Tuesday, August 26, 2008


The hummingbirds visited the geraniums outside the kitchen window today.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Franklin Pierce in Another Top Ten List!

Franklin Pierce is No. 5 in the Top Ten Heads of Presidential Hair at the blog Receiving Me?.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Spider on Burdock

I took this picture today, and I really like it-the textures of the web, the leaf, the burrs. Click on the pic for a higher-res version.

Friday, August 15, 2008


I only ask to be free. The butterflies are free.

Charles Dickens

There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it's going to be a butterfly.

R. Buckminster Fuller

Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music. My pleasures are the most intense known to man: writing and butterfly hunting.

Vladimir Nabokov

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Franklin Pierce in a Top Ten List!

Franklin Pierce appears in the top ten of a Presidential list! He is the sixth youngest man, at age 48 years, 101 days, to assume the office of U.S. President.

We can thank the mother of NPR's Farai Chideya for this list.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Way This Side of Paradise

Finally in print. The title of the story (above) is not included in the article. Click to enlarge to a readable size.

Monday, August 11, 2008

More on Hannah Duston

In yesterday's post, I gave a brief overview of the the new bobbleheads from the New Hampshire Historical Society--Hannah Duston, vengeful mother, and Passaconaway, Penacook Indian chief. I was grateful for the fact that the NHHS chose to model their bobblehead of Hannah after a statue which holds only the hatchet she used to kill her Indian captors (including six or seven children), and not the scalps she took from them. The distillers of Jim Beam whiskey were not so genteel when they turned Hannah into a bottle in 1973. Note that her left hand holds a few scalps, as does the monument to Hannah in Penacook, NH.

For a detailed review of numerous accounts of Hannah Duston's capture and escape, beginning with Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), see Kathryn Whitford's "Hannah Dustin: The Judgement of History." Essex Institute Historical Collections. Vol. CVIII, No. 4 (October 1972), 304-325, excerpted at the Hawthorne in Salem web site. Hawthorne was among the authors who wrote about Hannah and her family. Whitford's article captures the moral, legal, and religious ambiguities of Hannah's actions.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Bobblehead Brouhaha

As I wrote in an earlier post, I am the proud owner of a Franklin Pierce bobblehead purchased from the New Hampshite Historical Society.

Young Hickory of the Granite Hills, as Pierce was known, was New Hampshire's only favorite son to attain the office of President of the United States (1853-1857). Last month, the NHHS added two politically incorrect bobbleheads of 17th century historical characters to its museum store inventory. An assistant administrator of the society has resigned, and another employee refuses to work in the store as a consequence of these new offerings. Either of the new bobbleheads individually would be found objectionable by certain segments of the population, but the simultaneous release of the two seems particularly ill-advised.

The first new bobblehead is Hannah Duston. Here is a brief synopsis of her claim to fame from the blog of Fiona Broome:
One of the most horrific attacks occurred on March 15, 1697, when Indians burned six homes and killed or captured at least 39 people. Many of the victims were buried in Pentucket Burial Ground on Water Street, almost across the street from Buttonwoods. . . . (The Pentucket cemetery was established in 1668, and has many old and unmarked graves.) That was the same attack in which Hannah Dustin (or Duston) was captured, along with her newborn daughter, Martha, and Mary Neff, Hannah’s midwife. For 15 days, they were marched in freezing March weather. After Hannah’s six-day-old baby was brutally killed by Abenaki Indians, Hannah Dustin and Mary Neff were joined by another captive, 14-year-old Samuel Lennardson. Hannah avenged her daughter’s murder by organizing a revolt one night. With a hatchet, Hannah killed and scalped nine of the 10 or 12 Indians they ambushed. Among Hannah’s Native captors, only one woman and a young man escaped the attack. Hannah, Mary and Samuel seized a canoe and reached the nearest colonial settlement where they presented the scalps to the British authorities, for a reward of 50 pounds. Hannah’s story has been the subject of controversy. Some describe her as a hero while others are less flattering. Nevertheless, a Haverhill statue commemorates her history, and —though the story is disputed — she may be buried in an unmarked grave in the Pentucket Burial Ground.
The statue above, upon which the bobblehead is based, stands in Haverhill, Massachusetts,and is said to be the first statue in America memorializing a woman. Hannah holds a hatchet in her right hand.

Fortunately, the NHHS did not choose as a model an even more graphic statue which stands at the site of Hannah's grisly escape at Penacook, NH. Here she holds not just the hatchet in her right hand, but bloody scalps in her left.

The other new bobblehead is Chief Passaconaway, of the Penacook Tribe, a peaceful and powerful leader of his tribe in the 17th century. Some people have pointed out that the style and color of his hat are reminiscent of a smurf.

In defense of the NHHS, the hat looks a lot like the one worn by chief in this engraving.
The choice of color could be debated, but the director of the NHHS has stated he thinks Indians of that time period may have worn a similar color. Besides, Smurfs' hats are white; their skin is blue.

Although the appearance of the bobblehead is objectionable to some people, even more disturbing is its release at the same time as the bobblehead of a crazed Indian scalper.

One of the interesting things I discovered while researching Passaconaway is that fact that William James Sidis, one of the most intelligent Americans ever, wrote a book about the chief under the pseudonym of Charles Edward Beals, Jr. I hope to devote a separate post to Sidis (1898-1944) in the near future.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Truman on Pierce

I found the following quote from Harry Truman at Manus Hand's interesting web page, Dead Presidents on Dead Presidents:

Pierce was a nincompoop.... It was Pierce's foolish notion that he could cool down the slavery question and make people forget about it by doing two things: filling his cabinet with people of different viewpoints, and concentrating almost entirely on foreign policy and territorial expansion instead of slavery problems. But the net result was that his cabinet members kept bickering with each other and didn't accomplish much, and Pierce's moves in other directions didn't distract people's attention from the slavery problems for a minute.... Pierce was one of the best-looking men ever in the White House. He was also one of the most vain, which I guess was on account of the fact that he was so good-looking. But though he looked the way people who make movies think a president should look, he didn't pay any more attention to business as president of the United States than the man in the moon, and he really made a mess of things.... Pierce was the best looking President the White House ever had -- but as President he ranks with Buchanan and Calvin Coolidge.
Harry sure gave 'im hell.

Saturday, August 02, 2008


Burdock, St. Joesph County, Indiana, August 2, 2008

Until recently, my only knowledge of burdock (Arctium lappa and other species) came from a box of burdock root teabags that has sat in our pantry for years. The blurb on the side of the box extols its health benefits without specifically saying what those benefits are. On a few occasions, during my doomed attempts to get off caffeine, I drank burdock root tea when there was no other herb tea in the house. People have to believe that burdock root tea is healthful, because I can't imagine they would drink it for the taste.

The box of what by now must be unbelievably stale burdock root tea informs me that the plant is native to Europe and Asia, and if allowed, will grow in almost any uncultivated space. In addition to its health benefits, whatever they may be, the stalks can be boiled like asparagus or eaten raw with vinegar. In Japan it is known at gobo and the root is used in everyday cooking.

According to Wayne Bethard's book, Lotions, Potions, and Deadly Elixirs: Frontier Medicine in America, "many folk remedies contained burdock and were said to 'purify the blood' and cure everything from head colds and acne, to cancer and a leaning chimney." He doesn't explain how burdock was supposed to cure a leaning chimney, but he states that burdock extracts contain arctiopiricin, which has antibacterial properties, and he says burdock extracts also have some antitumor and antimutagenic activity.

What got me thinking about burdock recently is an article by Janet Malcolm, entitled "Burdock," in the August 14, 2008 edition of the New York Review of Books. She writes of photographing burdock leaves in a house in the Berkshires for three successive summers. She doesn't specify if this is her occupation or avocation. I assume it is a hobby, as it's hard to imagine there's a huge market for pictures of burdock leaves. She goes on to write about how "photography is naively believed to reproduce visual actuality," and decontextualization, and other things that tend to make my eyes glaze over.

But the thing I found interesting was her observation that burdock is a "rank weed that grows along roadsides and in waste places and around derelict buildings," and "writers have used it to denote ruin and desolation." Specifically, she cites Hawthorne and Chekhov.

The Hawthorne passage to which Ms. Malcolm refers in her article comes from Chapter 1 of The House of the Seven Gables:

On either side extended a ruinous wooden fence of open lattice-work, through which could be seen a grassy yard, and, especially in the angles of the building, an enormous fertility of burdocks, with leaves, it is hardly an exaggeration to say, two or three feet long.
Hawthorne mentioned burdocks again in Chapter 19:

A person of imaginative temperament, while passing by the house, would turn, once and again, and peruse it well: its many peaks, consenting together in the clustered chimney; the deep projection over its basement-story; the arched window, imparting a look, if not of grandeur, yet of antique gentility, to the broken portal over which it opened; the luxuriance of gigantic burdocks, near the threshold; he would note all these characteristics, and be conscious of something deeper than he saw. He would conceive the mansion to have been the residence of the stubborn old Puritan, Integrity, who, dying in some forgotten generation, had left a blessing in all its rooms and chambers, the efficacy of which was to be seen in the religion, honesty, moderate competence, or upright poverty and solid happiness, of his descendants, to this day.

And still later in Chapter 19, in in a scene involving the young Italian organ grinder I have mentioned in previous posts:

He entered the neglected yard (now wilder than ever with its growth of hog-weed and burdock), stationed himself at the doorstep of the main entrance, and, opening his show-box, began to play.

No Text
He persisted in his melodious appeals

Illustration by Maude and Genevieve Cowles, from 1899 edition of The House of the Seven Gables

Chekhov wrote in his short story, "Ward 6":

In the hospital yard there stands a small lodge surrounded by a perfect forest of burdocks, nettles, and wild hemp. Its roof is rusty, the chimney is tumbling down, the steps at the front-door are rotting away and overgrown with grass, and there are only traces left of the stucco.

If one imagined some spirit flying by the earthly globe in space in a million years he would see nothing but clay and bare rocks. Everything -- culture and the moral law -- would pass away and not even a burdock would grow out of them.
If that ain't ruin and desolation,I don't know what is. But not all writers focused on the negative aspects of burdock.

In his journal entry for July 19, 1896, Tolstoy recorded seeing, in the middle of a plowed field, a clump of burdock with one living shoot "black from dust, but still alive and red in the centre....It makes me want to write. It asserts life to the end, and alone in the midst of the whole field, somehow or other has asserted it."

Long live the lowly burdock.


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