A Haiku

There is a certain kind of urban traffic that I should be grateful for, based on the services provided. But…I’m just not.

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Chasing criminals
And transporting fresh organs
Hush, helicopter

Tour of an 127 Year Old Textbook

The National Series of Standard School Books, Manual of Geography, Combined With History and Astronomy, Designed For Intermediate Classes in Public and Private Schools by James Monteith.  2nd Edition Published in 1885 by A.S. Barnes & Company: New York and Chicago.

This book was either salvaged from the one room school house, or was passed down through my family.  I’m having a difficult time deciphering the last name as it is inscribed inside the front cover.  Either way, this was “Lizzie E.’s” book in 1886, and she almost definitely learned from it in a one room school house, if not my one room school house.

The first edition of this book was published in 1868.  That is one year after Laura Ingalls Wilder was born.  Laura was likely using a textbook very similar to this one in her one room school house.  At the time of this second edition in 1885, Laura would have been 18 years old, and already retired from teaching.  Mark Twain was 50 years old at the time of its publication.  Nikola Tesla was 29.  Depending on the month of publication, either Chaster Arthur or Grover Cleveland were President, though by the time Lizzie was using it, she had penciled in Benjamin Harrison as the current President.  Dr. Pepper was served for the first time in 1885.  Bicycle Playing Cards were introduced.  Good Housekeeping Magazine hit the stands the first time.  The Statue of Liberty arrived in New York Harbor in 1885, and was dedicated in 1886.  Needless to say, since Lizzy’s home was both in the 1880s and rural, Lizzie’s household did not have electricity or running water.  (An ongoing debate in my family is which one of those you would rather live without.)

The first thing I noticed about this text book was how much I loved the way that it was designed.

One of the complaints I often hear from older people is how little young people seem to be learning in school these days.  And, indeed, the older people I know can rattle off country capitals, state leaders, geographic features, and dates of note with much more ease than I do.  And they have better handwriting, to boot.  Could it be that educational tools of the past suited more styles of learning than today’s tools?  I don’t have very much learning theory training, so take me with a grain of salt, but I was struck by how much the method of this old text book resonated with me.

I attended a nontraditional grade school that did not use text books, so my exposure to textbooks for children of the “intermediate” (3rd and 4th grade) age group is limited.  But this book is in stark comparison to my public high school text books, which sought to place every fact in a thick context.  The 1885 Manual of Geography contains between 2,000 and 2,500 rapid-fire questions and answers.  “Q: What is a Canal? A: An artificial channel filled with water, for the passage of boats.  Q: What are the principal Points of the Compass?  A:  North East, South, and West.”  And I LOVE that about it.  Growing up without text books made learning to use them in high school a special challenge.  Finding the facts in a paragraph, even if they were bolded, was difficult for me.  Each sentence seemed like the most important part of the paragraph, so I couldn’t retain the important parts for a test.  The way this text book is written, it provides all of the facts, and allows the reader to do more research on any one of the questions should they choose to do so, rather than place a heavy context around each fact.  I understand the reasoning behind both presentations, but I would have much preferred this one when I was younger.  I love to research and hunt for answers now, but it took years to develop that love.

Other things I loved about the book were the beautiful color maps, detailed pictures, and (mostly) clear diagrams.

“The Empire of Germany, drawn on four construction frames, each representing Kansas.” The image of Kansas was repeated over each U.S. State, and a number of different countries, to give a sense of scale. I thought this was a neat idea.

I also loved how State Capitals were described geographically by the river they were placed near.  I’m a river-loving girl, so I got a kick out of this.  “State: New York, Capital: Albany, Situation: Hudson River;  State: West Virginia, Capitol: Charleston, Situation: Kanawha River.”

As I was reading this book, I had no interest in laughing at my ancestors’ perception of the world around them.  At no time in history has the scientific goal post moved as much as it moves every moment of every day in the 2010s.  Technological development and scientific discovery are happening at such a rapid pace that we seem to be sure of less and less rather than more and more.  That certainly makes life interesting, but it doesn’t put us in a very good position to judge the scientific paradigms of those who came before us.  For the most part, I found the facts outlined in the book to be accurate, even now.

All of that said…

BIGGEST. WALRUS. EVER.

The book states, “The comparative size is here shown, as the animals, etc. are all accurately drawn according to scale.”  There is a measure around the outside border of the book indicating feet.  So in case you didn’t get that, on the top left is a polar bear, and on the top right is a walrus. TO SCALE.

I wanted to put a comparative photograph of an actual bear and walrus together, but I couldn’t find one where the polar bear wasn’t EATING the walrus.  So I leave that up to you and your own googling adventures.  But just in case there’s any confusion, walruses are much closer in size to polar bears than indicated here.  Much, much.  Can you imagine being a child (or an adult) reading this book, not having seen a walrus in captivity, or in a photograph, and believing that a walrus is two or three times the size of the largest animal you might have ever seen?  And even then, only if you had seen P.T. Barnum traveling through, or had a close call with a bear yourself.  For the benefit of sheltered children, there is also a deer on this page, and the walrus is four or five times the size of that fully grown buck.  Um …. can you say, giant fleshy bear-eating flipper-monster, kids?  My only theory is that the nice folks at the National Series of Standardized School Books were discouraging travel.  There were some other things in the book about barren foreign landscapes, savage cultures, and dangerous political situations, all far from home.  I think Mr. James Monteith might have been motivated to keep these kids local.

I did learn things from this book.  I learned one thing that made me feel really, REALLY dumb.  I generally consider myself to be a curious person.  And yet, somehow, I don’t think I’ve ever asked myself why the mass of land that I live on is named America.  I don’t know if that’s just me, or a lot of people, but nonetheless, here it is.  “Q: After whom was America named?  A: Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian navigator, who visited America in 1499.  Q: Why was this Continent named after him?  A:  His description of the country being the first published, many believed him to be the first discoverer.”  I know I’ve learned this name before, but if someone had asked me yesterday what or who America was named after, I don’t think I would have said, “Why, Amerigo Vespucci, Italian navigator, of course!”  But again, maybe that’s just me.

Naturally, several interesting things have changed since 1885.  These are just a few.

  • “Eastern States” were only comprised of tiny New England states. “Middle States” included New York and Pennsylvania.  “Southern States” stretched from Maryland to Texas.  And “Western States” started as far East as Tennessee.  And, of course, much of the land to the West was still divided by Territories.
  • At the time, there were only two continents on the globe, Eastern and Western.  This led me to a little light research, which revealed that the concept of continents has been through several incarnations, expanding and contracting to suit the times.
  • The American English spelling of the word Eskimo used to be Esquimaux.
  • Most interesting, I thought, was the little asterisk next to the diagram of eight planets.  The asterisk wasn’t for Pluto (RIP 1930-2006), but for the hypothetical planet, Vulcan.  The asterisk read, “A planet has been discovered between Mercury and the Sun, and named Vulcan.”  Some light wiki-research revealed that Vulcan was invented to rationalize the unusual orbit of Mercury, which was later explained by the Theory of Relativity.  Vulcan was supposedly observed several times.  A handful of unpopular astronomers still believe that Vulcan exists.  I kind of want to believe Vulcan exists, because how cool would that be?  Wiki-research also revealed that the Star Trek Vulcan was 16 light years from Earth, so no, it’s not the same one.

What’s in a Name

Like many bloggers, I think my blog title is obvious.  But of course it’s not.  If you’ve read back far enough, though, you may have figured it out.  The stars part is more apparent.  I miss stars, and intend to gaze at more of them after I move to my small town.  The slate part is a reference to writing slates that were used in one room school houses across the country.  This blog is at least peripherally about my long-term plan to restore the one room school house that my Mom attended on her parents’ farm.

(Somewhere in my family history is a story about someone who dropped their slate in a puddle on the way to school, and how that was the “dog ate my homework” of the pre-notebook age.  It is either a story that will likely be outlined in my Uncle’s book, which comes out at the end of the year, OR it’s a general small town legend that I’ve mistakenly adopted as my own.  I’m not sure which one, but it’s definitely one of those.)

What I Want and What I’m Getting

First, I have to preface this post.  This move is wading so tentatively in the shallows of the conceptual stage that I haven’t even begun to pack boxes.  So as I go forward with writing about some definite move from the city to the country, please know that things could change, and this blog could end up being about how a dream changed, or, god forbid, how a dream died.  If I decide to get really creative I might go back to the original concept of this blog, living out my fictional fantasy of moving close to my family farm, while writing it all from the comfort of the city.  Now, as this blog progresses, you may not really know if I’m up there or not!  Muahahahaha!

Now, with that out of the way, let’s plan a move that’s definitely without a doubt going to happen!!  Woohoo!!

Moving to a small town is a whimsical dream for many.  All the lovely small town dreams I envision aren’t too different than those of the city-slicker dopes who’ve never been to a small town and don’t know any better.  I have a few “dirt road smarts” from traveling and staying with my family.  But, that doesn’t really prepare me for living in a small town.  I just want to acknowledge that.  So, first I want to talk about what I’m getting.  The less than ideal things, or challenging things that I’m about to encounter.  These are just the ones I’m anticipating – I’m sure there will be more when I get there.

1) Even less job opportunities.  Though unemployment is generally lower in small towns than in big cities, job opportunities that match my interests and experience will be more rare.

2) Less amenities.  Internet and wireless service could be tricky – especially if I find a living situation that is outside of town in the country (which is what I’m really hoping for).  If it snows, the plows might not be there for a while … or a long while if I’m out in the country.  There are some things it will just be easier for me to learn to do myself in a pinch – like fixing plumbing or electric.  It’s not that there aren’t ample resources available, but if I am living far from town, and it snows, and something breaks, I’m going to need to be self-reliant.

3) Less privacy.  A lot of people think moving to the country will mean “getting away from it all,” including people.  Guess what?  That’s a lot easier to do in a city than in a small town.  In a smaller community, the grocery cashier might learn my name.  My neighbors might drop by.  Everyone will know who I am, and develop an opinion about me (especially since my Cousin is a pretty well-known guy).  The idea of this makes me wince just a little.  But then I remember how much happier I am when I am a part of a community.  That’s the dream, after all, right?

4) This isn’t going to be like my other trips to visit the farm.  I’m going to have to work while I’m up there – possibly more than one job, depending on how things go.  I’m not used to working when I’m in that part of the State.  I associate it with relaxing and adventuring.  I’m hoping moving there won’t be too much like getting a job on a cruise ship, which I’m sure would ruin cruises for me forever.  (Okay, that’s a terrible analogy because I would never go on a cruise ship, but you get the idea).  This isn’t a vacation.  I’m moving there.

With all of those realities acknowledged, on to the good stuff…

Even if I’m overwhelmed by needing to be self-sufficient, and being hounded by new neighbors, and working a job that I find less than fulfilling, I will still be in a place that’s magical throughout.

For one thing, the remoteness is absolutely terrifying.  In a wonderful way.  If I’m lucky enough to live in a place outside of town, it will be the most alone I’ve been at one time, ever.  I’m not talking about isolation from a community on a larger level.  I’m talking about being alone at night, miles (or at least hundreds of yards) between me and someone else.  The closest I’ve come to that would probably be solo camping in 6th grade, and even then my teachers were just one loud scream away.  Every time I stayed on my Grandparents farm, or now when I stay on my Uncle’s farm, I’m with people.  Usually lots of people.  I’m far from being alone.  I feel as though being alone in a farm house (most evenings, and some of the weekend) would relax me on a profound level, and allow me to be myself in a way I haven’t yet had the opportunity to do.  At the very least, it would be something new and different.

I imagine watching the sunset on my own, and listening to all the noises of the insects and animals.  Crickets, tree frogs, birds, and coyotes.  And among the wildlife I might not hear: bats, bobcats, deer, opossum, and turtles.  There are also rare mountain lions, and although they may not be quite that far North yet, black bear have been migrating up from Arkansas since a 1960s reintroduction project.  Recently scientists have found native Missouri black bears that were not part of that project, but just hiding really well.  So you never know.

I’m getting off topic.  And I don’t even know if I will be able to find an affordable place to live outside of town.  But in an ideal world, I would have that wonderful fear, and the shiver of bravery to look forward to.

Really, all the things I’m looking forward to are just things of the country.  Quiet, caves, wildlife, rolling hills, winding roads, streams, ponds, fall color, flowers, and laundry drying on the line.  Stuff I might pin.  For me, because I’m lucky enough to have beloved family there, there is also laughter, stories, digging through old photographs, canning projects, family antiques, and the best pie in the world.  Of all good things listed here, these are just the ones I’m anticipating – I’m sure there will be more when I get there.

One of the things I’m looking most forward to is the presence of stars.  I feel like I used to see more stars in St. Louis.  But I’ve been looking for months, and have barely seen any.  And this is during a drought.  When visiting my family farm during recent years, I’ve been having bad luck – always arriving during a cloudy season.  I miss the stars!  I need a chance to get acquainted with them.  From my family farm, they also claim to occasionally see the Northern Lights, which would be such a treat.

The Milky Way over Idaho

Epilogue: While writing this post, I took a break to go outside of my current St. Louis home to listen to the cicadas, crickets and wildlife here.  While sitting on the ground, a rabbit ran right by me, less than a foot away.  How often does that happen?