Monday, September 18, 2017

The owls



I was walking on a quiet back street in the next town north. Some twenty feet up in the branches of a great oak that rose up next to the sidewalk I caught sight a family of owls — two parents, and a fledgling — then saw three more owlets sheltered in a hollow at the base of the tree, peering out at me as I approached. That the owls were visible in broad daylight was not as remarkable to me as was the fact that they were sharing their quarters with a comparably-sized family of cats, who played and curled up with the little owlets, tails and wings fluttering and shaking together as I watched, as if nothing could have been more natural.

I hadn't brought my camera with me. I ran home — a distance of some five miles — and when I returned again I took a wrong turn down a parallel street. A Frenchman approached, seeing my camera and indicating his own which he carried around his neck, and asked me a highly technical question regarding photography. As I am essentially an ignoramus in that regard I apologized and said that I couldn't help him, but as compensation I offered to lead him to the tree, where he was sure to find a promising subject for his lens. We walked the few blocks that remained, but when we arrived we learned that the health department had ordered the people who owned the cats to send them away, as their presence was deemed a threat to the vulnerable owls. There was nothing left for the Frenchman and I to do except shake hands and exchange our farewells.

Image by Toshi Yoshida.

Friday, September 08, 2017

The world is inside of nothing


It's funny how the world is inside of nothing. I mean, you have your heart and your soul inside of you. Babies are inside of their mothers. Fish are out there in the water. But the world is inside nothing. I don't know if I like this or not but you better write it down.
I just watched Bertrand Tavernier's 1986 film Round Midnight again for the first time in nearly thirty years. This scene, in which saxophonist Dexter Gordon, playing a fictional jazz legend named Dale Turner, philosophizes while a friend's daughter plays on a French beach, is one of my favorite parts of the movie. It's a bit hokey, of course, but that's show business.

I can readily understand why a black filmmaker like Spike Lee had issues with a film like this, and there's much that could be said regarding its rehearsal of cultural clichés about black men who are in one way or another damaged being sympathetically "minded" by whites, as well as about the portrayal of jazz musicians as oracles rather than as disciplined, skilled professional musicians (see Cortázar's "The Pursuer," which may have been one of the inspirations for this film), but on the other hand this is one of the few fictional feature films from the second half of the twentieth century in which jazz musicians are actually played by jazz musicians rather than by professional actors. In addition to Gordon, who reportedly contributed to the development of the script, the cast includes Herbie Hancock, Bobby Hutcherson, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and other luminaries. The music is splendid (and plentiful), Gordon and co-star François Cluzet are splendid, and you have this scene on the beach, all of which ought to count for something.

Maxine Gordon (Dexter's widow) has written a nice appreciation of the film.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Support DACA



More information on DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program, can be found here.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Lal Waterson: To Make You Stay



Mike Waterson's songs on Bright Phoebus, like the title track or "Rubber Band," which contains such whimsical lines as "just like margarine our fame is spreading," tend to be fairly jaunty major-key sing-alongs with simple lyrics. His sister Lal's compositions, on the other hand, are more brooding and cryptic (I can't, for instance, make much sense of "Never the Same," pretty as it is), and they're also odder musically.

"To Make You Stay," which seems to be addressed to a child, is one of the lovelier ones. I'm no musicologist, but the melody, with its chant-like descent and sudden swerve at the end of the verse, doesn't seem to fit conventional Anglo-American song styles at all, and that fact is a tribute to this "folk" artist's originality. (Lal's singing is also much stranger than Mike's, which is earthy and distinctive but nevertheless not unfamiliar.)
Dear, dear, dear, I once had a starling
Dear, dear, dear, a pretty little darling
Dear, dear, dear, but she flew away in the nighttime
From under me right hand
This unofficially posted version, by the way, is not the remastered one recently made available on CD from Domino Recording. The album as a whole is well worth a listen.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Coral Garden of the Forest



Coral reefs aren't doing all that well these days, and in any case there are none within range of a day trip where I live, but on the other hand we have these coral and club fungi, which seemingly mimic some of the same shapes and colors.


These species aren't particularly rare, but on the other hand they're easily overlooked. Most of these examples were found in one small area a bit off the trail. The deer, which are plentiful in these woods, seem to have stripped off the undergrowth from this particular patch of ground, which just makes the fungi easier to spot.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Public Service Announcement



Some practical advice for eclipse-watchers, from Peter Blegvad and Andy Partridge.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Lal & Mike Waterson: The Scarecrow



A beautiful, melancholy song with a sinister twist of child sacrifice in the third verse, "The Scarecrow" first appeared on an LP called Bright Phoebus in 1972. The artists, siblings Lal and Mike Waterson, were one half of the popular English folk quartet the Watersons, who were known for their a cappella renditions of carols and other traditional songs, but the LP, which featured original compositions and instrumental accompaniment, was poorly received at the time and has been largely unavailable since. It has now been remastered and released in the UK by Domino Records.

At least one of the other songs on Bright Phoebus ("Child among the Weeds") is said to have been prompted by the stillbirth of one of Lal Waterson's twins. The third verse of "The Scarecrow," however, was reportedly Mike Waterson's contribution.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

On Rayuela



Every novel is philosophical, in that it consciously or (more usually) unconsciously embodies a theory of being. We know that this is true because novels are, by definition, fictive, that is, false. The rules by which a novel elaborates its false world (the "true" one being, in all likelihood, unknowable in any case) constitute its theory of how things are.

Interesting novels embody interesting theories of being, banal ones banal theories. Rayuela, as an antinovel, is antiphilosophical; it questions (by first thoroughly exploring) the very possibility of understanding, the possibility that any theory of being capable of expression in words (and how would it be a theory if it were not?), could ever be valid or even meaningful. Language is seen as self-refuting by nature. The real nature of being — if such a thing even exists — is irredeemably contaminated by the act of referring to it. A lemon may be adequately named by the word "lemon," at least for utilitarian purposes, but "love" (to choose just one example) is an idea whose referent is fatally entangled with its linguistic sign. To grasp what love is without taking into account how it has been named would require us to revert to a prelinguistic state. Such a project would, naturally, be self-defeating.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

The Purpose of Things

Guy Davenport, on family expeditions to gather arrowheads, when he was a child:
What lives brightest in the memory of these outings is a Thoreauvian feeling of looking at things – earth, plants, rocks, textures, animal tracks, all the secret places of the out-of-doors that seem never to have been looked at before, a hidden patch of moss with a Dutchman’s Breeches stoutly in its midst, aromatic stands of rabbit tobacco, beggar’s lice, lizards, the inevitable mute snake, always just leaving as you come upon him, hawks, buzzards, abandoned orchards rich in apples, peaches or plums...

I learned from a whole childhood of looking in fields how the purpose of things ought perhaps to remain invisible, no more than half known. People who know exactly what they are doing seem to me to miss the vital part of any doing. My family, praises be unto the gods, never inspected anything that we enjoyed doing; criticism was strictly for adversities, and not very much for them. Consequently I spent my childhood drawing, building things, writing, reading, playing, dreaming out loud, without the least comment from anybody. I learned later that I was thought not quite bright, for the patterns I discovered for myself were not things with nearby models. When I went off to college it was with no purpose whatsoever: no calling in view, no profession, no ambition...

I know that my sense of place, of occasion, even of doing anything at all, was shaped by those afternoons. It took a while for me to realize that people can grow up without being taught to see, to search surfaces for all the details, to check out a whole landscape for what it has to offer. My father became so good at spotting arrowheads that on roads with likely gullies he would find them from the car. Or give a commentary on what we might pick up were we to stop: "A nice spearhead back there by a maypop, but with the tip broken off."

And it is all folded away in an irrevocable past. Most of our fields are now the bottom of a vast lake. Farmers now post their land and fence it with barbed wire. Arrowhead collecting has become something of a minor hobby, and shops for the tourist trade make them in a back room and sell them to people from New Jersey. Everything is like that nowadays. I cherish those afternoons, knowing that I will never understand all that they taught me.
"Finding," in Antaeus 29.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Coming Attractions



What I'll be reading this Fall: Mike Wallace's Greater Gotham, the long-awaited sequel to Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, the definitive history of the city that Wallace (no relation to the CBS correspondent) co-wrote with Edwin G. Burrows and published in 1999. Though slated to be slightly shorter than the first installment (which ran, with index, to nearly 1,400 pages), this follow-up covers a span of a mere twenty-one years — which, as it happens, corresponds fairly exactly to the period in the city's history that interests me most. Good news, even if it does leave one wondering when — if ever — the third installment will appear. A release date of September or October is projected for this one.

Also on the horizon: Harry Mathews's last novel, The Solitary Twin, is scheduled to be published by New Directions in March 2018.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

In Color (Spencer Holst)



"On moonless nights he walks over the oozy bog in snowshoes taking time exposures in color of luminous mushrooms. It is the police chief's son." — Spencer Holst

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Poems in their kind


Ramaria
Amanita
Russula parvovirescens
Oct. 10, 1858. The simplest and most lumpish fungus has a peculiar interest for us, compared with a mere mass of earth, because it is so obviously organic and related to ourselves, however remote. It is the expression of an idea, growth according to a law, matter not dormant, not raw, but inspired, appropriated by spirit. If I take up a handful of earth, however separately interesting the particles may be, their relation to one another appears to be that of mere juxtaposition generally. I might have thrown them together thus. But the humblest fungus betrays a life akin to my own. It is a successful poem in its kind. There is suggested something superior to any particle of matter in the idea or mind which uses and arranges the particles.

— Henry David Thoreau, Journal
Mycena leaiana
Artomyces pyxidatus?
Phallus
Cortinarius iodes?
Possibly Amanita amerirubescens
Lycoperdon perlatum

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Sibyl's Testament


Pausanias (Book X in Peter Levi's edition) mentions a sibyl named Herophile who prophesied at various sanctuaries, including those at Samos, Delphi, and the Alexandria near Troy (not to be confused with the more famous Egyptian one). In the last she was temple-keeper to Apollo Smintheus — the name means, or was interpreted to mean, Apollo of the Mice — and after her death the following epitaph was inscribed in stone above her remains. (Phoibos — Φοῖβος — is Apollo.)
I Sibylla, Phoibos's wise woman,
am hidden under a stone monument:
I was a speaking virgin but voiceless
in this manacle by the strength of fate.
I lie close to the Nymphs and to Hermes:
I have not lost my sovereignty.
An earlier and more pedestrian translation of the epitaph reads: "Here hidden by stone sepulchre I lie, Apollo's fate-pronouncing Sibyl I, a vocal maiden once but now for ever dumb, here placed by all-powerful fate, and I lie near the Nymphs and Hermes, in this part of Apollo's realm."

In one of his copious footnotes Peter Levi tells us that the Sanctuary of Apollo Smintheus was identified in 1853 and excavated in 1866. "The bronze votive mice associated with this sanctuary turn up from time to time."

Monday, July 17, 2017

Naima



Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of John Coltrane. Richard Williams has a brief appreciation at The Blue Moment. Below is a track from Giant Steps (1959).

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Liu Xiaobo



The Chinese critic and activist Liu Xiaobo has died. A related New York Times article by Chris Buckley reflects on the bleak prospects for democracy and free expression in China. With authoritarianism of various stripes firmly entrenched in Russia, Turkey, Hungary, Venezuela, the Philippines, and elsewhere, and the lack of interest in human rights issues shown by our own current administration, the optimistic days of 1989 now seem very distant. Never forget.

Here is the full text of Charter 08. A related New York Times article examines the grim prospects for China's human rights lawyers.

Also in today's obituaries is one for Irina Ratushinskaya, former Soviet-era political prisoner and author of a fine memoir, Grey Is the Color of Hope.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Pale arrivals



One of my favorite moments of the year — the emergence of Monotropa uniflora, familiarly known as Indian pipes. They've waited out the spring, and with the first days of summer they pop up in little clusters here and there among last year's fallen leaves, in decent abundance if it's a good year and you know where to look. True flowering plants, they don't photosynthesize but take their energy from an association with fungi concealed in the ground, often in the vicinity of beech trees. They rise and unfurl, and as summer wears on fade into inconspicuous brown stalks. But for now, standing there ghostly white or faintly pink, silent, inoffensive, they seem welcome and restorative.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Tracts (2): Jerry McAuley's Story


Me father was a counterfeiter, and ran away from justice before I can remember him. There was a lot of us, and they put me with me grandmother. She was old an' a devout Romanist, an' many's the time when she was tellin' her beads an' kissing the floor for penance I'd shy things at her just to hear her curse an' swear, an' then she'd back to her knees. I'd got well beyond her or anybody by the time I was thirteen. They let me run loose.
I've posted a bit at various times about New York City's Water Street Mission, founded by ex-convict Jerry McAuley. This little leaflet was published some years after his death in 1884 by the Free Tract Society of Los Angeles, which, like the Water Street Mission, apparently still exists. The Free Tract Society was founded in 1897, and this copy bears a handwritten date of 7-11-45.

The text of the tract loosely follows the narrative of McAuley's colorful story that was published in versions issued while he was still alive, but the wording and punctuation seem closer to the text published by Helen Campbell as "Light in Dark Places: Jerry McAuley's Water Street Mission" (Methodist Magazine 1893) and in a book entitled Darkness and Daylight. Campbell claimed to have received the narrative verbatim from McAuley, and it's quite possible that he could recite it from memory. Below, for comparison, is the corresponding passage from McAuley's own Transformed, Or, the History of a River Thief: Briefly Told, "published by himself" in 1876. This "original" version (below) doesn't play up McAuley's dialect, although it preserves the convert's anti-Catholicism.
I was born in Ireland. Our family was broken up by sin, for my father was a counterfeiter, and left home to escape the law, before I knew him. I was placed at a very early age in the family of my grandmother, who was a devout Romanist. My first recollections of her are of her counting her beads, and kissing the floor for penance. I would take the opportunity while she was prostrated upon her face, to throw things at her head, in my mischievous play, and when she rose from her knees, it was to curse and swear at me. At such times I can distinctly remember thinking, though I could not have formed the thought into words, "What sort of religion is this that requires such foolish worship, and allows such sinful ways?" I can trace my infidelity to Rome to just these incidents.

In the margins of the page above are a few printed lines of unattributed verse, noteworthy for a pungent rhyme of "illy clad" and "will he had." (From other sources I gather that the versifier responsible was one Francis S. Smith.)
Poisoned by alcohol, blear eyed and illy clad,
Cursing his fate as he shuffles along;
Crushed and bereft of the once earnest will he had,
Penniless, homeless, jeered by the throng.
Friends have assisted him, pastors have prayed o'er him,
He has been rescued and lost o'er and o'er;
Oh, do not give him up,
Pull from his lips the cup,
Tell him of Jesus and try him once more!

The margins between the last two pages bear this plea:
Don't let this tract die, pass it on.
All Tracts Free, as the Lord permits, as this work is
Conducted on the Free-Will Offering Plan
Free Tract Society (Inc.)
746 Crocker St., Los Angeles, Cal., U. S. A.

Previous Water Street Mission posts:

The Madonna of Cherry Hill
Death of a Salesman
A Manhattan Mission
Cassie Burns
The Water Street Mission, Revisited

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Poison of the Age



"Novel reading has been fearfully on the increase during the last fifteen or twenty years, and especially in the last ten years; and may we not say that the increase of suicides is due, in a considerable measure, to such reading? May we not also say that it has had a baneful effect, also, on the spirituality of many professing Christians? Will anyone deny that the practice of reading the cheap, sensational novels of the day does not naturally lessen one's taste and desire for frequent and devout reading of the Bible? — No. The truth is, no one can pursue the habit of reading the trashy novels of the day without having his moral taste and tone ruinously debilitated and damaged.

"Read what a discerning and judicious writer says on the subject: 'Novels are the poison of the age. The best of them tend to produce a baneful effeminacy of mind, and many of them are calculated to advance the base designs of the licentious and abandoned on the young and unsuspecting. But were they free from every other charge of evil, it is a most heavy one that they occasion a dreadful waste of that time which must be accounted for before the God of heaven. Let their deluded admirers plead the advantages of novel reading, if they will venture to plead the same, before the great Judge eternal. If you are a novel reader, think, the next time you take a novel into your hands, How shall I answer to my tremendous Judge for the time occupied by this? When he shall say to me: "I gave you so many years in yonder world to fit you for eternity; did you converse with your God in devotion? Did you study his word? Did you attend to the duties of life, and strive to improve, to some good end, even your leisure hours?" then shall I be willing to reply, "Lord, my time was otherwise employed! Novels and romances occupied the leisure of my days, when, alas! my Bible, my God, and my soul were neglected"?' O novel reader, think on these things!" — C. H. Wetherbee


(From Pacific Health Journal and Temperance Advocate, 1891.)