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Autumn Color

November 3, 2017

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

In celebration of fall color, today's blog offers excerpts from both Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold. Both passages celebrate life, love and the mystery of nature. They also ask deep questions about the human place within nature. Changing colors and seasons present the perfect time for reflection. Enjoy – and happy fall!

Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Photo credit: Alissa Simon

From Under the Sea-Wind by Rachel Carson, chapter 11 “Indian Summer of the Sea”

“The spirit of the autumn sea was heard in the voices of the kittiwakes, or frost gulls, who began to arrive in flocks by mid-October. They whirled in thousands over the water, dropping down on arched wings to seize small fish that darted through translucent green. The kittiwakes had come southward from nesting grounds on the cliffs of the Artic coast and the Greenland ice packs, and with them the first chill breath of winter moved over the graying sea.

“There were other signs that autumn had come to the sea. Every day the flights of ocean birds, that in September had poured in thin aerial streams over the coastal waters from Greenland, Labrador, Keewatin, and Baffin Land, swelled in volume as the birds hastened to return to the sea. There were gannets and fulmars, jaegers and skuas, dovekies and phalaropes. Their flocks spread out over all the waters above the continental shelf, where the shoals of surface fishes moved and the plankton herds browsed in the sea. ….

“Few of these birds would see land again until spring. Now they belonged once more to the winter sea, sharing its daylight and darkness, its storms and calms, its sleet and snow and sun and fog. ….

“Slowly the summer warmth was drained from the water. The young crabs, mussels, barnacles, worms, starfish, and crustaceans of scores of species had disappeared from the plankton, for in the ocean spring and summer are the seasons of birth and youth. Only to some of the simplest creatures did the Indian summer of the sea bring a brief and flaring renewal of life, so that they multiplied a millionfold. Among these were the one-celled animals, or protozoa, small as pinpricks, which are among the chief light producers of the sea. Ceratium, the horned one – a blog of protoplasm with three grotesque prongs – sprinkled the night seas of October with silver points of light and so filled the surface waters that over vast areas the sea lay thickened and moved sluggishly under the wind. The little globes of Noctiluca – just visible to the human eye – were each aglitter with submicroboscopic grains of light within themselves. During this autumnal period of their great abundance, every fish that moved where the swarms of protozoa were most dense was bathed in light; the waves that broke on reef or shoal spilled liquid fire; and every dip of a fisherman's oar was a flash of a torch in the darkness.”

 

From “November”, A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold

“November is, for many reasons, the month for the axe. It is warm enough to grind an axe without freezing, but cold enough to fell a tree in comfort. The leaves are off the hardwoods, so that one can see just how the branches intertwine, and what growth occurred last summer. Without this clear view of treetops, one cannot be sure which tree, if any, needs felling for the good of the land.

“I have read many definitions of what is a conservationist, and written not a few myself, but I suspect that the best one is written not with a pen, but with an axe. It is a matter of what a man thinks about while chopping, or while deciding what to chop. A conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land. Signatures of course differ, whether written with axe or pen, and this is as it should be.

“I find it disconcerting to analyze, ex post facto, the reasons behind my own axe-in-hand decisions. I find, first of all, that not all trees are created free and equal. Where a white pine and a red birch are crowding each other, I have an a priori bias; I always cut the birch to favor the pine. Why?

“Well, first of all, I planted the pine with my shovel, whereas the birch crawled in under the fence and planted itself. My bias is thus to some extent paternal, but this cannot be the whole story, for if the pine were a natural seedling like the birch, I would value it even more. So I must dig deeper for the logic, if any, behind my bias.

“The birch is an abundant tree in my township and becoming more so, whereas pine is scarce and becoming scarcer; perhaps my bias is for the underdog. But what would I do if my farm were further north, where pine is abundant and red birch is scarce? I confess I don't know. My farm is here.

“The pine will live for a century, the birch for half of that; do I fear that my signature will fade? My neighbors have planted no pines but all have many birches; am I snobbish about having a woodlot distinction? The pine stays green all winter, the birch punches the clock in October; do I favor the tree that, like myself, braves the winter wind? The pine will shelter a grouse but the birch will feed him; do I consider bed more important than board? The pine will ultimately bring ten dollars a thousand, the birch two dollars; have I an eye on the bank? All of these possible reasons for my bias seem to carry some weight, but none of them carries very much.

“So I try again, and here perhaps is something; under this pine will ultimately grow a trailing arbutus, an Indian pipe, a pyrola, or a twin flower, whereas under the birch a bottle gentian is about the best to be hoped for. In this pine a pileated woodpecker will ultimately chisel out a nest; in the birch a hairy will have to suffice. In this pine the wind will sing for me in April, at which time the birch is only rattling naked twigs. These possible reasons for my bias carry weight, but why? Does the pine stimulate my imagination and my hopes more deeply than the birch does? If so, is the difference in the trees, or in me?

“The only conclusion I have ever reached is that I love all trees, but I am in love with pines.

“As I said, November is the month for the axe, and, as in other love affairs, there is skill in the exercise of bias.”

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On Tinkers

October 6, 2017

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

Myth is what happens to a strong belief once the belief has changed. In other words, what was once firm belief, turns into cultural story and entertainment. They become important narratives, but not necessarily belief systems. For example, we know who Zeus is, but I doubt that anyone believes the story of Leda and the Swan. (I say that with some hesitation because one could argue that the story is really about transformation, and that that particular myth represents the idea of change. I do concede that change is indisputable.) My point is, rather, that at one time, a society upheld Zeus as a supreme being and now we anthologize those representations into myth as opposed to religious texts. These stories often address the uncertainty of change or new beginnings. They analogize situations for which we have no data and no real coherent answer. They often come from ancient societies, but in today's blog I want to take a peek at a recent novel which, I argue, demonstrates the way that history sometimes feels mythic.

Recently I read the contemporary novel, Tinkers by Paul Harding. I felt that the novel ably demonstrated this idea of transformation from the almost-impossible (or unspeakable) into the mundane. By weaving fictional texts in and out of his story, Harding creates the mythic beginnings of a family. Through a poetic, winding style, the reader must piece together the family history. The men in this family all carry one trait, that of epilepsy. In the beginning, societal fears surrounding epilepsy in conjunction with the other-worldly experience of a seizure, defines the men. The omniscient narration style allows for historical notions to fluidly enter the stream of consciousness of one who experiences an episode. Therefore, through three subsequent generations, we better understand the historical time period as well as the individual characters.

In the first generation, the father is sent to an insane asylum (which was the only 'treatment' for epilepsy at this time). In the next generation, the insane asylum option exists, but the father abandons his family before being committed. Instead, he turns to a mundane city life in which he bags groceries and remarries. In this new life, he is valued and treated as normal. It is as though he has gone through a transformation from mythic beginnings to mundane humanity. Once the men remove long-held beliefs (placed upon them by society or reputation), they achieve the power to direct their own lives. They have stepped outside of the long-held belief which previously devalued their lives. Instead, the reader hopes that future generations will go on to live a life which achieves some level of happiness, despite disability.

The passage below exemplifies these mythic beginnings. In this section, a son watches a father fish for an apple. Whether he is actually watching this scene is less important than trying to see how the son understands his father. He literally imagines (or sees) his father's disintegration. The narrator does an excellent job of describing this ethereal being return to what must be the stuff of all beginnings.

“Another time I found him fumbling for an apple in the barrel we kept in the basement. I could just make him out in the gloom. Each time he tried to grab a piece of fruit, it eluded him, or I might say he eluded it, as his grasp was no stronger than a draft of air threading through a crack in the window. He succeeded once, after appearing to concentrate for a moment, in upsetting an apple from its place at the top of the pile, but it merely tumbled down along the backs of other apples and came to rest against the mouth of the barrel. It seemed to me that even if I could pick an apple up with my failing hands, how could I bite it with my dissipating teeth, digest it with my ethereal gut? I realized that this thought was not my own but, rather, my father's, that even his ideas were leaking out of his former self. Hands, teeth, gut, thoughts even, were all simply more or less convenient to human circumstance, and as my father was receding from human circumstance, so, too, were all of these particulars, back to some unknowable froth where they might be reassigned to be stars or belt buckles, or lunar dust or railroad spikes. Perhaps they already were all of these things and my father's fading was because he realized this: My goodness, I am made from planets and wood, diamonds and orange peels, now and then, here and there; the iron in my blood was once the blade of a Roman plow; peel back my scalp and you will see my cranium covered in the scrimshaw carved by an ancient sailor who never suspected that he was whittling at my skull – no, my blood is a Roman plow, my bones are being etched by men with names that mean sea wrestler and ocean rider and the pictures they are making are pictures of northern stars at different seasons, and the man keeping my blood straight as it splits the soil is named Lucian and he will plant wheat, and I cannot concentrate on this apple, this apple, and the only thing common to all of this is that I feel sorrow so deep, it must be love, and they are upset because while they are carving and plowing they are troubled by visions of trying to pick apples from barrels. I looked away and ran back upstairs, skipping the ones that creaked, so that I would not embarrass my father, who had not quite yet turned back from clay into light.”

Many thanks to the conversation group which opened up this incredibly poetic text to me!

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Harvest Time

August 19, 2016

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

Harvest time is a bittersweet time for me. With the wonderful fruit, comes long hours of picking, canning and packaging. The weather also changes, days get shorter and the winter schedule is much tighter than summer's. Change can be difficult to deal with, mostly because we live in moments that make us think of permanence. And, as many artists, philosophers and authors demonstrate, permanence is not for nature. Without change, there would be no life. So, we relish these indemonstrable and unidentifiable moments of change. In the Syntopicon, Moritimer Adler writes, “that which changes persists throughout the change as the same kind of substance”. This makes me wonder what is the same and what is new? Are we new because of the newness of each season, or because of an additional experience? Where are we the same, what place within us remains unaffected by the new and the fresh? How and where does new merge with old?

Currently, I am up to my elbows in peaches. The juice wrinkles my hands and darkens my nails. I am lucky. I love harvest time. I am fortunate to love growing and harvesting and cooking. This is not always the case. Picking peaches always reminds me of the Joads in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, who struggle to learn something so foreign to them. Not knowing how fragile peaches are, they bruise them and lose money. Then, the kids eat a bunch of peaches at once and get sick. And picking in an orchard is backbreaking, laborious work to which Ma straightens her back and says, “Gets you, the first time, don't it?” Their education in harvesting food is difficult, to say the least. And all of this reminds me that, once again, I am lucky to love the fruit and the season and my own stability. Yet it is this idea of stability that I question. Each season depends upon fertilization and frost, water and heat. Therefore, some years offer no harvest at all. And some, like this year, show the signs of age and insects. There is nothing but change in my experience with harvests. And each year I am taught to love food in a new and special way.

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote The Physiology of Taste (translated by M. F. K. Fisher). A lawyer by trade, Brillat-Savarin devoted much time to the sensory experiences surrounding food. It offers meditations (much like Pascal's Pensées) regarding all sorts of gastronomical experiences. Compiled over thirty years, and self-published, the book is full of the wisdom and curiosity from one who dearly loved life. Of particular interest is the section on the “Philosophical History of Cooking” (Meditation XXVII). He begins this section with the introduction of fire as a resource for cooking and moves through to feasts thrown by Louis XVI. He pays particular attention to descriptions of feasts and the ways in which they have changed. He writes that “The most important Romans prided themselves on their beautiful gardens, where they not only raised the fruits that had always been known, like pears, apples, figs, and grapes, but those which had been brought in from other lands: the apricot from Armenia, the peach from one of Lucullus' spoils from the kingdom of Pontus. These importations, which necessarily came about in a variety of ways, at least prove that the interest in them was general, and that every Roman felt it a glory and a duty to contribute to the pleasures of the people-sovereign”. Brillat-Savarin notes, however, that it is very unlikely that a single man (or family) from contemporary society could create such a feast of food and entertainment as in the ancient days. Our traditions regarding food have always changed, as demonstrated by the Romans' ability to integrate new foods with theirs. We continue to see changes in the way that we eat and package food and yet, food is also a significant cultural indicator. People associate specific types of foods for specific events.

Both danger and comfort accompany the idea of permanence. Often we approach change with both fear and excitement. Regardless of how we approach change, it is a fact of life. As peaches ripen and fall, I watch the approaching moon rise above the mountains. During this harvest time, even the moon changes. It appears larger than usual, brighter and fuller, falling in the early morning sky. This bright light used to aid harvesters as they picked late into the night. It is recognized in many traditions as a sign of change and is often a very powerful symbol in mythology. Typically, deified as a female, the moon demonstrates the passage of time and the importance of cycles. The phases of the moon demonstrate both eternity and its opposite. The unity of symbolism reinforces this idea that change is of great importance to many cultures. And so, as I pick peaches, and distribute them, I wonder what in me is changed or the same? What in our earth is changing as my peach tree grows, flowers and fruits? What is changed as a result of the dialogue of change?

In the upcoming weeks, we will share more from The Physiology of Taste – in particular how it relates to Kant's idea of taste, and the great idea of Art.

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