Fables, Roadmaps, and Dancing Masters

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May 13, 2021 by libroshombre

            Streets intersect, as do thoughts; mine recently crossed place names, sunflowers, and libraries. It began with watching my spouse’s new venture into utilizing warming pads with seedlings, a bunch of which have graced our bedroom for the past few weeks.  These include her sunflowers that exhibit all of their fabled growth rate and came readily to mind when I read about Jerusalem artichokes while browsing John Jacobson’s “Toposaurus: A Humorous Treasury of Top-o-nyms (familiar words and phrases derived from place names.”  There are two types of artichokes; globe artichokes are readily found in produce markets and their name comes from the plant’s historical Arabic name: “al-karshuf,” that the Italians corrupted into “articiocco” before it was anglicized into the familiar “artichoke.”  The Jerusalem artichoke isn’t an actual artichoke, nor is it native to Jerusalem, instead being a variety of sunflower from North America.  The “Jerusalem” misnomer came from sunflowers’ tendency to turn towards the sun, or “girasole” in Italian, which the English mangled into “Jerusalem.”

            Jacobson’s book also cleared up another long-standing culinary mystery: why is melba toast so called?  Turns out it was named in honor of Dame Nellie Melba, an Australian coloratura soprano around 1900 who was born Helen Mitchell Porter.  She took the stage name Melba after her hometown of Melbourne, so in 1897, when she was very ill, the famous French chef Auguste Escoffier, a fanboy who’d already created a special desert for her he called “peach melba,” helped by serving her thinly sliced bread that was thoroughly toasted.  That sustained her and became known as melba toast.  When it came to notoriety, Melba was the Maria Callas of her day, like, for example, when she was divorced by her husband after publicly whooping it up with the main contender to the French throne, Prince Philippe Orleans during a European tour in the 1890s.

            “Toposaurus” is one of several placename books passed along to me by the late Don Triplehorn, one of the nicest and most intellectually stimulating people I’ve ever encountered.  Trip, as he was widely known, was aptly described in the Anchorage Daily News as “a man curious about many things and a professor emeritus of geology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.”  His innate curiosity shone forth, but Trip’s kind, generous, humorous, and generally willing-to-be-pleased nature certainly made that attribute glow.  We met through his wife Judie, the Geophysical Center’s paragon of librarianship, and our first summer in Fairbanks 30 years ago Trip and Judie led our young family on a picnic expedition to Healy to search for fossilized mosquito wings.  We didn’t find any, but had a glorious introduction to Alaska geology, and Trip memorialized the event by presenting us with a magnetized coprolite for our refrigerator.

            “Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-naming in the United States,” a 1945 book by George Stewart, was an additional gift from Trip.  A recent perusal of it reminded me of another of Trip’s intellectual facets: his interest in odd street names.  Stewart pointed out that “No one passed any laws about naming streets, or even wrote a book of advice,” but American town-planners tended to follow established traditions and usually followed four patterns.  The most popular, the Philadelphia model, designated numbered streets in one direction and named streets in the other, and Mr. Penn liked naming the cross-streets after trees.  His system also placed 1st streets alongside rivers or other waterways, just like Fairbanks.

            The Washington, D.C. model uses the alphabet for the cross-streets that intersected the numbered streets, and added “broad diagonal thoroughfares, called avenues” that were named after states.  New York City employed numbered streets, like Philadelphia, that are crossed by avenues, like D.C.  The fourth model is to simply designate street-names without following any set pattern.  Most of Fairbanks’ streets follow the fourth model, especially after a 1970s Borough street renaming project to help emergency responders by eliminating all but one of the many Birch and other streets possessing the same names.  Interior residents proved to be notably creative at naming streets, often humorously so, yet North Polians stand apart (“North Polian” is what their City Hall calls their residents).  The North Pole Branch Library used to be on Snowman Lane, and streets named after Blitzen, Kris Kringle, and Mistletoe are to be expected, but Fugarwe Street isn’t.  Nor are two of Trip’s favorites: Da Niece Street and its parallel, Da Nephew, that both intersect Go Thatta Way.

            Trip was a librarian at heart, for he loved sharing information like that.  He also spread a tremendous amount of more serious and worthy information by facilitating Noel Wien Library’s Great Books Discussion Group and the Science Book Discussion Group for three decades, for which he usually purchased enough extra copies for the participants.  The world would be a lot grimmer for his passing if it weren’t for all the intellectual growth in others that he engendered along the way.

            UAF’s Terrence Cole was another tremendous supporter of the public library and its missions who recently left a magnificent legacy behind him when he died last December.  Hardly anyone looked as intently at the humorous in life as Terrence, and I was fortunate to bask in his friendship as well as his devotion to public libraries, and our local ones in particular.  It’s difficult to find an online photo of Terrence where he’s not smiling broadly or laughing, and his ability to present Alaska history in a humorously engaging manner to his UAF students was legendary.  He had his serious side, as those who crossed him on intellectual freedom, political corruption in Juneau, and other weighty subjects learned all too well.

            Terrence and I shared a passion for collecting and sharing books – he’s where my 1899 leatherbound edition of Dewey’s Decimal Classification System came from, among many others.  One arrived from him posthumously, a signed edition of Donald Orth’s classic Alaskana reference book, “Dictionary of Alaska Place Names.”  In library lingo the book is a gazeteer, “a geographical dictionary or directory,” and Orth’s is special in that along with the geographic locations, Orth included descriptions of how our state’s placenames originated.  For example, there are 70 Bear Creeks listed, such as the Bear Creek on Douglas Island that got that name in 1882 from a water claim, but it was sometimes called Mission Creek, after a nearby Quaker mission, while the Bear Creek 30 miles south of Delta Junction was so named after “a hunter named Henry Stock was mauled there by a bear about 1905.” 

            It’s difficult to dredge up an adequate moniker that encompasses what both Trip and Terrence, and a slew of others, have brought so much to our library’s and community’s intellectual life, but to me they were mighty good men who were packed to the brim with the right sort of stuff.   As wiser old Ben Franklin noted, “What signifies knowing the Names, if you know not the Natures of things?”

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