Saturday, October 29, 2011

Two Astronomers and the Forest of the Iroquois

I had a hard week at work last week. It was nothing particularly epochal or even unusual -- just a confluence of typical trials, round budget pegs to be pounded into square bureaucratic holes and the like. Friday's afternoon wasn't so much like a liberation as it was like a temporary reprieve, knowing, as I do, that Monday comes soon after, and verbal cheese like "Student Learning Outcomes" will, again, become hash to be taken seriously.

I stopped by the grocery store on my way home, depleted and stone-brained dull. As I pushed my cart into line, something in the soundtrack of the audio pablum of Safeway's muzak caught my attention. By the time I reached the front of the line, my skin was all a-goosebump, and I had to concentrate on stopping tears lest the checker judge me to be dangerous.

"Sailing to Philadelphia" was playing as I waited to pay for my wheat chex.

The song is a hauntingly beautiful duet by Mark Knopfler and James Taylor. In it, they reprise an imaginary discussion between two Englishmen in the 18th century who took on a surveying job in the new world: surveyor Jeremiah Dixon and journeyman astronomer Charles Mason. Their "Mason-Dixon Line" marking the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland, between America's South and North, even today has a greater societal impact than a geographic one -- but Jeremiah and Charlie couldn't have known what their line would demark in the larger world of future politics. They only knew that they were headed into a wilderness.

I am, personally, a product of their divide. My father's family is from the North, my mother's from the South, and both sides go back several generations, and both sides sacrificed sons in battles with the other's sons.

I am also, like Charlie, an astronomer of little note but with great appreciation for the science and its beauty. The roots of that appreciation lie in my younger eyes' view of dark, sparkling, starry skies in upstate New York, afforded by breaks between the trees in its forest, the forest of the Iroquois.

So this verse, sung by Taylor as I fumbled for my Safeway Discount Card at checkout, damn near broke me to tears:

You're a good surveyor, Dixon,
But I swear you'll make me mad.
The West will kill us both
You gullible Geordie lad.
You talk of liberty --
How can America be free?
A Geordie and a baker's boy
In the forest of the Iroquois?

I grew up in the Forest of the Iroquois, and might not have without Jeremiah's and Charlie's efforts. And then I went on to be an astronomer.

Sherwood in the Forest of the Iroquois, 1961. Photo by Lynn Harrington.

The Safeway checker wouldn't have understood that I was fumbling for a card with Charles Mason's name on it, so I didn't tell her. I just paid cash for my wheat chex, and then drove off toward my home in the Forest of the Ohlone.




Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

I hear things from my brother, who teaches in a 2-yr college, and it's so not what i would have expected. He loves his field and says his students are the most terrific group he ever dealt with, but the bureaucratic aspect of the job is so overblown that it overwhelms the parts that should matter most.

The photo is awesome. Your dad had the eye for a moment of spontaneously exquisite reality. Growing up in such a place would weave it into your fabric, i'd think.

Linda said...

Great post, Sherwood, for several reasons.

1)While I know who Mark Knopfler is, I've never bought any of CDs. Hence, I've never heard this lovely song with my all time favorite musical artist, James Taylor. Thanks for pointing this out to me. Like a fine wine, James just gets better and better as he ages. His voice is still smooth as silk.

2)As a gal originally from Maryland, I'm well aware of the Mason-Dixon line. I know from my genealogical research that my ancestors crossed the line many times -- sometimes living in Pennsylvania and sometimes in Maryland. Maryland was in a tricky position in the Civil War, too.

3)Speaking of's under attack these days. Electeds and their wealthy masters are threatened by the Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Albany, Occupy Oakland etc. movements. And they should be.

The delicate equilibrium between the wealthy and everyone else in America has been destroyed. The greedy have gone too far. They have to be reined in and they don't like it.

I thought that I was looking at a photo of Kent State recently. The (Oakland?) cops were pointing rifles at the protestors. Are they (the cops) insane?

4)That's a gorgeous picture of you on a misty lake. Your dad had a good eye. This brings me to a topic that I've been meaning to mention to you -- hydrofracking for natural gas. Southern Chenango County is a prime target for fracking. So is Broome County. I hope that beautiful scenery in your dad's many photos doesn't get "fracked up" in the debacle.

Take Care,

Sherwood Harrington said...

Ruth and Linda, I wish we lived closer together so we could spend some time over pizza talking about all of the things you both have brought up here. There's so much that it would take me, literally, dozens of pages to address in this venue. Just a few, too-brief responses:

Ruth, Dad had that eye, but he also usually had the camera. here? And the current state of community colleges in general, and mine in particular, would be worth hours of discussion.

Linda... Lord, how much you bring up. The Oakland cops alone would take us into the wee hours. Going back more than 40 years, I have experiences good, bad, and even familial with them, and there's no simple explanation for who they are and what they do. Oversimplified, they are(and have been since the migration of African-Americans to here in WWII) Shakesperian in their gnawing tragedies.

But among all you touch, it's the Maryland connection that opened my eye wide and made me chuckle. I didn't remember that you were from there.

Diane's and my adopted "home town" in Ireland, Birr in County Offaly, has a strong connection to Maryland. When our friends, the Parsons, family was "planted" in Ireland during the 1600s, they were granted land belonging to the O'Carroll clan, who had reigned over the area for a long time. (The current Birr Castle is built on the remains of the O'Carrolls' "Black Castle.") The defeated O'Carroll family fled to America, to Maryland, and quickly established themselves as major movers and shakers there. Charles Carroll was the lone Catholic signatory of the Declaration of Independence a century later, and was said to be among the wealthiest men in the Colonies at the time.

The current occupant of Birr Castle, Brendan Parsons (7th Earl of Rosse) has a deep appreciation for the Carrolls' history and has often mentioned to me that if I can find connections between Maryland and the various folks I'm researching in 19th-century Irish science, he would love to see it. Wouldn't it be something if you could help provide such a connection?

Even if not, it would be worth the price of a pizza to find out.

Sherwood Harrington said...

I hate not being able to edit comments in Blogger.

The orphaned "here?" link was supposed to have more words with it -- something about my Mom also having a good eye for photos.

Sherwood Harrington said...

... and, of course, the link is broken. Here's what it should be to:

Mike said...

Sorry about not commenting earlier. Was finishing up a new story set during the War of 1812, about a boy who likes to draw. Gen. Jacob Brown, former schoolmaster and surveyor, persuades him to become a mapmaker after the war, to use his talent in order to take advantage of the boom in canal and highway construction.

So, obviously, I had little time to think about the issues brought up here!