn of its gilt, of flowers, butterflies, and a dragonfly sun. For the most part the photographs, of the Cundiffs primarily, (her family), had fallen out of the fancy decorated pages. Now they're in a stack. There's no way to figure out who was where. But for today, I'm not looking at it to find chronology, narrative, identity, or relationships between characters - I'm framing my response too, responding mainly to the album as a source of design.

The designs are not only worn by time, but also by my digital processing. This is sketchbook work, so I haven't sweated the details ~ "low resolution" as they say, so little is very resolved here. I'm just poking around, wondering how these patterns and shapes appear once you're the size of the people inside the frames. What would it be like to paint one of these things tall enough to step through?

The combination of plant forms and geometric designs gives an immediate impression of time past. Fanciful and conventional at once ~ I'm trying to see the connection between this kind of work and my own; could I bring myself to put a twining stem together with a geometric medallion? I wonder why my grandfather chose this album as a gift, surely he thought it looked good - but maybe she told him what she wanted...

Once the scale of the design elements is in flux, their fantastical qualities come into relief, at least to my eyes. I think I could reconstruct the drawing of the dragonfly from the tiny veined wingtip that remains, but as it is, it looks like a velvet fossil. Perhaps the best way for me to connect with what I'm seeing in this album is consider these images as sketches for sets.

I've thought of having Voice X (the orisa of crossroads) be a digital DJ who could make, via digital projections, any image in the bank appear on any wall of The Old House at any scale ~ of having a holographic spring in the center of the playing space, pouring out images of the past in their most contemporary form. Would that hodge-podge mixture be an equivalent to the design of this album - with digital disintegration standing in for decay?

Here's one of the chronomaps I'm using. The red border encloses Pete's lifetime. The 4 colored lines moving through the measures of decades are the event lines for the lives of my grandparents, Pete and Charles. I've placed an acorn on the time-cell of the album's presentation ~ Xmas 1896, 3 years after my grandparents got married.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

You'll Always Come Back; Black Dog:

Being a mythologist has consequences, as any path does. We tend to interpret what we experience in light of the stories we already know. One would think that comparitive mythology, that is noticing the elements of story that transcend the boundaries of particular cultures and show up all over the place, would lend a certain wordly-wise detachment to archetypal events ~ "oh yes, THAT again." ~ OR, (and this is common...) a gushing enthusiasm for how everything is connected, utterly misconstruing the real reason that spider webs are proof of God's existence, just to feel a part of it all. My personal experience has given me neither out, only a sense of being lucky and a litany of narrow escapes. Never at the same time.

For a mythologist, the words "black dog" are tethered to a pack of traditional stories about supernatural canines, portents of death (what else?) and guardians of the Otherworld. Anubis is the first one we have a name for - but there are plenty of recent sightings. I saw one myself.

Back in my early twenties I used to visit my friend Evelyn pretty often. She's one of the most interesting and charming people I've ever known. Anyway, she was living then in a little house out in the woods on the other side of the Fishing Creek holler. The road there and back was narrow, gravel, and hugging the winding side of a very steep bluff, a cliff practically, with no guard rails. Late one night when I was driving home I descended down into the holler from her house, crossed the creek and started up the road on the other side. About half-way up the cliff there was a slight space beside the road, on the bluff side. When I came around the curve and my headlights hit that spot, I saw what I thought at first was a black angus calf standing just at the edge of light. It would have been quite lost if it had been a calf. Before I had time to consider what it was doing by the road in the middle of the night, I had passed it and was headed on up the hill.

When I looked into my rearview mirror I saw it leap out into the road and come after my car, and that it was an enormous black dog. It was not a pleasant feeling to be followed and I shoved the gas pedal down as far as it would go, putting all my scant faith in internal combustion. Odd choice, eh? Not at all.

It was horrible, but of course I feel wonderously lucky to have seen it. Maybe it was just an oversized doberman-mastif cross that someone dumped. My tenderness has limits. And yes, the eyes glowed red in the taillights.

This image of a black dog is from The Old House. Phyllis had it in her trove. It doesn't appear to have any connection to my black dog story - but there it is; the words coincide, and when I made the photo into a jpeg, the story came to mind.

It is a pastel painting - and very skillfully done. The paper is of a special type made for pastelists, with a fine grit, like refined sandpaper, to catch the soft pastel and hold it. If I could afford to have the pigments anaylized, I might be able to date it. There is no signature, and nothing about its subject or provenance to connect it with anyone in my family. I think that my grandmother was skillful enough to have done it, and something about the way the red bow is handled makes me think it might be hers. As far as I know there are no other pastel paintings. For now it's like a tarot card ~ a more or less mysterious image which suggests things that are significant. If you're in a mind to think so.

As a mythologist I can only conclude that this little fellow attends the boundary between the known and unknown in the process of making You'll Always Come Back. I shudder to think what my life would be like now if it was the other one.


These photos are of my student, Isaac. Isaac's grandfather, Senor Benitez, runs a small grocery called La Villa, not too far from Dandyland. It's the only really good grocery we have around here ~ they have good avocados, and on fridays, fresh conchas. When I was helping organize the Dias de los Muertos celebration for our public library, I made friends with Mr. Benitez's son, Rufino, and he asked me if I would give his son, Isaac, art lessons.

I don't take on students, generally, but Isaac is so talented and we have so much in common that I said ok.

Isaac was drawing cartoons when we met. He can draw SpongeBob without looking at a reference. After we talked for a little while I discovered that just like me, Isaac has a passion for puppetry, and he likes to dance too. I proposed that we do a puppet show together, and my art lessons would be general direction for that project. And we made the most suitable agreement for me, that my fee would consist of free groceries!

Today we started the experimental planning stage of our theater ~ Isaac drew the parts of our trial puppet; I cut them out and glued them onto cardboard from a grocery box. Then we attached the parts together with twist ties and attached some sticks onto the back. This week Isaac will draw the designs for the other characters, then we'll transfer them onto plywood and make the puppets we'll use in the performance. The butcher in the grocery is the leader of a Nortena band, so we're going to ask them to play the music for our show. They are very loud, and that should make it exciting and catch everyone's attention to watch the play. We're going to make up the dialogue for the play once we see what the characters look like.

We'll have to build a theater too. Isaac thinks that will be a lot of work, but I've done this sort of thing before, and there's a bunch of stuff left over from The Secret Commonwealth that we can recycle. We're going to invite all the people who come to the grocery to watch our show and we'll give them free tickets, this time. It's really exciting!

Last week we did art history. I gave Isaac a big book full of photographs of Mexican art, because it's a good idea to see what other artists have done. He picked out some Aztec drawings for us to copy and we worked on them for an hour. It was hard.
He's keeping the book at his grandfather's grocery so that the other kids can look at it. Some of them told me today that they were artists too, which came as a surprise to Isaac. He looked at me and raised his eyebrows when he heard that. I'm guessing that recruiting them to work in our theater will be a piece of cake.

Speaking of cake, that was one of the great things I got today for directing the experimental stage of the puppet theater; a tres leches (3 milks) cake, + two avocados, a head of garlic, a jar of green mole paste, a week's supply of conchas, grapefruit soda, a pudding-ish pastry with dried fruit in it that was very good, and a bunch of green corn tamales. What a great deal!

I'll post more on the puppet theater as it evolves.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Pete's Gift:

Pete was 36 when my aunt Lina was born in 1897. He must have developed a tenderness for her, as he gave her two things; a nickname and a gift. These revelations came from my cousin Fred, Lina's son. The nickname was "Queen" ~ "because she was so bossy"; the gift was a pressed glass cream pitcher, vase and cup. Fred didn't know what the occasion was for the gifting. Perhaps it was when Lina left The Hill for Idaho. She didn't take the gift then though, the pitcher, vase and cup stayed on the mantle of The Old House parlor until 1960, when She and her husband, Fred senior, could take them safely in their car, instead of the riskier train.

When I first began contemplating "You'll Always Come Back" and Pete's story, I longed to connect with some tangible object that Pete had touched, hoping that it would offer some insight into his personality. I never dreamed that not only was there an object that had survived, but the particular sort of object that reveals more about personality than any other, a gift of love.
What story is in these 3 dainty things? When I know the date of their manufacture I'll know more. I know from my grandmother's meticulous ledgers, keeping account of everything bought for, and sold from, The Hill, as well as records of the work that Pete and his wife, Jenny, did there, that Pete could and did buy things on the Dutton account at stores in town.
Were these special treasures that he and Jenny bought first for themselves, to sparkle and enliven their cabin above the spring, and then gave to the bossy young Queen because she once admired them? Or did he pick them out specially for the occasion, spending what must have been a great sacrifice of hard earned credit to purchase something he thought worthy of the young woman he had watched grow up, and whom he must have had a special fondness for.

Fred says that the gold on the rim of the cup is worn from use.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Quest for Pretty Leaves:

"Aigle was a High Romantic. She saw life as an occasion for achieving the improbable, for aiming at the unseen, and enforced this frame of mind on others. For the enforcing, she relied on quests. She could not go questing herself, being a Queen, or send her ladies on them, questing being unsuitable for ladies; and the working fairies already had their duties to carry out. But for the male half of her court she invented one quest after another. The quests necessarily complied with the seasons: in the winter months they were domesticated, their objects ranging from a lost thimble or the Absolute to a Bflat in alt. With the spring, they soared. There was the Quest for the White Gentian, when the mountain slopes were speckled with stooping questers. There was the Quest for the Toad in a Stone, when the mountain peaks rang with tap-tap of geological hammers and curses of those whose hammers fell awry. There was the Quest for the Purple Carp, the Chamois Shod in Silver, the Ring Hung on the Topmost Bough, the Crested Hazel Hen. For several summers there had been a Quest of the Dragon, but this was abandoned, not so much because dragons were out-of-date as on account of so many questers being lost in caverns, some never to be found again. When Aigle's invention faltered, there was always the Quest of the Four-Leafed Clover to fall back on. There was also the twice-yearly competition for the First and Last Rose of Summer.
In the servants' hall opinions differed about the quests. The valets disapproved of them because of the clothes to be brushed and the boots polished, the housemaids because of the dirt tracked indoors. The kitchen fairies were sypathetic, and laid bets. Ludla (the Cook) invented a recipe for the Purple Carp, whose colouring she proposed to reinforce with beetroot. Meanwhile she put up picnic lunches."

(The Power of Cookery ~ Sylvia Townsend Warner)

Like Queen Aigle's Elfin Court, Schloss Dreiviertelstein, in Styria, here in Dandyland we have seasonal quests. Four-Leaf clovers fairly well present themselves to me, being naturally lucky, but the First and Last Rose we do, Most Scenic View of the Full Moon Rise, Perfect Xmas Tree, etc. And every fall Cebah gathers up candidates for Prettiest Fallen Leaf. Here she is arranging sets of sassafras leaves to reestablish that there are five distinct types; 3 lobes, right hand glove, left hand glove, single lobe, and a mysterious fifth that we can now neither find nor remember the shape of.

Sunday, November 9, 2008


The past few days I've been hanging out some with Bobby, one of the duo of cattlemen leasing the barns and pastures. We're a bit alike in being obsessed. I think of almost nothing but art; he thinks of almost nothing but cattle. "Cattle are my life." It makes for really interesting conversation, and since he's working all the while, I try to be helpful (this morning we built a gate.) and let him do most of the talking. As a relief from the sprawling research for You'll Always Come Back, it's refreshing to listen and learn about something so focused. He speaks the old farm way (saying ye for you, etc) even more than Cebah does, and there's something very pleasant and settling about that to my ears.

The interest in cattle was catching, and when I started watching them with the sort of attention Bobby gives, (well not quite that level of devotion...) I started wanting to draw them. I've drawn cows before a few times, but I've never tried a herd.

Cattle are very curious creatures. This drawing was informed by a photo that I took just as the herd ran across the field, halting suddenly right in front of me to see what I was up to. I suppose someone who hadn't been around cattle very much would have found this last second stampede stop alarming. As a herd movement it never hurts to scare something in your territory, just in case.

Bobby confirmed a thought that came to mind, after soaking up some of the peaceful placid feeling that a herd of cattle can generate - bucolic - cow-easy, as it were, and a paradox too; the reason cattle have such a deep sense of calm is that they stay very alert.

Saturday, November 8, 2008


On her last visit my eldest sister, Phyllis, brought her stash of treasures from The Old House so that I could look for clues. Amongst other very interesting things there was a little stack of drawings my grandmother Sarah made on tracing paper, mostly of flowers, and mostly, I think, designs for needlework. One however, seems to be simply a drawing, from direct observation, of a yucca.

Seeing it was a bit of a thrill, since an offshoot of the same plant is still living in our backyard. Cebah says that when my grandmother gave Phyllis and Ruth Ann starts of it, they fought "backards and forth" and beat each other over the heads with them all the way from The Old House to our yard. Yuccas are tough plants though, and they survived, unattended and seldom even noticed here, for at least 60 years. Who knows how long they lived at The Old House, or who may have planted them there... I'm carefully scanning early photos to see if tell-tale spikes stick up anywhere in the background.

We did not call them yuccas however. That name came once I began to study plants, and especially after I became familiar with their cousins in the Utah desert backcountry. Cebah calls them Devil's Shoestrings. This, I assumed, was from the tough fibers that curl off the edges of the mature spikes. I didn't know until recently that the name also refers to the root of a different plant, used in African American conjure. The function there is to bind. Was this something that Pete knew?

Yucca fibers are still used by the desert tribes to make all sorts of useful and very durable things, literal bindings. I've made paintbrushes from them myself. The root yields a lather in water which makes a superior shampoo, and it is used for that purpose to prepare the hairstyles for ritual dances. I've tried that too, whilst llama treking in the canyon country.

The Old Oak Tree, the Cemetery Cedar and the Yuccas, were not the only plants to span beyond a generation of my father's family. I also moved a strange and beautiful peony that I discovered behind the coal shed; an old rose, alledgedly brought on horseback from Wythe County Virginia; and, in the window by my bed right now, a gigantic and venerable Christmas Cactus.
Each has a story to tell ~ if only I can slow down enough to listen.

Friday, November 7, 2008


Friday, of course, means Frig's day.

The following exerpt is from the wondrously informative and charming little book, "Looking for the Lost Gods of England" by Kathleen Herbert:

" The Germans called her Frija. This is a very ancient name from an Indo-European root, cognate with 'priya', beloved one, in Sanskrit. It is also cognate with the Old English 'frig' or 'frigu', sexual intercourse. In English the idea that there was something essentially vicious about sex, or that it entailed the debasement of women, was not native and was very slow to develop. There is a delightful seventeenth century quotation in the Oxford English Dictionary under the heading 'prick':

"One word alone hath troubled some, because the immodest maid soothing the young man, calls him her Prick... He who cannot away with this, instead of 'my Prick', let him write 'my Sweetheart'." (1671)

The tone of this comment implies that in 1671, folk who objected to using the word prick in translations, as an endearment, were being needlessly squeamish. Possibly that the word for sex had also been the name of a goddess had a longer psychological influence than we realize.
However, in Old English, as well as in Old Saxon, the name of the goddess was also cognate with the word for a high-born lady: 'freo'. This, in turn, is linked with the words freond, friend and 'freondscip', friendship. These were not the rather cool terms that they have become in Modern English. They were used in contexts where we would say 'passion', 'romantic love' or 'devotion'.
So the name of the goddess contained a range of different feelings and behavior in a spectrum from rank lust, through yearning, tenderness, fidelity, to queenly dignity."

And this, that Tacitus says of the early Germans:

"They judge that gods cannot be contained inside walls nor can the greatness of the heavenly ones be represented in the likeness of any human face: they consecrate groves and woodland glades and call by the names of 'gods' that mystery which they only perceive by their sense of reverence."

With all this in mind, I present to you, the east grove of dandyland, as it appeared at sunset on this friday.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Dark Side; a source text:

From voting to finding the shard with the face to listened to Barack Obama's speech in one day was quite a span. Obama spoke of the voter who was 106, what an incredible span of change she had witnessed, and wondered what his daughters might live to see if they were lucky enough to live a century. I couldn't help but wonder what Pete would think of what just happened. There is a clue, but it is a dark one.

I found this newspaper article in the Historical Society archives, from the Somerset Interior Journal, dated November 7th, 1876. Pete would have been 39, and he may have been part of the "mongrel conglomeration". I didn't post this yesterday, as it just seemed a little too much of a downer on a day of celebration, but here it is:

" The day for which all other days were made (as the negroes and radicals seemed to think) has at last drawn to a close. Since 5 o'clock this morning, the ground in front of the courthouse has been swarmed with a mongrel conglomeration of humanity. At six o'clock the spacious doors of the courthouse were thrown open and the sheriff announced that the voting would commence. But as some enterprising individual presented himself to vote, it was ascertained that the poll books had been left at somebody's house so a messenger was dispatched for them, who returned to discover that the ballot box had not put in an appearance. It was sent for and brought, but for sooth, it was then discovered that no pen and ink were present. All things at last being ready the jam commenced; country negroes, railroad negroes, town negroes, big negroes and little negroes, took possession of every available point of egress to the polls, filling the air with their peculiar perfume, and crowding out entirely the Democrats, who felt above being jammed by such a throng. Every Radical was jubilant and seemed to think that they would everything own way. Toward noon, the Democrats began getting in their work, and wonderful to say, the polls closed with a Radical majority of less than ninety votes. This is a tremendous Democratic gain, considering that the Radicals have usually a majority in this precinct alone, a gain of about 200 over former elections. Every means that is low, unfair and contemptable has been resorted to by the Radical wire pullers in the county, but it has utterly failed them, and tonight they hang around with fallen crests, and looking as mean as their prototypes, sheep-killing dogs. Their secret meetings, running around railroad camps to secure negro votes by duping them with lies, of the foulest description, tacing their officials in the district to buy votes for Bradley and introducing social equality have done them mighty little good. While the Democrats have everywhere gained strength and have reduced (we have no doubt) Bradley's majority in the county, from six hundred to less than three hundred. Hurrah for Durham, the white man's candidate."

So we've come a ways, since that day. However one need only roll the tone around in your ear which Sarah Palin used to describe how Obama wanted to make government "like a part of your family" so that otherwise pure homes would have to admit "Uncle Barney Frank" - to realize that it will be a long time before a person who has a minority sexual orientation will be elected president, or marry in most states. But I digress...

Back in the summer I was asked to teach a class of minority students for a day. I asked them to name their favorite color, then we made a list of all the words the class could think of associated with each color, a method for revealing how some such associations are cultural, some personal, and thereby a key to how clusters of meaning have a structure and endurance.
Everyone in our culture recognizes the connection between "the blues" and sadness. On the other hand, because of the sky, almost everyone also recognizes the connection between blue, depth and infinity.

Then I asked them to make a list of words that they associated with the word minority. It started out with negatives, but pretty quickly they caught on to what I was up to and started giving counteractive positives - words like courage. Poets are the shapers of language. It surprised me though, when I asked a room full of African-American teenagers to describe the first time that they knew they were being discriminated against ~ 3 students did not mention race, they said it was for being intelligent (ie doing well in school). I heard from their teacher that they liked my class, so I felt good about that - but I didn't feel comfortable telling my story to them. "It is the fear of sharing our stories that keeps us apart."

After Mary Beth mentioned that the face on the shard was a half - I flipped the jpeg in photoshop and printed copies of both sides and butterflied them together. Then I added eyes from the photo of the unknown boy in the Dias de los Muertos image and photographed the result. The repetition of digital processing enhanced the coolness of tone in the original white to blue-ish. No doubt if the process was repeated over and over, eventually the blue of infinity would appear, like the video screen at the end of The Approach of the Mystery. The face of the spirit in the spring seems wizened but wry - like a good-natured ancient snapping turtle who knows its strength. We used to say that if a snapping turtle chomps down on your toe, it won't let loose until it thunders. So maybe You'll Always Come Back is, in part, about the virtue of persistence. Stravinsky said "I can wait as an insect waits."

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Touch of Pete's Hand:

On the way home from voting I took a whim and drove through the housing development that now stands where Pete's place once stood. When my sister Phyllis was here last week she made a little map that pointed out something I had once known, that there was a path leading up the very steep slope above Pete's Spring to where his house was. I was wondering today if I could still find a trace of it. I did. Once I was on it I let my feet and legs find the way ~ the path, of course, is the easiest way to make the climb. At the rim of the holler I walked on to the spot where I thought the house (or cabin more likely) had been, scanning the earth carefully to see if I could find anything that Pete might have touched.

The first thing that caught my delighted eye were meadow mushrooms! It's been so dry here, two months of drought, that I was beginning to think that I wouldn't find any this fall, but there they were, peeping up through the grass. Once I'd focused on their white color, and stooped down to pick them, I noticed a tiny white chip in the dirt. When I picked up the little piece of porcelain, the first thing that I thought was that it had a face on it. Under the circumstances it was thrilling. A little more searching revealed a dozen shards, probably of the same dish, another chip that had a blue pattern on it, and a piece of clear glass with concentric ridges. Then a little piece of lead.

So here they are ~ objects touched by Pete's hand. The face may be as close to seeing Pete's face as I ever get, unless I can locate one of his ancestors. I took the little white shard down to the spring and washed it off. Pete, you'll always come back.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Cebah Art

Originally uploaded by Alan Evil
Grandma brought in this oak leaf and acorn and very deliberately set them on this picture of David in the old oak tree.

Transient Color:

Alan's comment that our age of digital photography may leave few images in the future, along with yesterday's wonderful celebration of Dias de los Muertos at our library, converged with some general thoughts that my current project has brought to mind concerning change and vanity.

Our age has championed not only the snapshot, but the idea that the informal spontaneous image is actually superior, more natural. Beneath the surface of that idea is the reality that this so-called ease is supported by an immense, expensive, and very delicate technology. It is not just the camera that has changed the image, but the very rarity of portraits, for instance, in my grandfather's time, meant that the moment of the shutter opening, the flash of light onto the chemically sensitized paper, was an entirely different experience. In those days one had to prepare oneself to become an image. Perhaps there's a correspondence to the way people envisioned their identities in those days, not so much as something that a person WAS, but more something that a person MADE. The image was made to confirm the reality of their character, something carefully created. Now we tend to think of character as being something we have, not something we cultivate.

One of my recent interlibrary loan research books was a dud called "Imagining the Anglo-Saxon Past." Amongst the many tedious ideas it labored was a sweeping claim that romantic critics of Old English poetry try to find Germanic pagan residues where none in truth exit. The dismissal alledged that this focus on wild rocks, craigs and caves, was the equivalent of looking at the landscape and denying the presence of the far more important (and pleasant) cultivated fields and houses - we were to understand that in this metaphor the dank and dark insignificant caves were pagan delusion and the nourishing fields and protective houses were Christianity. I immediately thought of Pete's Spring.

A totally different view came from another book, concerning the African simba, or spirits, as translators would have it, native to the gullies where springs emerge. These beings, in some views, could be personifications of nature, or transformed ancestors, perhaps usually a seamless combination of both. The idea (I think) is that the virtues of nature and ancestor, as a nourishing source, converge in the recognition of the spring as an essential and positive character sited in the landscape.
The contemporary analytic mind may have trouble yoiking this, but poetry does it. The metaphor that would dismiss the cavern in the landscape as inferior to the cultivated field omits the underlying reality that water flows underground, and the very purpose of the field is dependent on the sustaining water.

Maybe the resistance to becoming an ancestor fused into a spring, versus living in an eternal city of gold, is really more a function of vanity than spirituality. Death may be, and certainly appears to be, an utter change. Personally I don't mind, and (if asked) would prefer that any post-life existence be completely novel. I intend to object if it is not. I'm not picky ~ being energy in a worm is fine by me, and I don't have to be conscious of it either.

My mom's oldest sister, Francis, used to say that she wanted to come back as a possum, so that she could ramble around in the autumn woods and eat wild grapes. Today, seeing the hill in all its autumn glory of transient gold, that sounds pretty good.