"In the Composition the Father had the same Way as in his Writings, viz : he suspended his considering Faculty, and putting his Spirit on the Pen, followed its Dictates strictly, also were all the Melodies flown from the Mystery of Singing, that was opened within him, therefore have they that Simplicity, which was required, to raise Edification." Peter Miller, Intro to Conrad Beissel's Ninety Nine Mystical Sentences.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Man of Peace Loses War with the Divided Self

Substitute the sword with the plow, commercial exploitation with conservation, and electric companies will be decommissioning dams to restore riparian habitat (Fossil Creek, AZ) when earth enters its final age of peace. The lily age of the German peaceniks celebrated nature for itself on behalf of Christ, which today might mean legislating protection for the whale because God loves it, a Pennsylvania Dutch conservation of the biosphere. It was once thought that the first principle of creative art and life among these peculiar people was "the divining of nature" (Stoudt). To a beating of swords (words) into plowshares as a shorthand of that paradigm, "peculiar" is a compliment connoting unworldly, uncommercial.

The Pennsylvanian antidote to the destruction of nature fostered the underpinnings of a more caring world against the outer division that transformed everything to itself. This liberation came from a people Franklin called brutish, inelegant, who rejected the outer ethic of exploitation and "original sin" of slavery now corrected by presidents. But commissions of an even greater  sin than slavery along salmon coasts and prairie were a sin against nature as old as Cotton Mather's infection of new worlds.

So if Pennsylvania Dutch art is a product of "a spirit of mirth, of play...a love of beauty and a fantastic impulse to embellish" painted furniture, carved wood, or Christmas cookies cut "in hundreds of designs," or  embroideries of "glee that only a man at peace with life can relish" (Weiser, xv), we say that the man of peace was at war with the divided self imaged in alienation from nature. The man of peace at war may be the genius of his muse.

Eighteenth century English-American culture saw nature as a mine for exploitation in spite of the phrase in the Declaration of "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God." Two views of paradise and wilderness occupy the outward surface of this that beg to be called by analogy, a corn field resurrection. In this the literal is made symbolic as such transformations in Van Gogh's fields and sky. Alternate realities come to pass as different poets touch paradise. Blake in Songs, Roethke, The Far Field, slightly demented, Lawrence, Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1923), T. H. White, The Book of Merlyn, Ted Hughes, Barry Lopez, Aesop celebrate the inhabitants who are not ourselves. Lopez in Lessons from the Wolverine, and in Field Notes, empathizes with the living animal and in Apologia with the dead. T. H. White's instructions of the animals to Arthur in Merlyn are a further extension from his translation of the 12th century bestiary, The Book of Beasts.

These are some of the texts that counter the English-American domination of nature. These take as a premise that to name a thing you must meditate it like St. Francis, naming it from within. Naming the animals is not what a government biologist does in thinning wild horse herds and elk to protect cattle, imposing a false, human order on the real. This idea masquerades human good as a care of the wild. Preconditions of wilderness itself require thoughts free of such prejudice and commercial greed. The Pennsylvanians had their own image myths of the natural to accompany the archetype of the child, viz. paradise, much as the mobile above the crib, the doll and the stuffed animal accompany the child. You can see them in the
Show towel decorations of This is the Way I Pass My Time. Ellen J. Gehret.   
The Pennsylvania-German Decorated Chest. Monroe H. Fabian. 
This Teaching I Present: Fraktur from the Skippack and Salford Mennonite Meetinghouse Schools. Mary Jane Lederach Hershey.  
Fraktur Writings and Folk Art Drawings of the Schwenkfelder Library Collection. Dennis K. Moyer.

Paradise and wilderness are mutuals not opposites. Glimpses of these ideas in American Indian notions of natural relation are unbelievably also present in Pennsylvania Dutch art, which include: "tulips and hearts and stars and crowns and angels from peasant art, unicorns from the British arms and eagles from American heraldry" from "birth certificate to tombstone" (Weiser, xv). Hershey says "the predominant designs are taken from nature," with the exception of "the angel and heart motif," and "more variations than one person could imagine, as well as birds of all feather and fancy" (52).

The artists of these were first children and teachers of children, parochial schoolmasters and Mennonites. Christopher Dock began the traceable fraktur tradition in Montgomery County PA. This Teaching I Present: Fraktur from the Skippack and Salford Mennonite Meetinghouse Schools, 1747-1836, says it was "along the Skippack." The full flowering of the art declined after the mid 1830's when a PA public school system began to supersede religious instruction, but this was not the sole means of decline. But in this world it is more customary to speak of the decline than of the flowering.

The man of peace at war with this is against its commerce, hence he will in no way be heard. That doesn't matter. He is part of the Resistance that has been fought from Genesis. We were privileged to trade the mess  of American exceptionalism to live among the river sallows, borne aloft or sinking as the light wind lives or dies.

Works Cited

Mary Jane Lederach Hershey. This Teaching I Present: Fraktur from the Skippack and Salford Mennonite Meetinghouse Schools, 1747-1836. Intercourse, PA: Good Books 2003.
John Joseph Stoudt. Pennsylvania German Folk Art. Allentown, PA: Pennsylvania German Folklore Society. 1966
Frederick S. Weiser and Howell J. Heaney. The Pennsylvania German Fraktur. Breingigsville: The Pennsylvania German Society, 1976.
Richard E. Wentz. Editor, Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Spirituality. Sources of American Spirituality Series. New York: Paulist Press, 1993]
Don Yoder. Discovering American Folklife. Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books. 2001
Hex Signs (with Thomas E. Graves) Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2000.
Pennsylvania Spirituals
. Lancaster, PA: Pennsylvania Folklife Society, 1961

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