Monday, August 02, 2021

Report of the Committee on Agriculture (I)

I admit it: I'm a squash obsessive. Not so much summer squash, which actually don't grow that well for me these days, but the winter cucurbits, the acorns, buttercups, butternuts, hubbards, and all the other countless hard-shell variations. I like eating them (some are better than others), but I really like growing them. As much as I enjoy planting and harvesting beans, turnips, tomatoes, peppers, and all the rest, to me there's a particular satisfaction to be found in the heft and durability of a winter squash that just can't be derived from any other vegetable. You stick a few seeds in a little patch of ground and a few months later, if it all works out, you have vines trailing all over your yard and a nice solid crop of produce that can be measured in pounds or even tens of pounds instead of a few ounces. If you're lucky, the harvested squash will keep all winter and be on your table for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Squash aren't foolproof, however. Where I live, the insidious squash vine borer — a kind of moth larva — reliably wipes out any potential crop of zucchini, yellow squash, and the like, anything, that is, that belongs to the most widely cultivated and diverse species of squash, Cucurbita pepo. There are strategies for combatting the borers (spraying with chemicals isn't an option for me), but ultimately if you've got a serious infestation your vines are likely toast. Fortunately for the gardener, however, there are other squash that show strong resistance to the borers, especially anything belonging to the species Cucurbita moschata, the most familiar type of which is the delicious and productive butternut squash. These, knock on wood, have done reliably well for me. But I'll save the butternuts for a later post; they are, after all, still on the vine as I write.

Acorn squash, which are C. pepo, are a bit of an outlier among winter squash, maturing earlier than the massive blue hubbards and their ilk, but also not storing quite as long. I've tried them once or twice, but the borers caught up with them eventually and I didn't get much yield. This year, however, something unexpected happened. I designated two areas in my garden for squash, one a strip in the back of the yard where long butternut vines have plenty of space to stretch out, and a 4'x4' section of framed bed in my main garden which I set aside for zucchini (which generally need less room) and just a couple of butternuts, figuring that I could train a vine or two onto the adjacent lawn when they overflowed the bed. As it happened, though, the squash got the jump on me.

When I cook store-bought winter squash in late fall, it's been my habit to scoop out the seeds in the center and fling them into the garden, which by then is bare, figuring that the bits of stringy pulp will enrich the soil and that the seeds will be snacked on by squirrels and other critters. (I do the same with the remains of our Jack O'Lanterns, which by the way are also C. pepo.) I'm not sure how much interest our squirrels actually have in these offerings, but in any case some of the seeds occasionally survive and work their way into the soil, where they germinate as volunteers in the spring. This year I had a bumper crop of unidentified volunteers popping up by mid-April, a few weeks before I had planned to plant. I left some and pulled up the rest, then put in four or five hills of the seeds I had purchased over the winter. As it happened, those purchased seeds never really got going, but on the other hand the mystery volunteers absolutely thrived, sending out dense growths of vines that would have overwhelmed my entire main garden if I hadn't taken steps to contain them. And soon enough I had vines full of squash, which turned out to be the very acorn squash I was sure wouldn't grow successfully for me.

Not only that, I had fruit from at least three and possible four distinct kinds of acorn squash, a conventional green one, a white one, a mottled green-and-white striped one that resembles the "Mardi Gras" cultivar, and a more perfectly spherical type that may in fact be a small pumpkin. I don't remember what varieties I may have bought for eating last fall and scooped out, but there were presumably several. As I said, I'm fond of squash.
In all, before the vines started to show signs of decline at the end of July (those borers, I suspect), I harvested about fifteen squash from that tiny 4'x4' plot. Which gives me hope that next year, if I deliberately plant acorn squash, I might actually get a few. If, as the saying goes, even a blind pig will find a few acorns, maybe even an utterly unscientific backyard gardener can raise a few acorn squash.

Friday, July 02, 2021


Eduardo Halfon:
I had never been to Japan before. And I had never been asked to be a Lebanese writer. A Jewish writer, yes. A Guatemalan writer, naturally. A Latin American writer, of course. A Central American writer, less and less. An American writer, more and more. A Spanish writer, when it had been preferable to travel with that passport. A Polish writer, once, in a bookstore in Barcelona that insisted – that insists – on placing my books on the Polish literature shelf. A French writer, since I lived for a while in France and some people suppose that I still do. All those disguises I always keep at hand, well-ironed and hanging in the wardrobe. But I had never been invited to participate in something as a Lebanese writer. And it seemed to me no big deal to make myself into an Arab for a day, in a conference at the University of Tokyo, if it gave me a chance to get to know the country.

Canción (translation mine)
Libros del Asteroide in Barcelona has published another installment in Eduardo Halfon's ongoing quasi-fictional project of excavating his family's past, as well as his own and that of his country (or countries). If the narrator (also named Eduardo Halfon) is to be believed (and he isn't always), he was invited to participate in the writers' conference alluded to above on the mistaken assumption that he is Lebanese; in fact his only connection to Lebanon is that his grandfather (also named Eduardo Halfon) was born there — except that strictly speaking he wasn't, since he fled the country when it was still part of Syria. Accused of being an impostor, the narrator retorts that an impostor is exactly what every writer is.

Canción (the title means "song," but that's another complicated issue) begins and ends in Japan, where the narrator attends that conference of Lebanese writers, but the larger part of the book (a rather short one, as all of Halfon's tend to be) is actually devoted to the kidnapping and subsequent release of his grandfather by Guatemalan guerrillas several years before the author was born. Of the five books that Libros del Asteroide has published, this is perhaps the most strictly focused on Guatemala (that curious sojourn in Tokyo aside). It slips back and forth in time, and, like a miniature Conversation in the Cathedral, is centered on an encounter in a bar with an old acquaintance (of sorts). It's both independent of and inextricably connected to the other volumes in the series. Several of the installments are now available in English, with some shuffling of the contents, from Bellevue Literary Press, and hopefully this one will soon join them.

Previous Eduardo Halfon posts:

The Memory Man
Necessary Stories

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Live in Telemark

I'm not sure why this genial live recording stayed on ice for twenty-seven years — maybe the timing just wasn't right until now — but here it is. Live in Telemark preserves a joint performance by two respected folk veterans in Norway in 1994. Andy Irvine is presumably the better-known of the pair internationally, having been a founding member of Sweeney's Men, Planxty, and several other notable Irish and world music ensembles in addition to his long solo career. Lillebjørn Nilsen is a comparable figure but one who performs mostly in the smaller market of his native Norway. Both are superb singers and accomplished multi-instrumentalists, and both have strong roots in folk traditions, Irvine as (among other things) a professed disciple of Woody Guthrie and Nilsen as a friend and admirer of Pete Seeger.

According to the liner notes, Irvine and Nilsen had known each other for about seventeen years before they finally had a chance to share a stage at the Telemark Festival. The set list here is roughly evenly divided between their respective repertoires, with Andy taking the spotlight for original songs like "My Heart's Tonight in Ireland" and "A Prince Among Men" and Lillebjørn contributing his own "Jenta i Chicago" and "Alexander Kiellands Plass." There are also several traditional songs as well as curiosities like a Norwegian version of Grit Larsen's "The Photographers," which Nilsen learned, in its original language from Seeger. A few of the cuts seem to be performed solo, but on most the pair play together, demonstrating a ready ability to learn each other's arrangements after what was presumably a relatively short period of rehearsal. Irvine mostly plays mandola and bouzouki while Nilsen plays guitar, willow flute, and hardanger fiddle. The sound is terrific.

Live in Telemark can be ordered, in digital and CD versions, from Bandcamp.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Uneasy (Vijay Iyer)

Jazz criticism is well outside my area of competence, nor have I made any effort to keep abreast of contemporary developments in the genre, but it would be ungrateful not to make at least a brief note of this record, since I've hardly listened to anything else for the last month or so. Uneasy is a collaboration between the pianist Vijay Iyer, the drummer Tyshawn Sorey, and the bassist Linda May Han Oh; it was released on April 9th by ECM. According to a press release,
In the course of this endeavour, the political and social turbulences dominating today’s American landscape are reflected in musical contemplation and tense space. In his liner notes, Vijay elaborates on how today “the word ‘uneasy’ feels like a brutal understatement, too mild for cataclysmic times. But maybe, since the word contains its own opposite, it reminds us that the most soothing, healing music is often born of and situated within profound unrest; and conversely, the most turbulent music may contain stillness, coolness, even wisdom.”
It's a reasonable question how one decides that any instrumental music project, unless it's bluntly programmatic (which Uneasy is not) "reflects" a political and social landscape and conveys those reflections to the listener, and conceivably someone coming to this record without glancing at the liner notes might not detect the presence of any of that at all, but no doubt the reverberations mostly operate on an emotional level, which is appropriate given that music has never been particularly suited to promoting and defending a "thesis." On the other hand, the inventiveness and musical intelligence of the three players here is immediately evident, and the presence of those qualities is itself a welcome response to the state of contemporary culture and public life.

Uneasy hooked me from the first cut ("Children of Flint"), but repeated listens bring out layers and nuances that may be overlooked initially. (And reveal a few likely musical quotes, including to "Salt Peanuts," "I Got Rhythm," and possibly Miles Davis's investigations of Spanish music in the 1950s.) The Geri Allen composition "Drummers Song" put me off at first (at one point the same insistent figure is repeated twenty times or so), but now it may be the one piece that I turn to first. Throughout the album the textures shift and merge, and the music never sounds facile or hackneyed. It doesn't do to be too easy.

Samples from Uneasy can be heard at Iyer's website.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

New World Journal

This little magazine edited by Bob Callahan had a brief run of five numbers in the 1970s; there was one double issue (2-3). It was published in Berkeley, California by the Turtle Island Foundation "for the Nezahaulcoyotl [sic] Historical Society, a non-profit corporation engaged in the study of the history and literature of the New World." The name of the historical society is spelled at least three different ways in the journal's pages; both the society and the foundation were evidently Callahan's own creations and perhaps one-man operations. According to a manifesto in No. 1 (Fall 1975),
The New World Journal will attempt to provide an ongoing review of significant writings in the field of American Literature and American Cultural History. The current plan calls for both republication of a number of early pieces that many of our readers may have missed as well as the solicitation of original works by contemporary writers and cultural historians.

The insistence of Space remains the central preoccupation of the American writer, be he or she poet or historian, and the distribution of culture and culture trait—aboriginal as well as modern—from origin point to the extant [sic] of their natural or forced perimeter remains a theme of enduring concern. Thus the recent work of Charles Olson and Carl Ortwin Sauer is invoked—yet there are issues that can be traced back through the literature at least as far as to Herman Melville and Francis Parkman, as far back perhaps as to the anonymous authors of the origin and migration myths of the Quiche [sic] Maya and the Delaware. The American writer tends to see Space in terms of Elapsed Time. Apparently he always has. Other Orders are acknowledged, often respected, but as for Cosmology, Space—and here we would allow a glyph—(Time)—is all the American writer need require.
Along with poetry by Olson, the Nicaraguan radical priest-poet Ernesto Cardenal, and (in later issues) the pianist Cecil Taylor, the journal included posthumous contributions by scholars whose work tended to mark them (fairly or not) as outsiders of one kind or another: the folklorists Jaime de Angulo and Zora Neale Hurston, the economic botanist Edgar Anderson, the anthropologist and Lovecraft collaborator Robert Barlow, and the historical geographer Carl Sauer. Only the last, who died in July 1975 and arranged with Turtle Island for the republication of some of his work, had any evident personal connection with Callahan.
The journal's West Coast orientation was clear; it had little affinity with skeptical Europe or with those urban-oriented East Coast writers for whom "the insistence of Space" might not have been a central concern. With its interest in Native America, the Southwest, and Mesoamerica, it was aligned with the shamanic blending of anthropology and poetry known as ethnopoetics. As eccentric and personal as it was, it was arguably ahead of its time in terms of multiculturalism, interdisciplinarianism, and attention to the natural environment.
Turtle Island seems to have remained active as a book publisher until at least 1991 before disappearing. (There's a Turtle Island Foundation in Canada that is unrelated to it.) Callahan himself had an interesting career, writing or editing books on Irish-Americans, comic strips (he was a Krazy Kat expert), and the JFK assassination. He was also involved in some way with Ishmael Reed's Before Columbus Foundation, which continues to exist. He died in 2008.

Below is a brief excerpt from Edgar Anderson's "The Iris," originally published in a scholarly publication in 1927 and reprinted in New World Journal 2-3. The subject is a native wildflower that seemed to expand its distribution with the spread of livestock-raising.
Years ago, Father Paradis, a mixture of saint and scalawag, founded a little colony of French Canadians in a sandy bay at the northern end of Lake Timagami. The colony finally died out but Father Paradis hung on, preaching to the Indians at the Hudson Bay Post, prospecting for gold, and raising a small herd of cattle. Today Father Paradis is dead and the forest is marching back into his little outpost clearing; his barns have fallen in, and chipmunks build their nests in his chapel. But where his cattle used to graze in a marshy pasture close to the lake, Iris versicolor grows by the thousands. When it blooms in mid-July, it is the strangest Iris garden on the continent. Bounding the horizon are the rocky cliffs and forested slopes of Lake Timagami. Except for the little clearing and the ruined walls of the farm buildings there is no sign of man. Overhead towers Father Paradis's rude wooden cross, set on a bare rock with boulders piled about its base. And for a hundred yards or so the meadow all about is blue with Iris versicolor.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Only the Moon

Lafcadio Hearn:
She could swim like a Tahitian, and before daybreak on sultry summer mornings often stole down to the river to strike out in the moon-silvered current. "Ain't you ashamed to be seen that way?" reproachfully inquired an astonished police officer, one morning, upon encountering Dolly coming up the levee, with a single wet garment clinging about her, and wringing out the water from her frizzly hair.

"Only the pretty moon saw me," replied Dolly, turning her dark eyes gratefully to the rich light. 
"Dolly: An Idyl of the Levee" (1876)

I imagine this scene as it might have been illustrated by George Herriman, (who knew a bit about levees and moons), with Krazy Kat as the swimmer and a disapproving but benevolent Offissa Pup.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Strange Islands

The story of the adventures of the Irish abbot St. Brendan or Brenainn was a popular one in the middle ages, with a substantial number of manuscripts surviving. The most familiar version, the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis, was written in Latin and may date to the eighth century, that is, roughly two centuries after Brendan is thought to have died. A translation is found in the Penguin Classics volume entitled The Age of Bede (where it's arguably an odd fit); another, by John J. O'Meara, is available from Colin Smythe Ltd under the title of The Voyage of Saint Brendan, Journey to the Promised Land.

Brendan's travels, like those of Odysseus, involve visits to several wondrous islands, including in his case one that is inhabited entirely by psalm-singing birds and another that turns out to be an enormous sea-creature named Jasconius (from Old Irish íasc, fish). He and his fellow monks come upon what seems to be an iceberg as well as something that sounds very much like a volcano, and these and other passages have led some observers to surmise that Brendan or other early Irish travelers may have visited the North Atlantic and even North America. The notion isn't entirely far-fetched, as Irish monks — the papar — traveled as far as Iceland at a very early date. On the other hand, Brendan's adventures seem to have mythological parallels in pre-Christian Ireland and elsewhere.

But there's another Brendan tradition, one that is preserved in the Irish language in a manuscript known as the Book of Lismore. This version, the Betha Brenainn, seems to be harder to find outside of scholarly works like Whitley Stokes's Lives of Saints from the Book of Lismore and Denis O'Donoghue's Brendaniana: St. Brendan the Voyager in Story and Legend, both of which date to the 1890s. The Irish-language version may be less satisfying to the modern reader than the Latin one, but it has its own charm (at least in translation). Here, for example, is Stokes's rendering of a dazzling passage — not unworthy of Homer — that describes the outset of Brendan's voyage:
So Brenainn, son of Finnlug, sailed then over the wave-voice of the strong-maned sea, and over the storm of the green-sided waves, and over the mouths of the marvellous, awful, bitter ocean, where they saw the multitude of the furious red-mouthed monsters, with abundance of great sea-whales. And they found beautiful, marvellous islands, and yet they tarried not therein.
The writer's sheer delight in language receives its richest expression in a lengthy enumeration of the sights of Hell, which are shown to Brendan in consideration of his special sanctity. Stokes again:
It goes on from there, itemizing "cats scratching; hounds rending; dogs hunting; demons yelling; stinking lakes..." and, finally, "tortures vast, various." No torment is left uncatalogued, no linguistic resource left unused. If no one has thought of doing so, it would be fun to see an edition bringing together translations of the Latin Navigatio and the Irish version in one accessible volume.

Below is the first installment of a three-part reading of the O'Meara translation of the Navagatio by the Dean of Canterbury, the Very Reverend Dr. Robert Willis.