Monday, November 25, 2013

Land Ho! — The Gold Rush voyage of Henry Weld Severance

"Barque" by Thomas Somerscales (detail)
Presented to the Club on Monday Evening, November 18, 2013 by Charles F. Sawyer

It is December 31, 1848. A young man of 19 from Augusta, Maine boards a sailing ship in Boston Harbor, bound for San Francisco, some 10,000 miles away. He is among 25,000 who will take that treacherous journey around Cape Horn in 1849. Between 1848 and 1850, San Francisco grows from a sleepy little town of 1,000 to a bustling city of 35,000. By 1852, California's non-native population increases from 14,000 to 250,000.

This great migration is, of course, occasioned by the discovery of gold at John Sutter's saw mill on the south fork of the American River. The young man from Augusta is my great -grandfather, Henry Weld Severance, who, in his own words, was "leaving all most near and dear, to seek a fortune among strangers in a distant land." He kept a journal of that journey, which I recently discovered among some family papers. I found the journal fascinating, even beyond the fact that this was my great -grandfather speaking. It provides a look into a very different time, when The world, and especially America, were young and expansionist. When self reliance and self improvement were critically important. When colonialism and the idea of manifest destiny were redefining political and geographic lines.
So my paper this evening will be to join Henry on his 10,000-mile adventure on the high seas.

He begins.
To you, my dear parents, I now dedicate my journal, and although its various incidents may not be so interesting, as while detailing them gives me the hope that they will be, still I know that wherever I am, you feel interested in my welfare, and especially so at the present time. There may be trifling scenes connected with the voyage, which you will probably ascribe to me folly in detailing them, but still, any occurrence, however minute, seems to me worthy of note. Our voyage thus far has not been entirely monotonous, but some parts deeply fraught with peril, aye with danger from which we knew we could not escape, without the aid and guidance of him whose home is on the mountain wave, whose eye o'er spreads the deep.

Monday, May 20, 2013

First of all: The terracotta army

Photo by Frank Kehren, used under Creative Commons License

Presented to the Club by Ronald Trabulsi on Monday Evening, May 13, 2013

My topic tonight is one on which I’m certainly not an expert. In fact, some of you may know a good deal to add, so I’m looking forward to our discussion after my talk. But I have been fascinated for several years by the life-size terra cotta warriors that have been unearthed in the last quarter century in China and by the man who ordered them built.

These are four miniatures of them produced by the National Geographical Society that my wife gave me for my last birthday.

Their story and that of the Emperor who ordered their creation – so he could take his army with him for protection after he died – because he clearly believed you could take it with you is one of history’s remarkable tales.

The future First Emperor of China was born in 259 B.C. He was the eldest son and heir of the King of “Chin,” spelled QIN or sometimes Q’in. His mother was a concubine and he was given the name of Zheng which means upright or correct.

His father’s domain was along one of the great rivers in western China, the Wa, spelled Wei, which flows to the east into the Yellow River, which then flows farther east to the Yellow Sea. The kingdom was about 500 miles southwest of today’s Beijing.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Terraforming the Earth: Could a little careful geoengineering allow time for sustainability and resilience to work?

Presented to the Club by Martin C. Langeveld on Monday evening, April 22, 2013

Terraforming is a concept that has crossed over from the realm of science fiction into at least theoretical engineering applications. The word was coined by author Jack Williamson in a short story called “Collision Orbit,” published in a science fiction magazine in 1942. Literally, terraforming means earth-forming, or transforming planets into earthlike states. The idea of terraforming is that as humankind begins to travel the universe with the intent of settling on other worlds, most planets we encounter will need a little modification to suit our needs. Perhaps the atmosphere needs a little more oxygen, perhaps the temperature needs to be turned up a notch, and beyond that, the planet might need to be seeded with various microbial organisms in order to provide the basis for a food chain that could support people and a variety of animals. Terraforming would be applied to make the requisite changes.

Astronomer Carl Sagan, in the 1960s and 70s, detailed how this might be done both with Venus and Mars. For Venus, a planet with a greenhouse problem far worse than the Earth’s, Sagan suggested seeding its atmosphere with algae, which would lock water, nitrogen and carbon dioxide into various organic compounds. As carbon dioxide was removed from the atmosphere, temperatures would drop to “comfortable” levels. Unfortunately, later findings showed that the clouds on Venus are far thicker than previously believed, and they contain such high levels of sulfuric acid that algae would not be likely to survive.

The problem on Mars is the opposite: terraforming the red planet would require building up a suitable atmosphere and warming it. NASA was sufficiently intrigued with the notion of making Mars habitable that it held several conferences following up on Sagan’s ideas. The general idea for Mars is to unlock the carbon dioxide in the planet’s ice cap in order to increase its atmospheric pressure, and then to use phytoplankton to create a balanced atmosphere. As the planet warmed up, its frozen reserves of water would become accessible, allowing for the introduction of plants.

While re-engineering Mars to suit human purposes is theoretically more feasible than dealing with Venus, the effort involved would be enormous, since vast quantities of materials would have to be brought to the planet. Depending on the methodology, it would require the mining of ammonia on asteroids, methane or other hydrocarbons on Saturn’s moon Titan, or the mining of fluorine on Mars itself. There are also suggestions for space-based mirrors and the diversion of small asteroids to crash into the Martian surface.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

In Memoriam: William August Selke

We are saddened by the death of our member, William A. Selke of Lenox, Mass. Bill had been a faithful member of the Club since 1969. Our condolences go to Martha Selke and all members of Bill's family.

A memorial service for Bill is scheduled for Monday, March 25, at 2:00 p.m. at Trinity Episcopal Church, 88 Walker Street, Lenox.

The following is Bill's obituary:

William August Selke, of 235 Walker Street in Lenox, died Tuesday morning at The Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield, as a result of injuries from a fall on the ice, on Main Street in Lee, on February 25th.

The son of August F. and Catherine MacAree Selke, he was born on June 16, 1922 in Newburgh, N.Y. As a young child he moved to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where he lived until going off to college.

Friday, March 15, 2013

It's a crying shame: Reflections on next steps after the Sandy Hook massacre

Illustration by Patrick Feller,
used under Creative Commons License
Presented to the Club by James Lumsden on Monday evening, March 11, 2013


For most of my sixty years I have consciously and intentionally wrestled with what it means to be a patriotic person of peace within our American culture of violence.  As a straight, middle class, white man I know I have benefited from – and been entertained by – my culture’s various violent obsessions.  I have been overtly and covertly wounded and corrupted by them, too.  At times I have protested and railed against some of our more vicious habits, spent time in therapy as a consequence of family rage and experienced in my core the blinding fury that so easily erupts into acts of deadly destruction.  As a husband, father and pastor I have also wept while keeping silent vigil with those who have survived acts of murder and suicide.

“Life is hard – and agony accompanies joy.” That’s how I have sometimes made sense of the sorrow born of our uniquely violent culture.  “Now we see as through a glass darkly,” St. Paul wrote, “later we shall see face to face… for all have sinned and fallen short of the grace of God.”  This is the theological gap between comprehension and mystery I generally accept as another way of enduring the heart ache of real life – always, however, with the caveat that, “when we do get to see face to face, God damn it, I want some answers, Lord because this pain is some-times intolerable.”  As a servant of the Crucified but Risen Christ, I trust that God’s presence is with us all in the agony of living as well as in the sublime pleasures – and I believe by faith that this present darkness will one day be redeemed, too.

But after the massacre of twenty first grade and kindergarten children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut – as well eight other adults including the shooter and his mother – it is clear to me that my grasp of what it means to wait upon the Lord has been too passive.  Now is the time for decisive and sustained action to limit and prohibit the spread of certain semi-automatic weapons in America.  Military-grade hardware and access to massive amounts of ammunition is neither necessary to protect the Second Amendment nor to advance the joy of hunting and sport shooting.  Indeed, I would argue that this is the hour to turn our public conversation away from real or manufactured Constitutional debates and find ways for a broad section of Americans to break bread together in patient and civil explorations of the common good.  To be sure, we don’t have much practice or experience with such gatherings these days – and that is a crying shame.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Club's seal: a historic restoration

The graphically degenerated seal
on our current wallet cards
One of the Monday Evening Club's longstanding traditions is that the Secretary (currently Rabbi Harold Saltzmann) orders for members, in a very small press run, small folding wallet cards listing the Club's members and the schedule of meetings for the season. The format of this card has changed little since the Club's early days.

The front of the card has always included a small reproduction of the Club's seal. As can be seen at the right, the seal has gone through multiple generations of reproduction, losing details each time, so that in recent years, the words of the motto have been barely readable and the rest of the image is kind of a murky mess.

The seal as it appeared on an
 1899 Club publication
So we recently located an early imprint of the seal, on the cover of a booklet printed on the occasion of the Club's 30th anniversary in 1899. That seal, printed in blue ink slightly under one inch in diameter, is much sharper, as you can see at the left, than the degenerated one on our cards.

We had the 1899 seal scanned at high resolution, and commissioned a graphic designer, Erika Elder of Brattleboro, Vermont, to do a historic restoration — sharpening all the details of the lettering and images.

The scan revealed quite a bit of detail: the seal has a border of alternating open books and scrolls; the obscure X above "RATIONE" turns out to be a crossed carving knife and fork; the other image is an inkpot and quill pen; the date 1869 is at the bottom of the border, and there are some decorative leaves (perhaps acanthus) here and there.

Once Erika completed the restoration, the seal can now be seen in all its glory:

We also did a bit of research on the Latin motto, which turns out to mean, "Impulse shall obey reason." Or as some translators render it, "Let reason govern your desires." The phrase comes from this passage by Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BC - 43 BC):

In omni autem actione suscipienda tria sunt tenenda: primum, ut appetitus rationi pareat; quo nihil est ad officia conservanda accommodatius; deinde, ut animadvertatur, quanta illa res sit, quam efficere velimus; ut never major, neve minor cura et opera suscipiatur, quam caussa postulet: tertium est, ut caveamus, ut ea, quae pertinent ad liberalem speciem et dignitatem, moderata sint. Modus autem est optimus, decus ipsum tenere, de quo ante diximus, nec progredi longius. Horem tamen trium praestantissimum est, appetitum obtemperare rationi.
This is from Book I of Cicero's De Officiis (On Duties), written in 44 BC.  In case your Latin is rusty, as translated by Harvard's Walter Miller in 1913, it means:
In entering upon any course of action, then, we must hold fast to three principles: first, that impulse shall obey reason; for there is no better way than this to secure the observance of duties; second, that we estimate carefully the importance of the object that we wish to accomplish, so that neither more nor less care and attention may be expended upon it than the case requires; the third principle is that we be careful to observe moderation in all that is essential to the outward appearance and dignity of a gentleman. Moreover, the best rule for securing this is strictly to observe that propriety which we have discussed above, and not to overstep it. Yet of these three principles, the one of prime importance is to keep impulse subservient to reason.
And, yes, the seal contains a typo: it should say RATIONI, not RATIONE. But we are not about to fix a 144-year-old typo.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Not pity but respect: Thomas Nelson Baker

Presented to the Club on Monday Evening, January 14, 2013 by Robert G. Anderson

We are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln’s Presidential declaration that all slaves were no longer property but free. Lincoln shifted the justification for the civil war from preserving the union to liberating those enslaved. The proclamation began to undo the entanglement of the 1850’s when it was federal law to seize and return escaped slaves to their owners while abolitionists were extending the underground railroad and taking up arms to promote civil freedom in new territories. The contentious adoption of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution by Congress in the final months of the Civil War and the subsequent confirmation by the States, rendered the intent of the emancipation proclamation federal law.

I want to tell you about a person whose life as a 2 year old was dramatically altered by Lincoln’s proclamation, enacted January 1, 1863. His name was Thomas Nelson Baker, born a slave on August 11, 1860. His significance for us is that, at age 71, Baker was voted into membership of the Monday Evening Club, the first African American. The 1863 proclamation declared that he and his family were free. Since we each likely have tracked genealogy back to 1860, whether in the US or abroad, we might consider what impact the proclamation had on our ancestors, whether soldiers, slaveholders, merchants in the cotton trade, conductors in the underground railroad, victims of collateral war damage, or even those entrapped in oppressive countries where freedom from bondage was a dream.