December 2012 Archives

12/04/2012

Joe Holden, Maine’s Flat Earth Evangelist

from http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=74125990

Let it not be said that I only write about things favorable to Maine’s image. Long after the earth was known to be a sphere, a core group of die-hard biblical literalists decided the earth was flat, no matter what. One of them, Joseph Holden, who lived in the central Maine town of Otisfield made himself known as a prominent flat-earther.

My MS Word mock-up of a handbill from http://www.mainememory.netartifact20139

Born in 1816, Holden worked  his way to become the owner of several sawmills in rural Maine but never married. He called himself “professor” but there is no evidence his education progressed beyond Otisfield’s one room schoolhouse. It is said his mother tried to walk on water. He was a lifelong Republican and served as Justice of the Peace, census enumerator and even ran for state senate.

Coming of age in the mid 1800s he was a witness to Charles Darwin’s rise to fame and saw the scientific community’s gradual acceptance of the tenets of evolutionary theory. Finally, the Descent of Man, released in 1871 confirmed  Darwin’s evidence for a family connection between humans and apes and escalated the war between science and religion which continues to this day. Joseph Holden chose his little piece of the war and fought it for the rest of his life. Being more or less financially secure, it is doubtful the small admission he charged for his lectures did more than pay for his travels, so a scam artist he was not. From stories told by the town historian Jean Hankins it seems he was a tolerated and colorful character, annoying perhaps, but not a threat. Townspeople “respected his right to be foolish if he wanted to.”  His poor hearing made argument futile, so most of his victims just nodded their heads in agreement. Another convert.

His main demonstration was to fill a bucket of water and set it upon a post. He bet his audience that he could return in 24 hours and the water would still be there, proof that the earth didn’t spin about an axis or move in any other foolish way. When he began to lecture at the age of 75, he was a constant presence in the state legislature, attending every session for many years. He lectured in Portland, Boston and even at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1892. His lectures were filled with common sense arguments and humor. People came for the entertainment and left feeling entertained, but likely not converted.

Joe Holden died on March 30, 1900. His passing was noted by at least one sympathetic newspaper (Statesville, NC Semi-weekly Landmark):

We hold the the doctrine that the earth is flat ourselves and we regret exceedingly to learn that one of our number is dead, because there are few of us and one can ill be spared. But we are not without hope. One of these days the idea that the earth is round and turns over every 24 hours will be relegated to the roar along with other antiquated notions.

 

Amazingly, flat-earthers exist to this day. Just check out http://theflatearthsociety.org. I can’t say the people who run the website are true believers or it’s just tongue-in-cheek, but with all the other bizarre beliefs out there, why not? At least this one doesn’t seem to involve stockpiling ammunition.

In his will Joe bequeathed $3 per year to the parishioners of the Otisfield Baptist Church for an annual  summer picnic. Each August he is still celebrated in Otisfield with the gentle ridicule and good humor. I wonder if anyone leaves a bucket of water on his grave.

Sources used for this story:

  • http://www.sunjournal.com/node/238260
  • Christine Garwood (2007). Flat Earth.
  • http://www.findagrave.com
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flat_Earth
  • Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan (1992). Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.

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12/11/2012

Smartest States: Maine is Fifth

Guy in a monkey suit from http://animal.discovery.com/tv-shows/finding-bigfoot

This post was an accident. I was cruising my cable channels looking for something worth watching. My former top channels have been dumbed down big time. The Learning Channel is now the Leering Channel with My Strange Addiction, Hoarding: Buried Alive and Sister Wives. The History Channel is now the Military Hardware and Paranoia Channel  and sadly, the channel which brought us Mythbusters is now showing Zombie Apocalypse, Moonshiners and American Chopper. Last among this list of shame is  Animal Planet. We used to see shows which taught us something about other species but now we’re subjected to Finding Bigfoot. As if this was somehow a subject which is contained under the heading “Animal Planet”! It was while watching the excruciating first five minutes of this sham that I asked myself if some of America’s states are so stupid as to provide fodder for the footage and eyes for the advertisers. I didn’t stick around to see what lowest common denominator businesses had done the math to convince themselves that they could sell to the Luddites who watched this drivel. Instead I was compelled to repair to my beloved internet to see whether Oklahoma was as low on the intelligence scale as suggested by the episode aired on 12/2/12.

Initially I was apprehensive to see where Maine fit in this list since I know that Mainers don’t have the bucks to send their kids to college as easily as other states. Our colleges are not bad, just divided between expensive, excellent private colleges and so-so public universities. Coming from Michigan I’m spoiled from its full spectrum of affordable public universities, serving kids at almost any SAT level, as long as they’re residents. At the top is the University of Michigan, just short of Ivy League status, with tuition accessible to all. With all that, Michigan is not the smartest state according to statemaster.com. In fact it rates as number 27, well behind Maine. Poor Oklahoma is at #39. Maine ranks as number 5, behind Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey. Check out the full list at http://www.statemaster.com/graph/edu_bes_edu_ind-education-best-educated-index.

Senator-elect Angus King, from wikipedia

The ranking is based on a number of factors,  “on student achievement, positive outcomes and personal attention from teachers”.  I know that Maine’s education reputation has leaped forward in recent years. We have always had small classes, but we used to be dogged by high teenage pregnancy, smoking and low high school graduation rates. Thanks to our newly elected Senator Angus King, when he was governor from 1995 to 2003, our state sent the message to our kids that we were investing in their future. In a bold move, the state of Maine gave every 7th grader an Apple laptop for school. Our daughter was in 7th grade then and hit that wave perfectly. Some older teachers had to retire early, they couldn’t handle it. Now it’s time we show the results to all who doubt the value of education spending and keeping up with cutting-edge technology. Thank you, Angus King. We humans are tuned into bad news, ready at the drop of a hat to blame someone for a problem but rarely do we notice what works, thanking those who do right.

From L. L. Bean

Still, our SAT scores are low and with a low rate of college degrees for their parents, kids have an uphill battle in Maine. We are poor by New England standards so the money spent on education could be higher. Two parents working mean unsupervised after-school time. Our employment opportunities are skewed toward tourism and natural resources, neither demanding higher education. So the fact that we’re #5 is pretty good. Let’s hope we stay there and expand the high tech economy so that our kids stay in Maine. Maine has a lot going for it. The beauty and lure of the outdoors is what everyone knows about, along with our affordability, but we’re also ranked high on peacefulness, low on crime, high on health and now high on smarts. If only we could change that mandatory fashion rule for November: You must wear blaze orange!

 

 

 

 

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12/16/2012

The Bath Disaster

It’s important to realize that horrible events like mass killings of children such as we just saw in Newtown, CT are not only recent phenomena. Rarely does the following story appear in the list of ignoble deeds of mass slaughter, but it stands as the worst school attack in the US and it happened 85 years ago: On May 18, 1927, ten or fifteen miles away from where my eleven year old parents attended school, a horrific bombing killed 39 school children, two teachers, four other adults and the bomber himself. At least 58 people were injured. It is the third worst act of domestic terrorism in American history, after 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995.

Bath is a small town in Michigan just north of Lansing, the state capital. In the early part of the 20th century it was a sleepy agricultural community, and education took place in multiple one-room schoolhouses. Education reforms in the 1920s recommended that children be moved to larger schools where age groups could be separated into their own classes, and in 1922 the Bath voters approved the construction of a such a school. The new Bath Consolidated School opened with 236 students. Andrew Kehoe was on the school board.

Pre-blast Bath School, from Wikipedia

The details of Andrew Kehoe’s crime are outrageous and disgusting. He had close ties with the school and was employed as maintenance man, so his access to the school’s basement was unquestioned. Over the course of several weeks he planted one thousand pounds of dynamite in the floor framing and rigged it up to alarm clock detonators. The blasts were set to go off in two parts, one for each wing of the school. The second was delayed so as to kill rescuers. Fortunately, the second 500 lbs did not detonate, its wiring was severed by the first blast.

Kehoe’s car bomb. From wikipedia

On the day of the disaster Kehoe started out by killing his wife Nellie with blunt trauma to the head. He then systematically set off incendiaries in his own house and barn, making sure his animals were not able to escape. He loaded up his pickup with more explosives and shrapnel and drove to the school to pretend to take part in the rescue. He parked his pickup where it would kill the most people and set it off, killing five more people including himself.

After the blast, from findagrave #7845578

I knew about this story not from history books or old newspapers, but from my family. My stepfather, Keith Southwell, who married my mother after my father’s death, had a paper route in 1927. He was 15. His girlfriend was Iola Irene Hart, 12, a student at the Bath School. Iola, her eight year old sister Vivian Oletta and her eleven year old brother Percy Eugene were all killed in the blast. My stepfather named his only child after Iola. After my mother died Keith married a surviving Hart sister, Elva. They were both in their late 80s. Seventy years after the disaster it was difficult for either of them to talk about it, and especially Elva seemed to think that giving details made the tragedy a possible source of profit for someone, which she was dead-set against. Keith grudgingly answered some questions so that my friend Walter Bilderback could write a play about it which he called Flame of Powder, Soul of Man. Both Elva and Keith have since died.

from fultonhistory.com

Much speculation about the motives of Andrew Kehoe has occurred through the years. His wife was sick, his farm was in foreclosure, he was angry about high taxes. Similar speculation has happened about recent mass killers, but there is one thing we can learn from the 1927 Bath Disaster: psychopaths occur throughout history. The only thing that changes is the tools they use to accomplish their horrible deeds, and how many they can kill before it’s over.

Wikipedia article: Bath School Disaster

Findagrave memorial: Andrew Kehoe

Findagrave memorial: Nellie Price Kehoe

Findagrave virtual cemetery for Bath Disaster victims.

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12/26/2012

Maine Lawn Rebel

Google street view of where I grew up.

I grew up in a land of conformity. The houses were all on 1/4 acre lots in a new subdivision and the measure of a family’s social standing had a lot to do with whether their lawn had dandelions and if the edges which met the sidewalk were cut razor straight, with no blade of grass allowed to bend over the cement. I always fought this. It was enough to cut the grass I thought. Let the next door people worry about getting on the cover of Lawn Beautiful. Flash forward 40 years and not much has changed. Now instead of pushing around a gas powered mower most suburbanites contract out their lawn care to a company like “Chairman Mow, we cut the grass of the ruling class“. Even at SeaCat’s Rest it’s common to hear the roar of internal combustion engines and the smell of exhaust, unchecked by the pollution controls common to the cheapest of cars, wafting in from neighbors. How did this all begin and why does it continue?

There’s a simple caveman explanation. Imagine your cave is in the middle of a thick forest. Now picture it higher up, overlooking a broad meadow or lake. In which would you feel safer? The one with the broad vista, of course. You can see ‘em coming. Bloodthirsty foes or hungry relatives. Time to lock the door and pretend you’re not home. Could our love of lawn be any more than just that? Actually, yes.

English countryside. Photo by Andy Edwards

Consider the English colonists. They came from a pastoral land where every square inch of rural land was used for crops or grazing. They brought grazing animals with them and forest cover meant hunger, for animals and humans alike. Massachusetts was not Somersetshire. Trees had to be cut and grass planted. By 1640 we had established permanent markets for importing English meadow seeds like timothy and alfalfa. As our farms flourished, trends in English landscape architecture reinforced the ideal of lawns. In 1830 the lawnmower was invented by the Englishman Edwin Budding. By 1850 the lawn was part of the American preferred home landscape, with no other purpose than to look good.

As the lawn grew in popularity from Maine to California and south to the Gulf of Mexico, measures were taken to ensure its health in a variety of climates. Drought resistant grass varieties were planted in the south and when nature couldn’t provide, the Industrial Lawn took up the slack. By the 1950s the modern lawn required watering, chemical de-weeding with herbicides and greening up with fertilizers. It was cut, in ever greater frequently due to the fertilizers, with enormous inputs of fossil fuels. By the time I was in college it was said that Americans put more fertilizer on their lawns than India used on food crops.

Path to SeaCat’s Rest

For a while now there has been a movement afoot to reverse this trend. There’s a “freedom lawn” movement which seeks to develop a method of taking the industrial component out of the American lawn. Ornamental grasses, perennial flowers, native varieties and relaxed cutting and interference are part of this approach.  Mainers are a little less serious about their lawns anyway. Sometimes, meadows are allowed to grow and only bush hogged when woody plants (usually alders) appear. That might be every two or three years. I’ve never seen anyone in Maine apply lawn chemicals. Lawns are mowed, but weeds are free to flourish for the most part. Visitors from the south often comment that our lawns look a little wild and uncared for. I guess there are parts of the country where the industrial lawn still rules.

It’s no wonder Maine is lax on lawn care. Our own Hannah Holmes, who lives in Portland on 2/10 of an acre wrote a book called Suburban Safari, A Year On The Lawn in which she describes in great detail the ecology of her freedom lawn. On page 104 she says,

   Whatever you call it, it’s a popular landscape choice around here. Maine has been slow to recognize the genius of turning a perfectly good vegetable-patch-with-garbage-dump into an outdoor shag rug. And if we must have a shag rug outdoors, by gorry, we ain’t gonna manicure the blasted thing.

Here at SeaCat’s Rest we maintain a strip around the house of mowed grass, which I cut with an electric mower. Other parts of the property are covered by either woods or Kathleen’s extensive perennial flower and ornamental grass extravaganza, where butterflies and hummingbirds find plenty to eat. We still have the caveman expanse in the form of the North Atlantic. Just this side of the shore we allow nature to prevail with wild blueberries, raspberries and bunchberries. I like to cut back the woody plants by hand every spring to maintain the view, but most of the vegetation is untouched to preserve the integrity of the bank. At least one of our guests remarked that our setting was “rustic” and I don’t think she meant it as a compliment (see reviews here).  So there it is, if you book lodgings here you have to deal with a Maine Lawn Rebel.

View from the bank

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