Saturday, August 22, 2009

still waiting, after all these years

Thirty two years and counting - that is the length of time since the launch of Vayager II and with it earth's message in a bottle to the extraterrestrial aliens that if you are out there, say something. This was Carl Sagan's idea. he thought that while we are at it, sending space junk out beyond the solar system, we ought to see if someone is out there listening. More on the message.

We are still waiting.

When you think about it, the lack of response from the aliens out there is quite staggering. The earth after all, is over 4 billion years old and the universe itself, is 14 plus billion years old. Enough, already. Forget time travel, parallel universes, and worm holes. If someone, intelligent enough as we are, has been working on this problem of contacting intelligent life out there, and has failed for 10 billion years more or less, then the likelihood of finding intelligent life anywhere is slim.

Still, we keep trying.

I am reminded of Sisyphus, who was doomed to roll a heavy rock up a hill for eternity, only to have it roll back during the night so that he could start all over again. It is an existential nightmare, but it is our nightmare, and so we embrace it.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Night the Lancaster Bomber Crashed

In World War II, Graffigny-Chemin saw little action due to its relative isolation. However, on the night of July 22, 1944 an English Royal Air Force Lancaster Bomber crashed into the hills behind the village. Thirteen airmen died immediately, two were seriously wounded, and one, Canadian Paul Bell, was slightly wounded. Local villagers managed to secret Airman Bell to the French underground, and he was spirited out of France through Switzerland and then to England. However, because of the severity of the injuries of the other airmen, they were released to the German authorities, but then never heard from again.

Villagers had removed from the crashed plane its radio transmitter, weapons, ammunition, and explosives. When the German authorities learned of this, they took hostages from the village and threatened to burn it. Living in the village was the French widow of a German Colonel, who had died in 1913. She interceded with the authorities and obtained the release of the hostages and cancellation of the order to burn the village.

The Airmen who died in the plane crash are buried in the village cemetery of Graffigny-Chemin.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

the bridge to nowhere

Ever since I can remember, I have thought about escaping from my mundane life into a world of excitement and adventure.

It is the wish, I imagine, of most small town boys boys and girls to want to strike out and find something new and different. Main Street, Winesburg Ohio, Our Town, books that I read in high school, revealed to me that this need was epidemic. The longing to leave is epidemic.

This last Saturday,
I dropped my son Will off in Emporia where he was trying out for an Olympic High School Development is expressed in many ways.Program. With the whole day to kill while I waited for Will, I brought my kayak along, hoping to find a river or stream to navigate.

Hartford, Kansas is north of Emporia and just off I35 on the way to Kansas City. The town survives on farming, and by survives I mean that like so many other small Kansas towns, it is hanging in there. Opportunities for high school students are limited. If you don't farm, you pretty much don't do anything.

At the north end of the town is a bridge. It looks like the "bridge to nowhere". It leads into the Flint Hills Park, but that is one way trip down gravel roads that end at the John Redmond Reservoir. If you really want to leave Hartford, you need to go back the other way, hop on I35 and head north to Kansas City.

The bridge is now the haunt of high school kids who wanting to express themselves, paint the bridge and not the town. From its railings these kids can look out and wonder where the river of life will lead them. Right now the bridge serves as a way to express loves, memories, feelings, and hopes. In a greater sense it expresses hope that out there somewhere there is more.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Julie & Julia

This might keep me going for awhile - this being the Julie & Julia movie about a failed writer who finds her calling and purpose in life by blogging all the recipes of Julia Child's 1961 cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Julie is Julie Powell whose blog the Julie/Julia Project, a race to complete 524 recipes in 365 days, becomes a blog sensation, followed by a book and a movie. (Watch the trailer.) Julia of course is Julia Child, cook, author, and TV sensation.

If your looking for the original blog, there is little that is left other than a tribute posted on Julia's death in 2004. And, yes Julie has created a new blog to record her experiences as she deals with fame and fortune, but apparently lighting does not strike twice with Julie; her blog has none of the appeal of the original.

A no-holds-barred movie review.

Having just come back from Paris this summer, I loved the scenes in the movie. Shakespeare and Company, the bookstore, is still there on the Left Bank. Yes, it is the bookstore that Hemingway frequented when he had no cash and was struggling as a writer. The subway scene was also real, the only change was finding a metro train that was vintage. Sadly, the French open-air markets where one went to buy fresh produce are gone. But, one can still find patisseries, boulangeries, and the other small specialty shops where Parisians love to shop.

Read the N.Y. Times story as Julie goes into the homestretch on her blog.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Up the river

Read about the poet Shelley's trip up the river Thames with his wife Mary Shelley.

"The weeds above Lechlade became so thick that ...tugging and pulling [they] could not move the boat an inch..." They returned to Lechlade and stayed at the inn.

In Lechlade Shelley's thoughts turned to writing and the self-reflection that writing creates:
"A mirror would be held up to all men in which they might behold their own recollections, and in dim perspective - their shadowy hopes and fears, all that they dare not, or daring and desiring, they could not expose to the open eyes of day."

The writer's passage from sensation to reflection is sometimes so difficult and dizzying that one "dares not look behind".

A Summer Evening Churchyard, Lechlade, Gloucestershire

A Summer Evening Churchyard, Lechlade, Gloucestershire by Shelley

"THE wind has swept from the wide atmosphere
Each vapour that obscured the sunset's ray,
And pallid Evening twines its beaming hair
In duskier braids around the languid eyes of Day:

Silence and Twilight, unbeloved of men,
Creep hand in hand from yon obscurest glen.


The dead are sleeping in their sepulchres:
And, mouldering as they sleep, a thrilling sound,
Half sense half thought, among the darkness stirs,
Breathed from their wormy beds all living things around,
And, mingling with the still night and mute sky,
Its awful hush is felt inaudibly.

Thus solemnized and softened, death is mild
And terrorless as this serenest night.
Here could I hope, like some enquiring child
Sporting on graves, that death did hide from human sight
Sweet secrets, or beside its breathless sleep
That loveliest dreams perpetual watch did keep."

the enclosures of england

What follows is a summary of the economic history of Langford Downs (Langford Downs, a farm north of Leclade, should not be confused with the nearby town of Langford.):

The enclosure of common lands occurred throughout English history. Motivation was the improvement and profitable use of common land. Enclosure in and around Lechlade was carried out under a private Act of 1808 promoted by the rectors of the several churches holding land and other freemen. "Among leading farmers, ... the rector’s lessee received 450a., Richard Wells and William Young of Langford Downs farm 380 a., mostly for
freehold land..."

History of Langford Downs

Langford Downs was newly built and one of the larger enclosures at 380 acres.

Whether as a landowner or as a tenant, my family possessed the farm for a period of time in the mid to late 1800's. This statement is based only on the picture of the house of Langford Downs passed on to my by my father Arthur Harvey Davis, Jr.. Wouldn't it be nice to confirm this from the land records?

By 1910 Langford Downs farm was enlarged to 424 acres, while by comparison Kelmscott estate, the summer home of William Morris, was 99 acres. (The image of hay is from Kelmscott.)

The late 19th and early 20th centuries was a difficult for Langford's farmers as imports of cheap foodstuffs undercut the British farmer. Dairy herd were introduced to many farms to increase profit. By the beginning of World War II, "Langford Downs farm was 72 per cent arable and had a flock of over 400 sheep. The chief crops were still wheat, barley, and oats, together with root crops. All the farms had dairy herds, most raised pigs and poultry, but only Langford Downs and Rectory farms kept flocks totaling nearly 1,000 sheep."

History of Langford Downs, page 19

Anecdotally, when I was in England in 1979, I spoke with a Mr. Davis who had owned the chemist shop in Lechlade. (The picture of Langford Downs house that I have spoken of earlier was developed at his shop, but presumably from an earlier date.) He was, to my knowledge the last remaining Davis still living in the area. He was then in his seventies and childless. He claimed that Langford Downs was a chicken farm. My wife Robin was then and now much amused.

On another occasion in 2009 I again visited Lechlade and spoke with the historian of the church in Lechlade. As a young man growing up he remembered Mr. Davis (first name forgotten) and described him as a bit of a character, so that one has to question the characterization of chicken farmer.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

my great grandmother

I met my great grandmother for the first time today. Her name is Julie Laura Emma Chevallier. She was born in Graffigny-Chemin, France on March 16, 1862. Her parents were Paul Constant Chevallier and Anne Emma Aichier.

Julie married Charles Guillame Christian Meine at a date unknown. They had two children, my grandmother, Marguerite Tony Lilly Meine and her older sister, Marie Leunn Paula Meine. both birthdates unknown.

"Julie Laura Emma" - such English names for a proper French girl. The name "Emma" I can guess is the subject of Jane Austin's 1815 novel of the same name.
"Emma Woodhouse is a young, beautiful, witty, and privileged woman in Regency England. She lives on an estate in Surrey in the village of Highbury with her father, a hypochondriac who is excessively concerned for the health and safety of his loved ones." Emma
Julie Chevallier would have been like the Emma of Jane Austin's novel. My great grandmother was the daughter of a comparatively wealthy landholder in Graffigny; not that Graffigny was itself large or wealthy by any means, but her family was wealthy enough to own a second home in Switzerland and to properly educate the daughter so that she spoke several European languages.

The names "Julie" and "Laura" I will have to leave for later.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

feelin' it

Stop right there!

If you are not fifty, or at least forty, go no further.

Now ask yourself if, when you get up in the morning, are you feelin' it?

Or, maybe, after you have been sittin' in a chair for a long time or driving across country and you stop to get out and gas up, are you feelin' it?

For a hoot, listen to Leonard Cohen's Tower of Song on youTube.

How to dress fashionably

Pictures can often be dated by both the subject's fashion and stance. Compare the photograph of my grandmother Marguerite Chevalier Meine with John Singer Sergeant's 1897 painting of a fashionable couple.

"Women's dress in the 1890's continued to be built in a sturdy, heavy, upholstered style, but the silhouette changed to that of an hour glass. Female bodies were corseted to a small waist, and then padded in the buttocks, hips, bosom and sleeves to exaggerate the apparent wasp-waisted effect."

Tara McGuiness, The History of Fashion and Dress

James Madison Pearson

My family history relates that my grandfather James Madison Pearson saw action in World War I with the 2rd Infantry Division and with the 3nd Infantry Division.

In the spring of 1918, with close to 50 divisions freed by Russia's withdrawal from the war, the German Army launched successive attacks on the Western Front, hoping to defeat the Allies before United States forces could be deployed.

The 2nd Infantry Division was organized in October 1917 and headquartered at Bourmont, Haute Marne, France. In June of 1918, the 2nd Infantry Division stopped a German advance at Belleau Wood. At Belleau Woods, the 2nd Infantry Division was three times awarded the French Croix de Guerre for gallantry under fire. The 2nd Infantry Division was next committed to a German advance on Paris and the battle at Chateau-Thierry.

The 3rd Infantry Division was posted to a position protecting Paris on the banks of the Marne River. In July of 1918, the 7th Machine Gun Battalion of the 3rd Division rushed to Chateau-Thierry amid retreating French troops and held back the Germans. While other units retreated, the 3rd Infantry Division remained rock solid and earned its reputation as the "Rock of the Marne".

My grandfather received numerous medals, including the Silver Star, Croix de Guerre, and Purple Heart during his service with the 2nd and 3rd Infantry Divisions. He was wounded in action and treated at a hospital in Graffigny-Chemin, near Bourmont. It was here that he met and wed my grandmother, Marguerite Chevalier (Chevallier) Meine.

Madame de Graffigny

'You will jump with joy at the date of this letter, and you will say, 'Ah! mon Dieu! she is finally at Cirey.'
- letter Mme de Graffigny to a young friend, on her arrival at Cirey, December 1738

Madame de Graffigny was a middle-aged woman who lived at Luneville, the provincial court of Stanislas, the last Duke of Lorraine. She was a real-life Madame Bovary who long dreamed of a more elegant way of life, divorced her husband and, penniless, managed to get herself invited to Cirey where she joined Voltaire and Emile du Chatelet.

She is remembered for her letters recounting her stay collected in Besterman's edition of Voltaire's correspondence and paraphrases in Frank Hamel's, An Eighteenth-Century Marquise: A Study of Emilie du Ch√Ętelet and Her Times (London, 1910).

Read David Bodanis's review.

Read The Life of Voltaire by Stephen G. Tallentyre.

Madame de Graffigny wrote Letters from a Peruvian Woman, a satirical description of the conditions of French women seen through the eyes of an outsider Zilia, an Incan princess - captured, rescued, and then educated in French culture, who talks about language, literature, philosophy, education, and child rearing.

Monday, August 3, 2009

pieces of a puzzle

At the end of the First World War, my grandmother Marguerite Chevallier Meine left her village of Graffigny-Chemin, France to marry my grandfather James Madison Pearson.

Here is a picture of Maruerite with her older sister.

My grandfather was serving with the 2nd Infantry Division under General Black Jack Pershing. My grandfather received the Purple Heart, Silver Star, and Legion of Merit among his many decorations. He was wounded in battle and treated at the hospital in Graffigny where he and my grandmother most likely met.

Here is a photograph of the house in Graffigny where my grandmother was raised.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

the biggest pumpkin in Twyford

From small beginnings, great things happen.

And so, on a warm summer July day in Twyford, England, this mere pip of a pumpkin has taken hold. In time, weather permitting, this pip will blossom into the biggest pumpkin in all of Twyford, England.

The owner is no other than Adam Workman, winner of last year's prestigious "Biggest Pumpkin in Twyford" award. Oh yes, the beer is the secret. Everything looks bigger and better after you have had a pint or two.

inspired minds want to know

"True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance.
'Tis not enough no harshness gives offence,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense. "
Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism: Part 2, 362-365

I'll bet you didn't know that Benjamin Franklin lived in Twyford, England. It was here in 1771 that he began work on his autobiography. The village is on the river Itchen, a short three miles from historic Winchester, the capital of King Alfred's England.

I'll bet you didn't know that Alexander Pope went to school here, but so do Ollie and Charlie Workman. Charlie studies Mandarin Chinese and loves to draw. Ollie loves to act in school plays.

This is the house in Twyford where at the age of 65, Franklin began work on his autobiography. Adam Workman and family also lived in this house. More.

the flint hills

The Flint Hills of Kansas are a band of hills in eastern Kansas stretching from just north of Wichita to south of Emporia. They can be viewed along Interstate 35 or more scenically from Highway 77.

What is flint? Mineralogical, flint is simply black chert.
Chert is a sedimentary rock composed of silicon. The silicon is formed from diatoms - microscopic, single-celled algae that lived during the Cretaceous era when Kansas was an inland sea.


Technically, flint is a finer grain chert and capable of producing a spark when hit against steel. This is not the case with the chert or flint or the Flint Hills. The rocky chert of the Flint Hills renders farming impossible except along the river beds, but allows for cattle ranching.

"The reality of the flint verses chert debate is that in most cases it is something like 'splitting hairs', there really is very little difference, chemically speaking. Artifact collectors tend to call materials that have a more waxy luster 'flints' and those which have less luster to no luster 'cherts'. The difference between them lyes in their purity relative to pure quartz and their matrix particle size. The smaller the particle size and the purer the material, the more likely we collectors would be to call the material flint. To a purist, we would be wrong. A generalist would say 'close enough'."

The difference.