Random Strands of History - The Nineteenth Strand (Where does Wonder lay in our country today?)
On this 2013 Independence Day I began reflecting back to a chapter I had read in Duncan Emrich's Folklore of the American Land about a mountain main named Jim Bridger.
This was a man who in his long career was one of the first to see the geysers of Yellowstone, and the Great Salt Lake. He came back from his various expeditions with tales of wonders - the Obsidian Cliffs and the Mammoth Hot Springs (with its bubbling mud, and water so hot you could cook in it).
While he never learned to read and write he could speak several languages, and could map with such detail that his maps were highly valued. He offered vivid and accurate descriptions of what he saw, but soon discovered that the wonders he saw were too wonderful for people to believe him.
Colonel R. T. Van Horn, editor of the Kansas City Journal, had, in 1856, a chance to scoop everyone with a story about Bridger's Yellowstone experiences. However, supposed acquaintances of Bridger's told Horn that he'd be laughed out of town if he printed any of Bridger's "lies."
Many years later Horn did apologize to Jim Bridger.
Because of the prevailing disbelief Jim Bridger decided if people wouldn't believe him then he would create stories that were even taller. His tall tales are still remembered today, but even in his greatest whoppers he embedded some truth.
All of this led me to ask a question - where in our country does Wonder exist today?
In Jim Bridger's day the land offered many awesome sights. Some staggering. Others mysterious. All demanding that the nation's sense of wonder be stretched. Now, we can see the most distant places in the world on our computers - often in real time; most of the world's grand beauty lays at our fingertips. And I have to wonder how that effects visitors to those lands - is the impact less because they have already viewed the place online?
Movies and computer-generated images can not only bring places and times to a large screen, and offer a nearer semblance to "being there." The technology also offers a way to offer other-worldly images too. Wilderness, space, history, and fantasy are all there for a visual feast.
Granted, if we are appreciative of Nature, we can focus on the smaller wonders of nature. The daily beauty that is offered, and I am not belittling it. Daily wonder is a precious emotion.
Yet I still have to ask, where is there any great, awe inspiring Wonder left to be found? Is there still hidden, to be found, true stories of nature so new, and so beyond belief, that they seem fiction?
This coming Saturday, June 22nd, will be the Feline Home Forever Ranch's Open House (http://www.felineranch.org), and in honor that I am doing a Feline-oriented blog.
While getting ready for a show I have been reading John Richard Stephen's book, The King of the Cats, and Other Feline Fairy Tales. The book has proved fascinating in that the editor has not only collected a lovely range of stories, from all over the world and centuries, but has compiled many of them in such a way as to show variations of a tale.
An example of this is the oft-told tale, "Dick Whittington and his Cat," which is an English rags-to-riches folktale. The basic story is how a poor cook's servant, Dick Whittington, has only his cat to call his own, and is given a chance by the master of the house to sell something on the master's merchant ship. And since poor Dick's only possession is the cat he allows himself to be talked into giving over the puss.
The merchant ship ends up the port of a unknown land, which is over run by rodents, and the cat becomes the heroine of the day. So much so that the ship's captain is able to sell the cat for amazing price.
So young Whittington grows rich, marries, the merchant's daughter, and later goes on to become the Lord Mayor of London - three times.
The editor found the version he used in Andrew Lang's Blue Fairy Book, entitled, "The History of Whittington." The story is attached to a Richard Whittinton (1358- 1423), who was the Lord Mayor of London three times, but was of a well-off family.
Other versions told in the book are: "The Origin of Venice" (c. 1256), German; "The Genoese Merchant" (15th century), Italy; "The Island of Kais" (1299), Persia; "The Honesty Penny", Norway; "The Cottager and His Cat," Iceland.
I have to admit I found "The Genoese Merchant" ironically amusing. It is a story within a story, with a priest trying to teach a friend about supply and demand. At one point the priest tells the story of the cat helping a king, but his tale ends with another merchant going to the same land to try his luck. He goes with valuable presents for the (now mouse-free) king. The King is well-pleased with the presents, and gives to his new friend the most valuable thing in the kingdom - one of the new kittens.
The editor also does much the same type of treatment for "Puss in Boots," and offers a selection of lesser known cat fairy tales.
Mr. Stephens ends the section with a possible theory as to the popularity of the theme - of a land that doesn't know cats. He mentions that until 1500 B.C., when the Greeks stole a few dozen cat, that the Egyptian's had made it illegal to export the sacred cat. In Europe, before the arrival of the cat, pest control was done by skunks and weasels.
Yesterday evening I was sitting at Barnes and Noble, and in my selection of books was Susan Cheever's Louisa May Alcott, and also the Autobiography of Mark Twain: Vol 1. And along side these is Twain's Innocents Abroad. I can't remember what prompted me to look up Twain, but those three books came home. The Alcott biography was prompted by another book, Mary Kelley's Learning to Stand and Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America's Republic.
I've been reading Learning to Stand and Speak at lunch, which is usually at Incredibly Delicious (whose home is a lovely Victorian mansion). Over the course of many lunches I have followed a time line across a hundred years - from when women of early America usually were taught little beyond reading, writing, and ciphering, since they were considered "too weak" to take on more serious learning - to the time past the Civil War when female academies were growing into colleges. And in all the time between women were proving that they could tackle the most thorny of sciences and philosophy.
Yet, they also had to navigate between the shores of a well-educated mind, and of being useful to their families. This was the case so they would not risk the advances they had made in learning; they had to wrap their learning in the proper clothes of deference and usefulness.
"Usefulness" was a powerful tool, though, as under that cloak they became writers, editors, missionaries, and educators. And began to have a much more visible impact on the world.
Women like Louisa May Alcott and Harriet Beecher Stowe had to maintain not only household tasks, and later to write, but they also had to steal time to pursue their own continued learning.
It was that love of learning and reading that comes through in the excerpts in Learning to Stand and Speak. These ladies valued their libraries (even if was just a few books), and strived to keep learning through out their lifetimes - seeking out a variety of topics to consider.
Yet the continued learning came with a price in many cases. Martha Lauren Ramsay, three days before her death in 1811, told her husband about her diary, which she had kept for a number of years. It was in her diary that her brilliant intellect shown through, and where she recorded the struggle between her love of knowledge and the restraints of her daily life. Her husband was so proud of his late wife's learning that he published the diary as the Memoirs of the Life of Martha Lauren Ramsay. However, he was not only proud of her learning, but her efforts to properly put her family first.
Also mentioned were two sisters, Eliza and Harriet Adams, who were both graduates of female academies. Harriet married, and struggled to continue her learning after she became a new mother and keeper of a house. She often begged her sister to come visit so that Eliza could read to her from various texts. Eliza was better off since she didn't marry till later, but she still had to help with the care of her parents' home, and had to do most of her studies in the early morning and evening. Her time spent with Harriet was precious as Harriet died not too many years after her marriage.
And as I sat in Barnes and Noble last night, with information, both in book form and digital, all around me I realized how much I take it for granted. We barely have to think of a topic that we want to look at, and its at our finger tips. And yet, I also wonder if all of that ease actually buys us the time to truly consider the information we are reading? To think - to weigh the material, and to share it with our friends and family.
And I also started thinking about the current popularity of Jane Austin and the fascination with the Edwardian and Victorian era that fills both fiction for the young, and for adults. All the mores of those times are recorded amongst that fiction, and yet I wonder if the readers realize that those stories are about time periods that really existed? That many young women, and young men, had to conform to those standards, and prejudices. That all those mores, and the stuggle against them, has shaped our lives today?
So, in the end, all I can do is to give a humble salute to the ladies, and men, of the past that pursued knowledge; particularly to the ladies, though, as knowledge for them was a currency worth more than gold.
This evening I am considering a story from French Legends, Tales and Fairy Stories (Oxford Myths and Legends), by Barbara Leonie Picard; called, "The Prince of the Seven Golden Cows." I remember reading the story many years ago, and considering it a lovely one about loyalty. However, upon re-reading, the tale left a sour taste in my mouth - for it seemed to me to have another, less comfortable, level to it.
Normally I try not to judge a tale, since each is product of the time and culture in which it is collected. Granted there are some stories I would not choose to tell; not because they aren't interesting tales, but the mores and messages they reflect would not fit in with modern society. And the time taken to modify, or explain, them would be better used in picking out other stories.
Yet, I wanted to understand what was bothering me about the tale, "The Prince of the Seven Golden Cows."
The tale is of a fortunate prince; he has all he can ask in land and home, friends and regard. Nor is he proud or hard-hearted; he is generous to all the poor, and equally generous to his friends. No one in his realm wants, and his life is very pleasant.
One day the prince sees a man weeping along side the road, and asks what his sorrow is. The man explains that he has nothing left - his wife has died; despite having spent every coin he had. Now he has nothing to bury her with.
In an instant the prince gives him more than enough to bury the woman, and to keep the man comfortable.
A few weeks later the prince sees the stranger again, and still the man is sad; he has no true will to live - only a desire to join a monastery, but he has no knowledge of Latin. He offers to work for the prince for no wages. Of course, the prince will not hear of not paying the man, and hires him.
As time goes on the fellow proves adept at his work, and his made steward of the castle. He is called "The Black Steward," because he always dresses in mourning.
At last he tells the Prince that the coffers are nearly empty from his generosity, and soon the prince's friends note the reduced fare and warn that the steward is stealing from the coffers. The steward admits to it, and accepts banishment, since the prince is more wounded than angry.
Soon the prince is broke and his friends abandon him, and the poor turn on him; each group blaming the Prince for spending on the other. At this point the steward returns - driving the mob away. He tells the Prince that he only took the money so that the Prince would have something set aside, and takes the Prince to an estate that he has purchased in the Prince's name.
There he serves the prince without pay.
As the Prince ages he decides to show his friend where his wealth comes from - the secret of The Seven Golden Cows. He never truly was wanting - for his wealth was unlimited, but after learning how false his court was he only wanted to give the Steward the secret. Which he does.
When the prince dies the steward buries him in state, and take the wealth to build a monastery; where he becomes a monk and offers prays daily for the Prince's soul.
As I said, at first it seemed to be a story of deep loyalty. Yet, on reflection, I realized that the steward was in truth very selfish. Nearly obsessive.
Here is the Prince, who is happy, and his realm is happy through his generosity. Into it comes a man who will not give up his mourning over the years, and who is the one to create the very involved circumstances so that he can reveal what he thinks is a necessary lesson in a dramatic fashion. He could have quietly told the Prince that the coffers were running low, which would have given the Prince a chance to make his own decisions. Yet that is not the method he takes, and the outcome of which means that he becomes the Prince's only friend, and they live in isolation and bitterness; not only does the Prince suffer, but so does the realm.
As mentioned, I know that different mores shaped this story so I am not trying to judge it by modern standards. I am just endeavoring to understand my own reactions to it.
Nor does it mean that I won't ever tell the tale should a good venue arise; it just would be a challenging story to work with.
And considering the story has added to my knowledge; while doing some online research I came across a couple of fascinating references to the story. One is the "Laws of Silence" blog, which offers quite a write up on how this folktale ties into St. Fris.
The other reference was to The Book of Stories for the Storyteller, by Fannie Coe, which has a vastly different story from France, "Teechny Duck," which offers a different view of "The Prince of the Seven Golden Cows." In this he is a miser, and the story is more of an animal story for younger children. I also learned that Fannie Coe was actually Fannie Fern Andrews, who was a remarkable woman in her own right. She endeavored to use education to bring understanding between cultures on a global scale.
Tuesday the Sangamon Historical Society had its meeting at the Abraham Lincoln National Museum of Surveying. Unfortunately, this was the last day the museum would be open; possibly the last time we will see NOAA's Science on a Sphere. (http://www.surveyingmuseum.org/)
The museum focused a spotlight on a vital, though little considered, science that has impacted not only how we view the world, but how the United States was built. Not only did surveyors risk their lives mapping the wilds, but they helped give form to our cities. And many influential people, such as Abraham Lincoln, began their careers as a surveyors. Of course, the museum also showed how surveyors use the most modern of technology, and the important role they continue to play.
The Abraham Lincoln National Museum of Surveying has been influential in teaching the public about this fascinating, but little pondered, science.
There may some hope that the museum might open, and here is a link to an article that discusses it, (http://interact.stltoday.com/pr/arts-entertainment/PR010313104311476).
As the coffee kicks in after a very fine Thanksgiving meal I am pondering the clues of how a story might have traveled from Europe to the US.
Originally I found a tale in Vance Randolph's Who Blowed up the Church House? entitled "White-Bear Whittington." The title had caught my attention, since there is also the English legend of "Dick Whittington and his Cat," though this is legend connected to a 14th century Mayor of London.
And none of the later tales have anything to do with a cat.
The Ozark story bears a very loose resemblance to East of the Sun West of the Moon and The Black Bull of Norway.
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Bull_of_Norroway). The Ozark version, though, doesn't have the husband shape shift - he simply wears a white bearskin coat. His bewitchment occurs when he is entranced from his family by a sorceress.
My curiosity was reawakened (though not solved) when I came upon William H. Hooks' picture book, Snowbear Whittington: An Appalachian Beauty and the Beast. It is very similar to East of the Sun West of the Moon. I found a interesting website, AppLit
(http://www2.ferrum.edu/applit/bibs/tales/whitebear.htm), which offers an excellent overview of the American variations, and learned that the tale is also known as, "The Three Golden Nuts." And I also learned that Mr. Hooker based his story upon oral performances that started off very like Beauty and The Beast.
I, however, have not yet learned why the name, "Whittington" has had such staying power with the tales.
On this All Hallow's Eve I will begin with the most important, though not the most scarey. Last night I attended a fund raiser at the Inn at 835 for the Historic Preservation Fund. It was exciting to hear that plans are in the works for a very well-designed Historic Trails through Springfield, Illinois. It will help to offer a connectedness for visitors between our many beautiful historical sites.
Of course, the Inn at 835 is a marvel of restoration, and it was a pleasure to visit it for the Gala (http://www.innat835.com/). Plus the food is very good too.
Now for more spooky updates.......
The Halloween season would not be complete without offering a pre-show scare at Clayville's Haunted House (http://www.clayville.org). Fortunately the night was clear, and cold, and the attendance was good for the night that I was there.
I even started off by scaring some of the visitors by just getting into costume!
One young lady let out a shriek when she saw something black moving in the shadows. I didn't spoil the moment by telling her it was just me pulling on a warm, black, robe. And, at least, that was not my only shivery offering - the stories gave a few more.
I also had great fun by telling ghost stories at Montvale Estates last Friday. The seniors were really into the spirit of the holiday.
I finished out the Halloween stories at the Dana Thomas House (http://www.dana-thomas.org/). They were again offering their Halloween event, which included docents telling of actual ghostly occurrences, and with me telling more traditional tales.
It was a great evening, and one of the most lovely venues I have been in, since I was situated in the gallery. The audiences were steady and engaged. While I was delighted to have so many interested in my stories I was even more happy to see so many visiting such a intriguing house.
I guess the spirits were content with my stories as I had no unusual visitations, but I know that the docents have had plenty of stories to share with the visitors. Someday I hope I can hear some of those stories too!
And since it is All Hallow's Eve and the discussion has been of ghost stories it doesn't seem fair not to offer one here......
Two men were on a commuter train, with one gentleman reading, and the other looking out the window.
Finally the reader gave a snort of disgust, and said, "I can't believe anyone would believe in such drivel about ghosts!"
His seat partner said, "I take you don't believe in ghosts?"
"No, of course not," answered the reader.
"Too bad," said his companion, who promptly vanished.
History has been my focus for the last month and a half, particularly since I have been a docent in training on Wednesdays at the Elijah Iles House (http://www.ileshouse.org/). I have really loved being able to immerse myself into the history of the house, and to help support it.
Late in September there was the History Meets the Arts for downtown Springfield. The opening, arranged by Sangamon Historical Society (http://sangamonhistory.org/) and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum (http://www.alplm.org/), offered a viewing of Alison Davis Wood's documentary, "Lincoln: Prelude to the Presidency." This was a fascinating look at Lincoln as a circuit rider. It showed how his years as a circuit lawyer provided him both the training and the network of supporters to led to the presidency.
For the first time ever I was able to attend U of I - Spfld's "Lunch and Learn" series; the topic for the afternoon was, "Chasing the American Dream to the Heartland." The program covered the Lithuanian and Latino immigrations to Illinois, and Springfield in particular, and was a powerful one since both speakers were first generation immigrants. Here is the url to Lithuanians in Springfield, IL. (http://lithspringfield.com/), which was mentioned in the program.
There was also the Clayville Fall Festival, which was blessed with gorgeous weather. It was a joy to perform - as I had a shaded chair by the main track, and visitors often stopped to hear a tale.
My only wish is that I had had more time to go really look at the additions to the Broadwell Inn. After I admired the new balcony and porch I managed to get a peek at the new ladies' parlor in the Inn. (http://clayville.org/home).
I knew it had been a long time since I wrote, but I hadn't realized how long; nor can I blame it all on the scorching summer (though it does explain the last few weeks).
Nor has it been due to a lack of things to do - there have been many an interesting activity. So interesting that I still want to do an overview:
April offered two fascinating events.
The Sangamon County Historical Society
(http://sangamonhistory.org/) offered a bus trip to the C. H. Moore Homestead (http://www.chmoorehomestead.org/) in Clinton, Illinois. The C. H. Moore house is a beautifully restored Victorian home, with exquisite furnishings, and material examples of the life of the time. The curator, Larry Buss, has a wealth of knowledge on the house and grounds, and along with the house's collection there is also the DeWitt County History Society's museum in the basement, three farm museums, a blacksmith shop, and a telephone exhibit.
This fine outing was followed by the Springfield Art Association's "Titantic Tea." (http://www.springfieldart.org/)
They had the Tea Ladies (http://www.thetealadiesinc.com/)back to host a tea party, which offered foods that would have been on the Titanic. The Tea Ladies then offered a brief history of the people on board, and asked that all those attendees of the tea party to read a card (or more) regarding some of the survivors.
With the coming of May came both the Central Illinois Highland Games (http://www.central-illinois-standrewsociety.com/)and the precursor to the heat), and Clayville's Spring Festival (http://www.clayville.org/).
Both were as fun to perform at as always.
The increase in the heat did cut into the performing schedule, with Clayville not having their usual July activities, and the Elijah Iles House (http://www.ileshouse.org/)cancelling their Strawberry Festival, but I have not been idle.
During this time I have decided to launch Tales of Sangamon (http://www.talesofsangamon.com/), which is a website devoted to collecting stories of Sangamon County, and the surrounding area.
I am truly excited about the site, and hope that some will use it so that stories of the area can be documented, since there is so little Illinois lore in print.
The heat of summer has made reading in a cool house very appealing, and between efforts to amuse very bored, young, coon hounds I have endeavored to focus on useful material.
The two books that have proved informative have been: Charlotte Erickson's Invisible Immigrants: The Adaptation of English and Scottish Immigrants in 19th Century America; and Robert Mazrim's The Sangamo Frontier: History & Archaeology in the Shadow of Lincoln.
Invisible Immigrants offers several sets of family letters that span the century, and they also span a wide range of social backgrounds and motivations. Charlotte Erickson also offers good overviews to the letters' contexts in terms of family history and economic background. While the book was published in 1972 it still is an excellent book to have if you are interested in hearing the "voices" from the past. The only thing I could have wished for would have been more women being represented, and maybe some of the responses from England and Scotland.
I have to consider The Sangamo Frontier a "gold mine" of information. Robert Mazrim has a gift for words, and weaves history and archaeology into a very readable book. However, beyond that, he offers one of the best overviews of the history of the area I have ever read.
What particularly fascinated me was his discussion of "Edwards Trace" (http://www.sancohis.org/OLDER%20FILES/trace.htm), and what is being learned of its long history. Robert Mazrim's commentary on the Trace truly brings its import to life.
He also offers such nuggets as the fact that "groceries" were blamed for luring young men to drink. He points out that while dry good stores and groceries both sold a range of goods, and liquor, but that it was to the groceries that the young bucks went for a wild time.
Other points of interest are such offerings as the fact that good tea cups and saucers often turn up in even the most rural and rustic site.
And I will fully admit that I am only half way through the book. So I am sure I will have more to add later.
I am a Springfield, IL based storyteller with a fascination for how folklore travels, and for history.