Thursday, February 23, 2006

Banjo: Sly Plot of the Devil or Vestigial Remnant of High Culture?

Book Cover: Finding Her Voice--Illustrated History of Women in Country Music

I had read in several sources, including Finding Her Voice: Women in Country Music, 1800-2000, that William Wells Newell (1900, The Journal of American Folklore) and Emma Bell Miles (1904, Harper's Magazine) were the first to publish articles about traditional Appalachian music. That's why I was surprised to find these paragraphs in John Fox's 1898 million-seller novel The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come. Fox seems to see the music as a metaphor for the mountaineers: "Rude, rough, semi-barbarous, if you will, but simple, natural, honest, sane, earthy--and of the earth whence springs the oak and in time, maybe, the flower of civilization." He often describes the hill people as if they were some raw material--soil to grow the fine civilization of the Bluegrass, or a commodity to be exported to the Bluegrass and molded into noble citizens like our boy Chad Buford. Significantly, Fox was involved with the Jellico coal mines, which also moved raw materials from the Appalachians down to the flatlands, where civilization turned it into money for the mine owners. With one of the first best-sellers of the twentieth century, I reckon you could say he found a way to export the mountaineers and turn a profit, too.

But I digress. Here is the earliest description I've seen of traditional Appalachian music and dance, along with an interesting suggestion that it reflects a remnant of noble culture, rather than a pernicious pastime for the missionaries to stamp out.

"Who was that a-pickin' that banjer?"

It was not often that Dolph showed such excitement, but he had good cause, and, when he saw Chad standing, shamefaced and bashful, in the middle of the floor, and Melissa joyously pointing her finger at him, he caught up the banjo from the bed and put it into the boy's hands. "Here, you just play that tune agin!"

Chad shrank back, half distressed and half happy, and only a hail outside from the first of the coming guests saved him from utter confusion. Once started, they came swiftly, and in half an hour all were there. Each got a hearty welcome from old Joel, who, with a wink and a laugh and a nod to the old mother, gave a hearty squeeze to some buxom girl, while the fire roared a heartier welcome still. Then was there a dance indeed--no soft swish of lace and muslin, but the active swing of linsey and simple homespun; no French fiddler's bows and scrapings, no intricate lancers, no languid waltz; but neat shuffling forward and back, with every note of the music beat; floor-thumping "cuttings of the pigeon's wing," and jolly jigs, two by two, and a great "swinging of corners," and "caging the bird," and "fust lady to the right CHEAT an' swing"; no flirting from behind fans and under stairways and little nooks, but honest, open courtship--strong arms about healthy waists, and a kiss taken now and then, with everybody to see and nobody to care who saw. If a chair was lacking, a pair of brawny knees made one chair serve for two, but never, if you please, for two men. Rude, rough, semi-barbarous, if you will, but simple, natural, honest, sane, earthy--and of the earth whence springs the oak and in time, maybe, the flower of civilization.

At the first pause in the dance, old Joel called loudly for Chad. The boy tried to slip out of the door, but Dolph seized him and pulled him to a chair in the corner and put the banjo in his hands. Everybody looked on with curiosity at first, and for a little while Chad suffered; but when the dance turned attention from him, he forgot himself again and made the old thing hum with all the rousing tunes that had ever swept its string. When he stopped at last, to wipe the perspiration from his face, he noticed for the first time the school-master, who was yet divided between the church and the law, standing at the door, silent, grave, disapproving. And he was not alone in his condemnation; in many a cabin up and down the river, stern talk was going on against the ungodly 'carryings on,' under the Turner roof, and, far from accepting them as proofs of a better birth and broader social ideas, these Calvinists of the hills set the merry-makers down as the special prey of the devil, and the dance and the banjo as sly plots of the same to draw their souls to hell.

(page 42, chapter III)

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

It's Not a Nep, It's a Feature

Not too long after I bought my spinning wheel, I bought a few raw sheep fleeces on eBay. From this, I learned lots of things. First, if you buy raw fleece through the mail, you pay postage on a lot of grease, weeds, and sheep manure. (Most of the fleeces I have washed and cleaned myself have decreased in weight by more than half.) Second, people selling fleeces online have very different ideas of what "clean" and "good quality" mean.

It was a worthwhile learning experience, though. I bought some Rambouillet sheep fleeces. If you read the fascinating breed account at the Oklahoma State website, you'll learn that Rambouillet fleeces are soft and fine as Merino. The fleeces I bought were of fair to good quality, and I cleaned, dyed, and carded some, and began to spin. I found the yarn soft and pretty, but it was full of little balls of fiber, "neps," which made spinning really, really slow. Also, the yarn was lumpy. What was I doing wrong?

I read some books which suggested that the fiber was defective. I read through hand spinners' Web sites, discussion groups, and weblogs looking for advice. I found the general consensus is that Rambouillet sheep make neppy fiber, and that the best thing to do with it is to throw it away.

Now, that is not the way I operate. I paid for it, washed it, carded it, dyed it, and by golly, I'm going to find something to do with it. Besides, it was soooo soft, and I could spin it so fine that I could ply it and still knit it at 6 or 7 stitches to the inch. But it's lumpy. I decided if I couldn't change it, I would learn to love it.

It's not a bug, it's a feature, eh? We will consider the little neps to be "garnets," there to add texture and interest. Thus has Diane Varney's book, Spinning Designer Yarns, paid for itself. (And to think I considered it an "eye-candy" book I was irresponsible to buy!) So, here's a hat I knitted from the first skein I spun from the Rambouillet lamb's fleece, neps--I mean--garnets and all. It's very soft and warm.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Lighter Side of...Ed Friel

Book Cover: Lighter Side of Rectal Surgery

Here's another addition to my Literary Pocahontas County page: Ed Friel's personal memoir, The Lighter Side of Rectal Surgery (2003). I was a little reluctant to pick it up, since the title seemed to promise a very personal memoir indeed. However, it's quite an enjoyable book. Each chapter is an anecdote, told as if waiting in line at the Hillsboro store. In fact, Mr. Friel has certainly told some of these stories in that very place. This conversational style looks easy, but requires considerable skill to make it work.

Mr. Friel has done an excellent job of placing the book all over the county; if you visit here, you can probably find yourself a copy. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find a place where one could buy the book on the Internet. Mr. Friel does provide his e-mail address, so I expect he could tell you how to purchase his book if you're interested. Here it is: edfriel -at- sbcglobal -dot- net (replacing the words with the appropriate symbols, of course).

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Hillbilly Parfait Correlates Trashiness and Altitude

Locust Creek in the mist

The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come (1898; America's first million-seller) is a novel, but John Fox Jr. takes pains to describe and explain the Kentucky countryside and inhabitants in long asides. Here he shares some eugenic and historic insights about Kentucky's mountaineers. The scene he describes is set around 1850, before the author was born.

When they arrived at the log school-house it was his turn to be shy and he hung back to let Melissa go in first. Within, there was no floor but the bare earth, no window but the cracks between the logs, and no desks but the flat sides of slabs, held up by wobbling pegs. On one side were girls in linsey and homespun: some thin, undersized, underfed, and with weak, dispirited eyes and yellow tousled hair; others, round-faced, round-eyed, dark, and sturdy; most of them large-waisted and round-shouldered -- especially the older ones -- from work in the fields; but, now and then, one like Melissa, the daughter of a valley farmer, erect, agile, spirited, intelligent. On the other side were the boys, in physical characteristics the same and suggesting the same social divisions: at the top the farmer -- now and then a slave-holder and perhaps of gentle blood -- who had dropped by the way on the westward march of civilization and had cleared some rich river bottom and a neighboring summit of the mountains, where he sent his sheep and cattle to graze; where a creek opened into this valley some free-settler, whose grandfather had fought at King's Mountain--usually of Scotch-Irish descent, often English, but sometimes German or sometimes even Huguenot--would have his rude home of logs; under him, and in wretched cabins at the head of the creek or on the washed spur of the mountain above, or in some "deadenin"' still higher up and swept by mists and low-trailing clouds, the poor white trash--worthless descendants of the servile and sometimes criminal class who might have traced their origin back to the slums of London; hand-to-mouth tenants of the valley-aristocrat, hewers of wood for him in the lowlands and upland guardians of his cattle and sheep.
(chapter III, page 34)

I'm fascinated by the correlation between genetics, trashiness and altitude. This looks like the sort of hypothesis we could test, provided we could quantify trashiness and identify genetic markers that would differentiate between Scotch-Irish, English, criminally servile Londoner, and "gentle" blood lines. Fox describes a three-tiered hillbilly parfait, with the white trash on top where the Cool Whip would go.

Whenever these blood line arguments come up (and they do oftener than a rational person would expect) I always hope that I'm a "worthless descendant of the servile and sometimes criminal class." People like that find a way to get along. Perhaps that's why I was immediately drawn to this narrow ridge that runs off the Droop Mountain plateau. It's the most "mist-swept" spot I could find for sale. (This is the view from my neighbor's yard. He has a few less trees than I do.)

Friday, February 17, 2006

The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come

Book Cover: The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come

A few months ago I read The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come by John Fox, Jr. (1898). It is much cited among scholars of Appalachia, and was evidently a popular and influential book in its time. At least four major movies were based on elements of the plot, and Kentucky named Kingdom Come State Park after it.

With an elevation of 2,700 feet, Kingdom Come is Kentucky's highest state park. Resting near the Kentucky-Virginia border on the crest of Pine Mountain, the park offers scenic vistas second to none.

The park's name is from John Fox Jr.'s novel "The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come," a book about an orphaned youth and his journey through the hills and into the furor of the Civil War. Extraordinary rock formations are featured at this park, including Log Rock, a natural sandstone bridge, and Raven Rock, a giant monolith that soars 290-feet into the air at a 45-degree angle.

I found it rough going, myself. I was stopping to make notes so often that I downloaded a Gutenberg project free text file, opened it in Emacs, and made "marginal" notes to my heart's content. I'm guessing the people who named Kingdom Come State Park after it never read it through. The plot is silly, the main character is despicable (he's not nice to his dog, for heaven's sake! A dog that makes Lassie and Rin Tin Tin look like lazy, stupid layabouts!), and the author slings offensive stereotypes about as freely as dew in the morning. This last bit is what makes it so much fun to quote. I'm afraid you'll be in for selected Appalachian tidbits from this volume for some time to come.

Here are a couple of Internet references to whet your appetite.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Hunting Trilobites (Not Quail)

Book Cover: Trilobites by  Riccardo Levi-Setti

West Virginia is a good place to hunt trilobites, although, inexplicably, I haven't been trilobite hunting since I moved here. I haven't been fishing much either, although I enjoy that as well. Nevertheless, I've mentioned trilobites as one of my "Natural history" interests on my biographical sketch outline, and, in the interests of fleshing out a real bio, as Jakob Neilsen recommends, here are a few notes and references on these charming animals.

  • Introduction to the Trilobita: Gone, but not forgotten. This is a resource of The University of California at Berkeley Museum of Paleontology. The site is huge, comprehensive, and everything I've seen so far is excellent, both interesting and accurate. The trilobite section is no exception.
  • A Guide to the Orders of Trilobites: A site devoted to understanding trilobites. I don't believe I've ever seen such a great personal site! Here is the author bio:
    This site's pages (and the majority of its figures) were designed and created by Dr. Sam Gon III, a biologist (PhD, Animal Behavior; MA, Zoology (Ecology, Behavior and Evolution) who is greatly intrigued by the expression of ancient biodiversity that trilobites represent. Sam's professional work is in the conservation of global biodiversity today. He serves as the Senior Scientist for The Nature Conservancy's Hawaii Field Office in Honolulu. Sam has long been interested in paleobiology, and in teaching himself about trilobites, using hyperlinks to cross-reference terminology and concepts, found himself developing something of potential interest to a broader audience. The site was unveiled in August 1999 and has attracted feedback from around the world, generating ongoing updates. For all the accolades this site has gathered, Sam is not a professional trilobitologist, but a devoted trilobitophile!
    There are trilobite walking animations, exhaustive discussions of morphology and paleoecology, taxonomy and nomenclature discussions, and links to many other sites. This site is worth a visit whether you are interested in trilobites or in what an enthusiast can do with a Web site when he sets his mind to it. This is what we hoped the Internet would be like.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Sharyn McCrumb's Ghost Riders

Book Cover: Ghost Riders

I just finished reading Sharyn McCrumb's Ghost Riders, the most recent of her "Ballads" novels, set in the mountains of East Tennessee and western North Carolina. Her books are fun to read, and she is meticulous about details, including history, biology, geology, and dialect.

Her early books, the Elizabeth McPherson series and the Jay Omega books (Bimbos of the Death Sun and Zombies of the Gene Pool) are mysteries. Previous volumes of the Southern Appalachian series follow Sheriff Spencer Arrowood through present-day investigations while describing parallel incidents from local history. There is always at least a hint of the supernatural in the plots, if only Nora Bonesteel's premonitions. Ghost Riders has the sheriff and other recurring characters, but there's not really a mystery this time, just juxtaposed narratives of Ms. McCrumb's modern-day characters and the historical Malinda Blalock and Zebulon Vance (a Civil War raider and the Confederate Governor of North Carolina). Some reviewers have criticized this absence, but I didn't miss the mystery. The historical narratives are so convincing and so interesting that I consider this book her best. It is quite an achievement to write a series that gets better and better. So many mystery series run downhill, as the author tries to keep the beloved characters moving forward in ways that the readers will like. (Patricia Cornwell comes to mind here, but I think even Miss Marple eventually ran out of steam.)

I was surprised that there were relatively few Internet references for Ms. McCrumb, considering how popular and how well-respected her books are.

Book Cover: Bimbos of the Death Sun Zombies of the Gene Pool

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Here Are Some Snows of Yesteryear

Snow on Locust Creek

It's still snowing here on Droop Mountain, and the grey clouds are so low you can't see beyond the clearing where my house stands. Pictures on days like these come out as black and white tangles of branches, and my camera is a vintage Olympus SLR, so there's none of that instant weather blogging at my house. Instead, I offer you a picture from last year: The Locust Creek area, taken from the neighbor's back yard.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Milkweed Ladies Sail Away

Unpopped milkweed pod

Long before I was first entranced by milkweeds, Louise McNeill invited them to tea, and wrote them her first poem. In The Milkweed Ladies (1988, University of Pittsburgh Press), a brief but vivid memoir of a Pocahontas County childhood, McNeill relates the poem she composed as a child for her playhouse tea parties, where her guests were made of milkweed pod fluff:

Milkweed ladies so fair and fine,
Won't you have a sip of my columbine?
Or a thimble of thimbleberry wine?
Milkweed Ladies sail away

Nobody has described Pocahontas County more lovingly or more vividly than Ms. McNeill.

The farm, a wide plateau of rocky, loam-dark fields, lies above Swago Creek, along the Greenbrier River of West Virginia and some twenty-five to thirty miles north of the Virginia line. This patch of earth is held within a half-stadium of limestone cliffs and mountain pastures. On the surface, the Swago Farm is quiet and solid, green in summer and in winter deep with snow. It has its level fields, its fence rows and hilly pastures. There are some two hundred acres of trees and bluegrass, running water, and the winding, dusty paths that cattle and humans have kept open through the years. There are three small woodlands, two of them still virgin and mostly of oak. (p 3)

Milkweed Ladies have sailed away.

Until I was sixteen years old, until the roads came, the farm was about all I knew: our green meadows and hilly pastures, our storied old men, the great rolling seasons of moon and sunlight, our limestone cliffs and trickling springs....But before I grew up and went out into the world--and a bloody thing I found it--we were all at home there in our faded cottage in the meadow, all of us safe and warm. Sometimes now, a quiet sense comes to me, the cool mist blowing in my face as though I am walking through islands of fog and drifting downhill slowly southward until I feel the mountains behind my shoulder. (pp 5-7)

Because those years were the years of my childhood, I might tell them in a way that would break my heart. But my heart does not break. There is a kind of benison that falls sometimes on the fields and mountains....And though I realize that I am old now, so that the years play tricks on me, it is all still there sometimes, an unchanged presence, even the rat manure in the water spring; and sometimes we are still at home and it is summer. (p 31)

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

"The Mind of the South" on the Internet

Book Cover: The Mind of the South

Last week, while volunteering at my local library branch, I came across an interesting volume in the "for sale" section. Someone seems to have donated his or her collection of yellowed paperbacks from college days. Where else would these essay collections on John Milton have come from? Of course, I have my own set of yellowing paperbacks on John Milton, so I only purchased W.J. Cash's The Mind of the South (Vintage), published in 1941.

Book Cover: The Education of Henry Adams

I was initially interested when I spotted some favorite Appalachian stereotypes, but I soon found some insulting quotes from The Education of Henry Adams, and I was hooked. Clearly,W. J. Cash was an angry Southerner, but was he most angry at his fellow Southerners, or at dismissive Yankees like Mr. Adams?

I turned to an Internet search engine to find out what I could about Mr. Cash. Strangely, the top results were mostly content-free. Therefore, I'm assembling the fascinating resources I found in one of my little lists, for future reference.

  • Book Cover: W.J. Cash W.J. Cash: A Life by Bruce Clayton. (Not a close relative, but I will be checking the genealogy charts. After all, he's from Missouri.) Here's the Library Journal blurb on the page:
    Clayton plumbs the mind and milieu of the man who authored The Mind of the South, a classic of historical literature never out of print since Knopf published it in 1941. Probing the book's autobiographical foundations, Clayton traces the steps of the South Carolinian born in 1900 and christened Joseph Wilbur Cash. From his reversal of names to Wilbur Joseph, through his college days at Wake Forest and his unhappy stint teaching English, to his years as a newspaperman, Cash comes to life in Clayton's prose as a sensitive and sympathetic Southern son seeking to explain himself and his native region. Clayton shows that the sense of sorrow and profound tragedy stalking Cash's South also haunted him to the day his wife found him hanged in their Mexico City apartment. Clayton's insights into the man and his time and place make this book essential for collections on the South.--Thomas J. Davis, Univ. at Buffalo, N.Y.
  • "Cash, W.J.." Encyclopedia Britannica. Short and sweet--three paragraphs. It describes his single book thus:
    In The Mind of the South, Cash tried to debunk the idea of an "aristocratic" Old South and a "progressive" New South and sought to describe the romanticism, antiintellectualism, and prejudice that he believed arose from a peculiar Southern climate, landscape, frontier violence, clannishness, and Calvinism.
  • Random House, Inc.'s Mind of the South page promotes Cash's book, saying:
    Ever since its publication in 1941, The Mind of the South has been recognized as a path-breaking work of scholarship and as a literary achievement of enormous eloquence and insight in its own right. From its investigation of the Southern class system to its pioneering assessments of the region's legacies of racism, religiosity, and romanticism, W. J. Cash's book defined the way in which millions of readers -- on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line -- would see the South for decades to come.
  • W. J. CASH: QUANDARIES OF THE MIND is a candidate for a "Websites that suck" listing, although it is consistently the first page Google returns. There is probably useful information here, but good luck trying to read the pages.
  • On Being Southern - perspectives from all over. This interesting collection of literary quotations is from the Hampstead, NC Chamber of Commerce web site. It features quotes from Cash, but includes many other interesting excerpts on the South. I would like to know more about the author of the page, but all I can find out is that he made the Hampstead Web page.
  • Typewriter used by W.J. Cash in the creation of "The Mind of the South." Yes, it is a photo of his typewriter. There is a typewriter like this in my past, but, alas, I have no photo to include in my personal archive.
  • Wilbur J. Cash Collection at the Wake Forest University Library. Google did not return this result in its first 100 hits, although it is the gateway to the most interesting and important Web site concerning W.J. Cash. I found it by backtracking from the typewriter photo. The Table of Contents to the W.J. Cash Collection lists their collection of Cash's papers available on the Internet as text and photos. I can't resist quoting this letter to Cash from Ellen Glasgow:
    You will see how carefully I have read your book when I pause to take issue with a quotation. Why, I wonder, should you accept Henry Adams as the final authority upon the Southern mind? "The Education " is one of my favorite books, and I am willing to admit that accuracy is often the point of offense in Henry Adams's malice. Nevertheless, I remember that there are unorthodox opinions concerning even in the mind of Adams. Do you recall an amusing passage in "New England: Indian Summer"? "He (John La Farge) dreamed ,after one of (their arguments) that he heard the mind of Adams making a great clatter in the room. He awoke,--it was only a rat."
    Amazing, eh? Ellen Glasgow dishing Henry Adams to W.J. Cash! I'm so glad I looked at that typewriter picture.
  • Internal orientalism in America: W.J. Cash's The Mind of the South and the spatial construction of American national identity. David R. Jansson, Department of Geography, The Pennsylvania State University, 302 Walker Bldg., University Park PA, 16802, USA Political Geography 22 (2003). This is the only interesting scholarly article I found that was freely available without a subscription. It's a .pdf file; I found it quite fascinating.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Entomological Fun With Asclepias syriaca

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed pod

I never pass a milkweed plant (unless I'm driving a car--I draw the line at braking for roadside weeds) without looking on the undersides of its upper leaves. Since I moved to Pocahontas County in 1999, my search has been in vain, until this past summer. I never found eggs, but this August, I discovered plenty of these handsome Monarch caterpillars. I don't know what was different this year.

When I was about fourteen, I discovered that you could pluck your milkweed with Monarch egg, bring it into the house, stick it in a Coke bottle filled with water, and, over the next two weeks, watch the caterpillar hatch, and grow, and munch away at the leaves. As the leaves disappear, you can move the caterpillars (I kept finding more) onto freshly picked plants. You need to sweep up the frass on the tabletop pretty often, but then the caterpillars pick a place to pupate, and you get to watch them split their skin down the back one last time, to reveal a translucent, green and gold chrysalis, which squirms itself into shape, and holds still. It's not long before the chrysalis turns black and orange, splits open again, and out crawls the long-legged, tiny-winged butterfly. It pumps up the tiny wings, gets nice and dry, and needs to be let outdoors.

I'm reasonably certain that kids today don't ever have this much fun.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Now Play It Like You Mean It

I was looking for a reference on the Internet the other day, and I found this, a peripherally related topic. This is from Roadside Theater's Web site, an essay entitled Art in a Democracy, by Dudley Cocke. (Text from The Drama Review, Fall 2004, Social Theatre, Vol. 48, Issue 3)

Locating Oneself in a Tradition

Thirty-odd years ago, a famous folksinger from California came to the coalfields of central Appalachia to perform in a high school auditorium. A big crowd was on hand as a local string band opened the concert. The local band, rising to the occasion, had the audience's rapt attention. The famous folksinger followed with some success. Backstage, she made a point to congratulate the local band on their performance, noting that she, too, often sang from the same Appalachian song book. She went on to say how keenly the audience had been listening to their music and wondered what their secret was. "What is that little something extra you seem to have?" she asked repeatedly, each time more emphatically. The local band looked at the floor as she pressed for an answer. Finally the fiddle player spoke up, "Well ma'am, the only difference that I could tell was that you were playing out front of them ol' songs, and we were right behind 'em."

Aha! I said to myself. This person is getting close to that indescribable something that traditional Appalachian string bands have that is missing in so many "revivalists'" performances. Perhaps he's defined it for me. Then, he goes on to quote Ralph Ellison.

Ralph Ellison deftly spins the fiddler's point:

There is a cruel contradiction implicit in the art form itself. For true jazz is an art of individual assertion within and against the group. Each true jazz moment (as distinct from the uninspired commercial performance) springs from a context in which each artist challenges all the rest, each solo flight, or improvisation, represents (like the successive canvases of a painter) a definition of his identity: as individual, as member of the collectivity, and as link in the chain of tradition. Thus, because jazz finds its very life in an endless improvisation upon traditional materials, the jazzman must lose his identity even as he finds it. (Ellison [1964] 1995:234)

Don't get me wrong, now. I admire Ralph Ellison up one side and down the other. "True jazz moment" versus "uninspired commercial performance" sounds like he's getting to the heart of the matter. I just have no idea how "each solo flight" is like "successive canvases of a painter," or is a definition of the musician's identity. Maybe it's true, but I'm no wiser than before.

Maybe you can't do better than John Blisard, who advises aspiring musicians: "Now, play it like you mean it."

Friday, February 03, 2006

Asclepias syriaca Inflorescences: "Such a Strange Flower"

Common Milkweed Inflorescences

With the departure of the snow, I'm noticing all the opened milkweed seedpods along the roadsides and at the edges of my yard. It has me thinking about how they looked in July. They are such strange plants, oozing sticky bitter sap like Elmer's glue when you try (always unsuccessfully) to pull them out of your garden. These strange, fleshy flowers, the color of bruises, trap nectar-seeking insects by the leg. When the butterfly or wasp pulls its leg free, it drags out the pollinium, a pollen-filled ankle bracelet. Smaller, frailer insects, such as ants, can't extricate themselves, and they die like beavers in leghold traps.

My plant taxonomy professor told us that Linnaeus named these strange flowers Asclepias syriaca because he felt sure the North American herbarium specimens he received must have been mislabeled. The downy stems, the fleshy leaves and seed pods, these were clearly xeric adaptations found in desert plants. He opted for syriaca rather than the canadensis or virginica he used for so many North American species.

As usual, I've found a few interesting links, which I submit for your consideration.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Reya's Bloggers (Silent) Poetry Reading

Anne, of Creating Text(iles), relayed an invitation (in honor of the Feast of St. Brigid) to a "bloggers' silent online poetry reading" hosted by Grace's Poppies. I was so excited that I posted three redundant comments to Grace's Poppies in an attempt to give her my correct Web address. They don't seem to go away gracefully.

Therefore, I am sitting here dressed in black, wearing a beret as I type a favorite poem by John Donne. I chose it for two reasons: it has an entomological theme, and I just don't have the stamina to type "An Anatomy of the World."

by John Donne
Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It suck'd me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.
Thou know'st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead;
    Yet this enjoys before it woo,
    And pamper'd swells with one blood made of two;
    And this, alas! is more than we would do.

O stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, yea, more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.
Though parents grudge, and you, we're met,
And cloister'd in these living walls of jet.
    Though use make you apt to kill me,
    Let not to that self-murder added be,
    And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it suck'd from thee?
Yet thou triumph'st, and say'st that thou
Find'st not thyself nor me the weaker now.
'Tis true; then learn how false fears be;
Just so much honour, when thou yield'st to me,
Will waste, as this flea's death took life from thee.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Dickens' Unflawed Heros

Book Cover: Dickens: A Biography

Here's another interesting quote from Fred Kaplan's Dickens : A Biography. I've always found Dicken's first person narrators, like David Copperfield and Arthur Clennam, problematic. While they are participants in the plot, their communications to the readers are a little too insightful for the limitations of their characters. Dickens seemed to feel quite comfortable with omniscient narrators ("A Christmas Carol," A Tale of Two Cities), and I wonder why he ever chose first person narratives. This quote suggests that he felt constrained by this technique, and he seems to have blamed his readers' and critics' moral requirements.

....Dickens was radically conservative in his combination of realistic psychological portraiture and moral idealism. To the realists, though, even his sharp psychological portraiture lacked a fullness of dimension that would make the depiction true to life. Clennam was an instance at hand, as Little Dorrit progressed. Despite his complications of history and character, Clennam embodies conventional decency, and never struggles with the anger, violence, vengefulness, sexual fulfillment, even self serving irrationality of the sort that such a man might naturally be expected to feel Having gone as far as he thought it sound to go, Dickens felt the frustration of his situation as a Victorian writer. If "the hero of an English book is always uninteresting--too good, not natural, etc....what a shining imposer you," the English critic, "must think yourself and what an ass you must think me, when you suppose that by putting a brazen face upon it you can blot out of my knowledge the fact that this same unnatural young gentleman (if to be decent is to be necessarily unnatural)...must be presented to you in that unnatural aspect by reason of your morality, and is not to have, I will not say any of the indecencies you like, but not even any of the experiences, trials, perplexities, and confusions inseparable from the making and unmaking of all men!"