Wednesday, January 1, 2020

(Yet Another) Meditation on Time and Memory

Time is relentless, the tide which measures
the perturbations of the cosmos.

Once again I've come upon a story, serendipitously, just when I was musing about just how quickly things seem to be happening these days. The link is to a short story written in 2010 by SF and fantasy writer Jay Lake, who died in 2014. In it he considers the probability that if "human thoughts moved with the pace of bristlecone pines, we would never have invented the waterwheel, because rivers flash like steam in that frame of reference. Likewise if we were mayflies—flowing water would be glacial." The slow pace of geological time, we are reminded by Carl Sagan and others, renders the whole of human existence but a mote in time. The Bristlecone pines, I should note, grow not far up the White/Inyo Mountains from Uhlmeyer Spring, where my banner shot was taken. They are about 5000 years old.

A good friend and former colleague came to town a few days ago, and we got together for the first time in a year to catch up and to celebrate each others' birthdays and the holidays. We usually manage to do this twice a year, but he's been busy with his new life in his home town, and The Beloved Spouse and I have been preoccupied with dog-rearing and a bit of house renovation, so this was the first chance we'd had to reconnect since last December.

The time issue came up in conversation first in regard to retirement life, when neither TBS nor I could remember how long we'd been voluntarily out of work. Later, when I was trying to remember what had been occupying me during the last three years of not being a wage slave to a proprietary educational institution, I came to marvel at the number of things I used to accomplish while I was teaching five four-hour classes per week, eleven weeks per quarter, four quarters per year. 

Not only was I wrangling the class load (with its incessant grading, prep, faculty development, course and syllabus updating and the hour or so drive to and from campus), but I was maintaining a massive course website (Owldroppings, now retired) with extensive original content for each of my courses (Art History I and II, Writing I or II, Intro to Humanities, and an upper level elective), and at one time maintaining four blogs--including this one. Only one of the others is still more or less active (Owl's Cabinet of Wonders), but for a year or two I really was trying to post on the others as well, and on all much more regularly than I do this one. I was also pretty active on a fanboy website devoted to Joss Whedon's film Serenity (and indirectly to the TV series it was based on, Firefly), which meant several hours of online conversations per week. During some of that time, I was still writing letters home to my Dad, for which I'm glad I found the time, because, thanks to e-mail, I still have most of that correspondence.

In addition to all that, I successfully completed several online courses through Coursera and other venues, during a fit of MOOC-ing: Archaeology's Dirty Little Secrets (Brown U); Ancient Egypt: A History in Six Objects (University of Manchester); Japanese Culture Through Rare Books (Keio U); Live! A History of Art for Artists, Animators, and Gamers (Cal Arts); Philosophy and the Sciences (Edinburgh); Photography: A Victorian Sensation (Edinburgh); Sagas and Space (Zurich); Ideas from the History of Graphic Design (Cal Arts). I didn't quite make it through Imagining Other Earths (Princeton) or Introduction to Sustainability (UIUC) or the image-making course from Cal Arts. Not completing these latter three indicates that I might have run into time constraints along the way.

Somehow, during the more-than-fifteen years we were both teaching after we moved into our labor-intensive house, we also managed to keep a garden, herd several cats and a couple of dogs, make an occasional trip out to visit the Auld Sod in California, and do things to keep the house livable.

Nowadays it seems impossible to me that I could have done all that. The only online activity I've got going on at the moment is Quora, and I'm writing less and reading more on that. I no longer think that there's a whole lot more I can offer to the body of Quora information on breast-feeding, child-rearing, Star Trek, science fiction, nineteenth-century American literature, and cookery after mouthing off on all of this since 2011. I'm pretty sure that very few people really care what I have to say about any of it, although I do get occasional upvotes. But the most "popular" answer I've ever written was on whether or not Sam Clemens could really have met up with the Enterprise crew as depicted in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, "Time's Arrow," and seldom do I get many comments--so for me it's more of a means to keep my brain working and a platform for food philosophy than anything really interactive.

As those few who still come by The Farm these days know, I don't show up often, although I frequently think of stuff that might make good content. I'm now thinking of retiring Owl's Cabinet, since much of what I write there would work quite well here, and I'm even more neglectful that blog than I am of this one.

Things could change a bit here, though. The Beloved Spouse and I are currently engaged in a bit of kitchen renovation that might provide good blog fodder, and my latest archival project will almost certainly find its way onto these pages. I'm transcribing nearly two years' worth of letters my (maternal) grandfather wrote to my grandmother from France during WWI. Not only that, but we're planning a sort of fact-finding, visit-neglected-family visit out west as early in the spring as we can make it. The noisier this little "farm" gets (from increasing local highway racket and neighborhood construction), the more we long for acreage and quietude, so our trip west this year will wind northerly so we can visit Oregon and Washington to see my son and his wife and my father's brother and his family. Likely new home venues will be part of the itinerary. After that, we'll wander south to try to catch up with my late brother's kids in Nevada before heading to the Owens Valley for some boondocking in Porco Rosso (now to be towed by Totoro the Gladiator) and dog/cat adventuring. 

Other plans for the new year include a quick trip down to Padre Island to see how Porco does on the road behind the new truck, and to re-acclimate the animals to RV life before the longer trip. I've also got ideas for transforming Owl's Farm: The Website (formerly known as Owldroppings) into a sort of lifelong-learning resource. One possibility is a sort of Eltern-garten (Old Folks' equivalent of a kindergarten), or a modification of the old course site with updates in the fields I covered. A good deal of research and archaeological discovery has taken place in the last five years or so that might make it worth while to revisit some of my old fields of expertise.

In the last couple of years I've also been fairly faithful at keeping a reading journal, and a little less faithful at a design/sketchbook.

Which brings me to the topic of memory. As we all know, our memories begin to transmogrify as we age, and mine is doing so somewhat predictably. I don't have too much trouble with the big events, but short term is pretty iffy, and that's one reason for my fidelity to the reading journal. This is, of course, a familiar pattern to many folks my age--as is my preoccupation with firming up family history and uncovering mysteries that no one has yet solved. So I'll continue trying to complete family trees and compile historical events drawn from old letters and documents left to me by my grandmother(s). I'm calling this latter effort "epistolary archaeology," and I think that my grandfather would be especially happy with what I'm doing, since his expressed wish in his letters was to use them in lieu of keeping a diary, so that he (and presumably his offspring) would have access to his war memories. I expect that these will also someday find their way into the appropriate archive.

Is it really 2020? I can remember when 2000 still sounded like a science fiction date, and I wasn't sure (in 1995) I'd make it that far into the future. My grandfather's letters were written in 1918 and 1919 (I was reading them a century after they were written!). He didn't die until 1973, and I do wish I had known about the letters earlier, so I could have asked for more of his story. But they were in my mother's keeping, and she didn't die until 1999, and I didn't even see them until 2000.

I can't say that I'm terribly sanguine about our collective future, but I do hold out some hope that during the next decade we become smarter, more thoughtful, and kinder. As Virgil noted rather famously in his Third Georgic, "Sed fugit interea, fugit inreparabile tempus." What we most often see shortened to "tempus fugit" ("time flies") more accurately points out that it's also irretrievable--not unlike the tides of time Jay Lake so aptly notes in his story, where he also observes that "we are all time travelers, moving forward at a speed of one second per second. The secret to time travel was that everyone already does it."

The pace suits me. It gives me time to think, to imagine alternatives, to read what others have imagined, and to be grateful that we don't yet have household robots or flying cars. For some reason I always enjoy looking toward the future, appreciating the past, and being happy about whatever time I have left. There always is, it seems, hope.

Happy new year, Folks. Live long and prosper.

Image credit: Graham, Joseph, Newman, William, and Stacy, John, 2008, The geologic time spiral—A path to the past (ver. 1.1): U.S. Geological Survey General Information Product 58, poster, 1 sheet. Available online at via Wikimedia Commons.

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.