The ascent of Apple Pie Hill

Yesterday the kids and I took a road trip to Apple Pie Hill, a summit of loose gravel that towers over the South Jersey pinelands from a dizzying height of 209 feet above sea level. A fire watch tower on the summit adds another few dozen feet, enough to get a visitor over the treetops. On a clear day it’s said you can see the skylines of Atlantic City and Philadelphia. Fortunately for me it was an quintessentially beautifully fall day–clear and crisp. It was easy to spot the cities, both thirty-two miles away (mostly to the south and mostly to the west respectively) and here’s blowups of the two resultant photos:
Trip to Pine Barren's famous Apple Pie Hill
Sand road to Apple Pie Hill Trip to Pine Barren's famous Apple Pie Hill Trip to Pine Barren's famous Apple Pie Hill Trip to Pine Barren's famous Apple Pie Hill
More pictures, from left: Sand road to the hill, the fire tower, the view down through the steps of the tower (the kids were left in the car), two year old Francis eager but thwarted attempt to repeat Papa’s climb up tower. Click individual photos for enlarged and geotagged versions. More photos of this and out stopover at Atsion later in the day on yesterday’s Flickr page.

For those interested in repeating our journey, here’s a map showing our route up and back. I was mostly winging it, depending on these directions from NJPineslandsandDownJersey.com starting from nearby Chatsworth NJ, self-styled “Capital of the Pine Barrens.”



Other map views: View Larger Map | Satellite with Route Map

Banking on reputations

I was referred to a website the other day that barely exists, at least
in the way that I see sites. It’s homepage was built entirely in Flash, was completely invisible to search engines and barely functioned in Firefox. Domaintools.com gave it an SEO score of zero (out of a scale of one hundred). It’s Google PageRank was three out of ten, making it less visible that my kid pages.
But this was a website for a high-flying web development house, a
company that works with some of Philadelphia’s most prominent and
well-endowed cultural institutions. Their client work isn’t quite as
invisible, but their website for Philadelphia’s relative-new $265
million performance arts center has a PageRank equivalent to my
personal blog–youch!

I think there’s a lesson here. Prominent cultural institutions don’t look at Google (and SEO-friendly
developers) because they’re big enough and well-known enough that they
assume people will find them anyway. They’re right, of course, but how
many more people would find them if they had well-built websites? And
what’s the long-term vision if they’re relying on their established
reputation to do their web marketing?

It’s perhaps impossible
for a net-centric start-up to replicate a hugely-endowed cultural icon
like an orchestra or ballet, giving some degree of insulation to these
institutions from direct internet competition. But if these nonprofits
saw themselves in the entertainment business, competing for the limited
attention and money of an audience that has many evening-time
possibilities, then you’d think they’d want to leverage the internet as
much as they could: to use the web to reach out not only to their
existing audience but to nurture and develop future audiences.

Are the audiences of high brow institutions so full of hip young audiences that they can steer clear of web-centric marketing?

Talking like a Quaker: does anyone really care about schism anymore?

Over on my design blog I’ve just posted an article, Banking on reputations, which looks at how the websites for high-profile cultural institutions are often built without regard to natural web publicity–there’s no focus on net culture or search engine visibility. The sites do get visited, but only because of the reputation of the institution itself. My guess is that people go to them for very specific functions (looking up a phone number, ordering tickets, etc.). I finish by asking the question, “Are the audiences of high brow institutions so full of hip young audiences that they can steer clear of web-centric marketing?”

I won’t belabor the point, but I wonder if something similar is happening within Friends. It’s kind of weird that only two people have commented on Johan Maurer’s blog post about Baltimore Yearly Meeting’s report on Friends United Meeting. Johan’s post may well be the only place where online discussion about this particular report is available. I gave a plug for it and it was the most popular link from QuakerQuaker, so I know people are seeing it. The larger issue is dealt with elsewhere (Bill Samuel has a particularly useful resource page) but Johan’s piece seems to be getting a big yawn.

It’s been superseded as the most popular QuakerQuaker link by a lighthearted call for an International Talk Like a Quaker Day put up by a Livejournal blogger. It’s fun but it’s about as serious as you might expect. It’s getting picked up on a number of blogs, has more links than Johan’s piece and at current count has thirteen commenters. I think it’s a great way to poke a little fun of ourselves and think about outreach and I’m happy to link to it but I have to think there’s a lesson in its popularity vis-a-vis Johan’s post.

Here’s the inevitable question: do most Quakers just not care about Friends United Meeting or Baltimore Yearly Meeting, about a modern day culture clash that is but a few degrees from boiling over into full-scale institutional schism? For all my bravado I’m as much an institutional Quaker as anyone else. I care about our denominational politics but do others, and do they really?

Yearly meeting sessions and more entertainment-focused Quaker gatherings are lucky if they get three to five percent attendance. The governing body of my yearly meeting is made up of about one percent of its membership; add a percent or two or three and you have how many people actually pay any kind of attention to it or to yearly meeting politics. A few years ago a Quaker publisher commissioned a prominent Friend to write an update to liberal Friends’ most widely read introductory book and she mangled the whole thing (down to a totally made-up acronym for FWCC) and no one noticed till after publication–even insiders don’t care about most of this!

Are the bulk of most contemporary Friends post-institutional? The percentage of Friends involved in the work of our religious bodies has perhaps always been small, but the divide seems more striking now that the internet is providing competition. The big Quaker institutions skate on being recognized as official bodies but if their participation rate is low, their recognition factor small, and their ability to influence the Quaker culture therefore minimal, then are they really so important? After six years of marriage I can hear my wife’s question as a Quaker-turned-Catholic: where does the religious authority of these bodies come from? As someone who sees the world through a sociological/historical perspective, my question is complementary but somewhat different: if so few people care, then is there authority? The only time I see Friends close to tears over any of this is when
a schism might mean the loss of control over a beloved school or campground–factor out
the sentimental factor and what’s left?

I don’t think a diminishing influence is a positive trend, but it won’t go away if we bury our heads in the sand (or in committees). How are today’s generation of Friends going to deal with changing cultural forces that are threatening to undermine our current practices? And how might we use the new opportunities to advance the Quaker message and Christ’s agenda?

Baltimore and FUM from sessions to the static web to interactive discussion.

One thing I love about the internet and blogs is that they’re opening up discussions in the Quaker world. Information and dialog that was once confined to a small group of insiders is opened up to what we might only-half jokingly label “the laity.” The latest few entries to QuakerQuaker show this in operation.

Last month’s annual sessions of Baltimore Yearly Meeting (the regional body for Friends those parts) were marked by an important report from its representatives to Friends United Meeting, an international body of Friends that Baltimore belongs to but has a complicated relationship with. Attendees at the yearly meeting session heard the report, of course, and news trickled out in various ways (one visitor IM’ed me that day with the briefest sketch).

Enter the internet. At some point Baltimore put the report up on their website. The information was there but there’s no opportunity for discussion as the BYM website has no commenting feature. I posted the report up to QuakerQuaker and within a few hours, Johan Maurer was on top of it. Johan used to be the chief executive of Friends United Meeting and a wide experience with Friends from across the Quaker theological and cultural spectrum. He’s also an active blogger and he posted a reply, What is really wrong with FUM, part two: the Baltimore YM report, that I find particularly useful. His blog has comments. I’ve put Johan’s post up on QuakerQuaker and we now have a forum to try to tease apart the range of issues in the Baltimore report: leadership, theology, international relations, etc. How cool is that?

PS: I linked to the Wikipedia articles on Baltimore and Friends United Meeting. Has anyone else noticed Wikipedia makes a much more accessible introduction to Quaker bodies than their own websites?

Spontaneous trip to Longwood Gardens

Spontaneous trip to Longwood Gardens
Last week we left Julie’s church to find a beautiful late Summer afternoon so we took an unplanned road trip over to Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens. It’s not particularly close but it’s beautiful and its car-free acreage makes it very kid-friendly so we have memberships there (thanks to Martin’s Mom these last two years!). Below: scenes from Longwood’s Fall model train exhibit, orchid room and waterfall.


Longwood Gardens trip Longwood Gardens trip Spontaneous trip to Longwood Gardens

The Quaker time capsule

I’m reading Bill Taber’s fascinating history of Ohio Conservative Friends called The Eye of Faith. Like any good history there’s a lot of the present in there. There’s a strong feeling of deja-vu to the scenes of Friends in conflict and various characters come to life as much for their foibles as their strength of character (there’s more than a few bloggers echoed there). I’m now a few years into the second great separation, the Wilburite/Gurneyite split that brewed for years before erupting in 1854.

I’m not one of those Friends who bemoan the various schisms. The diversity of those calling themselves Friends today is so great that it’s hard to imagine them ever having stayed part of the same body. Only a strong authoritarian control could have prevented the separations and even then, large masses of the “losing” party would have simply left and regrouped elsewhere: the only real difference is that one party stops using the Quaker name. Here in South Jersey, where the only Gurneyite meeting wasn’t recognized by either Philadelphia yearly meeting for almost a hundred years, we’ve got dozens of Methodist “meeting houses” with graveyards full of old Quaker family names. Fascinating histories could be written of Friends who didn’t bother to squabble over meetinghouse deeds and simply decided to congregate under another banner.

One concept I’m chewing on is that of the “remnant.” As I understand it, the doctrine comes largely from Revelation 12 and is used by small theologically-conservative Christian sects to explain why their small size isn’t a problem; it’s kind of like Mom saying it’s better to do the right thing than to be popular. When the remnant community is a relatively isolated locale like Barnesville, there’s also the image of the Land That Time Forgot, the place where the old time ways has come down to us most fully intact. There’s truth to the preserving power of isolation: linguists claim the Ozark hillbilly accent most clearly mirrors Shakespeare’s. But Ohio Friends aren’t simply Jed Clampett’s Quaker cousins.

Like most rural Quaker yearly meetings, Ohio Yearly Meeting Conservative has lost much of its membership over the last hundred years. I don’t have statistics but it seems as if a good percentage of the active members of the yearly meeting hail from outside southeastern Ohio and a great many are convinced Friends. This echoes the most significant change in U.S. Quakerism in the past fifty years: the shift from a self-perpetuating community with strong local customs and an almost ethnic sense of self, to a society of convinced believers.

The keen sense of self-sufficiency and isolation that held together tight-knit Quaker communities over the centuries are largely non-sustainable now. In our media-saturated lives even Barnesville teens can get the latest Hollywood gossip and New York fashions in real time. Yes it’s possible to ban the TV and live as a media hermit in a commune somewhere, but even that only gets you so far. Once upon a time, not so long ago, a Friend could situate themselves in the wider Quaker universe simply by comparing family trees and school ties but that’s becoming less important all the time. For those of us who enter into the Society of Friends as adults–majorities in many yearly meetings now–there’s a sense of choice, of donning the clothes. We play at being Quaker until voila!, some mystical alchemical process happens and we identify as Quaker–even if we’re not always quite so made-over into Quakerness as we imagine ourselves.

At the Ohio sessions a few Friends really loved Wess Daniel’s statement that “A tradition that loses the ability to explain itself becomes an empty form” (see his wrap-up post here). One Ohio Friend said he had heard it postulated that isolated and inward-focused communities like Ohio Conservative were God’s method of preserving the old ways against the onslaught of the modernist age (with its mocking disbelief) until they could be reintroduced to the wider world in a more forgiving post-modernist era. Looked at that way, Quakerism isn’t a quaint relic in need of the same botox/bleach blond “NOW!” makeover every other spiritual tradition is getting. Think of it instead as a time capsule ready to be opened. An interesting theory. Are we ready to look at this peculiar thing we’ve dug up and reverse-engineer it back into meaningfulness?

Update:

Kirk W. over at Street Corner Society emailed me that he had recently put the Journal of Ann Branson online. She features heavily in the middle part of Taber’s book, which is the story of Conservative Ohio finding its own identity. Kirk suggests, and I agree, that her journal might be considered one of the artifacts of the Ohio time capsule. I hope to find some time to read this in the not-too-distant future.