Book Report: Caste – The Origins of Our Discontent

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Old Catholic Cemeteries

Yesterday was certainly the most active Christmas I’d spent in a long time. That’s great, because going on walks with my kids is among the greatest pleasures in my life. I love listening to them talk about their lives, about local history, and about the plants and animals we see along the way.

Another beautiful old stone, right next to what appears to be an old windmill, which was converted to a bathroom, Not a nice one, according to my kids.

The house we are staying in has views of the local Catholic cemetery, past the radio station. So, while our turkey was cooking, we took a walk over to see it. There were many, many headstones in the local granite, so the colors were nice. There obviously weren’t too many Catholic families, since certain names repeated often, such as Klein. There were many, many Klein graves.

Many of the beautiful grave markers in this cemetery are in German.

There was a very large section of children’s graves, which made me sort of sad. You could tell when that flu epidemic occurred in the early 1900s. Declan and Rylie took a lot of artistic photos of each other, which is a charming thing they like to do. Kynan had gone running, which is also a thing he likes to do, but he joined us at the end.

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