Each age tries to form its own conception of the past. Each age writes the history of the past anew with reference to the conditions uppermost in its own time. –Frederick Jackson Turner, “The significance of history”, 1893
Tiny Wellfleet has been a significant home for histories of all stripes. These include psychohistory (Robert Jay Lifton, Erik Erikson, etc.), history employed to support social justice and civil rights (Howard Zinn, William McFeely, etc.), histories of colonial settlements, pirates, and whaling, and accounts of the daily lives of artists, shellfishers, and innumerable interesting characters. Wellfleet historical writing has for a long time been a vital participant in the story of Wellfleet, not simply a spectator.
A recent example is the winner of the 2015 Historic New England Book Prize, co-authored by Peter McMahon and Christine Cipriani: Cape Cod Modern: Mid-century Architecture and Community on the Outer Cape.The book uses architectural and personal photos, and interviews with designers, their families, and their clients to document the experimental homes designed by a cosmopolitan group of designers who settled in Wellfleet and Truro in the mid-20th century. The book has stimulated renewed interest in Bauhaus, in the so-called modernist houses, and in the community around them.
A complementary project can now be seen with the summer opening of the Wellfleet Historical Society and Museum today. The Children’s Room, Art and Design of Wellfleet’s Mid-century Children’s Books is a collaboration of WHSM with the Cape Cod Modern House Trust and the Wellfleet Public Library. Here’s a description from the WHSM site:
During the 1930s Wellfleet’s population was just barely 800 people, and yet over 1,000 books have been published by, or about, the town’s mid-century denizens, around 200 being inventive books for children. Many of these books were designed and illustrated by some of the most acclaimed graphic artists of the era. This exhibit includes a selection of books, artifacts and original artwork.
Many of the artists and authors of the children’s books were connected with Bauhaus, and its emphasis on learning, science, experimentalism, and progressive politics. That can be seen in the wide variety of nature topics and in sympathetic depictions of diverse cultures.
As with Bauhaus, the exhibit invites participation. Visitors can observe blown-up versions of artwork from the children’s books, and peruse the books themselves. There are specially designed benches on which to sit or to spread out the objects. There are also crayons and paper to create your own artworks.
I like the fact that the museum is opening just after the summer solstice (a special one at that, coinciding with a strawberry moon). Bauhaus was very aware of new technologies, materials, and scientific discoveries. A love of nature and its meanings for humans was evident throughout its history. Wellfleetian Ati Gropius, who was the daughter of founder Walter, would gather people in late June and ask “What does the summer solstice mean to you?” Several of the Bauhaus-connected houses took advantage of solar or lunar movements in their design. So, it’s appropriate that this wonderful new exhibit welcome the summer season.
The new Children’s Room is filled with wonderful individual items. There are Caldecott award winners and artworks that are surprisingly fresh and striking a half century or more after they were created. But the exhibit as a whole brings the items together in a provocative way, adding new meaning to the specific items and to our understanding of that mid-century era.
As I think about how our history-making enriches life in Wellfleet, I’m reminded of William James’s comment about teaching:
You can give humanistic value to almost anything by teaching it historically. Geology, economics, mechanics, are humanities when taught with reference to the successive achievements of the geniuses to which these sciences owe their being. Not taught thus literature remains grammar, art a catalogue, history a list of dates, and natural science a sheet of formulas and weights and measures. –William James, “The social value of the college-bred,” 1907
We had a wonderful group of visitors from the Dorchester area over Memorial Day weekend: Priscilla (6), Nia (8), Phoebe (10), Sam (12), and Jane (73).
I knew that we were in for some special experiences when Phoebe ran in asking “Can we go to the Library?” That had been the highlight of a previous trip. Then Sam added, “Can we go to the beach, too?” The latter seemed like a reasonable request to add for a sunny holiday weekend.
We managed to visit bay, ocean, and pond beaches. And the Library, of course. But we also set out to evaluate some local trails. You can see the evaluation sheet below. I fear that some of the drawings don’t reproduce well. But we got some good feedback on trails.
On the Wellfleet Conservation Trust’s new Drummer Cove trail, Sam identified the #1 hit, fiddler crabs, especially one in particular, who is named Bob. He also called for more trail markers, which was understandable, as the trail was just cleared last week and hasn’t been marked yet.
Phoebe’s favorite thing “was the breeze and the shells on the way.” Her refrain throughout was for more shells. She and the others identified oysters, clams, mussels, scallops, slipper shells, winkles and more. For improvement, she recommended less pollen, which seemed to color everything yellow and cause some sneezing.
We also walked across Uncle Tim’s Bridge, through Hamblen Park, down to the “yes” benches. Priscilla, who perhaps wishes she were older, claimed her age as 6000, but I think it’s closer to 6. Her favorite thing was “fiddler crabsssssssssss” (there were many). For what to improve, she said “??????nuthing?”
Nia’s favorite was the baby diamond-back terrapin, which the group wanted to keep, but we let go on his/her way. For improvement, she wanted “to write more in Steve [Durkee]’s notebooks by the ‘yes’ benches.”
We also saw an osprey at the pier, and somehow managed to locate ice cream.
On my first canoe trip to Quetico, I was too young to grow a beard. If I’d been able to do so, it would have been dark brown, almost black. On my second trip, just completed, I managed to grow a thick beard, this time all white.
In the intervening 53 years Quetico has remained at the heart of one of the most popular wilderness areas in the world, one that includes five major jurisdictions across the US/Canadian boundary. It’s still a place with no traffic, no roads, no plane flights, and no motorboats. There aren’t even marked campsites or portage trails.
At the time of our recent trip there were instead, moose, wolves, eagles, loons, beavers, frogs, turtles, and abundant plant life, but no humans or much sign of humans for nearly the entire trip.
I can now feel every joint and every muscle in my body, from my toes to my fingers. There were times on portage trails where dead trees blocked the path and rocks seemed impossibly high and slick, when I wondered what we could have been thinking to plan such a trip.
But there were other times when we could hear wolves howl or watch loons play, when we could see waterfalls, follow meandering streams, or just connect with nature in a way that rarely happens, even on Cape Cod. At those times, I felt very fortunate to have had the opportunity go on both Quetico trips, and was reminded how fortunate we all are that such (semi-)wilderness places still exist.
More and more do we realize that quiet is important to our happiness. In our cities the constant beat of strange and foreign wave lengths on our primal sense beats us into neuroticism, changes us from creatures who once knew the silences to fretful, uncertain beings immersed in a cacophony of noise which destroys sanity and equilibrium. –The Singing Wilderness, 1956, by Sigurd F. Olson
Sigurd F. Olson was an author who sparked the environmental movement of the 1960s and 70s. It is now 60 years since he wrote The Singing Wilderness, where he talked how wilderness helps us become “aware with our entire beings rather than our senses.” Even then, he realized how modern life can destroy our “sanity and equilibrium.’
Olson spent most of his life in the Ely, MN area. For more than thirty years, he worked as a canoe guide during the summer months in the Quetico-Superior country, then taught and wrote about natural history, ecology, and outdoor life. He helped draft the Wilderness Act of 1964, as well as to establish Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota, Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and Point Reyes National Seashore in California.
As a culmination of his half century of effort, full wilderness status was granted to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) in 1978. The combined region of contiguous lakes and forests comprising the BWCAW, Superior National Forest, Voyageurs National Park and Ontario’s Quetico and La Verendrye Provincial Parks is called the “Quetico-Superior country”, or simply the “Boundary Waters.”
Is it crazy to do something crazy in order to become less crazy, to seek to restore that sanity and equilibrium? Susan and I are about to set out on an adventure that should be fun, enlightening, challenging, even joyful, but which I question in my saner moments.
Back in 1963, I found that quiet beauty on a two-week trip to Quetico Provincial Park in the southern part of NW Ontario. As I wrote,
It was a wonderful trip in many ways. We stayed up most of one night watching a rare display of the Aurora Borealis, which filled the sky for hours. The sun was shining, the fishing was good, and there was great singing, story-telling, and endless argument about the meaning of life around the campfires.
However, the trip ended in disaster, as you can read in the post linked above. Coincidentally, Olson wrote about the area in a National Geographic article, “Relics from the rapids,” which appeared the very month we returned from that trip. Although I’ve canoed nearby, I’ve never been back to Quetico itself and certainly not to the Picture Rocks where the disaster occurred, until now.
There are several reasons to advise against a return to Quetico at this time. As I get closer to the day I wonder whether it’s wise to revisit the site of the disaster. Beyond that, I find that I’ve somehow grown older over the past 53 years. I hear that lakes can take longer to paddle across, that portage trails are steeper, and that nights are colder than when one is 16. On a messageboard I saw this about one of our planned portages from someone probably much younger:
The Side Lake to Sarah one known as “Heart Attack Hill” did me in but it was hot, I was low on water, and I had too much gear. I remember laying down at the top and seriously thinking that I could die. It’s rough.
The quiet beauty of Quetico derives in part from the fact that there are no trucks to move your gear. There’s also no wifi, no cell phone signal, no motorized boat craft, no flights overhead, no buildings or pavement, and no prepared campsites. Those features are 99% heavenly, and only worrisome if you choose to worry.
The major concern we have is that we’re going at the start of the season. Guidebooks suggest that June and July are uncrowded, but have more mosquitoes; August and September are warmer with fewer bugs, but more competition for good campsites. No one talks about May, because it’s too cold and the ice may not be out. Even the Canadian ranger stations are closed.
In their April 19 “dispatch” from BWCAW, Amy Freeman and Dave Freeman show photos of sled dogs, a snowman, and frozen lakes. This is from the year they’re spending there, which is south of Quetico and possibly a degree or two warmer. We’ve been told that the ice should be out on most lakes by the time we start and the day that this post should appear (May 4). I’m too charitable to think that that optimism on the ice forecast reflects the outfitter’s desire not to have to return our deposit!
Nevertheless, we’re committed to the trip. We’ll be renting new equipment, including a Wenonah Minnesota II kevlar canoe. We’re relying on a good outfitter in Ely (Piragis). We have maps, long underwear, extra socks, compass, signal mirror, and poison ivy lotion. Could anything go wrong?
Stay tuned for Part 2, when we return.
Yet these sweet sounds of the early season,
And these fair sights of its sunny days,
Are only sweet when we fondly listen,
And only fair when we fondly gaze.
There is no glory in star or blossom
Till looked upon by loving eye;
There is no fragrance in April breezes
Till breathed with joy as they wander by.
In his 1857 poem, An Invitation to the Country, William Cullen Bryant celebrates the joys of April. But more specifically, he invites his daughter Julia to return for a visit:
Come, Julia dear, for the sprouting willows,
The opening flowers, and the gleaming brooks,
And hollows, green in the sun, are waiting
Their dower of beauty from thy glad looks.
For Bryant, the sweetness of nature appears only when we “fondly listen” and its beauty only when we “fondly gaze.” At first glance, he contradicts Keats, who had told us that unheard melodies are sweeter. But actually not, since both call for our loving eye to be part of the beauty we see. Both poets conveniently conclude that it’s the poetic imagination that imparts real meaning to what we see or hear.
In any case, the idea of bringing our gaze to nature is central to the Tales & Trails: Nature Walks for Young Explorers program, sponsored by the Wellfleet Conservation Trust (WCT).
I was lucky enough to go along on the latest walk last Wednesday along an ephemeral pond beside the Walker Trail. It was a beautiful April day with clear skies and fresh breezes. There were no fragrances other than fresh clean air. We heard, or rather interacted with, Vernal Pool Visitors, and compared it to what we observed.
Walks through some of Wellfleet’s conservation areas are led by Heidi Clemmer, author of a new series of nature books for children called Cape Cod Eco-Tales. After 21 years as an elementary school teacher, Heidi retired and began to focus on teaching children about nature in informal, specifically, natural settings. She launched Eco-Tales with illustrator and collaborator Marisa Picariello. The target audience is children aged 6-9 and their families, but everyone from infants to those well into the their quatrième âge enjoy it.
Each walk focuses on a different ecosystem and is paired with one of the books in the series. Children explore the ecosystem, hear a corresponding nature story read by the author and illustrator, and then create their own souvenir of the experience in art, writing, or photography. The event combines fellowship, keen observation, story-telling, art, experiencing the beauty of Wellfleet’s conservation lands, speculation about science, and learning.
Last fall, Heidi led a trip to Hamblen Park, where she read from her book Salt Marsh Secrets. There will be five more walks this year. Next up is “Heathland Habitat” in May, followed by“Barrier Beach Bums” in June, “White Cedar Swamp Gang” in September, “Tidal Flat Friends” in October, and “Dune Dwellers” in November (more information).
Tales & Trails is funded by WCT and supported in part by a grant from the Wellfleet Cultural Council. Wellfleet Conservation Trust is a non-profit organization established in 1984 to assist and promote the preservation of natural resources and rural character of the town of Wellfleet. There is no cost to participate in Tales & Trails, but advance registration is required. To inquire about the walks, email Heidi Clemmer.
All too often we hear simplistic statements about Islam, which tell us a little about the speaker, but nothing about Islam itself.
Candidates for President and mass media personalities say things like “We need to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods,” “Muslims should be banned from entering the U.S.,” “Immigration visas & refugees from countries with active terror networks must be halted,” “It’s time we made peace with the Muslim world [by dropping an atomic bomb],” “Islam hates us,” “The hate is in Islam itself,” and “Islam is in need of a Reformation.” These are typically said in the context of discussing terrorism, while Islam is widely ignored otherwise. Meanwhile, defenders talk about “true Islam” or define Islam is just another Abrahamic religion.
Setting aside the lack of evidence, the faulty reasoning, the many harms they cause, and the hurt they inflict, one thing stands out: The speakers and their audiences seem fully convinced that they know exactly what Islam is and what it means to be a Muslim.
Despite their lack of interest in the topic at other times and the inability to read Arabic, they profess to prove points by quoting the Qur’an out of context. With minuscule knowledge of Islamic history, literature (even in translation), culture, or actual beliefs and practices, they are nevertheless eager to pronounce what Islam is and what should be done to fix it. Most remarkably, they are able to conflate anecdotes and faulty data across diverse cultures to come up with simplistic generalizations that they would be ashamed to apply to say, Christianity, Judaism, Western culture, or atheism.
A Muslim who studied deeply the history, literature, philosophy, and practices of Islam, Shahab Ahmed (1966-2015), provides a richly detailed account of Islam that should cause us to question statements such as those above. His account doesn’t yield counter generalizations; instead it shows how such sweeping statements obscure rather than illuminate. His new book, What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic (Princeton University Press, 2015) has been useful for both Muslims and non-Muslims. One implication is that to say that someone is a Muslim is little more informative than saying that they are a person.Ahmed was a postdoctoral associate in the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard. His personal history surely informed his international perspective. Born in Singapore to Pakistani parents, but raised in Malaysia, he was sent to a British boarding school. It was difficult for him being the only Muslim boy in the school, thousands of miles from home, but his skill as a spin bowler in cricket kept him going. Back in Malaysia he attained a law degree in Kuala Lumpur, then worked as a journalist in Pakistan, and then obtained degrees in Arabic Studies from American University, Cairo. After that, he attained a doctorate in Islamic Studies at Princeton and then a postdoc at Harvard. Last June he was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. While still ill, he married his fiancée Nora Lessersohn but died shortly after on September 17, 2015. You can see more about Ahmed and his book in How has Islamic orthodoxy changed over time?, by Elias Muhanna.
Through analysis of literature, art, philosophy, history, and politics, Ahmed asks “What is Islam?” To answer this he starts with a set of six questions (see end of this post). It’s clear that understanding the questions is a prerequisite to having a meaningful discussion about Islam.Consider just one question: “Is there such a thing as Islamic art, and if so, what is actually Islamic about it?” Unlike most other religious art (Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, etc.), Islamic art is typically abstract, often based on mathematical patterns (see above left from Calat Alhamra, in Granada, Andalusia, Spain). It doesn’t appear to represent religious ideas, the way that say, stations of the Cross do for Christians or statues of the Buddha do for Buddhists. Ahmed uses this key difference to talk about the way that Islamic art has developed. This leads to a discussion of the relation of Islam to science and philosophy, which accounts for why Islamic mathematics, science, and technology could build upon and extend the Greco-Roman tradition during a time when Christian Europe remained largely in opposition to it.
Throughout the wide ranging, long, and complex book, Ahmed struggles with the six opening questions and others, but more broadly, the variety and contradictions of Islam. Can it be defined through scripture, laws, cultural practice, or other means? He asks whether we should speak of Islam or of islams. He shows the challenge of relating the religious, the cultural, and the political, when those relationships shift across linguistic and national boundaries, as well as historical periods.
Inventing a concept
I’m reminded of Unamuno’s lesson that to invent a concept is to take leave of reality. Ahmed helps to reveal and interpret that reality as he questions the concept of Islam itself. At the same time, he helps us to understand the coherence that many people feel when they say they are Muslim, despite all the complexities. He offers a new paradigm for understanding how Muslims have historically understood divine revelation, one that shows how and why they have embraced values such as exploration, ambiguity, polyvalence, and relativism. It also helps to show how practices such as figural art, music, and wine drinking are Islamic. Crucially, it explains the historical constitution of Islamic law and its relationship to ethics and political theory.
Ahmed’s discussion is detailed and complex, one that is difficult to summarize briefly. Consider his discussion of what Muslims think Islam is: “[They] are in agreement that there is such a thing as Islam, even if they disagree about what it is.” For example, many scholars point to the Five Pillars–one God (the shahādah), five daily prayers, fasting in Ramadan, pilgrimage to Mecca, and alms-giving–as definitive for Islam. But others point out that the last four pillars are hotly contested theologically, interpreted in diverse ways, and as often ignored as observed. One says that if the pillars are seen as defining, then there are more negligent Muslims than observant ones.
So, some argue that it’s just the first pillar–one God and Mohammad as the Messenger. But that just opens to further questions: What is God? What is his message? What does it mean to submit (Islam) to God?
Ahmed’s richly detailed discussion shows that whether we talk about historical developments, theological interpretations, or diverse daily practices, we’re on very thin ice if we claim that we have an analytical tool that clearly marks out who is a Muslim, in what way they are, and what that means. Among the many people who would answer “yes” to the question, “Are you a Muslim?” there are non-participating adherents, strictly observant followers (of diverse tenets), mystics, skeptics, atheists and fundamentalists, feminists and misogynists. Moreover, Ahmed argues that the cultures that have embraced Islam are probably more diverse than those of any other religion, including Christianity.
Another example, comes from Rumi, His Maṣnavī-yi ma’navī (Doublets of Meaning) is one of the most significant texts in Islamic history. In one passage he writes about how attaining ḥaqīqat (Real-Truth) nullifies the (Islamic) laws and the paths or rituals to follow. This is similar to Buddhism and some versions of Christianity, in which the rules, practices, norms, beliefs, rituals, and so on, are but means to an end in which they no longer matter.
Ahmed does not conclude from many examples such as this that Islam is too diffuse to have meaning. Instead, he does an amazing job of communicating how Islam can feel real and important to people, even as they admit to its protean character. He offers at least a starting point for making sense of the impact that Islam has on the lives of both followers and non-followers, one that is far more productive than the inane comments I listed above.
Ahmed’s six opening questions
- What is Islamic about Islamic philosophy?
- When Sufis assert that virtuoso “friends of God” are no longer bound by Islamic law and practice, is this an Islamic or an un-Islamic truth claim?
- Key ideas from Avicennan philosophy and Sufism “flirt incorrigibly with pantheism and relativism.” These have been among the “the most socially pervasive and consequential thought paradigms in the history of societies of Muslims,” Are these Islamic ideas?
- The Divan of Hafiz, the great 14th-century Persian poet, is “the most widely-copied, widely-circulated, widely-read, widely-memorized, widely-recited, widely-invoked, and widely-proverbialized book of poetry in Islamic history.” It takes as its themes wine-drinking and (often homo-)erotic love, as well as a disparaging attitude to observant ritual piety.” Is that work and its ethos Islamic?
- Is there such a thing as Islamic art, and if so, what is actually Islamic about it?
- How can both the consumption of wine and its prohibition be essential to Islamic history and culture?