Saturday, June 23, 2018

My Favorite Traveling Companion...

My Favorite Traveling Companion……

  I don’t know exactly how long I have been writing and sending out these Dukes newsletters/blogs- I think I started in 2008 or 2007. It is something that I enjoy doing, and I am glad that so many of you enjoy my musings and experiences. It is something that is important to who I am. The performer in me likes having an audience and putting out good energy, and the educator in me loves sharing ideas, experiences and more with people. It is just who I am, and I am grateful that so many of you let me into your inbox on a regular basis. I sincerely thank you for that.

  If you have been reading these missives for a while you know that one thing John Colgan-Davis loves is traveling and seeing new things. You have read, for example, about birding trips to Magee Marsh in Ohio, Cape May, NJ, Heinz Wildlife Refuge in Philly and more. You have followed along on many of the camping trips to Wellsley Island, the Finger Lakes, Golden Hill State Park, and Lake George all in NY. I told you about finding wonderful wildlife refuges in Maryland, museums and gardens in Orlando and Key West; night skies, elk and seeing the Perseid Meteor Shower on a deck next to a mountain in New Mexico. Lotus blossoms, monuments, and museums in Washington, DC. Times spent at Ivylea Provincial Park, the Grand Canyon, and in the wonderful cities of Kingston in Ontario and Chestertown in Maryland. I have brought you with me to small towns, hills, music festivals, campsites, lakes, and more.

   Through all of these travels I have been with my favorite travel buddy and friend, my wife, Penny Colgan-Davis. Some of you have met her at gigs and some of you knew her from some of her many other activities and involvements; she was a very busy woman and involved in many things. But most of you do not know her except through these missives and my telling of our travels. I am sad to say that I have lost my partner, my best friend and the greatest travel buddy ever. Penny passed away Tuesday morning at about 5:30 AM at our home in Mt. Airy. She had been ill for a while, battling melanoma since November of last year. She died peacefully and lovingly with my son and myself there with her. It was a sad but lovely passing. We were fortunate to be with her though the whole illness, and it was a fitting end.

  Penny and I were married for nearly 38 years, and we traveled together and birded together almost from the beginning. We would go to Tinicum (now called Heinz Refuge), down to Brigantine Wildlife Center, (now called Forsythe), Cape May, NJ, and places in Delaware. We had a camping honeymoon through upstate NY, Maine, and Canada. And as a young family we camped in the Poconos and spent several years at Lost River State park, a lovely spot in West Virginia. Penny herself was a great traveler long before she met me. She and her sisters had been to Ireland, the Netherlands, and England, so she was ready to go places. And like me, she loved to not just go to a place but to explore in and around it. We would camp in a spot and bird and hike the trails there. But we would also spend times in nearby towns and cities, eat at diners where the locals ate, visit cemeteries, gardens and historical sites and visit the libraries. She got me into gardening and trees and plants, and we could spend hours at an arboretum, nursery or public garden. I still remember going to the National Botanical Gardens, Kenilworth Park, and the National Arboretum in DC. several times with her. I will miss traveling and exploring and having funny and sometimes scary adventures with her. And I am so grateful for all of the things we saw that took our breath away and will stay with me forever. Seeing thousands of monarch butterflies and hundreds of sunflowers on Amherst Island in Ontario; looking down from above the clouds and seeing circling vultures after hiking up Craney Crow in West Virginia; watching the sun play off a waterfall with circling cedar waxwings on Cape Breton in Canada; standing on a bluff in the Grand Canyon and looking around at so many different shades of brown and red, unreal clear blue skies, and so many differently shaped rocks. And much, much, much more.

  So there is a hell of a lot of pain, a lot of loss and some big hurt going on right now. I do not know when and how the tears are going to come; they just do. And I do not know how long they will last each time they come. My breath gets short, some anger comes out, and I lose it for a while. And all of our family and good friends are also feeling that pain, going through this along with my son and myself. This grief thing is so much more than just a solo enterprise, and I am so glad for that. And at the same time, there are the memories, the images, and the smiles brought about by looking at pictures and maps and brochures and remembering and talking with people about our many wonderful travels. They are just as important as the pain, and just as real. And they are treasures. My mom used to say that when people felt and expressed great pain and hurt and cried their eyes out, there was also joy hidden in there. For to be felt that deeply, the love and loss had to be real and truly, deeply felt. To have known and experienced a love that deep and real was truly a great blessing in my life. Thank you, Penny. Thanks so much. And today, it feels like camping weather.  

It's The Small Things...

It’s the small things….

  We live in a complex world these days, one that is moving at a rapid pace and seemingly headed in every direction at once. We have a lot of new technology and objects in our lives today that simultaneously make things more complicated and help us try to manage this world we have just made more complicated. We have computers, digital connections, the cloud, smart phones, apps, Bluetoooth, drones, Skype, and so much more. Yes, many of these technologies and objects are enabling us to do so much more than could have been imagined a few decades ago. And they are filling our lives with more and more objects. We are a profoundly material rich culture, and sometimes that seems to be to our benefit and sometimes to our detriment. We are interacting with so much “new” technology and “new and improved” objects that we can easily overlook and get away from appreciating the more “mundane” and “ordinary’ things-the “basic” or “simple” things that have been around for years. And when we do think about them, we often think they are beneath us and/or not “important.” But as a curious person and an ex-Ancient Civilizations teacher, I love examining the ordinary. Most important developments in a civilization are building on something basic and ordinary, and these ordinary things have affected us and unconsciously influenced us in many ways.. Finding the stories behind these ordinary objects and processes is one of the things I love about history. It is often fascinating, curious and surprising to trace the “how” and the “why’ behind something simple. II always told my students that, “Nothing comes from Nowhere: there is a story behind everything.”  Exploring that story and where it goes almost always leads in surprising directions and to wondrous conclusions.

   What brought this on was another encounter with author, designer, civil engineer and professor Mr. Henty Petroski. I first encountered Mr. Petroski some 19 or 20 years ago when I came across his book, The Pencil. I was fascinated, not only because someone wrote a book about the lowly pencil, but because someone wrote a 400+ page book about the pencil. I just had to read it, and I am so glad it did. Among other things, I learned that what we call the “pencil” can be traced back to ancient Rome; that there were at least two wars in Europe fought over access to stores of “leaded ore” that makes up the writing substance of pencils, and that writing with pencils was a key part of Napoleon’s military success. Napoleon wrote his battle plans on horseback in pencil as the battle progressed: he did not have to dismount and get a table and ink to use a quill pen as did other generals. Therefore, he could change his battle plans quickly as he witnessed from horseback what was actually happening on the battlefield. It was a huge advantage.

     I also learned the some 60% of the members of the American Society of Civil Engineers thinks the #2 pencil with an attached eraser is the best designed product of the last 200 years. I was hooked by all of this, and I quickly read two other books by Petroski. The Evolution of Useful Things looked at certain design features of common objects and how they developed over time and also noted links between culture and design. He traced, for example, how and why forks got their tines and how paper clips and post-its came to be. To Engineer Is Human looked at design and engineering as part and parcel of what it means to be human and how failure and unhappiness, and not necessity, are more often the mothers of design. We as a species seem to need to tinker, explore and re-invent. Both books opened my eyes to new ways of looking at the world around me.

   Recently I picked up his The Toothpick and started another voyage into discovering the extraordinary the lies at the heart of the ordinary. I have just started the book, but I have already learned that the toothpick, be it made of grass, wood, gold, or quill, is one of humanity’s most universal and oldest tools. And that toothpicks became common in American dining establishments because Charles Forester, the father of the US toothpick industry, hired students from Harvard to go into Boston restaurants and relentlessly demand them, thus manufacturing a demand for his product. When we think of the Renaissance we think of art and literature, but it was also a special time for toothpicks as well. Owning a variety of the tool and cleaning one’s teeth with them after a big meal were seen as indications of one’s wealth, class and sophistication. Even European monarchs had toothpicks made from precious materials and displayed them on their clothing. This is just want I have gleaned from reading the prologue and the opening chapters of the book. I can’t wait to find out more.

  So I am happy: I am on the way to new discoveries and new realizations. I never tire of finding out new things, and I especially love the plain and direct way Petroski writes and organizes his books. To me, he is a poet in the sense meant by the anonymous poet who said, “The purpose of poetry is to make the extraordinary ordinary and the ordinary extraordinary’.  That is what he does, and In that there is great joy and great fun.

   Dukes fan Ruth Brown is doing a food drive in conjunction with Philabundance. The donation boxes are in place and the drive will go until June 30th. Locations:

·         South Kensington Community Partners (1301 N 2nd)
·         PlayArts (1241 N Front)
·         Spot's Spot Pet Grooming (123 W Girard)
·         Chestnut Hill Library (8711 Germantown Ave)
Among Philabundance's most-needed items are canned fruits & veggies, canned tuna, meat & soup; cereal; PB & J; rice; cooking oil, non-perishable milk, and whole grain pasta. Please donate