Sunday, November 24, 2013

Nothing in Common goes South, Day #4 or 5

It is not something I want to stress to heavily but it must be said: my ignorance of American history turns out to be on a par with my ignorance of Middle Chinese kingdoms. With my ignorance of Bulgarian country music. With my ignorance of phrenology, alchemy, and kymatology. Also Nascar, football (professional and college) and leveraged derivatives.
I should not make light of it.
So there we were driving across Tennessee, which, by the way, is not a small state. Driving across Tennessee is not like driving across Massachusetts, even though they share a certain horizontal rectangularity; hence my conflation of the two. In fact Tennessee is FOUR (4) times the size of Massachusetts. And Tennessee was home to Andrew Jackson, our 7th President (1829-1837). I know that now.
Naturally, as we were driving across Tennessee, it seemed like a good idea to visit the Hermitage, his home outside of Nashville.
Not only is Tennessee not the same size as Massachusetts but also Andrew Jackson the President is not the same person as Stonewall Jackson. Also, the Stonewall riots of 1969, in Greenwich Village, had nothing to do with Stonewall Jackson, who was a Confederate general killed by friendly fire at Chancellorsville.
It was definitely Day #4 or 5 of our road trip. We spent the night at an excellent Comfort Inn (cheap, coffee maker in room, indoor pool) in Mt Juliet, Tennessee, where it turns out there are several apiaries. In the morning we went straight to The Hermitage and signed on for the tour. The tours are given by members of the Ladies Hermitage Association who all dress in period attire. (Let’s just say that I have mixed feelings about period attire.)
In the front hall I am especially admiring of the scenic wallpaper by Zuber; the costumed guide tells us that the scenes of Greek mythology were deemed appropriate for a young democracy, even though the scenes depicted Telemachus searching for the errant Odysseus. Then our guide turns to CSB asks him if he has a $20 bill.
Never pleased to be singled out in a group, CSB rather stone-facedly extracts a bill from his wallet. I am guessing this will have something to do with the face on the bill, nut am otherwise unprepared. The guides makes an elaborate show of examining the bill, then holds it up for the assembled tourists and says to CSB, “Sir, you could work here! You look very much like President Jackson! You would however need to use some hair products.”
CSB mumbles something that could have been: Just get on with the tour. Or, I would never use hair products, thank you very much. Or something not very nice at all.
Meanwhile I am delighted by this newfound Presidential resemblance that CSB has acquired. For many years, he dressed as Abe Lincoln (given his height and demeanor, kind of a shoe-in) when absolutely forced to do so. I also think there is much good to be said about Andrew Jackson’s hairdo, which I suspect he achieved without the help of mousse or gel.
Another happily mismatched couple?

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Nothing in Common Goes South, Day #3

Who knows why we went to see the Natural Bridge. I must have seen a picture of it somewhere and been enchanted. It seemed like a natural wonder, but an uncomplicated natural wonder. I thought we would drive over, see the wonder of nature, be suitably awed by the wonderfulness of nature, and then head off on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
It didn’t quite happen that way.
You can’t just look at the Natural Bridge because it is privately owned and the owner has devised it so that you cannot even see the Natural Bridge without entering through the gift shop and passing through the gauntlet of gift shop, basement filled with arcade type games (and tragically dubbed “Jefferson’s Playground”). Then, because the Natural Bridge is privately owned and not a National Park as yours truly thinks it should be, you have to pay a rather steep (think exorbitant) fee to see the Natural Bridge. The cheapest ticket you can get is $20.99; the cashier will tell you that this gouging fee includes the Fake Indian Village and the Wax Museum and the “Drama of Creation”. But I do not want to see the Fake Indian Village, the Wax Museum or the “Drama of Creation”; in fact, you would have to pay me to see them. Our fee is not reduced and so, since we have come so far (etc. etc., all sorts of ridiculous rationalizations) we pay and head off.
Past the gift shop, you head downstairs and pass by the previously mentioned tragically named “Jefferson’s Playground”. Yes, Jefferson did once own the Natural Bridge, having bought it from George III for about $9.00. Then you exit the building and descend a paved walkway (You can also take a shuttle bus) to the small structure at the ‘entrance’ to the Natural Bridge. We approached, and the ticket taker emerged.
Ticker taker: How are y’all doing today?
Me: Fine.
CSB: Fine, except that we were a bit shocked to learn that this natural beauty is privately owned and costs money to see.
TT: It costs money to operate.
(What I should have said, my esprit de l'escalier: Operate what? It’s all rocks.)
CSB: We heard up above that it’s for sale.
TT: So it is.
CRL: I think the owner should give it to the National Park system so it could be appreciated by all.
TT: [Harrumph.] The owner offered it to the government but all they wanted to give him was credit for 17 years of back taxes.
(What I should have said: You mean he hasn’t paid his taxes for 17 years? Like the rest of us? And we’re supposed to feel sorry for him?)
TT (continuing): And you can’t give it to the government because the first they would do would be to get rid of the light show, and it’s a religious light show, and you know about government and religion, they just don’t mix.
CRL: Nor should they. That’s the Separation of Church and state. Freedom of religion.
(What I should have said: Something about Jeffersonian ideals.)
TT: Oh, and every religion in the world can get away with everything they want, but not the Christians. Christians can’t get away with anything.
CSB: Ahem. I think we need to go see this Bridge.
At this point- that is, before I get really incensed about the tyranny of the radical Christian right, as well as the “drama of Creation which is all about the seven days according to Genesis, as interpreted by the very literal-minded – CSB tugs at me and we head off to see the actual bridge. Which is lovely. But I am still fuming.
The Natural Bridge, painted by Frederic Church in 1852.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Welcome to Glasgow, Virginia!

Nothing in Common Goes South, Day #2

I expected Palladian elegance and the separation of church and state; what we found in Charlottesville was an extraordinary preponderance of orange. A whole lot of orange. I do not refer to pumpkins or foliage, but orange finery, orange flags, orange banners, and orange clothes of every persuasion.
This was because Charlottesville, home to UVA and Jefferson’s elegant home & garden, was in the grip of college football frenzy; and it turns out that I have spent my entire life ignorant of the American tradition known as college football, and its attendant noises, rituals, apparel and processions. We arrived in Charlottesville on the eve of a major football game with Clemson U. I was shocked to learn that the UVA team was sure to lose; yet that fact did not seem to dampen anyone’s spirits. Revelry was general over Charlottesville.
I don’t think that both teams purposefully both had orange as their school color, but this synchronicity certainly permeated the town. Maybe if you follow college football you will tell me that it often happens that two teams with the same color will play other, making it hard to distinguish them on the field, at least for the uninitiated. I just found it odd, and rather challenging, and spent too much time in Charlottesville trying to perceive subtle differences of hue and tone in the orange accouterments being sported all over town.

But no, it was not all orange and football. We did indeed tour Monticello, the Palladian home of Jefferson and a major tourist attraction. The Visitor Center – with café, gift store and theater – is larger than the actual house.
Our guide at Monticello was a lovely woman of a certain age who kept looking pointedly, almost quizzically, at CSB. Now if I had been the one to point out that she kept looking at him, as if she knew him, or had known him, then perhaps you might say I was imagining this. But CSB was equally certain that our guide, Peggy M, was eyeing him, and he became increasingly uncomfortable with her attentions as we made our way through the mansion. Did I increase his discomfort by gaily nudging him and asking if they had perhaps dated in some former life? Or by mentioning that she seemed quite nice and perhaps he should engage her in conversation and try to figure out what was what? Should I have alluded to the fact that he was a head taller than anyone else in the room, and hence made a handsome focal point? Poor CSB.
I should have been paying less attention to the guide’s ogling and more attention to what she said about Jefferson’s homemade copying machine and the Rumford fireplace. Yet something about the Rumford fireplace stuck with me, and once we departed Monticello I went straight to Google and learned a little about the checkered career of Count Rumford, née Benjamin Thompson in Woburn, Massachusetts. So little that on getting home I sought a biography of this odd duck – via the excellent auspices of Inter-Library Loan.
Benjamin Thompson was born in 1753 in Woburn, Massachusetts, where his childhood home still stands and is owned by the Rumford Historical Society. They have on display a copy of the portrait of Rumford done by Gainsborough, though the location of the original appears to be unknown.
I feel confident that you don’t want to know all the lurid details of Rumford’s life, but here are a few salient ones:
His taste for scientific experiment was early evidenced when he and his boyhood BFF Loammi Baldwin flew kites during electrical storms, and performed surgery on pigs.
He had a lifelong fascination with fireworks.
At the age of 20, Benjamin wisely married a somewhat older and much richer woman in New Hampshire, by whom he had a daughter. Then he chose the wrong side in the Revolutionary War, acted as a spy for the British, and ultimately had to flee across the ocean, leaving behind his wife and daughter.
In England he found favor with the king, pursued his scientific interests and had numerous affairs.
Later Benjamin went to Bavaria and the court of Elector Carl Theodore, to whom he became indispensable. So indispensable that he was made a Count of the Holy Roman Empire. (I was shocked to learn that the HRE still existed at this late date.) For his Count-ish title, Thompson chose Rumford, the New Hampshire hometown of his abandoned wife. While in Bavaria Count Rumford had numerous affairs, founded an exemplary Institute for the poor, and designed the English Gardens. (Through which I once strolled with beloved #1 son, and was shocked - operative sensation here - to espy an entirely naked family picnic, in the middle of the very lovely Englischer Garten, in the middle of Munich. We also saw surfers. Surfing on the smallest wave possible.)
Back in England, Rumford engaged in the experiments that would result in his excellent design for the Rumford fireplace. But otherwise, England grew too hot for him and he returned to the continent.
At age 50, he remarried (this entailed getting his previously abandoned daughter in the USA to send him a copy of his first wife’s death certificate) Marie-Anne Lavoisier, the 43-year-old widow of Antoine Lavoisier, the great French chemist who was separated from his head by the Revolution. But yet again, marriage did not suit, and they divorced within two years. Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, died of ‘nervous fever’ in 1814 at Auteuil. The funeral was ‘a lonely affair.’

One of the very first things I did upon getting back home was to assail certain dear friends with my newfound knowledge re the Rumford fireplace: so efficient, such a godsend for the chilly folk. Their response? Well, duh. Of course they knew all about the Rumford fireplace. The Rumford fireplace was/is, for the cognoscenti, right up there with the Franklin stove as the industry standard. The fireplaces in our house are – yes, - Rumford fireplaces.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Nothing in Common goes South, Day #1

How long has it been since we first mooted this brilliant idea of a southern road trip? All I know is that since that initial glimmer of a trip that would include literary shrines, Nascar races, country music and Civil War battlefields, the trip was delayed, postponed, and postponed again; and always for a reason: it was planting season, or bee season, or too hot or too cold, or one of the dogs was ill, or a relative was dying. Since that initial glimmer I managed to forget much of the reading I did in preparation for the trip. (The annals of Yoknapatawpha County; Look Home Sweet Homeward; A Good Man is Harder than Ever to Find; Delta Gay Wedding; and Carl Carmer’s Stars Fell off Alabama.) CSB was in better shape, since he made the wise decision to engage in no preparatory reading.
First we had to clear the dates with the chicken sitters and the dog sitters, because we are blessed with most excellent chicken sitters and dog sitters. And then we had to be fairly sure that no one was likely to be born or get very ill while we were away. And of course the garden had to be more or less finished for the season.
Then it was Halloween - and we never get trick-or-treaters here at Let it Bee Farm because it is rather lonely and there is a long driveway and in every way it is ideally suited to scare small children in the dark - and we set off. The first adventure was getting lost in New Jersey. How can you get lost heading straight south on a highway in New Jersey? It’s not as if I have not driven into or through New Jersey before. But while CSB was reading the Times, I managed to get on I-95 instead of the NJ Turnpike, or something like that. I was afraid that we might miss the Walt Whitman rest area. I didn’t actually plan to stop at the Walt Whitman rest area but I just like to consider the delightful randomness of a thruway service plaza named for a radical, freethinking, tree hugging poet. Otherwise, the rest areas/service plazas in New Jersey are a great opportunity to use Google while driving. You want to know the real story of Molly Pitcher? Google her and you will learn that she may not be an actual person, but a composite. But if she was a real person, her name was probably Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley, whose husband fought with the Continental Army at Valley Forge, and Mary traveled along with them and brought water (pitchers of water) to the soldiers. You will also learn that Fort Bragg holds an annual “Molly Pitcher Day” when they demonstrate weapon systems for the whole family.
In quick succession, we traversed New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. That morning and afternoon of traversing whole states was tantalizing and deceptive, and reinforced my skewed notion of the size of the rest of the states of the United States. If where I live is the center of the universe, the apex of civilization, and the Omphalos of the world, (and is it not?) then surely everything else is smaller and ancillary. How very wrong. Our first day would be the last day when we would get across any state in less than a day.
The excitement of day one involved neither a literary shrine nor a battlefield or even country music. They were bears. Bears high in a tree. Very high in a tall oak tree. On the Skyline Drive in the Shenandoah National Park we encountered a mother bear and a cub collecting and munching on acorns. (Sadly, the photographic evidence is more like evidence of my sub-par camera skills.)) It was a rather skinny oak tree, and they were about fifty feet high and incredibly agile. I feel confident that had I ever gotten that high up in a tree I would not have scampered from limb to limb and managed to gather acorns at the same time. I feel even more confident that if my cub were on the limb just below me I would have been apoplectic with worry lest he fall. The wind was blowing, and the oak tree was swaying in the wind, and the bears on the limbs were swaying, and still they collected acorns.
Of course I was entranced. How many times have I not seen a moose in Maine? Close to a thousand times. Yet here I had just barely entered the Shenandoah and I saw bears. Not suburban bears scavenging in garbage. But happy National Park protected bears bulking up for the winter.