• About Farm School

    "There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live."
    James Adams, from his essay "To 'Be' or to 'Do': A Note on American Education", 1929

    We're a Canadian family of five, farming, home schooling, and building our own house. I'm nowhere near as regular a blogger as I used to be.

    The kids are 18/Grade 12, 16/Grade 11, and 14/Grade 10.

    Contact me at becky(dot)farmschool(at)gmail(dot)com

  • Notable Quotables

    "If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."
    William Morris, from his lecture "The Beauty of Life"

    "‘Never look at an ugly thing twice. It is fatally easy to get accustomed to corrupting influences."
    English architect CFA Voysey (1857-1941)

    "The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead."
    Clarence Day

    "Anyone who has a library and a garden wants for nothing."

    "Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtile; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend."
    Sir Francis Bacon, "Essays"

    "The chief aim of education is to show you, after you make a livelihood, how to enjoy living; and you can live longest and best and most rewardingly by attaining and preserving the happiness of learning."
    Gilbert Highet, "The Immortal Profession: The Joys of Teaching and Learning"

    "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment."
    Walter Wriston

    "I'd like to give you a piece of my mind."
    "Oh, I couldn't take the last piece."
    Ginger Rogers to Frances Mercer in "Vivacious Lady" (1938)

    "No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem."
    Booker T. Washington

    "Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."
    Attributed to Groucho Marx in "The Groucho Letters" by Arthur Sheekman

    "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me."
    Alice Roosevelt Longworth

    "If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, we feel all our hard work ain't been in vain for nothin'."
    Jean Hagen as "Lina Lamont" in "Singin' in the Rain" (1952)
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Poetry Saturday: Updike and light verse, with detours through science and suburbia

I was so keen yesterday to slip Phyllis McGinley’s January admonition into the very last Poetry Friday of the month that it didn’t even occur to me to give the late John Updike his due as poet, let alone light versifier; the poet Robert Wallace once called his friend “clearly the preëminent American light-verser of our generation”.  I was reminded of the fact by Karen Edmisten and her timely post and by some offblog emails that had us chatting about his writings in The New Yorker.

Most obituaries this week mentioned that Mr. Updike’s first published work was light verse, in The New Yorker.  In his preface to Collected Poems, 1953-1993 where he admitted, “As a boy I wanted to be a cartoonist”, Mr, Updike called his writing style “cartooning with words”.  In his appreciation the other day, David Lipsky in Salon wrote, “Updike broke into print with light verse, just as the world decided that funny, rhyming poetry was something it could possibly do without.” Mr. Updike himself said in Due Considerations that “Up to 1960, I had made my living selling short stores and light verse, for which there was a significant but fickle and possibly fading market.”

Well, not the whole world.  So here are a few.  First, “Cosmic Gall”, originally published in Telephone Poems and Other Poems in 1960 and included years later as part of the illustrated presentation for the 1995 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Cosmic Gall
by John Updike

Neutrinos they are very small.
They have no charge and have no mass
And do not interact at all.
The earth is just a silly ball
To them, through which they simply pass,
Like dustmaids down a drafty hall
Or photons through a sheet of glass.
They snub the most exquisite gas,
Ignore the most substantial wall,
Cold-shoulder steel and sounding brass,
Insult the stallion in his stall,
And, scorning barriers of class,
Infiltrate you and me! Like tall
And painless guillotines, they fall
Down through our heads into the grass.
At night, they enter at Nepal
And pierce the lover and his lass
From underneath the bed – you call
It wonderful; I call it crass.

and this one,

Insomnia the Gem of the Ocean
by John Updike

When I lay me down to sleep
My waterbed says, “Gurgle gleep,”
And when I readjustment crave
It answers me with a tidal wave
That lifts me like a bark canoe
Adrift in breakers off Peru.

Neap to my spring, ebb to my flow,
It turns my pulse to undertow,
It turns my thoughts to bubbles, it
Still undulates when I would quit;
Two bags of water, it and I
In restless sympathy here lie.

(I’m going back to bed)

For more in appreciation of light verse and the late writer, don’t miss this Guardian Books Blog post, “A Lighter Shade of Updike”, from about a year ago, by John Freeman.  A taste:

The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures, Updike’s debut volume of light verse, was published in March of 1958 and it remains in print today [I don’t think this is the case in North America but I haven’t had time to check]. Half a century on it is a scold (and an encouragement) for all those readers who peer into first books and try to prognosticate. It wriggles with a love of language, a winking sense of humor. But who would have known this clever wit would turn into a serious chronicler of post-war American life?

In the late ’50s, Updike’s ear and eye were partially tuned to England, where light verse was something of a martial art. (Although Ogden Nash held America’s end up quite well). Updike had spent a year studying at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, and he sketches his way into publication with “Duet, With Muffled Break Drums,” a tongue-in-cheek tale about the origin of England’s famous carmaker:

Where gray walks slope through shadows shaped like lace
Down to dimpleproof ponds, a precious place
Where birds of porcelain sing as one voice
Two gold and velvet notes – there Rolls met Royce.

How antique rhyming light verse seems today. But as John Hollander reminds in American Wits: An Anthology of Light Verse, there was a time when the “ability to read and write accentual-syllabic verse was part of what it meant to be literate.” Indeed, in Poetry and the Age, his great collection of essays, Randall Jarrell laments that the enlightened businessman of yore had put down his pen for other entertainments.

Updike, who grew up middle-class in rural Pennsylvania and attended university at Harvard, was doing more than just taking part of this tradition.

Read the rest here.  Worth noting with respect to the “martial art” of light verse in England that W.H. Auden was a champion, compiling his own anthology which is recently back in print thanks to NYRB Classics.  And it was Auden who wrote the foreword to Phyllis McGinley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Times Three: Selected Verse from Three Decades (1960).

Also in my haste yesterday, I neglected to mention writer J.D. Smith‘s letter to the editor in The New York Times last week which I was tickled to read. A prescient bit in defense of Miss McGinley in particular and light verse in general:

Ginia Bellafante’s welcome appreciation of Phyllis McGinley (“Suburban Rapture,” Dec. 28) errs only in referring to “the disappearance of light verse” in contemporary poetry. Established poets like X.J. Kennedy and R.S. Gwynn, not to mention Richard Wilbur, have written and published light verse throughout their careers, and Light, the quarterly edited by John Mella, consistently provides a forum for the best practitioners of light verse in English.

Light verse has, however, become much harder to find. With rare exceptions, The New Yorker and other general interest magazines have abandoned light verse, as have the larger publishing houses. This development is particularly baffling given that light verse is consistently well received at readings and appreciated by audiences who are not themselves poets.

Read the rest of J.D. Smith’s letter here.

I’ll give the last words to John Updike, from a 2004 interview:

What was the first thing you wrote that was published?

John Updike: I actually sold a few poems in my teens to marginal magazines. I remember one poem, “The Boy Who Makes the Blackboard Squeak,” meaning the sort of naughty boy who makes the chalk squeak deliberately. I was paid maybe $5 or $10 for it, but my hope was to get into The New Yorker magazine, which began to come into the house when I was about 11 or 12.

I wouldn’t think you could find The New Yorker very readily in Shillington.

John Updike: No. The New Yorker was not a Berks County thing. There may have been a few subscribers, but the newsstands did not carry it because I used to look for it. But my aunt, who lived in Greenwich, Connecticut, and was kind of a hip lady — she was my father’s sister — she thought that we, as a benighted provincial household, could use The New Yorker and I, in fact, did use it. I loved it. I read the cartoons, but then other things too. The whole tone of the magazine was so superior to any other slick magazine, so I was aimed at The New Yorker. My writing career really begins with the day in June of ’54 when we were staying with my wife’s parents in Vermont, and word came up that there was a letter from The New Yorker, and they had taken a poem, and then a little later that summer they took a story. So rightly or wrongly, I felt kind of launched as a writer, a real writer.

They hired you not long after that, didn’t they?

John Updike: I was in Oxford the year after college with my then wife, who had been a Radcliffe girl. At that point she was a pregnant Radcliffe girl — we had a little girl in April. About that same time, Katharine White and her more famous husband, E.B. White, came to visit us in our basement flat. Katharine White was the fiction editor and a woman of great power, one of the founding members of The New Yorker in ’25, and indeed they offered me a job. Or maybe she just told me I could see Shawn, the editor, when I got back to the States. I did, and he offered me a job, and I worked in New York for about two years.

What had you published by then? One story and one poem?

John Updike: That semester I think I placed four or five more stories with them, as well as quite a number of light verse poems. Light verse was in its twilight, but I didn’t know that so I kept scribbling the stuff and they kept running it for a while. So, I was kind of establishing myself as a dependable contributor and they were a paternalistic organization that tried to gather unto itself talented — whatever — writers. And it was funny to want to do that, because really about the only slot they had to offer was to write for “Talk of the Town,” the front section. We moved in, a little family of three into Riverside Drive, and I began to write these stories, and discovered I could do it, and had kind of a good time doing it. You went around in New York and interviewed people who attended Coliseum shows — kitchen appliances or whatever — and I was very good at making something out of almost nothing. But, I thought after two years that maybe I had gone as far as I could with “The Talk of the Town” as an art form and I felt New York was a kind of unnatural place to live. I had two children at this point, and my wife didn’t have too many friends and wasn’t, I didn’t think, very happy. Well in the ’50s one didn’t think too hard about whether or not your wife was happy, sad to say, but even I could see that, so I said, “Why don’t we quit the job for a while.” I thought they’d take me back if it didn’t work out, and I’ll try to freelance up in New England, so there is where we went. We moved to a small town in New England and I never had to go back because I was able to support myself.


Poetry Friday: Admonished

Admonition in January
(On Passing a Florist’s Filled with Pussy Willows)

by Phyllis McGinley

An urban mind has learned to bear
The calendar’s perpetual treason:
Strawberries ripe for winter fare
And skating out of season;

Shop windows of December, bold
With swim suits daringly contrived here,
And August magazines grown old
Ere June has half arrived here.

But pussy willows wake our dream.
They wear a true, a springtime label,
And what necessities redeem
The flouting of the fable?

Here, incubated and absurd,
They droop in shivering sorority.
Their hopeful voices rise unheard
Above the storm’s authority.

And sharper seems the wind, and chill,
With April farther off than payday,
And endless all the days until
They have their proper heyday.

Florists, beware! Amid the snows
Let orchids blossom for the vendor.
Permit the violet and the rose
To thrive in hothouse splendor,

But leave these innocents to sing
An honest prophecy of spring.

from Miss McGinley’s A Pocketful of Wry, 1940

*  *  *  *

For more Poetry Friday fun, head over to Suzanne at Adventures in Daily Living, who’s hosting today’s Poetry Friday roundup.  Thank you, Suzanne!

*  *  *  *

More poetry, and prose, I’ve enjoyed sharing from one of my favorite poets:

Poetry Friday earlier this month (The Velvet Hand)

A True and Precious Stone, December 2008

Poetry Friday, November 2007 (Engima for Christmas Shoppers)

Poetry Friday, May 2006 (Incident on Madison Avenue)

Although we do wash our hands before meals…

“Children should be allowed to go barefoot in the dirt, play in the dirt, and not have to wash their hands when they come in to eat,” [Dr. Joel V. Weinstock] said. He and Dr. [David] Elliott pointed out that children who grow up on farms and are frequently exposed to worms and other organisms from farm animals are much less likely to develop allergies and autoimmune diseases.

Also helpful, he said, is to “let kids have two dogs and a cat,” which will expose them to intestinal worms that can promote a healthy immune system.

When Laura, my firstborn, arrived, a dear friend of the family then in her eighties invited both of us to tea.  Before we left, she leaned over and told me, “You know they’ve got to eat a peck of dirt before they die!” She’d be happy to know that the medical experts in today’s New York Times agree, though she’d be shaking her head to think that people nowadays need to buy a book explaining Why Dirt Is Good.

The compromise for the insistence on handwashing before meals is that we have one dog, 20 cats, a herd of cattle, four horses, and three dozen or so chickens (joined in summer by collections of grasshoppers, salamanders, frogs, and the odd gopher). None of them in the house, though.  No antibacterial soap in here, either. And in winter the kids wear their Baffin boots.  Bare feet when it’s -39 C, even without the wind chill, is just too much to bear.

Happy birthday, Edgar Allan Poe

Another bicentennial to celebrate this year: Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809.

The fine folks at Naxos Audiobooks, whose Junior Audiobooks selection we are especially fond of, are offering a free download of Poe’s The Raven:

The Raven (MP3 file, 8 mins., 2.9 MB)

*  *  *

And, also from Naxos for another bicentennial, a free download of Abraham Lincoln’s The Gettysburg Address,

The Gettysburg Address (MP3 file, 3 mins., 1.1 MB)

Not free, but new this year for the Lincoln bicentennial is Naxos’s The Essential Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and letters by Abraham Lincoln, compiled by Garrick Hagon and Peter Whitfield with a biography by Peter Whitfield, and read by Peter Marinker and Garrick Hagon

“A dream and an ideal”

In November 1939, several months after the beginning of World War II, American educator and civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955), who was also a friend and adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor, participated in a panel discussion on NBC’s weekly public affairs radio broadcast “America’s Town Meeting of the Air” to discuss, “What does American democracy mean to me?” Here is some of what Mrs. Bethune had to say; you can listen to her here:

Democracy is for me, and for 12 million black Americans, a goal towards which our nation is marching. It is a dream and an ideal in whose ultimate realization we have a deep and abiding faith. For me, it is based on Christianity, in which we confidently entrust our destiny as a people. Under God’s guidance in this great democracy, we are rising out of the darkness of slavery into the light of freedom. Here my race has been afforded opportunity to advance from a people 80 percent illiterate to a people 80 percent literate; from abject poverty to the ownership and operation of a million farms and 750,000 homes; from total disfranchisement to participation in government; from the status of chattels to recognized contributors to the American culture.

As we have been extended a measure of democracy, we have brought to the nation rich gifts. We have helped to build America with our labor, strengthened it with our faith and enriched it with our song. We have given you Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Booker T. Washington, Marian Anderson and George Washington Carver. But even these are only the first fruits of a rich harvest, which will be reaped when new and wider fields are opened to us.

The democratic doors of equal opportunity have not been opened wide to Negroes. In the Deep South, Negro youth is offered only one-fifteenth of the educational opportunity of the average American child. The great masses of Negro workers are depressed and unprotected in the lowest levels of agriculture and domestic service, while the black workers in industry are barred from certain unions and generally assigned to the more laborious and poorly paid work. Their housing and living conditions are sordid and unhealthy. They live too often in terror of the lynch mob; are deprived too often of the Constitutional right of suffrage; and are humiliated too often by the denial of civil liberties. We do not believe that justice and common decency will allow these conditions to continue.

Our faith in visions of fundamental change as mutual respect and understanding between our races come in the path of spiritual awakening. Certainly there have been times when we may have delayed this mutual understanding by being slow to assume a fuller share of our national responsibility because of the denial of full equality. And yet, we have always been loyal when the ideals of American democracy have been attacked. We have given our blood in its defense — from Crispus Attucks on Boston Commons to the battlefields of France. We have fought for the democratic principles of equality under the law, equality of opportunity, equality at the ballot box, for the guarantees of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We have fought to preserve one nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Yes, we have fought for America with all her imperfections, not so much for what she is, but for what we know she can be.

Perhaps the greatest battle is before us, the fight for a new America: fearless, free, united, morally re-armed, in which 12 million Negroes, shoulder to shoulder with their fellow Americans, will strive that this nation under God will have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, for the people and by the people shall not perish from the earth. This dream, this idea, this aspiration, this is what American democracy means to me.

*  *  *  *

(A fascinating and inspiring interview with Mrs. Bethune, conducted c1939 by Dr. Charles Spurgeon Johnson, can be found at the Florida Memory Project; you’ll have to scroll down about half a page to find the start)

“More precious than diamonds or silver or gold”

From the acceptance speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, delivered at Oslo on 10 December 1964

I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace at a moment when 22 million Negroes of the United States of America are engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice. I accept this award on behalf of a civil rights movement which is moving with determination and a majestic scorn for risk and danger to establish a reign of freedom and a rule of justice. I am mindful that only yesterday in Birmingham, Alabama, our children, crying out for brotherhood, were answered with fire hoses, snarling dogs and even death. I am mindful that only yesterday in Philadelphia, Mississippi, young people seeking to secure the right to vote were brutalized and murdered. And only yesterday more than 40 houses of worship in the State of Mississippi alone were bombed or burned because they offered a sanctuary to those who would not accept segregation. I am mindful that debilitating and grinding poverty afflicts my people and chains them to the lowest rung of the economic ladder.

Therefore, I must ask why this prize is awarded to a movement which is beleaguered and committed to unrelenting struggle; to a movement which has not won the very peace and brotherhood which is the essence of the Nobel Prize.

After contemplation, I conclude that this award which I receive on behalf of that movement is a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time — the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression. Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts. Negroes of the United States, following the people of India, have demonstrated that nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation. Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.

The tortuous road which has led from Montgomery, Alabama to Oslo bears witness to this truth. This is a road over which millions of Negroes are travelling to find a new sense of dignity. This same road has opened for all Americans a new era of progress and hope. It has led to a new Civil Rights Bill, and it will, I am convinced, be widened and lengthened into a super highway of justice as Negro and white men in increasing numbers create alliances to overcome their common problems.

I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the “isness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.

I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. I believe that even amid today’s mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men. I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up.  …

I think Alfred Nobel would know what I mean when I say that I accept this award in the spirit of a curator of some precious heirloom which he holds in trust for its true owners — all those to whom beauty is truth and truth beauty — and in whose eyes the beauty of genuine brotherhood and peace is more precious than diamonds or silver or gold.

The Lincoln bicentennial: New and newish children’s books

To help me keep track of the new books and other resources that are available, I’m putting up this list, which includes something for everyone, from picture books to historical fiction to a graphic novel:

Gettysburg: The Legendary Battle and the Address that Inspired a Nation (“A Day That Changed America” series) by Shelley Tanaka, illustrated by David Craig (Madison Press, May 2009)

Abe’s Fish: A Boyhood Tale of Abraham Lincoln by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Amy June Bates; picture book (Sterling, February 2009)

Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson; adapted by the author for children ages 9-12 from his adult title, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer (Scholastic, February 2009)

Mr. Lincoln’s High-tech War: How the North Used the Telegraph, Railroads, Surveillance Balloons, Ironclads, High-Powered Weapons, and More to Win the Civil War, by Thomas B. Allen and Roger MacBride Allen (National Geographic Children’s Books, January 2009)

My Brother Abe: Sally Lincoln’s Story by Harry Mazer; historical fiction, 208 pages (Simon & Schuster, January 2009)

Gettysburg: The Graphic Novel by C. M. Butzer, about the battle and the speech (Collins, December 2008)

Lincoln and His Boys by Rosemary Wells, illustrated by P.J. Lynch; picture book (Candlewick, December 2008)

What Lincoln Said by Sarah L. Thomson, illustrated by James E. Ransome (Collins, December 2008)

Abe’s Honest Words: The Life of Abraham Lincoln by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Kadir Nelson (Hyperion, November 2008)

Abraham Lincoln Discovery Kit from Dover books (the kit and some of the components, other than the coloring book, are new as of November 2008): Abraham Lincoln coloring book, Abraham Lincoln sticker book, Abraham Lincoln sticker paper doll, Abraham Lincoln activity book, “Gettysburg Address” poster, 11″ x 17″ Color-Your-Own poster (also at Amazon)

Mr. Lincoln’s Boys: Being the MOSTLY True Adventures of Abraham’s Lincoln’s Trouble-Making Sons,  TAD and WILLIE by Staton Rabin, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline; picture book (Viking Juvenile, October 2008)

The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary by Candace Fleming; biography for approx. ages 9-12 (Schwartz & Wade, October 2008)

Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek: A Tall, Thin Tale (Introducing His Forgotten Frontier Friend) by Deborah Hopkinson and John Hendrix; picture book (September 2008)

Lincoln Shot: A President’s Life Remembered by Barry Denenberg, illustrated by Christopher Bing; a picture book with a difference, meant to evoke a contemporary newspaper, for approx. ages 9-12 (Feiwel & Friends, September 2008)

Lincoln and Douglass: An American Friendship by Nikki Giovanni, illustrated by Bryan Collier; picture book (Henry Holt and Co., September 2008)

Abraham Lincoln Comes Home by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Wendell Minor; picture book (Henry Holt and Co., August 2008)

Abraham Lincoln for Kids: His Life and Times with 21 Activities (For Kids series) by Janis Herbert (Chicago Review Press, July 2007)

A new edition, thanks to the folks at Beautiful Feet Books, of the 1943 Abraham Lincoln by James Daugherty

Music and such:

Music for Abraham Lincoln: Campaign Songs, Civil War Tunes, Laments for a President (Audio CD), with Anne Enslow (hammered dulcimer) and Ridley Enslow (violin), and Jacqueline Schwab (piano).  From the Amazon page: “The album includes 18 songs and tunes, most of them taken from the original sheet music, now part of the Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana at the Library of Congress from Washington and Lincoln and the Lincoln Quadrille to Farewell Father, Friend and Guardian. The musicians include Jacqueline Schwab, whose distinctive piano playing will be immediately recognizable to anyone who has seen Ken Burns’ 1990 documentary on the Civil War; hammered dulcimer player Anne Enslow; violinists Ridley Enslow and John Kirk; cellist Abby Newton; flutist Christa Patton; singers Linda Russell, Margery Cohen and Dan Berggren”; (Enslow Publishers, January 2009).  By the way, Anne Enslow and Ridley Enslow have also put out other music CDs for historical periods: Music of the American Colonies and  A Musical Journey in the Footsteps of Lewis & Clark.

And, from Naxos Audiobooks, a free download of The Gettysburg Address,

The Gettysburg Address (MP3 file, 3 mins., 1.1 MB)

as well as their new The Essential Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and letters by Abraham Lincoln, compiled by Garrick Hagon and Peter Whitfield with a biography by Peter Whitfield, and read by Peter Marinker and Garrick Hagon

Sunshine gardens

I was happy to see a new article, “Extreme Makeover:  White House Edition” in Friday’s Wall Street Journal by former House & Garden magazine editor Dominique Browning, whose books I discovered by accident and loved last summer.  The first part of the article is devoted to redecorating the family quarters, frugally and comfortably, but the last part is about the grounds and garden.  Ms. Browning suggests,

A few green acres carved out of that gloriously sunny lawn (irrigated with a “gray water system” that uses water from the showers and sinks for the lawn and gardens) will supply enough organically grown fruits and vegetables to feed the first family and friends — send the surplus to food banks or schools for their lunch programs. Let’s hope the Obamas become “locavores,” getting their meat and poultry* from the area’s small farms. And is there a beekeeper handy?** The Obamas can kick off another Victory Garden movement in America’s suburbs, but it needs a new name, as the original one grew out of war shortages and implies a vanquished enemy. To kick off the discussion, try Sunshine Gardens, symbolizing a return to sustainable farm practices using a plentiful energy supply.

Read the entire article here.

And just for fun, here’s the YouTube link, for MGM’s 1942 Barney Bear Victory Garden cartoon.

* Whether you live in Washington, DC, or Washington State, try the Local Harvest website (if you fill the two search windows with “meat” and “20500”, the White House zip code, you get four pages of listings)

**  Yes indeedy, via the 101-year-old Maryland State Beekeepers Association and the slightly younger Virginia State Beekeepers Association


Eat the View: The White House Organic Garden Campaign co-ordinated by Kitchen Gardeners International

Michael Pollan’s “Farmer In Chief” article in the October 9, 2008 New York Times Sunday Magazine

Victory Gardens 2.0 at Change.org

Just a theory

To help Cambridge University celebrate its 800th anniversary, illustrator and Cambridge alumnus Quentin Blake has made a series of special drawings of two other celebrated alumni, Charles Darwin (celebrating his own birthday this year) and Isaac Newton. Mr. Blake‘s drawings will be projected onto Cambridge’s Senate House and Old Schools today, Saturday, 17 January (7:15pm to 10pm — sorry, I’m too late for this one); Sunday, 18 January (5pm to 10pm); and Monday, 19 January (5:15pm to 10pm).

The BBC has a video of the light show and animated sketches here.

For the other Darwin illustration (old Charles and his tortoise) go here.

*  *  *

Some of our favorite books illustrated by Quentin Blake (and you can be sure that children who read Blake books when young will grow up with a decent sense of humor):

The Twits and The BFG by Roald Dahl (Mr. Blake has illustrated the entire works of RD)

Drawing: For the Artistically Undiscovered by Quentin Blake and  John Cassidy (a Klutz book)

Tell Me a Picture by Quentin Blake, the book version of his National Gallery art appreciation/education exhibit for children

The Uncle books by J.P. Martin, recently reprinted as part of the New York Review Children’s Collection

Mr. Blake is also one of the illustrators featured in the recent Artist to Artist: 23 Major Illustrators Talk to Children About Their Art, compiled by the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.  And his newest (I think) book is Quentin Blake’s Ten Frogs/Dix Grenouilles: A Book About Counting in English and French

Happier and better

Melvyn Bragg, who’s been popping up around here lately, on his friend and neighbor — and “Libertarian and quaffing socialist” — John Mortimer, who died today, in The Guardian:

I’ve known him for years. I made a film about him and never had a dud moment with him. It wasn’t only the jokes and the stories and the roguish malice but the unshakeable core of the man. The pillars of his mind were in the liberties of England, which had to be defended at all costs and extended wherever possible. And in literature. He was soaked in Shakespeare, steeped in Dickens, an everyman library in the great writers and the great laws of this country. …
I sometimes disagreed with him, I never fell out with him. There are an enormous number of people whose lives he made happier and better by his writing, by the stand he took on public causes, and by the irradiation of his remarkably complex, but completely charming, English character.

Read the rest here.

Three years ago I was lucky enough to find myself in the same house, my parents’, with a copy of John Mortimer’s Where There’s a Will: Thoughts on the Good Life, which I blogged about here.  As I wrote then, “The book amounts to a curmudgeon’s — and why does curmudgeonly increasingly seem to be a synonym for common sense? — last will and testament of advice to leave behind…”.

Poetry Friday

I was going to skip Poetry Friday today (yet again…) because we’ve been busy, and I’ve been away from the computer, with the Farm Curl (the kids are curling with Tom and two others), a birthday party that suddenly  materialized for tomorrow, and writing 4H speeches, but then I saw that Karen Edmisten is hosting today, and I thought, pshaw, what’s one little poem?

The New York Times health column by Dr. Perri Klass earlier this week on the importance of manners learned and taught — and bad manners can be very bad for your health, especially once people figure you’re old enough to know better —  put me in mind of the following poem, from Phyllis McGinley’s Stones from a Glass House (1946).  Of course, anyone in a glass house, unless he or she writes as well as Miss McGinley, should probably be on their very best behavior…

The Velvet Hand
by Phyllis McGinley

I call that parent rash and wild
Who’d reason with a six-year child,
Believing little twigs are bent
By calm, considered argument.

In bandying words with progeny
There’s no percentage I can see,
And people who, imprudent, do so,
Will wonder how their troubles grew so.

Now underneath this tranquil roof
Where sounder theories have their proof,
Our life is sweet, our infants happy.
In quietude dwell Mom and Pappy.

We’ve sworn a stern, parental vow
That argument we won’t allow.
Brooking no juvenile excess here,
We say a simple No or Yes, here,

And then, when childish wails begin
We don’t debate.
We just give in.

* * *

I’ll second Dr. Lewin’s recommendation of Miss Manners’ Guide to Rearing Perfect Children by Judith Martin. Please. And thank you.

Today’s Poetry Friday roundup is hosted by Karen Edmisten — head over there for a weekend’s worth of poems.  Thank you, Karen!

Radio Darwin

In the comments to the previous post, Sheila mentioned Melvyn Bragg’s wonderful BBC Radio 4 podcast for his show “In Our Time”, which much of the time is a bit beyond the kids, though I like it very much.

Now there’s something for the whole family, the “In Our Time” Genius of Evolution broadcasts/podcasts, all about Charles Darwin, just in time for next month’s bicentennial.  They aired originally last week, 5-8 January 2009. Happy New Year, and Happy Birthday!

The BBC Darwin Homepage is here and the Radio 4 Darwin Homepage is here.

In case you’re new to Farm School or the past year is a blur, last year’s Charles Darwin birthday post is here:
Funny, you don’t look a day over 198

The joy of books, by ear

In the previous post, below, about author Susan Hill and reading literature in the classroom, JoVE commented about some comments in Miss Hill’s Standpoint article, about the benefits of reading aloud, even to older children.  Readalouds are a central part of our day, something which we started long before we began home schooling.  Here are the Standpoint comments (which you can read here), first from a teacher named Kit,

“To add a more positive note. I have regularly taught ‘The Woman in Black’ to GCSE students in an FE college. They have all failed the exam in school and so they aren’t the brightest or the best motivated students. I don’t believe in doing ‘bits’ of a novel or a play – it just spoils the whole thing, apart from any more academic considerations but I have to say that they way I cope with the whole text would not please any Ofsted inspector. I read the whole thing to them and they sit and listen, folowing [sic] in the text. It’s like Jackanory. They’re mostly boys and many of them are planning to join the armed services. After the first week, when they’re understandably a bit sceptical about it, they’re in the room before me, pushing the tables together so we can all sit round one space. Some even stop me round the campus to ask: ‘Are we doin’ more of that story about the ghost?’ I’m too old to care that my methods would not be seen as interactive enough. I know most of them can’t read well enough to enjoy the text on their own.”

(“Jackanory”, by the way, is a longtime BBC show similar to “Between the Lions” or “Reading Rainbow”, designed to get kids reading)

And then a reply from Miss Hill, with her own capitals preserved,

“I am absolutely DELIGHTED that they should listen to it being read to them. It does not trouble me in the least that someone else is doing the physical reading bit. That is why I am delighted that the downloaded audiobooks of the novels are extemely popular among students. They are wonderfully well read and they help them to concentrate. I published a children’s book last year for the 7-12 age range [I think it may be this] and had a letter from a teacher to say she had started to read it aloud every Thursday morning to a class of unruly 9-10 year olds with many boys among them who found it almost impossible to sit still. But they became so engrossed in her reading that nobody so much as wriggled, and they were all sitting on the mat waiting for her, eager and attentive, every Thursday. Most of them had reading difficulties but once they had heard the book, wanted to try for themselves. She also reported several who had asked parents to buy it so that they could read at home. In three cases this was the first book the parent had ever bought. I am more proud of this, as I am of hearing about the army-bound older boys listening to the reading of The Woman in Black so attentively, than I am about almost anything. I don’t want them to have to strain to analyse and answer exam questions on my ‘text’ if this is something they genuinely find difficult, I want them to read or listen to the books and find that a positive and enjoyable and enriching experience which may encourage them to read or listen to another book.”

As Casey pointed out in one of comments in the previous post, “The great think [Casey meant “thing”, but “think” works equally well in this context] about reading aloud to kids is it helps them learn to listen and sustain that auditory attention. We (Hombre more than I) do a *lot* of reading aloud to the boys. I remember my teachers up thru 5th grade reading aloud to us daily. I don’t know that there’s time for that anymore.”  It strikes me that most home educating families somehow include reading aloud in some form in the day or the week; it’s a habit that we don’t seem to outgrow once the kids “get too old” for picture books (mine haven’t yet) or start school.

Here we read aloud for fun and for school work.  For school books, whether the subject is literature, history, or science, it’s a wonderful way to cover the same subject with three kids of different ages, helping us to stay on the same page.  I’ve also noticed that my kids, unlike their mother, are very good and careful listeners, which I put down to once- or twice-a-day readalouds from the time they were babies.

Since we’re talking about listening to books, I’m going to stick add our incomplete and highly subjective list of audiobook and podcast links here, since Laura received an iPod Nano from her grandparents for Christmas, and I’m in charge of the syncing.  It was my idea to get her an iPod, as a way to manage the vast collection of CDs that seems to filter down from our main floor to her basement bedroom and also to give her access to various podcasts without having to burn them on CD (and further add to our unwieldy collection).  Laura’s iPod came with strings, and I’m not talking about the earbuds: first, the gizmo is a tool and not a toy; it will contain a healthy amount of the spoken word and audiobooks in addition to music; and it will be listened to mainly with speakers (I found an inexpensive alarm clock radio/dock with speakers which was under the tree, too) rather than earbuds and won’t make too many appearances out of the house other than for airplane trips.

Russell Educational Consultancy and Productions’ (RECAP’s) podcast directory for educators, schools, and colleges; a UK website I haven’t even begun to explore properly

Prufrock Press’s list of “Podcasts for Gifted Kids”, eminently suitable too for those who happen to be bright and motivated. Though the list of National Geographic‘s podcasts includes only the Dog Whisperer and not what Laura finds much more appealing, NG’s Traveler Magazine “Walks” podcasts.  And I’m looking forward to the White House podcasts, especially the Presidential Speeches and the Presidential Weekly Radio Address, but not until later this month, I think.

On the Prufrock list, you’ll find Colonial Williamsburg’s podcast page, where if you scroll down to the bottom of the list and click on “People”, you’ll find all sorts of interesting things, including categories for “Historical figures” (“Hear the words that were catalyst to the Revolution, read by Bill Barker, Colonial Williamsburg’s Thomas Jefferson”), “African Americans”, and “Women”.

PBS’s “American Experience” (favorites include podcasts on Riding the Rails, FDR, Minik the Lost Eskimo, Buffalo Bill, Kit Carson, Annie Oakley, the Gold Rush, Hoover Dam, the Fourth of July 1826, Remember the Alamo, and Coney Island)

“Animal Planet” podcasts, some of which (Jane Goodall, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom) are better than others

CBC Radio’s “The Best of Ideas”, which archives podcasts only for four weeks

CBC Radio’s “Vinyl Cafe”

BBC’s “Great Lives” (Paul Robeson, Alfred Russel Wallace, George Cruikshank)

PBS’s NOVA, with oodles of science and history subjects

NPR’s “Hmmm… (Robert) Krulwich on Science”

NPR’s “Present at the Creation”

NPR’s “Story of the Day”

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (from William Bowler to Victoria Woodhull to Piltdown Man)

Scientific American‘s Science Talk

The Engines of Our Ingenuity, written and hosted by John Lienhard and others, on National Public Radio

How Stuff Works, especially the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast

WNYC’s “Please Explain” with Leonard Lopate

Last summer I somehow tripped over the Children’s Vinyl Record Series website, which appeals to me because I had a great number of those LPs as a child.  In fact, I still have them, but the record player is in the living room.  The website, with downloadable zip MP3 files, is much more handy.  You can find old Tale Spinners records, with a full cast and classical music telling everything from fairy tales to composers’ biographies (“The Story of Chopin”) to more advanced literature (“The Count of Monte Cristo”)

Golden Records, with some Danny Kaye, “A Child’s Introduction to” everything from the Orchestra, Gilbert & Sullivan, Mozart & Beethoven, Spanish, French, Jazz (with Bob Keeshan aka Captain Kangaroo)

Riverside Wonderland, with “Songs Children Sing: France” (one of my childhood favorites, and there are versions too for Germany and Italy), more “A Child’s Introduction to” records, including Jazz again (this one narrated by Julian “Cannonball” Adderley), Ballet with Moira Shearer, Multiplication, and Shakespeare

If you love old LPs and things such as Kiddie Records Weekly, which I just found out is back for one more year in 2009, Children’s Vinyl Records will be right up your alley.

Fear, loathing, and bad manners in the classroom

Still across the pond, English author Susan Hill, whose books are included in GCSE and A-level syllabi and who has more patience in one pinky than I do in my whole body,  in The Telegraph says that “she has been flooded with ‘desperate’ emails from pupils struggling to understand her novels”:

“It saddens me greatly to think that my own novels may be taught so badly, so dully and so mechanically that they will contribute to this loathing of books. I have seen enough school essays and coursework to know that standards are lower than they were.”


“It has become distressingly clear to me that too many school pupils are taught badly, lazily, unintelligently and cursorily,” she said.

“They are not taught how to read and understand novels or to write essays and coursework and answer questions about them. Judging by the evidence of their emails, many should not be studying English literature at all, but with guidance, understanding and above all enthusiastic teaching they could certainly be helped to get more out of books – any books – than they are.”

Miss Hill also believes that not all pupils should be required to study GCSE English:

“Not all of them need to, or will ever, find practical application for those particular skills,” she said. ” If those who struggle… were introduced to a wide variety of books which they simply might enjoy reading, far fewer would be put off all literature for the rest of their lives.

Read the rest of the article here, and don’t miss the examples of emails sent to Miss Hill, who points out that teachers (and, I’d add, parents) are doing a poor job in the grammar and manners departments as well: “Manners are not automatic, like breathing. Nor is grammar.”  The Guardian article, by the bye,  came about as a result of a recent Standpoint magazine article by Miss Hill, “A Novel Way to Treat a Writer”.

Recent related articles:

“What Ails Literary Studies: Leaving Literature Behind” by Bruce Fleming in the Dec. 19, 2008, Chronicle of Higher Education (many thanks to Jo for letting me know about The Chronicle Review earlier in the year and also for sending me a number of articles behind the [shhh…] subscriber-only firewall): “We’ve turned revelation into drudgery, shut ourselves in airless rooms, and covered over the windows.”

“Shakespeare, Dickens and Palin. Discuss.” by English writer and critic Philip Hensher in The Independent, on “the place of the illustrious dead”.  (That would be Michael, not Sarah, by the way.)  From which,

The determination to study “the contemporary” and “the relevant” has resulted in a weird situation where a writer’s work never needs to find a public who actually likes the work. Instead, a bureaucrat approves, a volume is bought by huge numbers by schools, and the question of engagement with a living public never seems to arise.

Quite how bizarre this situation is has been pointed out by a mesmerising article by Susan Hill in the recent Standpoint magazine. She is an author with a genuine, living public; other books of hers are favourites, apparently, with the GCSE setters.


A Michael Palin travelogue* may not be the place to look to find out what great literature looks like. On the other hand, we are fairly sure that Coleridge is that place.

* Phileas Fogg and friends

There’ll always be an England

The latest campaign from across the pond:

Save Our Squirrels, with the rallying motto “Save a red, eat a gray!”

If you live in the UK and would like to help the cause, you can order your squirrel pâté now. No word on whether red or white wine goes best.

As Cluny Brown would say, nuts to the squirrels!