Writing

This page contains reviews, essays, stories, travel journals and musings about dreams, that may or may not relate to the rest of this site.


  History:

In This Year 1086
The Year of the Domesday Book

Today we mostly think of the Domesday Book as a source for historical information, and it seems to us an ordinary enough document. But we live in an age in which information is routinely kept about everyone, and the world and everything in it is mapped with unprecedented detail. This was not the situation in 1086.

The Peterborough Manuscript is the only of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles to continue more than a few years beyond the Norman Conquest, but it States the following: “After this [Midwinter 1085] the king had great thought and very deep conversation with his council about this land, how it was occupied, or with which men. Then he sent his men all over England into every shire and had them ascertain how many hundreds of hides there were in the shire, or what land and livestock the king himself had in the land, or what dues he ought to have in 12 months from the shire.” A hide of land is the amount that will support a family in a given district, and so can be very large in infertile country, or quite small in rich farmland. The manuscript goes on, “He had it investigated so very narrowly that there was not a single hide, not one yard of land, not even (it is shameful to tell – but it seemed no shame to him to do it) one ox, not one cow, not one pig was left out, that was not set down in his record. And all the records were brought to him afterward.”

Though an unpopular move, William had sound political reasons to compile the book. He was having trouble not only with indigenous rebellions in England, but the threat of Danish and Flemish invasion, and with holding Normandy against the king of France, and against his own son, Robert. The previous year the king of Denmark, Canute son of Sveine, had threatened invasion, forcing William to move a huge army across the channel. It was an exceptionally sticky problem feeding and distributing such a force, while not knowing the capacity of the land to provide.

The manuscript goes on to describe the year. “And this same year was a very heavy year, and a very laborious and sorrowful year in England, in pestilence among cattle and corn and crops were left standing and [there was] such great misfortune with weather as cannot easily be conceived; there was such great thundering and lightening that it killed many men; and it always got worse and worse for men.” Even though England had been under Norman control for twenty years, the king’s investigators compiling this strange combination of census, tax assessment and ordinance survey must have seemed ominous indeed amongst the lightening and pestilence. It is not that records were not kept before the conquest, but they were essentially a bottom up enterprise, still mainly having to do the taxable value of villages. The thiegn would keep track of what his villeins could provide, the earl would know what each thiegn could gather, and likewise the King kept track of the worth of the earls. But this was agents of the king, probably foreigners, conducting an audit of the worth of the whole country.

Ironically this book to which we look for information on life in early England was out of date before it was finished. After the lightening and pestilence of 1086 came the famine and fires of 1087, and much of what had been assessed was destroyed. The manuscript states: “Such a disease came on men that very nearly every other man had the worst illness – that is fever, and that so severely that many men died from the illness. Afterward, through great bad weather which came as we already told, there came a very great famine over all England.” It goes on: “Also in that same year, before autumn, the holy minster of St. Paul, the bishop’s seat in London, burned down, and many other minsters and the largest part – and finest – of all the town. So also at that same time well nigh every major market town in all England burned down.” Perhaps wisely, the monks do not speculate as to the possible causes of so many fires in so many towns and churches. To complete the Irony of the whole grim episode, by this time William had been forced to cross the channel to defend his lands on the continent from Phillip, king of France, and was busy burning the town of Mantes, the capital of the Vexin.

In this Year 918
AEthelflaed and the Mercian Register

This month I am focusing on AEthelflaed lady of the Mercians, and The Mercian Register, a person and a document that should be better known to history. Michael Swanton in his introduction to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles describes the document as follows: “Between the annals for 915 and 934, this scribe inserted material which has become known as the ‘Mercian Register’ – a handful of short annals covering the years 902-24 and focusing on the activities of AEthelflaed, lady of the Mercians. They form a discrete unit, not wholly integrated with the main text: they are out of sequence (896 of the Register following 915 of the main text), and information found in them was sometimes already present.”

For the year 918 the Register reads: “Here in the early part of this year, with God’s help, she peaceably got in her control the stronghold at Leicester, and the most part of the raiding armies that belonged to it were subjected. And also the York-folk had promised her – and some of them granted so by pledge, some confirmed with oaths – that they would be at her disposition. But very quickly after they had done that, she departed, 12 days before midsummer, inside Tamworth, the eighth year that she held control over Mercia with rightful lordship; and her body lies inside Gloucester in the east side chapel of St. Peter’s Church.” It is worth noting that our scribe felt no need to mention the Lady by name.

Who was she? The genealogies of the kings of Wessex show her to be the daughter of King Alfred, and the older sister of King Edward the Elder. A direct descendent of Cerdic, the first historical king of Wessex, and she married AEthelred, ealdorman [Earl] of Mercia. She was a powerful leader before the death of her husband, as shown by the following passage: “And the same year [910] AEthelflaed built the stronghold at Bremesbyrig. Then in this, the next year, [911] AEthelred, lord of the Mercianns, departed.” She seems to have been a tireless champion of her people and homeland, spending much of her reign building fortifications against Danish attack. 914 was a typical year; “Then in this, the next year was made the stronghold at Eddisbury in early summer; and later in the same year, late in harvest-time, that at Warwick.” By her death she had made Mercia strong against attack, beaten back the Welsh invaders, taking the Welsh queen hostage, and peacefully taken control of much of Northumbria. One wonders what she might have achieved had she lived longer.

AEthelflaed is mentioned little outside of the Mercian Register. The Peterborough Manuscript jumps directly from the death AEthelred in “910, [911 current calendar], to her death in 918, omitting the entire time that she reigned alone. She is only briefly mentioned when her death is noted: The whole of the entry for 918 reads: “Here AEthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians passed away.” Some of her absence from the chronicles might be attributed to geography, with some scribes simply being too far away to take note, but we must suspect that this is only part of the story. Such a powerful and popular woman must have made the monks who were doing the writing of the chronicles more than a bit uncomfortable.

The genealogies do not show her having any children with AEthelred, but the register states that he had a daughter,  from whom power was taken. “[919] Here also the daughter of AEthelred, Lord of the Mercians, was deprived of all control in Mercia, and was led into Wessex three weeks before Christmas; she was called AElfwynn.” This daughter is mentioned nowhere else, but the wording here suggests that for a short time, before being sacked, she was ruling the newly expanded Mercian lands. Though there was not to be another Lady of Mercia so independent, AEthelflaed set a pattern of powerful Mercian ladies that would last until the conquest, and include Godgifu (Lady Godiva) and Wulfrun, Lady of the Mercians.

 

In this year 1125

The Peterborough Manuscript is the only of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles to continue through the reign of William I, and so is the only source for this year in the Chronicles. The last of the others, the Worchester MS, ends in 1079, with a brief Norman addendum, added fifty years later.

Note: the year 1125 begins on Christmas Day in the reckoning of the time, and the final week of December would be counted as 1124 in the modern calendar. “In this year before Christmas the king Henry (Henry I) sent from Normandy to England and commanded that all the moneyers who were in England should be deprived of their limbs, that was the right hand of each of them and their stones below; that was because the man who had a pound could not buy a penn’orth at a market. And the bishop Robert of Salisbury sent all over England and commanded them all that they should come to Winchester at Christmas. Then when they came there they were seized one by one, and each deprived of the right hand and the stones below. All this was done inside of the twelve nights; (Christmas to 12th Night) and it was all very proper because they had done for all the land with their great fraud, (the word used here can also mean adulteration or debasement, literally bad money) which they all paid for.

Today this seems a remarkably gruesome act, however such punishments were not uncommon in early Norman England. In the coins themselves we find a clue as to the reasoning behind this event. Coins of Mediaeval Europe, by P. Grierson states of the coinage of Henry I “the moneyers now begin to bear Norman names such as William and Richard” suggesting that control of the currency was being transferred, at least in some cases to Norman families. We should remember that moneying, like most other trades, was inherited. This act would put all of the Anglo-Saxon moneying families out of the business, as a moneyer needs both hands to strike coins, and none of those unfortunate men would be having any sons to pass their trade on to. As to the allegation that the money had been debased, P. Grierson goes on to write “…while the design is often good, the quality of striking is much inferior to that of the two Williams. Chemical analyses of surviving specimens do not bear out the general belief of the time that the coins were badly debased.” It may well be that the king, off across the water, believed the coinage had been debased, and in any case he must have felt that he needed to be seen to be doing something to restore faith in the currency if he were to rule England from afar.

The Peterborough MS also mentions an envoy from the Pope in Rome, who went on progress through the land in September held a council in London try to get the English church to adopt new religious rules. He was rebuffed, and shortly returned to Rome.

It goes on thus: “In this same year on the feast of St. Lawrence (10 August) there occurred so great a flood that many villages and men drowned, and bridges broken down, and corn and pasture wholly destroyed, and famine and disease among men and among cattle; and there occurred great unseasonableness for all crops than for many years before.” This flood must truly have been devastating coming just before the harvest. With the stresses that the occupation of England placed on the economy, famine and sickness following crop failure were becoming all too common.

The annal for 1125 ends by noting the death of the abbot of Peterborough, though it fails to state the cause. As an abbot he would have been somewhat insulated from famine, but not from rampant disease caused by flood and famine.

At the end of the year England was still a country suffering the effects of the conquest some thirty-eight years after the death of William I. A country accustomed to isolation, it was feeling the pressures of broader European politics from as far away as Rome, as well as the brutal realities of being ruled from overseas.


 

Dreams:

The Painters

The other night I had a dream. I was swimming in a meandering river with high grassy banks, moving with the current. The weather was hot and the water pleasant. As I came around a bend I saw a group of forty or fifty women standing at easels. I let the water carry me to the bank, and got out to see what was going on. As I approached I noticed that they were all Japanese, some in western clothing, and some in traditional silks, and all appeared to be painting in oils on canvas. Not one of them took any notice of me; so intent were they on their paintings. In my dream all this seemed perfectly normal.
Then, as I got closer, I saw that about six of the painters were in fact made of beautifully woven wicker and bamboo, tied with strings. They were disturbingly sexy. For a moment all that seemed odd, but not as odd as what was about to happen. One of the women in traditional clothing, with her hair up and pinned, drew a boken from her robes, and ran not at me but at the nearest wicker painter. With elegant movements she smashed the effigy to bits, and moved to the next. I came closer, and bamboo splinters flew as one after another of the wicker figures fell. The other painters were starting to look. When she had slain the last figure, she prostrated herself before the easel amid the broken bamboo. I was quite close and saw that the canvas was stretched on an oval frame, and the boken was lying on the ground.
As I wondered what was painted on it one of the painters in western clothing picked up a stretcher bar about 30 inches long. She drew it back above her head to deliver a powerful blow that would surely smash the skull of the woman on the ground, who I thought would pick up her boken to defend herself. Instead she grasped the painting, holding it behind her bowed head for protection. Then, as the final blow fell I saw that the image on the canvas was of the back of the kneeling woman’s head, her neck bare, with a few wisps of escaped hair, and of the stretcher bar about to strike. With that I woke, thankful to not see what was about to happen.


 

Travels:

Journey to Ireland with Hammers

It is often an artistic pilgrimage that guides us as expressive beings, and defines the stages of our creative lives. These may take the form of a physical journey, but may also be a place we go within ourselves. They may be something we plan or something that simply happens, only afterward leaving us with the realisation that something profound has happened. We may have a goal in mind or we may be the seeker who believes that he will know the place when he gets there. For a long time now I have relied on this sort of pilgrimage as a sort of quest that, if successful, will augment the way I look at things and allow me to see what has been obscure. I have ridden the Green Tortoise to the Haight Ashbury to visit a textile school, walked to the home of the radical designer, Christopher Alexander, and retraced parts of the route from the film Easy Rider, which itself is about a journey toward discovery. This is a story about one such journey.

In the early 1990s in the hills near Clear Lake, CA I bumped into the goldsmith Sam Brown. We knew of one another, but had never before met, so I introduced myself and asked what was happening with him. He said that he had just returned from a silversmithing workshop in Ireland, and showed me an adorable little cup he had made there. That night we ate fresh abalone, I drank heavily, and then promptly forgot about the whole thing for nearly ten years, when a lover said to me, “Hey I’m going to Ireland for work; do you want to come along?”
“Sure, but there is this thing I need to do there.” I said.
“What?”
“Well I don’t exactly know what, but about ten years ago I was talking to this guy in California, and he had just done it.”

To her credit she didn’t decide that I was way too nuts to be travelling with, and promptly did a computer search on “Silversmithing in Ireland” The first site that came up listed Sam Brown as a former student, and the next day I cashed out my savings and was making arrangements to go three weeks ahead of her so that I would have time for the classes and adjusting to the time difference.

The day after the Nisqually earthquake, with my house badly damaged and a new sketch book and bag of hammers under my arm I was boarding a jet over the pole to London. By the following evening I was in Dublin with a pint of Guinness in front of me. The next day I walked all over town, visiting various pieces of public art, and Picasso’s Blue Mandolin in the National Gallery. Then I was off to Kildare St. to the Museum to start filling my sketch book. I worked without direction or aim, drawing whatever caught my eye, and was not featured in the books I own. After a while I noticed that I was not the only one drawing. In fact nearly everywhere I went I could see people drawing in sketchbooks, and they were more often than not locals. The tourists had cameras, and were snapping pictures and then rushing off to the next stop on their tour.

When the day came to leave Dublin I had trouble finding the station, and so took the second to the last train south toward the mountains. It was old, a bit smelly, and ever so iconic, with rounded cars that had doors with handles on the outside only. When we came into a station we were expected to open the window, reach out and pull on the door latch. I was met at the old station in Rathdrum by my hosts, and driven to the school in Ballniaclash, where I was told in no uncertain terms that I would not be allowed to help in the kitchen once the workshops actually started. I was to focus on metal work.

The workshops were more than I could have hoped for. I am sometimes a difficult student, and not easily impressed, but I had found what I wanted. In the two weeks that I worked there I was kept busy and challenged the whole time, completing eight projects, plus a little something to leave there. I learned to make all sorts of forms, from a large fold form vessel that looked as if Georgia O’Keefe was doing metalwork, to a project in which I unraised a hollow form, collapsing it down to a disc with a very thick spot in the middle. I gained a great deal of visceral understanding about the plasticity of metal and how it moves under the hammer. This was something with which I already had a lot of experience, and it is, quite simply, what is special about metals. You can carve anything that can be cut, and cast anything that can be melted and then frozen again. In fact an ice cube is one of the best examples of a casting that I know. Plasticity under the hammer is what sets metals apart from other materials, and I had no way of knowing how much was left to learn. What is more, I got a whole lot faster at moving the metal. After the workshop tasks that had in the past taken me days were accomplished in hours, not through added force, but by working with nature of the metal itself. I had not just learned some new techniques, but had gained a profound understanding about what metal really is.

I had many adventures there, and the company was grand. The Irish take their time off seriously, without taking themselves that way, and there was lots of drinking, talking and tramping about to be done. There are far more stories than I can possibly relate here, but this one is typical:

One evening Brian, the instructor, asked, “Well now, you have two more days here. What do you think you will be doing for your last project?”
“I don’t really know; what do you think would be challenging,” I replied.

He looked thoughtful for a moment or two and then said: “I have it. Tomorrow you will start raising a square vessel.”
“How?”
“Never mind that, its time to go to the pub.”
“No really, how?” I asked.

He was firm. “Never mind. I’ll tell you in the morning. Now lets go have a few pints before we are late for supper.”

I relented, we went to the pub, and we were not late for supper. Good to his word, first thing in the morning Brian showed me the process, and it was indeed challenging, and a most interesting project.

My last night in Ballinaclash we had a new visitor, Michael Good. We stayed late at the pub talking about politics, metalwork, Heikki Seppa, and traveling in Europe. He asked if I wouldn’t stay another week for his anticlastic raising workshop. I told him that I had made other arrangements, and didn’t have the money for another week. “Do you teach on the West coast?” I asked.
“No,” he replied. “And you should learn this stuff here. This is where anticlastic raising was invented, back in the Bronze Age. Brian has been working on reproducing the process.”
“You’re kidding.” I said.
“No. Think about those ribbon torcs in the museum. They are a double helix and I’m convinced that they were raised on some sort of sinusoidial. Are you sure you can’t stay?”

I went back to the museum and looked long and hard at the torcs. In the workshop I had forged a double helix, by lengthening the edges of a flat bar so that they were much longer than the middle, but it did not look like the torcs in the museum. What Michael was talking about was taking a thin strip of metal and raising it so that the middle becomes much shorter than the edges. Later I would learn that this involves rolling the strip up into a tube raising it to an auger shape, and then turning it inside out. It is difficult to wrap your head around it, even when you are doing it, and it involves a supreme effort at three-dimensional thought. In the end I had to wait a lot longer than overnight to learn the process, but that is another story about another journey.


Stories:

Gray Day

It’s a gray day. Under a soft sky; everything is gray or green or someplace in-between the two. The hills are green except where they’re gray, with the sky reaching down into the trees. The water is gray, except where it is green in the ripples and reflections of the trees. Alder and maple; spruce and fir and cedar, even the orange bark madrone looks gray and misty. You can only see colors up close. In the distance they soften ’till they become part of the sky. The air is soft and sweet, and it leaves little drops of dew on everything. Maybe the day isn’t gray; maybe the day is silver.

My Favourite Time of Day

The sun is down, but it’s not dark yet; it’s my favourite time of day. I’m picking berries next to the big blue guitar. It’s got no strings, just little white lights that wink. It’s taller than the outhouse, but it’s the same color.

Across the road people are hauling their kayaks out of the bay. I can hear their voices and the sounds of boats and water, and I hear the kingfisher bark. He’s going off to roost, and I’m thinking that I should be doing the same, so I take my berries and head off for home.

I’m walking over the bridge where the raven cracks his clams and leaves the shells on the rail. There’s a brand new crescent moon and not a bit of wind, the water is as smooth as it ever gets, showing me the moon that looks the other way. A fish turns and the ripples make the moon look like it is pulling at the water. I think about it for a bit, and I think that it is. The moon is pulling at the water, and at the kingfisher and the raven, and at me; pulling me toward home. I walk toward the moon and think, and the sky gets darker. As I walk up to my house, the moon is just slipping behind the hill, and I’m thinking that this is my favourite time of month too.

Bull Testicles

It’s hot, and I’m sleeping in the shade of the big canvas tent. Beth and Karen went down to the creek to cool off, and left me with the dog. She is barking her fool head off, which is waking me up from my nap. I open my eyes a bit and think, “hmm, bull testicles.” The dog keeps on barking. Then it occurs to me what that means, “bull testicles!”

My eyes snap open, the dog keeps barking, and the bull, standing over me, keeps on eating the grass. I roll over, slowly. I get up, slowly. I try to silence the dog. The bull is big, real big, red, shaggy, and standing in the open end of the tent, looking at me. Just when I think that things are getting pretty bad: the dog won’t stop barking, and the bull isn’t moving, I notice something I haven’t seen before. The other bull. This one is even bigger, with lots of wrinkles and big horns. He is looking at me too, though from a little further away.

I’m not sure what to do, but I’m thinking that this would be a real stupid way to die, and I wish that the dog would be quite. I can imagine the newspaper story: “Man trampled to death in a wad of rope and canvas, by prize winning bulls. The victim, identified as Bill Dawson…” And what if I don’t get killed? I’m imagining myself in the emergency room trying to explain how I was gored by not one, but two bulls in my own tent.

All of a sudden the big wrinkly bull moves off, swinging his horns. The shaggy bull looks around, and then starts to follow his friend. I’m covered in sweat, and the dog is still barking. Some men have come over from anther camp to see what all the noise is about; they think it’s funny. The bulls wander off into some trees, and I see Beth and Karen coming up from the creek. They come into camp, and the dog is finally quiet.

“Hi there, how was your nap?”

 

Making the Bed

The weather is getting colder and the ash trees are already yellow, so I decide it’s time to put winter sheets on the bed. I take everything off of the old mattress, and turn it over in the wooden frame. As I work I think that the bed is a little like my life, made up of all sorts of different things from different places, and they don’t all quite fit together. And all the parts have memories that go with them.

I remember winning the frame in a contest; they carried me back to my camp in it. I put on the sheets, and tuck them in. They are the flannel sheets with the printed flowers that Beth and I bought the summer before our son died. Next I put on the Mexican blanket we got for a wedding present; she didn’t want it anymore after she left. Now there is the green and black trade blanket from my grandmother who was killed crossing the street. Her and I had gotten in a fight years ago, and she gave it to me as a peace making gesture. After that I put on the disaster relief blankets from the 1964 tsunami. My father was living on the beach that year, and the day of the big wave he had gone to visit his grandmother, Zelda, in Smith River. His shack on the beach was gone and if he had been in it I would never have been born. Next the quilt from my mother, the one made out of faded blue jeans. She made it for me after Beth left, saying “It’s gonna be cold sleeping by yourself.” I’m almost done as I unfold the quilt Zelda made for me when I was little, and living with her, and her mom, Ida, and her husband, Big Bill. Last I put out the big log cabin quilt that Ida, my great great grandmother, made for me when I was born. It’s big, wool and hand stitched, every bit, and it holds all the rest of the bedding in place. As I smooth out the wrinkles I think that Ida was the one among all my relations who really believed in me. I was just a baby, but she made that quilt long, figuring that I would grow to be a big man. She made it wide, figuring that I would be the sort of man to have a family. She also made it sturdy, figuring that I would live a long and full life. Maybe I will.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s