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.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Haunted Pocahontas County: Denmar

Autumn clouds over Locust Creek

Another Pocahontas locality recorded as "haunted" is the old Denmar State Hospital. A lot of the older people here on Droop Mountain and Caesar Mountain worked there at one time or another. It is just a short distance away, on the Greenbrier River. I've heard stories about places in the hospital where no one wanted to go alone. One floor in particular made people uncomfortable, and there are stories of inexplicable voices and footsteps. The structure is now a prison. I visited there once, and found the bars slamming shut behind me disturbing enough to drive away thoughts of paranormal phenomena. Here's the report:

West Virginia Colored Tuberculosis Sanitarium, Denmar
Nearly 1000 African-American women and men spent their last days suffering with Tuberculosis at this isolated location in Pocahontas County and nearly 300 of them are permanently laid to rest here. This is a very isolated and active paranormal location. In the mid 1990's the location was renovated and turned into a correctional facility and is not available for the public to visit.

There's another, more informative article about the Colored Tuberculosis Sanitarium. (No discussion of ghosts is included.)

Deaths at the West Virginia Colored Tuberculosis Sanitarium at Denmar. West Virginia History Volume 56 (1997), pp. 88-121.
The West Virginia Legislature created the State Colored Tuberculosis Sanitarium in 1917. The Maryland Lumber Company sold 185 acres of land and numerous buildings in Denmar, Pocahontas County, to the West Virginia Board of Control. According to the 1918 West Virginia Legislative Hand Book, black tuberculosis patients, who were West Virginia residents, were eligible for admission to the sanitarium provided they could pay for their care. The Hand Book noted: "The reasonable expenses of poor persons admitted at the request of the authorities of any municipal corporation or county, shall be paid by such municipal corporation or county." The sanitarium admitted its first patients on January 31, 1919.

Monday, October 17, 2005

The Much-Cited Greenbrier Ghost

A state highway marker west of Lewisburg (in nearby Greenbrier County) commemorates the "only known case in which testimony from [a] ghost helped convict a murderer....Interred in a nearby cemetery is Zona Heaster Shue. Her death in 1897 was presumed natural until her spirit appeared to her mother to describe how she was killed by her husband Edward. Autopsy on the exhumed body verified the apparition's account. Edward, found guilty of murder, was sentenced to state prison." Katie Letcher Lyle, who wrote this article is also the author of Man Who Wanted Seven Wives: The Greenbrier Ghost and the Famous Murder Mystery of 1897. Ms. Lyle used contemporary sources to check facts, and points out that, road signs not withstanding, the testimony concerning the ghost was introduced by the defense in an attempt to make the prosecution's case look foolish.

Book Cover: The Man Who Wanted Seven WivesBook Cover: The Man Who Wanted Seven Wives

What makes this a Pocahontas County story is the provenance of Trout Shue, incorrectly identified as "Edward" on the highway marker. Mr. Shue's parents lived on Droop Mountain, and Trout lived there with his second wife, Lucy, who died suddenly after eight months of marriage. Trout later moved to Greenbrier County and married Zona Heaster, who also died suddenly a few months after her marriage. The present day Shues who live on Droop are Trout's relatives, and the story is well-known here and in Greenbrier County.

Book Cover: Greenbrier Ghost

Another Web version of this story is available from Applit as part of a children's writing exercise. It's taken from another book about the case, The Greenbrier Ghost by Dennis Deitz (1990).

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Haunted Pocahontas County

Since I moved to Pocahontas County I've heard quite a few ghost stories. The storytellers have a variety of attitudes about their narratives. Some of them think they're amusing anecdotes about rural superstition, some of them think they are judgements from God Almighty, but most of them are like me. They aren't sure what to make of it. It could be hallucinations, it could be spirits of the dead, it could be some sort of cosmic trick. I have formed no hypothesis, scientific, philosophical, or religious, to explain these phenomena, but I have experienced a couple of ghostly apparitions myself. I remain puzzled, and therefore, I remain interested, hoping, I suppose, to find an answer.

That's how it happens that I keep a collection of local ghost stories. With Halloween coming up, I thought a little series of "Poca-HAUNT-as" County anecdotes might be appropriate. From the Marlinton Gargoyle to the Droop Mountain Battlefield to the Greenbrier Ghost, the stories center around Droop Mountain and the Greenbrier River. I don't know whether this reflects my sampling base of operations (I live on Droop, not far from the river) or whether the Civil War battlefield represents some sort of "psychic epicenter."

Book Cover: Last SleepThe Droop Mountain Battlefield has so many ghost stories associated with it that Terry Lowry, in his 1996 book Last Sleep: The Battle of Droop Mountain November 6, 1863 devotes the final chapter to "The Ghosts of Droop Mountain." He offers this explanation:

While it is fairly common for ghost stories to arise out of Civil War sites, Droop Mountain probably ranks near, or even at the top, of such areas to spawn wild-eyed stories of ghosts, apparitions, headless soldiers, illusions, and the like. Due primarily to its somewhat isolated, rural location, Droop Mountain battlefield has been the scene of many unexplained happenings since the Civil War battle that took place there in 1863. This is not unusual, considering fog "often rolls over the mountain in waves, there one minute, gone the next," creating an eerie atmosphere conducive to tales of ghosts and the supernatural.

Friday, October 14, 2005


Pipevine Swallowtail larva

Phoresis. That's what this caterpillar was experiencing as I photographed him. I found him tearing across my porch at top speed, and nudged him onto my finger and then on to the pear tree for a short photo session. He was in a hurry. When these large caterpillars are about to pupate, they become restless, leave the plants where they've been feeding and start looking for a safe place to dissolve into a morphogenic soup and reassemble into a winged creature. Phoresis is movement from place to place, as in electrophoresis (where molecules migrate differentially through a gel in response to electrical current).

I was particularly pleased to see this fellow, because he answered a question that's been on my mind since I moved here: Are those irridescent butterflies I see so often Pipevine Swallowtails or Spicebush Swallowtails? I haven't been able to find either Aristolochia or spicebush anywhere around here, but the butterflies are abundant. The caterpillars of the two species are nothing alike, and this fellow is definitely a Pipevine Swallowtail. That's Battus philenor, (Linnaeus) as near as I can tell. (I got it off the Internet, not from an authoratative text.) While trying to figure out the correct genus name (My old books here at the house use Papilio.), I found these interesting Web sites.

Addendum: After I posted this, I saw that Fred of Fragments from Floyd had posted his own swallowtail larva photo. His caterpillar sat tight. Evidently it was done with phoresis.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

In the Garden

We've started mowing off the garden. It's hard to believe the weedy, rotting mess we're working on now was this well-groomed patch of hopes and dreams back in July. I took photos because this was the best-tended, best-weeded garden I'd ever been a party to.

I've been thinking about how words mean different things to different people. This fenced-in vegetable patch comes to mind of when I hear the word "garden." In England, the thing people call the "garden" is all the cultivated ground surrounding a house. I was continually confusing people there by praising their beautiful backyards. (I wonder what that conjured up for them.)

As a child, I was fascinated by the hymn "In the Garden." I assume, now, that the author pictured, and meant us all to picture, an English-style garden. I called the thing pictured above a garden. I knew the roses mentioned in the hymn must have been in a nearby flower bed.

I come to the garden alone,
While the dew is still on the roses;
And the voice I hear,
Falling on my ear,
The Son of God discloses.

And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am his own,
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

I imagined Jesus getting soft garden dirt in his sandals as he carefully stepped over the row of beans, the row of tomatoes, into the cucumber patch....Everybody likes a nice garden, and the Lord would surely not step on good produce.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

More Tony Hillerman

Book Cover: Skeleton Man

I just finished Tony Hillerman's Skeleton Man (Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee Novels) 2004. I am now up to date on my Hillerman reading. (I wrote about The Sinister Pig September 13. Now that we're all very well acquainted with the cast of characters, Hillerman is keeping our interest in the plot by bringing in new territories, and interesting facts about the Southwest. In this case, the new territory is the Grand Canyon, and the interesting true story is the June, 1956 airliner collision over the canyon, which "triggered the creation of the Federal Aviation Administration and its flight safety rules." As always, the mystery is artfully plotted, and the characterizations are succinct but adequate. His craftmanship is unsurpassed.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

History of Textile Arts in Pocahontas County, Episode 2

Here's the reference to the things Carie Stulting, Pocahontas County fiber artist, knitted for her family. I had thought it was in The Exile, by Pearl S. Buck, the source I quoted earlier this week. Instead, it is from Fighting Angel: Portrait of a Soul by Pearl S. Buck. (p. 138)

Carie knitted our stockings and sweaters and little cuffs she called wristlets.

That's so brief, I feel the need to include the knitting missionary ladies, although it has nothing to do with Pocahontas County. Speaking about the old-school Presbyterian adherence to the Pauline doctrines about women, Buck describes the missionary wives in China.

...the inevitable result of this religious subjection of women was to breed in them an irrepressible independence and desire for self-expression, born of their innate and unconscious sense of injury and injustice. All subject people so suffer. If men were wise they would give women complete freedom and their rebellions would dissipate into mildness and uncertainty.

But in these repressed, strong, vigorous missionary women the blood ran high. Their very faces were stormy and hewn into lines of determination and grimness, with more often than not a touch of humour. There was a good deal of pathos about them, too, particularly among those not yet quite old, who still longed for a little pleasure or were interested in a new dress or what 'the styles' were at home. If one were to choose between the men and the women, the women would have won for the look of strong patience in their eyes and for the stubbornness upon their lips. And in mission meeting, though only the men could rise and speak before the assembly, beside every man sat his woman, her hand ready to grasp his coat tails. How many times I have seen a man leap to his feet, his grizzled beard working, his eyes flashing, and open his mouth to speak, only to sit abruptly, subdued by a strong downward pull upon his coat tails. There would be a vigorous whispered conference between man and woman. Sometimes he was as stubborn as she, and if he could not say what he wanted, he would say nothing. But more often he stood up again after a few moments, the fire gone from his eyes, and clearing his throat, he would begin to speak, and his voice came out as mild as a summer wind. They all knitted, those women, while their men gave reports and passed laws of the church and made prayers. Their strong hard fingers flew while they had to remain mute. Into those stitches went what curbed desires and stubborn wills and plans! They would have burst, I think, without that vent. (p. 170)

Dosen't that make Madame Dufarge seem like a lightweight?

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Dr. Bootsie Reads Some Chick Lit

Book Cover: The Nanny DiariesBook Cover: The Nanny Diaries

Earlier this week, I read The Nanny Diaries: A Novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. I was at the Hillsboro Library, looking for a reference in a Pearl S. Buck book, and there it was. I was so surprised to see it here in Pocahontas County that I checked it out. I understand it's been enormously popular, and I've been thinking about why that should be.

It's your basic "job from Hell" story, something most of us have told at some time in our lives. As we irritate our nearest and dearest with our narratives, they inevitably ask us why we don't stand up to the demonic employer or find a new job. If we have self-respect, job options, a green card, we take the advice. If we are very young, very enmeshed in the situation, or very desperate, we persevere, our self-image takes a beating, and eventually we get fired anyway. Our young narrator, "Nanny," takes the second route. Presumably, the authors, who seem to have based the character on themselves, have learned from their experience. Clearly, they have profited.

While it's fun to tell one's own "job from Hell" story, it's no fun at all to listen to someone else's rant. These authors have somehow gotten their huge, enthusiastic audience to join with them in the fun of trashing the demonic employer. They lost me about 75 pages into the book, but then I'm much older than either the 21-year-old nanny or the 35-year-old evil mother/boss/New York socialite. I've also had the "job from Hell" several times, and I knew all the stages before they came up in the book. "Quit now....quit now, before they humiliate you more," I kept saying, but then there would have been no best-selling novel.

You've got to hand it to the Ms's McLaughlin and Kraus: They are market-savvy. Did the book have more merit than that? Two things keep me from answering with a flat "no." First, there were all those nanny and governess quotes from classic literature--Jane Eyre, "Romeo and Juliet", Gone with the Wind, Peter Pan, "The Cherry Orchard." These were chilling in context. I've got to reread Jane Eyre, because I don't remember this quote:

You should hear mama on the chapter of governesses: Mary and I have had, I should think, a dozen at least in our day; half of them detestable and the rest ridiculous, and all are incubi--were they not, mama?

Second, I think the horrors of Mrs. X's dissolving marriage may foreshadow Nanny's relationship with her Harvard Hottie, who lives in the same apartment building as Mr. X. Mr. X replaces his wives every few years, and young H.H. has been watching this since childhood. Nanny believes Mrs. X is jealous of her new relationship. In my experience, bosses like Mrs. X don't even see their employees as fellow humans, let alone feel envy or jealousy toward them. Nanny is youthfully oblivious to the future, while Mrs. X is oblivious in her self-absorbed misery. Are the authors subtly drawing connections here? These are the things I like best about the book.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

History of Textile Arts in Pocahontas County, Episode 1

Peviously, I threatened to begin a history of fiber arts in Pocahontas County. I have been collecting snippets of information. Pearl S. Buck, born but not raised here, published her mother's childhood recollections of her Hillsboro home in The Exile (1936). As a woman writing about women's lives, Buck delivers plenty of details about domestic economy. In this passage, the textile arts are the medium through which she reveals one side of her mother's character.

The postwar period in the life of the little West Virginia town [called Hillsboro now] was one of deep spiritual fervor coupled with necessarily ascetic living. This atmosphere was the air which she breathed in her youth, and which forever placed a check upon a nature that was at heart sensuous and beauty-loving. But it gave also the opportunity for experience of many sorts and in this her varied mind delighted. I remember her saying once, "I have done every kind of work needed to maintain life and I am glad of it. After the Civil War there were no shops, nothing to be bought. We grew our own flax and we spun linen thread and made our own sheets and table cloths and inner clothing. We dyed our dresses from cotton and linen thread we had made ourselves and we wove it. I learned to know what colors could be made from different herbs and barks and from roots of many kinds. Sometimes our experiments were failures and we had to wear them just the same. And we sheared sheep and washed the wool and carded it and spun it and wove it. I am glad I learned how to do everything."

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Teaching Myself New Tricks With The GIMP

I've been using the Linux flavor of the GIMP to prepare photographs for my Web pages and this web log. I don't really know how to use it, and I don't know the first thing about Photoshop, so I'm a completely naive user. In theory, this should make it easier, because I don't have to "unlearn" anything. In practice, however, I have some expectations based on my ancient experience with MacDraw, and I spent about a couple of hours last weekend trying to make a little arrow and paste it over the top of a photo. I couldn't do it. That was when I decided to actually learn the GIMP. Here are some links I found promising.

  • The GIMP. "The GIMP is the GNU Image Manipulation Program. It is a freely distributed piece of software for such tasks as photo retouching, image composition and image authoring. It works on many operating systems, in many languages."
  • Gimp-Savvy.Com This Web site is a keeper. Besides the book (item below), there is an archive of copyright-free photos.
  • Grokking the Gimp is an intermediate/advanced guide written by Carey Bunks and published by New Riders. It is available in its entirety on this web site under an open publication license, both as html and as a tarball. You can also order the ink and paper book. The online version comes complete with an interactive searchable database.
  • Ultimate GIMP Resource center and community forum "GT ( was formed in Dec 2004, in a hope that it will help the gimp users and will provide quality tutorials & resources, along with a good community forum where gimp users can discuss/help each other. Site is currently maintained by Ali Imran (CEO GimpTalk)." Tons of tutorials.
  • Gimp Users Group "Welcome to the, by far, largest collection of Gimp arts and tutorials anywhere on the Internet! Right now our galleries contain 2571 pictures, 220 textures, and we have 214 members! Further, we offer 18 Script-Fu scripts."
  • The Gimp Tutorials Pointer Page "This page is to help not only to find a particular tutorial, but also to promote the creation of more tutorials as well as providing an easy index to some examples of what the GIMP can do for you."
  • "is a resource for those using the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) to edit photographs. Please check out our comprehensive suite of image editing tutorials."