A Celtic Legacy

The widow Mackinnon and Mrs. Neil Ferguson ~ St. Kilda, 1909

From Oban to Skye, from the Outer Hebrides to St. Kilda they traveled: two Aberdeen photographers intent on capturing and preserving the life of a remarkable people.  The beautifully colored lantern slides of  George Washington Wilson and Norman Macleod,  an iconic collection put into book form by Mark Butterworth, were produced in the late 1880s, fifty years before color photography came to Scotland.

Even as Wilson and Macleod pursued their photography, Alexander Carmichael was traveling the highlands and islands from Arran to Cithness, from Perth to St. Kilda, collecting traditional prayers, invocations and blessings. Between 1855 and 1899, he compiled his Carmina Gadelica (Gaelic Songs),  magnificent examples of Celtic tradition combined with Christian faith.

After St. Patrick’s arrival in Ireland and St. Columba’s missionary journey to Scotland, a unique culture, theology and spirituality began to evolve: one not at all inclined toward our modern separation of the sacred and the secular. In the words of Avery Brooke, “Celtic Christians seldom left the spiritual behind in the living of their lives, nor the world behind in their prayers.”  

Tolerant of  Celtic beliefs and practices, Christian missionaries wove adapted Celtic prayers, blessings and invocations into the fabric of their daily lives. As Brooke writes in his introduction to Celtic Prayers:

Christ was the Chieftain of Chiefs, but the old tales, songs, customs and runes – not to mention the crops, the fish, the daily work and nightly sleep – were sained, or marked with the sign of the cross, just as were  fæiries, banshees and people.

At its heart, saining was a matter of consecration, though not in our modern sense of setting aside, or apart. We tend to understand consecration as removal from the realities and routines of daily life, but for the people of the Isles, consecration elevated and hallowed every ordinary circumstance.

Certainly there were morning prayers and evening prayers in Celtic devotion,  invocations of the saints and hymns to Jesus.  But far more than obviously religious prayer was woven into the fabric of Celtic spirituality.  There were rituals to mark the passing of the days and cycles of the year. There were blessings for households, for the smooring of fire at night and for the rekindling that lifted up morning fires.

There were songs for heifers and milk cows, prayers for protection of cattle, and songs of praise for the ocean and moon.  There were blessings for fishing, hunting, and reaping;  prayers for travel, and prayers for sleep. 

Celtic prayer was less something to ‘do’ than an attitude to nourish: an attitude at once grateful and receptive.  Like hearth embers nurtured each morning and protected each night with ritual and prayer, the spark of divine presence, the mysterious ember glowing at the heart of the world, was meant to be tended by a grateful humanity.

The maids and matrons of St. Kilda ~ 1886

Among the blessings and invocations collected by Carmichael are “The Clipping Blessing,” “The Loom Blessing,” and “The Consecration of the Seed.” The words shimmer with  reflected light from a nearly forgotten time, charmingly embraced without hesitation or embarassment. In “The Clipping Blessing,” the petitions hardly could be more specific.

Go shorn and come woolly,
Bear the Beltane female lamb,
Be the lovely bride thee endowing,
And the fair Mary thee sustaining,
The fair Mary sustaining thee.
Michael the chief be shielding thee
From the evil dog and from the fox,
From the wolf and from the sly bear,
And from the taloned birds of destructive bills,
From the taloned birds of hooked bills.

In the Outer Isles, on the Island of Uist, Carmichael tells us:

When the woman stops weaving on Saturday night, she carefully ties up her loom and suspends the cross or crucifix above the sleay. This is for the purpose of keeping away the brownie, the banshee, the ‘peallan’ and all evil spirits and malign influences from disarranging the thread and the loom.  And all this is done with loving care and in good faith, and in prayer and purity of heart.   

Again, the concreteness of the petition and the certainty that even the smallest detail of life concerns the divine is made clear:

In the name of Mary, mild of deeds,
In the name of Columba, just and potent,
Consecrate the four posts of my loom,
Till I begin on Monday.
Her pedals, her sleay and her shuttle,
Her reeds, her warp, and her cogs,
Her cloth-beam and her thread-beam,
Thrums and the thread of the plies.
Every web, black, white and fair,
Roan, dun, checked and red,
Give Thy blessing everywhere,
On every shuttle passing under the thread.
Thus will my loom be unharmed
Till I shall arise on Monday.
Beauteous Mary will give me of her love,
And there shall be no obstruction I shall not overcome.

Finally, in “The Consecration of the Seed,” the intimate relationship between early Christian and Celtic belief is laid bare. Carmichael notes that “three days before being sown the seed is sprinkled with clear, cold water, in the name of the Father, and of Son, and of Spirit, the person sprinkling the seed walking sunwise the while.”  The baptismal and Trinitarian influence is clear, while “sunwise walking” refers to pre-Christian ritual.

I will go out to sow the seed
In name of Him who gave it growth;
I will place my front in the wind,
And throw a gracious handful on high.
Should a grain fall on a bare rock
It shall have no soil in which to grow;
As much as falls into the earth,
The dew will make it to be full…
I will come round with my step,
I will go rightways with the sun,
In the name of Ariel and the angels nine,
In the name of Gabriel and the Apostles kind.
Father, Son and Spirit Holy
Be giving growth and kindly substance
To every thing that is in my ground
Till the day of gladness shall come.

To hear these invocations, blessings, runes, and dedications is to experience the Celts’ love and deep respect not only for life, but for language. Filled with power, intimately lodged in the hearts of the people, spoken out of silence to hallow and elevate every aspect of life, the words themselves were understood as gifts to be cherished.  In a morning prayer collected by Carmichael, this phrase stands out:

Praise be to Thee, O God, for ever, for the blessings thou didst bestow on me – my food, my speech, my work, my health.

Praising God for food, work and health is understandable. Including speech as a blessing worthy of praise is more remarkable. Perhaps praise for the gift of words comes more naturally to those steeped in oral tradition; perhaps isolation and difficult conditions increase a community’s gratitude for speech.

Whatever the motivation, it cannot be denied that Celts always have nurtured and cared for language because they recognize language as a gift as necessary as fire and powerful as the sea.

To live in a world where language is being reduced by our technologies and desecrated in advertising, politics and human relations is remarkable.  To have contempt for language, to willingly reduce the heart of our humanity by refusing the power of words, is utterly astonishing.  And yet, it happens.

In the midst of our remembrance of St. Patrick and our celebration of all things Irish, it would be well to remember the people of the lamb, loom, and seed. Celtic peoples offer us a legacy far greater than green beer, shamrocks and River Dance.  They offer a vision of life lived whole, life well-attuned to the universe and content with ordinary days. Above all, they offer to us the possibility of sained speech: words spoken and received with dignity in order  to celebrate and consecrate our lives.

Be the cross of Mary and Michael over me in peace,
Be my soul dwelling in truth, be my heart free of guile.
Be my soul in peace with thee, brightness of the mountains.
Morn and eve, day and night, May it be so.

Comments always are welcome.

A Small Creature, But A Great Grief

To say the end was unexpected hardly would be true. For months there had been signs of age taking its toll; in past weeks there had been increasing restlessness; discontented murmurings; howls in the night.

Still, that it would come so suddenly took me by surprise. After our usual morning routine — I always drank my first cup of coffee while brushing her into a state of purring contentment — I arrived home in early afternoon to find Dixie Rose staggering and in pain, suffering from  partial paralysis.

Within half an hour we were in her veterinarian’s examining room. Still unable to walk, totally non-responsive to the probings of the vet, and showing no signs of her usual combativeness, she seemed exhausted. Possible causes were outlined, but certainty would require testing, or more invasive procedures. In the meantime, she would continue to suffer.

The decision, of course, was mine; it was more than a little comfort that the veterinarian agreed with the wisdom of the decision. After eighteen years of healthy and happy companionship, it was time to let her go.

How the loss of such a small creature can leave such a large hole in a home — a heart — is a mystery, but as so often happens, Mary Oliver offers words to help fill that gap, from her time “In Blackwater Woods.”


Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars
of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,
the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Comments always are welcome.

On Not Being Late To The Party

Late winter wetlands

As lingering autumn wildflowers succumb to January frost; as grasses shrivel and shred; as trees offer up their branches to importunate winds from the north and are rendered bare, a certain impatience begins to stir.

Winter is winter, after all, and bland, monochromatic landscapes can oppress the spirit as surely as long months of ice and snow. When fog insists on shrouding those same landscapes and gray, glowering skies refuse to lighten, questions inevitably arise: how long will it be until we see the change we long for? How long must we wait until this gray, dismal time gives way to spring?

Certainly, by mid-February in coastal Texas there are signs. Mallards chase one another on the ponds, with mating on their minds. Coots begin flocking up, setting aside their aggressive quarreling in preparation for migration. Their leave-taking occurs as silently and secretively as their arrival; by the time their absence is noted, they will be well away.

Even as the coots depart, northern-bound ospreys cease calling to one another above the lake, and the kingfisher’s rattle already has flown. Bereft of sound as well as of color, the world waits for what will come.

What comes, of course, is the greening of spring: a process of flowering and renewal as silent and secretive in its arrival as the departure of coots.  Despite years in Texas, I’ve often missed those first arrivals, since my Inner Midwesterner seems determined to believe that spring arrives here on a midwestern schedule, in mid-to-late March, or even April.

My inability to adapt to seasons I’ve experienced for over a quarter century suggests that we may be imprinted as firmly by place as by face, with our understanding of seasons rooted in our first, formative years. True or not, what can’t be denied is that, year after year, each time I bestirred myself to go out to meet the spring, early wildflowers already were fading beneath a rising summer heat.

Determined to break an old pattern, I resolved last week to visit my favorite vacant lots, abandoned industrial sites, ditches, and nearby nature centers just to see what was happening. What I found astonished me. Had I dallied, I would have missed much of spring’s first flowering.

It isn’t that the flowers are particularly early. Some typically bloom in February, and many more appear in March. The flowers, it seems, are on schedule. But for once I was on their schedule, too, and I’m happy to share some of what I discovered in the past week.

If you’re still buried in snow, take heart; spring is coming your way. And if the sun is shining and the temperatures are warming, look around. There might be a party going on.


Crow poison, or false garlic (Nothoscordum bivalve) ~ Bacliff, Texas
Ten-petal anemone (Anemone berlandieri) ~ Bacliff, Texas
Berlandier’s sundrops (Calylophus berlandieri) ~ 11 Mile Road, Galveston Island
Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohioensis) ~ Settegast Road, Galveston Island
Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule – naturalized) ~ Settegast Road, Galveston Island
Texas dandelion (Pyrrhopappus multicaulis) ~ Brazoria County Road 227
Indian paintbrush (Castilleja indivisa) ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge
Evening primrose (Oenothera speciosa) ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge
Texas vervain (Verbena halei) ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge
Cut-leaf groundsel (Senecio tampicanus) ~ Dudney Nature Center, League City
Dewberry blossom (Rubus trivialis) ~ Dudney Nature Center, League City
Small bluet (Houstonia pusilla) ~ Dudney Nature Center, League City
Texas umbrellawort (Tauschia texana) ~ Dudney Nature Center, League City
Violet wood-sorrel (Oxalis violacea) ~ Vacant lot, Kemah
Bristly buttercup (Ranunculus hispidus) ~ Shaded drainage ditch, Kemah
Deer pea vetch (Vicia ludoviciana) ~ Vacant lot, Kemah

Comments always are welcome.

Taking The De Longpré View

“Pansies in a Pewter Vase” ~ Paul de Longpré

Tough and resilient, pansies bring a welcome touch of color to winter on the Texas coast. Beloved of landscapers and gardeners alike, the flowers tolerate cold, snow, and ice; even after days of freezing temperatures they recover quickly, and will bloom until the rising heat of summer wilts them away.

Some pansies, of course, never fade. Many years ago, I found a Paul de Longpré watercolor, “Pansies In A Pewter Vase,” at an estate sale. Entranced by the combination of pretty flowers and a beautifully constructed wooden frame, I brought the piece home, and hung it near my desk. Eventually, the artful signature led me to wonder: Who was this de Longpré fellow?

A self-taught artist born in 1855 in Villeurbanne, a suburb of Lyon, France, de Longpré favored floral painting from the beginning:

When I was a little child having my first experience at school, I would make drawings of flowers that my fellow students would buy with their pocket money in place of toffee. Complimentary, was it not?
It never excelled any other tribute I have since received: that group of kids bidding their precious spending money against each other for my sketches of objects.

After his father’s death forced twelve-year-old Paul to leave school in order to help support his family, he joined two older brothers in Paris, where the trio spent their days painting decorative flowers on Victorian hand fans. Establishing a reputation for exquisite decoration after only six years, the youngest de Longpré found his work being sold throughout France, and his finances secured.

Married to a nineteen-year-old seamstress named Josephine in 1874, de Longpré continued painting florals, albeit on canvas. His work became increasingly well accepted, leading him to take the unprecedented step described by Louis N. Richards in a 1904 issue of the magazine Overland Monthly:

In 1895 de Longpré decided to give an exhibition of his paintings. An exhibition of flower paintings exclusively was a thing unheard of, and his friends endeavored to convince him that such an undertaking could never be successful: that his plans, if ever carried out, meant inevitable ruin.
The exhibition was given, nevertheless, and its success was greater than the artist himself had ever dreamed of. The galleries were crowded every day and his pictures brought enormous prices. The critics were unanimous in their praise of the artist’s work and the name of Paul de Longpré was on the lips of everyone interested in art.

Despite the success of his exhibition, the subsequent failure of his bank, the Comptoir d’Escompte de Paris, swept away fifteen years of savings. With only a few hundred dollars at hand, the de Longpré family set off in 1890 for New York, ready for a new start.

During his first years in New York, de Longpré successfully utilized his artistic skills in a multitude of new ways: decorating celluloid mirrors and photo albums, sheet music, shaving mirrors, and perfume bottles. Some of America’s most beautiful seed packets resulted from his talent.

As he worked to rebuild his savings, his floral paintings — primarily watercolors –continued to gain in popularity, and soon were hanging in galleries and drawing rooms throughout the city.

Still, having tired both of the weather and of the need to continually purchase plants to serve as models, de Longpré decided in 1898 to take his family, his ambitions, and his newfound wealth to Los Angeles.

When a curious reporter asked de Longpré to explain his move away from the vibrant cultural scene in New York, his answer was simple enough:

Sated with the culture of the Old World, and with the restless ambition of New York, this famous painter of flowers has come to seek new inspiration in the brilliant, sun-warmed blossoms of California.
That there is nothing here to stimulate the intellectual life of an artist, M. De Longpre frankly admits, but intellectual stimulus is not what he is seeking. He has had that all his life. What he wants now is sunshine and flowers, and he declares that these will content him as long as he can wield the brush. He intends to spend the rest of his days in Southern California.

After De Longpré and his family settled into a large mansion at the corner of West Adams Boulevard and Figueroa Street, he paid his rent in paintings and often was seen “pedaling his bicycle through the quiet suburbs of Los Angeles with palette, paints, and easel strapped to his back, searching for flowers.”

Introduced to the founder of still-rural Hollywood, Daeida Wilcox Beveridge, at an exhibit of his work in Los Angeles, he found Beveridge anxious to promote her new real estate venture. Like any developer eager to attract good people, she recognized the opportunity offered by de Longpré, who could add a bit of culture to the neighborhood.

She offered de Longpré the site of her former Hollywood home for his estate, and the painter accepted, with thanks. The three acre site on Cahuenga Boulevard just north of Prospect Avenue (today’s Hollywood Boulevard) later was enlarged by Beveridge’s gift of an adjoining lot, which allowed de Longpré to expand his gardens.

Today’s Hollywood, with an overlay showing the location of the original de Longpré home

In time, de Longpré’s Moorish style mansion, studio, and gardens became an enormous tourist attraction, in part because the home was added as a stop on the interurban railway route known, because of its shape, as the “Balloon Route.”

The Balloon Route Trolley trip, the featured route of the Los Angeles Pacific, opened in September 1901. The line ran from downtown Los Angeles through Hollywood, Santa Monica, Venice Beach, Redondo Beach, and back to Los Angeles via Culver City.
The line stopped at beach resorts and included free entrance to some en-route attractions, including Sunset Boulevard, the studio of painter Paul de Longpré, bean fields of Morocco in Beverly Hills, Sawtelle Veterans Home and Old Soldiers’ Home in Sawtelle, Long Wharf, Camera Obscura at Santa Monica, Playa del Rey Pavilion for a fish dinner, Redondo’s Moonstone Beach, Venice, and Palms – Culver City.
Tourists arriving at the de Longpré estate via the Balloon Route’s parlor cars

In time, the de Longpré estate became the route’s most popular attraction, visited by as many as 8,000 people every month. Tourists could walk from the rail cars directly into the garden, where they could enjoy thousands of rose bushes and other plantings, tour the mansion, purchase refreshments, and select an original watercolor as a souvenir. Postcards celebrating the beauty of the de Longpré gardens spread its fame across the country.

The more traditionally romantic flowers that brought de Longpré his fame were on view in the garden — particularly the roses — but flowers native to his new state were included as well.

“California Poppies in an Indian Basket ” ~ Watercolor, Los Angeles, 1910
“White Poppies” ~  Watercolor, Los Angeles, 1905
(The models for this painting were gathered by Madame Modjeska’s niece in the canyons at the actress’s home near El Toro, and brought to the artist to paint)

Tours of the house and gardens, along with prints of his floral paintings, supported the family until the artist’s death in 1911. Only 56, he had suffered over the years from tuberculosis, and succumbed at last to a serious ear infection.

After his death, Josephine and daughter Pauline moved back to France. Eventually, the mansion was sold; in 1925, both the house and gardens were demolished to make room for new bungalows. Today, parking lots, a CVS pharmacy, and what appears to be a club occupy the land.

Some critics contend that de Longpré’s paintings — especially his romantic still-lifes of roses and pansies — fell permanently out of fashion after his death and are of negligible import today. Others point to his inclusion in collections at the Currier Gallery of Art in New Hampshire, the Irvine Museum in California, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as well as increasing sales of his watercolors and chromolithographs, as evidence of renewed popularity.

Demand for reprints of his so-called “yard-longs” is particularly strong today. Named for their long, narrow form (usually thirty-six inches long and seven, eight, or nine inches wide), these lithographs were popular at the turn of the century, between about 1890 and 1920.  Calendars often were printed on their backs, along with advertising copy for department stores and companies such as Diamond Crystal Salt, Pabst beer, and the same Mandeville & King Seeds for which de Longpré had previously worked.

Initially, yard-longs were known as “yard pictures,” since they often depicted a yard filled with ducks, dogs, kittens, or puppies.

“Yard of Puppies” ~ C.L. Van Vredenburgh

In time, children were portrayed, often by such well-known artists as Maud Humphrey Bogart; the mother of actor Humphrey Bogart, she often used her son as a model.

“Miss Muffet’s Tea Party” ~ Maude Humphrey Bogart

In time, florals found greater favor, and de Longpré profited from adaptations of his flower paintings to this new format.

“American Beauty” ~ Paul de Longpré
“Pansy Waltz” ~ Paul de Longpré

Today, little remains of Paul de Longpré’s legacy in Hollywood itself, save for De Longpré Avenue. Paralleling Sunset Boulevard, south of Hollywood Boulevard where the house and gardens stood and north of Santa Monica Boulevard with its vibrant new communities, De Longpré Avenue lacks the compelling resonance of those nearly-mythic names.

Still, the fact that the avenue exists at all seems a fitting conclusion to de Longpré’s story.

In 1903, opposition developed when de Longpré’s friends, including the Beveridge family, attempted to rename Prospect Boulevard in his honor. Despite the fact that de Longpré had become an American citizen, some felt naming the street in honor of a Frenchman was inappropriate.

After some thought, de Longpré wrote an open letter to the Los Angeles Times:

I am not aware that it is a crime to be a Frenchman and I take pride in flying the American flag from my house alongside the tricolor of France. The two peoples have fought side by side for liberty.
However, if the change in the name of a single street in this growing suburban town is thought by my fellow-citizens to be so serious a matter, I will not stand in the way; and if they decide to drop the matter I will acquiesce with good grace.

Eventually, Prospect Avenue became Hollywood Boulevard, but in 1913, thanks to former California Senator and de Longpré friend Cornelius Cole, De Longpré Avenue received its name.

Today, lined with million dollar homes and apartments with exorbitant rents, it’s neither a neighborhood Paul de Longpré would recognize nor one in which I would live. Still, it makes me happy to know that he has his street — and I have his painting.

Comments always are welcome.

Living Outside The Lines

Color Us Content ~ c. 1950
Apricot. Bittersweet. Burnt Sienna. Cornflower. Maize. Mahogany. Melon.

Those of us who grew up between 1949 and 1957 may remember those colors with special affection. Clear and vibrant as the bits of nature whose names they bear, they are classic Crayola colors: part of the box of forty-eight crayons that became one of my childhood’s greatest treasures.

Before 1958, the year the box containing sixty-four Crayolas was introduced, the forty-eight piece box was the big box: the box you received as a Christmas gift, or for a birthday, or because you’d contracted something like measles that would keep you in bed for a while.

I received my first big box of crayons for Christmas, with some coloring books thrown in for good measure. A photograph from that year shows me in pajamas and robe, my coloring book canvas spread before me and my father at my side. Our routine — I colored, he watched — continued for several years. He rarely offered advice, preferring instead to comment about my choice of colors, or the stories I made up as I worked.

My mother’s concerns were somewhat different. Each time I settled in to color, I’d hear her gentle, cautionary advice: “Be sure to stay inside the lines.”

Her advice was well-meant, and especially appropriate in my case. Coloring-book novices often stray, smudge, and straggle their way across the pages, but I seemed particularly unable to keep things tidy. My mother worked with me, as did my grandmother. Even a neighbor or two tried a little artistic coaching. Wanting to please, I did my best to keep my apricot, corn flower, and maize inside those little black lines. But every now and then, when no one was looking, I’d sneak a piece of typing paper and just draw.  

Eventually, coloring books were set aside for bigger and better art projects: a squirrel carved from ivory soap; a ghastly papier-mâché puppet with bright yellow hair and a calico dress; a Japanese lady wearing a kimono sketched onto a piece of wood.  I learned to cut paper snowflakes, sent coiled clay vases and ashtrays to the kiln, and once created a presentable corn field with tempera paints. 

But always there was a mold, a form, a pattern to guide my artistic efforts, and standards by which to judge. A “good” squirrel was properly proportioned, snowflakes were symmetrical, and corn fields were meant to look like corn, not fence posts. If I was going to produce art, it seemed I needed to learn the rules.

There were rules to spare. In 8th grade, I was taught that real poetry always rhymes.  Not long after, I learned that real music has no dissonance, and good art always is representational. Even though my coloring books had been set aside, the importance of remaining within the lines remained unquestioned.

Later in life, the consequences of not being able to  control my metaphorical crayons became more serious. My first full-time job, as a customer service representative for Southwestern Bell in Kansas City, involved taking calls from people wanting to connect, disconnect, or change their telephone service. In those days before computers, the information we obtained — names, addresses, employers — was transcribed by hand onto forms resembling graph paper. Each letter or numeral was to be placed precisely within its own 1/4″ square, with no smudges or stray lines straggling across the paper. 

At the end of a six week probationary period, several of us were advised to seek employment “where our talents might find a better fit.” The nicely-phrased suggestion avoided stating the obvious: idiots who couldn’t stay within the lines had no place in the world of Ma Bell.

After the firing, my relief knew no bounds. I’d hated the work, and every day had been a misery.  Despite understanding company guidelines and wanting to do things properly, I seemed incapable of doing so. When friends asked, “Why not do it their way?” I had no good answer, although it did occur to me that the wisdom of my mother’s advice during my coloring-book days had been confirmed. Stay within the lines, and you’ll be fine. Get distracted, lose focus, grow restless or bored, and your days are numbered. 

For the next few years, I did my best to keep within the lines. But by 1975, I was in London on holiday, and ready to hear what the Heptones had to say on the matter.

A reggae band from Jamaica, the Heptones recorded their hit single, “Book of Rules,” in 1973. Part of a musical wave overtaking London at the time, the song appealed as much to Bob Weir — guitarist, lyricist and founding member of the Grateful Dead — as it did to me. Weir told David Gans in 1981 how he came to record the song:

It had been one of my favorite reggae cuts for the last few years.   I finally found the record and copped the tune and recorded it.  Then a few weeks ago, after the record had been pressed up and everything was happening, a friend of Barlow’s found a compilation of verse, a collection of poems from the turn of the century to about 1930.

The poem within the collection that caught Weir’s attention was “A Bag of Tools,” written by R.L. Sharpe (1870-1950).  It was included by Hazel Felleman in her 1936 volume, Best Loved Poems of the American People.

A Bag of Tools

Isn’t it strange how princes and kings,
and clowns that caper in sawdust rings,
and common people like you and me
are builders for eternity?

Each is given a list of rules;
a shapeless mass; a bag of tools.
And each must fashion, ere life is flown,
A stumbling block, or a stepping-stone.

By the time the Heptones’ Barry Llewellyn and Harry Johnson finished setting Sharpe’s words to music, the lyrics had changed a bit, but the reggae flavor of the newly titled “Book of Rules” was memorable.

The Heptones’ “Book Of Rules”

Isn’t it strange how princesses and kings
In clown-ragged capers in a sawdust ring,
Just like common people like you and me
Will be builders for eternity.
Each is given a bag of tools,
Shapeless mass and the book of rules.

And each must make in life his flowing in
Stumbling block ** or a stepping stone,
Just like common people like you and me
We’ll be builders for eternity
Each is given a bag of tools,
Shapeless mass and the book of rules.

I say it’s common people like you and me
We’ll be builders for eternity
Each is given a bag of tools,
Shapeless mass and the book of rules.

Look when the rain is falling from the sky
I know the sun will be only missing for a while
I say it’s common people like you and me
We’ll be builders for eternity
Each is given a bag of tools,
Shapeless mass and the book of rules. 

In the Heptones’ lyrics, as in Sharpe’s poem, the shapeless mass, the indeterminate tools, and the mysteriously veiled rules appear both ambiguous and compelling. The only certainty seems to be that our final creation — steppingstone, stumbling block, or surprising alternative — will depend upon which tools we choose, and which rules we choose to follow.

Letting go of predetermined forms and patterns isn’t easy.  Without obvious lines to guide us, the need for decision, discipline, and structure increases exponentially.  The blank canvas, the silent practice room, or the empty page can induce paralysis as easily as a decision to move outside commonly accepted life-limits induces vertigo.

But that strange combination of joy and terror lies at the very heart of the creative process. As we confront the shapeless mass of our personal vision, in life or in art, we’d do well to look into our bag, and open our book. It may be that the tools and the rules with which we’ve been supplied differ considerably from those received by others.

After all, Sharpe never said there was only a hammer in the bag, and the Heptones never suggested that one rule fits all.

Comments always are welcome.
**In “Book of Rules,” the phrase “stumbling block” sounds like “tumbling black” in Jamaican patois.


The Margarine Wars

“Mound of Butter” ~ Antoine Vollon, National Gallery of Art

Children of another age, we tickled one another beneath the chin with plump, pollen-heavy dandelions, giggling and asking, “Do you like butter?”

Of course we liked butter. Everyone did. Butter was a double treat, as palatable as ice cream or candy, but never consumed alone. With butter on the table, we knew there would be yeast rolls, or biscuits, or mountainous mashed potatoes surrounding an overflowing, golden lake. On special mornings there would be buttery cinnamon toast: crusty with sugar, and heavy with the scent of spice. When holidays arrived, butter flaked our pastries and lightened the crumbling cookies.

Had we been able, we would have lived an all-butter life, but lacking a cow and a churn, we had to find our butter at the grocery, and prices were high. For weekday toast and sandwiches; for slices of bread on the supper table; for pancakes and waffles adrift in syrupy seas, we made do with margarine.

Significantly less expensive than butter in late 1940s and early 1950s Iowa, margarine arrived from the store as an unappetizing blob of white fat encased in clear plastic. A deep orange color capsule, about the size of an egg yolk, was tucked into the package. Kneading it into the margarine turned the white blob yellow and created at least the illusion of butter.

It required some effort to make the margarine table-ready, but not so much that a child couldn’t do it. Sitting on a tiny, three-legged stool, I forced the deep orange yolk into one corner of the bag, pressing down with the flat of my thumb until it broke. Kneading the bag as though coaxing bread alive beneath my hands, I pressed the ribbons of color through the slick, white fat.

Rolling the bag itself like a rolling pin, pushing against the heavy plastic with my fist, I turned and kneaded and turned again until the color became smooth and even, no longer striated with ribbons of orange but lovely and light — the very color of butter.

At the time, I had no way of knowing my task was rooted in the work of French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès (1817-1880), a man I like to imagine invented the phrase “Je ne peux pas croire que ce n’est pas le beurre”  (“I can’t believe it’s not butter”).  Shortly after Michel Eugène Chevreul discovered a substance he called “margaric acid” in 1813, Mège-Mouriès won Napoleon III’s competition for the right to create a butter substitute.

Working at Faisanderie, the imperial farm in Vincennes, he produced his “oleomargarine” by extracting oil from beef fat, then combining it with milk to produce a butter-like spread. Mège-Mouriès received a French patent for his process in 1869, a U.S. patent in 1873, and the satisfaction of seeing American margarine production initiated by the United States Dairy Company in Manhattan sometime between 1874 and 1876.

Predictably, the dairy industry wasn’t pleased by the introduction of the new product. Their dissatisfaction transformed itself into the so-called “butter wars” — a series of impassioned national and international struggles marked by propaganda, protectionism, and populist rhetoric. After New York and Maryland enacted labeling laws in 1877, other states followed suit.  The language of the labeling law passed in Missouri, cited here in Missouri vs. Bockstruck, is typical:

“Be it enacted by the general assembly of the State of Missouri, as follows…
Sec.3. Every person who lawfully manufactures any substance designed to be used as a substitute for butter shall mark, by branding, stamping or stenciling upon the top and side of each tub, firkin, box or other package in which such article shall be kept, and in which it shall be removed from the place where it is produced, in a clean and durable manner, in the English language, the words, “Substitute for Butter”, in printed letters, in plain Roman type, each of which shall not be less than one inch in length and one-half inch in width.

Despite the clear regulations, enforcement was lax. After lobbying for state inspectors from within the industry, the dairymen formed the National Association for the Prevention of Adulteration of Butter (1882).  The Association’s work not only helped guarantee the purity of butter, it also allowed dairymen to claim that, with no Association for the Prevention of Adulteration of Substitute Butter, it was impossible to guarantee the purity of margarine.

After months of breathless reporting in the vein of Harper’s Weekly’s assertion that “affrighted epicures are being informed they are eating their old candle-ends and tallow-dip remnants in the guise of butter,” a group of dairy farmers successfully petitioned the 1884 New York State Assembly to ban margarine in order to protect a presumably endangered public. The resulting law read:

No person shall manufacture, out of any oleaginous substance or substances or any compound of the same other than that produced from unadulterated milk or of cream . . . any article designed to take the place of butter . . . or shall sell or offer for sale the same as an article of food.
“Oleomargarine bill passed both Houses, to please the dairymen”

State after state followed New York’s lead. Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ohio banned both the manufacture and distribution of “artificial butter” during 1884 and 1885. When the 1886 Oleomargarine Act imposed a tax of two cents per pound on the product, annual licensing fees of $600 on manufacturers, fees of $480 on wholesalers, and $48 on retailers, margarine sales plummeted.

Eventually, most states abolished anti-margarine legislation under pressure from the courts. When Massachusetts chose to pursue its case to the Supreme Court, it led to the 1894 ruling that states could prohibit importation of artificially-colored margarine, but not uncolored margarine.

Remarkably, a loophole had been left.  No law restricted the coloring of margarine at home, so manufacturers began to provide yellow coloring packets with their product – the “yolks”. Having regained the ability to make margarine look like butter, consumers became more willing to use margarine  – although even my mother wondered aloud, “Why not make it yellow at the factory?”

While my mother questioned and I kneaded away at my faux-butter-in-a-bag, a friend and her family were engaging in petty criminality. They lived in Minnesota, where colored margarine was illegal and all margarine was highly taxed. Like other frustrated Minnesotans, they made regular forays across the border into Iowa, their cars filled with aluminum coolers and dry ice.

To a casual observer, it would have looked like a fishing trip, but when our northern neighbors stopped at grocery stores in Estherville, Swea City, or Lakota, they revealed themselves to be what we called butter-busters: margarine-runners of the first order, veritable Smokey-and-the-Bandits of imitation butter.

They made no effort to hide their intent. Filling cart after cart with heaps and piles of margarine from the dairy cases, they just grinned at the checkout clerks who asked, “So. How’re things up north, then?”  They traveled from store to store and town to town until the coolers were full, then headed back across the border to Minnesota and home, where they transferred the contraband into refrigerators and chest freezers and smiled with satisfaction.

By all accounts, margarine-running was widespread. Minnesotans came to Iowa, but so did folks from Missouri. Once colored margarine became legal in Minnesota, people from Wisconsin headed west, seeking to circumvent their own state’s restrictions. The practice of crossing borders to obtain margarine was so common that The Invisibility Affair, one of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. series written by Buck Coulson and Gene DeWeese under Thomas Stratton’s name, was set in Wisconsin; it portrayed Napoleon and Illya in a car trunk filled with colored margarine being smuggled from Illinois to Wisconsin.

Margarine was the product, but the behavior rivaled that of the rum-runners in the Prohibition era. The majority of margarine-runners were fine, upstanding citizens who mowed their grass, helped their neighbors, paid their bills, and coached their kids, but they were equally capable of plotting, conniving, hoarding, and conspiring on behalf of their beloved margarine.

Like taxes and regulations applied to alcohol, tobacco and playing cards, the regulation of oleomargarine was meant to control what people consumed. To some degree it was successful, but the story of the margarine laws also is the story of how remarkable creativity can emerge when people are determined not to allow government or business interests to dictate the details of their daily lives.

Today, the margarine wars are over. Even Missouri, whose 1895 law banning colored margarine was one of the most stringent in the country ($100 fines for a first offense, $500 and up to six months in prison for repeat offenders) has moved on to other things, and repealed the law.

More recently, light bulbs replaced margarine as the battleground, and incandescence became a hot topic. According to Reuters, a German entrepreneur named Siegfried Rotthaeuser evaded the European Union ban on incandescent bulbs of more than 60 watts by importing and distributing 75 and 100 watt light bulbs from China, calling them “small heating devices,” or “heatballs.”

Since incandescents produce far more heat than light, Rotthaeuser realized they could be sold as heaters without violating legislative provisions. Even he was surprised when the first 4,000 heatballs sold out in three days, but at last report, he was expanding his business. Clearly, you can’t keep a good entrepreneur down.

As hysteria over light bulbs reached levels rarely seen since the margarine wars, I couldn’t help wondering: would people leave fat, old-fashioned Christmas lights to family members in their wills? Would men in slovenly trenchcoats hang about hardware store alleyways, seeking business with a whispered, “Pssst! Lady! Wanna buy some hundred watts?” Would desperate needlework artists frequent seedy neighborhoods, tapping on closed doors with tiny windows and choking out the password, “Edison sent me”? Would there be a black market? Lightbulb-runners? Hoarding? Protests? Would users of incandescent bulbs be nicknamed the Illumi-naughty? 

In the end, of course, common sense prevailed, just as it did in the butter-and-margarine conflicts. Technology advanced, the markets adjusted, and people found creative ways to overcome restrictions they considered onerous.

What comes next is hard to predict, but that there will be a “next” is inevitable. As long as it doesn’t involve coffee, chocolate, or Tempranillo, I think I can cope. If it does, I may have to call my margarine-running friend for some tips.


Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds: Vultures

Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

There’s nothing unusual about seeing vultures in Texas, but a pair of turkey vultures taking the sun on a gently disintegrating windmill seemed worth the stop.

By the time I’d stepped out of the car, one of the birds already was giving me the side-eye. The reason for his attention was obvious; if I were going to expire on the side of the road, he didn’t want to miss an easy meal.

His cautious but coolly calculating expression amused me immensely. There on the spot, I composed a bit of verse for him:

The vulture high atop his tree
will look and look  – what does he see?
Of course he’d like to eat for free;
I hope he doesn’t relish me!

Occasionally a website or tabloid will try to pull in readers with an attack-vulture story, but vultures aren’t designed to attack human beings. Several species, including the turkey vulture, will eat small, live prey from time to time, but they’ve evolved to feed primarily on carrion, and help to keep the environment clean by ridding it of dead animals. 

Still, their habits elicit a certain revulsion, and occasionally an almost superstitious reaction. “Don’t stop walking,” an old Texas rancher once said to me. “You don’t want to tempt them.”


In a poem he titled “Vulture,” Robinson Jeffers (1887–1962) imagines what it would be like to stop walking, and tempt such a bird.

Jeffers promoted a philosophy he called “inhumanism” — a view of things in which nature “not only serves as a backdrop for verse,  but animals and natural objects frequently are compared to man, with man shown to be the inferior.” It’s a perspective that influenced other California poets, such as Gary Snyder, and although the “merging with nature” that Jeffers imagines here is less sentimental and far more graphic than that portrayed in many poems, it certainly is memorable. I suspect my vultures would like it.


I had walked since dawn and lay down to rest on a bare hillside
Above the ocean. I saw through half-shut eyelids a vulture wheeling
high up in heaven,
And presently it passed again, but lower and nearer, its orbit
I understood then
That I was under inspection. I lay death-still and heard the flight-
Whistle above me and make their circle and come nearer.
I could see the naked red head between the great wings
Bear downward, staring. I said, ‘My dear bird, we are wasting time
These old bones will still work; they are not for you.’ But how
he looked, gliding down
On those great sails; how beautiful he looked, veering away in the
over the precipice. I tell you solemnly
That I was sorry to have disappointed him. To be eaten by that beak
become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes–
What a sublime end of one’s body, what an enskyment; what a life
after death.



Comments always are welcome.