REFLECTING ON THE TRADE

By Laurie Atwater  |

The issues the DeWolf descendants are confronted with dramatize questions that apply to the nation as a whole: What, concretely, is the legacy of slavery—for diverse whites, for diverse blacks, for diverse others? Who owes who what for the sins of the fathers of this country? What history do we inherit as individuals and as citizens? How does Northern complicity change the equation? What would repair—spiritual and material—really look like and what would it take?

Many of us in Lexington have now seen the film by Katrina Browne called Traces of the Trade as part of a program of showings and community conversayions sponsored by Lexington CommUNITY and the Lexington Interfaith Clergy Association.  In that film, Brown retraces the notorious “Triangle Route” of slave trading from America to Africa to Cuba and back to America. This route was used to move human cargo—Africans captured or kidnapped for the express purpose of being sold to Europeans or Americans.

 

Hidden History

Browne learned of this history from her grandmother on the DeWolf side. The DeWolf family of Bristol Rhode Island is, respected and well-known.  This hidden history was not discussed within her family, but Katrina came to realize through her extensive research that three generations of DeWolf men were the biggest slave traders in America.

Browne began digging for information: journals, ship logs, old ledgers and other family memorabilia told a sordid tale.  How could this upstanding Episcopal family of clergymen, merchants and solid citizens be human traffickers?

Once Browne started down this path she reached out to her cousin James DeWolf.  James joined her in her journey and ultimately wrote a book about his experience called Inheriting the Trade.  I spoke with James DeWolf earlier this month by phone.

“Katrina had approached me early on and asked if I had heard about some history of slave trading in the family.  She wanted to make a documentary film and I thought that was a really wonderful idea and I was helping her to raise money and do some research.  So, by the time she discovered that our family had been the leading slave traders in the east, I was already deeply involved in the project.” DeWolf has spent practically a decade since the making of the film devoting himself to educating and speaking to groups about the slave trade and its impact on our country.

 

The Profit Motive

“Generally, economic historians say there have been times in history when slavery was profitable and times when it was not. In every time it was profitable, societies have done it.  It’s hard to find great societies that didn’t condone slavery at one time or another.  What happened with slavery is driven by economic self-interest and it is something that human beings are perfectly capable of being a part of,” DeWolf says.

Economic opportunity also drove the supplier side of the slave transaction. “Every single person who was sold as a slave was enslaved by Africans and traded to white traders on the coast,” DeWolf says.  “These societies were never trading their own people; they were trading people they thought of as others.” He explains that slaves were often captured deep into Africa and walked hundreds of miles to the coast where they were first sold to Europeans and then later, to Americans. “Groups in African society jumped at the chance to make huge profits,” DeWolf says.

 

Not Just a “Southern” Problem

“Getting people to understand their own connection to this history is always a challenge,” DeWolf says.  While it’s true that most families did not have a direct family link to the slave trade, everyone was indirectly involved. In fact, many common people bought shares in slaving trips as investors just as you would buy shares in the stock market today. They shared financially in the successful sale of Africans. Outfitting these slave trading missions kept many people employed from bankers to provisioners.  The philanthropy bestowed upon various cities and towns by wealthy merchants like the DeWolfs is still evident today.

DeWolf makes the point that New Englanders have rewritten their history to omit their complicity in the slave trade.  But in fact, it was the businessman in New England states—especially Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut—who created the Triangle Trade and supplied the South with slaves.

In the agrarian South, before the American Revolution, the primary crops were tobacco, indigo and rice.  Slaves and indentured servants were used to grow and harvest these labor intensive crops that were ultimately exported. This expanded the economy of the colonies. The financial success of the colonies was also dependent upon the sugar that was procured on slave trading missions and made into rum stateside.

Slavery had reached its peak in the late 1700s and was declining until the invention of Eli Whitney’s cotton engine (gin) in 1793.  This machine which mechanized the removal of sticky seeds from short staple cotton, revolutionized the agricultural model of the South. The South’s soil and climate was perfect for this cotton crop.

Suddenly this labor intensive crop could be hugely profitable and farms began springing up across the South to meet the demands of English textile mills. Slavery once again, became a huge money-maker as demand for labor rose.  Huge shipments of bales of cotton regularly left American ports bound for mills in England.

Eventually Americans began getting in on the action and started to open cotton mills of their own (many of them the slave traders themselves).  “The whole reason we have the mills in Massachusetts was because of the cotton picked by slaves.  Wherever we had rivers we saw cotton mills—in Concord, Newton, Watertown and Lowell.  And of course at that time, everyone understood that connection to slavery,” DeWolf explains.

“When we started to rewrite how we thought about our history here in the north, we downplayed slavery.  We didn’t hide it completely, but we pretended it was a brief thing and we started to think of ourselves as having a powerful abolition tradition at the same time.  We washed away the many other economic connections to it,” he says.

DeWolf also talks about the widely held notion that the North was a righteous hotbed of abolitionists.  “It is true that New England, along with other places like Philadelphia, spearheaded the abolitionist movement,” he says. But he adds, “The white working class in Massachusetts was very worried that freed slaves would be competition for wages after the Civil War.”

 

Collective Responsibility?

Understanding this history has put the DeWolf family unwittingly in the center of an issue that they never thought much about.  What is our shared and ongoing responsibility for this shameful part of American history and what can we do about it? This is perhaps the most important work of the film and the filmmakers.

Moving the film into the public sphere through communities, schools, public television and religious organizations has allowed Browne and DeWolf to spread the word about the business of slave trading, its ties to the Northern states and its impact on the economic development of the country. There is little doubt that the profits from the slave trade and the free labor it provided built an economy that was strong enough to free itself from Britain.

The film argues that slave labor is part of the very foundation of our country and that every citizen has benefitted from the proceeds of that labor with the ironic and tragic exception of the direct descendants of the slaves themselves.

The legacy of slavery has left us with African Americans who still suffer the consequences of years of being classified as second class citizens.  While their families were torn apart, and both men and women were forced into labor and servitude, white families from all strata of society profited from the fruits of that labor.

Through the exploration of this one family we get an interesting look at racial attitudes across white socio-economic lines and a revealing exploration of “white privilege” through the lens of their family experience. We get a glimpse into the black/white divide as it exists today—and the difficulty of connecting to events in the past.

According to DeWolf, the concept of white privilege is not readily understood by whites. “It goes to the very heart of who we are,” he says. “Whites want to believe that they have gotten where they are because of hard work and merit.”

Through explorations of family dynamics this film exposes just how sensitive people can be on that topic.  In one scene James DeWolf’s father feels compelled to explain that he would have gone to Harvard whether he was, or was not, a DeWolf.  He explains that his family had no money (not all DeWolf descendants shared in family wealth) and his father was just a minister.  He worked hard and got to Harvard on his own merits, he asserts.  But, he neglects to say that his father also went to Harvard as did his father. This legacy of higher education is a type of white privilege that many whites don’t even enjoy!

Another cousin goes on to argue that he was not as privileged because he attended the University of Oregon. Failing to recognize their own privilege is just one example of how people don’t connect the dots when it comes to race according to DeWolf.  “It’s so emotional,” DeWolf admits. “That’s the way privilege and oppression has always worked. It’s the fine gradations that allow people to look up—from where they are. When people are given a little more privilege they tend to bond with the system and defend it.

 

Not My Problem

James DeWolf admits that the conversations that happen around the screening of this film can be quite difficult.

“Part of it is people are coming to the material from different backgrounds and from different life experiences,” DeWolf says.  “Also, people can have different philosophies and it’s such a big topic. Certainly it’s a loaded topic. When people are confronted with the history their first response is often, ‘This isn’t me!’ Because this happened so long ago, and because it has been whitewashed in most history curriculums, we naturally feel distanced from it.  Avoidance is part of our inheritance,” he says, “and it is very human.”

It is especially difficult for people whose families immigrated to the United States many years after slavery had ended.  But, DeWolf says that the immigrants came because of the financial opportunities that were created during the industrial revolution. Opportunities that would not have existed without cotton—cotton that was grown and harvested through slave labor.

Many feel that because their families came to America after the Civil War and didn’t own slaves, they weren’t complicit. This simply denies the history according to DeWolf.  It’s especially difficult when they know that their own families also experienced so many hardships in pursuit of a better life in America.  But, DeWolf says—they had white skin and because of that it was automatically easier for them to succeed.

“Even if they [immigrants] had little in the way of education or money—just by the virtue of being white the moment they walked of the ship the were walking into an upper echelon of American life.  Being poor and white gave their children access to opportunities and education that black families did not have.”

 

Post Racial?

African Americans in our society start off at a different point. “If you’re born black in this society you’re not likely to have access to the same opportunities,” DeWolf explains. “People who want to put this all behind us are mistakenly under the impression that the history is no longer affecting us—that in the 50s and the 60s we had a Civil Rights movement—and everyone has had equal opportunities since then,” says DeWolf says.

DeWolf claims that there is fatigue on both sides of the issue.  “But in the case of race we still have a great deal of prejudice in our society and a great deal of inequity.  We have made progress in many ways, but it’s the ways that we have not moved on from the history that needs to be addressed,” he says.

Some intellectuals and political activists in both the black and white communities feel that at this point in history, after affirmative action, desegregation, and the many social welfare programs designed to assist the black community, their lack of economic and social progress is their own fault.

This is simply not the case DeWolf says.  Lack of social mobility can be traced back to unfair practices across all areas of society from education to employment to credit.  These practices grew out of prejudice that has its roots in slavery.  When you actually count people as less than 100 percent human, as we did to blacks in the United States, the attitudes continue to persist.

Many of these attitudes led to practices that were hidden from view, including the notorious red-lining mortgage practices by banks, which were designed to keep blacks from moving outside of the cities and into the suburbs.  The concentration of urban black populations in the cities has made them vulnerable to poor schools because schools are financed by property taxes. Lack of education is directly tied to lack of social mobility.  And the cycle continues.

Ever since the election of Barack Obama people have been talking about a post racial America.  But if it were indeed post racial, the statistics on blacks across all measures of social mobility would show less disparity with whites (and even other minority groups).

This compelling lack of real progress since the civil rights era is what inspires DeWolf to keep this conversation moving forward into communities, schools and faith organizations.  As a family, DeWolf says, “we support a national dialogue and education process to lead the United States toward racial reconciliation.”

Join Representative Jay Kaufman at his Open House on May 19th when the topic will race in our community.

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RACE TO NOWHERE

By Laurie Atwater  |
Race to Nowhere (PG-13), the acclaimed film about the epidemic of unhealthy academic stress among students across America, is coming to Lexington.
There will be two screenings, both at Cary Hall, 1605 Mass Ave. Show times are April 28, 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., and April 29, 10 a.m. to noon. Doors open 30 minutes before show time. General admission is $10 in advance, $15 at the door. Admission is free to the first 300 students, $5.00 per student thereafter. To ensure a seat, advance registration is strongly recommended. For tickets and advance registration, visit www.racetonowhere.com/screenings.
 A community conversation about the film will take place Thursday, May 5, 7:00 p.m.to 8:30 p.m., at Temple Emunah, 9 Piper Road, Lexington. This event is free-of-charge and open to all who have seen the film. Students are especially welcome. Refreshments will be served. Watch calendar listings for additional community conversations.

Race to Nowhere is coming to Lexington. The acclaimed film about America’s “achievement culture” and the burden of stress that accompanies it, will surely open to sell-out crowds in Lexington, as it has all over the country. Make sure you do not miss this film.

I am very grateful to the Lexington Montessori School for allowing me to attend their screening of the film which was sold-out the night I attended. I visited their impressive campus for the first time and was joined by parents from many different communities eager to understand the issue of stress in the schools and what they can do about it.

The film opens with a sea of students walking up and down the stairs of a school in a zombie-like state. Voiceovers say things like: “I can’t remember the last time I went outside,” or “Mom checked me into a stress center.” And saddest of all: “Nobody knows me.”

Parents in the small audience of 50 or 60 were riveted to the screen as kids gave voice to their anxieties and struggles. Most stressed about grades and homework and time—so little time—to finish all of their resume-building activities and then just be a kid.

Kids are taking it all in.  The bad economy.  Increased global competition.  Stressed-out and money-strapped parents.  .War.  Another war.  Tsunami.  Floods.  Nuclear melt-downs.  College competition.  For today’s students, it must feel relentless.

At school they swim in a sea of competition.  Competition with other kids.  Competition for spots on sports teams, leads in plays, solos in band and coveted slots at a few elite colleges.  The list goes on and on before you ever get to high stakes testing.

 IS THIS EDUCATION

Issues arising from “teaching to the test,” are plaguing school districts, for teachers and students. Attaching such high value to testing can distort the entire intent of education turning teachers into sergeants drilling their recruits so that they will perform well and earn accolades for their schools. Students worry about being promoted to the next grade and schools worry about accreditation or rankings. All of this preoccupation with tests can leave deep learning and deep thinking in the dust. In the film, teachers are demoralized and the most passionate teacher drops out. They feel reduced to test-trainers. Their passion and joy is hijacked; they burn out.

Experts like Denise Pope, a veteran teacher, curriculum expert, and lecturer at the Stanford University School of Education are featured in the film. Pope who wrote, Doing School talks the schools and parents sending the wrong message to students. Learning is being sacrificed for memorizing and cheating is rampant.  The goal is to cross the finish line and forget about how you got there—almost instantly.  And forget they do.  One boy says he crams for tests and promptly forgets everything he “learned.” The fact that skills like critical thinking and problem solving—the muscle memory of learning—are being sacrificed to a curriculum that is “a mile wide and an inch deep” is troubling. The results are beginning to show up on college campuses. The film asserts that 50 percent of Cal State and U Cal students must be remediated in freshman year.

Then there is self-esteem. Students become jaded and stressed having their existence measured by score after score as though they have no value beyond numerical outcomes. They quickly learn to “do school” as Pope calls it. The students who do not engage in this “race” often drop out intellectually or emotionally.

The film sets out with a big subject and in truth it could be broken up into many films with the list of issues that it raises—ignoring middle students, the fervor over Advanced Placement classes, unprepared students who have always had “training wheels,” isolation, the consumption culture, excessive homework and more. Perhaps the most provocative question is raised by Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, a noted expert in the area of resilience who fears that the current system of education is stifling creativity. “Without creativity, we will have no leadership and no innovation,” he says.

RACE TO NOWHERE

In this documentary, producer Vicki Abeles, a 48-year-old lawyer, introduces us to her own children, now ages 16, 14 and 11. She details her struggles to succeed and admits that she “wanted to give them [her children] the opportunities that I didn’t have growing up.” When her kids starting getting sick, not wanting to go to school and generally acting stressed, she wants to understand why. Then a 14 year old student in her town commits suicide because she fails a math exam. Abeles dedicates the film to her memory.

Sometimes the film seems to swim in the soup of despair—full of anecdotal evidence from teachers and students who confront Abeles’ camera—and a little short on data-driven information.  But you can understand that the voices of the teachers and kids are far more compelling than pie charts and survey results. In the end the film succeeds because parents nod away in agreement throughout the film and stay around to discuss its implications.  That’s what it’s meant to do.

Many viewers may also think; This is getting old. Haven’t we been talking about student stress forever?  The fact is we have been talking about stress for a very long time.  According to Jennifer Wolfrum, the head of school health education for the Lexington School System, this is a topic that cycle around with regularity in Lexington.

“Hopefully this film will promote conversation,” she says.  “The issue of stress is not going away.  It’s going to be an ongoing issue, so, it’s a matter of keeping it on the radar screen.  That is my hope when we do these types of things.”  While it may seem to each new group of parent activists that the issue is new, it has actually been concerning Lexington parents for some time.  Wolfrum tells me that in the mid-90s they were offering relaxation and hypnotherapy to combat stress.  In the late 90s there was an academic stress committee. “I see it sort of comes and goes in waves,” she says.  “They’ll be a period of time when parents or students or both will [be concerned] about it, and we do surveys and we come up with ideas and things to do to address it.  And then, the energy behind it—all of the people doing these extra things—sort of dies down until it comes back again.”

LEXINGTON INITIATIVES

Right now in Lexington, the Collaborative to Reduce Student Stress (CRSS), which began as a small group at Temple Isaiah and has grown to about 50 or 60 members from different faith communities, has taken up the cause and is doing great work with the schools and other organizations around this issue. B.J. Rudman is the spokesman for the group. “About three years ago,” he explains, “a group of mostly parents and grandparents decided to get together to see what we could do to help. There are many groups in Lexington that deal with youth—the schools, the town, the PTAs; we want to collaborate with these groups with a particular focus on reducing stress.”

Rudman sees the screening of Race to Nowhere as a perfect example of how the group can be helpful.  “The idea actually came from the SHAC (School Health Awareness Committee) group at the high school.  “Many people have raved about the movie,” Rudman says.  The CRSS decided to step up and offer to plan the event.  Their volunteers have organized the screening and will staff the event. Following the screening, on May 5th at 7PM there will be a moderated community discussion there will be a community discussion at Temple Emunah. CRSS has also helped SHAC create their new website http://lhs.lexingtonma.org/Stress.

“My perspective is, a key to change is a change in community attitudes. People need to be educated and this is a very powerful way to do it,” Rudman says.  “We recognize that some stress is good, but too much stress is not healthy and ironically, too much stress actually inhibits academic performance.”

The scientific literature on stress and performance has been well documented in recent years and more recently it’s being updated to include research into the effects of technology on the developing brain. It may not be that academic stress and the focus on high stakes testing is the single driver of this epidemic of stress that we are seeing; technology may also be playing a major part in the problem.

 TECHNOLOGY, STRESS AND THE TEEN BRAIN

Dr. Sion Harris, a Lexington resident and member of SHAC, is a researcher at Children’s Hospital specializing in adolescent substance abuse and prevention strategies. She also has two children in the Lexington public schools.

“What is a 24/7 plugged-in world doing to brain development and our ability to maintain attention?” she asks.  Especially in adolescents whose brains are not fully developed. “It does require effort and high-order brain processing to be able to focus and tune out distractions,” she adds. In fact, teens are being bombarded by information all of the time—especially now that their phones are essentially pocket computers keeping them linked to the internet.  “We know that teens don’t have the prefrontal cortex development to be able to inhibit these behaviors,” Harris says. In other words, they can’t resist the urge to text or to go on Facebook if it’s available—even if they are supposed to be doing something else like homework.  “Even adults have a difficult time putting down the Blackberry,” Harris laughs.  “You can really see why the stress is ratcheting up.”  According to Harris kids are staying up all night texting and losing valuable sleep and brain processing time. “There are definitely casualties to being over-stimulated and over-connected and I do think that is one of the reasons that kids are more stressed today.”

But it’s not the only reason. As Race to Nowhere illustrates, high school students are clearly very concerned about being “successful” in life.  What that has come to mean in our society is following a certain path of achievement—high achieving high school student with a great resume gets into a top college (preferably an Ivy League school) which will guarantee you the American Dream.  This scenario is becoming more unrealistic as colleges become more selective and expensive. “We need to redefine what it means to be successful in this culture,” Harris says.

Dr. Blaise Aguirre is an instructor at Harvard Medical School and the medical director at 3East at McLean Hospital which specializes in treating teens and young adults. “Academic stress is real,” he says, “and kids do feel the real and competitive nature of their school lives.”  However, academic stress is not the only stress that causes anxiety among students.  He cites a study in which 4300 students were exposed to a list of common negative life events.  Students were asked to check those they considered “bad” that they had experienced in the previous six month period. The results were compiled into a list the most frequently reported events. Academic stress and school didn’t even appear in the top eight. “Most kids admitted to hospital because of stress-related depression,” Aguirre explains, “are [there] because of relational issues and not academic stress.”  But, according to Dr. Aguirre, there is also no question that any form of stress “is neurobiologically tied to depression.”  In individuals with a genetic predisposition it is a stronger link.

Dr. Harris says that her work has shown her how important it is for children to develop social-emotional competencies when they are young.  “If we are going to address this culturally, we need to engage the parents of younger children.  “Over the course of my work,” she says, “I see how much social and emotional competencies are important in kids.”

Social competency and resilience are protective agents when it comes to the adolescent brain.  The teen brain is impulsive and prone to risk-taking.  Kids without coping skills often become depressed or engage in behavior that can be dangerous to their own safety.  “Resilience can be innate for many people,” adds Dr. Aguirre, “but for those who do not have it, it can be taught.”  In fact, Dr. Aguirre uses mindfulness in his practice with young people.

The Race to Nowhere is a conversation starter. Bring your older children if you can and plan to attend the community conversation on May 5th to share your thoughts and ideas with the community.

 

 

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KIDS POINT, CLICK & LEARN

By Elena Murphy  | 

This year, teachers at Bridge and Fiske elementary schools have a small but powerful tool in their classrooms to help the growing numbers of students who attend but have little or no experience speaking English.

The tools are ELL (English Language Learner) kits and include a picture book with labels, as well as audiocassettes and headphones so students can click on pictures and hear the pronunciation of each word. ELL teachers Dierdre Schadler at Bridge, and Catherine Murphy at Fiske, were awarded a grant from the Lexington Education Foundation to put these kits in teachers’ hands to supplement the direct English language instruction these students receive.

English Language Learner teacher Deirdre Schadler works with a fifth-grade student from Japan using a new kit for students to build their English vocabulary.

“We saw a need in our community,” says Schadler. “The ELL population at Bridge alone is over 10%” of the total enrollment, she notes, and, “There are a lot of kids from all over the world who don’t have the English language to participate in the classroom.” She also points out that the year-to-year changes are so great that the teachers needed something in the classroom that was flexible to support this ever-changing student population.

Schadler says, teachers want to help but they are also covering the standard curriculum. Non-English speaking elementary school students get a half-hour to forty minutes of English instruction in small groups at their grade level, these ELL teachers say, and Schadler says, “They need more than that.”

“Our vision was that kids can use this where teachers are working with the rest of the class” and these students would not know what is being discussed at all. Using these “picture dictionaries” enables the “child to be engaged…rather than have the student feel like they can’t participate,” says Schadler. “It takes seven to ten years to learn a language completely,” so these children need all the opportunities they can get, she notes.

 

There are several themes to choose from, including home, school, food, and helping people. There are also four levels, so the kits can be adjusted as the student advances. There are a number of kits so they can be spread throughout the classrooms that need them, and books are changed biweekly, Schadler says.

Originally, these tools were going to be made available to kindergarteners through second-graders, but Schadler says that they’re being used through fifth grade. After all, she says, any non-English speaker is a “blank slate” and can benefit from the kits, and move up to more challenging levels as they develop their language skills.

The response from teachers and students has been great, says Schadler. “Teachers have welcomed it,” she says. “Each teacher integrates it in their own way.”  Typical use is while a teacher is explaining a lesson in science or social studies the student can take the kit out and work on it independently. The headphones allow the students to work quietly without changing the noise level in the classroom.

It’s important, says Schadler, that kids can move forward as “they feel successful.” For instance, students need to learn concrete words such as “dog” before they can understand abstract words such as “Constitution.” She says “it’s remarkable how well students have learned the basics” using the ELL kits.

ELL (English Language Learner) kits and include a picture book with labels, as well as audiocassettes and headphones so students can click on pictures and hear the pronunciation of each word.

Schadler says when she and Fiske’s Catherine Murphy considered what to include in these kits, Schadler thought of these materials since she had had success in her own family with this type of picture dictionary. Murphy notes if there were more time, she’d like to “write my own texts for these students, aligning them with what the teachers are teaching in the classroom,” but for now, the main goal of building English vocabulary is being achieved. She says, “I can see from my pre-tests and post-tests that students are most definitely acquiring the basic academic vocabulary that they will need going forward.”

“The beauty of this particular tool is that the student regulates his or her own pace,” says Murphy. Schadler agrees that the success of these kits “has everything to do with the child.” She says that while students acquire common expressions from their peers, these kits fulfill a broader need for vocabulary. She recalls a recent conversation with a kindergartner from Israel who began the year with essentially no English. “She was frustrated with communication at the beginning of the year. In March, we had a real conversation. To go from zero to conversant in that amount of time, that’s what makes this job amazing,” she says.

Murphy and Schadler would like to see this program expand throughout the Lexington elementary schools.

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Along a Nature Path with Chet Raymo

By Judy Buswick

Of the writers who might instruct us on the subtle points of how to Let Nature Be Our Teacher, Chet Raymo, author of sixteen books and Professor Emeritus of Physics and Astronomy at Stonehill College in Easton (MA), has a unbeatable combination of science interests and life experience. He leans toward astronomy as his favorite science, saying, I love the dark night sky, and love knowing what it is I’m looking at. The sciences, like the parts of nature, are each interrelated; so he notes that astronomy, geology, physics, chemistry, biology all illuminate each other. All of them give depth and beauty to our local environments.

 

Chet Raymo

Readers in Cary Library’s Lexington Reads program this March will have encountered the connections in a number of sciences, as Dr. Raymo describes the one-mile path he walked for 37 years from his front porch in the village of North Easton to his office at Stonehill College. The Path: A One-Mile Walk Through the Universe (Walker & Company, 2003) is Lexington’s community-wide book selection and Dr. Raymo will be at Cary Hall (1605 Mass. Avenue, next to the Police Station) at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 27th to discuss his multifaceted study of nature and the history of his hometown. His observant, inquiring personality shows us how our own path of discovery may begin at our own front door.

Prof. Raymo demonstrates that every pebble and flower has a story to tell, which leads him to introduce geology, botany, genetics, environmental concerns, and the history of human intervention in nature. That scratch on a rocky ledge, he explains, may be the result of glaciers creeping across New England. That weed by the wayside may have descended from a seed that travelled here aboard a sailing ship in the 1600s. Thus, because he knows and loves this particular path, the light-years and the eons no longer seem quite so forbidding. He comforts us by adding that his path is quite commonplace for New England and any path we select for our careful observation and applied knowledge can be filled with surprises and appreciation of nature.

Historians and readers of history will be conscious of how Raymo incorporates the burgeoning wealth of one family and the industrial development of North Easton into his account of nature’s power. The Ames Shovel Shop moved to North Easton in 1803 and Oliver Ames tapped the energy resource of Queset Brook, built dams to control a consistent supply of water power, and watched his shovel factory grow to produce 20,000 dozen shovels in 1844, before converting to steam power. Historically, our nation needed shovels to build the Eire Canal, the intercontinental railroad, and trenches in the Civil War. With the discovery of gold in California and then in Australia, there was a worldwide demand for the high quality shovels produced by this one family.

The Ameses became wealthy and built mansions, public parks, and impressive public architecture in the village many of which are still evident today. They commissioned works by America’s leading architect Henry Hobson Richardson and the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. The roles these men played in and beyond North Eastern become part of Dr. Raymo’s story.

Olmsted moved mountains of soil and stone, diverted streams, clear-cut forests, and planted local and exotic trees to create the Sheep Pasture estate, the Ames family mansion and property. Now, a hundred years later, the effects of the hand of man — that is, Olmsted’s hand — appear ostensibly natural on the grounds of Sheep Pasture through which Raymo walks. He passes through woodlands and meadows, crosses Queset Brook on a plank bridge and stoops to examine the astonishing sexual apparatus of the purple loosestrife decorating the banks of the stream, and stops in a community garden to chat with locals who sometimes offer him radishes. He buys bunches of flowers for a dollar (on the honor system) or chats with Bob Benson, the bluebird man who builds boxes for the breeding birds.

At the Olmsted Archives in Brookline, Massachusetts, the plans Olmsted worked on, including land surveys, sightlines from the home’s terrace, and sketches of the landscape he imagined are preserved. Raymo suggests to Lexingtonians, I would encourage everyone who lives in the Boston area to visit the Olmstead home and offices in Brookline. It is now in the care of the National Park Service, and you’ll get a lovely tour by a ranger in a Smokey Bear hat. 

For Olmsted and his colleague Charles Eliot who designed the parks and parkways in the Boston metropolitan system, the harried urban middle class deserved landscape art that was beautiful and alive with the sounds of nature. Behind this was their understanding that we are part of an organic world, and that we need, as Olmsted insisted, relief from the too insistently man-man surroundings of civilized life.

Prof. Raymo believes that Olmsted surely had a greater influence on how Americans think about the natural world than any other person. Boston’s Emerald Necklace is his work, and many other of our favorite public spaces in the Boston area are works of his disciples. Not wilderness. Not urban sprawl. Something artful and natural all at once. Environments that nourish the human spirit.” During his program on Sunday afternoon, March 27th at Cary Hall (note this is NOT at the Library), Prof. Raymo is sure to have more to say about the lessons of nature and the gifts of Frederick Law Olmsted.

Another local author who has shared his ruminations and research about some walks he has taken is Massachusetts Audubon Society editor John Hanson Mitchell. He fully engages readers in The Paradise of All These Parts: A Natural History of Boston (Beacon Press, 2008) about the series of exploratory walks around the old Shawmut Peninsula. In Walking Towards Walden: A Pilgrimage in Search of Place (Perseus, 1995), Mitchell evokes Thoreau with a jaunt entwining history and ecology. Raymo says, “I have long been a reader and admirer of Mitchell. He has a wonderful sense of the layers of a place, from the geologic to the human contemporary. I’ve been enlightened by his books and writings.

Noted author Dava Sobel wrote the foreword to The Path, at the request of George Gibson, Raymo’s publisher at Walker & Company. Raymo acknowledges that he is extremely grateful that she complied. Sobel and Raymo have never met, but she too has taken a familiar walk for more than twenty years. She feels an easy camaraderie with Raymo and knows he will understand when she says that something positive, even restorative happens to me out there on her walk along familiar wet lands. Though not a nature writer, but rather a science news writer, Sobel now authors non-fiction books with a scientific bent that share a complexity with those of Mitchell and Raymo.

Of her work, Dr. Raymo says, She’s a marvelous writer. I especially enjoyed The Planets. (Viking, 2005) Given his years of teaching astronomy, Raymo would obviously enjoy a book such as this that explores the solar system, using popular culture and current research. Her book titled Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time (Penguin, 1996) is another that traces the scientific path of discovery and problem solving with a true story of a man once lost to history.

Wildlife artist and naturalist Clare Walker Leslie participated in the Cary Library series when she discussed her book Keeping a Nature Journal: Discover a Whole New Way of Seeing the World Around You, (Storey Publishing, 2000) earlier in March. She and Raymo are friends and he praises her efforts encouraging children and adults to draw from nature. He explains that drawing from nature helps develop powers of observation and reinforce[s] curiosity about the natural world. These are the attitudes that lead to scientific exploration and the awareness of nature’s organic wholeness.

With all this, it becomes obvious why Chet Raymo is an ideal author for sharing Let Nature Be Our Teacher lessons. His science capabilities are matched by his deep affection and respect for the history of Easton, his hometown. He shares with Lexingtonians a love of local history and Massachusetts people whose lives affected our nation. Comparing Easton and Lexington, he says, Both towns are icons of American history, Lexington of the Revolutionary period, Easton of early industrialization. I believe a few Eastoners were there taking pot shots at the Redcoats on the Lexington road.

The lessons of nature are well worth our study. As The Path shows us, minute lived attentively can contain a millennium; an adequate step can span the planet.

Visit Science Musings by Chet Raymo for a complete and annotated list of his sixteen books at  http://www.sciencemusings.com/books/.

 

Judy Buswick is the author of Slate of Hand: Stone for Fine Art and Folk Art (Trafford Publishing, 2007) and is working on a memoir of Massachusetts quilter Sally Palmer Field. Contact her at jt.buswick@verizon.net.

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The first annual Lexington BBQ Battle draws huge crowd to support LABBB Program

 

 

 A tasty way to raise funds for the great LABBB program at Lexington High School.

Photos by Jim Shaw.

 

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Open House with Jay Kaufman

 Thursday, May 19  |  7:00 – 9:00 pm

OPEN HOUSE with Jay Kaufman: Many hoped that the election of Barack Obama as President signaled the end of racism in the U.S.   However, there is ample evidence, nationally and locally, that we must continue to be vigilant about racial tensions and prejudice in our midst.  Join with your neighbors for a difficult but important conversation about issues of race in our community.  Share your experiences of insensitivity, intolerance and discrimination.  What impact has it had on your life?  What can or should we, individually and collectively, do about it?

Depot Square, Lexington, MA

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Lexington Reads

By Judy Buswick  | 

Record snowstorms may have barricaded us indoors, but there’s more to nature than snow!  As the 2011 season progresses toward spring, Cary Memorial Library will have programs on what Nature teaches us. We can find, as William Shakespeare reminds us, that there are “tongues in trees, books in running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.” (As You Like It, Act II, scene i) 

This season’s Lexington Reads events come into blossom throughout March, growing around a “Let Nature Be Our Teacher” theme. Residents may join in discussions with an animal naturalist, a treasure-hunt explorer, and a nature photographer, and view the wilderness movie Alone in the Wilderness about Richard “Dick” Proenneke. Alone in the Wilderness, was produced in 2003 from Dick’s own film footage. Special Children’s programs are guaranteed to stimulate a sense of wonder.

Literary elements this year include nature-journaling tips and also the reprise of our 2007 “Evening of Poetry Reading.” Our Community Book for Lexington Reads 2011 is Chet Raymo’s non-fiction title The Path: A One-Mile Walk Through the Universe.  Mr. Raymo will bring the “Let Nature Be Our Teacher” series to a close with a nature lecture and discussion of his book. Multiple copies are available at Cary Library. [Read more…]

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New Fund Honors Lexington Writer & Educator

Bill Tapply

By S. Levi Doran  | 

The William G. Tapply Memorial Fund Will Support Sophomore Writing Program

Friends of a longtime Lexingtonian are merging with supporters of a high school writing program, to fund an important piece of the sophomore English curriculum.

Bill Tapply spent his childhood here, and graduated from the High School in 1958. He later became well-known for his mystery novels, and published thirty during his lifetime – in addition to at least ten nonfiction books which mostly deal with fly fishing. And within Lexington, he was also admired for his abilities in the classroom – as a teacher. He returned to town for a quarter-century as an English and social studies teacher, and house master, before moving on to Emerson College, Clark University, and a home in Hancock, N.H.

Tapply died of leukemia in July of 2009, and almost immediately, his high school classmates began thinking of how they could honor him within the town. The LHS Class of 1958 is closely knit, and Tapply was a prominent member. There were much smaller classes then, with about 200 seniors graduating in ’58. [Read more…]

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Traces of the Trade

By Laurie Atwater  | 

CommUNITY programs to address issues of race

Imagine your joy at discovering a family history actually compiled by your grandmother only to have it turn to horror and disgust as you unwind a story that reveals your ancestor to be the most successful slave trader in America.

Now imagine that you are a nice white girl from Bristol, Rhode Island with a highbrow name like DeWolf in your family tree as you begin to grasp that reality. Katrina Browne (a distant cousin of DeWolf) uncovered this ugly family history over fifteen years ago and she was so moved by this unknown history that she was inspired to bring it out from the shadows and has been using her knowledge to educate and inform every since.

DeWolf Family
Above: Family of Ten—at Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, July 2001. (Top, left to right) Dain Perry, Elizabeth Sturges Llerena, Katrina Browne, Jim Perry, Holly Fulton, Ledlie Laughing, Keila DePoorter. (Bottom, left to right) Tom DeWolf, Elly Hale, James Perry. (Photo by Elly Hale)

[Read more…]

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Lex is More

Shop Locally!  Click on the Lex is More -shopping bag and find out more!

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