Children and fantasy

Quote from yesterday’s New York Times, “Urban Legends Told Online” by Farhad Manjoo, p. B7:

“Jacqueline D. Woolley, director of the Children’s Research Lab at the University of Texas at Austin, has found that children are far more capable at distinguishing reality from fiction than perviously thought. ‘By the time they’re 9, they’re at adult levels,’ she said.”

That tallies with my observations of children in religious education settings. Children as young as 6 begin to be able to make distinctions between fact and fiction, and yes, by 9 years old they are probably at adult levels.

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

I took a short trip to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Mass., today to pay a visit to the grave of my favorite Transcendentalist. The bronze plaque that marks her grave reads:

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody
A Teacher of three generations of Children,
and the founder of Kindergarten in America.
Every humane cause had her sympathy,
and many her active aid.


One of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s protegees was Lucy Wheelock, the founder of Wheelock College. My mother attended Wheelock College to train as a teacher, and learned from Lucy Wheelock herself. I learned some of my teaching skills from my mother, so Elizabeth Palmer Peabody was the teacher of a teacher of one of my teachers.

While I was there, I walked over to Author’s Ridge to walk by the graves of the most famous Transcendentalists buried in Concord: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Louisa May Alcott. Tourists had piled small stones, pennies, and twigs on top of and around their gravestones.

Thirty years ago, no one piled stones or pennies on the authors’ gravestones. When this first started happening, it annoyed me, and I’d clean off the gravestones of all that litter. But now this act has become a part of New England folk culture, and you will not only see stones placed by tourists on the graves of famous people, but also stones placed by people on the graves of their family members. Now I leave the stones and twigs, although I still stop to sweep off the pennies, because the copper dissolves in New England’s slightly acidic rain and discolors the gravestones.

I wonder if this act of placing small stones arises out of some deeply-held religious memory in Western culture. These look like small cairns to me — in ancient Greek religion, Hermes, the god of travelers, dwelt in cairns — though gravestones don’t mark a physical path, they can mark a spiritual path.

My second favorite Transcendentalist is Louisa May Alcott. Her grave had no pennies (she’s worth more than a penny, I guess), but people had piled stones and twigs around her headstone with her initials — she’s in a family plot with a main gravestone, then all the family members have small stones with just their initials — and the flush stone with her full name that was installed later. Someone had left her a note, now in tatters from exposure to rain and sun, and unreadable. In the past, I’ve read other notes that people have left for her, saying how much her books have meant to them. I think about it this way: casual tourists can leave stones without any forethought; those whose lives have been changed by Alcott’s books think to leave a written memorial.

Grave of Louisa May Alcott

Above: Louisa May Alcott’s gravestone, Author’s Ridge, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Mass.

I couldn’t figure out who some graves get stones, and some don’t. Lidian Jackson Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s second wife, had stones piled on her gravestone, but Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wife, had none. As much as I like Lidian Jackson Emerson, Sophia Peabody Hawthorne strikes me as the more impressive of the two women. Before she was married, Sophia Peabody pursued a career as an artist, something unheard of for women in early nineteenth century America; she was an intellectual, though somewhat overshadowed by her older sister Elizabeth, and part of the Transcendentalist circle. Does Lidian fill more of an archetypal role in the common religious imagination of New England folk culture? Or is it simply that the people who would value Sophia Peabody Hawthorne as an artist, and intellectual, and a symbol of early feminist consciousness are not the type of people who leave stones on graves?

Great Meadows, Concord, Mass.

It was a perfect New England summer day — breezy, about 85 degrees, gentle blue sky — so Carol and I decided to take a walk at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge this afternoon.

Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge

Above: Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, Concord, Mass., looking north over the lower impoundment



Above: Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon)


Above: Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), with unidentified pollinator

Oldwick, N.J., to Stow, Mass.

Yesterday evening in Oldwick, we saw a spectacular thundershower go through: sheets and waves of wind-blown rain, spectacular lightning right overhead, and through it all the fireflies rising out of the brilliant green grass.

Oldwick, N.J.

Above: Oldwick, N.J.

There were a few showers this morning before we left New Jersey. By the time we were in Connecticut, the rain was coming down steadily. It was going to be a wet Independence Day in southern New England.

We arrived in Stow, Mass., at about four o’clock, just in time for an indoor picnic lunch with Carol’s dad and stepmom and some of their friends. After dinner, we tried to go for a walk in downtown Maynard, Mass.

Maynard, Mass.

Above: Maynard, Mass.

At first it was pleasant walking. We stopped in at a combined video rental and used book store, called “Movie Signals and Art Signals,” that was open on Independence Day. They had more customers than I would have thought; but then, what else are you going to do on a rainy Fourth of July? — you’re certainly not going to go watch fireworks. We stayed for a while, then tried to keep walking, but the rain was coming down even harder, and my pants were soaked through and my rain coat started to leak — Carol was fine under her umbrella — so we gave up and went home.

New Jersey

E and her sweetheart and Carol and I spent the morning in Lambertville, New Jersey, a town where people have front porches that come right to the edge of the sidewalk. Some of the porches feature interesting decorations; one porch featured a collection of plastic dinosaur and dragon toys.


Above: Lambertville, New Jersey

Then we went to Grounds for Sculpture, a sculpture park in Hamilton, N.J. Not only did we see some very fine work by a wide range of contemporary artists, but I felt the grounds were particularly well-designed to display sculpture.

Grounds for Sculpture


Above two photographs: Grounds for Sculpture, Hamilton, N.J.

We were also able to get a brief tour of the Johnson Atelier, a sculpture foundry next door to Grounds for Sculpture. I once worked for a sculptor who cast work at the Johnson Atelier, but I wasn’t part of the in-crowd so I never got to go along when he was casting work there. The Johnson Atelier no longer pours molten metal, but they do everything else involved in the founding process: enlarging, mold-making, chasing and finishing, applying patina, etc.

The Johnson Atelier leases part of their space to the Digital Atelier. They do highly accurate laser scans of three dimensional objects, modify the scans as necessary in CAD software (enlarging, fixing problems, etc.), then produce a 3-D product in foam (which can then be cast in bronze or another metal) or wood using a CNC milling machine. I asked the man who gave us the tour of the Digital Atelier about 3D printing, and he said 3D printers could not yet work at the large scale they needed, he was watching the technology closely.

The technology of sculpture has come a long way since I worked for the sculptor.

Alexandria, Va., to Oldwick, N.J.

Most of the middle of the continent is empty enough that driving can be a pleasure: you can actually look at the scenery without having to worry about looking out for other cars. But today, we drove through the northeastern U.S. megalopolis: one big city after another, the roads always full of cars, I had to concentrate all my attention on driving. But when we pulled in to one rest area along the New Jersey Turnpike, my friend E and I both pulled out our cameras to take a photo of the rest area building painted bright red and vivid green, with a tall greenish water tower behind it, and fluffy white clouds floating in a bright blue sky above.


Asheville, N.C., to Alexandria, Va.

We left Asheville and drove up over the Appalachian Mountains along Interstate 26, passing through Sam’s Gap at 3,760 feet above sea level. We stopped at a “Scenic Overlook” along the highway, and looked back at the Great Smoky Mountains, mysterious and blue behind us.


The peaks around us were obscured by low drifting clouds. “They shouldn’t be called the Great Smoky Mountains,” Carol said. “They should call them the Misty Mountains.” I agreed.


The rest of the drive to Alexandria wasn’t particularly notable: we just drove through Western Virginia, turned east, and watched as the population density crept up and up, until at last we were in Alexandria. We sat up late talking with a college friend of Carol’s who works for Pew Charitable Trust, doing research on American religion. He said that Pew Charitable Trust, which has long been known for its helpful mix of quantitative and qualitative research, will be de-emphasizing qualitative research and focusing almost exclusively on quantitative research. I told him why I thought that was a bad idea, and he wisely did not engage with me. Instead, he and Carol talked about old college friends while his wife and I listened and enjoyed their stories.