• Just One Pencil

    I have three top drawers to store my many assorted possessions; two in the desks at my home and my workspace and one in my bedroom dresser. By and large, the items found there can be classified under the general headings of mementos and surplus goods. They include matchbooks with two or three remaining matches, funeral cards from relatives and neighbors, Sacagawea and Susan B. Anthony dollar coins, single cufflinks and unmatched socks.

    Then there are certain items that can be reliably found in any of the three drawers. I believe this is because I keep these items as much for their sentiment as for their utility. They are able and ready to serve, even as even my occasional need for them declines a little year by year: the rubber bands, the safety pins, the thumbtacks, and the pencils.

    A casual inventory confirms that I have already saved far more of these pieces than I will ever use. They are easily accumulated since they're so often free. I acquired so many of them in the wake of those funeral cards. The same resolution eventually awaits the bounty currently assigned to me. This precious clutter will surely be counted among my remaining assets.

    I attach a special sentiment to some of the pencils. Like the matchbooks, they advertise businesses, phone numbers, and even purposes that no longer exist. One tall round pencil is from a typewriter repair shop in Fort Wayne. Its color is a gentle green shade that went extict around 1970. It could stand a few more sharpenings and erasures from the other end. But if the pencil gets too much shorter, I'll cut right into the family name. Still, it's not like I can save it for some special occasion, like signing an important document. I've ultimately been in denial; completely forgetting that this pencil's original intention was exactly the use I'm avoiding. There is some small joy that awaits me writing my weekly shopping list with a fifty year old pencil. I'm convincing myself that we both benefit from that choice.

    Achieving a balance between sentiment and utility lies at the very heart of sustainability. Older homes match both grace and function: the tansoms, the porcelain spigots, the sleeping porch, along with the leaded windows, the hardwood bannister, the built-in bookshelves separating the living and dining rooms. The sentiment holds our attention. The function guarantees their continued purpose. The essential responsibility of whoever is the steward and caretaker for this particular stretch of time is the willingness to use and the commitment to maintain. So with these pencils, my task is to make sure the most treasured are included among the ballpoints and highlighter in the chipped coffee cup atop the desk. To encourage my commitment, perhaps a small investment: a sturdy Apsco handcrank sharpener afixed to the basement door frame. To spread the wealth, I ought to bind most all of my remaining inventory with a few of those rubber bands and set them out on the recycling table the next time I drop off the bottles and cans. Maybe this will lead to the safety pins.

    If the only result of this process is to make me a little more conscious of my immediate physical surroundings, then the value of these pencils will have exceeded any notes I could write or corrections I could make. The best tools, after all, not only help you do but also help you be. 


  • Farseeing Art

    "The Magnificent Ambersons" by Indiana native Booth Tarkington was published in 1918. It won the first Pulitzer Prize for Literature. It was selected by the Modern Library as one of the hundred greatest novels of the Twentieth Century. It will be the Big Read for the city of Terre Haute, Indiana in 2014.

    The finest contribution any creative work can make to culture or society is vision. It exhibits the ability to be rooted firmly in a particular, perhaps unexceptional juncture in history and produce something that is timeless. It is seeing what led to a present moment, then holding that thought and that gaze for a quick glimpse into the future. Then the words, or the images, or the sounds are shared.

    This act of sharing doen't mean that the creative work will prosper beyond its time or illuminate the road ahead, especially if the light it offers is too harsh. A good friend of mine in academia tells me Booth Tarkington's novels, while honored during his lifetime, are seldom taught at major universities today. They are regarded as too sentimental, another way of saying that the sensibility and awareness they displayed are inconsistent with the choices we've made as a culture and a society. Encouraging individuals to question what they see around them everyday only becomes revolutionary when someone hears the question.

    And so, this short passage from The Magnificent Ambersons. It is set up by a statement made during a dinner supposedly held one evening early in the last century: "Automobiles are a useless nuisance. They had no business being invented." The thoughtful reply comes from Eugene Morgan, who in the book is developing an early prototype of the horseless carriage. 

    "I'm not sure he's wrong about automobiles. With all their speed forward they may be a step backward in civilization - that is, in spiritual civilization. It may be that they will not add to the beauty of the world nor to the life of men's souls. I think men's minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of automobiles; just how, though, I could hardly guess. But you can't have the immense outward changes that they will cause without some inward ones, and it may be that George is right, and that the spiritual alteration will be bad for us. Perhaps ten or twenty years from now, if we can see the inward changes in men by that time, I shouldn't be able to defend the gasoline engine, but would have to agree with him that automobiles had no business being invented."  


  • It's The Boots

    The numerous measurable snowfalls this winter have given me a chance to put more wear on my Red Wing steel-toed work boots. However hard the winter, I'm confident this wear will be minimal. I've owned these boots for twenty five years, which I doubt is exceptional for Red Wings of this vintage. And even though I've now retired them to snow shoveling duty, the stitching on the bottom soles is still tight and quarters have not split anywhere on either boot.

    Scuffed up, sure, and the heels and laces could use replacing. But with consumer goods increasingly being both non-repairable and non-replaceable, these boots are distinctive in that they can be maintained over time, either by the owner or a shoe repair service. Had I taken the 10 minutes to polish them on occasion, they'd look even better today.

    The machines that make these boots are called Puritan Stitch Machines. The manufacturing process for every pair of Red Wings still requires the skilled hands of shoe builders to guide the stitching path. These Puritan machines were originally patented in 1883 and furnish both a triple-stitch and a wax seal along the boot seams. Simply put, these machines and their operators cannot help but build footwear that is purposed to last and stand up to contant active use. Modern stitching machines more complex, operate more quickly, and and are perhaps just as precise. But they have yet to create a better quality boot.

    The Puritan machines at the Red Wing Factory in Red Wing, Minnesota, built from iron and steel parts, have been in continual service for over 80 years. Much like the footwear they produce, the equipment is durable and can be maintained in face of contant use. Red Wing has its own tannery to produce the high-quality natural leather required for its boots. The century-old company employs a dedicated individual to service the machines full-time. He can tell if they're running correctly just by listening.

    These choices by Red Wing are contrary to the pervasive industry attitudes on how shoes should be manufactured, what materials should be used, and apparently, how much the majority of consumers are willing to pay for a pair of work boots. But that illuminates a crucial component of sustainability. In this current economic and social climate, one can anticipate that supporting the sustainable choices of local manufacture, natural materials, and a quality repairable and replaceable product will require a little more time invested, a little more money spent, and a little more effort generated. In other words, the opposite of what the refinements of technology and business profitabilty are currently designed to enforce.

    The personal choice of dedicating more time, more money, and more effort to achieve a sustainable result can resonably be interpreted as sacrifice. But these personal responses may also accompany the challenges of creating a conscious long-term relationship with what we use and consume. With Red Wing boots, engaging that relationship by paying these added premiums simply reflects the added time, effort, money, and consciousness it took to produce the product in the first place. In this particular case, lucky me: I got mine on sale.

  • Let It Snow


    Reimagining a relationship with nature involves special challenges in the winter, probably in no small part due to our increasingly successful effort as a society and as individuals to insulate ourselves from it. If you travel from attached garage to indoor parking facility to workplace and back, it's possible to navigate the extremes of a winter day with only an occasional inconvenience and an even less frequent shiver.

    Preference with regard to the seasons is as personal as a taste for anchovies. The extremes of winter can be as difficult to embrace as the extremes of summer. It does appear though that one characteristic of global warming will be sudden erratic swings in regional weather patterns. These are not only inevitable in the coming years but will be felt more directly than the gradual and barely noticed changes of a rising sea level or an increase in the planetary mean temperature.

    So if an imposed change produces an individual effect, it welcomes an individual response. How can one draw closer to nature in the face of its selective but random assaults? One guidance provided from tradition is to use nature's materials as a barrier, even as an incentive, to facing nature's elements.

    Among the few reasons I've made my peace with winter are the seasonal items found in my closet. I utilize the natural and uncomplicated here: leather gloves, cashmere and camel hair overcoats, long woolen scarves. They protect against the raw elements in the most subtle and practical ways. Rubber galoshes allow for both traction underfoot and the protection of a good comfortable pair of shoes. A high turned-up collar can be a warm barrier where the body is most sensitive: the back of the neck.

    It is true that these resources can be prohibitively expensive when purchased new. Esquire Magazine features new men's overcoats from trendy designers costing in excess of $1200. Rubber galoshes have been replaced in winter catalogues by insulated all-weather footgear that people wear indoors and out. 

    The solution is to buy these items vintage or at non-trendy local retailers such as army navy stores. You will find the quality is not only meant to survive the winter, but last for decades. Synthetic materials tend to wear out more quickly, whether it's a split seam or a broken zipper. And as you know, they simply defy the ability of anyone to repair them locally.

    True, you will not be supporting the economy as a retail consumer and in terms of style, you will also stand apart from the majority. Your relationship to the nature that surrounds you will become closer, however. Who knows, she might treat you more kindly in return.

  • On The Banks Of The Wabash

    For many people, Terre Haute, Indiana would almost be impossible to perceive as a city of the 21st century. There would certainly be a long list of American cities that would currently be considered more progressive, or more attractive, or providing a greater number of desirable urban resources to its citizens.

    For a moment, I'd like to explore what those resources might actually be. I think it's generally agreed that for a city to emerge as both a liveable and thriving environment over the next generation; that is, a location that is attractive to a substantial number of potential business and residents, it's going to necessary for that city to be widely seen as sustainable. Some of the characteristics that would be essential for its daily function would include walkability, a strong connection to local food supplies, and a noticible presence of nature within the urban fabric.

    The fact that Terre Haute has all of these resources in varying degrees has less to do with any intention or philosophy as it does with the simple reality of what was developed and relied upon by city residents a century ago. An ongoing intimate relationship with the local and with nature was required because of the state of communication, transportation, and agriculture. Terre Haute, like many settlements that were founded in the early 19th century and experienced exponential growth at the beginning of the 20th century, had a profund relationship to the natural world. It also applied a distinctive local signature to many services that are now commonly provided by distant sources.   

    We'll begin with the fact that Terre Haute was established, named even, through its relationship to the Wabash River. Next to the Mississippi, there is no American river that's been written, sung about, or romanticized in our culture as much as the Wabash. Consider that the Paul Dresser composition "On the Banks of the Wabash Far Away" sold over a million copies in 1898. That would be a million copies of sheet music in a country that was less than a quarter of the population it is today.  

    What this means is that the individuals who engaged with this song through these purchases either read and played music themselves, or personally knew someone who did. The music was performed and it was shared in real time. It required someone's relative mastery of a learned skill to accomplish that. In the first decade of the 20th century, approximately 365,000 pianos were sold in America annually. By last year, that number had dropped by over 80%.

    This theme of the individually acquired skill being employed or offered in the present moment to enrich local community is an important component of sutainability. It often involves enriching or exciting the senses of a group of individuals who share the experience collectively. This is a fundamental premise to the concept of Terre Haute past, present, and future as a sustainable urban environment.

    So we'll consider these qualities one at a time. And we'll find them, often under a layer of dust existing in Terre Haute, Indiana.

    Terre Haute as a progressive city, much less a place that could greatly enhance everyday life, is a leap of faith. But I hope to be convincing here in the coming weeks. Hang with me.


  • Birds and Trees

    One lovely feature about Terre Haute, Indiana are the number of streets named after trees. I've long held a fantasy that originally the particular variety of tree was planted on its designated street, Ash trees on Ash Street, sycamores on Sycamore, and so on. That's impractical in contemporary urban environments. The few varieties of street trees that survive, much less thrive, in a daily atmosphere of car exhaust are well known to arborists. Still, I hold onto my belief that when these city streets were first platted in the mid 19th century, such a diverse display might have been contemplated, even attempted. Beyond the fact that internal combustion engines wouldn't become a major pollutant for another century, there was the presence of countless city dwellers who had grown up on the farm and could identify and appreciate nature's rich expressions.

    For these individuals, an intimate connection with the natural world was more than a preference, it defined their quality of life. In Terre Haute, Indiana these transplants from surrounding rural counties created both the demand and consensus around the establishment of the city's impressive municipal park system. They would spend many hours in the temperate months at Forest Park, a short trolley ride from town. Forest Park was a private 500 acre woodland that featured activities such as canoeing, picnicing, and strolling. It was referred to as an amusement park, though it had no mechanized rides of any kind. These early 20th century urban dwellers could identify birds by their songs; constellations by their postion in the sky. They kept small orchards and large gardens in the back yards of their city homes, then canned the seasonal harvests and stored them on shelves in their basements. They took excursion boats up the Wabash River to picnic grounds; just open fields, really, simply to be refreshed in nature and human contact for a single afternoon.

    My early life was spent in Albany, New York on the banks of the Hudson River. There were streets within walking distance to the State Capitol named after birds: Eagle, Hawk, Robin, Partridge, Swan, and Quail. Much of Albany's diverse urban fabric was decimated in the early 1960s by the South Mall project, which destroyed rich, beautiful blocks of classic brick row houses for huge monolithic goverment buildings that forever detracted from the human scale of the city and took a heavy clumsy step away from nature in the process. If you'll click on the title above (Hudson Avenue near Eagle Street - 1930s) you'll see a view down one typical block of brownstones. This entire vista was demolished by the South Mall construction. Aside from the beauty of the created and built environments, there were generous street trees for shade and purifying the atmosphere. Did those trees attract robins in the spring? Did hawks roost in the eaves? Did residents there feel a strong resonance with the natural world amidst a dense sophisticated urban environment? Not many backyard orchards or root cellars at these downtown addresses. But just south of State Street was the Albany Farmers Public Market at Lyon Square, where area truck farmers would gather before dawn to sell their produce. You add window boxes for flowers or herbs and a residence on Partridge Steet would not be an address taken in vain. You'd be bringing it all back home.    

  • Nature’s Substitute

    One of technology’s primary functions, outside of conserving human energy and time, is to replace the resources of nature. Clothes driers instead of clothes lines, overhead florescents instead of skylights. Often forgotten in this exchange is the perpetual fees and charges for utilities, repairs, and upgrades. As the replacement spiral for consumer goods tightens out of neccessity, it becomes incumbent upon individuals to more quickly replace items that will in turn wear out sooner with little chance of repair. The increased complexity of technology often means that home repairs are impossible, as are, increasingly, professional service and maintenance. The common refrain is that high bench fees and the inavailability of parts make repairing a small appliance or electronic item infeasible. So it’s dumpstered. Then, within as little as two to three years, its replacement follows it. There are far fewer shoe repair shops operating today, not because of a lack of shoes that need repair, but rather a lack of shoes capable of repair. Today’s styles feature hot glued unisoles whose accelerated erosion over time basically determines the lifespan of the entire shoe. It is rare for people to buy shoe laces, lighter fluid, and razor blades. Simply put, manufacturers and designers have taken self-determination away and replaced it with disposable consumerism.

  • A Curse Upon The Cursive

    In the summer of 2011, Indiana became the first state in the nation to eliminate the requirement that elementary school students learn cursive writing. The ability to communicate personally has already been vastly diminished through the intrusion of technology. Handwriting, like homecooking, differentiates and identifies individuals. It takes more time and consciousness to create by handwriting than through electronic forms like texting and e-mail. Like reading, writing legibly with proper grammar, enhanced vocabulary, and a creative flair is a learned and acquired skill. By eliminating the individual, the skillful, and the personally created from what is taught as education, society also has also voided the sensory and taken a step further away from the initmate. By any feeling measure of life’s quality, this must be considered a loss. It is, sadly, a loss that coming generations will never realize because they will lack the experience of comparison.

  • Society Notes From The Blazing Stump

    On the first Sundays of every month for the past few I’ve been performing a solo show at the Player’s Pub in Bloomington, Indiana. The evening combines songs, stories, and slides. In the hallowed tradition of Sunday services, there is a faint amount of proselytizing. I think if one has something to say, there’s a better chance it will sound significant if he says it on a Sunday.