Sunday, February 7, 2016

Stormy History

     I've always been a little foggy when it comes to history. Dates, events and famous people - they don't really do it for me. I'm more of a "places" type of guy. When I stumble upon an old foundation in the woods or the overgrown trace of a trolley line or canal, I want to find out more about it. I want to know its history. Maybe it's a reaction to the "Blah, blah, blah" boredom of high school classes but I like things that are tangible and concrete, things that you can walk up to and touch. Real places offer the pleasure of discovery and incentive to learn more.

     Last Wednesday was a foggy, rainy winter day but I decided to ignore the gloom and go looking for local history. My first stop was the Wing-Northup House on Broadway in Fort Edward. It's a beautiful old structure somewhat lost in its setback between rows of commercial storefronts. This is the home of the Washington County Historical Society, open on Wednesdays and Fridays. To the right of the center hall entrance is the Heritage Research Library. It's most often used for genealogy work. My interests lay in Charles and Gaynelle Moore's monumental documentation of all the cemeteries in Washington County.

     After finding my information I walked across the hall to a room where the Society operates a small bookstore. Talk about your "kid in a candy store". I always have trouble staying within my budget here. Today I managed to limit myself to Argyle 1764 - 2014, recently published by the Argyle Historian's Office. As soon as my piggybank fills up I'll be back. This place is a treasure trove for Washington County enthusiasts and your purchases support a great organization.
     The WCHS is dedicated to education about and preservation of our regional heritage. They sponsor lectures, tours and workshops and also publish books, an annual journal and newsletters. On their website you'll find contact information for town and county historians and local libraries plus a full list of publications for sale. Find out more here.

     After my visit to the Historical Society I drove up River Street to take in the view of the Hudson and Rogers Island - quite moody and mysterious in the rain and fog. Then it was thru Hudson Falls and on towards Glens Falls.  Whenever I pass this way Kendall McKernon's photographs come to mind. Wish I could borrow just a little bit of his talent!

     At Crandall Library I went down to the Holden Collection to check out the 1853 Morris Levey map, wondering if it showed a cemetery and house I was interested in. Then I surveyed their extensive collection of Washington County books and spent some pleasant time browsing Cambridge and Argyle histories. This turned up several areas I want to visit in the future including the Allen family massacre location as well as mill sites on Flax Mill Brook and Pumpkin Hook Creek. This is sort of the flip side of what I mentioned earlier, where you first read about a place and its history, then try to see if you can find it.

     Upstairs I picked up a few items including a compact audio disc in the Great Courses series entitled Big History with Professor David Christian. This is an interesting new concept in teaching the past that starts at the very beginning with the Big Bang and the creation of the universe. It proceeds thru the formation of stars and planets, chronicling Earth's development and the origins of life. Finally, about halfway thru the lectures, the evolution of hominids is introduced, including one that is usually the sole subject of history courses. Under the umbrella of big history we watch cosmology, geology and biology set the stage for our antics. The human story told here is more about major trends and concepts than specific dates and events. It has a wholistic, all encompassing feel that's more satisfying than typical presentations focused on a particular nation or time period.

13.7 billion years in 48 lectures

     So here's your homework. Pick a favorite spot - could be your home, the town where you live, or a patch of wilderness - and let your curiosity out of the closet. Where did the atoms that make up this place come from? How and when did they assemble to make what you see? What forces shaped the bedrock landscape? How about the atmosphere above with its climate and weather? What kind of plant and animal communities have developed? And finally, what have people done here, be they Native Americans, European colonists or your closest ancestors?
     Don't worry, you have the rest of your life to work on this and there won't be a test. Plus you've got lots of helpful resources - people and organizations, books and websites. Hopefully the assignment will clear up some fog and bring your relationship with place into focus. Bet that's more than you got out of your high school history class.

Sky and Telescope diagram
A "Cool" Family Reunion
     Finally, a clear (and cold) morning. I went out about 6am Saturday hoping to view five planets and got more than I bargained for. Jupiter was the leader of the pack - unmistakably the brightest thing in the sky high in the west. Mars and Saturn took a little searching. They're dimmer and lie amongst stars of similar magnitude. It helps if you recognize the outlines of the constellations. Then you can spot something that looks out of place. Remember, the constellations you see just before dawn in winter are the same ones visible early on summer evenings.
     Mars was about halfway up from the horizon looking south, lying between Spica to the west and Antares to the east. It was just a little bit brighter than those two stars and glowed with a steady orange color compared to their stellar twinkly whiteness.  Saturn was further east beyond Antares and the constellation Scorpius. It's usually described as having a golden color. Now's an opportunity to compare it to Mars and see if you can detect a difference in their tints. If you've got a telescope it's also a good time to see the tilted rings in all their glory. Beyond Saturn the sky was beginning to lighten with approaching dawn. Still, Venus was easy to spot, just a little above the horizon. Its magnitude is actually greater than Jupiter's but it doesn't appear as striking because the sky here isn't as dark. An extra treat was a slender fingernail Moon just to the left of the planet.
     But what about elusive Mercury, never far from the Sun and always a challenge to see? I was getting cold, there were some low clouds resting on the eastern hills and a few trees blocked the view as well. So naturally I cheated, using binoculars to scan below the Moon till I found it. Just a tiny shining spec peeking over the clouds. Once located I could see it with just my eyes, but barely. By then hypothermia was setting in so it was back inside to thaw out under the covers for a little bit before chore time. Hope we have clear (and warmer) mornings the next few days so you can catch the show.

* Just can't get out of bed that early? Check out photos here and here.

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