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