Thursday, November 20, 2014

a tattered flag flaps

a tattered flag flaps
over the broken tombstone
of a Civil War soldier

On a cold November Sunday morning, our Shape Note group gathers to perform a scene for Black Canaries, a film by director Jesse Kreitzer about a coal mining family in Iowa in 1903. 

The scene takes place in Mars Hill Church, seven miles southeast of Ottumwa, Iowa, the largest log building in Iowa and the oldest log church still in use in the United States. The coal mining families are gathered for Sunday morning service, during which we sing in four-part harmony from The Sacred Harp, a book of shape note songs. The notes for these early American songs are written with four shapes -- triangular, oval, square and diamond -- which correspond to four syllables -- fa, sol, la, mi. The shapes and syllables are related to pitch. This style was developed to aid in learning the music. Traditionally, the first time through the song, the singers sing the sounds associated with the shapes for their part, then they sing the verses.

The song we sing for this two-minute scene is The Last Words of Copernicus, a hymn based on Revelations 22:5: "They need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light." 

          Ye golden lamps of heav'n farewell
          With all your feeble light;
          Farewell, thou ever-changing moon,
          Pale empress of the night.
          And thou refulgent orb of day,
          In brighter flames array'd,
          My soul which springs beyond they sphere,
          No more demands thy aid.

Jesse chose this song because the words are about no longer needing the light of the sun and moon as the soul departs to a higher realm. The miners spend all day below ground, so they never see the sun except on Sunday morning at church. And being exposed to coal dust for years takes its toll. The grandfather in this film is dying of black lung disease.

In a labor of love, one of the singers makes paper covers for our modern Sacred Harp books, complete with individually applied soot to look authentic. However, as it turns out, Jesse wants us to sing from memory so we won't have our noses in our books. Easy to memorize one short rhymed verse, but shape notes? We end up faking them with random fa, so, la. But it sounds authentic.

Mars Hill Church was built between 1850 and 1856. In 1974 it was entered in the Iowa State Register of Historic Places. Nowadays, it's only open for services once a year in June. When we arrive in October for a rehearsal, the floor is covered with dead Asian beetles and a few lethargic wasps. No heat.

The church was originally built because of a death. In 1846 the Clark family came to Iowa by covered wagon with their eight children and bought land on a forested ridge high above the Des Moines River. Unfortunately, they lost their youngest child shortly after they arrived. But there was no cemetery, so Barbara Clark granted a piece of their property to the Baptists for a church and cemetery. 

In 1862, 35 members of the congregation formed the 7th Iowa Cavalry and left to serve in the Civil War. All of the graves of veterans from many wars, down to the present, are marked by small round metal plaques.

Iowa joined the Union as a free state in 1846, just 15 years before the Civil War, whereas Missouri, just across the border to the south, came in as a slave state in 1821. Like all the border states, there were both pro-Union and pro-Confederate people in Missouri. Because Mars Hill Church is located not far from the border, there is a local tradition that the church served as a station on the Underground Railway. Escaped slaves from Missouri hid out in the forest nearby during the day, then gathered in the church at night to be transported further north. Perhaps someone dressed like this helped to spirit the slaves away to freedom.

At one time vandals broke many of the oldest headstones in the cemetery, dating back to the 1850s. Some have been left where they fell, but some have been repaired.

In 2006 an arsonist set fire to the building. But church members raised funds to rebuild the church in 2008, using some of the remaining charred logs in the reconstruction. You can see some of the blackened logs at the top of the wall with new grey logs at the bottom.

Since Mars was the Roman god of war, you may wonder, as I did, why the church was named Mars Hill. The elderly man who opened the church for us for rehearsal explained that Mars Hill is another name for a site in Athens, the Areopagus (Hill of Ares, the Greek name for the god of war), where criminal trials were conducted and where the Apostle Paul gave a speech about "the Unkown God." So the tradition of giving speeches on Mars Hill continues, as Jesse speaks in front of the podium about John's role as the oldest miner.

On the morning of the filming, we arise at 6 and drive an hour from Fairfield, arriving at the church at 7:30 to get into costumes. We've cobbled together what we have or can find at used clothes stores and the costume lady from Iowa City has a trunk full of long skirts, shirtwaists, ragged shawls, pants, patched jackets and boots in various sizes. She also creates "the look" of rural early 20th century for the ladies with short hair.

Most of the main actors in the film are from one family, who operate their own coal mine. The octogenarian grandfather comes to church but is too sick to sing.

His son continues in the family tradition of mining.

As do his two sons, aged 10 and 6.

The mother takes care of her men as best she can.

Yates is the leader of a secret circle of miners.

The film director and the rest of the crew have a flat tire on the way down from Iowa City, but they finally arrive with the van full of equipment and props, including a cast iron stove, stove pipes and a coal scuttle with coal.

Lots of film equipment in cases, and a boy with a smartphone.

A sound wave analyzer.

 Multiple lenses for the 35 mm film camera, which does not use a zoom lens.

We move the organ and most of the benches outside to make room for the actors, props and equipment. The old organ still works, but it's missing some notes.

The biggest prop is the coal stove. It's cold, but unfortunately no real coal fire, only a red plastic insert, so between takes we bundle up.

Another crucial prop is black soot to give the look of coal dust on the miners.

Liberally applied to the face, hands and hair of the miners.

Between takes, lights are moved, the camera positioned and the film reel changed.

The film comes in 1,000 foot reels that cost $70 for 10 minutes of filming. In the digital age, not many people still know how to load film. But Jesse wants the look of the old 35 mm black and white film.

The camera man, who hails from Chicago, checks out the camera angle.

While the sound man, who hails from Fairfield, listens to the recording.

Some of the tools of the trade are low tech, like cords and duct tape.

Non-conducting wooden clothespins.

Reflectors to direct sunlight inside.

During breaks the actors take advantage of the split log benches for a bit of sun and snacks.

While others tour the cemetery, reading the inscriptions.

And some just can't stop singing.

For the whole-group shots, the camera moves in on a track laid on the floor.

Photographers everywhere, including a man from the Ottumwa Courier and several of the singers taking candid shots.

For the side shots of the two main actors, some of the singers stand on apple boxes to be in camera range.

Side shot of the husband, communicating wordlessly across the coal stove with Yates.

At 3 PM, we run out of film, so after 7 1/2 hours we have 2 minutes of good film for the scene. The sound man, still holding up his microphone like a banner, reflects the fatigue all of us are feeling. But we also feel that it's been a job well done.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

mid-autumn cold snap

mid-autumn cold snap --
first snow crowns the pumpkin
frozen on the doorstep

It's mid-November, normally with moderate temperatures in the 50s F (10-15 C). But weather has gone crazy these last few years. A week ago, we had summer weather, "I have to be outside" 73 F (23 C). The next day, an abrupt cold snap sent the thermometer tumbling 50 degrees to 23 F (-5 C), plunging us overnight into early winter. 
          A few days later, the first snow storm, softly falling flakes. The Halloween pumpkins on people's doorsteps are frozen rock hard, capped with a circlet of snow. Like magic, the snow birds appear, their charcoal heads and slate bodies bold against the snow as they peck at seeds dropped from the bird feeders. Although small, Juncos are truly hardy to migrate from the frigid north to Iowa, of all places, in the winter.
          Over the next few days, a north wind plummets the temperature even further, with wind chill factors well below 0 F (-18 C). This morning it's 8 F (-13 C). The birds are flying frantically back and forth to the feeders. They seem to expend a lot of energy for one seed at a time, especially the tiny chickadees, who carry each black oil sunflower seed off to a tree to peck open. The big red cardinals sit on at the feeder and break open safflower seed after seed with their heavy beaks. The woodpeckers (hairy, downy and red-capped), as well as the tufted titmice and nuthatches, cling to the cylindrical feeder to stab at peanuts. I don't put out beef suet for the birds because I don't think it's healthy for them. Instead I offer peanuts or peanut butter or seeds mixed with coconut oil (which stays hard in the cold).
          Our one-eyed, 18-year-old cat has been spending most of the day, as well as the night, curled up in a ball, tail over his nose. Sometimes he makes a nest in the tinder box behind the soapstone wood stove, to get as close as possible to the heat.
          I feel like Bob Cratchett, wearing a wool cap, shawl and fingerless mittens as I work on the computer, periodically thrusting my hands below the keyboard to warm up over the little oil radiator. But even so, I love a land with four distinct seasons, even if they do get muddled up and out of synch from time to time. I'm like those Juncos, small but hardy.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

anomalies pop

anomalies pop
out at me -- a tree frog clinging
to a solar light
at night, two black eyes peering
from a translucent body --

or sunning on the head of a rabbit
statue among the marigolds --

like a green third eye
causing the rabbit to look
cross-eyed and wise.

Friday, October 17, 2014

converging skylights

converging skylights
merge with masked shamans
encased in glass

For two half days I journey through 13,000 years of human ingenuity and achievement in our half of the globe, from Ice-Age mammoth hunters to the empires of the Incas, Maya and Aztecs. All of this in the space of one half of one floor in the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History. When I enter the three-story Stanley Field Hall, the first thing I notice are the rows of square skylights far overhead, reflected in a tall glass case containing two shamans in full regalia, their elaborate feather headdresses merging with the lights. Add to this melange, a mirror image of the sign for the Field Museum Store and the tops of two 80' totem poles, rising like ancient skyscrapers towards the skylights.

I could spend weeks roaming the galleries of the Chicago Field Museum. But my time is limited, so I gravitate toward the rich legacy of Native Americans. The museum staff have renovated this section since I was last here, with the addition of numerous videos, dioramas and reconstructions of dwellings, depicting the progression of humans from the nomadic hunter-gatherer bands of the Ice Age, through permanent settlement in agricultural villages, to the establishment of vast empires based on the triple power of shared beliefs, military might and money.

When I enter the Ancient Americas exhibition, I am confronted by giant mastodons ambling through a forest, followed by tiny human hunters armed with spears. Bows and arrows are an example of an innovation that followed spears. Next, I walk through a reconstruction of a dwelling in a pueblo village.

The walls are constructed of adobe embedded with stout poles to support the roof.

Inside, several exhibits demonstrate the storage and preparation of domesticated plants, especially the "Three Sisters": maize, beans and squash.

Women and girls spent many hours grinding maize, or naadaa, into flour by pressing oblong grinding stones into hollowed stone receptacles in a series of coarse to fine texture to produce finer and finer flour. Imagine spending hours on your knees pushing stones to get your daily flatbread.

The flour was stored in beautifully decorated clay pots.

And served in equally beautiful bowls.

I also visit a full-size reconstruction of a Pawnee earth lodge. The Pawnee lived on the plains of North America in villages of semi-subterranean structures constructed from large wooden posts which supported a circular roof covered with branches, thatch and sod, coated with waterproof clay. Inside, platform beds covered in furs line the walls, with a fire pit under the smoke hole in the center, and a ritual area with a drum and a medicine bundle hanging from one of the beams on the west side opposite the entrance.

The Pawnee lived in villages of earth lodges during the winter, but camped in tipis during hunting trips. One of the games the young people played to develop their hunting skills was to throw a stick through a hoop thrown in the air. Talk about mind/body coordination!

The Pawnee believe that they come from the stars and they painted beautiful star charts on hides.

As well as star designs on drums.

Stone had many uses, like this pile of flints for making various tools and projectiles.

Coral was carefully carved into beads of many sizes for decoration.

Some indigenous peoples had access to and skill in the use of metals, such as these copper breast plates.

This one still has two pearls attached, making it look like a face.

Beads were brought to Native Americans by the Europeans and were quickly integrated into their costumes, like this leather jacket closed with silver medallions.

Headdresses were made of many different materials and in diverse styles which reflected different tribes. Some were purely ceremonial and some were everyday attire.

This one looks like the original visor cap.

Fur, feathers, porcupine quills and beads, with a beaded visor.

Horses were also introduced by Europeans and quickly adopted by the Plains Indians. Here, horsehair becomes a crown.

South American headdresses used colorful tropical bird feathers.

Plants were used both to weave and to dye baskets and trays.

Another kind of weaving, with strips of leather on a bentwood frame, produced snowshoes.

Hides were used to make ritual shields as well as drums and clothing.

Hopi katchina dolls represent many types of masked dancers associated with seasonal rituals.

Malleable, formless clay when fired and glazed becomes sturdy pots.

All was not work or ritual. There were also pastimes, like these painted sticks used in a women's game. Rivers and mountains?

When I come to the Maya calendar, I am reminded of time. It's past time to go!

I end my excursion with a quick visit to the Northwest Coast tribes. These First Nations people enjoyed an abundance of food from both land and sea, while the forests provided Western cedar, which was used for many purposes. They built their longhouses out of cedar planks, and 50 foot canoes out of split cedar trees. The women wove blankets from strips of softened yellow cedar bark, mountain goat wool and dog fur. The curvilinear designs depict natural forms such as the sun and moon, raven, orca whale, bear, wolf, beaver, eagle, loon, owl, hummingbird, frog, sea otter, salmon, bee, butterfly and human, as well as legendary creatures such as the thunderbird and sisiutl or sea serpent.

Mica was thought to be the scales of the sea serpent, here carved perhaps to look like one of its claws.

The sisuitl symbolizes protection, power and transformation. The central design at the top of this blanket depicts a sisuitl with a man's head in the middle flanked by a sea serpent head on either side. The sight of the supernatural serpent is said to turn the spectator into stone. Fortunately, the image of a sisuitl does not have this effect, so even though I am (and you are) gazing at this one, I am able to complete my journey and leave the Field Museum with nothing worse than a case of tibial stress syndrome that makes my shins feel like stone.

The last artifact I pass by on my way out is a fossil ammonite shell which appears to be giving birth to a baby ammonite. Again I am reminded of time, but this time, the long span of time of our planet Earth and how short a time period humans have been around. It is a reminder that the Earth will continue to give birth to a multitude of
creatures, whether humans are around or not.