Monday, April 18, 2011

The Peanuts Are Coming! The Peanuts Are Coming!

"Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive..."

So wrote the poet, 151 years ago. Somewhere off in the Blue Beyond is the soul who once animated the renowned silversmith of Boston. Here's hoping that he knows that his exploits and those of his generation are remembered. It seems to me that I wrote (in my book Remember the Ladies), about another rider, another spring night, that of the 26th of April, 1777. Sybil Ludington and her horse accomplished forty miles that night, about twice the ground covered by her more famous contemporary and she was less than half his age.
As for me, over this past weekend, I rode ever so much farther (357 miles), ever so much faster, with a great deal more comfort (in Grace, my little red car: "Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far..."), and all the while listening to one of the clever and beautifully researched Mary Russell books, written by the great Laurie R. King. Some things about this 21st century I positively adore. Why was I out and about? Because I was asked to speak, draw, sign books, & otherwise be part of the entertainment on Saturday, at the George Washington Carver National Monument, down in Missouri's southwest corner.
If you're reading this, it's likely that you already know plenty about Dr. Carver, as he was called, out of respect and due to the honorary doctoral degree awarded to him by a college he'd attended in Iowa. GWC was also known as "The Sage of Tuskegee," or "The Peanut Wizard," or "The Black Leonardo." I thought I had a pretty good idea of him, too, until I was set the task of writing and illustrating a book about him a few years ago. Slave-born around 1865, in Missouri – check. Black History Month icon – check. Heavily involved (at the Tuskegee Institute, founded by Booker T. Washington), in peanuts + related inventions – check.
Did I know that he took off on his own when he was only 13 on a quest for an education? That he was a Kansas homesteader? Lugged blocks of sod to build his own little h. on the p.? That his paintings were exhibited at the Chicago Exposition of 1893? That he was an expert needleworker? A temperamental artist (redundant, I know), possessed of a sweet singing voice & handy with an accordian? A gifted teacher. An early advocate of contour plowing and other means of soil conservation, including the planting of peanuts and other legumes that would infuse fields, famished from one cotton crop after another, with life-giving nitrogen. Much admired by FDR for his alleviating the suffering of polio patients? An expert testifier before Congress on the MANY uses of the peanut, many of which he dreamed up himself as a self-professed "kitchen chemist?" Nope, on all counts.
But he was.

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