Sunday at Middlemay Farm

Grand Is the Seen

Grand is the seen, the light, to me–grand are the sky and stars,

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Grand is the earth, and grand are lasting time and space,
And grand their laws, so multiform, puzzling, evolutionary;

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But grander far the unseen soul of me, comprehending, endowing all those,
Lighting the light, the sky and stars, delving the earth, sailing the sea,

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(What were all those, indeed, without thee, unseen soul? of what amount without thee?)
More evolutionary, vast, puzzling, O my soul!
More multiform far–more lasting thou than they.

by Walt Whitman

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Can Education Change The World? (or is it all in our heads?)

“I’ll keep having babies until they stop taking them away.”

Yes, that’s what a mentally challenged young woman told the social services workers outside family court. She’d lost five or six children to the system already. A talk on birth control would have made little difference.

I heard about this case from our foster daughter’s lawyer after I asked her if M could possibly get some baby pictures of herself that her mother “Tracy” used to have. The lawyer shook her head in sad disgust.

“I doubt Tracy would have kept the pictures. She’s never in one place for long, but when I see her at court next I’ll ask.”

“Court? Again?”

“Yes, she’s had two more kids in the last two years—both of them are already in the system,” the lawyer replied from behind the heaps of documents on her desk.

No one’s told M that not only does she have two sisters (adopted locally) and a stepbrother living with M’s scary father but also two new baby siblings—in the court system.

So I ask, “Is Tracy mentally deficient like the other woman you just told me about?”

The lawyer thinks a moment. “No, she’s just evil.”

I’m sort of shocked by her honest appraisal and inclusion of a moral take on the woman. Knowing M’s history I’d have to say the stuff that was done to her was evil.

What would phrenologists of the 19th century say? Phrenology is the detailed study of the shape and size of the cranium as a supposed indication of character and mental abilities.

Walt Whitman wrote in his 1870 sexual-eugenic essay Democratic Vistas that America’s youth lacked sexually. They were “puny, impudent, foppish, prematurely ripe, and characterized by an abnormal libidinousness and a diminished capacity for good motherhood.”

Whitman’s remedy: “crops of fine youth planted” to become America’s best breeders.*

As a gardener and foster parent of a girl with “delays”  I’m troubled by the analogy. How are we to be rid of the weeds that grow among the fine youth?

To be pro-life is a radical idea in the history of the world where weeds, misfits and mistakes are gotten rid of. Slavery, body parts for sale, war and thousands of cast off orphans are the consequences of the human proclivity to get rid of weak and uncomfortable things.

How often do we hear now from “civilized” and “compassionate” people that this or that leader should be assassinated?

We hear of new procedures that may one day eradicate unacceptable or messy human misfits—a pipe dream at best but chilling when taking into account the many ways we find fault with each other.

George Combe, the Scottish phrenologist in his The Application of Phrenology to the Present and Prospective Conditions of the United States (1840) had this to say: The enlightened classes “raise the mental condition of the people . . . which will enable them to understand the moral and political principles on which the welfare of nations is founded.”

Combe predicted “an uncontrolled development of the faculties of Acquisitiveness (greed), Self-Esteem (excessive self-confidence), and Love of Approbation (vanity), in which could destroy the Union.” If something wasn’t done. *

We mustn’t judge the Victorians too harshly when we find that many embraced the idea of social and moral uplift through education and selective breeding. If we are honest we will see ourselves in the historical mirror.

vaughts-practical-character-reader-1902-2Studying bumps on someone’s head may seem silly to us. Frat parties and pussy hats would probably have seemed “funny” to them. We judge our Victorian ancestors harshly for bringing “civilization” to “less civilized” people (but if we’re being honest not many of us want to live the Rousseau dream in a buggy forest with no air-conditioning (see the movie The Mission).

How much moral uplift has come from the public school system (or the Ivy League colleges—many of which were founded as Christian seminaries?).

How many less unwanted children have come into the world because of legal abortion?

Yes, I had to make the terrible choice to terminate a pregnancy (after seeing the baby’s perfect body on an ultrasound). My very flawed and very human doctor dismissed my concerns about a blood clot in my leg for weeks. A vascular surgeon saved my life at the very last minute, but the doctors refused me treatment until the baby was gone.

I hadn’t really wanted another child, but until this very day I suffer from a profound sense of loss. Funny how the heart works.

The 19th century perfectionist idea that we can, through science and education, bring heaven to earth was an illusion. It still is.

It’s easier to be rid of things, to divide the skull into seemingly rational sections that tell us our fate, to abort babies who have low IQs or the “gay gene.”

We must be careful in labeling someone we disagree with a fool or someone to be gotten rid of. We so rarely see the evil in ourselves and gladly kill the other for reminding us of our own weakness.

Judges 6:24 says: “The Lord is peace.”

What are we?

* From Pseudo-Science & Society in 19th Century America, Arthur Wrobel, Editor

** Pictures from VAUGHT’S PRACTICAL CHARACTER READER

In THE DEW THAT GOES EARLY AWAY Buck Crenshaw stumbles into a selective breeding program with mixed results.

“One turns to me his appealing eyes- poor boy! I never knew you, Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.” Walt Whitman

Civil War graves, near City Point, Virginia courtesy fold3.com

Civil War graves, near City Point, Virginia
courtesy fold3.com

GIVING A FACE TO CIVIL WAR STATISTICS

CIVIL WAR GRAVES LEAKING TOXINS

Beat! beat! drums!-blow! bugles! blow!
Make no parley-stop for no expostulation,
Mind not the timid-mind not the weeper or prayer,
Mind not the old man beseeching the young man,
Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties,
Make even the trestles to shake the dead where they lie awaiting the
hearses,
So strong you thump O terrible drums-so loud you bugles blow.

**words by Walt Whitman

Books I’ve Known And Loved

Live fast, die young or traverse the earth slowly.

Live fast, die young or traverse the earth slowly.

Even as college students and dirty, rotten stay-outs, we poked fun at every artsy person’s need for the right hip place to be on the weekend (or any other night). We drove my father’s two-toned Oldsmobile ironically and on five dollars worth of mostly gas fumes to Hoboken. For a brief, sparkling time we were small city celebrities as publishers of a literary/art/whatever-we-wanted magazine.

Our watering-hole reviews were most appreciated by the many young engineers studying at Steven’s Tech and the artsy crowd living in the still rundown lofts on the edge of town rubbing against Jersey City. Bar owners (who also bought advertising in our magazine) were not always equally impressed.

The true hipster crowd hung at Maxwell’s. We thought them too pretentious, well-dressed and rich for our tastes (except on New Years when we went in search of cute bartenders). Like any true rebels we preferred slumming it at the other end of town where a pitcher of beer was about $7 if memory serves and pretzels were on the house.

Here we sat for hours being served by a bleach-blonde, 25-year-old lady (as 19 and 20-year-olds we considered her past her sell-by date). Only a few years later she’d have to quit with a lung ailment from too much second-hand smoke each night at the bar. By then we’d been banned from most bars and bored of the ones we still were allowed to frequent.

No one died in our circle of “rebels”–though with that big car and pitchers of drinks we were damned lucky not to have killed anyone (a vague memory of racing another crazed drunk on the road home and avoiding the police  pops into my head now and I shudder).

Our magazine wasn’t all that good in the grand scheme of things and because we were lazy our advertisers dwindled when we didn’t bother to keep them happy. As a friends group and editorial staff our egos clashed and our interests pulled us in different directions, none of us quite reaching celebrity status again–and probably that’s for the best.

And so it was for Walt Whitman and his friends group at Pfaff’s Saloon under Broadway in NYC before the Civil War.  “America’s First Bohemians”  were not very different from the legions of young people who still style themselves as unique rebels, somehow above the ordinary Joes. Maybe artists are slightly off kilter in some way, but how funny that from generation to next generation the artsy crowd keeps in line with their own stereotypes.

The seedy bars, the wasted moments, the brief brushes with greatness (or delusions of grandeur) and the inevitable maturity or quick tragic death. Walt Whitman lingered on waiting for his Leaves of Grass to catch fire in a slow, slow burn. He nursed soldiers, kept ordinary jobs and quiet romances at Pfaff’s and beyond. Not so his artsy acquaintances (for they never really were close friends).

Most of the rebel souls died of too much life. One died at war after the best of his drinking days were over, one suffered the calamity of youthful stardom and brilliance–always chasing but never catching a new success and always sinking deeper into his opium addiction. One thought she could write well, but when the first terrible reviews came in she retreated into acting only to be bitten by a theater owner’s terrier. She died a few weeks later raving mad from rabies.

Are rebels rebels if they keep the same rules and hours as the trailblazers before them? Is wearing black as cool as when Johnny Cash first did it? Walt Whitman hung at Pfaff’s but he hung back, too. He retreated to his mother’s apartment. He wore strange boots,  roguishly tilting his hat and keeping his shirt open at the neck, but in his day the stars at Pfaff’s burned quick and bright, most dying in their early thirties like ancient echoes of Jim Morrison and Amy Winehouse.

No one ever knows sitting round the sticky tables in a dark bar when their star will rise and fall. No one knows if maturity or death is better for artists and their work until everyone is dead and gone–and even then when cool people search for cool places tastes change in art.

The names of the famous 19th century actors, poets and comics are mostly forgotten. Walt Whitman’s one masterpiece hangs on. No one knows why.

Song of Myself

On the Dunes, James Jebusa Shannon

On the Dunes, James Jebusa Shannon

Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d
the earth much?
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?

 

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin
         of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions
         of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look
         through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in
         books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the begin-
         ning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.


Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and

        increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.
To elaborate is no avail, learn’d and unlearn’d feel that it is so.
Sure as the most certain sure, plumb in the uprights, well entretied,
         braced in the beams,
Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical,
I and this mystery here we stand.
Excerpt Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman

THE WOUND-DRESSER. walt whitman

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1

  An old man bending I come among new faces,
  Years looking backward resuming in answer to children,
  Come tell us old man, as from young men and maidens that love me,
  (Arous'd and angry, I'd thought to beat the alarum, and urge
            relentless war,
  But soon my fingers fail'd me, my face droop'd and I resign'd myself,
  To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead;)
  Years hence of these scenes, of these furious passions, these
            chances,
  Of unsurpass'd heroes, (was one side so brave? the other was equally
            brave;)
  Now be witness again, paint the mightiest armies of earth,
  Of those armies so rapid so wondrous what saw you to tell us?
  What stays with you latest and deepest? of curious panics,
  Of hard-fought engagements or sieges tremendous what deepest remains?

2

  O maidens and young men I love and that love me,
  What you ask of my days those the strangest and sudden your talking
            recalls,
  Soldier alert I arrive after a long march cover'd with sweat and
            dust,
  In the nick of time I come, plunge in the fight, loudly shout in the
            rush of successful charge,
  Enter the captur'd works—yet lo, like a swift-running river they
            fade,
  Pass and are gone they fade—I dwell not on soldiers' perils or
            soldiers' joys,
  (Both I remember well-many the hardships, few the joys, yet I was
            content.)

  But in silence, in dreams' projections,
  While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on,
  So soon what is over forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the
            sand,
  With hinged knees returning I enter the doors, (while for you up
            there,
  Whoever you are, follow without noise and be of strong heart.)

  Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
  Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
  Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
  Where their priceless blood reddens the grass the ground,
  Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof'd hospital,
  To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return,
  To each and all one after another I drawn near, not one do I miss,
  An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
  Soon to be fill'd with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill'd
            again.

  I onward go, I stop,
  With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds,
  I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,
  One turns to me his appealing eyes-poor boy! I never knew you,
  Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that
            would save you.

3

  On, on I go, (open doors of time! open hospital doors!)
  The crush'd head I dress, (poor crazed hand tear not the bandage
            away,)
  The neck of the cavalry-man with the bullet through and through I
            examine,
  Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life
            struggles hard,
  (Come sweet death! be persuaded O beautiful death!
  In mercy come quickly.)

  From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand,
  I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and
            blood,
  Back on his pillow the soldier bends with curv'd neck and
            side-falling head,
  His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the
            bloody stump,
  And has not yet look'd on it.

  I dress a wound in the side, deep, deep,
  But a day or two more, for see the frame all wasted and sinking,
  And the yellow-blue countenance see.

  I dress the perforated shoulder, the foot with the bullet-wound,
  Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening, so
            offensive,
  While the attendant stands behind aside me holding the tray and pail.

  I am faithful, I do not give out,
  The fractur'd thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdomen,
  These and more I dress with impassive hand, (yet deep in my breast a
            fire, a burning flame.)

4

  Thus in silence in dreams' projections,
  Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals,
  The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
  I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young,
  Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad,
  (Many a soldier's loving arms about this neck have cross'd and
            rested,
  Many a soldier's kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)