Bounteous Time: Three Descriptions and a Word from the Devil

Trees — bigger and longer-lived than we are.

Trees — bigger and longer-lived than we are.

Conveying the immense stretches of time in which we find ourselves — how to do it?  Writers often use the natural world and the landscape, which outlast humans to an awe-inspiring and unsettling degree.  I’m going to start this little meditation on time with a quotation from the private memoir of my cousin Hope Lull, who was describing the trees on our property in the town of Hope.  Most of the trees were planted around 1880 by my great-great-grandfather, “Grandpa Holland” (Francis Raymond Holland, 1820-1894).  Hope writes:

“’Grandpa’ Holland planted a ginkgo opposite the south door of the kitchen. After it had grown to fair size it died. Later a shoot appeared from the root. Now a flourishing tree stands in the original location, but it is not the ginkgo that he planted.”

This is the ginkgo that sprang up from the stump of the previous tree.  It is large enough that a person could easily stand under the branch.

This is the ginkgo that sprang up from the stump of the previous tree. It is larger than this picture shows —  a person could easily stand under the branch on the right.

So everything looks the same — a gingko in the same location — but it is not the same. This called to mind the passage from Dickens’ Child’s History of England, about the ancient Briton Caractacus, captured and taken to Rome:

“His noble air, and dignified endurance of distress, so touched the Roman people who thronged the streets to see him, that he and his family were restored to freedom. No one knows whether his great heart broke, and he died in Rome, or whether he ever returned to his own dear country. English oaks have grown up from acorns, and withered away, when they were hundreds of years old — and other oaks have sprung up in their places, and died too, very aged — since the rest of the history of the brave Caractacus was forgotten.”

Even when I was ten years old, I was struck by the image of the trees that have grown and died since the fate of Caractacus was forgotten, and I remembered it all the way until now, when I went to look it up without having read it again.  But then Dickens’ description of time and forgetting brought to mind the passage of great loss and melancholy from Tolkien — loss and melancholy being his speciality:

“They heard of the Great Barrows, and the green mounds, and the stone-rings upon the hills and in the hollows among the hills. Sheep were bleating in flocks. Green walls and white walls rose. There were fortresses on the heights. Kings of little kingdoms fought together, and the young Sun shone like fire on the red metal of their new and greedy swords. There was victory and defeat; and towers fell, fortresses were burned, and flames went up into the sky. Gold was piled on the biers of dead kings and queens and mounds covered them, and the stone doors were shut; and the grass grew over all. Sheep walked for a while biting the grass, but soon the hills were empty again….”

LOTR Vol. I book I ch. 7

The mound of Bryn Celli Ddu on Anglesey in Wales.

The mound of Bryn Celli Ddu on Anglesey in Wales.

So to this sobering and mournful assemblage of quotations on the expanse of time I add one from the mouth of the devil, as conveyed in Mann’s Doctor Faustus, where he is trying to convince a hapless innocent that debts will not come due for a long, long time:

“There is time enough, plenteous, bounteous time, so much that you can’t see to the end of it, and so much excitement coming first — you will have plenty to do besides taking heed to the end, or even noticing the moment when it might be time to take heed to the end.”                                       — Doctor Faustus

“So much excitement coming first”!  But the end — the end lasts a long, long time.



Of Time and the Muffin

The honourable gentleman made a speech which drew tears from the eyes of the ladies, and awakened the liveliest emotions in every individual present. He had visited the houses of the poor in the various districts of London, and had found them destitute of the slightest vestige of a muffin…                         — Nicholas Nickleby

Some people campaign against the misuse of the word hopefully; some people feel strongly that leggings are not pants; some people advocate for world harmony. I personally am on the warpath about muffins.
Remember when muffins were bread instead of cake?*
This abstruse historical fact came to mind after I had expensively renovated a fireplace and then discovered the historical toasting forks in the pantry of my old family house. Toasting muffins! All the old muffin memories came flooding back. Remember when you put butter on muffins? Putting butter on a modern muffin would be like putting butter on cake. Actually it wouldn’t be like putting butter on cake; it would be putting butter on cake.
Muffins are the canary in the coal mine of modern American food practices. The canary is now the size of a chicken and imparts a sweet flavor. That is to say, over the past sixty years food in the United States has gotten enormously larger and sweeter.
I remember when “giant” muffins were first invented. They came into stores in the early 1980s, along with “giant” (now known as “regular size”) cookies six inches in diameter. The giant muffins were extravagant, outsized, comical. Look how much muffin! A whole meal of muffin!


Gargantuan commercial muffin, extra sugary

Gargantuan commercial muffin, extra sugary

Then, of course, they became normal. They were also sweeter than traditional muffins: much like gargantuan cupcakes with no frosting.
Since then they’ve grown even larger. Many muffins you buy in American coffee shops and supermarkets have a top as large as a dinner plate. In many instances they’ve also acquiring icing. The evolution to a cake variant is coming to its culmination.
But back to primordial muffins. Finding the toasting forks, I remembered the muffins of yore, those small, modest, only hintingly sweet muffins, and I determined to make some. The way to find an old-fashioned muffin recipe is to consult an old cookbook, in my case the 1946 Joy of Cooking, which was given to my mother as a wedding present.
In the 1946 Joy of Cooking, the regular muffin recipe calls for 2 cups of cake flour or 1 3/4 cups of bread flour, and 1/4 cup sugar, and makes 24 muffins.

1946 Joy of Cooking

1946 Joy of Cooking

The blueberry muffin recipe in the same book increases that to 1/3 cup sugar, and makes 36 muffins.
I will pause, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, while you absorb these facts. 1/4 to 1/3 cup of sugar.
So I go straying around the internet looking at modern muffin recipes.
The “Best Ever Muffins” recipe at — a recipe for plain muffins — calls for 2 cups of flour and 3/4 cup sugar, and makes 12 muffins. Note that the proportion of sugar in each muffin has tripled, and the amount per serving has increased by six.
I’m wondering precisely why we have these debates about why Americans are so heavy. The truth is in blinking neon lights. By their muffins ye shall know them.
And the muffins are the little bitty muffin size of yesteryore, the cupcake size — not even the coffeeshop Brobdingnagian size.  That’s a lot of sugar for a bitty muffin.
So I turn to the locus classicus of muffin making. The recipe from the new Best Loved and Brand-New Joy of Cooking calls for 2 cups flour and 2/3 cup sugar.  Again, three times as much sugar.
So I made the 1946 blueberry muffins and they were dandy, and mmm so good hot and buttered.   But the recipe didn’t make 24 muffins. I could only get 16 out of it, because my sense of normal muffin size has been warped. So even the muffins that I think are very small are 50% bigger than the original muffins. Original muffins — let”s call them heritage muffins — should be two inches in diameter and about an inch high. Those are muffins the size that nature intended. Modern muffins are like titanosaur muffins, striding the earth with a footprint the size of a small nation.

A herd of heritage muffins

A herd of heritage muffins

On the page across from the 1946 muffin recipe is the muffin recipe that really put me to shame. CRUMB MUFFINS. “Acceptable muffins that help to utilize stale bread.” It would be amusing to make these and officially title them “Acceptable Muffins.” But the whole tradition of making Acceptable Muffins out of stale bread crumbs has died away with the end of World War II, rationing, and shortages. And note: the Crumb Muffins have no sugar at all!   They are wholly a bread item! But they are no more. The end of a long evolutionary line, vanished. A muffin dead end, like their cousins, Sour Milk Muffins, the next in the book, a whole necropolis of extinct baked goods.
But right now there are little old-fashioned blueberry muffins in my kitchen. So here’s to old-fashioned small and bready things. May they never perish from the earth.
(Stay tuned for recipes and brutal interrogation.)

*Let’s be clear about the terminology here. The United States and Britain are two countries divided by muffins. Right now the things I’m complaining about are the cupcake-shaped things made in North America. The other constituent of the catgeory of “muffin” is what Americans call the English muffin, which is approximately analogous to what the English call crumpets. English muffins and crumpets don’t taste the same, and you don’t split a crumpet, but my guess is that if you home-made English muffins and crumpets they would be very similar, much closer than their industrial versions. Both English muffins and crumpets have stayed on the bread side of the bread/cake divide, although I say this with the proviso that all American breads are so sweet that English people make faces and say “Can’t I get some bread in this country?”
What Americans call muffins were first introduced to England in the 1990s, under the terminology “cake muffins,” which gives you a historical snapshot of the situation right there.

(In case muffin mass exinction has gotten you down, here is a cheering clip of the interrogation of the Gingerbread Man about the doings of the Muffin Man, from Shrek):

Here are the 1946 recipes — little time capsules:

About 24 two inch muffins

Sift before measuring:
2 cups cake flour or 1 3/4 cup bread flour
Resift with:
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons tartrate or phosphate baking powder or 2 teaspoons combination type
[“combination type” is the modern “double-acting” baking powder, now the norm]
Beat in a separate bowl:
2 eggs
Combine and add:
2 tablespoons melted butter
3/4 cup milk
Stir the liquid quickly into the dry ingredients, taking only 15 or 20 seconds in which to do it. Make no attempt to stir or beat out the lumps. Ignore them. Unnecessary handling of the batter results in tough muffins. Pour the batter at once into greased tins or paper baking cups. Fill them about 1/3 full. Bake the muffins from 15 to 20 minutes in a hot oven 425 degrees. Remove them at once from the tins. To reheat them, place in a paper bag and close the bag and place it in a hot oven 425 degrees for about 5 minutes.

About 36 two inch muffins
Follow the preceeding rule for Muffins.
Use in all:
1/3 cup sugar
4 tablespoons melted butter
Fold into the batter:
1 cup blueberries, slightly floured, or 1 cup canned, well-drained blueberries, slightly floured
1 teaspoon grated lemon rind or orange rind (optional)


12 two inch muffins
Acceptable muffins that help to utilize stale bread.
Soak for 10 minutes:
1 cup dry bread crumbs
1/3 cup raisins (optional)
3/4 cup milk
Sift before measuring:
1/2 cup bread flour
2 teaspoons tartrate or phosphate baking powder or 1 1/2 teaspoons combination type
[“combination type” is the modern “double-acting” baking powder, now the norm]
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 tablespoon butter
Beat it with:
1 egg.
Add the sifted ingredients to the dry bread crumbs. Add the egg mixture and stir the batter with a few swift strokes until the ingredients are blended. Partly fill greased muffin tins. Bake the muffins in a hot oven 425 degrees for 20 minutes.

A Fine and Private Place

When you buy fake tombstones at a Hallowe’en store, they always look the same, don’t they?   Old-timey slabs standing crooked, with R.I.P. written on them.   Halloween stonesThis was the form of many eighteenth-century gravestones, and in England the convention continued into later centuries.  In the U.S., though, the nineteenth century saw a profusion of gravestone inventiveness, in almost psychedelic abundance.

Of all these, I think tree-stump gravestones were maybe the most startling.

In saying this, they have a lot to compete with. A nineteenth-century gravestone might consist of a life-size statue of a departed one, like the one of Mary Ellis McGinnis in Edinburgh, Indiana (from the eerily fascinating blog Gravely Speaking).

Mary Ellis McGinnis, Rest Haven Cemetery, Edinburgh, Indiana

Mary Ella McGinnis (1869-1875), Rest Haven Cemetery, Edinburgh, Indiana

There were also square monuments, towering monuments, pillared monuments, bronze monuments, flat monuments, and of course the notorious weeping angels.

Tree-stump gravestones were poignantly fashionable for perhaps fifty years.  They were used for people who had died young — the symbolism was that of a tree cut down in its prime.  They originated in the second half of the nineteenth century, most concentrated in the American Midwest.  They were carved of stone or, in later years, made of concrete.  Sears and Wards offered catalogues of gravestones, and so tree-stump gravestones became so popular that you can could buy them by mail order.

       From 1890 to 1900, insurance policies from the Woodmen of the World (a fraternal benefit society) provided a free tree-stump gravestone, and from 1900 to 1920, a $100 rider assured one. (This latter information is from the addictive blog A Grave Interest.)

This first impressive example (over at the right) that got me looking out for tree-stump gravestones was one I came across at the cemetery in Newbern, Indiana — the grave of Olive L. Newsom, who died in 1891 at the age of 34 years, 10 months, and one day.  Olive L. Newsom, Newbern Cemetery, Newbern, IndianaThe trunk is tall and a basket of posies hangs over one limb.  The inscription is carved directly onto a bare space on the trunk. It rhymes but the carver was clearly worried about space, so he didn’t align the lines with the rhymes:
Olive’s gravestone is a particularly beautiful example, with ferns, winding vines and even toadstools over at the side.

In other examples the inscription is on a scroll hung from a branch:

East Hesperia Cemetery, East Hesperia, Michigan

East Hesperia Cemetery, East Hesperia, Michigan

Old Star City Cemetery, Star City, Indiana. The signal lantern suggests that the deceased was a railway signalman.

Old Star City Cemetery, Star City, Indiana. The signal lantern on the left branch suggests that E. L. Welsh was a railway signalman.

Sometimes the inscription is on a slab leaning against the trunk, as you can just about see on the grave of “Our Little Zoe”:

Zoe Guliher, Linwood Park Cemetery, Boone, Iowa

“Our Little Zoe.”  Zoe Guliher, Linwood Park Cemetery, Boone, Iowa

Sometimes the scroll is mysteriously blank —

Beulah Land Cemetery, Reynoldsville, Pennsylvania

Beulah Land Cemetery, Reynoldsville, Pennsylvania

Some, like the signalman’s tombstone above, denote particulars about the life of the person.  The tree-stump gravestone of Nathan Fahler (1845-1887), below, has so many symbols that it’s almost like a totem pole.  At the top is the Union cap that signified that Fahler had served in the Civil War.  The three chainlinks below the hat signal that the deceased was a member of the Order of Odd Fellows.  The next sign down is a symbol of the Masons.

Old Star City Cemetery, Star City, Indiana

Nathan Fahler, Old Star City Cemetery, Star City, Indiana.

You also get two tree trunks together:

Newaygo Cemetery, Newaygo, Michigan.

Newaygo Cemetery, Newaygo, Michigan.

Or as here:

Adjoining tree trunks, in a location I stupidly forgot to write down.

Adjoining tree trunks, in a location I stupidly forgot to write down.

One more:

Belvidere Cemetery, Belvidere, Illinois

Belvidere Cemetery, Belvidere, Illinois.

Some were not tree trunks but truly stumps:

Highland Cemetery, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Highland Cemetery, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Others combined the tree-stump theme with the cross:

St. Andrew Catholic Cemetery, Tipton, Missouri.

St. Andrew Catholic Cemetery, Tipton, Missouri.

Byrne family gravestone — sure wish I remembered where it is.

Byrne family gravestone — sure wish I remembered where it is.

Others took the theme in different directions:

Greenbush Cemetery, Lafayette, Indiana.

Greenbush Cemetery, Lafayette, Indiana, as described in Gravely Speaking

The most spectacular is unquestionably the elaborate monument to Henry Smith and his wife Ella Ann Smith Brackett, in the Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis:

Henry died first, and on the stone a male hand holds the chain that pulls the female hand up toward heaven.

Henry died first, and on the stone a male hand holds the chain that pulls the female hand up toward heaven.

You could buy several kinds in the Sears Catalogue of Sepulchral Monuments, which you can browse through at It even includes suggested poems and epitaphs!

"Come see the softer side of Sears"?

“Come see the softer side of Sears”?

They also offered the rustic tree-stump crosses:

I can't help but note that Sears' current advertising slogan is "Life. Well Spent."  Really, it is.

I can’t help but note that Sears’ current advertising slogan is “Life. Well Spent.” Really, it is.

These monuments are all fascinating, but no question that some of them are just heartbreaking:

Beech Grove Cemetery, Bedford, Indiana.

Beech Grove Cemetery, Bedford, Indiana.  From this blog.  Hard to look at this, it’s so sad.

The trend had largely disappeared by the 1930s, but a few later ones appear.  The most recent one I’ve found is from a Jewish cemetery in New England:

United Jewish Center Cemetery, Brookfield Center, Connecticut

“So lovely, so very loving, so very much loved.”  United Jewish Center Cemetery, Brookfield Center, Connecticut.

No question it is melancholy looking at  many of these.  To quote Somerset Maugham: “Dying is a very dull, dreary affair. And my advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it.”  Gravestones, though, are a different matter.

For more:

Susanne S. Ridlen, Tree Stump Tombstones: A Field Guide to Rustic Funerary Art in Indiana (Kokomo, Indiana, 1999)

Warren Roberts, “Investigating the Tree-stump Tombstone in Indiana,” in American Material Culture and Folklife: A Prologue and Dialogue, ed. Simon J.Bronner. (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1992)

“Cemetery Fascination” on Pinterest — Scrabble boards, armchairs, Snoopy doghouses, cradles, faithful dogs…

And the Association of Gravestone Studies does fascinating work.

How Long Did the Battle of the Little Bighorn Last? “As Long as It Takes for a Hungry Man to Eat his Dinner”

In the aftermath of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, people wanted to know how long it took for the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arahapo forces to annihilate Custer and the men of the 7th Cavalry.  Interviewed about this later, Two Moons, a chief of the Cheyenne, said that it took “as long as it takes for a hungry man to eat his dinner.”

This a phrase worth mulling over for its expressive value alone.  I can well imagine that after everything that had preceeded the battle, the Indians consumed the forces of the 7th Cavalry as ferociously as a hungry man eats his dinner.

 But the phrase is also distinctive as a sort of direct human-based measurement.  The people who decide these things have an ongoing debate: should measurements be based on “scientific” units — objective measurements arising from the physical universe as  interpreted by scientific instruments?  Or should they be based more on tradition and the human world?  As an example of the latter you have the foot.  As an example of the former you have the metre, which is offically defined as “the length of the path travelled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1299,792,458 of a second.”

 Obviously the poets will vote for the human world.  The scientists will point out that they’re the ones who have to work with measurements all day long and please could they have them in decimal, at the very least? And you can’t really write, “The instrument detected that the neutrino passed through the item in question in 1299,792,458 of the hungry/man/dinner interval.”

In an interesting advance on modern philosophy that actually makes sense to civilians, the philosopher/linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have been weighing in on our tradition of defining things by human experience.  In Metaphors We Live By and Philosophy in the Flesh, they point out the extent to which the human body underlies our orientation to everything.  This is not just in units of measurement like feet, cubits (the length of your forearm), inches and ounces (both your thumb), and ells (your arm — with a bow in the middle).  It’s also in the fact that we talk of things facing outwards, as if their fronts were faces like ours.  Or how when we talk about time, we say that “January comes ahead of April,” as if time is walking along like a person, with its head primary.

 In my muddy unscientific way, I love descriptions I can visualize without doing mental calculations.  Clearly the world needs precision.  I don’t want my car designed by someone who just eyeballed the engineering or my medicine calculated by a pharmacist who measures with his thumb. Nevertheless I think we should also celebrate the powers of experience-based measurement.  I know how long it takes a hungry man to eat his dinner.  But I don’t have a gut feeling for the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom. (In other words, a second.) And when I read that the regulation size of an Olympic handball field is 40 metres, I don’t really know how long that is.  Heck, I’m not even sure I can eyeball 40 yards.  Before people measured everything out, they would have said that from here to there is about a stone’s throw.  And I do know how far a stone’s throw is.

 (The fact that “a stone’s throw” was a common medieval description of distance gave rise to a catch-riddle found in many folktales.  The lowly suitor eager to win the hand of the princess agrees to answer three questions asked by the conniving king.  One of the tricky questions is “How deep is the sea?”   The clever suitor’s answer is, of course, “A stone’s throw.”)

So the precise, scientifc units are good for measuring, but the old human-based measurements are better for describing.  They’re also direct — you use what you have on hand to do the measuring and the describing.

Back before the caesium 133 atom had been quantified, those Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors were still able to measure the passage of time — they used the movement of the sun around the poles of their tipis.  The poles were equal distances apart, and the movement of the sun divided the day into equivalent units, marked by the poles.  It was like living in a giant sundial. 

 This thought about depending directly on the sun leads me finally to a passage from Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s Understood Betsy (1916), a book aware of the movement from one kind of measurement to the other:

              “Sun-dial,” repeated Betsy. “What’s that?”

            “Why, to tell the time by, when —”

            “Why didn’t they have a clock?” asked the child.

            Aunt Abigail laughed.  “Good gracious, there was only one clock in the valley for years and years, and that belonged to the Wardons, the rich family in the village.  Most people had sundials cut in their window sills.  There’s one on the window sill of our pantry this minute.  Come on, I’ll show it to you…. There!” said Aunt Abigail, opening the window.  That’s not so good as the one at school.  This only tells when noon is.”

            Elizabeth Ann stared stupidly at the deep scratch on the window sill.

            “Don’t you see?” said Aunt Abigail.  “When the shadow got to that mark it was noon.  And the rest of the time you guessed by how far it was from the mark.  Let’s see if I can come anywhere near it now.”  She looked at it hard and said: “I guess it’s half-past four.”  She glanced back into the kitchen at the clock and said: “Oh, pshaw!  It’s ten minutes past five!  Now my grandmother could have told that within five minutes, just by the place of the shadow.  I declare!  Sometimes it seems to me that every time a new piece of machinery comes into the door some of our wits fly out at the window!”