The interviews are done!

Today I had a new signal about my project to write a biography of Isaac Bonewits.

From a post I made on Facebook:

I was cleaning out old stuff from a bookshelf, and I found a pile of Isaac Bonewits’ papers that I never got around to sending to the University of Santa Barbara. In an extra dose of irony, these papers were located right next to Deborah Lipp’s autobiography.

Could this be a reminder that it’s time to get my rear in gear and resume the biography project?

The Gods answer, “YES!”

It’s time to wrap up the research phase entirely. I have all the information I’m likely to get. In particular, I’m going to stop seeking out interviews.

There are three periods of Isaac’s life I wish I knew more about: His interaction with the Creole woman who first introduced him to magic; his time at Grayhaven in the early 70s; the founding of ADF. At this point, I have what I have and I don’t think I’ll learn anything more.

Any future suggestions of the form “You should interview X” will receive a smile and nod from me, but that’s it. If you’re able to get X to contact me, that’s great, but I’m not going to chase after them.

If you are X, that is, you want to say “You should interview me,” then I’m willing provided we can both rapidly work out a schedule for the interview.

As always, I can be reached at bonewits.research at

Part of the reason I’ve procrastinated is that the next step is listening to the interviews and selecting sections for transcription. I’ve already got computer-made transcriptions; now I have to edit them into human form. I’ve got over 70 hours of interviews and it will probably take twice as long to review the recordings. It will be a tedious task.

Oh, well. The journey of a thousand steps begins with the first mile.

Lost and Found and What’s Next

A couple of days ago, Christopher Chase sent me some pages from an old issue of The Crone Papers that mentioned Isaac Bonewits. (Christopher, brother to Sabrina Chase of Blue Star, is on the faculty of the Philosophy and Religious Study Department at Iowa State University.) After I downloaded the pages, I went through my usual practice of placing the pages in a Dropbox directory, coding the pages, and storing the codes in Zotero.

I took a glance at another directory I had on Dropbox that contained Isaac’s documents that I had not yet coded… and found the directory almost empty. I searched the hard drive of my computer, and those files weren’t anywhere on my hard drive. I searched my backups on Apple’s Time Machine, Dropbox, and Backblaze. They weren’t on the backups either. Three levels on backups, and none of them had the missing files.

What happened? In reverse chronological order:

  • When I set up Backblaze, I found that I’d deliberately omitted all my Dropbox directories from the off-line backup. I probably felt having two offline backups of the same files was not necessary. (Pro tip: I was wrong.)
  • Periodically, my Time Machine disk drive fills up in a such a way that it requires a fresh backup from scratch. This last happened at the beginning of May 2019. Since I suspect that these files disappeared before then, they weren’t on the Time Machine backup.
  • Dropbox only keeps deleted files for 30 days.
  • In addition to off-line backup, I use Dropbox to synchronize a suite of files and directories between three computers: my home computer, my work computer, and a laptop. The laptop is primarily used for the Science-on-Hudson talks, but I also use it for when I go on trips.

    When I was in the hospital at the end of December 2018, one of my work colleagues brought the laptop to me so I could watch movies to pass the time. But while Nyack Hospital offers excellent medical care, their wi-fi stinks. I struggled with turning off the Dropbox synchronization for the laptop to save on bandwidth and disk space.

    What I suspect happened, though I will never know for sure, is that somewhere in that process the flaky wi-fi connection made Dropbox interpret “do not sync this directory” as “this directory has been deleted”. This would have been propagated to all my other computers running Dropbox.

As I write this, I’ve not yet had the chance to inspect my work computers. It may be that the files are there in their separate Time Machine backups. However, I strongly doubt it.

What have I lost? As far as I can tell, I’ve lost most of the contents of two directories related to Isaac’s biography: the documents I had not yet coded; files I copied from Isaac’s old laptops and had not yet even started to look at.

The most important directories were unaffected by this: the files I had already coded, which to some extent were of the greatest interest to me; the recordings of the roughly 50 hours of interviews I’ve done so far.

Is the material really, truly lost? The answer is no, on two levels.

  • The originals are in the Religious Studies Archives of the University of California at Santa Barbara. They’re available to anyone willing to make the trip. For medical and practical reasons, I can’t make that trip. But if someone is willing to be an Isaac Bonewits scholar, it’s all still there.
  • I used two devices to scan Isaac’s files. One was my scanner at home, a low-end consumer device that could only scan one page at a time. The other was a scanner at work, which was fast and could scan piles of 8 1/2″x11″ paper placed in its document feeder.

    I also scanned some files into Adobe Creative Cloud using my phone, but these were relatively unimportant documents that Phaedra sent me a couple of years after my main scanning efforts. I can live without copies of Isaac’s old debts and bills.

    The work scanner delivered its scans to me via email. I checked last night, and I kept all those emails. So anything I scanned at work is, in principle, still retrievable.

Why “in principle”? The work scanner labeled the files it sent to me with coded names like “20110501163942716.pdf”. I took those files, used tools like PDFPen for OCR, and extracted/moved pages into files and folders with appropriate names. It took me hours to do this work, though it didn’t seem like much at the time because I worked on relatively few files after each scanning session. To do it all over again seems like a Sisyphean task.

Now comes the big question: How much did I really lose when it comes to the actual biography?

In a previous blog post, I addressed some issues associated with reducing the scope of this project. Maybe losing those files could be a positive thing. I’ve already have a lot of material. I have 50 hours of interviews; Jimahl di Fiosa wrote a biography of Alex Sanders based on less material than that. When I think about the material I had not yet tagged, I don’t remember most of it except for a big folder on Isaac’s EMS, and I only needed that for dates and such.

I still have questions about Isaac’s life that I would want the biography to address: Who was the Creole woman who introduced the Christian-raised Isaac to magic? Why was he attracted to Druidry over Wicca? Why did he found the ADF? What were the issues he faced as ArchDruid that caused him to resign? But if I don’t have the answer after interviewing Isaac’s spouses, what makes me think that some mysterious key to his life lurks within the files that I had not coded?

So I’ll set a limit: One more interview, with a member of the musical group Real Magic. If I’m able to recover the lost files, be ruthless: Only code those files that look critical. Then listen to the interviews and take notes of quotable sections. Use the already-coded material as reference.

Then do what Deborah Lipp has encouraged me to do for the past few years: Just write the damn thing already.

It won’t be the work of scholarship that I originally hoped for. But the first biography of Gerald Gardner wasn’t a scholarly work either. Let those with the credentials, the will, and the means become Isaac Bonewits scholars. Who knows? Maybe what I write will inspire them.

The shipping is done!

The last remaining boxes of Isaac’s papers are out of my apartment. They’re on their way to the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Religious Studies Collection.

I used to think that the stuff Phaedra Bonewits and I were sending to UCSB was just being warehoused somewhere. If you click on the above link, you’ll see I was wrong. In an e-mail sent to us by David Gartrell, Manuscripts Curator and Religious Studies Librarian of the UC Santa Barbara Library, he said “…each box I received was opened with appreciation, and often delight.”

When Isaac passed away, he left behind piles of papers packed into several boxes that were labeled “to be sorted.” Finally they were, but by Phae, David, and me.

Isaac, I wish you were still around to do this sorting. Since you’re not, rest assured that the process is in good hands.

Now, if you could just tell me the name of that Creole woman who introduced you to magic…

The scanning is done!

After working on Isaac Bonewits’ biography on-and-off for eight years (mostly off), I’ve finally completed one of my key tasks: To scan in all his files and papers. (The exception is if Phaedra Bonewits sends me any more boxes of Isaac’s old material.)

So what’s next?

  • Send all the remaining physical files, papers, and calendars to the University of California at Santa Barbara, which has already accepted the bulk of Isaac’s old papers to be kept in their Religious Studies section. There is a minor temptation to keep some of it; what if I have to look up something that wasn’t scanned properly? But if my goal is to get the biography written, I have to draw some lines in the sand. Getting the stuff out of my apartment means I don’t have the excuse of re-scanning everything.

    Maybe I’ll regret this later. I already regret not scanning some of the photographs I already sent in at high enough resolution to potentially be used as a book cover. So be it. I have to move forward.

    Side note: Check if UCSB will still accept the material. It’s been five years since I last sent them anything. Their policies may have changed.

  • Get the last remaining interviews: Joan Carruth, Carolyn Clark, and at least one member of the musical group Real Magic. If you know one the first two, please feel free to ease me into an introduction.

    After that, the interviews are done.

    There are more people I’d like to interview, but they belong to one of the following groups:

    • They’ve passed on; e.g., Shenain Bell; Robin Goodfellow.
    • They’ve declined to be interviewed; e.g., Z Budapest; Yvonne Frost; Isaac’s sisters and mother.
    • They’ve set requirements for an interview that I can’t meet; e.g., Linda VonBraskat-Crowe.
    • I flubbed the intro and they’ve ghosted me; e.g., Diane Paxson.

    There are other people I might interview. But at some point I have to say STOP and move on to the next task. I may be missing something by not interviewing Philip Carr-Gomm, Bill Heidrick, or Bill Kates. Again, I have to say “no regerts” and go forward.

  • Coding documents: At one point I hoped to code all of Isaac’s files. After scanning so many, I realize that this task would simply take too long and much of that time would be wasted.

    In Witchfather, Philip Heselton was able to track all of Gerald Gardner’s travels by examining documents, hotel registries, and the like. But I can’t do the same with Isaac, even if I have lists of festivals in documents, flyers, calendars, and so on. For one thing, I can’t tell if he wasn’t able to make a given event.

    More importantly, I have to make a choice as a biographer as to what’s worth including. Heselton made his choices, and I have to make mine. My decision is that I don’t need to track all his travel, his finances, his correspondence, etc.

    I’ve already coded roughly 40% of the scanned documents over the past eight years. For the rest, I’ll glance at it, see if it seems relevant to a biography, and code it if it does. Again, there may be much that I will miss, but “no regerts”.

    In particular, I made the decision a couple of years ago that I’m trying to be an Isaac Bonewits biographer. I am not trying to be an Isaac Bonewits scholar. I’ll leave that task to others; the documents and scans will be around for them to go over. Perhaps someone will one day get their Ph.D. in Bonewitsology, but that person cannot be me. The detailed coding and interpretation of Isaac’s papers I’ll leave to them.

  • I’ve trimmed down the overall task of preparing Isaac’s biography as time has gone by. At one point I hoped to create an oral history of his life from the interviews; that would require additional releases and forms that I’ve chosen not to obtains. I hoped to read Isaac’s books again; I may just skim them. I hoped to produce the definitive work on Isaac’s life; now I’m aiming for a work, not the work.

    Isaac, Isaac, Isaac. Why couldn’t you have led a duller life?

Otter Voice Notes

I’m still working on the biography of Isaac Bonewits, though I admit my progress has been slow. I periodically scan more documents from the last boxes of papers Phaedra sent me.

One big issue with my research was transcribing interviews. I have about 70 hours worth of interviews so far, with still a few more to go. (I have to contact Joan Carruth, Carolyn Clark, and the members of Real Magic someday.)

There have been speech-to-text systems around for quite a few years, but they weren’t set up to handle multiple speakers. I knew I could never afford the cost of having the material professionally transcribed. I didn’t really need the transcriptions right away, since there was so much other organizing, scanning, and research to do, so I let the problem slide. I hoped that the technology for transcribing interviews would emerge.

It looks like my hopes have been realized. Otter Voice Notes is a program for both Android and iOS devices, and can be run in a web browser for desktop systems. It can transcribe an interview “live”, which I have not tried, or work with previously-recorded audio files.

As a transcription service, the results from Otter Voice Notes are far from perfect; on the other hand, my audio recordings are further from perfect. The software does a reasonable job given what I provide as input. Here’s a small excerpt from an interview I did with Oberon Zell-Ravenheart back in 2011:

Otter Voice Notes example.png

(The person we’re discussing is Ron Wright, whom I interviewed a few months later.)

There are some issues that are both inevitable and unavoidable. For example, there is no way Otter Voice Notes could have correctly interpreted the name Carl Weschcke or the name of the publication Gnostica. I have yet to see OVN correctly interpret “Gardnerian”, “Druidry”, or “Phaedra”. There’s no mechanism, at least in the web interface, for training OVN to learn new words. And there are the occasional wrong guesses (Oberon said “Let me see now” not “Let me see how you know”.)

What OVN does fairly well is identify the different speakers. In the above excerpt, I did not explicitly tag the sections spoken by me or Oberon. I tagged a few sections earlier in the conversation with our names, and Otter Voice Notes scanned and assigned the tags for the rest of the conversation. Again, it’s not perfect, especially when I’m slurring words or speakers interrupt one another, but it’s far better than tools like Dragon Dictate which offer no form of speaker recognition.

Another feature of the web interface (I assume the phone apps are similar) is that you can play back the audio file and Otter Voice Notes will highlight each word in the text as it’s being said. You can click on any word in the transcription and start playing from that point. That’s particularly handy: you can search text for a particular topic, then listen to that one paragraph to get the words that were too faint or too obscure for OVN to transcribe.

You can edit text via the web interface and merge paragraphs. That seems simple enough, until you see a long stretch of one- or two-word paragraphs. That happens because OVN will insert a new paragraph every time there’s a pause. For those of us who say “Um” a lot (modesty forbids me from mentioning any names) it can make for a lot of paragraphs.

Otter Voice Notes offers 600 minutes of transcription for free so you can see if you like the service. Once I tested it, I didn’t need the rest of those minutes. I immediately subscribed and uploaded 70 hours worth of interviews in MP3 and M4A format. Within a half hour the transcriptions were ready for me to tag the speakers and export the transcribed text.

I’m glad I waited until technology caught up with my needs. Now all I need is a program that will code and tag 10GB worth of scanned files for me…

For old pagans with deep closets

I seem to be slowly moving back to working on Isaac Bonewits’ biography. I’ve let it lie fallow for about two years, mainly because I became frustrated at my attempts at some hard-to-reach interview subjects.

Recently, Phaedra Bonewits has tried to identify the original members of the American Council of Witches. She was kind enough to forward me confirmation from Oberon Zell-Ravenheart that Isaac was the main author of the Principles of Wiccan Belief (though some editing was done).

This reminded me of another gap in my biographical research:

Isaac was editor of Gnostica, and wrote many articles for the Green Egg; what interests me more about the latter are his exchanges with the Satanic community in the magazine’s letter column. Back issues of Gnostica and Green Egg are hard to find, at least for the period of Isaac’s involvement. I know that Oberon and the Weschke family have the complete run of back issues, but they’re not going to mail them off to some dude (namely me) they don’t know.

I don’t really want the issues themselves. What I want are PDF files of those publications so I can reference them at my leisure. That leads to the title of my post: Are you a pagan who’s been around for a while you might have back issues of Gnostica from 1973-1975, or Green Egg with Isaac’s letters, sitting around in a back room, a box, or a closet? Would you be willing to send them to me if I paid the postage? What I’d do is scan the magazines to PDF, then send them either back to you, or to the University of California at Santa Barbara to be part of their American Religions Collection.

I can be reached at <bonewits.research> at <>. Please feel free to re-post, re-tweet, share, forward, or shout this blog post from the mountaintops.

A light at the end of the transcription tunnel?

According to David Pogue, the latest version of Dragon Dictate is capable of transcribing interviews.

Based on the example in the article, the results are limited. Still, it offers hope that by the time I’ll need it for the biography, there’ll be some form of software that will let me turn 100+ hours of interviews into text form.

This is also a reminder to myself that I have to get moving on the interview process again. It’s daunting; there are so many people to speak with, and it’s not clear how to contact many of them.

Still, a journey of 100+ hours begins with the first word.

Bull of Heaven – a review

In the past few years, modern pagans have started to reclaim their history. As Ronald Hutton points out, pagans have always had a strong sense of “history” (an interest in past events), but not always in “historicity” (understanding what actually happened, as opposed to what you wish had happened).

Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon traces the factors that led to the founding of the modern Neopagan Witchcraft movement. Philip Heselton’s Witchfather focused on the life of one important individual: Gerald Gardner. In other words, Hutton told us about the times, Heselton told us about a life.

Michael Lloyd’s Bull of Heaven: The Mythic Life of Eddie Buczynski and the Rise of the New York Pagan does both. It does it a way that’s engaging to read. I’d never heard of Buczynski before Margot Adler recommended this book to me; now I understand his impact on the Craft.

Continue reading “Bull of Heaven – a review”