Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The History of May Day


Most of us think we know the traditions and history of May Day.  Perhaps we imagine children dressed in spring colors, dancing around the maypole, a tradition we often associate with England.  The maypole is traditional in many countries, however, including occasionally in America.  

For me, May Day means devising some kind of container, whether it is a basket purchased at a store or  a jelly jar wrapped with ribbon or some other container adequate to hold flowers.  Ideally, it means finding flowers of some kind to be picked.  Today, I look out my window and see lilacs in bloom, my early deep purple iris just beginning, and the blooming redbud trees.  Not every year is so generous with available flowers, but silk flowers or weeds from a ditch will do just as well for the fun of May Day.

The best part for me, as a child, was always the delivery--hanging the basket on the front door, ringing the doorbell or knocking loudly, (since we didn't have a bell), and then running to hide somewhere that I could see the 'surprise' on my mother's face when the flowers were discovered.

While I did not make a May Day basket this year, I did fill the house with lilacs and a few early iris.

For many years, I knew nothing of another type of May Day celebration.  In many countries, May 1st is a celebration for the labor movement.  In those  countries, the first of May is a national public holiday called "International Worker's Day" or some similar name.

Our present Labor Day is in September, but the history of our celebration can be traced to Chicago on May 4, 1886 when workers gathered in Haymarket Square to demonstrate for an 8-hour workday and safer working conditions.  According to the Mayor who was in attendance that day, the demonstration was peaceful, but as the speaking ended and the police moved in to breakup the gathering, violence erupted. Tragically, deaths and miscarriages of justice followed.   

The late 1800s were not only the era of the Populist Movement described in my book, Prairie Bachelor,  but also a time of clashes between workers and their employers, including several famous strikes.  Among them were both the Johnson County War in Wyoming, in which small farmer/ranchers confronted the illegally hired private army of the wealthy ranchers of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, and the Homestead Lockout in which union workers confronted Pinkerton Detectives hired by Andrew Carnegie.  

Another famous strike involved George Pullman.  The Panic of 1893 caused a downturn in his railroad manufacturing plant, famous for its model town, with homes, parks, shops, and a library for his workers.  Pullman responded to the economic downturn by cutting workers' wages; however, he did not reduced the rent workers paid for their houses in the model town.  When a workers' committee went to Pullman to request a rent adjustment consistent with their pay cuts, he refused, and to make matters worse, he fired three of the committee members who had come to make the appeal for the workers.  A strike followed.

Pullman was a powerful man with powerful friends, and using those connections resulted in the President sending Federal troops to break up the strike, despite the Governor's request that the troops be withdrawn.  Without describing the events in detail, the sad result was that the decision to send in federal troops was the first time soldiers fired on and killed American citizens against the wishes of the executive of the state.

May Day in Helsinki, Finland
The Federal Government had not declared a special Workers' Day at that time, although states had begun to declare a Labor Day for workers.  Oregon was first, in 1887, and by 1894 thirty states had declared an official Labor Day.  In a way that must have seemed disrespectful to some, six days after the Pullman Strike ended, President Cleveland and Congress rushed through legislation to establish Labor Day.    However, that law only applied to a holiday for federal workers.  Gradually, Labor Day as we know it was made a statutory holiday.

Returning to the history of May Day, the memory of the original labor effort has not been entirely forgotten.  In addition to other nations recognizing May 1st as their labor celebrations, a few American cities celebrate Loyalty Day, and some bar associations hold Law Day events to celebrate the rule of law.  

Bar Associations declare Law Day
In addition, groups have sometimes referenced May Day's original connection with workers.  May 1, 2012, Occupy Wall Street and labor unions held protests together.  There was also a movement in 2020, during a time when workers felt that management was was not providing basic protection to workers during  Covid-19, workers from such companies as Amazon, Whole Foods, Walmart, FedEx and Target threatened to walk out on their jobs on May Day.

I believe most of us think of Maypoles and baskets of flowers when May 1st arrives, but I hope you have enjoyed reading about other history related to that date. 


Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Poetry and Earth Month in April

Petrified Forest near Holbrook, AZ; Photo Credit:  Lyn Fenwick

It has been my practice to honor April as Poetry Month at this blog, and I did so again this year.  However, April is also Earth Month.  This week, before April passes by, I am going to combine both Poetry and Earth Month with a reflection on the importance of our responsibility to respect not only the nurturing of our own spirit but also nurturing our planet Earth, ending the blog with a poem by a man who salutes trees.

Our planet is an Oblate Spheroid, or in plain words, a Bulging Sphere.  At the equator, Earth is 24,901 miles around.  It takes 365 1/4 days for earth to make a trip around the Sun, which explains our use of  leap year every 4 years to account for the quarter of a day needed to travel around the sun each year.

Canyon Wall: Photo credit: Lyn Fenwick
Seventy-one percent of the Earth is covered in water, but less than 3% of that water is fresh water.  Add to the limited amount of fresh water the limited acreage on Earth available for crop production of about 11%, with about another twenty percent considered mountainous, having almost no agricultural use and only limited use for grazing.

The oceans that cover so much of our planet influence the land through currents that affect temperatures, precipitation, and various ecosystems.  

Past and present-day Man impacts both water and land.  Arable land is lost each year through desertification and erosion caused by humans on both large and small scale.  Our ancestors contributed to the "Dust Bowl" of the Great Depression, and today the slash-and-burn deforestation of the fertile tropical rainforests  for temporary cultivation are resulting in infertile desert land.

Less dramatic than the massive burning of the Rain Forests but also a danger to our fresh water supply is something known as "freshwater salinization."  How is this happening?  Simple things that we take for granted may silently do harm.  As winter approaches, those responsible for keeping our roads safe acquire a supply of salt to use on the roads to melt ice and make travel safer during winter.  Most of us overlook the fact that the nearly 20 million tons of salt spread on our roads gradually end up in streams, rivers, lakes, and other sources of freshwater around the world.

Farmers are becoming more mindful of not only protecting their soil from harmful chemicals, as well as crops that deplete the soils, as once happened in the South from exclusively growing cotton.  Today's farmers are learning to respect science in protecting the soil in their fields.

Fossils from Texas

The evidence that our planet has not always been what we see out our windows today is all around us, although easy to ignore.  Some years ago, my husband and I toured the petrified forest, and the photographs I took of trees turned to stone, including the image at the top of this blog, are tangible evidence of those changes.  When we lived in Texas, I collected evidence that our back yard had once been the floor of an ocean.  Photo Credit:  Lyn Fenwick

Today, we realize that our precious Earth has been entrusted to us to preserve for future generations.  I do my silly part by transplanting the volunteer seedlings that pop up every year, planting then for future generations to enjoy their shade.  In an early blog, I shared the story of my unearthing the long root of a volunteer red bud from our English ivy bed.  The root was very long, and the hole I dug to plant that root had to be deep.  The rescued seedling, once planted, promptly dropped its leaves.  My husband and the carpenters who were doing construction at our farm teased me about my devoted watering of a dead tree.  As you can see from the photograph below, the transplanted seedling survived and bloomed beautifully this spring.

The memory of my tender care of the little red bud tree may explain my appreciation for the poem, "My beautiful Flowering Trees," by Asha Menon.

Photo credit:  Lyn Fenwick

My Beautiful Flowering Trees

One day I shall buy some land
Plant countless seeds
And watch them grow
Into beautiful flowering trees

A cool breeze
Will bring me
Sweet fragrances
From a thousand flowering trees

I shall listen
To the songs
From birds perched
In the tall flowering trees

I shall play
With my children and theirs
In the vast expanse of green
Amongst beautiful flowering trees

One day I shall rest
Passing into oblivion
My ashes scattered
Amidst the beautiful flowering trees

By Asha Menon, Writer and Reviewer of Malayalam literature

Another source for poems reflecting on trees is The Afterlife of Trees, by Kansas poet, Wyatt Townley.  Townley was recognized as our Kansas Poet Laureate, 2009-2013, during which time she traveled the state doing readings of her poems.  I had the pleasure of attending three of those readings locally, in Kinsley, Pratt, and Cunningham.  Her books are available online.


Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Disappearing Traces of the Past Explored in 2021


Photo credit:  L. Fenwick

Photo credit: L. Fenwick
In 2011, one of my earliest posts was called "Disappearing Traces of the Past".  You can read it at .  I shared photographs of a house I remembered from my own childhood, and I still remembered stopping at the driveway for children to run out to meet the school bus.  Although the house was already deteriorating in 2011, there were still clothes hanging in the closet and a collapsed bed with covers still on it visible through a broken window.  The image above is of that house today.

Each decade brings more abandoned houses that were occupied during my lifetime.  Farms still exist, but it is much different from the farming of my youth.  Hugh equipment can move through a field in just a few hours, doing what would have taken my father a full day or more to cover the same ground.  Consequently, farms are larger, and the number of farmers are fewer.

Photo credit: L. Fenwick
Some of the family farms of my youth still exist, but they are few.  Descendants of those farmers chose different careers away from the land, or gradually they chose to sell the land rather than divide it up among many descendants remaining.  Sometimes the family line came to an end, and the estate was liquidated. 
My husband and I moved back to my old family home in our retirement, but we do not farm the land.  Instead, our land is farmed by another farming family.  My brother had already sold the acreage he inherited before his death.

Once the houses pictured in this blog had families living in them, and it is more than likely that the generation that built the houses assumed that their heirs would be farming their land and living in the ancestral home for many generations.  

The house first pictured is in Pratt County, although it is the closest of those pictured to our home.  All of the rest are in Stafford County.  We get our mail in town, and all of the images were taken on our way to get our mail, although we did go out of our way two miles to the east to photograph two of them.  Even so, within just a few miles of our house, all of these family homes have been abandoned.

Photo credit: L. Fenwick
In 1880, about the time Homesteader Isaac Werner staked his claim, the population of Stafford County, where he lived, was 4,755.  Ten years later it had grown to 7,520, and by the turn of the century it was 9,829.  In another ten years it had grown to 12,510.  That year, 1910, was the peak year for Stafford County population.  For three more decades, although the population declined, it remained in the 5 figures.

1950 was the first big drop of 15.9% to 8,816 population, followed in 1960 by the record drop of 20.2% to 5,943.  While the percentage drops were smaller, the decline continued, until the 10.7% drop of 2000 brought the population to 4,437.  The population has continued to decline to the most recent number of 4,178 estimate recorded for 2018.

There are other vacant houses close to our own that I did not photograph, homes that remain quite livable, but to find jobs, residents would probably need to commute to one of the surrounding small towns.  Sometimes people with an urban background who may have dreamed of someday living on a farm buy country places.  While there are successful transitions, there are also disappointments. 
Photo credit: L. Fenwick

That is not new.  In Isaac Werner's time there were families drawn to the prairie by the free land and the idea of owning their own farms.  Many did not stay long enough to mature their claims.  Others stayed only long enough to mature their claim before they sold it and moved away. 

Each generation leaves behind their own traces of the past.


Thursday, April 8, 2021

Learning Ourdoors


Earlier I posted a blog titled "Kids and Nature," inspired by a book by Richard Louv, which you can read at .  The title of the book is "Last Child in the Woods, Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder."  The book was published in 2005, and it stresses the importance of allowing children to interact with nature.  Louv  was talking about nature in the raw--not the carefully manicured, supervised, sanitized versions of nature more of today's children have access to, if they experience nature any way at all except through windows or on television.  I continue to recommend the book.

In this blog, however, I am going to share what has begun to happen in the era of Covid.  With inadequate ventilation in many schools, and challenges of social distancing a classroom of kids, some schools are using the idea of classes out of doors, called "Out Door Learning."  The necessity brought on by Covid fits perfectly with the existing movement, already happening in some schools, to get students out of doors into a natural environment.

For those of us who grew up a generation or two ago, the idea of needing a "movement" to get children out of doors may seem silly.  After all, many of us needed no movement to get outside to play and explore.  The little girl in the photograph at the start of this blog is me.  My father did not ordinarily raise hogs, so one year when he did, they were a novelty to me, and I loved them.  Mother could hardly keep me away, as is obvious, since I was dressed up to go somewhere when this photograph was taken.

Weather was no reason to stay indoors either, as the above photograph of my cousins makes clear.  All seasons were just adjustments in the temperature, as far as we were concerned, and seasonal clothing to accommodate the temperature was all we needed to head outside.

I may have been getting old enough to rake the leaves when this picture was taken, but I wasn't too old to jump into the middle of the pile I had just raked with our dogs.   And, as the leaves make clear, there were trees at our farm for building tree houses, although that was more an activity my brother enjoyed.

Animals were a part of farm life,  with dogs eager to wander in the fields, chickens to learn where eggs come from, calving to learn about birth, the squirt of milk against a bucket a familiar sound, and if you were lucky, a horse to ride.  Even kids like my husband, living in small towns, had some of those things.

Today, rural areas cover 97% of the nation's land but contain only 19.3% of the population, based on 2016 information.  Adults in rural areas had a median age of 51, making them older than the adults in urban areas with a median age of 45.  By age 51, their farm children are likely young adults and probably gone.  According to an article appearing in the New York Times in 1988, "the nation's farm population is its lowest level since before the Civil War.  From 1981 through 1987, the farm population has lost an average of 2.5% annually.  In the previous decade the annual decline was 2.9."

An interesting article in "The Guardian" in England in 2016 describes the same problem of English children being separated from nature.  "More than 1 in 9 children in England have not set foot in a park, forest, beach, or any other natural environment for at least 12 months," the article reported.  Advocates for getting children outside reported that it was the parents that needed convincing.  "In middle class suburbia, it's the parents--how do you tell parents that the time children play freely outside is as important as their French lesson, their ballet lesson and their Mandarin lesson?" 

Some schools in America were already using nature as a classroom prior to Covid, but the need for social distancing and ventilation issues indoors is encouraging more schools to consider outdoor learning, some for the first time, and others in a more expanded way.  Landscape architects across the nation have volunteered to partner with schools in the planning.

One outdoor learning coordinator explained, "My best pitch for getting outside is that it ignites a curiosity in students that we don't necessarily see when they're confined between four walls of their home or in a classroom."  Another teacher reported, "I would say that being outdoors, my experience is students are naturally alive and awake and curious...Covid has really opened that remembrance that we need to be thinking about the Earth in our academics, too."