Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival

Reading this week:

  • The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books by Edward Wilson-Lee
  • Hero of the Empire by Candice Millard
  • Fighting the Slave Hunters in Central Africa by Alfred J. Swann

Two weekends ago, as this is published, because that’s when it was, my super amazing girlfriend and I went to the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival! I would have written about this earlier, but I got distracted by KitchenAid attachments.

We had been looking forward to this festival for quite some time. My super amazing girlfriend is a super amazing knitter as well as spinner and is therefore extremely dedicated to the textile arts, which this festival of course celebrates. I am more of a casual fan, because I realize that if I am ever relegated to living in a hut by necessity instead of choice knowing how to operate a loom would be a handy skill. Anyways, my super amazing girlfriend was so excited about this event that two of her friends came down from Boston to attend with us, and another knitting enthusiast friend of ours came along too. It was quite a crowd!

The day itself dawned rather gloomy and it in fact rained on us all day, though this was overall fine. The sheep didn’t seem to mind, nor did all the people attending the festival. It was quite the crowd, which meant we were shocked when we overheard a lady on a phonecall celebrating the fact it was so muddy because she thought it had driven the crowds away, maximizing her own ability to score the best deals on yarn. There were a lot of people!

The first thing we checked out when we arrived at the Sheep & Wool festival were the sheep. Our entire crowd were all fans of sheep, and how could you not be, really? They are very cute and almost tautologically fluffy. We stopped into a judging booth where they were judging sheep, which is a little unfair because all sheep are wonderful in their own way, and then wandered through all the rest of the booths filled with sheep.

Going through my camera roll the vast majority of the pictures I took were of sheep. As you can see from the picture directly above, I was far from the only one. These sheep were like rockstars man, except well I was going to say better behaved but I guess they probably also leave a mess wherever they stay for the night. They live off a much cheaper diet however, though I suppose sheep and rockstars probably have similar haircare needs.

Anyways the point I was winding up to is that my impression is that the sheep portion of the festival and the wool portion were actually pretty separate. I mean they were all mixed together and overall it is a celebration of the things you can do with hair, but there definitely seemed to be sheep people on one hand and then yarn people on the other and I am not sure how much of an overlap there is. Like, I don’t know how many of the sheep farmers that came to show off their absolutely fantastic sheep also knit, or how many knitters would know what to do if handed a freshly shorn hunk of sheep wool. Certainly a number would, like my girlfriend, who is awesome and can and has gone sheep to shawl in a very literal sense, because she is awesome (she is also going to do this in our apartment soon which I am very excited for). But I think overall the number of intermediaries between the worlds of sheep and yarn were a relatively small portion of the audience here.

Just one other observation before I move on. This observation is that it has to be weird to be a sheep at this event. Mostly what I am trying to say here is that in the above picture there are sheep pelts hung up right next to the sheep, which feels a little morbid. Like these sheep gotta be thinking “man everyone here seems to love me… but why?” and then you have your answer in the form of a sheep pelt. Rockstars don’t (I hope) have this problem.

There were other exciting sheep-related attractions at the festival besides just the sheep themselves. For example, there was a sheep dog demonstration, which was very fun to watch. The poor sheep seemed overall confused but man those dogs were excited. They had like five dogs and only typically had one at a time herd sheep. Meanwhile the others were all constantly just vibrating with excitement, which yeah, I get. Like, you’re a sheep dog, bred to do exactly this thing and now here is an opportunity to do it. So you’re like “put me in coach, I wanna herd some sheep” and herd them they did. They were good! Way better than I would have done. They seemed to have a really good time and the sheep did what they were supposed to. Go left, go right, go in figure 8s, go in the pen, go in the other pen, all because the nice lady whistled some things to the dog. It was great! The other sheep-related attraction was the lamb burgers and sandwiches we had for lunch, which if I thought the sheep pelt was morbid, look who’s talking, buddy. Very good though!

And uh, yeah. That was the sheep and wool festival. The above picture is just one of the barns full of different vendors vending different sheep-related products. There were also alpaca, lama, linen, and other fiber-based products as well. But I had a great time watching my super amazing girlfriend look at all the different yarns and stuff. I got a lapel pin out of the whole deal, which is really typically my #1 goal. And I think if I had a decent shop (I now understand the male urge for a garage) I would try to make a drum carder for less than like hundreds or thousands of dollars. Those things are pricey! Might get distracted by making fanciful KitchenAid attachments though.

Anyways the Maryland Sheep & Wool festival is a great time, way better than that piddly little one up north, you should go!

Great Falls

Reading this week:

  • Tipoo Tib, Narrated from His Own Accounts by Dr. Heinrich Brode and translated by H. Havelock
  • Rama II by Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee (I am not sure either of these people have met other people, let alone a woman)

This is probably mostly an apology for whatever algorithm drives (or in my case doesn’t really) traffic to this site, but sorry it is late. This is entirely my fault, since no one else writes this blog, and really while the cause is me, the biggest victim is also me, because I do this whole project as a way to motivate myself and stuff and clearly I failed at that. So sorry, me, and also I will get my undying revenge.

This past weekend my super amazing girlfriend, another friend of mine, the friend’s dog Barley, and I risked death by visiting Great Falls National Park.

I had been to Great Falls I think just once before this past weekend. I visited because of course it was on Atlas Obscura. It is a fairly stunning place. My super amazing girlfriend and I live in Alexandria, which is on the Potomac river, and it is of course a cute little placid thing, despite George Washington’s hopes it would be the Nile of America or whatever. But you go just a little up it and suddenly there is this massive and violent torrent of water which I never would have suspected was there because I never studied geography too closely. Here is a gif of it, to complement the picture at the top:

After the gorgeous views and awe of nature in its rawest forms, I think the next most striking part of the park is how starkly they warn you that you will almost certainly die if you even think about touching the water. Their website is worth a peruse. They warn you this because it is true. Here is a Washington Post article describing the how and why of its deadliness. Basically, it is a huge volume of water flowing through a very narrow space, so the currents are extremely swift. And although the falls part of the falls, the bit in the picture and gif, look deadly, just down river is a placid-looking little part. But it is covering a irregular bottom with pits that cause roiling underwater currents of up to thirty-five knots! So people jump in for a nice little swim and get swept underwater and die.

In fact, I think it is the 11th deadliest national park. If you google “deadliest national parks” you get things like Outside Online articles listing the Grand Canyon, or Backpacker articles debunking that Outside Online article and listing Denali instead. They in turn it seems are based on this report going a little more in-depth. But they’re all wrong!

I mean maybe. None of them list Great Falls National Park because, I think, it is administratively part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway. The Parkway gets a whole lot of visitors per year at sites like Arlington Cemetery (well Arlington House, specifically), and while there are a lot of dead people there, not a lot of people die there. All the reports base their numbers on per capita deaths, and so the Parkway system itself gets a lot of per capitas. But if you limit it to Great Falls, it shoots up the list.

It’s hard to tell exactly how deadly Great Falls is. A sign near the first lookout claims seven people drown per year. That Washington Post article I linked to says that between 2001 and 2013, 27 people died. I found more recent articles about drownings, but none listing totals, so we’ll go with 2.25 deaths per year. The only number I could find for total visitors to the park was on the Wikipedia page, which in an uncited figure says 645,000 people visited in 2002, which is conveniently in our range for the Washington Post article. That final report I linked (here again) lists the deadliest national parks in terms of deaths per 10 million visitors, so with our numbers we have a grim 34.9 deaths per 10 million visitors. That puts it just below Big Bend National Park. If that 7 deaths a year number were true, it would handedly be the second deadliest national park, just behind North Cascades National Park.

So I am glad to report we didn’t die! In fact we had a very nice time. After the awe-inspiring falls, we walked along the canal trail, admiring the old infrastructure. The visitor center was closed, which was sad, because I remember it giving a particularly good overview of infrastructure and stuff. Always a big fan of canals, me, and my super amazing girlfriend is willing to indulge.

This is where the canal steeply drops into the Potomac. Some wonderful engineering here.

As we walked along the trail we eventually got into a slightly more rugged portion where we could admire the river going by. It was a gorgeous day and we got plenty of sun. There were a good number of people around but also plenty of space so a lovely time was had by all. The dog, Barley, seemed to enjoy the views. My super amazing girlfriend and I caught up with our dog-owning friend and we wiled away the hours. We eventually went back closer to the Visitor’s Center and enjoyed some ice cream from an ice-cream truck that had a captive audience and charged like it. A lovely day was had by all and we eventually parted ways, satisfied with our thrill-seeking scrape with death.

Serene but deadly. Like our cat.


This is not the Hirshhorn, this is orchids, which we’ll come to later.

Loyal reader(s), many apologies that this blog post is late. I spent most of the week wasting time and therefore didn’t do this. I hope you will understand.

Last weekend my super amazing girlfriend and I went to the Hirshhorn Museum, which until I visited I didn’t realize it had an over-the-top three Hs in its name. We went for the same reason you climb Everest: because we are hip and want to prove it. It was very nice! It was smaller than I thought, and not only because when we went it was shrouded for repairs; it is also hollow in the middle. This is in a literal sense, and not in the metaphorical sense in the way that I accuse other institutions we go to of being. In normal times I am to understand there is a very pretty fountain but when we went there was not.

We had a very nice time! We were unable to go to the Instagramtacular “One with Eternity,” because that takes waking up earlier in the morning than we were willing to, but we saw, you know, the rest of it. The first exhibit we walked through was “The Weather” by Laurie Anderson. I was worried because the very first room you walk into has like, an avant-garde (sorry if I misused that term, which of course I did) film thing going on, which always takes more patience than my internet-befuddled brain is willing to handle. But no it had a spectacular array of artforms covering the breadth of Anderson’s career and it was great. There was a swishy flags exhibit I particularly enjoyed. Her artwork captured the whole span of not very instagrammable (the flags) to the eminently instagrammable (giant rooms with huge painted walls), and I liked watching people interact with the art via the medium of being photographed in front of it. I was particularly drawn to the above canoe, named “To Carry Heart’s Tide,” because it was a canoe.

After emerging from that exhibit, we went and saw the whole retrospective on Duchamp’s work. The above thing is one of his “rotoreliefs,” which was designed to be spun around. The museum displayed them as static, which I have crudely fixed through the magic of a gif. All in all a wonderful retrospective and really put into perspective that urinal you always hear about. Anyways the Hirshhorn was great and I had never been before but we’ll certainly have to go again, probably when all the art changes.

Emerging from the Hirshhorn with more time in the day than we anticipated (because it was hollow, again only literally), we did the second thing that neither of us had done before, and visited the Botanical Gardens. Wow that was great! I didn’t even really ever realize it was there or what it was, but it was fantastic! Entering into the space pictured above, I took a picture of the sign that said “The Tropics” as a bit of a joke, but no yeah it felt just like you were going into the tropics, which has to be one of my favorite things (going into the tropics). It was just great to wander around all the plants. They had all sorts of different sections (not just tropics), including like deserts and stuff and medicinal plants and it was really cool. You could also go up high and down on the plants, but once more only literally, because the plants were really cool. This perspective is pictured below. Honestly if you’re in DC hit up the Botanical Gardens, it doesn’t take very long, and it is very neat. I think I’m going to install one in our guestroom.

National Zoo

A Golden Poison Frog, aka a very handsome gentleman!

Reading this week:

As I mentioned in last week’s post, that same weekend my super amazing girlfriend’s mom came to visit we also went to the National Zoo!

I remember going to the National Zoo a lot when I was but a wee child. It has the distinct advantage, like all Smithsonian-related institutions, of being free. I think my favorite time I ever had at the zoo is when I was like five or seven or thereabouts and I got separated from my parents almost immediately after arriving. The method by which I got separated is that I deliberately walked away from them because already by this point I knew my way around the zoo and had my own agenda of which animals to see. The family apparently had a day spent in increasing panic as I was nowhere to be found, while I had a lovely day admiring the elephants and whatnot. At the end of the day I merely walked up to them and announced my presence, and they were very relieved.

On this particular day I did not get separated from either my super amazing girlfriend or her mom. Upon arriving the first place we went was into the farm section of the zoo, which felt a little ironic but this section is a must-see for my super amazing girlfriend because they contain her favorite animal, the mighty alpaca. I offered that we could get an alpaca to keep at home but she turns down all of my most sensible ideas, this one being no exception.

It was a tad cold and blustery that day that we went. It wasn’t so bad in the sun, but honestly I should have worn a slightly more robust jacket. I wore my safari jacket, which is my favorite jacket for viewing animals in, but is better suited for more tropical climes. There are other ways to keep warm however, as amply demonstrated by two of the Andean bears who felt that, despite the chill, love was in the air:

They went on for quite some time and had gathered a bit of a crowd! This was perhaps to the chagrin of the many parents with small children who wandered by, and very quickly had to come up with stories about how that is just the way the bears play.

Of course, one of the most popular animals at the zoo are the pandas. They had quite a significant line that day, but we waited gamely to be able to see them. It was imperative to see them, because tiny little baby panda Xiao Qi Ji is heading to China soon, and so there was only so much time to see the cuteness. The cuteness at this point being a full-sized panda happily (I presume) munching away at bamboo like its their job, which it is. This picture came out terrible but here you go anyways:

Extremely cute!

My favorite part of this exhibit, purely for its impressive surveillance setup, was the panda control center and the lady inside earnestly marking down whatever it was she was marking down:

These are my desk goals.

There were many other exciting animals as well! The elephants were fun to see as they munched away at hay, and the lions and tigers were all very vocal about the fact it was apparently very near to lunch time. The cheetahs were also pacing up a storm. It all reminded me very much of Tink. I also enjoyed the building all about the Amazon rain forest, which housed that little frog at the top and is what inspired me, in addition to the National Aquarium, to go visit Brazil a decade+ ago now. They have a poster about a dolphin that turns into a lady that I have never quite been able to process ever since I first saw it as a little kid. It was also exciting that day to see the gorillas and the orangutans, who were particularly active:

Hangin’ out.

Then, finally, after a long day wandering around checking out the animals, we visited the gift shop, exited the zoo on the opposite side from whence we entered, and got on the metro to warm up back home.

Museum of the American Indian

Reading this week:

  • Missionary to Tanganyika edited by James B. Wolf
  • The Shock of the Old by David Edgerton
  • Mr. Selden’s Map of China by Timothy Brook

A couple of weekends ago my super amazing girlfriend, her mom, and I all went to the National Museum of the American Indian. This was not the original plan. Her mom had come into town to see the cherry blossoms, as one is wont to do in DC around this time of year. They initially had gone on Friday and had a lovely time. I was unfortunately working, and thus could not go. Saturday we spent at the zoo and then on Sunday we ventured once again to the National Mall in order to see some extremely pretty flowers.

Unfortunately between Friday and Sunday a wintry blast had hit, dashing all hopes that spring had firmly sprung and making me regret storing all of my sweaters and sweatshirts in the box to which I banish them in the summer with the idle hope I will never need them again. Don’t worry, dear reader, we did get to see cherry blossoms! In fact we saw cherry blossoms from perhaps the best vantage point in all of DC, that is atop the Washington Monument. Having had such a nice time last time, we had managed to snag tickets for Sunday morning so bright and early we found ourselves peering over at Jefferson and enjoying the view:

However, as all things must eventually come to an end, we were eventually ejected back out into the frigid and blustery cold and had to find something to do. Our original plan was to walk around the tidal basin and look at the blossoms, but due to the bluster and cold I just mentioned that plan was right out. So instead we did the logical thing: go to the National Museum of the American Indian.

Mask representing an amikuk.

I have some fond memories of this museum. I remember when it opened and how eager my grandpa was to go to it. He made a lot of art and had a deep interest in native American art, hence his enthusiasm. I also remember the cafeteria they have being very good, and it was good again this time and I thoroughly enjoyed my traditional authentic Navajo taco. However, as a museum overall I remembered it being a bit underwhelming. My sort of biggest criticism is that I remember being disappointed that they didn’t stick more museum in their museum. This is not a particularly objective criticism, and if I was running a museum I would lean heavily in the wunderkammer direction. A gigantic part of the museum is taken up by the open atrium and between that and the other sundry museum bits they really only have four or so exhibit spaces available. I just want more.

However, it was this time around that I figured out the way they give you more is being fairly well dedicated to rotating their exhibits out. I hadn’t even realized that what I thought of as the “intro” exhibit is itself technically temporary (and ending soon!), though an 18-year run is pretty good. The next exhibit was the one that most directly appealed to the interests of my girlfriend and I, which was all about the nation-to-nation relationships between the United States and the American Indian Nations. If you’re, you know, an American with an iota of feeling for one’s fellow man, it’s not a feel-good exhibit as one might guess. My favorite part was learning that the Haudenosaunee still demand to be given cloth by the United States government, despite the government’s attempt to just switch it to cash. According to the exhibit, “The nations replied, ‘The cloth is more significant than money, because so long as you keep sending this to us, there’s a chance you’ll maybe remember all of the other articles of that treaty.”

Of the exhibits, my favorite and most gorgeous displays the work of Preston Singletary, and is titled “Raven and the Box of Daylight.” It was in this exhibit that I had to remind myself to reset my notion of what a museum should be away from my wunderkammer instincts. It displays a series of stunning glass statues but then uses those statues to relate to story of, as you guessed from the title, Raven and the Box of Daylight. I came away convinced more museums should have whole exhibits that literally tell a (metaphorical) story.

The most thought-provoking exhibit however was titled “Americans,” and explores how interwoven Native American iconography, imagery, and culture is with the United States, despite or because of the massive racism and violence they have experienced at the hands of the people of the United States. As pictured above, its central hall contains multitudes of those images, including many I hadn’t quite realized were named after Native Americans (I’m thinking of SueBee Honey, ie Sioux Bee Honey here, not the Tomahawk, which is obvious, except that I took that picture because as soon as I saw the Tomahawk I realized I hadn’t actually ever made the connection). Of the hall they had smaller displays telling not only more accurate versions of the history of people like Pocahontas or events such as the Battle of Little Bighorn, and even more interesting how the perception and use of these histories have changed over time in the United States in response to the changing mores and fashion of the times. Interesting stuff, and its these changing exhibits that are going to make me need to come back to the museum more often.

After a quick trip to the gift shop (of course), which is excellent, that wrapped up our time at the Museum of the American Indian. We ventured back outside to the still-blustery day and headed home. As a final note, since I have mentioned here that I like baskets, they did have some excellent baskets:

Dumbarton Oaks

I forgot to take a context photo once again, so this is thanks to Wikipedia. We never saw this view, having scuttled in from the street entrance.

Reading this week:

  • Steam and Quinine on Africa’s Great Lakes by David Reynolds

The other day, in our continuing efforts to visit every museum in DC, my super amazing girlfriend and I set out to explore Dumbarton Oaks! Remember when Harry and Meghan turned down “Earl of Dumbarton” for their son? Anyways off we went!

Except we didn’t go there first. My super amazing girlfriend is very sensibly into teahouses, and so our first stop for both tea and lunch was Ching Ching Cha which I recommend you go to because it comes highly recommended by both me and my super amazing girlfriend. They have a wide variety of teas available. I went with a black tea while she went with I think a hibiscus tea. Below you can see a picture of me looking at the tea, appreciating its terroir and stuff before sipping it down. I followed the tea with a delicious egg custard. All in all an A+ experience.

Sated and energized, we went off to Dumbarton Oaks. We had timed tickets and they mean it there. We tried to sneak in about 30 minutes early but a much harried woman was guarding the desk and making sure everyone followed COVID protocols, which I appreciate. I hope she is paid well. After a short jaunt to a flea market we finally got in.

I wasn’t sure what to expect at Dumbarton Oaks. I don’t tend to like, read ahead on these things, so I enter wide-eyed and impressionable. The impression I got was that man, it seems like it would have been fun to be a rich person in the early 20th century going around just buying up people’s cultural heritage and not being worried about it at all.

Icon of St. John Chrysostom

I can direct you to the webpage for the History of Dumbarton Oaks, where you can learn that the museum was the result of the collecting efforts of Robert and Mildred Bliss. A fun fact I learned from that webpage is that Robert and Mildred met because their parents married each other; Mildred’s mom married Robert’s dad. Interesting! Robert was a diplomat and it was apparently in Paris that they caught the aforementioned bug of buying up cultural heritage. They wound up specifically interested in Byzantine artifacts and also pre-Columbian artifacts from the Americas. We couldn’t figure out and I haven’t found why they were interested in those two topics in particular.

I know I have already brought it up twice but what I am trying to get to here is that this place gave me an especially weird feeling of like, wow this is a bunch of other people’s stuff just sitting here in Georgetown for some reason. This is an unfair criticism of this museum in particular because I realize this is in many ways just sort of what museums do, a fact which has not stopped me from going, again as discussed, to as many museums as possible. But something about this one just drove that home. Maybe it was because it is so explicitly a museum designed around two people’s particular and unrelated interests. Or maybe it is because of the two sarcophagi they had next to each other, both of which lacked any particular explanation of what happened to the dead dudes previously using them:

Top: “Sarcophagus with Architectural and Apotropaic Imagery,” Bottom: “Seasons Sarcophagus

I hope those dead guys are okay besides, you know, being dead. I know I am being negative about this museum so far but there was a lot to like. I haven’t particularly ever been into the Byzantines at all so I didn’t really know how to process the artifacts they had on display but there was some really cool stuff. The first artifact pictured, the icon, is a mini-mosaic and is maybe the size of a hand, so all those little tiles it is made of are in fact very tiny. Impressive! They have a huge collection of Byzantine seals, which they use to tell the story of the Byzantine empire in a compelling way, showing how the events going on in the Byzantine world are reflected in the seals used to uh seal official communications. I have also been shitting on the Blisses for buying up people’s cultural heritage, but if you go to the linked pages about the different artifacts they have fairly detailed acquisition histories and they bought I think all of this stuff from dealers and the like, so they are not directly responsible for the pilfering. Except of course for the mosaics on the floors they repurposed from millennia-old archaeological sites via digs they sponsored. Anyways!

Besides their Byzantine artifacts, they also have a huge collection of pre-Columbian artifacts from the Americas. These are housed in a more modern wing of the complex which is a beautiful architectural complex comprised of circular rooms lined with glass, centered on a fountain and placed within the gorgeous Dumbarton Oaks gardens which we didn’t get to explore on this trip. It’s a peaceful and very different sort of setting and we both liked it a lot. It was against this background that we looked at the artifacts and wondered how they got here.

To make one final complaint, we were left unsatisfied with the way these objects were presented. Part of the reason the Blisses were interested in these objects were because they considered them and wanted others to consider them art pieces, instead of just maybe historical artifacts. I do like appreciating these pieces as art and thinking about the artists and their lives that were so very different from my own, but my super amazing girlfriend and I both wished there was more context or something that we couldn’t put our fingers on to explain these objects. For example, I wanted to know in what context they were found; it would have been edifying to learn if these objects had been found in graves or buried in foundations or just found in the ground somewhere. We appreciated the art of these objects but more explanation of their symbolism or meaning would have been useful too. Of course, considering the provenance of these things maybe they just don’t know.

I don’t have an excellent conclusion here. The Dumbarton Oaks Museum is not particularly large, but it has a very interesting array of artifacts, especially if you are into the Byzantine empire. Since these objects are there, I recommend that you go and look at them and appreciate them for what they are. But it was just that something about the whole museum left me feeling unsatisfied about how these objects got here, or maybe how to appreciate them, or maybe something deeper and more fundamental. But also wow this necklace is an astounding display of craftsmanship:

Gold Skull Necklace


Reading this week:

  • To Lake Tanganyika in a Bath Chair by Annie B. Hore

After an extremely good weekend full of poffles and yarn and books and excellent times and of course presidential sites, we rounded out our journey with a trip to James Madison’s Montpelier.

As much of the weekend had been it was cloudy when we arrived and some rain was just thinking of clearing up, but the entrance to Montpelier is meant to impress and does. As you enter the gate you drive through some shallow rolling hills across massive fields of a massive estate. The weather meant it was quiet and we saw deer grazing across the road from a full-sized horse track as we made our way to the visitor’s center. Popping out of the DeLorean in the nearly empty car park, I quipped “busy day” to the only other woman around, who replied with the remarkable comment “you know I only ever met John DeLorean once – and helped his wife over a fence.”

Our guided tour of the house and grounds was once again fantastic. We had one other person join us, and our tour was given by a member of the estate’s board and part of the conservation team, so she was extremely knowledgeable. The estate had been in the hands of several generations of Madisons and she walked us through that history and how it was intertwined with the Virginia tobacco trade, first near the coast and then migrating to the Piedmont. Much like Highland, I think a lot of what was most interesting about Montpelier was the history of the estate itself as an historic site. Again like Highland, it has only been in the past five years or so that they have restored the house to something like Madison would have known and done the archeology to establish the history of all the people who lived there.

Our guide contrasted that to someplace like Mt. Vernon, which has been a historic site catering to visitors since 1853. Since our tour guide was on the board, we got to learn a lot about how they choose which artifacts to put in the building and where they get them, and a lot of what I was thinking about was the historiography. I extracted myself from that line of thinking for long enough, however, to pause in Madison’s study, the room where he did so much research on the nature of freedom and confederations while overlooking his land worked by people he enslaved.

Much like Highland, the story of slavery at Montpelier felt a little tacked on, though with a significantly better budget. They have an award-winning exhibition on slavery at Montpelier, awkwardly tucked into the cellar. The exhibit was brutal and honest and enlightening, but was a thing to do after the tour proper. They have also reconstructed a number of dwellings for enslaved persons and other plantation buildings on the south yard. Here the story of slavery on the plantation continues, and maybe I am an old fogey but I wondered if there was too much attention to the flash instead of substance. But overall it was good and honest.

The most recent owners of the estate were the DuPont family, and a great deal of the modern appearance is due to them. Marion Scott, née DuPont was the last heir to the estate, and loved horses, so the horse track was her doing. She is also responsible for the formal garden on the grounds, which in Madison’s day was a vegetable garden and orchard. The formal garden was nice, but I am much more a sucker for a vegetable garden and orchard. You add a fish pond to the mix and I go absolutely gaga. Much like Highland the estate has extensive, miles-long trails, and apparently a wonderful old-growth forest, but our clothing did not quite match the weather so we didn’t wind up taking advantage of it.

I am sitting here trying to reflect on what I learned about Madison by coming here. I learned a lot about his family history. He was definitely born into privilege and which afforded him the opportunity to go to the University of New Jersey, ie Princeton. Our tour guide compared that, however, to Berkeley in ’69 which is a useful perspective. I still wonder at revolutionaries – many people think they dream big, but how many people dream big enough to start a whole new country? But I think it is easier to dream big when you are already safe and secure. By that measure, a man like Madison, secure for generations nestled in the Virginia foothills and living off the labor of generations enslaved workers, would have been able to dream big indeed.

Second dead president in three days.


Reading this week:

  • The Green House by Mario Vargas Llosa

Second on our tour of presidential sites in the greater Charlottesville area was Highland, the home of James Monroe!

I arrived at Highland in a terrible mood because the DeLorean betrayed me and wouldn’t start, so we had to take an Uber there. But we had the place almost entirely to ourselves and the staff was all extremely friendly (the kind of friendly you get when you are there to talk to tourists and there are nearly no tourists to talk to) and although it was cloudy it was fairly warm and it is a gorgeous area nestled there in the uh highlands of the Virginia piedmont.

Although we were at Highland for James Monroe there is not really a whole lot of James Monroe there. Our most famous presidential doctrinaire bought the place I think because owning a plantation was the hip thing to do if you are an up and coming 18th century Virginian, and he bought this particular plot because his bff Jefferson was next door. There are three buildings at the site that are contemporary to James Monroe, and that does not include his house. The contemporary buildings are two rooms of a guest house he had built (the backside of the white building in the photo at the top) along with an overseer’s house and a smokehouse which I was disappointed to find had its door closed and locked so I couldn’t see if they had fake hams hanging up.

Once you poke around the grounds you can go into the guest house, which is connected to a larger yellow house and contains (I guess I should say houses) a museum to the plantation and James Monroe. It is quaint and I feel like they must feel like they’re in competition with the James Monroe Museum for James Monroe primacy. Nonetheless I learned a few things, like the fact that Monroe is the dude behind Washington in “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” They focus a lot on his foreign policy work and credentials, which is close to both my heart and my super amazing girlfriend’s, so that was interesting to read about. They have a number of James Monroe artifacts and I am certain that for all James Monroeifiles it is a must-visit.

Probably the most interesting thing about the site was sort of the history of the museum. Apparently for a long time they thought that the yellow house in the photo above was Monroe’s. It was only recently they figured out it wasn’t and that the original house had burned down shortly after Monroe died and his heirs had to sell the place to pay off Monroe’s debts. And then it was only about five years ago that they did some archeology and found the foundations of Monroe’s actual house, which are now outlined in the stones in the above photo. Pretty stunning that they’re still only just figuring out what his house actually looked like.

Overall the place had kind of a weird vibe, as in when you go to Washington’s place they’re like “a Great Man lived here” but Monroe’s place feels like the house of someone I could know. That’s not crazy, because most of the buildings on the site were built in the late 1800s, and even in New Haven there were plenty of antebellum buildings in the neighborhood I lived in, and those were occupied by grad students. If Highland has a major advantage over the other two presidential sites we went to, it was probably the sheep, which were very cute.

I praised Monticello for how they addressed slavery, and although Highland didn’t do a bad job it felt a little tacked on. I suspect it is because the place isn’t running on a massive budget and not only lacks the detailed records that Jefferson left behind but even if they had those they probably lack the resources to put up interactive displays or the like. Still, they name names where they can and make sure to not try to excuse or sweep under the rug Monroe’s status as an enslaver.

Overall I think we spent about an hour at Highland. If we had known and prepared better we probably could have taken advantage of the trails on the property, which extend into the woods and I am sure would have been quite beautiful. As it was we spent some time wandering around outside and pondering the balance between expansive foreign policy and being nestled into rolling foothills. Then we called an Uber (talk about labor relationships) and hit up a yarn store.


This past weekend, it was my super amazing girlfriend’s birthday, so to celebrate we went down to Charlottesville, VA. It was lovely! We stayed in a quaint little inn and managed to go to if not all then the vast majority of used bookstores and yarn shops in the town and enjoyed every minute of it. But why Charlottesville? I’ll tell you why. My super amazing girlfriend loves presidential sites, and Charlottesville has no shortage of them.

By “no shortage” I specifically mean three. The three presidents are Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and James Madison, and the sites are their former homes and plantations of Monticello, Highland, and Montpelier. Over the course of a three-day weekend we went to all three and it was absolutely fantastic. The first one we went to was Monticello on a warm but cloudy December day.

When you arrive at Monticello, you pull up to the Visitor’s Center (a good place for visitors admittedly). Our first destination was the very nice little farm table café they got going on because it was lunch time, but after that I think the general thing to do is probably visit the museum they got there. At Mount Vernon, they like to paint a picture of George Washington as a nerdy farming enthusiast, and in that same way at Monticello they like to portray Thomas Jefferson as a passionate hobbyist architect who maybe also did politics. I gotta say, it is a good thing he was apparently half decent at architecture, though it would probably be funnier if he wasn’t – “this building was designed by Thomas Jefferson. It’s shit, but we gotta keep it because, you know, Jefferson.” So in the museum they have all his European influences as he was designing his house at Monticello and displays of how the dome is constructed and all sorts of drafting tools on display.

This is the house, not the museum, and that’s an automatic letter-copier and not a drafting tool, to be clear.

After poking around the museum we took the bus to the top of the hill for our tour. The tour was really great. Our tour guide was Linda, a short, silver-haired woman wearing a kooky cat pin on a blue pantsuit and round red art deco glasses and who was really passionate about the information she was delivering. It was not busy at Monticello that day (or at any of the sites we would visit) so she had plenty of time to answer all of our questions. I had actually been to Monticello once before a long time ago, and all I really remembered were some nifty gadget doors, Thomas Jefferson’s not-worn-in-yet pair of boots, and his gravestone which didn’t list “president.” All that to say is that I learned a lot!

Jefferson’s map of Africa. The reason only Kingdom of Kongo is really filled in is slavery.

Of the three plantations we visited that weekend, Monticello I think did by far the best at telling the story of slavery at the plantation. At Mount Vernon slavery is presented as this sort of unsavory fact of life that an otherwise immaculate George Washington couldn’t help but be involved in. At the other two sites the way they address slavery felt sort of tacked on. But at Monticello slavery is centered in the story as an undeniable and central part of plantation life that was fully intertwined with the story of Thomas Jefferson. They make sure to present the enslaved people’s names and give them credit where it is due, such as in the display three pictures ago listing the people who built Monticello. To be fair to Highland and Montpelier, Monticello has the huge advantage of Thomas Jefferson’s meticulous records and so they know the stories of all these people where in other places it has been lost.

It’s always men that want to build on top of mountains. Monticello has gorgeous views but it wasn’t Jefferson that had to haul everything to the top of a mountain.

And like I said I learned a lot! For example, I learned how interwoven the stories of the Jeffersons and the Hemmings were. I hadn’t learned before that Sally Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, nor had I learned before that Sally had only one African grandparent. After the house tour, we went on the tour about slavery on the plantation, and we learned that Thomas Jefferson “freed” two of his children by Sally Hemmings by just sending them away so they could “pass” for white. One of the most significant facts we learned about Sally Hemings is that she agreed to re-enter slavery after negotiating with Jefferson. He had brought her to France where she was free, because slavery was illegal. She initially refused to return to the United States, and only agreed when Jefferson granted her privileges and pledged to free her children – extraordinary concessions for a 16-year-old girl to extract from one of the more powerful men around.

It wasn’t just Sally Hemings’ story they told. They’ve made sure to try to research every enslaved person’s story the best they could. The things they told were heart-wrenching. I wrote down so I wouldn’t forget how although Joseph Fossett was freed in Jefferson’s will, his wife wasn’t, so that, as Linda told us, he had to watch as his wife was sold away on the auction block placed on the west lawn. I think seared into my brain is Linda’s phrase describing Jefferson’s habit of gifting enslaved persons as part of his daughters’ dowries – “he was very generous with other people’s children.” All this done to people who’s ancestry only differed from Jefferson himself by one Black great-grandparent. The best new perspective I gained I think in my tour of Monticello is from a quote from Andrew Mitchell Davenport, a descendant of Peter Hemings: “Like any fiction worth its weight, race must be read and reread, interpreted, and examined.”

I don’t have a solid transition from that, but neither does America and it probably isn’t something I should transition away from anyways. After you exit the tour you can explore the grounds. They grounds include a fish pond, which of course I was very fond of. They have the usual displays about carriages and the sheer amount of booze that people who are hosting guests every day wind up going through. In the smoke house they had fake hams hanging up, just like the ones at Mount Vernon, so there must be a place out there from which you can buy fake hams to display in your former-presidential-smoke-house. And as you finish with the grounds, you can stroll back down the mountain, on the way passing the grave of the man who caused all this to be built, but thankfully we all know who deserves the credit for building it.

Library of Congress

This is a picture of Congress, from the library.

As loyal readers are aware I went to Yale for my graduate degree. That was fun! There were many advantages of going to Yale, but one of them, I am willing to say, was access to the Yale Library. The Yale Library has a very large collection. 15 million items it turns out. With so many items, they have an array of pleasingly obscure items, including at least one book on the lake steamers of the African Great Lakes, which, again, loyal readers are aware is a particular interest of mine. Frankly you never know what you have until it’s gone, and although the Alexandria Library is very nice, I do not think they have 15 million different items, and I can confirm that they have exactly zero books on the lake steamers of the African Great Lakes.

I know I am banging on about the lake steamers here, but I have recently restarted my effort at retyping the Chronicle of the London Missionary Society. I started to feel bad about having stopped pursuing that because I have been reading more books on southern Africa. But since I am reading about Tanganyika, etc, that has me thinking about lake steamers and the like, so that has me remembering there were several books that I wanted to look at while I was in Zambia which I couldn’t because like, I was in Zambia and very far from a library with a collection of any particular note (though Mbala did, in fact, have a library) (I am now realizing that I don’t think I ever wrote about the Tanganyika Victoria Memorial Institute!). Of the two books apparently in the whole world that discuss African Great Lakes steamers, the Yale Library, for all its vast collection, only has one of them (and as of yet will still mail it to me here in Virginia), but for the other I was lost and distraught. Lost and distraught, that is, until the internet reminded me that the Library of Congress has one and I live near the Library of Congress!

The Library of Congress, according to the pamphlet they hand out, has more than 167 million items, which is a lot more than the Alexandria Library and also more than Yale! So I wanted to go and read the book at the Library of Congress. Due to a misunderstanding of the website, I thought that you currently couldn’t do any reading at the Library of Congress, but I wanted to go anyways. My super amazing girlfriend (pictured above) had already been and would be my tour guide. So last Saturday we got on the metro and went to the famously large library.

It is very nice! I didn’t realize what it would be like. First and foremost, the Library of Congress is a place dedicated to excellent ceilings. I won’t subject you to them all, but I do like the below one with “SCIENCE” displayed in tile. I do like both mosaics and SCIENCE. Plus there is like a weird baby involved in the image and I don’t know what that is about, but presumably it is about SCIENCE. I suppose I should specify here that I am talking about the Thomas Jefferson building because the library has a number of other buildings, too.

When we went, the library had two major displays set up. In one wing, they had a whole display on early interactions with the Americas. This was based on the collection of some dude (it was quite the collection, dude) and had an impressive array of artifacts. I really was not expecting to see Mayan pottery when I walked into the museum that day. One of the most impressive items was the earliest map to denote the Americas as America. I took a picture that was just whatever, but you can find it here. The bit I looked at the most was Southern Africa which was cool and impressive and stuff.

I also really enjoyed seeing the Taino ceremonial wooden stool. That object is just so ephemeral and rare and also looks like a turtle, which is cool. Of course on a serious note it reminds us about the important and advanced cultures that existed in these places before Columbus came over and wiped them out.

On the other side of the library they had on display Thomas Jefferson’s personal library. He had sold it to Congress when their first library burned down, which was potentially a bad move for book longevity because it wouldn’t be the last time the Library of Congress burned down. Fortunately not all his books burned, and so they had a number of the originals. They also had identical copies of some of the books, more modern reprintings of some of his books, and then also some boxes to fill out the ones they couldn’t get. They had the whole thing in a spiral, and this was the first time I have been out and about with my super amazing girlfriend and said something like “we could do the living room like this” and she agreed. So I am looking forward to turning our living room into a spiral, it’s gonna be great.

The final thing to see was the Main Reading Room. Seeing people reading in the Main Reading Room is what eventually led me to discover that you could read in the Main Reading Room on Saturdays, and I hope that is something I can take advantage of soon, because like I said I want to read that book on steamships. Maybe I will read other books there too someday, who knows. A lot of people apparently do genealogy research there. Me though? I just want to look at boats.

Think of all the boat knowledge hidden away here!