Museum Time

It was a very strange feeling.  Wearing masks, yes, and socially distancing, we went to a museum.  Casting my mind back, I can’t recall the last time I was in a museum.  On a family visit to Ithaca we decided to go to The Museum of the Earth.  Ithaca is a small town, and this is a small museum, nevertheless the first place Google (or Ecosia) brought up for fossil identification was The Museum of the Earth.  On Saturdays a paleontologist is on hand to help identify the traces of life from millions of years ago that lie scattered around for anyone to pick up.  Collecting fossils has a treasure-hunting vibe to it, and it’s great to find anything beyond the usual, ubiquitous sea shell imprints.  Don’t get me wrong—I love sea shells with their symmetry and flowing lines.  Some of them even look like angel wings.  But there’s a draw to the unusual.

Some time back I’d found a fossil in the Ithaca area that I couldn’t identify.  It was Saturday, and we’d all received at least our first vaccination.  And I had to wait in line to get an identification.  It was cheering to see so many people—with limited, timed entry—coming to a museum.  The specialist confirmed this to be an interesting fossil.  She identified it as a bryozoan, ancient animals related to coral.  This one, she suggested, based on the age of rocks in this area, was likely Devonian.  The age of fishes.  I was glad I hadn’t wasted her time, and I was glad to have an expert eye on something that, let’s be honest, often functions like pareidolia to the laity.

Years ago I took my daughter to an open house day at the geology department at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.  If it weren’t for the calculus requirements (and I even tried to teach myself calculus because of it), I was seriously considering going back to school to study geology.  There is an organic connection between biblical scholars interested in the first eleven chapters of Genesis and paleontology.  I get too busy, it seems, to go down to the local creek to look for fossils.  Perhaps it’s for the best because our house would be full of rocks (even more than it already is).  The earth is a great museum.  Even so, it felt like an alien activity, late in this pandemic, to remember what it’s like to explore these treasures indoors, with strangers.  It felt as if time was actually progressing.


Feeling Bookish

It does my soul good to attend a used book sale.  I recently attended one while on a visit to Ithaca.  Everyone was wearing a mask.  Even though it was May, it was quite cold and rainy, and due to the limited number of people permitted in the space, there was a line that took about half an hour to endure.  This did not deter people and it was this that most lifted my spirits—these people were devoted to books.  At times when the media gets me down, informing me that book culture is dying and that all people want are their devices and their distractions, seeing proof of the love of books is restorative.  The used book sale is a place of discovery.

Although it’s easy to nip over to Amazon (or better, Bookshop.org) and order your book, especially during a pandemic, there are things you only find by being where the books are.  I keep an extensive reading list with me.  Before I go into a sale venue I promise myself I’ll stick to my list.  But what a facile promise it turns out to be—how can you make such a vow without knowing what you might find?  Books you’ve never seen or imagined before?  That’s the discovery aspect that sweetens the in-person experience.  And although I still find crowds scary, I tend to trust people who like books.  Besides, the books I tend to read aren’t always in the most popular sections.

The Friends of the Tompkins County Public Library book sale has a dedicated building with permanent shelving.  While wandering is fine, maps are also available.  I’m occasionally ribbed for having too many books.  One of the reasons I dread any move is knowing the movers’ inevitable comments about the fact.  People who love books are made to feel somehow inferior for it.  Fans of Kindle or other such readers extol the virtues of having lots of books that take up no space.  Such books, however, are limited to those converted to electronic form.  The many thousands of books published before the invention of the ebook, many of them out of print and mostly forgotten, can only be found in libraries, used bookstores, and sales like this.  (Google books hasn’t found everything yet.)  It was cold and rainy outside.  In here there were silent companions that speak loudly.  Books, as my daughter said, are like snacks for the mind.  And sometimes you just don’t know what you’re in the mood for until you go to the kitchen and browse.  It can warm your soul.


Bookstore Odyssey

Work isn’t the best place to express yourself.  Once a marketer asked for input from everyone concerning their favorite independent bookshop.  Well, I might’ve gone a bit overboard, admittedly.  I listed several, each with their attributes.  I was living in New Jersey at the time so The Bookworm in Bernardsville and The Labyrinth in Princeton featured large.  But so did Farley’s in New Hope.  And the Clinton Book Shop in, well,  Clinton.  Then my mind roved to the unfortunately deceased River Front Books in Binghamton.  Then back to Wisconsin where we lived within walking distance from Books and Company.  Then to Illinois before that, where Pages for All Ages was a hangout.  We’re spoiled here in the Lehigh Valley with the Moravian Book Shop in Bethlehem,  Book and Puppet in Easton, Let’s Play books in Emmaus, and plenty of used bookstores about.  And the Montclair Bookshop back in New Jersey—okay, I told you I went a bit overboard.

Ithaca, New York, is the very definition of a college town.  Home to Cornell University and Ithaca College, it has a sizable student population.  It once boasted seventeen bookstores.  By the time we’d started visiting they were down to one indie new book store (Buffalo Street Books) and two used bookstores.  Since then one of the used stores has closed.  Like a phoenix, however, a new indie has opened: Odyssey.  On a recent trip to Ithaca we stopped in.  During a pandemic I feel compelled to make trips short, but there was a lot to see there.  Like most indies, it’s small.  As Andrew Laties notes in Rebel Bookseller, such shops thrive by becoming part of the community, and stocking books the community will buy.

Our visit, I suspect, proves his point.  If you set up shop in a university town you can stock intelligent books and make a living at it.  Despite the weather and the virus we weren’t the only customers in the store.  And we didn’t leave empty-handed.  The independent bookstore is a symbol of hope.  Books are not clutter.  Literacy is not dead!  As much as our beloved internet tries to tell us the future is digital, I like to open the door and step outside once in a while.  And leave my phone behind.  During this pandemic I’ve gone to four kinds of stores only: grocery, drug/necessity, hardware, and book stores.  The pandemic has been a shot in the arm for trade books—bored with staring at screens all day, people are starting to read actual books again.  I’m not naive enough to think it will last beyond Covid-19, but I just remembered Watchung Booksellers in Montclair and the Town Book Store in Westfield…


The Essentials

The current crisis, in my mind, dates to Thursday, March 12.  That particular day, at least in my socially distant location, the pandemic became a panic.  Decisions were made to have employees work remotely.  Zoom or Skype meetings were substituted for the face-to-face variety.  Church services were cancelled.  There was a run on toilet paper.  This final aspect has me really vexed.  Why toilet paper?  Experts say if we kept to our usual buying habits there would be plenty for everyone, but the survivalist mentality kicked in and people began hoarding.  If the apocalypse was coming, they wanted to go down fighting with clean underwear on.  We were in Ithaca the next day to see my daughter.  We ordered out from a local restaurant.  When we got home we found a role of new toilet paper in the top of the bag.

According to my amateur dating technique, we’ve been in this state for 13 days now.  Toilet paper, tissues, and paper towels are nowhere to be found.  I looked on Amazon.  They can get you toilet paper, but you’ll need to wait until May.  Why?  Ironically, because it’s being shipped from China.  Yes, the nation where the pandemic erupted has toilet paper aplenty.  Here in the greatest [sic] nation in the world, there’s none to be found.  What does this tell us about a country that self-identifies as “Christian”?  Whatever happened to “if someone demands your coat, give them your shirt also”?  Or perhaps more to the point, “turn the other cheek”?  How has a nation of Bible believers responded to a crisis?  By becoming selfish.  By stockpiling toilet paper.

I’ve spent a lot of time camping.  I’m fairly comfortable with the ways of nature.  Like most other people I prefer a nice, private restroom with all the accoutrements, but if bears can do it in the woods, why can’t we?  I have my Boy Scout guide right here.  But it suggests using toilet paper.  If books could be ordered, I suspect How To Poop [this is the family friendly version] in the Woods would be a current bestseller.  Trump says he wants everyone back to work by Easter, but the toilet paper ordered from Asia won’t even be here by then.  And will offices have access to some secret stash that only those who buy in bulk can find?  Hoarding makes any crisis worse, but this particular one seems especially mean spirited.  It makes me realize just how great America has been made.


Frozen Streams

I was walking in Ithaca, with my feet not far from Sagan.  Winter had settled in prematurely, as it often does in upstate.  I was wearing a hoodie and old fleece combo and I suppose I looked a bit tatty.  My wife and daughter had gone to see Harriet, but movies about how badly people have mistreated others, strangely for a guy who watches horror, really depress me.  Ithaca, until recently, supported three independent bookstores, so I figured I could pass the time easily enough.  It was growing dark and breezy, and I visit bookstores only with a list, otherwise it’s too dangerous.  Autumn Leaves, a used vendor, I’ve visited many times.  Their religion section is disappointingly small, but I tend to find offerings in other areas when I blow in.

Buffalo Street Books is the last remaining indie that handles new books, but I stopped by The Bookery, now closing, on my way.  This was saddening.  Ithaca houses both the ivy league Cornell and the highly regarded Ithaca College.  I suspect many of the street sweepers hold doctorates.  Has book culture entirely bent the knee to Amazon?  At the end of the last millennium, Ithaca housed 25 independent bookstores.  Today it’s evident that Buffalo Street (formerly The Bookery II) struggles to keep its hold.  I feel ethically obligated to buy something there, to take one for the team.  I had a short list and the shelves in The Bookery had been nearly bare.  It was just too depressing to stay there.  I found an inside bench and sat to read until the movie was over.

Or so I thought.  I ventured back outside and now it was fully dark, being six p.m., and I wandered back to the familiar Ithaca Commons.  I went into a couple of shops, but they looked at me as if I were homeless.  (I suppose I was, in a sense.)  I haven’t had a haircut in a while, and my beard is scruffy and white.  My hoodie and fleece don’t speak to affluence.  I had unconcealed books—I routinely refuse bags—and I suppose I could come across as a touch eccentric.  (I don’t have enough money to be authentically eccentric.)  I wondered how street people do it.  Outside the east wind was decidedly sharp and windbreaks on the pedestrian zone are few.  I came to the monument to Martin Luther King Junior.  I was walking in Ithaca but I really felt that books could make that dream come true.


Panic at the Bookstore

Usually it works like this.  I go into a used bookstore with a list of titles I’d like to find.  Yes, I know I can look them up on Amazon and pay some price gouger more than the book’s worth, but you sometimes find things forgotten on a shelf out of the reach of technology.  When I went into a used bookstore in the vicinity of Ithaca last month I didn’t have my list with me.  When I visit such a store, especially the first time, I don’t like to walk out empty-handed.  The word “Exorcism” on both the spine and cover of Ken Olson—excuse me, Dr. Ken Olson’s book on the subject, well, how could I not?  Exorcism: Fact or Fiction? is published by Thomas Nelson.  That immediately told me something of what the book would be like.  It wouldn’t be an academic treatment, and it would be somewhat evangelical.  Still, I didn’t have my list with me.

Olson hasn’t had an easy life.  His license to practice psychology was revoked after he performed an exorcism and my sympathies are always with those who have lost jobs.  Rejection is, after all, a form of violence.  The book, however, isn’t so much about exorcism as it is about evangelical views of it.  Written around the time of the satanic panic in the 1990s, the book takes seriously the claims of the alleged victims and also the physical existence of the non-corporeal Satan.  This actually leads to a few logical brick walls.  Referring to the body parts of non-physical beings can be an exercise in metaphor, but evangelicals tend to be literalists otherwise.  This discrepancy begs for discussion but receives none here.

The history of moral panics is interesting.  We live in the midst of them pretty much constantly now.  The internet doesn’t really help.  Moral panics are times when particular concerns spread rapidly (for which the web is ideal) without having any critical questions asked.  They often lead to a mob mentality that can victimize the innocent.  Although that’s clearly not his intent, Olson’s book tends to do this too.  If a victim is female, as is often the case, conservatives blame her for such things as abortions, forgetting, it seems, that a male was involved.  Since abortion scares are another example of a moral panic, it’s not surprising Olson treats them along with other forms of spiritual warfare.  Those who turn to the book looking for The Exorcist will be disappointed.  You might find a copy of that, however, at your local used bookstore.


Trailing Art

One of the many trails that wend their way through Ithaca is the Art Trail.  (The town finds waypoints on the wine and beer trails of the southern tier as well, but we were looking for visual art.)  In early October several artists open their studios—these are personal places—to the tourists passing through.  Those of us on the trail are seeking inspiration in human expression.  I’ve neglected my own art for many years.  While other guys my age are retiring and expressing their boredom, I struggle to find enough time to write, dreaming of the day when I can again take up my pencils and brushes.  Being in so many studios over the weekend jump-started something in me.  Humans are at their most god-like when they create.

Seeing artists in context is revealing.  They don’t worry too much about convention.  I found myself hanging toward the back of our little group.  There was so much of others’ souls on display here.  While some were young, a fair number were older than me.  Perhaps retired from a novocaine job that dulled many days until enough years had passed and the need to let the art out escaped.  If felt like visiting a small farm where the true independent, liberal spirit of this country once resided.  These were farmers with paint brushes rather than shotguns and Trump bumperstickers.  Free thinkers, not Fox thinkers.  Under a sky October blue after two days of rain and gray, this was a mosaic of autumn.  Art is a muse.  I think of my neglected brushes and dried out paints, tucked away in the attic.

Modern art sometimes feels like someone slapped a frame around something random, but in talking with the creator something different emerges.  Something that doesn’t feel like plastic.  Something that defies words.  Like poems sometimes break conventional lines, art refuses to be confined.  Some of these studios used to be living rooms.  Houses converted and dedicated to creativity.  Why is this so difficult to accomplish in my own life?  How has the time come to be consumed with work, even when the commute has been effaced?  I suppose I’ve been using words to express myself—this blog is certainly an example of that.  It is, however, a mere fraction of visual ideas awaiting release.  I don’t know if I could ever open my studio to strangers.  Art trails are labyrinths, and once you’ve entered that maze, it will take some time to reemerge.  And when I do I know I will have been transformed.


Upstate Reading

In terms of cash flow I don’t fall into the wealthy bracket.  My assets are largely in pre-printed paper form, and when I visit the local Little Free Library it’s generally to donate books rather than to take them.  Over Labor Day weekend I was in Ithaca.  One of the more famous features of the town is its weekend Farmers’ Market.  Indeed, the north-south corridor through town is a continuous traffic jam during Market hours.  Not only are there farm stands in the permanent open-sided structure, but there are a few craft booths and several places to buy al fresco fair from local restaurants.  In the summer parking can be hard to find, but the place has a carnival-like atmosphere nevertheless.  It also has a Little Free Library.  I’ve been to the Market many times but I’d never noticed it before.

Upstate New York is beautiful but it tends toward the conservative end of the political spectrum.  Ithaca is a pixel of blue in a screen of red, and that strangely showed in the Little Free Library.  Many of the books were either Bibles or popular kinds of devotional titles.  Given that Cornell isn’t known for its religion department (Ithaca College has a respectably sized philosophy and religion department, however) these books aren’t the kind you’d expect to find in an institution of higher education.  That’s why I was surprised to see a near mint copy of Bart Ehrman’s The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot on the shelves.  The Gospel of Judas hasn’t been big news for a few years now, but this was a book that suggests a different demographic than your average evangelical readership.

Like Ehrman, I once made a living as an adjunct at Rutgers University.  Indeed, it was this commonality that helped me to get to know him a bit.  He’s gone on to a kind of fame rare for biblical scholars.  Indeed, to have a sufficient number of copies of your book printed to end up in a Little Free Library—in other words, you have to have more cachet than your garden variety Ph.D.  In my local community LFL I like to leave books for others to take.  Just last week I stopped by and noticed that the summer had depleted the stock.  Ironically, I had noticed one of Neal Stephenson’s novels in the same circumstances as Ehrman’s.  I’m glad to see intelligent works on offer for the reading public.  And trading books with no money involved suggests to me that there’s a better form of economy than material greed.  All it takes is a Little Free Library and a little good will.


The Zone

My youth—who am I kidding?—my life has been a search for father figures.  Since I grew up with television, many of them came from the tube.  The professor from Gilligan’s Island, Mr. Rogers, Barnabas Collins, and Rod Serling.  Serling was like the father I couldn’t remember in that he was always smoking.  But unlike my father, Serling had an imagination in sync with mine.  The Twilight Zone was in reruns by the time I caught up, but it gave me an odd kind of happiness.  The sort that you had as a kid after the bath was over and you were wrapped up snuggly and warm in a bathrobe, and you got to watch one of your favorite shows before going to bed.  I discovered Serling as a writer when I was in Junior High School.  He was right up there next to Ray Bradbury, in my book.

I have to admit to feeling anxious as I read Anne Serling’s As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling.  You see, she actually was his child and I’m afraid of learning too much about those I put on my personal pedestals.  Her book, however, didn’t disappoint.  Serling lived a writer’s life, something I’ve coveted since I was a kid.  If I couldn’t have a father, at least I could write about life as I saw it.  I still write fiction inspired by, among others, Rod Serling.  Spending much of my time in Binghamton and Ithaca for my own family reasons, I was only obliquely aware of how much I was traversing the region Serling considered home.  As I read his daughter’s autobiography—or is it a biography?  Who can tell the difference?—I was inexorably drawn in.  Fathers and daughters can be the best of friends.

Sometimes I wonder if those who know writers the best are their true fans.  I don’t mean groupies or the like, but rather those whose lives have been transformed by their words.  I’m reminded of Evermore, written by a relative of Edgar Allan Poe.  Family, it is true, see a side of a person that the reader does not.  But who are we, really?  Those of us who write may be saying more in our fiction than we care to admit even to those who know us well.  Rod Serling recognized dimensions well, I suspect.  A writer’s life requires sacrifice and keeping things hidden.  Anne Serling’s book is a gift to those who write, even if it is about someone else’s father.


Digging Well

Having spent a good bit of the past week in waiting rooms in Ithaca, I fell to reading Tompkins Weekly, the free local community paper.  If you’ve spent any time on this blog you’re no doubt aware that I have an interest in the weird and unusual.  Although I got teased rather mercilessly for this as a kid, thanks to The X-Files such interest has become somewhat mainstream.  In any case, after fumbling with the crossword and finishing the sudoku, I read an article about dowsing.  Now Tompkins County is the home of both Cornell University and Ithaca College, so I was a little surprised in finding such a topic addressed at all.  What’s more, the usual ridicule expected with anything even approaching the paranormal was lacking.

Dowsing is the practice of finding water, or other underground resources, by using a crotched stick or dowsing rods.  A larger version of the quantum “spooky action at a distance,” dowsing is said to produce an effect on the twig or rods that will point to the hidden source.  Like ESP it is decried by mainstream science yet used by some governments when other methods fail.  As an example of “folk wisdom” dowsing occupies a similar, if less conventional, space to religion.  Scientism has taught us not to trust the invisible.  Scientists, however, are well aware that we can’t see everything.  We slide a finger around our collar, however, when something “unscientific” seems to work.  As the dowsers explain, however, there is a kind of science to what they do.  Problem is it doesn’t work for everyone.  Only some people can do it.

Now I’m not a credulous person.  I spent many years and even more dollars learning how to be a critical thinker.  Skepticism, however, leads me to ask how we know that dowsing can’t possibly work.  Have we discovered all there is to know in this infinite but expanding universe?  With finite minds it seems highly unlikely.  Duke and Princeton Universities once studied parapsychology in an academic setting, and the University of Virginia has left some related areas open to investigation.  The real problem is that we’ve been taught to laugh at anything we’re told to.  The US Navy, for instance, has recently revealed that it takes UFO reports seriously (unlike Project Bluebook).  We’ve been laughing so long it’s difficult to take even the military at face value.   Does dowsing work?  It’s difficult to say without all the facts.  Of course, I’ve been sitting in a waiting room, pondering what we don’t understand.


Rock Solid

Old interests don’t die so much as they become sublimated.  As a child I picked up a cheap “gem display” in a small cardboard box at a yard sale, probably for a quarter.  A couple of the samples were missing, and those that remained were tiny, but I was fascinated that rocks came in such varieties, especially since the ones I tended to find on my own were all shades of gray.  Science education wasn’t especially great in my small town, and besides, I had a massive interest in not going to Hell, so religious study took precedence over my predilections toward scientific studies.  Still, as a child and later, I read a lot about science and I never doubted that it could teach us about the natural world.  Years later I rediscovered my love of rocks.  I joined the Wisconsin Geological Society.  I bought a rock hammer.  I began hounding.

One of the first truisms you learn about life is that movers don’t like heavy things.  Seems that if you are in the business of helping people move (for money, no less), you might be stoic about such matters.  But I have yet to move and not have the guys complain about all those boxes of books.  Well, the rock collection is even heavier.  I discreetly marked the boxes “heavy collection,” hoping nobody’d say “What you got in here, rocks?”  Because, well, yes.  I like rocks.  While in Wisconsin the collection grew—we lived in a house at Nashotah, and we had space.  I had a rock tumbler going in the basement.  We attended rock and gem shows.  Then we moved three times in three years.  I became embarrassed of my petrine peccadillo.

On my way out the door yesterday, I spied a fossil I’d picked up in Ithaca.  Immediately my old inclination to rocks returned.  I don’t know why I bought so many books on geology and seriously considered changing professions after my academic position fell apart.  Perhaps in a life so unstable rocks seemed solid, reliable.  Or maybe it was nostalgia for my young days when a cheap white box of neatly labeled specimens provided hours of transfixed wonder.  I still pick up interesting rocks, and even go to places where collecting is permitted.  This whole world under our feet is full of surprises and an interesting stone can send me into a reverie that is, if I’m honest, as spiritual as it is scientific.  


On Publishing

I fear I may be transitioning.  I may actually be becoming someone who knows something about publishing.  Reading about the merger between Cengage and McGraw Hill actually seemed interesting.  What’s happening to me?  Actually, the largest impact has been the realization that scholars need to become more aware of the world around them.  As a doctoral student I was taught to find an unexplored subject and write obscurely on it.  Then, when it’s time to publish, to say to the editor that general readers will understand and find it compelling.  It took some time, however, even though I frequented Waterstones and Blackwells, to realize that the books they housed were not the kinds of books I’d been taught to write.  Back in America, where the brands were Borders and Barnes and Nobel, the same thing applied.  People want books they can understand.

Two articles that caught my attention recently addressed the plight of the academic monograph.  One was “Worried About the Future of the Monograph? So Are Publishers” from the Chronicle of Higher Education.  The other was “Making Monographs Open” from Inside Higher Ed.  Both share some common themes: scholars write books so obscure that even academic libraries won’t buy them and since it’s “publish or perish” it becomes the publisher’s problem.  Listen, I understand that mentality.  Isolated in the woods of Wisconsin with the wind howling through the trees, writing about weather in the Psalms seemed perfectly natural.  Forgetting that the average reader doesn’t know Hebrew, I assumed everyone would find my disquisition irresistible.  Even back in the early 2000s publishers disagreed.  Life is so interesting!  There are so many minutiae to explore!  If you haven’t had the pleasure of following in the tracks of a thought that won’t let you go, you’ve never been really seduced.  But then, somebody’s got to pay for all this.

Scholars are reluctant to acknowledge that publishing is a business.  Indeed, higher education is now a business as well.  Everything’s a business.  To stay solvent publishers have to sell enough books to cover the cost of making them.  As these articles point out, that cost isn’t negligible.  The scholar who explores the publishing industry (as rare as that may be) will discover plenty of resources to help rethink academic writing.  Even without reading the industry rags, just paying attention when you’re in your neighborhood bookstore can be an eye-opening experience.  I was looking for a book (hardly even academic) last time I was in Ithaca, New York.  If any town is likely to have such books on the shelf, it’s Ithaca.  I had to ask and leave empty-handed.  There are lots of books out there, colleagues!  And if you want to get yours published, it pays to do a little research.  Your time will not be wasted.  And I fear I’m becoming someone who knows a little about such things.


Bookish Dreams

Driving into upstate New York via interstate 81 you’ll find a remarkable rest stop.  To put this into context, I should say that my wife and I have driven from Maine to Washington (not on a single trip) and from Wisconsin to Louisiana and South Carolina.  We’ve laid down considerable mileage together, and never have we encountered such a nice rest stop.  Clean, modern, and featuring local goods for sale, it’s a loving homage to the southern tier, the New York outside the city.  One of the features of this unusual facility is a terrazzo floor fresco highlighting the various points of interest within a couple hours’ drive.  Mostly when we stop here we look toward Binghamton and Ithaca, the cities we most frequently visit.  We stop to use the restroom and then drive on.

When we stopped over the holidays, however, we lingered a little bit.  There’s a display on Mark Twain—he lived in Elmira, New York for a time—and there’s an in-ground plaque outside to Rod Serling.  I spent some time looking over the points of interest in the floor map when my wife pointed out a site listed as Hobart Book Village of the Catskills.  I couldn’t believe that I’d been in this building dozens of times but had never bothered to look that far east.  Curious, I did a web search once we reached out destination.  There is, it turns out, a village in upstate known for its main street of book stores.  What perhaps impressed me even more was that it was considered significant enough to be given a kind of “Hollywood star” treatment in what is an often overlooked part of the state.

Now I can’t say what my impressions of Hobart are.  I’ve never been there, having just learned of it on a recent roadtrip.  What I can say is that my world suddenly began to feel just a bit more friendly knowing that such a place exists.  We live in a country that could indeed use a bit more positive influence.  Some of my happiest memories involve bookstores.  Back in my teaching days we made regular autumnal literary weekend trips, visiting sites haunted by writers.  Often we’d find an independent bookstore near such sacred places.  To many, I realize, this would smack of nonsense, but to those ensconced in literary dreams, it created pleasant memories.  You feel something in the air as you stand near the house or grave of an author.  Places are made sacred by what transpires within them.  The writing of books shapes the very space-time around them.  At least it does for those who even find inspiration in an interstate rest stop.


The Falls of Lucifer

The Devil is everywhere.  At least if we go by the many places named after the dark lord.  Over the weekend in Ithaca, we visited Lucifer Falls.  Like several of the cataracts in the area, this is an impressive waterfall that exposes the many layers of the gorge it has carved out over the eons.  Part of Robert H. Treman State Park, the falls were impressive after all the rain we’ve been having here in the east.  But why are they called “Lucifer Falls”?  The literature on the park begs ignorance as to the origins of the name, noting that it was likely taken from the original Iroquois name.  If that’s the case, it’s likely been distorted in transmission.  Many such satanic names are.

Apart from the fact that Native American names for geologic features weren’t based on the Christian trope of God v. Satan, early European settlers heard what they wanted to hear.  Devil’s Lake in Wisconsin, which we used to visit in my Nashotah House days, was more properly translated “Spirit Lake.”  Since the Christians who encountered the native name believed that indigenous religion was inspired by the evil one, they recast the spiritual lake into an infernal one, at least in name.  People will still vacation there, thank you very much, while retaining the baptismal moniker that an intolerant religion bestowed upon it.  There’s nothing evil about Lucifer Falls.  It is an astonishing testament to what nature can do when left alone.

Well, at least for a while.  Like its more famous cousin Niagara, Lucifer Falls, upriver, was harvested for its ability to turn a mill wheel.  The old mill still stands today in the park as a testament to how the river was exploited.  Mills aren’t naturally evil, of course.  They turn to produce the things people need—in this case flour.  They can also, however, be symbols of corporate greed.  Those who own them can exploit more than just the water, and mills became a name for many other places of industry that eventually stole the lives and livelihoods of those whose work in them was cheap.  William Blake’s “dark satanic mills” remains a memorable phrase testifying to what happens when the wealthy, when corporations—which are “persons” with no feelings—are allowed to make decisions.  Treman State Park’s old mill was the center of a community that apparently didn’t experience such exploitation.  It was just a mill.  It’s picturesque waterfall was just a waterfall.  The name, however, still speaks volumes.


Just Sagan

Perhaps the most famous resident of Ithaca, New York, during his career at Cornell was Carl Sagan.  The astrophysicist had had a noteworthy career, becoming a household name with his popularizing television programs and books.  When he died prematurely, there was a real sense of loss among many of us who appreciate those who dumb down science so the rest of us can understand.  Over the weekend in Ithaca, which still bears his physical legacy in a scale model of the solar system, we went to find his final resting place in Lakeview Cemetery.  There is something oddly peaceful about passing time among the dead.  It was late afternoon and we were the only ones in the graveyard.  We also had no idea where his plot might be, so we surveyed a good bit of the grounds, finding the Cornell family mausoleum along the way.

When my wife found his plot, with a simple tombstone laid into the ground, it was impossible not to notice the grave goods.  The leaving of mementos at the burial places of the famous is nothing new.  Douglas Adams’ grave in Highgate Cemetery in London had a profusion of pens pressed into the ground.  H. P. Lovecraft’s final resting place in Providence likewise had remembrances scattered about.  Among the items at Sagan’s grave were various bits of money, a teddy bear, and a somewhat lengthy letter written to the late scientist, expressing how much he had influenced the life of the writer.  After paying our respects, it struck me how even in a cemetery where death, the great leveler, has visited all, we still seek out the famous.

I couldn’t help pondering the implications of leaving behind something for the dead.  Money is of no use where goods and services can’t be traded.  Approaching the cemetery from the upper entrance, we first encountered a Jewish burial area where many of the tombs had rocks characteristically laid on top.  Sagan’s grave is on the border where stones on tombs begin to give way to crosses.  The custom of placing rocks on gravestones is ancient, but the reasons it’s done are disputed.  One of my favorite explanations is that flowers die but rocks do not.  There’s a simple elegance to it.  Many Christian graves appear neglected by comparison.  We don’t live in Ithaca, and it’s difficult to guess how often this somewhat hard-to-find cemetery is visited.  When it is, however, it is in the spirit of remembering a life that was ever focused outward, to an infinite yet expanding universe.