Friday, November 16, 2012

American History Month

What is it about November? Last year it was right around this time that I had my two week bout of a cold that developed into a pneumonia and just when I had started feeling confident that our family might escape a severe illness this year, we both got pretty sick. Thankfully, not as seriously as last year, but I did get laryngitis and lose my voice for three days.
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Which was okay, because if nothing else, it gave us time to nap, watch movies and read together. In fact, if I hadn't been worried about whether our illness was in part brought on by some lingering mold released by the rainy season, and all the projects that desperately need my attention, it would have been quite the vacation.

While we've been sick though, we've revisited the one thing that got me through pneumonia last year:
Ken Burns. If you haven't watched such classics The Civil War and National Parks-America's Best Idea, you're seriously missing out. 
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One of the things that I find endlessly fascinating about popular culture is that as much as the common opinion is that people watch intellectually unchallenging programming because they want to be entertained and relax, many rather cerebral things like DeadwoodSix Feet Under, or Burns' documentaries achieve immense popularity. Personally, I feel just as entertained by serious TV, as fluff, so long as its engaging. Which Ken Burns' photographs and talking heads totally are.

He's actually just got a new one out about the Dustbowl, which I can't wait to see. No actually I can. I'll be renting that from netflix sometime next November.
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Watching  The Civil War is a feeling something akin to having your mother or grandparent read to you while you're sick. A pleasant, timorous voice and an evocative, dramatic story.  Also, it's really, really long and the pace is pleasantly languid.

It's a cliche to say that we can learn a lot about our present and future through the study of the past, but that's what fascinates me about watching Ken Burns' films, or reading books on historical events.
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American history is particularly fascinating to me (although I imagine that the history of anywhere, anytime is fascinating once you get into it), partly because there's so much of in such a relatively short span of time (And that's just post-conquest history-there is thousands of years worth of incredibly fascinating First Nations/Native American history) and partly because as a new immigrant I feel a need to try to understand the inner-workings of this country.

Part of the fascination is also the fact (gross generalization-don't get mad) that America appears to be a nation hell-bent on forgetting most of its history almost as soon as it has occurred. Because of this, perhaps, certain cycles of events seem to keep repeating themselves and interesting parallels can be drawn from past to present.
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In addition to refreshing on The Civil War (I have to admit I slept through most of the Battle of Gettysburg last year.),  I've also read two utterly engrossing biographies of American presidents, and quite co-incidentally, ones that were assassinated too.

The President and The Assassin by Scott Miller, covers the emergence of the would-be anarchist revolutionaries at dawn of the American century, painting a picture of a nation perched on the brink of wealth and technological advances unimaginable scant fifty years prior and one that is about to begin to extend its grasp to the wider world. At the same time, the theme of the book is equally the America parallel to the one that came to dominate history books; the radical, poor, angry America of Emma Goldman, the coalminers and factory workers and girls who would perish in the Triangle Fire.

However, if you're only going to read one book about an assassinated American president from Ohio, I would recommend The Destiny Of The Republic, in spite the fact that its themes ring less pertinent to today's America. Candace Millard's tome also has a number of themes that run parallel to each other, but these are largely human, rather that societal ideas. It is impossible not to love Millard's President Garfield a man so honest and modest that he got elected president against his will. Millard also gives ample "page time" to a young inventor who sought to save the president's life, and one who could have if his theories would have been taken seriously. I swear, I can't recommend this book enough. Read it and weep.
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It hasn't been just history class around here. On one of the days we though we might be on the mend, C. and I took a little walk in the woods surrounding our house and found some pretty awesome little friends, edible and non-edible alike. The recent rains have brought out a multitude of mushrooms. Lately, C. has also been really into medicinal conks and harvested Oregon Reishi and Dyer's Polypores for tea.
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As a long time friend of the Chaga, I was also excited to learn that it is possible to find this magical medicinal mushroom as close as BC. I had always thought it to be confined to colder climates. I guess all eyes are on the trees now.
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This isn't Chaga, of course, it's a as-of-yet-unidentified mushroom. Probably not for long, though.
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Check out dinner. This man never seizes to amaze me, even if he doesn't much care for biographies of dead white dudes.
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Each to their own. Anybody know any good history books to recommend?

ps. Did you know that anyone used to pretty much be able to walk into the White House and demand to see the president? Or that the Civil War began in one man's backyard and ended in his parlor? Or that the Arlington National Cemetery used to Robert E. Lee's front yard? Or that during McKinley's first election a number of big businesses actually put in clauses in contracts stating that the contract would be void and no goods delivered if Bryan (McKinley's opponent) won? I know right?!?!?!? I love American history! 

13 comments:

  1. Hey hun, sorry to hear you are unwell with Wintry lurgs again. We also got hit a little in the past couple of weeks. stomach bugs, ugh. I was too pooped to even look at a screen, just lay on the couch and stared out the window. I enjoyed your pics...and agree with you that American History is fascinating....after visiting though, I just think the people are even more so! You know your last pic has C looking like Big Foot about to stumble off into yonder. x

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  2. Milla!
    This post is delightful :)
    Get better soon huh.
    Speaking of mushrooms and history...
    Have you read the "Magic of Findhorn" ?

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  3. Hah, I could *never* get myself sufficiently enthralled in U.S. History to do very well in my classes, so I don't go in for it much now. Regardless, I enjoyed reading this. You make it interesting. ;)

    You guys are so cute. Geçmiş olsun (may it [your illness] be in the past).

    xo

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  4. "1491" is a wonderful pre-conquest book, thoughtfully delivered and delightful to read. "Guns, Germs, and Steel" is also fascinating. I'm afraid I don't have many recommendations as far as post-conquest history, but I would LOVE to find a well-written book on the history of American espionage. That would be a great read. I hope you get to feeling better! And really hope it doesn't have anything to do with mold again! I don't know if I mentioned this last year, but echinacea and Traditional Medicinal's "Gypsy Cold Care" are really great during sick season.

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  5. I've never really read a book about a president, assassinated or not. Now you've got me wanting to read both of these! It's funny, all this "free" time on my hands not working and nursing a lot, and yet I barely read, can't get my mind truly INTO a book to save my life. Slowly but surely I'm getting into some winter reading though, if I can stay awake long enough. I will have to do a book post one of these days so my blog isn't just baby fluff, haha!

    Darin and I traveled the US in 2007 with hopes of visiting a lot of Civil War sites, which we did do. But it is hard to comprehend the whole of the war and its scope. I have seen parts of Burns' documentary but not all of it, my mom owns the set I believe, I'll have to revisit it one of these days. My uncle was a civil war reenactor and I am convinced that it shaped our nation and our people in ways we can only begin to fathom. Being at many of the battle sites and graveyards and, most of all for me, thinking about the history of slavery and how that shaped the war and our nation, was absolutely chilling for me. The south still whispers its historical secrets at every swampy bend, and even in the bricks of the posh restaurants of Savannah or the quirky bookstores of Richmond. Anyway I could type you a whole letter on the subject of American history. I plan to spend my whole life and that of my kid/s childhood figuring it out more fully as a way to truly know this country where we live and love. Thanks for the important reminder and i am glad to hear you're on the mend. much love, health and coziness to you darling.

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  6. Oh my! A girl after my own heart you are... I love history and I love sharing it with students. On the first day I explicitly state however that this ain't no class about dead old white guys! I kind of see it as my life mission to open students up to history who have for the most part spent their entire lives thinking it has nothing to do with them. When that light bulb goes on man oh man! Anywho I could recommend a million books here but one of my fave comprehensive us history tomes is Howard Zinn's A People's History of the U.S.

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  7. We've been watching National Parks-America's Best Idea! Just saw the episode where Theodore Roosevelt ditches his entourage to take off into the woods of Yosemite alone with John Muir. A Republican president promoting the conservation movement, ha, imagine that! He'd probably be pretty fascinating to read about.

    I don't have a book to recommend, but the TV mini-series John Adams with Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, is super well done and entertaining. Lucas and I both really got into it. Netflix has it, but not through watch instantly.

    Wishing you and C. both healthy days ahead!

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  8. sorry to hear you two got sick again, that stinks! but, the quiet time and relaxation sounds very nice. i hope you are feeling better now and stay healthy all winter long.

    both those documentaries are wonderful. in august my son max went to virginia to stay with my great uncle and aunt to take a civil war tour. they went to so many places! my great uncle is extremely knowledgeable about american history plus he has lived in the area his whole life, he worked in the pentagon at age 16 and had authorization to enter to white house and is still as enthusiastic and vibrant about life in his 80's as he ever was. needless to say he made for the ideal tour guide! i just wish i could have gone. anyway, he gave us a library of recommended reading and watching and ken burns civil war was of course on it. i still haven't finished it but it's wonderful. and the national parks, i don't think i even need to comment on how much i loved that one! i recommend it to everyone.

    i haven't read any biographies but i had recently asked my dad for some suggestions seeing as he has read many. his favorite president was teddy roosevelt so i was thinking of starting with him. i'm also very interested in reading about the first ladies. The Destiny Of The Republic sounds good. i don't know much about garfield so it would be interesting to learn more.

    take care friend!

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  9. i'm so relieved to hear that although you were sick, your immune system seems to be rebounding faster. better health without the black mold, eh? and if you had laryngitis, do you have a super cute raspy voice now? love that.

    i found it hard to concentrate on the ken burns review as i was distracted by those FAIRY RINGS! i would love to hear any lore you have from your country or childhood about those, as everything i know is borrowed from another time and country. which i think is part of the reason americans tend to repeat history in loops (although we're not the only ones...hello israel and palestine). everyone here is carrying in their dna the history of another land, lessons from another culture. it's like we're all blindly replaying (and trying to finish) stories of another place, while bumping around against each other on foreign soil.

    jeff and i went to see 'lincoln' a couple of nights ago. it left me with a serious yearning to re-study early american history. primarily because republicans and democrats used to be on opposite poles. like dems were for keeping slavery and republicans were leading the revolution. i know...what? i'm sure you know of it, but 'a people's history of the u.s.' is always my first go to in terms of recommendations. xo

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  10. oh! here's a recommendation. "Flappers: A madcap story of sex, style, celebrity and the women who made america modern". incredibly eye opening about this pivotal time (the 20s) in u.s. history. hrm...maybe i should send it to you? :)

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  11. love the mushroom photos! and the quick history lesson also. i feel that i know very little about american history, actually. glad to hear you guys are doing better despite the illness. things here are ok, i got the blood tests back and my thyroid is ok (woot!) and she modified my herbs a bit....i'll call you and tell you all about it soon. perhaps sunday post-thanksgiving i can call.

    love you

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  12. Did you see Lincoln? It is an absolutely glorious film. I was literally turned on the whole time by the amazing history as captured in clothes, domestic interiors, intelligent conversation, and the gentle but self assured timbre of Daniel Day Lewis's voice (much like the narrator of the Ken Burns films! So authoritative but so safe and comforting too). (I am very excited to watch the Dust Bowl! It's the story of both sets of great grandparents on my dad's side who migrated to California in the early 30s from Southern states to find better farming soil).

    Last year in Fresno one of my cousins said to me "I just don't understand how you could be so interested in history!", and I've been thinking about that ever since. I didn't used to be. I wasn't when I was her age. I don't know what shifted, but I do know that What Went Before is now fascinating to me, and that few things get me as intellectually stimulated as learning about my favorite historical periods.

    In conclusion, God Bless PBS.

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