Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Right To Read, The Right To Write

I'm devoting this post to an ongoing concern, and one you've seen me discuss numerous times on The Farm: the importance of language, and the danger represented both by the decline of linguistic richness and the disappearance of language systems.

Some years ago I participated in Tim Brookes's Endangered Alphabets Kickstarter campaign, and later joined his advisory board. Both the original project and its sequels, Endangered Alphabets II: Saving Languages in Bangladesh, and Mother Tongues succeeded in helping to raise awareness about the disappearance of indigenous languages by creating astonishingly beautiful carvings in a wide variety of endangered scripts.

The latest effort, The Right To Read, The Right To Write has been launched this week to enable Tim to "create a major exhibition of carvings for International Mother Language Day 2017 to celebrate and support endangered cultures." The goal is larger than the previous ones, $15,000 in thirty days, but its aims are equally lofty:

My goal is to create the most ambitious and significant set of Endangered Alphabets carvings yet—20 separate carvings of the phrase “mother tongue” in the traditional written languages of those cultures, carved in woods native to those cultures. These will make up a major exhibition to open on International Mother Language Day, February 21st, 2017, the largest and most high-profile display of the Alphabets so far. My aim is to spur public discussion and awareness of the importance of inter-cultural respect, and the dangers of language loss.

Keep in mind that these carvings are hand-crafted on gorgeous wood, and have to be carefully packed and mailed to their destinations. The Kickstarter page goes into more detail--and also features the goodies that come with donations--including the newest edition of Tim's book, and an Endangered Alphabets wall clock--which I just may get for myself as a retirement present.

If you were in any doubt about how important the whole question of the disappearance of languages and alphabets actually is, consider the following:

As my students have heard me claim innumerable times, writing is the most important technology ever invented by human beings. Period. We didn't invent fire; we found it. We didn't really invent stone tools; we simply modified found objects. Even weaving (which I consider far more important than stone weapon making as a measure of human achievement) was probably suggested by observations of plants and insects. Other primates can sign, but writing is purely human. No other species does it.

If it weren't for writing,  there is no possible way we would be where we are today. We've been creating and keeping cultural records since Cuneiform, Indus Valley script, Linear B, Egyptian Hieroglyphs, and other Bronze Age inventions took us far beyond the simple mark-making we'd been doing since the Paleolithic. Without these records we would have no idea of our history on this planet, no way to record what we discover, no way to transmit ideas.

Even as human culture creates new technologies to communicate, these technologies are themselves language-based. Not all of these are natural (think HTML and other codes), but all are vital. And what's really scary to me is that some of the digital technologies we're becoming so reliant upon are actually diminishing the quality of natural language. Vocabularies are diminishing among the young, and while our visual skills may be improving, critical thinking and analytical skills (language-based) appear to be declining. I wonder if some of this stems from the fact that hand writing (and handwriting) has become less important than producing words on a keyboard. But simply recognizing the potential loss of languages and scripts is an important step toward their survival.

Just this morning the New York Times mentioned a podcast from the New York Public Library on vanishing mother tongues, From Ainu to Zaza (tonight at 6:30 pm; register at the link). The live taping is sponsored by The Endangered Language Alliance and World In Words (PRI).

It's fairly clear that concern over the loss of languages and writing systems is growing. Only recently I discovered The Rosetta Project, "a global collaboration of language specialists and native speakers working to build a publicly accessible digital library of human languages."  The Rosetta Disk is a palm-sized digital collection of information on over 1500 languages, and promotes the long-term preservation of world languages by building the "largest open, publicly accessible collection of resources on the world's languages."

One of the best ways we can help to preserve these languages, though, is to foster their use among the people who developed them in the first place. This is where I think the Endangered Alphabets projects are especially important. They tie the beauty of the scripts to tangible art objects that can be displayed publicly to promote their preservation.

Even a few bucks will help, Folks. And if you pony up some serious change, you could snag yourself a work of art and help save a culture. 

Related posts: Losing Languages (2011); Endangered Languages Revisited (2013); Revisiting Endangered Alphabets and Languages and International Mother Language Day (2016)

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.