• 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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Remembering Pete Seeger: “I’ve got a song to sing, all over this land”

Here’s an edited repeat of a post from May 2009 celebrating Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday; you can read the original here. I was saddened, though not surprised, to read last night of his death at age 94. His was one of those long lives well lived, and so many of ours were that much richer for his.

(I haven’t checked all of the links, so if any are broken, please let me know.)

*  *  *  *

Pete Seeger has been presence in my life since childhood with his records and music, and I still recall one marvelous autumn day when I was about nine or 10 and we got to meet him and listen to him sing at South Street Seaport (I think I remember a pier covered with pumpkins, and while I don’t remember the sloop Clearwater, I think it must have been there as well), well before it was fixed up and turned into a tourist destination. We were also fortunate to live down the street from Pete Seeger’s old friend, Brother Kirk (the Rev. Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick, who died in 1987), who would sit on the sidewalk with his guitar and give impromptu sidewalk concerts. Together the friends collaborated on a 1974 children’s album, “Pete Seeger & Brother Kirk Visit Sesame Street”.

As fascinating as Pete Seeger’s life story and career is his family.  He was the son of musicologist and composer of Charles Seeger and violinist Constance Edson; his stepmother was the noted composer Ruth Crawford Seeger;  his uncle Alan Seeger was the celebrated poet killed in World War I; his eldest brother Charles was a pioneering radio astronomer; his brother John, a longtime teacher at New York’s Dalton School, also founded Camp Killoleet in the Adirondacks; his half-sister is the singer Peggy Seeger; his half-brother is singer Mike Seeger.

No childhood is complete without Pete Seeger — for the music he has sung and written, for his sense of history,his family’s place in the history of American music, and his environmental and political activism.  You can listen to his music and listen to songs about America as it was, and America — and the world –  as it should be. Here’s a list, not nearly complete or comprehensive, of some of our favorite Pete Seeger records, books, and more.

Music especially for children:

“Abiyoyo and Other Story Songs for Children”

“American Folk, Game and Activity Songs”

“Birds, Beasts, Bugs and Fishes (Little and Big)”

“Folk Songs for Young People”

“Song and Play Time”

Pete Seeger’s “Children’s Concert at Town Hall”

Music for the entire family:

“American Favorite Ballads”, on five CDs

“Frontier Ballads”

“Headlines and Footnotes: A Collection of Topical Songs”

“If I Had a Hammer: Songs of Hope and Struggle”

“Love Songs for Friends and Foes”

“Pete Seeger Sings Leadbelly”

“Sing Out!: Hootenanny with Pete Seeger and the Hooteneers”

“Traditional Christmas Carols”

Pete Seeger/The Weavers 3 CD box set

“Pete Seeger at 89″

Pete Seeger discography at Smithsonian Folkways.  By the way, SF has a new publication, “Folkways Magazine”, just debuted with the Spring 2009 issue, and the main article is “Pete Seeger: Standing Tall”

Pete Seeger discography and biography at Appleseed Records

Books (many of which are children’s picture books based on his songs):

Abiyoyo with accompanying CD; and Abiyoyo Returns

Turn! Turn! Turn! with accompanying CD

One Grain of Sand: A Lullaby

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?: A Musical Autobiography

Pete Seeger’s Storytelling Book

His memoirsWhere Have All the Flowers Gone: A Singer’s Stories, Songs, Seeds, Robberies

The biography How Can I Keep from Singing?: The Ballad of Pete Seeger by David King Dunaway, the companion volume to the radio series produced by Dunaway (see below)

Audio and Video:

PBS’s American Masters episode: “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song”; now available on DVD

How Can I Keep from Singing?, the three-part radio series produced by David King Dunaway

“To Hear Your Banjo Play” (1947)

“How to Play the 5-String Banjo” DVD, Davy’s favorite; there’s also an accompanying book (not on film, but also instructive and instructional is Pete Seeger’s “The Folksinger’s Guitar Guide”)

At NPR; and the NPR appreciation, “Pete Seeger At 90″ by Lynn Neary and Tom Cole.  At the latter link, you’ll find a little orange box on the left with The Pete Seeger Mix, a “five-hour mix of Pete Seeger classics and covers” put together by NPR Music partner Folk Alley

Pete Seeger at the pre-inaugural concert for Barack Obama

Websites:

Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress, where Pete Seeger worked as an assistant in 1940

Clearwater, the organization Pete Seeger established in 1969 to preserve and protect the Hudson River

Bits and bobs:

Studs Terkel’s 2005 appreciation, in The Nation, of Pete Seeger’s 86th birthday

The New Yorker‘s 2006 profile, “The Protest Singer”, by Alec Wilkinson, and in hardcover

Pete Seeger’s biography at the Kennedy Center, where he was a Kennedy Center honor recipient in 1994

A re-(re)-post to celebrate 30 years of “A Christmas Story”: I triple-dog dare you

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(This month marks the 30th anniversary of the modern classic, “A Christmas Story”, one of my all-time favorite holiday movies. In fact, the older I get, the more I like it. So I’m reposting this from 2006 and 2008. I’ve checked and updated the links, and there’s some new content, too. Not to mention blog snow, which my daughter the far more successful blogger told me about. Merry merry from Farm School!)

New content!:

“‘A Christmas Story’ Turns 30”

NPR: Cleveland Celebrates 30 Years Of ‘A Christmas Story’

Video of  ‘A Christmas Story’ Pole Scene Re-Created on NYC Subway

Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen (author of the new Eminent Hipsters) wrote a Slate article last year, “The Man Who Told ‘A Christmas Story’: What I learned from Jean Shepherd”. Twelve-year-old Fagen was introduced to Shep’s radio show by his “weird uncle Dave”, “a bit of a hipster” himself…

The 30th anniversary Blu-Ray edition

“A Christmas Story”: Behind the Scenes of a Holiday Classic by Caseen Gaines

Tyler Schwartz’s A Christmas Story Treasury from Running Press, a short scrapbook with recipe cards for Mom’s Christmas turkey, a replica of the telegram notifying the Old Man about his “major award”, and so on.

“A Christmas Story” 2014 wall calendar

The musical version of “A Christmas Story” returns to New York City, at Madison Square Garden from Dec. 11 to Dec. 29, featuring Dan Lauria (“The Wonder Years”) as the narrator

The tourist organization Positively Cleveland is celebrating the 30th anniversary, including a special Christmas Story run tomorrow (runners are encouraged to carry a Leg Lamp or wear a Bunny Costume), and a contest to Light up the Holidays in CLE. You can win (what else?) a Leg Lamp. Unfortunately, we’ve all missed the 30th Anniversary Celebration & Convention on Nov. 29-30.

From the ridiculous to the sublime: Jean Shepherd’s original November 25, 1963 WOR radio evening broadcast, where he spent almost an hour talking about the impact of JFK‘s presidency, and his death, on American life. An MPR documentary produced by Matt Sepic with the assistance of Shepherd’s biographer, Eugene Bergmann.

Flicklives’ A Salute to Jean Shepherd, featuring A Christmas Story page

And, as always, TBS will be running its annual 24-hour “A Christmas Story” marathon from Christmas Eve to Christmas evening.

* * *

From December 1, 2006:

Just in time for Christmas, the cockles of my heart warm to learn that one of my favorite holiday movies has come to life:

Switch on your leg lamp and warm up the Ovaltine. The Christmas Story House and Museum will be ready for visitors starting Saturday. Imagine being inside Ralphie Parker’s 1940s home on Christmas Day. Stand on the staircase where Ralphie modeled his hated bunny suit. See the table where Ralphie’s dad wanted to display his tacky leg lamp. Gaze out a back window at the shed where Black Bart hid out. …

This past weekend saw the grand opening of The Christmas Story House. The house, used primarily for exterior shots in the 1983 filming, was renovated to look just like Ralphie’s home in the movie by owner Brian Jones, a lifelong Christmas Story fan.

At the museum gift shop, you can buy a chocolate BB rifle or a replica leg lamp from Red Rider Leg Lamps, started by Jones in 2003. And, I hope, a copy of Jean Shepherd’s In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, on which the movie was based. Ho ho ho!

*  *  *

Interestingly, I had a comment on the post last month [2008] — while we were away — from the people at the tourist organization, Positively Cleveland, about their “What I Want for Christmas” essay contest, which had a December 3 deadline.

There were two contests, one for those ages 16 and under and one for those 17 older. Prizes for the junior set included, among other things, a $100 gift certificate to Pearl of the Orient, the official Chinese restaurant of A Christmas Story House and Museum; a four-pack of general admission tickets to A Christmas Story House and Museum; and a four-pack of general admission tickets to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.  No BB guns, however, because you’d shoot your eye out.

Prizes for the oldsters were pretty much the same, except a full-size leg lamp was substituted for the restaurant gift certificate.

Any fan of A Christmas Story has probably stumbled over the latest curiosities, two new fan flicks: Road Trip for Ralphie and Shooting Your Eye Out: The Untold Christmas Story.   Makes you wonder what Jean Shepherd might make of all this humbug.  Creeping meatballism, perhaps?

On the other hand, for pure unadulterated Shep, you can try the Jean Shepherd Netcast and The Brass Figlagee. Merry Christmas, fatheads!

Silver bells, infidels

One of the finest examples of grudging respect, emphasis on the grudging, in a long time came last week in a video of holiday greetings from Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative leader, Brian Pallister:

I wanted to wish everyone a really, really Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah … all you infidel atheists out there, I want to wish you the very best also. I don’t know what you celebrate during the holiday season. I myself, celebrate the birth of Christ, but it’s your choice, and I respect your choice. If you want to celebrate nothing, and just get together with friends, that’s good, too. All the best.

All the best, indeed. It rather makes you wonder if somebody triple-dog dared Mr. Pallister, and if his comments are the adult version of the classic flagpole licking.

At the risk of being redundant, I should mention, for any non-Canadians reading, 1. Progressive Conservative doesn’t actually mean that a conservative is progressive, and 2. PC is the abbreviation for Progressive Conservative and not politically correct.

So you probably won’t be surprised to learn that Mr. Pallister was surprised to learn that a number of people were dismayed with his choice of words. He says he understood “infidel” to mean someone without religion; however, it tends to be more commonly defined, by the Oxford English Dictionary and others, as “a person who does not believe in a religion that someone regards as the true religion”. A critical distinction.

In light of the general dismay, Mr. Pallister said he didn’t mean to offend anyone, but didn’t actually apologize for giving offense:

I just ask that people in Manitoba … forgive me at this time of year if they think that I have stepped on their toes, but I sincerely just meant to include everyone in my best wishes. That’s all.

He also said he believes his comment was “torqued” by political opponents. The good news, however, evident to anyone who watches the video, is that the only torquing was done by Mr. Pallister himself. The PC leader also said he doesn’t regret using the term “infidel atheists”, but rather “regret(s) any time there is a reaction like this.” It goes without saying that the way to avoid such regret, and reactions, in the future is to keep one’s mouth closed whenever one’s wayward foot starts to wander.

Speaking of Christmas movies, one of my favorites is “The Bishop’s Wife”, with David Niven as the bishop, Loretta Young as the wife, Cary Grant as the suave and swoony angel, and some top-notch writing. That’s because the original book was written by author and poet Robert Nathan, a Sephardic Jew as it happens, and screenwriters Leonardo Bercovici and Robert Sherwood (a speechwriter for FDR and Pulitzer Prize winner). One of their gems is the Bishop’s sermon at the movie’s conclusion,

Tonight I want to tell you the story of an empty stocking. Once upon a midnight clear, there was a child’s cry. A blazing star hung over a stable and wise men came with birthday gifts. We haven’t forgotten that night down the centuries; we celebrate it with stars on Christmas trees, the sound of bells and with gifts. But especially with gifts. You give me a book; I give you a tie. Aunt Martha has always wanted an orange squeezer and Uncle Henry could do with a new pipe. We forget nobody, adult or child. All the stockings are filled… all that is, except one. And we have even forgotten to hang it up. The stocking for the child born in a manger. It’s his birthday we are celebrating. Don’t ever let us forget that. Let us ask ourselves what he would wish for most… and then let each put in his share. Loving kindness, warm hearts and the stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shining gifts that make peace on earth.

Which is so beautifully and elegantly conveyed that it can move even some infidel atheists. Because what most of us are celebrating at this time of year, no matter what we believe, is loving kindness, warm hands, tolerance, and peace on earth.

It’s all enough to make one hope that Mr. Pallister finds a good speechwriter, rather than a lump of coal, in his stocking on Christmas morning.

Winter

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After lolling and lazing about over the Christmas holidays, it was back to work for the New Year. We took several of our finished steers to the packers for customers who wanted organic beef. We’ve been selling halves and whole steers, and also combination packages. The kids helped us with some of the packages and we got a proper assembly line going. Have also sold some of our broiler chickens, and a trailer is coming for a dozen or so finished steers this weekend. Laura’s pullets, which arrived as day-old chicks in August, started laying last month and everyone, family and customers alike, are all happy that our egg drought is over. More January stuff:

:: Lots of curling. The kids have after-schooling curling on Tuesday afternoons, junior league curling Monday night (the three are curling with a friend and doing well, they start playoffs next week), and curling with Tom on Wednesdays for the men’s league. And various bonspiels on the weekend; we just had the local junior bonspiel, and the boys won the junior high division curling with two friends (and got second place overall for points), and Laura got second place in the senior high division. More curling up between now and mid-March, and my mother-in-law won some tickets to the Brier, so Tom and the kids will probably be going to at least one game in the big city.

:: Getting ready for 4H public speaking in two clubs. Laura has two speeches, one on antibiotic resistance in beef and the other on her time at the Young Ornithologists’ Workshop last summer. The boys are doing a presentation together for one club (How to Make Jerky), and speeches for the other (Daniel on M. Bombardier and his snowmobiles, Davy on the history of root beer).

:: I wear two hats for the music festival, promotions co-ordinator (getting information packages with syllabi out to families and teachers) and mother. Registration went well the other week (numbers down a bit), and after 4H public speaking is done, the kids will hit the memorizing hard. I’m going to use Laura’s help again with promotions — last year she baked some chocolate chip cookies which we delivered to the local newspapers with the press releases.

:: The big library remodel is done and it looks wonderful. The library hadn’t had a facelift of any sort since it was first built in the early eighties, so this was long overdue. We were lucky to have a librarian and staff with vision and determination to take this on. I’ve been on the board for years and have thought every now and then of stepping down, but am so glad I stuck around. Well, except for the part about being on the policy committee and starting a review of all our policies this month. Ugh.

:: Planning meetings for the fair for three of us. Committee budgets to approve, hall booklet to change, sponsors to sweet talk.

:: Laura was invited by her aunt to the season home opener of the Edmonton Oilers, great fun even if they didn’t win…

:: I had “pre-ordered” (nasty term) the latest Flavia de Luce novel, Speaking from Among the Bones by Alan Bradley, for Laura, and it arrived last week. I also bought her the dvd of the documentary, “Birders: The Central Park Effect”, since we don’t have cable/satellite television, it’s not available on YouTube in Canada, and there’s no chance any of the libraries in our library system will bring in such an American item.

:: latest documentaries for school: “Bowling for Columbine” and “Who Killed the Electric Car?”

:: latest reading for school: George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language”, which I think the kids are all ready for. I’m using my old copy of The Orwell Reader, which I bought because of the introduction by Richard Rovere, the subject of my senior history thesis in university. Happily, The Reader is still in print. I think along with the essay we’ll read this recent Guardian article by Steven Poole, and Frank Luntz’s recent Washington Post piece, “Why Republicans Should Watch Their Language”. And why citizens should watch very carefully when politicians start to watch, and change, their language.

Another book on the list, Mrs. Mike, very Canadian, very gritty, very plucky…

:: More in the learning to be a good consumer department: we’ve started watching a few older TV shows at lunchtime — last month CTV was airing episodes of Gail Vaz-Oxlade’s “Til Debt Do Us Part” and then switched over to “Princess”. Quite eye-opening for the kids on the evils of credit and spending more than you make. Followed up with “Property Virgins”, where no-one seems to have heard of starter houses and everyone wants stainless steel appliances and granite countertops.

:: The college in town is celebrating its centennial and as part of the festivities they organized what’s hoped to be a Guinness world record giant toboggan run; the toboggan itself was 36′ long (that’s Davy at the top of this post, tucked in just inside the front curve of the giant sled) and had to slide 100 meters. Tom was asked to take official measurements and the kids went along for the fun,

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The kids with the giant toboggan,

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Coming up later this month:

:: dogsledding as part of the 4H Outdoor club

:: a hands-on six-hour calving course for the kids, at the local agricultural college

:: annual organic farming recertification, aka a pile of paperwork, sigh…

Recent nifty discoveries:

Paper roller coasters

Bar Keeper’s Friend; I had used this before moving to Canada but until last fall never saw it on Canadian store shelves, at least not on the prairies. I spotted it at Home Depot a few months ago, and it’s been the best thing for my kitchen sink, which after 14 years, had some pretty stubborn stains after cherry and berry season.  It’s also the best, easiest, and least toxic cleanser I’ve found in 18 years to use on rust stains from our well water.

It’s light out now until at least 5:30. In December it was getting dark just after 4 pm. And sunrise is now around 8 am instead of an hour later, and by the end of the month the sun will be up before 7:30. Hooray!

Blueberry Oatmeal Squares, from CBC’s show, Best Recipes Ever; Laura made these twice in three days, doubling the recipe the second time. The perfect way to use the gallons of blueberries etc I froze last summer.

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Canadian Curlews

After 17 years in Canada, I’m still not entirely up on my CanLit and find lots of surprises. The latest one is Last of the Curlews by Fred Bodsworth, published in 1955. So for anyone looking for some modern CanLit for older students, a living book on extinct/endangered species, and a modern classic movie (adapted from the book) for younger children about extinct/endangered species, we have a couple of recommendations.

A bit of background to explain. For her two 4H clubs, Laura is writing two speeches, one on birds that are extinct, the other on birds that are virtually extinct. Going over her speeches with her, I learned about birds I’d never heard of (not hard for me, since unlike Laura, I don’t sleep with a copy of Sibley’s and read almost exclusively about birds). One of the extinction stories I found quite moving is about the Eskimo curlew. I’ve borrowed a bit from Laura’s speech.

The Eskimo curlew, a medium-sized shorebird in the sandpiper family, is said to have been among the birds that guided Christopher Columbus to the new world. But the curlew is so rare now from overhunting 100 years ago that it’s very probably extinct. If there are any still in existence, scientists think they number fewer than 50 adult birds, when once the population was in the millions and they flew in flocks so thick they formed dark clouds one kilometer wide and long.

If it sounds rather like the story of the passenger pigeon, there are parallels. Nineteenth century American market hunters in need of a replacement for the pigeon, which they had hunted into extinction, looked about and proceeded to do the same sad thing to the Eskimo curlew, which they called “doughbirds” — the birds, heavy from gorging themselves on berries, fruit, and insects in their breeding grounds in the Northwest Territories and Alaska, would put on a thick layer of fat in preparation for their journey. The curlews, again like the passenger pigeons, were so tightly spaced as a flock that a single shotgun blast could easily kill about 20 birds. The survivors had an unfortunate habit of circling back for their injured or dead flockmates, giving the hunters yet another chance. Hunters first starting shooting the birds on their spring migration, then, looking for even more, headed for the curlew breeding grounds, where men would blind the birds with lanterns and then club them.

The Eskimo curlew’s migration, we read, was one of the longest and most complex in the animal kingdom. The winter journey involved a large clockwise circle, starting at the subarctic Canadian tundra, through the western hemisphere, east through Labrador, down through the Atlantic, across the southern Caribbean, and finally to the Argentinian pampas and Chile.

Another strike against the Eskimo curlew, just as it should have been rebounding from overhunting, was the loss of one its important prey species, the Rocky Mountain grasshopper, or locust. If you read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “On the Banks of Plum Creek”, you might remember the almost biblical plague of locusts in the chapter, “The Glittering Cloud”:

The cloud was hailing grasshoppers.  The cloud was grasshoppers. Their bodies hid the sun and made darkness. Their thin, large wings gleamed and glittered. The rasping whirring of their wings filled the whole air and they hit the ground an dthe house with the noise of a hailstorm.

… Grasshoppers covered the ground, there was not one bare bit to step on. Laura had to step on grasshoppers and they smashed squirming and slimy under her feet. …

Then Laura heard another sound, one big sound made of tiny nips and snips and gnawings.

“The wheat!” Pa shouted. He dashed out the back door and ran toward the wheat-field.

The locusts were the farmers’ scourge on the Great Plains in the 1870s, and their obliteration was as accidental as it was complete, as well as devastating for the curlew population. In fact, entemologist Dr. Jeffrey Lockwood has called it “the only complete elimination of an agricultural pest species”. What happened, Dr. Lockwood discovered, is that

Between outbreaks, the locust hid out in the river valleys of Wyoming and Montana — the same river valleys that settlers had discovered were best suited for farming.

By converting these valleys into farms — diverting streams for irrigation, allowing cattle and sheep to graze in riparian areas, and eliminating beavers and their troublesome dams — the pioneers unknowingly wiped out locust sanctuaries. They destroyed the locust’s equivalent of [the Monarch butterfly’s] Mexican forest wintering grounds. They doomed the species.

For the rest of the fascinating story, you can read Dr. Lockwood’s article here.

Last summer, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service said it is seeking any information about the Eskimo curlew, and will review whether the bird should continue to be classified as endangered or formally designated as extinct. The last sighting confirmed by the Fish and Wildlife Service was in Nebraska in 1987.

Getting back to the point of this post, while helping Laura, we discovered a celebrated Canadian novel written in 1955, Last of the Curlews by Fred Bodsworth, which is part of Canadian publisher McClelland & Stewart’s New Canadian Library line; I just ordered a copy. I like the idea of the book as a bridge to fiction, especially modern classic Canadian fiction, for her since she reads so much nonfiction (especially so much bird-related nonfiction), and also as an entree into CanLit for an older student who’s ready for a bigger challenge, but not quite ready for some of CanLit’s heavier offerings — though like most CanLit, this book is sad.  Here’s an excerpt from Chapter One:

The Arctic day was long, and despite the tundra gales which whistled endlessly across the unobstructed land the day was hot and humid. The curlew alternately probed the mudflats for food and patrolled his territory, and all the time he watched the land’s flat horizons with eyes that never relaxed. Near mid-day a rough-legged hawk appeared far to the north, methodically circling back and forth across the river and diving earthward now and then on a lemming that incautiously showed itself among the reindeer moss. The curlew eyed the hawk apprehensively as the big hunter’s circling brought it slowly upriver towards the curlew’s territory. Finally the roughleg crossed the territory boundary unmarked on the ground but sharply defined in the curlew’s brain. The curlew took off in rapid pursuit, his long wings stroking the air deeply and his larynx shrieking a sharp piping alarm as he closed in on the intruder with a body weight ten times his own. For a few seconds the hawk ignored the threatened attack, then turned back northward without an attempt at battle. It could have killed the curlew with one grasp of its talons, but it was a killer only when it needed food, and it gave ground willingly before a bird so maddened with the fire of the mating time.

The sun dipped low, barely passing from view, and the curlew’s first Arctic night dropped like a grey mist around him. The tundra cooled quickly, and as it cooled the gale that had howled all day suddenly died. Dusk, but not darkness, followed.

The curlew was drawn by an instinctive urge he felt but didn’t understand to the dry ridge of cobblestone with the thick mat of reindeer moss at its base where the nest would be. In his fifth summer now, he had never seen a nest or even a female of his kind except the nest and mother he had briefly known in his own nestling stage, yet the know-how of courtship and nesting was there, unlearned, like a carry-over from another life he had lived. And he dozed now on one leg, bill tucked under the feathers of his back, beside the gravel bar which awaited the nest that the bird’s instinct said there had to be.

Tomorrow or the next day the female would come, for the brief annual cycle of life in the Arctic left time for no delays.

It sounds as if it would make a wonderful living book choice for conservation and natural history studies, too. There’s another edition, a 1990s reissue, which came about because “Pulitzer Prize-winning poet W.S. Merwin found this slim 1955 novel on a shelf in the house of friends, and, struck with the ‘plain, succinct evocation and beauty’ of Fred Bodsworth’s writing, suggested its reissue to a publisher.” That volume has a foreword by Merwin and an afterword by Murray Gell-Man, with J.J. Audubon’s painting of Eskimo curlews on the cover.

And for younger children, Last of the Curlews was made into a one-hour animated movie in 1972 to teach children about conservation. I was surprised to learn that it not only featured Vincent Van Patten (I’m old enough to remember “Apple’s Way”), but was also the very first ABC Afterschool Special, winning an Emmy for children’s broadcasting. I don’t read entries at IMDB much, but the reviews for, and memories of, Last are poignant. The animation by Hanna-Barbera is lovely, not at all what comes to mind when I think of H-B (primarily the Flintstones, etc.). We were hopefully optimistic when we heard about this, and delighted to find that it’s available, in several parts, on YouTubePart 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5. But a warning that the cartoon version doesn’t sugarcoat the story, which is not a happy or hopeful one. Extinction is extinction. We found a box of Kleenex helpful.

Also on YouTube is a little video blurb by Canadian eco-photographer Edward Burtynsky on Last of the Curlews for the Toronto Public Library.

Digging around online, we learned that Charles Frederick (Fred) Bodsworth is an internationally renowned naturalist, journalist, and novelist. Born in Port Burwell, Ontario, in 1918, after apparently spending some time working on tugboats and in tobacco fields, he became a reporter for the St. Thomas (ON) Times-Journal at the age of 22 and later was a writer and editor both at The Toronto Star and at Maclean’s magazine. Mr. Bodsworth left Maclean’s in 1955 to focus on magazine and nature writing, and novels. He also served as president of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists from 1964 to 1967. In 2002, he received the prestigious Writer’s Trust Matt Cohen Lifetime Achievement Award. I didn’t see any mention online of an obituary or his death, so I hope he is still hale, hearty, and watching birds at 94.

In other school-related news, work on the other speeches and presentation is going well, we’re in the midst of musical festival registration (both as registrars and registrants), the kids are happily galloping through more of Life of Fred, and in the phys ed department, curling season has picked up dramatically and the kids are curling quite well. Laura is also working on a summer internship application, so we’ll keep our fingers crossed for that. Oh, and roles have been handed out for Spring’s theater production of “Alice in Wonderland” so there is lots of singing throughout the house.  That and Davy’s cooking — he made baking powder biscuits yesterday and today some delicious gravy from our moose roast — are keeping us warm in this week’s cold snap. And -51 is verrrry snappy.


Wise words, or, Would you like some wine with your nose?

“I, uh, notice you don’t have any tattoos. I think that’s a wise choice. I don’t think Jackie Onassis would’ve gone as far if she’d have had an anchor on her arm.”

Steve Martin in Roxanne (1987)

More on history and food

If you happen to find yourself in NYC next week, food historian Francine Segan is speaking at the 92nd Street Y on the history on the history of pie (hat tip to Allison Hemler at Serious Eats NY):

Pie! A Tasting and History, Tuesday, November 17, 2009, 7 pm – 8:30 pm

From the Y’s website:

Pies, both sweet and savory, have a fascinating history. find out the stories behind pie-eating contests and the three-foot-high pasta pies served to Italian royalty; pie recipes that won $25,000; why the expression “American as apple pie” is grossly untrue and much more. Includes tasting of mock apple, lemon meringue and banana cream pies, tarts and savory pies. Recipe handouts allow you to indulge your sweet tooth at home.

As a child I was always intrigued by the recipe for mock apple pie on the Ritz crackers box (and also by the tale of Ma Ingalls’ similar pie, made with green tomatoes), but never quite intrigued or brave enough to actually make it. 

If you can’t make it to New York but would like to include more food in your history — or music and movie appreciation –studies, Ms. Segan has a list of her lecture topics here (Feasting with Caesar: Lush Life in Ancient Rome and The King’s Table: Sea Serpent Stew & Dragon’s Brew, for delicious example) and has also written a number of cookbooks to spark your imagination:

Shakespeare’s Kitchen: Renaissance Recipes for the Contemporary Cook

The Philosopher’s Kitchen: Recipes from Ancient Greece and Rome for the Modern Cook

The Opera Lover’s Cookbook: Menus for Elegant Entertaining

Movie Menus: Recipes for Perfect Meals with Your Favorite Films