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Entries in name (3)


Blue Highways: St. Michaels, Maryland

Unfolding the Map

What's in a name?  What's in my name?  In this post, I'm going to be a little self-indulgent and reflect on the meaning of the name Michael.  It seems that if names are any indication of what we are supposed to represent, both St. Michaels and I have a lot to live up to.  To see where St. Michaels is located, the map will be your guide.  At right is the state flower of Maryland, the Black-Eyed Susan.  Photo by Lorax, found at Wikimedia Commons, and used under the GNU Free Documentation License.

Book Quote

"On the way was St. Michaels, 'the town that fooled the British' by inventing the blackout.  During the War of 1812, word reached the citizens that a night bombardment was imminent.  Residents doused all lights except candles in second-story windows and lanterns they hung in treetops.  British gunners misread the lights, miscalculated trajectories, and overshot the town.  The trick preserved numerous colonial buildings, including one home where a stray cannonball fell through the roof and bounced down the stairway past the startled lady of the house."

Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 15

St. Michaels, Maryland. Photo by Acroterion and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host page.

St. Michaels, Maryland

The blackout story is interesting, but I want to focus on the name of St. Michaels, Maryland.  Part of the reason is personal.  My name is Michael.  But part of the reason is a curiosity of mine.  Michael has been one of the most enduring popular names for boys.  But for the life of me, I don't understand why.

Of course, there is the religious connection.  A long time ago, when I first discovered that names could mean something (before that, I thought Michael was just Michael), I discovered that Michael is a Hebrew name, and not only that, but the conjoining of two Hebrew words: micha and elMicha means "in the likeness of" or "like" and el means God.  So in my first understandings of my name, I was, mistakenly, pleased to note that my name meant "he who is like God!"  I was able to lord it over my lesser-monickered friends until looking again, I was puzzled to find that it was actually a question: "Who is like God?"  I didn't understand it at the time.  My friends never bought my argument that I was like God anyway.

The question only makes sense when you attach the name Michael to the most important entity associated with it, the archangel Michael, the most important angel in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Along with two other archangels, Gabriel and Raphael, Michael is a major figure in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  In Judaism, Michael is the protector of Israel and identified as a "prince of the first rank" of angels.  He also identifies himself as a commander in the army of the Lord.  In the Christian tradition, particularly the Book of Revelation, Michael defeats Satan in heaven and as a result, Satan is thrown down to earth.  Michael is also identified as the angel that will herald the second coming of Christ.  He is considered the patron saint of healing and the prince of the Seraphim.  He is seen to have four main offices: to fight Satan, to rescue souls at the hour of death, to be the champion of God's people, and to bring souls to judgment.  In some variants of Christianity, like the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Seventh Day Adventists, Michael is practically synonymous with Jesus Christ, and the Mormons believe that Michael is Adam in his heavenly form.  Michael is also mentioned in the Koran as Mikail, one of the archangels along with Jibreel (Gabriel), where the prophet warns that anyone who is an enemy to God, his angels and messengers, and Jibreel and Mikail, will find God as their enemy.

Thus, Michael serves as a sort of heavenly reality check.  If one sees the name Michael as a question, "Who is like God?", the answer is expected to be "nobody."  Thus, Michael is supposed to remind us of both the power and majesty of God while at the same time revealing to us that nobody can be like God.

Certainly the story of how I got this name, the name of the first among the angels, does not fit with the implied majesty of Michael.  I was adopted at two years old.  At that time, people were calling me "Mike."  I had gotten used to that name and so for my adoptive parents, changing it was out of the question.  But my mother didn't like "Mike" and therefore used the formal version of the name, "Michael."  In other words, my parents didn't put much thought into the name.  They didn't name me after the archangel, or because of the symbolism of the name.  They simply took the diminutive name that I came with and formalized it.

I wish that I could live up to the name always, but like most people, I have my times when I perhaps imperfectly resemble a fuzzy copy of Michael's strength, loyalty, courage, and majesty.  There have been other times when I more accurately resemble something quite different. In a way, it's difficult to live up to the name of someone who carries the power of God and reminds us of what we are not.  Perhaps that's why, at least in English-speaking nations, we don't name any of our children Jesus.  Who can live up to that?  People do name their children Joshua, which is probably closer to Jesus' actual name in Aramaic.

If you're named after something archetypal, something that calls to mind the most noble and perfect of human natures, does it mean that there is an unwritten or unsaid expectation that you live up to those ideals?  By extension, if you live in a community named St. Michaels, or any of the many other communities named after Biblical or holy places, was there an assumption that the citizens of those places will embody such principles?

I believe that the answer is yes but not necessarily overtly.  We give children and places such names because we all strive to be the fullest of what we understand humanity to be.  Yet we all know that nobody can live up to ideals that we set for ourselves.  That's why they are ideals.  All of us are often less than ideal.  But, except for a very few, we wish and we strive to be good people.  We can even argue that those who are often not good people, who may even seem eveil, may be trying to reach a sort of perfection only they can understand; one which puts them very far apart from the rest of us.  I can never truly be my name, Michael, in the historical, literary and religious meaning of the name.  But I can be "Michael."  In other words, I can do the best I can to be a good person and live up to I expect of me.  And when I fail, I can always ask "Who is like God?"

Musical Interlude

When the Saints Go Marching In is a gospel and jazz standard.  The line that appeals to me is the one that says "how I want to be in that number, when the saints go marching in."  It is performed by the incomparable Louis Armstrong in this video, with a number of other very fine musicians.  I like to think that if there is a celestial orchestra, Armstrong and the other passed musicians will be jazzing up the heavenly arrangement.

Here's an extra video of Dave Brubeck's Take Five.  Brubeck was a jazz piano icon who just passed away a day or so ago and will certainly be part of that great jazz arrangement in the hereafter.

If you want to know more about St. Michaels

Baydreaming: Saint Michaels
Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum
Town of St. Michaels
Wikipedia: Saint Michaels

Next up: Tilghman Island, Maryland


Blue Highways: Salem, New Jersey

Unfolding the Map

What is in a place name, especially those that evoke other places?  I am of the opinion that place names often help us keep alive those other places that we came from or identify with.  As William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) swings through Salem, New Jersey we'll see how this little town inspired the names of possibly three other Salems in the United States.  To see the source of this inspiration, please be inspired to visit the map.  The red oak leaf, at right, comes from New Jersey's official state tree.

Book Quote

"Salem, a colonial town to the west, was abundant with old buildings and homes that would be museums most anywhere else in the country, but here they were just more declining houses, even though many stood when the men of Salem sent beef to Valley Forge to help save Washington's troops from starvation.  The town is the birthplace of Zadock Street, a restless fellow who left New Jersey in 1803 to make his way into the new western territory.  As he went, he and his sons founded towns in Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa, and named them all Salem; in Ohio, his Salem sprouted North Salem, West Salem, South Salem, Lower Salem, and Salem Center.  Americans can be thankful that Zadock Street was not born in Freidberger or Quonochontaug."

Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 12

Downtown Salem, New Jersey. Photo by Tim Kiser, and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host page.

Salem, New Jersey

I've had a couple of posts about town and city names, and LHM has succeeded in piquing my interest in a little mystery.  Why would a man named Zadock Street, of Salem, New Jersey spread out west with his sons and name all the towns they founded Salem?  What is it about the name Salem that was so important to these men?

First things first.  How many towns and cities and places are named Salem.  One source, Wikipedia, lists 25.  Another source, on Yahoo, lists 32.  Clearly people had reasons for naming towns Salem.  From what I've gathered online, Salem is a derivation of shalom and salaam, the Hebrew and Arabic words for peace.  Salem was mentioned as a place in the Old Testament, and became part of the name of Jerusalem, founded by King David of the kingdom of Israel.  Jerusalem means "foundation of peace."

Therefore, we can see that the most likely spread of the name Salem came with the spread of religion throughout the country.  Indeed, one source who uses the same quote by LHM above, looks into the story of the towns named Salem and of Zadock Street and wonders if LHM's story is true.  The writer points out that Zadock was one of King David's priests, thus cementing the connection between Zadock Street and religion.  The writer looks at the founding of Salems in Ohio, Indiana and Iowa that LHM says were established by Zadock Street and his sons and finds the evidence less than compelling.  Those Salems were founded by Quakers, the writer claims.  The writer says that there is no evidence that Zadock Street had anything to do with their founding, and there is no compelling evidence that Zadock Street or his sons were Quakers.

Thankfully, the internet can sometimes help clear up mysteries.  Wikipedia's entry states that one of the founders of Salem, Ohio was Zadock Street and an historic home in the city was owned by John Street, Zadock's son, and was the northernmost Ohio stop on the Underground Railroad.  The city of Salem in Indiana appears to have nothing to do with Zadock Street, but there are two other areas called Salem in the state, both census-designated places, that may have had something to do with Zadock Street.  And while I could not associate Salem, Iowa with Zadock Street or his sons, the town was founded by Quakers and was also a stop on the Underground Railroad.

What accounts for so many towns named Salem, then?  In the case of the Zadock Street and his sons, it may have been that religion plays a part in their propagation of the Salem name, but I think that there is a greater likelihood that the connection to their original home of Salem, New Jersey played a bigger part.  In a sense, we all have that attachment to home.  I cannot see the name Fort Bragg, even if the name is attached to Fort Bragg, North Carolina rather than my hometown of Fort Bragg, California, without getting pictures and images in my mind of all of the scenes I used to inhabit as a child.  The United States, as a country that was settled primarily by immigrants, would have been an alien place.  Names that evoked the familiar would have been important to people, comforting them with memories of places known in the midst of all the unknowns.

I did a post awhile back where I examined why there were so many towns, throughout the Southwest, called a variant of El Dorado.  In that case, Spanish conquistadors looking for gold, the proverbial El Dorado, left that name all over the region.  That was a case of wishful thinking.  However, in many cases it seems that people named towns and cities after that which gave them comfort and something that evoked memories of the places from whence they came.  I surmise that if you closely into town names, they've either been named for someone, or after something left behind.

Place names are a very simple part of a complex process.  No matter how adventurous or how exploratory we are, or how much we push the boundaries of our experience, we seem to need that touchstone to what we were and where we've been.  Two of the most poignant examples of this comes from our explorations into space.  The first example occurred when astronauts first left the safety of our atmosphere and went into space.  The poetic descriptions of the seeming fragility of our world when viewed from space indicated just how much "home" means to us when we look back at it.  As Alfred Worden wrote:

Quietly, like a night bird, floating, soaring, wingless
We glide from shore to shore, curving and falling
but not quite touching;
Earth: a distant memory seen in an instant of repose,
crescent shaped, ethereal, beautiful,
I wonder which part is home, but I know it doesn't matter . . .
the bond is there in my mind and memory;
Earth: a small, bubbly balloon hanging delicately
in the nothingness of space.

The other example came from even farther out in space, when the Voyager probe, close to leaving our solar system, trained its cameras back on Earth which hung like a small speck of dust in the vastness of space.  Carl Sagan said: 

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Carl Sagan: Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future

A sense of home, of belonging and of origin, is important.  It is an indelible part of our identity and it provides us with comfort.  As such, it is natural that we take a piece of that which is important with us, and make it a part of any place we go.

Musical Interlude

I couldn't have picked a better song to illustrate my point than Joe Diffie's Home.  This was a nice discovery, since country music is not a genre that I dip into regularly, but I'm often surprised when I do.

If you want to know more about Salem

Discover Salem County: Salem Salem County News
Salem County Chamber of Commerce
Salem, New Jersey
Visit Salem County
Wikipedia: Salem

Next up: Leipsic, Delaware


Blue Highways: Culbertson and Plentywood, Montana

Unfolding the Map

William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) is about to exit Montana via Plentywood, and we're riding along with him wondering about the irony of a town named Plentywood with no trees.  Before we get into North Dakota, I'll stop for a minute to examine irony in relation to place.  Ironically, it will be fun.  I promise.  To see where Plentywood is located, and maybe find some other ironically named places, here's your passage to the map.

Book Quote

"US 2 followed the Missouri River for miles.  At the High-line town of Culbertson I turned north toward treeless Plentywood, Montana, then went east again down forsaken blue highway 5, a road virtually on the forty-ninth parallel, which is the Canadian border in North Dakota."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 7

Downtown Culbertson, Montana. Photo by Colin Holloway and seen at City-Data. Click on photo to go to host site.

Culbertson and Plentywood, Montana

The quote today from Blue Highways got me thinking about the concept of irony.  What is irony, you may ask, as opposed to humor or sarcasm.  Let's check the definition.  According to Merriam-Webster Online, irony is:

1: a pretense of ignorance and of willingness to learn from another assumed in order to make the other's false conceptions conspicuous by adroit questioning —called also Socratic irony

2 a : the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning b: a usually humorous or sardonic literary style or form characterized by irony c: an ironic expression or utterance

3 a (1): incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result (2): an event or result marked by such incongruity b : incongruity between a situation developed in a drama and the accompanying words or actions that is understood by the audience but not by the characters in the play —called also dramatic irony, tragic irony

Definitions 1 and 3 don't really fit into what I'm going to discuss in this post, except for maybe the idea of incongruity.  Definition 2 though really fits, especially when one examines place names which seem out of character with the actual physical reality of the place.

Some place names are simply named in honor of someone.  Culbertson, for example, was named in honor of Major Alexander Culburtson, who headed Fort Union in Montana for the American Fur Company.  Other place names are indicative of settlers' desires - their hope for beauty, tranquility, solace, etc.  Sometimes place names come from natural features of the area.

However, some place names, either by design or by accident, are truly ironic.  Plentywood is a prime example, and LHM points it out in the book by calling it "treeless Plentywood."  According to Plentywood's Wikipedia entry, the name was meant to be ironic.  It was established when, on this treeless plain of Montana, a chuck wagon cook was unsuccessfully trying to build a fire out of wet buffalo dung, to the frustration of the hungry cowboys.  One finally one told him to go 2 miles up the creek where he'd find plenty wood.

The ironic nature of the name got me thinking about whether there were other ironic names for towns and cities, and I decided to do a little Googling.  I found two things.  Yes, there are ironic names for places in America, and there are many people who don't understand the concept of irony.

For example, this website asked people to contribute ironic names for places.  One ironic place mentioned was Nowhere, Oklahoma (which is really somewhere, obviously).  How interesting to find out, truthfully, that Sutherland is the second northernmost county in Great Britain.  Or that Great Britain has other interesting and ironic place names, such as No Place, or perhaps Pity Me, which to me would be ironic unless the townspeople are really miserable.  I keep seeing references to Who'd A Thought It, Alabama, though I can't find it in Google Earth or on Wikipedia, which would make for a double irony.  It would be ironic if it existed because obviously, somebody thought it, but if it didn't exist even though there's numerous references to it, then there's obvious irony because nobody a thought it!  There is evidently an area in Cape May, New Jersey that is known ironically as Poverty Beach because it now sits near mansions for the well-heeled.

However, this same site also showed that people don't quite understand irony.  Some wrote about place names that were simply funny or strange.  Like Why, Arizona - though you could make the argument that somebody thought "because" and established the town.  Somebody very pruriently suggested Beaver Slide, Montana, because, they added with great color and imagery, it was filled with unsavory people who "couldn't get laid in a monkey whore house with a bagful of bananas."  However, that irony is based on assumption, not fact.  Ironically, Beaver Slide doesn't seem to exist, though I'm sure people would manage to have sex in Beaver Slide - just very ironic sex.  Others named places I couldn't find.  One just had to add Fucking, Austria (pronounced foo-king) because...well, obviously.  But just because a town in Austria is named Fucking doesn't make it ironic, though I would suppose it would be if the town was full of celibates.

There was a nice column by a guy who went to a place in Virginia called Dulles Town Center, only to find there was no town to have a center in - simply a shopping center and subdivision.  He used the column to look a little more in depth about how places are named, and discovered that subdivisions and developments are often named ironically.  I started thinking about it, and my wife's parents live in one such development called The Meadows in Sarasota, Florida.  It was built by an English development company that basically cleared a bunch of wetlands, put in grass, houses and condos, and a golf course, and gave everything English-style names.  For example, her parents live in the section called Heronmere.  What was swamp ironically became The Meadows.  With alligators.

So, when you drive past subdivisions with names like Quail Hills, you might wonder if there really are quail.  Or if you in the vicinity of a place called Paradise Park, is there really a park?  Names like Valley Heights are kind of ironic in that they don't make any sense.  If you want to have some fun, make your own subdivision name here.  Or, for even more fun, you can generate positive or negative subdivision names at this site.

Do you ever notice that when something's right in front of your nose, you often don't see it.  It was almost like a smack upside my head, after I started writing this post, when I realized that I grew up in an ironically named place!  Fort Bragg, California sounds like a military establishment.  It is not.  There is a true military base called Fort Bragg in North Carolina.  But Fort Bragg, California has no fort.  The original fort for which the town got its name existed for about 10 years from 1857 to 1867 to maintain control on the now long disbanded Mendocino Indian Reservation.  Over the years, the town has been mistaken for the military base.  I don't know how many times I've had to disabuse people of the notion that their father/brother/uncle had served there.  A teacher of mine drew a popular cartoon put on local t-shirts with a tourist on it wondering "Where's the Fort?"  I even heard a story about a draftee in World War II from San Francisco who was elated when he found out he was being sent to Fort Bragg because it was close to home and he would get to see his family.  He took the bus up, got off, looked around, and became more and more confused until finally somebody asked what was wrong.  He was gently told that he was supposed to go to North Carolina because there was no fort in Fort Bragg.  I believe the story related that he was given leniency for the mix-up.

So, in this post about ironically named places, I almost forgot all about the town where I grew up.  Now isn't that ironic?

Musical Interlude

Alanis Morrissette explains irony beautifully in her song Ironic.  "It's like rain on your wedding day.  It's a free ride when you've already paid.  It's like good advice you just didn't take.  Who would have thought?  It figures."

If you want to know more about Culbertson and Plentywood

Culbertson, Montana
Culbertson Searchlight (newspaper)
Sheridan County, Montana
Wikipedia: Culbertson
Wikipedia: Plentywood

Next up: A radar station in western North Dakota