Saturday, December 16, 2006

Bergren Forum Presentation at Alfred University February 27, 2003

Bergren Forum Presentation at Alfred University February 27, 2003 G. Douglas Clarke

I hope you’ll permit me to tell a story or two:

When, at age 41, I returned to Alfred University to study, after a leave of absence (only twenty-three years after transferring out, at the end of my freshman year), it was only a continuation of my personal wrestling match with the “what are you going to do when you grow up?” question. Even way back then, although I would have had a hard time verbalizing it, I felt that my upbringing lacked a sense of cultural security -- that I had little sense of who I was and from what context I had emerged. This plagued me, and I felt envious of Native Americans and the tradition of learning the stories of one‘s people.

In 1975 I took courses in World Religions, Psychology, Biology, Expository Writing, Cultural Anthropology, and so on, and began to plan a Track II program for myself, thinking that any single curriculum was too narrow for my inquiring mind. After learning about Friends World College’s program, in which students wrote journals and conducted studies in which they took an active part in planning, I transferred to the Friends World College North American Center at Lloyd Harbor, Long Island. I spent one semester in seminars on world problems and in field trips to possible independent study locations from Long Island to Georgia.

My fourth collegiate semester was spent in Boulder, Colorado, where I took a Geology course that included a flight up the Front Range of the Rockies and back down along the Continental Divide, began learning the Lakota (Sioux Indian) language from a “white“ linguist while my friend Nadine Hoover lived among the Sioux and learned plenty of other things, did volunteer work for the Native American Rights Fund, hiked and camped in the foothills, and rode skateboards in empty pools and down city streets. I even ended up living in the same house to which my parents had brought me from the hospital, when I was born. I kept a journal of my experiences, and actually got college credits for all that.

In the fall of 1977, I had planned to travel to Japan, where I would have lived in Kyoto and studied how an island nation deals with environmental problems, and how its culture affected those issues. I planned to spend my senior year in Iceland. I had obtained my passport and visa, been inoculated for smallpox (since I would be travelling through Korea) and even had my ticket for a chartered flight, when I learned that some of the funding on which I would rely, would not be available, after all.

So I spent a little more than a year on leave of absence, in Alfred, trying to find work that would pay well enough for me to save some money for tuition (yeah, right, fat chance of that, without a degree!). I ended up accepting an invitation from a friend who was an engineer at an electronics plant in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to come and work for him there. I worked there nine years, having enrolled in a degree program through my place of employment, but was not able to finish my degree before persuading my (then) brand-new wife that we should return to Alfred to help look after my aging parents. I don’t know if I told her, then, that I had come to feel that who I was had a lot to do with Alfred.

In all those years, I acknowledged that I cared deeply about humans being humble in their use of natural resources, had a very strong sense of justice (meaning I am quick to spot an INjustice), sympathized strongly with indigenous cultures and wild creatures, and felt that there was a spiritual, moral basis for these concerns.

Coming back to college here provided the opportunity to respond to that emptiness which I recognized so many years ago. I was able to assemble, among other things, a number of my great-great grandmother’s writings, and wrote a thesis on the environmental history of some pioneer Seventh Day Baptists to Allegany County, NY, which earned me my degree and departmental honors, after so many years of yearning.

Now, let me tell you l little of what I learned in that process:

What is Environmental History?

A brochure from the American Society for Environmental History states that it is the interdisciplinary study of human interactions with the natural world, over time; that Environmental historians seek to enlarge our understanding of how nature enables and sets limits for human actions, how people modify the ecosystems they inhabit, how different conceptions of the non-human world shape beliefs, values, economies, politics, and cultures.

I submit, further, that humanity is inseparable from the rest of the natural world. We can no more separate ourselves organically from the rest of the world than we can view an event or issue objectively. We can try to be open to multiple viewpoints and take them into account, but must consciously give each one fair consideration. Certainly our surroundings place limitations on us, but we also limit what is possible in our surroundings. There is a mutuality between ourselves and our surroundings which may or may not be recognized by humans, even though the influences are constantly working, and the relationship is constantly changing. We separate ourselves from our surroundings, only in our minds.

What has the settlement of Allegany County got to do with environmental history?

Susan Strong -- in her doctoral dissertation -- spent quite a bit of time and effort writing a history of Alfred University’s founding and its very early coeducational structure, and found that what happened here was quite unique. A certain ancestor of mine, to whom I will refer later, aspired to partake of the educational opportunity that resulted. Dr. Strong used several hundred pages to describe what she learned about the people who first settled here, and posited what influences had converged to result in that unique set of events. She spent a lot of time learning about the people who called themselves Seventh Day Baptists, and discovered some things I don’t think they knew themselves. I was raised a Seventh Day Baptist and knew little about her subject, although I’m one of a line going back at least eleven generations of people who have chosen to be part of a group that has always been a bit peculiar.

Peculiar because, in evolutionary and economic terms, they have consciously chosen to be mal-adapted. They have chosen to observe a day of rest, and to come together for fellowship and religious worship, on Saturdays, when most of the rest of the Christian denominations had long ago adopted Sunday for that religious observance. This has set them apart, causing social and economic difficulties because "blue laws" prohibited their working on Sunday and conscience prohibited their working on Saturday, thus leaving them at a clear disadvantage to people who kept Sunday for church-going. Don Sanford says that S.D.B.s often chose farming, since even blue laws didn't keep them from milking cows and such farm chores, every day of the week. This clearly visible difference also probably resulted in their being fewer adherents to their churches in some cases. It has also been something many have called a blessing, and I daresay some have even been guilty of harboring pride for their peculiarity.

What Dr. Strong describes in her dissertation is that Seventh Day Baptists were numerous enough in Alfred’s early days, that they were able to model the community to their preferences, including that many businesses USED to be open on Sundays rather than Saturdays, and the Alfred Post Office was the only one in the nation that was open on Sunday, as well. That ratio of S.D.B.s to others, has reversed so that they are no longer a majority, but continue to be a part of the unique character of this community.

When I finally returned to Alfred University to resume my studies, I was glad that my ancestors were not the sort to throw everything out, and glad that my father had returned to his mother’s home (to look after her and her sister) when I was a teenager, a fact of which I was not so pleased at the time. But those two venerable women grew on me, and I wish they were still here to tell stories. They planted a number of those stories in my mind, and left lots more in closets in that house on South Main Street.

Tucked away there, were many of the objects that our ancestors used, along with diaries, letters, photographs on tin, glass and paper (and many of them identified), speeches to be given at civic organization gatherings, legal documents, and autobiographical writings. I saved the best for last, in that list, for one of our great-great grandmothers wrote much of her life story. Also among her writings was this caveat and advisement:
“To my Beloved Children and Grandchildren, . . . I could wish that I might do a thousand times more for each one of you, than I have ever been able to do. . . .Wherein my life has been a failure, overlook and profit thereby . . .”

May it always be so...........

Dr. Strong, at a Bergren Forum a few years ago, said that “Jonathan and Abigail Allen were Seventh Day Baptists, but their views went far beyond their faith” or words to that effect. At first, I bristled at this, but realized that what she was saying was that the Allens, though loyal to the congregation to which they belonged, were not bound strictly by whatever doctrine held sway in their time. They were willing to take all sorts of information in, process it, and draw some new conclusions, such as that women ought to be regarded as (at least MORE) equal to men, and that black men and women should not be regarded as less human than those of lighter complexion. I'd say some in our time could learn to be so wise.

Notes for questions from audience:

Environmental Historians may use techniques from other fields, but with different focus.

How did I apply it in my research?

Used historical sources to compare national trends to those of Seventh Day Baptists and also to primary documents of own family narrative.

Addressed questions of how and why settlers came to Allegany County, New York:
1) Why did they leave their previous residences?
2) Why did they come to Allegany County?
3) How did they come?
4) How did they cope with survival and other threats they encountered?
5) How did they develop social and economic well-being?

Why did they leave Rhode Island?
Many families had many children, resources limited P. 14, 18,19
S.D.B.s not prevalent in communities, received discrimination via Blue Laws p. 15
Economic mal-adaptation of Sabbattarianism
Regional Economic depression p. 15
Political dissension regarding military service in 1812 p. 15
Removal of Native Americans after 1812
Eric Canal completed 1825 p. 24

Why did they come to Allegany County?
Cheap land? Not really. P. 17, 32
Wells bought 1000 acres, encouraged friends to come from Hopkinton, but not exclusively S.D.B. p. 17
Did not wish to travel further away from friends and family p. 19
Trips home p. 19
Isolated, rural (to compensate for peculiarity) p. 18, 25
Moved further west once ties back east had weakened p. 20
Bitterness over financial, family difficulties p. 21, 22

How did they come?
In groups (national vs. S.D.B. vs. family) p.23
By canal and horse teams p. 24

How did they cope with survival threats?
Tomahawk, panther, toil, loneliness, etc. p. 26
Hunger in 1816 p. 26
Disease p. 26
Animals p. 27, 28, 29
Human p. 29, 30
How did they develop social and economic well-being?
Measured by private gain, not cohesion, justice, or cultural enrichment - Davis p. 34
Measured by social value, among S.D.B.s - Sanford p. 35
Cooperation, altruism p. 31
Bees, raisings p. 32,33

David and Mary Maxson chose community benefit over cash, suffered losses when exploited p.36
David and Mary’s daughter may have rued not getting more cash, but participated much in former p. 38

Nagging Questions:
Why did a Port Master leave the sea and come to the headwaters of the Allegany?
Why did David and Mary move further west?
Where are the surveyors notes, describing this territory before it was invaded by New Englanders?
Did Uncle Stephen ever pay back what he owed?
Did Martin convey freed slaves northward?
What happened to Mary’s siblings?

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I've been a number of things over the years: husband, father, environmental technical specialist, college instructor, carpenter, volunteer firefighter and ambulance driver, student of Lakota and Japanese languages, technical writer, process engineer, research technician, IT technician, emergency dispatcher, etc.