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Getting the Story Right

The presentation of the flag of the Mohican Nation to Historic Huguenot Street on September 20, 2019. Photo © copyright Carol Bergman

 

 

 

Listen to us and the great good spirit will reward your goodness. If you should finally shut your ears may that great spirit forgive you.

 

Hendrik Aupaumut in a letter to the New York State Legislature, 1790

 

 

We were sitting under a big white tent on Historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz, NY on land that many still believe belongs to the descendants of the indigenous people who settled here more than 7,000 years before the Europeans arrived. It was an historic occasion, and an emotional one. Henrick Aupaumut's letter had been presented to the historic site as a gift, and it tells a complicated story within and between it's formal, diplomatic words. Written after the American Revolution, it argues for the restoration of land stolen by the Dutch, British, and French Huguenot colonists from the indigenous inhabitants of upstate New York and beyond. Hendrik Aupaumut  had fought on the American side during the war; he expected to be heard.
 
So vast and diverse was the land on which the indigenous population once roamed, that historians can define swaths of settlements, but no clear borders. Nomadic, intermarried, culturally and linguistically connected, the suvivors of war, disease and even enslavement, migrations and diplomatic councils were constant, more so after the Europeans arrived. Once eracinated and dispossesed, there was little hope of return to sacred land, a concept the tribes still hold dear. Their rich history is still not properly taught in our schools. 
 
Mary Etta Schneider, President and Board Chair of Historic Huguenot Street, and a French Huguenot descendant herself, got up to speak. I have heard her speak before, but never with so much feeling. "We are on a journey," she said. "We are learning. And we want to get the story right."  The audience went silent. Perhaps they were expecting a sterile academic lecture and nothing more. Indeed, there was a lecture, eventually—and a fascinating one—by  scholar Lisa Brooks, but first there was a ceremony. Two councilmen from the Stockbridge-Munsee band of the Mohican Nation were in attendance—they had traveled from Wisconsin—as well as the tribe's Preservation Officer, Bonney Hartley, who sits on the HHS Board.
 
As in times of old, Algonquin was spoken and translated by the speakers themselves, which in itself was startling, that this language is still extant and used.

 

Mary Etta Schneider's hand went over her heart as she returned to her seat after the gifts were exchanged. This is a continuing and permanent partnership, she had promised. The flag of the Munsee-Stockbridge Band will now fly on a pole on Huguenot Street.
 
It was an important gathering—truth and reconciliation—and one I will remember for a long time. I congratulate Historic Huguenot Street for their continuing efforts at re-interpretation of the fault lines in our history that haunt our historic sites, and this particular site in the town I now call home.

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They Live Among Us

An open gate leads to a field. Animals do not see gates, fences, or borders.
Photo: © copyright Carol Bergman 2019

 

A deer crossed my path as I began my walk down Huguenot Street yesterday. I was not startled as I am used to them by now. We also have coyotes, bears and ground hogs in abundance in these mountains. Very few are hit on the road, which is gratifying. People are careful, respectful, even reverent. These creatures live among us, we live among them; we share the environment. And we are, presumably, stewards of this shared environment.

 


It was early morning and parishioners were arriving for a Sunday service at the Dutch Reformed Church. The sky was overcast and it was still a bit foggy. Then a squirrel joined me, and a white moth, and a couple of hawks, though one of them might have been an eagle.

 

Afterwards, I went to see an exhibition called "Tonalism: Pathway from the Hudson River School to Modern Art" at the Dorsky Museum on the SUNY campus. Though I am familiar with the Hudson River School and Whistler's work, I had never heard of Tonalism and I did not recognize the other painters. The canvases were luminous and as calming as my walk. All of them were landscapes without a human presence. Interestingly, Tonalism emerged after the chaos of the Civil War; it was contemporaneous with Impressionism in Europe.


I wondered what the analogy to a Tonalist's vision might be in writing. Perhaps lyrical landscape poetry. And then I wondered if a "school" of writers or painters will emerge as an antidote to the chaos and worry we are experiencing—the extreme storms, the droughts, the wars, the inhumane politicians at the helm of too many nations, including our own.


How can we restore our weary spirits? Is it possible to retain a contemplative, creative persona in the midst of chaos? If we stop to observe a deer crossing our path, metaphorically speaking, will our creative life flourish?


I was the only one in the gallery, and I could have stayed there all day, though the guards—all young women, all students, all dressed in black—followed me around. I surrendered to their human presence and asked them questions: Do you have a favorite painting here? What are you studying? And so on. It was my choice to connect—my journalist persona, or educator self, I suppose.


The beginning of the term is difficult for working writers who are also teachers as there is a lot to prepare. I have started two book projects—one fiction, one nonfiction—but did not make enough headway during the summer with either of them. Because I am the co-owner of a publishing business, and also have private students, there are manuscripts to read all year long. Therefore, I must intentionally carve out time and space to proceed with my own work. My students have the same struggle as most of them have demanding jobs. We discuss the challenge often, though I offer no remedy; everyone has to find their own rhythmn, their own antidote to chaos and the obligations of daily life if they/we are to remain committed to the writing life.

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Composed to Decompose

Wishin' & Hopin': A Living Quilt by Maria Lupo

 

 

Loss doesn't matter unless you care.

 

Andy Goldsworthy talking about his "Walking Wall"  at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO in an interview with Jeffrey Brown on the NEWSHOUR 8/30/2019

 

 

Our ideas about climate change are evolving rapidly; we are more knowledgeable. Or perhaps we've hit the tipping point and cascaded like a waterfall. In larger numbers, we've moved from acceptance to panic to action in just a few short months. Maybe it was the photos of Katrina, or Puerto Rico, or Haiti, or the Bahamas, that finally pierced the scrim of  complacency. Or the deepening sensation of constant threat, a clock ticking, or a loved one, or acquaintance, or a friend of a friend flooded and homeless. We join a rescue team, fill sandbags, cook soup, donate money, take in a family member, canvass for politicians who care about the future.

 

Because all writers  live in heightened awareness—whether  there is a crisis or not—we need only review the oeuvre of our favorite authors to find a roadmap from past to present, even to the future. Jonathan Franzen is a novelist but he is also a birder. Read his nonfiction pieces from three, four, five years ago, and weep. Read Dickens' descriptions of London blighted by coal, a fossil fuel. His stories were more than entertainments; they were warnings about industrialization and callous government.

 

All art is protest, all of it. We create because we care, we feel the losses, celebrate the accomplishments and joys. We may have agendas of one sort or another, or unconsciously tap into the political discourse, but our stories are documents, collectibles of a certain time and place. We know that polemical screeds are less affective and effective than stories even if they are angry or demanding, so we write in the active voice and always remember that we are telling fiction—or nonfiction—stories.

 

Art and writing about climate change and environmental conservation and degradation are all around us now,  everywhere and ever present. We need only step into it to remain in balance with ourselves and with nature as we decide what one small action we can do to help. At the "Composed to Decompose" site-specific installations at the Unison Arts Center in New Paltz, NY, I felt both elated and repulsed by the artists' visions, as I am sure they intended. I went late in the summer when the weather had cooled and was taken round by Helene and Stuart Bigley, co-founders of the center. Much had already shifted in the landscape, the leaves beginning to turn, the water drying in the stream. The sculptures were also transforming in their embedded locations, ruffled by wind, pelted by rain.

 

My favorite was a "living quilt" by Maria Lupo. Created from discarded tea bags and seeds, and being a tea drinker myself, I was drawn to this piece. It was just there, hanging from the branches of a tree, in the same way as we were just there standing on the wood chip path. I could walk up to the quilt and touch it, or turn to Helene and Stuart and ask a question or  two, or not. There was no barrier or guard rail, no instruction, just a contemplative space to think about our connection to the natural world and one another.

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Robots

Photo © copyright by Carol Bergman 2019

Once I believed that the any expression of civility was only possible face to face, eyeball to eyeball, and voice to voice. And though I have not stopped believing that civility and kindness is best articulated in this way, like everyone else in our fast-moving, post-industrial, digital world, I've had to adapt to cold media—text, email—if I want to stay humanly and humanely interfaced with others of our species.


But I am not a robot, nor do I want to behave like a robot, or to continually answer insincere questions about my anti-robotic nature on security-enhanced medical portals, for example. Am I entering websites and portals, dear reader, or are they entering me, forever changing my neural pathways to resemble... robots? Are the decisions we are making amplified or diminished by the erosion of three-dimensional connections? A rhetorical question.


The other day I arrived at the small, human-scale gym where I work out only to discover that it/they/the franchise owner had decided to "go 24-7." The emergency pull cords were being tested while I was on the bike listening to Annie Lennox—deep, throaty Scottish voice—and I had to dis-mount the bike and hold my ears for the duration of the test. Having been interrupted, I decided to interview the owner. His explanation makes complete (financial) sense—to him. "I wouldn't be able to retire unless I did this," he said, meaning a gym run nearly remotely and robotically with only minimal managerial hours. "It's the "new business model for gyms," he said.


"No more SUNY students at the front desk?"


"They weren't that reliable. The gym can almost run itself."


"Robotically?"


"I wouldn't go so far."


"I found the students congenial and helpful," I said. "They smile, they speak. When this desk is empty, it feels strange. Strange and cold."


"You'll get used to it," he said.


I doubt it.


And there's more, all of it connected to the state of our economy, our education system, and our exploited labor force, a labor force that has little security, works more than one job, has no paid vacation, and is in debt. Every one of the half dozen or so student workers I have met at the gym are struggling to maintain their financial equilibrium while they are studying. Any job is important to them. Most are on scholarship or have loans. Their parents are often struggling. In a small town where opportunities are scarce, the gym once provided a few hours of employment for a handful of students, a contribution to their future, and ours.


Fake news. Fabricated stories. Fantasies. It is well documented by now that it is not immigrants who are threatening our jobs, it is robots. By definition, they have no social conscience.



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