Saturday, August 29, 2009

Books and Shakers

Yes, this is about Shakers: not things that contain milk and ice-cream, nor other contraptions for parties, soirees, or other lively events. No, the Shakers I'm talking about flourished in the 19th century, built fine prayer and meeting halls, worked with wood, loved their Bibles, and kept to themselves, by which I mean they were celibate.

The reason I decided to write about "Books and Shakers" has to do with the location of the Shaker Museum being located right across the street from Albany Airport, where I landed in upstate NY. It is a rather hidden location, a place where there are small signs indicating some historical locale that has to do with Shakers, but nothing more than that on the main thoroughfares. But in the long wood-paneled buildings, painted in New England whites and other anemic hues, once lived a band of men and women, whose dress, prayers, ecstatic dancing, and life choices branded them as "Shaking Quakers," more commonly called "Shakers." Characters like these decent long-coated men, with wide-brimmed hats, who look more like medieval French apothecaries ready to dole out a dose of bromide or quinine, lived, worked, prayed, and shook in these veritable halls. (And is it just me, or does the guy to the right look like former presidential candidate John Edwards?)

When I first pulled down one of the quiet country roads not a few hundred feet from the Albany Airport, wisps of tall summer grass and elegantly lumbering willows swayed in the moderate afternoon breeze. Another sign appeared in blue and white declaring that we were now just approaching the site of the Shakers, which had been founded at this place in the town of Watervliet more than two centuries ago. I drove up and around a great winding driveway, which was actually a public access road, but was so narrow it appeared to be something akin to an old country road. Then this fine white building came into view, and some more signs in blue and white stood here and there telling of the museum and visitor's center. Other buildings on the site were old and crumbling. One looked like some greying institution for senior citizens or the sick. Another was not institutional at all, but had a once-beautiful porch out front that had rotted into oblivion and fallen in on itself. The screens were brambled messes and the support structures were no more than stalagmites of putrid maple, pine, and ash that had been left to molder under climactic harshness.

Parking in the lot above, I meandered toward the large white building. Aside from the buildings, which I observed and described above, there were several barn-type structures. They were large and formidable on this Shaker campus. But I had no idea if they were used in any capacity at present. I went over to read the two blue and white signs which were leaning on the side of the museum building. The little sign at left was not really visible from the road, but when I got out to take a photo, you could read it quite well. The sign reads, in part: "This Meeting House, or Church, was built in 1848 to replace an earlier (1791) and much smaller Meeting House. It demonstrates many typical characterisitcs of Shaker architecture: double doors, one for men and one for women; a large meeting room with no columns to allow the dancing which was a part of their worship..." and so forth.

In this photo, you can see the sign I just spoke about above leaning on the white meeting house. In front is the larger sign welcoming people to the museum and shop.

The books of the Shakers (or even "about" Shakers) were not all that numerous. But I did manage to get a few shots in of what they did have on display or for sale. In this one image, there were several books and magazines which dealt specifically with Shaker arts and crafts, especially the furniture that has become so widely known and admired. The shop consisted of a few bookshelves of books, quilts, wood-stuff, and trinkets overlaid with more than a hint of that country-time potpourri that has become so popular among the ranks of rural Americana in its rusticity and hard-working ethos. There were only a few older ladies rummaging around the space. It was quiet. I don't even think they had any music piping in from a loudspeaker. But I managed to get a sense of what sort of book culture (or not) was inhabiting this place.

What was more interesting, I found, was the museum space, which occupied much more of the old building. Here we have a placard explaining part of the meeting house-turned-museum space, which had been used as visitors' benches. As noted, even "visitors had to follow Shaker customs," where men sat on one side and women on the other. They surely liked to keep folks separated, perhaps for fear that they might "touch" and that could lead to who knows what!

Following this placard above, placed just to its left was this famous picture. I'm sure there are many of you out there that remember seeing this in your high school social studies books. But probably not much more! (Ah, I suppose I was one of them too, at one point!) Though, not the original, this image shows the great dancing and "shaking" circles that occurred in these halls. It also shows the very seat that the visitor's sat on, the "Visitors' Benches." No, no, they're not playing "Ring Around the Rosy."

Now taking a brief pause from my tour around the meeting hall and museum, I ducked into the restroom and found before me an old sign declaring "All Persons Are Forbid Using Tobacco in this House." Ah..., presumably "God's House," but that's another story all together! I thought it was funny that it should be posted there, right above the toilet. To puff on the pot!--how crude!

These next two images I found worthy of comparison. The first image I took on the way out of the Shaker site. I pulled the car over, leaned out the door and snapped this photo, in order to compare to the next image, which was taken more than 100 years ago. It is the same building and I wanted to get this comparative perspective. If I recall correctly, the latter image was taken sometime in the later 19th century, perhaps in the 1880s. I'll let you readers assess the comparisons.

Back in the museum, I couldn't help myself but snap a few photos of the most curious objects and items on display. Here you will see oils, lotions, and soaps produced (I believe) and used by the local Shakers.

Also on display was this fine little book, entitled "Shaker Days Remembered." I thought that this was a fine addition to the biblio-tour of the day. Sometimes when I find such gems of the book world, and then don't buy them, I continue to have pangs of regret. But I shouldn't, as I have so little room left in my home for any more books! At least I was able to snap a quick photo of this book and get its title in the event I want to go and find it one day. But when shall I ever have enough time to read so many books!?

Returning to the clutches of the melodiously clad
"Shaking Quakers," I had to submit to my camera's shutter, submit to the desire to capture or recapture the solemnity (and for the snarky among us) the comic imagery of sartorial bibs and scarves and cravats. Some of you might be saying--"what fodder for a caption competition!" And thinking: "we're keepin' all of our clothes on and wrapping ourselves with napkins so no one can touch us!--now let's dance!" Ah, if we only knew the life they lived! Of course, none of us are really willing to wear heavy woolen trousers or long hemmed dresses, wrap ourselves up around the chin, and part our hair like some Biblical ocean. But that said, we all have plentiful and wild imaginations. And we have images like these that can somehow make the world of a hundred and twenty plus years ago seem like a time warp from the middle ages.

But when we confront the very basic, most illuminated spaces where the Shakers themselves lived, even if they dressed like Anne of Green Gables dolls for Advent, might we think differently about these folks? About their ways of life? About history itself differently? Maybe we'd reconsider the role of history and the book differently, if in fact we had some of their antique books in hand, rather than simply something new and fancy and polished. Like an old hymnal or Bible that had the imprints of leather-stained palms, fingerprints, and human sweat leaving salty curves of dried perspiration on the hardened and crisp-yellow pages. Here though, here is the image of the inside of the meeting house, which also houses the museum. The floors gleam with reflections of the afternoon sun off of the soft woodenness and antiquity of the structure. The walls are white and trimmed with pewter-blue paints. And a woman sits quietly playing her dulcimer to the right.

The light pours in, forming puddles of bright white glare on the floor. And in the next image, you see the traditional hangers, set into the wall on braces of long wood beams. Chairs that would be used for sitting in circles for discussions or prayers, are flipped upside down, and leveled against the wall for storage. There was a certain sense of peace and serenity in this place. The little plucks of the dulcimer tickled the silence like a comfortable back-scratch. The room smelled of sweet potpourri and herbs, hung by threads along one side of the room. I thought it would be a nice place to have a cup of sweetened tea and read a book. Of course, I didn't even bring a book to read, save for the one on the Erie Canal, but that was still out in the car packed among my bags. And I often want to read about something that has to do with the given location I'm presently in. So I was less interested in the Erie Canal at this point in the afternoon, and more interested in the Shakers. I'm sure many of you feel the same way. You don't travel to Paris and bring along a history of the Manchus, right? Well, at least I don't.

I want to leave you today with this bucolic image. There is much more of a story I could tell today and write about. But I should at least pay homage to the historic, if not heroic personage of Mother Ann Lee. Without plumbing the depths of my Wikipedian knowledge on the subject, I will refrain from a full frontal assault of your historical sensibilities of American religious experience. The short version, the pre-Chapter 11 Readers' Digest condensed narrative is that this woman of often ecstatic sensibilities was married at a young age (reportedly against her will) and bore a total of eight children: 4 of whom died in infancy or prematurely in labor; 4 of whom did not live into adulthood. These traumas, among other issues, led her to the proclamation of the celibate life. It also led her to the rural wilderness of upstate New York in the mid-18th century. Indeed, it was a place that was the true crucible of war, the crossroads of the French and Indian conflict, the quagmire of religious ferment. It was a place, this Watervliet, that became a settlement for the Shaking Quakers, under the fervently moving, stirring, and dominant gaze of Mother Ann Lee. And even though she died with her books and followers nearby, in this upcountry, more than 200 years ago, so little appears to have changed on the little lay of earth. The cows as you can see still moo and measure their cud in mouthfuls. But little has changed. Except for the rumble of multi-ton commercial aircraft taking flight not half-mile away.

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