• 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."
    Cicero

    "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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Current events: Ukraine

Are you looking for a clear, concise explanation of recent events in Ukraine, for yourself or your kids? You can’t do any better than today’s post in the New York Review blog, “Ukraine: The Haze of Propaganda” by Timothy Snyder. From which:

From Moscow to London to New York, the Ukrainian revolution has been seen through a haze of propaganda. Russian leaders and the Russian press have insisted that Ukrainian protesters were right-wing extremists and then that their victory was a coup. Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, used the same clichés after a visit with the Russian president at Sochi. After his regime was overturned, he maintained he had been ousted by “right-wing thugs,” a claim echoed by the armed men who seized control of airports and government buildings in the southern Ukrainian district of Crimea on Friday[.]

Interestingly, the message from authoritarian regimes in Moscow and Kiev was not so different from some of what was written during the uprising in the English-speaking world, especially in publications of the far left and the far right. From Lyndon LaRouche’s Executive Intelligence Review through Ron Paul’s newsletter through The Nation and The Guardian, the story was essentially the same: little of the factual history of the protests, but instead a play on the idea of a nationalist, fascist, or even Nazi coup d’état.

In fact, it was a classic popular revolution. It began with an unmistakably reactionary regime. A leader sought to gather all power, political as well as financial, in his own hands. This leader came to power in democratic elections, to be sure, but then altered the system from within. For example, the leader had been a common criminal: a rapist and a thief. He found a judge who was willing to misplace documents related to his case. That judge then became the chief justice of the Supreme Court. There were no constitutional objections, subsequently, when the leader asserted ever more power for his presidency.

and

It is hard to have all of the power and all of the money at the same time, because power comes from the state, and the state has to have a budget. If a leader steals so much from the people that the state goes bankrupt, then his power is diminished. Yanukovych actually faced this problem last year. And so, despite everything, he became vulnerable, in a very curious way. He needed someone to finance the immediate debts of the Ukrainian state so that his regime would not fall along with it.

Struggling to pay his debts last year, the Ukrainian leader had two options. The first was to begin trade cooperation with the European Union. No doubt an association agreement with the EU would have opened the way for loans. But it also would have meant the risk of the application of the rule of law within Ukraine. The other alternative was to take money from another authoritarian regime, the great neighbor to the east, the Russian Federation.

In December of last year, the leader of this neighboring authoritarian regime, Vladimir Putin, offered a deal. From Russia’s hard currency reserves accumulated by the sale of hydrocarbons he was willing to offer a loan of $15 billion, and lower the price of natural gas from Russia. Putin had a couple of little preoccupations, however.

Read the rest here.

Also by Dr. Snyder, The New York Review of Books article (available online now) from the upcoming March 20th issue, “Fascism, Russia, and Ukraine”.

And there’s more — a prescient (February 26th) article in  Foreign Policy by Dr. Snyder, well worth reading: “Dear Kremlin: Careful with Crimea: Why a Russian intervention in southern Ukraine could rebound against Moscow”.

Dr. Snyder is Bird White Housum Professor of History at Yale, teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in modern East European political history. For the 2013-14 academic year, he is the Philippe Roman Chair in History and International Affairs at the London School of Economics. Dr. Snyder authored The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999 (Yale Press, 2003), and helped the late Tony Judt with his posthumous Thinking the Twentieth Century (Penguin, 2012). More of Dr. Snyder’s writing at the NYRB, on Ukraine and other subjects, here.

Surviving the amphitheater

On the CBC radio show Q this morning (podcast here), host Jian Ghomeshi spoke with New York Magazine author Jennifer Senior on her recent article, “Why You Never Truly Leave High School”, which had been languishing on my list of things to read but jumped up immediately. I was intrigued to find a mention of home schooling in the article. Here’s an excerpt from the article (emphases mine):

Until the Great Depression, the majority of American adolescents didn’t even graduate from high school. Once kids hit their teen years, they did a variety of things: farmed, helped run the home, earned a regular wage. Before the banning of child labor, they worked in factories and textile mills and mines. All were different roads to adulthood; many were undesirable, if not outright Dickensian. But these disparate paths did arguably have one virtue in common: They placed adolescent children alongside adults. They were not sequestered as they matured. Now teens live in a biosphere of their own. In their recent book Escaping the Endless Adolescence, psychologists Joseph and Claudia Worrell Allen note that teenagers today spend just 16 hours per week interacting with adults and 60 with their cohort. One century ago, it was almost exactly the reverse.

Something happens when children spend so much time apart from adult company. They start to generate a culture with independent values and priorities. James Coleman, a renowned mid-century sociologist, was among the first to analyze that culture in his seminal 1961 work, The Adolescent Society, and he wasn’t very impressed. “Our society has within its midst a set of small teen-age societies,” he wrote, “which focus teen-age interests and attitudes on things far removed from adult responsibilities.” Yes, his words were prudish, but many parents have had some version of these misgivings ever since, especially those who’ve consciously opted not to send their kids into the Roman amphi­theater. (From the website of the National Home Education Network: “Ironically, one of the reasons many of us have chosen to educate our own is precisely this very issue of socialization! Children spending time with individuals of all ages more closely resembles real life than does a same-age school setting.”)

In fact, one of the reasons that high schools may produce such peculiar value systems is precisely because the people there have little in common, except their ages. “These are people in a large box without any clear, predetermined way of sorting out status,” says Robert Faris, a sociologist at UC Davis who’s spent a lot of time studying high-school aggression. “There’s no natural connection between them.” Such a situation, in his view, is likely to reward aggression. Absent established hierarchies and power structures (apart from the privileges that naturally accrue from being an upperclassman), kids create them on their own, and what determines those hierarchies is often the crudest common-­denominator stuff—looks, nice clothes, prowess in sports—­rather than the subtleties of personality. “Remember,” says Crosnoe, who spent a year doing research in a 2,200-student high school in Austin, “high schools are big. There has to be some way of sorting people socially. It’d be nice if kids could be captured by all their characteristics. But that’s not realistic.”

I’ve been intrigued by this subject since the kids reached school age and we started home schooling. I’ve read, digested, agreed with, and often recommended Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers by Doctors Neufeld and Mate. I also read and reviewed (briefly) The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen by Robert Epstein, a psychologist and former editor-in-chief of Pyschology Today magazine. Coleman’s The Adolescent Society (subtitled The Social Life of the Teenager and its Impact on Education sounds interesting, especially coming only six years after “Rebel without a Cause” and “Blackboard Jungle”.

Most of us who home school have heard from non-home schooling parents that it’s the everyday school interactions that “prepare” kids for real life. Senior writes,

Maybe, perversely, we should be grateful that high school prepares us for this life. The isolation, the shame, the aggression from those years—all of it readies us to cope. But one also has to wonder whether high school is to blame; whether the worst of adult America looks like high school because it’s populated by people who went to high school in America. We’re recapitulating the ugly folkways of this institution, and reacting with the same reflexes, because that’s where we were trapped, and shaped, and misshaped, during some of our most vulnerable years.

The most poignant part of the NYM article? “It’s also abundantly, poignantly clear that during puberty, kids have absolutely no clue how to assess character or read the behavior of others. … So much of what they think they know about others’ opinions of them is plain wrong.”

The article is well worth a read, if you have teens in the house, if you will have teens, or even if you were once one yourself. And, as the article points out, if there’s any chance you may be headed to a nursing home in the future. As sociologist Robert Faris points out, “It’s not adolescence that’s the problem. It’s the giant box of strangers.”

The full impact

Pulitzer and Griffin prize-winning poet and essayist Charles Simic has a moving and thought-provoking blog post at the New York Review Blog this week, “A Country without Libraries”, from which:

All across the United States, large and small cities are closing public libraries or curtailing their hours of operations. Detroit, I read a few days ago, may close all of its branches and Denver half of its own: decisions that will undoubtedly put hundreds of its employees out of work. When you count the families all over this country who don’t have computers or can’t afford Internet connections and rely on the ones in libraries to look for jobs, the consequences will be even more dire. People everywhere are unhappy about these closings, and so are mayors making the hard decisions. But with roads and streets left in disrepair, teachers, policemen and firemen being laid off, and politicians in both parties pledging never to raise taxes, no matter what happens to our quality of life, the outlook is bleak. “The greatest nation on earth,” as we still call ourselves, no longer has the political will to arrest its visible and precipitous decline and save the institutions on which the workings of our democracy depend.

I don’t know of anything more disheartening than the sight of a shut down library. No matter how modest its building or its holdings, in many parts of this country a municipal library is often the only place where books in large number on every imaginable subject can be found, where both grownups and children are welcome to sit and read in peace, free of whatever distractions and aggravations await them outside. Like many other Americans of my generation, I owe much of my knowledge to thousands of books I withdrew from public libraries over a lifetime. I remember the sense of awe I felt as a teenager when I realized I could roam among the shelves, take down any book I wanted, examine it at my leisure at one of the library tables, and if it struck my fancy, bring it home. Not just some thriller or serious novel, but also big art books and recordings of everything from jazz to operas and symphonies.

How Simic’s library made him a more interesting, and interested, person:

In Oak Park, Illinois, when I was in high school, I went to the library two or three times a week, though in my classes I was a middling student. Even in wintertime, I’d walk the dozen blocks to the library, often in rain or snow, carrying a load of books and records to return, trembling with excitement and anticipation at all the tantalizing books that awaited me there. The kindness of the librarians, who, of course, all knew me well, was also an inducement. They were happy to see me read so many books, though I’m sure they must have wondered in private about my vast and mystifying range of interests.

I’d check out at the same time, for instance, a learned book about North American insects and bugs, a Louis-Ferdinand Céline novel, the poems of Hart Crane, an anthology of American short stories, a book about astronomy and recordings by Bix Beiderbecke and Sidney Bechet. I still can’t get over the generosity of the taxpayers of Oak Park. It’s not that I started out life being interested in everything; it was spending time in my local, extraordinarily well-stacked public library that made me so.

Simic on those who downplay the importance of libraries in our communities, our society:

I heard some politician say recently that closing libraries is no big deal, since the kids now have the Internet to do their reading and school work. It’s not the same thing. As any teacher who recalls the time when students still went to libraries and read books could tell him, study and reflection come more naturally to someone bent over a book. Seeing others, too, absorbed in their reading, holding up or pressing down on different-looking books, some intimidating in their appearance, others inviting, makes one a participant in one of the oldest and most noble human activities. Yes, reading books is a slow, time-consuming, and often tedious process. In comparison, surfing the Internet is a quick, distracting activity in which one searches for a specific subject, finds it, and then reads about it—often by skipping a great deal of material and absorbing only pertinent fragments. Books require patience, sustained attention to what is on the page, and frequent rest periods for reverie, so that the meaning of what we are reading settles in and makes its full impact.

How many book lovers among the young has the Internet produced? Far fewer, I suspect, than the millions libraries have turned out over the last hundred years. Their slow disappearance is a tragedy, not just for those impoverished towns and cities, but for everyone everywhere terrified at the thought of a country without libraries.

Read the entire post here. Read the NYRblog here, where you can find posts by everyone from Margaret Atwood, Diane Ravitch, and  Mary Beard to Harold Bloom, Michael Chabon, and Joseph Lelyveld.

Support your local library.  Visit often, with your children. Get library cards for the whole family, and use them. Join your Friends of the Library group to help with much-needed fundraising. Take boxes of chocolates and plates of homemade cookies to your librarian and the staff. Join your local library board.  Become volunteer or library page at your branch. Read deeply and widely. Imagine your town, city, or neighborhood without a library.

*  *  *

Earlier Farm School handwringings about libraries:

Those pesky outdated and inaccurate books

Ray Bradbury on libraries

The latest book buzz, or, For whom the bell tolls

A hub for home schoolers

The return

We returned home late on February 14th, after about a month away.  While the rest of North America was celebrating Valentine’s Day with chocolate, cards, and crafts, we were driving west from Regina and just relieved to be home, from which we have been absent for four months since October, which seems crazy when I think about it.  My husband and kids have been absolute rocks to put up with all of this coming and going, emptying almost 50 years’ worth of furnishings and memories from a New York City apartment, getting on a first name basis with the staff at the nearby Salvation Army, and, the worst part of all, driving on the NJ turnpike from the Lincoln Tunnel to Jersey City, the trip’s true low spot.  We left last Wednesday, and made it to DuBois, PA the first night; our other stops each night, after driving about eight hours a day (except in North Dakota, where we had to keep driving past Fargo and Grand Forks until we finally, finally found a hotel room) were Danville, Illinois, Des Moines, Iowa; Grafton, ND; Regina, Saskatchewan; crossing the border into Canada north of Grafton south of Winnipeg, and home.

To counter the lows, which also included unhelpful apartment building staff (thanks to co-op board regulations and union regulations) and legal action taken by the landlord against us although my sister and I tried to explain that we had no interest either in the apartment or in prolonging the clearing out process (thank you co-op board and union), some of the highs:

* the vastness and beauty of the Canadian Shield, and the beauty of northwestern Ontario, especially Kenora, where we spent a night (all photos by the kids, often from a moving truck),

* some other sights we saw, including the Terry Fox statue in Thunder Bay, where he was forced to end his Marathon of Hope by the return of cancer; the Big Nickel in Sudbury, Ontario; and the CN Tower in Toronto,

* the magic of Niagara Falls in winter, when everything in the path of the mist is transformed into an ice sculpture,

* Le Roy, NY, the home of Jell-O, which I discovered just a few miles outside of LeRoy while reading through the AAA guidebook, because Davy has always been a keen fan of Jell-O.  We made it to the Le Roy museum just minutes before their 4 pm closing time, and the staff were gracious enough to let the kids have a quick look around the Jell-O gallery while I made a quick tour of the museum shop and made some purchases. Le Roy is a beautiful village in Genesee County, with lovely old houses

* AAA guidebooks and maps, which are all free when you join CAA/AAA, and the free online Triptik service, which was a great help in planning our route;

* meeting Susan Thomsen of Chicken Spaghetti after about five years of online friendship, because she was kind enough to let us park our 16′ cargo trailer in her driveway for more than a week, and during a crazy snowy month which shrank driveways considerably.  We also got to meet her husband, and son Junior (who quickly took in the boys and shared some Lego with them, much needed and appreciated after a week in a truck), and inlaws, who were all so warm and welcoming.  And we saw her chickens, and she and Laura talked about birds together. Thank you for everything, Susan!

* Laura’s and Tom’s bird walk with “Birding Bob” DeCandido, through a snowy and icy Central Park, where they saw an adult male Cooper’s hawk, brown creepers, a white-crowned sparrow, brown-headed cowbirds, red-wing blackbirds, and wood ducks.  Laura and Tom were the ones to spot a male yellow-bellied sapsucker.  Although Laura was disappointed not to spot the celebrated varied thrush, she was pleased with all the other birds.

* the kindness and pleasantness of motel clerks to NYC and back, despite our lack of reservations, and modern m/hotel thinking that makes a swimming pool, free wifi in rooms, and free hot breakfasts the new standard.  A special thank you to the woman at the Travelodge in Kenora who let me use the coin-operated laundry well past the 9 pm deadline to wash clothes after Davy lost his breakfast outside of Regina; and to front desk staff at the AmericInn in Des Moines, Iowa, who gave me two rooms with queen beds for $50 each, so that the kids each had a separate bed for the first time since leaving home.  If we are ever in your neighborhoods again, we will be back.

* the kindness, pleasantness, and professional manner of staff working at truck stops throughout the U.S. Remarkable people who probably don’t receive enough thanks and appreciation;

* being in NYC and being able to go to Barnes & Noble on the publication day of  the latest Flavia de Luce book, A Red Herring without Mustard by Canadian Alan Bradley.  I bought it for Laura who started reading it as soon as possible, and it’s at the top of my “to be read” pile now.  And now that we’re home, I’ve ordered, from the library, the Book Depository, Amazon.ca, and Chapters.ca, for my own reading, which at the moment seem to be limited to escapism (of the genteel and also the more murderous sort); sentimentality and nostalgia about leaving New York, the apartment which my parents had lived in since I was born, my parents; and planning our new house*:

* lobsters at Fairway, which are inexpensive and which the staff will steam and crack for you.  It was Laura’s idea, and made for a delicious dinner on one of our last nights in the apartment;

* our overnight in DuBois, Pennsylvania, which I didn’t know until our arrival was the hometown of Tom Mix — my father would have laughed;

* our afternoon visit in Moline, Illinois to the John Deere Pavilion in the city’s downtown and to Deere’s world headquarters, which also had a nice display. Laura found mute swans swimming in the lake near the building.

* the beautiful barns, graineries, and corn cribs in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota

I’m sure I’ve forgotten some things, and I know the kids have more pictures, so I may have to have another post.  I just wanted to post a bit about the journey, and say thank you to

* which will be a combination of these two house plans, this one for the outside details, and this one for the inside floor plan (though it needs lots more rejiggering), especially on the main floor.  Work to begin in late May, and all I can say is that after having a new house as our five-year plan for the past 17 years (oy…) and everything we have gone through in the past 18 months, I am beyond excited to plan the new house.  Even better is the fact that we decided the other year to keep our current house, so we get to live in it during the building process and not live in a trailer or  a shipping container.

Your own private writing seminar

with John McPhee, via the Spring issue (now online, thank goodness) of The Paris Review.

For example, the importance of using an outline, from the interview with Mr. McPhee by Peter Hessler, “The Art of Nonfiction No. 3”:

INTERVIEWER
Where did this method come from?

MCPHEE
It goes back to Olive McKee at Princeton High School, and the structural outline that we had to have before doing any piece of writing. It came up again when I worked at Time. My first cover story just floored me. It was five thousand words, and I really struggled with the mass of material. I was pretty unhappy. It was just a mess—a mess of paper, I didn’t know where anything was. So I went back to Olive McKee and the outline, sorting through this matrix of material, separating it into components and dealing with one component at a time.

INTERVIEWER
Is there ever a risk of it becoming too mechanical?

MCPHEE
It sounds very mechanical, but the effect is the exact opposite. What it does is free you to write. It liberates you to write. You’ve got all the notes there; you come in in the morning and you read through what you’re going to try to write, and there’s not that much to read. You’re not worried about the other ninety-five percent, it’s off in a folder somewhere. It’s you and the keyboard. You get away from the mechanics through this mechanical means. The spontaneity comes in the writing, the phraseology, the telling of the story—after you’ve put all this stuff aside. You can read through those relevant notes in a relatively short period of time, and you know that’s what you want to be covering.

Read the rest of the interview here.

Also in the Spring issue, Ray Bradbury interviewed on the Art of Fiction, by Sam Weller, from which,

INTERVIEWER
You’re self-educated, aren’t you?

BRADBURY
Yes, I am. I’m completely library educated. I’ve never been to college. I went down to the library when I was in grade school in Waukegan, and in high school in Los Angeles, and spent long days every summer in the library. I used to steal magazines from a store on Genesee Street, in Waukegan, and read them and then steal them back on the racks again. That way I took the print off with my eyeballs and stayed honest. I didn’t want to be a permanent thief, and I was very careful to wash my hands before I read them. But with the library, it’s like catnip, I suppose: you begin to run in circles because there’s so much to look at and read. And it’s far more fun than going to school, simply because you make up your own list and you don’t have to listen to anyone. When I would see some of the books my kids were forced to bring home and read by some of their teachers, and were graded on—well, what if you don’t like those books?

I am a librarian. I discovered me in the library. I went to find me in the library. Before I fell in love with libraries, I was just a six-year-old boy. The library fueled all of my curiosities, from dinosaurs to ancient Egypt. When I graduated from high school in 1938, I began going to the library three nights a week. I did this every week for almost ten years and finally, in 1947, around the time I got married, I figured I was done. So I graduated from the library when I was twenty-seven. I discovered that the library is the real school.

INTERVIEWER
You have said that you don’t believe in going to college to learn to write. Why is that?

BRADBURY
You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James? They may like John Irving, for instance, who’s the bore of all time. A lot of the people whose work they’ve taught in the schools for the last thirty years, I can’t understand why people read them and why they are taught. The library, on the other hand, has no biases. The information is all there for you to interpret. You don’t have someone telling you what to think. You discover it for yourself.

Read the rest of Mr. Bradbury’s interview, especially on why he refused to write the screenplay for War and Peace, here. (I wrote about Mr. Bradbury and libraries last year here.)

And don’t miss the Review’s interview index, with gems from 1953 to the present.

*  *  *

Books by John McPhee, wonderful wonderful stuff and the perfect living books to include in your home school studies with older children, especially for science.  If you have to choose only one, make it Annals of the Former World, Mr. McPhee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of four books on the geological history of North America, published in a single volume in 1998.

The Idle Parent

I’ve been waiting to read some North American reviews of Idler Tom Hodgkinson’s The Idle Parent: Why Laid-Back Parents Raise Happier and Healthier Kids, finally published on this side of the pond in May by Tarcher, but they’ve been pretty thin on the ground.

I did find a mini review in the May-June 2010 issue of Utne Reader, where Keith Goetzman wrote,

Most parenting books lack three elements that The Idle Parent has in spades: an intellectual bent, a distrust of the status quo, and a robust sense of humor. Despite the title, this book celebrates not laziness but the opposite, a deep engagement with the world outside of plastic toys, mind-numbing television, and craven capitalism. Author Tom Hodgkinson borrows heavily from John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in both words and ideas, grounding his modern alt-parent outlook in the classics.

but that was about it.

I’ve been intrigued by Tom Hodgkinson’s idling for a while now (see June 2008’s Tonic and Toast) and was intrigued last year by the idea of his book on raising children, out in the UK in Spring 2009 with the original subtitle “Why Less Means More When Raising Kids” (I’m a big believer in less is more when it comes to raising and teaching kids), and excerpted in Slate shortly thereafter; unofficial subtitle, by the bye, is “Parents first”. From which,

This last summer holiday, quite remarkably, we found ourselves lying in bed till 10 or 11 on several occasions, and this with children aged 3, 6, and 8 in the house. Sometimes, agreed, they would come and wake us by doing horrible things, jumping on our legs, “rampaging” as we called it, and hitting one another. But after we’d chucked them out a few times, they began to look after themselves. They are all quite capable of pouring milk on cereal, and Arthur, the oldest, can make tea and porridge.

Children actually have an inbuilt self-protective sense that we destroy by over-cosseting. They become independent not so much by careful training but in part simply as a result of parental laziness. Last Sunday morning, Victoria and I lay in bed till half past 10 with hangovers. What a result! And the more often you do this, the better, because the children’s resourcefulness will improve, resulting in less nagging, less of that awful “Mum-eeeeeeeh” noise they make. They can play and they will play.

So lying in bed for as long as possible is not the act of an irresponsible parent. It is precisely the opposite: It is good to look after yourself, and it is good to teach the children to fend for themselves. Our offspring will be strong, bold, fearless, much in demand wherever they go! Capable, cheerful, happy.

I got rather distracted by gardening last month, and pretty much forgot about more reviews of the book, not to convince me of the book’s merits but to see how Tom’s parenting ideas would be received in the United States.  And then a friend, another former New Yorker, sent me a link to a recent New York Magazine cover story on why parents hate parenting,

Before urbanization, children were viewed as economic assets to their parents. If you had a farm, they toiled alongside you to maintain its upkeep; if you had a family business, the kids helped mind the store. But all of this dramatically changed with the moral and technological revolutions of modernity. As we gained in prosperity, childhood came increasingly to be viewed as a protected, privileged time, and once college degrees became essential to getting ahead, children became not only a great expense but subjects to be sculpted, stimulated, instructed, groomed. (The Princeton sociologist Viviana Zelizer describes this transformation of a child’s value in five ruthless words: “Economically worthless but emotionally priceless.”) Kids, in short, went from being our staffs to being our bosses. [Remember the part about “Parents first”?]

Which explains why Tom’s book hasn’t made much of a splash.  Because nowadays a good many North American parents are running around rather than idling, putting themselves last.  In addition to abandoning the (very helpful) component of benign neglect, parenting has become professionalized, as Jennifer Love writes in the NYM piece,

When people wait to have children, they’re also bringing different sensibilities to the enterprise. They’ve spent their adult lives as professionals, believing there’s a right way and a wrong way of doing things; now they’re applying the same logic to the family-expansion business, and they’re surrounded by a marketplace that only affirms and reinforces this idea. “And what’s confusing about that,” says Alex Barzvi, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU medical school, “is that there are a lot of things that parents can do to nurture social and cognitive development. There are right and wrong ways to discipline a child. But you can’t fall into the trap of comparing yourself to others and constantly concluding you’re doing the wrong thing.”

Compare the two on the subject of “choices”.  Ms. Senior writes,

A few generations ago, people weren’t stopping to contemplate whether having a child would make them happy. Having children was simply what you did. And we are lucky, today, to have choices about these matters. But the abundance of choices—whether to have kids, when, how many—may be one of the reasons parents are less happy.

And then there’s Tom Hodgkinson,

Oh, how we whinge, we pampered parents of the West, attacked by choices, condemned to strive always to do the right thing, to get it right. We complain about money; we complain about lack of sleep; we complain about our partners, our co-workers, the newspapers, social networking sites, the government. We stamp our feet and shout at the usurers in the banking corporations and the swindlers and avaricious cheats on Wall Street, but most of all we complain about our own children.

The first few months after the birth of the first baby are fairly blissful. Then the competing elements of the artificial constructions that we grandly call our “lives” become locked in mortal combat. We try to “get the balance right” between unenjoyable and enjoyable activities. But we are moaning about the very lives that we have created for ourselves. We took that job, we bought that house, we chose that boyfriend or girlfriend, we had that baby, we bought that car, we live in this city, we live in this country. We were free to go and retire alone in Goa and live on the beach for the rest of our lives, childless and free. But we chose not to do that. And then we complained!

This excerpt on choices and complaining/whingeing is one of the favorite pieces I’ve read from the book,

Whingeing is the adult’s mirror image of the child’s whining. When they hear us whingeing about things, they assume that it’s normal to complain, and therefore they whine. Indeed, we encourage them to whine and complain by continually probing them for their judgment on things: “Did you have a good time? Was it fun? Is it a good book? What did you think of the film? How was school?'”

It’s what the ancient Chinese called the “discriminating mind,” the false setting up of good things and bad things. This discriminating mind is really a way of making children into consumers, because consumers are the biggest whingers of all, always ready to fire off complaints and always ready to buy better products.

We are not obliged to have children. We choose to have them. Now, instead of whingeing and moaning and wishing that things would somehow change, take my advice and learn to say “Yes!” to your kids. This very simple idea was suggested to me by … John Lloyd [the producer of Black Adder and Spitting Image]. He said that he had noticed in his own life how much he was fobbing off his kids: from the early days, when he would linger late at the office because that seemed preferable to facing the mewling infant and general chaos of home, to later, when the kids were a little older, when he would become angry if disturbed by a child in the middle of a phone call.

I have noticed this tendency in myself: Sometimes I am staring at my computer screen and a child comes into my study and asks to play a game: “Will you play Tractor Ted with me?” Self-importantly, I sigh and say something along the lines of: “I’m working” or worse, a querulous: “Can’t you see I’m working?” The child persists for a while and then gives up. I then look at my screen again and wonder whether checking the Amazon ranking of my last book can really be considered to be important work. Can it not be left for five minutes?

Lloyd pondered these questions and decided to start saying “Yes” to his children when he was on the phone or working and they asked him for something. He realized too that their repeated requests and irritating behavior toward him were a sort of demand for recompense for earlier love starvation. So he would put the phone down and go and play with the child. Isn’t this rather a lot of work for the idle parent? Not really. The child will be delighted with its five minutes of mucking about. And in any case, it’s actually a pleasure for the parent. After all, you’ll have plenty of time to work and stare at the screen as they grow older and less interested in you.

Read the rest here, which includes the Lloyd Plan for Happy, Stress-Free Parenting.

Should you need to apply some “less is more” to raising children, Tom has a website for the book, “The Idle Parent: How to Enjoy Family Life: Tips, Discussion, Resources, Links”, which includes lots of excerpts, such as “Discover how to intersperse loafing with Latin”. And really, if the point isn’t enjoying life as a family, what it is it?

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By the way, over at The Idler’s main website, you can learn about The Idler’s Academy of Philosophy, Husbandry and Merriment (motto: Libertas per Cultum, or “freedom through education”).  You will also learn about such intriguing things as Latin tea towels, which I think I want.  For the children to do the washing up, of course. And practicing their Latin after dinner won’t hurt, either.

High end

The great William Zinsser, in a recent “Zinsser on Friday” column/blog post, “Life and Work”, over at The American Scholar,

I’ve never been–perhaps to my shame–a citizen of writing. I don’t belong to writers’ organizations, or attend writers’ talks and panels, or lunch with publishing potentates. I don’t hang out with writers. Writers tend to be not as interesting as they think. What they mainly want to talk about is their own writing, and they also have a ton of grievances, their conversation quick to alight on the perfidy of publishers, the lassitude of editors and agents, and the myopia of critics who reviewed–or didn’t review–their last book.

I’m a lone craftsman, not unlike a potter or a cabinetmaker, shaping and reshaping my materials to create an object that pleases me–nobody else–and when it’s done I send it forth into the world. I don’t have an agent. I never show my writing to other writers; their agenda is not my agenda. For the objective judgment and emotional support that every writer needs I depend on the individual editors of my books and magazine articles–fellow craftsmen–and on a few trusted friends. …

It may seem perverse that I compare my writing to plumbing, an occupation not regarded as high-end. But to me all work is equally honorable, all crafts an astonishment when they are performed with skill and self-respect. Just as I go to work every day with my tools, which are words, the plumber arrives with his kit of wrenches and washers, and afterward the pipes have been so adroitly fitted together that they don’t leak. I don’t want any of my sentences to leak. The fact that someone can make water come out of a faucet on the 10th floor strikes me as a feat no less remarkable than the construction of a clear declarative sentence.

Read the entire piece here.

Find the Zinsser on Friday archive here.

Find a list of William Zinnser’s books here, and read them.  He is one of the best writing teachers around, for the price of a book, and, nowadays, a rare fount of common sense.  As his Zinsser on Friday pieces prove.

Carriers of arts, and letters

Rebecca Mead, in her latest comment piece, “Learning by Degrees” in the current issue of The New Yorker, writes,

The skip-college advocates’ contention—that, with the economic downturn, a college degree may not be the best investment—has its appeal. Given the high cost of attending college in the United States, the question of whether a student is getting his or her money’s worth tends to loom large with whoever is paying the tuition fees and the meal-plan bills. Even so, one needn’t necessarily be a liberal-arts graduate to regard as distinctly and speciously utilitarian the idea that higher education is, above all, a route to economic advancement. Unaddressed in that calculus is any question of what else an education might be for: to nurture critical thought; to expose individuals to the signal accomplishments of humankind; to develop in them an ability not just to listen actively but to respond intelligently.

All these are habits of mind that are useful for an engaged citizenry, and from which a letter carrier, no less than a college professor, might derive a sense of self-worth. For who’s to say in what direction a letter carrier’s thoughts might, or should, turn, regardless of the job’s demands? Consider Stephen Law, a professor of philosophy at the University of London, who started his working life delivering mail for the British postal service, began reading works of philosophy in his spare time, decided that he’d like to know more, and went on to study the discipline at City University, in London, and at Oxford University. (A philosophy graduate in the Class of 2010, by the way, stands to earn an average starting salary of forty thousand dollars a year, rising to a lifetime median of seventy-six thousand. Not exactly statistician money, but something to think about.) Indeed, if even a professionally oriented college degree is no longer a guarantee of easily found employment, an argument might be made in favor of a student’s pursuing an education that is less, rather than more, pragmatic. (More theology, less accounting.) That way, regardless of each graduate’s ultimate path, all might be qualified to be carriers of arts and letters, of which the nation can never have too many.

Read the entire piece here.

Of course, one nice think about home schooling is that you can start early nurturing critical thought, exposing the small individuals you love to the signal accomplishments of humankind; and developing that ability to respond intelligently.  You also have the chance to teach them basic economics, that expenses should not exceed income, so that they don’t find themselves with an enormous, unpayable bill at the end of four years; and also marketing 101, that there are wonderful professors to be found at institutions without snazzy T-shirts.

Lust for lit

Micah McCrary on “A Lust for Lit: On the Romance and Appeal of the Used Book” in the March 2010 online journal Bookslut,

Why do people, especially in these times, like to buy used books over new ones? Is it price? People do tend to pinch pennies when in the middle of a recession.

Fred Bass, owner of the Strand Book Store on Broadway and 12th Street in New York, has his own opinion on why people prefer to purchase used books, stating that price is only a part of it (Strand themselves sell used books between 50 and 90 percent off the list price). “Secondly,” he adds, “because the books are very often not available at new bookstores; the only place you can buy them is at a used bookstore — such as the Strand. Also, there are those customers who enjoy thinking about the readers who held the same book before them — that the book had been loved by someone else.”

McCrary also talks with Chicago Tribune cultural critic Julia Keller, who says used books

“have a special mystery swirling around them: the mystery over who has read them before, and why. For me, a used book is a sort of launching pad for romantic speculations about the book’s past. Marginal notes are like clues in a detective story: Who went here first? What were they thinking about? What was going on in their lives? And the book itself — where has it been? One can imagine strange ports of call and mad adventures.”

And she’s completely right. There is a magic to a used book. A certain appeal. It’s about history. It’s about character. It’s about finding a book on the shelf that tells a story of its own outside of the printed pages within it. After all, whether it’s new or used, it’s the story that we buy the book for in the first place. “I think we love both,” Keller adds, “the new and the old. New books are invigorating, but old books — used books — are complicated and mysterious and compelling.”

Read the rest here.

“The King Canute playbook”

Environmentalist Bill McKibben, who is also scholar in residence at my old college and co-founder of 350.org writes in the February 25 issue of The Nation,

Twenty-one years ago, in 1989, I wrote what many have called the first book for a general audience on global warming. One of the more interesting reviews came from the Wall Street Journal. It was a mixed and judicious appraisal. “The subject,” the reviewer said, “is important, the notion is arresting, and Mr. McKibben argues convincingly.” And that was not an outlier: around the same time, the first President Bush announced that he planned to “fight the greenhouse effect with the White House effect.”

I doubt that’s what the Journal will say about my next book when it comes out in a few weeks, and I know that no GOP presidential contender would now dream of acknowledging that human beings are warming the planet. Sarah Palin is currently calling climate science “snake oil,” and last week the Utah legislature, in a move straight out of the King Canute playbook, passed a resolution condemning “a well-organized and ongoing effort to manipulate global temperature data in order to produce a global warming outcome” on a nearly party-line vote.

And here’s what’s odd. In 1989, I could fit just about every scientific study on climate change on top of my desk. The science was still thin. If my reporting made me think it was nonetheless convincing, many scientists were not yet prepared to agree.

Now, you could fill the Superdome with climate-change research data. (You might not want to, though, since Hurricane Katrina demonstrated just how easy it was to rip holes in its roof.) Every major scientific body in the world has produced reports confirming the peril. All fifteen of the warmest years on record have come in the two decades that have passed since 1989. In the meantime, the Earth’s major natural systems have all shown undeniable signs of rapid flux: melting Arctic and glacial ice, rapidly acidifying seawater and so on.

Somehow, though, the onslaught against the science of climate change has never been stronger, and its effects, at least in the United States, never more obvious: fewer Americans believe humans are warming the planet. At least partly as a result, Congress feels little need to consider global-warming legislation, much less pass it; and as a result of that failure, progress towards any kind of international agreement on climate change has essentially ground to a halt.

Climate-Change Denial as an O.J. Moment

The campaign against climate science has been enormously clever, and enormously effective. It’s worth trying to understand how they’ve done it. The best analogy, I think, is to the O.J. Simpson trial, an event that’s begun to recede in our collective memory. For those who were conscious in 1995, however, I imagine that just a few names will make it come back to life. Kato Kaelin, anyone? Lance Ito?

Read the rest of “The Attack on Climate-Change Science” here.

McKibben’s new book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, comes out next month.


Phrase of the day

“the angry and puritanical razorback hog that is the American Internet-reading public”

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Read more here, though about home schooling rather than hogs, in Andrew O’Hehir’s current Salon article, “Confessions of a home-schooler”.  If the names of Andrew and his wife Leslie Kauffman sound familiar to you, you may have read this New York Times article on home schooling last year.

The hog, by the way, is in fine form in the comments section.

Science for all, and all for science

I’m still catching up on my online reading, so I only just saw Bob Thompson’s especially thorough August 1 piece at Make: on choosing a microscope, along with exciting news from the Make: folks,

We’re in the process of working on a new area of Make: Online that we’re really excited about. It’s called the Make: Science Room. We’ll have a full announcement and launch in a few weeks.

Bob Thompson is the author of the Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders: From Novice to Master Observer, as well as the Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture, which we like very much and which I’ve written about here and here. To go with the home chemistry book, Bob maintains the good HomeChemLab website.

Here’s to an imminent launch of the Science Room!

Today

On the radio: CBC Radio’s “Sunday Edition”, finally back from a long summer holiday, featured an interview with Winifred Gallagher, author of the new Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, who writes, “Few things are as important to your quality of life as your choices about how to spend the precious resource of your free time.”  I was busy concentrating on the discussion and so didn’t write anything down, but afterwards found something similar from her New York Times interview in May,

 

“Multitasking is a myth,” Ms. Gallagher said. “You cannot do two things at once. The mechanism of attention is selection: it’s either this or it’s that.” She points to calculations that the typical person’s brain can process 173 billion bits of information over the course of a lifetime.

“People don’t understand that attention is a finite resource, like money,” she said. “Do you want to invest your cognitive cash on endless Twittering or Net surfing or couch potatoing? You’re constantly making choices, and your choices determine your experience, just as William James said.”

During her cancer treatment several years ago, Ms. Gallagher said, she managed to remain relatively cheerful by keeping in mind James’s mantra as well as a line from Milton: “The mind is its own place, and in itself/ Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.”

“When I woke up in the morning,” Ms. Gallagher said, “I’d ask myself: Do you want to lie here paying attention to the very good chance you’ll die and leave your children motherless, or do you want to get up and wash your face and pay attention to your work and your family and your friends? Hell or heaven — it’s your choice.”

On the streets of Canada:  the Terry Fox annual run.  Laura sang O Canada before the run, and she’s pleased and proud to have been asked.  Terry Fox was 18 in 1977 when he was diagnosed with bone cancer, and his right leg amputated six inches above the knee.  He decided to begin a “Marathon of Hope” across Canada to raise money for cancer research, one of the first such cross-country charity efforts.  He began his marathon in April 1980 in St. Johns, Newfoundland.  But after 143 days and 3,339 miles, of running, Terry Fox had to stop on September 1, at Thunder Bay, Ontario, because the cancer had reappeared in his lungs. Terry was forced to stop running outside of Thunder Bay, Ontario because cancer had appeared in his lungs. He died 10 months later at the age of 22. But the marathon continues.  Terry Fox would have been 50 this year, the same age as Tom.

 On the Plains of Abraham: This weekend marks the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Quebec in the Seven Years’ War (aka the French and Indian War).  The province weaseled out of a planned re-enactment of the Battle when separatists threatened to disrupt the proceedings, which I wrote about here back in March. Then the province weaseled out of the replacement activity, a weekend “Moulin a paroles”, a 24-hour readathon of 140 documents about the province’s history since 1759, because one of the documents was the FLQ’s 1970 manifesto. Much scope for all sides in rewriting history in Quebec and making a mockery of the provincial motto, Je me souviensFrom yesterday’s editorial in The Globe & Mail,

If it wasn’t for the controversy, tomorrow’s 250th anniversary of the Battle on the Plains of Abraham might go entirely unnoticed. There have been no stamps, no coins and almost no recognition from Ottawa that anything important might have happened on Sept. 13, 1759.

This official disregard for the Battle of Quebec, born of a fear of angering a few perpetually aggrieved separatists, is unfortunate. Not only does it represent a crucial moment in the modern history of Canada but, more importantly, it marks the birth of the great Canadian spirit of cultural accommodation.

From a purely historical perspective, it is impossible to ignore the significance of the battle. It settled, once and for all, the question of which crown would control Canada. Further, the cost of winning the war proved so onerous for the British treasury that it necessitated a host of new taxes on American colonies — setting in motion the events of 1776. The trajectories of both Canada and the United States were determined that day.

More than the historical fact of Canada was decided on the battlefield, however. Our character was defined there as well.

In draft articles of capitulation drawn up before the battle, the victor, Major-General James Wolfe, sketched a new model of British occupation. Despite his reputation as a brutal military leader, Maj.-Gen. Wolfe was prepared to preserve Quebec’s unique cultural character and population.

“There shall be no innovations in religious matters or any interruption of Divine Service, as it is now preach’d in the Colony,” he wrote. Such generosity had not been found at the fall of Louisbourg a year earlier, where the British razed the city and expelled the citizenry. Maj-Gen. Wolfe’s more liberal position has proven enduring. It defined the official surrender of Quebec City after his death, as well as the capitulation of Montreal a year later. It found its way into the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and, later, Canada’s Constitution.

This was not an arrangement inspired entirely by generosity. The British army hoped to avoid the hassle of becoming an occupying force. Co-operation was far more appealing than further confrontation. After the battle, French hospitals served the wounded from both sides, with bilingual British soldiers conscripted as orderlies.

Of course not every French habitant willingly accepted British rule, just as today many Quebec nationalists still cling to an emotional connection with the Conquest, in spite of more rational arguments.

Nonetheless, the events of Sept. 13, 1759 and its immediate aftermath marked the origin of minority rights and religious freedom in Canada, as well as the acknowledgment that governing this diverse country requires an appreciation for what may be possible, given the circumstances. It is certainly cause for commemoration.

You can help commemorate the battle by watching the 1957 National Film Board production, Wolfe and Montcalmhere; watching the CBC documentary Battle for a Continent; and by reading the current issue of the Canadian history magazine, The Walrus. In his introduction to this month’s issue, Editor John MacFarlane writes,

The history of Canada is, for many Canadians, terra incognita. In far too many of the country’s high schools, the subject is now, like music and drama, an “option.” This would explain the Angus Reid survey in which 61 percent of Canadians between the ages of 18 and 24 were unable to distinguish between Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Laurence Olivier. And yet even these poor souls — young people who probably could not recall the date of Confederation (1867), the name of the last province admitted (Newfoundland), or the year we repatriated the Constitution from Great Britain (1982) — even they might know a thing or two about the Battle of the Plains of Abraham.

What took place on September 13, 1759, on a plateau overlooking the St. Lawrence River, upstream from Quebec City, is an iconic moment in the country’s historical narrative: literally the beginning of the story of Canada. Britain and France were vying for North America; Wolfe attacked Montcalm; Wolfe prevailed, although both generals were mortally wounded; the British went on to capture Montreal; New France was dead. But there is so much more. I was never taught, for instance, that Montcalm, badly outnumbered, joined the battle without waiting for reinforcements. Or that Wolfe, who had already led the British to a great victory at Louisbourg, had numerous detractors, including the Duke of Newcastle, who told King George II that Wolfe was mad. The king is said to have responded, “Mad, is he? Then I hope he will bite some of my other generals.”

The battle’s rich narrative detail was not lost on Helen Humphreys as she set out to reimagine it on this its 250th anniversary (“On the Plains of Abraham,1759,” page 22). … She is a brilliant writer — The New Yorker has called her work lyrical — and an obvious choice for this assignment. While she was born in England, where schoolchildren are more familiar with the Battle of Agincourt than the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, she came to Canada when she was three and has emerged as one of the country’s foremost creators of historical fiction. …

We asked Humphreys to write the story after learning that the National Battlefields Commission, a federal agency, had cancelled plans to mark the anniversary with a re-enactment. Quebec sovereignists had threatened to disrupt the event, calling it “federalist propaganda.” The commission’s capitulation illustrates what is wrong with the teaching of history in Canada — namely, that we would rather not teach it if there is a chance that doing so might cause offence. This, as the historian Jack Granatstein laments, diminishes us as a nation. You are entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts. The outcome of the battle on the Plains of Abraham 250 years ago is a matter of historical record. What is up for debate is its meaning.

Read the rest of Mr. MacFarlane’s introduction here, and read Helen Humphreys‘ story of the battle here.  You can also read the aforementioned Jack Granatstein on “How We Teach History Matters Most”. For more on the subject, get his book, Who Killed Canadian History?

Going back to Mannahatta

“On a hot, fair day, the twelfth of September, 1609, Henry Hudson and a small crew of Dutch and English sailors rode the flood tide up a great estuarine river, past a long, wooded island at latitude 40° 48′ north, on the edge of the North American continent.  Locally, the island was called Mannahatta, or ‘Island of Many Hills.’ One day the island would become as densely filled with people and avenues as it once was with trees and streams, but not that afternoon.  That afternoon the island still hummed with green wonders.  New York City, through an accident, was about to be born.”

Eric W. Sanderson, Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York  City (Harry N. Abrams, 2009)

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This year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Henry Hudson in New York. Before Henry sailed into the harbor, the river was known by the local Lenape as Muhheakantuck, “the river that flows both ways”. Having grown up a block and a bit from the river, I’m delighted to offer a bit of a round-up to celebrate the occasion.

First up, the official Hudson 400 website:

Albany, and the entire Hudson River Valley region of New York State, have already begun celebrating a significant anniversary. The year 2009 officially marks the 400th anniversary of our European founding by Dutch explorer, Henry Hudson. The Hudson 400 celebration offers a wonderful opportunity to explore the Dutch heritage of the Hudson Valley and to celebrate with special events on the Hudson River, along the shores of the river, and at historic sites throughout the region.

While the official motto is “Celebration of Discovery”, the website does note that

For centuries before the arrival of the Europeans, Algonkian-speaking Native Americans lived along the Hudson River. In the Upper Hudson Valley, it was the Mohican people who greeted Henry Hudson, as he anchored his ship the Half Moon in this fertile river valley in 1609.

There is also the official Henry Hudson 400: Amsterdam & New York 2009 website, featuring the pages “Henry Who?” and “Why Celebrate?” From the second,

In many ways Manhattan, not Plymouth Rock, is where America, and all that it represents, began. Following Hudson’s voyage, the Dutch Republic, the most progressive and commercially powerful force in the 17th century established the settlement of New Amsterdam in 1624.

At its peak, fully half the residents of New Amsterdam were from other nations, making it a true multicultural enterprise, a lively, liberal, idea-driven business community united in its focus on trade as the abiding source of the common good.

So it can be said that, from the start, New York was then what it has become today, a working symbol of freedom based on competence and respect, diversity and tolerance. The progressive connections between New York and its Dutch progenitor, Amsterdam, were and are profound.

The 400th anniversary of Hudson’s voyage comes during the age of globalization and offers a timely opportunity to celebrate and reinvigorate this vital transatlantic connection. Hudson’s discovery, and the achievements of Dutch businessmen in the years following, embody the unshakeable belief in new horizons, spirit of enterprise and diversity of views that remain defining characteristics of New York. Festival events will stimulate fresh understanding of this correlation, one that stimulates the city’s expansive cultural and trade developments to this day.

And then there’s the NY400 website, home of Holland on the Hudson, also known as the official website of the Government of The Kingdom of the Netherlands for the celebrations of NY400.  As part of the festivities, New Amsterdam Village has been set up in Bowling Green Park, from September 4-14. The village

consists of traditional Dutch canal houses, a windmill and a stage set up on an open, outside area. In the village some of the best known Dutch agricultural products and foods can be sampled and bought, including some our famous cheeses, herring, dollar pancakes also known as poffertjes, sirup wafels (stroopwafels), cut flowers, flower bulbs and green roofs.

The Village has a historic component as well: traditional crafts are shown, such as wooden shoes making, glass blowing and a floral workshop. You can also rent orange Dutch bicycles for free there, to bike to the different NY400 Week events throughout the city.

In addition to the New Amsterdam Village, there’s also the New Amsterdam Market on South Street, a new public market near the site of New Amsterdam’s first market of 1642.  The season begins this Sunday, September 13, Harbor Day, with these vendors planning to attend. Dates for the rest of the year are October 25, November 22, and December 20.

The Half Moon and New Netherland Museum: Albany, New York’s New Netherland Museum operates the Half Moon, a reproduction of the ship that Hudson sailed in 1609 from Holland to the New World; the website is available in English and in Dutch. For those who can’t make it to Albany, you can take a virtual tour of both the Half Moon and the colony of New Netherland.

The Albany Institute of History & Art is featuring the yearlong exhibit, “Hudson River Panorama: 400 Years of History, Art, and Culture”, from February 7, 2009 to January 3, 2010.  From the exhibit’s webpage,

This unprecedented year-long exhibition will commemorate Henry Hudson’s 1609 exploration of the river that bears his name, and the remarkable narrative of the people, events, and ideas that have shaped this magnificent region.

Featuring hundreds of artworks, artifacts, interactive displays, and rare archival documents from the Albany Institute’s renowned collections, “Hudson River Panorama” encompasses five major themes relating the many agricultural, industrial, and cultural influences of this historic waterway: Community and Settlement; Natural History and Environment; Transportation; Trade, Commerce, and Industry; Culture and Symbol.

The Albany Institute not surprisingly also has a collection of Hudson River School Art, “The Landscape that Defined America”, with more than “60 paintings and oil sketches by first and second generation Hudson River School artists, and over 100 sketches, sketchbooks, letters, photographs and other related materials”, by Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, Jasper Cropsey, James Hart, William Hart, John Kensett, Homer D. Martin, David Johnson, John Casilear, and George Inness.

In connection with the Hudson anniversary, the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx offers a new installation by Holland’s leading garden designers, Piet Oudolf and Jacqueline van der Kloet, the Seasonal Walk, which has its own website and which The New York Times‘ garden writer Anne Raver recently wrote about here. From her article,

Mr. Oudolf is the Dutch horticulturist who masterminded more than five acres of perennial gardens at the Battery, at the tip of Manhattan. There, and here in the Bronx, he teamed up with Jacqueline van der Kloet to arrange and time thousands of bulbs and other plants that bloom from spring to late fall. Observing this latest collaboration unfold from week to week is a revelation for any gardener.

You can now plant the new orange “Henry Hudson” tulip, which was formally introduced on Wednesday by Princess Maxima of the Netherlands, at Battery Park. For more information, visit www.bulb.com (more here for educators, non-Hudson related).  Canada gave the Hudson his own flower, the hardy white rugosa in the Explorer series, in 1976, thanks to the efforts of Dr. Felicitas Svejda at Ottawa’s Central Experimental Farm.

Still in the garden, don’t miss Fritz Haeg’s Lenape Edible Estate in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. The garden, planted in June, “provides a view back to the lives of the Lenape people, how they lived off the land on the island of Mannahatta, from the native edible plants and the mounded plantings of bean, corn and squash, also know as ‘three sisters’.”  Harvest is planned for Monday, September 14 with a free public reception from 6-8 pm.

Wave Hill, the public garden along the Hudson River in the Bronx, presents the art exhibit “The Muhheakantuck in Focus” (August 1 – November 29, 2009), using the original Lenape name for the river.  The exhibit features project by contemporary visual artists exploring “the native people’s engagement with the river, both before and after Hudson’s arrival on its shores”. The press release contains more information, and The New York Times ran a review the other day, calling the show “is a thoughtful, informative and entertaining” and noting that “there is enough good artwork here to impress upon viewers that the quadricentennial is a time not just to celebrate, but to remember”.

Through December 31, 2009, you can stroll through history along The New Amsterdam Trail in Manhattan, a 90-minute audio/walking tour of 17th century Dutch America. You can download the map as well as an audio narration of “Ranger Story: Nieuw Amsterdam to New York” by park historian Steve Laise, Chief of Cultural Resources for the National Parks of New York Harbor.

At the beginning of the month, a fleet of Dutch flat-bottom barges sailed into New York Harbor after crossing the Atlantic aboard Dutch freighters. The sailing vessels are “descendants of the sailing ships that plied Dutch coastlines in the 17th century, immortalized by the country’s painters, and closely related to the first ships built in New York.”  The fleet will remain in the harbor for three weeks, “taking part in sailing races on the city’s waterways and offering tours and transport to visitors”, and taking part in a grand naval parade, the Admiral’s Sail, with a “flotilla of lighted ships [coming] down the Hudson into the harbor past Battery Park”. Sunday, September 13 is Harbor Day in New York, and you can sail along on Pete Seeger’s Clearwater sloop; check here for more festivities.  The fleet will then sail up the Hudson River to Albany before returning, again via freighter, to the port of Amsterdam.

From September 3, 2009 to January 3, 2010, Manhattan’s South Street Seaport Museum, in conjunction with the National Archives of the Netherlands, is presenting the exhibit, “New Amsterdam: The Island at the  Center of the World”, of rare maps and documents of 17th century New York.  The presentation, by the way, takes its name from Russell Shorto’s 2005 book, The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped New York. The centerpiece of the exhibit will be

the now-famous letter, dated November 5, 1626, from one Pieter Schaghen, listing, among other items, the purchase of Manhattan for 60 guilders (falsely converted to $24 in the 19th century). The Native Americans actually saw this transaction as a treaty for the usage of land, not a purchase.

If you can’t make it to NYC in time, the Museum has a small online gallery of prints and maps. Edward Rothstein’s review of the exhibit for The New York Times is here. From which,

The exhibition has problems: the design (by Urban A&O and Thinc) is awkward, the chronology often hard to trace and the commentary and contexts too cursory. But these rarely seen documents are landmarks, mapping out early New York history. There is an open, oversize book in which, in elaborate script, the Dutch East India Company prepared a contract with Henry Hudson (misnamed Tomas Hutson), ultimately charging him, in 1609, with discovering a route to Asia via a northeast passage over Russia. Instead, of course, that venture led to the beginnings of Dutch colonization in North America.

From 1626 there is a letter that was once folded to form its own envelope; it is now torn and stained by the fingers that must have handled it, addressed to “High and Mighty Lords.” It is a dispatch from Pieter Schaghen to the directors of the recently formed Dutch West India Company, whose title implicitly recognized that the way east lay elsewhere. The letter disclosed the latest news about New Amsterdam from a Dutch ship that had arrived home: reports that “our people are in good spirits and live in peace,” that they have sowed and reaped their grain, that the cargo contained 7,246 beaver skins and 48 mink skins. And that, oh yes, the settlers had “purchased the Island Manhattes from the Indians for the value of 60 guilders.”

The New York Times‘s article heralding the 400th anniversary of Hudson’s voyage, “Henry Hudson’s View of New York: When Trees Tipped the Sky” by Sam Roberts, January 25, 2009

The Hudson River sloop Clearwater, established by Pete Seeger in the sixties to clean the river; Pete Seeger on the State of the Hudson, and the DVD edition of the PBS documentary ‘Til the River Runs Clear.  The Clearwater website’s education page and free goodies page are worth visiting.

Riverkeeper‘s Quadricentennial Exhibit: A Hudson River Journey

The grand opening of the Walkway Over the Hudson will be held on the weekend of October 2-4. The new pedestrian walkway is the former Poughkeepsie-Highland railroad bridge; you can read an 1887 account of the bridge construction in Scientific American here. According to the book Bridging the Hudson by Carleton Mabee, “The Poughkeepsie railroad bridge was the first bridge to be built over the Hudson River from the ocean all the way up to Albany. It was a technological wonder. Opened in 1889 soon after the Brooklyn Bridge opened, it is not only higher above the water than the Brooklyn Bridge, and founded deeper in the water, but also longer. When it opened, its promoters claimed it was the longest bridge in the world.”

Walking Off the Big Apple blog (“A Strolling Guide to New York City”), handy and very well written– and photographed — whether or not you need quadricentennial information and musings

And this being 2009, of course Henry Hudson has a blog

Music:

Songs of the Hudson River, including Pete Seeger’s “Old Father Hudson River”

Tom Winslow’s Clearwater song, “Hey Looka Yonder (It’s the Clearwater)”, on mp3

The out-of-print songbook, Songs and Sketches of the First Clearwater Crew: A Musical and Pictorial Log of the Maiden Voyage of the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, compiled and edited by Don McLean (yes, that Don McLean, who was a troubador on the sloop’s maiden voyage), and illustrated by Tom Allen

Hudson River balladeer Rick Nestler, one-time member of the Hudson River Sloop  Singers and also a member of the Clearwater crew, who penned the song “The River That Flows Both Ways”

“Broad Old River 2” by the Hudson River Sloop Singers; order here

Jerry Silverman’s new New York Sings: 400 Years of the Empire State in Song (scroll down to listen to 25 songs from the book, including “Land in Sight” and “Half Moon”, and to find upcoming concert dates)

The new CD from Betty and the Baby Boomers, “Where the Heron Waits”, a collection of river songs “marking the Boomers’ long involvement with Hudson River education and advocacy”

The Barefoot Boys’ “Sweetwater Passage”; the boys are Rich Bala (see below), Rick Hill, and Tom White

Rich Bala’s “Hudson Valley Traditions”

The Westchester, NY a cappella ensemble Sing We Enchanted offers “Hurrah for the Hudson: River Songs & Ballads”

Storyteller Jonathan Kruk and folk balladeer Rich Bala are The River Ramblers, who offer four educational musical presentations, including “The River That Flows Both Ways” and “Revolution on the River” (more here)

Bob Lusk‘s blog about the folk music of the Hudson River Valley and Catskill Mountains

Historical balladeer Linda Russell offers an educational program, “Songs of the Historic Hudson”

The new “River of Dreams” CD — see below

Finally, make your own music with wind chimes.  Not just any wind chimes, but Woodstock Percussion‘s new five-pitch Hudson River Chime, “tuned to the pentatonic melody” of Pete Seeger’s “My Dirty Stream (The Hudson River Song)”.  Read about the chimes here, watch/hear them here, and buy them here; a portion of the proceeds for each chime goes to Clearwater.

Art/Hudson River School:

The Thomas Cole National Historic Site at Cedar Grove, which for the festivities has a “loan exhibition of paintings by 19th century masters of the Hudson River School of art, depicting views of the river and related and connecting bodies of water”.

“Seeing the Hudson: An Exhibition of Photographs and Paintings on the Occasion of the 400th Anniversary of Henry Hudson’s Sail of Discovery”, September 17 to October 31, featuring the works of painters
Samuel Colman (1832-1920),
Jon R. Friedman,
Joseph Antonio Hekking (1830- 1903),
William Rickarby Miller (1815-1893),
Robert J. Pattison (1838-1903), and 
Robert Walter Weir (1803-1889); and photographers Carolyn Marks Blackwood,
William Meyers,
William Clift,
Robert Richfield,
Diane Cook,
Joseph Squillante,
Jan Staller,
Elliott Kaufman,
Susan Wides,
Len Jenshel, and

Harry Wilks.  The opening reception will be on the 17th from 6-8 pm.

Books and such for children:

River of Dreams: The Story of the Hudson River, by the aptly named Hudson Talbott; highly recommended (and not just by me).  River of Dreams has recently been adapted for for the stage (and what a stage) with Casey Biggs and Frank Cuthbert, and the CD soundtrack will have its release party on Sunday, September 13 at The Thomas Cole National Historic Site at Cedar Grove (see above); free admission.

My Mighty Hudson by Mitchell Bring, with a foreword by Pete Seeger; a children’s guide to Hudson River history, science, and fun

Beyond the Sea of Ice: The Voyages of Henry Hudson by Joan Elizabeth Goodman

Hudson: The Story of a River by  Thomas Locker

PBS Kids’ Henry Hudson page, part of their Big Apple History

Henry Hudson at Enchanted Learning

Dover’s coloring book, Exploration of North America and also if I recall correctly, their Woodland Indians book

The 100-year-old children’s history book, The Men Who Found America, by Frederick Winthrop Hutchinson — available online at The Baldwin Project — includes a chapter on Henry Hudson, “The Englishman Who Sailed for the Dutch”.

If you’re home schooling, don’t miss the Homeschooling on Hudson blog

NYC Dept. of Education’s Henry Hudson Quadricentennial Teaching Resources (including a very good listing of museum exhibits)

NYS Dept. of Education’s Champlain/Hudson/Fulton Commemoration Online Resource page

Teaching the Hudson Valley; I quite like the look of most of the 11 lessons in the “Life along the Hudson River: Exploring Nature and Culture” unit

Books and such for older folks:

Half Moon: Henry Hudson and the Voyage that Redrew the Map of the New World by Douglas Hunter

A Description of New Netherland by Adriaen Van Der Donck

The Hudson: America’s River by Frances F. Dunwell

The Hudson: A History by Tom Lewis

The Hudson Valley Reader, edited by Edward C. Goodman

The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell by Mark Kurlansky; also available as a very enjoyable audiobook

Hudson Valley Voyage: Through the Seasons, Through the Years, “An Exploration of Four Seasons and Four Centuries along the Hudson River from Manhattan to Saratoga Springs”, with photographs by Ted Spiegel and text by Reed Sparling

and continue the festivities through next year with Ted Spiegel’s Hudson River Valley Calendar 2010

For the entire family, even if you’re not from, or don’t live in, New York:

The Manahatta Project, by Eric Sanderson and the Wildlife Conservation Society at the Bronx Zoo, who used the science of landscape ecology to learn what Manhattan would have looked like in 1609, before Hudson’s arrival.

Earlier this year, my father gave me the book that came out of the project, Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City by Eric W. Sanderson (Harry N. Abrams, 2009). It’s a marvel of a book, not just the computer-generated photographs of what the island probably looked like 400 years ago, but also Dr. Sanderson’s “Muir Webs” connecting all the organisms in 1609 New York, and, perhaps most importantly, his last section of the book, a prescription “to bring a little Mannahatta back to Manhattan” to sustain the city’s ecology and its inhabitants. Harry Abrams has done the book justice, with lovely heavy paper and beautiful color illustrations (photography, maps, drawings) throughout.  From chapter one,

It is a conceit of New York  City — the concrete city, the steel metropolis, Batman’s Gotham — to think it is a place outside of nature, a place where humanity has completely triumphed over the forces of the natural world, where a person can do and be anything without limit or consequence.  Yet this conceit is not unique to the city; it is shared by a globalized twenty-first-century human culture, which posits that through technology and economic development we can escape the shackles that bind us to our earthly selves, including our dependence on the earth’s bounty and the confines of our native place.  As such the story of Mannahatta’s transformation to Manhattan isn’t localized to one island; it is a coming-of-age story that literally embraces the entire world and is relevant to all of the 6.7 billion human beings who share it.

The Mannahatta project is the cover story of this month’s issue of National Geographic, “Before New York: Rediscovering the Wilderness of 1609”

The Wildlife Conservation Society page on Mannahatta is here

At the Mannahatta website, you can enter your address or the name of a landmark and see what it would have looked like in 1609, download lesson plans/curriculum, and more.

The Museum of the City of New York is hosting an exhibit curated by Dr. Sanderson, “Mannahatta/Manhattan: A Natural History of New York City”, through October 12.  Edward Rothstein of The New York Times reviewed the exhibit back in July, with an accompanying slide show.

Dr. Sanderson, with Eric Wright, helped to make a traditional Lenape wigwam in the New York Botanical Garden’s Family Garden

Eric Sanderson interviews via podcast from WNYC and the NY Times City Room blog

And, if you have younger children at home, you  might want to pair Mannahatta — you can look through the pictures together and read some of the passages aloud — with the wonderful children’s picture book On This Spot: An Expedition Back Through Time by Susan E. Goodman and Lee Christiansen.  In fact, when I first read about Mannahatta, I thought, “Oh good! On This Spot for adults!”

A reminder for summer vacation

from author Michael Chabon, writing in the current issue of The New York Review of Books:

As a kid, I was extremely fond of a series of biographies, largely fictional, I’m sure, that dramatized the lives of famous Americans — Washington, Jefferson, Kit Carson, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Daniel Boone — when they were children. (Boys, for the most part, though I do remember reading one about Clara Barton.) [I would think this is the COFA series.] One element that was almost universal in these stories was the vast amounts of time the famous historical boys were alleged to have spent wandering with bosom companions, with friendly Indian boys or a devoted slave, through the once-mighty wilderness, the Wilderness of Childhood, entirely free of adult supervision.

Though the wilderness available to me had shrunk to a mere green scrap of its former enormousness, though so much about childhood had changed in the years between the days of young George Washington’s adventuring on his side of the Potomac and my own suburban exploits on mine, there was still a connectedness there, a continuum of childhood. Eighteenth-century Virginia, twentieth-century Maryland, tenth-century Britain, Narnia, Neverland, Prydain — it was all the same Wilderness. Those legendary wanderings of Boone and Carson and young Daniel Beard (the father of the Boy Scouts of America), those games of war and exploration I read about, those frightening encounters with genuine menace, far from the help or interference of mother and father, seemed to me at the time — and I think this is my key point — absolutely familiar to me.

The thing that strikes me now when I think about the Wilderness of Childhood is the incredible degree of freedom my parents gave me to adventure there. A very grave, very significant shift in our idea of childhood has occurred since then. The Wilderness of Childhood is gone; the days of adventure are past. The land ruled by children, to which a kid might exile himself for at least some portion of every day from the neighboring kingdom of adulthood, has in large part been taken over, co-opted, colonized, and finally absorbed by the neighbors.

Chabon writes at the end about the consequences of losing this land:

What is the impact of the closing down of the Wilderness on the development of children’s imaginations? This is what I worry about the most. I grew up with a freedom, a liberty that now seems breathtaking and almost impossible. Recently, my younger daughter, after the usual struggle and exhilaration, learned to ride her bicycle. Her joy at her achievement was rapidly followed by a creeping sense of puzzlement and disappointment as it became clear to both of us that there was nowhere for her to ride it — nowhere that I was willing to let her go. Should I send my children out to play?

There is a small grocery store around the corner, not over two hundred yards from our front door. Can I let her ride there alone to experience the singular pleasure of buying herself an ice cream on a hot summer day and eating it on the sidewalk, alone with her thoughts? Soon after she learned to ride, we went out together after dinner, she on her bike, with me following along at a safe distance behind. What struck me at once on that lovely summer evening, as we wandered the streets of our lovely residential neighborhood at that after-dinner hour that had once represented the peak moment, the magic hour of my own childhood, was that we didn’t encounter a single other child.

Even if I do send them out, will there be anyone to play with?

Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map. If children are not permitted — not taught — to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?

Read the entire piece here.

Back when Chabon had a website, which I remember a year or two ago, he had a very good piece on kids, Lego, and imagination.  Here’s where it was, in 2006.  Will have to see if I can use the Wayback Machine to get a better link. Aha.  Try this.

(By the way, Chabon is married to Ayelet Waldman, author of the recently published Bad Mother)

Moving in a common rhythm

“Don’t rule out working with your hands. It does not preclude using your head. There’s no reason why education should be incompatible with craftsmanship.”
Andy Rooney in his 2000 commencement address at the University of Virginia

Part of the reason I haven’t blogged since May 7th is that we’ve been working with our hands — looking after new baby chicks, tending our new Painted Lady butterfly caterpillars (now happily hanging from the top of their tank), planting and watering our 645 new shelterbelt trees, caring for the 4H calves which will be shown next weekend, seeding the barley crop, and planting the flower and vegetable gardens.

When I stopped this afternoon for a quick sandwich before heading back to the garden (and later tonight we have the second performance of Tom’s and the kids’ play in town), I quickly read through some New York Times headlines, and clicked on the new NYT Magazine article, “The Case for Working with Your Hands” by Matthew B. Crawford, from which:

High-school shop-class programs were widely dismantled in the 1990s as educators prepared students to become “knowledge workers.” The imperative of the last 20 years to round up every warm body and send it to college, then to the cubicle, was tied to a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy. This has not come to pass. To begin with, such work often feels more enervating than gliding. More fundamentally, now as ever, somebody has to actually do things: fix our cars, unclog our toilets, build our houses.

When we praise people who do work that is straightforwardly useful, the praise often betrays an assumption that they had no other options. We idealize them as the salt of the earth and emphasize the sacrifice for others their work may entail. Such sacrifice does indeed occur — the hazards faced by a lineman restoring power during a storm come to mind. But what if such work answers as well to a basic human need of the one who does it? I take this to be the suggestion of Marge Piercy’s poem “To Be of Use,” which concludes with the lines “the pitcher longs for water to carry/and a person for work that is real.” Beneath our gratitude for the lineman may rest envy.

As someone who, with a BA from small liberal arts college in New England who strayed far, far from the norm to marry a carpenter and farmer, and whose two sons have said they want to follow more or less in their father’s footsteps, I was interested to read this bit,

A gifted young person who chooses to become a mechanic rather than to accumulate academic credentials is viewed as eccentric, if not self-destructive. There is a pervasive anxiety among parents that there is only one track to success for their children. It runs through a series of gates controlled by prestigious institutions. Further, there is wide use of drugs to medicate boys, especially, against their natural tendency toward action, the better to “keep things on track.” I taught briefly in a public high school and would have loved to have set up a Ritalin fogger in my classroom. It is a rare person, male or female, who is naturally inclined to sit still for 17 years in school, and then indefinitely at work.

The trades suffer from low prestige, and I believe this is based on a simple mistake. Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid. This is not my experience. I have a small business as a motorcycle mechanic in Richmond, Va., which I started in 2002. I work on Japanese and European motorcycles, mostly older bikes with some “vintage” cachet that makes people willing to spend money on them. I have found the satisfactions of the work to be very much bound up with the intellectual challenges it presents. And yet my decision to go into this line of work is a choice that seems to perplex many people.

Read the rest of Matthew Crawford’s article here.  By the way, Mr. Crawford’s book, Shop Craft as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, will be published on Thursday by Penguin.

I keep meaning to post about one of my favorite blogs, and this is the perfect time to correct that oversight, especially because the blogger is quoted in the article. Woodworker and teacher Doug Stowe’s blog, Wisdom of the Hands, is a gem; as Mr. Stowe writes, his blog is

dedicated to sharing the concept that our hands are essential to learning — that we engage the world and its wonders, sensing and creating primarily through the agency of our hands. We abandon our children to education in boredom and intellectual escapism by failing to engage their hands in learning and making.

Be sure to read Mr. Stowe’ post on The Times article.

Since I haven’t posted anything for Poetry Friday in more than a month, I’ll leave you with some of Marge Piercy’s To Be of Use, which you can find in its entirety here:

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

Related Farm School posts:

Craftsmanship

Hands

Tonic and toast

Further thoughts on self-esteem and self-confidence

All roads lead to home and hard work

More thoughts on independence and freedom

(Back to work. With my hands.)

Letting the sun in through the cellophane

Men and boys are learning all kinds of trades but how to make men of themselves. They learn to make houses; but they are not so well housed, they are not so contented in their houses, as the woodchucks in their holes. What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on? — If you cannot tolerate the planet that it is on? Grade the ground first. If a man believes and expects great things of himself, it makes no odds where you put him, or what you show him … he will be surrounded by grandeur. He is in the condition of a healthy and hungry man, who says to himself, — How sweet this crust is!
— Henry David Thoreau

When talk began of the trillion-dollar stimulus package and zeroes began to swim before my eyes, along with visions of my impoverished grandchildren and great-grandchildren, I began to wonder about the idea of a consumer economy.  I’m no economist and not a professional historian so I honestly don’t know some of the answers: what exactly is a consumer economy? is it better than the alternatives? what are the alternatives? is there such thing as a producer economy? did we once have one and was it replaced?  And then, with some doubt, do we want to continue with a consumer economy by propping it up with a stimulus package? Do we want to continue down this same road?

If we do decide that the sort of economy to have is a consumer economy, then we probably do need to get people shopping for more stuff.  Then again, that striving for ever more stuff in the wake of the astonishing prosperity of the postwar years, has led us toward suburbs and urban sprawl, instant mashed potatoes, Jell-o salad, Wal-Mart, McDonalds, Diners Club, and Ron Popeil’s Ronco empire of things we never knew we needed.

Yesterday in The New York Times economist Thomas Friedman asked “a radical question”:

Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”

We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese …

We can’t do this anymore.

Read the rest here; it’s not very long but offers plenty to think about.

It makes me feel less loopy, as a home educating farm wife on the prairie who steered clear from any economics courses, reads more than she remembers, and has to keep looking up exactly how many zeroes are in a trillion, to know I’m not the only one asking away and wondering and that some of the others who are asking and wondering do in fact know what they’re talking about.  The connection between Mother Nature and the economy occurred to me the other day as I was getting together a list of resources for the kids on the present situation and the Great Depression, and, to a lesser extent, the Panic of 1893.  Their recent questions — including “when does a recession turn into a depression” — made me realize we need to do more than just discuss the news they read and hear about. And there’s no separating Mother Nature and her Dust Bowl from the Great Depression.

As I’ve been thinking about this for the past month or so, I also remembered reading in the 1986 E.B. White biography by Scott Elledge that in 1933 Andy White had written a three-piece satirical essay on the Depression, though I couldn’t recall any of the particulars.  I looked it up in the book and found the series was called “Alice Through the Cellophane”.  Here’s what Mr. Elledge wrote,

In [the series White] took issue with various theories advanced for remedying the Depression. To the economists who held that prosperity could be regained only by restoring the consumers’ buying power, he said that “man’s buying power is one of the least noble of his powers and should not be the arch that supports his peace and well-being.”  Efforts to stimulate production  too, he believed, were misguided.  Pointing to the excess of unnecessary goods already being manufactured, and to their consumption by people whose demand for them had been artificially stimulated, he advocated buying nothing — or at least no more than absolutely needed.  He proposed, on the contrary, to decrease production, and to do that by means of a paradoxical scheme: by paying the highest executives the lowest wages and the lowest-ranking employees the highest salaries.  Such a pay scale would provide no incentive to climb the ladder, and those finding themselves by mischance at its top would have no desire to stay there and produce more goods.

White concluded the essay by calling up the memory of Henry David Thoreau, who “had rejected the complexity of life,” and by  urging his fellow men to imitate Thoreau.  His final words were:

“The hope I see for the world, even today, is to simplify life . . . . Nature (whose course we are about to prevent her from taking) is, I grant, complicated; but it is only on the surface that her variety is baffling.  At the core it is a simple ideal.  You feel it when lying stretched on warm rocks, letting the sun in. It is just possible that in our zeal to manufacture sunlamps at a profit, we have lost forever the privilege of sitting in the sun.”

(I’d like to request, please, that The New Yorker consider making E.B. White’s three-part series, “Alice through the Cellophane”, 1933, available online for free to all readers as a public service. Many thanks.)

You don’t say

The New York Times discovers after 75 years that in hard times, people “just want to hide in a very dark place”, particularly a movie theater.

Researchers have discovered the shocking news that children learn better if they’re allowed to have recess, and “other research suggests that all children, not just those with attention problems, can benefit from spending time in nature during the school day.”

— However, all bets are off if you live in the North where recess is apparently dangerous. According to another study, this one in the Journal of School Health based on 2002 figures, more “than 4,000 children between the ages of five and 19 were injured in a year in Ottawa-area schools”. Then again, this is no longer the country of the intrepid Sam Steele and  Laura Secord (she could have put an eye out or twisted an ankel running through the woods) but the safety tuque and the campaign to wear helmets while sledding.

— Apparently the “most popular” emailed article at The New York Times this weekend was Friday’s op-ed column, “The Great Solvent North” by Theresa Tedesco, chief business correspondent of the Canadian newspaper, The National Post, in which she writes, “Canada, whose banking system had long been notorious for its stodgy practices and government coddling, is now being celebrated for those very qualities.”  Of course, there’s banking and then there are pension funds, and interestingly this week brought news that “Canada’s largest pension fund — Caisse de Depot et Placement du Quebec — lost a quarter of its $155-billion pension fund asset” in 2008.  According to The Toronto Star, the Caisse’s “recent ambitions have led it to aggressively sink billions into novel financial instruments, such as nonbank asset-backed commercial paper – short-term corporate debts that turned toxic.”

— Not surprisingly, not many Canadian politicians or oil and gas executives seem to subscribe to National Geographic.  Which is the only way to explain why the hullabaloo over the current issue’s photo essay on Alberta’s tar sands, “Scraping Bottom”, was raised only when the issue hit the newstands last week, not when it hit mailboxes earlier.  What is surprising is how the lines have been drawn over the article, though it helps to remember that line about politics and bedfellows: new Liberal opposition leader Michael Ignatieff* not coincidentally looking for votes on a swing through Alberta and quirky CBC commentator Rex Murphy calling foul, and the Alberta government and The Edmonton Journal‘s editorial page calling fair.  And silence from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, last seen at an Ottawa press conference with President Obama throwing the Bush regime under the bus,

We will be watching what the United States does [regarding the environment] very — with a lot of — with a lot of interest for the obvious reasons that, as we all know, Canada has had great difficulty developing an effective regulatory regime alone in the context of a integrated continental economy. It’s very hard to have a tough regulatory system here when we are competed with — competing with an unregulated economy south of the border.

Also interesting to note that it’s an article with photographs, including two large foldouts, that makes such a splash.  And not any of the equally dramatic but more or less pictureless articles on the oil sands over the years, such as Elizabeth Kolbert‘s “Unconventional Crude” for The New Yorker in 2007 and The Guardian‘s “Mud, sweat and tears” the same year.  A thousand words, indeed.

Better late than never department: I have a post in my draft folder about this, but each time I pull it up I start to gnash my teeth.  Here’s what the non-Canadian The Economist has to say on the subject, with less teeth-gnashing and garment-rending on my part (I’ve added some links to the original article),

The Battle of the Plains of Abraham was brief and not all that bloody, but it was historic. On September 13th 1759, France’s loss of its colonial territories in North America was set in motion when British redcoats scaled cliffs protecting Quebec City and defeated troops and militia loyal to Louis XV. A modern-day battle over the battle, which concluded on February 17th, lasted somewhat longer and ended very differently. It flared up over plans to mark the battle’s 250th anniversary with a re-enactment, and ended with Quebec separatists crying victory and Canada’s federal government beating a hasty retreat.

The re-enactment was to have been the centrepiece of a summer-long commemoration of 1759’s events. But to some Quebeckers commemoration sounded like celebration. “Dancing on the graves of our ancestors,” was how the Réseau de Résistance du Québécois (RRQ), a group of sovereigntist hardliners, described it. They demanded the re-enactment’s cancellation. For several weeks debate raged. The re-enactment was an exercise to pay tribute to the fallen and educate the living about one of Canada’s most important episodes, said its supporters. These included 2,000 or so mostly American “re-enacters”, the federal government and Quebec City’s mayor, who was loth to lose millions of dollars in tourist spending.

Opponents, and most of the French-language press, cursed the proposed re-enactment as a “repugnant federalist propaganda operation”. When it reached a point where its organisers were receiving threats—including having “our bayonets shoved up our butts”, according to their leader—the National Battlefields Commission, which administers the Plains of Abraham, cancelled the mock battle and other activities planned for the summer. Or, as the Gazette, Quebec’s only English daily, wrote, it “cravenly surrendered the field”.

If there was an edifying component to the brouhaha, it lay in displaying the different light in which the Conquest, as it is known, is seen by those on opposite sides of the Quebec independence debate. For many sovereigntists it was the beginning of domination by the wretched English, and of the struggle for cultural survival. Federalists, however, both Francophone and Anglophone, argue that after the Conquest the French of New France got rights they could only dream of under the exploitative, authoritarian ancien régime.

Whatever the case, the re-enactment was probably doomed from the moment in mid-January when the RRQ pledged “to go on the warpath” against it. Support for Quebec’s sovereignty spikes whenever it is felt that English Canada is taking it for granted or not respecting it. Wise federal politicians are thus wary of anything that may rile Quebec sensitivities. Nevertheless, a few cabinet ministers took opposing positions on the re-enactment.

Quebec’s premier, Jean Charest, was shrewd enough not to get involved. He simply announced that he would not attend. This is a decision Generals Wolfe and Montcalm, the commanders of the British and French forces in 1759, should probably also have made; both died of wounds suffered on the Plains of Abraham

A few thoughts. First, outside of Quebec in the rest of the country this article didn’t make much of a splash at all. Second, how disappointing to live in a country, a world, where some can confuse commemoration with celebration, and where hundreds of years later there are still such sensitivities over historical facts. I can’t help but think of the bicentary commemoration of the Battle of Trafalgar four years ago, when the famous sea battle was re-enacted, as the BBC noted, “between a blue and a red team, rather than Britain versus France, in order not to offend the French”.  And yet there’s the feeling that confusion has been raised over the meaning of words, the prospect of insult to ancestors has been raised and bandied about merely to make separatist, sovereigntist hay. And the rest of the country, especially the part scratching its collective head every so often over Quebec, doesn’t know enough of its own history to care.  As Hugh MacLennan wrote in Rivers of Canada in 1974 (almost 30 years after his Two Solitudes), “Ours is not the only nation which has out-travelled its own soul and now is forced to search frantically for a new identity. No wonder, for so many, the past Canadian experience has become not so much a forgotten thing as an unknown thing.”

Anyone moved to learn more might be interested to know that the other weekend The Ottawa Citizen excerpted part of D. Peter Macleod’s new book, Northern Armageddon: The Battle of the Plains of Abraham.  You can read the excerpt here.

UPDATED to add: I knew I forgot something. Here’s a birthday present from the National Film Board of Canada: “The Fate of America: Two well-known Quebec artists, a filmmaker and a playwright, look at various aspects of the story of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Whose version should prevail? Is history best served by documentary or fiction?”

Our new favorite family magazine

Sometime last fall at the grocery store I was surprised to find a new magazine, BBC Knowledge — “for the curious mind: science . history . nature”. The layout is rather busier than I like and the articles not as in depth as Smithsonian‘s, but the magazine is packed with all sorts of interesting articles, with something for everyone; I’ve found at least one science article that was rather racy for the kids, so reading ahead isn’t a bad idea if you have younger keen magazine fans at home.  And the magazine staff is doing a terrific job finding experts in all areas, especially those with new books, to write on what they know.  So in a nutshell, a magazine with lively coverage of timely subjects, and more often than not suitable for kids.

The first issue (October 2009) featured the cover story, “How to Build a Planet” and one of Arthur C. Clarke’s last interviews.  The second issue (December 2008) featured articles on the “small world” (aka “six degrees of separation”) theory, sloths, and Simon Schama on United States history and politics; you can read the second issue online for free.  The third issue (February 2009) featured the cover story, “Lincoln’s Legacy” (“From Abe to Obama”…), the rise of the superscraper, and classicist Mary Beard, author of the new The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found, on the “A-Z of Pompeii”.

The fourth issue, for April 2009, is now on sale, featuring (only a tad late) Darwin 200 and Robert Burns.  For Darwin, the magazine offers a 22-page evolution special with a Richard Dawkins interview, Carl Zimmer on “Evolution in Action”, PZ Meyers on “Is evolution dead?”.  The issue also includes biographer Robert Crawford on Robbie Burns and Democracy.

One of my favorite features so far is “World News in Context”, two pages of informed commentary from The Independent‘s David Keyes accompanied by a map, brief timeline, and several suggestions for further reading.  This month it’s Georgia (the country), last issue it was Zimbabwe.

BBC Knowledge comes out six times a year, and the cover price here in Canada is $5.99. Which means that it’s cheaper for me to pick it up at the store each time rather than subscribing at $37.45 annually or $74.90 for two years.

Poetry Friday: The February hush

The February Hush
by Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911)

Snow o’er the darkening moorlands,
Flakes fill the quiet air;
Drifts in the forest hollows,
And a soft mask everywhere.

The nearest twig on the pine-tree
Looks blue through the whitening sky,
And the clinging beech-leaves rustle
Though never a wind goes by.

But there’s red on the wildrose berries,
And red in the lovely glow
On the cheeks of the child beside me,
That once were pale, like snow.

From my copy of Into Winter: Discovering a Season by William P. Nestor, illustrated by Susan Banta (Houghton Mifflin, 1982, out of print); the poem was originally published in Afternoon Landscape: Poems and Translations by William Wentworth Higginson, 1889.

For more Poetry Friday fun, head over to Mommy’s Favorite Children’s Books, where Karen is hosting today’s roundup.  Thank you, Karen!

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson was an American Unitarian minister, Transcendentalist, writer, Civil War soldier, abolitionist, and supporter of temperance, labor rights, and the rights of women. A particularly good online biography is here, as part of “Notable American Unitarians”.  Col. Higginson born on December 22, 1823 at Cambridge, Massachusetts, the descendant of a Puritan minister who emigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and the grandson of Stephen Higginson, a member of the Continental Congress.  Higginson attended Harvard and was a schoolmaster for two years after graduating in 1841.  He returned to Harvard to study at its Divinity School.  Higginson proved to be too liberal for his first church, the First Religious Society (Unitarian) in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and was asked to leave after two years.  An admirer of the writings of William Lloyd Garrison and Lydia Maria Childs, Higginson was one of the “Secret Six” who supported John Brown in his raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in 1859. During the Civil War, Higginson served the 51st Massachusetts Volunteers as captain, leaving this post to serve as colonel for the first black Union regiment, the First Carolina Volunteers (33rd Infantry Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops), comprised of escaped slaves.

Higginson was an early champion of Emily Dickinson, and the two enjoyed a 23-year-long correspondence; their relationship is the subject of a new book, White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson by Brenda Wineapple (Knopf, 2008). After the poet’s death in 1886, her family asked Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd to edit and prepare for publication Emily Dickinson’s first collection of poetry.

From the time of the Civil War, Higginson published a number of works — poetry, biography, memoirs, essays, and history, including his Young Folks’ History of the United States; in 1875, The New York Times called the book one “which no American boy or girl can fail to read with pleasure while he or she learns from it all of the essential facts in the progress of the country”. Higginson was poetry editor at The Nation for 26 years, and wrote a regular column for Harper’s Bazaar, “Women and Men”, on equality of the sexes.  A selection of his letters can be found here, though none to Miss Dickinson survive.  One of his first books was a volume of collected natural history essays, Outdoor Papers, each originally published in The Atlantic.  Higginson sent one copy of the book to Charles Darwin and another was found in the Dickinson family library.

Higginson died on May 9, 1911, at the age of 87 at Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Magnificent Activist: The Writings of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, edited by Howard N. Meyer

White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson by Brenda Wineapple (Knopf, 2008)

Army Life in a Black Regiment: and Other Writings by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

The Complete Civil War Journal and Selected Letters of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, edited by Christopher Looby