Wanderous Strange

Magic Gardens in Philadelphia, photo by sashafatcat, flickr

I have a thing for eccentrics, outsiders, oddballs, etc. There’s something very brave about taking your own peculiar vision of the world and putting it out there for all to see. I included folk art environments in 101 Places You Gotta See Before You’re 12! because I think it’s great for kids to see people who follow their creative bliss, whatever that may be, and because so often, folk art environments are created from stuff that others consider to be junk (a great lesson in reusing, and recycling!).

Sculpture at the late Howard Finster's Paradise Gardens in Georgia

While writing for my undergrad college newspaper, I took a trip up to see renowned folk artist/preacher Howard Finster’s Paradise Gardens in teeny, tiny Summerville/Pennville, Georgia and was lucky enough to interview Finster himself. That sort of started my ongoing interest, and while researching the book, I found out about places like the Watts Towers (see Bonnie Boatwright’s post on her visit there), Orange Show in Houston and the Land of Evermor in Baraboo, Wisconsin (Travels with Children has a great post of a family visit there, with great pics). On a sidenote, Wisconsin–hands down–appears to the have the highest concentration of creative eccentrics in the US: does anyone have an explanation for that?

Recently, I came across Magic Gardens in Philadelphia, the creation of Isaiah Zager, who started the project as a way to revitalize his South Philadelphia neighborhood. It’s now operated as a nonprofit with frequent workshops and events, including mosaic-making classes for kids. There’s also Tyree Guyton’s recent and growing Heidelberg Project in Detroit, which is transforming a run-down street into an art project (named after the street). (On another sidenote: Detroit seems to be the place for a lot of cutting-edge stuff going on these days).

House, part of the Heidelberg Project, Detroit

One of my favorite writers for children E.L Koningsburg has a book that explores the idea of outsider artists: The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place. It’s about a girl who comes to the defense of her eccentric uncles who have built a series of junk art clock towers in their backyard, much to the chagrin of the neighbors.

If you’re interested in folk art or outsider art places, there are a few great sites you have to see, starting with Detour Art, UCM Museum, Insiders Out, Interesting Ideas, and Narrow Larry, who has a map of folk art environments in the US.

And speaking of maps, I just found the most incredible site for odd or unusual places: Atlas Obscura. I could spend days there. I already knew about a lot of the places, but there are some that I’m sure will factor into future travels. Also by part of the same team is Curious Expeditions. One of the most recent posts is about insect art. What kids doesn’t love that?

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Trail Names

Meet Cornelius Schwartz. Around here we call him Daddy, Andrew, or Sweetie, but he has also been known to answer to Droodles or Drew. Cornelius Schwartz was the trail name he chose while thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail just after college.

Trail names are an Appalachian Trail tradition. On the trail, you leave your old identity behind and reinvent yourself as whoever you want to be. Thru-hikers sometimes pick their own names or default to names chosen by their companions. Sometimes a name will just chose itself, as seems to have been the case with Possum Poop Patty.

Parents often say that they have a hard time getting their kids to go hiking without complaints. A trail name can be a great solution to making a hike seem more like an adventure and adding some fun. Giving them real life examples helps: Turtle, Superfeet, Mountain Laurel, Lightening Bolt, Digger, Mud Puppy, Water Strider, Longshanks. We’ve tried trail names with the kids but nothing has quite stuck yet: Pokey Puppy suits Mr. Big. I tried Avant Garde with Miss M since she always goes out ahead of us, but she didn’t seem to take to it.

Buck Young aka Mat (seen here with section-hiker Sven) was Cornelius’ trail companion, and they were joined for a time by Dan (below) .

Not sure whether Dan had a trail name, but these days he puts up with us calling him as Farmer Dan because you can now find him on the trails between rows of vegetables at his CSA Brookfield Farm in Amherst, Massachusetts. If you’re in the area, stop by, buy some produce, and tease him about his Loverboy do from the 80s.

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Lovin’ the Ruins

Bannerman Castle in the Hudson Valley, New York

One of my stand-out childhood memories is this: climbing all over a crumbling Norman castle up the road from Aunt Bridie’s house in Ireland. I remember being amazed that a) people had castles down the street from their houses b) we were allowed to play there. Back home in Atlanta, nothing was more than a few decades old, and anything with any history to it was off-limits. For kids, I think there’s something especially intriguing about ruins:  there’s some context about what was once there, but they can fill in the rest of the blanks with their imaginations.

For now, visiting the ruins of ancient Greek and Roman temples, Inca cities, and Scottish castles will have to wait. But I have found some great ones right here on this side of the pond.

The photo above shows Bannerman Castle, built around the turn of the 20th century by a Brooklyn retail magnate. It’s on a private island in the Hudson, about 50 miles north of New York City. Isn’t it fabulous? Miss M. says that this is what Hogwarts looks like in her imagination.

A big section of it collapsed in 2009, but efforts are being made to repair it and tours are available through the trust that preserves it. Not too far away in Montgomery, New York (Orange County), the Colden Mansion Ruins are not as impressive, but older.

Windsor Ruins, Port Gibson, Mississippi (near Vicksburg)

You can’t beat the South for romantic ruins. I love the look of the Windsor Ruins south of Vicksburg, Mississippi. It was built during the Civil War and burned down in 1890. Then there’s the Barboursville Mansion ruins in Virginia, the Bulow Plantation ruins in Florida and my favorite: the Dungeness ruins on Cumberland Island. Once a Carnegie mansion, it’s now frequented by the wild horses that live on the island.

Dungeness ruins (Carnegie Mansion), Cumberland Island, Georgia

The Midwest has its share of ruins, too. There’s the Snyder Mansion ruins at Ha Ha Tonka State Park in Missouri and as sad as it is to say it, there are so many ruins in Detroit that there’s even a web site which features the “ruin du jour,”although most of them are not things you would want to take kids to see.

Knapp's Castle Ruins, Santa Ynez Mountains (near Santa Barbara), California

The Knapp’s Castle ruins outside Santa Barbara look intriquing: they’re all that’s left of a home built in 1916 by Union Carbide founder George Knapp. And a much more recent ruin: the Tropical Terrace ruins in Soltice Canyon near Santa Monica.

Where there are ruins, there are rumors of hauntings. The Summerwind Mansion ruins in Wisconsin and the Hermitage Ruins outside of Toronto come with ghost stories and even ghost tours.

Madame Sherri's 'castle,' West Chesterfield, New Hampshire

The cool thing about many of these ruins is that they are either contained in state parks or preserved in ways that makes visiting them safe. When we lived in Vermont, the treat at the end of one lovely hiking trail just over the river in New Hamsphire were the ruins of Madame Sherri’s castle, which was really just a quirky old house. If kids ever need motivation to go on a hike, the promise of an intriguing ruin can be just the inspiration they need.

Any other ruins you can recommend?

Update: Just found this great video of Bannerman Castle. Now I really want to go there!

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Moon Day and Moon Trees

photo by US Rte 40 , flickr

I’ve just been alerted to the fact that today, July 20, is Moon Day, the anniversary of the first lunar landing in 1969. I was too young to have any memory of it, but can only imagine how exciting it must have been, with the whole world joined together watching. I wonder if we’ll see the equal of that moment in our lifetimes? I think it’s hard for kids today to imagine what a big deal that was.

While researching 101 Things You Gotta Do Before You’re 12, I somehow discovered moon trees, an often forgotten part of space history. Astronauts were allowed to take a few personal items with them on their flights, and Stuart Roosa, a former forest service employee, took seeds: redwood, sycamore, Douglas fir, loblolly, and sweet gum. When he came back, he donated them to the forest service. Scientists wondered if the seeds would be viable or if, as a result of having been in outer space, there would be any strange mutations in the trees that grew from them. They grew normally, and in honor of the bicenntenial, they were distributed around the US to be planted.

Moon tree in Society Hill, Philadelphia, Photo by Wally Gobetz , flickr

Unfortunately, no one kept good records, so it’s not clear where all the trees went. NASA has a list of the trees they know about, some of which are in public places and can be visited, like the cone at Goodard Air Force Base in Maryland and one at the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis. Finding a moon tree can be a great challenge for kids. Here’s some more information about the trees. I had no idea we had a moon tree right down the street from us at the Asheville Botanical Garden. We’re going to go check it out today!

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All The World’s A Stage

A performance at the Kitsap Forest Theater in Washington State, photo by tomsimages, flickr

There’s something about watching a play or movie outdoors. It’s like a layer of distance between the players and the audience has been removed. And there’s a sense of being part of an ancient tradition: I’ll never forget watching a movie in the Roman Ampitheater in Fiesole, sitting on the same worn stone seats where audiences had watched Euripides 1000 years before. Or taking a punt on a summer evening to watch The Tempest performed by Oxford students on an island the middle of the Thames. But I digress: that was before kids.

In a way, outdoor theater is a perfect solution for kids. If they’re bored or noisy, getting up and leaving isn’t too disruptve, and you may be able to them run around while still being able to see or at least hear the performance. And in many cases, admission is free, which means if you do have to remove a screaming, overtired kid from the premises, at least you haven’t lost out on your investment.

Every summer we try to see at least one performance of the Montford Park Players, who do Shakespeare on weekends for free from early summer to early fall. It’s kind of the opposite of the high-end gourmet atmosphere I was used to going to see concerts at Chastain Park in Atlanta. We usually bring a pizza, still in the box.

While researching 101 Things You Gotta Do Before You’re 12! I discovered a lot of great little outdoor theaters. I’ve always wanted to get to the Wolftrap Children’s Theater outside of DC and the Forest Theater in Carmel-By-The Sea. But the there are so many more great little places: the Kitsap Forest Theater on the Kitsap Peninsula in Washington (wow, the whole area just looks breathtaking!), Shakespeare by the Sea in various locations in Orange County, CA, and the Muny in St. Louis. These are a little bigger and probably harder to get away from if things go south with the kids, but the novelty of seeing something outdoors might last until intermission. I’m not sure if my kids would stand for it, but one day, I must get to the Pageant of the Masters, held every summer in Laguna Beach.

If plays won’t do, most big cities (and some small towns) offer some sort of open-air cinema in the summer. The screenings aren’t always kid-friendly, but sometimes there will be one per season that is. A quick check around found outdoor film series in: New York, Chicago, Nashville, Little Rock, San Diego, and Minneapolis. Like Silents Under The Stars (held in LA for decades), we used to have open air silent films with musical accompaniment in our downtown park until funding dried up.

And if all else fails, I found a great set of directions for a DIY backyard movie screen.

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Vive la France!

The Bastille Day Waiter's Race in Washington, DC

Over in la belle France, it’s already Bastille Day, the day when the French celebrate le Republique. Being in Paris for Bastille Day has always been on my life list and I got within a few days of it once. Celebrating in any small way can be a good opportunity for kids to learn about French culture, language or history.

Bastille Day Waiter’s Races have become widespread even outside of France, so much so that there’s even an international web site called Waitersraces.com. One of the biggest ones in the US is held in Washington, DC tomorrow, with champagne-carrying waiters storming Pennyslvania Ave. New Orleans is holding its First Annual French Market Waiter’s Race this coming weekend, plus a Bastille Day parade tomorrow.

Alors, the only Bastille Day event we have going on here in Asheville is one we won’t be able to attend, We’ll just have to make croque madams at home!

On the subject of the French Revolution, The Golden Hour is a great kids’ book that introduces kids to some of the real life participants in a very fictional and time travel kind of way. I’m also looking forward to Jennifer Donnelly’s new YA novel Revolution, which won’t be out till October.


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Professor Sprout’s Gardens

Harry Potter’s Wizarding World opened to the public last month, complete with faux castle, a hippogriff roller coaster ride, and plenty of opportunities to purchase wands, butterbeer, and chocolate frogs.

I had a proud parenting moment when discussing the Sunday New York Times Travel section report on the new theme park with Miss M. Not only did she not beg to go there, she effectively turned up her nose at the whole idea of it because it’s fake and the way Hogwarts really looks is the way she sees it in her imagination. I love that her own vision is still stronger than the ideas imposed on her, and that she still believes that there are plenty of places in the world that are actually magical, so why settle?

For a girl who is forever making potions out of plants she finds in the yard, there are a few public gardens with especially magical appeal. They may be a bit more Madam Pomfrey than Professor Sprout–herbs good for “calming the spirit” rather than changing rats into teapots, but no matter. It’s the idea that the right combination of plants and properties will make something happen.

The emblem of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, at Chelsea Physic Garden

Chelsea Physic Garden, London

The Chelsea Physic Garden in London was founded in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries and we all some of them were alchemists. The screaming mandrake that Harry and company had to harvest in Sorecer’s Stone actually grows here in its real-life form, mandrake, sans screaming. No mimbulus mimbletonia or devil’s snare, but there are loads of other strange plants from around the world, and it has the feel of this tucked-away little magical place in London.

UBC Botanical Gardens, Physic Garden, Vancouver

There are some interesting physic gardens on this side of the pond, too. The UBC gardens in Vancouver have recreated a medieval physic garden, and the UC Berkeley Botanical Gardens has a Chinese medicinal garden which includes plants for balancing qi and other such magical properties.

The Florence Bakken Medicincial Gardens at the Bakken Museum in Minneapolis is based on a Renassiance-style physic garden design, and in Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Hospital Physic Garden sits adjacent to the 200-plus year old hospital (the garden was proposed in the mid 18th century, but not actually completed until 1976).

Near us in North Carolina, Bethabara Park in Winston Salem is home to what’s thought to be the oldest colonial medicinal garden in the US.

Leave it to Australia to come up with something even cooler, the Witch’s Garden a private garden of witchy herbs sometimes open to the public.

The Witch's Garden, Mitta Mitta, Australia

On Midsummer’s Eve, we talked about how certain plants were said to take on temporary magical powers: St. John’s wort, verbena, and roses among them. We planned to pick some and find out what it would do, but a particularly powerful thunderstorm kept us indoors. If we only had one of Snape’s potion books so we could do some experimenting.

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