Prairienet: How I Made Friends and Found a Career

Today’s post is prompted by the happy coincidence that I found my very first volunteer nametag while unpacking a box today. It’s from way back in 1994 or 1995, when I was still living in Champaign, Illinois. Before THAT, I’d been an active member in the Champaign-Urbana Computer Users Group, where I met a whole bunch of wonderful nerdy people, including my PC mentor and close friend, Mark Zinzow, and the eventually famous eccentric genius Michael Hart, who was working on Project Gutenberg even back in the late 1980s. (I regret not having time to contribute back then.)

My name tag!

I did that, because I’d been the de facto PC tech person in every job I’d had since I got my first IBM PC (with two, count-em, two! floppy disk drives) to write my dissertation on, and I needed helpers! Yes, I actually knew how everything worked, back in those simpler days and times.

Time passed and I got a fine job working at Wolfram Research as a technical writer (career score #1) (where I got to work with my second eccentric genius friend, Stephen Wolfram). I stayed friends with the PCUG folks, though, hung out on Usenet to learn more. A few years later, after I’d left Wolfran Research to raise my two sons, I saw an ad for classes on the World Wide Web and websites, which was hosted by Prairienet, a community internet kind of deal where many of my old friends were volunteering. The kids’ dad said maybe this newfangled web thing would be a way to keep my tech skills up while raising the kids. I agreed.

I took a class from a wonderful woman named Karen Fletcher, and suddenly I knew enough about HTML to teach classes myself. This was my first technical training experience (career score #2). Karen was a wonderful friend, even keeping me in touch with horses way back then thanks to her partner who was a horse trainer. She was also a Master Gardener, so we hung around with similar folks.

So, while my kids were little and I was learning about breastfeeding from La Leche League (not linking to them), I was also learning about websites from Greg Newby, Karen, Mark, and others over at Prairienet. And hey, here’s a fact I love to share: the first website I ever made was for my LLL group. It didn’t have any images, though. Why? It was before you could put images in! Everything was text! We were lucky we had bold and italic to spice things up. And lots of asterisks.

Bad image, but my copy is in a box.

One of the friends I met in Prairienet was also a coworker, Bruce Pea. What a nice guy. He got it into his head to write a user manual for Prairienet, since he was all techy and understood how it worked. However, he was not a writer by trade, so I stepped in to copy edit that 1995 book, The Prairienet Companion. I can assure you it was a lot easier than copy-editing the Mathematica Book (second edition), which I had also been working on.

This book contained 95% fewer occurrences than the first draft contained. Thank you, past me.

I turned around and one day there I was, a technical writer and trainer specializing in software documentation and training who also built user communities. Careers are weird! It’s mostly luck and coincidence for me, not a path I was driven toward. But I sure had fun between 1985-1995 learning my webmastering chops!

Another fact: I am still friends with Connor Kelly, the first person to ever find out about a La Leche League meeting online. That’s career score #3, because I swiftly combined what I learned on Prairienet with what I was doing in La Leche League, and in just a year or two was on the real internet, making the website of the whole LLL organization (and many others on the side). That led to volunteer-organizational fame, no fortune, and a lot of drama. And in LLL I helped create a user community, like a baby Facebook that failed due to drama and infighting but looked good enough on a resume to keep.

Hmm. I think I just wrote my biography in a half hour. I can’t believe I dredged up all these memories of myself and the internet as we grew up together. I bet my own spouse hadn’t heard so much about what I did during the decade I just summarized. I’m glad I found that little pin.

A Little Archeology Trip

Today our Master Naturalist group got to do something I’d been wanting to do since I moved here, which was visit the Gault Site, a really significant place only an hour away from Cameron. I’m so glad we got this arranged, and that it didn’t rain us out today.

the intrepid Master Naturalists, and our host

I just about didn’t get there, since I almost forgot to feed Granny, then couldn’t load my map software, so I had no idea how to get there. Next, I read the transcript of my voicemail from my friend Pamela, and it said the trip was off (in reality that is not what she said). So I went home, re-listened to the message, and loaded the OTHER map software and made it to the place only a minute late.

We enjoyed the benches that meant we didn’t have to stand for four hours.

The Gault Site is private property, so you have to arrange for a visit. But the cool part is that the executive director of the Gault School of Archeological Research, Clark Wernecke, gave the tour. He is one of the best tour guides I ever heard, full of information, humor, and fun. I’m sure he’s done the spiel dozens and dozens of times, but he is so enthusiastic that you’d never know it. I sure learned a lot from him.

Telling us about the layers of soil beneath us.

The site is between Florence and Salado, in a beautiful area that borders a lot of limestone quarries. That’s the key. The area is perfectly sited for human occupation, and apparently has been for at least 16,000 years. That’s right. They found evidence of people living here before the Clovis age, which was previously thought to be the earliest humans lived in the Americas. Wrong!

I just found it beautiful.

So, yes, this is a very important place. It is full, and I mean full, of tools and weapons made from chert, of which flint is one type. It’s the rocks that were all over my old neighborhood in Brushy Creek. They are a kind of natural glass, and wow, are they hard and can be very sharp! The scientists know exactly how each piece they found was used, because they do all sorts of sophisticated tests on them. What looks like a little shard to me could be a part of something interesting, or more likely, things they carved off when making tools, like adl-adls, scraping tools, axes, digging tools and cutting tools.

They area has big mounds in it, called middens, that are where people cooked in rock ovens, threw away trash, etc. That’s where lots and lots of implements were found, as well.

The tools Dr. Wernecke shared

And there is a site of a mammoth kill, which there are only four of in this continent. Dr. Wernecke explained that people didn’t actually go around chasing mammoths. They caught less dangerous and easier things, and ate them for the most part (deer, the horses that used to live here, rabbits, turtles, fish and such). He kept reminding us that people back then were just like us, and would choose what was easier and less dangerous when they could. That made sense.

big trees like to grow in middens

One more fascinating find at the Gault Site was the first evidence of a “building” – a rock foundation in the shape of a rectangle. They knew people used it, because they found different kinds of debris on each side.

The cattle belong to the property owner.

I was disappointed to realize that they are no longer digging for artifacts here and have filled in all the places where they dug. But, they have four million or so things to look at, and that will take a long, long time to analyze as it is. Some of our chapter members got to see the site when it was active, and I envy them! But, I’m glad they put things back to their original state, mostly.

Fern growing on a cliff. It’s a cliffbrake.

Also while we were there, we enjoyed hiking through the beautiful woodland valley. You could see how ancient peoples would have enjoyed it, even through the changes it’s gone through. They even found evidence of where the little creek used to go ages ago, which means it’s been there a long time!

There are all kinds of trees, including many kinds of oaks, such as the delicious bur oak, whose acorns could feed people. There were also walnuts, bois d’Arc, cedar elms, and more. I saw lots of butterflies, especially Queen butterflies and honey bees on the frostweed that’s blooming right now.

This place was magical and awe inspiring. To think that humans have lived in this area for so long is really humbling. If you ever get offered a chance to visit this important archeological site, please do. I’m not able to share all the fascinating facts we learned…there are just too many. But wow, it’s only an hour from my house that they found evidence of human settlement so long ago. Wow.

Book Report: A History of the World in 6 Glasses

Rating: 4 out of 5.

You know a book is good when you start repeating things you learn in it to everyone you talk to. This one, A History of the World in 6 Glasses, by Tom Standage (2006), is one of those books, all right. I never would have even heard of it, but it was referred to in This Is Your Mind on Plants, and it sounded so interesting that I ordered it, along with a book on coffee, as soon as I finished Michael Pollan’s book.

They had to work hard to make that cover do what it needed to do.

The fun premise of the 6 Glasses book is to look at how the preferred beverages of humans throughout history (beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola) affected their health, civilization, and progress. It’s so full of tidbits that I’d never thought of before that it did a GREAT job of relaxing me over the weekend and getting my mind off the rest of my life. Here are a few things I learned (don’t worry there’s LOTS more):

  • Beer was one of the main reasons people stopped being nomadic and started settling down: they needed to store it.
  • Beer, wine, coffee, and tea were important because they had properties that made water safer to drink. Boiling water to make beer, tea and coffee killed germs, and antibacterial properties of wine did the same.
  • The Greeks and Romans thought it barbaric to drink wine straight. It had to be watered down.
  • The first corporate logo to be developed was for Twinings Tea.
  • One reason there were so many sugar cane plantations needed in the New World (and thus the need for so many slaves) was all the English people insisting on sugaring their tea.
  • Oh, so much more, especially about history and how these beverages affected it.
  • Coffee is legal and encouraged because it makes workers more effective and alert.

I really enjoyed reading about all sorts of noble people and their beverage obsessions, but also how even the regular folks had their beverages. People were paid in beer for much of recorded history (THAT helped start writing systems!). There have always been systems to show social standing by what kind of wine or tea you serve and how you serve it.

Standage gives just enough information about each drink to keep you wanting more, without bogging you down in chemistry or complexities, so it’s fun as well as educational. That’s my kind of book!

By the way, I’m not the only one who ordered books after reading This Is Your Mind on Plants. Kathleen ordered two different books that Pollan referred to. He makes you just want to keep reading and reading!

Book Report: Red—The History of a Color

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I talked earlier about how fond I am of the color red and how much I enjoyed the session on cochineal, a red dye, last week. So, naturally, the first of the series of color books by Michel Pastoureau I just got that I’m going to report on is Red: The History of a Color.

Beautiful book!

The quality of this book is drool-worthy. Each book in the series is hefty and dense. The paper for the pages is so thick, and the printing is sublime. The illustrations are so interesting that I’ll go back to this book over and over.

Example of one of the illustrative images. This is by Jan Van Eyk.

While I did get lost in the photos, I also learned a lot about how red figured throughout European history. It was the most important color up until the last few centuries, when blue took over. Boo, blue (I guess I’ll be more on Team Blue when I read the blue volume).

My kitchen is Team Red, too.

The author teaches us a lot about how color has been perceived by humans, which I learned from earlier color books, but the focus on red and how it was perceived earlier than colors other than black and white made the history pretty memorable. it turns out names for many colors show up quite late, as the chapter on pink showed.

Pink and red at my house. Also, roosters were revered because of their bright red combs!

I enjoyed learning a lot about how people dressed through European history, and not just the royalty and rich people. Peasants always liked red!

Sapphire points out that her breed had particularly red combs, and eyes.

Any book in this series would be a nice gift for an artsy or crafty friend. A high-quality book on your favorite color that’s also a work of art in itself—what’s not to love? And red’s the color of love!

Book Report: Caste – The Origins of Our Discontent

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Oh my. Here’s a book you probably should read. I guarantee you won’t “enjoy” it, but you may well be a better person for having read it. You know how they say there are things you can’t “un-see?” Well, this book hammers you with things that you won’t be able to “un-read” even if you want to.

I set it on a pretty backdrop.

I had to stop reading Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, by Isabel Wilkerson, for a couple of weeks, because I was having nightmares about lynchings and beatings. I was ignorant of how many there were in the 20th century, as well as how people came to see the lynched people, took photos with them, and even sent postcards of it, until the Post Office banned them. Nightmare stuff. This was in my parents’ lifetime.

That’s just one example of what Wilkerson shares as she lays out the history and consequences of what she defines as the two-caste system in the US, which is unique to this country. Oh boy, makes me so not proud. Makes me sick.

Taking a break to breathe.

She also makes it frighteningly clear how similar the US caste system parallels the way Nazi Germany was set up. What horrified me most was learning that they based their system for de-humanizing the Jews and others on how the high-caste people in the US made people from Africa into non-humans, to justify how they were treated in the slave economy. I got sick to my stomach just typing this.

Yeah, it’s a hard book to read. But it’s so important to look at the way Black people have been treated here in the US and (most important) how they continue to be treated up until the present. Especially for those of us who just happened to be born in the high caste, if you don’t have this information presented to you, right in your face, it’s easy to assume everything’s just fine, because, heck WE like our black colleagues and friends and treat them well. Oops. Not true.

Breathing some more. What a lovely morning sky. Sure looks like our electric pole is slanted.

No, things are NOT better, and no, people have not stopped treating lower-caste people as less than human. Yes, progress has been made, but all you have to do is look at how panicked a large portion of the white people in the US got when a Black man became President. Preserving the status quo turns out to be more important for this group than many things that might help them as a group (and that’s all I’ll say about this; read the book).

In good news, not all the book makes you sick to your stomach if you have any empathy at all for fellow humans. Wilkerson does talk about interesting historical parallels in India and talks about ways to make things better. Like I’ve always thought, she concludes that actually getting to know people and seeing their common humanity, one at a time, is how ANY of us can work to break the caste system down.

People who show a greater sense of joint responsibility to one another when they see their fellow citizens as like themselves.

page 353

It’s just that we still have a lot of work ahead of us, and it will go way slower if we don’t actually LISTEN to our fellow citizens, even when it hurts.

I did not exactly “enjoy” the journey through this book, but I’m glad I embarked on it. And I am glad I finished.

The chapter of Caste that gobsmacked me was the one at the end, where she shares the consequences of the caste system and the fear and distrust it engenders in the US. When put in the context of the rest of the world, this is one weird place. Examples from the book:

Americans own nearly half the guns in the world owned by civilians.

If the U.S. prison population were a city, it would be the fifth largest in America.

page 355

I know this is not a popular thing to say right now, but I can see why so many of my friends are moving to other countries. I’ve just been conveniently ignoring a lot of things that are right in front of my face, passively watching fellow Americans support and encourage the caste system, and failed to do the work needed to make this a good place for all of us. I’m so afraid of the dominant caste and the masses it’s indoctrinated that I’m not much better than them.

Well, that is changing, thanks to what I’ve been learning this year, and I’m just going to have to deal with the nasty consequences from fearful fellow citizens. It’s not like I have to be on the defensive every second of every day like so many Black people, the ones I know and care about included, must deal with. Because, as Wilkerson notes:

There are thriving, prosperous nations where people do not have to sell their Nobel Prizes to get medical care, where families don’t go broke taking care of elderly loved ones, where children exceed the educational achievements of American children, where drug addicts are in treatment rather than in prison, where perhaps the greatest measure of human success – happiness and a long life – exists in greater measure because they value their shared commonality.

pp. 353-54

I don’t know for sure how I came out this way, having grown up in the American South. But I don’t want to see people’s potential wasted just because of what they look like or where their parents were born. We need all the contributions of all the brilliant humans out there…so maybe we can live in peace. I’m still gonna try, no matter how cynical books like this make me.

Not gonna give up. Image from peaceoneday.org – Peace Day is September 21!

Cameron History Note

We’ve decided to activate the website for The Hermit Haus, our meeting center at the former First Christian Church in Cameron. We are interested in knowing more of the history of the church, and would love it if any of you know about events or people of interest that happened during the long history of the church.

First Christian Church member Marie Jones Braden

For example, did you know that Tommy Lee Jones’ mother was a church member? Apparently someone knew that and told Mandi! Head on over to the blog for the Hermit Haus and read more about Marie Jones Braden!

While you’re there, we appreciate suggestions for the website and blog, since it’s new. We are excited that we may get to host the El Camino Real Master Naturalist meetings and class there next year. Anyone else want to rent out the building for meetings? The upstairs is all set! The downstairs still needs air conditioning, though!

Book Report: The Secret Wisdom of Nature

Yay! It’s time for another naturalist-centered book report. This book, which IS about the entire earth, has the extra-lengthy title of:

The Secret Wisdom of Nature: Trees, Animals, and the Extraordinary Balance of All Living Things – Stories from Science and Observation

Buy it here!

It’s by Peter Wohlleben, the German forester who wrote The Inner Life of Animals, which I reviewed recently. It’s the third volume in a trilogy that started with The Hidden Life of Trees, which I promise to finish and review, too.

You’ve just got to like Wohlleben, because he does not give a hoot if others think his ideas are not quite “scientific” enough or if he’s personifying non-human entities. Nope, he just calls things as he sees them, and seeing is his specialty. He doesn’t just look around his forest or anywhere else he visits, he carefully observes from the macro level to the micro level, and from the far past to the present. He doesn’t hesitate to ponder about the future, either. To me, this is the kind of teacher we all need, because he inspires all his readers to think beyond stereotypes and actually pay attention to what’s going on in front of them.

All the scientists out there will also appreciate that he backs up his observations with recent scholarship and provides us with a hefty bibliography for further exploration.

Why is this important?

As I was reading this book, I began to get a sinking feeling of concern. Wohlleben chronicles all sorts of ways humans have interfered with the interconnected web of life on this planet, and how the consequences are very far reaching. Changing the types of trees in European forests meant some organisms had nowhere to live, while others could march in and find new homes (or eat new things). Not having enough shade in the forest also meant huge differences.

Continue reading “Book Report: The Secret Wisdom of Nature”

Book Report: The Biohistory of Alachua County, Florida

Note: this post is about the history of a single county in north Florida. I am quite aware that there were civilizations, settlements, and migrations throughout North America long before events I talk about here. In fact, my own ancestors were in Florida long, long before Alachua County was settled.

While we were visiting Gainesville, the county seat of Alachua County, Florida, I bought this slim book (published in 2015), mainly because I wanted to know what a “biohistory” was. The subtitle of this little gem, which was written by Francis William (Bill) Zettler, is “The story of life in north central Florida through the ages.” It turns out the book is based on a popular class Zettler taught for many years at the University of Florida.

I had to take a photo of the book, since I couldn’t find a nice image.

He uses the term “biohistory” to refer to his method of presenting the biological features of the area in chronological order. It turns out to be very enlightening and makes me want to read a biohistory of other areas where I’ve lived.

One thing that helped keep the book short is that Florida was underwater a long time, so there were no dinosaurs to talk about. It also helped that Florida was hard to get to, so animals, as well as humans, took their time showing up once the land mass revealed itself. I’d never thought of that!

But eventually there were lots of giant mammals (megafauna), like huge sloths, beavers, mammoths, and shovel-toothed elephants (cool). They did fine until the humans finally showed up and killed them all pretty quickly, leaving only animals we see today (deer and such). There were also camellids and different kinds of horses, which all escaped to live in Asia and South America.

Continue reading “Book Report: The Biohistory of Alachua County, Florida”

History Lesson, Walker’s Creek Edition

Today my friend Melanie Reed, who’s a native to these parts, went with me over to the Milam County Museum to do some research on projects we are working on. She’s looking into the history of two parks in town, while I was looking to learn more about the old church and home we own in Cameron.

Postcard mailed in 1912 showing the building that once stood where our church is now.

I did find a postcard that was a picture of the First Christian Church building as it looked in the early twentieth century. That one burned down.

We met with Charles King, the director of the museum, who brought us some books with old photographs of the county. I was surprised to see so many large churches and schools in what are now tiny hamlets, like Maysfield and Milano. Charles and Melanie told me Milano (where our Master Naturalist Meetings are held) once had a population of 10,000! Wow! It’s between 200-300 now, though it seems like I keep meeting people who live there.

Charles was kind enough to dig up a book and newspaper article about the people who built our house on Gillis St., the Pope family. I’ll use that for my writing about that house on the Hermit Haus blog.

Continue reading “History Lesson, Walker’s Creek Edition”

Mysterious Flower Lady

I think I have too many reference materials. But I tell you what, I like that I’ve become so curious about the things I run across that I look into lots and lots of details. Today I’ll share what I learned about a humble painter of ceramics. And hey, if you know anyone from Gainesville, Florida, ask them about her.

These plates are in my bathroom. All were my mother’s. She was a big fan of purple. The three on the bottom were painted by Lula E. Moser.

I grew up in a house full of china with flowers all over it. My mother had a really impressive collection of decorative plates, cups, and saucers displayed throughout our home, and many sets of china, which my sister and I split. I can’t believe my brother and I didn’t break things, but I think we had a deep fear of touching breakable objects instilled in us from an early age.

I’ve been looking at t his lady, trying to figure out what she’s looking at, my whole life. She is French, from K&G Luneville, I’m guessing early twentieth century.

Mom had a strong set of likes, and those likes were very much like her embroidery themes: flowers, leaves, and more flowers. She had ONE plate with a person on it, this haunting blue scene of an 1890s style woman looking off in the distance. Of course I still have that. The blue lady originally belonged to my grandmother, so I know it’s old, but my limited French has stymied my attempt to pin down dates based on the back of the plate.

Yet another of Mom’s flower items covered with pansies. This was from the “random cup and saucer collection” that I still have more of at my dad’s old house.

So, where did Mom get all those flowery items?

The mysterious Lula E. Moser

Poorly lit, but this is another of the many pansy dishes my mother bought from Lula E. Moser.

My mother really liked hand-painted china (ceramics, really). She especially adored the work of one of her friends in Gainesville, Lula Moser. I can remember driving to her house more than once to get ceramics and painted china from her. I had a white bunny with blue eyes for years, which I think is the only non-flower item they ever got.

Now that I look at this, I see the artist signed it L.E. Moser. Hmm.

Mom had many, many plates with painted pansies or violets on them. The photos I’m sharing are NOT all of them by any means. As you may have guessed, I got most of them, because I happen to also like pansies and violets. This has led to all of my houses having something to do with flowers in their theme, since that’s what I have and I love it. When I see all those Lula E. Moser plates, I think of Mom, just like with the embroidery she did.

The street (Boulevard) where Lula Moser lived much of her life. It also happens to be where I hung out a LOT as a little kid.

I always wondered who Lula Moser was and why they were always visiting. So, who was Lula E. Moser? Good question. She was not a famous artist, but she sure loved painting ceramics. She was of my grandmother’s generation (born on my birthday, March 5, in 1903, in Ohio), and my sister tells me she lived in one of those lovely old houses across from the duck pond (also known as my favorite place on this here earth). Canova also said Lula was a beautiful woman with very white hair.

This map shows you many things. Like that Lula lived between my house and my grandmother’s house. ALSO! The park I played in as a kid is now named after TOM PETTY!

From my sleuthing I discovered she was briefly married to a man named Frank Parker (an Austrian, originally named Frank Joseph Paukert), who was a television camera operator way back in the 50s. I actually found this info on his naturalization form when he became a US citizen.

Most of her life, though, Lula lived alone in a big house, painting ceramics and talking to my grandmother and mother. My sister says that on most visits, they came home with a new object.

This is her parents’ headstone. Sadly, there are no photos of her headstone, or of her, that I can find.

Lula died in 1989 and is buried in Ohio, where apparently the rest of her family lived. Why did she stay in Gainesville all those years, alone? A woman of mystery. Maybe I’ll name the woman on my blue plate Lula.

More on my nature art tomorrow. This got long.

PS: Want to know more about the beauty of old Gainesville, Florida? Check out the B&B that used to be the “haunted hippie house” across the street from my grandmother.

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