Spring Cleaning

April 21, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“The french fry did not become America's most popular vegetable until industry took over the jobs of of washing, peeling, cutting, and frying the potatoes – and cleaning up the mess.” - Michael Pollan

I don't think that T.S. Eliot was referring to cleaning when he claimed that April is the cruellest month. However, April is often the culturally accepted time to clean out the old. The origin of spring cleaning is unknown, though Google will tell you that spring-cleaning means “a thorough cleaning of the house or room, especially undertaken in spring.” I guess that I assumed that since spring was in the phrase itself, one would expect the action to fall in springtime. So, this definition seems unhelpful. Wikipedia, then, lists a number of different possibilities. A few of these claim that the foundational practice of spring cleaning stems from Jewish or Persian traditions. The article is sketchy at best.

There are a couple of possibilities that deserve to be explored, however. First, spring cleaning may, in fact, relate to a religious expectation or practice. For example, the Jewish tradition celebrates Passover in April. Among some of the Passover guidelines, families are asked to remove leavened bread from their diets. Therefore, they may spend extra time removing unclean items from their homes in general. In this way, spring cleaning might link moral, ethical and religious law to everyday experience. Even more interesting, then, would be to wonder why spring cleaning gained popularity outside of the Jewish tradition. Clearly, the practice filled a general practical need, regardless of religion.

Another possible explanation of spring cleaning can be found in the Catholic religion. Lent is observed during the weeks leading up to Easter, during which, it is common to fast or abstain from an extravagance. Similar to the Jewish tradition, followers are asked to purge something in honor of the struggles of their ancestors. I find it interesting, then, that a specifically religious practice would transfer to another religious group and then become somewhat mainstream. In other words, it seems likely that the idea behind spring cleaning is based upon some sort of practical experience. If this is true, then there is a commonality between large groups of people, independent of culture and/or religion. In the essay on Custom and Convention in the Syntopicon, Mortimer Adler writes, “Opinion normally suggests relativity to the individual, custom or convention relativity to the social group. Either may be involved in the origin of the other. The individual may form his opinions under the pressure of prevailing customs of thought or action; the customary beliefs or practices of a society or culture may, and usually do, result from opinions which have come to prevail.” Whatever makes those ideas prevail is difficult to trace.

There is no denying, however, that spring cleaning is linked to the season. Many people view spring as a time of opening, a refreshing practice after the cold months of winter. There is warmth to invite the open doors, sunshine to shake out rugs, hang laundry or simply invite fresh air into the home. Therefore, spring cleaning is an example of a human custom that combines both nature and social organization.

Even more fascinating than the idea that spring cleaning can transcend the boundaries of specific religions, is the way in which it has fallen out of practice. The phrase is still understood, and yet, if there is a spring cleaning, it is far less of a process than it used to be. This is partly due to technological advances. However, it is also due to changes in lifestyle and perhaps religious backing. Humans do not feel bound by this “law” with the same seriousness and severity as before. The idea of being “unclean” still carries very negative connotations, which indicates society still struggles with this particular taboo (but perhaps our definition of unclean has changed?). Morality is still partially bound up in the idea of clean, which brings us back to the idea of a religious foundation for spring cleaning. Adler writes, “Aquinas conceives positive rules as 'determinations' of, rather than 'deductions' from, natural law.” If this is true in the case of spring cleaning, then it becomes doubly tricky to counteract the custom. First of all, it has been tied to a religious belief, and therefore given a stigma or taboo. Secondly, it participates with a natural human experience, which is undeniably difficult to argue.

However, if we no longer take spring cleaning seriously, why do we continue to refer to it or utilize the phrase? As long as the phrase continues to be understood, then isn't some portion of the custom still in practice? Adler writes, “Custom is both a cause and an effect of habit. The habits of the individual certainly reflect the customs of the community in which he lives; and in turn, the living customs of any social group get their vitality from the habits of its members. A custom which does not command general compliance is as dead as a language no longer spoken or a law no longer observed.” Clearly, Adler understands custom to be a practice, and not a rhetorical concept. I wonder, however, if we could challenge this based off of the example of spring cleaning. Is it possible that “spring cleaning” is now understood in only a rhetorical sense? Or, perhaps this is simply a phase involved in losing the custom altogether.

Most interesting, however, is the idea that custom is both a freedom, but also a restriction. Customs are often the most conservative factor in societies. It is precisely these foundational principles that become so difficult to sway or change, more difficult even than actual law! Adler states, “Without that support it may be a law on the books but not in practice, for the authority of a law cannot long prevail against a contrary custom, except through a degree of coercion so oppressive as to produce rebellion.” While I doubt that anyone will take such an extreme stance with spring cleaning, it is interesting to see what levels of usage and adherence still exist. Either way, now is the time to wash the windows – or so they say.

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Shakespeare's Henry V

April 14, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

When reading historical documents, it may be easy to forget the more mundane effects that occur when two cultures collide. However, Shakespeare's Henry the Fifth paints an example of this exact thing. In the play, the actual collision is often thought to take place in the battle between France and England, however it is actually through details of everyday life that Shakespeare exemplifies the angst of cultural divides. Shakespeare frames this combination of two cultures very well in his dramatic interpretation of the life of Henry the Fifth. Having just discussed both the text and the BBC's version of Henry the Fifth, I owe much of my rambling to a continued conversation from our film series. I am indebted to those participants for having inspired so much continued thought about this play.

To say that Henry the Fifth is a history play is not entirely true. It is, however, a well-developed sketch of a young king taking possession of land in France. In combining two empires, Shakespeare incorporates the French language directly into the text which offers an accurate portrayal of the experience. In addition, he includes characters with accented speech and he foregrounds a variety of ethnicities. Shakespeare also incorporates the classic technique of a chorus, a practice which stems from ancient Greek theatre, which helps to introduce the scenes and move through both time and place.

Henry the Fifth begins with an introduction from the Chorus, which frames the play. The film brilliantly portrays this as a voice-over narrator who renders commentary on the action. At the end of the film (spoiler alert!), we find out that the Boy is actually the narrator. For me, this creates an astonishing and brilliant use of the Chorus. In this case, the frame becomes the actual lens of the Boy as he has seen and lived through these times and with these characters. As an actual witness to their pranks, emotions, jokes and lives, he becomes an authority and a sage. In Henry IV, Part 2, it was Henry himself who sent the Boy to wait on Falstaff. So, it is very fitting to use his particular lens to navigate both Falstaff's death (at the beginning of the play) all the way through to Henry's own death. Throughout the play, the Boy attempts to separate himself from characters he finds unworthy (such as Pistol and Bardolph). He takes the audience a step closer to understanding honor and virtue through the life of Henry the Fifth. Therefore, his view of the battles and the politics becomes extremely important.

The film begins and ends with Henry V's funeral. The audience immediately understands the transitory nature of life, even the life of this great king, who died at the age of 44. It is somber to note that his young, French wife has an infant. At the end of the film, she kisses the infant and carries him away from Henry's casket. This moment follows closely on the heels of the courtship scene (which ends the text). Therefore, it accentuates the painful separation which comes so close upon the actual union. Shakespeare understands that everyone identifies with life, death and love. The final scene of Henry the Fifth surprises us with Henry's tenderness and care for Katherine, which itself comes close on the heels of the fierce battle scenes. Henry presses Katherine to speak English, but while she struggles with the language, she does not struggle to show her interest in Henry's proposal.

I am not surprised to find that Shakespeare writes brilliantly both in English and in French. Shakespeare uses French in a way that is, again, universally unmistakable. First, in a scene with Katherine and Alice, her attendant, Katherine attempts to learn a few English words. The scene beautifully demonstrates what it is like to learn a foreign language. In addition, it walks the audience through Katherine's excitement and nervousness represented by her approach to English. Then, in the end of the play, Shakespeare combines French and English as Henry V asks Kate to marry him. This documents, of course, a real experience in these communities which often clashed. Even the reader must change the manner in which they approach these sections of text. This abrupt language change clearly communicates the experience of fracture, but also of the fact that some experiences are universal and require no translation.

Plays often shift linguistic paradigms and there are many bridges to gap. In other words, the text of a play is not meant to stand alone on the page, but to be read out loud, acted and imagined. The addition of French is only another way of expressing the idea that we are always translating outside experience into personal experience.

Once again, I thank the group for a wonderful discussion of Henry the Fifth. I look forward to our next film course in the fall. For more information on the film series, email

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Petrified National Forest

April 7, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“It is only by becoming sensible of our natural disadvantages that we shall be roused to exertion, and prompted to seek out opportunities of discovering the operations now in progress, such as do not present themselves readily to view.” - Charles Lyell

Charles Lyell first published the Principles of Geology in 1830. However, over the next thirty years, he continued to edit and revise his Principles until he published a final two-volume work in 1867-8. This work is a beautiful treatise on understanding changes that have affected and continue to affect the earth. In it, Lyell defines principles necessary for the scientific study of geology, while at the same time, he refutes common myths and stereotypes which previously inhibited the study of the earth. This gigantic work was written with the input of years of experience and conversation with other scientists, including his friend Charles Darwin.

On a recent stop in Petrified National Forest, I found some of Lyell's conversation repeating in my mind. Particularly, the idea that one can travel to a distant land without ever having left the earth, and without ever having left your home. In other words, Lyell's ability to see geologic structures as a mixture of age and processes enlivened the rocks about me as if a literal experience of time travel.

Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Photo credit: Alissa Simon

The fact that trees of such height and width once existed in the seemingly barren terrain of Petrified Forest demands imagination. Instead of a desert, this land used to be filled with water, rivers, swamps and animals. When these mythic, large trees fell, they landed deep in the rivers and swamps and absorbed sediment which caused them to solidify. Merriam-Webster defines “petrified” as: “to convert (organic) matter into stone or a substance of stony hardness by the infiltration of water and the deposition of dissolved mineral matter.” In other words, the processes acting upon these trees literally changed their composition from wood to stone. They are massive, dense and heavy. They break by their own weight when the sediment supporting a portion of one log erodes. The log, then, fractures like a bone, sticking oddly and forlornly out of the earth. Their interior rings represent more than the age of the tree, but the age of the location, the age of the earth in which they lay and a colorful map of organic matter. This log which looks like a tree stump does not act like one. Instead, they are filled with spectacular colors of various sediments. Light reflects through them, and they no longer show signs of fibrous content. Upon investigation and imagination, one has literally traveled millions of years.

Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Photo credit: Alissa Simon

The riverbeds in which they lay are now dry dustbeds, which receive violent, but sporadic rainfall. The desert here appears gray, blue, purple, pink and rusty. Somehow, plants eke out an existence. And where there are plants, there will be insects. Where there are insects, there will be lizards and birds. And with these follow larger predators. I imagine it is a very difficult life. But I also imagine that sunsets enliven these pronounced vistas with color unimaginable. And then, there are the fossils and ancient writings. Petrified National Forest offers a wide variety of interests for those wandering along Interstate 40. If nothing else, stop just to take in the views.

For more information, visit: .

Watch a short video about the park:

“The adoption of the same generic, and, in some cases, even the same specific names for the exuviae of fossil animals, and their living analogues, was an important step towards familiarizing the mind with the idea of the identity and unity of the system in distant eras. It was an acknowledgement, as it were, that a considerable part of the ancient memorials of nature were written in a living language. The growing importance then of the natural history of organic remains, and its general application to geology, may be pointed out as the characteristic feature of the progress of the science during the present century. This branch of knowledge has already become an instrument of great power in the discovery of truths in geology, and is continuing daily to unfold new data for grand and enlarged views respecting the former changes of the earth.” - Charles Lyell

“But if, instead of vague conjectures as to what might have been the state of the planet at the era of its creation, we fix our thoughts steadily on the connection at present between climate and the distribution of land and sea; and if we then consider what influence the former fluctuations in the physical geography of the earth must have had on superficial temperature, we may perhaps approximate to a true theory.” - Charles Lyell

“[T]he geologist is in danger of drawing a contrary inference, because he has the power of passing rapidly from the events of one period to those of another – of beholding, at one glance, the effects of causes which may have happened at intervals of time incalculably remote, and during which, nevertheless, no local circumstances may have occurred to mark that there is a great chasm in the chronological series of nature's archives.” - Charles Lyell

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A Saguaro Stands Tall

March 31, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“The word saguaro originated in Ópata, a language spoken by peoples of the Sonoran Desert region of Mexico. It came into English by way of the Spanish spoken by the Mexican settlers of the American West. The very saguaros we see today may well have been around when the word was first noted, some 150 years ago - this amazing cactus can live for up to 200 years.” - Merriam-Webster

Sometimes, it is important to dwell upon something small. The saguaro, say, which is undoubtedly the tallest desert creature, but in the greater perspective of the world, is remarkably small. It can only survive in the narrowest of conditions, and yet somehow, the tall, human-like structure has become synonymous with desert lifestyles. The saguaro cactus (pronounced suh-WAH-roh) offers a prime example of the complexity of desert habitats. After a recent visit to the Sonoran Desert, I felt it would be interesting to take a closer look at a place which conceals so much life.

Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Descending from the Mogollon Rim (pronounced Mug-EE-yawn) into the Sonoran Desert, saguaros appear quickly, suddenly, and in great numbers as if a sea of life exploded on the desert floor. The metaphor of sea indicates depth or breadth, but this desert is the opposite of a literal sea. It is, actually, the sea's remains. As this patch of earth moved northward over millions of years, it also drained and dried out. Saguaros choose to live in a basin or valley that was once a shoreline, but is now nearly deprived of all water.

Saguaros grow slowly, but can live up to two hundred years. In fact, a twenty year old saguaro would be easy to miss, having grown up to about 2 inches tall. As they age, most begin to add arms, giving them the iconic look of a distant, dry and hot vista from a western movie. Also as they age, they begin to bloom in the spring. White flowers cluster in spots and each bud opens only for about twenty-four hours. The dense, red, bulbous fruit pod produced from the blossoms can carry up to two thousand seeds. These seeds need to be deposited by birds and then they require rain to develop into a seedling. The seedlings require shade and moisture in order to continue to grow. Unfortunately, all of those conditions are rarely met in the desert, and so the survival of saguaros becomes a masterful study in patience and adaptation.

It is the largest cactus in the United States. Though the saguaro can grow to be 60 feet tall, they leave very shallow roots. The saguaro uses a single, center root that grows down 2 feet or more, while the rest spread just under the surface for the best chance at grabbing water. Like other plants, the roots soak up water. Unlike other plants, the saguaro can store up to two hundred gallons of water in skin that stretches to contain it all. This is a useful technique in areas which see little water, but when it does rain, the desert floor runs thick with muddy floods. This, obviously, greatly increases the weight of the cactus, and its danger of falling over. The waxy skin prevents water loss, while also allowing for the growth of thick spines. Few animals can penetrate the skin, and even fewer dare due to the dangerous thorns. In this way, the saguaro collects, stores and protects its immense water supply in a place that rarely sees water.

Another mystery of the saguaro is their ability to produce arms. The cactus must reach about sixty years of age before it can grow the first arm. And yet, some never grow any, preferring to remain a single column. It is unclear what factors affect the growth of a branch. Like all desert beings, the saguaro is a master of survival.

Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Deserts provide little water, hot days, cold nights and minimal shade. Shelter is imperative. Birds have figured out that the saguaro offers a brilliant hiding spot. Woodpeckers are able to dig into the skin of a saguaro, building a well-hidden and well-fortified nest. In addition, they are able to stay cool in summer and keep the nests at a relatively stable temperature. After they leave the nest, it is likely that another inhabitant will find the open space useful. In this way, the saguaro becomes a housing complex. The communities are free to come and go. Once the hole exists, the saguaro continues to grow, exposing the scar for future residents, but maintaining internal moisture, temperature and structure for a long time. This is due to the dense, hard fibers hidden just under the surface of the skin. Once a saguaro dies, this fiber dries into a very hard wood, which can be used for many additional purposes.

Desert survival depends upon community. Without these massive structures, many other plants and animals would suffer. They grow from a dry seabed, impressively towering above the earth, and yet, for all that height, they are limited to a fairly small, specific geographical location. Learn more about this impressive species on the Saguaro National Park Service's website:

If you would like to read literature about the desert, or are interested in these landscapes, the following authors/works include often include cactus, desert and drought as main characters:

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

Animal Dreams or The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

Bless Me, Última by Rudolpho Anaya

House Made of Dawn, N. Scott Momaday

The Milagro Beanfield War, by John Nichols

Cormac McCarthy

Willa Cather

Leslie Marmon Silko

Tony Hillerman

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