Making Books in Culpepper, Virginia

 

By Judy Folkenberg

judyfolkenberg.com (my art website)

“It is a beautiful truth that all men contain something of the artist in them.”  Walt Whitman

Culpepper, Virginia:  I’m heading down Route 29 to a small town, Culpepper, in Virginia about a couple of hours south of Washington DC.  to teach a book binding course.  It’s one of those sunny winter days, where the brightness makes you think it’s warm, and then you open the car door…and realize that it’s darn cold out there.

I don’t know much about Culpepper,  but it was supposed to be pretty important during the American Civil War.  And so it was.  Situated on a railway line, halfway between Richmond, the rebel capital, and Wash. DC, Union headquarters, Culpepper became one of the most desired properties during the Civil war.  Both armies wanted Culpepper, and the small town played “host” to each side some 80 times as they were occupied by one or the other army.  During a five month occupation by union soldiers, every tree was cut down for fuel.  Today, there is no tree older than 150 years in the county.

Walt Whitman, civil war
Walt Whiteman

Clara Barton got her start here as a nurse, and she and poet Walt Whitman tirelessly nursed wounded soldiers.   It seems that George Custer also got his start here in Culpepper.  He had graduated dead last from his class at West Point amassing a record-total of 726 demerits, one of the worst conduct records in the history of the academy.  Without the Civil War, he probably would have been kicked out of West Point.  But the Union Army was desperate for officers so assigned him to Culpepper.  One day Custer attempted to stop a train taking supplies to the south and was shot in the leg by a rebel soldier, who then shot and killed his horse.

Of course Custer was later killed in his battle against the Sioux Indians at Little Bighorn, and one can only wonder what would have happened if the rebel soldier had shot and killed Custer rather than his horse.

We arrive in Culpepper, a charming Virginia town with a lovely historic district, fine restaurants, and the only remnant of the Civil War are trees no older than 150 years.

Culpepper
A shop in the historic district of Culpepper

The railroad that was fought so bitterly over, is now an Amtrak station–although an Amtrak station with a local historian sitting at a desk.   My friend and fellow book binder, Linda, and I are shown to our room, by our hostess who runs  “Artful Conversations”  one evening a month and owns several businesses in the town.

There’s cocktails before the 45 minute lecture, and a gourmet meal afterwards.  We are doing things a bit differently tonight.  I will talk for about a 10 minutes, and then will teach the class how to bind two chap books (a book that got its start in the 1500’s) to take home with them.

And what a lovely time we had.  All the students are passionate about books and talk about how their children and grandchildren love “real” books.   They catch on very quickly on how to bind the two books and exclaim over their handiwork.    Because as Walt Whitman said, all of us contain something of the artist in ourselves

During our gourmet meal afterwards, the conversation ranges all over the place; from 9/11, to truckers who now move the majority of goods all over the United States.  It ranges from the battle of New Orleans and the British invasion there, and how one of the guests got locked in the Taj Mahal overnight when she traveled to India as a young woman.  It seems that people who are passionate about books are also good conversationalists.

As the evening ends, one of the guests asks about the recipe for a white pizza hors d’oeuvre we had eaten.  The dough was indescribably delicious.   Our hostess smiles and says she found the recipe in an old Italian recipe book that she bought at a second hand book store.

 

 

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The Places We Love

By Judy Folkenberg

judyfolkenberg.com (my art website)

To be frank, the black and white photos aren’t very good.  They were taken by my father in the late 1940’s of a place where I later camped as a child, the most beautiful place in the world:  Yosemite, California.   I never called Yosemite, “the most beautiful place in the world,” because children don’t talk that way.   You just know that somehow certain places are special–and you carry that knowledge into adulthood.

My brother, parents, and I camped in an army green tent with a peaked roof and an entrance  with a tied back flap under tall ponderosa pines whose needles littered the forest floor; the sweet smell drifting through the air.  We swam in the cold, pure waters with Yosemite Falls as our background.  And we ate our supper in the clean sharp air from plastic sectioned plates usually with a breeze that drifted through the campground and across the water.  The days were hot and lazy, a golden wonder; the nights chilly, as we snuggled in our army green sleeping bags on wooden cots.

Unfortunately that was then and the now has changed. I haven’t been back to Yosemite since I was seven years old.   I understand too many humans  clog its natural pathways.  It’s expensive to get through the gates, it’s probably noisy, and it’s become far too popular a place to visit.  I’ve been told there’s a theme park whiff about it.  And, of course we all know, “you can’t go home again.”

You Can’t Go Home Again is the title of Thomas Wolff’s famous novel where the protagonist  realizes that he can’t relive his youthful memories or go back home to the way things used to be.  And the phrase is used tirelessly to explain how you can’t revisit the past.  After all, the truth about childhood places is elusive and probably should  be remembered with caution;  like a girl’s first love we pick and choose what we want to relive

But what most people don’t realize, is that despite the title of the novel, there’s another quote the protagonist makes, which is not so well-known:  “But…why had he thought so much about it and remembered it with such blazing accuracy, if it did not matter… All that he knew was that the years flow by like water, and that one day men come home again.”

Page from the Yosemite chap book that features my dad’s photos of Yosemite.  This particular photo is of Yosemite Falls.

So, one day I will go home again.  I will go back to Yosemite.  But until that happens I can do something else.  I can preserve that time as a child through my art.   I’m a book artist.   I will make small books (known as “chap books,” and the format has been around since the 1500’s) that feature my dad’s photos of Yosemite.  Because even though they “aren’t very good,” there’s really no such thing as a bad photograph of Yosemite.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Books and Cats (Go Together Like a Horse and Carriage)

Cats got their literary start in the scriptoriums of medieval monasteries.  This relationship can be traced back to an 8th or 9th century poem, Pangur Ban (which means white cat).   Supposedly written by an Irish Benedictine monk who worked in the scriptorium of Reichenau Abbey, a German abbey on an island of the same name, the author compares his scholarly pursuits with the cat’s activities of chasing mice.

“I and Pangur Ban my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.”

That monks and cats formed close bonds should come as no surprise.  Mice and rats lived in the scriptoriums feasting on the precious, hand-copied manuscripts.  Cats, on the other hand, feasted on the rodents.  Scriptoriums were also solitary places, so this companionship between kitties and monks made a whole lot of sense even though monks ran the risk of kitties stepping in the ink jars and walking across the manuscript leaving their paw prints.  Proof of ink-soaked paws are shown in the illustration (right), a medieval manuscript that a researcher recently discovered when going through manuscripts in Dubrovnik, Croatia.     This habit exists to this day and age:  cats now walk across the computer keyboard.

Many 20th century writers turned to cats as their favorite muse.  Ernest Hemingway was famous for his numerous polydactyl cats, the descendants of which exist to this day at his house/museum in Florida.  Poets William Carlos Williams and Randall Jarrell (“The cat’s asleep; I whisper “kitten” Till he stirs a little and begins to purr–) kept cats,  as did the existentialists, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre.  (It looks like the kitty is dictating to Sartre the copy of Being and Nothingness, which Sartre claimed to have authored).   The beat writer, Jack Kerouac, adored his ginger Persian, “Tyke,” and compared the death of Tyke to the death of his little brother.   William Burroughs had cats all his life and seemed to love them as much as he loved illicit drugs.

Mark Twain qualifies as perhaps the most famous writer/cat-lover.    He considered cats superior to humans (“If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.”  – Notebook, 1894) and owned cats all his life.

Cats even played a role in the writing of his classic, “Huck Finn.”  Twain began writing the novel in the summer of 1876 in a small study filled with cats, in Elmira, New York.  

A 1905 Washington Post article described Twain’s huge bed, where he spent a good deal of time writing.  The reporter enumerates the various items on the bed;  the books, writing materials, clothes and numerous other objects (“enough to furnish a Harlem flat”).

The reporter continues:    “He looks quite happy rising out of the mass, and over all prowls a huge black cat of a very unhappy disposition.  She snaps, snarls and claws and bites, and Mark Twain takes his turn with the rest;  when she gets tired of tearing up manuscripts, she scratches him and he bears with a patience wonderful to behold.”  –interview subtitled “Mark Twain’s Bed,” Washington Post, March 26, 1905, page F12

The most absurd thing in life is how much pleasure I get from TeddyBoy (my cat pictured in top photo).  The second most absurd thing is how I lay the burden of muse on TeddyBoy’s furry shoulders, and how well he seems to bear it with nary a care in the world.