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The Ladies of the Literary Society

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

“The Ladies of the Literary Society”

The Japanese tree lilac at Gnostic Grove is at full bloom. But even before you see its creamy effervescence, the scent is overwhelming. Pollenating insects, take note! This annual event triggered several happy memories

Did you know that our sense of smell has more power to stimulate memory than any other sense. For me, that tree is a memorial to the visit of our British friends Margaret and Alec Parks, and my thoughts of them today mean the tree is doing its job.

During their two weeks with us, I was amused more than once that Alec, an army veteran who served in Burma and a plantation superintendent in Rhodesia long before those countries became Myanmar and Zimbabwe, was disoriented by our rational cartesian grid of streets, avenues, and a sprinkling of alleys and lanes. Britain and those other foreign places evaded the Cartesian Curse that came with the Enlightenment and French colonization. Thomas Jefferson was infected with it, otherwise Fennimore county and Agincourt itself would be irregular and organic, and you wouldn’t have to explain metes and bounds as a legal system for recording property at the courthouse.

Rene Descartes offered us a more rational way to position ourselves in space than “…thirty-nine paces from the old oak toward the rising sun on the summer solstice”, so you see why his alternative was seductive. I invite a visit to Salt Lake City: Descartes on acid! And so it was that the original Agincourt townsite filed in the waning years of Enlightenment enthusiasm used a more or less orderly pattern of streets and avenues proceeding in near lockstep outward from a zero-zero point which is still marked with a large bronze “X”.

As the city grew beyond the convenient scale of simply pointing where someone or thing could be found, the abstraction of Fourth avenue and Sixth street as a coordinate for Aunt Harriet became an issue. At which point the ladies of the Literary Society intervened, offering the pattern we know today of N-S numbered streets and E-W avenues named for America’s Transcendental authors — about as UN-cartesian a bunch as you’re likely to find. Invoking Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and James Fenimore Cooper put us all in a literary frame of mind at the very moment a public library was under discussion — by those same ladies, I suspect. Oh, and for inevitable growth they left us Nathaniel Hawthorne, Theodore Parker, and the less-well-known Margaret Fuller as spares.

Be grateful they hadn’t strayed too far outside the rationalist box, or we’d enjoy the pattern of one neighborhood in San Diego where streets and avenues are distinguished by authors and composers, which yields the unwieldy intersection of Tchaikovsky and Dostoyevsky. Or a very Polish section of Lemont, Illinois which honors revered former priests like Fathers Moczygemba and Ledóchowski. Imagine the brackets required to stabilize those projecting aluminum street signs in a high wind!

Lest you think this was an easy and uncontested change, think again. As always there were diehard traditionalists (ruled by numbers, as I am, sadly) who recoiled at The Founders’ expected reactions; the dead have a way of ruling from the Beyond. Others of a more pragmatic bent saw unacceptable expense printing new stationery and the unspecified disorientation of their clientele; a fear that their shops couldn’t be found. But even more vocal were supporters of characters in other categories: trees and flowers (imagine the sensory overload at Catalpa and Quince); dead presidents (what respectable Republican would live on a street named “Garfield”, who was not yet quite dead?); or simply letters of the alphabet (if numbers work E-W, why not letters N-S and an open-ended pattern for expansion?) What a relief that the ladies prevailed, though not envisioning the arrival of a Literary Dark Age in recent years.

How many young readers checked out an Alcott novel because they had been on her street?

Two Interments

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Two Interments…but that’s enough to make the point


State law and convention regulate what we do with the dead. The Shades, Saint Ahab’s, and the Hebrew Burial Ground are home to a couple thousand of our former citizens, the vast majority of them embalmed, placed in sealed caskets, in the hope that each occupant will step forth at the last trump in need of nothing more than a change of clothes. Europeans and those farther afield are far more diverse in their dealings with the dead and our growing multiculturalism may alter local practice.

Visit the Catacombs in Paris or the Ossuary at Sedlec in Chechia, whose interior is bedecked with garlands and pyramidal stacks of human bones, a practice common in the late Middle Ages there, in Spain, and in Italy. All organic matter is removed from the corpse—historically with flesh-eating beetles, but I didn’t ask—and the bones are often grouped by type: femurs stacked here, skulls strung and dangling in graceful catenary curves above you.

Islamic and Jewish law require burial within twenty-four hours, as well as ritual bathing of the deceased beforehand. I once washed the body of my friend and found it a cathartic and contemplative moment, a stillness and focus outside of time, a brief suspension of self. It may be the most intimate act between two people without the risk of procreation.

An increasing number of us will be reduced to ash—even at the end, consumers of energy rather than generators. Read Frank Herbert’s Dune for for the insight of Fremen death rituals and our final responsibility to the tribe. Then there are several options for our ashen remains: retention in an urn and storage in a columbarium or at home—or, for that matter, at the church or lodge hall, or why not the bowling alley or your favorite watering hole. There are potters who will make a glaze of you for the pot that holds the remainder of what you once were. Mine will be scattered in favorite spots: at ancient Delphi, in Greece, home of the oracle whose advice I should have sought, and in the garden of a historic home that shall remain unnamed. [Neither place is aware what they’re in for, so don’t let on.] Closer to home, I’m thinking of two interments and who reside in each.

Prominently sited at The Shades and conspicuous from the entry is the mausoleum of Agincourt’s half-term mayor Edmund FitzGerald Flynn. The sole clue to its occupants are the back-to-back F’s in the entablature—a rare moment of discretion for hizzoner and just possibly a metaphor for the relationship between him and his wife. Its narcissistic grandiosity is otherwise relieved only by graceful proportions and elegant detail, attributable in large measure to his widow Amity Burroughs Flynn, who occupies a shelf above Ed—both in the tomb and the hearts of Agincourters—and is generally credited with its design.

At the other end of the spectrum—and you should be highly suspect here, since I may be an occupant soon enough—is the Tennant family crypt hidden beneath St Crispin’s Chapel, itself tucked into a corner between the nave and chancel of St Joseph-the-Carpenter Episcopal Church. No bronze doors here, nor inscription, nor elegant fluted Ionic shaft, but a simple cellar door accessing what most believe are the lawn mower and garden tools for church grounds maintenance. Most who avail the chapel’s quiet dignity are unaware what lies beneath, on wooden shelves in the rough equivalent of mason jars, nor why their eternal rest is so discrete.

Suddenly Sir Christopher Wren comes to mind. In the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, there is plaque above Wren’s tomb that reads simply: “If ye seek a monument, look about you.”

The Homestead

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

The Homestead

The prehistory of Agincourt is the stuff of enlightened speculation. Evidence of the Sac and Fox and earlier inhabitants is casual and fragmentary—the contents of The Hump (an archaeological excavation from the WPA era) and the occasional arrowhead. Two figures who bridge that transition—to the platting and subsequent incorporation of the city—are Amos Beddowes and his wife, Sac and Fox medicine woman She-listens-to-the-moon.

Amos had served as U.S. government agent to the S&F, but as with Jeremy Irons’ character in the 1986 film “The Mission”, Beddowes came to identify with the native aboriginal cause and “went native”. We recall him best as the carpenter-builder of Agincourt Baptist Church. Mrs Beddowes evocative native name was inevitably Europeanized: She-listens-to-the-moon became Circe, Homeric goddess of all things lunar, and that soon morphed to the more familiar Sissy. If there is a kalendar of local saints and martyrs, the Beddowes family are high in its ranks.

The home they occupied, built by Amos himself and the birthplace of their children John and Mary—she died young of an unnamed fever; he was our first Civil War casualty and returned for a hero’s burial at The Shades—once sat near the intersection of Louisa Avenue and Sixth Street SW. After Amos’ death in 1867 Sissy live their until her own in 1900, always ready to consult on matters of herbal and other alternate remedies. She once traveled to the Hahnemann Hospital in Chicago to offer a seminar on natural remedies. But her more immediate contribution to the community lay in her Margaret Sanger-like role promoting birth control measures that today would jeopardize her freedom, if not her life.

Years after her death, flowers continued to appear on the grave of a woman who had died without heir but with considerable social capital. Their home, as rugged and rustic as its inhabitants, stands restored in Riverside Park, relocated and placed on the National Register of Historic Places (but not without opposition) in 1975. Those who cycle past should stop to pay respects and visit a reproduction of the herbal garden she maintained at the original site. Amos’ tool box is displayed at the Fennimore Heritage Center not far away.

Howard omits much here about the close friendship that grew among Mrs Beddowes and her collaborators in social engineering Annabelle Miller, his great-grandmother Martha Tennant, and Dr Rudyard Fahnstock. That controversial tale will have to await another teller.

Hal’s in a meeting.

“I looked, and looked, and this I came to see—that what I thought was you and you, was really me and me.” —unknown

The image you should be seeing here isn’t quite ready. In the 1970s the historical society in the state where I live acquired a trunk of KKK paraphernalia that had been found in a lodge hall not far from where I live. No one in that community wanted to admit having any connection whatsoever with the stuff but, fortunate for history, chose to send it to a state agency for preservation and interpretation. The archivist put the robes on, and the photo curator took a photograph of him standing in a doorway. The caption read “Frank can’t come to the phone right now. He’s in a meeting.” I adapt that brief story here for Agincourt purposes, since it’s not entirely outside the limits of possibility.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A Tabor

“Hall’s in a meeting…”

The late Hal Holt learned the art of diplomacy (which Reader’s Digest once described as “…the art of letting other people have your way”) early in his long tenure as director of the Fennimore County Heritage Center. Folks have tended to see the museum’s collections as a repository for whatever overflows their attic or basement. Surely future generations, they believe, will profit from Aunt Hepsebah’s spring-form cake pan or Uncle Phineas’s galoshes. Yes, there is room for the ugly and commonplace. But how many butter churns are too many?

A few years before his death, Hal received a call from someone who, for reasons that will be clear, wished anonymity. The acquisition record for what had been offered is incomplete. Whatever information was omitted went to Gnostic Grove with Hal—his ashes were scattered there in 2008. He revealed only that the objects had been discovered during the renovation of an unspecified men’s club.

Ku Klux Klan

The Klan takes its name from the Greek word “κύκλος” or circle and was formed initially in Kentucky or Tennessee (by a Yankee!). During the 1920s, the KKK spread widely in the North, though many communities downplay its presence among us. So it shouldn’t surprise that Klan paraphernalia shows up in basements, attics, and garages of families with no recollection that Uncle Mort went to special meetings on Tuesday nights.

One of Iowa’s most notorious Klan-related events was the funeral of Myrtle Underwood Cook, a Klan matron from a community so small that her funeral was held in the Methodist church at Vinton, approved by a new minister clueless to what was about to put his church on the wrong sort of map. Mrs Cook’s murder remains one of Iowa’s unsolved crimes, and there is no public record of the communities that participated in the 1925 service.

In addition to her Klan affiliation, Mrs Cook was also a high-ranking member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, whose president attended, wearing white Klan robes embroidered with the WCTU insignia. Odd that Temperance would align itself with the intemperate, and that those unable to tolerate alcohol could embrace racial bigotry so wholeheartedly.

So the Klan’s presence in Agincourt is suggested by some regalia in the Heritage Center collections. They aren’t on display, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; but ignorance of the past won’t change it. In fact, a physical confrontation with that robe—which I have seen, by the way, but chose not to touch—might be powerful enough to change any of us still sitting on the fence.

It seems unlikely that we will ever know why these artifacts were found where they were. History often provokes more questions than it answers.

“The Land Between…”

The Land of Counterpane

by Robert Louis Stevenson

When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay
To keep me happy all the day.
And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills.
And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.
I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain
The pleasant Land of Counterpane.
 

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

The Land Between

As a child of ten or twelve, I was struck by Scarlet Fever, a streptococcal infection whose bright red rash put me in bed in a darkened room for at least a week, as I recall sixty years hence. What the consequences of bright light may have been I was never told; children of that age, after all, are spoken about, never spoken to. Whatever pain may have been involved has carried no memory; what I do recall was a great deal of reading in the Junior Classics, a set of ten books on the small bookshelf beside my bed. Reading in that darkened room may have done more damage than the fever, but what I read has done me nothing but good.

It was an eclectic mix of authors and literature types. There was “The Gold-Bug” by Edgar Allen Poe, for example, and “Robinson Crusoe”. There was also “The Land of Counterpane”, a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Stevenson’s realm was familiar long before I encountered the poem. I might as well have been an only child (my sister was two years older), and a feral one at that, which translated in my case to a lot of time alone. The patchwork quilt that wrinkled and draped between my legs had long since become a land of lost and found, whose vistas rippled into the distance, fold after fold, to the horizon (i.e., the edge of the bed; guess I was a Flat-Earther at that age). But that landscape was uninhabited; no toy soldiers, no tractors or dump trucks, simply a world to wander.

Soon I did have a “traveling companion” in the person of Frank, the dog, equally curious about the world. And our exploratorium was Frank’s old neighborhood in Mesopotamia: trips to the FCC Grocery for mom, and that summer I tended the store for Mrs Pirtle; weeding our garden plot along the Milwaukee Road tracks; fishing below the weir with my friends Artie (Butch) and Bobbie (she hated Roberta). I got to know Mesopotamia more intimately than other parts of town, and its people, too; and how the rhythms there were different, slower, without being casual, than elsewhere. And there was a social structure, too, one that accepted me after a while as a benign invader without a need for antibodies.

Until junior high school, Bobbie and Artie and the others went to Darrow school, while I was at Darwin, which made for a different sort of friendship, more purposeful, since we saw each other only “by appointment”. But Bobbie was check-out clerk at Cermak’s Market and Artie became a mechanic at Cliff’s Garage, businesses not actually in Mesopotamia, but decidedly on the wrong side of town — which is probably why I hung out there. It was Albert Camus who observed: “Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend”. We did. They were.

If you can tell me why someone is your friend — someone who knows you too well but likes you anyway and expects nothing but your own acceptance of them — I wish you’d share that wisdom.

 

“Shananditti”

“The creative is the place where no one else has ever been. You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover will be yourself.” —Alan Alda.

Five years ago on election eve, Howard couldn’t stand the suspense. I can identify. So I thought you might enjoy the column he wrote for the Saturday following, November 8th, 2008 and this one published two weeks after that, on November 22nd. It concerns the woman on this Canadian $100 bill—not an actual bill, but one of a series proposing better representation of women.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

λεξικός

My election eve dog-walking two weeks ago took Digger and me past St Joe’s. Choir practice lured us in for a few unseen minutes in a back pew.

Gerry Leiden was rehearsing the choir for a performance of his oratorio “Shananditti”, an exceptional yet all too common story of the earliest encounters of Native North American people with the first European colonists. Indigenous people were ill-equipped for diseases to which Europeans carried immunity. Common childhood diseases like measles decimated entire tribes. Among those were the Beothuk of maritime Canada: Newfoundland and Labrador, whose last surviving member Shananditti died in 1829.

Three women—Shananditti, her mother and sister—were captured in 1823, but two of them quickly died. Coming eventually into the household of a sympathetic listener, W.E. Cormack made a list of Beothuk vocabulary which, with two other lists, has been compiled into a single source, last surviving evidence of a lost people.  What survives is one master wordlist of 325 glosses plus twenty-one numerals and the names of months.

The extinction a language (like Cornish, for example, in the southeast of England) is a sad and reflective moment for humankind, for there surely are concepts that cannot be expressed in any other way. But the disappearance of an entire people is cause for mourning of a different kind. Leiden’s oratorio (a large-scale musical work for orchestra and voices, typically a narrative on a religious theme, performed without the use of costumes, scenery, or action) consists entirely of Beothuk words — a syllabary — their world rendered through the rhythms of speech; a language not heard for nearly two hundred years.

If my recollection of Musicology 101 still serves, Czech composer Leoš Janáček would not allow his operas to be translated into other languages, believing that the spirit of his culture was as clearly expressed in its language—the rhythms and sonority of its speech—as in any other art form. So Gerry Leiden has used words of a dead people to bring them to life again, even if for only an hour. Please reserve either next Friday or Saturday evening, December 5th and 6th, for the premier performances of “Shananditti” at Saint-Joseph-the-Carpenter Episcopal church. You’ll be rewarded.

PS: Seating is limited, so get your tickets early.

Janáček with his wife Zdenka, in 1881

signature written in ink in a flowing script

 

Trickle-down Urbanism

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Trickle-down Urbanism

How does a tradition begin? A question I asked fifty-plus years ago when our graduating high school class met to discuss our Senior Gift to the school.

I raised my hand with serious innocence to suggest the following: that we search the world of American musical composition for someone to write the “Fennimore Co. High School Graduation March”! My modest proposal — in hindsight, worthy of Jonathan Swift — came armed with a preliminary list of candidates (several of them from pieces our band had played, or tried to): Walter Piston, Norman Dello Joio, Vincent Persichetti, even the symphonist William Schuman. If Charles Ives had been alive, I’d have included him as well. But my list went to the garbage, rather than to the floor for discussion. My classmates’ shock was followed with a chorus of, “But ‘Pomp & Circumstance’ is traditional!” they chimed. At what point, precisely, I wondered, did P&C attain that status? So Monday afternoon, we may have begun a very local and inconsequential tradition: Lasagna for New Years Day dinner.

Our friend Paula drove down from Fargo for the afternoon — no small accomplishment in double-digit temperatures below the doughnut — and contributed a fine minestrone in seasonal red and green. And, as with most meals (i.e., communion) with her, the conversation turned to both food and local custom.

Paul’s kitchen is equipped with seasonings than mine. She mentioned three varieties of paprika and vanilla beans sent from a friend in Madagascar; the room fills with sweet scent whenever she breaks the bean jar’s tight seal. I contributed a few recollections from a short trip to Egypt a dozen years ago — still vivid images of a spice market in Luxor — and thought to pass along a small packet of saffron bought in Budapest last June; we’re unlikely to use it. We then discussed a store seen recently in a town that shall remain unnamed: a shop that sells flavor-infused vinegars and olive oils.

What can it possibly say about a community when one need travel no father than a few blocks to satisfy a craving for truffle-infused olive oil or to select from among three varieties of balsamic vinegar? It says the process of gentrification is well along. The flip side of such boutique shopping experiences is found at the suburban big-box stores.

Last Summer Rowan and I went to the garden center of the most notorious Big Box, perennials being one of the very few items that are reliably Made in America. While Rowan inspected the hostas, I did an experiment in the spirit of Making American Great Again: was it possible to find a pair of white cotton socks that were actually made in this country? Not finding any, I expanded my target to include underwear, then housewares, then tools, then….  Well, you get the picture: each and every item was manufactured in Vietnam or Indonesia or Guatemala; in the People’s Republic (their China) or Taiwan (our China); anywhere else beyond our borders.

“Get the feeling of done—and done is fun!”

Wayfair-Logo1.png

Recognize this logo?

Visit their website. Inspect any product. Check the “specifications” and you will find the country of origin — which, in my experience, has never been “U.S.A.” Free shipping may be a “game changer” but this barrage of imported crap does little else but harm the U.S. economy.

The Marxist in me