Sunday, June 22, 2008

To Tombouctou

We left in the back of a Land Rover, me sitting next to a 55-gallon drum, extra gas (no place to fill up until Tombouctou). Unfortunately, the stopper didn't seal well, splashing me at every bump. And, once we left the paved road, the bumps were frequent.

We were in the mail truck, me, my Canadian traveling companion, a Japanese man circling the globe (he planned on buying a camel and joining a salt caravan), a couple of Tamacheks, and a guy from the south who was not happy heading into the desert. It was the first trip of the season, the Niger River having passed its annual flood stage, and we would be making the road that would be followed until the next fall and the coming of the rains.

I've written of this trip before, but not quite in this context. I'm writing about it now simply because I just came across my turbans, one white and one black. The white one I got a couple of years later in Niamey, along with a heavy, canvas-like Tuareg robe. The black one, I got that morning, soon after leaving Mopti.

Our first stop was in a small town on the bank of the river, a place that has become famous recently as the home of the late guitarist Ali Farka Toure and his music festival, Niafunke.

I wanted to buy something to keep the gasoline off of me. The two Tamacheks told me that what I needed was a turban like they wore. They had me feel the material--synthetic--and told me to buy a three-meter length.

As it wasn't a market day, I had to wander a bit before I found a shop open. Sure, enough, though, hanging there were just such lengths, of just such material. I bought what I needed, surprised by how wide it was, how much of it there was.

Back by the Land Rover, parked on the hard packed still damp sand by the river, the two showed me how to wrap the turban. The Canadian took my picture. If you look carefully, you can see the dust and sand caked to my shoulder along with the gasoline.

Twenty-two years later, and I still have that turban.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Meme of Seven

Though I am rarely one for this sort of thing, I was tagged by Jeremy Young of Progressive Historians, one of the best of the blogosphere.... I don't know anything about the picture I have chosen except that it shows a purported rout of British forces in Inda.

Here are the rules:

1. Link to your tagger and post these rules on your blog.
2. Share 7 facts about yourself on your blog, some random, some weird.
3. Tag 7 people at the end of your post by leaving their names as well as links to their blogs.
4. Let them know they are tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.
5. Present an image of martial discord from whatever period or situation you’d like.

My 7 facts:

1. When I spoke to my draft board against the war in Vietnam, my father supported me by saying that he was a WWII veteran, that both of my grandfathers fought in France in WWI, that great-grandfathers and great-great-grandfathers had fought on both sides of the civil war, and that the ancestor I am named for had been a colonel in the Revolution... and that all would be proud that I was standing for what I believed, as they had done. That was humbling, but unforgettable.

2. When I got my ankles run over by a jeep at age eleven, I bounced up running, shouting, "I'm dead, I'm dead." I didn't walk again for some time--and suspect I didn't die.

3. Though I graduated from Beloit College, I started my college career at Utica College of Syracuse University. Not much of a school, but a good place for one like me, whose spirit had rarely entered his high school. I learned at Utica College that education does indeed require a little work.

4. On arrival in Burkina Faso in 1985, someone told me that, there, diarrhea is a way of life. Four years later, when I finally left Africa (except for the occasional visit), after nine bouts of amoebic dysentery, various experiences with shigella, and a too-great familiarity with giardia, I knew exactly what she meant.

5. A monk at a little temple on the other side of the ridge from the beach at Bang Sen, Thailand told me (I was a child) that I would be back there before I die. We were looking out over a crematorium. I haven't been back.

6. Kim Stanley Robinson beat me by completing the first dissertation on Philip K. Dick because I couldn't get my act together and hid out in Ouagadougou instead of writing. So I had to settle for second.

7. My store, Shakespeare's Sister, enjoyed a 14-year run. I closed it in May, 2008 and miss it already.

These are the people I'll tag:

Aldon Lynn Nielsen
Chris Clarke (at Dusty D. Dogg's insistence)
David Cohn
Steven Gimbel
Dr. Virago
Jerry Williamson

Saturday, June 14, 2008


On Wednesday evening at the NEH Summer Institute "Appalachia Up-Close," we watched John Sayles' movie Matewan (which most of us had seen, though none objected to viewing it again) in anticipation of Rebecca Bailey's talk on her study of the West Virginia town.

Dr. Bailey, who teaches at Northern Kentucky University, placed the movie within its historical and social contexts through a discussion of her own research and her personal family relationship to the events at Matewan and, a year later, in the nearby town of Welsh.

Two points in Bailey's presentation stood out. First, she made clear that the standard view of the Matewan conflict--that it was simply a battle between union and industry, and that these are the fruitful objects of historical research--is not only simplistic but actually wrong. What happened in Mingo County had more to do with the people of Matewan and the vicinity than with institutions that had both come in from the outside. Second, she stressed the importance of the connection between the personal and the historical, explaining that her interest in Matewan comes from her grandfather's experience in Welsh the day of the assassination of Sid Hatfield, who (as chief of police) had been involved in the earlier battle at Matewan. What she learned from her grandfather made her realize that the accepted story was neither accurate nor complete.

One of the people who died that day in Matewan in 1920 was Mayor Testerman. A few weeks later, Hatfield married his widow, Jesse. That's the two of them, pictured.

Bailey's book, Matewan Before the Massacre: Politics, Coal and the Roots of Conflict in Mingo County 1793-1920 will be out in September. I, for one, will read it--and not just to learn more about the subject, but to begin to further explore Bailey's approach to history, one that I find extremely important.

For the afternoon session, Ferrum College professor Dan Woods provided the broader context of industrialization in Appalachia after the Civil War, the change that led to situations like that of Mingo County. I was reminded of my grandfather's friend Charlie Cannon, whose father had founded Cannon Mills and established Kannapolis, NC--in Rowan County, home to many of my grandmother's ancestors. As a company town, Kannapolis was one of the best, a place where people did not experience the kind of life Tennessee Ernie Ford sang about (in a coal town, and not a textile town, but the impact was often the same):

You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Blue Ridge Institute Farm Museum

One of the things I have been learning at the NEH "Appalachia Up-Close" Summer Institute is something that I "knew" but had never thought about--and that's the plain and simple fact that my mythologized "Scots-Irish" Appalachian culture is (and was) only partially Scots-Irish, at best. The German influence, for example, was also great in the hills, another point rebutting the simplistic divisions presented in David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. Those folkways, all four of them (if four you must have), were a lot less British than Fischer would have one believe.

My mother's family, I've discovered over the last year, is a lot less "Albion" than once I had thought. My great-great-grandmother, born Rebecca Sprinkle, was from a family that had been Sprenckel, hailing from the Rhineland. Another great-great-grandmother, Dorcas Lowrance, came from the Lorentz family of Saxony.

The German influence was illustrated for me today through a tour of the Blue Ridge Institute's Farm Museum conducted by Assistant Director Vaughan Webb (pictured above). The farmhouse, originally from a farm some ten miles away and about to be moved again, though built some two hundred years ago for a non-German family, was built in the German style, Webb informed us, as was the barn, which had been moved from yet another farm.

Frankly, I was too much involved in just looking at things to pay much attention to the details of what makes the architecture "German" (though the barn does, indeed, have a jutting upper level of a sort common to Pennsylvania). What fascinated me was how familiar it all seemed. All these years in New York City haven't removed me completely from the hills.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Civil War in Appalachia

To many of my age, particularly those of us who moved across the Mason-Dixon line, living in both the American north and south during the 1950s and 1960s, the Civil War was a living issue--and not only because of the centennial. For me, not only had one of my great-grandfathers (on my father's side) fought for the Union, but three of my great-great-grandfathers (on my mother's side) fought for the Confederacy. Having been born in North Carolina, I didn't have much choice in which side I would be on in boyhood games. Somehow, I doubt my ancestors had much more in their devastating situations.

This morning, in continuation of his presentation of yesterday, Gordon McKinney talked specifically about the area of western North Carolina that two of those great-great grandfathers were from. He explained that loyalties in the region were complex, and that many, for a variety of reasons, were not confirmed supporters of the Confederacy. I had known this, but not quite how complicated the situation actually was, or how conflicted many people were.

Joel Dimmet, whose release papers from Point Lookout prisoner of war camp in Maryland my uncle still has, does not seemed to have entered the Confederate army until November 8, 1864 when he joined a company of the 52nd North Carolina Infantry that had been raised in his home (Wilkes) county—but he joined at Petersburg, VA where the 9-month siege was already going on (he was captured during the Union breakout on April 2, 1865). Why hadn't he joined earlier? And why come in on the end of what was clearly a losing cause?

Born in 1826, he was certainly of an age to serve. Had he been one of those reluctant to support the Confederacy? That doesn't seem likely for, when he served as postmaster after the war (and had lengthened his name), the sign over his door used a presentation of “US” that, I've been told, indicated the town had been heavily Confederate (many other in Wilkes County certainly had not been). Why, then, hadn't he served earlier? I suppose I will never know, but I will not stop asking. (Thanks to Theresa Dimmett for the photo and the information about the "US.")

McKinney's book (written with John Inscoe), The Heart of Confederate Appalachia: Western North Carolina in the Civil War, contains a portion of a letter from North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance to former Governor David Swain:

I have never before been so gloomy about the condition of affairs. Early's defeat in the Valley I regard as the Turning point of the campaign & confidentially, I fear seals the fate of Richmond though not immediately.

That was written in late September of 1864, just as Dimmet was getting ready to join in with what even he, way up in the hills, must have known was a lost cause.

The situation of my great-grandfather Marion Barlow is a lot clearer, though his experience in the war wasn't nicer—not to any extent. He served in the 91st Ohio Valley Infantry for three years, mostly in the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia (not too far from his home on the Ohio River and where he had a number of cousins), but also in the Shenandoah Valley Vance referred to, where he was part of Phil Sheridan's army (the one defeating Jubal Early) at Opequan, where “the 91st lost heavily, having charged the Rebels, posted behind a stone wall, but lifted them out of their position with the bayonet.” The army laid waste to the land, to the extent that there wasn't anything left even for the soldiers. Barlow and his fellows went hungry for three days at one point, relieved finally by a wagon of salt pork and crabapples they had stumbled upon. Together, these ruined his stomach.

Or his intestines. Towards the end of the century (and when indoor plumbing had come in and when he looked as he does in the picture), Barlow built a house, one that I visited in the 1970s. I explained to the owners that the reason every room led into a bathroom was that, quite simply, Marion Barlow did not have much warning when the need to go came upon him.

It's no wonder he looks so haunted in the photo!

Monday, June 09, 2008

Jack Tales

After a 500 mile drive in 90+ heat, I've alit in Ferrum, VA--to attend a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute called "Appalachia Up-Close." Ferrum College is a delightful place (see picture; I took it this afternoon) and I've been thoroughly enjoying the first day's program--including a presentation by Gordon McKinney of Berea College (and one of the eminences of Appalachian studies) who showed me I have a long way to go before I'll be ready to publish anything related to the field. McKinney will talk to us more tomorrow, focusing on The Heart of Confederate Appalachia: Western North Carolina in the Civil War, a book he wrote with John Inscoe. I'm particularly looking forward to this, as two of my great-great-grandfathers were Confederate soldiers from one of the counties the book focuses on.

Tonight, by contrast, provided an unexpected treat: Ferrum drama professor R. Rex Stephenson, Jody Brown of the English department, and the Jack Tales Players performed songs and Jack Tales for us. Though my family is thoroughly Appalachian, I had no idea of this body of tales, and was entranced. In one of them, Jack saves the daughter of the King of Virginia by capturing death in a sack and leaving him tied up in an elm tree--only to discover that no one was dying at all afterward, and that people (160 or so years later) were getting a little tired of living.

I have to see more! (This picture is from the Ferrum College website.)

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Seafarer

Years ago, in graduate school, I attempted a partial translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem "The Seafarer." It remains one of my favorite poems, so I present it here (this is about half of the full poem):

Allow my singing of myself a song telling true,
telling the tales of my trials, of how through affliction’s days,
those times of hardship, I suffered often,
bitter grief of heart was given to endure;
of how I experienced, aboard ship in many sorrowful places,
terrible tossings of waves. There aboard I would often hold
an anxious night-watch at the prow of the ship
as it beat along the cliffs. The cold’s pinch
was upon my feet, frost was binding them
with chilling chains; there that care I lamented,
hate surrounding my heart, hunger tearing from within
my sea-weary spirit. Of such does a man not know
to whom on this earth ease does befall:
how I wretchedly watched those waters icy cold,
winter inhabiting, away from friend and kin,
icicles hanging about me, hailstorms flying.
There I heard nothing but the harsh sea,
the ice-cold wave. Once in a while the wild swan’s song
brought me pleasure; the gannet’s cry
and the sound of the curlew replaced the laughter of man;
the singing of the seagulls was the stand-in for mead-drink.
Storms beat upon the tattered cliffs: there to them the tern cried,
that icy-feathered one; frequently there the eagle screamed,
that dewy-feathered one; but not a single helping kin
might this forlorn spirit find for comfort.

Assuredly they believe little, those who life’s joys
experience in cities with few adversities
exaltant and wine-wantom, how weary I often
in that sea-way should go.
Darken the shadow of night: from the norward snowing;
hoarfrost binding the ground; hail falling to earth
in coldest kernel! I am now indeed called
by the thoughts in my heart that a wretch such as I the sea’s
tumultuous salted waves should try,
prompting my mind’s desire, on each occasion,
for my spirit to travel that I can go far from here,
as a foreigner coming to a new country.
Assuredly there is none so proud throughout earth,
nor one so happy in his gifts or in health of youth so proud,
nor one in deed so brave or so devoted to his lord,
that he never a sea-voyage of such sorrow had,
as that his Lord willed he take.
The harp is not on his mind, nor is the receiving of rings,
nor delight in women, nor this world’s hope,
nor will he think on anything else except the rolling waves;
but always will have anxiety, that which at sea directs one’s course.
Groves are adorned with blossoms as towns are decked,
their meadows beautifying them; but the world hastens onward:
all that urges to ready minds
the spirit of journey, that which is so planned
on ocean’s path to go far away.