<< September 2020 :: October 2020

quantifying our slowness

I got Strava on my phone a couple weeks ago. With all the trail riding and hiking we're doing, I'm kind of curious about how far we're actually going... and I'm also interested after the fact in finding our where, exactly, we went. Of course, for any of that to happen I have to remember to actually turn on the thing, which I had not managed until my ride with Harvey this afternoon. Even then, we'd been going for a good before I was reminded of its existence when we came upon an unmapped trail and I wondered how I might more precisely add it to OpenStreetMaps. If only I had some way to record my GPS track... Oh, yeah! So from that point on we have detailed stats on the ride. Remember how, last month, I wrote about riding slowly for a long time? That's still what we're doing.

In linking Russell Mill Pond with the Billerica State Forest I can conclusively tell you that we traveled 6.54 miles in one hour and twenty-seven minutes of moving time, for an average speed of 4.5 mph. We gained 391 feet of elevation over the ride and topped out at 312 feet above sea level, at the top of Gilson Hill. True, I did reach the exhilarating speed of 20.4 mph on the fire road descending the hill, but going by the numbers our rate overall could certainly be described as plodding. As we experienced it, though, it was no such thing! Most of the miles were on trails that were new to us, and almost all of those trails were fun and interesting.

But I do kind of wonder what my times would have been like if I hadn't been waiting up for Harvey. Obviously, he's both a confident rider and a trooper when it comes to endurance; some of that terrain is challenging, and there was so much of it! But he is only eleven. Someday soon I'm going to head out by myself, and see what kind of numbers I can put up for a loop linking as many different town forests as I can. The results should be interesting... assuming I remember to start Strava, that is.

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olfactory joys of dog ownership

Leah called me this morning on the way home from walking the dogs to ask me to be ready to help them get right into the bath when she got home. They had rolled in something, and they smelled terrible. I agreed of course, but thought at the same that it probably wasn't that bad... she's complained of them being bad-smelling before and I had hardly noticed anything. But when I first got a whiff, on the front porch, I had to acknowledge that she hadn't been exaggerating. The smell was strong enough that it infected the downstairs even in the brief time each dog passed through on the way upstairs to the bathroom, where Leah washed them with puppy shampoo and doused them in baby powder. It helped some. Leah describes their aroma now as "decaying baby"—a striking metaphor for a striking odor. She was wondering if she should bathe them again before we went to sleep. Don't bother, I said, we're already getting used to it.

moments from the week

a fire, globe lights, and people on our back deck. again.

light season

Moments from the past week.

Elijah smiling to show the space where his third tooth fell out

three down, 21 to go!

Harvey sitting on his bike on a trail

always ready to ride

Zion and Elijah playing Pokemon cards in a friends' backyard

backyard Pokemon

Lijah riding on a trail among yellow ferns

fall fern colors

the boys petting a cat amongst piles of pumpkins

fall on the farm

Zion and Lijah cuddling on the couch with Scout

cuddle time with Scout

Lijah riding across a bridge over a ditch

he came to it

Blue sitting in Lijah's car seat

safety first, Blue!

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the fruit of the vine

It's probably too late for you to act on this, but two or three weeks ago the woods around here were positively filled with grapes. Well, maybe not filled, but there were plenty there for the sampling. It's funny, because the vines must be there all year round, but they totally blend into all the leaves unless you're looking for them. And why would you, until it's late September and you're walking along a trail and you come to kind of a sunny spot, and all of a sudden you're overcome with the aroma of grape popsicle. Just look around for a while, and you'll find them!

wild grapes growing

wild bounty

It's very convenient that the grapes smell so strongly when they're getting ripe. And they really do smell like popsicles: until I tried wild grapes I didn't understand what "grape flavor" was meant to be, but it's actually pretty close to what they taste like. At first, that is; then after that first burst of flavor you start to taste the bitterness of the skins and, unless they're really ripe, the underlying sourness of the slimy middle. Also there are lots of big seeds. I'm not really selling the experience, and the boys certainly had their doubts. But it didn't stop me picking a few every time we noticed them somewhere. Because foraging is the best—who can pass up free wild food?!—and because, even without as much sugar as a popsicle, grapes are the flavor of the last of the summer.

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other teachers

Our homeschooling is ticking along fine, pretty much on the model of previous years: we start the day with a morning meeting, then the boys have an hour or two of work time, then it's on to adventures and playing and all the other important things. One thing new this year, though, is that Harvey is involved in a couple of fun learning opportunities led by people who aren't me!

The first is an Ancient History class organized by one of our good homeschooling friends. He was invited to participate at the last minute, but with 24 hours notice he was able to read the required chapter via phone photos of the book and join in the initial meeting in fine form. Since then we've got him his own copy, and he's been able to join in the age-old middle school history practice of reading chapters and outlining them. How else do you learn history?! Then he gets to take part in a Zoom meeting on Thursday afternoon with three other super cool middle school boys and talk about saber-tooth acorns and Old Norse runes and also, I assume, a little bit about Egyptians and Sumerians.

Harvey's grandpas are also doing their part to contribute to his education this fall. Also on Tuesdays my dad is running a class for Harvey and Harvey's cousin Nisia, who's in fifth grade. They're doing a multidisciplinary study incorporating music, science, and literature, all based around a pop tune from 1948 that he arranged. And on Wednesday morning Harvey and Zion are getting tennis lessons from their other grandpa—not just playing tennis, but doing footwork drills and everything. Both grandpas are retired now, so they have plenty of time for projects—and we get the benefit!

It's awesome watching Harvey working hard on all these things, without any organization from me needed. I'm going to have to offer something for other kids I know to return the karmic favor. What can I teach about? Maybe Vikings: I certainly have plenty of knowledge to share about runes!

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lost phone = existential crisis

I have a complicated relationship with my phone. On the one hand, I kind of hate it: it lurks in my pocket like a little distraction bomb, ready to explode out and take over my life if I'm not totally absorbed in what I'm working on. On the other, I rely on it for so many things! It's my watch, my map, my weather report, my encyclopedia, and my card-playing companion (thanks to far too much time spent on cardgames.io). Also I occasionally text people and, every once in a great while, use it to make calls. On balance, I wish I didn't need it but I totally do. So I was dismayed when, after an early morning off-road ride with Harvey Tuesday morning, I couldn't find it anywhere.

I looked around the house; I looked in the car. I looked in my backpack, then looked there again. Leah was out walking the dogs, but envisioning the phone lying in the parking lot at the trail we'd riden I couldn't keep myself from telling the kids to find books to read while I drove back there to check. It wasn't there. At that point our morning had been pretty well derailed, but I got myself together to get everybody through the minimum of morning work. Then before lunchtime, with Leah's encouragement, I went back to the trail *again, with my bike this time, and rode the whole morning's route backwards searching the ground the whole way. No luck—not, of course, that I expected to find a five-inch-long black object in a mile and a half of fall leaves.

What was the most frustrating thing about having lost it? I didn't really miss it for what it was, actually, even if I did find myself without any way to tell what time it was when we were out at the farmers market that afternoon. The thought of the money it would take to replace was a factor, certainly—a couple hundred bucks minimum. And the hassle of getting it set up with my number and everything (the hassle for Leah, to be fair, since she handles the phone business in our house). Worst of all, though, was just the feeling of not being able to remember what on earth I could have done with the stupid thing! When was the last time I looked at it? Checking the map on the trail? When we got back to the car? Somewhere in the house?! I had no idea at all. The frustration I felt made me realize how overwhelmed I am with everything in general—with the various different responsibilities I'm juggling between parenting and homeschooling, work, housework, and all the other stuff that needs to get done. Not to suggest that I'm doing any more than anyone else... I just not as good at it! I can't even keep track of my own phone!

Then yesterday Leah looked in the car and she found it in like 30 seconds. Crisis averted, I guess!

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experimental cookery

I love coleslaw, and I think I do a pretty good job making it—if I do say so myself. I like to switch up the recipe for variety's sake, to match what it's meant to go with: a sweeter dressing with celery seeds when we're having fish, something more tangy with chipotle pepper to go with tacos. Today I went even further in experimentation: along with our Spanish tortilla and toast I made maple-vinaigrette coleslaw, perhaps the first time that particular flavor combination has ever been assembled! (or maybe it's commonplace; I could look it up, but I think I'd rather revel in my uniqueness and also it's past my bedtime). The kids didn't love it, but I thought it was delightful. I wonder how much farther I can go before it's not coleslaw any more?

moments from the week

Harvey riding up a gravel road towards a misty sunrise

sunrise ride

Moments from the past week.

Elijah and Kamilah in a tree

tree buds

Harvey riding by the pond at Great Brook

Great Brook trails

Elijah stacking firewood

firewood!

the dogs at the Concord River under yellow leaves

looks like fall

Zion and some friends lying with the dogs on the deck

sharing the dogs

Scout lying on the deck

relaxed Scout

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another reader

Like Harvey before him, Zion has taken to reading. As the manager of the household I'd say it's because he wants an excuse to do something rather than work (or sleep), but as a homeschool parent I'm of course delighted. Because reading is wonderful, right?! It was Ramona Forever that was keeping him from going to bed last night and from doing his chores this morning, but luckily he finished it in time to take part in our school day.

I think it's safe to say that I have mixed feelings about reading. What I don't buy is the idea that reading is worthwhile for it's own sake—not just knowing how to read, but enjoying reading and appreciating particular books. In school it doesn't matter what it is, as long as you find something you want to read. And then you're all set! (until they catch you reading in math class; ask me how I know!). So you have an ecosystem of terrible books that make their ways from publishers to school libraries because, as they tell us, "at least they're getting kids reading!" Sure, I agree that there are tons of great books out there, books that expand your mind or transport you to places you could never visit otherwise; but I don't know that, oh, the graphic novel version of The Wings of Fire necessarily provides a path towards coming to enjoy them. Why not just tell kids—tell everyone!—that there are these great books out there, and wait for them to learn how to read so they can find out for themselves just how great?

Of course, I fully admit that my concerns are completely misguided. After all, I went through a period where I devoured as many Hardy Boys books as I could get my hands on! And I certainly don't want to suggest that graphic novels, as a form, have anything wrong with them; except for The Wings of Fire (which, admittedly, I've never even read!) all the books on this list are pretty darn good. Zion read his share of them—more than his share, probably—before he got started on chapter books (and in fact having finished Ramona he spent some time with Amulet this evening). I guess I'm just doing that grumpy old man thing where I only think books I like are any good. In my defense, though, I wouldn't be complaining if Zion, besides reading, was also doing everything he's supposed to!

Postscript: In between writing the previous paragraph and this one I did bedtime with kids. As I finished praying with Harvey Zion was reading Squirrel Girl in his bed with the headlamp. I asked him to turn it off, and he let me know that actually the nighttime is the best time for reading, because he didn't have anything else he needed to be doing! What about sleeping, my love? Ah, reading...

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bubbling up

Monday was an exciting day at our house. After a couple weeks of thinking and planning and feeling each other out, we had the first full day of our in-person school bubble. It was so great. With two other families, we gathered on the back deck to talk about Indigenous Peoples' Day, do some math and literacy work together, and process acorns in water boiling on the fire. And play and talk, of course. And when the rain got a little heavy for the group working on paper, we even went inside! The first time anyone but us has sat on our couches in almost seven months was a big moment... and it's not a coincidence that it was some of the same people who were here the last time back in March.

Lijah and two friends doing math work in our living room

math with friends!

We're part of a co-op, but it's having trouble getting going this fall. That may be my fault—I refuse to admit to any particular leadership, but I'm certainly one of the main organizers. In any case, between everyone's different schedules and risk profiles, nobody's really wanted to commit to in-person events; and most of the kids aren't that big on video-conferencing (we're trying to stay away from it ourselves, at least while the weather stays warmish). So a couple weeks ago I reached out to two families who we see socially who were also willing to consider getting together, and we agreed that we could try bubbling up to do some school work.

The bubble part is, of course, new and exciting—we spent five hours together yesterday, easily the longest stretch of time we've shared space with anyone since the pandemic started. But the school part is new too! For the last few years our co-op activities have been limited to fun outings, enrichment activities (awesome ones, to be fair!) and book groups. This fall we're going to be trying to do a little more consistent work together on things like math and writing, and giving our kids a chance to work with age peers rather than their siblings all the time. It's still a work in progress, but it was encouraging yesterday to observe the attention span the kids showed for working together. We're planning to gather every Monday and Friday, and we'll see how it goes... we have high hopes!

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rain and shine

Yesterday it rained all day, the first rainy day for about a hundred years (actually: the first real rain since September 30, and the first all-day rain since August 29). We enjoyed it in the way you do, by reading books and gazing into various glowing rectangles for hours. Rain on Tuesday shows good timing, because that's when Harvey has all his classes, but you be sure there was lots more screen time besides that. We did get outside for a bit after lunch, when it was only raining lightly: I thought to dig out our three mini lacrosse sticks, thinking that would let us play ball without getting too soaked. I don't know if that really worked, but lacrosse was a hit and the boys were eager to play some more today.

Today, now, the weather was completely different. The rain washed all the humidity out of the air, and the day was clear and crisp: peak fall. Of course I had an hour and a half of Zoom meetings in the middle of the day, but the rest of the family had plenty of chances to enjoy the sunshine. I finally got out into the garden for a bit in the afternoon, but I kept being distracted from pulling out the tomato plants by gazing around at all the beautiful red and yellow in the trees. Fall is a good season.

riders in the dark

It was inevitable, and today it happened: our efficiency at getting out the door for a pre-breakfast ride, together with the ever-lengthening winter darkness, meant that Harvey, Zion, and I reached the trails while it was still just about pitch dark this morning. Never mind: we were prepared with headlamps! Riding trails in the dark for the first time was quite an adventure. I felt like I could chose between watching the twists and turns of the trail ahead, or keep track of the rocks and roots under my feet—but not both! All of us took a spill or two, but nothing too serious. I for one appreciated the way the darkness made the trails I know so well seem new again, and it was even more interesting because my memories of the lines I knew I should be taking but couldn't see felt like something I'd learned in a dream. Then the sun came up and it was just like a regular ride—which is pretty good.

Harvey and Zion riding a gravel road at dawn, with headlamps

it was darker in real life

moments from the week

Elijah standing on a log in a yellow wood

Lijah the woodsman

Moments from the past week.

fall trees above the chicken coop

fall on the farm

kids toasting marshmallows and mashing acorns in our backyard

this is our school

a tallow candle in a jar burning in the dark

homemade light in the darkness

Lijah in a tree above the river

if there's a tree, he's up in it

Zion wading in the Concord River

and if there's water, he's wading in it!

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signs of fall

Changing leaves are very well—very well, this year—but there are other more impactful signs of fall around here lately. Saturday night saw our first freeze of the winter, so the garden looks a whole lot different now than it did before the weekend. I'd taken out the slicing tomato plants and the romas already, but the cherry tomatoes were still going strong. They did fantastic this year: I kind of wish we had been able to quantify how many we picked, but even if we'd been willing to take the time to weigh all the tomatoes we brought inside, that would still have missed the hundreds that we ate right there in the garden. But I think its fair to estimate that we enjoyed hundreds of dollars worth of tomatoes this summer. They took up a commensurate amount of space, too, as they kept growing and sprawling from May through October. Now they're gone, and the garden looks flat and empty. Neat, too. (There's still some greens growing, but they don't bulk nearly as large.) Now it's time to start planning for next year! The garlic will need to go in before the end of the month... where should we put it?

It's also the season of cold mornings in the house, which means morning baking! Today I made pumpkin muffins to share with our school friends. Only I noticed something with our new oven. See, when our last one broke it was the electronics that went wrong: the heating part was still fine. But since they're connected we had to replace the whole thing. To keep that from happening again we bought the most basic, no-frills model, with no kind of digital components to possibly go wrong. It works great! It also doesn't have a window in the front: I guess that also counts as a frill. Only, without the window, I find it hardly heats up the kitchen at all! Great in the summertime when we're baking bread, but in the winter heat in the kitchen is half the point! It makes me wonder how much energy we wasted in all the other years—heat that wasn't cooking our food! It also makes me wish for a wood-burning stove... now that's fall comfort!

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our first mountain

We've done lots of hiking this year—or walking in the woods, at least—but we haven't gone up any mountains. We usually save mountain climbing for our annual Maine vacation, but of course that didn't happen this summer. And anyways those are kind of mini-mountains: some fun and challenging climbs and impressive views, but not too much actual altitude (of course, when you're starting from sea level it all counts, but still). So when I heard from a neighbor that his fourth- and first-graders were climbing local mountains this fall I thought right away that it was something we might try too. Last week we started with the littlest closest one, Mount Wachusett.

the boys resting on a rock on the way up Mt Wachusett

mountaineers

Not having done anything like this before, I spent hours pouring over maps and guidebooks—or the online version, at least. I love OpenStreetMaps, but it doesn't have any context for the trails it shows, and it's terrible at locating parking. So I also used the official Massachusetts State Parks page, plus some guidance from other websites with details about particular trails. Nobody writes that kind of thing about places like the October Farm Riverfront (they should! I should!) but it turns out that lots of people like talking about climbing mountains. It made me much more confident in setting out last Thursday morning bright and early for the hour-long trip to the base of the mighty peak.

We got a new audiobook for the drive—The House of Many Ways, by Diana Wynne Jones—so the trip went quickly. When we reached it we marveled at the ski slopes as we drove by, then stopped briefly at the visitor center to pick up a trail map in case I didn't have cell service for at any point on the trip. It would have been less brief but the visitor center was closed—even the portapotties!—so we piled back in the car for the two minute drive to the parking lot at the trailhead where we wanted to go up.

My thought was to go up the steepest trail on the mountain, because Lijah likes mountain climbing quite a bit more than hiking, at least when he's primed with the expectation of being on an actual mountain. But I wanted to do a loop down (especially since that steepest way is only half a mile to the top!), and I didn't want to get up to the top right away and then have a long walk to finish off. So even through there's a lot at the bottom of the steep trail, we parked about a mile away and started off with a walk on a trail parallel to the road. Judging by the map I had thought it would be pretty flat, but it actually went up a fair grade, in addition to being made of boulders for much of the route. It felt delightfully mountainy! After that, though, the turn onto the steep path up was something of a disappointment when we saw that it was all stairs. At least for the second half the woods thinned out a bit and we could chose to walk on the bare rocks beside the stairs—which of course we did.

There was some disappointment at the summit too: even though I'd told them what to expect, the boys were a little dismayed to see the parking lot and the observation tower and all the people—yes, even on a weekday morning the top of Wachusett was a little crowded. But when we started to pay attention to the views I finally got the kids to understand that they were actually up higher than they had ever been before in their lives. That was cool in its own right, and it also meant that we could see pretty far (even though it was frustratingly hazy for October). There were four signs around the observation deck with labeled pictures of the landmarks you could see in each direction; spotting the tall buildings way off in Boston was pretty cool, but the massing mountains of Vermont were the most exciting. We could see Vermont! A magical place that they'd barely ever thought about before! Then we found a quiet spot to have lunch. Quiet in that is was out of the way of people, that is; the wind was plenty loud! Oh yeah, I forgot to say that whatever other ways it was lacking as a mountaintop Wachusett certainly provided an appropriate amount of summit wind.

the boys walking on rocks through a sun-dappled pine wood

the path down

The way down was longer than the way up, and more interesting. If I were to do the mountain again—which frankly I can't imagine doing, unless friends want to go with us—I'd definitely go up that way and down yet another way. We passed through different types of woods and one small meadow orchard, and took a little detour to visit the grandly named Echo Lake (pretty, but smaller than most ponds we know). Then it was an easy walk back to the car. The whole thing was far from the longest hike we've ever done, even outside of camping, and when after looking at the clearing haze I jokingly suggested going back up to take another look at the distant hills Harvey was ready to go for it. Really, we all could have made it back to the summit pretty easily a second time. But we did have obligations for later in the afternoon, and the audiobook was calling, so we were all happy enough to head for home... thinking about the next mountain we might climb. "How much higher is Mount Washington?" Harvey wanted to know.

distant Mt Monadnock from the summit of Wachusett

looking away to Mt Monadnock... a more realistic next goal!

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dark days

We've got lots going on these days, so we need to get up in time to get the day started. Unfortunately the never-ending reign of Daylight Savings Time makes that hard. What do you call it savings if you have to turn the lights on if you want to get up before 6:30 in the morning?! The real problem is that I don't like to turn lights on in the morning; it throws off my waking up process. Or so I say; maybe it's just hard for me to get up in the dark, which I imagine is quite natural. I'm sure that that putting lights on after sunset throws off my going to bed process, but, as I say, we've got lots going on, and we need to add some light somewhere! But I'm very much looking forward to the time change in a couple weeks.

moments from the week

the boys running through a stubbly corn field

stubble romp

Moments from the past week.

ice in a dog dish

first ice

Blue in Fairyland Pond in the fall

fall colors and Blue

kids playing with bread dough around the table on our deck

this was school this week

Harvey and Zion sitting by the fire with marshmallows

still smoring

Lijah looking at brunch set at the picnic table

Saturday brunch

Lijah jumping his stick horse over a horse jump

hiho Pinky, away!

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farewell to the pandemic market

We missed the last Farmers Market this afternoon. I had actually thought the last one was the week before, and we made kind of a thing about it; I bought $75 worth of meat. But then we heard there was one more. We planned to go, but after a fun walk in the morning and lots of work in the afternoon, I just didn't have it in me to make another trip out before I had to make dinner and host a Zoom meeting. Oh well. We love the Farmers Market, but I have to say it just wasn't the same this year. I understand that they needed to take precautions, and I appreciate the effort they put in to make sure that it could even happen, and happen in a way that made everyone feel comfortable. But a big part of the appeal in years past was the festival atmosphere—the crowds, the music, the general excitement—and there was none of that this year. Instead, there was a lot of standing in lines six feet apart. Oh, and also not touching any of the food! My mom points out how silly it is that we can go to the grocery store and paw over everything alongside 100 other people, but at the entrance-controlled market with the farmers eyes on the customers we can't pick out our own potatoes. Oh well. We got lots of good food there this year anyways; next year we can look forward to good food and good times too.

sparkles in the woods

Even though it's dark early we still have to walk the dogs after supper. Good thing Leah got us some fancy headlamps! I used one for the first time this evening, and besides being able to see the dogs' eyes glowing from hundreds of feet away I also noticed something for the first time. It was misting lightly, and naturally the ground was a dark carpet of wet pine needles and maple leaves. Then I rounded a corner and saw something shining in the light of my headlamp, much brighter than everything around it. As I got closer I thought it must have been crumpled tinfoil, it was so reflective... but then when I reached it I found that, no, it was actually an oak leaf, underside-up on the trail, dewed with drops of water on its waxy surface! Then looking ahead I noticed dozens of glowing oak leaves along the edges of the path, brighter than everything but the dogs' eyes. I had no idea they did that. Pretty cool to see something for the first time at the ripe old age of 43!

Native American study

One of our focuses so far in Bubble School (to the extent that we can focus on anything at all!) has been the Native people of the Northeast. It's a little bit because we started school on Indigenous Peoples' Day, and a little more because we're all interested in living a little more lightly on the land—and respecting and honoring the people who the place where we live really belongs to. We've learned some things about cooking with corn meal and making wetus; but the thing that I've learned most dramatically is that the history of the tribes of what is now New England is told entirely through the lens of the colonizers. Even in sensitive, scholarly accounts of the Eastern Algonquin people, they hardly exist before white folks wash up on these shores and run into them.

That's actually not surprising, given the historical situation. The Algonquins didn't have written history before colonization, and then the pace at which the genocide proceeded after made it impossible to preserve anything but the most superficial details about their stories and way of life over the last 10,000 years. It's pretty depressing.

We learned a little bit about that genocide too. The most rage-inducing part of it, as it applies to modern day, is the fact that tribes like the Massachusett and Nipmuc are denied Federal recognition because, contra the laws defining recognition, they don't "comprise a distinct community [that has] existed as a community from historical times." Yeah no duh, that's what a genocide will do. Other tribes, such as the Pennacook, no longer even have any groups big enough to be seeking recognition. All that: that's the history that's available to us. What if that's the history that was taught in Massachusetts elementary schools at Thanksgiving? One day.

In the meantime, I'd love to find even a little bit written by Native authors, even if they don't have any more access to pre-colonial history than white historians. We would appreciate at least a little balancing of the voices. Any suggestions? (Not entirely related but close: here's an article I read today about preserving foodways among Canada's First Nations..)

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