All posts by cbirkholz

Deeply Grave Issues

Today’s guest post is by Clyde.

I collect graveyards.

Cemeteries are full of life, not human life, but plant and animal life. They reflect human history, culture, vanities, and foibles. People intend tombs and markers to enshrine power, success, or wealth, but over time such efforts fade to a sort of sad satire. Maybe that is only my viewpoint. Cemeteries are retreats, calm and restful, often set off in quiet and lonely places. Here on the prairie, they were usually placed on land of no farm use; thus they preserve land shapes and plants from the pioneer era.
I have visited hundreds in many states. Perhaps, for whatever reason I do not know, my most memorable, which I visited several times and more than once used as a place in which to compose a sermon, are the half-dozen ragged, rugged little graveyards scattered across the forest 30 miles or so north of Two Harbors. So much fun to pronounce the lyrical old Finnish names on the tombstones, once you have half-mastered the art. Only a Finn fully masters that arcane skill.

I will tell you about five cemeteries in particular.

Most Historic: Rural Lebannon, CT.
Although this one has strong competition from Salem, Massachusetts (both have those wonderful tall thin old stone tombstones like an Edward Gorey drawing), this one wins because it also has the tomb of Jonathan Trumbull, who was essentially secretary of war during the Revolution. Now inactive, the cemetery is hidden away down a lonesome rolling side road. A friend of mine has done a 30-year study of the growth of lichens on the tombstones and surrounding rock wall. The dates on the tombstones help him plot lichen growth.

The Welsh Section

Quirkiest:Across the Minnesota River from Nicollet.
This is a well-maintained active prairie cemetery surrounded by cornfields in a Welsh area. It’s peaceful to walk a secluded cemetery with the eternal sound of rustling cornstalks. In the older section of the cemetery all the names are Welsh, all except in one corner is a man named Zimmerman. My theory is that one night some Germans sneaked in and buried a relative.

Most Unusual:Point Hope, Alaska.
On the tundra outside of this Inupiat village, the most westerly point on the American continents, is a native cemetery, the fence of which is composed of whale ribs. But outside that fence, “outside the pale,” which is what that term means, are several lone graves. When a member of the tribe dies, the elders decide if the person is worthy of being buried within the ribs, or, sometimes, the person chooses not to be included.

The Obelisk

Most Poignant: On a bluff above the Minnesota River near Nicollet.
This still active but hard-to-find cemetery has a nice view overlooking the river valley; however, it is for one tombstone that I name this cemetery. The tombstone, a ten-foot tall obelisk, is a lesson on the fragility of children and the dangers of childbirth 100 years ago, common lessons in historic cemeteries. On one side the obelisk names a man who lived for about 70 years, dying in the 1920’s. On a second side it names a woman of the same last name who died in her early twenties in the 1880’s. A small unmarked stone lies seven feet out from the obelisk. On the next side is a second woman of the same last name who died two years later, again with a small stone seven feet out. On the third side is woman of the same last name who outlived the man by a few years; no small stone is present. Draw your own sad conclusion.

Most Frequently Visited: Calvary, Mankato.
A large very well-maintained cemetery on the wooded bluffs of
Mankato a mile from my house. I enjoy bike riding the paved roads of this cemetery in the early morning. The master caretakers who tend Calvary keep all the many trees trimmed to eight feet off the ground, which makes the early morning sun shinning under boughs onto the green grass an energizing mileau in which to ride, especially while listening to “Pipedreams.” Many a lesson can be learned here about human vanities and pretensions, both in the cemetery and among the million dollar homes which have been built next to it in the last decade. I am remind me that Thoreau said that our homes are just an doorstep to a hole in the ground.

I have, now that I think about it, only visited cemeteries in the daylight. John Muir, as a poor young man bumming around the US in the mid 1800’s, slept in cemeteries because then the police and other people would not bother him.

Would you sleep in a cemetery?

Two Nordic Bachelor Farmers and Their Tractors

Today’s guest post was written by Clyde.

In my childhood the few farmers of southern Lake County shared equipment and work. Many of those farmers were characters worthy of being remembered. Two of them were Nordic Bachelor Farmers.

The Swede

Ole, his real name, I promise, lived in the valley below us up a side road of a side road of a side road in a small house. I always wanted to get into that house, to see if it was as neat and precise as were his barn and garages and to see if it had any frills. I never made it in.

1948 Massey-Harris

In our early years on our perch above the valley, before the trees got too tall, we could just see his farm. It was three miles away, but by road it was seven miles. Ole owned a threshing machine. We would trade work or oats for him to come to our farm with “the separator,” as we always called it. Ole would putt-putt along at a much slower speed than necessary in his 1940’s era red and yellow Massey-Harris tractor towing the machine to and from our farm. Ole never rushed anything. Never. Ole never got excited. Never. Ole would talk . . . but . . . seldom . . . softly . . . with lots of . . . pauses.

He was slight of frame with massive hands at the end of long dangling arms. He always wore a cap, except when he came awkwardly into our house to eat. I waited for that moment when he stood at the door wiping his feet, cap in hand, calling my mother “Missus.” Powdermilk Biscuits would not have cured his shyness, nor given color to his pale skin, which somehow never tanned or burned, nor given thrust to his receding chin.

It was his head I waited to see. He had classic male-patterned baldness, and, here is what I awaited, five large bumps on his head. I do not know why he had them. They seemed benign, and he lived into his late 70’s. But what child could not be enthralled by those bumps!

The Norwegian

Noble—yes, that was his name—was my father’s best friend. And as opposite of my father in temperament as a man could be. He had been a Lake Superior fisherman until the coming of the lamphrey. He switched to farming, with which he needed much help from my father. I liked his name, and he did have a serene Nordic unpolished nobility. But I liked his brother’s name better, Sextus, which always made me giggle. Noble was short, stout of frame, and walked with small slow careful steps. He always bent his upper body forward and furrowed his brow as if deeply worried, which he was not.

Oh, how many stories there are about his kind, gentle, and implacable nature. For instance he once brought back 50 wild yearling steers off the Montana Range, and trustingly left a gate open, letting them escape. We got back 49, one of which died.
One was found as far away as Beaver Bay.

One day when he was about 50 years old sitting drinking coffee at our house, calling my mother “missus,” he casually mentioned that he had married the week before. My parents snorted coffee. It was a women we knew—brusque, demanding, fast-moving, and intolerant of incompetence. It proved to be a lasting, loving, and happy match.

After I moved back to Two Harbors, I often saw Noble. Once I mentioned to him that my backyard had a large pile of firewood which was too punky to burn in our fireplace. He agreed with my suggestion that it would burn in the large barrel stove in his garage, fashioned for him by my father.

Fordson Model F

One Saturday he showed up with a hay wagon pulled by his 1930’s era Fordson tractor, famous for its durability and utter lack of power. Noble had three tractors, one a powerful International Harvester, but he loved to use that old putt-putt Fordson. As he backed it down into the low spot in my yard where the wood was piled, I told him that I did not think it had the power to pull out the load. He thought a moment and said, “Yup, yup, probably not,” and started to load wood. Halfway through the job we went in for coffee. He took off his hat, wiped his feet carefully, and charmed my wife, calling her “Missus.”

As you can guess, the Fordson would not pull out the load. He did not get mad; he just laughed and said, “Yup, yup, you were sure right about that.” He drove the 11 miles home and 11 miles back the next day with the IH, which pulled it out easily.

That was, sad to say, my last meaningful contact with that exemplary man. But I picture him every time I hear the term “Norwegian Bachelor Farmer.”

Who do you know from Lake Wobegon?

Pen Name de Plume de Jour

Today’s guest post is by Clyde.

I just read From the Fair, the delightful autobiography of Sholom Aleichem, the Yiddish author of the Tevye the Milkman stories and many others. If you like Fiddler on the Roof, you might like to get a deeper feel for the world of Tevye and his village. You might also like to read the original stories, which are if anything more charming than the musical. He writes the autobiography in third person, even though he repeatedly makes it clear it is his own real life story, which adds another dimension to the narration.
Reading the book has inspired me to get back to work on my long-neglected fictionalized story of my childhood, wishing I had anything like his narrative gift.

Aleichem, whose life was contemporaneous with Mark Twain, was often called the Yiddish Mark Twain, to which Twain responded, “Tell him I am the American Sholom Aleichem.” They shared much in common, such as an allegorical pen name. Twain’s name means essentially “safe water” in steamboating terms. Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich chose the name Sholom Alecheim because it is both the common greeting in Yiddish and a blessing of peace upon another person. Their chosen names also have a sonorious ring to them.
Both men were mostly self-taught, were raised in poverty in backwater villages, survived many family tragedies such as the death of a parent in childhood, made and lost a couple of fortunes due to bad investments, and were very successful public speakers. Both were brilliant at characterization, were masters of dialogue especially dialects, and did much to invent the literature of their culture.
I have included a photo of the statue of Aleichem in Kiev. It is wonderfully ironic that Russia and Kiev honor him this way, considering how the tsarist regime treated Jews and that Aleichem had to hide when he lived in Kiev because he did not have a license to live there, as required of all Jews.

Unlike Twain, Aleichem was deeply religious and superstitious. For instance, his tombstone in New York City lists his death date as May 12a, 1916 because he was afraid of the number thirteen. He died too young before finishing From the Fair. The abrupt ending is unsatisfying, but well, L’Chaim to his life and all of ours.

If you were to use a pen name, what would it be?

With Smuckers It Has To Be Glue

Today’s poetic guest post is by Clyde.

This morning I had some orange marmalade,
Which I spread on my toast with a kitchen blade.
With my tea it was indeed quite grand,
But then some stuck to my dominant hand.

So I put the plate down on the table;
To let go of it I was barely quite able.
I felt some hanging on the tip of my chin;
On the rug if it dropped would be a great sin.

So I wiped it off with the tail of my shirt,
Which I threw in the laundry to be rid of the dirt.
But some was stuck in my scraggly old beard,
Which to tell you the truth really felt weird.

I went to the closet for something to wear,
But of the handle I did not take care.
And to the hanger it transferred with ease;
Of none of this my wife would be pleased.

So I went to the bathroom to sputter and fume,
Still doing battle with my marmalade doom.
The soap dispenser was empty of course.
Now things could only get worse.

Soon it was on dispenser and soap jug,
The vanity door my hand gave a tug.
I should have gone then to take a long shower,
But control of the stuff seemed still in my power.

I washed and I scrubbed, even the tap.
Even under my ring was some of the crap.
I retraced my steps washing as I went,
Of places I had touched I had hardly a hint.

I did the very best that I could,
But find some I knew my wife would.
Plate, jar, and toast I threw in the trash;
By then such an act did not seem rash.

Back to my office I went to relax,
After trying to trace my gelatinous tracks.
“Of my kingdom,” I thought, “I will again be the lord.”
But some had dropped on my computer keyboard.

I troed to wope it off with some poper towels,
Bot now I cen type only two of the vowels.

When have you fought a long or losing battle with a thing?

Punctuated Equilibrium or Stephen Jay Gould #2

Today’s guest post is from Clyde.

I used to work for a superintendent whom everyone called “Ballpark” because he could not get out a sentence without a sports metaphor. He had a half-dozen uses for the term “ballpark.”

Similarly because of my constant use of science metaphors and science parallels to what we were reading, my students used to wonder if I was an English teacher or a science teacher. At this stage in my life two of my favorite science metaphors, which I had to carefully explain in class, are very useful descriptive terms.

The first is ENTROPY, which is a concept from Newton’s second law of thermodynamics. I bet all baboons know the concept. In pure science, it is much more complicated than as used in my metaphor or common usage. Entropy is the tendency for systems to proceed to disorder, chaos, or randomness. Complex structures will eventually break down to their constituent parts (such as my body). It was an effective way for students to understand “Lord of the Flies.”

Old age is certainly a battle against entropy. A friend of ours says that when she is a senile wreck in a nursing home that she wants someone to tie her knees together every morning before she is put in a wheelchair and rolled out into the common area. A pastor we know has been dealing with a mother and daughter who were both in long-term care, the mother for old age and dementia and the daughter for a degenerative disorder. When the daughter died, every few minutes the mother would find out her daughter had died and grieve freshly all over again, including several times at the funeral.

The other metaphor, PUNCTUATED EQUILIBRIUM, is from S. J. Gould. For a long time the unassailable rule of geology and evolution was that all change occurs at a constant and slow rate. Various scientists in different fields fought this rule for much of the last century and finally won. For instance a region of eastern Washington called the Scablands is now believed to have been created in a few days, not millennia, as if Lake Erie has suddenly decided to empty over Ohio in a three days. A similar but less dramatic event occurred along the Minnesota River valley.

Biological and geological change are now believed to have had long periods of stasis or very slow change and briefer periods of intense change. Of course, “briefer period” can also mean thousands of years or more as opposed to millions of years or more. Gould and a couple of other people developed the term “punctuated equilibrium” to describe this concept, which seems to me more widely applicable. (In its root meaning, “punctuate” means break in or interrupt, as in “puncture.”)

For instance, geo-politcal/social/economic/technological equilibrium was “punctuated” in so many astounding ways in the 1990’s it should have been overwhelming, but we all just kept motoring along. Humans are so very adaptive. I wonder if the punctuation will ever cease.

How much are entropy and punctuated equilibrium metaphors for your life and times?

A Lilipadlian Life, or Stephen Jay Gould #1

Today’s guest post is from Clyde.

At 6 a.m. I rode the Sakatah Trail to a bridge across a narrowing in Eagle Lake, a fun place to watch wildlife, such as beaver, egrets, herons, swans, eagles. This morning below the bridge was a swarm of a few hundred 3-6 inch catfish, most about 5 inches. They were feeding on water bugs, or perhaps their larva on the surface of the shallow water in a circle about 8 feet across.

After a bit I saw a pattern to their movements. Four to six catfish would make a group and swim abreast across the area of feeding. At the edge of the circle they would disband and swim back into the circle, soon joining another band. In the 20 minutes I watched I guess about 150 such groups formed, swam, and then disbanded at the edge. The few three-inch fish were never part of a group.

The question, of course, is, in the language of the evolutionists, what advantage is there to such behavior? The answer is obvious; improved feeding. A group can sweep up the larva and/or bugs more efficiently. When the larva/bugs try to swim out of their way, the ones at the edge catch them. I wonder two things: 1) is there more advantage to being in the middle or at the ends? 2) are some fish dominant, as in wolf packs, and always get the more advantageous position?

Can you tell I read a lot about nature and evolution. I believe Stephen Jay Gould is one of the great essayists, a match for Montaigne, Addison, Steele, Pepys, Emerson and the like. Thoreau I would still place above all of them. Perhaps it seems odd that as a former pastor I read about evolution. But I see no conflict; I believe reading about nature and evolution has a strong worshipful aspect. I admire the mind of the creator, in the design of both species and processes/systems. I have on occasion quoted Gould from the pulpit, but not his evolutionary thinking as such. Gould’s nature essays covered vast ground, including one of the finest and also one the stupidest essays ever on baseball. I did have one church member who knew who he was, and we enjoyed our inside joke.

The fish behavior I observed raises one of the most difficult questions for evolution, one that still perplexed Darwin at his death: how do cooperative behaviors develop? Survival of the fittest is a fully competitive model in which each individual is trying to protect its DNA and pass it on at the expense of other species and individuals.

How in a very competitive world do cooperative and even community behaviors develop? In some non-human species community roles have developed, such as foster parenting. How does one explain the vast community/cooperative behaviors of humans in evolutionary terms? A theory of an altruistic gene has developed to explain such behavior, which really only raises deeper questions. One man believes he has identified a gene for religion, thereby disproving the existence of God, which again only goes deeper because, of course, God could have made that gene.

It is a fascinating and complex issue. I do recognize both competitive and cooperative behaviors in myself and think to some extent they are instinctual. I have a visceral competitive response every now and then, damn it. I also think that in general men are more competitive and women more cooperative, but that may be learned in socialization. Lots can be said, but:

Where do you fall on the competition/cooperative continuum? Where would you like to fall?

On Motto Pilot

Today’s guest post comes from Clyde.

Pop Quiz

What do the following have in common?
Futurum aquilonem
Wisdom, justice, and moderation
Ua mau ke ea o ka ʻāina i ka pono
Ad astra per aspera
Oro y plata
It grows as it goes

These will make it easier.
Liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable
Under God the people rule
Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain

And then, the obvious:
L’étoile du Nord

State mottos, of course.
First group includes Alaska, Georgia, Hawaii, Kansas, Montana, and New Mexico. (“It grows as it goes.” What?)
Second group includes North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Wisconsin.

For the sake of those in Sudbury, here is Ontario’s: “As she began loyal, thus she remains”.

About 25 years ago the Sunday Minneapolis paper sponsored a contest to write a new Minnesota state motto because L’étoile du Nord is just dull and old-fashioned. I mean very few people have spoken French here for 200-300 years.

The paper got about 2000 entries, 400 or so of which they printed. It was a clever idea which got many clever responses. The answers came in several obvious groups, especially about the weather. As a matter of fact, what I think was the winner came from that group: “Minnesota: Have You Jump-Started Your Kids Today?” And there was “Minnesota: Land of Ten Thousand Potholes”.

Many were geographical/political, such as “Minnesota: Here to Keep Iowa Away from Canada.” The governors of Minnesota and South Dakota were in a petty feud at the time, which provoked many such as “Minnesota: Where South Dakota Is Afraid It’s Happening.”

I wish I could remember more. But isn’t it obvious 1) that Minnesota needs a new state motto and 2) who better to write it than Babooners.

So using any language you wish, English, French, Latin, Spanish, or tim,
Write a new Minnesota state motto.
Or maybe for a neighboring state because theirs are no better.

Mutual Admiration/Opposition Society

Today’s guest post comes from Clyde.

I am a devoted re-reader of the 1974 book Staggerford by the Minnesota writer Jon Hassler.

I admire the honest but still satirical image of the professional life of a secondary English teacher, which Mr. Hassler once was. It has a delightfully real and satirically-portrayed faculty party and faculty meeting. Also, equally honest is the portrayal of the sad lives some students are forced to endure. As a lucky side-light for me, I have met the teachers who were the models for two of the characters in the book. He got them exactly right.

But when I re-read it every two years or so, I more and more admire the character Agatha McGee, the main character’s land lady. Miss McGee is old-fashioned and conservative, in the true sense of the term of one who does not want things to change, ever. She is a devout Catholic who still uses her ancient Latin Missal. When she passes the peace in church, a modernism she resents, she says “Pax.” She is a sixth-grade Catholic school teacher who dresses and runs her classroom the way teachers did in the 1920’s. She is dark and broods over rain, sin, and the moral laxity of modern poetry. She later becomes the main character in two subsequent books which have never quite worked for me.

As a dedicated change agent in education, and one open to modern adaptations in religion, I should dislike her. But instead I am drawn to her and the clarity and wit of Hassler’s descriptions of her. I suspect he feels a similar contradiction in his attitude towards her. It is the strength of her convictions, her underlying humanity, and her take-charge-in-a-leadership-vacuum ability which so strongly affect me.

I hope I am a better liberal, well, moderate liberal, for having met her.

When have you come to respect, admire, or even love someone, real or fictional, whose opinions or attitudes contradict your own?

Trying One On

Today’s guest blog is by Clyde..

I will not be joining you on The Trail today.

Instead I will begin the process of moving our stuff, much too much stuff, to our new home, or as Thoreau described it, pushing my possessions down the road ahead of me. Fortunately it is only a 2.5 mile push from a 1600-square-foot ground-level association home to a 1200-square-foot ground-level apartment. For the next three days I will haul over boxes. Then the pros will haul our furniture on Thursday. “Why are you moving?” everyone asks, since it does not seem like much of a change. Not many seem to like our answers. After all, we are giving up home ownership, the Great American Dream.

Most of our reasons are not worth your time to explain, but one I would like to offer especially to you because I think Babooners, unlike almost everyone else, will understand it. You, see, we want to try on a new life style. I admit it is not much of a change, but it depends on how you, or rather we, look at it. And, alas, it as much of a change as we can manage at this point in our life. For six years we tried living in an association, Efrafa as I have called it on here, which is not as bad as I have hinted, but does not suit us. We imagine a freer life, with a bit more ready cash and predictable expenses and no maintenance responsibilities. My wife, the addicted viewer of HGTV, will have a new blank canvas to decorate.

The real challenge will be for both of us to envision and use this new space and location—plus our money, time, and creativity—to think in new ways about ourselves, our place in church and community, and our limited time on earth.

Thoreau in Walden explained that in his imagination he had owned every farm in the vicinity. He had organized each farm in turn, tilled it, planted it, and harvested it without the bother of actually owning it. Similarly my wife and I have often tried on other life styles in our imagination: renting an apartment in one of those old buildings on Grand Avenue or in Dinkytown, teaching in a rural Alaska village, owning a hobby farm, spending a year living only from a small motor-home and driving North America, flipping houses, or going to seminary together. Because my favorite reading topic is travel books and books about what it is like to live a different kind of life somewhere else, I have in my imagination lived hundreds of lives.

I believe Babooners will understand my explanation because so many of you have deliberately crafted a life style, whether in rural Carlton County, in south Minneapolis, western Dakota, or all the places and ways you live.

My question for you is simple:

What other life styles have you lived in your imagination?