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.

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.


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?

Ten reasons I write

I’m talking about the poetry, fiction, even letters and blogging. My “personal” stuff, much more than anything I usually did at the office.

  1. To remember.
  2. To explore.
  3. To play with language.
  4. To connect.
  5. To dialog with myself.
  6. To read/share in public. To be part of a community.
  7. To become visible, earn recognition in the now fading dream of fame.
  8. As a form of prayer.
  9. To better understand and appreciate other writers. See what makes their work tick from the inside.
  10. To make money?

Some breathtakingly beautiful places I’ve been

  1. Mount Rainier, Washington: Not just its high country and flanks (I’ve been as high as Camp Muir, 10,188 feet elevation), but also the valleys and surrounding ridges. Living four years to its east allowed me many opportunities to see aspects many of its more urban neighbors rarely encountered. (I’ll let this one stand as a representative of what could easily become a Tendril of other Cascades Range experiences.)
  2. West Quoddy State Park, Maine, after a big storm: Like a smaller scale Acadia, but far less crowded and more intimate.
  3. Outer Cape Cod, Massachusetts, on the Atlantic side: Especially pleasant in the shoulder season, when we were staying at Grandpa’s Jim’s place. The beach and dune just run on forever.
  4. Mount Cochura, New Hampshire: Not one of the state’s higher peaks, but a strenuous and varied ascent all the same, with fantastic views from the peak. Noted in Native lore even before the celebrated lovers’ leap.
  5. Stillwater Quaker meetinghouse, Barnesville, Ohio: Built in 1877 along timeless classical proportions and designed to house yearly meeting sessions as well as weekly Meeting for Worship, the site always felt much older and more hallowed to me, even after living in New England.
  6. Music Hall, Cincinnati: Some of my greatest concerts in my memory were in this large, horseshoe-shaped Italianate auditorium. The acoustics in the second balcony were razor-sharp. (Gilded Severance Hall in Cleveland deserves an honorable mention.)
  7. Hancock Tower observation deck, Boston: The panoramic view from the top of the city’s tallest building was amazing. Alas, it has been closed for security reasons since the 9/11 flights took off from Logan International Airport across Boston Harbor, a very prominent feature in the view.
  8. Butchart Gardens, Vancouver Island, British Columbia: This flower-lover’s 55-acre paradise attracts more a million visitors a year for good reason. The blooming beds are perfection of horticulture and color, but there’s no preparation for the stunning sunken garden in the former limestone quarry just beyond.
  9. Roan High Knob, North Carolina-Tennessee: I was a 12-year-old Boy Scout nearing the end of a week’s backpacking on the Appalachian Trail when we came upon this 6,286-foot-high mountain crowning a nearly tree-barren highland punctuated by rhododendron in full bloom. I’d never before seen a rhododendron, as far as I know, but have always associated the shrub since with that unanticipated, perfectly timed encounter.
  10. Ohio Caverns, West Liberty: You just don’t expect the crystalline underground wonder to exist under an otherwise pedestrian Ohio landscape. (Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, is grander and more spectacular, but sometimes, as the saying goes, Small Is Beautiful.)


Your turn to pipe up!  

A few more of my favorite art museums

Let me say the big Metropolitan in Manhattan is not on this list for a reason. It’s too big and too crowded, OK? I’ve never felt so claustrophobic as I did the last time I visited.

Also, I see I did a rundown on New England museums and college galleries back in 2015, so you can go to the Red Barn archive for those.

With that, let’s turn the spotlight.

  1. Cleveland: The city was once the home of some powerful industrialists, including the Rockefellers, and this collection reflects that. It has some stellar old masters and a leading Asian collection. Plus, admission is free.
  2. Chicago: Masterpieces by the mile. A muscular feast for the eyeballs.
  3. National Gallery: The third of the truly encyclopedic collections on my list, I always feel it should have been built in Pittsburgh, where Andrew Mellon amassed his fortune. Still, it feels more leisurely to me than many others, and the Rothko court is my favorite. But don’t overlook the two rare Vermeers.
  4. Phillips Collection: Also in Washington, D.C., this assembly of old houses in the Dupont Circle neighborhood has an intimate feel and some stunning Impressionists and modern works, including major Americans.
  5. Dayton: I grew up with this then-free collection at hand. What makes it remarkable was the astute decision to go after masterworks by lesser known painters rather than third-rate works by the big names, a strategy the New York Times hailed.
  6. The Taft: This modest collection in the family homestead just off downtown Cincinnati is a disarming salute to personal collecting, one strong on period French like Corot.
  7. Baltimore: The famed Cone sisters’ collection of Impressionists and early modern masters is featured at the Baltimore Museum of Art on the edge of the Johns Hopkins campus. Don’t confuse it with the Walters, down by the Washington Monument in Mount Vernon Place, which goes more for antiquity and doodads. My bedroom in Bolton Hill looked out toward the apartment building where the sisters once crowded their assembly into a few rooms.
  8. Brooklyn: Way too overlooked, even with its major Asian galleries, among the best in America. Check the schedule before you go, since its budgeting closes halls on a rotating basis.  
  9. Victoria, British Columbia: The Royal BC Museum, situated downtown by the ferry landing, focuses on natural history, but its presentation of indigenous culture is stunning. Pacific Northwest Native totem poles, lodges, clothing and costuming are reverently displayed, gallery after gallery. Tell me this isn’t a visual masterpieces experience. It really is a vast art installation.
  10. MOMA: Don’t know what it’s like now, but I did get to view the panoramic Monet, back before the fire, as well as Picasso’s Guernica, now returned to Spain. All this was before the Museum of Modern Art expanded its home.