Category Archives: culture

Musing on the Museum of Appalachia

A couple of weekends ago, I was visiting my old friends Bobby and Teresa Fulcher in East Tennessee, one of my old stomping grounds and the inspiration for my novel, Seasonal.  Bobby, who had served as my supervisor on the Tennessee State Parks Folklife Project in summer of 1980, took me on a marathon nostalgia tour through the highways and byways of my youthful fieldwork days.  This included a tour of the Museum of Appalachia in Clinton, TN.

The Museum is a wonderfully eclectic collection of the stuff of life, with leanings toward old-timey, traditional items such as quilts, baskets, wittlings, weavings, and that sort of thing.  It is the brainchild and more or less obsession of John Rice Irwin, who I visited at least once during my summer research to get some leads.  Say what you will about John Rice (and some people have said a lot, not all of it positive), he amassed a collection of artifacts that boggle the mind and cause one to marvel at the unending creativity and skill of East Tennessee folk.  Interpretation is not a strong point, especially if one is looking for the unobjective curatorial view.  But, if you just want to see a whole lot of East Tennessee stuff from people’s barns, attics and hidey-holes, John Rice has assembled it here for your viewing pleasure.

I had interviewed some of the craftspeople and musicians represented, as Bobby pointed out.  Memories were cloudy on some of them, but others brought back fond memories, such as whiling away an afternoon chatting with former coal miner and woodworker Troy Webb and purchasing several of his amazing “water dog” carvings.

One object that captured my imagination was Asa Jackson’s Fabulous Perpetual Motion Machine dating back to the mid-1800s  The Museum allowed a gentleman named Dave Brown to study the wheel and sketch it extensively, resulting in a book, but apparently this has brought us no closer to knowing if the wheel, when in working order, really had the capability of creating perpetual motion.

The wheel for me is a sort of metaphor for the hyperactivity of collecting frenzy that John Rice Irwin himself must have been capable of before becoming too feeble to pursue his life’s work.

This item was not labeled and I still haven’t figured out what it might be. Any ideas??

The result is something that, like the machine, is a curiosity with no clear purpose but with a great wealth of largely untapped and possibly unending potential.  Just what will become of The Museum of Appalachia and its vast collection in the future is unclear.  So, if you find yourself in East Tennessee with several hours of leisure, make a visit while it is still intact.  Be prepared to be amazed.

Spring Hopes Eternal: Visiting L.A. Landmarks While Winter Returns to D.C.

 

March is a quixotic month, offering a false sense of spring only to take it back and slap you with winter again.  It gets even more confusing if you decide to take a trip to Southern California in the middle.  When we left, all systems were go for a plus or minus March 15 peak of the famous Washington, DC Cherry Blossoms, but alas they were nipped, literally, in the bud.  We returned to snow, ice, and biting winds, huddling and shivering at the pick-up lane of Dulles airport and, once finally transported to our parked car, forced to chip ice off the windshield without an ice scraper.

Oh, cruel March.  So, transporting one’s self back to sunny 80s SoCal, if only in one’s mind, is perhaps the way to go.  One highlight of the trip was the splendid Getty Villa.  Thank goodness for eccentric ultra-rich people like J. Paul Getty who get crazy notions like reconstructing an ancient Pompeii estate in which to display his (dubiously attained?) ancient art collection.  On top of a Malibu hillside no less.

Equally philanthropic,  Griffith J. Griffiths (does it get more Welsh than that?) bequeathed L.A. and the world a temple of another sort across town.  Griffith Observatory is a temple to science, more particularly to astronomy.  With a theater named after Leonard Nimoy.  The observatory has lately been featured in the film La La Land, where Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling dance suspended in gravity and reality in the planetarium dome.  Personally, we had fun playing with the Periodic Chart exhibit, and the night sky view is stunning.

Emma and Ryan also visited the Watts Towers, and so did we on this trip.  Simon Rodia, the Italian immigrant builder of this folk art installation made of salvaged materials, was not rich and famous like Getty and Griffiths.  His legacy doesn’t sprawl for acres or add to scientific and artistic discovery.  But, it is nonetheless impressive, and an important part of the L.A. story.

It’s thawing now in D.C., and the cherry blossoms might not be a total loss.  We’ll have to get out and visit sites in our own city.  Meanwhile, the L.A. memories will keep us warm.

 

Senses and Memories Part Two: As the Stomach Turns

Earlier this week, I ate a weird combination of foods and ended up with an upset stomach. The next day, I turned to my go-to comfort food to calm it down:  noodles with butter and a generous sprinkling of salt, which to me is the definition of the term “totally bland but utterly delicious.”  

I also craved a Coke, and not just for the bubbles.  When we were kids, my mom used to give us “Coke syrup” when we had an upset stomach.  Yes, this was a thing back in the day, and you can still get it at sales outlets that market nostalgia like the Vermont Country Store.

  No scientific proof, apparently, confirms Coke, flat or bubbly, in syrup form or straight from the can or bottle, as an actual cure for an upset stomach.  But, as this web site points out, it may make you FEEL BETTER none the less, if, for instance, your mom used to give it to you as a kid for this purpose.  One trusts one’s mom to know what she’s doing when you are young, right?  When she said, “This will make you feel better,” in a soothing voice, you were bound to at least attempt to feel better.

What foods and/or drinks from your childhood ease a crummy tummy?

 

Counting on My Interns

The intense ten days of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival are over, and our Txiki-Txoko Kids’ Corner is just a memory now.  20160629_120345The tent might even be gone by now, and the only remains will soon be a very large circle of dead grass and a few crayon and colored paper bits ground into the hard-baked soil.  But my 2016 summer interns and I will remember the moments of joy, frustration, laughter, disappointment, and exhaustion that made it an area where we hope kids had fun and learned something about cultural traditions.

Our favorite times might have been the visits of the Basque and California participants who demonstrated their skills, danced, composed, sang, and taught the kids in a way only those with a deep knowledge of a culture can.  But, we also did our share of teaching and passing on what we had learned about Basque culture.


20160710_165541 (1)One of these activities
was Basque Number Bingo, which I generated from an online template that allows you to turn just about any string of related words or images into a bingo game for kids.
(Don’t you just love the internet?  It was called Bingo Baker in case you want to try it!)  All the interns had to learn to count to sixteen (there were four rows of four on the bingo cards) in order to be on the ready to conduct Basque Number Bingo with random kids if/when the occasion arose.  (Usually this meant that some participant who was scheduled to come to us had cancelled for some reason and we had a big hole in our schedule and we had a bunch of kids to amuse with activities of our own devising.)  The numbers were ingrained into our memories and probably will be forever – bat, bi, hiru, lau, bost, sei, zazpi, zortzi, bederatzi, hamar…

Thus the metaphor of the title – I felt as though I could always count on my interns throughout the whole event.  Anne and Sara to keep the schedule updated and to help decide what to fill in with if we had a sudden hole.  Leah to conduct “salt experiments.”  Tyler at the ready to keep track of the myriad day camps in the colored t-shirts and pinafores.  Lila to politely ask parents to fill out the family survey.  Hannah to draw us a new interactive mural for the back wall.  Aliyah to keep the interactive triptych stocked with post-its and markers.  Our repeat volunteer/adopted intern Sam to do everything asked of her.  And a hundred other things they did from rearranging the chairs and tables for new activities to teaching whale origami, to soothing some little kid who banged a knee while playing “Duck, Duck Lamia” or “San Fermin Day sponge tag.”

20160710_222809

I have had many great groups of interns over the years – you know who you are, and thanks to those of you who came to visit during this year’s Festival – but each year’s bunch are special.  I may have been working on the Festival for an amazing 30 years (gulp!) but this will probably be the only year they participate before they go on to other exciting endeavors, and they will hopefully always remember it as a hectic, sweaty, but rewarding experience like no other.  Thanks for the memories, gals!

Backyard Bee Movie

20160514_114145Last Saturday, we had a drama unfolding in our backyard with a cast of thousands.  Thousands of our neighbor’s honey bees, that is.  According to bee literature available online, when a hive with its own queen becomes too crowded, the queen and her entourage decide they need a new palace.  So, they swarm en masse into the air, and then alight, as a huge clump clinging to one another, in whatever temporary haven is convenient.  In this case, one of the trees in our backyard.  I have to say that I was terrified at the initial swarming – I was out in the garden doing some weeding, and all of a sudden the sky was full of bees circling in the air.   But once the bees are safely in their huddle, only a few scouts fly here and there, searching for a proper new home.  They then come back to transmit information to the rest of their hives mates, and they somehow all decide where to go next.

Needless to say, the beekeeper wants to entice them to come home to establish another hive in the backyard, not to find some dead tree in a nearby park or other cozy den.  So, he arrived in his full bee regalia to try to make that happen.  Having never done it before, he had a few false starts.

 The process involved cutting down the branch with the bees, and trying to head them into the empty hive.  (This is when watching from an upstairs window feels much safer than watching fr20160514_130903om outside, even from within the screened-in deck.)
Bees everywhere, some dutifully entering the empty hive box, but most regrouping into another tree clump in record time (seconds!).  If you don’t get the queen into the box, the other bees are not buying it.  Finally, our neighbor got the queen in and the other bees followed, and the drama came to an end.  But, while it lasted, it was a fascinating glimpse into the Secret Life of Bees (which you should read, by the way, because it is a great book).

Culture is Alive in Armenia

P1060046I have been in Armenia on a work trip for the past week.  (Yes, I am only planning to go places that begin with “A” from now on.)  It’s been an amazing experience.  Since one of the focuses (foci?) of the project we are working on is food, eating has been a big part of the trip.  Since I am planning to write a work blog about “Armenian Snickers,” I will not mention them here, you will just have to wait for that.  But, we have been eating a lot of delicious food.  Yoghurt (madzoon) is a whole new experience here.  Each morning at breakfast at our hotel, I try another combination of nuts, jams, and honey (and even corn flakes) with this thick drained version of yoghurt – think the best Greek yoghurt with no sour “bite” to it.  Also, it is made into soup called “spas” with grains and a particular type of herb (it looks like tarragon in the soup, though I am sure people use different types of herbs.  This recipe calls for cilantro.)  Imagine our group of researchers in Areni, in the Vayots Dzor province, at a bed and breakfast which also serves lunch on its patio, eating this refreshing soup for a second course.  First course consisted of a variety of salads (one with horse sorrel is particularly good in my opinion).   Main course was a sort of chicken and wheat stew called “harissa.”  P1060047Then tea or strong Armenian coffee and “gata” (cake).  This was after visiting one of the most spectacularly situated historic monasteries in the country, called Noravank.  Good food, beautiful scenery, kind people, interesting (though sometimes tragic) history… Armenian culture is alive and lively, like its yoghurt.  P1060025