Mitt Romney and Poetry, UFOs and Trash
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

Mitt_Romney

 

HISTORY MATTERS

Last week a caller told me that what I do for a living is trivial. I tend to agree. I write about obscure historical topics, he pointed out, focused on the smallest seacoast in the nation. What could be less important? That’s exactly my point. Out of the tiny mustard seed, according to the ancient parable, big things grow. (Continued below)

 

 

Trivial Pursuits of a New Hampshire Historian

Over the years I’ve seeded at least a thousand of these trivial articles onto the Internet and into magazines and newspapers, so it’s a rare day when I don’t hear back from someone. Recently, for example, a senior staff reporter for the Washington Post emailed to tell me that Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney continues to quote a poem by Sam Walter Foss. When she googled Foss, a largely forgotten New Hampshire poet, the reporter found my article on Foss linked to Wikipedia.

I may be his biggest fan. Foss was born in Candia, NH in 1858, graduated from Portsmouth High School, and worked his way through Brown University. His five books of poetry are witty, sentimental, optimistic, and entirely out of print. I read them all and extracted 100 of my favorite verses. I hoped to republish them in a small book called Poems for the Common Man: The Best of Foss. So far, no publisher is interested. Maybe I should ask Mitt.

Mitt Romney likes to quote from a poem that, he says, his mother read to him as a child. His favorite passage goes: “Bring me men to match my mountains; bring me men to match my plains. Men with empires in their purpose, and new eras in their brains.”

Romney probably doesn’t know that Sam Walter Foss had an almost pathological distrust of politicians. He found them endlessly disappointing and wrote poem after poem mocking their empty campaign rhetoric and corrupt administrations. Foss was the poet for the “common man,” compassionate to foreign immigrants, the down-trodden, and the poor. Foss was a dove, not a hawk, and more libertarian than capitalist. He was a strong advocate of social programs, and the redistribution of wealth from the haves to the have-nots. Using the vernacular of his era rather than lofty language Foss wrote: “All Nature is sick from her heels to her hair, when a feller is out of a job.”

The richer and more powerful men get, Foss often pointed out, the sillier they become.  If he wrote about a boy “who was dumber than snowbirds in summer,” that boy was likely to grow up to be president – or at least the mayor. Foss called for fresh untried American citizens to “come up from the crowd.”  Unfortunately, Foss points out, the political world is toxic, and even the common man quickly becomes corrupt soon after he is elected to office. Politics, for Foss, was a comic opera and a Catch-22. Even when your candidate wins, you lose.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT Continued



UFOs and racism

The caller who said I write about trivial topics was not being unkind, just realistic. What nut would spend years immersed in the poems of Foss, Celia Thaxter, TB Aldrich, BP Shillaber, James Kennard, Jr, and other largely forgotten Portsmouth poets? Who tracks the obscure life of Tobias Lear, George Washington’s secretary? If the topic is local history, I’m interested.

Betty_Hill“Have you ever heard of a UFO incident at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in 1896?” the caller asked. I had not, I said, but it sounded intriguingly meaningless. The incident was reportedly documented in the Portsmouth Herald, but as I wrote in this column recently, those copies of the newspaper are among the missing. Perhaps, it was an alien cover-up. I admitted that, while I had frequently interviewed the late Betty Hill of Portsmouth, the “grandmother of UFO abductees,” I am a confirmed skeptic on the topic of “Ufology,” the so-called study of UFOs.

I don’t believe we are alone in the universe. I’m a big Sci-fi fan. And there are certainly UFOs. That is, people definitely see flying objects that they cannot identify. Yet for all the white papers and fuzzy photographs produced over the decades, no one has yet come up with an alien or a space ship. Tobias Lear and Sam Foss may be obscure, but they were real.

When the caller asked if I am biased against UFO researchers, I admitted I probably am. I’ve corresponded and talked with dozens of them over the years. They regularly steal copyrighted material off my Web site. Some argue intelligently, but the rest belong in a rubber room.

“That’s like racism!” the caller said over the phone, clearly insulted.

I pointed out that, since Ufologists are not a race of people, that in this case, I’d prefer to be called a “bigot.” The caller did not find this funny, and began shouting. People get very uptight over trivial topics, I’ve learned.

 

My adventures underground

I do much of my best work down rabbit holes. And since most of those ideas come from readers, I always take the call. My two-part feature years ago on the 1981 crash of the FB-111A in Mariner’s Village (now Osprety Landing) was based on two years of research by Derry reader Jack Goterch. Another reader has been on a painstaking search to determine where Daniel Webster kept his law office on Market Street in the early 1800s. We hope to report those results here soon. I have requests from scores of readers to “please look into this” stacked in manila folders on my desk.

Sometimes the minutia is anything but miniature. Last year a reader tipped me off to the closely held archaeological reports of the massive Portwalk real estate project in the North End. Although we lost whatever lay beneath the new hotel in Phase I, diggers on Phase II discovered important historical treasures in the privy of Revolutionary War hero Joshua Wentworth. In a welcome policy reversal, the developers have now issued the archaeological report on Phase III in advance of the next professional excavation. As a direct result of the Portwalk dig, Sen. Nancy Stiles of Hampton is spearheading a call for statewide legislation to preserve “subsurface archeological deposits” across New Hampshire. There is also a move on to create regulations that will help protect archeological sites in Portsmouth where no protection currently exist.

Archaeology_pipe

One man’s trash, as the saying goes, is another man’s treasure. And this seems a good place to announce that I am slowly crawling my way back to the surface of a new project for 2012. Over the last four years Prof. Nathan Hamilton has been digging into Smuttynose Island with his students from the Shoals Marine Lab. To date they have methodically excavated 42 square meters of soil and unearthed 200,000 artifacts. It was Prof. Hamilton, readers may recall, who proved for the first time that Native Americans visited the Isles of Shoals. The oldest of a cache of Indian stone tools from Smuttynose dates back 6,000 years.

The best of those discoveries are the subject of my next book. I finished the first draft of the manuscript yesterday and it is scheduled for release in May 2012. This is not just a plug for a new book, but also the take-home point of this essay. You couldn’t find anything more trivial than digging a hole in the shallow soil of a largely uninhabited island 10 miles out to sea. Smuttynose hit its economic peak in the 1600s when as many as 600 European fishermen pulled giant cod from the surrounding sea and dried them on the flat rocky Isles of Shoals. Today there are no permanent residents on the privately owned island of Smuttynose – just two un-insulated buildings without roads, electricity, plumbing, dock, or fresh water. As in the Gilligan’s Island TV theme song -- it’s primitive as can be out there.

But the trash being slowly and scientifically uncovered on Smuttynose – like that at Portwalk -- may just rock your world. We are learning a great deal about the other “founding fathers” of New England from the stuff they left behind. Deep chemical analysis of redware clay pipes and soil samples is currently underway in a lab at the University of Southern Maine. I was up there last weekend where 120 boxes of artifacts are being studied. These studies will offer fresh details on early colonial “tradeways” from Europe to the Shoals to the Caribbean. Another grad student is studying the distribution of glass fragments, and another is focused on ceramics. Archaeologists have found the site of the Smuttynose tavern, one of the earliest in New England, that could possibly date to the 1620s. Analysis of fish, bird, and animal bones will tell us volumes about extinct species, early ecosystems, and who ate what on the island over the centuries. Hamilton’s research may shed light on the history of our depleting fish stocks. The cod around here used to weigh upwards of 120 pounds. Is their decline related to our evolving fish crisis or to natural causes? Studies of the gastropod “litorina” – the lowly periwinkle -- may unlock secrets of climate change and global warming.

Writing about history is a trivial pursuit to be sure, but for the time being, it’s a big enough world for me.

Copyright © 2012 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site SeacoastNH.com. His tenth hardcover history book, America’s Privateer: Lynx and the War of 1812, is available at select local shops and in the author’s Amazon.com bookstore.