Monday, October 14, 2019

A Few More Words About Language

As most of you know, one of my ongoing concerns involves the loss of languages in the world: both in their spoken and written forms. So it shouldn't surprise anyone that the appearance on my radar of three separate projects within the last couple of weeks has sparked a post.

The first of these is another Kickstarter project created by Tim Brookes, who founded the Endangered Alphabets Project, with which I've been involved almost from the beginning. The last one, The Atlas of Endangered Alphabets (this is my post, with further links to posts about other projects), has been a rousing success, and has prompted Tim to launch a campaign to enable and promote his new Thank You All exhibition.

This latest effort was inspired by a type designer, Ananda K. Maharjan, who created a poster featuring an almost extinct Nepalese script, Ranjana, that says "Thank You All." Here's the video:

This project isn't progressing as quickly as it might, so if you're at all interested in helping, please go to the page and check out the (as always) lovely rewards. I've got several of Tim's carvings exhibited in my home and they always draw enthusiastic comments. But the main reason to support this project is to foster the survival of the scripts that are disappearing on an almost daily basis.

In the New York Times (wherein I first read about Tim's book Endangered Alphabets) this morning, I happened on another project involving linguistic extinction: languages themselves.

Lena Herzog, a photographer with broad interests and talents, has developed a multimedia exhibition called Last Whispers (an "Oratorio for Vanishing Voices, Collapsing Universes, and a Falling Tree"), which explores visually and aurally several of the 3,000 languages that are in danger of extinction. The presentation was created with the help of producer and composer Mark Capalbo, and sound designer Mark Mangini, who won an Oscar for Mad Max: Fury Road. The audio samples on the website are haunting, and the trailer is stunningly beautiful. Public screenings of the Oratorio will take place at Montclair State University October 16-20, with discussions and other events--so if you happen to live in New Jersey, it would be worth your while to check it out. Those of stranded in Texas can only hope there will be a Netflix production or an expansion of venues.

Reading Zachary Woolfe's Times article on Herzog also made me aware of a 2017 video by the artist/anthropologist Susan Hiller, called Lost and Found. This work, commissioned by the Pérez Art Museum in Miami, consists of an "audio collage" of voices speaking about the political and cultural importance of native languages--in twenty three of those that are extinct or endangered, and some of which are being revived. The visual component of the film features text translations of the material, and images of "a shifting oscilloscopic line" accompany the subtitles. A YouTube video of an hour-long discussion between PAMM's curator, René Morales and Hiller is available at the link. Slides from the video augment the conversation. It was actually somewhat heartening to hear that a few languages and dialects are enjoying revivals--such as Cornish and Welsh.

While I was still teaching, I was fond of reminding my students (many of whom were graphic designers) that writing is the graphic representation of language. Although there are many languages in the world that lack--or have until recently lacked--written alphabets or syllabaries, we know about some extinct languages only because they have, in the past, been represented by written symbols that correspond to the sounds of words. My students were always fascinated by Egyptian hieroglyphs, which wasn't deciphered until the turn of the eighteenth century, but opened up an entire universe of much more accurate information on ancient Egyptian life than had ever been available before. Much of my early interest in archaeology was sparked by my having read about Michael Ventris's decipherment of Mycenaean Linear B as an early form of Greek (and its mysterious relative, Minoan Linear A, which is still undeciphered), which I discovered during my initial forays into Attic Greek--which led me to the Homeric dialect I work on sporadically to this day.

The efforts of artists and designers, as well as linguists, to preserve languages and scripts offers some hope to those of us who lament the loss of language in any of its forms. I hope that the projects I've mentioned generate new interest in the ways we communicate, both visually and orally, because these cultural foundations are far more important than most people seem to realize. Being able to see the beautiful scripts and hear the haunting voices of people speaking languages some of us have never even heard of deepens our understanding of the world. It might even make us grateful that our own language and its almost infinite variety of forms is still alive and well.

As Tim Brookes reminds us with his Thank You All project,  "This is what the world needs right now: not suspicion and divisiveness and bigotry but gratitude and openness to everyone, everywhere." Language and literacy provide connections over time and space, and the more access we have to others' stories, the more able we might be to appreciate the world as a whole.

Then, perhaps, we might not be so complacent about its destruction.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

More Peril in the Garden

For the past couple of years I've noticed that my fennel plants attract Black Swallowtail butterflies, and they tend to lay a fair number of eggs, many of which hatch and go through various stages of development before they ultimately, and mysteriously, disappear. This all usually happens in May or so, but another episode occurred just this last week, at the beginning of October. I can only imagine that local fauna are profoundly confused by rapidly changing weather patterns.

As I mentioned in a Cabinet post some time ago, I blamed the disappearances on the cardinals who, up until recently, frequented the Accidental Garden in significant numbers. They're still around, but the drought seems to be reducing the local population (even the squirrels are depleted), and I had hopes that the three caterpillars I discovered a few days ago (as I was lopping off the spent fennel stalks for composting) would survive this time. But once again, they disappeared one by one. I had even transferred one of them to a living stalk so it could feed, but it was gone the next day, and I was down to the smallest, who seemed to be doing well, now having the remains of the fennel to itself.

I checked on it several times during the day, and it seemed to be well hidden. But when I went to check in the evening, it, too, was gone. As I was looking through the fronds, though, I noticed something new: a tiny anole, looking a bit plump.

So I hied it back into the house, sat down at the computer, and typed "Do anoles eat caterpillars?" into Ecosia and found out that the biggest enemy of monarch caterpillars (and clearly swallowtails as well) in the garden are, in fact, anoles.


So not only are owls (of which I have been fond for my entire life) problematic, but now so are lizards. This is terribly sad for me, because in Taiwan, where I did much of my growing up, we relied on lizards to help keep the mosquito population down in our various houses, and some of my best friends were the skinks who hung around on the window screen in my bedroom. I famously even took one to school in my blouse, but was outed when the little guy peeked over my collar and I had to take him outside. I remain disconsolate, because I'm still afraid he missed his family and friends.

At any rate, there are two kinds of lizards in our yard: geckos (mostly we only see the very little guys, who like to feed on the screen in the back door where small bugs gather, and whom Molly likes to chase around the house), and the green and brown anoles I've mentioned elsewhere in posts on The Farm (Habit Forming, Earth Day 2017). I didn't snap the tiny one from the fennel plant because I'd left my phone indoors. The photos above were taken in 2017.

As a rule I'm quite happy to see whatever shows up in the yard, from dragonflies to ladybird beetles, to little grass snakes--although I'm rather more leery of the larger critters we've had in the past, especially possums and raccoons. The occasional coyote makes its way down the back alley, and I wouldn't be astonished to see a bobcat, but since Emma's rather grotesque and untimely demise, all domestic animals are accompanied out of doors.

It seems, however, that there is a solution to the caterpillar dilemma, which involves housing butterfly offspring in a screen house of some sort as soon as they're noticed. So next summer, I'll construct a cage in which I can provide them with ample fennel and a safe place to transmogrify from egg to adult. With all the other critters that spend time eating my vegetables, there should still be plenty of anole fodder.

In the meantime, I'm going to enjoy the fall weather, which seems to be about to happen. Storms are due this afternoon/evening, and temperatures will be dropping (along with an abundance of leaves to transform into compost) into the seventies. This looks like the last of our 90 degree days for a bit.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

The Way Home

Last Boxing Day, on our way out to our annual family gathering in Tyler, I began to notice the frequency with which we passed abandoned, tumbledown farmhouses. But I didn't take any photos, and the whole phenomenon slipped my mind until our late spring road trip west, when I started noticing them again as we drove through west Texas. Still, I didn't get around to taking pictures until we were back in Texas on the last day of the trip, heading east to McKinney.

After we got home, I thought about starting a collection of these photogenic but rather sad structures, in which people no doubt lived out their lives and which inspired a bit of rumination on my part--about what life might have been like for those who lived there, and why they had left. Still, I didn't even get around to looking at what I had until inspired by current events, impending dystopia, technology, and my preoccupation with the troubling nature of progress.

What finally got me going was reading Mark Boyle's new book, The Way Home: Tales from a life without technology (the title of which I've shamelessly cribbed for this post). The book was mentioned by Tom Hodgkinson in one of his recent Idler newsletters, and since I'm always up for learning how people get by without all the mod cons, I ordered it to help with the revision of More News From Nowhere. I've been reading it before bed lately for its sheer peacefulness, and as an antidote to the television news. It's got me thinking again, as I often do, about how much of what we have these days is necessary, or even desirable.

This often happens during high summer in north Texas when the humidity and temperatures are both in the high nineties--conditions I encountered for longer spells when I was a child in Taiwan, long before the days of domestic air conditioning (or even television, for that matter). I'm often amused by the expressions on people's faces when they learn that we do not have central air con in this house, and some rooms (including the kitchen) have none at all. So it's not all that difficult for me to imagine what life would be like without some tech that Americans now find indispensable. But the heat is so hard on our animals that we can't even consider boondocking in Porco until after the summer heat has passed. And even when we do take them camping without hookups, we'll still have solar panels for electricity and propane for cooking, so we won't exactly be roughing it.

What all this has to do with the old ramshackle houses in west Texas is essentially the toll that techno-progress has taken on older, less complex ways of life--the kind that my grandparents experienced, and that folks in many other countries still do. Even in my lifetime it's been possible to live through a summer in Texas without HVAC--but that was in the fifties, before there were a gazillion reservoirs contributing to the humidity. Even in the late sixties it was possible to drive across Texas with a swamp cooler attached to a car window to cool things off. But a swamp cooler won't do anybody any good any more, except in the desert regions of far west Texas. And I'm still wondering what happens to all that hot air that come out the back end of the window air conditioners in our house.

For whatever reasons--probably mostly economic--folks have left these old farm houses, and they're slowly following the rules of entropy. Could be that they finally made enough money to build a bigger, fancier, air-conditioned house way back on the property, away from the road and the increasing traffic noise, but it's more probable that kids grew up and moved away, Pa died, and Ma moved in with her daughter's family. Or the bank took back the land because the crops failed. Or some other variation on a perennial theme.

I wonder if many other people even notice these houses. But what's especially puzzling to me is why the houses are still there. Why they haven't been torn down. And why there are so very many of them! When I had my phone ready to snap the shots, I seldom had to wait more than five minutes driving along US 287 before another appeared.

My fascination with abandoned places was established long ago, when I would peep into the windows of empty workers' cottages around the Cottonwood power plant where my grandfather worked, or explore the tiny empty house above the last place we lived in on Yang Ming Shan in Taiwan. Like ghost towns and derelict mining works and archaeological sites, they're all evidence of lost worlds. At best they spark the imagination as we try to conjure stories of what it might have been like to live or work in these spaces. At worst, though, they can provide a glimpse of things to come if we don't start choosing better, less destructive, and less philosophically compromising ways to live out our own lives.

Image notes: all three of these were taken out the window of our Jeep with my iPhone. One thing we can count on in the summer in Texas the dominance of clear blue skies, giving me another sneaky opportunity to link the post to Skywatch Friday--where lovely shots from skies around the world can be found.