Ten things about water-powered grist mills

In my book The Secret Side of Jaya, her sojourn in the Ozarks introduces her to a magical vale in the woods just beyond their house. It’s also the site of a water-powered grist mill she begins to frequent in her free time.

Here are ten facts about the historic industry.

  1. The technology of arranging grinding stones goes way back in antiquity and across cultures. It could make for a Tendril in its own right.
  2. While the image of a big water wheel remains popular, driven either by current pouring from an aqueduct above or running in a millstream below, turbines ultimately proved more efficient, often placed in the cellar of the building.
  3. Mills have been powered both by water and wind, and more recently electricity, steam, and petroleum fuels.
  4. Grist refers to the grain that’s been separated from its chaff. Flour from wheat, rye, and barley, as well as cornmeal are major milled products, though far from the only ones. Chicken feed, anyone?
  5. Traditional milling, with slower grinding than today’s industrial “roller” output, produces what’s considered a coarser, nuttier, even “softer” flour.
  6. There were 5,624 grist mills in England in 1086, or about one for every 300 people. The proportion seems to hold across other times and places, including the experiences in Jaya’s story, until the late 1800s.
  7. Granite and sandstone millstones from Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and France were especially valued in American water-powered mills.
  8. The stones required frequent “dressing,” meaning removal for sharpening. It was laborious and time-consuming, demanding a deft touch.
  9. The miller was usually paid in a “toll” set by authorities – one-eighth for corn, one-sixth for wheat, typically – otherwise known as “the miller’s take.”
  10. Quakers were the leading millers and flour merchants in early America, despite British restrictions on innovations or improvements. It was hard, labor-intensive work. I do wonder if these Friends cursed, and how.

Some notable New England pipe organs

The region is rife with some stunning instruments and their makers. Start nosing around, and you find them nearly everywhere. For starters, let me mention …

  1. Symphony Hall, Boston: Wish they’d showcase it more in performances but it really looks great.
  2. Busch-Reisinger, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Used by E. Power Biggs to advocate a then-revolutionary awareness of the classic and baroque sounds Bach was grounded in. Many new organs were commissioned with this ideal, while others were “slimmed down,” often ill advisedly.
  3. St. John Methodist/Grace Vision church, Watertown, Massachusetts: A four-manual Aeolian-Skinner instrument that escaped the Biggs’ touch, retaining what’s described as a sweet sound but in need of some serious, costly restoration.
  4. Methuen Memorial Music Hall, Methuen, Massachusetts: Built in 1909 to house the first concert organ in the United States after the instrument had been placed in storage. More than 6,000 pipes in what’s probably the largest hall built solely for an organ.
  5. Memorial Chapel, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Only the best for the best, and they do their best to maintain it. Or them, since the church has several in its space. Used daily, and visitors welcome.
  6. St. John Episcopal, Portsmouth, New Hampshire: An impressive instrument for services, but the tiny Brattle Organ up at the front right of the balcony is believed to be the oldest playable instrument in America. It was rescued from Boston and is said to have a bell-like sound.
  7. Merrill Auditorium, City Hall, Portland, Maine: The Kotschmar Organ built in 1911 by the Austin Organ company was the second largest organ in the world at the time, and it’s still a musical monster, as the ongoing series of concerts demonstrates. Organs were, after all, a mainstay of live entertainment as well as church services.
  8. St. John Methodist, Dover, New Hampshire: The 1875 Hutchings’ instrument was rescued from the old church in 1970 by two Boy Scouts when the congregation moved to a new site and then stored in a barn for 17 years until it was installed in the new sanctuary. The builder also created the first organ for Boston’s Symphony Hall.
  9. Durham Community Church (UCC), Durham, New Hampshire: A lovely two-manual baroque-style instrument, as the local guild of organists proved for a Bach birthday celebration a few years back.
  10. First Parish (UCC), Dover, New Hampshire: A hybrid machine with a classic New England core that’s been augmented several times and now includes electronics. Big sound, as the likes of Cameron Carpenter and Hector Olivera have proved in their appearances as part of an ongoing concert series. The bass notes can really make the whole house shake … notes you feel in your feet and then your ears.


Not to leave Roman Catholic churches out, let me mention the Casavant instruments built in Quebec and found throughout New England. As an example, when the Shaker Village in Enfield, New Hampshire, was purchased by a monastic order, a Romanesque chapel was inserted into the site and a marvelous Casavant was installed, as I heard on a visit to what’s now mostly a museum.

I also want to mention Houghton Chapel at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, as another fine period instrument, one with hand-powered bellows rather than electrical fan. The bellows fellows sometimes get a bow of their own at the end.

Things I want to do in the year ahead

Or at least tell you I want to do. Here goes.

  1. See my newest book through to publication, followed by learning that everybody’s reading and talking about it.
  2. Get the renovation of the house under way. And that includes no outrages regarding the supply chain.
  3. Worship with Friends face-to-face again, both here and at Yearly Meeting. You know, normal after Covid.
  4. And that normal includes singing in a great chorus and other settings.
  5. And New England contra- and Greek dancing.
  6. Visit neighboring New Brunswick and maybe even Quebec City or Nova Scotia without having to get tested and wait 72 hours.
  7. Spot minke, humpback, and fin whales from the Breakwater downtown.
  8. Eat a lot of fresh, locally harvested, scallops.
  9. See the elusive white deer on the island.
  10. Spend more time with the people I love.

As for your list?


How to know when a work’s done

I’m talking about a poem or a novel here as a point of reference, but you can add some of your own perspectives, say as a painter or carpenter or gardener or cook.

  1. You have nothing more to say.
  2. You’re tired of the subject. So you close the cover, in effect.
  3. The previous revision was better. So you stop while you’re still ahead or don’t further overcook it.
  4. You’ve run out of time, like coming to the end of a vacation. Or something’s more pressing.
  5. You’re on deadline and it’s due. (Remember, I worked in newsrooms.)
  6. You perform it in public and there’s no squirming or coughing in the audience.
  7. It gets published. A literary quarterly is nice but a book’s even better.
  8. The critics are kind. Though that can make you question their standards.
  9. You arrive at your destination. You know how the story ends, for one thing.
  10. The kids grow up and move away. Or maybe you do.

Not to get too sentimental, but …

What is life without memories?

The most tragic part of Alzheimer’s is what happens when one crosses that threshold and leaves the connecting memories behind.

Quite simply, stories – and storytelling, one way or another – are essential. Stories are, after all, ultimately memories within human existence, no matter how fanciful or mythical.

How else do we remember where we are in the universe? Or even why?

There are good reasons we swap stories, from pillow talk on.

Some we lost too early

I can’t help reflecting on some acquaintances who departed this life way too early.

Here are ten from my life.

  1. Carp: He was the heart of my high school newspaper staff, the cutup with a heart of gold. He had health issues, though, and a few years after our graduation, he suffered a rare and months-long decline that completely changed his personality.
  2. Orpha: Something similar happened to this Mennonite-Amish young nurse who came to Baltimore from Lancaster County.
  3. Cynthia: The wife of one of my best friends, she was a victim of cancer. I don’t think she was yet 40.
  4. Charles: My best friend ever, we knew each other during my three years in Baltimore and then went separate directions. I still don’t want to know what really happened in that hotel room, but I do wish I could have eased his pain.
  5. Bill: He had come through some difficult years and then found and married the love of his life. Unfortunately, he came down with a rare infection. We grieve especially for his widow. Life can be so unfair.
  6. Jean: She was a year older than me but definite proof of vitality in your sixties. I expected another ten good years of faithful service from her in our teamwork, but then a virulent cancer kicked in and moved quickly.
  7. Cissy: She had just retired, was delighting in her volunteer work at the local theater, but then she had a hard fall at home. She was always in motion when she worked with us.
  8. Larry: He knew how to command a room and then lead. Photojournalism powerhouse up almost until the heart attack.
  9. Swami: No warning. The ashram didn’t last long without her.
  10. My Grandfather Munroe: Three years before my birth, while giving a toast over dinner, he had a heart attack and died on the table. He was in his early forties and would have definitely had a big positive impact on my childhood had he lived.


Passin’ dem family boneyards along the route

One of my more familiar drives while living in Dover meant crossing over into Maine on my way to or from the Antique House.

Within a seven-mile stretch of the roadway, there were at least 16 family cemeteries – some with only two or three visible stones.

It’s all the more striking when you realize that two separate two-mile stretches have none at all, so the burials actually occur in just three miles. In those parts, you probably couldn’t turn around without encountering a tombstone.

Many of the graveyards are overgrown, with some surrounded by iron railings.

I’m guessing there are more, if we were going more slowly and looking even closer.

Still, we’re left wondering about the families, some who settled the grounds in the 1600s, and how long they remained.

But on the drive, each one is gone in a flash.


In my dreams

Just because I watch the stars doesn’t mean I trust them.

We had foxes at the bird feeder and viewed them as they slinked off into the woods, akin to Garrison Hill, and next to it was a bear.

I was a championship swimmer and a symphony violinist not actually competing or performing but enjoying the status.

At the airplane crash scene as a reporter, I helped put bodies in valet bags.


Just to get Saint Nicholas clear

He’s not a synonym for the fat man who comes down the chimney at Christmas, especially in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, where he’s especially revered. Let’s set the record straight.

  1. He was born in 270 CE to wealthy parents of Greek descent in Patara, now southeastern Turkey.
  2. After they died of an epidemic, he went to live with an uncle, also named Nicolas, who was bishop of Patara and guided him into the priesthood. After ordination, he gave away his large inheritance to those in need, establishing his reputation for generosity.
  3. During the first half of his life, it was illegal to be a Christian in the Roman Empire. Even so, he was ordained bishop of Myra, also in southeastern Turkey, before being imprisoned for refusing to worship idols.
  4. After his release from prison in 305, he zealously made the rounds of local pagan temples and shrines, smashing their idols and turning their temples to dust, as the account goes.
  5. In 325, Nicholas was sufficiently esteemed to be summoned by Emperor Constantine to a gathering to discuss issues Christians were facing. There, at the First Ecumenical Council, he became so outraged at hearing views voiced by Arius (“the first heretic”) that he either punched or slapped the offender. He was then stripped of his bishop’s robes and thrown into prison because it was illegal to strike someone in the presence of the emperor, to say nothing of his own violation of his bishop’s code of non-violence or self-restraint. While in shackles, Nicholas repented of his actions but not his views, and then received a nighttime visitation by Christ and the Theotokos (Virgin Mary). Constantine freed him the next morning. (Nicholas is somehow not mentioned in the writings of any of the people who were actually at the sessions. Ahem. It’s still a hot story.)
  6. In another report, a formerly wealthy man had three daughters of marriageable age but not the money for a dowry or prika for them to be married to good men. He feared they might become slaves. When Nicolas heard of the man’s plight, he came by the house secretly at night and tossed a sack of gold through the window, where it bounced into a sock or a shoe. This happened each time before a daughter’s wedding. The third time, the father saw who the secret donor was. Nicolas pleaded with him to keep the secret. In another, more salacious version, the father had planned to sell off his daughters, into either slavery or prostitution, and Nicholas arranged to save them all from a host of sins.
  7. He is attributed with many miracles, including saving drowning people at sea, rescuing three innocent soldiers from execution, and restoring at least one mortally injured sailor.
  8. He’s widely known as Nicholas the Wonderworker and one of the highly regarded Eastern Orthodox saints.
  9. He died peacefully in his sleep in 343 in his old age, that is, 73.
  10.  In 1087, Italian sailors from Bari seized at least part of the saint’s remains from the church where he was buried in Myra, over the objections of Greek Orthodox monks. Two years later, Pope Urban II personally placed those relics under the altar at the new Basilica di San Nicola in Bari. For the Eastern Orthodox and Turks alike, it remains theft.


So much for Santa Claus, eh?