Tuesday, June 20, 2017

God's Children

Archibald Rutledge, God’s Children, 1947  (I read the Kindle edition of this book). 

            I have a love and hate relationship with this book.   Archibald Rutledge had an ability to see beauty and complexity everywhere.  A lover of nature and the beauty of his family’s South Carolina’s plantation, he was able to convey the awe he experienced in nature into words that delight the reader.  Yet, as he was writing in the early 20th Century, there is a strong sense of paternalism in how he relates to the African American sharecroppers who worked the land.  He claims to love them and credits them for helping him experience the fullness of nature, yet he’s a man of his time.  It doesn’t seem to bother him that he lives in the big house and they live in shacks. 
            However, Rutledge saw himself responsible responsible for the welfare of those who live around his plantation. “The whole business of government, especially the unpleasant details of taxes, is to a plantation Negro a dark and mysterious affair,” he writes.  Then he tells the story about Jim, an African American man who was delinquent on his poll tax and about to lose his land.  Rutledge spoke to the Sheriff who said Jim had to pay the sum or he would have to claim title.  Rutledge paid it, and expected Jim to work his debt off.  But the Sheriff later asked if Jim was over 60 years old, saying if so, he’d be exempt from the poll tax.  Talking with the Jim, Rutledge realized that he had no idea of when he was born.  He asked about things he could remember in order to determine his age.  He remembered being of “good sense” (which would have meant around 6-7 years old) when there was the Great Shake (the earthquake that damaged Charleston in 1886).  This put him over 60 years of age.  Archibald received a refund.  Reading this, I was amazed Jim would have to play a poll tax because I am sure he wasn’t able to vote South Carolina at that time.  Although it was noble of Rutledge to champion Jim’s cause, he followed it up with a joke about how now plantation owners are the slaves, as he noted how they are responsible for the descendants of slaves. I’m sure if Rutledge was writing today and not in 1947, such views would not be published or at least not received well by the general public.
            Yet, there is much wisdom and beauty in his writings.  “[L]ife is enlivened by its uncertainty, as it is made dearer by its insecurity and its brevity.  As the long look of the setting sun lights up the fading landscape (especially an autumnal one) with more tenderness than the morning mysterious glamours…”  This portion of a sentence (Rutledge was no Hemingway as I quoted only half the sentence) captures the wisdom and beauty of his words.  Life everywhere is made up of roses and razor blades, arsenic and azaleas,” displays the paradox Rutledge saw in life.  Writing about the African American cemetery, he says:  “There the mighty pines towered tallest; there the live oaks stood druidlike; there the jasmines rioted freely over hollies and sweet myrtles, tossing their saffron showers high in air.  As children, Prince and I dreaded this place.” His sentence structure is often complex and his words ring of poetry.
            In this book, Rutledge tells of hunting and fishing with his African American friends around the plantation.  Some of the stories are from his youth, such as when he and Prince caught a poisonous water moccasin while fishing and used it to scare the plantation’s cook (I thought of my own experience of almost catching such a snake).  Some of the stories seem a bit fanciable such as Mobile, the huntsman, hunting next to the rice paddies where workers were busy.  His wife was working in the paddy and their infant child was left to sleep on a dike.  When an eagle swooped down and grabbed the child, Mobile took aim and, from a long distance, shot the bird and saved the child.  Another story involved a traveling man with a monkey.  The monkey grabbed a child and took it up on the roof of the house, requiring another heroic and comic rescue.  
            Rutledge shares the plantation folk stories such as the one about the “Walk Off People.”  When Adam and Eve were first created, all wasn’t well in paradise. Adam liked to hunt and fish so much that Eve was bored and threatened to leave him.   So God created more people so Eve would have company, but it was late in the day.  God said he’d come back and put brains in these newly created people, but some of them “walked off” and never got their brains.  This story not only explains those without “good sense” but perhaps also those who move in on a married woman that has played second fiddle to her husband’s interests.
            Rutledge spends most of the fifth chapter writing about the religion of his African American neighbors.  The only place he gives insight into his own beliefs is where he addresses the fundamentalists need to understand how “the worship of nature and God go hand in hand, and that he who worships the God of the universe is usually ready to accept Christ as the Son of that God.”  Earlier in the book, he remarked how the folk saying, “Prayers never gets grass out of de field” illustrated the truth about faith without works! 
            I highly recommend this book, which is available on Amazon Kindle for a minimal cost (I think I paid 99 cents).  But I remember this book with a warning. This was written sixty years ago and recalls stories that are over a hundred years old.  Today, paternalistic views are criticized.  Yet, the reader who understands the world in which Rutledge was writing will appreciate his attempt at honoring those who lived on the plantation as well as the magic of the land. The author grew up on this plantation, then moved north for college and to teach in Pennsylvania.  In the mid-1930s, he moved back to the plantation, to help restore it and lived there until his death in 1973.  He also served for 40 years at the poet laureate of South Carolina and published over 50 books and numerous articles, many about the outdoor life.  Today, the plantation is a state historic site. 
 “There is, I think, no lovelier land than the old plantation regions of the Carolinas—a land of hyacinth days and camellia nights.  Nature there triumphs in giant trees, in great rivers, in lustrous fragrant fields, in an exotic profusion of wild flowers.”   

                                                     -Archibald Hamilton Rutledge. 1883-1973

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Last Friday on the Water


Chicks peaking out of their nest

The osprey chicks, in nest built on top of the two navigation markers leading out of Delegal Creek, are maturing.  As I leave the marina and paddle out of the creek with the falling tide, the parents do their usual dance.  As I get closer, they begin to cry out and then stand tall on their nest and spread their wings before flying.  At first they approach me in a threatening manner, then head to a tree in the marsh where they continued their cry as I paddle past.  This happens every time there are eggs or chicks in the nest, only this time the young chicks are large enough to bop their heads up to see what’s happening.  It won’t be long before they fledge and take off on their own. 

Approaching nest at mouth of Delegal Creek
Last Friday, I took the late morning outgoing tide to Wassaw Beach.  It’s a warm day, but not too hot and with enough of a sea breeze to keep me cool as I paddle. With the tide in my favor, I make the five mile paddle in just over an hour, pulling my boat up on the beach and enjoying lunch.  Just up the beach from me are two families who’d made the trip in two powerboats.  The two men have rods out in the water, which are sticking in the back of their boats while they sip on beer in the shade of beach umbrellas.  They catch a few small sharks (thankfully they release them) but the sight of the sharks is enough to keep the children out of the water and for their wives to caution them about getting too close to the sharks’ mouth, warning they might bite off a finger. 
Approaching south end of Wassaw
 
Osawbaw is in the distance, to the left is open ocean
After lunch, I pull my boat up higher on the beach and take my hammock, a book and journal, and head off for some privacy.  I walked around the south end of the island.  The high water mark is a graveyard of dead (and stinking) horseshoe crabs.  At the southern tip of the island, and just far enough inland to avoid the stench, but not so far as to block the sea breeze, I find two pines where I can string my hammock.  The site affords me a nice view of the water and Ossabaw Sound to the south. I plop myself in the hammock, enjoying the constant breeze, for some reading and an afternoon nap.  The tide is turning around 3 PM, but I’m not in a hurry.  After waking from a nap, I watch a pod of bottle-nosed dolphins play and fish in the water just feet from the shore.  I’m sure the sharks, who tend to avoid dolphins and porpoises, have cleared out.  Many times I have been fishing and, like the guys I’d seen earlier in the afternoon, and have been catching lots of what we called sand sharks, only to have dolphins show up and the sharks to clear out.  I also notice that the humidity has dropped for Ossabaw Island, which is at least three miles away, appears a lot closer than when I fell asleep.

Dead horseshoe crabs at high water mark

relaxing!
 At 5:30 PM, I pack up, stow everything in my kayak, and paddle back home.  The breeze has picked up and waves are on the water, which makes for a more interesting paddle (and an easier one as I am often able to ride the waves).  I make good time heading back.  As I enter Delegal Creek, the Osprey again greet me with their usual dance as I pass the navigation markers.
 As I am loading up my kayak on top of the car, a number of kayakers began arriving, planning for an evening paddle while watching the nearly full moon rise.  I am tempted to join them.

Adult osprey approaching nest





Tuesday, June 06, 2017

John Knox (and dreams of Scotland)

I'm heading to Scotland in a few weeks, so it was a good time to read a recent biography of the Scottish Reformer, John Knox.  Here's my review:



Jane Dawson, John Knox, (New Haven: Yale, 2015), 373 pages, index and notes and 8 pages of illustrations.


John Knox, the Protestant Reformer of Scotland, is often portrayed as a dour masochistic preacher and an opponent of Mary, Queen of Scots. In this new biography of the Scottish Reformer Jane Dawson paints a different view of the man. She begins with a description of Knox having his first child baptized in Geneva, while he was exiled.  It was a happy time of life for a man who was often depressed.  But then, Knox had a rough life.  George Wishart, who led Knox into the Protestant fold, was burned at the stake in St. Andrews, Scotland, only six weeks after Knox’s conversion.  After the first attempt to bring reform failed in Scotland, with Mary Guise reclaiming Catholic control of Scotland, Knox found himself chained to an ore in the galley of a ship.  This was a time of physical suffering from which Knox never fully recovered.  After being freed, Knox went to England where he served as a pastor, but as the Catholics began to roll back some of the early reforms in England, he fled to Europe, where he met with John Calvin in Geneva and Henry Bullinger in Zurich.

Knox was always a bit ornery.  He fought against the prayer book of the Anglican Church, a conflict that would continue to haunt him on the continent especially during his tenure with the English congregation in Frankfurt. While in Geneva, he helped produce the Geneva Bible (an English Bible that was considered so anti-royalty that it encouraged King James to call for another translation), the Psalter, and a book on church discipline.  Knox and Calvin had different views of the church.  Calvin felt the true church needed two “marks”: the preaching of the Word and the sacraments.  Knox added a third mark: discipline.  Knox concern for church discipline and the “cleansing of the church,” reflects his black and white views, but also made him less willing to compromise.  Knox could get overly zealous.  When he first arrived on the continent, both Calvin and Bullinger encouraged him to cool down.  His zealous attitude certainly contributed to the willingness for the church to continue to separate and splinter, an attitude that pervades Protestantism. 

Knox later returned to Scotland, having been invited by royalty who were devoted to the Protestant cause.  He would serve as a chaplain for the Lords of the Congregation during their fight against the Catholic forces in Scotland.  This was a troubling time.  Scotland was involved in a civil war.  There was always a chance that France would come to the aid of Catholics in Scotland.  Knox, having spent time in England, had a vision of a united Protestant island (this would come about long after his death).   It was also an interesting time, as religion was not the only dividing issue. There were even Protestants who support Mary, Queen of Scots. Knox had his own battles with the English reformation (especially on the Prayer Book and vestments).  The author points out how Knox’s stubbornness kept the Scottish and English Reformations separate.

Another example of Knox stubbornness was his first book, a tract written against female leadership.  John Calvin warned against publishing this tract, suggesting he might come to regret it.  The tract was primarily directed at the Catholic Marys (there were three and Mary Guise appears to have been more problematic than the better known Mary Queen of Scots).  His harsh language against women leadership was so strong Queen Elizabeth (a Protestant) also detested Knox for it.  It is this tract that normally leads people to consider Knox to be masochistic, but as Dawson points out, Knox actually got along well with women. There were several women whom he regularly solicited advice.  He also loved both of his wives and was in deep grief following his first wife’s death.  (His courtship and marriage of his first wife is interesting, as she came with her mother and her father wrote her out of his will.)

Bouts of depression often haunted Knox.  He was constantly in fear of losing the Reformation in Scotland, a fear that was based on the political reality more than a theological trust in God.   In an era where most sermons were from the New Testament, Knox often preached from the Old Testament.  He saw himself as a modern day Ezekiel.  His favorite book (his anchor) was the Gospel of John and at his death he asked to have the 17th Chapter of John’s Gospel.  Although Knox’s preaching was strong, criticism of sermons bothered him and he took such comments personally.   Later in his life, his voice was so weak that he struggled to preach (often preaching in the chapel instead of the main sanctuary).   

 In addition to the tons of material available on Knox’s life, Dawson drew upon the papers of Christopher Goodman that have only recently been made available.  Goodman and Knox worked together when they were both exiled on the Continent (working with English speaking congregations in Frankfurt and Geneva) and later in Scotland.  Although Goodman left Scotland for Ireland (Knox even considered joining him there in an evangelical mission), the two remained close the rest of their lives through correspondence.


This book is a great introduction to the life of John Knox and the world in which he lived.  Knox is a complicated man.  There were much to admire in him, as well as stuff to detest.  His view of a "united kingdom," that would eventually come about, was prophetic, but his strict view of the church brought a harshness into Presbyterianism that has been hard to shake. 

Friday, June 02, 2017

A few sailing photos

The past two weeks I've been battling a cold.  I am sure my daughter gave it to me on our drive back from Princeton, NJ.  Thankfully, I'm on the downhill run, but I haven't had a lot of energy.  I haven't been to the gym since getting back nor have I sailed or kayak.  I did go out for a bike ride one afternoon, but after about 4 miles, found myself hacking and coughing and rode home at a slower pace.  Last Saturday it was my turn on the committee boat to run our weekend regatta.  I took these photos then (I don't often take photos when racing, only when going out for pleasure sails or on the committee boat).  Enjoy the photos.  It was a warm day, highs in the low 90s with a nice steady wind of 10-12 miles an hour.


Downwind spinnaker run 

Way out front (other boats are rounding the leeward mark)

Crossing the line
Weather holding, I'll be sailing tomorrow.  My daughter's boyfriend is coming in for the weekend and he wants to try sailing, so this will be a new experience for me.  So far, I like him so I won't be tempted to knock him out of the boat with the boom on an "accidental" jibe.  

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Blood of Emmett Till

Timothy B. Tyson, The Blood of Emmett Till (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017), 291 pages.  Index, bibliography and notes.  

The story is well known.  In 1955, Emmett Till, a fourteen year old boy from Chicago travels to Mississippi to spend the summer with relatives.  He says something to Carolyn Bryant, a clerk in a small grocery store and whistles at her as she goes out to fetch a pistol from her car.  Till is later kidnapped in the middle of the night, brutally tortured, killed, and his body is dumped in a river.  We know so much about this story, compared to other lynchings, because of Till's mother.  She refused to let the story be buried.  She insisted that her son have an open casket funeral.  She contacted Chicago black community leaders who helped spread the word around the world, creating a media event.  Soon, Emmett Till is a well-known name, synonymous with lynchings.  

Much of this story has been told many times.  What is new with Tyson's account is his interview with Carolyn Bryant.  Even after reading the book, we still don't know exactly what happened between Emmett and Carolyn inside that grocery story.  However, in the interview, Carolyn admits he didn't grab her around the waist.  She doesn't remember all what what was said that evening.  There have been so many years and the stories been told and retold, leaving her questioning what was said.  However, one thing she is certain of, "Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him."(7)

Carolyn's husband and brother-in-law were arrested shortly after Till's body was discovered by a fishermen.  Their trial brought reporters from all over the world along with an African American congressman from Detroit.  The trial became a showcase of life in the segregated South. (They had to have separate reporter tables in the courtroom for African-American press).  Although there were irregularities in the handling of the case, such as the Sheriff visiting a key witness to suggest that he think about what he testifies in court, the trial itself goes smoothly and appears fair.  Yet the jury only deliberated a short time before returning a not-guilty verdict.  Although many expected the verdict, most knew the men were guilty and a few years later, with them safe from another trial, they admitted as much.  Most of the the African-Americans who testified in the trial, in fear for their lives, immediately leave Mississippi and relocated up north.  

In telling the story, Tyson doesn't just show the horrifying conditions of African-Americans in the South.  He tells of the conditions in the North, especially in segregated Chicago, where Till grew up.  There are also questions left hanging such as what happened to the two black men who worked on the plantation Carolyn Bryant's brother-in-law ran, who helped subdue Till in the back of the truck as they rode around in the early morning hours looking for a place to do the terrible deed.

Although the book is well written, it is not an easy story to read.  Yet, it is a story that needs to be told and retold.  This event only happened a little over sixty years ago.  In the Epilogue, Tyson attempts to bridge the events in 1955 with the current “Black Lives Matter” campaigns.   As a member of the dominant culture, this book provides interesting insights into what other have had to endure not that long again.

This is the third book I've read by Timothy Tyson. The first was Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and It's Legacy, which he co-edited with David Cecelski. In 2007, I read and reviewed Blood Done Signed My Name. Tyson seems to have a thing for books with blood in the title, yet sadly much of the racial history of our country is stained with blood.