Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Lush Life

 Still Life with Books and Garden Stuff
The Farm is actually doing quite well these days, and this farmer--instead of grousing about how tough life is on the Populated Prairie--has decided to acknowledge the wonders and plenitude of this particular Spring season. Perhaps the proximity of retirement has something to do with my improved attitude, along with the relatively large amount of free time I can now devote to the abject pleasures of reading and thinking. The reading has involved two books I picked up at the Half Price emporium that makes this town tolerable: Michael Boulter's Darwin's Garden: Down House and The Origin of Species, and Gerard Helferich's Humboldt's Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Latin American Journey That Changed the Way We See The World. (Remind me never to burden any publisher with a subtitle nearly as long as the book.)

As usual, fortunate conjunctions have occurred that make the reading all the more felicitous, and I'll get to those in a minute. But I should mention that the pleasurable moments in the garden, both reading and working, have been enhanced by lovely weather interspersed with bouts of rain (and the usual terrifying Tornado Watch events) that have turned my modest half acre into a veritable jungle.

Woody enjoys sniffing the organic fertilizer in the raised veg bed.

 The "North Meadow" with Showy Primroses and Mullein

The animals are all enjoying the garden in their various ways. Mrs. Peel has figured out that if she stays still the dogs won't chase her, so she happily joins us--usually perching herself on one of the tables. Woody is fascinated with the manure-based fertilizer in the raised bed, and I've had to put barriers up to keep him out.  Arlo just looks for the shadiest spot near a human (or as near to Emma as he can get), and adorns his tail with pecan catkins, all of which have to be removed at the back door before he can go back inside.

 Emma amidst the Lambs Ears and Catnip
 Arlo observing the pots

The Humboldt book especially has made us both (The Beloved Spouse and I--not Arlo) aware of the role the younger of the von Humboldt brothers played in our current understanding of ecological relationships. Our conversations about him (and his influence on Darwin) led us to a talk on YouTube featuring Andrea Wulf (who's written a biography of Alexander) and others--including an art historian (Eleanor Harvey) from the Smithsonian who's preparing an exhibit for 2019-20 on Humboldt's cultural impact. The talk was recorded at Washington College last year, and runs about an hour and a half, but it's enormously interesting and well worth watching--especially if you're unfamiliar with Alexander von Humboldt himself. Wulf's biography is now on the wish list, and will be ordered along with his Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent and Views of Nature--unless, of course, I can snag copies of the latter two at HPB.

At any rate, Humboldt's major work was called Kosmos, in five volumes and incomplete at his death in 1859. It was on my mind on Friday when I headed to the University of Dallas with TBS for this year's Heidegger Symposium. I even had a copy of Helferich's book in my bag, in case I had time to read between sessions. The second talk of the morning, by Richard Capobianco of Stonehill College, was about "Heidegger on Kosmos and the Independence of Being in Relation to the Human Being," and I found myself wondering if Heidegger had ever read Humboldt. Apparently I wasn't the only one, because Dennis Schmidt (of Western Sydney University, who would deliver the Richard Owsley Memorial Address on Saturday) asked the question. I am immensely glad that he did, because I tend not to comment or ask questions during this conference; I'm not a Heideggerian, but he's the main focus of many of the readings considered in DASEIN (Dallas Area Seminar on European Inquiry), a local philosophical discussion group that the Beloved Spouse helped to found, and I'm essentially a hanger-on. Anyway, as it turned out, nobody knew if Heidegger had read Humboldt or not, and it looks like a nice research project for new retirees.

But I'm also interested in Darwin, of course, and Ernst Haeckel (the link is to the Wikipedia article because it includes some of his prints from Kuntstformen der Natur), and William Morris (especially his travels to Iceland) and numerous other nineteenth-century intellectuals preoccupied in one way or another with natural history. So when people ask me what I'm going to do in my retirement, it hardly looks like I'll be retiring at all.

In the end, it's about curiosity--the very component of intelligence and creativity that I find so lacking in so many of my students. All of those I mentioned, and the writers whose travel narratives I've been reading over the last year, were profoundly curious.  It may well be that the absence of widespread social media fostered this curiosity, and made it necessary. After all, I can just call up a web page on any of them and find myriad links to more--along with books, photos, drawings and paintings, manuscripts, letters, and other ephemera which help bring them all alive.  And I'm not at all unaware of the fact that if I had lived in the nineteenth century and developed any of their interests, I'd have had no way of satisfying my own curiosity.  But what stumbling into Humboldt and the others has done is to generate enough questions to last me for quite some time.

And now for a glass of wine and a spell in the garden with the animals while we await the arrival of my husband.  No doubt the good weather and the relative absence of bugs (although we're usually plagued with mozzies this time of year, the cool weather and my "mosquito dunks" have kept the population down) have combined to create the several pleasant evenings we've enjoyed. I can't help but feel grateful that no matter how bad the critters get, though, my discomfort is small compared to what Humboldt and his companions suffered on the Orinoco in April of 1800. Anyone who thinks of these great quests for information were romantic romps for the rich boys who went on them needs to read some of the accounts.  No spoilt brats involved here:

But even more troublesome than the [vampire bats] were the voracious insects that appeared every night after sundown and, able to pierce through clothing and even hammocks, covered the explorers with painful bites. Every visitor to the rain forest--not to mention the Indians and missionaries who made it their home--cursed the mosquitoes, gnats, flies, ticks, fleas, ants, and myriad other insects, and Humboldt's experience would be no different. Biting, chewing, stinging, burrowing, preying on their fellow creatures, the most numerous class of animal made life hell for every other species that came into unfortunate contact with it.
--Gerard Helferich, Humboldt's Cosmos, 121-22 

Friday, April 22, 2016

Earth Day 2016

The back of the garage on the first day of Spring 2016, wisteria and burr oak in bud and bloom
Earth Day always seems like the beginning of a new year to me, tied in as it is with the promises provided by all of the phenological evidence of spring: budding, blooming, breeding, new grass, proliferating weeds (or, as some of us see them, wildflowers), more agreeable temperatures, and (this year and last) rain. Lots of rain. So much of it that I haven’t been able to plant the goodies I found down at Wildseed Farms in Fredericksburg a couple of weeks ago.  It’s worth noting that I gained a much stronger appreciation of the Texas landscape as we drove back roads framed with bluebonnets and other favorites.

  Gazing across the roses to the poppies at Wildseed Farms, Fredericksburg, Texas, April 2016

I tend to treat Earth Day as a new year as well, making resolutions that usually involve increasing the number of blog posts, planning gardens and home renovations, noting books to read over any breaks I get, and cleaning house. The housecleaning hasn’t started in earnest yet, but the increased number of breaks has got me reading again. Even Emma has joined me on my comfy chair in the living room to help me with Humboldt’s Cosmos. The book has reminded me that the notion of nature’s interconnectedness isn’t a Boomer idea, and didn’t begin with hippies in the ’70s. Alexander von Humboldt (1799) and Charles Darwin (1831), through their explorations of a much larger world (in terms of how long it took to get around in it), twigged to the intricacy of relationships throughout nature, and both might be appalled at how long its taken us to own up to the damage we’ve inflicted on the life of the planet.

When I think about how far our collective consciousness has risen since my first Earth Week Celebration in 1970 (the Martin Carey poster for which holds pride of place in my kitchen), I’m frequently hopeful that the future won’t become as dismal as I often imagine it will. It seems remarkable, though, that many of us have been so slow to become aware of issues like the enormous scale of food waste. As cognizant of major problems as I’d like to think I am, I only recently seem to have realized that aside from composting our scraps we hadn’t really thought about what goes bad in the fridge, or what doesn’t get eaten before it goes off. So the last year has seen us shopping much more conscientiously, buying only what can be frozen or cooked in a timely manner. And I’ve become a Chicken Stock Fanatic, saving every bit of bone and skin for broth-making, and using that for cooking up batches of whole grains.

 Martin Carey's poster for the first Earth Week
Awakening to the problem of general waste in one’s home seems to be much more widespread than I’d have thought only a year or two ago. Schumacher’s “small is beautiful” refrain has become a guiding principle among the Real Simple and Tiny House crowd. And among those of us empty nesters who will not be passing “heirlooms” on to grandchildren, downsizing is almost a new career.  As TBS and I plan for our retirement, the need to rid ourselves of all the crap we’ve accumulated in our nearly thirty years together is becoming paramount, and doing so without enlarging the landfills has meant doing everything but throwing out. Reusing, repairing, up-cycling, donating, and (if necessary) recycling are all strategies we’re using. The result has been a vast reduction in trash output (one big green bin per month instead of two; some of our neighbors do two per week) and even the recycle bin goes out at most twice per month. We used to pride ourselves on putting out only the one blue bin (recyclables) a week, but now we’re working on two no-trash-at-all days per month, when neither of the bins go out.

What some folks don’t realize, I think, is that healthful eating and reduced waste go together. Eating fresh food as much as possible, cooking at home, growing one’s own veg and herbs, and avoiding processed foods in general means less packaging and less consumer waste, as well as less wasted food. There's nothing like making everything from scratch and the time and effort involved to make one much more inclined to use it all up.

The other major change in our own lives has come from the wide availability of digital magazines. I’ve been something of a joke among my family because I hate even to recycle old shelter publications, so that I had stacks of copies of Old House Journal, Old House Interiors, Style 1900, and even a fifteen-year run of Martha Stewart Living. Add to that cookery magazines like Eating Well, and gardening journals like Organic Gardening. These are now being gone through, with saving only really useful articles the priority. They’re being replaced by subscriptions through Zinio and Apple’s Newsstand. And although I’m not terribly happy about the demise of print, digital publications often have multimedia features that enhance their usefulness. No need to hoard stacks of National Geographic, Folks. The digital version has video!

These are only a couple of changes, and from the looks of things around the neighborhood, the overall impact is pretty small. But I see in my children and some of my students a generation much more aware of the consequences of human action that we were at that age. What they do with that knowledge will determine their own future, and I’m more hopeful than I once was that we haven’t yet messed things up so badly that they won’t be able to save the world. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

International Mother Language Day

As an addendum to my last post, I'd like to note that February 21 is the United Nations' International Mother Language Day, which this year emphasizes the importance of appropriate languages of instruction, usually mother tongues, in early years of schooling. It facilitates access to education – while promoting fairness – for population groups that speak minority and indigenous languages, in particular girls and women; it raises the quality of education and learning achievement by laying emphasis on understanding and creativity, rather than on rote and memorisation. 

This event was the focus of the Kickstarter campaign initiated by Tim Brookes to create the carving featured on the poster above, and send it to Bangladesh where it will be displayed at Bistaar (the arts complex in Chittagong) as part of the Mother Language Day festivities. The effort almost doubled its goal (originally $1000), and the excess will be used to foster other goals related to Endangered Alphabets.

I initially became involved with these efforts because of my general interest in language and writing systems. In fact, a major component of anything I teach revolves around the importance of the visual communication of stories, ideas, and the human experience in general. This week's topic in Art History 1, for example, focuses on illuminated manuscripts, some of the most beautiful objects ever created by human beings.

But we often forget that without language, and without a code in which to communicate that language on a readable surface, many aspects of human experience and history would be lost to us.

I'm frequently reminded that I'm not alone in my interest and concern, even though the linguistic desert in which I live makes me feel that way sometimes. My news feeds in the last week or so were full of information on Genevieve von Petzinger's research in caves around the world. She has recorded geometric signs found at 146 rock art sites, and categorized them  according to shape in order to begin to understand what they might mean. A handy chart of these is available on the Bradshaw Foundation pages that describe her work. The variety of signs and their contexts may eventually lead to better understandings of why people have made these marks over such a long period (from the Paleolithic on) and over such an immense space. And even though controversy exists (and will most likely persist), it seems clear that early human populations "meant" something by them. They don't have to be a form of writing in order to communicate something to their "readers." But in essence, because we'll probably never really understand them ourselves, that something is lost to us.

Megaloceros with a line of dots at Lascaux Cave

English speakers in general, and Americans in particular, seem to be confident that our own mother tongue is so pervasive that it won't suffer meet its demise in the foreseeable future. It's precisely because of its ubiquity that it will no doubt remain one of the most-spoken and most-read languages in the world. But the history of language is abrim with examples of languages and/or writing systems that have been lost to one extent or another--from Cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Mycenaean Linear B, and now Mayan (pretty well entirely deciphered) to Etruscan and Minoan Linear A (either only partially understood or completely undeciphered except for sound values). 
Decipherment of not-yet-understood scripts is a tricky business. One must have a large enough collection of samples in order to establish a frequency of signs, and the underlying language must be recognizable. So with the Rosetta StoneJean-Fran├žois Champollion and Thomas Young had a “crib” via Greek, and when Champollion realized that the third script must be Demotic (related to modern Coptic), the code could be broken. (The BBC article on the decipherment provides a nice summary of the  process.) After Mayanists such as David Stuart, Linda Schele, Yuri Knorozov, and Tatiana Proskouriakoff (among many others) had collected various bits and pieces of how the Mayan language worked from many different discoveries, Mayan was fairly rapidly deciphered. And when Michael Ventris realized that Linear B might be Greek (a notion dismissed by most at the time), he was able to figure out that the script did indeed record an early dialect of Greek.

But what we lose sight of today is the fact that, as David Crystal notes in his introduction to Tim Brookes's Endangered Alphabets

Over the past twenty years, the plight of the world's endangered languages has attracted increased academic and political attention. The figures are sobering. At least half of the world's more than 6,000 languages are so seriously endangered that they are likely to die out in the course of the present century. (Brookes 7)  

Even more troubling, as Crystal goes on to note, 

Around a third of the world's languages have never been written down, and when one of those dies, it leaves no evidence of its existence behind. (Brookes 8)

Efforts like the Endangered Alphabets project and the Endangered Languages Project, and organizations like BASAbali@ARMA, UNESCO, The National Geographic Society, the Endangered Language Alliance in New York City, Living Tongues, and others provide education, language training and/or research into preserving and reviving dying languages.

For an eloquent appraisal of the problem, and more background, see Judith Thurman's March 30, 2015 article in the New Yorker, "A Loss For Words: Can a Dying Language be Saved?"

As a parting shot, I would like to remind folks that language is one of the major components of being human. It enables us to think and to participate fully in our cultures, as well as to communicate with one another. It's also our birthright. So if we dismiss the language in which we were educated, and treat it as if it were some throwaway commodity, we will ultimately diminish ourselves. English may be in no immediate danger of disappearing, but its depth and the craft of expressing it are suffering under the weight of modernity.

To celebrate International Mother Language Day, here are some suggestions: visit some of the links above to discover the breadth of the problem and learn about some of the solutions people are developing. And for English speakers who are not yet concerned about diminishing language skills, here are two articles, one I found only recently and that describes the consequences of diminished vocabulary ("The Limits of Our Vocabulary Reflect the Limits of Our World," by Anna Brix Thomsen for The Hampton Institute), and the other a classic that I've used in every critical thinking class I've ever taught (George Orwell's 1946 essay, "Politics and the English Language").

Then go out and write something beautiful.

Image credits: The Mother Language poster was designed by Alec Julien, and photographed by Tom Way. Tim Brookes carved the text in the four languages of Bangladesh: Bangla, Marma, Chakma, and Mro. The Megaloceros image is from Wikipedia.