Saturday, December 26, 2009

Some Glimpses of Christmastime, 2009

(Note: If you're not family, then this is probably too many snapshots to be of much interest. If you are family, it's probably not enough.)

Guinness observes the tree. Mrs. Fort did her annual wonderful job decorating the living room and kitchen with all manner of warmth for the season. (Speaking of Mrs. Fort, she doesn't much like the way I doctored this image in Photoshop, and you might agree with her if you look at this comparison of the pre- and post-alteration versions.)

Like last year, this year's big gathering was on Christmas Eve at Adrianne and Grace's (and now Adrianne's new fella Ryan's) home. Many more photos from that fete will show up in the album, but I particularly like this one (taken by Adam) because it shows her dad Pat and her brother Corey in the background. Wish you could taste the hors d'oeuvres on the tray.

Grace (left) and her friend Danielle serenaded us with Christmas carols...

... and Grace unintentionally channeled her father, who was also known to do the hair thing while performing:

Doug, performing with Defiance about a quarter of a century ago, complete with flying V and flying hair. (Photos of Grace and Danielle by Adam; photos of Doug courtesy of Jim Adams and Defiance.)

Adams: Jim A. at left, A. Harrington at right. Jim, Mike Kaufmann, and a renewed Defiance recently released their first new album in a while, The Prophecy, which includes a number of tracks written by Doug in his last months.

Diane and I had a leisurely Christmas morning to ourselves -- or as "to ourselves" as anyone ever is in a house with five cats and three dogs. Old Kelsey, a veteran now of a dozen Christmases, waited patiently by the tree for us to use our opposable thumbs to liberate the colorful paper and bows from whatever boring things they were wrapped around.

Fonzie and Cooper spy a brand-new cat-teaser being opened.

Sometimes you play with the toy...

...and sometimes the toy plays with you. Cooper's big, but not especially quick.

Emma asks us to please notice that the floor next to her has no toys or snacks on it because...

... her bratty brother stole them all. Notice that he has also filched a catnip mouse, even. There's a reason he's called "The Prince of All-Mine" around here. (It's actually not such a wonderful personality trait, resource hoarding, and one we have to continually discourage.)

Cooper, in the process of recovering his dignity.

Hope you had a marvelous few days, too! See you in 2010.


Thursday, December 24, 2009

It's Hard to Type with Your Finger Aside of Your Nose

Ft. Harrington on Christmas Eve, 2009. Kelsey and Guinness are in the picture because, well... YOU just try taking a picture around here that doesn't include at least one or two furballs.

One of the very few advantages that blogs have over newspapers is that blogs like this can wish their entire readership "Merry Christmas" -- individually! So, here goes, alphabetically:

Adam, Brenda, Brian, Carolyn, Chris, Dann, Demitria, Fred, Jessamyn, Linda, Lucile, Lynda, Margaret, Mary Ellen, Mike, Ronnie, ronniecat, Ruth, and Vicki:

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

ps - if your name is not there, please help me to get over my embarassment by letting me know right away, and I'll fix it.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

If You Need a Short Break from Jingling Bells...

... here are three short diversions from Adam, Uncle Bob, and me that have nothing to do with the holidays:

Mrs. Fort, Ballyvaughan, Ireland, 2006
(Click on the last picture to be taken to a short gallery of photos -- again, having nothing to do with sleighs or egg nog.)

Okay, now we can all get back to joy and so on. Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Farflung. Family. Freaky.

Everybody's got a family somewhere. Everybody's family is a hiccup in the flow of ordinality. There's normal, and then there's "us", and that dichotomy applies to all of us, always, especially here in the blogosphere.

Here's the most recent salvo in the "we're weirder than you are" contest: another short, masterful video clip from Adam's Uncle Bob:

The above video clip is another in Adam's Uncle Bob's continuing series of alternate-sensibility visuals, some of which have been highlighted here on SherWords before. What makes this one notable for SherWords is the collection of talent: Adam's faux-lingo background, cousin Bill's growling guitar, and, especially, Reva's smooth voice make this a multi-generational and cross-lineage collection that should help braid disparate genetic threads together.

And it's really, really cool, too.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

To Adam, for Adam

I don't know where it was that I first heard of Red Molly. Maybe it was in a comments stream from Chocolatepoint on Flickr, or maybe somewhere on Facebook.

Wherever it was, the reference led me to "May I Suggest," which is a poem with music that I would have written to my son Adam, were I smarter than I am. It is appropriate in more ways than I want to make explicit, but I can say that the "seven generations" and the "from the west" parts are exquisitely in harmony with what I feel.

Adam is making sacrifices in his personal life now for people who may or may not appreciate his efforts. I want him to know that somebody appreciates it, in a very, very big way, and this song sings that vision, too: his efforts are, ultimately, beneficial to him as well, and in part make this "the best part of [his] life."


More Red Molly, this time from an appearance at a small branch library, covering Nanci Griffith -- God, I hope these women hit the big time like they should; they are as good as the Indigo Girls or the Story were, as far as I am concerned:

Saturday, November 21, 2009

New (to SherWords) from ACH and AGH

New (to here) from ACH
(Adam Charles Harrington)

Man at Work

Adam's Uncle Dick, his mother's oldest brother, trained hunting dogs in Minnesota for the last several years of his life. In fact, Dick died little more than a year ago (of a heart attack) while doing what he loved: hunting with his dogs.

Last month, Adam came across a recording of a radio ad that he did for his Uncle Dick several years ago, and it's remarkable for a couple of reasons. First, it's one of Adam's first commercials, but, second, his "co-star" is none other than Adam's late brother, Doug. You can hear it by clicking here. Doug is the straight man; Adam is in character.

As long as I'm in bragging mode for my boy, here are a few more references:

His longtime mentor, Susan McCollum, touted his work after her training in her October newsletter thusly: And once again, Adam Harrington leads the pack with work On EA's Ironman 2, numerous sessions for Lucas's "Monkey Island", characters for both "Assasins Creed" and "Shattered Horizons" for Emeryville's SomaTone and "Infinite Space" for WebTone. My boy's almost 40, and finally he's a teacher's pet! More seriously, Susan is a very fine and highly-respected voice actor and teacher, so her praise is significant. Her website can be seen by clicking here.

Voice acting sometimes requires patience and forbearance when auditioning -- especially when the voiceover artist recognizes that what he's reading is flamingly horribly written. Here's a four-minute audition for Celebrity Cruises that Adam sent in without listening to the product all the way to the end. His brief critique at the end is priceless: Adam says, "Here's why one should always, ALWAYS listen back before one sends an audition in. Don't bother listening to the whole (four effing minute long) audition. Just skip to the very end." Not surprisingly, he didn't get the gig.

[Note added post-production: You know what? You really do have to listen to the whole four minutes to enjoy the fraction of a second at the end appropriately. My boy soldiers on beyond any reasonable expectation until then, and the longer it goes, the more impressive his achievement in soldiering on is. I was about to split a gut even before the ending.]

Voice acting doesn't always go smoothly, even for simple, short items. When I do that sort of thing in lecture, I usually look over the tops of my glasses at the students and say, "Can you believe that they pay me to talk?"

New (to here) from AGH
(Arthur George Harrington)

After a two-month gap, Satchel of Ordinary Treasure is active again, this time with another set of short reminiscences from my grandfather (and Adam's great-grandfather) Arthur G. Harrington.

Art Harrington in 1946; the hand on his shoulder is his daughter Mary's. A startling realization for me while typing this very caption: Art is only ten years older in this picture than I am now. Holy smokes!

My grandfather's stories were transcribed near the end of his life by his eldest surviving daughter, Mary, who also cared for him day and night for the last few of his 80 years. Mary was a spinster (to use a painfully quaint word) and a talented teacher and writer in her own right, so she almost naturally kept notes on the old man's stories, and typed them up in a compilation called "Tales Told by your Grandfather Arthur George Harrington 1874 - 1954," which she distributed to Arthur's dozen or so grandchildren in the mid-1970's.

The booklet consists of photocopied small pages of typewritten text, with numerous hand-corrections and alterations which make it unsuitable for OCR (optical character recognition) scanning software, so entries in Satchel from it have to be hand transcribed via keyboard. That turns out to have been a blessing in an unexpected way.

The old man died when I was only seven years old. My only direct memories of him are dim ones of a mammoth, almost immobile, old man, and of a scent that seemed to evoke darkness and musty places. When Aunt Mary first distributed his little book of stories, I was in my twenties and full of myself -- I read them, sure, but they didn't seem like much to me then, busy as I was with misguiding my own life. So I put the little book away, and didn't look at again for years.

But an interesting thing has happened as a result of my having to key in each letter of his stories now. He has changed in my mind's eye from being an old, enfeebled mountain of a man, or even from being a name in a genealogy, to something progressively more human. As I feel like I have spent more time with him (because I have!), his name has changed for me from "Arthur G. Harrington" to "Art."

Art is a guy I think of now as a friend, someone I'd be very comfortable with at a bar after our workday on the machine gang or at the trolley barn was over, having a couple of beers and swapping mundane stories before heading home. And Art is a guy I'd like to have on my side.

It's a one-way street, of course: I can hear Art's stories, and thump my hand on the bar as I laugh, but he can't hear mine or Adam's. I have confidence that he would like ours, though, every confidence in the world.

Click here for Art's latest clutch of after-work stories. Don't get your expectations up for great literature or side-splitting comedy. Just have a little bowl of peanuts handy to munch on, and think of what you'd offer in riposte.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

If You're Going to Buy a Fort...

Why it's called "Fort Harrington." Photo taken shortly after the new fence, gate, and sign were installed in October, 2001.

If you're going to buy a fort, don't buy one in a rain forest.

If you're going to buy a fort in a rain forest, don't buy one that's downhill from a road and uphill from the nearest creek.

If you're going to buy a fort in a rain forest, and it's downhill from a road and uphill from the nearest creek, be prepared to deal with drainage issues. Voluminous ones.

Fort Harrington lies between a paved mountain road and Kings Creek in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, a little patch of rain forest on California's central coast. Our area receives about five feet of rain per year on average, almost all of which falls between October and April. The abundance of rain is due to a little kink in the San Andreas fault, which takes a sudden right turn between Santa Cruz and Palo Alto. That abrupt change in direction, over the aeons, has birthed the Santa Cruz Mountains, a two- to three-thousand foot uplift directly adjacent to the prevailing westerlies from the Pacific. That uplift, in most years, wrings cascading amounts of water out of the laden oceanic air in winter, and feeds our spectacular forest of millions of sequoia sempervirens (coast redwoods).

It also feeds a sluiceway directly through our compound, which blasts away merrily at impressive volume during winter storms. The road above us makes a little turn there, a micro-mirror of the San Andreas's jig, but its turn is in a depression, not an uplift. At the depression in the road above us is a storm drain, which channels all the road's runoff from both directions for a long way down underneath our property to the creek below.

Right under our garage.

Right under our house.

When the decking was being replaced in mid-2000, stripping the old decking away exposed the sluiceway's transition to under-house pipe, seen at lower-left here.

The portions of the runoff's course under the structures are large-caliber pipe, from a foot and a half to two feet in diameter. Between the "garage" (a 1930's shed, which is being held up only by vines, as far as I can figure) and the house, though, it runs through a deep, v-shaped, exposed sluice.

When we purchased Ft. Harrington in 1998, many things were in an advanced state of rot, including the simple plywood covering of the 30 feet of sluiceway (and all the decking). Our first renovation projects were fencing around the entire compound (which my sons Doug and Adam were the primary architects and laborers for), replacing the decking (which we put in the hands of a well-respected local contracting firm, along with a large chunk of our bank account), and covering the sluice. I did the latter, fashioning a plank walkway over it with redwood two-by-fours.

That was in early 1999. Now I know how long untreated redwood two-by-fours at ground level last in a rain forest environment: ten years.

My over-sluice walkway had decayed to the point of disintegration by this summer, so re-building it has been item one on my list of honey-dos this fall. Luckily, the big rains have held off long enough for me to progress on the project pretty much adequately before the sluice becomes a torrent.

I started a few weeks ago, before the first big storm of the season. The above photo shows the old walkway; its unevenness is due to rot in the boxes that support the cross-boards. At the back end of the sluiceway, near the "garage," you can see three new boxes that will ultimately support new crossboards. The walkway/sluice covering is modular to allow easy access to the sluice, which provides an avenue for water pipes to outlying areas of the Fort, such as the chickens' compound and the garden house (note the white pvc pipe in the sluice in some of these photos.)

The first few boxes were temporarily covered with plywood; they will eventually be covered by a lattice of two-by-fours. A new box is ready on the table at left. Some 8-foot redwood 2x4's stand ready to be chopped up, leaning against the chickens' mansion in the background.

Today's work: the two longest sections.

Cross-pieces halfway done. The cross-pieces probably could be made with thinner boards than two-by-fours, but I like the sturdy feel of the thicker wood under my feet. What I can't logically rationalize is my choice of fastener: 2 1/2 inch lag screws instead of nails. That's just how I do stuff; if I were doing this kind of thing for a living, you bet I'd do it cheaper, faster, and more logically. I just like the way a walkway cover box that could support a tank feels. (Somewhere, my Dad -- a fine craftsman in woodwork -- is rolling his eyes.)

Finishing today's job as today's light fades.

There's a certain comfort in knowing when I'll have to do this job again. The first walkway decayed to dangerousness in ten years, so I should probably replace this one in nine. So I'll mark it on my schedule: "re-build sluice cover" in summer, 2018.

When I'm 71.

Maybe I'll rope my son, Adam, into helping me out then. He'll be a mere tyke, still, at 48. But I'll still work the power tools, yeah.

All the while I was working today, our Japanese maple was in my field of view, its exuberant November red catching my vision's periphery. It is planted in the decaying stump of a magnificent old virgin-forest redwood, and it's of a variety called "Sherwood's Flame"... which, of course, is why we bought it at the local nursery.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Fonzie Dreams

Old Fonzie on a chill Fall evening in Ft. Harrington, 2009. He may be dreaming; he may be dreaming of his old friends, long gone; he may be dreaming of the orange no-tail, or of his protector and mentor, Oolie.

Or he may be dreaming of dinner. Hard to tell.

He is solitary among a houseful of animals; he is gregarious in a home that has many visitors; he is slippery among the dimensions.

He is simple. He is not simple. He is who he is.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Tut Tut

We took a Friday daytrip up to San Francisco yesterday to take in the "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" exhibit at the DeYoung Museum.

The exhibit was given mostly ho-hum reviews by friends who had seen it, mostly because it had been over-hyped by the museum and was much smaller and less impressive than the massive display that toured the US in the 1970's. With our expectations thus lowered, we liked the exhibit very much: the layout of the rooms, the lighting and other aspects of presentation, and especially the explanatory material were excellent, and many of the small objects were exquisite.

The biggest disappointment for me was that I couldn't take photographs. The only room in which photography is allowed is the last one...

... the souvenir store (or "King Tut's Kitch-en," as Mrs. Fort dubbed it.)

You can buy magnetuts in the store...

... and it has a habertuttery (I'm kicking myself for not getting one of those headdresses to wear for Monday's lectures.)

It has tete-a-Tuts (don't you wish you had a box for all your Tutheads?), and you can even...

... generate a sheet of "papyrus" with your name in a weird phonetic-hierogylphic jam-up for only a buck! Lessee, S-H-E-R-T-U-T comes out "bolt-house-double reed-mouth..."

You know, our kitchen straight-back chairs are getting a little decrepit -- maybe we should replace them with six of these!

... or maybe not.

We bought a refrigerator magnet instead and then went to look at the ocean.


Thursday, October 1, 2009


Douglas M. Harrington
October 1, 1966 - November 14, 2006

Friday, September 25, 2009

Gallant Promise Dead at 49

I don't post much here about my job except for the occasional piece about the Planetarium. I'm not exactly sure why that is, since I love my job dearly, think it's important, and can't imagine doing anything else for a living. Possibly it's just that it is my job, and this blog is for recreation, I don't know.

But something happened at my job in this past week that I would be derelict in not mentioning. It is not pleasant. It is saddening, and perhaps ultimately demoralizing, but it is significant.

It is the end of a grand, 49-year-old promise to the people of the state of California by their government: that every California resident, regardless of financial status, who could benefit from higher education would be able to enroll in a California college or university that would suit his or her abilities and needs.

In 1960, the state legislature enacted the California Master Plan for Higher Education, a truly revolutionary, integrated strategy for accommodating the anticipated crush of "Baby Boomers" once they reached college age. From my perspective, it was not only a Master Plan, but a masterful one, generally credited in large part to the vision of two people, Edmund G. ("Pat") Brown, then Governor, and Clark Kerr, then President of the University of California system.

The Master Plan was implemented quickly, and has served California superbly for nearly half a century. Its details are succinctly laid out in the Wiki article linked above. And, possibly with isolated exceptions, its promise has been kept: every California resident who could benefit from higher education has been able to enroll in a California University, State College, or Community College.

Until last week.

Above: San Francisco ABC television story from the first day of classes. If you click on this, you'll have to put up with a 15-second advertizement.

DeAnza College is one of the largest of California's hundred-plus community colleges, enrolling 20 to 25 thousand students each term. Our schedule is also unusual: our Fall term starts later than almost every other college and university in the state. That means that any student within commute distance of Cupertino who was not able to enroll in a State college or university, or couldn't get needed classes in any of the other dozen community colleges in the area, can use DeAnza (and its much smaller, less easily reached sister institution, Foothill College) as something of a safety net.

The "perfect storm" of denied opportunities elsewhere happened this Fall. California's budget meltdown caused draconian cuts in the UC and CSU systems, slashing enrollments in those two legs of the Master Plan's tripod, which shifted a tidal wave of students to the Community Colleges. That system, however, also had its financial resources gutted, causing massive cutbacks in course offerings, so students by the thousands in the San Francisco Bay Area alone couldn't get all of the courses they needed or wanted at other community colleges.

That left DeAnza, the late-start, huge campus of last resort.

This week was the first week of classes. It was probably one of the worst weeks of our professional careers for those of us who work there; worse than that for the thousands of students who were told "no" one last time, with nowhere else to go.

The promise of the Master Plan was dead. Not officially, of course. Nobody in Sacramento will say that, because nobody in the capitol building had to look hundreds of students in the eye and tell them there was no opportunity for them here or anywhere else. It's not part of official policy that the Master Plan's promise is no longer valid, but, in reality, it's as dead as Caesar.

Numbers from DeAnza's first week of the 2009-10 school year:

Total number of students enrolled in at least one course: More than 25,000
Number of those who could not enroll in as many courses as they wanted/needed: 8,400
(These will not qualify as "full-time" students as a result, and financial aid they receive may be in jeopardy because of their part-time status. Moreover, those who are carried on their parents' health insurance under a "full-time college student" clause will lose that also.)
Number of students who could not enroll in any courses at all: 2,300

Two thousand three hundred students went to the trouble and expense of registering in my college this quarter who were denied any service whatsoever. All they got was a hunting license for a griffin or a chimera. And, if they bought a $70 parking permit, they also got a hunting license for a parking space, only slightly less abundant than griffins.

For those 2,300 students -- who will now not be students at all -- the Master Plan's promise is not only dead, it's a cruel joke. Since I was almost certainly the last one to say "no" to more than a few of them, I was their ultimate agent of the promise's violation. I'm not going to have a wonderful weekend, but it will probably be a better one than theirs will be.

We could see this coming, at least a little bit. During the week before the beginning of classes, during pre-term meetings and planning sessions, my division Dean told us that, even at that time, there was not a single seat available in any science class section, and that only a handful of openings were still available in our very large number of mathematics sections. By the beginning of the week, the total number of student names on waiting lists, campus-wide, was over 14,000 -- and that's just the students who went to the trouble of signing up on a waiting list instead of simply giving up.

And so, since we are the last ones a student sees when he or she still has hope of getting into a class, we teachers became the ones who had to bring the final "no" down: No, you cannot enroll in this class. No, there are no other classes I can suggest. Please try again next quarter.

A more complete piece from Inside Higher Ed online. Click on the logo to read it.

I'm not anxious right now to try to analyze how we got here, or to cast blame, or to assess whether or not the promise was a good idea to begin with. I'll do all of that -- all of us at DeAnza will do all of that -- once a short period of stunned numbness is over. But right now I'm just overwhelmed by the reality of the violation of an ideal that has guided my entire 36-year career.

We let them down.

Links and statistics courtesy of DeAnza President Brian Murphy.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Bridge Idyll

(No, not "idle bridge" -- that would be this one .)

In Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park: part of the railbed of the Santa Cruz, Big Trees & Pacific Railway Company.

There was a very nice, short article about our San Lorenzo River valley in the San Jose Mercury early this summer. It was about a feature that our valley still has that is disappearing from other rivers across America: the swimmin' hole, unfenced, unregulated, un-chlorinated, and probably a little unsanitary, too.

The San Lorenzo River is very short; it runs from the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains southward to the city of Santa Cruz on Monterey Bay, a distance of less than twenty miles. The whole valley, in fact, can be seen in this photo from a recent SherWords post, from its origin near the bottom of that frame to its outlet in the mid-distance haze. (The smoke plume was from the "Lockheed" wildfire of last month.) Its course runs through a magnificent forest of sequoia sempervirens (coast redwoods) and wends its way through several small towns. A few of those towns dam the stream during the summer to make swimming places for kids (and others) and, especially in its last few miles, there are a number of natural pooling places that require no dammed assistance.

One of those natural pools is in Henry Cowell State Park just south of Felton. (That park was itself a recent topic here in a different context. ) It is in an idyllic place in the park -- if you don't think a railroad excludes the entire concept of "idyll" -- where the river begins its winding path through its final steep canyon to the sea. It is under a hundred-year-old railroad bridge, a bridge that now carries only tourist trains operated twice a day for round trips to the Santa Cruz beach and boardwalk by the Roaring Camp folks.

Shortly after I was finished with summer school in August, I took an early-morning walk with my old Nikon and tripod down the railroad tracks to the bridge. Fog from Monterey Bay still hung at about treetop level in the canyon, lending a muted, diffused light to the redwoods and the forest floor.

The bridge itself posed gracefully for its portraits...

... and I clambered down for a view into the morning's foggy glare downstream:

I resolved to come back at a time when the excursion train was scheduled to cross the bridge, and, after checking the schedule, returned two days later at about 10:30am (after having taken a quick trip to the mountains' crest to snap the above-referenced photo of smoke from the wildfire on Ben Lomond Mountain.)

When I reached the bridge and set up my tripod a little downstream from it, a trio of young girls was already there, enjoying the swimmin' hole under the bridge, taking turns swinging on the long, leisurely rope dangling from the bridge to the water. The photos below, if seen only here, show neither rope nor young girls. If you click on any of the next three photos, though, you should be able to see the long rope near the right-hand bridge pier.

When the train arrived, the girls scuttled, giggling, up the river bank into the woods, but...

... even before the train had completely passed over the bridge, they were back.

This confluence of things from a different time -- an old railroad bridge, a languid river's swimming spot, a swinging rope's enthrallment -- led me to indulge myself in a bit of Photoshop cuteness that I don't want to let myself do very much. I altered one of my grade-level photos of the bridge to include a different destination on its far side:

A bridge too far.

(You really have to click on the above image to see it larger to get all that I want you to see. Please?)

I think of the strolling figure on the other side, walking with measured strides farther on down the track, as my Dad, who was deeply intrigued by trains and especially their railbeds' courses throughout his life. I am not on the bridge yet, nor (I hope) will be any time soon -- but I can sure see it from here. One of my sons has the good grace to be behind me, out of sight in this picture. The other has broken the rules, has impetuously rushed across the bridge ahead of me, and is already out of sight around the tracks' curve, as was always his way.

As I said, I don't want to let myself do this very much. But there was something about the old bridge, and the morning's fog, and the redwood forest that let me do it this once.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

"The Shutesbury School of Philosophy"

This is a followup to the previous post, "Love and the Observatory."

This old photo from the summer of 1882 played a big part in the latter portion of that article:

I now know a lot more about the photo than I did two days ago, thanks to A Summer of Hummingbirds by Christopher Benfey (2008, Penguin). For starters, "The Shutesbury School..." is the title of the photograph, not the group, though the group named the photo. It's an homage to Raphael's "The School of Athens":

Raphael's "School of Athens." Click on the image for a much larger image, which is a delight to peruse.

The photo was taken immediately after the group of friends had enjoyed a picnic outing to the small town of Shutesbury in the hills near Amherst. It was taken in the Main Street studio of John Lovell, who was a prominent photographer of that time and place. I was evidently wrong about identifying the young lady with the revolver as Susan Dickinson; Mrs. Dickinson, instead, is the woman near the center holding a child on her lap. Benfey identifies most of the eleven this way:

"Five women pose behind five seated men. Mabel [Todd], dressed in white with a large feathered hat, presides. Seated next to her is Susan Dickinson, entirely maternal, with her younger son, Gib, in her lap. The studio backdrop features a light-filled French window opening to the left and a contrasting dark fireplace to the right. A young woman stands in the window, with a Colt revolver in her hand, pointed playfully at Mabel. David Todd sits hunched in front of the fireplace, as though he has just crawled out of it. In front of him Ned Dickinson lies propped on the floor, mimicking Raphael's Diogenes, his tennis racket in front of him. Another Amherst student, William Clark, sits guarding the large picnic basket, slightly open like Pandora's box."

If that quote sounds like something an art critic would write, there's good reason for that. In addition to being a Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College and a book reviewer for several prestigious publications, Benfey "serves as a regular art critic for the online magazine Slate," according to his book's dust jacket. Being a book reviewer for the New York Times didn't prevent his book from being pretty well savaged there, though -- unless a book's substance being compared to cotton candy and its import to that of a carnival ride is now considered to be positive.

So who is the woman with the gun? The Yale archives list five women, so the three others must be "Miss Mattie Dickinson," "Miss Allie Mather," and "Miss Bessie Marvin." Since Mabel and Susan are listed as "Mrs," about all I can say about revolver-gal is that she's a Miss.

Benfey also implies that Mabel Todd's "affair" with Austin and Susan Dickinson's son -- Ned, the one with the tennis racket in the photo -- was not one of active sexuality, as other sources imply it was (and I did in the previous post.) Instead, young Ned became very infatuated with Mabel, and this infatuation wasn't discouraged at all by either family. "It was felt," writes Benfey, "by both Ned's parents and the Todds that such a sentimental attachment to a mature woman was good for the young man and harmless for Mabel herself. It was an apprenticeship of sorts. 'He likes Ned,' Mabel wrote of her husband, 'and he thinks it a good thing for him to be under my influence.'" That "apprenticeship of sorts," to me, would be like putting training wheels on a Harley-Davidson and calling it a "practice bicycle."

And Mabel's soon-to-start affair with Austin was of course entirely different.

I posted a copy of "The Shutesbury School..." picture on my Flickr account. One of my favorite photographers on Flickr, a woman whose handle there is "chocolatepoint," immediately recognized the strong similarity it bears to a mural on a wall in Amherst facing the graveyard which contains the Dickinson plot, which you can see in the comments here.

Chocolatepoint did some quick research on the mural and found its brochure available online. While the brochure didn't provide much more information about the photograph than we already had, chocolatepoint also found a great treasure available at the Amherst Historical Commission website: a downloadable file containing full text and pictures from the 1894 Handbook of Amherst, Massachusetts, published by Frederick Hitchcock.

Amherst College's Morgan Hall, 1890's, probably by John Lovell, as it appears in the 1894 edition of The Handbook of Amherst, Massachusetts. A library at the time the photo was taken, Morgan Hall is now the home of the College's Bassett Planetarium, the first room in which I ever took a college astronomy course.

After having read a good deal of it -- and loving every word and picture, as an old geezer who has a very, very soft spot for Amherst would love -- it's clear why the Handbook was "published by" Hitchcock instead of simply "by" him: there's a chapter in it that he didn't write.

The chapter is called "The Connecticut Valley," about the natural history and human history of the larger part of Massachusetts of which Amherst, Northampton, and the surrounding towns are part.

It was written by Mabel Loomis Todd, and it surprised me.

I don't know what I was expecting, but the writing is tight without being terse, romantic without being flowery, informative without the scent of pedantry, and not strange. It holds up very well twelve decades later, better than Hitchcock's does, at any rate. I would really like to see a modern assessment of the "natural history" of the Valley that she presents so confidently, though.

Finally, just for Demitria McDuff because I promised it to her, a photo of Mabel Loomis Todd later in life. She was always a knockout:

Mabel Loomis Todd in 1930, age 73 or 74, about two years before her death. (Copyright holder unknown; from the Todd-Bingham Picture Collection, Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University.)


Sunday, August 30, 2009

Love and the Observatory

He fumbles at your spirit
As players at the keys
Before they drop full music on;
He stuns you by degrees,

Prepares your brittle substance
For the ethereal blow,
By fainter hammers, further heard,
Then nearer, then so slow

Your breath has time to straighten,
Your brain to bubble cool,—
Deals one imperial thunderbolt
That scalps your naked soul.

-- by Emily Dickinson. More likely than not, that is. Most of it.

This fortieth summer after Woodstock has been a time for nostalgic tales involving youthful love by many of us boomers. By far the best of these that I have seen thus far is this one by Mike Peterson; below is my contribution to the genre.

During the summer of 1968, I worked closely with one I would fall deeply in love with, and whom I would ultimately lose in a terrible accident, but not before having forsaken her for another. I was a callow cad, and she was 120 years old.

She was a telescope.

Approach to the major dome, Amherst College Observatory ("Wilder Observatory"), August 1968.

But she wasn't just any telescope; she was the 7 1/4 inch refractor of the Amherst College Observatory. In the summer of '68, between my junior and senior years at the College, I was preparing for my Senior honors' thesis work. My first plan was to refurbish the old telescope -- unused for many many years -- and to use it to further some research it had been used for earlier in that century, the determination of asteroids' rotation periods by monitoring periodic fluctuations in their brightnesses.

7 1/4 inch telescope, Amherst College Observatory, August 1968. It was 120 years old when this photo was taken.

The old telescope had a very, very high-class pedigree. It was one of the first instruments manufactured for sale by the legendary firm of Alvan Clark and Sons, acquired by Amherst in 1848 for installation in its first observatory. The instrument had already been used by the Clarks to discover the binary nature of several stars, and was sold to the College for the staggering sum of $1800. With its 7 1/4 inch aperture and more than 100-inch focal length, it was considered to be a large telescope for its time. The Clark firm would eventually produce the largest working refractors ever built, even to this day: the 36" telescope of Lick Observatory (1888) and Yerkes Observatory's 40" instrument in 1897. (A vastly larger telescope of a radically different design also went into operation in 1848, though: Lord Rosse's 72" Leviathan of Parsonstown.)

The first Amherst College Observatory with the original tower built for the 7 1/4 inch Clark refractor. Called "The Octagon," this building is still a fixture of Amherst's historic campus, but no longer as an observatory or geology museum ("cabinet").
Photo from the Amherst College library's online archive, credited thusly: "Photo by Lovell, Amherst -- from Wood 1884 Class Album".

By the time I arrived at Amherst for my freshman year in 1965, Amherst had acquired another, much larger telescope from the Clark firm, and both had been installed in the "new" observatory (Wilder Observatory) on a hill south of campus in 1903.

The College, by 1965, had also pretty much lost interest in both of them. There was no astronomer on the faculty then (one was hired by my sophomore year), the offices and workshops of the observatory had been vacant for several years, and the larger telescope was used only once in a great while for simple star- and planet-gazing. The smaller one, the 7 1/4 inch, had not been used in so long that the axles in its mounting structure had welded themselves into immobility by corrosion.

The 7 1/4 inch's "new" home: its dome at the East end of the Wilder Observatory, constructed in 1903. I took this photo in August, 1968.

But its optics apprared to be in fine shape, at least by visual inspection of the lenses themselves (it couldn't be pointed at anything to test them directly), as did the optics in the wonderful box riding piggyback on it:

The 7 1/4 inch and its symbiont, the Ross Camera, August 1968.

That box is a "Ross Camera," the lens-type predecessor to the later and and better-known Schmidt cameras. These cameras were used to record large areas of the sky for surveys, rather than to zero in on intimate details. When in operation, the elegant old main telescope would be used as a guide telescope while the Ross Camera recorded its wide view on a large glass photographic plate at its rear.

During the spring of 1968, I talked with Dr. William Plummer, a young, savvy member of the Astronomy faculty at the University of Massachusetts (the big U at the other end of town from little Amherst College, another of the "colleges" in the Five College Astronomy Department of the time) about whether the old telescope mount could be renovated.

It could, and we did.

At each step along the way, as we carefully disassembled the telescope's mount, sometimes using power drills to dislodge corrosion's welds, I carefully recorded the various pieces' relationships to one another by photos like these:

I mug in the "studio" Tom set up for the parts photos, August 1968.

That documentation was done with expert help, too. My friend Tom, the only other honors-track Astronomy major in my time at Amherst, was one year behind me, and was a highly-accomplished professional photographer before he entered college. He taught me just about everything I ever learned about black-and-white photographic processing. Above is a photo of me with our "parts studio;" below Tom is letting me know that the current batch of prints has only about one minute left in the wash cycle.

Tom is now over 60, a longtime highly-respected faculty member in astronomy at a major American state university. I'm not giving his last name here because I don't want any of his students to stumble across this photo of him by way of a search engine!

The resulting parts photos, along with diagrams and a long narrative, were bound in several copies of a manuscript against the time when something like that project would have to be done again.

The project was a great success by mid-summer; the mount worked smoothly and the telescope could once again be pointed in any direction with ease. However, once we could look through the telescope, it was obvious that the optics needed cleaning and perhaps anti-reflection coating as well. We would have proceeded with that had not something else happened: a remarkable piece of equipment became available that might be adapted to the bigger, 18" telescope in the observatory in time for use in a completely different thesis project.

I switched topics and telescopes in mid-stream then, abandoning the ancient instrument for another that was merely old. Exactly what the new project was is beside the point here; the point is that we didn't clean the 7 1/4 inch lenses.

Somebody else tried to do that a few years later, though. And dropped the lens assembly. And shattered the 125-year-old glass.

Without its heart, the telescope was useless. Without the telescope, the dome was useless. Both were removed; this image from the current Google Earth database shows only a square roof at the East end of the observatory building, looking like a healed-over amputation stump to me; it saddens my heart deeply:

Current Google Earth image of Amherst College's Wilder Observatory. There is no dome on the right.

That wasn't the first time an instrument was removed from the Wilder Observatory, though. The old photo below, not credited in my source, Wolfgang Steinicke's webpages, shows two characteristic roof-slots for "transit telescopes" between the two domes. Transit telescopes, which monitor a site's meridian, are used to calibrate time and position with great precision, and historically were used to regulate clocks and measure wobbles of Earth's axis of rotation. By the time I arrived at Amherst, no trace of these transit instruments remained.

Wilder Observatory, probably circa 1910. Between the two domes, on the roof, are two sets of what look like walkway railings. They are actually supports for hinged parts of the roof between each pair of railings; those hinged parts of the roof would open for use of the two transit telescopes.

But looking for pictures of them led me to this remarkable snapshot from 1910 in Yale University's online archives:

Eben Jenks Loomis visits the observatory with his daughter and son-in-law in 1911, the year before his death. (Eben was born in Upstate New York close in time and space to where the notorious outlaw family "the Loomis Gang" held sway in Nine Mile Swamp. I have not been able to establish any connection, but that's never kept a blog from innuendo-mongering, has it?)

The white-haired gentleman at left is Eben Jenks Loomis, a longtime astronomer of little note with the United States Naval Observatory in Washington DC. The other two are his daughter, Mabel, and Mabel's husband, David Peck Todd. Todd was Amherst's astronomer from 1881 until his retirement in 1917, and was something of an astronomical celebrity from the 1890's onward.

David was lured back to Amherst, his undergraduate alma mater, for a faculty position by the College's Treasurer, W. Austin Dickinson. Dickinson's family was a prominent one in the town of Amherst, and his father had served as a U.S. Congressman. (The older of Dickinson's two younger sisters, Emily, was a reclusive eccentric who lived in their parents' home.)

[NOTE ADDED TWO DAYS AFTER THIS WAS FIRST POSTED: some of the information below is incomplete. Please make sure to read this update.]

Before coming back to Amherst and his new faculty position, Todd worked at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, and fell in love with and married Eben Loomis's daughter in 1875, when she was only 18 (and he was all of 20.) When they arrived in Amherst, her beauty was luminous and her style was unmistakably modern.

David and Mabel's engagement portrait by Bowdoin's Gallery, Washington DC, 1878. Public domain photo from the Todd-Bingham Picture Collection Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University.

1883 portrait of Mabel taken by the Lovell Studio, Amherst. Todd-Bingham Picture Collection Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University. Copyright unknown.

Along with great beauty, Mabel had great... well... enthusiasm. Within a year of arrival in Amherst, she was having an affair with the son of her husband's sponsor, Austin Dickinson, an affair which she quickly ended in favor of one with Austin himself. That affair continued, almost flagrantly, until Austin died in 1895. Her behavior at Austin's funeral is reported to have been scandalous, and the rift in Amherst society between her supporters and Austin's widow, Susan's, was deep and lasting.

Meanwhile, Austin's reclusive sister, Emily, passed away in 1886, leaving behind her famous hundreds of poems written on scraps of paper and bundled into "fascicles" in her room. Emily's sister, Lavinia, invited Mabel Todd to help her sort through them, and Mabel (along with Atlantic Monthly editor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson) edited the poems to a point they deemed publishable.

Whether they actually improved Emily's work or not will never be known, since the full extent of editing is not known. Mabel fancied herself to be an author and poet, too (her novel, Footprints, had been published in 1883), she said matter-of-factly that she "corrected" some of what she found, and it is said that she did much of her editing with scissors. So, when you read a poem by Emily Dickinson, there is a chance that part of what you're reading is actually Mabel Loomis Todd's work.

The whole era of love, lust, romance, and poetry is nicely encapsulated for me by this photograph from the Yale University Archives:

"The Shutesbury School of Philosophy," 1882, public domain photograph, Todd-Bingham Picture Collection Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University. Shutesbury is a very small town in the western Massachusetts hills near Amherst. I don't know why this gang called themselves by that name.

Taken in 1882, it is titled "Shutesbury School of Philosophy," and shows ten young adults in the prime of their energy and vigor. The central figure, dressed in white, is without doubt Mabel Loomis Todd, dominating the tableau as her personality would demand. The archive photo description notes that the people in the picture include "Mrs. William Austin Dickinson [Susan], Mrs. David Peck Todd [Mabel Todd], David Peck Todd, Edward Dickinson, Bradford Hitchcock, Miss Mattie Dickinson, Miss Allie Mather, Mr. Will Mather, Miss Bessie Marvin, William B. Clark, and Gilbert Dickinson." Notice that W. Austin Dickinson is not among those mentioned; it is possible that he took the picture, although it's pretty clearly a studio shot.

While it's not clear from the archives' description which one is Susan, I'm pretty sure it's the young lady at upper-left. Not only is she the first one mentioned (which might imply that position), but, when you look closely at her...

Susan and Mabel.

... she's got a revolver pointed at Mabel.

Anyone who uses this article as the basis for any part of a term paper or the like is a complete idiot.
Serious references available upon serious request.
Uncredited photos by S. Harrington.