Thursday, December 29, 2005

Save a Little Bit for the Coroner

I was cleaning off my desk the other day (to make room for quilting project overflow) when I found the application form for "Membership in the New West Virginia Mushroom Club." A friend gave it to me about 18 months ago, but something has kept me from writing a check and sending it in. Perhaps this quote from the "Disclaimer" section will explain my reluctance. It occupies at least a quarter of the printed matter on the application form.

...There is always the possibility that you can get sick or die after eating a mushroom, even if you have safely consumed the exact same genus, species and variety before. No matter what the cause, if you do get sick or die after eating a mushroom or after eating a prepared dish made available at a mushroom foray, it's not the fault of the attendees at the foray, the club, or the club's members or officers. The club has no control over the identification of mushrooms or other foods prepared by foray attendees and it's possible that a dish can be labeled as containing one or more mushrooms that were misidentified by the chef. Also, be aware that, after our foray mycologists identify a specimen and place it on a plate on the foray exhibition tables, that does not necessarily mean that the mushroom you see on the plate is the same mushroom labeled on the identification tag. We have seen instances where foray attendees pick up and study a specimen and then inadvertently return it to the wrong dish on the table. So a specimen placed on a dish labeled as a species that is edible may not necessarily be the same mushroom the mycologist initially identified and placed on that plate. Also, some specimens may not have been identified by the foray mycologists, but by enthusiastic, but mistaken, amateurs hoping to help out. For these reasons, you should always identify mushrooms to your own satisfaction before cooking or eating them. Finally, please use sensible precautions before eating any mushroom, even if you feel certain about its identity: eat only a small amount and save a specimen for analysis by personnel in the emergency room, hospital laboratory or coroner's office.

I confess we eat wild mushrooms whenever we find them, and never save a specimen for analysis by personnel in the coroner's office.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Stitching in the Snow

You might assume my long absence from my weblog reflects holiday activities, but such is not the case. I've been here, at home, with electricity despite the early winter weather. For the last two weeks, I have been making quilts for my windows. It has been a strangely non-verbal activity. Instead of words, I've been absorbed with shape, color, texture and dimension. I've gone at these quilts with the same single-mindedness that I inevitably give to computer programming and jigsaw puzzles. I don't seem to be able to work on projects like these and think about anything else. This is one reason I've avoided work as a computer professional. After a few weeks of a project hijacking my mind, it becomes quite uncomfortable.

I've finished the quilts for one set of windows. They are quite satisfactory and delightfully different from what I had planned. I have one more set of windows to go, and I have been forced to come up for air because I need more sashing fabric to finish assembling my blocks.

Bookcover: The Milkweed Ladies

The main news from Pocahontas County, to the extent I've noticed anything beyond my sewing table, seems to be the early snows and their persistence here at the higher elevations. We've had two heavy rains, but here on Droop there's still plenty of deep snow on the ground. I'm inclined to quote Louise McNeill's wonderful recollections of Pocahontas County snows from The Milkweed Ladies (1988, University of Pittsburgh Press).

In winter I sometimes went out early and walked the fields of our farm alone. I liked to go on mornings of fresh snowfall, when all the meadows were trackless and hushed with white. I would walk up through Captain Jim's old orchard and when I got near the moss-gray trees along the rail fence, I would begin to see the little animal tracks and would follow them up and down along the edge of the woods.

There were the triangular prints of the rabbits, or the little field mice tracks like delicate lace woven across the snow. Sometimes there might be fox tracks, on track in front of the other in a straight line. After a warm night, there might be skunk tracks, like little human footprints but with a soft white dab where the tail had brushed the snow; and up in the bushes the bird tracks made dark little stitches mending the hill. There were also the round cat tracks, no claws showing, retracted feline tread; and one morning I saw blood on the snow.

Sometimes I could feel the others close around me, down in their little burrows in the earth: the gray, sleeping wood mice; the little striped ground squirrels; and the soft curled-up rabbits, the snoring old groundhogs, and the ring-tailed raccoons. Then the silence would come down, as though it fell on our meadows from the high whiteness of Pinnacle Rock. (pp 63-64)

Monday, December 12, 2005

Annie Proulx--Some Choice Quotes

Book Cover: Heart Songs

I'm not unique in enjoying the works of Annie Proulx. She's been very successful, especially with The Shipping News. I think her accounts of rural life are vivid and true. My favorite Annie Proulx book is her 1988 short story collection: Heart Songs and Other Stories. She has captured perfectly the tension between the "from here" and "come here" people of rural New England. We see the same sorts of interactions here in Pocahontas County, and probably everywhere the rich city folks are building their vacation homes.

p. 191. "Negatives." Year after year rich people moved into the mountains and built glass houses at high elevations; at sunset when the valleys were smothered in leathery shadow, the heliodor mansions flashed like an armada signaling for attack. The newest of these aeries belonged to Buck B., a forcibly retired television personality attracted to scenery. "Negatives," p 191.

Proulx describes the ways rural people lose control of their homes and way of life, and documents the disconnect between city people's expectations for country life and the realities they find.

"Properties break apart," says Aunt....We know how quarreling sons sell sections of the place to Boston schoolteachers, those believers that country life makes you good. When they find it does not, they spitefully sell the land again, to Venezuelan millionaires, Raytheon engineers, cocaine dealers and cold-handed developers.

Reba mumbles, "The more you expect from something, the more you turn on it when it disappoints you." Electric Arrows, p. 157

My favorite story in the collection is "Heart Songs" because it covers territory familiar to me. Friends here grew up playing traditional Appalachian stringband music, and I am fascinated to watch the city people come to music festivals and play at being Old-Time musicians. In "Heart Songs," Proulx has charted the course of a misunderstanding between a suburban guitarist and some local musicians. First, she shows us the city expats searching for a new life.

"Snipe drove along through a ravine of mournful hemlocks, gravel snapping against the underside of the Peugeot.....[H]e had the fine idea to play his guitar in rural night spots, cinder-block buildings on the outskirts of town filled with Saturday night beer drunks and bad music. He wanted to hook his heel on the chrome rung of a barstool, hear the rough talk, and leave with the stragglers in the morning's small hours. He recognized in himself a secret wish to step off into some abyss of bad taste and moral sloth, and Chipping County seemed as good a place as any to find it...."

He wondered how much longer Catherine would last. She was spoiled by her rotten-rich mother and father....offering her trips to South America to study native weaving techniques, offering a year's rental of a little shop in Old Greenbrier where she could sell the heavy mud-colored cloaks and leggings she made....She'd leave him sometime. He thought about the Twilights on their mountain farm at the end of a bad road, turning the earth, sowing seed, and in the evening singing simple songs from their hearts in the shabby kitchen, poor enough so no one cared what they did....

As Snipe, the suburban guitarist, spends more time with the Twilights, he thinks he is getting to know them and their music.

There really could be an album, he thought, and maybe he could really guide them through the sharky waters of country-music promotion. They would wear black costumes, completely black except for a few sequins on the sleeves, black to set off the simplicity of their faces. The album cover would show a photograph of them standing in front of their ratty house, sepia-toned and slightly out of focus, rural and plain, the way he had told Catherine their own lives would be when they came to the country. Simple times in an old farmhouse, Shaker chairs by the fire, dew-wet herbs from a little garden, and an isolation and privacy so profound he could get drunk and fall down in the road and no one would see."

Eventually, he finds that he has completely misread the Twilights, their music, and their relationships. He retreats with the same salute many musical tourists hurl at our traditional Appalachian musicians:

Snipe ran, stumbling on the bloody shirt, skidding on the stone doorstep, breaking his fingernails on the car door handle....cursing and shaking as the vehicle crashed down the rocky track. "Goddamn hillbillies," he said to the rearview mirror.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Obsessive Quilting Behavior

I've been trying in vain to write a non-quilt-related post. I can't seem to write and make quilts at the same time. I'm hoping that if I just indulge my obsessive interest in this project, I will be able to move on.

The object of my obsession is meant to be a set of curtains for the floor-to-ceiling windows at the east end of my house. Now that it's winter again, the cold air coming off the windows really chills the living room. There's a spectacular temperature gradient from the wood stove at one end of the house to the sofa at the other end. It would be nice to have curtains to close, at least at night, to hold in a little heat.

I've taken my laundry baskets full of "Fabric Scraps Unsuitable for Quilts," and I've been sewing them in random patterns to 11-inch muslin squares. Most of the scraps are rayons and polyesters. The colors are vivid, the prints are huge, and the textures are varied. Crinkle rayon, satin, jacquard, and pseudo-suede are fun to juxtapose with my huge collection of rayon challis prints. It's a great deal of fun. More images will be posted in the next few days. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Denim Quilts and Project Multiplication

I've been on a tear this week, trying to tie up some loose ends on a variety of projects. I've been revising my Web pages, updating content and switching to a more sophisticated CSS design; I've been finishing sewing projects, and I've been sorting through my fabric scraps, with an eye toward making a wall-hanging or curtain to cut down cold drafts this winter. As a result, I've made no progress on any of my half-dozen half-written weblog entries.

You know how it is. A push to finish old projects always spawns new and unanticipated projects. When all the old clothes were cut up and sorted, I realized I had enough fabric to make a denim quilt from old blue jeans. That's why today I'm presenting another list of links, this time for blue jeans quilts.

  • Working with Denim in a Quilt. Really good tips on denim patchwork projects.
  • Blue Jeans Quilts from the "Straw Into Gold/Crystal Palace Yarns" people.
  • Blue Jeans Quilt Gallery. Inspiring photos, along with some how-to's.
  • Denim Quilt (2000). An inspiring denim quilt by Sandra J. Loosemore, who says "Sewing with a fabric as heavy as denim presents some interesting challenges to the quilter. The main problem is that typical block-based quilt designs would result in seams that are too bulky at the points where the blocks meet. If you look closely at this design, you'll see that there is no block. The square pieces are connected with the longer strips in a continuous basket-weave pattern. From a topological point of view, there are points where three pieces meet, but no points at which four or more pieces meet."

Friday, December 02, 2005

Scrap Fabric Reclamation Project

Report from the Scrap Fabric Reclamation Project (aka Let's Clean Out These !@#$%^ Shelves!): I've been looking around for ways to use scraps of Fabrics Not Suitable for Quilting, and my recent garment construction projects have moved this project from Highly Desirable to A Critical Need. (I can't explain this sudden urge to capitalize for emphasis. When Anne of Creating Text(iles) does it, it's quite clever and effective. When I do it, it is more like a Bad Habit.)

Here are some useful and interesting Web sites on scrap quilts, crazy quilts, and string quilts. It seems strange to me: Quilting has been a wildly popular hobby for some time, although it may have passed its zenith. Books, supplies, clubs, conferences and lessons are available all over. Yet quilting's Web "presence" seems heavily skewed toward static commercial sites offering quilting products. There are some personal quilting pages, but most that I visited were put up years ago and forgotten, their links moribund. The avid quilters must be too busy quilting to bother with computers. Of course there are good Internet quilting resources, but I had to wade through many unhelpful, slow loading ones to find these goodies.

  • Real Women Quilt."An online quilting magazine filled with humor, encouragement, tips, and stories about Real Women, their Quilts, and their creative journey. We also have an online store filled with great books, fabrics, gifts, and fun stuff for quilters." This site is informative and entertaining, and it seems to be quite active. I found what I was looking for here--ideas for using up scraps in string quilts and crazy quilts. Here's a sample, from the Tips page.
    I save all my scraps...from large pieces to the little tiny pieces...thinking that I can use them for SOMETHING! When I don't know what to sew.....I cut a 9 inch sq. of muslin...and sew my scraps diagonally across the square...covering the whole square. I think they are called String Quilts. Then I just keep saving the finished blocks...and someday I will have enough for a quilt....Claudia Voorhees
  • Victoriana Quilters. This site describes itself as "a large resource and community for quilters, including: Free Original quilt patterns (with membership); Free Block of the Month; Free Printable Quilt Labels; Free Charity Quilt patterns; Free Beginner's Quilting Online Class and Free Crazy Quilt Online Workshop (with membership); Free printable quilting technique instructions; Free quilting designs and other information in the Library;....Message Board; Quilt Gallery; Used Quilt Books listing; and more!" So, there's paid membership associated with it, but everything I wanted to look at was freely available, and I found the information valuable, well-presented, and attractive. I found this string pieced block--exactly what I was looking for--in the "Charity Quilt" section.
  • My "crazy quilt" search string turned up Sharon Boggon's excellent Web site, Sharon Boggon describes herself as "a textile artist interested in the connection between textiles and technology." Her weblog is outstanding, and features links to photography, philosophy, language, history, and any interesting topic you can name, as well as all sorts of textile arts. She also offers Sharon b's Dictionary of Stitches for Hand Embroidery and Needlework. This wonderful Web site (featuring crazy quilts) isn't a new find for me; more of a rediscovery. A couple of years ago I was following a number of textile arts blogs, including this one. Most of the blogs featured more shopping for fiber and fabric than knitting/weaving/spinning/sewing....and a significant portion of them had that whiny tone that personal journals often take. (Don't ever look at my pen and ink journal--that's where I whine, in the hope that I won't whine online, or in the presence of flesh and blood humans.) I eventually gave up the whole lot of them, and this is a delightful baby I threw out with the tepid bath water. I look forward to catching up with sharon b.
  • Crazy Quilt Central.This site calls itself "Your one-stop location for information about the art of crazy quilting." The information on the site itself is still good, and the photos are inspiring, but the site appears to be "abandoned." It was last updated in 1999 and many off site links are dead. I hope the owner will come back to it again someday.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Demonic Dog Not Good With Young Children

adopt a feist

The Pocahontas County Humane Society ran this photograph in the November 17, 2005 edition of The Pocahontas Times, along with this description: "Male silky Terrier/Dachshund mix. Good with other dogs, cats, but not with young children." I don't know if he looks as wild-eyed and vicious in person as in this picture, but we couldn't stop laughing over him at our house. Not good with young children, no sir. On reflection, we decided he's probably already been adopted. The men of Pocahontas County love their feists, and this one looks especially feisty. This photo was probably a calculated choice.

I wanted to check the spelling of "feist" before I posted this, because it's a word I never heard before I moved here. This turned out to be a bigger project than I expected. "Feist" appears in print in John Fox Jr.'s The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come (1898).

"That dawg'll kill them sheep," said Daws Dillon aloud.

Joel's face was red and his eyes rolled.

"Call that damned feist back, I tell ye," he shouted at last. "Hyeh, Rube, git my gun, git my gun!"

Rube started for the house, but Chad laughed. Jack had reached the other bank now, and was flashing like a ball of gray light through the weeds and up into the woods; and Chad slipped down the bank and into the river, hieing him on excitedly.

This is a fascinating book, and instrumental in generating the hillbilly stereotypes we in Appalachia so enjoy. I'll have more exciting quotes in the days to come. But back to "feists." I checked my compact edition of the OED, and learned two things. First, the magnifying glass that came with it and seemed so silly when I was in high school has turned out to be essential. That print gets smaller every year. Second, "fiste" meaning a dog is an Americanism first documented by Bartlett's American Dictionary in 1860. "Fisting cur" and "fisting hound" have an English heritage, with the earliest quoted usage from Sir Thomas More in 1524, "a little fisting cur."

Monday, November 28, 2005

Recycling Hand-Knit and Ready-to-Wear Sweaters

recycled sweater: raspberry cardigan recycled sweater: Icelandic cardigan

It's been a long time since I've made an interesting knitting project "from scratch." Aside from knitting hats for other people and socks for my household, most of my knitting would come under the heading of "recycling." I've unraveled several sweaters, skeined and washed the yarn, and put it back in my fiber library. I've shortened three over-sized 80's sweaters which I used to wear with leggings, converting them into sweaters for topping jeans or slacks. I reknit shoulders, neckline and sleeves on a "big-shouldered" sweater, and then dyed it blue, and I cut some favorite old pullovers down the front and knitted on button bands, to expand my cardigan collection. The raspberry sweater with gold buttons is a all-wool Laura Ashley number I found for $5 in a thrift shop (like new, but with a raveling hole in the shoulder--easily and invisibly repaired twelve years ago), and the Icelandic style sweater knit of pencil roving is my first color work project, knitted in 1979 or 1980.

Last fall, it struck me that my collection of turtlenecks was starting to make my own neck appear a little too turtle-like. recycled sweater: grey V-neck I cut the collars off a dozen old cotton and silk tops, cut them down to size, and machine-stitched them back on to face new and potentially more flattering necklines. This fall, I was emboldened to cut into a couple of my old favorite ready-to-wear wool turtlenecks. I cut deep V-necklines, hand-finished the raw edges, and used sport-weight yarn to pick up stitches and hand-knit new ribbed finishes. I've been pleased with the results. So far, I've finished this grey ribbed wool/angora blend, and a nice but un-photograph-able black merino pullover. I'm about to cut into a white wool/angora blend, and after that, I'm going to try one of my treasured but unwearable cashmere T-necks.

For me, this is more fun than shopping, although perhaps less fun than designing and knitting a new sweater. At this point, the sweater recycling has the added advantage of decreasing the volume of my fabric scraps collection, which is currently outweighing my fiber, fabric, and wardrobe collections. Coming soon: More Projects Featuring Scrap Collection Reduction!

Friday, November 25, 2005

Fair Isle Hats as a Paradigm for Creativity

pink mohair Fair Isle hat

Despite my knitting disphoria, I have completed a few hats for Elaine Diller's Morningstar Folk Arts shop. The two Fair Isle patterned hats are knit of mohair and Unger "Fluffy," a synthetic with a heavy "halo" much like mohair. The hat with the white crown was a commission, and will only be seen in the store on someone's head. The pink and white hat with the simpler color work is already in the store, along with a couple of cabled silk skullcaps.

Last week, I gave away the cabled cap I'd been wearing, so I need to knit myself another one right smart now. Here's where I run out of inspiration. I have so many "favorite" bits of yarn, I can't decide what to use. This is the difference between making something that will look nice and wear well, and making the best hat I can think of. Suddenly, nothing is good enough.

This is similar to my problems with other projects--writing, sewing, home improvement. If I approach a project as something that has to be finished by a deadline, to spec, I generally do a good job. If it's open-ended, evaluated only by myself, "creative," I'm paralyzed. I need to quit doing this to myself.

Pink wool colorwork hat White Fair Isle mohair hat

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

National Sonnet Writing Month

Lorianne of Hoarded Ordinaries has run plumb wild with the English language this month. I have been enjoying her students' blogs, indexed at Doctor D's Domain, "the place where a class of Expository Writing students (and their instructor) are learning to write before a live Internet audience." Of course her "regular blog" has been a "regular read" of mine for the past 18 months or so. This month, on top of participating in National Novel Writing Month, she has started blogging her novel-writing process on Get It Written, which she describes as "A virtual meeting place for writers facing daunting projects." To recap, she's teaching composition, she's blogging, she's writing a novel in a month, and she's blogging about writing a novel in a month. She is the Energizer Bunny of the keyboard.

I think National Novel Writing Month is an intriguing concept. To quote their Web pages,

National Novel Writing Month is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing November 1. The goal is to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30....Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It's all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly. Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that's a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.
I thought about participating, but when I considered all the verbiage I've churned out to meet deadlines, I decided what I needed was not more practice in generating output, but in identifying what's worthwhile and deleting the rest. I think I need National Sonnet Writing Month.

Still, I take Lorianne as an inspiration. In the maiden post of Get It Written, she says:

... I'm doing NaNo again this year purely as a writing exercise. Like a runner who trains for a marathon not with delusions of winning but solely as a way to push the envelope of her own strength and endurance, I'm doing NaNo this year to remind myself, again, that my Creative Muscle is stronger than I think....I hope to hear the input of other people on the journey: those of you who are facing daunting projects of your own (NaNo or otherwise), and those of you who are watching from the sidelines.
Taking her at her word, I boldly posted that I too was facing a daunting task.
"After many years of technical writing and editing for scientific journals, grant proposals, and lab notebooks, I'm trying to get back to the sort of writing that excited me before all those years of grad school. 11/09/2005"
She responded encouragingly, and added,
I briefly spent some time years ago doing tech writing, and it wasn't intimidating (to me) in the same way that creative writing is. Because I didn't really care about the "craft" of the finished product, I could simply churn out anything. Creative writing is (for me) scarier because I want it to be *good*, not just "adequate."
I thought this was a very interesting observation. When I've done technical writing, I have been concerned about quality--at least part of the time it was determining the course of my career, so it seemed very important to me. I really enjoy good technical writing, and I would even add that good technical writing is creative.

Still, I agree technical writing is less intimidating than "literary" writing. For me, knowledge of my audience is what determines how white my knuckles are when I write, and I know who reads technical writing. For scientific papers, I know that many readers will not be native speakers of English. Complex sentence structure, unusual words, and literary references will frustrate them the way I have been frustrated in German, Spanish, Latin.... For laboratory protocols or Linux "how-to's" the reader will be referring to the writing while working, so it needs to be clearly organized and easy to follow. Grant review panel members need to determine whether a proposal is appropriate for the funding source. Echoing the language of the call for proposals makes this easy for the reviewers, and it makes them like your grant better. But who's reading my essay on Wendell Berry? Who's reading my sonnet (from National Sonnet Writing Month, see above)? Who's reading this?

Monday, November 21, 2005

Deer Season's Greetings from Pocahontas County

Rifle season for deer began here at dawn. In Pocahontas County, this is a bigger holiday than Christmas, even for kids. The schools are closed for the week, and, at least briefly, it supersedes video games and Barbie dolls. The hardcore among us have already been hunting with bows, and we have all been talking about the weather and the deer population for weeks. We generally agree that we need some snow, that the population is down, and the bucks are keeping themselves scarce.

This weekend, people who grew up here and moved away to find work have come back to hunt deer with their families. Home places and hunting camps that stand empty most of the year are occupied now, and the festivities will continue throughout the week. Thanksgiving dinner will be a disappointment if it consists chiefly of grocery store turkey. (Wild turkey is a different story--I mean the bird, not the beverage.) The crowd we run with plays traditional Appalachian stringband music, and we've had two late nights picking so far.

At our house, we eat deer meat about three times a week throughout the year, so food preservation is the order of the day. Our division of labor gives me the garden and orchard canning chores, which are finished for the year. Now I get to enjoy deer liver (by far the most delicious, delicately-flavored liver I've ever had), tenderloin, and steaks. We will freeze some steaks and roasts, and pressure can the rest. We are fortunate to have such high quality meat, with no hormones, antibiotics, or factory-farm bred diseases. As a former farm girl, I feel as if I'm cheating, because I didn't have to feed the deer, vaccinate them, or sit up with them all night when they were having their babies.

As recently as the 1970's, whitetailed deer were fairly scarce in Pocahontas County. However, it looks as if our days of abundant, low-cost, high quality wild meat may be numbered. Chronic Wasting Disease, long a problem out West, has been reported in four deer in Hampshire County, West Virginia, and I think DNR's talk about controlling it is a pipe dream. After seven years of reading and writing about microbial pathogens, I'm quite pessimistic about our ability to affect the spread of infectious diseases in animals or humans. (Don't get me started on bird flu or tuberculosis unless you'd like to get really bummed out. NIH and CDC are just putting out happy talk to postpone widespread panic.)

Oops, there I go with the pessimism. Forget that--there's nothing we can do about it, and all good things must come to an end. Happy Deer Season, everybody! I plan to enjoy my holiday to the fullest, savoring it more because it is fleeting. I'll play my banjo, and maybe I'll make some deer pate this year.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Wendell Berry and the Dirty Work of Writing

It seems I'm not quite done with Wendell Berry. My last post about him kept growing, and I finally just stopped, rather abruptly. Previously, I shared my new insight into why Berry sometimes seems a little smug, a little superior to the rest of us poor mortals. He reveals in The Hidden Wound that he was raised a gentleman farmer, a member of a class that subscribes to the "...notion that one is too good to do what it is necessary for somebody to do...." Berry follows this revelation with this observation:

The unwillingness, or the inability, to dirty one's hands in one's own service is a serious flaw of character. But in a society that sense of superiority can cut off a whole class or a whole race from its most necessary experience.
I'm sure Mr. Berry will be pleased and relieved to know that this farm girl forgives him his upbringing because he understands it. I continue writing because I think now I can put into words why his 1987 essay, Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer generated a collection of angry readers' letters, and continues to be quoted and passed around the Internet 18 years later. In this much-cited essay, Berry explains that many people have urged him to get a computer, and he gives several reasons why he has no plans to do so. He mentions his disapproval of power companies and computer manufacturers, then asks:
What would a computer cost me? More money, for one thing, than I can afford, and more than I wish to pay to people whom I do not admire. But the cost would not be just monetary. It is well understood that technological innovation always requires the discarding of the "old model," the "old model" in this case being not just our old Royal standard, but my wife, my critic, closest reader, my fellow worker. Thus (and I think this is typical of present-day technological innovation) what would be superseded would be not only something, but somebody. In order to be technologically up-to-date as a writer, I would have to sacrifice an association that I am dependent upon and that I treasure.

Book Cover: What Are People For? When his short essay was reprinted in the venerable Harper's Magazine, the editors forwarded 20 readers' letters, some of which Berry included, along with his own rebuttal in What Are People For?. Berry expresses surprise at the strident tone some of his critics have taken.

Now, let us remember what computers were like in 1987, when Mr. Berry documented his distaste. There were Unix-running mainframes, toy-like Apples with those cutesie GUIs that crashed all the time, and IBM Personal Computers. I was in graduate school throughout the 1980's and used computers for data management, analysis, statistics, and word processing. At that time, the text-editing experience was much like writing hypertext by hand, and it wasn't the desktop computer's most useful trick. However, IBM was really pushing the PC's at universities. There was plenty of sales pressure, and the more professors that ordered PC's the better the deals IBM offered. Professors who wanted computers were like Mary Kay sales ladies trying to win vacations. (All this was before feisty little Microsoft broke IBM's stranglehold on the computer market.) No wonder Mr. Berry sounded a little testy in his original essay. He is modeling an admirable degree of sales resistance, a skill he praises in Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community: Eight Essays.Book Cover: Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community Some of his critics may be justifying their own questionable purchases of expensive tools that soon disappoint.

However, Berry alienates his readers in two other ways, and I don't think he understands this. First, he misunderstands what computers do when he states that using a computer would terminate his working relationship with a collaborator:

My wife types my work on a Royal standard typewriter bought new in 1956 and as good now as it was then. As she types, she sees things that are wrong and marks them with small checks in the margins. She is my best critic because she is the one most familiar with my habitual errors and weaknesses. She also understands, sometimes better than I do, what ought to be said.
In fact, Mrs. Berry is the one who does the manuscript preparation, and she is the one who should decide what tools she wishes to use. If she still finds the typewriter satisfactory, there is no reason to move on. If she uses a computer, or a wax tablet and stylus, there is no reason she should not continue to edit, criticize, and contribute content. At least one of the readers' letters, from Toby Koosman of Knoxville, Tennessee, points this out. "The value of a computer to a writer is that it is a tool not for generating ideas but for typing and editing words."

The second effect Berry has on his computer-using audience is to inflame the deadly sin Envy. Mr. Berry remarks, almost off-handedly, that he has someone to edit, criticize and improve his writing, and also prepare his manuscripts. That person is a family member, and we may imagine that she has more concern for his welfare than would an employee. Most of us find sympathetic collaborators only rarely, and we must do the dirty work of manuscript preparation all on our own. In graduate school I did manuscript-preparation-for-hire to make a buck here and there, and I can affirm that it is the work of

despised men who secretly despised themselves for doing the work of despised men--so many of the necessary acts of my history, neither valued nor understood...
These temporary jobs paid better than fast food service, and were physically less tiring, but my work was "neither valued nor understood." In fact, as "women's work," it may have been less esteemed than the manual labor Berry mentions.

Berry's readers (myself included) envy him because he has that sympathetic helper, and can hand off the "dirty work" of writing to someone else. This handing off of "dirty work" has the ring of class privilege, and it is always enraging to find out that someone "above you" criticizes your taste, your judgment, and perhaps your morals. I quote Berry one more time:

The notion that one is too good to do what it is necessary for somebody to do is always weakening. The unwillingness, or the inability, to dirty one's hands in one's own service is a serious flaw of character. But in a society that sense of superiority can cut off a whole class or a whole race from its most necessary experience. For one thing, it can curtail or distort a society's sense of the means, and of the importance of the means, of getting work done; it prolongs and ramifies the life and effect of pernicious abstractions. In America, for instance, one of the most depraved and destructive habits has always been an obsession with results.
The Hidden Wound, p. 106

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Knitting and Spinning Disphoria: Surely a Temporary Condition!

Somehow, my spinning process has been "stuck" the last few months. My current batch of wool was heavy-laden with vegetable material--in this case, burdock seed pods. Even though I spun the singles quite coarsely, it was very slow spinning, and the results, while nicely dyed, were not appealing until I washed the spun and plyed skeins. Most of the crud fell out, and the yarn fluffed up pretty well. Since I washed it with some cheap lavender-scented shampoo, it smells really nice now. I took it down to Morningstar Folk Arts where it's selling for just $2.00 per ounce--a bargain, if I do say so myself.

I've moved on to some teal fleece from the same wool sack. Fortunately, this dye lot was much cleaner, and it's much more pleasant to work with. I hope that the prospect of spinning by the crackling wood stove each evening will get me spinning along once again.

I am also experiencing some knitting disphoria. This is very unusual for me. The only explanation I can think of is my brief foray into retail sales at the Greenbrier Resort's Artist's Colony shop, Appalachian by Design. In between waiting on customers and tidying up the shop, I was meant to knit where customers could see me. The company's chairwoman assigned me several knitting tasks, including knitting up a store model from a kit. These tasks were not much fun, and when it was all over, I didn't get paid promptly. My intention here is not to complain, because I learned a lot of non-knitting lessons about retail, machine knitting, and West Virginia history. It was a worthwhile experience. I do suspect that it took some fun out of knitting, at least temporarily. Of course, I've had knitter's block before. It will pass.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

CSS and Web Design: Some Helpful Resources

In spite of Philip Greenspun's advice to "'just say no' to formatting your documents instead of working on the content," I've been tinkering with the CSS for my Web pages. For me this sort of thing always involves a lot of preliminary reading. Here are links to some of the most helpful advice I've found on-line.

Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) Basic Reference Material
  • : CSS layout techniques. "If you are looking for help making the transition to CSS layout (that's Cascading Style Sheets), you've come to the right place. I am cataloging here as many useful cross-browser CSS layout techniques as I can find, and some that I made up when I was bored last Thursday. All the examples on this site have been reduced to only their essential code, and you will find the source displayed on each page to hopefully make it quick and easy to understand the inner workings of the CSS. Feel free to steal all the code you find on this site, and consider linking back here on your site or in your source comments."
  • CSS Panic Guide. "CSS-a guide for the unglued. This is not a complete resource, this is a fast resource. These are the sites that I refer to first, and that I tell people to read. When you want more, just about all of them have their own links to good sites."
  • W3Schools Online Web Tutorials. "THE LARGEST WEB DEVELOPER'S SITE ON THE NET: Full Web Building Tutorials - All Free. At W3Schools you will find all the Web-building tutorials you need, from basic HTML and XHTML to advanced XML, Multimedia and WAP." It's true. If it's a tutorial you want, this is the place. Really helpful!
  • HTML and CSS Tutorials, References, Articles and News - HTML Dog. "Welcome to HTML Dog, the web designer's resource for everything HTML and CSS, the most common technologies used in making web pages. If you are a beginner, the step-by-step HTML Beginner's Guide will get you started. If you are already a competent web maker, the HTML Advanced Guide and CSS Advanced Guide are the places to look for advanced tips, tricks and good practice techniques." Not as comprehensive as the W3Schools site, but what's here is quite helpful.
  • Lorelle on WordPress HTML, CSS, PHP, and More Cheat Sheets "If you are into tweaking your WordPress Theme or designing one from scratch, here are some HTML/XHTML and CSS Cheat Sheets you might want to add to your resources." This is a blogger's list of pages designed as handy hard-copy references for the novice Web designer.
CSS Templates

My favorite way to learn "computer stuff" is to start with a sample (shell script, program, html page, etc.) and try to modify it to meet my needs. Once I understand what it is I need to know, I can focus better when I read that fine manual. There are many sample CSS templates available for would-be Web designers. I've tried a number of them, and these were the ones I found most helpful.

Theory and Practice: Good Web Design

These resources offer advice on what makes good CSS design, and how it can enhance, not detract from, Web pages. They are interesting and thought provoking, and some of them offer practical tips as well.

  • Webaim--accessibility techniques and concepts. The Internet can be a fantastic resource for people with disabilities. This site will help you make sure everyone that might want to use your pages will be able to do so.
  • Free web design course - basics, layout, free tutorials, case studies, how to guide, examples (Web Design from Scratch). "Web Design from Scratch is a practical training course in web design for everyone interested in creating effective web pages. Web design is a complex discipline that involves a wide range of skills. I notice that some of the most basic skills are lacking in many web site designs. Those basic skills are quite simple, but can be hard to gain because of a lack of teaching material. That's what WDFS aims to solve!" The site is quite extensive, and I haven't finished reading every section yet, but it is interesting and insightful, and I feel I've learned a lot. There is very little "how-to," but plenty of "why."
  • css Zen Garden: The Beauty in CSS Design. "A demonstration of what can be accomplished visually through CSS-based design. Select any style sheet from the list to load it into this page." It's really pretty, and you can look at the style sheets to see how they do it.
  • A List Apart: A List Apart, "For people who make websites: A List Apart Magazine (ISSN: 1534-0295) explores the design, development, and meaning of web content, with a special focus on techniques and benefits of designing with web standards." The writing is wonderful, the design is instructive. This is going to be a regular read for me.
  • css/edge. "css/edge is intended, first and foremost, to be as relentlessly creative with CSS as we have been practical all these years. It does not exist to present or explain safe cross-browser techniques; in fact, almost the opposite. The goal here is to find ways to make CSS live up to its fullest potential, with only minimal regard to browser limitations." While this sounds like something too esoteric for my minimalist needs, I've learned a lot from the material presented here, and the links have been very useful too.
  • Philip and Alex's Guide to Web Publishing. This is the reference I wrote about in my Sunday, November 13, 2005 post.
  • Jakob Nielsen's Website. This is a must-read for anyone using the Internet. He has a helpful new article on blog usability mistakes, as well.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Dr. Bootsie Considers Redesigning Her Web Pages

I've spent quite a bit of time the last few weeks learning more about Web design, and experimenting with revisions of my Web site and weblog. I am not sure whether this time has been wasted or not. I always enjoy learning something new, and I think I can improve my Web pages through reformatting them. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that I may be wasting time, and using this formatting expedition as an avoidance activity. As testimony supporting the second option, I quote from Philip and Alex's Guide to Web Publishing.

People with limited time, money, and experience usually build fairly usable Web sites. However, there is no publishing concept so simple that money, knowledge of HTML arcana, and graphic design can't make slow, confusing, and painful for users. After you've tarted up your site with frames, graphics, and color, check the server log to see how much traffic has fallen. Then ask yourself whether you shouldn't have thought about user interface stability.

I've taken to heart much of the advice offered in this entertaining and helpful book. In fact, I took this code (with a couple of insignificant additions) to my CSS file as well. From Chapter 5: Learn to Program HTML in 21 Minutes:

If you can't "just say no" to formatting your documents instead of working on the content, you might want to consider developing a site-wide cascading style sheet. Here's the cascading style sheet for the online version of this book ( ):
body {margin-left: 3% ; margin-right: 3%}

P { margin-top: 0pt; text-indent : 0.2in }
P.stb { margin-top: 12pt }
P.mtb { margin-top: 24pt; text-indent : 0in}
P.ltb { margin-top: 36pt; text-indent : 0in}

p.marginnote { background-color: #E0E0E0 }
p.paperonly { background-color: #E0E0E0 }

li.separate { margin-top: 12pt }

I also recommend The book behind the book behind the book... This is Greenspun's account of writing a computer book, what happened to it, and how it came to be available free on the Internet. If this doesn't jaundice your secret hopes of publishing a dead-trees book, nothing will. To my great embarrassment, I laughed out loud while sitting at the computer.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Conrad's Blogger Profile

Ever since I posted Princess's photo and biography, I have felt guilty for not giving Conrad equal time. Born in 1990, Conrad is a distinguished elder statescat of the Korat breed. Although born in Georgetown and raised in Takoma Park, Conrad (and his late lamented brother Marlow) adapted very well to Droop Mountain, where Conrad still enjoys catching mice, moles, and chipmunks, and running down the hill, across the yard and up a tree as if pursued by the Devil himself. You can see him in the foreground of my ghostly apparition photo, "Haunted Pocahontas County: Droop Mountain Battlefield, Part 3" where he is winding down by sharpening his claws on the pear tree.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Learning Something New About Wendell Berry

Book Cover: The Hidden Wound

Last week I read a Wendell Berry essay I'd not seen before, and I had an "aha!" moment. The book was The Hidden Wound, 1989, originally published in 1970. The essay addresses the deliterious effects of racism in the American South, focusing particularly on the subtle damage caused to white people by their racist ideology. He is unflinchingly honest about himself and his family of origin, which cannot have been easy in 1970.

Book Cover: Life Is a Miracle I've been an admirer of Berry's essays since the 1970's. He writes about topics that interest me--conservation, agriculture, ecology, the philosophy of science, and American history--and he also brings new things to my attention. I took particular glee in his 2000 book Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition, in which Berry effectively demolishes E. O. Wilson's 1998 book, Consilience : The Unity of Knowledge. Ed Wilson is an unpleasant, arrogant man in person, and not nearly as clever as he imagines himself on paper, and I was delighted when Berry made intellectual mincemeat of him. I only wish Berry had taken on Wilson's On Human Nature, which was much more widely read outside academia. Book Cover: Consilience Book Cover: On Human Nature

I've never met Mr. Berry, but he is a thoughtful, precise writer, willing to explore unpopular positions, think through difficult topics, and even criticize himself. As I read his essays, I nod in approval, note with surprise, and understand confusing topics better. Yet on completing his books, I often find myself feeling subtly annoyed. "Take your exquisite sensibility," I mutter under my breath, "and stick it where the sun don't shine." I've never understood this emotional response, but I have assumed that I would probably like Mr. Berry no better than I liked Mr. Wilson in the flesh.

Reading The Hidden Wound, I finally understood my reaction. Berry has described himself as a farmer, the descendent of farmers, someone who works his own land. This has informed his writing, and, as a farm girl myself, made me think he was "one of us." In The Hidden Wound, Berry reveals that his great-grandparents were slave owners, and his grandfather and father employed a "hired men," who actually worked the land. Wendell Berry is from a long line of "gentlemen farmers," not the same sort of people as my parents and grandparents at all. Berry works his own land himself, with horses, for pleasure and for a connection to the land and its past. He has made his livlihood as a university professor and author. To his credit, he understands he is doing this, and admits it to himself and his readers:

I became thoughtful of all the work that had been done there on my home ground either by despised men or by men who secretly despised themselves for doing the work of despised men--so many of the necessary acts of my history, neither valued nor understood, wasted in the process of wasting the earth.
The Hidden Wound, p. 88
He concerns himself about a right attitude toward work, and credits his father's hired hands for teaching him about this:

...[T]hese people made in themselves an astonishing endurance, a marvelous ability to survive. They have endured and survived the worst, and in the course of their long ordeal they have developed--as most of white society has not--the understanding and the means both of small private pleasures and of communal grief and celebration and joy.

The great benefit in my childhood friendship with Nick and Aunt Georgie, then, was not an experience of sympathy, though that was involved and was essential, but a prolonged intense contact with lives and minds radically unlike my own, and radically unlike any other that I might have known as a white child among white adults. They don't figure in my memory and in my thoughts about them as objects of pity, but rather as friends and teachers, ancestors you could say, the forebearers of certain essential strains in my thinking.

The Hidden Wound, pp. 63-64
"Most of white society" is apparently not what I or my neighbors in Pocahontas County belong to. I was raised to do what needed to be done, whether it was a pleasant task or not. People who shirked unpleasant work were morally defective. I got this at home, at church, and at school. "Never ask anyone else to do something you wouldn't do yourself," was the rule for bosses. As it turned out, this moral value got me into all sorts of trouble in graduate school and in my professional life. I think at some level, I have recognized Berry's connection with the people who despise manual labor, and have felt part of the underclass which he admires and despises, but does not belong to.

The notion that one is too good to do what it is neccessary for somebody to do is always weakening. The unwillingness, or the inability, to dirty one's hands in one's own service is a serious flaw of character. But in a society that sense of superiority can cut off a whole class or a whole race from its most necessary experience. For one thing, it can curtail or distort a society's sense of the means, and of the importance of the means, of getting work done; it prolongs and ramifies the life and effect of pernicious absractions. In America, for instance, one of the most depraved and destructive habits has always been an obsession with results. Getting the job done is good. Pondering as to how the job should be done, or whether or not it should be done, is apt to be regarded as a waste of time.
The Hidden Wound, p. 106

Monday, November 07, 2005

Pocahontas County Knitting History: Louise McNeill

Here's another Pocahontas County knitting reference, from Louise McNeill's wonderful memior The Milkweed Ladies (1988, University of Pittsburgh Press). You'll have to pardon me for quoting a longer passage than is strictly necessary. I think this prose is even better than her poetry.

The cinnamon rose on the wall of our farmhouse belonged to Granny Fanny, my father's mother, and hers too, the row of bachelor buttons, the pink sweet rockets by the garden fence. But Granny Fanny had little time for fussing around with flowers. She was busy in the kitchen or stable or running the hills with her gunnysack, picking her loads of wild plums or wormy apples, or half-rotten kindling wood.

Milkweed Ladies, ready to sail away In 1914, the Austrian archduke had been assasinated at Sarajevo and the world was engulfed in war, but Granny was not of this century; she was wild and running free. Born in 1840, she still roved the rocks and waste places, tended her ash hopper, which made lye for her homeade soap, and poured tallow into her candle molds.

It was as though, standing in her hilly pocket sometime about 1861 or 1862, she had set her thorn broom handle into the world's axis and brought it to a grinding halt. In her long black dress and black bonnet, she walked the hills of another time, and perhaps, even of another country, and gathered pokes of horehound and "life everlasting" to cure the twentieth century of its "bloody flux." She was an old pioneer woman, thin and wrinkled as a dried apple, and with her secret in her that she always kept from everyone. On her back, where she had bent it so long under the burdens, a great knot had grown as big as a wooden maul. In her old age, she wore it like a saddle, the seal and saddle of the mountain woman.

When she was no longer needed in the kitchen, Granny Fanny would go into the fields and woodlands with her gunnysack, or she would take her thorn bush broom and sweep the dirt from the floor of the woodshed, then sweep the path and yard so slick and clean that there was hardly a splinter left. Or she would find a dead sheep out in the pasture, pull the wool off it, pick the burrs from the wool, wash it, card it, spin it, and knit it into crooked mittens and socks. But she would never sew or do fine quilting or mend the clothes. If clothes wore out, she threw them in the fire.

Granny Fanny was not at all a proper woman like my other grandma, my mother's mother, Grandma Susan, who worked only at housework and wove coverlets and always spoke so nice and fine. Granny Fanny would sometimes have a high fit of temper, pack up her black "gretchel," and go whipping over the hill to Aunt Mat's. She was high tempered, tight-lipped, even, in a sense, an unlovable woman, and yet I loved her with a wild, fierce kind of love and would always fly to her defense. But Granny Fanny had her own sharp tongue, her black "gretchel," and her secret. When I was a child, I could feel that secret in her, and I wanted to know. I wanted to know so much that sometimes, when she tried to sing, I would look at her hard and try to see if her secret was hidden down in the song. Granny was not one for singing and had only one tune. She would sing it in her high cracked monotone, always the song about the little horses:

Oh, the black and the bay and the dapple gray
And all the pretty little horses.
Sometimes her craced voice would get to running over and over in my head, and in years after, whenever I thought of Granny Fanny, her song would come back to me like the crackle of thorns in the hearthfire.

Grandma Susan would sing in church: "On Jordan's stormy banks I stand," or "Rock of ages, cleft for me"; but Granny Fanny would not go to church, nor to prayer meetings, nor to the pie suppers down at school. The only place she would go was to trade and barter. She would "take her foot in her hand," she said, and whip down over the hill to sell her butter pats or jars of apple butter. She would trade her goods for sugar and coffee and tobacco, for she was still smoking her old corncob pipe, and would carry her store things back home in her sack. If she got cash money, she would put it in her long black leather purse, then stick it under her bed tick to be safe and sound. Granny had never heard of the Protestant Ethic; she was just an uneducated old woman who hadn't learned the evils of working and saving, and she wanted no foolish things--only coffe and tobacco, and her mantel clock with the gargoyles staring out above its face.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Princess: Her Blogger Profile

Portrait of Princess, a fuzzy yellow cat

Here is the obligatory cat photograph, apparently a requirement of every personal weblog. This is Princess. She came with the house. She looks a little put out in every photo I take of her, because she doesn't like things pointed at her. No cameras, guns, or trucks, please. This speaks well for her intelligence. At all other times, she is a cheerful, friendly cat with a feline smile on her face. The previous house owner had a large, excitable Rottweiller, and Princess appreciates the dog's continued absence. She patrols the house and garden for small rodents, and nowadays is bringing us her surplus kills, urging us to eat while the hunting is good. A few winters back, she alerted us to the bear at the woodpile, saving us from a potentially unfortunate encounter in the dark. She enjoys lying in the sun, hunting, sleeping under the peony bushes, and eating deer meat.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Dr. Bootsie Grapples with RSS, Liferea, and Buzzwords

I spent more time that I meant to recently reading about RSS, news aggregators and something called Web2.0, the "living Web." I've been using Amphetadesk, a news aggregator, on my Macintosh for quite a while, but I find myself doing more and more work on my Linux box, and I thought it might be interesting to try reading news there. That reader is fine, but when I checked their Website, I found the last update was made in 2002. I thought it might be worthwhile to try a new one in Linux-Land. Here are some RSS feed reader resources I found helpful.

  • RSS Compendium - RSS Readers - Linux/Unix. This source tries to be comprehensive, listing all Linux RSS news readers.
  • RSS Readers for Linux. A page from "RSS Specifications: This site is a comprehensive rss reference detailing everything you need to know about RSS." This is an informative, attractive site. I haven't finished reading all the interesting pages yet.
  • RSS Feed Reader / News Aggregators Directory :: This list includes Web-based utilities, handheld devices, and all sorts of platforms not included in some of the other lists. I haven't read everything interesting in this list, either.
  • Liferea. This is the news reader I finally installed. One important reason I chose it was that it is available as a .deb file as part of the Debian testing sources. All I had to do was type apt-get install liferea and voila there it was. So far, so good.

The third item on the list linked to the author's Web presence, Personal webnode of Haiko Hebig. Here I found many fascinating things, and I expect this will become one of my "regular reads." I found his photographs of Endangered Machinery quite beautiful. I particularly enjoyed the article about Web 2.0 from Joel on Software - Friday, October 21, 2005. Joel on Software says:

I'm starting to see a new round of pure architecture astronautics: meaningless stringing-together of new economy buzzwords in an attempt to sound erudite....Now it's tagging and folksonomies and syndication, and we're all supposed to fall in line with the theory that cool new stuff like Google Maps, Wikipedia, and are somehow bigger than the sum of their parts. The Long Tail! Attention Economy! Creative Commons! Peer production! Web 2.0!

I feel better already!

Monday, October 31, 2005

Signs and Wonders from Burl Hammons: Turkey in the Straw

Burl Hammons, with fiddle

Burl Hammons tells this story to accompany his own version of "Turkey in the Straw" on "The Hammons Family: Traditions of a West Virginia Family and Friends." I think it says a lot about Burl's childhood view of playing the fiddle. Music is terrifying and wonderful. The folklorist authors of the pamphlet cite many stories about the Devil appearing as a fiddler, but to me this is more personal than folkloric.

Well, I was--where we lived, we lived down on the Williams River, when the--when I saw this thing, and so--. And we always went to bed pretty early, my dad did, and--about eight, nine o'clock we always went to bed--and I laid down and I, didn't seem like I could go to sleep. And I laid there a while and just directly I heard the click, open come the door, and in walked this skeleton of a man. And he was the tallest man, Lord, I've--he was really tall, a-must've been six or seven feet tall or looked like that.

And he had--I noticed he had a fiddle in his hand when he walked in; and he walked about the middle of the floor where I was a-sleeping. And he took off on that "Turkey in the Straw," and boys I never had heard nothing played like that in my life. And I shut my eyes to keep from looking at the skeleton of a man, but I was still listening at that tune. And, when I opened my eyes, he'd--I waited till he finished the tune before I opened my eyes, but he--when he finished it he was still a-standing but he just turned and walked to the door, and just "click" open come the door, and out he went.

And the next morning I was a-telling my dad about that. "Ah," he said, "that's a bunch of foolishness. Quit." He said, "That was only just a dream or something you had," he said. "Quit thinking of such stuff as that." "No," I said, "it was the truth." I said, I wished I could've played "Turkey in the Straw," heard somebody else play "Turkey in the Straw" like that. "Ah," he said, "that's foolishness."

And I never told no more about it, but I can still mind that--what ever it was, I don't know whether it was a dream or not, but I tell you I can still mind about it. A six or seven--a fellow only six or seven year old and still can mind that just as well as it was the day, you know it's bound to be pretty plain, now--or he couldn't have minded that.

The quote is from "The Hammons Family: Traditions of a West Virginia Family and Friends," as is the photograph of Burl Hammons. If you're curious, you can visit the link and hear samples of many of the tracks on these two CD's.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Signs and Wonders from Burl Hammons: The Yayho

Photograph of Hammons brothers Pete, Paris, and Neal; older brothers of Edn.

Burl Hammons tells this story in "The Hammons Family: Traditions of a West Virginia Family and Friends." This photo shows Burl's father, Paris (center) and his brothers Pete (left) and Neal (right). Their father, Jesse, was born in the early 1830's, and these three brothers were born between 1856 and 1864. Their youngest brother, Edn Hammons was a well-known Pocahontas County fiddler.

Yayho stories are common in West Virginia. Typically, the people telling the story are in the woods after dark, and they hear someone on foot following them. Whenever they stop walking, the footfalls continue for a few seconds. Other people hear the sound of someone striking a tree trunk with a big stick, far off in the woods. The unknown stick-carrier seems to be following them. The yayho is, as far as I can tell, the same sort of creature as Bigfoot out west. When modern people hear something in the woods they can't identify, I'm not really surprised. However, the three Hammons men in this story made their living hunting and logging in the backcountry 150 years ago. Any animal they didn't know would have been a wonder indeed. Fallen Timbers, at the head of the Cherry River, remains a remote hard-to-reach destination to this day.

They was a yayho but I don't know what it was, now they didn't either, just to tell the truth about it. Well, it was my dad and a feller they called Wilburn Baldwin, and, uh, and my father's dad, they always, they'd go over there on the head of Cherry....They'd go over there and bear hunt in the fall. And, so, out of grub and....this feller thought that they'd send him to Hillsboro and get some grub, enough to do 'em a couple or three more days. Well...away he went.....He was supposed to be back and it commenced to getting late. And...they didn't have no lamps and lanterns and stuff, they just had rich pine, they'd split 'em up a big lot of rich pine so they could make a light so they could see when they went to meet him.

So after dark...they heard something a-hollering. And they went to answering it. And it, and it got to getting closter and they thought it was him, you know. And them old fellers, you couldn't hardly fool them on any thing, any kind of animals now....Now Uncle Pete...he was with em', Uncle Pete Hammons, he said, "Now boys," he said, "that ain't no body a-hollering," he said, "that's something else," he said.

And it kept getting closter and closter....So they got the light and they started. Course they took the guns with 'em and they started to meet him. And after while they heard this feller a-hollering....And of course they answered him. And they got there, they got to him at last and he...had a gun with him, but he'd dropped it and clim a tree. He said there was some thing just ready to catch him, he said. It jumped two or three times at him, some big thing, he said, he didn't know what it was. And he was up in that tree when they found him....

The next day, I believe it was, my dad said....he was a'comin out through there and he said there was that thing's looked like it had hair on the bottom of its foot and, he said it run back kind of at the heel...but he said you couldn't tell it from a man's track. And he covered it up with a piece of bark....His dad said--of course he'd killed kinds of bears and stuff, and--he said, "Why," his dad said, "it's nothing but a bear walking on its hind feet...."

And he said that they went out and looked at it, at that track, and they said no, it wasn't a bear's track. They said they didn't know what it was, then they just named it a yayho, now, that's what they called it, a yayho, of course they couldn't live in that country at that time, could they now...? dad said...them old fellers looked at it and they said they never seen a track like that. They didn't know what it was. And he said it was as big as a man's track. But he said ...the heel...ran right back right sharp, he said, back next to the heel....Now you know, boys there couldn't have been nobody in that country way back in there now, barefoot, well gosh, miles and miles and miles in that, back in the head of that Cherry River.

The quote is from "The Hammons Family: Traditions of a West Virginia Family and Friends, as is the photograph of the Hammons brothers. If you're curious, you can visit the link and hear samples of many of the tracks on these two CD's.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Signs and Wonders from Maggie Hammons: The Haunted Wagon

Maggie Hammons Parker, about 1930

If you're interested in traditional Appalachian string band music, you may have heard of Pocahontas County's Hammons family. Folklorists have collected a number of unique tunes and tune versions from the musical family members. In the late 1960's and early 1970's, Carl Fleischauer and Alan Jabbour of the Library of Congress put together a 120-page booklet and record collection which is currently available on CD, as "The Hammons Family: Traditions of a West Virginia Family and Friends." Brothers Burl and Sherman Hammons and their sister Maggie Hammons Parker are recorded telling stories and riddles, singing songs and playing fiddle and banjo. These published recordings include a number of stories with a supernatural component. There are ghostly manifestations, witchcraft, strange animals, and "signs and wonders." CD Cover: The Hammons Family: Traditions of a West Virginia Family and Friends The topics are similar to much of what I've heard since I moved to Pocahontas County, although Maggie, Burl, and Sherman were particularly good at telling stories. I've decided to withhold the witchcraft stories, because I believe the people who have told them to me would not like them published. They aren't "nice" somehow. Most of them have a sexual component, and some include accounts of serious wrong-doing in the community. I suspect that Maggie would not have told Fleischauer and Jabbour these stories if she had understood how many people would hear or read them.

The stories I am presenting here share the perspective of my other Pocahontas County tales: "I'm not afraid of the unknown, but I saw something." Wondering what it was, Maggie's dad, Paris Hammons, told her this story.

Maggie Hammons Parker, about 1970

That was over on Clover Creek. [My dad] while he was a-sangin'...they was two old women a-pickin' berries. And she asked him where he was camped old log camp...."Why," she said, "that place is hanted, everybody that's ever stayed there...." He said, "What do you call a hant?" She said, "You'll find out," she said, "they hear something there." She said, "Are you not afraid?" "No sir," he said, "I always try to find out what anything is when I hear a noise...."

And so he said along in the night....he was a-sitting there smoking...he heard a wagon a-comin'....he said it kept getting closter and closter, closter and closter. And finally at last he said he stepped--stepped out on the outside, for he could hear it and he said he heard it was a-comin' right down the creek.

And he said it was so rough, a wagon nor nothing could have got over that. And he said he heard it was a'comin' and he just walked in and told John [McCombs] "John, get up," he said, "they's a wagon and team a-coming down here." He said "I don't want to hear it, that's that hant," he said "that's a'comin'."

And he said John jumped up, it was no trouble to get him up; and down, right down to the edge of the creek he said they went....There never was a wagon nor nothing else could come down that creek, he said there was big rocks up in see the creek had almost went dry....And he said you could even see the fire a'flyin' out of them rocks and not a thing. Not nary thing only the roar of it. And it come right by 'em now, he said, passed right by 'em and went right on out of their hearing, right down the creek--it just kept that creek, he said. And he said you couldn't see a thing, or nothing, only just the sparks of the fire that the horses--you know how their shoes'll knock--well now, he said that was all you could see.

And he said it was just as plain a wagon as ever he did hear one; you can hear it a'comin' over them rocks, they's a'standin' right--pretty near right to the bank of the creek. And never seen a thing. "Now," John said, "let's leave here." "Why no, he said, "we'll stay here," he said, "why that ain't goin' to hurt you, only that noise," he said, "and that ain't a'gonna hurt you."

....Now he said that was one noise he heard that he never did know what it was.

The quote is from "The Hammons Family: Traditions of a West Virginia Family and Friends," as are the two photographs of Maggie Hammons Parker. If you're curious, you can visit the link and hear samples of many of the tracks on these two CD's.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Haunted Pocahontas County: Watoga

Russian olive berries

Here's another Pocahontas County ghost story I found on the Internet. I've never heard this from a county native, so consider its source, the West Virginia Division of Tourism.

Fence Row Stand-Up Man
Seebert - Pocahontas County

Visitors to nearby Watoga State Park report seeing an exceptionally tall bald-headed man suddenly spring up along the fencerow next to a cornfield. The tall, glowing figure appears on especially foggy nights about midnight and stares intensely, moving only his head and not his body as cars pass.

The man doesn't stand up, as one would from a lying position, but rather springs straight up, without bending his knees in a perfect arch. The figure is at least 6-1/2 feet tall, bald and has an eerie halo-like glow around his entire body that almost illuminates the fog.

The Droop Mountain area near Seebert was home to the state's largest Civil War battle, so it is possible this ghost is related to the violent events there. Or is it something else?

Monday, October 24, 2005

Haunted Pocahontas County: Droop Mountain Battlefield, Part 3

house with ghost at the window (small image)

In 2000, I took this picture of the east end of my house, the pear tree, and the cat. I used color print film, and I scanned this print to make a jpeg file. When I looked at the image using my computer, I was surprised to see a figure standing in the full-length window (indicated by the arrow). If you're curious, see this larger picture. There was no one else at home, and the figure is definitely not my reflection. There are quite a few photographs with "unexplained" bright spots, hazy shapes, and clouds, which some interpret as material manifestations of spiritual presence. I think the lady in my window looks more substantial than most of these photos.

I'm not prepared to argue that the figure is "really" a ghostly manifestation. As I child, I was tormented by the faces I saw looking out at me from wallpaper, woodgrain, and shadows from the coal stove. The human mind is predisposed to recognize faces, and will interpret faces where none are present. I don't know what's going on here, but I keep showing people the lady who appeared in my window. They see her too.

My home is on the ridge of Droop Mountain bombarded by the Yankees on November 6, 1863. It's not adjacent to the battlefield park, but previous residents have found minnie balls in what is now my front yard. Thus, my ghostly photograph can claim some connection to "The Ghosts of Droop Mountain." (Terry Lowry, Last Sleep: The Battle of Droop Mountain November 6, 1863) I think several of the people Lowry quotes have a reaction similar to mine. They seem puzzled, skeptical, curious. Edgar Walton said of an apparition he encountered in the 1920's, "I never did believe in ghosts and still don't but we saw something. It was in the form of a man but without a head, and it was drifting along." Further,

The headless ghost-soldier story arose again in 1977 when Mrs. Clenston Delaney, daughter of Edgar Walton, along with her husband and sister, spotted a headless, ghost-like figure on the same spot as her father....She said it took place one evening while cutting wood near the battlefield, when they "saw an apparition that left them frightened and shaking." The headless ghost, clad in a gray uniform, floated past her making a moaning sound. Mrs. Delaney declared, "It was very odd. I can't explain it. But all three of us saw it."
This is a story I've heard from several different people, but all of them describe a figure with the face shot off, not headless. Several park superintendents and caretakers have been troubled by strange, inexplicable noises in the park and in the residences. Again and again, those reporting the incidents avow they do not believe in ghosts, "but--" they say, they heard or saw something.

We don't know what we heard or saw, but we wish we knew. As a scientist, I learned early on that for every question we can answer, there are a host that we'll never know about. That doesn't stop us from talking about our unexplained encounters, or showing around the lady looking out my window.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Haunted Pocahontas County: Droop Mountain Battlefield, Part 2

Droop Mountain Battlefield Park Lookout Tower

Here's the entry for Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park.

Location: Droop Mountain Battlefield
Status: Not Confirmed (?)
Address: Rt 219
City: Hillsboro
County: Pocahontas County
State: WV

West Virginia's last significant Civil War battle occurred on November 6, 1863. Union troops pinned the Confederates, who had concentrated their army on the ridge crest, in place by attacking from the right, left, and rear. This action drove the Confederates from the summit. This 285-acre park includes interpretive exhibits, Confederate earthworks, a small museum containing artifacts from the battle, lookout tower, picnic area, hiking trails, and children play areas. Droop is considered the oldest state park in West Virginia and is 4 miles south of Hillsboro. Here in the park stands an old replica of a cannon. Sometimes, on certain nights, you can see the spirit of a soldier perched on top of it smoking a cigarette.

Another West Virginia ghost Web site quotes this paragraph, (without attribution or a link, tsk, tsk), and adds this personal observation:

There are many stories of paranormal activity here, like a soldier that sits on the replica cannon smoking a cigarette, but I can tell you from personal experience that this can be an extremely frightening place at night. As a side note, a few years ago a WV State Trooper killed himself in the lookout tower at sunset, and it is said that sometimes you can still see him up in the tower looking out over the valley at sunset but by the time you can get up the steps he is gone.

I guess, from the poor punctuation, spelling, and grammar elsewhere on this page, that it is the work of children. Certainly, the inaccuracy of this account has a kids' campfire quality. (If you're adults, learn to proofread!) There was a suicide in the area by a law enforcement official in the last few years, but not in the tower, and not in the park.

I run or walk in the park several times a week, and the things that frighten me most have been bears and tourists. However, I did get a little spooked one October morning when I was out before the fog had lifted, and men in Union uniforms burst out of the woods along a little footpath. I knew the reenactment of the battle was scheduled for that afternoon, but it was strangely disturbing. Later that afternoon, I could hear the cannon fire close by my house. It brought home how terrible the war was for the people who lived here then.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Haunted Pocahontas County: Droop Mountain Battlefield

A view from Droop Mountain

The oldest and most highly-embroidered ghost story from the Droop Mountain Battlefield is summarized by Terry Lowry in Last Sleep: The Battle of Droop Mountain November 6, 1863.

The earliest known episode of a supernatural occurrence at Droop Mountain took place in 1865 when Betty and Nancy Snedegar, residents of the west side of Droop and the daughters of James C. and Rebecca Kellison Snedegar, walked to the east side of the mountain to pick berries. On their return trip they located two guns, apparently lost during the battle two years earlier. As the two girls "started to carry off the guns, rocks were thrown at them but they saw no person. They went on home. As they went to milk, more rocks and clubs were thrown at them. At the house rocks Book Cover: Last Sleep came down the chimney and knocked the lids off the pots. Rocks came through the log walls, but left no holes. There were sheepskin rugs on the floor which started rarin' up..." Another account claims the sheepskin rug would stand erect and bawl. The Snedegar sisters then "gathered all the rocks and threw them in a sinkhole several [hundred?] feet deep. The rocks all came flyin' back out." One version of the story claimed "dog irons would come out of the fireplace and race around the room." Reportedly, an uncle came to visit and two rocks hit him in the arm and head, after this he quickly departed. Finally, the guns were returned to their original location and all the problems ceased.