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."

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.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Early Summer Road Trip

I've been meaning for some time to augment my numerous journal/notebook scribblings with more centered observations here on The Farm. I've pretty much given up trying to make this a regular activity, and have noticed when updating blog rolls that many of my old favorites are having the same trouble. But perhaps recording Bigger Things--like our recent road trip west--would be a good idea, and give my children something to read after I've shuffled off. It might also be a means of letting folks know that I ain't actually dead yet, if, in fact, anybody's still interested.

There aren't that many blogs that I still attend to regularly, and the ones I've come across recently (mostly through Pinterest) are generally unlike most of the earlier ones I encountered. Years ago, after I'd been writing on The Farm for awhile, blogging was already losing some steam for anyone but foodies and mommies (and crafter foodie mommies) who manage to make some kind of a living from monetizing. But I'm so annoyed by the constant intrusion of advertising into every corner of modern life that I just don't read ad-full blogs. I don't mind the content-related bits that show up in side bars, but most commercial "content" (especially clickbait) just makes my eyes hurt, my head ache, and my stomach turn. As close as I'll ever get to an ad is a link to a bookseller, or to a publisher--and of these only occasionally to Amazon.

As I see it now, the main reason to maintain my blog(s) is to keep actively writing. But since I'm keeping several topical notebooks (reading, revising my book, travel, and other story ideas), there's no real pressure to keep either of them current. And then there's the question of negligible readership. I looked at the stats and found out that the Russians are no longer interested, but some questionable page views make me think that I ought to pay more attention to this. Still, both of my active (?) blogs are focused on memory, and I'll undoubtedly keep them up, even sporadically, just to keep the brain-eating zombies away. Quora helps, but every now and then I get tired of answering interminable questions about breastfeeding, child-rearing, food, and Star Trek.

Big Things, though (trips, deaths, births, earthquakes), may deserve a bit more thought and consideration, and when I can combine two or three, that offers even more impetus.

Hence this post. Although we had been planning to head west for some time, The Beloved Spouse and I discovered that after all our recent animal trauma, we were highly reluctant to leave the cat behind, even though we're fairly experienced in hauling a dog and a trailer.

But a happy escape from Texas (at least for awhile) turned out not to be the catalyst for this trip.

In early March, my brother died suddenly after a long struggle with Leukemia and heart disease. He'd been doing fairly well for much longer than we had expected when he was first diagnosed with the cancer, but he also shared some of my problematic cardiac genes, and eventually one or both got him. He was only 69.

In our family, a funeral is always an excuse for a family reunion, so we decided to convene in the town where my great, great grandparents settled, and to bury Michael's ashes in the family plot in early summer so as many people as possible could attend. Because he was a veteran of the Vietnam War, the VFW would provide the headstone and conduct the ceremony. This is the same cemetery where my Grandmother always took flowers on appropriate holidays, and where her ashes are now buried, only blocks away from where she grew up and where my father and his sister were born.

TBS and I began to work on getting Lola, our little Shasta Airflyte reissue, ready to travel, and realized that the amount of work it would take (and the short time available) would make it impossible to use her for the trip. So we started looking around for a bigger, animal-friendly rig that was still small enough and cute enough to take her place. After endless YouTube videos and web searches, we found some possibilities and went shopping.

While looking for a particular Riverside Whitewater Retro model, we discovered another one (the 190 Bunkhouse)--small enough for us to tow with our Jeep Wrangler, and set up with terrific spaces for animals, including a double bunk that we knew Molly would love. It also had a huge compartment under the bottom bunk, with outside access and a place to insert a cat flap to a litter box. In a later post, I'll write about the cattification of the vehicle we now call Porco Rosso (after the Hiyao Miazaki film we both love--and the trailer's sort of a canned ham, so the name seemed a natural), but for now that's him in the opening photo.

Porco turned out to be a hit with both the dog and the cat. While Molly didn't particularly enjoy the in-the-car part of the trip (where she was confined to a large canvas and mesh dog crate), she loved staying in the trailer when we camped. Nylah has done well in cars since we transported her from her foster home near Abilene; we bonded during the three hours it took to get her to McKinney.

On the way out we stopped in Vega, Texas; Holbrook, Arizona; and Boulder City, Nevada. Part of the family had decided to congregate in Lone Pine before the funeral, so we put up in the Boulder Creek RV park just south of town, having made it through Death Valley (not without angst), and decided immediately to spend an extra day (four days instead of three). I wish we had actually spent more, because we really enjoyed the additional time to visit old haunts local museums (like Lone Pine's Museum of Western Film History, and the Eastern California Museum in Independence), the Cottonwood Charcoal Kilns, and the nooks and crannies in the Alabama Hills, where I have spent many happy moments cavorting and exploring with my kids, my brother, and numerous other family members.

TBS and Nylah on the set of Gunga Din in the Alabama Hills
Gunga Din was one of many films shot in this area
My uncle was an extra in King of the Khyber Rifles, filmed nearby

Fans of Iron Man might recognize Lone Pine Peak in the background
Part of the lure for tourists to the Owens Valley is the history of film making in the Alabamas and surrounding locations, including the Sierra Nevada. We took the last shot from a spot we were considering for a family picnic. The area below it had once stood in for India in the thirties and the fifties, and for Afghanistan in the first Iron Man movie.

We left the Valley reluctantly, but the experience had shown us that we don't have to wait for another funeral to make the effort to get back. 

On our way back to Texas, we chose a slightly different route, avoiding Death Valley, but driving south right through the area where, less than month later, a cluster of earthquakes--including two very large ones--would occur. The fault system involved is the same one that caused the Lone Pine Earthquake in 1872, one of the biggest ever to hit California. I had meant to take The Beloved Spouse to the monument this trip, but ran out of steam after a long day of memory-tourism.

Stops in Kingman, Arizona; Grants, New Mexico; and Amarillo, Texas got us home in a timely manner, after eleven days out. The best stay of all--besides Boulder Creek--was at the Grants park, Lavaland, which just happens to have a terrific brewery attached. So we had a nice chat with the brewista, picked up a growler of excellent Nut Brown Ale, a bottle of Santa Clara New Mexico merlot, and a nifty Elkins Brewery tee shirt to help spread the word.

It took Molly more time to adjust to being home than it did to get used to living in Porco, but now everything seems to be back to normal. TBS spent several days augmenting the gate to Porco's new parking spot in the back yard (he's two feet wider, five feet longer, and considerably taller than Lola, and we couldn't get him through the twelve-foot gate because the alley was too narrow). But the redesign worked (although I still need to stain the new bits) and we got him settled. Nylah was ecstatic when she got to go back in, and I'm planning to get Molly out there soon, so she doesn't forget what a great time she had on her first big adventure.

In the end, I think my brother would have been quite happy with his sendoff, and would have appreciated his spot next to his dad and the rest of his forebears. As always, it was great to spend time with folks we get to see much too infrequently. The next trip will probably be to the northwest, where my son and his wife just bought five acres and have space to house Porco while we're out there. Of course, we'll no doubt head south on the way home, to visit my brother's grave and breathe in the high desert air before we have to return to exile--at least until we decide what to do with the rest of our lives.

Just a note, in case anyone's looking for it: the link to More News From Nowhere has been taken down, because it's in deep revision. I'm hoping to get everything finished and the website redesigned and updated by the end of this year.

Image notes: All the the photos were taken in and around Lone Pine with a Canon Eos SLR. A couple of shots were edited in Photoshop to get rid of spots on the lens, but the last group should certainly prove that it's almost impossible to take a bad shot in the Alabamas. This is the dirty little secret of cinematographers throughout the history of American films. I highly recommend a visit to the Film History museum linked above if you're ever in town.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Earth Day 2019: Some Good News, Some Bad News

I've spent the last couple of days in active terraforming, in the back half of my half acre in suburban north Texas. I'm also only three pages into the Mueller Report, but have just finished reading Jamaica Kincaid's rather fascinating memoir about a trip to the Himalayas in search of seeds for her Vermont garden, Among Flowers. I'm trying to maintain a balance.

In a few days we'll be hosting a convivium honoring the end of the 37th Heidegger Symposium--hence the work on the property, trying to help it recover from a very odd winter (if anyone could actually call it "winter"), and a "tetchy" spring, during which we've had much rain and some considerable thunderstorms. The Byzantine gladioli, which threaten to take over the property, but which are enjoyed nonetheless, are peaking, and some alliums transplanted from another part of the garden (and which have not bloomed since the year after we moved in, in 2000) are on the verge. Numerous other flowers, both planted and accidental, are budding and blooming, and should make a nice show for next Saturday evening, when Continental philosophers both domestic and foreign will congregate at the end of a two-day conference which has been held here in McKinney, Texas, for the last three years.

 (These are last year's; my more recent photos don't seem to have migrated from iPhone to Mac yet.)

During my morning romps through media both print and digital (the Daily Poop--aka the Dallas Morning News, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The New Yorker), I've come across some interesting stuff, which has prompted appropriate reflections on the state of the planet.

So, good news first. According to an article in yesterday's New York Times, The Gaia hypothesis seems to be in the process of being revisited. Ferris Jabr's essay, The Earth is Just As Alive as You Are, is a welcome bit of commentary on a notion that I've been keen on for the last fifty years or so. This is the good news: that the idea of Earth's interconnection with its species and its environment constitutes a living system is still out there, and that at least part of the scientific community is still taking it seriously.

But there's also ample bad news, exemplified, I think by a satellite view of South Georgia Island I saw after I got an earthquake alert from an iPad app ("Quakes") which noted a couple of 6.0 quakes in the region of the Sandwich Islands and South Georgia Island a few days ago. Looking closely at the area, I noticed that South Georgia Island has a massive number of glaciers, and that all of them seem to be in flux. Ever since I took a course at Penn on Pleistocene geology, I've been fascinated by glaciers, in part because they're such a significant contributor to the landscape of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. During my lifetime, I've watched glaciers in the Sierras dwindle and disappear, so that I've become sensitive to the disappearance of other glaciers throughout the world as an indicator of climate change.

A quick Google search on "disappearing glaciers" highlights the scope of the problem. They're one of the canaries that show scientists just how bad things are.

Thus, the political news (which is, of course, connected very closely with the bad news, since the present administration is the Fosterer in Chief of climate denial) takes a back seat, at least for today, to the environmental problems we continue to face.

I would like to think that the very continuance of Earth Day is a sign that all is not lost. The charming Google Doodle for Earth Day links to some useful information on the state of things (Your Plan, Your Planet), which means that lots of folks are paying attention, and that the potential for mitigation hasn't been abandoned. But I'm getting pretty old. I'm about to celebrate my youngest child's fortieth birthday (on June 27). There are no grandchildren, so at least we won't have to worry about what happens to them. But my late brother's children have children, and my other siblings have or may someday have grandchildren, so there is some familial impact--even though the Beloved Spouse and I will be long gone before the Stuff hits the planetary fan.

In the meantime, I celebrate the small things: the flowers in the garden (both on purpose and by accident), this year's potential tomatoes, peppers, and herbs, a trip west to celebrate my brother's life with my family, and to put him to rest with my father and his forbears, and am thankful for our small new mammalian family: Molly and Nylah.

My Earth Day resolution is to get better at posting. But we all know how good I am at keeping such resolutions. However, if my fairly consistent (for over a year now) practice of Qigong is any indication, I might actually be able to do a better job of keeping the blogs up in the new Earth Year.

Image credit: South Georgia Island, from NASA's Earth Observatory Picture of the Day (April 29, 2013), taken by digital camera from the ISS.