Thursday, June 30, 2011


Human beings are always trying to figure out all the ways in which we're not only unique, but uniquely unique (different in ways that no other species is) among others in the animal kingdom. But as each of the previously identified means of being special have either evaporated or diminished, the fact that we cook our food seems to be holding. As far as we know, there isn't another species that deliberately starts a fire in order to hustle up some dinner.

We once thought that our possession of language was a significant marker, not shared even by other primates; but Koko the Gorilla and other apes after her have shown that they can communicate not only among themselves but with us, using a form of human language, and can pass that knowledge on to others. I used to think that the truly remarkable talent possessed by homo sapiens sapiens was not simply language, but the ability to make and use metaphors; I dubbed us homo translator, and built a good many lectures about human nature upon that seemingly clever designation.

But, alas, Koko also devised some nifty metaphors (her little roly-poly kitten was "All Ball"), so there went that theory. Since then we've discovered chimps (and even birds) that use tools (bye, bye, homo faber), long the measure of human specialness.

Human culinary proclivities, however, have held up pretty well over the years as a measure of human-ness. Claude Lévi-Strauss's important study of myth, The Raw and the Cooked, focused on the symbolic aspects of cooking, and a rather wonderful book that came out a few years ago--Food and Culture: A Reader (edited by Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik, Routledge, 1997) --includes most of the important anthropological musings on the topic by the likes of Margaret Mead, Roland Barthes, Marvin Harris, Mary Douglas, and Lévi-Strauss himself. The book has recently been updated (2008), which attests to continuing interest in the topic.

More recently, Richard Wrangham's Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (Basic Books, 2009) poses the possibility that moving from raw to cooked food actually promoted the transition into full humanitude, bringing with it all manner of social consequences. It's an engaging book, and even though I'm always suspicious of single-impetus theories, this one's more convincing than most. That may be because I'm such a foodie, but Wrangham does back his hypothesis up with substantial evidence and a good argument.

The cooking-made-us human notion also ties in with the cultural importance of fire--the main topic of today's musings. Few natural phenomena manage to connote both warmth and comfort and abject fear and dread at the same time. But fire does this: the cozy campfire all too often turns into the killer wildfire, as seems to be the case in Arizona's ongoing Wallow fire (which began a month ago and still isn't 100% contained). However it started, the currently burning Las Conchas fire is threatening Los Alamos National Laboratory's nuclear materials--piling one concern on top of another.

As I've been prepping for my up-coming class, Myth, Mythography, and Mythology, I keep coming across interesting articles about myth and natural phenomena--not the least of which is fire. One of the more potent symbols in human cultures, fire takes many forms in the stories people tell about themselves and nature. Our ambivalence about it shows up famously in the story of Prometheus (who steals it from the gods and suffers dire consequences), and I frequently remind students that the disastrous eruptions of Vesuvius and Thera are what preserved significant aspects of Roman and Minoan culture for us.

Just yesterday I discovered an article in Mosaic by the philosopher David Farrell Krell and his actor/producer daughter Salomé , "Why Santorini? A Response in Two Voices," in which he considers the caloric (and metaphorical) aspects of energy--produced by the heat of the sun, but more so by the underlying seismic activity in the Mediterranean. It was the continuing interaction of tectonic plates, after all, that produced the massive Bronze Age eruption that left behind the remnants we now call Santorini. The poetic value of marrying heat-driven energy to human hospitality brings us back to cooking: "human energy," Krell notes, "passes in good part through great food."

When I was thinking about how to illustrate this post with something appropriate for Skywatch Friday, I kept remembering a photo I took in Riverside, California about forty years ago, of the U. C. campus carillon tower against a flaming sky. When I found it, I realized that my memory was far more vivid than the actual image, which wasn't even worth scanning. But my evening sojourns in the back yard in recent years have contributed a large number of much more appropriate images, like the one I ended up using (taken last summer)--the kind of photograph that immediately brings fire to mind.

Fires are breaking out everywhere, both in nature and in politics. A world in which suicide bombers ignite hotel fires, demonstrators throw Molotov cocktails, planes drop bombs, human beings light barbecues for patriotic holidays and set off fireworks (which can, in turn, set off wildfires), is one in which fire holds power far above its physical presence. Few symbols maintain such an uneasy balance between the beneficial and the baneful. And as we settle into yet another very hot summer, the likelihood that the world will end in fire--in any combination of its many forms--seems entirely possible, if not inevitable.

--Since I haven't posted in a while, I thought it worth noting that the Farm turned five on June 22. To those of you who've read these "pages" on and off over the years, thanks for keeping me going.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


The image that opens this post shows exactly how difficult it is to break the elements up into tidy little packets, because it illustrates the interpenetration of components like air and water--the composition of clouds.

But the original perspective I wanted to pursue for this series--to borrow shamelessly from Sigmund Freud--is "civilization and its discontents," and the modern human interaction with air points to the constant modern war between need and want.

We love our air, but our desire to regulate its temperature, our inability to keep from spewing crap into it that may be damaging our genes and our general health, and our utter disregard for how we use it in general affects every aspect of our being.

We can imagine living without land, perhaps (although even living in space would involve finding a substitute), but air is right up there with water in the "absolute necessity" column. We can't live without it, but it also seems to be more and more difficult to live with what we're doing to it.

Compound that with natural events, like volcanic eruptions, and we frequently end up trying to breathe an unfortunate soupy concoction of all four elements: earth, air, fire, and water.

At this very moment, in Colorado and New Mexico, citizens are breathing a mixture of smoke, fire retardant chemicals, water used to put out the fires, and dust blown by the wind and the fire into the mix. In other parts of the world, folks are breathing ash from volcanoes in Chile and Eritrea (during a bit of a respite from Icelandic eruptions).

Sometimes the ash in the atmosphere can produce beautiful effects, as it did during yesterday's lunar eclipse, or in the nineteenth century when Krakatoa's reach into northern Europe colored paintings by Edvard Munch. Even as inconvenient as modern travel becomes during eruptive phases, however, volcanic activity rarely contributes significantly to climate change, unlike the persistent effusion of CO2 from human activity.

Our search for alternative sources of energy that don't contribute to the CO2 load actually led us to use air to generate our power. Wind turbines are sprouting like so many daisies (or dandelions, depending on your perspective) all over the world--even here in Texas, which now generates an increasingly significant portion of its electricity from wind, and has the potential for much more.

An article in the Daily Poop today even compared the development of wind power in Texas and in Britain. The likelihood that Brits will soon begin to use much more environmentally friendly energy sources stems in part from the very real threat posed by rising sea levels if global temperatures continue to rise. Add to that the fact that England's fossil fuel prices are significantly higher because, despite abundant sources, costs are rising.

Texas still gets cheap natural gas (well, cheap in the financial sense; nobody can convince me that hydraulic fracturing is safe in the long term because the technology itself stinks--in more ways than one), and will continue to draw electricity from plants fueled with it because Texas itself lives, eats, and sleeps with the oil and gas industry. The state spends a good deal of its time officially denying the reality of climate change, and despite its investment in coastal economics (fishing, oil production, and tourism) it fails to worry about sea levels at all.

When states do wake up and start planning, they often pursue remedies that might in themselves prove unwise. Just last week the New York Times featured an article on what Chicago is doing to prepare for higher temperatures, and noted that they're already thinking about adding more and more air conditioners to buildings being erected--although they also plan green roofs for those same buildings. As Stan Cox and others have pointed out, however, conditioning the air engenders a never-ending cycle; hotter temperatures produce the desire for cooler indoor air, but the heat extracted ends up raising the temperature outside, generating more "need" for air conditioning.

At the core of all this is the perennial issue that I wrote about last week in "Dirt": increasing populations of people spreading out over the land, choosing to live in places that aren't always capable of sustaining them.

For example, in north Texas, the number of reservoirs built to supply an ever-growing demand for water increased by over a hundred between 1960 (when I was living in west Texas) and 2000. Just since I moved here in 1979, another 44 have been constructed, according to John Wier, Historical Chair of the Ft. Worth Branch of the American Society of Civil Engineers. The relationship between these reservoirs and air conditioning is subtle, but the added moisture load contributed by these artificial lakes increases the relative humidity substantially, and makes the air feel hotter and heavier because the cooling effects of sweat in drier air don't work.

While driving across north Texas in 1969 on the way to Pennsylvania, we used a swamp cooler that hung in the window of our VW Squareback to keep us comfy. Nowadays, evaporative coolers don't work around here (although they're highly effective in the California desert), because the humidity is too high. Electric air conditioners succeed in cooling us off in part by extracting moisture from the interior air and--you guessed it--transferring it back outside. It's not difficult to see how the very act of using these appliances contributes to dampening (ahem) the desire to spend much of the summer out of doors. The only advantage to this I can think of is that summers are quieter because kids aren't outside playing--they're inside playing video games in their climate-controlled media rooms.

Once again, the elements collide: land, water, air. It's unfortunate that many folks don't even think about how their daily lives affect the future, and how small choices like raising the thermostat on your A/C a few notches can have a significant effect on climate and energy use.

Over the years we've tried our best to reduce our reliance on refrigerated air by using our attic fans (although one's no longer functioning; it's high on the summer to-do list, along with insulating the attic), not installing central air (we're waiting until we have to upgrade our gas furnace, and will then have a geothermal unit put in), and being really frugal with our use of window units. We only have three, and right now, at 1 pm with the temperature at 90 F, they're still not on because there's a nice breeze blowing through the house and the sun's not coming through the west windows yet.

By 2 or 3 pm, all that will change, the windows will be closed, the shades pulled down, and the doors to this room shut (or curtains pulled across doorways). The unit's thermostat will be set at 82, and I can grade comfortably for the rest of the afternoon. Whenever possible, we open things back up when we go to bed; but if the humidity's too high, we can't sleep, so the A/C in the bedroom stays on all night, powering on and off as the temperature hovers around 80. The rest of the house stays open, and the whole place stays cool through the morning. This works for most of the summer, and on occasion, when the humidity goes below 45%, we can shut it all down and just sweat to keep cool.

When I mention all this to folks I know, they roll their eyes and affirm their belief that conditioned air is a fundamental right (like carrying guns in public places, and driving jacked up pickups) in Texas. But reading Stan Cox's book, Losing Our Cool, might help the more reasonable among us to change their ways, especially since many of the remedies he suggests are simple and effective.

Air is a genuine need; hyper-cooled air, like that in most of the buildings we work in, is not only a luxury, but a character-softening luxury. I wouldn't be surprised if the decline and fall of Western civilization hasn't been engendered by Sesame Street at all, and could instead be laid at the feet of air conditioning.

But that's another rant, and it's getting toward time to shut down the house and crank up the coolant so I can get all those projects graded.

Happy Skywatch Friday to anyone visiting who's managed to make it this far.

Image notes: The lunar eclipse was shot on June 15 by Chris G. and posted on Wikimedia Commons. The color was deeply red in many areas because of the current high volcanic ash content in the atmosphere. The clouds are from my interminable collection, begun when I discovered the nice folks at Skywatch Friday and started contributing on a semi-regular basis.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Sage of Midlothian

I wrote this a couple of weeks ago, but shelved it for the Elements series; see the addendum, below, for why I've inserted it now.

The good news is that Tom Dodge now has a website. I'm not sure how long he's had it, but it's about bloody time.

Those folk who read this blog and who live outside of North Texas (and most of my students who live inside of North Texas) may not have heard of Tom Dodge, but I've been an unabashed fan for years.

I first "met" him, and his sonorous Texas twang, in the late '80s (I think) on the local public radio station where he occasionally holds forth on topics that interest him. Many years later I happened upon a copy of his chapbook of translations, A Generation of Leaves: Greek Lyrics of Love and Death at Half Price Books and read them cover to cover in the store, before I snatched up the little book and carried it home--still amazed that this was the same Tom Dodge. After all, as erudite as he sounds on the radio, he comes off as more of a cowboy poet than a philologist.

Not many people anywhere translate ancient Greek poetry any more. I do it in my spare time to keep up my Greek chops, but I have always fancied myself a Classicist at heart despite my meandering academic career. Never in my wildest dreams, therefore, would I have imagined that this denizen of Midlothian, Texas was also a fan of Simonides.

I especially love his rendering of the little Sappho fragment I have my Humanities students translate, using a trot. After they struggle through the process of transmogrifying a literal translation into a poem, I show them numerous other versions from over the centuries, but Dodge's is one of the best:

The moon has faded,
the Pleiades dimmed;

it is midnight,
the watch passes by,
and I sleep alone.

It's comforting for exiles like me to know that we're not stuck in a complete wasteland, and over the years he's helped in my project to learn to love the prairie.

More recently he eased back into my consciousness with his lyrical review of the Library of America's new edition of Kurt Vonnegut's work, Kurt Vonnegut — Novels & Stories 1963-1973.

Lovers of Vonnegut, especially of his early work, will automatically love this book (and buy it, even though we already own the whole oeuvre, just because it's edited by the venerable Sidney Offit), but Dodge's review will undoubtedly attract new readers (if, of course, anybody actually reads the book reviews in the Daily Poop).

Over the years I've taken every opportunity available to get students to read Vonnegut: Player Piano in a course on philosophy of technology, Galápagos in "Technology and Utopia" (although I left it out of my most recent version of the class; I think I'll put it back for the next time I teach the class). If I ever teach a science fiction segment of my ever-popular (ahem) philosophical perspectives class, it'll be hard to choose a single Vonnegut work to include.

Dodge's assessment of Vonnegut's continuing appeal sums up a generation's experience:

So, with Vonnegut and many like-minded others of his G.I. Bill-educated generation gone now, a cultural revolution financed by the dividends of peace seems but a romantic schoolboy’s fantasy. But each time a Vonnegut collection is printed, each time someone quotes from one of his books, the aging schoolboy’s faltering heart races, if but for a moment or two.

So it goes.

Thanks, Mr. Dodge, for the memories. And the poetry.

Addendum: Today's Daily Poop featured another of Dodge's reviews, this one on Roy Blount, Jr.'s Alphabetter Juice: The Joy of Text. In his introductory paragraph, Dodge has this to say about himself:

Full disclosure. I am a philologist. I guess I have known for a long time, as the signs were always there. But nothing in my background pointed me in that direction. I have no relatives who were, no ancestors either, as far I know. No one personally influenced me and I had no role model.

As I was saying . . .

Image credit: Good old Romantic Lawrence Alma-Tadema again; this time it's Sappho and Alcaeus (1881) via Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, June 9, 2011


Many human creation stories start with dirt, with our having come from the earth. The god of the Judaeo-christian tradition makes the first man from Eden's red earth and names him Adam after it. Native American stories from the Southwest see the attachment as more communal in the sense that human beings as a whole emerge from under the ground, making the earth a literal home. The small depression called a sipapu in Basketmaker pit houses and their descendents, Pueblo kivas, symbolizes this emergence; and the houses themselves are partly dug into the ground, providing a physical connection between earth and sky. At any rate, this is my excuse for starting with earth, rather than air, in this series of (be)musings.

In the modern world, connections with the land seem to have taken on the cloak of commerce. The preoccupation with "property values" has little to do with anything but finances--nobody's really talking about moral value. Around here, a common practice after the tax bill comes is to refute it, and the newspaper always includes advice on how to challenge your home's "value" on the tax rolls. Never mind its worth to one's family, and to life and memory. But this makes a certain amount of sense in a world where housing has more to do with status and fad than with the idea of home, the art of architecture, and the building of stable, sustainable communities.

When white folk decided that manifest destiny decreed ocean to ocean occupation of what became the United States, we took over other peoples' homes, evicting them from their property, and imposing an alien culture on land that had been sparsely but deeply occupied for thousands of years. And then we began building in places that most sensible natives wouldn't have chosen or, if they did, they would have been acutely aware of the danger of doing so and built accordingly. So upstart Europeans decided that they liked living by rivers, on bluffs overlooking the sea, in balmy climates, and other spots where nature periodically unleashes catastrophe in the form of floods, earthquakes, landslides, hurricanes, tornadoes, and the like.

Some people try to mitigate the effects of natural weather extremes by building houses on stilts, or by creating tornado shelters, but many more don't. Some accept the possibility of disaster as part of the cost of living along the Mississippi or in the earthquake-prone regions of California, or along the Gulf coast, but many more seem shocked when inevitable natural processes finally catch up with them.

Sometimes we can prevent disasters by building and planning wisely, but more frequently, it seems, desire gets the better of us, and we build unwisely, we over-graze, over-build, over-plant, or otherwise abandon common sense for reasons of ignorance or general lack of wisdom.

In west Texas this year, the juniper forests that had grown up over former ranch land (where cattle and selective burning had kept the problems at bay for generations) exploded into wildfires that destroyed thousands of acres, and hundreds of homes. The desire for shade in a hot climate meant that the well-adapted junipers were cultivated and encouraged; few seem to have paid attention to the chemical properties of juniper species. As one article on fire prevention in Nevada notes, "Firefighters often refer to ornamental junipers as little green gas cans."

In much of Texas, prairie grasslands have been replaced by the heat- and drought- tolerant junipers, and in some areas have been left ungrazed in order to conserve the land. However, as land gets sold off and parceled out to developers, fewer preventive measures are taken, and people end up living in a tinderbox.

Fire-climax vegetation such as juniper, chaparral, and pitch pine has to be carefully managed if people are to live on or near it--but human beings cling stubbornly to the notion that they can build any damned place they want to, only to weep at the loss when the inevitable overtakes them.

There are, in fact, few places that don't come with some kind of potential disaster attached. But some places practically beg for catastrophe because they're built up in areas that just aren't suitable for huge populations, such as Los Angeles--laid out as it is on its net of earthquake fault lines and with little in the way of water resources--or seaside communities with nuclear power plants in eastern Japan, or cities in Florida built on drained everglades and lying in the path of frequent hurricanes. Smaller populations or wiser fuel sources might well mitigate some disasters, but we insist on being stupid and ignoring probability.

In cultures where earth is seen as sacred, and viewed as the mother of us all, populations have traditionally remained small and people tend to know their environments much more intimately than the city- and suburb-bound throngs of Americans that pile up in cities. I actually don't have that much against cities (because concentrating the humans in smaller areas leaves more land open), except when they're inappropriately located. Cities might also have a deterrent effect on some kinds of weather (such as tornadoes), and localize damage rather than spreading it out over large areas as the recent tornado cluster in Joplin, Missouri did. The notion that tornadoes don't hit big cities is based on bad understanding of what tornadoes do (as this list of myths about these storms form The Tornado Project indicates), but urban sprawl does mean that more populated areas are subject to potential damage from big storms.

In my last post, I proposed a series of discursions on earth, air, fire, and water--but realized almost as soon as I started taking notes that one really can't consider any of these ancient "elements" in isolation from one or more of the others. Add in the related concepts of heat, drought, wetness, and cold (plus aether, the quintessence), and the whole project gets even more complicated.

Fortunately for us all, Richard Hamblyn has written a book, Terra: Tales of the Earth, Four Events that Changed the World, a much more ambitious exploration of the formative effects of natural disasters on modern conceptions of such things. The link is to Jonathan Keats's October 2009 review in the London Telegraph, which itself provides some interesting context.

So I'll continue my elemental meanderings, but don't expect anything too profound given the end-of-quarter load, the onset of summer home-improvement efforts, and my own ongoing struggle to cope with dirt. Meanwhile, I'm off to a bookshop to see if I can snag a copy of Hamblyn's book.

Image notes: This is my cheesy effort to link this post to Skywatch Friday, which I visit all too infrequently these days, but is a wonderful place to see skies from all over theworld. The photo was taken in 2004 in the Owens Valley. The dirt road seemed an appropriate illustration for the topic, but the sky dominates--as it usually does in the Valley. Just another example of how hard it is to separate the elements. The four elements representation is from Wikipedia, because I was too lazy to draw one myself.