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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: https://www.nps.gov/sagu/learn/photosmultimedia/videos.htm

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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What Makes Great Nonfiction

December 30, 2016

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

“The best nonfiction books add up to a biography of our culture.” - Robert McCrum

It is difficult to determine what falls within the bounds of the nonfiction genre. Can we include cookbooks or dictionaries? Reading the dictionary is certainly a different type of reading than a chapter book or a textbook. And yet, all of these are meant to give us a better understanding of factual information. Dictionaries define words. Cookbooks instruct, but also, more and more, they offer vital information regarding a new tool, technique or ingredient. Philosophy texts offer perspective. All of these text provide an enriching experience, and clearly they are not fiction. So, what exactly is nonfiction?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines nonfiction as “literature or cinema that is not fictional”. That definition leaves the door wide open, especially in a world of evolving texts, like Twitter. Searching the internet for a list of favorite nonfiction takes one in a gigantic maze. Often lists are comprised by year, as in the case of this one compiled by the Washington Post.

But a list that records yearly bests, is not a very good indicator of the genre itself. Instead, this reveals more about the year or the internet search itself. For example, Amazon's list of best nonfiction is tailored to the likes based upon past purchases or searches. In other words, it will likely limit the results in an unfortunate way because it is often the unexpected that brings the most gratification and excitement. Also, lists that contain only recent books often do not address the historical discussion of an argument. While a contemporary book may be important, it should also be noted that an attempt to understand the previous decades or centuries of discussion on a particular topic will be helpful too. For example, I have recently been reading Plutarch's Parallel Lives. I am absolutely astounded at Plutarch's ability to create this important text, which is unlike any other. In comparing Greek and Roman leaders, he created a very valuable resource about virtue itself. He allows the reader to come to their own conclusions, but also offers his insights which allow the reader to understand cultural context, societal constraints and ways of viewing the world outside the self. The idea of virtue pertains to any human society, past, present or future. Plutarch's idea of virtue would complement a number of other nonfiction texts (or fiction, for that matter) in a discussion of virtue. While Plutarch is still discussed in various circles (including the Great Books) it has fallen out of mainstream education.

In truth, the Great Books canon includes some vital nonfiction texts. It is pleasing to see a handful of these nonfiction texts included in 2016 lists of great nonfiction. For example, this list includes George Frazer and Rachel Carson. The Guardian proposed this list, which contains Rachel Carson, C.S. Lewis, and others. It is unfortunate, however, that voices like Plutarch's have fallen out of the mainstream, when they clearly add depth to many important conversations. I invite you to pick up a book that may be out of date, but still pertains to an argument that interests you: education, virtue, love, etc.

As there are limitless examples of great nonfiction, this short list is based upon a number of the HMU faculty favorites. There are many texts that deserve discussion, but here is a variety that has pleased us throughout the years.

Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things by George Lakoff

The Ethics of Truth by Alain Badiou

Parallel Lives by Plutarch

The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollen

The Art of Eating by MFK Fisher

Plato

Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

René Descartes

How to Hug A Porcupine by Julie Ross

The Dancing Wuli Masters by Gary Zukav

Digging Dinosaurs by John R. Horner

The Great Dinosaur Hunters and Their Discoveries by Edwin H. Colbert

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

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An Aryuvedic Canon of Literature

January 22, 2016

If we frame literature as a body, then it follows that literature functions as a system, much like a human body. Within this frame, it is relevant, then, to address literature through the analogy of a healthy biological system, such as the human body. In Aryuvedic teachings, each individual body is made up of three elemental substances called doshas. Doshas fluctuate in a unique percentage within each individual. The goal is to maintain a personalized balance within these doshas, Vata, Pitta, and Kapha, which results in a healthy body. It is not a single, equal percentage for everyone (a one-size-fits-all dosha), but rather an individualized portion suited to each person.

If we are discussing literature, then, there are many divisions one can make: Classics, Romantic, Medieval, Contemporary, poetry, prose, etc. We have all read bits and pieces, but most likely there is on category that stuck with us. This composes, for the reader, their main canon. Studying a canon in this aryuvedic frame makes an interesting point because it highlights the other. In seeking balance between three doshas, we would have to seek balance by finding the things that border our canon and creates its perimeter. The argument would be to seek sources outside of the canon in which we work, texts also of importance and ideas, but found outside of our existing structure.

This is, of course, extremely important for development of global ideas. For example, at Harrison Middleton University, we use The Great Books which focus on literature of the Western World. This does not mean, however, that thought or discussions are of the Western World only. Instead, the curriculum asks that we read initial arguments – primary texts, most likely those texts that formed our childhood and adolescence, whether we know it or not – to instill an idea of the pattern that the argument assumes. This is a very useful tool for granting structure and form to large, abstract arguments and in subverting them or moving beyond their bounds. In “The Love of Reading”, Virginia Woolf states, “Critics and criticism abound, but it does not help us greatly to read the views of another mind when our own is still hot from a book that we have just read. It is after one has made up one's own opinion that the opinions of others are most illuminating.” Once an argument is developed and framed, the reader ably steps outside of the primary texts in order to revisit old debates, read old works with new eyes and new works with old arguments in mind. The important part of this development exists in reading the primary texts first. The last step, according to Woolf, should be attention to the opinions and commentaries.

The idea that a canon avoids another tradition is a misconception. Instead, the canon is framed to build a complete understanding of one tradition – which can only exist in contraposition to another. Acknowledging one simultaneously acknowledges the other. Often arguments complement each other too, which combines to create our aryuvedic body of world literature. A healthy body is composed of more than one dosha, more than one canon. This sounds oddly contradictory since canon is typically understood as a single body of essential texts that have shaped society. Therefore, we typically think that only one canon exists: the canon. However, literature, just like a body or a culture, is not static. It ages, grows and reinvents itself. For this reason, literature continues to fascinate and captivate us.

If we look at world literature as one thing, as one body, then we run the risk of oversimplifying. Knowing one field well can only grant access to another field and another and so on. We must enter the world through some sort of frame, and from there, build our questions as best we can. Growing knowledge of all types of literature enables a healthy, balanced view of literature in general. Obviously some texts offer more wisdom than others, especially when tracing a single idea (such as love). It is most helpful to have a framework before studying the vast amount of literature that deals with such a question. Since no body is equal in percentage of dosha, we should not seek to attain any strict portion, but rather balance in general. Be unique: study the question that grabs you, define literature in terms of your worldview. Continue with a healthy curiosity, observant of all borders. And then cross them. As in aryuvedic teachings, balance grows from concentration and also from attention to balance.

Woolf concludes her short essay on reading with passion. She writes, “Reading has changed the world and continues to change it. When the day of judgment comes therefore and all secrets are laid bare, we shall not be surprised to learn that the reason why we have grown from apes to men, and left our caves and dropped our bows and arrows and sat round the fire and talked and given to the poor and helped the sick - the reason why we have made shelter and society out of the wastes of the desert and the tangle of the jungle is simply this - we have loved reading.”

 

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Why the Syntopicon?

December 18, 2015

In the Preface to Genius, literary critic and professor Harold Bloom asserts the existence of and need for a discussion of genius. In the book, Bloom describes one hundred different voices in which he finds an element of genius, of creation. He writes, “Talent cannot originate, genius must.” These authors are considered geniuses because they created something where nothing existed before. Vergil, for example, ordered the Roman world, which adhered to the ideas presented in the Aeneid for centuries (and it still informs our worldview). Shakespeare used bits of foundational texts and contexts (like the Bible) to weave an actual, physical, present character of humanity in a way that no one before (or since) has. These are creators.

Bloom believes that these authors live for us because they have created something unmatched, something that pulls at us in an important and vital way. He writes, “We all know the empty sensation we experience when we read popular fiction and find that there are only names upon the page, but no persons. In time, however overpraised, such fictions become period pieces.... It is worth knowing that our word 'character' still possesses as a primary meaning, a graphic sign such as a letter of the alphabet, reflecting the word's likely origin in the ancient Greek character, a sharp stylus or mark of the stylus's incisions. Our modern word 'character' also means ethos, a habitual stance towards life.” Bloom readily admits that these are not the world's only geniuses. And in organizing them into a list, he has created a sort of literary canon. Harold Bloom is a man who thinks seriously about serious literature and therefore, his list is not to be taken lightly. These types of lists often offer insight into the authors that deserve a long-standing place among human tradition. The importance and relevance of this type of list cannot be overstated.

Every human functions within a context. This context enables us to navigate a world of endless possibilities and create meaning from it. It is very difficult for the mind to create meaning from chaos. Present within chaos are strands of importance and strands of distraction. In the Preface, Bloom explains that he chose these literary giants because they have important, meaningful messages that discuss the path of humanity. They deserve our time and study. He writes, “The study of mediocrity, whatever its origins, breeds mediocrity. Thomas Mann, descendant of furniture manufacturers, prophesied that his Joseph-tetralogy would last because it was well-made. We do not accept tables and chairs whose legs fall off, no matter who carpentered them, but we urge the young to study mediocre writings, with no legs to sustain them.” In other words, some literature may benefit us more than others and it is an important, valid discussion to ensure that we are discussing the important texts.

Everyone would probably agree with this statement, yet it is difficult to get everyone to agree on any exact list. Of course, literature serves many purposes. There are light books, enjoyable reads, difficult texts, terminology-laded texts and varieties of genres from science-fiction to romance. Everything may serve a purpose and may fit a specific moment. However, if we are talking about the path of human intelligence, then there are works that require more thought and understanding and, for this reason, deserve more of our time.

Harrison MIddleton University chose to study The Great Books, another example of a canon, because it incorporates so many ideas across so many genres. These canons are simply attempts by serious men and women to maintain a list of what is important to human history. Dissent is understandable: so many legitimate voices arguing for so many legitimate pieces of literature. As with Bloom's Genius, the Syntopicon's Introduction tells us that 102 ideas is just about as much as can logically be held together and distributed, but should not be considered a sum total of all ideas. It is possible that both Bloom and Mortimer Adler had similar ideas when creating their canons (many of which overlap): that their scholarship might lead to more enlightened scholarship in decades and centuries to come. Of course, this is always the hope.

At Harrison Middleton University, we pursue the Great Books and great ideas because we too want to understand major arguments. We delve deeply into texts, we discuss these texts and we gain immeasurable results. Adler's 102 ideas form a foundation from which we leap, enabled by many voices, both ancient and new. We embrace conversation and study with purpose and energy.

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