Sunday, February 23, 2014

A quick take on Nature’s people

Thanks to a couple of friends who I’ve talked to plenty of times about my Hog Island writing project and who still need to ask for basic details.  I’ll admit, I hate to make a pest of myself by dominating the conversation, but knowing the basic premise of this narrative might just go a ways toward promoting how interesting this darned story is. 

With that in mind, I present an abstract of my upcoming book, Nature’s people: The Hog Island story from Mabel Loomis Todd to Audubon. *

A quick take on Nature’s people

Mabel Loomis Todd entered into the Emily Dickinson legend through a friendship with her brother’s family.  As a new faculty wife, Mabel was welcomed into the Amherst community through soirees held at the home of the college treasurer and important-man-on-campus, William Austin Dickinson.  His wife Susan’s hospitality offered young Mrs. Todd a venue for companionship, engagement in the arts, and extended after dinner conversation.  Austin Dickinson’s participation in family activities was limited, but over time his friendship with Mabel grew.  

Mrs. Todd was quite taken, and taken in, by the Dickinsons.  But all was not right at the Evergreens, Austin & Susan’s home located just through the hedge from his parents’ homestead, then the residence of Emily and their sister Lavinia.  Story in town was that Susan’s friendships burned hot and bright for a time but then cooled.  The same could be said about her marriage with Austin, who subsequently spent many hours talking at his old home to sisters about life and his unhappiness.  

About a year after Mabel’s arrival in Amherst, her friendship with Austin had crossed what they lovingly referred to as their ‘Rubicon.’  Their affair, an open secret in town, would end only with Austin’s death thirteen years later.  David Todd, the new college astronomer and husband, tacitly approved of the pair’s intimacy because he was sincerely fond of them both and had a bit of a reputation himself.  Their only child, Millicent, grew up in that household.  Susan Dickinson was aware as well, and as story has it, did not make her husband’s time at home all that comfortable. 

Austin and Mabel celebrated their love as ‘of the ages.’  Surely sister Emily knew about them, though she never wrote about it, unless metaphorically in her poems and letters.  Emily’s own legend, in fact, has her in love with a married man herself, so perhaps she knew something about loving a man she could not have.  Mrs. Todd, by the way, did write about it.  A lot.  (See Polly Longsworth’s Austin and Mabel:  The Amherst Affair & Love Letters of Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd.) 

Following Emily Dickinson’s death and discovery of an unknown wealth of poetry, sister Lavinia ultimately turned to Mabel Todd to make sense out of the cache of paper scraps, written-on envelopes, and sewn-together, recopied poetry.  It was tedious work at a time of high family tension.  Within the next few years, Mabel Todd would publish three editions of Emily’s poetry and one volume of collected letters.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Besides their entanglements with the Dickinsons, Mabel and David Todd enjoyed full and engaging lives together.  Both were popular lecturers who often spoke of their travels on astronomical expeditions to far corners of an Earth linked, at the time, only by extended ocean voyages.  Besides Emily, Mrs. Todd spoke and wrote about mysterious destinations most of her audience could only dream about:  Japan, northern Africa, high in the Andes, Indonesia, Russia just as the World War broke out.  It should be noted too, that her voluminous personal written record of journals and diaries provides such in-depth personal insight into a woman of her era that it has been used in period case studies.  (See Peter Gay’s Education of the Senses: The Bourgeois Experience Victoria to Freud.) 

By midlife Mabel Todd made a one more move that would broaden her personal legacy beyond the humanities.  Big into trees, she bought half of a mostly wilderness island in Maine.  She bought a second standing forest about that time, too, that one near Amherst, just to preserve the dignity of the stand.  Besides saving the trees on Hog Island, the Todds would make a summer camp there that the family enjoyed for over fifty years.  Upon the death of Mrs. Todd and the advent of Millicent Todd Bingham as island owner, Audubon entered the picture with a summer camp for adult leaders that has for decades impacted global environmental education while engaging the bodies, minds, and hearts of myriad Nature’s people.  

I am one.  

Tom Schaefer
Lake Cumberland 
23 February 2014

*No need to camp out at your local booksellers yet.  I figure if all goes well the earliest the book could see print is summer 2016.   Who knows?

Today’s elder idea:  Give me your answer, fill in a form / Mine for evermore. /  Will you still need me, will you still feed me / When I’m sixty-four? 

Sir Paul McCartney

image:  ‘Lobster House’ c. 1915:  From the Todd family archive photo collection at Yale University.  Used without permission here, but I’ll get all the paperwork straight before this one makes it into the book.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Cumberland movements

Cross-posted from The Dressy Adventuress blog:  Just trying to let y'all know the book is moving along...

The other day as I was jotting down writing progress notes, I found myself using the expression movements for the essays that make up the preface and chapters of Nature’s people: The Hog Island story from Mabel Loomis Todd to Audubon.

I surely like the rhythm and musical action such an expression implies.  I don’t know that I can reach those melodic heights, but the flow-through of musical and project energy permeates my writing process.  

So thinking in those terms today, I can report that I have three movements in decent early draft shape with another about to begin.  

The preface has been written at least once before. This newest version came late in week one down here as a writing rant to just get me started.  I just rambled on for a few pages about my Hog Island story, and before too long I felt ready to jump to chapter 1.  So the preface is pretty rough, but before I head back to Dayton I’ll be refining it, maybe even combining some ideas from the first one.  

Chapter 1:   Introducing Mrs. Todd  

Early draft put to bed a couple weeks ago.  Again, maybe things to add, things to consider, things to talk about with mentors, maybe some things to delete and/or reassign, but overall, an early draft I can be proud of.  I was thinking of telling folks during talks I’ll make, if you don’t read any more of the book, read chapter 1.  Overall synopsis of the whole story. 

Chapter 2:  Transcendental activist

Rebuilt and augmented this week; D1 completed yesterday.  Phew.

Argument made that Mabel Loomis Todd’s legacy deserves to include her belief and action taken for the preservation and appreciation Nature as well as the energy spent in bringing Emily Dickinson’s writings forward.  

Thanks to Julie Dobrow from Tufts for both her essay ‘Saving the land’ and her tip on reserving Mrs. Todd’s journals and diaries on microfilm from Yale’s Sterling Library.  

Now it’s on the movement 4:  Of astronomy & Dickinsons

Major interest in Mabel Loomis Todd is due her impact on the Dickinson family.  This chapter endeavors to describe the major players and the Emily Dickinson narrative as objectively as possible.  Dickinson publication issues will be covered, through the trial, into the 30 year hiatus.

Subsections:  Mabel Loomis Todd early bio to 1881/Amherst; David Peck Todd early bio to 1881; Susan and William Austin Dickinson in earliest Todd Amherst years; Emily Dickinson, publication drama, affair, subsequent court, case and the Emily sequester years; Millicent Todd Bingham as family rear guard and Emily Dickinson contributor in her own right.

Movement 5 (this spring):  Vacationland

Discussion of Maine’s development into vacationland:  boarders, summer villagers, then cottage builders progression.  Focus on 1908:  what was America like when Mrs. Todd signed the papers in Wiscassett?  Retelling the story of Hog Is origins and summers at the Point Breeze.  This section will follow the Todds through summer 1913 when Mabel has a debilitating stroke as she prepares to travel to Maine.  

Movement 6 (summer 2014):  ‘God’s own heaven’

The story of summers at Camp Mavooshen beginning in 1915.  David soon leaves the summer picture when he is hospitalized for a progressing brain disease brought about by syphilis.  But summers go on.  Lots of stories from Mrs. Todd’s daily diaries and a half dozen or more essays from her unpublished Epic of Hog collection.  

The Plan calls for working on this movement on Hog Island this summer while I serve as writer-in-residence and actually live — I kid you not — in Mrs. Bingham’s former cottage that hasn’t been occupied for decades.  Goodness.   

Movement 7 (fall  2014):  Mavooshen’s men

At a time when women were beginning to feel their political and social clout, the guys deserve mention for services contributed to the camp’s successful operation.  To include:  

David Todd:  his father wrote books about efficient home building.  David was significant in construction of camp buildings and maintaining water transportation.  Further/final description of his profession accomplishments & his giving Mabel great topics to write and lecture about through family travel around the world.  

Frank Lailer:  the local retired smack captain who became the handyman who kept the camp running.  Ran Romany Girl in assistance to Todds in many ways.  Family came to dinner now and then.  Not much on Frank, but he was key.  

Howard Hilder:  The camp artist who both created a studio in a summer dwelling he build just down the shore from the family camp (known as the Osprey cabin) and also painted the osprey and great blue heron murals in Mavooshen’s ‘living room.’  Great family friend and help to Mrs. Todd at camp. 

Walter vanDyke Bingham:  Millicent’s psychologist husband who made medical history by helping write the first aptitude tests for the US Army c. World War I.  Famous on island for his humous essay Homo sapiens auduboniesis which seeks to describe the peculiar island visitor, the Audubon birder.  

Then on to movement 8 (fall 2014):  The advent of Audubon

Pretty much the story of Audubon’s presence on the island from 1936 to Project Puffin today.  More later.  

At this point on the calendar I have 2.5 weeks left at this amazing winter writing sabbatical.  It’s been a cloudy, grey Kentucky winter week prior to now.  The sun is out, the day is warming a bit, and the birds are working very hard at finishing the sunflower seeds left in the feeder, while I talk to you all before plotting out how this next movement comes together and what sources I need to tell the narrative True.  

It’s a good job if you can get it.  

Today’s elder idea:  Now what we have to do is cultivate the love of the beautiful. 

Mabel Loomis Todd
‘The Village Beautiful’
Explaining what it will take to get folks to want to save forests.  

image:  The author’s photograph of the camp ‘living room’ as it stood in 1981, having been unoccupied for about twenty years.  Recent restoration efforts have improved the structure.   

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Writing process

Well, the book is coming along, but as I just posted on Facebook, even here in writing sequester at lovely, solitary Lake Cumberland, one can be distracted by squirrels in the sunflower feeder and bald eagles flying by the window.  Let alone sitting for some zen time contemplating the extensive rock face just across the water from my perch in the Kentucky hills.  

The first week here I couldn’t get the television to work like at all.  I listened to music instead, and had a little more quiet couch time, I think.  After Shannon came by and showed me the right buttons to push it’s been NASA TV at lunchtime and Rachel at 9 with the occasional search for something good to watch.  Last night I turned it off and went back to music.  

I was going to make this pretty quick today, but let me address the issue of writing a book as I know it.  I think about this stuff a lot, but don’t write about it much.  Bear with me.  

Writing a book is hard on many levels IMHO:  

1.  One must be sure to have enough of the right material to tell an historical ballad true.  My protagonist was a prolific writer, accomplished artist, and popular lecturer, besides having a very interesting love life.  First, it’s tough to get one’s head around the whole story all at once, and second, there’s so much stuff to read — most of it unpublished and archived in an ivy league university library far away — you hope you got all the good stuff.  One can have doubts about these things, but I think I’m okay.  Still lots to read, anyway you cut it.  

2.  Sitting for hours concentrating on plan/outline, specific subject matter, word choice & sentence construction, noting sources, revising as you go, and hoping like heck you haven’t left anything out takes a toll on one’s brain.  This, I think, is what most folks think about when they say writing is hard.  

3.  And then there’s the issue of life’s free-will choices.  I believe I could have done work other than teaching junior high and high school kids for thirty years and feel more beat up than I do.  Shoot, I got to teach thirty years and walk.  Thirty years.  Retired at 52.  When I have friends all around who say they’ll never be able to retire due to their job and personal savings limitations, it’s hard not to feel guilty.  Humbled, for sure.  

So I rather enjoy doing lots of stuff in my life.  I find cutting out most of the fun stuff to write a book that is really hard to do, presents a book production problem.  You might be able to guess such is the reason I’ve been at this project for over ten years.  

4.  Still, when I get going with the words on paper part of the writing process — aiming for 500 words/day minimum [per the advice of a wise university friend] — the ease of syntax feels pretty good.  I most often fear the muse will leave me at any time, though.  So a couple weeks ago when I got started late morning and didn’t quit until failing light after 5 for two days in a row, I felt a warm satisfaction.  

I now doubt what I wrote then is really so good.  Taking chapter two apart and rebuilding it is next on my docket and I’d rather not go there, for some reason.  It just feels like hard work.  I understand, indeed, the necessity of revising and editing.  See #6 below.  

5.  Work on The Dressy Adventuress project continues in one way or another, however.  Besides re-crafting the ‘Transcendental activist’ chapter, I have begun detailed planning for the next ‘movement’ which brings in the Emily Dickinson connection.  I am eager to get there, where I feel much love and energy.  I hope to be there by Monday, but don’t hold me to it.  I also have the need to cull out specific details of summer life on Hog Island from the already collected diaries of Mabel Loomis Todd.  This newer generation synopsis will be on my desk as I construct paragraphs.  And then there is the composite list of all of David Todd’s global solar expeditions.  I should have this stuff at my fingertips when I write content.  

6.  The sage university professor told me, too, to expect ten rewrites of my book.  I don’t doubt that’s true, and that feels okay.  But rewrites can only follow ‘writes’ — or drafts.  

Having lots of time all by myself to find a way into that writing is a real blessing that I thought might help production.  It is working, but at a weathervane pace that points and takes me to places I don’t always know are connected.  

Have I ever told you how lousy my self discipline is?  I’ll save you the details…  

Today’s elder idea:  

for Bruce 

Yesterday on the phone
when you told the story of helping 
your unknowing mother 
relearn how to wipe herself

the feeling in my heart was warmth
for you and her sharing such a personal 
moment that breeched the parent / 
child continuum.  You came of age. 

In the coming to that place you 
did not welcome — where stature and 
family position reversed from caregiver 
to tended — I felt for you

a welcoming hand into the realm of the elder
where I, too, see a diminished mother
fighting tooth and nail the coming darkness —
one who will not go gently into that good night.  

I watch her struggle.  You watched your mother do the same.
Neither woman selected this path. 
Both would rather be baking on a hot summer day or
sorting laundry, wondering how one family could create so many dirty clothes. 

Maybe they might even rather re-experience 
the discomfort of the eighth and ninth months
of carrying us, struggling with weight gain 
and wanting, then, the ordeal to be over. 

Maybe not so much now.  
Both Nancy and Gertrude have become passengers swept
onto a nonreturnable journey that has served them well —
that has gifted them with time on this Earth 

in the presence of parents and friends and family
and the kids, like you and me, who now live into
our years as elders, singing & telling stories of what 
they taught us and what we now know as true.  

Tom Schaefer
Lake Cumberland 
4 February 2014

image:  In Mrs. Todd’s front yard on Hog Island.  (summer 2013)

Note:  This entry was also posted @ 'The Dressy Adventuress' blog /