Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Demonic Dog Not Good With Young Children

adopt a feist

The Pocahontas County Humane Society ran this photograph in the November 17, 2005 edition of The Pocahontas Times, along with this description: "Male silky Terrier/Dachshund mix. Good with other dogs, cats, but not with young children." I don't know if he looks as wild-eyed and vicious in person as in this picture, but we couldn't stop laughing over him at our house. Not good with young children, no sir. On reflection, we decided he's probably already been adopted. The men of Pocahontas County love their feists, and this one looks especially feisty. This photo was probably a calculated choice.

I wanted to check the spelling of "feist" before I posted this, because it's a word I never heard before I moved here. This turned out to be a bigger project than I expected. "Feist" appears in print in John Fox Jr.'s The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come (1898).

"That dawg'll kill them sheep," said Daws Dillon aloud.

Joel's face was red and his eyes rolled.

"Call that damned feist back, I tell ye," he shouted at last. "Hyeh, Rube, git my gun, git my gun!"

Rube started for the house, but Chad laughed. Jack had reached the other bank now, and was flashing like a ball of gray light through the weeds and up into the woods; and Chad slipped down the bank and into the river, hieing him on excitedly.

This is a fascinating book, and instrumental in generating the hillbilly stereotypes we in Appalachia so enjoy. I'll have more exciting quotes in the days to come. But back to "feists." I checked my compact edition of the OED, and learned two things. First, the magnifying glass that came with it and seemed so silly when I was in high school has turned out to be essential. That print gets smaller every year. Second, "fiste" meaning a dog is an Americanism first documented by Bartlett's American Dictionary in 1860. "Fisting cur" and "fisting hound" have an English heritage, with the earliest quoted usage from Sir Thomas More in 1524, "a little fisting cur."

Monday, November 28, 2005

Recycling Hand-Knit and Ready-to-Wear Sweaters

recycled sweater: raspberry cardigan recycled sweater: Icelandic cardigan

It's been a long time since I've made an interesting knitting project "from scratch." Aside from knitting hats for other people and socks for my household, most of my knitting would come under the heading of "recycling." I've unraveled several sweaters, skeined and washed the yarn, and put it back in my fiber library. I've shortened three over-sized 80's sweaters which I used to wear with leggings, converting them into sweaters for topping jeans or slacks. I reknit shoulders, neckline and sleeves on a "big-shouldered" sweater, and then dyed it blue, and I cut some favorite old pullovers down the front and knitted on button bands, to expand my cardigan collection. The raspberry sweater with gold buttons is a all-wool Laura Ashley number I found for $5 in a thrift shop (like new, but with a raveling hole in the shoulder--easily and invisibly repaired twelve years ago), and the Icelandic style sweater knit of pencil roving is my first color work project, knitted in 1979 or 1980.

Last fall, it struck me that my collection of turtlenecks was starting to make my own neck appear a little too turtle-like. recycled sweater: grey V-neck I cut the collars off a dozen old cotton and silk tops, cut them down to size, and machine-stitched them back on to face new and potentially more flattering necklines. This fall, I was emboldened to cut into a couple of my old favorite ready-to-wear wool turtlenecks. I cut deep V-necklines, hand-finished the raw edges, and used sport-weight yarn to pick up stitches and hand-knit new ribbed finishes. I've been pleased with the results. So far, I've finished this grey ribbed wool/angora blend, and a nice but un-photograph-able black merino pullover. I'm about to cut into a white wool/angora blend, and after that, I'm going to try one of my treasured but unwearable cashmere T-necks.

For me, this is more fun than shopping, although perhaps less fun than designing and knitting a new sweater. At this point, the sweater recycling has the added advantage of decreasing the volume of my fabric scraps collection, which is currently outweighing my fiber, fabric, and wardrobe collections. Coming soon: More Projects Featuring Scrap Collection Reduction!

Friday, November 25, 2005

Fair Isle Hats as a Paradigm for Creativity

pink mohair Fair Isle hat

Despite my knitting disphoria, I have completed a few hats for Elaine Diller's Morningstar Folk Arts shop. The two Fair Isle patterned hats are knit of mohair and Unger "Fluffy," a synthetic with a heavy "halo" much like mohair. The hat with the white crown was a commission, and will only be seen in the store on someone's head. The pink and white hat with the simpler color work is already in the store, along with a couple of cabled silk skullcaps.

Last week, I gave away the cabled cap I'd been wearing, so I need to knit myself another one right smart now. Here's where I run out of inspiration. I have so many "favorite" bits of yarn, I can't decide what to use. This is the difference between making something that will look nice and wear well, and making the best hat I can think of. Suddenly, nothing is good enough.

This is similar to my problems with other projects--writing, sewing, home improvement. If I approach a project as something that has to be finished by a deadline, to spec, I generally do a good job. If it's open-ended, evaluated only by myself, "creative," I'm paralyzed. I need to quit doing this to myself.

Pink wool colorwork hat White Fair Isle mohair hat

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

National Sonnet Writing Month

Lorianne of Hoarded Ordinaries has run plumb wild with the English language this month. I have been enjoying her students' blogs, indexed at Doctor D's Domain, "the place where a class of Expository Writing students (and their instructor) are learning to write before a live Internet audience." Of course her "regular blog" has been a "regular read" of mine for the past 18 months or so. This month, on top of participating in National Novel Writing Month, she has started blogging her novel-writing process on Get It Written, which she describes as "A virtual meeting place for writers facing daunting projects." To recap, she's teaching composition, she's blogging, she's writing a novel in a month, and she's blogging about writing a novel in a month. She is the Energizer Bunny of the keyboard.

I think National Novel Writing Month is an intriguing concept. To quote their Web pages,

National Novel Writing Month is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing November 1. The goal is to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30....Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It's all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly. Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that's a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.
I thought about participating, but when I considered all the verbiage I've churned out to meet deadlines, I decided what I needed was not more practice in generating output, but in identifying what's worthwhile and deleting the rest. I think I need National Sonnet Writing Month.

Still, I take Lorianne as an inspiration. In the maiden post of Get It Written, she says:

... I'm doing NaNo again this year purely as a writing exercise. Like a runner who trains for a marathon not with delusions of winning but solely as a way to push the envelope of her own strength and endurance, I'm doing NaNo this year to remind myself, again, that my Creative Muscle is stronger than I think....I hope to hear the input of other people on the journey: those of you who are facing daunting projects of your own (NaNo or otherwise), and those of you who are watching from the sidelines.
Taking her at her word, I boldly posted that I too was facing a daunting task.
"After many years of technical writing and editing for scientific journals, grant proposals, and lab notebooks, I'm trying to get back to the sort of writing that excited me before all those years of grad school. 11/09/2005"
She responded encouragingly, and added,
I briefly spent some time years ago doing tech writing, and it wasn't intimidating (to me) in the same way that creative writing is. Because I didn't really care about the "craft" of the finished product, I could simply churn out anything. Creative writing is (for me) scarier because I want it to be *good*, not just "adequate."
I thought this was a very interesting observation. When I've done technical writing, I have been concerned about quality--at least part of the time it was determining the course of my career, so it seemed very important to me. I really enjoy good technical writing, and I would even add that good technical writing is creative.

Still, I agree technical writing is less intimidating than "literary" writing. For me, knowledge of my audience is what determines how white my knuckles are when I write, and I know who reads technical writing. For scientific papers, I know that many readers will not be native speakers of English. Complex sentence structure, unusual words, and literary references will frustrate them the way I have been frustrated in German, Spanish, Latin.... For laboratory protocols or Linux "how-to's" the reader will be referring to the writing while working, so it needs to be clearly organized and easy to follow. Grant review panel members need to determine whether a proposal is appropriate for the funding source. Echoing the language of the call for proposals makes this easy for the reviewers, and it makes them like your grant better. But who's reading my essay on Wendell Berry? Who's reading my sonnet (from National Sonnet Writing Month, see above)? Who's reading this?

Monday, November 21, 2005

Deer Season's Greetings from Pocahontas County

Rifle season for deer began here at dawn. In Pocahontas County, this is a bigger holiday than Christmas, even for kids. The schools are closed for the week, and, at least briefly, it supersedes video games and Barbie dolls. The hardcore among us have already been hunting with bows, and we have all been talking about the weather and the deer population for weeks. We generally agree that we need some snow, that the population is down, and the bucks are keeping themselves scarce.

This weekend, people who grew up here and moved away to find work have come back to hunt deer with their families. Home places and hunting camps that stand empty most of the year are occupied now, and the festivities will continue throughout the week. Thanksgiving dinner will be a disappointment if it consists chiefly of grocery store turkey. (Wild turkey is a different story--I mean the bird, not the beverage.) The crowd we run with plays traditional Appalachian stringband music, and we've had two late nights picking so far.

At our house, we eat deer meat about three times a week throughout the year, so food preservation is the order of the day. Our division of labor gives me the garden and orchard canning chores, which are finished for the year. Now I get to enjoy deer liver (by far the most delicious, delicately-flavored liver I've ever had), tenderloin, and steaks. We will freeze some steaks and roasts, and pressure can the rest. We are fortunate to have such high quality meat, with no hormones, antibiotics, or factory-farm bred diseases. As a former farm girl, I feel as if I'm cheating, because I didn't have to feed the deer, vaccinate them, or sit up with them all night when they were having their babies.

As recently as the 1970's, whitetailed deer were fairly scarce in Pocahontas County. However, it looks as if our days of abundant, low-cost, high quality wild meat may be numbered. Chronic Wasting Disease, long a problem out West, has been reported in four deer in Hampshire County, West Virginia, and I think DNR's talk about controlling it is a pipe dream. After seven years of reading and writing about microbial pathogens, I'm quite pessimistic about our ability to affect the spread of infectious diseases in animals or humans. (Don't get me started on bird flu or tuberculosis unless you'd like to get really bummed out. NIH and CDC are just putting out happy talk to postpone widespread panic.)

Oops, there I go with the pessimism. Forget that--there's nothing we can do about it, and all good things must come to an end. Happy Deer Season, everybody! I plan to enjoy my holiday to the fullest, savoring it more because it is fleeting. I'll play my banjo, and maybe I'll make some deer pate this year.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Wendell Berry and the Dirty Work of Writing

It seems I'm not quite done with Wendell Berry. My last post about him kept growing, and I finally just stopped, rather abruptly. Previously, I shared my new insight into why Berry sometimes seems a little smug, a little superior to the rest of us poor mortals. He reveals in The Hidden Wound that he was raised a gentleman farmer, a member of a class that subscribes to the "...notion that one is too good to do what it is necessary for somebody to do...." Berry follows this revelation with this observation:

The unwillingness, or the inability, to dirty one's hands in one's own service is a serious flaw of character. But in a society that sense of superiority can cut off a whole class or a whole race from its most necessary experience.
I'm sure Mr. Berry will be pleased and relieved to know that this farm girl forgives him his upbringing because he understands it. I continue writing because I think now I can put into words why his 1987 essay, Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer generated a collection of angry readers' letters, and continues to be quoted and passed around the Internet 18 years later. In this much-cited essay, Berry explains that many people have urged him to get a computer, and he gives several reasons why he has no plans to do so. He mentions his disapproval of power companies and computer manufacturers, then asks:
What would a computer cost me? More money, for one thing, than I can afford, and more than I wish to pay to people whom I do not admire. But the cost would not be just monetary. It is well understood that technological innovation always requires the discarding of the "old model," the "old model" in this case being not just our old Royal standard, but my wife, my critic, closest reader, my fellow worker. Thus (and I think this is typical of present-day technological innovation) what would be superseded would be not only something, but somebody. In order to be technologically up-to-date as a writer, I would have to sacrifice an association that I am dependent upon and that I treasure.

Book Cover: What Are People For? When his short essay was reprinted in the venerable Harper's Magazine, the editors forwarded 20 readers' letters, some of which Berry included, along with his own rebuttal in What Are People For?. Berry expresses surprise at the strident tone some of his critics have taken.

Now, let us remember what computers were like in 1987, when Mr. Berry documented his distaste. There were Unix-running mainframes, toy-like Apples with those cutesie GUIs that crashed all the time, and IBM Personal Computers. I was in graduate school throughout the 1980's and used computers for data management, analysis, statistics, and word processing. At that time, the text-editing experience was much like writing hypertext by hand, and it wasn't the desktop computer's most useful trick. However, IBM was really pushing the PC's at universities. There was plenty of sales pressure, and the more professors that ordered PC's the better the deals IBM offered. Professors who wanted computers were like Mary Kay sales ladies trying to win vacations. (All this was before feisty little Microsoft broke IBM's stranglehold on the computer market.) No wonder Mr. Berry sounded a little testy in his original essay. He is modeling an admirable degree of sales resistance, a skill he praises in Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community: Eight Essays.Book Cover: Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community Some of his critics may be justifying their own questionable purchases of expensive tools that soon disappoint.

However, Berry alienates his readers in two other ways, and I don't think he understands this. First, he misunderstands what computers do when he states that using a computer would terminate his working relationship with a collaborator:

My wife types my work on a Royal standard typewriter bought new in 1956 and as good now as it was then. As she types, she sees things that are wrong and marks them with small checks in the margins. She is my best critic because she is the one most familiar with my habitual errors and weaknesses. She also understands, sometimes better than I do, what ought to be said.
In fact, Mrs. Berry is the one who does the manuscript preparation, and she is the one who should decide what tools she wishes to use. If she still finds the typewriter satisfactory, there is no reason to move on. If she uses a computer, or a wax tablet and stylus, there is no reason she should not continue to edit, criticize, and contribute content. At least one of the readers' letters, from Toby Koosman of Knoxville, Tennessee, points this out. "The value of a computer to a writer is that it is a tool not for generating ideas but for typing and editing words."

The second effect Berry has on his computer-using audience is to inflame the deadly sin Envy. Mr. Berry remarks, almost off-handedly, that he has someone to edit, criticize and improve his writing, and also prepare his manuscripts. That person is a family member, and we may imagine that she has more concern for his welfare than would an employee. Most of us find sympathetic collaborators only rarely, and we must do the dirty work of manuscript preparation all on our own. In graduate school I did manuscript-preparation-for-hire to make a buck here and there, and I can affirm that it is the work of

despised men who secretly despised themselves for doing the work of despised men--so many of the necessary acts of my history, neither valued nor understood...
These temporary jobs paid better than fast food service, and were physically less tiring, but my work was "neither valued nor understood." In fact, as "women's work," it may have been less esteemed than the manual labor Berry mentions.

Berry's readers (myself included) envy him because he has that sympathetic helper, and can hand off the "dirty work" of writing to someone else. This handing off of "dirty work" has the ring of class privilege, and it is always enraging to find out that someone "above you" criticizes your taste, your judgment, and perhaps your morals. I quote Berry one more time:

The notion that one is too good to do what it is necessary for somebody to do is always weakening. The unwillingness, or the inability, to dirty one's hands in one's own service is a serious flaw of character. But in a society that sense of superiority can cut off a whole class or a whole race from its most necessary experience. For one thing, it can curtail or distort a society's sense of the means, and of the importance of the means, of getting work done; it prolongs and ramifies the life and effect of pernicious abstractions. In America, for instance, one of the most depraved and destructive habits has always been an obsession with results.
The Hidden Wound, p. 106

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Knitting and Spinning Disphoria: Surely a Temporary Condition!

Somehow, my spinning process has been "stuck" the last few months. My current batch of wool was heavy-laden with vegetable material--in this case, burdock seed pods. Even though I spun the singles quite coarsely, it was very slow spinning, and the results, while nicely dyed, were not appealing until I washed the spun and plyed skeins. Most of the crud fell out, and the yarn fluffed up pretty well. Since I washed it with some cheap lavender-scented shampoo, it smells really nice now. I took it down to Morningstar Folk Arts where it's selling for just $2.00 per ounce--a bargain, if I do say so myself.

I've moved on to some teal fleece from the same wool sack. Fortunately, this dye lot was much cleaner, and it's much more pleasant to work with. I hope that the prospect of spinning by the crackling wood stove each evening will get me spinning along once again.

I am also experiencing some knitting disphoria. This is very unusual for me. The only explanation I can think of is my brief foray into retail sales at the Greenbrier Resort's Artist's Colony shop, Appalachian by Design. In between waiting on customers and tidying up the shop, I was meant to knit where customers could see me. The company's chairwoman assigned me several knitting tasks, including knitting up a store model from a kit. These tasks were not much fun, and when it was all over, I didn't get paid promptly. My intention here is not to complain, because I learned a lot of non-knitting lessons about retail, machine knitting, and West Virginia history. It was a worthwhile experience. I do suspect that it took some fun out of knitting, at least temporarily. Of course, I've had knitter's block before. It will pass.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

CSS and Web Design: Some Helpful Resources

In spite of Philip Greenspun's advice to "'just say no' to formatting your documents instead of working on the content," I've been tinkering with the CSS for my Web pages. For me this sort of thing always involves a lot of preliminary reading. Here are links to some of the most helpful advice I've found on-line.

Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) Basic Reference Material
  • : CSS layout techniques. "If you are looking for help making the transition to CSS layout (that's Cascading Style Sheets), you've come to the right place. I am cataloging here as many useful cross-browser CSS layout techniques as I can find, and some that I made up when I was bored last Thursday. All the examples on this site have been reduced to only their essential code, and you will find the source displayed on each page to hopefully make it quick and easy to understand the inner workings of the CSS. Feel free to steal all the code you find on this site, and consider linking back here on your site or in your source comments."
  • CSS Panic Guide. "CSS-a guide for the unglued. This is not a complete resource, this is a fast resource. These are the sites that I refer to first, and that I tell people to read. When you want more, just about all of them have their own links to good sites."
  • W3Schools Online Web Tutorials. "THE LARGEST WEB DEVELOPER'S SITE ON THE NET: Full Web Building Tutorials - All Free. At W3Schools you will find all the Web-building tutorials you need, from basic HTML and XHTML to advanced XML, Multimedia and WAP." It's true. If it's a tutorial you want, this is the place. Really helpful!
  • HTML and CSS Tutorials, References, Articles and News - HTML Dog. "Welcome to HTML Dog, the web designer's resource for everything HTML and CSS, the most common technologies used in making web pages. If you are a beginner, the step-by-step HTML Beginner's Guide will get you started. If you are already a competent web maker, the HTML Advanced Guide and CSS Advanced Guide are the places to look for advanced tips, tricks and good practice techniques." Not as comprehensive as the W3Schools site, but what's here is quite helpful.
  • Lorelle on WordPress HTML, CSS, PHP, and More Cheat Sheets "If you are into tweaking your WordPress Theme or designing one from scratch, here are some HTML/XHTML and CSS Cheat Sheets you might want to add to your resources." This is a blogger's list of pages designed as handy hard-copy references for the novice Web designer.
CSS Templates

My favorite way to learn "computer stuff" is to start with a sample (shell script, program, html page, etc.) and try to modify it to meet my needs. Once I understand what it is I need to know, I can focus better when I read that fine manual. There are many sample CSS templates available for would-be Web designers. I've tried a number of them, and these were the ones I found most helpful.

Theory and Practice: Good Web Design

These resources offer advice on what makes good CSS design, and how it can enhance, not detract from, Web pages. They are interesting and thought provoking, and some of them offer practical tips as well.

  • Webaim--accessibility techniques and concepts. The Internet can be a fantastic resource for people with disabilities. This site will help you make sure everyone that might want to use your pages will be able to do so.
  • Free web design course - basics, layout, free tutorials, case studies, how to guide, examples (Web Design from Scratch). "Web Design from Scratch is a practical training course in web design for everyone interested in creating effective web pages. Web design is a complex discipline that involves a wide range of skills. I notice that some of the most basic skills are lacking in many web site designs. Those basic skills are quite simple, but can be hard to gain because of a lack of teaching material. That's what WDFS aims to solve!" The site is quite extensive, and I haven't finished reading every section yet, but it is interesting and insightful, and I feel I've learned a lot. There is very little "how-to," but plenty of "why."
  • css Zen Garden: The Beauty in CSS Design. "A demonstration of what can be accomplished visually through CSS-based design. Select any style sheet from the list to load it into this page." It's really pretty, and you can look at the style sheets to see how they do it.
  • A List Apart: A List Apart, "For people who make websites: A List Apart Magazine (ISSN: 1534-0295) explores the design, development, and meaning of web content, with a special focus on techniques and benefits of designing with web standards." The writing is wonderful, the design is instructive. This is going to be a regular read for me.
  • css/edge. "css/edge is intended, first and foremost, to be as relentlessly creative with CSS as we have been practical all these years. It does not exist to present or explain safe cross-browser techniques; in fact, almost the opposite. The goal here is to find ways to make CSS live up to its fullest potential, with only minimal regard to browser limitations." While this sounds like something too esoteric for my minimalist needs, I've learned a lot from the material presented here, and the links have been very useful too.
  • Philip and Alex's Guide to Web Publishing. This is the reference I wrote about in my Sunday, November 13, 2005 post.
  • Jakob Nielsen's Website. This is a must-read for anyone using the Internet. He has a helpful new article on blog usability mistakes, as well.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Dr. Bootsie Considers Redesigning Her Web Pages

I've spent quite a bit of time the last few weeks learning more about Web design, and experimenting with revisions of my Web site and weblog. I am not sure whether this time has been wasted or not. I always enjoy learning something new, and I think I can improve my Web pages through reformatting them. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that I may be wasting time, and using this formatting expedition as an avoidance activity. As testimony supporting the second option, I quote from Philip and Alex's Guide to Web Publishing.

People with limited time, money, and experience usually build fairly usable Web sites. However, there is no publishing concept so simple that money, knowledge of HTML arcana, and graphic design can't make slow, confusing, and painful for users. After you've tarted up your site with frames, graphics, and color, check the server log to see how much traffic has fallen. Then ask yourself whether you shouldn't have thought about user interface stability.

I've taken to heart much of the advice offered in this entertaining and helpful book. In fact, I took this code (with a couple of insignificant additions) to my CSS file as well. From Chapter 5: Learn to Program HTML in 21 Minutes:

If you can't "just say no" to formatting your documents instead of working on the content, you might want to consider developing a site-wide cascading style sheet. Here's the cascading style sheet for the online version of this book ( ):
body {margin-left: 3% ; margin-right: 3%}

P { margin-top: 0pt; text-indent : 0.2in }
P.stb { margin-top: 12pt }
P.mtb { margin-top: 24pt; text-indent : 0in}
P.ltb { margin-top: 36pt; text-indent : 0in}

p.marginnote { background-color: #E0E0E0 }
p.paperonly { background-color: #E0E0E0 }

li.separate { margin-top: 12pt }

I also recommend The book behind the book behind the book... This is Greenspun's account of writing a computer book, what happened to it, and how it came to be available free on the Internet. If this doesn't jaundice your secret hopes of publishing a dead-trees book, nothing will. To my great embarrassment, I laughed out loud while sitting at the computer.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Conrad's Blogger Profile

Ever since I posted Princess's photo and biography, I have felt guilty for not giving Conrad equal time. Born in 1990, Conrad is a distinguished elder statescat of the Korat breed. Although born in Georgetown and raised in Takoma Park, Conrad (and his late lamented brother Marlow) adapted very well to Droop Mountain, where Conrad still enjoys catching mice, moles, and chipmunks, and running down the hill, across the yard and up a tree as if pursued by the Devil himself. You can see him in the foreground of my ghostly apparition photo, "Haunted Pocahontas County: Droop Mountain Battlefield, Part 3" where he is winding down by sharpening his claws on the pear tree.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Learning Something New About Wendell Berry

Book Cover: The Hidden Wound

Last week I read a Wendell Berry essay I'd not seen before, and I had an "aha!" moment. The book was The Hidden Wound, 1989, originally published in 1970. The essay addresses the deliterious effects of racism in the American South, focusing particularly on the subtle damage caused to white people by their racist ideology. He is unflinchingly honest about himself and his family of origin, which cannot have been easy in 1970.

Book Cover: Life Is a Miracle I've been an admirer of Berry's essays since the 1970's. He writes about topics that interest me--conservation, agriculture, ecology, the philosophy of science, and American history--and he also brings new things to my attention. I took particular glee in his 2000 book Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition, in which Berry effectively demolishes E. O. Wilson's 1998 book, Consilience : The Unity of Knowledge. Ed Wilson is an unpleasant, arrogant man in person, and not nearly as clever as he imagines himself on paper, and I was delighted when Berry made intellectual mincemeat of him. I only wish Berry had taken on Wilson's On Human Nature, which was much more widely read outside academia. Book Cover: Consilience Book Cover: On Human Nature

I've never met Mr. Berry, but he is a thoughtful, precise writer, willing to explore unpopular positions, think through difficult topics, and even criticize himself. As I read his essays, I nod in approval, note with surprise, and understand confusing topics better. Yet on completing his books, I often find myself feeling subtly annoyed. "Take your exquisite sensibility," I mutter under my breath, "and stick it where the sun don't shine." I've never understood this emotional response, but I have assumed that I would probably like Mr. Berry no better than I liked Mr. Wilson in the flesh.

Reading The Hidden Wound, I finally understood my reaction. Berry has described himself as a farmer, the descendent of farmers, someone who works his own land. This has informed his writing, and, as a farm girl myself, made me think he was "one of us." In The Hidden Wound, Berry reveals that his great-grandparents were slave owners, and his grandfather and father employed a "hired men," who actually worked the land. Wendell Berry is from a long line of "gentlemen farmers," not the same sort of people as my parents and grandparents at all. Berry works his own land himself, with horses, for pleasure and for a connection to the land and its past. He has made his livlihood as a university professor and author. To his credit, he understands he is doing this, and admits it to himself and his readers:

I became thoughtful of all the work that had been done there on my home ground either by despised men or by men who secretly despised themselves for doing the work of despised men--so many of the necessary acts of my history, neither valued nor understood, wasted in the process of wasting the earth.
The Hidden Wound, p. 88
He concerns himself about a right attitude toward work, and credits his father's hired hands for teaching him about this:

...[T]hese people made in themselves an astonishing endurance, a marvelous ability to survive. They have endured and survived the worst, and in the course of their long ordeal they have developed--as most of white society has not--the understanding and the means both of small private pleasures and of communal grief and celebration and joy.

The great benefit in my childhood friendship with Nick and Aunt Georgie, then, was not an experience of sympathy, though that was involved and was essential, but a prolonged intense contact with lives and minds radically unlike my own, and radically unlike any other that I might have known as a white child among white adults. They don't figure in my memory and in my thoughts about them as objects of pity, but rather as friends and teachers, ancestors you could say, the forebearers of certain essential strains in my thinking.

The Hidden Wound, pp. 63-64
"Most of white society" is apparently not what I or my neighbors in Pocahontas County belong to. I was raised to do what needed to be done, whether it was a pleasant task or not. People who shirked unpleasant work were morally defective. I got this at home, at church, and at school. "Never ask anyone else to do something you wouldn't do yourself," was the rule for bosses. As it turned out, this moral value got me into all sorts of trouble in graduate school and in my professional life. I think at some level, I have recognized Berry's connection with the people who despise manual labor, and have felt part of the underclass which he admires and despises, but does not belong to.

The notion that one is too good to do what it is neccessary for somebody to do is always weakening. The unwillingness, or the inability, to dirty one's hands in one's own service is a serious flaw of character. But in a society that sense of superiority can cut off a whole class or a whole race from its most necessary experience. For one thing, it can curtail or distort a society's sense of the means, and of the importance of the means, of getting work done; it prolongs and ramifies the life and effect of pernicious absractions. In America, for instance, one of the most depraved and destructive habits has always been an obsession with results. Getting the job done is good. Pondering as to how the job should be done, or whether or not it should be done, is apt to be regarded as a waste of time.
The Hidden Wound, p. 106

Monday, November 07, 2005

Pocahontas County Knitting History: Louise McNeill

Here's another Pocahontas County knitting reference, from Louise McNeill's wonderful memior The Milkweed Ladies (1988, University of Pittsburgh Press). You'll have to pardon me for quoting a longer passage than is strictly necessary. I think this prose is even better than her poetry.

The cinnamon rose on the wall of our farmhouse belonged to Granny Fanny, my father's mother, and hers too, the row of bachelor buttons, the pink sweet rockets by the garden fence. But Granny Fanny had little time for fussing around with flowers. She was busy in the kitchen or stable or running the hills with her gunnysack, picking her loads of wild plums or wormy apples, or half-rotten kindling wood.

Milkweed Ladies, ready to sail away In 1914, the Austrian archduke had been assasinated at Sarajevo and the world was engulfed in war, but Granny was not of this century; she was wild and running free. Born in 1840, she still roved the rocks and waste places, tended her ash hopper, which made lye for her homeade soap, and poured tallow into her candle molds.

It was as though, standing in her hilly pocket sometime about 1861 or 1862, she had set her thorn broom handle into the world's axis and brought it to a grinding halt. In her long black dress and black bonnet, she walked the hills of another time, and perhaps, even of another country, and gathered pokes of horehound and "life everlasting" to cure the twentieth century of its "bloody flux." She was an old pioneer woman, thin and wrinkled as a dried apple, and with her secret in her that she always kept from everyone. On her back, where she had bent it so long under the burdens, a great knot had grown as big as a wooden maul. In her old age, she wore it like a saddle, the seal and saddle of the mountain woman.

When she was no longer needed in the kitchen, Granny Fanny would go into the fields and woodlands with her gunnysack, or she would take her thorn bush broom and sweep the dirt from the floor of the woodshed, then sweep the path and yard so slick and clean that there was hardly a splinter left. Or she would find a dead sheep out in the pasture, pull the wool off it, pick the burrs from the wool, wash it, card it, spin it, and knit it into crooked mittens and socks. But she would never sew or do fine quilting or mend the clothes. If clothes wore out, she threw them in the fire.

Granny Fanny was not at all a proper woman like my other grandma, my mother's mother, Grandma Susan, who worked only at housework and wove coverlets and always spoke so nice and fine. Granny Fanny would sometimes have a high fit of temper, pack up her black "gretchel," and go whipping over the hill to Aunt Mat's. She was high tempered, tight-lipped, even, in a sense, an unlovable woman, and yet I loved her with a wild, fierce kind of love and would always fly to her defense. But Granny Fanny had her own sharp tongue, her black "gretchel," and her secret. When I was a child, I could feel that secret in her, and I wanted to know. I wanted to know so much that sometimes, when she tried to sing, I would look at her hard and try to see if her secret was hidden down in the song. Granny was not one for singing and had only one tune. She would sing it in her high cracked monotone, always the song about the little horses:

Oh, the black and the bay and the dapple gray
And all the pretty little horses.
Sometimes her craced voice would get to running over and over in my head, and in years after, whenever I thought of Granny Fanny, her song would come back to me like the crackle of thorns in the hearthfire.

Grandma Susan would sing in church: "On Jordan's stormy banks I stand," or "Rock of ages, cleft for me"; but Granny Fanny would not go to church, nor to prayer meetings, nor to the pie suppers down at school. The only place she would go was to trade and barter. She would "take her foot in her hand," she said, and whip down over the hill to sell her butter pats or jars of apple butter. She would trade her goods for sugar and coffee and tobacco, for she was still smoking her old corncob pipe, and would carry her store things back home in her sack. If she got cash money, she would put it in her long black leather purse, then stick it under her bed tick to be safe and sound. Granny had never heard of the Protestant Ethic; she was just an uneducated old woman who hadn't learned the evils of working and saving, and she wanted no foolish things--only coffe and tobacco, and her mantel clock with the gargoyles staring out above its face.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Princess: Her Blogger Profile

Portrait of Princess, a fuzzy yellow cat

Here is the obligatory cat photograph, apparently a requirement of every personal weblog. This is Princess. She came with the house. She looks a little put out in every photo I take of her, because she doesn't like things pointed at her. No cameras, guns, or trucks, please. This speaks well for her intelligence. At all other times, she is a cheerful, friendly cat with a feline smile on her face. The previous house owner had a large, excitable Rottweiller, and Princess appreciates the dog's continued absence. She patrols the house and garden for small rodents, and nowadays is bringing us her surplus kills, urging us to eat while the hunting is good. A few winters back, she alerted us to the bear at the woodpile, saving us from a potentially unfortunate encounter in the dark. She enjoys lying in the sun, hunting, sleeping under the peony bushes, and eating deer meat.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Dr. Bootsie Grapples with RSS, Liferea, and Buzzwords

I spent more time that I meant to recently reading about RSS, news aggregators and something called Web2.0, the "living Web." I've been using Amphetadesk, a news aggregator, on my Macintosh for quite a while, but I find myself doing more and more work on my Linux box, and I thought it might be interesting to try reading news there. That reader is fine, but when I checked their Website, I found the last update was made in 2002. I thought it might be worthwhile to try a new one in Linux-Land. Here are some RSS feed reader resources I found helpful.

  • RSS Compendium - RSS Readers - Linux/Unix. This source tries to be comprehensive, listing all Linux RSS news readers.
  • RSS Readers for Linux. A page from "RSS Specifications: This site is a comprehensive rss reference detailing everything you need to know about RSS." This is an informative, attractive site. I haven't finished reading all the interesting pages yet.
  • RSS Feed Reader / News Aggregators Directory :: This list includes Web-based utilities, handheld devices, and all sorts of platforms not included in some of the other lists. I haven't read everything interesting in this list, either.
  • Liferea. This is the news reader I finally installed. One important reason I chose it was that it is available as a .deb file as part of the Debian testing sources. All I had to do was type apt-get install liferea and voila there it was. So far, so good.

The third item on the list linked to the author's Web presence, Personal webnode of Haiko Hebig. Here I found many fascinating things, and I expect this will become one of my "regular reads." I found his photographs of Endangered Machinery quite beautiful. I particularly enjoyed the article about Web 2.0 from Joel on Software - Friday, October 21, 2005. Joel on Software says:

I'm starting to see a new round of pure architecture astronautics: meaningless stringing-together of new economy buzzwords in an attempt to sound erudite....Now it's tagging and folksonomies and syndication, and we're all supposed to fall in line with the theory that cool new stuff like Google Maps, Wikipedia, and are somehow bigger than the sum of their parts. The Long Tail! Attention Economy! Creative Commons! Peer production! Web 2.0!

I feel better already!