Thursday, May 28, 2015

Bison on the Prairie

American Bison
When homesteaders like Isaac B. Werner arrived on the prairie, they found few trees.  They had not yet planted corn, the stalks and cobs of which they would in the coming years use for fuel (See "Corn Harvest, Then and Now," 9-18-2014 in the blog archives).  Lacking the traditional fuel sources, like wood and coal, these homesteaders found an unexpected source--the dried dung of the American bison, or buffalo as the bison were commonly known.  The dung, nicknamed 'prairie coal,' burned slowly and the odor was barely noticeable, according to contemporary accounts.

In the early years of settlement of the prairie, there were unimaginably vast herds of buffalo. Native Americans used the animal not only for food and hides but also found uses of other parts of the buffalo.  Because the buffalo was so important to Native Americans, religious rituals were often a part of the hunts.

A pile of American Bison skulls
As the plains were settled by people from other cultures, the animals seemed to be inexhaustible.  It was estimated that at least 25 million American bison roamed the United States and Canada, but by the late 1880s perhaps as few as 600 remained in the US!  They were often killed for their hides, the meat left on the prairie to rot, or they were killed simply for sport.  Sadly, they were also killed as a way to defeat the Indian populations, for slaughtering the buffalo meant less food and materials available for used by the Native American populations.  Cattlemen did not like grazing competition from the buffalo for their cattle's range.  However, it is also true that one method used by the Indians in their bison hunts was driving huge herds off cliffs to kill or wound them.

Fortunately, a few people recognized the importance of preserving this great prairie animal.  One of the earliest proponents of reintroducing the North American Bison to the region of its historic range was James "Scotty" Phillip of South Dakota.  He bought five calves roped during the Last Big Buffalo Hunt on the Grand River in 1881 and took them back to his ranch on the Cheyenne River.  When he died in 1911 he had a herd of over a thousand bison, from which other privately owned herds originated.

Painting by George Carlin
The Yellowstone Park Bison herd was formed from a few bison that survived the mindless slaughter of the 1800s, and the the Park's bison numbering over 4,000 are the descendants of those 23 hidden bison.

Today the US Department of Interior is seeking lands on which to move animals from the Yellowstone herd.  Because the bison migrate during winter, cattlemen outside the Park fear the spread of brucellosis to their cattle.  As a result, the government has allowed bison slaughters to avoid the risk of the disease spreading to surrounding cattle herds.

Some Yellowstone bison have been quarantined for years to make sure they are free from the disease, with the intention of moving them to appropriate areas outside Yellowstone.  Kansas is among the states with possible sites for these animals with the pure genetics of the original American bison.  The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve was identified as potentially suitable for relocating these bison.

Small herds of buffalo can occasionally be seen in pastures in agricultural areas, but they are nearly always bison-cattle hybrids that lack the pure genetics of the Yellowstone herds.

Millions of acres of public lands have been leased to ranchers for grazing livestock, and the National Wildlife Federation has established a program to negotiate a fair market price with ranchers to retire their grazing leases and return these acres to the exclusive use of natural wildlife, including the bison.  Their program uses the catch line "Adopt a Wildlife Acre.  Give Bison Room to Roam."  

Perhaps there were a few American bison left on the prairie when Isaac Werner arrived in 1878, but for most settlers at that time the only resource left by the bison were their dried dung used for fuel and their bones, which could be collected and sold for use in fertilizer.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

More Historic Diaries

Leo Tolstoy
Continuing to share the history of diary keeping from Alexandra Johnson's book, A Brief History of Diaries>>From Pepys to Blogs, I was not surprised to see that writers and authors are often diary and journal keepers.  One example is, however, rather unique.

Sonya Tolstoy
From the beginning of Leo Tolstoy's courtship of his wife-to-be Sonya in 1862, until Tolstoy's death in 1910, Leo and Sonya kept diaries.  In her book, Johnson writes:  "A year into their marriage, Tolstoy decided they should share theirs.  For forty-two years, they read, wrote in and commented on the other's diaries."  Tolstoy's novel, War and Peace, grew from a seed planted by a story he read in his wife's diary!

Fanny Burney (1752-1828)
Frances d'Arblay, known as Fanny Bruney, was a member of the literary circle that included Boswell and Johnson in the 1700s.  In 1768, when she was only fifteen years old, the clever girl began her practice of diary keeping with these words:  "To Nobody then will I write my journal since to Nobody can I be wholly unreserved--to Nobody can I reveal every thought, every wish of my heart."

Dorothy Wordsworth
Like Sonya Tolstoy, another female diarist aided a famous relative.  In this case it was Dorothy Wordsworth who kept a diary to "give pleasure" to her brother, William Wordsworth.  She was twenty-six years old when she began in 1798, and William acknowledged that "She gave me eyes" through her journal entries.  The sketch of Dorothy is taken from her biography.

Alice James
Alice James, sister to novelist Henry and philosopher William, began her diary in 1889.  At her death in 1892, her brother Henry described her diary as "heroic in its individuality...Her style, her  power to write--are to me a delight."  Despite the praise of his sister's writing, he burned the diary!  We know what she wrote only because her companion had copies printed.

Anne Frank  (Fair Use)
War is often the inspiration for keeping a diary.  Perhaps the most famous war diary in the world is the one kept by Anne Frank.  Her second day's entry could not have been more wrong, for she wrote:  "Writing in a diary is really a strange experience for someone like me.  Not only because I've never written anything before, but also because it seems to me that later on neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musing of a thirteen-year-old school girl."  Those musings, begun in June of 1942, ended August 1, 1944.  A noncombatant, young Anne Frank, kept one of the most read diaries about war that has ever been published.

Siegfried Sasson

World War I, with the horrendous loss of life as troops faced modern warfare in a way unlike past wars, produced a group of poet soldier diarists, among them Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Robert Graves.  In this 1916 diary entry, Sassoon wrote:  "As I sit in a nook among the sandbags and chalky debris, with shells flying overhead in the blue air, a lark sings...Heaven is furious with the smoke and flare and portent of shells, but bullets are a swarm of whizzng hornets, mad, winged and relentless.  There are still pools in the craters; they reflect the stars like any lovely water, but nothing grows near them."

Mary Chestnut, age 13

Perhaps the most powerful diarist of the Civil War was a woman.  Mary Chestnut was the wife of a Senator, and when the War began, a Confederate soldier.  She had lived in Washington in the early years of Lincoln's presidency but returned to their home in the Confederate South when war came.  She was a sophisticated, well-educated woman raised in a slave-owning family, but as an adult the idea of slavery and the war being fought over that issue left her in anguish.  She socialized with men leading the South in the war that she questioned, and her diary became a place to express the feelings she could not speak.  On Spetember 20, 1863, upon seeing open railroad cars transporting sleeping Confederate soldiers, she wrote:  "...soldiers rolled in their blankets, lying in rows, heads all covered, fast asleep.  In their gray blankets, packed in regular order, they looked like swathed mummies."  Chestnut's diary was first published in 1905.  Historian C. Vann Woodward used her forty-eight copybooks, 25,000 pages that she had revised from the original diary, to restore and annotate what she had written.  His work was published as Mary Chestnut's Civil War and won the Nobel Prize.

Dame Ellen Terry
Alexandra Johnson ends her Brief History of Diaries with a chapter devoted to online diaries and blogs.  You may read my own blog on that subject at "Keeping a Journal," in the blog archives of 6-6-2013.  Johnson quotes Ellen Terry's definition of a diary:  "What is a diary as a rule?  A document useful to the person who keeps it, dull to the contemporary who reads it, invaluable to the student, centuries afterwards, who treasures it!"  Dame Ellen Terry (1847-1928), pictured at right from a painting by her first husband, George Frederick Watts, was the leading Shakespearean actor in Britain, and her respect for the English language can be seen in her wise definition of diary keeping.

Isaac B. Werner found his journal useful as a personal reference to aid in his farming, as well as an occasional place to vent frustration.  There is no evidence that he shared his journal with any contemporary, but I, more than a century later, have become a student of the era and community about which Isaac wrote, and his journal is certainly a treasure to me!

If these brief samples of diary and journal keepers over the years have made you curious, you may read more in Alexandra Johnson's book, A Brief Histoy of Diaries>>From Pepys to Blogs.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Historic Diaries

Isaac Werner's Journal
When I was a young girl I kept a diary.  Two of my diaries survive, both with faux leather covers and a flap from back cover to front with a metal closure secured by a lock that could probably be picked with a hair pin.  They contain the typical adolescent secrets, and my attempt to read one of them after I was an adult ended in disappointment.  Frankly, it was boring, even to the author.
Reading Isaac B. Werner's journal was another matter entirely.  Each day's entry was fairly mundane, but as one day built on another, I was transported back into another time.  His day-to-day chores and encounters allowed me to experience the era of my great grandparents and other settlers who had claimed homesteads on the prairie.  Isaac was influenced by Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, (See "Advice from Henry Ward Beecher, 12-7-2012 in the blog archives) and kept his entries free of most personal opinions and emotions, sticking to the weather and actual events during his days.

Queen Victoria
Isaac was not alone in keeping a diary in the 1800s.  England's Queen Victoria wrote almost daily for sixty-eight years, and her diaries constitute over one hundred volumes.  Isaac wrote daily from 1884 to 1891, filling 480 oversized pages, and the journal was labeled "Vol. 5th."  With the opening pages including entries from 1870-1871 and an unexplained gap of 13 years, it appears that four volumes were kept prior to 1870 when Isaac was in his mid-20s and volume five began.

Isaac's journal provoked a curiosity that led me to read a book title A Brief History of Diaries>>From Pepys to Blogs, written by Alexandra Johnson.  The author acknowledged the ancient keeping of journals and diaries, but it was her history of those kept in the 1800s and 1900s that I found most interesting.

Francis Kilvert
The words of an English country curate named Francis Kilvert writing in the 1870s particularly caught my eye because he was keeping a diary at the same time Isaac was keeping his.  Kilvert wrote:  "Why do I keep this voluminous journal?  I can hardly tell.  Partly because life appears to me such a curious and wonderful thing that it seems a pity that even such a humble and uneventful life as mine should pass altogether away without some such record...and partly too because I think the record may amuse and interest some who come after me."  I can't know whether Isaac shared Kilvert's anticipation that some future reader might enjoy his journal, but I certainly have enjoyed Isaac's record of his day-to-day life.

Charles Darwin

Alexandra Johnson also selected examples from travel and explorer journals and diaries.  One such example was Charles Darwin, whose notebooks and journals filled 2,070 pages and became the sources from which he formulated his theory of evolution and natural selection which led in 1859 to the publication of The Origin of Species.  

Cover art by Sophia Thoreau
Another explorer did not go far from home.  A reader of Darwin throughout his life and a friend of diarist Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau's exploration was of Walden Pond, which was only a mile and a half from the center of Concord, Massachusetts where he and his circle of friends lived.  Yet, from July 4, 1845 to September 6, 1847 he recorded his observations of nature and Indian trails while living in his secluded tiny cottage beside Walden Pond.  Those observations became the material for A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) and Walden (1854).  Thoreau explained his purpose for devoting himself to exploring and recording observations of Walden Pond and the surrounding environment, saying that he used his journals "to see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."  The cover art for Walden was done by his sister Sophia.

Unlike Thoreau, Isaac documented not so much the native plants but rather his meticulously kept records of planting, nurturing, harvesting, and storing the crops he introduced to the prairie's sandy loam soil.  Yet, he too wrote about the weather, the native birds, and nature's spectacles, such as eclipses, mirages, and sun dogs.

Next week's blog will continue sharing other examples of journal and diary keepers described in Alexandra Johnson's History of Diaries.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Cemetery Iris

Isaac's stone in Neelands
The day that I first found Isaac Werner's grave in Neeland's Cemetery there were iris planted at the base of the stone.  Sometime later the iris tubers were removed.  (See "Finding Isaac's Grave," 1-13-2012 in the blog archives.)  We had a monument company correct the sinking and aligning of the stone and its separate levels, so the tubers may have been removed in that process.  Also, the cemetery board did a wonderful job of installing new fencing and grooming the grounds, and the old tubers may have been removed during that renovation.  I do wish I had been present when the tubers were removed, for I would have rescued the old iris roots and planted them at the farm as a remembrance of Isaac.

Photo by Lyn Fenwick
Iris were a popular flower to plant around grave stones in old cemeteries, primarily because they survive without watering and send up their delicate blooms each spring without any gardener's attention.  The primary threat to the continued blooming of iris is blowing dirt, which gradually covers the tubers.  Blowing sandy loam soil is an ever-present condition in the area where Isaac claimed his homestead!  The tubers are not killed, however, and removing the soil or digging up the tuber and replanting it with the roots and bottom half of the tuber placed in the soil and the top of the tuber exposed will nearly always bring the iris back to bloom.

Photo by Lyn Fenwick
I am a lazy gardener, so these undemanding flowers suit my personality perfectly.  Parts of the country, where winter arrives later and spring arrives earlier, allow re-blooming iris to produce flowers in both spring and fall.  That is when I fell in love with iris.  My mother loved her iris, but their short blooming period did not satisfy me.  Enjoying their flowers in both spring and fall won me over, and I began my collection.  Unfortunately, the tubers I dug from my collection to plant at the farm bloom only in the spring, although they are re-blooming varieties and have thrived with only the opportunity to bloom once a year.  I love them anyway.  Perhaps spring seems to arrive move quickly the older I get.  I am sharing photographs of some of my iris currently in bloom.

Photo by Lyn Fenwick
I wonder what color the iris on Isaac's grave were.  Most of all, I wonder who planted the iris around the base of his stone.  My great grandparents, George and Theresa Hall, were friends, and they were caregivers of him in their home for a short period during his final illness.  Perhaps Theresa and her daughters planted the iris.  Or, perhaps it was his neighbor, Isabel Ross, whom he always called Mrs. Ross, a divorced lady who claimed her homestead as a single woman.  His journal gave no hint of a romance, but his many kindnesses to her and her children may have caused her to feel a fondness for her bachelor neighbor.  Maybe the ladies who were members of the Farmers' Alliance, in which Isaac played such an active role, planted the iris, or mothers of the school children who appreciated Isaac's constant efforts to keep the school house in good repair.  Whoever planted the iris, it makes me feel glad that someone cared enough to decorate Isaac's grave.