Clay pot irrigation

Carol and I are experimenting with low-water irrigation systems for the garden. I’ve been using porous hose irrigation for years, purchasing porous hose made from recycled rubber tires, and burying the hose a few unches under the surface of the soil. David Bainbridge’s book Gardening with Less Water: Low-Cost, Low-Tech Techniques shows other highly efficient irrigation systems, including buried clay pots.

A buried clay pot is about as simple as an irrigation system can get: take a terracotta pot, put a cork in the hole in the bottom, bury it almost all the way in the soil, fill with water, then cover with a terracotta saucer.

Filling the buried clay pot with water

In the photo above, we’ve buried a clay pot in the tire garden built by our congregation’s ecojustice class, and Carol is filling it with water. In the next photo, Carol is about to put a lid on the buried clay pot; you can see the cork down in the bottom of the pot.

Putting a lid on the buried clay pot

Bainbridge suggests placing buried clay pots about every 24-36 inches in a standard garden. So we figure that one buried clay pot is probably enough for one tire garden. It will be interesting to see how often we have to fill the clay pot.

In our garden at home, we’re planning to try a somewhat more complicated version of this system: a porous terracotta capsule, fed by a hose. Until we get that to work, here’s a photo of the tire garden with the buried clay pot in the middle, and the squirrel-proof cage in place:


Experiment in hugelkultur

Carol has decided to experiment with hugelkultur in the garden this year. A hugelkultur garden bed consists of decaying wood and other compostable material from plants. This technique is supposed to create more fertility in the soil, and improve water retention. Given the ongoing drought here in northern California, improved water retention alone makes this technique worth trying.

Rather than build up a mound of decaying material, as is typical with hugelkultur, Carol got me to make a raised garden bed; with the tiny amount of space we have for our garden, this seemed to make the most sense. We got some cheap boards from a lumberyard, I scrounged some scrap wood for the corners, and in about an hour we put together a bed 96 inches long and 25 inches wide. Then we put in some partially finished compost, along with twigs and small branches.

hugelkultur raised garden bed

In the photo above, we’ve put down a layer of partially finished compost; the two buckets behind the raised garden bed are more compost waiting to go in. Carol has started laying some twigs and branches on the compost. After this, she put down another layer of compost, and then added a layer of potting soil we purchased from the hardware store across the street.

Carol is also planning to set up a greywater system (she is something of an expert on the topic). We already collect greywater — we have to run about two and a half gallons of water before the water in the shower gets hot, so we collect this and use it for watering the garden. Given how bad the drought is, that wasn’t enough water, so she is looking at other easily accessible sources of greywater that we can use without annoying our very nice landlord.

If you look closely at the photo, you’ll see potatoes growing in the raised bed behind the new bed. Today they started wilting a little. The National Weather Service predicts “dry weather and above average temperatures are likely to persist into the first half of next week”; we’re going to have to start watering the garden now, right in the middle of the winter-wet season. This is global climate weirdness happening in front of our eyes; maybe hugelkultur is one small way to help restore some balance to an out-of-balance world.

another view of hugelkultur bed

Above: The bed with more twigs and branches, and more bins of partially finished compost ready to go on top (photo credit: Carol Steinfeld).

Bee nests

In the fall of 2014, the ecojustice class (gr. 6-8) at our congregation made “bee houses” to provide potential nesting sites for Mason Bees. We kept watch on the bee houses through spring of 2015, but neither I nor the teens observed any nesting activity. (Mason Bees are solitary, and do not nest in hives like the more familiar Western Honeybee.)

But when this year’s ecojustice class checked on the bee houses last Sunday, it looked like some of the holes are now or had recently been occupied by insects:



Since Mason Bees use mud and soils to plug up their nesting holes, and these holes do not look like they have mud in them — the color of the plugs is not the color of any of the nearby soils — I’m not convinced that Mason Bees are nesting here. Nevertheless, some organism has definitely moved in to these holes; perhaps further observation will reveal what that organism might be.

A Black Universalist in the 1830s

One of the best things about being part of a typical UU congregation is that you get to hear other people’s stories. If you join a men’s group or women’s group, if you become a Sunday school teacher, if you simply open yourself to others during social hour, you will hear people’s stories: “When I first met my life partner…” someone will say; or, “When I was in eighth grade…”; or, “When I lived in Virginia….” So begin the little stories about someone else’s life.

No one is going to publish a big fat biography of an ordinary person’s life. Usually, the only time we get to hear the story of someone’s whole life is after they die, at their memorial service. Mostly we hear little pieces of other people’s lives; but if you listen long enough, over the course of years, you will hear enough to piece together — not a biography, but a sort of patchwork quilt of that person’s life.

We can also piece together something of the lives of ordinary people of the past: people who are not powerful, famous, male, white, and highly educated all at the same time. With such ordinary people, we mostly can know only pieces of their stories. But we can fill in the holes between the pieces with questions, and stitch it together, like a quilt, into a whole.

This, then, the story of Nathan Johnson, a Black Universalist who lived from 1795 to 1880.

About Nathan Johnson’s early life, we can only ask questions. Who were his parents? Was he born free, or did he emancipate himself from slavery? How did he learn to read? How did he get to the north? He was born about 1795, perhaps in Virginia; [1] or perhaps in Philadelphia, either enslaved or free. [2] The first real fact we know about Nathan Johnson’s life is in 1819, when he was in his twenties, he got married in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

New Bedford in that time was a city with a surprisingly enlightened racial outlook. The Quaker residents of the city had been helping enslaved persons run to freedom since at least the 1790s. [3] The city was a terminus for the Underground Railroad. And in New Bedford, a person of color could do quite well financially: by about 1800, one black man, Paul Cuffee, of African and Wampanoag descent, had amassed a small fortune through shipping and international trade. [4] Continue reading “A Black Universalist in the 1830s”

Who was A. B. Windom?

NOTE: See the update below for a brief biography of Windom.

I’m trying to track down Aaron Bash Windom, a mid-twentieth century composer of gospel music from St. Louis. One of his better-known songs was “Let Us Sing Till the Pow’r of the Lord Come Down,” often known as “Now Let Us Sing.”

My best guess is that Windom was born in 1910, and died in 1981. The Catalog of Copyright Entries, Third Series, vol. 2, part 5A, number 1, Published Music, January-June 1948 (Washington, D.C.: Copyright Office, Library of Congress, 1948) reveals that his name is Aaron Bash Windom, that he was born in 1910, and that he was the sole owner of A. B. Windom Studio, St. Louis, Mo. The Find-a-Grave Web site has a photo of a grave stone of Aaron Bash Windom who died in March, 1981, at age 70; the grave stone is in Saint Peter’s Cemetery, Normandy, St. Louis County, Missouri.

Windom is mentioned in passing in Horace Clarence Boyer’s The Golden Age of Gospel ([University of Illinois Press, 1995], p. 138): “Two other S. Louis natives who were important figures in gospel between 1945 and 1955 were Martha Bass and A. B. Windom. … Windom, a one-time accompanist for Mother Smith, composed several gospel songs: her ‘I’m Bound for Canaan Land’ and ‘I’ve Got the River of Jordan To Cross” became gospel standards.'” Several other sources indicate that he taught piano; in a couple of places he is referred to as “Professor A. B. Windom,” though I don’t know if he was affiliated with a school or college, or if he, like many other music teachers, was accorded the honorary title lf “Professor” by his students and local community.

The gospel song “Let us sing till the pow’r of the Lord come down” was published in St. Louis, Mo., and is copyright 1948 by A. B. Windom Studio. If you look around online, you can find recordings of it by various musicians. Some online discographies seem to indicate that he made some recordings of his own music, but I can’t confirm that.

But I have no idea if he was white or black; if he played anything besides gospel music; to what extent he made his living as a performer, a teacher, and/or a composer. I cannot find him in the 1930 or the 1940 U.S. Census. Was he married? Did he have children?

If anyone out there knows anything about him, I’d love to hear.

Update, Feb., 2023

Here’s my best effort at a brief biography for Aaron Bash Windom, based on the information listed below, plus information from the comments. Some of this is a little bit speculative, but given how little information we have, this will have to do.

Aaron Bash Windom, known as A. B. Windom, was born on September 11, 1910, in Missouri. Nothing is known about his early years. By 1941, he was publishing his own compositions in St. Louis, often under the imprint “Studio of A. B. Windom.” In addition to being a gospel composer, he also taught music, and his students called him Professor A. B. Windom. He was also a performer, and both sang and played piano.

On February 17, 1949, he married Selma B. Hurd. Born c. 1903, Selma was from East St. Louis, Ill., across the river from St. Louis, and was the daughter of Baptist minister Rev. B. M. Hurd.

Although all his published compositions were gospel music, Windom taught classical piano. As one of his students remembers, “He was very well versed in music theory as well. Gospel music is not all he knew. He was a light-skinned Black man, [and] eccentric. I still miss him.” At least one of his students went on to become a professional musician, the gospel composer Rev. Robert Mayes (1942-1992).

Windom served for forty years as the minister of music at Christ Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in St. Louis, circa 1940 until his death. In 1966, he served on the Devotional Literature Commission of the Progressive National Baptist Convention.

His gospel compositions were recorded most notably by Mahalia Jackson, and also by less well-known performers such as Martha Bass, the Golden Harmoneers, the Clara Ward Singers, etc. His 1948 composition “Let Us Sing Till the Power of the Lord Come Down” (a.k.a. “Now Let Us Sing”) has been recorded a number of times and is widely sung by church choirs. “This song has even entered the folk tradition to the point where”Now Let Us Sing” has entered the oral tradition, passed from singer to singer; unfortunately in the process Windom’s authorship has sometimes been forgotten.

Windom died on February 28, 1981. He had turned over his school at 3905 Evans Street, St. Louis, to Professor Lee Cochran, Jr., who continued to teach music there. Selma, A. B.’s wife, died on February 26, 1994. They are buried together in St. Peter’s Cemetery, Normandy, St. Louis County, Missouri.

Research notes:

(1) Be sure to read the comments. There is some material there from people who knew him.

(2) I’ve found some genealogical information about Aaron Bash Windom. I assumed that the birth year listed in his copyright entries (1910) was correct. Beyond that, “Windom” is an unusual spelling.

(a) I was not able to find him in the 1920, 1920, 1940, or 1950 U.S. Census. That doesn’t mean he’s not there; sometimes names get horribly mangled by the census takers. But I was unable to track him down.

(b) Aaron Bash Windom and Selma B. Hurd were married on February 17, 1949, in St. Louis, by Rev. E. R. Williams. See attached photostat of the marriage record (from With such an unusual name, spelled exactly as it appears on his copyright records, this is pretty definitely our A. B. Windom.

Photostat of marriage record

(c) Aaron Bash Windom is in the Social Security Death Index, found via Date of birth, September 11, 1910; date of death, February, 1981 (no day given). Since he was buried in early March (see below), I’d assume he died in late February.

(d) According to Find-a-Grave, Aaron Bash Windom died in March, 1981 (though actually, this was probably the burial date; see above for a Feb. date), and he was buried in St. Peter’s Cemetery, Normandy, St. Louis County, Missouri. summarizes the interment record as follows: “WINDOM, Aaron Bash, age: 70, burial: 03/07/1981, Section: 28, Block: O, Lot: 28.00, Grave: 1.”

This source (which collates public records) has the following information: “WINDOM, AARON was born 11 September 1910, received Social Security number 498-14-7067 (indicating Missouri) and, Death Master File says, died February 1981 [Source: Death Master File (public domain)….] WINDOM, AARON B. died 28 February 1981 in Missouri, U.S.A. Special thanks to Reclaim the Records.” Given the dates of death, I feel pretty confident that both these entries are for our A. B. Windom.

(e) Selma died in 1994, according to Find-a-Grave (this corresponds to the information in the comments below) and she is also buried in St. Peter’s Cemetery. lists her as “WINDOM, Selma B., age: 91, burial: 2/26/1994, Section: 28, Block: O, Lot: 28.00, Grave: 2”; in other words, she’s buried next to A.B. (but darn it, I wish they’d given her full middle name). This also gives Selma’s approximate birth year as 1903. That means she was about 46 years old when she married A.B. Windom; thus it’s no surprise that they didn’t have children together. Another source gives her date of death as February 19, 1994 (using information found on

Once I knew Selma’s approximate birth year, I could do more research on her life. Our Selma is probably (but not definitely) the Selma B. Hurd born in 1903, and found in the 1910, 1920, and 1930 U.S Census, living with her parents in East St. Louis, Illinois, right across the river from St. Louis, Mo. Her parents were B. M. Hurd (born in Georgia; first name also given as Morgan) and Lusette Hurd (born in Alabama; first name may be Lucetta, Luretta, or Susetta). B. M. was minister of a Baptist church, and is listed in the American Baptist Yearbook for 1910 (p. 151); he is probably the B. M. Hurd who died in 1937. Lusette doesn’t appear in the 1930 Census; she is probably the Lucetta Hurd who died in 1922 and is buried in the same cemetery, in the exact same section, as B. M. Hurd. Note that Selma was Lusette’s second child, for the 1910 census shows she has two living children, though only Selma is living with Lusette in that year (Lusette was about 40 when she had Selma); also note that Lusette married B. M. circa 1901, and this was her second marriage. Also, the 1920 Census lists Selma, Lusette, and B.M. as black.

Given this information on Selma, we might be able to go a little further. A woman named Selma Hurd of East St. Louis, Ill., married Carl L. Jamerson, also of East St. Louis, on September 22, 1930 — there may have been two women named Selma Hurd in East St. Louis in 1930, but I’m betting that it’s the same woman; and if this is the same Selma who married A. B. Windom, then it was her second marriage. However, note that A. B. Windom did not marry Selma Jamerson; which could mean that these are not the same woman, or it could mean that Selma took back her maiden name after her marriage with Jamerson ended.

Be cautious with any of this information about Selma. I found no definite connection between the Selma Hurd of East St. Louis, Ill., and the Selma Hurd of St. Louis, Mo., who married A. B. Windom. They’re probably the same woman (it’s a somewhat unusual name), but they’re not definitely the same woman.

(3) A. B. Windom is mentioned in the minutes of the “First Annual Midwinter Planning Session” of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc., January 19-20, 1966, held at Christ Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church, St. Louis, Missouri: “Professor A. B. Windom of the host church sang a solo, ‘Come unto Jesus'” [for the Thurs. morning, Jan. 20, session]; he was also listed as a member of the “Devotional Literature Commission.” These minutes are bound with the Minutes of the Fourth Annual Session of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, Sept. 7-12, 1965 (p. 165).

(4) I found a number of copyright listings and publication listings for A. B. Windom, but did not have the patience to go through all those listings looking for bits good information (e.g., where the copyright holder resides, etc.). Below is what my quick search turned up for sheet music publications. These are of interest because they place Windom in St. Louis in the 1940s, and show that he published his own music. It also shows that he had connections to Chicago.

1941: “The First Started Burning in My Soul” (27458 Cass, St. Louis: A. B. Windom)
1942: “You’ve Got the River of Jordan To Cross,” with P.D. Johnson and Theodore Frye (Chicago: Theodore Frye)
1945: “There’s Rest for the Weary” (St. Louis: A. B. Windom Studio)
1947: “I Got To Run to the City Four Square (St. Louis: A. B. Windom Studio)
1948: “Let Us Sing Till the Power of the Lord Come Down” (St. Louis: A. B. Windom Studio)
1949:”Oh Lord Remember Me” (St. Louis: A. B. Windom Studio)
1949:”You Got To Stand Your Trial in Judgment” (St. Louis: A. B. Windom Studio)
1954: “Peace, Peace in Jesus” (St. Louis: A. B. Windom Studio)
(Sources: Emory Univ.; eBay listings; U.S. Copyright listings)

(5) A. B. Windom is mentioned in a few published reminiscences about the mid-twentieth century gospel music scene — search Google Books — but most of this material either is not available on Google Books, or says little more than “I remember A. B. Windom.”

(6) has a nice recording of “Let Us Sing Till the Power of the Lord Comes Down from 1949 — well worth listening to, so you can hear the whole song with the original lyrics.

Drama in the portable toilet

Several us went out to Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area on Saturday to look for birds. We did see some fabulous birds, but the highlight of the trip for me was seeing a Black Widow spider capturing a wasp of some kind, and wrap it in spider silk, and slowly kill it. This all took place inside one of the portable toilets, just below the urinal. Had anybody seen several of us standing around and looking in the door of a portable toilet for five or ten minutes, I suppose they would have thought us odd. But it was a riveting drama, well worth watching.

Emily, who was with us, has posted a series of photos showing the whole process; my favorite of this series of photos is here.

I spent a little time trying to track down what kind of wasp the Black Widow was preying on. The best I could do was to say with certainty that this insect was in the order Hymenoptera; with somewhat less certainty, I’m willing to say the insect was in family Vespidae. But is it a paper wasp, a hornet, or a yellowjacket? I have neither the patience nor the expertise to answer that question.

The joy of accounting

While cleaning out my files, I found this essay on the joy of accounting, which I wrote in February, 2005, when we lived in Geneva, Illinois.

How do you give an account of your spirituality? Perhaps I’d start in the present day, and in the place I’m now living. I live in Geneva, Illinois, on what used to be either an oak savannah or a prairie (we are no longer sure exactly where the boundary between the two lay), about a five minute walk from the Fox River. The Fox River originates to the north of us and eventually empties into the Illinois River. Most of the land in Geneva is now dominated by housing developments and shopping malls.

My partner and I arrived in Geneva last August, having driven here from Oakland, California. The rental market in Geneva had slumped, and we were able to find an affordable apartment a ten minute walk from the church where I’m now serving, and a fifteen minute walk from the commuter rail station, where we can catch a train that leaves us, an hour and ten minutes later, in the Ogilvie Transportation Center in downtown Chicago.

We are sharing a car this year. My partner is a freelance writer who travels frequently, and she owns a car which she keeps on the east coast, where she still does much of her work. The car we have here in Geneva is now twelve years old, and we drive it only once or twice a week.

People live in their cars here in the Midwest. It is common to drive your car to drive half a block, rather than try to walk. This part of Illinois alternates between hot, humid summer and cold, bitter winter, with perhaps two weeks of pleasant weather in the spring, and again in the fall. It is easy to get into the habit of driving everywhere. As a result, roads are wide, buildings are set far apart, housing developments go on for miles, shopping malls seem endless. There is no particular reason to leave any prairie or oak savannah within Geneva when you can drive a short twenty or thirty minutes to a county park. Continue reading “The joy of accounting”