Thursday, October 27, 2011

living history, part 1

“The ancient language of faith can no longer be taken for granted.
Its terms must be re-examined, if their abiding significance
is to be understood.”

~ Evelyn Underhill, The Golden Sequence

With each day’s work, the unpredictable assortment of stories increases. And the queries, anecdotes, and observations come to me daily from the public I serve. Every person is welcomed, listen to, and helped according the information and research needed. Part of my role is to convert spectra of random queries into routes leading to sources of documentation. Conversational flows make these interactions smooth and efficient, and equally important to solving questions is speaking to patrons understandably and respectfully- whether they are 10 or 90, kindergarteners or thesis-writers, blurry or articulate in speech, news articles to manuscripts. Random as radio, I say, but occasionally during fresh-air breaks it is astonishing to notice unrelated yet common threads in the questions and stories I hear. Often the anecdotes are intense with irretrievable losses, wars, and missing relatives.

Everyone searches. Many ask for high school yearbooks, and it’s easy to guess the requested years correspond with their own times in high school. I witness how a soul can be swept into reverie by simply glancing at printed pages. “That’s where I lived,” say those who point to lines in an atlas, or a listing in a directory; and out pour the stories. It is a wonder to consider how written names and slivers of time in pictures and texts can animate thoughts. These are proofs of the realities we recall. Among the project-related researchers are numerous individuals looking for what their memories press upon them to retrace. Rolling through microfilm, most people seek obituaries to learn about their forebears. One man wanted to see what movies played in which theaters during a portion of his childhood. Another sought her grandmother’s beauty contest picture. One woman brought an envelope filled with tiny embrittled newsprint which, when assembled, amounted to a picture of a cabin- but without a date. I rebuilt the clipping on its verso side, and could discern a dateline on an article’s column- and found the full item in the corresponding films. Many people search for articles to be able to deal with the past. Some come looking for the car accidents and disasters they’d survived. Telling me he was finally ready to do this, a man sought out the name of a cyclist he’d accidentally fatally struck decades ago; he wept at the sight of the article.

There are also joyful discoveries among those who seek. And there are the rejuvenated artifacts: a woman brought in her great-grandfather’s diary which began its journey in Ireland, and I made a box especially for its preservation. A man brought in an old, tattered edition of “Uncle Wiggly,” and, like the woman with the diary, was elated with its repair. Another cherished story involved a Korean War veteran who brought me his memory book from the ship he served on. The book resembled a yearbook, and was filled with pictures, data, and the signatures of all his fellow sailors; it was also in very rough condition, and the binding was entirely broken. This man was en route to his reunion, and wanted to know who could fix the book. I told him to leave it with me and to come back the following day, because I took the book home and completely rebuilt it. The veteran’s reaction to the sight of the book on the next day was surely worth all the restorative work. I refused his offer to pay me, instead paying him his due respect. Well, a day later he returned once more with the gift of a new U.S.S. Maine crew cap for me. He was very grateful, and so was I. Witnessing the experiences of others, our own experience broadens. We can substantiate one another’s stories. The puzzle pieces become vital, but we must each determine those essential components that build bridges.

Though we naturally thirst for our origins, not everyone will make the effort. I get to help those who make the motion to discover. The desire to know, to find context, has driven many a pilgrimage. We want to make sense of our lives. Reckoning with the value and substance of personal history is a crossroads in itself. And though my place is not to judge, but to serve, there are overt differences between those who seek to find their roots and information to pass along- compared to those who use genealogies to prove various sorts of status. Lineage and nobility continue to captivate many. But indeed, no person can self-immortalize; identity is far more means than end. Embedded within our historic treasure are ways it can inform us. Reminders sensed in the present ignite distant memories. It is astonishing how the smallest and most obscure details hold their places through lives that intensify with complexity. We witness in one another a perpetual search for purpose to accompany remembrances and retained histories. Being our own archaeologists, care must be taken in excavating: how much of the present environment can stand to be disturbed, how much of what is past warrants our exploring, and which layers of substrata are best left buried? If it is in our nature to seek our sources, we are surely prone to do this selectively. Faithful historiography warns practitioners against revisionism, which is to say rewriting what had been with what hadn’t. My own fascination rotates between retained mysteries, lost chapters, and how the way forward is lit from the future while my steps are inspired from each of the eternities.

Monday, October 17, 2011

certitude in uncertainty

“My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me...
Therefore will I trust you always
though I may seem to be lost
and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me
to face my perils alone.”

~ Thomas Merton, Thoughts In Solitude.

Boston (above) and Portland (below)

Thursday, October 6, 2011

common ground field notes

“Happy those who with their hands
bring to harvest the fruits of earth.
Blessed are we to share this food
served with loving care and faithfulness.
May we strive to share with those
whose hunger knows no end.
With thanksgiving let us be as good as God
for others.”

~ Monks of Weston Priory - table grace before meals.

Parallel to summer’s transition into autumn is the season of harvest. In northern New England, the liminal fall season is swift and bright. Successions of agricultural fairs happen throughout the region, remaining very popular with all ages. In the State of Maine, some of the largest country fairs occur as early as the first of August- such as the Skowhegan State Fair, which is nearly 200 years old. Though sharing many similarities, no two fairs are alike; they vary in dimension and in their emphases. For countless Mainers and visitors to Maine, the Common Ground Fair best represents the fruits of fall. Sponsored by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), which is 40 years old this year, the fair’s popularity has much to do with its uniqueness.

Over the years, the Common Ground Fair has grown into its own 200-acre fairgrounds (near the town of Unity, Maine), continuing to draw exhibitors who cultivate organic farms, raise free-range farm animals, and produce energy-saving structures and household goods. Woven into these annual events are musical and educational events, instructional demonstrations of practical skills, and children’s festivities. Consistent with the fair’s ambience, there are no carnival rides and all the food is locally grown. Instead of cotton candy, there are maple-sugared peanuts- and honey-sweetened lemonade. One year, I had a chance to taste blueberry butter which was savory and memorable! Another year, I got to try my hand at an apple cider press. This year, realizing how many times I’ve gone to the Common Ground Fair, I decided to make some new photographs to go with some I’d made on my earliest visits. When we find that we’ve created traditions of our own, then we can connect personal historic reference points. Photographing a country fair, in its entirety, would take many dozens of pictures; there just isn’t enough space! As well, within so much visual interest, by making a place one’s “own,” the eye is drawn to what it most favors. Here are a few images:

I made the 2 photos below in 1982, as an aspiring teen art student!

At the heart of an agricultural fair, there is livestock and produce. Demonstrations include oxen-pulls, sheep-shearing, horse shows, and the very popular sheep dog events. In the photo immediately above, the sign near the potato baskets reads, “Raised in Atkinson Maine on land that has been free of all chemicals for 25 years.”

Portland's Big Sky Bakery was at the fair, with herbal spiced bread.

Having a ready notebook at the fair is exceedingly useful. A palm-sized Field Notes journal perfectly suits the occasion. There are recipes to record, quotations from discussions and speakers to note, addresses to copy down, and in between browsing there are fresh thoughts to harvest. Human countenances bright with autumn light. Among the old friends I see at the Common Ground Fair, there are always inspiring ideas that would be more elusive in the city. Briny, salty, and paved Portland is nicely balanced by pine, sweetgrass, and earthen Waldo County.

The following set of photos shows an aspect of great enjoyment at the fair: the sharing of skills. The original organizers of the fair saw the event as a way to compare notes about organic farming and gardening. Mentoring also finds its place by way of imparting time-honored ways of bread baking, stenciling, furniture and canoe building, producing yarn, and numerous additional skills. These are just a few. One year, while watching a blacksmith’s demonstration, I got the idea to do my own version of this type of delivery- with bookbinding- and have followed through at many conferences and book festivals.

Showing us all how it's done, country fair style.
Are you taking notes?

To go with the fair’s fascinating and informative demos, a major draw to Common Ground is the music. At the gates of the fairgrounds, the large signboards inform visitors of events and their respective locations. I look for the music performances and write down times and tents. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed great folk music by local acts, such as Ti-Acadie, the Gawler Family, Gordon Bok, Castlebay, and Crooked Stovepipe. Then there are the musicians who are not on the schedule- playing their instruments around the fairgrounds and adding to the sum of the day’s colors.

Photo above is from 1982; photo below is from last week.

Above, members of the Gawler Family;
below, a hymn-sing after a shape-note lesson.

Homemade wares for sale include soaps, crafts, tools, jewelry, art works, baskets, and furniture. A cottage business called Alder Stream custom-produces backpacks. I first saw these at last year’s Common Ground Fair- dutifully writing down the details in my notebook. This time, I decided to order one, and with Jane Barron’s patient assistance we looked over materials and took some measurements. By next month, my handmade backpack will be mailed to me- complete with side pockets for camera gear, and a vertical interior pocket made to the size of an A5 notebook. And a water-resistant liner. A writer’s special, Jane added, and a treasure for future journeys. Amidst cultivated crops, traditions are renewed, sources are sown, and more shall be written.