Feb 23, 2009

The Fresh Prince lied to me

It turns out that 90s sit-coms are not reliable sources of historical information. Who knew?

I clearly remember the moment, sitting at home after school watching the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air finding out something about African American identity that he didn't already know. He was suitably humbled and even granted his namby-pamby cousin a degree of respect for knowing something that he didn't.

You see, the Fresh Prince had thought that negro spiritual/gospel songs were simply ways of bouying themselves up, of giving themselves some hope for the future, and some way of taking their minds off the hell on earth in which many of them lived. But no! His cousin (whose name completely escapes me, so I'm going to have to google it...Carlton!) Carlton knew the true history, and then Will Smith and the entire audience did too...

You see, the story goes that many of the early negro spirituals were 'code songs', giving precise directions and instructions for escaped slaves to find their way along the Underground Railroad - of safe houses where people would give them shelter and help them escape to the north/Canada.

I have loved this story for years, and whenever I hear or sing one of those classics like 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot', or 'Wade in the Water', I'd remember the secret purpose of those songs. I would thrill in the daring and terrifying escape plans, and the communication from field to field as a song got passed along. I never found out any more about it, but that little snippet was enough to fire my adolescent imagination.

The other day we had a CD of Sunday School music playing and there was one song which went
The animals went in one by one
There's one more river to cross
something something rhymes with one
There's one more river to cross

There's one wide river
And that's the river of Jordan
One wide river
There's one more river to cross

The animals went in two by two...
Which I thought was odd. The story of Noah's ark and the animals has nothing to do with the River Jordan. So I thought it must be one of those special songs. I thought that I would finally find out more about these secret code songs, for which I assumed there would be a whole pile of information. Which led me to the internet, of course. Which led to the shattering of a really good story.

Because, you see, there is absolutely no evidence that spirituals were used as precisely coded instructions for anything. All 'reputable' historians who have looked into it have sadly concluded it was a nice story but have placed it into the 'urban legend' category, with the first references to it arising in the mid-20th century. The other type of historian have continued to talk about it, but mysteriously fail to include any reference as to the source of their information.

Which makes me a bit sad.

But in the process, I have learned some more about the Underground Railroad, of which I was utterly ignorant (aside from knowing its name). I also found The National Geographic's Underground Railroad game, where you are a slave seeking to escape from a Maryland farm in 1850. Duly bookmarked for when the kids get old enough to not have nightmares about it.

I have also learned that 90s sit-coms starring teeny-bop rap artists are not reliable sources of information. Who'd a thunk it?


Feb 16, 2009

Victoria Fires - a tribute

This month's fires in Victoria, Australia have been horrendous. These fires are the worst natural disaster in Australia's history. As of today the death toll stands at 181, but that has not been updated for days as forensics examiners struggle to identify what are human remains, let alone whose remains they might be.

New Zealand is very close to Australia - both geographically and culturally - and I weep at the news that is flowing from Victoria.

Here is a multimedia tribute, hosted by Stuff (NZ news) but originally from The Age (Australian news).
I cannot begin to imagine the horror of wanting to escape, but having no idea where would be safe, where the fire is, where it's going next, or how to save my babies. So many families have got a single surviving parent who has lost their spouse and all their children - my worst nightmare.

Feb 15, 2009

Using drawers as 'seedling flats'

This year I've been sprouting my own seeds and actually successfully coaxing them into seedlings and then into actual plants in the garden! This is very exciting and a big advance on my prior attempts to grow from seed - usually I'd forget about them and they'd either fail to sprout, or sprout and wither due to neglect.

Not this year

I've been roughly following the instructions given by John Jeavons in his How to Grow More... book. Instead of making my own seed sprouting mix, or using my own, rather poor, soil, I bit the bullet and bought potting mix from the garden centre.

Step one is to fill your seedling flat with soil and lay out your seeds, then water etc and generally look after them (sorry, this is not a step by step how to sprout seedlings - but there are lots of those on the internet :)

My cool innovation was to use discarded dresser drawers as my seed-sprouting containers. These are small enough for me to lift easily, and hold a sensible amount of seed for our small vege patch (while still allowing me to give excess away to friends). I drilled drainage holes in the bottom, but otherwise use them unmodified.

They are not painted in any way, or I'd be a bit cautious about lead paint.

The reason this has worked so much better than any other attempt I've made to grow from seed is that I've got them set up right outside my back door. So any time I exit the house I can see my little plants and give them a water and some TLC if they look like they need it. This is good. As a result we've already feasted off lettuce this year and this week I've got cabbage, turnip, kale, kohl-rabi and red cabbage to transplant into little re-used yoghurt pottles to get bigger and tougher before putting them in the garden.

So there you go. Works for me. All pretty exciting stuff :)

Sorry, it's too dark for photos just now but I'll take some tomorrow and update during the week.

Feb 7, 2009

Science on the Brain

Science on the Brain is a site we've spent a bit of time at lately. Miss4 loves watching the videos, and although we've never actually gone ahead with any of his suggested further experiments, I've filed them away in my head for future reference.

Marshall Brain is also the creator of the How Stuff Works website, a father of four, and an enthusiast for how technology works and what science can mean in every day life. Science on the Brain is a collection of short videos (about 5 minutes) aimed at primary school kids, giving demonstrations of scientific principles and offering suggestions for further exploration.

Topics include measurement (your own height, lung capacity, jump height etc), insulation, why you need salt to make ice cream, what yeast eats, how far is a lightyear and a bunch of other stuff.

Highly recommended.
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