Perspective

The Invention of Nature

The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf

How we look at the things around us—our mental viewing of the interrelation of a specific subject or its parts—is critical to shaping our point of view.  I just finished a fascinating book, Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature:  Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, that tells the story of how one visionary and now oft-forgotten German naturalist changed the way we see the natural world.  His perspective was radically different than his scientific contemporaries of the late 18th and early 19th century because he conceived of nature as a complex and interconnected global force.  A force that did not exist for humans alone. He came to this conclusion after extensive and exhaustive research, observation, travel, and scholarship before he reached the age of 33.

Alexander von Humboldt’s visit to the inactive volcano Chimborazo in the Andes, made during a five-year journey to South America at the beginning of the 19th century, led him to take all this knowledge and this new point of view and express it in one drawing:  his Naturgemälde (which Wulf describes as an untranslatable German term than can mean a “painting of nature” but which also implies a sense of unity or wholeness.)  That new perspective—and the scores of books he wrote over his 89 years—led Humboldt to become the most famous scientist of his age, influencing individuals as wide ranging as Goethe, Wordsworth, Thomas Jefferson, Darwin, Thoreau, the artist Ernst Haeckel, and the environmentalists John Muir, and Rachel Carson.  On the 100th anniversary of  his birth in 1869, celebrations were held all across the globe, including in most major U.S. cities. (25,000 gathered in New York City alone and President Grant led the celebration in Philadelphia.) Humboldt is honored with more place names around the world than any other individual in history.  Little did I know until I looked it up that little Humboldt, Tennessee—near my hometown—was named for a German naturalist whose work predated and in many ways envisioned Darwin’s theory of evolution, identified man-made climate change as a serious issue, and called for environmental protection decades before John Muir.

Naturgemalde

Alexander von Humboldt’s Naturgemalde

Humboldt embraced observation.  It changed his perspective and he was able to change the world.  When he died, a contemporary called him “the greatest man since the Deluge.”

This story about observation and perspective reminded me of a wonderful line in the Holly Morris film The Babushkas of ChernobylHolly was a TrustLive speaker at our recent PastForward conference in Chicago, where she told the story of these babushkas (or grandmothers) who came back to their homes following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and have now outlived their contemporaries who were evacuated.  There is one scene where one of the ladies (and I’m paraphrasing here) said, “When some people come to a puddle, all they see is the puddle.  Others look down and just see themselves.  And others look down and see the sky.”  I love that line.  My perspective is that when you can see beyond the problem (the puddle) or yourself, you can see the world, its connections, and its possibilities.

How we observe our world and how we choose to connect the parts of what we see is so important to every part of our lives.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Here Comes That Rainbow Again

There are weeks when the news contains stories that force you to shake your head in disbelief.  However, this isn’t all there is.  Newscasts don’t lead with “Another plane took off from National Airport this morning.”  Bad news sells, and the loss of civility and the misbehavior of powerful individuals are serious issues today.

But there are kindnesses and civility all around us as well, if we’ll look for them.

As I’ve been thinking of how I can move more intentionally to respond to our times, a song has been stuck in my head.  Kris Kristofferson wrote the song, which was inspired by the lunch counter scene in Chapter 15 of John Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl novel Grapes of Wrath.  Kristofferson was born in Texas during the 1930s, and mentioned that he read Steinbeck’s book in high school or college (probably the latter, since he was a Pomona College graduate, just like our Claire!) Years later, he was reminded of the scene and wrote this work which Johnny Cash, who also made a recording of it, said might be his favorite song by any writer of our time.

In the intro to this video, Kristofferson says, “I kind of wrote it with John Steinbeck…only he was dead at the time.”

It is a simple song, with the following lyrics:

The scene was a small roadside café
The waitress was sweeping the floor
Two truck drivers drinking their coffee
And two Okie kids by the door

“How much are them candies?” They asked her
“How much have you got?” She replied
“We’ve only a penny between us”
“Them’s two for a penny,” She lied.

Chorus
And the daylight grew heavy with thunder
With the smell of rain on the wind
Ain’t it just like a human
Here comes that rainbow again

One truck driver called to the waitress
After the kids went outside
“Them candies ain’t two for a penny”
“So what’s it to you,” she replied

In silence they finished their coffee
And got up and nodded goodbye
She called, “Hey, you left too much money”
“So what’s it to you,” they replied

And the daylight…(Chorus)

Let’s do our best, in these times, to be good to one another.

The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Telling the Full Story

The Half Has Never Been Told

“The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” by Edward E. Baptist

For whatever reason, I’ve been plowing through books this fall.  Perhaps that is what a great deal of time on planes and trains does for one’s reading habits.  In any event, this has been my first chance to stop and reflect on these recent readings for the blog, so I’m seizing the moment.

One of the two I’ve included here is a very important work, significantly moving the scholarship forward in its field.  The other is a small, family story that nonetheless captures the heart as it tells of a charming, privileged woman who struggled to live as a lesbian in the South of the jazz age.  Both, now a couple of years old, are recommended.

Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told:  Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism is a troubling and ultimately persuasive 2014 book by historian Edward E. Baptist.  In this ambitious work, Baptist sets out to to demonstrate, in great detail, that slavery was not the pre-modern institution on the verge of extinction with paternalistic slave-owners as claimed by so many historians and southern apologists alike.  Instead, in the eight decades prior to the Civil War, slavery expanded into a continental cotton empire that “drove the evolution and modernization of the United States.”  Baptist writes that “the 3.2 million people enslaved in the United States had a market value of $1.3 billion in 1850—one-fifth of the nation’s wealth and almost equal to the entire gross national product.”  This empire and wealth, Baptists asserts, was the reason the U.S. grew into a modern industrial and capitalist economy.

Cotton Fields

A View of the Cotton Empire

While some of Baptist’s techniques (such as naming chapters for different parts of the body) are not successful in and of themselves, the work as a whole is very persuasive and unsettling.  He describes a system that is very efficient at sorting out slaves to get those who are most productive, and the brutality that made that efficiency possible.  Not one to mince words, Baptist names the violence that led to increased productivity “the whipping machine.”  When, in the 1830s, the term “fancy girl” began to appear in descriptions of young women who fetched high prices because of their physical attractiveness, Baptist writes that “Slavery’s frontier was a white man’s sexual playground.” His clear writing and extensive documentation takes the reader into the many horrors of the slave system in the United States. To Baptist, this was out-and-out torture.  However,

“Perhaps one unspoken reason why many have been so reluctant to apply the term ‘torture’ to slavery is that even though they denied slavery’s economic dynamism, they knew that slavery on the cotton frontier made a lot of product.  No one was willing, in other words, to admit that they lived in an economy whose bottom gear was torture.”

Writing about the book in the New York Times, Pulitzer prize winning historian Eric Foner says,

“It is hardly a secret that slavery is deeply embedded in our nation’s history. But many Americans still see it as essentially a footnote, an exception to a dominant narrative of the expansion of liberty on this continent. If the various elements of ‘The Half Has Never Been Told’ are not entirely pulled together, its underlying argument is persuasive: Slavery was essential to American development and, indeed, to the violent construction of the capitalist world in which we live.”

To understand the many challenges we face today as a nation, one could do much worse than to add Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told to your nightstand reading pile.

Irrepressible

“Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham” by Emily Bingham

A much-less ambitious work, Emily Bingham’s Irrepressible:  The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham is nonetheless a worthy read.  I learned of this book while meeting the author in her home in Louisville.  (Full disclosure, I have known and worked with Emily’s mother Edie on preservation projects for decades.)

Henrietta was Emily’s great-aunt, and was born into Southern privilege at the beginning of the 20th century.  As the author notes in the prologue, “The surest way to make a child curious about an ancestor is never to discuss her.”  It wasn’t until Emily and her husband named their newborn daughter for her great-aunt did family members come forward with stories of embarrassment, but also remembrances and photographs—especially of the early Henrietta—that spoke of a remarkable, unconventional, and ultimately tragic life lived by someone who dared to push the norms of Southern (certainly) and even American life.

Henrietta’s story really begins when—at age twelve—her mother dies in a horrific train and automobile accident that she witnesses.  Three years later her father marries the richest woman in America, the widow of Henry M. Flagler, the Standard Oil baron and Palm Beach developer, who—as explained by the New York Times reviewer—”promptly died under murky, Michael Jacksonesque circumstances involving a shady doctor and copious narcotics. ‘Bing’ later bought The Courier-Journal and The Louisville Times, jump-starting the family’s media empire.”

Emily Bingham then unfolds a story of a woman of enormous wealth who “spent much of her twenties and thirties ripping through the Jazz Age like a character in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.”

“There were parties, music, great quantities of alcohol, and, on both sides of the Atlantic, lovers—lots of them, men and women, but far more women than men.  In Henrietta’s time that took courage.  Later there would be mental breakdowns, scandals, and a decline no one talked about.”

Sometimes it is hard to keep up with Henrietta’s affairs recounted in Irrepressible, but it is clear that while she had some famous male lovers, include the producer and actor John Houseman, she loved women far more — the tennis star Helen Jacobs (described as the Martina Navratilova of the 1930s), her Smith professor Mina Kirstein, the painter Dora Carrington, and the actress Hope Williams.  While she did serve, essentially, as her father’s social secretary when he was ambassador to the United Kingdom in F.D.R.’s first term, Henrietta lived quite independently and well on her father’s money.

The early flings are interesting prelude to the long affair with Jacobs.  One gets the sense that in today’s world, Henrietta Bingham and Jacobs would have settled down and lived normal—for wealthy and famous individuals—lives.  But that wasn’t possible in the South, especially after World War II and the coming of the repressive McCarthy era.  So Henrietta turned even more to alcohol to push away the world which would not let her love the person (or people) she clearly cared for the most.

Having grown up in the South, I have seen older gays and lesbians who have struggled—with varying degrees of success—through the challenges of navigating Southern mores about sexuality, religion, family, propriety, hierarchy, judgement, and gender in an age before Civil Rights and sexual freedoms.  It is a very sad story that was all too familiar for beloved professors, musicians, offspring of the town’s patriarchs, and more.  So while Henrietta Bingham did not, in the end, change much in her world, the way that world ultimately changed her is a story worth hearing. When we force people to live according to our precepts, judging them to satisfy our interpretations of values, both those who are repressed and those who administer the acceptable code of conduct, suffer in the end.

More to come…

DJB

History as an Antidote to Folly

Age of Folly

Age of Folly: America Abandons Its Democracy by Lewis Lapham

Kurt Vonnegut has called him America’s greatest satirist, while others suggest he was born of Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken.  Lewis Lapham—editor emeritus of Harper’s Magazine, founding editor of Lapham’s Quarterly, and the object of those accolades—is a writer of great eloquence and “lethal wit.”  I was delighted to see that some of the best of Lapham’s essays from the past twenty-five years have now been collected into a new work, Age of Folly:  America Abandons Its Democracy.

This is both a wonderful and important book. Lapham surveys the past twenty-five years to make the case that America’s imperial impulses have shaken our democratic principles.  You can agree or disagree with his premise, but his arguments are lucid, thoughtful, and often challenging.

In the very first essay, from 1990, Lapham states his case succinctly and directly.

“If the American system of government at present seems so patently at odds with its constitutional hopes and purposes, it is not because the practice of democracy no longer serves the interests of the presiding oligarchy (which it never did), but because the promise of democracy no longer inspires or exalts the citizenry lucky enough to have been born under its star.  It isn’t so much that liberty stands at bay but, rather, that it has fallen into disuse, regarded as insufficient by both its enemies and its nominal friends.  What is the use of free expression to people so frightened of the future that they prefer the comforts of the authoritative lie?”

Lapham also explores the change in our concepts of public and private and its affect on our society, noting that “the familiar story (democracy smothered by oligarchy) has often been told”  but that

“…it is nowhere better illustrated than by the reversal over the past half century of the meaning within the words ‘public’ and ‘private.’  In the 1950s the word ‘public’ connoted an inherent good (public health, public school, public service, public spirit); ‘private’ was a synonym for selfishness and greed (plutocrats in top hats, pigs at troughs).  The connotations traded places in the 1980s. ‘Private’ now implies all things bright and beautiful (private trainer, private school, private plane), ‘public’ becomes a synonym for all things ugly and dangerous (public housing, public welfare, public toilet).”

This book was published prior to Donald Trump’s election as president, but Lapham sees it coming and is not surprised.

There are many themes addressed throughout Age of Folly.  But to make his overall case, Lapham turns to history, calling it an “antidote to folly.”

That theme runs throughout the book, but is summed up in the final essay, dating from 2014 and entitled “The World in Time.”  This essay begins with a quote from Cicero—“Not to know what happened before one was born is always to be a child”—and then discusses Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s last word on the reading and writing of history.  “It is useful to remember” he quotes Schlesinger,

“…that history is to the nation as memory is to the individual.  As persons deprived of memory become disoriented and lost, not knowing where they have been or where they are going, so a nation denied a conception of the past will be disabled in dealing with its present and its future.”

Just as we have tried at the National Trust for Historic Preservation (where I work) to tell the full American story and break out of the mold of house museums preserved in amber, Lapham notes that history is “constant writing and rewriting, as opposed to a museum-quality sculpture in milk-white marble….History is not what happened two hundred or two thousand years ago; it is a story about what happened two hundred or two thousand years ago.  The stories change, as do the sight lines available to the tellers of the tales.”  In this particular essay, Lapham looks at the writings of Tom Paine, one of two founding fathers he especially admires (the other being Roger Williams), because Paine’s writings are “like the sound of water in the desert” in these days. They speak not to the rich and privileged, but to the common man.  Paine uses memorable aphorisms such as “The mind once enlightened cannot again become dark” and “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it.”

Lapham closes this essay, and this book, by noting that “None of us dies in the country in which he or she was born.”  History is made every day.  Our country changes.  It always has.  It always will.

“Sensing the approach of maybe something terrible…the guardians at the gate look for salvation to technologies as yet undreamed of by man or machine.  My guess is that they are looking in the wrong direction.  An acquaintance with history doesn’t pay the rent or predict the outcome of a November election, but it is the fund of energy and hope that makes possible the revolt against what G.K. Chesterton once called ‘the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.’”

History as an antidote to folly.  As we challenge ourselves to hear, understand, and honor the full American story, this rings true.

Highly recommended.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Our Year in Photos – 2017

Browns at the Christmas Day Dinner

The Browns at the St. Alban’s Parish Christmas Day Dinner 2016

As we enter this season of Thanksgiving, I continue my tradition of posting family photographs from the past year on More to Come… We have much for which to be thankful in 2017.

This has been another difficult year in our country, as we break into tribes and as the growing income inequality pushes us farther apart. We forget that the American experiment is built around ideas, not tribal groups, and that a sharing of common opportunities and challenges is important to being a citizen.  That experiment survives only if we celebrate all our fellow citizens and embrace the full American story.  We have not always succeeded, but we must keep trying in the year ahead.

Candice and I were thankful that Andrew and Claire were home for the Christmas break late in 2016. Some of the errands and visits were more mundane than others—such as shopping for new glasses—but this one made for a good opportunity to take a picture of our two favorite children!

New glasses

Clarity is a pair of new glasses: Andrew and Claire, December 2016

In January, Candice and I were fortunate to spend the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend in New York City, where we saw the amazing musical Hamilton. It truly lived up to the hype.  (Our selfie-taking abilities…on the other hand…leave much to be desired.)  Andrew was also “on stage” in January as one of the three kings at St. John’s Lafayette Square’s traditional Epiphany celebration.

Hamilton Selfie

In line to see Hamilton in New York City

 

The Three Kings

Andrew (left) as one of the Magi during St. John’s Epiphany celebration

We were back in New York State not too many weeks later.  Thirty-five years ago in March, Candice and I began our life journey together.  To celebrate, we had a relaxing and restorative long weekend at Mohonk Mountain House, one of our favorite places.

35th anniversary dinner

Celebrating our 35th Anniversary at a snowy Mohonk Mountain House in March 2017

While we were in the snowy northeast, Claire was enjoying California, her home for the past six years. She has always been our lover of the great outdoors, and during the first half of the year she went hiking and camping in the beautiful Joshua Tree National Park, visited the Grand Canyon with Southern California friends, hosted Andrew during her last couple of months in Los Angeles, and gathered together for a reunion with her Episcopal Urban Intern Program housemates.

Joshua Tree at sunset

Joshua Tree at sunset (photo by Claire)

 

Claire at the Grand Canyon

Hiking the Grand Canyon

 

EUIP Housemates Reunion

Claire’s reunion with EUIP Housemates

Baseball season began in April, and that can only mean one thing:  Let’s Go Nats!  David made it to Opening Day for the first time in his life, and Andrew went along to help kick off the new season.  (Andrew ended up going to five games on both coasts, perhaps joining Dad and Claire as true-blue baseball fans.)

Old Glory at Opening Day

Old Glory at Opening Day

Celebration was in the air in May and June for all types of special family events:  Mother’s Day, weddings, Andrew and Claire’s exploration of LA, and Father’s Day.

Mother's Day

Celebrating Mother’s Day

 

The family gathers to celebrate life and love

The family gathers to celebrate life and love with Erin and Jonathan

 

Claire and Andrew in LA

Claire and Andrew explore LA

 

Father's Day at Jack Rose

Drinking whiskey at Jack Rose on Father’s Day

 

Andrew and Claire in Sarasota

Andrew and Claire look very stylish in celebrating a dear friend’s wedding in Sarasota

Claire was home for a month between July and August, as she transitioned from living in Southern California to attending graduate school at Berkeley. She took time to hang with Andrew, Mom, and Dad and attend a beach weekend with close friends from Pomona College.

DJB with ABB and CHB at Nats Park

Dad does his best to make baseball fans of the next generation

 

Pomona Friends reunion

Pomona College friends reunion at the beach in Maryland

The entire family was able to come together in August for a week in Wellfleet, Massachusetts on Cape Cod.  It was a nice time of relaxation, exploration, and—of course—eating well.

Puzzle masters

Finishing up a puzzle – a Brown vacation tradition

 

ABB with Alison Bechdel

Andrew meeting author Alison Bechdel during a book tour event in Wellfleet

Fall has been a busy season, with another family wedding, Claire beginning her new adventure in graduate school, Andrew’s singing career stepping up to a new level, celebration of holidays, and traveling across the country.

Ghattas wedding cousins

David and Emily Ghattas celebrate with their cousins from around the world

 

The Browns and Crockers

Candice and DJB enjoy Chicago with David’s sister Debbie and her husband Mark

 

First days for Claire

Claire – on the first day of kindergarten and the first day of graduate school. Time goes by much too fast.

 

DJB at Pink Martini

David at Pink Martini Headquarters in Portland, OR

 

Claire's new haircut

Claire – new glasses, new haircut, ready for a new home in the Bay Area

 

Andrew summer 2017

Andrew ready for the next move in his singing career (© 2017 | Kristina Sherk Photography | http://www.Kristinasherk.com)

 

Pumpkin carving time

Pumpkin carving time with Andrew and Candice

 

Andrew for the Mozart Requiem

Andrew sings the Mozart Requiem at the Mexican Cultural Institute for El Día de los Muertos

 

Dinner at Chez Panisse

Dinner with Claire at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse

 

Hammock view

Claire’s view from her back porch hammock in Oakland…life is good

 

Wine tasting in Sonoma

Wine tasting in Sonoma

As you can see, it has been a busy and fulfilling year. During this Thanksgiving season, we give thanks for you, our wonderful friends.

Meal at Wellfleet

Enjoying one of many wonderful meals on Cape Cod

Have a terrific Thanksgiving holiday with friends and families.

More to come…

DJB

Gratefulness and Thankfulness

Thanksgiving Pilgrims

Our little Thanksgiving Pilgrims

This is the time of year when we turn our thoughts to Thanksgiving.  I was taught from a very young age that it was very important to be thankful, as I often heard my grandmother admonish us to “always say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’”  I won’t get into the “you’re welcome” vs. “no problem” debate, but you can probably guess, given my age, where I land on that topic!

Some suggest we too often say “thank you” by rote. I find that to be true in my experience and began to wonder if we mistake other thoughts and emotions as thankfulness.  Fortunately, I came across a blog post that helped me sort through at least some of these thoughts.  The author, a Benedictine monk who holds retreats for groups from a variety of religious and non-religious traditions., makes the case that at least some of what we think of as thankfulness is actually gratefulness. He suggests it is important to understand the difference and then describes the two in this fashion:

Remember a night when you stood outdoors looking up at the stars, countless in the high, silent dome of the sky, and saw them as if for the first time. What happened? Eugene O’Neill puts it this way: ‘For a moment I lost myself – actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the…high dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life…to Life itself!’…

Our thoughts may quickly turn to thankfulness for the opportunity to witness this beauty, but in the first few seconds the author notes we are in some other state.

Why do I call that wild joy of belonging “gratefulness”? Because it is our full appreciation of something altogether unearned, utterly gratuitous — life, existence, ultimate belonging – and this is the literal meaning of grate-full-ness. In a moment of gratefulness, you do not discriminate. You fully accept the whole of this given universe, as you are fully one with the whole.

In the very next moment, when the fullness of gratitude overflows into thanksgiving, the oneness you were experiencing is breaking up. Now you are beginning to think in terms of giver, gift, and receiver. Gratefulness turns into thankfulness. This is a different fullness. A moment ago you were fully aware; now you are thoughtful. Gratefulness is full awareness; thankfulness is thoughtfulness.

I like that distinction.  If we are fully aware, fully mindful, we will often be grateful when we see something that connects us to things beyond ourselves.  To a sense of belonging. When we turn our minds to how to respond to those connections, then that thoughtfulness becomes thankfulness.

Joshua Tree at sunset

Joshua Tree at sunset in a moment of gratefulness (photo by Claire Brown)

Most of us express our thanks to colleagues, family, and friends on a regular basis. But I’m going to work on the gratefulness part of the equation. For I know that the more I’m fully aware, I’ll have even more reason to be thankful.

I receive so much in my life from family, friends, colleagues, and readers of this blog. Thank you…and have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

DJB

We Shine a Light on the Past to Live more Abundantly Now

This week at the National Trust, we are preparing to host the 2017 PastForward national preservation conference in Chicago.  Long-time colleagues and new friends who care about the past and the places that bring that past into the present will gather from all across the country.  I suspect that we’ll share thoughts that challenge the conventional wisdom, offer support for a broader understanding of the American story, and come away with a new appreciation for the work that takes place by preservationists and by those who don’t (yet) identify as preservationists.

Why do these people gathering this week in Chicago care about the past?  And what’s with that name, PastForward?

In a recent conversation that included Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed, (The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family), journalist and author Krista Tippett summed up the answer to those questions with her opening line:  “In life, in families, we shine a light on the past to live more abundantly now.”

I think that’s a great summation of why so many of us will gather this week at PastForward.  William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”  In that same spirit, I am of the belief that preservation isn’t about the past.  It’s about the continuum of past, present, and future. And we shine a light on all aspects of our past in order to understand “so many paradoxes and so many dilemmas”—to use a phrase by Gordon-Reed—that exist in our country and in ourselves.

Past Forward 2017

PastForward 2017 in Chicago

That’s what I hope we can bring “forward” this week:  an approach to understanding the past that helps us live more abundantly today.  And if you cannot be with us in Chicago, please be sure to check out the live-streaming of several of the TrustLive sessions (think TED talks for preservation with some amazing speakers).

Have a great week.

More to come…

DJB