Fireside story time, the secrets of the trees

Winter’s here, time to curl up by the fire and listen to a guy who spent his life looking up at trees.

tree-book-coverRobert Penn’s quirky and personal book, The Man Who Made Things out of Trees, tells the story of one ash tree, felled and turned into arrows, bowls, spoons, tent pegs, canoe paddles, catapults, dominoes, axe handles, a desk, and paneling. This isn’t a quaint catalogue of wooden goods. It’s a crackerjack story of the world, as seen through one kind of tree.

Penn’s life-long love affair with trees animates his stories, which are chockful of deft details, such as:

  • “Ash is pinkish white and disturbingly like human skin when freshly sawn.”
  • Irish mythology includes ash in a trilogy of sacred trees believed to have healing powers. During the Potato Famine, before setting sail for America, emigrants whittled chips from an ash tree in County Cork as protection against drowning.
  • Ash was known as the ‘sportsmen’s wood,’ and used for everything from cricket stumps, hockey and lacrosse sticks, tennis racquets, croquet mallets, baseball bats, skis, snowshoe frames and gymnastic parallel bars.

Penn introduces readers to craftspeople, broadening his saga, like the rings of a tree. Starting from his home in South Wales, he visits various English woods and woodshops, an Austrian Alps toboggan maker, then onward to Ireland to see an epic hurling game and a $2500 bicycle frame made of ash, and eventually to a Pennsylvania sawmill that’s produced more than 100 million baseball bats.

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Tom Mareschall checks one of his handcrafted arrows

Each chapter frames a new woodworker, from the lumberjack who fells Penn’s ash to a fourth-generation wheelwright, making wooden wheel rims just as his mother, father, grandfather and great grandfather did, to an eccentric fletcher, the traditional term for an arrow maker. Arrows, Penn writes, were known as the Devil’s Finger. Reading his crackling chronicles of medieval longbowmen and archery battles, I can hear arrows zinging.

Along the way, Penn sprinkles little asides, seeds that may take root in a reader’s imagination, like the mention of shinrin-yoku, what Japanese people call forest-bathing, going for a walk in ancient woods

Penn’s engaging anecdotes got me thinking about trees I’ve loved. From a neighbor’s walnut tree that Uncle John transformed into a wall of rich dark paneling in my childhood bedroom, to a pretty fringed paper birch that caught my eye the first time I saw my house in Saint Paul. Copper birch borers killed that tree, just as emerald ash borers are decimating tens of millions of ashes, like the weakened specimens shedding branches and limbs on my block.

img_20161129_130442Soon, my street, Ashland Avenue, will be ash free. In time, all the ash trees may be history. Seeds of new trees will spring up, spreading canopies that some child will gaze up at in wonder, daydreaming about the secrets of nature and our world.

Robert Penn grew up playing under an ash tree that he remembers as “the gatekeeper to my dreams.” His book has spurred me to look at trees and see more.

Find out more about Rob Penn

 

 

 

 

Confessions of a 55-year-old kindergartner

Donald Trump’s election and Philando Castile’s death have made me realize how little I know.

I’m 55 years old, and I feel like a kindergartener, just beginning to learn about the world I live in. So, what am I doing now? I’m starting to learn, just like a kindergartener, about the world I live in and what I can do about it.

I need to learn how to work with others, those who aren’t like me, who are a different race, ethnicity, religion, country of origin, or gender identity. The first thing I need to learn about is my own bias and racism. I’ve got a lot to learn, a lot to do.

WHAT TO DO:

Tonight, I’m going to hear about a new coalition in Minneapolis, United in Love & Action: A Response to Hate, Bigotry and Misogyny

Tomorrow, I’m going to an Immigrant Solidarity March March! United vs Trump, Solidarity w/Immigrants)

I’ll keep going to the periodic conversations started by community group, Falcon Heights We Can Do Better, that began after Philando Castile was fatally by a police officer in Falcon Heights. At last week’s conversation about implicit bias, moderator Dr. Nadarajan (Raj) Sethuraju got the mostly white audience to talk about our own bias.

I still haven’t gotten to a Standing Up for Racial Justice meeting, but they’re on my list.  SURJ

SURJ resources include how to talk about race at Thanksgiving

Thinking and talking to other whites about race may be the most important thing we whites can do. Whites were the single biggest group to vote for Trump. We need to talk.

Scared about talking about race? Check out Jay Smooth’s TEDX Hampshire College talk, How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race.

What else can you do? Be intentional about how you spend your money.

I’m joining the December 5th Injustice Boycott. Organized by New York Daily News senior justice writer Shaun King, this will be a nationwide consumer protest against police brutality, racial violence and systemic injustice in America.

Some people are also boycotting the Trumps’ businesses.

I’m trying to go to expand my world, to go more places where I am not in the majority, to see and understand more of the world we live in.

Check out the Somali Museum in Minneapolis, which may be the world’s only museum devoted to Somali culture.

Stop for coffee at Golden Thyme Coffee in Saint Paul

Eat lunch or dinner or order holiday catering at Breaking Bread in North Minneapolis, Afro Deli in Minneapolis or Saint Paul. CHeck out some of the many great Asian or Mexican restaurants along University Avenue in Saint Paul and Lake Street  and Eat Street in Minneapolis.

TO READ:

A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota This compilation, edited by Sun Yung Shin

MARCH, this graphic novel trilogy by Rep. John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell is absolutely worth reading. A National Book Award winner.

The Warmth of Other Suns, a National Book Critics Circle Award winner by Isabel Wilkinson

Green Card Youth Voices won a Gold Medal Award for Best Multicultural Nonfiction Chapter Book, from the Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards

Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine (I’m reading this award-winning book now)

The Latecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, Kao Kalia Yang (on my list)

Anishinaabe Syndicated: A View From the Rez, Jim Northrup

Rez Life David Treuer (on my list)

Intent vs. Impact: Why Your Intentions Don’t Really Matter, Jamie Utt, Everyday Feminism

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh, The National Seed Project

The Case for Reparations, Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic

Standing Rock Syllabus

Movement for Black Lives platform

I know I’m just starting to learn to see the world as it is. I’m learning.

And I’m taking to heart what Jay Smooth said in his TEDX Hampshire College talk. Prejudice isn’t like tonsils — you can’t get your prejudice taken out once and be done with it. Instead, prejudice is like little pockets of plaque that need daily brushing and flossing. I brush my teeth every day, it’s habit, and I need to get in the habit of thinking about prejudice every day.

Want more?

TO WATCH:

13th, Ava DuVernay documentary about the 13th Amendment. Watch it!

We Should All be Feminists TEDX, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (I also loved her  The Danger of the Single Story)

Silence Isn’t Always Golden TEDX, Kat Morgan

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Loved Discussing Race TEDX , Jay Smooth

Black History Mini Docs these 90-second mini docs, will whet your appetite for more depth.

TO SUPPORT:

Starting with local groups–

MicroGrants offers strategic $1,000 loans to low-income people of potential in Minneapolis.

Support Louis Hunter.  More than 200 people have been arrested in the Twin Cities protesting the killing of Philando Castile. Philando’s cousin, Louis Hunter, is the only protester who has been charged with a felony. Louis is facing up to ten years in jail.

International Institute of Minnesota works with refugees and immigrants, helping them get resettled and launch their new lives in Minnesota

Green Card Voices uses digital storytelling to share immigrants’ first-hand stories

Behind the Blue Line is an interview and photography project that shares real stories of police brutality, abuse and misuse of power in Minnesota.

Standing Rock Stop the Dakota Access Pipeline

ACLU and MN-ACLU

Southern Poverty Law Center

TO FOLLOW:

Shaun King, senior justice writer, New York Daily News

Movement for Black Lives

(Photo credit for the crayon photo:  Aaron Burden)

 

 

 

 

Ordinary history: Old glass, worn shoes

After wandering through galleries of spectacular history at the British Museum, I stop and stand in awe, transfixed by a broken window pane. The grayish-blue glass is scratched and missing four fragments, yet it’s intact, still clearly a window pane. This thin square of glass was found in Sussex, England, and dates to Roman times, the 1st or 2nd century BC. A bath house window that somehow managed to survive millennia. How can that be?

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Window pane, 1st-2nd century BC

As I write this, sitting at my desk in Minnesota, I glance out the century-old windows of my house, seeing golden leaves swaying in the autumn sun. Might any of these windows endure for another 2,000 years? I look down at the travel photos on my modern phone, a shiny glass screen that shows me a fractured pane from the 1st century BC.  A window from the past giving 21st century people a window to the past.

The image of that old grayish-blue pane stays with me, more than the Elgin Marbles and Rosetta Stone, the heralded stars of the astonishing British Museum. Yes, I saw the Marbles and the Stone, and yes, I was impressed. The Rosetta Stone stands as a testament to the power of language. The massive stone, dense with inscriptions written in three scripts—hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek—gave modern scholars a key to understand Egyptian hieroglyphs. The stone helped people today learn what people long ago had written. We can see their stories, even if we cannot hear the original voices.

The museum presents the history of the world, artifacts amassed by a once powerful empire. The collections describe gods and royals, as well as ordinary people. For me, it’s the mundane objects that reveal glimpses of people who lived long ago.

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Iron scissors, 16th century

I see iron scissors from the 16th century and wonder who held them, and what was cut. Textiles, paper, hair? Did some young man trim his red beard with those scissors, as my son trims his beard? Did a weary woman sit by the fire, sewing, with those scissors by her side, just as I, occasionally sit and mend? I see wooden combs and metal tweezers, toiletry items akin to those in modern purses and homes. The bronze and silver Etruscan handheld mirrors would fit in on a 21st century vanity. I see myself reflected in a mirror, first polished in the 4th century. I conjure the woman who owned this mirror, seeing her face.

img_20161013_121630What did she think when she looked at herself? Did she reach for her metal tweezer, her wooden comb? Did she hold this mirror as she applied kohl, black makeup that helped shield her eyes from strong sunlight, much as my sunglasses do? I stare at her mirror and want to know her story.

I walk into another gallery and stare at old shoes, Roman boots from 25 BC, found in ancient Egypt. The examples of footwear range from a foot-shaped lump resembling burnt leather, cracked at the mid-foot; a taupe swath of what seems like a moccasin; and a sorry sole with several holes and a few leather straps, a shadow of a shoe. The sign explains that these military boots were probably caligae, meaning little soldiers, worn by soldiers under the Emperor Gaius.

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Roman marching boots,  25 BC

I know the soldiers’ shoes are just a footnote of history, not the main meat. But the boots bear traces of the soldiers who wore them, average people whose collective footprints shaped history. Their everyday stories, more than the epic battles and ornate coronations, are the history I long to know.

The soldiers who strapped on those boots, the people who used the scissors and toiletries were, in some ways, like us today. They spoke other languages, lived on other continents, yet their lives mirrored in some ways, our lives. They looked in the mirror, combed, cut, or tweezed their hair, laced up their shoes, went to where the powerful people told them to, and maybe, looked out a window, daydreaming. Seeing historical artifacts reminds me that, no matter the differences of time, language, and geography, we are all people, more alike than not, one species sharing one planet.

Black, white, subtle

What do you see when you look at this design? Chances are, you see colors. Black and white. Patterns, some of which are based on ancient Akan cloth printing traditions.

Now look again.

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Do you see the man? This painting by Ghanaian artist Owusu-Ankomah,  at the British Museum, seems like a Rorschach test. We focus on seeing color– skin color and race– and we miss seeing the person.

This artwork was commissioned to mark the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade in 2007. The painting’s title is as potent as the patterns. One word: Free.

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Art, death, memory

Lots of art, lots of death. That’s how I’ll remember twelve days touring castles and museums, churches, parks and squares in Copenhagen, London, and Newcastle.

So much of the history and art seemed imbued with fear and desire. The fear of death, the desire to be remembered. We don’t want to die and don’t want to be forgotten.

I saw so many faces and names carved in stone, bone, and marble, painted on canvas, glazed on tile. Many of the faces looked distinctive, rather than generic. The king with the spectacular curly beard, the queen with eyes bulging, the guy with a wart above his lip.  Those warts-and-all busts make me think those subjects wanted to be remembered as they were.

Sometimes the art tells us about the subject; sometimes it reveals more about the artist. Museums full of handcrafts connect the maker from centuries ago with those of us who see the craft today. We who gaze at the statues, the silver skull watch jewelry, the beautiful gravestones, we see the work, and can envision something of the maker and the made.

Art offers immortality, a way for people to live forever, or at least a hedge against being forgotten. The fear of fading away is as common now as it was in the days of Egyptian kings and their elaborate tombs. Instead of pyramids, we emblazon schools and hospitals, all kinds of buildings, with names, sometimes in massive gold letters. Many of us pay to have our loved ones’ names chiseled on gravestones, stone memories that remain long after bodies become dust.

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Aurelius Julianus family gravestone

I think of a gravestone of a young child, the son of a Roman soldier at Hadrian’s Wall in northern England. The stone recounts the sadness of Aurelius Julianus, whose wife died in childbirth and a year later, whose infant son died. The soldier’s grief was compounded when he was ordered to a new post, abandoning his family’s tombstones. “May the gods forgive me. There’s no one left to perform the rituals for my dead family.”

Aurelius Julianus feared no one would remember or honor his wife and son. More than two thousand years after their deaths, their memory remains, thanks to a humble tombstone now in the Great North Museum in Newcastle, England. Aurelius Julianus’s love and grief have kept his family from being forgotten.

A simple gravestone or ornate tomb, a name carved in marble or gold, busts and statues, all reveal stories we tell about ourselves or others. The art portrays something of who we are, as well as our fear of death, our need to be remembered.

Green Card Youth Voices

Want something good to read?

Check out Green Card Youth Voices, a local book featuring stories of thirty immigrant students from Wellstone High School in Minneapolis.

This is not a heavy compendium about the plight of immigrants. This is teenagers telling their stories.

Like kids anywhere, they mention friends, part-time jobs, school, sports and what they think is weird. Weird seems to be a favorite word. But to these kids, weird isn’t a kid who wears awkward clothes. Weird is the gulf between the world they left and the world they live in now.

Weird is living with a mother you haven’t seen in years. Many of these young people didn’t get the chance to grow up with their parents. One parent, often the mom, left home, looking for work and a better life for the families.

“I also felt weird living with my mom because she was like someone I had just met. I knew she was my mom, but I had not lived with her for a very long time.” Eduardo Lopez, Mexico

I felt weird in a new home with people I hadn’t lived with for a long time. I know it’s my mom, but I … I felt weird.” Alexandra Irrazabal, Ecuador.

These young men and women remember how weird and confusing America was when they first arrived. So many things flummoxed them. How do you change planes in a country when you’ve never flown before and don’t speak the language? How do you ride the bus? Tall buildings, elevators, computers, and school lockers, even men with tattoos—all were confounding. Winter, well, no surprise, that was a shock to newcomers from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Central and South America. Yonis Ahmed from Ethiopia remembers, “The first time I saw snow, I thought it was salt.” Ahmed Ahmed, from Somalia, wondered if snow was sugar.

These young people have adapted. They’ve learned English, learned to open their lockers, ride the bus, drive cars, get part-time jobs, send money to relatives in their home countries. They’ve done so much while they are still in high school. Resiliency is a language they all know.

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This Green Card Youth Voices photo exhibit is touring at Minneapolis schools this year.

They know loss, too. They miss their countries, their cousins, their brothers and sisters and grandmas. Especially the grandmas. One young man, Wendy Saint-Felix, from Haiti, says, “Sometimes I just go alone in my bedroom and think about my grandmother because I miss her a lot.” He dreams of joining the NAVY ROTC and later, bringing his grandmother here.

These teenagers’ stories brim with hopes and dreams, along with some tears and fears. It’s a good read. Nothing weird about it.

Thanks to Green Card Voices, the Minneapolis nonprofit which has produced hundreds of digital stories, as well as this book and photo exhibit, all of which help Minnesotans meet our neighbors. Watch this Green Card Youth video

 

Dark 2 Dawn – A Bike Ride Through Black History

Eileen On

“Was your master a righteous man?”

“He owned negroes, how righteous could he be?”

History came alive in the early morning hours at Fort Snelling as the bike tour met Dred Scott, an enslaved man made famous by the Supreme Court decision bearing his name.

Each summer the Major Taylor Bicycling Club of Minnesota hosts Dark 2 Dawn, an overnight bike tour of the Twin Cities. The tour stops highlight the history of African Americans in Minneapolis and St Paul.

At 2 am, the 2016 tour gathered fireside at Fort Snelling State Park to participate in a reenactment with Dred Scott. His story drew us in as he proudly talked of his pregnant wife, our empathy twisting as the reality of his child’s future was laid out before us. A child’s legal status as free or slave was set by the mother’s. Both Dred Scott and his wife Harriet were…

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