In Middle Earth

I try to make the best of business travel.  I had all-day obligations this time around, but fortunately my hotel was next to a place of some renown.  The house where J. R. R. Tolkien lived was practically right next door.  This is the place where the Lord of the Rings came into the world.  I have always tried to visit sites of literary significance when in new places.  When we were more able to do so, my family would take such literary pilgrimages annually, especially in the autumn.  Being a believer in the confluence of science and spirit, I can’t help but think there’s something sacred about the place where great literature was born.  Of course, in Oxford you can find sites for Lewis Carroll and C. S. Lewis, as well, among many others.  These days everyone seems to associate the place with Harry Potter, although J. K. Rowling started that particular series in Edinburgh.

Tolkien has become a deity in his own right, I suspect, for creating an entire world to which millions of fantasy fans come.  His actual house, however, is privately owned.  Besides, I’m here on business.  Still, falling asleep so close to where Tolkien dreamed his Middle Earth dreams is akin to inspiration.  Writing as an avocation makes such encounters almost worshipful.  I read the Ring trilogy and The Hobbit many years ago.  I haven’t seen any of the movies, however, since my own imagination seems sufficient for me.  Tolkien took me, for many hours, into another world.  Somewhat like work has done this week, I guess.  Were it not for business, Oxford could be a magical place.  Living in a location where imagination is valued and encouraged makes a huge difference, I expect.

Years ago, Edinburgh was an inspirational place to reside.  Although my main writing output at the time was a 300-page doctoral dissertation, it was a place that has inspired much of my fiction.  Tolkien, in truth, was just as human as the rest of us.  His work was largely based on ancient Germanic traditions that were also reflected in Wagner’s Ring cycle.  We are all borrowers, in some sense.  Adapters.  Oxford is one of those places with a long sense of continuity with the past, in a singular tradition.  It has become modern in parts, but with medieval streets.  There are cars parked along Northmoor Road, and nobody else seems to be here for a pilgrimage today.  Perhaps it’s for the best; how could the workaday world possibly improve for the use of imagination?

The Heart of Publishing

My heart goes out to academic authors.  It really does.  They labor over a book important to their field and see it come out costing near triple digits and wonder why it’s not in the local bookstore.  There is, however, a very wide gap between academic and trade publishing.  It is bridged here and there by authors who value readers over reputation, but unless you deliberately try to learn how all of this works, it is bewildering.  Academics, you see, are area specialists by and large.  You don’t write a dissertation on the Bible, for example, but on a specific part of the Bible (New Testament or Hebrew Bible).  And within that section your specialization is not a single book, but often a small part of a book, or a theme.  I’ve seen dissertations written on a single Hebrew word.  Specialization.

With all of this tight focus, it’s easy to forget what browsing in a bookstore’s like.  Even with some of the incredible brick and mortar stores in Edinburgh, technical books had to be ordered—this was before Amazon.  When you check the books of colleagues out of libraries it doesn’t always occur that you do this because libraries are the only places that buy such books.  And with the explosion of doctoral degrees in shrinking areas of studies (there are no jobs here, folks!) the number of published dissertations has skyrocketed.  Even advanced scholars forget the average reading public would find their work impenetrable.  It’s not going to be in the local bookstore, and it costs so much because it sells so few copies.  I do feel for academic authors.

In addition to all the area specialization, it would make sense to research the academic publishing industry.  Yes, it is an industry—it has to try to turn a profit when sales are minimal.  And with so many books being published, libraries can’t keep up.  The end result is high prices.  I’m as guilty as the next academic at wishing economics would just go away and leave me alone.  I want to believe in the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake.   That’s not the way the world works, however.  At least not the publishing world in a capitalistic context.  The internet itself has become competition.  Much of the information’s out there for free.  So your academic book, when it comes out, will be priced out of your comfort range (been there, done that).  It’s not that your publisher doesn’t believe in you, but that they have to try to turn a profit.  All it takes to understand why is a bit of research.

Not that kind of book.

Relatively Unknown

The Edinburgh Festival draws people from around the world to experience culture and fun in one of Europe’s most beautiful cities.  The festival also attracts the fringe—artists not associated directly with the festival, but who get included in what used to be a huge, thick catalogue that would keep us busy for hours, considering what a student and spouse could afford, and what you could not afford to miss.  One year a group called Outback was performing at an area church.  It featured Graham Wiggins on the didgeridoo—an Oceanic aboriginal instrument that is essentially a tree branch hollowed out by termites.  It’s so long ago now that I can’t recall if I knew ahead of time, but the leader of the group, the didgeridooist, was Graham Wiggins.  While not exactly a rare surname, Wiggins isn’t common either and when I saw him a strong family resemblance was immediately obvious.  So much so that after the concert we went to meet him only to find out his Wiggins side was from Oxfordshire.  Mine was from South Carolina.

Graham Wiggins, who was a month younger than me, was known as “Dr. Didg” because he held a D.Phil. in solid-state physics from Oxford University.  While an American, he had decided to stay in the UK to make a living from his music.  Some months later, on a Christmas break, we saw him busking in Bath on a chilly night.  We bought the band’s second CD from him that evening.  When my wife put on our Baka disc the other day, I grew curious whatever became of him.  I was surprised and saddened to learn that Graham Wiggins had died three years ago.  I knew we shared a surname and a family resemblance, as well as UK doctorates, but I learned he went to the British Isles from Boston University, which is where I had studied before attending Edinburgh.  He left the year I arrived.

Websites are reluctant to say of what Wiggins died.  I learned of this just days after finding out that a high school classmate had passed away, so mortality has been on my mind.  Wiggins, unlike this Wiggins, was a talented musician with a brilliant mind.  We saw him interviewed on television about the physics of didgeridoo playing.  I never did find out if we were distantly related.  The US Wiggins clan from South Carolina doesn’t have strong genealogical interests, although we know they started out in North Carolina many years ago.  It stands to reason they had come from England at some point, since it’s an English surname.  I only met Graham of the clan twice, but now I can’t get the fading didgeridoo sounds from my mind.

Excavating above Ground

It’s like a horror movie. You’re about to enter a place where the dead were laid to rest. You’re out in the remote Orkney Islands, and nobody knows you’re here. This cairn, although it has a modern entryway, is prehistoric, and to get to the burial chamber you have to descend the stone stairs into total darkness. There’s no towns anywhere nearby. The guidebook advices bringing a trustworthy flashlight. At the bottom of the stairs, as the daylight from the door fades, you face a tunnel lined with stone. You have to stoop to walk through it until you come to the burial chamber itself. Completely isolated from the rest of the world. It makes you stop and think.

While I was a student at Edinburgh, my wife and I made two trips to the Orkney Islands to explore the antiquities. The expense of getting to the islands north of the mainland is the most prohibitive part of such a journey. Once on the islands you find things relatively inexpensive, and safe. As the local at the car hire asked us, “It’s an island—where would a criminal go?” Nobody locked their doors. But the tombs. Orkney, being relatively unpopulated, hosts more available antiquities per square mile than just about anywhere else in Europe. Tramping through barren grasslands where you might encounter a few sheep, you can hike to a burial chamber that was built thousands of years ago and, after archaeologists tidied it up, has been left for you to explore on your own.

My wife sent me a link to Historic Environment Scotland’s Sketchfab page. Using photogrammetry, the site offers three-dimensional, manipulable images of the various cairns and soutterrains you can find on Orkney. You don’t need to crawl through the damp chambers on your hands and knees, or even bring a flashlight. The technology brings back memories, but I do wonder if something hasn’t been lost here. There was a reckless sense of discovery being a young couple in an isolated, underground chamber where no one, not even my doctoral advisor, knew where we were. No smartphones, this was off-the-grid living. Not once did we encounter anyone else in these Neolithic chambers. Gray skies and windswept cliffs. Puffins cowering in the lee of a North Sea gale. None of this can be experienced on this armchair odyssey, but it can certainly be recalled. And after exploring the exotic underground chambers, I know I have to make my way to a similarly windowless cubicle above the ground and have the audacity to state that this is the world of the living.

Remembering Catherine

Literature has been on my mind lately. Although I’ve not read all of Charles Dickens’ oeuvre, he’s been in my consciousness what with the new movie and somewhat older book, The Man Who Invented Christmas. Those who analyze literature sometimes claim Dickens invented the modern novel. In my unprofessional opinion, however, the roots go back a bit further than Boz. Still, it’s an enviable position to hold, even if it’s just in the minds of admirers. Dickens came back to me yesterday in one of those apparently random emails from WikiTree. WikiTree is a genealogy website to which I’ve contributed from time to time. I have no famous ancestors, so WikiTree sometimes helps me borrow them. Turns out I’m 28-degrees separated from Charles Dickens.

Perhaps their algorithms are getting better, or perhaps one of their robots is reading my blog (goodness knows few actual people do!) but the connections are getting closer. I posted earlier that I’m 37-degrees separated from Bob Dylan and 43-degrees from J. R. R. Tolkien. I’m closer to Dickens than to either of these famous individuals. This is the beguiling aspect of genealogy—it shows how unexpected connections can be part of our unknown background. The maze back to Dickens is through my grandmother on the Tauberschmidt line. This is the one of the four grandparental lines for which I have the least information. Nobody in my family even knows my great-grandmother’s name. She died young and, as with women in that era, was known in census records only by her husband’s surname. I may never learn who she was.

Although the reason for women changing surnames makes sense in its historical context, it is one of the great injustices of both gender equality and history. Signs are indicating that society is finally waking up on this point: women are half of the human story. As a dabbler in fiction writing, knowing that half the story is untold is a troubling phenomenon. Reading about Dickens I learned that he left the wife of his youth for a younger woman. Although such things are common, my reaction was to wonder who Catherine Thomson Hogarth might’ve become, had women had the opportunities they’re starting to have today. She was, after all, from Edinburgh. She has biographies, but not nearly as many as her feted husband. And if my math’s correct, I’m only 29-degrees separated from her. And this may well be the more important connection; the story untold.

Sacred Places

Boston Brahmins, lock up your doctrines—AAR/SBL’s come to town. Boston always has special associations for me. My first home away from home. Where I met my wife. Where I learned what you can only learn at seminary. Coming back is like coming home. Of course, I’m here to work. As I was getting ready for this trip I recalled that the conference met in Boston when I was studying for my Master’s degree at Boston University. Unlike many graduate schools these days, no overtures were made for students to attend. In fact, I didn’t know what all the in-joking among the faculty was all about. I relearned the existence of the conference as a grad student in Edinburgh a few years later. Few traveled across the Atlantic for it, at that point. In fact, none of the Edinburgh faculty who’d eventually become regulars had ever considered going. My first meeting was in Kansas City.

The meeting has grown since those days. Now regularly expecting about 10,000 scholars (can one help but think of 10,000 maniacs?) a year, the venues are limited. Atlanta, Boston, San Antonio, San Diego. Chicago and Denver once in a while. Personally, I’m glad it’s close enough for a train ride. New York City and Boston, two peas in a pod. My only regret is that I won’t be able to get out to my old stomping grounds. Some colleagues (few read this blog) contact me at the last minute asking if we can get together. My schedule’s booked from breakfast through supper each day. Those who attend as participant-observers have no idea. These are the longest working days of my entire year. Still, they’re in Boston.

I often muse about place on this blog. We’re attached to the place where we’re born—it’s our personal sacred space. In life we grow attached to other places, whether we can settle there permanently or not. I wanted to live in Boston. I did so for a year after attending seminary here, making a living doing this and that. Having a master’s degree in religion doesn’t get you far in life. In those heady days of sleeping on the floor and finding out what life was really like for the unconnected, I learned an awful lot. And when the woman I wanted to marry came back for a visit, I proposed. I’ve only ever visited Boston since. But whenever I manage to do so, even if it’s just for work, it’s like coming home.

Keystones

It was one of the very few parties to which I’d been invited in Edinburgh. “When a Scotsman asks you where you’re from,” one of the guests said to me, “he means where you were born.” Although we have no control or say over where we come into the world, we do feel that the place has a claim on us. Combined with my undying interest in local history, that means I like to read books about my native Pennsylvania. I was a first generation Pennsylvanian, to be sure, but to keep a nearly forgotten Scotsman happy, that’s where I’m from. Sarah Hutchison Tassin’s Pennsylvania Ghost Towns: Uncovering the Hidden Past is that familiar kind of book considered light reading, geared largely to the tourist and nostalgic past visitor or homebody crowd. Still, these kinds of quick studies often inspire the imagination. Lots of people lived here before you did.

A couple of factors stood out to me about Pennsylvania’s elder communities. One obvious feature is that a number of them began as intentional religious communities. Often breakaway sects from some major denomination, they established settlements to pursue spirituality in their own way, generally with strict rules, such as celibacy, that would spell their ultimate demise. Pennsylvania is well known for its separatist Anabaptist sects—Amish, Mennonites, and others who’ve been around for centuries and have integrated into the cultural mix of the state. I had no idea that a few ghost towns remain where some less successful spiritual seekers had broken ground. The second feature that stood out is how many communities were intentionally founded for commercial purposes. Often these were mining or lumber-processing towns. Some wealthy individual would buy a natural resource, build houses and a communal store, and permit workers to purchase goods only there. This meant individuals could never save money and never really afford to leave the mine or mill.

These are two very different conceptions of what it means to live in community. One is overly idealistic the other overly exploitative. At one end, the basic necessities of life—food, shelter, clothing—were kept from those who found themselves, like most of us, in need of a job. Or, at the other extreme, being held back from eternal life by failure to keep to the rules of a newly revealed religion. I never really thought of towns intentionally founded in these ways before. My naive view was more eclectic. But then, what do I know? I was born in a small Pennsylvania town and never thought to question why it was there. Where are you from? It’s a matter of perspective.