During the past forty years or so, I have written several epitaphs, each reflective of my state of mind, each supplanting the last with some newer notion of who I am. Here is the latest iteration and its source.
Not quite half way through Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy, I’ve become a true believer. While the books are astounding, there is also a worthy BBC adaptation from 2000 which merits your attention… remarkably true, it seems to me, to the vastness of Peake’s conception in only four hours. [Not incidentally, half the cast seem to have come from “Harry Potter” and “Nanny McPhee”!]
The opening credits of the BBC Gormenghast are accompanied by the music of Richard Rodney Bennett: a setting for boy soprano of a Peake poem given to the tutors at Titus Groan’s school, I offer the lyrics here for their melancholy:
This is the shorter version of a much longer poem at the heart of the book and will appear on what passes for my tombstone.
The Saturday after Hal Holt’s funeral, Howard continued his exploration of the spiritual landscape. The list had always included Gnostic Grove, but now he had a special reason to write about it.
“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
The scattering of Hal Holt’s ashes last week brought a number of letters and e-mails from friends around the world, most of them sharing stories about their varied encounters with Hal in every imaginable context. It also brought a number of inquiries about the history of Gnostic Grove itself. The irony is that Hal would have offered far more interesting and authoritative answers to that question.
Hal’s memorial boulder joined a ring of large stones that have intrigued us since the earliest European explorers visited this place. Fennimore County was carved from land that had previously been home to the Sac and Fox people, and it was always assumed that the ring had been theirs. Archaeologists from the University of Iowa confirm that the Grove had been used for hundreds of years by tribal councils. But the ring of stones at its center seems to pre-date any permanent habitation hereabouts.
The boulders themselves are granite but of a type that is neither native to the area nor deposited by receding glaciers. That happened commonly in Illinois and Minnesota but not here. So, where’d they come from?
The first white settlers associated the ring’s imagined regularity with the Druids—Stonehenge and all that—and fancied an earlier unrecorded presence by blue-painted sun worshipers, gnarly Vikings or some other folks who had gone terribly off course. Whence the appellation “Gnostic Grove.”
The Gnostics were keepers of mystic wisdom at the birth of Christianity, but their hidden knowledge (gnosis in Greek means knowledge) transcended religious and cultural boundaries. Even the Sac and Fox must have sensed the Grove’s spiritual presence. From Agincourt’s founding in 1857, Gnostic Grove has been special, and the history of its use is a history of us.
Oral history suggests that our first arrivals in the 1850s used it just as the Sac and Fox had done: as a camp site. But with the ordering of town and farm, the unkempt Grove became a place of recreation, a sunny yet sheltering space along the north bank of Crispin Creek for picnics and such. The four quadrants of the original town site developed at different rates, but the southeast quad (the one nearest the Grove) developed last and helped maintain the Grove’s sense of isolation from urban life. That remoteness made the Grove popular for private matters, events meant to evade the prying public eye.
In the post-Civil War years of a growing American labor movement, for example, the Grove hosted meetings of men who sought the possibility of collective bargaining; meetings meant to subvert the standing socioeconomic order. No bad thing.
And at the other end of the spectrum of respectability, perhaps, the Grove also hosted legendary religious revivals with total-immersion baptisms, Crispin Creek standing in for the River Jordan. Apparently the Holy Spirit has been a regular at the Grove.
The burgeoning sexual revolution of the twentieth century brought another sort of activity to the Grove, when it became a favorite teenage make-out spot. One wonders how many of our citizens were conceived there. And how odd that both the cleansing of original sin and its enthusiastic practice would be conjoined at that one location.
The Grove’s unspoiled natural beauty has drawn most of us at one time or another, alone and in small groups, for morning tai-chi, afternoon picnics and late-night bonfires. I’ve written about more personal associations with Gnostic Grove; of how Diane Stokes explored the creek and its surroundings as a budding biologist and how her beloved uncle Hal has become a permanent resident.
All these associations, harbored so close to our hearts, convinced the county fathers during the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976 to make Gnostic Grove a public place. It will forever be a nature preserve set apart from the heavy hand of development, so that future generations can make their own associations and find a place for the Grove in their own spiritual landscapes.
The sound you hear is Hal…applauding.
A meditation on death and turtles (Part 2)
This column appeared in The Plantagenet on Saturday, August 29th, 2008. It is the other half of a piece Howard had written almost a year earlier, though he did not know it at the time that his story would have two chapters.
“A few figs from thistles…“
by Howard A. Tabor
Turtles and Muskrats…again
Last year I wrote here about the Muskrat Valley and two of its worthier species, the muskrat and the turtle, still found in our local waters. Both species figure prominently in the creation myths of other cultures, particularly the Hindu and the Iroquois.
Hindus believe the world was built on the back of a turtle, presumably a place of patience and imperturbability. The Iroquois go them one better: “Turtle Island,” a sanctuary created by the animals for humans to inhabit, was built of earth gathered from the ocean floor by the industrious muskrat, the only animal successful in that endeavor. Our local connection with both turtle and muskrat seems fortuitous, as it brings together two of the finer qualities: industriousness and patience or persistence. Admirable qualities each, and especially so when they come together in a single human life.
But the world became a little emptier this week.
Harold Russell Holt—Hal to most of us who knew him, and everybody did—has left the world of the living, and left it better than when he arrived eighty-eight years ago. I am better for it and so are you, though you may not have known his name or had the pleasure of his cantankerous company. Tuesday’s obituary will give you the facts of his life, the dates [1920-2008] and names and livelihood. But in Hal’s case the obituary format seems especially formulaic.
I have always known Hal, twenty-five years my senior, since my extended family made so much local history and Hal’s kept track of it. He, his mother Victoria Holt and his grandfather Malcolm Holt have been successive keepers of local history at the Fennimore County History Center, now so beautifully housed at the old Vakkerdahl place. That agricultural and local history facility has largely been the fruit of his efforts—of his patience and industry—and is become a model for the state. It is his legacy.
As an observer of the local scene (though not often enough a participant in it), I have habitually called upon Hal’s memory for names and dates and incidents in the colorful history of Agincourt, Fennimore County and the Muskrat Valley. And Hal has ever been forthcoming with those facts. But facts in isolation are merely ingredients in the recipe for a marvelous dish: until they are measured, proportioned, blended and baked—again, with industry and patience—we cannot fully enjoy their promise. Hal and the volunteers at the History Center have served up some wondrous fare; the nourishing history delivered there has been both tasty and satisfying.
I spent as much time as possible with Hal during his final illness and admire the persistence of character in that adversity. Death was near but knew better than speak up, or even clear its throat. Hal was never more cantankerous than in his religiosity; it seemed the one thing that genuinely irritated him. ‘My Christian friends,’ he would say, ‘tell me about their Heaven: endless Hosannas in the company of a bunch of Celestial ass kissers! Sounds like Hell to me.” He shared his vision of eternity; a mathematical perspective that harkens back to the fifth-grade and Miss Veronica Piper, (who taught us both).
“Eternity is going to be either an average or a median of my life,” he told me about a month ago. “Averages aren’t real; medians are. Either the sum total of your experience will be put in a blender and pulverized to a grey-green pulp—an average of everything you knew and did and were—and then you get to gulp a glass of it every day…forever. Or you’ll be privileged to occupy the median day of your life, a real day, one that you’ll remember. And from that place to view the full extent of your experience, high and low, sweet and savory, tart and bitter. Now that sounds like Heaven.”
Last year I tried to tell you about ‘Old ’88,’ the turtle who played such an odd role in the Holt family story. That story seemed then to have come full circle; to be complete. But the cycles of time have a way of fooling us. And that story wasn’t entirely over until last week. Like the turtle, Hal died in his native habitat, doing what he knew. He, too, was eighty-eight. And in his own cranky way, Hal’s ashes were scattered—illegally—last night at Gnostic Grove, the very place where Dr. Diane Stokes-Sanchez had found the shell of “Old ’88.” Hal’s DNA will mingle with the turtle’s for the rest of time.
And a new boulder has joined the others in the Council Ring at Gnostic Grove. Except this one has an inscription: “Harold Russell Holt 1920-2008. He taught history and now he has become it.”
A meditation on death and turtles (Part 1)
On the trip home from the State Fair several years ago, I saw a turtle laboring across the interstate. Traffic was light that early on the Sunday before Labor Day, but the turtle’s chances for success seemed slim, so I pulled to the shoulder and walked back to lend a hand. Since there was, indeed, some marshland on the other side of the highway, I drove to the next exit, reversed direction and ferried my leathery friend to its destination. Back on the road, I recalled Howard Tabor’s column from The Plantagenet on September 22nd 2007.
“A few figs from thistles…“
by Howard A. Tabor
There will not be a pop quiz at the end of this article.
Turtles are of the Order Testudines, and all living turtles belong to the crown group Chelonia. Wikipedia tells me that they are among the oldest reptiles—older than lizards and snakes—which may account for their central role in Hindu and Native American creation myths. Coincidentally, those same and other creation myths also credit the industrious muskrat with laying the foundations of the earth. There are no constellations named for either the turtle or the muskrat, which seems an oversight worth correcting.
Frankly, I’ve seen more turtles than muskrats along our riverbanks and Crispin Creek. (Though my unrefined observational skills may be a consequence of persistent daydreaming in Mrs. Lawton’s tenth-grade science class.) We have several turtle species here in the Muskrat Valley, though fewer every year, along with frogs and fireflies, thanks to the presence of our own ungrateful species. Muskrats and turtles also constitute an incidental part of each other’s diet. Seems fair. Here is a story passed on to me by Hal Holt about his granddad, a story centered upon the turtle, a particular turtle, and also upon the virtue of patience and upon revelation in the fullness of time.
Malcolm Holt’s journals—an almost daily meditation on seventy years of local history—include this entry for May 12th, 1898: “Went with Libby to the Grove. She wanted to show me a Tortoise found along the Creek. Someone has graved the number 88 into its shell.” Libby was his daughter Elizabeth Merrifield Holt; the Grove was and still is Gnostic Grove; and the Creek is our own Crispin Creek long defining the south edge of town. Libby had found a turtle with what appeared to be an adolescent bit of 19th century graffiti etched into its back: the date 1888. Malcolm’s journal entry might have remained a tender moment in the bonding of parent and child had it not been for another family event almost a hundred years later.
Please forgive the biblical begetting, for Libby Holt married Lester Prentice in 1913. Her daughter Margaret Prentice married Philip Kuehn in 1940. Her daughter Elizabeth (Libby) Kuehn married, in turn, Jack Fahnstock and then Mitchell Stokes in 1970. And her daughter Diane Stokes has just married Daniel Sanchez (now both hyphenated as Stokes-Sanchez) and returned to teach science at Fennimore County High School. As a high-school biology student in the mid-90s, Diane sat in the same classroom I had, where Mrs. Virginia Lawton still presided. Presumably, Diane daydreamed less than I, because she is about to complete her Ph.D. in biology at Iowa City. The subject of her dissertation? “Chelonia of the Muskrat River Watershed in Northwestern Iowa.” I wish I’d paid more attention to Mrs. Lawton.
As a student in Mrs. Lawton’s ‘Environmental Science’ class, Diane honed her focus on biology, stalking the same riverbanks and creek beds on weekend afternoons—sometimes with me. On one of those afternoons a dozen years ago Diane was scanning the sandy north bank of Crispin Creek for signs of reptilian burrows and chanced to find a turtle shell. Anxious to determine its species, she used a twig to carefully free it from sand and roots. Rinsed in the creek, its color brought back, she recognized it as Graptemys pseudogeographica, the False Map Turtle, now a protected species not found in this part of Iowa. How long had it been in the bank? Anyone else might have casually skipped the turtle shell across the water, not even pausing to watch it sink. Instead, excited, Diane telephoned Mrs. Lawton and the two converged at school, where our science library confirmed her speculation; a false map turtle it was. And rare in these parts. Cleaned and preserved, it revealed one more startling bit of information.
The turtle’s upper shell or carapace is composed of bones that constitute its spine and ribs, with a covering of horny plates called scutes. As the animal grows, the pattern of the scutes changes, like watching the hands of a clock move, no doubt. For when the women inspected the shell they found evidence of scratching; marks from the claws of a predator (like the muskrat) or made during mating. But the marks were too regular: four diamond shapes of about the same size. Telling the story to family at dinner that night, Diane was surprised to hear the legend of her great-grandmother Libby Holt, an eight-year-old with an unrequited 19th-century passion for Nature; a girl who had taken her father on a warm spring afternoon to see an oddity in the natural world, some unexplained marks on a turtle’s back. Once more in the lab, Diane understood those marks: the diamond-shaped 8s had lain across the scutes and their components had grown in different, opposing directions. She had found her great-grandmother’s turtle, enshrined in oral tradition as “Old ’88.”
Given the better-paying jobs that abound for someone with such credentials, we should be grateful Diane Stokes-Sanchez has come home to fill the petite but substantial shoes of her mentor Virginia Lawton (and my mentor as well, if only I’d had the good sense God gave a rutabaga). How many more young scientists will come from a lineage like theirs? And how many of their stories will come full circle?
Sturm und Drang
Eight or nine miles west of Agincourt on the way toward Sioux City, the Northwest Iowa Traction Co. ran a spur line to the resort community along the shores of Lake Sturm und Drang. Technically they are two lakes, but after a large rain the high water covers a sand bar separating them and unifies the two bodies of water into a single lake. Its Germanic name is calculated to conjure their appearance in both fall and spring, when winds roil the waters into a grey-blue froth and fishing boats cling to the nearest dock. Not a lake for the faint of heart. Artist Gregory Arnett may have captured Sturm und Drang’s character better than anyone.
Sturm und Drang is a phrase usually translated from the German as “storm and stress,” which puts this lake into a completely different category from those placid puddles in northern Iowa or central Minnesota. The many resorts along its southern and western shores attract a difference sort; hardly the summer people of water skiing and sun bathing. If you’re looking for an aquatic counterpart, try the rock-bound coast of Maine.
Gregory Arnett, “Early Winter Evening” (2010; oil on birch panel)
Moody’s Resort has been serving the manic-depressive summer community for more than seventy-five years and may be best known for an art colony that congregated there from the 1920s into the World War II years, holding an annual exhibit and sale at Agincourt’s Tennant Memorial Gallery.
When I fall, it hurts
Blanche DuBois famously “depended on the kindness of strangers.” My defenders and protectors, on the other hand, have always been much closer at hand.
Through the last forty years at least–the totality of my tenure at NDSU–and through vagaries of depression and worse, there have been people who stood between me and what I justly deserved; who insulated me from those oh so many aspects of being human that might have defeated me, and undoubtedly would in the normal course of events. I have never thanked them. Perhaps it’s one of those debts paid forward.
When I fall, it hurts. And when I fail, it’s worse. This was one of those weeks.
Two years ago I spoke at UNLV thanks to our friends at KLAI+JUBA. The topic was predictable, I suppose: “Welcome to Agincourt, Iowa. The town that time forgot and geography misplaced.” I was in my best form for a receptive and enthusiastic audience. In a conversation the next day at the K+J office, one of their remarkable staff (I cannot now recall who it was) spoke of a character they had imagined in Agincourt: an ordinary citizen–so ordinary, perhaps, as to be extraordinary, like an unmarked police car–unaware of a special power they possess; the ability to avert disaster by their simple presence, to be an unwitting empath, affecting the lives of others with none the wiser for their unintended intervention.
Imagine the chance encounter with a passerby who inquires about the time, perhaps eight seconds that delay you crossing the street between two parked cars and a horrific accident that would otherwise have happened. Imagine a person in the next booth at the Koffee Kup who overhears your conversation about adoption and turns to observe that they know someone in Sioux City who could be your sibling, a clue that reunites a family separated by abandonment thirty years before. Then imagine that person unaware of their ability to alter lives for the better. Maybe you’re that person.
I’ve been nurturing this seed for almost two years and think the time may be right to create this character and set them loose in the community of Agincourt.
As ever, advice is always appreciated.
I ran across this clipping from The Daily Plantagenet concerning Anson Tennant’s trip to Europe in 1915. For twenty-one years everyone thought he had gone down with the ship. But in 1936 he was found to be living in northern Spain, where he’d been brought as an amnesiac survivor of the Lusitania tragedy. Anson’s father died thinking his son was lost. But his mother lived long enough to be reunited with him and the family he made in Spain before regaining his memory.
Just thought you’d like to know.
In the 2008 election, more than any other in my experience, I was not uncommitted, but I was also not uncertain of my choice.
American exceptionalism refers to the belief that the United States differs qualitatively from other developed nations, because of its national credo, historical evolution, or distinctive political and religious institutions. Certain persons view American exceptionalism as a product of veiled nationalistic chauvinism, or even jingoism. The term can also be used in a negative sense by critics of American policies to refer to a willful nationalistic ignorance of faults committed by the American government. Dorothy Ross, in Origins of American Social Science (1991), argued that there are three generic varieties of American exceptionalism: 1. supernaturalist explanations which emphasize the causal potency of God in selecting America as a ‘city on a hill’ to serve as an example for the rest of the world,
2. genetic interpretations which emphasize racial traits, ethnicity, or gender, and
3. environmental explanations such as geography, climate, availability of natural resources, social structure, and type of political economy.
Fibonnaci in Iowa
Howard published a piece in late 2008 that gives me faith in the critical thinking skills of America’s youth. If Wally Balthus’ students are a representative sampling, the world will be in good hands soon enough.
“A few figs from thistles…“
by Howard A. Tabor
Fibonnaci and the “Golden Section.” Who knew the Medieval Italian mathematician had made a pit stop in Iowa?
Last week I ran into Wally Balthus at the Koffee Kup; he teaches CADD at Fennimore County High. Wally told me of an interesting discovery made by his students while taking measurements of the old First Baptist Church building. He and history teacher Rowan Oakes are collaborating on a project to record Agincourt’s oldest buildings for the Historic American Buildings Survey at the Library of Congress. Rowan’s students do the background research and write the narrative; Wally’s students make the drawings from photographs and on-site measurements. I hope each group of students is learning from the other.
Translating their rough field notes into CADD drawings, several students noticed a recurrent number: 1.6183…, a non-repeating decimal most often called “The Golden Ratio.” It also happens to be related to a whole-number numerical sequence called a Fibonnaci Series, where each number in the series is the sum of the previous two: 0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21… One of the curious things about Fibonnaci’s series is that the ratio between any two numbers in the sequence approaches 1.6183… as the numbers get bigger! I know, too much information. We’d all rather get our technical data filtered through Sarah Palin.
Fibonnaci was an Italian, and he seems to have borrowed this idea from mathematicians in India. But the “Golden Ratio” also shows up in ancient Greece.
The Greeks, who practically invented geometry as a cornerstone of Western mathematical knowledge, were preoccupied with harmony and proportion. They were convinced that the “Golden Ratio” was perfect and strove to build its harmony into all their buildings—the Parthenon included. Don’t ask me why, but the “Golden Ratio” just looks right and it shows up again and again in both art and nature.
So what did Mr. Balthus’ students observe at First Baptist? Simply that the anonymous builders of that church in the 1860s relied on 1.6183… for many aspects of the design. The width of the church and the length of its first sanctuary are related that way, as is the width and length of the new entry vestibule added several years later. The large windows that light the sanctuary are also proportioned according to the “Golden Ratio,” and so are the entry doors facing the courthouse across the street. Any one of these could be a happy accident, but all of them together are downright creepy.
A quick trip to the Fennimore County History Center and a consultation with the late Hal Holt’s copious notes tell us a little about the building’s origins. It was built about 1868 in a 19th century style called “Greek Revival,” and that Greek-ness may account for the pervasive reliance upon the “Golden Ratio.” Amos Beddowes, an early member at First Baptist, had come here from Connecticut and may have brought the Greek Revival with him to this part of Iowa. He was, among other things, a carpenter who is mentioned in church records. The distinction between architects and builders was minimal on the frontier, so it may be that Beddowes acted as both designer and builder of the original church. But that begs the question of other, later applications of the perfect proportioning derived from 1.6183….
At the public library I ran across a fascinating book about this mysterious number. It’s by Mario Livio and is titled The Golden Ratio and is well worth the read. Less familiar than “pi” (3.14159…), this other number is called “e” and can be found virtually everywhere in the physical world, from designed objects produced by the human imagination to natural phenomena such as the pattern of seeds in a sunflower or the vibrating strings of a violin. Without it, our world would neither look nor sound the same. So I, for one, am grateful for the design sensitivity of Amos Beddowes and the keen observational skills of students in Wally Balthus’ computer draughting class.
Some time I’ll have to tell you about Cissy Beddowes, Amos’ wife and a medicine woman of the Sac and Fox people. She lived to be almost 100. Cissy’s home still stands near the entrance to Riverside Park.
Are you a hedgehog or a fox?
In his essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox” of 1953, Isaiah Berlin posits that there are two ways of being in the world. Which one are you?
“The Hedgehog and the Fox”There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’ Scholars have differed about the correct interpretation of these dark words, which may mean no more than that the fox, for all his cunning, is defeated by the hedgehog’s one defence [sic]. But, taken, figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel—a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance—and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle; these last lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision. The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes; and without insisting on a rigid classification, we may, without too much fear of contradiction, say that, in this sense, Dante belongs to the first category, Shakespeare to the second; Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzcshe, Ibsen, Proust are, in varying degrees, hedgehogs; Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, Joyce are foxes.