October slipped in this year, and now I find myself unexpectedly in the season of ghosts, monsters, and witches. Given the number of posts on this blog about horror movies, it stands to reason that these are a few of my favorite things. The nights are longer now and since I work in a cubicle all year round, I miss the daylight from 8 to 4 on most days. Judging by the billboards along highway 22, others have noticed that Halloween’s approaching as well. One of the odd things about being on the internet myself is that I don’t spend much time web browsing. Who has time? But when a friend sent me a story on witch windows, I had to take a look.
I’ve only been to Vermont twice. Of all the New England states, it, along with Rhode Island, are kind of out of the way for the areas I tend to visit. I’ve enjoyed my time in Vermont (and Rhode Island), but there just hasn’t been much of it. The article “Witch Windows Are Still A Thing And Here’s Why They Actually Exist” by R. J. Wilson points out an architectural feature I didn’t notice during my brief Vermont visits. Confined to the Green Mountain State, for the most part, are slanted windows in line with the slope of the roof. When I saw the photos in the article my first thought was that they were for admitting more light. Vermont is a northern state and already in September days are getting a little lean on light. These windows, however, are commonly called “witch windows.” Nobody really knows why they’re called that. As the Urbo article points out, nobody really believed that witches couldn’t enter through crooked windows.
People are quick to posit supernatural explanations for mundane things. It’s one of the more charming things about the witching season. We need not believe the explanations for them to convey some kind of meaning. Ghosts, monsters, and witches survive because they provide such meaning for us. They symbolize the things against which we have to struggle. Looking for light as the nights lengthen is a very human thing to do. We often house our monsters in the dark. There is utility in taking them out in the daytime to give them a closer look. Now that October’s here, of course, there’s less daylight in which we might easily see. If I were in Vermont I think I’d want a witch window too.
The Sourlands, apart from being the setting of Joyce Carol Oates stories, are one of New Jersey’s characteristic features. Although the Garden State brings visions of heavy industrialization to many imaginations, there are also lots of outdoor options for getting back to nature. One is the Sourland Mountain Preserve. No one’s sure of the origin of the name—was it named after a person, or was the land poor for farming? Could it have come from another language? No matter what the source might be, these areas are today criss-crossed with hiking trails—some of them quite rugged. On a sunny September weekend my wife and I decided to take a walk. The sunshine and cool temperatures made the opportunity beguiling. Although it’s not far from where we live, we’d never been there before. Time to look at a map.
The most distinctive point listed was the Devil’s Half-Acre Boulders. Geonyms, or place names, can be quite evocative. New Jersey and Pennsylvania along the Delaware both lay claim to some impressive boulder fields. The Devil’s Half-Acre was clearly a place for rock climbing, as chalk dust on the trail indicated. It’s not territory that you can get through quickly. But why devilish? Across the Delaware may lie the origins of the name. Near another boulder field, Ringing Rocks, is the site of a tavern along the Pennsylvania Canal. Said to have been the locale of lawlessness, haunted by the ghosts of dead canal workers, the location earned the same diabolical sobriquet in the early nineteenth century. What we found on the Jersey side, however, was an impressive jumble of massive stone and a rather popular hiking path.
“The map is not the territory” Alfred Korzybski once famously wrote. His expression was borrowed and adapted by religionist Jonathan Z. Smith in a book that’s still required reading for those starting out in the field. The point of the saying is that a map is an abstraction. The experience down here on the ground is very different from that projected from a bird’s eye-view. We can easily adjust to the concept however, using maps to tell us what lies ahead. The difficult work of digging a canal, or the unyielding nature of boulders, may symbolically point to the devil. At several points on the trail we had to pull out our map to make sure of our bearings. Trails are hard to follow over rocks. There was no literal devil there, but territory might just help to explain the name on a map.
Posted in Environment, Just for Fun, Posts, Religious Origins, Travel
Tagged Alfred Korzybski, Devil's Half-Acre, Jonathan Z. Smith, Joyce Carol Oates, maps, New Jersey, Ringing Rocks, Sourland Mountain Preserve, Sourlands
I’m sure you’ve seen them too. Maybe in the movies, or on a newsreel, or maybe on a filmstrip in school. I’m referring to those scenes, usually in some foreign location, where bicycles, ox-carts, cars, buses, and pedestrians all crowd the same streets in a holy confusion of conflicting human intentions. Some can afford no transportation at all beyond their own feet. Others can own, and use, automobiles. On a scale like this I’d put myself around either the bicycle or ox-cart-driver level. I’m referring to technology, of course, and not actual transportation. At a recent family discussion I was left completely in the dust and exhaust fumes of new technology, trying hard to comprehend the words that other family members were speaking so fluently. Software names, devices that do things I can’t divine, and what is a dongle anyway? I’ve fallen behind not only on my movies and books, but on technology as well.
Tech develops quickly despite how slowly the rest of the world moves. Some members of my family don’t have computers or use the internet. Others have devices so advanced that they might’ve been salvaged from Roswell, and I wonder how all this happened when I thought I was paying attention. I’m a late joiner when it comes to tech. Although I’d been warned, I made it through my Master’s degree having barely touched a computer. When I took a decidedly low-tech job teaching at a medievalizing seminary, we couldn’t afford television service and we haven’t really watched TV since. Now I hear that you don’t need to pay for the privilege. If you have the time, black boxes, sticks, and even software downloadable on your phone can be your television. I look at our flatscreen at home and wonder where the on/off switch might be. How have I fallen so far behind the times?
The real problem, from the view on my bicycle seat, is that in order to maintain some level of expertise in my field of study, I have to dedicate quite a bit of time to it. While others tickle their devices on the bus, I’m reading my books made of genuine paper. I’m thinking such activities will make me better informed. Most of these books address the past. If I want to upgrade from to an ox-cart, however, I have to learn a whole new language and the nouns that accompany pieces of hardware that look an awful lot alike to these antique eyes. Perhaps we have become cyborgs after all, and I just missed the introductory session. I wouldn’t know; I’m too busy trying to keep this bicycle out of the path of that speeding lorry.
I love optical illusions. Apart from the sheer fun of ambiguity, such illusions are really all about perspective. Shifting perspective can be one of the most powerful ways of changing a person’s life. One of my more stalwart perspectives is that those who originate something deserve recognition. If that something is important, they may even deserve acclaim. And sometimes that thing may turn bad, in which case the discoverer may end up being notorious. Originality, the subject of bestsellers and media gurus, is sometimes the result of thinking differently than other people do. It can be cultivated and grown. Sometimes it’s simply fortuitous.
Every time I visit my own place of origins in western Pennsylvania, I think of the oil industry. It’s pretty hard not to around here. “Pumping jacks” still operate in some back yards, and petroleum tanks suddenly appear along beautiful rustic roads. The presence of fossil fuels isn’t as evident as it was when I was a child, for all the big refineries have closed down. Many of them have been dismantled. Still, I can’t drive by the site where a refinery fire glowed beyond the next hill from my childhood home and not wonder about it. Seeing those huge oil tanks melted and crumpled as if they’d been made of wax is an image that doesn’t get easily erased. Today, that’s all gone. Still, the oil industry itself was originally from this region. The auto industry—although increasingly electric—would’ve never started without the obvious boost that petroleum production gave transportation.
In the light, or perhaps dark, of Hurricane Harvey we’re set to see increasing gas prices. They will impact the economy in other ways, and energy giants will continue to degrade the environment in the quest for cheap and abundant crude. I’m not sure if that makes the discovery of oil in this region worthy of acclaim or notoriety. It does seem, from my perspective, that since big oil is so lucrative, a lifeline ought to exist for the struggling communities in my childhood home. Empty storefronts were rare here in my youth. Now they are almost as common as shops that remain open. I know; if people can’t move on, then maybe there’s a reason the economy is sagging. There are ghost towns in this area, and there may be more in the future. I just wonder how all this will looks from another perspective. Will it all be an illusion once electricity makes the past superfluous?
I admit to being a relative stranger to contemporary commercial television. We don’t have “triple play” at home, and since the internet provides more information and entertainment than one person can possibly handle in a lifetime, why pay extra? On a visit home, however, where internet does not yet exist, I fell to the default of watching TV. Scrolling through the cable channels available in this small town, I start to understand why we don’t pay extra for this at home. Much on offer appeals to the lowest common denominator, and although some educational programs exist, they have to put somebody in danger in some remote location in order to draw the viewers in. Then I stumbled on Mysteries at the Museum.
For those of us hopelessly enamored of the past, museums are an irresistible draw. I joined the program already in progress. It was talking about Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, through which we’d driven to get here. A resort town in the Poconos, I always think of Stroudsburg as a traffic bottleneck, particularly on a holiday weekend. Instead the story was telling of a haunted jail in which a prisoner had to be exorcised after it was found that he could make it rain inside his cell. Then the name of the Warrens was mentioned. The Bible used in the exorcism is from their occult museum (thus the tie to the title of the program). Ed and Lorraine Warren, as my regular readers know, get mentioned here every once in a while. Real life ghost hunters, they kept a museum of the occult in their Connecticut home. I’d missed the part of the program where they revealed the provenance of the artifact. Now things started to make sense. After the commercial break, however, the story shifted to a historic pair of hiking boots.
Image credit: Creative Commons Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. Photo by Doug Kerr, Wikimedia Commons.
What was so striking about this brief segment of the show was not the implied credulousness of the investigation, but rather the certainty with which those interviewed declared this was a water demon case. Okay, so I’d just finished a seven-hour drive and I may not have been at my sharpest, but where did such certainty come from? Who were these experts telling us what had happened? I’ve read enough of the Warrens’ accounts to get a sense of how they worked, but not even the name of the priest was presented, let alone that of the demon. What we had, then, in this 15-minute segment, was a Bible and an anecdote of rain falling in a Stroudsburg jail. As I switched off the program to go to bed, I knew that I’d find the missing information on the internet. Even without triple play.
Posted in Bible, Memoirs, Monsters, Popular Culture, Posts, Travel, Weather
Tagged demons, Ed and Lorraine Warren, exorcism, Mysteries at the Museum, Pennsylvania, Stroudsburg, television
Once again in Ithaca, I find myself thinking of the classics. Although it’s difficult to believe these days, even rural Americans used to value a classic education. Take upstate New York. Not only is there an Ithaca, but also a Rome, Syracuse, and Homer, among other locations. This speaks of a time when the non-urbanites wanted to be considered sophisticated rather than gun-toting, bigoted rubes who actively hate higher education and all that it stands for. My maternal line of ancestors came from this region, and although they were simple farmers, they still named my grandfather Homer. And his sister was Helen. They knew the Bible, yes, but they may also have know the Iliad.
In a recent, flattering online game, Oxford Dictionaries offered a quiz to help you identify which classical hero you were. This is flattering because most of us aren’t heroes, but instead work-a-day types just trying to survive in a Republican world. I had to confess being pleased to find the result suggested I identified with Odysseus. Odysseus was king of Ithaca, you see, and considered one of the heroes more inclined to use his brain than his brawn (although he could use that too, if push came to shove). Perhaps it felt right to me since my own life feels like an odyssey. And my grandfather was Homer. I was first exposed to classical mythology in fifth grade, and I have loved it ever since. Besides, I’m more of an upstate mentality than a downtown one. The thing about an odyssey is that you’re not always in control of where you end up.
Sitting here in Ithaca I wonder how Americans came to despise the notion of classical education. The standard of living is higher in college towns like this. People treat each other well and there’s a strong sense of community spirit. On the way here yesterday we had to drive through rural New Jersey. We stopped in the decidedly non-classically named Buttzville for gas. The car in front of us had “Blue Lives Matter” and pro-Trump bumper stickers all over it. Yet the guy who limped out and made his way into the vehicle looked like he had probably benefitted from government largesse over the years. Proud of a president who brags about not reading. Who wants to bomb a country he can’t find on a map just because it’s different. I think to myself, I’m glad I’m on my odyssey to Ithaca.
The wind resistance alone must drive the cost of gas up considerably. Of course, with Yahweh on your side you don’t need to worry about pocket change. We were driving through a sleepy town in the Poconos. A light rain was falling. We came upon a truck advocating not for the usual and expected Christ, but instead for Yahweh. Promising “dramatically affected” lives for those who do so, the implied message on this portable billboard is somewhat ominous. We are apparently being restrained by “non-mortal, non-native beings of ill-intent.” The grammar of the placard confuses things a bit since it seems to suggest that calling on Yahweh will “release restraints on” said non-mortals, and that’s hardly a good thing. I suppose they can’t reveal the nature of these entities without giving away spoilers for drawing the curious in.
This vague, supernatural world presided over by the personal name of the deity seems just a little out of place in Bible country. There’s a kind of literalism about Pennsylvania that I find strangely comforting. It is where and how I grew up. I never encountered God’s personal name—at least not with first-person familiarity—until I attended college. Even then we were encouraged to be careful with its use. The commandment about taking the divine name in vain is just a bit disconcertingly unspecific, considering that it isn’t spelled out in more detail. And who exactly are these beings of ill-intent? They’re all the more frightening for not being named. Demons, I must suppose, but I don’t recall the Good Book saying anything about their restraints being released. This is a new kind of apocalypse maybe.
The thing about the Bible is that it’s everybody’s book. Some modern translations use Yahweh rather freely, opting for the admission that translating it leads only to more questions and “Lord” is obfuscation. Still, it seems awfully familiar. The need to air one’s personal beliefs, in some quarters, is very intense. There’s a passion behind this proclamation that I can’t help but admire. People stop and stare. Some, like yours truly, will want photographs of your vehicle. I suppose that’s the point, nevertheless, not too many people like being stared at. Evangelical culture demands it, as I recall from my youth. Putting your personal beliefs out there comes with a price. Part of that may be reduced gas milage and, consequently, pocket change.