Thursday, December 16, 2021

The Whales of the Dead

Stepan Krasheninnikov:
The Kamchadals regard Mount Kamchatka as the dwelling place of the dead; they say that when it emits flames, it means the dead are heating up their yurts. According to them, the dead live on whale blubber, trap whales in a subterranean sea, and burn whale oil for light. They use whale bones instead of wood to heat their homes. To support their belief, they say that some of their countrymen have gone into the interior of this mountain, where they saw the habitations of their forebears. Steller says that they consider this mountain the home of spirits. When anyone questions them, he adds, about what goes on in this spirit world, they reply that the spirits cook whales. If they are asked where the spirits got the whales, they reply that the whales came from the sea, that the spirits leave the mountains at night and take so many whales that some bring back as many as five or even ten, one on each of their fingers. If they are asked who told them all these things, they reply: Our fathers told us this. As proof they offer the whale bones, which actually are found in large numbers on all the volcanoes.

Explorations of Kamchatka 1735-1741, translation by E. A. P. Crownhart-Vaughan (Oregon Historical Society, 1972). I have modernized the spelling of one word.
Stepan Krasheninnikov was a member of the Second Kamchatka Expedition, led by Vitus Bering and sponsored by the Russian government, which aimed to survey the resources of Russia's possessions in its far northeast, including parts of what is now Alaska, at a time when those regions were all but unknown to science. The Steller mentioned above was the naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller, another notable participant in the expedition (and namesake of the extinct Steller's sea cow).

Krasheninnikov's account probably should be better known; he was a pioneering geographer and a capable and relatively unprejudiced anthropologist. Though he was sometimes wrong, as in firmly declaring that whales were fish, there is much of value in his account, which is out of print but not that hard to find. The Oregon Historical Society edition (the only complete English-language version) could have used more explanatory notes but is otherwise a noble undertaking.

Image Credit: "The Volcano of Awatcha (Avacha) in Kamchatka, Siberia." Etching with engraving, from the Wellcome Collection. A different engraving of the same image is reproduced in Explorations of Kamchatka.

Monday, December 13, 2021

Buffon's Ounce, the lonza leggera, and The Long Walk

Slawomir Rawicz was a Polish military officer in World War II who in the 1950s dictated to a ghost-writer a stirring account of how he and several companions engineered their escape from a Siberian prison camp, crossed the Gobi Desert, and then trekked over the Himalayas to safety in British India. Among the incidents he related was a close encounter with two Abominable Snowmen. Just by itself that latter claim might have raised eyebrows, and in fact the consensus now is that Rawicz's account, which was published in 1956 as The Long Walk, celebrated for decades as both an adventure yarn and an anti-Soviet testimony, and eventually filmed (as The Way Back) by Peter Weir, is essentially fictional. Still, at least it makes a good story.

I'm not the only one who has noted the likely influence of Rawicz's book on Harry Mathews's novel Tlooth, which came out in book form in 1966 after having been serialized in the Paris Review. Tlooth, like The Long Walk, describes a clever escape from Siberia and a southward journey over the Himalayas. (It differs from the earlier book in involving, among other things, dental malpractice, obscure religious denominations, and an exploding baseball.) There are no yetis in Mathews's book, but there is a cryptic if not cryptozoological sighting in a chapter entitled "Buffon's Ounce." The narrator and his companions reach a high pass:
There, in midafternoon, a shout stopped us.

"Look!" Beverley pointed uphill.

I saw a pale spotted creature clamber catfashion over snows into the rocks.

Robin remarked, "Una lonza leggiera e presta molto."
That's the last we hear of the animal. The Italian line is from the first canto of the Inferno, where Dante is brought up short by three beasts, the third of which is "a lithe and very swift leopard" — except that what Dante actually meant by lonza has been long debated. Which brings us to the meaning, otherwise unexplained, of the title of the chapter. "Buffon" is Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, a French naturalist known, among other things, for disparaging the animals of the New World as being inferior to those of the Old (to the fury of Jefferson*), and "ounce" (or in French, "once") is an obsolete word for a large wild feline, based on an etymological misunderstanding of a derivitive of the Latin word "lynx." (A form like "lonza" was misinterpreted as "l'onza.) What Buffon described — he was the first Westerner to do so — was in fact the snow leopard, shown above in an 18th-century engraving based on his work.

But there's one more weird twist to this convoluted story. Tlooth was published, as I said, in the Paris Review. Its author jokingly claimed that he was often mistakenly assumed to have been in the CIA, and even wrote a novel (My Life in CIA) based on that premise. One reason that Mathews might have plausibly been assumed to have been in the CIA was his connection with the Paris Review, one of whose co-founders, the writer Peter Matthiessen, later admitted that he had used the magazine as cover for his CIA work. In 1979 Matthiessen would win the National Book Award for a book about his travels in the Himalayas. Its title was The Snow Leopard.

* And thus a tale for another time: Jefferson's obsession with the remains of the extinct American mastodon, Charles Willson Peale's excavation of a specimen of the same, Peale's painting of his excavation, an album called Kew. Rhone inspired by the painting, a book, celebrating the album, that includes a contribution by Harry Mathews...

Wednesday, December 08, 2021


I'm walking in the woods at night in the company of Willie McTell. I see three deer standing a few yards away; somehow, in spite of his blindness, McTell is aware of their presence and able to describe them to me. What he doesn't realize is that a half-grown mountain lion has stepped out from among them and begun to approach us.

We climb a series of concrete steps that ascend to an unseen waterfall somewhere ahead. Far below, on the right, is a broad expanse of seething whitewater. The cat is hard on our heels now, drawn by the smell of the sausages I'm carrying wrapped up in deli paper. McTell knows he's there but doesn't seem overly alarmed, and refers to him, jokingly, as "Kitty." Behind us, silently, the mountain lion's parents have begun to follow.

As we climb, the cats press closer and closer to us, bumping us and sniffing at our hands. One opens its mouth tentatively, but for now doesn't bite down. In desperation I unwrap the sausages and drop one on the steps behind us; it rolls off and into the torrent below. The adult male instantly leaps the railing and lands safely on a rock. We leave it behind and continue to climb. I drop the sausages one by one until we're alone. I know that McTell will be disappointed later about losing the sausages, but he'll understand when I explain.

Monday, December 06, 2021

Monday afternoon

I stepped into a little café that was simply a small room with a counter in the rear and a table on either side of the door. The woman behind the counter gestured for me to sit and brought me a menu, which listed just two or three choices. I ordered tea and a pear torte, which turned out to be a delicious warm mélange of fruit and cream swathed in puff pastry, and which was accompanied, for some reason, by a ficelle in a wax bag. When the bill came I was a bit surprised to see that the total came to $60, but even as I reached for my wallet a man strode out of the kitchen, picked up the bill, looked at it, frowned, then began a heated argument with the woman that I couldn't follow, as it was conducted in a language I couldn't identify. I broke off a piece of the ficelle, which was also quite tasty, and waited for the outcome.

Saturday, December 04, 2021

Ambition (II)

Edward Gibbon:
Diocletian, who, from a servile origin, had raised himself to the throne, passed the nine last years of his life in a private condition. Reason had dictated, and content seems to have accompanied, his retreat, in which he enjoyed for a long time the respect of those princes to whom he had resigned the possession of the world. It is seldom that minds long exercised in business have formed any habits of conversing with themselves, and in the loss of power they principally regret the want of occupation. The amusements of letters and of devotion, which afford so many resources in solitude, were incapable of fixing the attention of Diocletian; but he had preserved, or at least he soon recovered, a taste for the most innocent as well as natural pleasures; and his leisure hours were sufficiently employed in building, planting, and gardening. His answer to Maximian is deservedly celebrated. He was solicited by that restless old man to reassume the reins of government and the Imperial purple. He rejected the temptation with a smile of pity, calmly observing that, if he could show Maximian the cabbages which he had planted with his own hands at Salona, he should no longer be urged to relinquish the enjoyment of happiness for the pursuit of power.

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
More "Ambition"

Saturday, November 27, 2021

A Few "Regrets"

I pulled out this slender letterpress chapbook the other day when I was looking for something else. I had forgotten that I owned it. The cover reads Sonnets Translated from Les Regrets of Joachim du Bellay 1553, the publisher is "the Uphill Press, New York," and the translator (who is also the printer) is identified only as A. H. It bears a date of 1972, and the statement of limitations at the back indicates that one hundred and ten copies were printed. (My copy, number 38, is inscribed to a noted architect and his wife, "in old friendship," but that's a tale for another time.)
It didn't take much to identify the person responsible, an arts administrator and biographer of Woodrow Wilson named August Heckscher. But neither in his 1997 New York Times obituary nor in the Wikipedia article devoted to him is there any hint that he was also an avid amateur printer, translator, and poet (probably in that order of importance). For that information you have to refer to the likes of Joseph Blumenthal, the noted printer and author of Typographic Years: A Printer's Journey through a Half-Century 1925-1975 who has this to say:
Among his public activities, Heckscher was Consultant in the Arts for President Kennedy and a Commissioner of Parks who planted thousands of trees in New York City. In his living room in New York, he set type by hand and printed fine small books and ephemera, often with the help of his son Charles. More recently he has set up "The Printing Office at High Loft" at his summer home in Seal Harbor, Maine, where with young apprentices he prints and publishes modestly but with éclat.
A little more digging turned up this photo of Heckscher and his sons at work from a 1962 profile in Life magazine.
Letterpress printing was probably never a particularly common hobby, but it did have its aficionados in postwar America, many of whom had day jobs in unrelated fields and carried out a collegial kind of artistic underground in their off-hours. (Broadcaster Ben Grauer, proprietor of the Between Hours Press, was a notable example.) It was negligible from an economic standpoint (hobby printers were careful not to take business away from professionals, and generally their productions were simply given away to friends), but here and there, on presses tucked away in Manhattan apartments or the basements of suburban homes, some fine work was done — and no doubt there are still people doing it.

The brief "Note" attached to this chapbook sets the scene:
Joachim du Bellay journeyed to Rome in 1553 in the service of his uncle, Cardinal du Bellay. The young Renaissance poet and scholar might have been expected to find many rewards during his three years at the center of the classical world. On the contrary, he was extremely unhappy — though it must be remarked that like many who are unhappy when they travel, he was hardly less so when he returned home. In Les Regrets, published in 1558, he poured out in sonnet form the varied pains of exile.
Heckscher tells us that he was inspired to translate the selections while he himself was traveling, in his case in Morocco. Below is a sample; I've cropped the page for the sake of readability on the web. Heckscher's margins are more generous, and of course he would have taken pride in his page design.
The chapbook is rounded off with an Envoi "from a different hand," that is, from A. H. himself:
Sleep, du Bellay, sleep sound and do not fret.
Dislikes and troubles vanish with the past.
The stuffy Roman dames, the Latin cast,
Are one with centuries that rise and set.

The endless littleness of your regret,
The heart in servitude, the soul harassed,
Are eased by kindly death, which gives at last
The peace men seek in life, but do not get.

Your verses still are read: along the Quai
When earliest Paris spring was on its way
And pear-trees flower'd in your beloved Anjou

I bought your book. I heard from far away,
Above the crimes and passions of our day,
Your sad, so human accents speaking through.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Notebook: Home Fires

Sir James George Frazer:
Not only among the Celts but throughout Europe, Hallowe’en, the night which marks the transition from autumn to winter, seems to have been of old the time of year when the souls of the departed were supposed to revisit their old homes in order to warm themselves by the fire and to comfort themselves with the good cheer provided for them in the kitchen or the parlour by their affectionate kinsfolk. It was, perhaps, a natural thought that the approach of winter should drive the poor shivering hungry ghosts from the bare fields and the leafless woodlands to the shelter of the cottage with its familiar fireside. Did not the lowing kine then troop back from the summer pastures in the forests and on the hills to be fed and cared for in the stalls, while the bleak winds whistled among the swaying boughs and the snow-drifts deepened in the hollows? and could the good-man and the good-wife deny to the spirits of their dead the welcome which they gave to the cows?

The Golden Bough

Thursday, October 28, 2021

The Old Country

It's a frightening thought that I've reached an age where there are now books that I first read almost fifty years ago, and I'm not talking about The Cat in the Hat. A case in point is this Signet Classics edition of Turgenev's The Hunting Sketches, which I first read so long ago that I remembered only that it had about as much to do with hunting as Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America had to do with angling. But I did know that I enjoyed it at the time, and some vague recollection of its mood, coupled with a desire for an antidote after suffering through The Idiot, led me back to it.

I had long ago discarded my old copy. There are newer translations that for all I know may be better than Bernard Guilbert Guerney's, but nostalgia drew me back to this edition and I found a second-hand but still sturdy replacement copy easily enough.

The Hunting Sketches was Turgenev's first book, and its narrator, a member of the Russian landed gentry who seems to have unlimited time on his hands, is thought to have much in common with the author. Not much actual hunting takes place, just the odd game bird or two, but the narrator's travels in search of sport lead him to various encounters with the peasants and gentlefolk of the Russian countryside, a cast of characters that, for a Westernized Russian like Turgenev, must have seemed intriguingly exotic. The individual sketches range widely in tone and subject, encompassing "tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral...," and so on. Here and there the descriptive passages get a bit florid (at least in this translation), but overall the tone is dispassionate, even anthropological; at times I was reminded of that other meticulous explorer of foreign lands, Lafcadio Hearn. The most memorable tale is probably "Bezhin Meadow," in which the narrator, having become lost, stumbles onto a night encampment of five adolescent boys, who exchange eerie tales of local ghosts and horrors once they think that the narrator has fallen asleep. It's a wonderful piece of writing.

The book was published in the 1850s, and the Russia it describes has been transformed and transformed again since then, but Turgenev seems like our contemporary, or the kind of contemporary we would have if we deserved him. Within the limits of his class and his background and the inevitable constraints of literary creation he described life as he found it. Naturally the authorities were displeased.

In addition to extensive work as translator, Bernard Guilbert Guerney, who died in 1979, had a second career as the proprietor of the Blue Faun Bookshop in New York City, which was in existence from 1922 into the '70s. (There is a Walker Evans photograph of the shop's exterior.) He was born near Odessa as Bernard Abramovich Bronstein or Bronshtein, and one source indicates that he may have been related to Trotsky. Walter Goldwater, a fellow bookseller, had this to say of him:
He was a great talker and one of the ones who was very resentful about the way things were going: things always used to be better; people are now illiterate; he can't stand people coming in; they don’t know anything, and so on. He was very difficult to do business with, but we got along quite well because we used to talk in Russian or talk about Russia.
Vladimir Nabokov called Guerney's translation of Gogol's Dead Souls "an extraordinarily fine piece of work."

Thursday, October 21, 2021


A posh tour bus pulls up outside our house and discharges a group of North Koreans and American supporters, who barge in through our front door carrying books and brightly-colored papier-mâché animals as gifts. Some of the North Koreans carry automatic weapons; there are also some children. I round everybody up and make them leave, then call the police. The police already know about it; they say the tour bus is going all around the country like that and not to worry. When I look at some paperwork tucked into the books I realize that they were bought from a former employer.

Monday, October 04, 2021


Charles Dickens:
The passengers were landing from the packet on the pier at Calais. A low-lying place and a low-spirited place Calais was, with the tide ebbing out towards low water-mark. There had been no more water on the bar than had sufficed to float the packet in; and now the bar itself, with a shallow break of sea over it, looked like a lazy marine monster just risen to the surface, whose form was indistinctly shown as it lay asleep. The meagre lighthouse all in white, haunting the seaboard as if it were the ghost of an edifice that had once had colour and rotundity, dropped melancholy tears after its late buffeting by the waves. The long rows of gaunt black piles, slimy and wet and weather-worn, with funeral garlands of seaweed twisted about them by the late tide, might have represented an unsightly marine cemetery. Every wave-dashed, storm-beaten object, was so low and so little, under the broad grey sky, in the noise of the wind and sea, and before the curling lines of surf, making at it ferociously, that the wonder was there was any Calais left, and that its low gates and low wall and low roofs and low ditches and low sand-hills and low ramparts and flat streets, had not yielded long ago to the undermining and besieging sea, like the fortifications children make on the sea-shore.

Little Dorrit

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Report of the Committee on Agriculture (II)

Most of this year's butternut squash crop has now been harvested. I grew two types, both of which are hybrids. The tan ones shown above are a variety called Canesi; the others, which can be either mottled green or a two-tone combination of mottled green and yellow-orange, are Autumn's Choice. The colors on the latter variety tend to fade eventually after they're picked.

I planted three or four hills in an area of our yard that hadn't been used for growing anything but grass and weeds for some time. When I dug into it I discovered old cinders, broken glass, and other indications that it had formerly been a household dump, perhaps a century ago, but the soil was apparently suitable for vegetables. About ten or twelve vines emerged, and although at first they were slow to develop once they got going they were quite rampant. The dreaded squash vine borers that are endemic in our area either let them be or did minimal damage; butternuts, which are Cucurbita moschata, are less affected than other squash species. A deer made it over our fence one evening and did some minor damage, but once the fruits themselves started to develop I swathed them in row cover every night and that proved successful. There are still a few squash on the vines but all in all we'll have a good eighty pounds or so of winter squash, which should keep us well supplied with pumpkin pies and side dishes throughout the winter. (Butternuts store for months.) We've shared a few with neighbors already and may wind up giving away more.

I have a few packaged seeds left of both varieties. Since they're hybrids and won't "breed true" there's no point in saving seed from this year's harvest, and Autumn's Choice is becoming hard to find, so next year may be the last for that one. The average size of the squash I harvested this year was in the range of five to seven pounds, which is a bit on the large side to be practical for a small household, so I'll probably mix in a smaller variety next year, perhaps one that is "open pollinated" and can be saved from each year's harvest.

Autumn's Choice proved delicious in previous years, but I won't know about Canesi until they have a chance to cure for a few weeks. Certainly they look appetizing.

Monday, September 13, 2021


This novel set in a fictitious Eastern European country was published in 1983, that is, the year after the death of Leonid Brezhnev, but superficially at least it's very much a book of the "Brezhnev era" and also of the Margaret Thatcher years. The Iron Curtain and the Iron Lady are both long gone, of course, so I was curious to revisit the book now, having liked it so much when it first appeared.

The central character of Rates of Exchange is a British academic named Petworth who is dispatched on a two-week lecture tour sponsored by the British Council. He arrives in a country that has been "pummelled, fought over, raped, pillaged, conquered and oppressed by the endless invaders who, from every direction, have swept and jostled through this all too accessible landscape." The official language spoken in Slaka is a farrago of Slavic and Romance elements as well as loan words from English and other tongues, and it's prone to overnight shifts in dialect as different political factions in the country vie for influence. Much deft comedy is had from all this and from the inevitable misunderstandings that go along with travel and with translation, and Malcolm Bradbury is nothing if not fluent and witty about all that. But there's more here than simply mocking foreign ways. Petworth never knows whom he can trust among the officials and cultural figures who wine and dine him and usher him around the country, but he himself is an unsettled figure, a middle-aged man of middling accomplishments, with a muddled marriage, in short, he can scarcely be regarded as "a character in the world-historical sense" as one of his interlocutors puts it. He is no more in control of his life than are the people he meets, all of whom are either working for or looking over their shoulders at (generally both) the ubiquitous state security apparatus. The book is suffused with an uneasy melancholy that doesn't go out of date with geopolitical changes. If it's true that one can't really imagine this novel being written today, it nevertheless hasn't lost one bit of relevance.

Saturday, September 04, 2021

The Lowest of the Low

A Josef Škvorecký novella set in wartime Czechoslovakia led me to this droll 1985 BBC documentary about the bass saxophone and its players, who seem a genial lot, comfortable with the humorous effect the instrument tends to have on people but also very much in earnest in their devotion to it. Škvorecký himself appears as one of the interviewees.

One of the masters of the bass saxophone was the multi-instrumentalist and bandleader Adrian Rollini (1903-1956), who can be heard below leading a lively combo that includes a young Buddy Rich.

Rollini largely abandoned the instrument in his later career. He opened a hotel in the Florida Keys and died in a hospital in ghastly circumstances, apparently after having run afoul of the mob. Ate van Delden's Adrian Rollini: The Life and Music of a Jazz Rambler is the definitive biography.

Thursday, September 02, 2021

"The nastiest Christian I've ever met"

And some books are just not meant for one ... I picked up The Idiot because I was more or less housebound for a few days and tired of dipping half-heartedly into insubstantial books I had already read. I hadn't looked into Dostoevsky at all since re-reading Crime and Punishment fifteen years or so ago, and The Idiot was one of the few long novels in the house I had never read. I knew even less about it than I do about the author's other major late works, The Possessed (to use its most familiar title) and The Brothers Karamazov, neither of which I own.

I don't exactly regret reading it, now that I've finished, and nothing stopped me from tossing it aside halfway through (I didn't), but it hasn't raised my estimation of the author. (The gratuitous title of this post, by the way, is a mot of Turgenev's.) For 600 pages various infuriating characters, including the feckless hero Prince Myshkin, rant and rave, shift emotions with little prelude or logic, and essentially do nothing (until the final pages). In his rare moments of coherence Myshkin reveals himself as the worst kind of spiritual reactionary, engaging in anti-Western (and vehemently anti-Catholic) tirades that embarrass even his not exactly progressive social circle. Granted some cultural differences (and exasperation on the part of the reader), but I found it difficult to follow and mostly not worth the trouble. To be fair, there are some brilliant set-pieces, but they can't redeem the novel as a whole.

I can, however, see why Kafka regarded Dostoevesky highly, and in saying so I don't mean to sneer at either writer. Strip Dostoevsky of the political and religious baggage, a few dozen patronymics, and a few hundred pages, and you have the core of a potentially interesting existential or psychological novel, even if the result might turn out to be deemed ultimately unsuccessful. But everything in this novel speaks of artistic force, and nothing of artistic control.

I would have been amused, however, if Edward Gorey (who did cover art for a few of Dostoevsky's other works) had been given the opportunity to illustrate this one. His gentle satirical eye would have provided welcome relief.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Red in Tooth and Claw

Our dog came upon this large Chinese praying mantis in our yard this morning in incriminating circumstances. The mantis was on the ground directly beneath our hummingbird feeder, and I found the insect surrounded by small feathers, with some of which it appears to have bedecked itself according to the custom of hunters from time immemorial. It reared up in an intimidating manner and the dog, who is no fool, backed off and quickly lost interest.

Until I can decide its fate I have brought it inside and put it in a transparent plastic container where I can keep an eye on it, and vice versa. I can't simply release it; it's an invasive species and they do eat hummingbirds, as improbable as that seems. On the other hand I can't quite bring myself to kill it.

For the last few hours it has been hanging on upside down to the lid of the container, which permits the passage of air. I gave it three Mexican bean beetles in case it got hungry, but they appear to have died of fright. Now it's staring in my direction, awaiting my next move. If I am murdered in my sleep tonight you will know who to blame.

Friday, August 13, 2021

Nancy Griffith 1953-2021

The gifted songwriter and performer Nanci Griffith has died at the age of 68. Here she is in her prime, with a lovely live version of one of her best songs.

The New York Times has an obit.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021


One day I hope to retire to grow the vegetable marrows, but until then I have only the window box. — Hercule Poirot

Il faut cultiver notre jardin. — Candide

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
— Yeats, "The Lake Isle of Innisfree"

When a knight retires his only plan
is to live in peace and quiet like a gentleman.
He makes a modest living selling honey and cheese
and his golden helmet is a hive for bees.
— Peter Blegvad, "Golden Helmet"

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.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975

I was predisposed to like Richard Thompson's new memoir (published by Algonquin Books in the US and Faber in the UK) because I've been a fan of his music since at least the 1980s, but I also awaited it with some trepidation, because even as intelligent and literate a musician and songwriter as Thompson is could easily fall flat when picking up the tools of a very different form of expression. The tragic death by suicide halfway through the project of Thompson's collaborator, the writer Scott Timberg, raised concerns about whether the final product would be patched together by too many hands and lack a unified voice. Not to worry, though. However the process of writing and editing the book was managed, the end-result is seamless and satisfying, and Thompson's vision comes throughly richly and recognizably as his own.

If introduction is necessary, Thompson, born in London in 1949, was one of the founders of the seminal folk-rock combo Fairport Convention, with whom he played lead guitar, occasionally sang, and eventually took on an important role as a songwriter. Thompson left the group, more or less amicably, in 1971, and subsequently made one eccentric solo masterpiece, Henry the Human Fly, as well as a series of landmark albums with his then-wife Linda in the 1970s, before going on to a long and productive solo career. Many people regard him as both one of the most accomplished songwriters of the last 50 years and one of the finest guitarists, both acoustic and electric. (And yet he'll never be a household name.)

Beeswing (a title taken from one of his best songs) covers only the beginnings of his career, and he says he has little interest in writing a sequel, but those few years were eventful both artistically and in terms of human drama. It's a litle astonishing to reflect that after the Fairport years (including still highly listenable records like Unhalfbricking and Liege & Lief) and the first solo album, Richard and Linda recorded the astonishing I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight when he was all of twenty-four.

It was a creative period but one haunted by tragedy. Fairport's teenage drummer, Martin Lamble, and Thompson's girlfriend Jeannie Franklyn were both killed when the band's touring van was involved in a horrific accident. Another bandmember, Sandy Denny, a fine songwriter and a singer of fathomless emotional depth, died in 1978, and her death serves in effect as the closing chapter of both the period and the book.

Much has happened since then — children, divorces, records, decades of touring — and Thompson, still very active musically, is old enough to look back objectively but sympathetically at his younger self, to own up to mistakes, mourn old friends, and reflect without bitterness or a sense of things left undone. The book leaves much unsaid — creative genius, in the end, can't really be explained — but it makes a fine companion to his legacy as a songwriter and performer.

Below is a track recorded during the Liege & Lief sessions (though not included on the original LP). The wisp of a song was written by Roger McGuinn of the Byrds (an early influence on the band); Dylan also reportedly had a hand in its composition. It's basically a dialogue between Denny's incomparable singing and Thompson's relentlessly questing guitar.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021


The great blue herons at the local pond I frequent tend to be skittish, flying off as soon as they see me coming down the path, but for whatever reason this one felt like showing off. I walked up to the shore as quietly as I could and finally settled down on a rock just across from the dead branch where it was perching. It gave me a casual glance or two but then settled back into its routine of alternatingly preening and peering into the water. It seemed to be trying out poses and hairstyles, and I have to admit that its full feathered regalia was impressive.
There was a second heron on the other side of the pond that was a bit more standoffish. It also seemed to be a bit smaller and more submissive. Eventually it settled on a branch of its own, but the first heron quickly joined it and chased it off. Maybe it was jealous of those flashy white chest feathers.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Words & Music

An interesting sign of something, though I'm not sure what: all of a sudden a large number of the musicians I listen to regularly or occasionally have either come out with a book or have one in the pipe. The one I've been anticipating for some time is Richard Thompson's memoir, which is being published shortly, but just in the last week I've learned that Rickie Lee Jones is also releasing a memoir in April, and that Robin Hitchcock is publishing a hardcover volume of lyrics in July.

Just looking back four years and including only performers represented in my modest CD collection, I came up with the following short list:
  • Loudon Wainwright III, Liner Notes: On Parents & Children, Exes & Excess, Death & Decay, & a Few of My Other Favorite Things (2017)
  • Amy Rigby, Girl to City: A Memoir (2019) (reviewed briefly in this space here)
  • Peter Case, Somebody Told the Truth: Selected Lyrics and Stories (2020)
  • Peter Blegvad, Imagine, Observe, Remember (2020)
  • Rickie Lee Jones, Last Chance Texaco: Chronicles of an American Troubadour (April 6, 2021)
  • Richard Thompson, Beeswing: Losing My Way & Finding My Voice, 1967-1975 (April 13, 2021)
  • Mary Gauthier, Saved by a Song: The Art and Healing Power of Songwriting (July 2021)
  • Robyn Hitchcock, Somewhere Apart: Selected Lyrics 1977-1997 (July 2021)
  • Roy Gullane (of the Tannahill Weavers), untitled memoir (tentatively 2021)
Some of the above are self-published (or appear to be), but Rigby's memoir was admirably written and professionally produced, and the Hitchcock, which will include some of his drawings as well, looks nicely packaged. Others are being issued and supported by major US publishers. The Blegvad, available from Uniformbooks in the UK, is a bit of a ringer here, as it has no particular connection to his music.

Most or all of these performers, some of whom have worked with each other in the past, have had to drastically reduce their touring schedules due to the pandemic, which may have given them the incentive and leisure time to shift their attention to the written word, but several of the volumes listed appear to have been at least contemplated before last year. A more likely explanation is that all of these artists have reached a point in their careers that a bit of retrospective seems to be in order, and no doubt any extra bit of revenue is welcome as well.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Notebook: Stephens at Palenque

From 1839 to 1841 the American traveler John Lloyd Stephens and the British artist Frederick Catherwood traveled throughout Mexico and Central America exploring and meticulously describing Mayan antiquities, which were then barely known to the English-speaking world (and even to many living in the region). Here Stephens relates his thoughts as they leave the site in Mexico known by the Spanish name of Palenque.
There was no necessity for assigning to the ruined city an immense extent, or an antiquity coeval with that of the Egyptians or of any other ancient and known people. What we had before our eyes was grand, curious, and remarkable enough. Here were the remains of a cultivated, polished, and peculiar people, who had passed through all the stages incident to the rise and fall of nations; reached their golden age, and perished, entirely unknown. The links which connected them with the human family were severed and lost, and these were the only memorials of their footsteps upon earth. We lived in the ruined palace of their kings; we went up to their desolate temples and fallen altars; and wherever we moved we saw the evidences of their taste, their skill in arts, their wealth and power. In the midst of desolation and ruin we looked back to the past, cleared away the gloomy forest, and fancied every building perfect, with its terraces and pyramids, its sculptured and painted ornaments, grand, lofty, and imposing, and overlooking an immense inhabited plain; we called back into life the strange people who gazed at us in sadness from the walls; pictured them, in fanciful costumes and adorned with plumes of feathers, ascending the terraces of the palace and the steps leading to the temples; and often we imagined a scene of unique and gorgeous beauty and magnificence, realizing the creations of Oriental poets, the very spot which fancy would have selected for the "Happy Valley" of Rasselas. In the romance of the world's history nothing ever impressed me more forcibly than the spectacle of this once great and lovely city, overturned, desolate, and lost; discovered by accident overgrown with trees for miles around, and without even a name to distinguish it. Apart from everything else, it was a mourning witness to the world's mutations.
Unlike many early observers who attributed the ruins to a civilization originating in the Old World, Stephens ultimately concluded, correctly, that the builders were the ancestors of the same Maya people who still inhabited the region. I visited several of the sites, including Palenque, in 1980, by which time conditions for travelers, distinctly rough in 1840, were vastly improved. The fine Dover editions of the four volumes of Stephens's travels are still in print.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

La Gileppe

These images by C. Renard are from a novel by the Belgian entomologist Ernest Candèze, which relates the adventures of a group of insects who lose their home when a dam is built. According to the historian David Blackbourn, who describes the book in The Conquest of Nature, "with its cast of anthropomorphized insect characters, the book gently satirized human pretensions from the perspective of the victims."
The entire contents of La Gileppe can be perused online at

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Airwaves (The Midnight Broadcast)

If you've ever twiddled the radio dial late at night when the ionosphere was in one of its capricious moods and the receiver was pulling in haunted signals from who knows where, signals that faded out as mysteriously as they appeared, you'll get this record right away. Peter Case is well-known as a songwriter, but on The Midnight Broadcast the only Case composition ("Just Hanging On") is one he has recorded before (though with a very different arrangement). There are two Dylan tunes (or strictly speaking one Dylan tune and one Danko-Dylan tune) and the rest of the songs mostly belong to the churning alchemical matrix of "folk music," attributed or otherwise, including old blues songs, a raucous cowboy number, a couple of nautical tunes, a lament by a New Zealand gold-miner, and a version of "Stewball," the ode to a champion racehorse that has been morphing from one form to another since the 1780s. Alternating with and sometimes overlaying the music are miscellaneous synthesizer drones, whistles, and loops, interspersed with scraps of DJ patter (voiced by Ross Johnson) that might be described as Joycean cornball. The whole aural collage was put together in the Old Whaling Church on Martha's Vineyard with the participation of longtime Case collaborators Ron Franklin (who produced) and Bert Deivert, among others. The apt cover photo above is by David Emsinger.

Case's usual instrument when he performs is acoustic guitar, but on The Midnight Broadcast he often sits at the piano, even picking out an instrumental version of the pop-jazz standard "Dinah." But there's gorgeous guitar work on St. Louis Jimmy Oden's "Going Down Slow," Memphis Minnie's "Bumble Bee," and elsewhere. Some of these songs have been in Case's repertoire for decades, but here they sound fresh. There's a richness and depth to this record that speak to long years of experience as a performer but also to a willingness to mix it up, to discover unexpected musical textures, and to make the old new.

The Midnight Broadcast is available on CD from Bandaloop Records. An LP is forthcoming.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

"Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout" (Gary Snyder)

Down valley a smoke haze
Three days heat, after five days rain
Pitch glows on the fir-cones
Across rocks and meadows
Swarms of new flies.

I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.

A poem read this morning, coincidentally, while an experimental batch of sourdough bread rises down the hall. As to the name of the mountain, Jim Harris gives one explanation:
In 1872 Jack Rowley and his partners, from the Lower Skagit [...] set out to prospect the Skagit to its headwaters. Panning each river bar, they found scattered flecks of gold, enough to keep them going. At the head of canoe navigation, now Newhalem, they were still seeking that elusive mother lode. Native guides were hired to lead them high above and around the river's narrow canyon. It was tough going and very hot. Sourdough starter began to work in a prospector's pack, messing up his gear. The place was christened Sourdough Mountain.
Harris's account, which is from a volume entitled Impressions of the North Cascades, is available online here.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021)

City Lights Books has announced the death of its co-founder, the writer, bookseller, and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, after an astonishingly long and productive career. Ferlinghetti was 101 and had just published a book a year or so ago, making him (along with Herman Wouk) a rare centenarian author of consequence.

I've never been to San Francisco and it's been years since I read any of Ferlinghetti's poetry, but the bookstore and publishing company remain active, having survived a financial crisis a year ago with the help of donations. Long may it continue along its cantankerous way.

I've owned a handful of City Lights books over the years, but the only two I seem to have now are shown here. Both are fairly minor works by writers I admire, but the press did a nice job on them and I'm glad that they exist.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

The Character of the Cassowary

I wish I were a cassowary
Out on the plains of Timbuctoo.
I'd kill and eat a missionary--
Head, arms, legs, and hymn-book too.
The above lines have been kicking around since at least the 1850s, and nobody seems to know who wrote them. They're geographically inaccurate — cassowaries live in Australia, New Guinea, and thereabouts, not Africa — but they do contain a grain of truth, for this flightless bird is, at least according to most accounts, a singularly surly and aggressive customer, and though it eats neither missionaries nor heathens it does have lethal claws that have led to well-documented, if infrequent, fatalities in human beings who were foolhardy enough not to give the cassowary its space.

Julio Cortázar, who expressed memorable interspecies kinship with the axolotl, had no such empathy with the fearsome cassowary. He describes it in Cronopios & Famas as "unlikable in the extreme and repulsive." In Paul Blackburn's translation, these are its curious properties:
He lives in Australia, the cassowary; he is cowardly and fearsome at the same time; the guards enter his cage equipped with high leather boots and a flame thrower. When the cassowary stops his terrified running around the pan of bran they’ve put out for him and comes leaping at the keeper with great camel strides, there is no other recourse than to use the flame thrower. Then you see this: the river of fire envelops him and the cassowary, all his plumage ablaze, advances his last few steps bursting forth in an abominable screech. But his horn does not burn: the dry, scaly material which is his pride and his disdain goes into a cold melding, it catches fire with a prodigious blue, moving to a scarlet which resembles an excoriated fist, and finally congeals into the most transparent green, into an emerald, stone of shadow and of hope. The cassowary defoliates, a swift cloud of ash, and the keeper runs over greedily to possess the recently made gem. The zoo director always avails himself of this moment to institute proceedings against the keeper for the mistreatment of animals, and to dismiss him.
As entertaining as that fantasy is, reality is hardly less so, and the cassowary's true nature seems to be open to debate. During the travels he described in Gatherings of a Naturalist in Australasia, the naturalist and explorer George Bennett kept several specimens of what he called the mooruk in captivity, and even successfully shipped a pair to England. He found them generally congenial as housemates, although they were perhaps a bit too tame. They certainly weren't fussy about what they ate:
It is well to warn persons, inclined to keep these birds as pets, of their insatiable propensities. When about the house, they displayed extraordinary delight in a variety of diet ; for, as I have previously related, one day they satisfied their appetites with bones, whetstones, corks, nails, and raw potatoes, most of which passed perfectly undigested ; one dived into thick starch and devoured a muslin cuff, whilst the other evinced a great partiality for nails and pebbles; then they stole the Jabiru’s meat from the water. If eggs and butter were left upon the kitchen-table, they were soon devoured by these marauders ; and when the servants were at their dinner in the kitchen, they had to be very watchful ; for the long necks of the birds appeared between their arms, devouring everything off the plates ; or if the dinner-table was left for a moment, they would mount upon it and clear all before them. At other times they stood at the table, waiting for food to be given to them, although they did not hesitate to remove anything that was within their reach. I have often seen them stand at the window of our dining- room, with keen eye, watching for any morsel of food that might be thrown to them. The day previous to the departure of the pair for England, in February 1859, the male bird walked into the dining-room, and remained by my side during the dessert. I regaled him with pine-apple and other fruits, and he behaved very decorously and with great forbearance.
All in all, the presence of the birds seemed to be just one more challenge among many for the domestic staff:
One or both of them would walk into the kitchen ; while one was dodging under the tables and chairs, the other would leap upon the table, keeping the cook in a state of excitement; or they would be heard chirping in the hall, or walk into the library in search of food or information [sic], or walk up stairs, and then be quickly seen descending again, making their peculiar chirping, whistling noise ; not a door could be left open, but in they walked, familiar with all.
Perhaps the mooruk has a gentler disposition than its larger cousins. The smallest cassowary species, it is now often known as Bennett's cassowary in honor of its scientific discoverer.