Monday, December 31, 2007

To Wish You Luck This Coming Year

Christmas Card, 1913

Another card from my Grandma's album, Prescott, Iowa, 1913.

Christmas wishes To Florence from Edna

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Ernst Haeckel--Still Controversial a Century Later

Trilobites, eurypterids, and horesehoe crabs from Haeckel's Artforms In Nature

I came across these plates from Ernst Haeckel: Kunstformen der Natur 1899-1904 a couple of weeks ago on a needlework design Web site. I was so pleased to find them I thought I'd post the link here, and add a few other Ernst Haeckel links for good measure. As I searched for sensible, informative Haeckel links, I was amazed at the large number of Web sites offering vitriolic attacks on the man and his work. I would not have expected a comparative invertebrate anatomist who died in 1919 to elicit so much venom, let alone interest. I found creationists denouncing him, biologists calling him "forger" and "fraud," and even Lenin offers a scathing critique, courtesy of

Haeckel coined the terms "ecology" and "first world war," and he pioneered embryology and marine biology. His drawings and colored plates are breathtaking. Do check out Art Forms in Nature. The plate above, featuring trilobites, eurypterids and horseshoe crabs is plate 47 from this volume. I understand why creationists don't like him, because he was a proponent of evolution, but I'm not sure why biologists are so vexed that he was wrong about some stuff. Darwin was wrong about lots of things too, but I've observed a cult-like devotion to Darwin among some biologists. (Alfred Wallace is my personal favorite, but then, I like insect collecting and biogeography.)

Here are some of the more balanced accounts of Haeckel. In my opinion, researchers always present the data that best support their ideas. This isn't "fraud," (although sometimes it stretches facts far enough to be called "spin,") and it's necessary to get your papers published and your grant proposals funded. Several of these Web authors feel the need to apologize for Haeckel's inaccuracies, but I don't think it's necessary myself.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

ZAP Reader--Cure for Eyestrain?

Here's a fascinating Web tool I found via The Stingy Scholar blog--Zap Reader:

ZAP Reader is a web based speed reading program that will change the way you read on your computer. Current beta testers report reading twice as much in half the time--that's a 300% increase in reading speed, without any loss in comprehension! There is nothing to install, it works with most popular browsers, and it's totally free!

You feed their Web tool an URL or paste a block of text in their window, and Zap feeds it back to you one large print word at a time. I haven't decided whether it'll be anything more than a novelty for me, but many Web fonts are too small (or strangely colored) for me to read, and this seems to have some eye-strain relief potential. You can adjust word speed to whatever is comfortable. I expect different types of content would probably require different reading speeds.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Holiday Cheer and Ducks

1914 Christmas card--ducks and holly

Yet another Christmas Card from my Grandma's album, Prescott, Iowa, 1913.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Botany of Desire

Book Cover: The Botany of Desire

Reya tipped me off to a delightful book, The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan (2001). It's the sort of popular book on evolutionary biology I usually don't enjoy, so I was both surprised and pleased to find it so interesting.

Pollan invokes coevolution to describe the ethnobotanical history of four different cultivated species, and he examines it using the "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" dilemma that served Richard Dawkins' career so well in The Selfish Gene.

Did I choose to plant these potatoes, or did the potato make me do it? In fact, both statements are true. I can remember the exact moment that spud seduced me, showing off its knobby charms in the pages of a seed catalog. I think it was the tasty-sounding "buttery yellow flesh" that did it....That May afternoon, the garden suddenly appeared before me in a whole new light, the manifold delights it offered to the eye and nose and tongue no longer quite so innocent or passive. All these plants, which I'd always regarded as the objects of my desire, were also, I realized, subjects, acting on me, getting me to do things for them they couldn't do for themselves.

Dawkins' cranky atheism and self-promotion made reading his books in grad school an annoying chore, but Pollan's fondness for his horticultural subjects shines through and lends his book an engaging charm. I usually am either bored or irritated by popular accounts of evolution, but I found much engagingly presented new information in these four essays on cultivated plants. I especially enjoyed picturing Johnny Appleseed as a Dionysian emblem.

Here are my inevitable links for further reading.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Slow Cloth, and a Challenge For the New Year

I've signed on to Sharon Boggon's 2008 Take It Further Challenge. Here's how she describes it:

On the first of each month I will post key concept. The challenge is to take the idea, develop it and push it towards a resolved design during that month. In other words you interpret the idea and apply it to fiber or paper.

Every month there will be two options. The second option will be a colour scheme or a design element like a shape, to develop into a resolved design. This means that if you don't like the concept you can work the colour scheme or is you don't like the colour scheme you can work with the concept. Or you can work with both.

The actual project you design can be any thing, in any medium or format you choose. It can be a crazy quilt block, a postcard, a journal quilt, a piece of embroidery, a sampler, a fabric book page or whatever sparks your imagination. It can also be...pages spreads of designs worked in a visual journal....What ever you choose to do, I am asking people to blog the development of the idea through the month (preferably weekly) and to leave a comment here with your blog address so that people can visit your site and see what you have done.

Sharon B's In a Minute Ago was one of the first blogs I ever bookmarked. Besides writing about her own needlework projects and teaching online courses, she has produced the Dictionary of Stitches for Hand Embroidery and Needlework, and she teaches and blogs about Web design, network literacy, digital culture and the visual arts at Mindtracks.

In 2007, she challenged hand embroiderers with Take a Stitch Tuesday: Each week I took a stitch and suggested people experiment with it, push it a little and see what possibilities the stitch holds. Participants posted photos of their work, and SharonB provided links to them. Although I don't hand-embroider, it was inspiring to see all the different interpretations. You could browse for days....

In the course of organizing this year's challenge, SharonB mused on Slow Cloth, a celebration of giving thought and taking time in fiber projects. I enjoyed her essay, but it has stirred up a host of comments and blog posts, a few of them of the strain "My knitting (or embroidery or quilting) is good, and pleases me; your knitting differs from mine, and is therefore naughty, wrong, and bad." I agree with SharonB that it is good and useful to consider why we choose our craft and what we hope to achieve. I'm not sure sharing our entire thought process on the Internet is so valuable. Sometimes we figure out what we like by first identifying what we don't like, and that thing we hate may be someone else's beloved goal. A screed defaming crocheted toilet roll covers will come up when someone who craves such an item searches for "crocheted toilet roll cover pattern," and hurt, offend, or inspire flame wars. One gal's brilliant expression is another gal's hideous monstrosity, and until we can articulate what we love, there's no sense in publicly denigrating other people's projects and media. (I am, personally, neutral on the topic of toilet roll covers; should I ever require one, I will probably make up my own pattern.)

I also offer an off-topic but interesting link that I discovered while reading the responses to Slow Cloth: Handmade 2.0 By Rob Walker, December 16, 2007 New York Times Magazine. It's about, among other things, Etsy.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Hello Central, Give Me Santa Claus

1914 Christmas Card--Telephone Santa

This postcard was addressed to my great grandfather, J. Williamson, postmarked 1914, and signed "Nellie." Santa Claus looks a little sinister here, but I believe this is for humorous effect--sardonic Santa posed with the latest technical novelty. Telephones also fascinated song writers in those days. Here are the lyrics to one of my favorite sad sentimental songs, learned from an old Carter Family recording. Many suburban folkies think it absurd and funny, but there's such a thing as being too sophisticated for your own good. Sara Carter's matter-of-fact rendition always makes me tear up. Poor little lonesome Dollie!

No Telephone In Heaven

"Now I can wait on baby," the smiling merchant said,
As stooped and softly toyed with her golden curly head
"I want to call up mamma,"  came the answer full and free.
"Will you telephone and ask her when she's coming back to me?"


   "My child," the merchant murmured, as he stroked the anxious brow,
   "No telephone connection where your mother lives at now."
   "No telephone in heaven?" and a tear sprang in her eye.
   "I thought God had everything with him up in the sky."

"Tell her that I get so lonesome that I don't know what to do,
And papa cries so much I guess he must be lonesome too.
Tell her to come to baby, 'cause at night I get so 'fraid
With no one there to kiss me when the lights begin to fade."


"All through the day I want her since my dollie's got so tore
With the awful punching brother give her with his little sword.
There ain't no one to fix her since mamma's gone away,
And poor little lonesome dollie's getting thinner every day."


Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas from Prescott Iowa, 1914

1914 Xmas card

Before she had kids, my grandma, Florence Williamson Hunt, kept scrapbooks of postcards she and her family received. At the back I found several odd-sized cards that wouldn't fit the postcard slots. The postcards bundled with this Christmas card were postmarked 1913 and 1914.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Freehand Machine Embroidery

Guatamalan weaving--Resplendent Quetzal

In the spirit of something new for the new year, I've been experimenting with some unfamiliar sewing techniques. I've always been fascinated by the freehand embroidery effects some people achieve with their sewing machines. I experimented a bit with the pattern stitches on my 1971 Singer and on my newer White/Viking machine when I made these window quilts the winter before last. What I hope to do is combine fabric dying or painting, applique, and freehand machine embroidery techniques to make patchwork blocks. This quetzal weaving is only a small part of my eclectic fabric collection, after all. Here are some links I've found helpful or inspirational, or both.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Quetzal Quilt

Quetzal quilt in the snow

I bought this Guatemalan wall hanging in Costa Rica in 1984, and recently, I decided it would be better used as a window quilt than folded in a box of other fabrics. I added a few strips of denim-weight fabrics, backed it with scraps of red sweatshirt fleece left over from my denim rail fence patchwork, and made the binding from my first attempt at hand-dying fabric.

I sewed on a few buttons by way of tying the top to the backing. I had a bowl full of buttons selected for embellishment, but I decided they would detract from the bunnies and quetzals.

I saw quetzals regularly in Costa Rica, and I enjoyed photographing this project in the West Virginia snow, so far away from the Guatemalan weavers and their familiar birds.

Quetzal window quilt

Friday, December 21, 2007

Conspiracy Theory Contest

When I saw the cable news tape showing smoke rolling out of a window in the Old Executive Office Building in D.C. this week, I just hoped one of my favorite old buildings wouldn't be seriously damaged. It took Terry to remind me that lots of important things could be lost in the fire. Her first guess was CIA interrogation tapes. Now, the Washington Post's Al Kamen is having a contest to guess "What Was in That Office, Anyway?"

That fire in Vice President Cheney's digs in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Wednesday naturally has everyone in Washington speculating about its origin. Arson might seem a bit far-fetched to folks outside the Beltway, but it would not be the first time a small conflagration was planned by a White House official.

We recall that Watergate burglary mastermind G. Gordon Liddy plotted firebombing the Brookings Institution -- "as a diversion," he writes in his memoirs -- to get into the security vault and steal Daniel Ellsberg's Vietnam War papers.

I think this contest will be worth watching--nobody can spin a conspiracy theory like a government worker.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Icy Apple Tree

Icy apple tree

All this beautiful ice is still on the trees, although this morning, we have white snow, white sky, white air, and no sun to sparkle. The really odd thing is that as soon as you drop off the flat top of Droop, there is no ice, and little snow. We have our own very local weather.

Monday, December 17, 2007

After the Ice Storm

Van in the blocked driveway

I had no sooner posted yesterday morning's "wintery mix" photos than the wintery mix on the power lines took us off the grid. Although we heat with wood and cook with gas, other modern conveniences (such as running water) require electricity, so by the time power came on this afternoon, we were quite pleased. Here's what we found on our way out to the hard road. The trees of Pocahontas County did not fare better than the power lines. If you look closely, you'll see our van in the middle.

The pear tree by the house still had this much ice coating at 3 p.m. today.

Pear tree twigs encased in ice

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Wintery Mix

Tractor with icicles

The television weather people have been talking about a "wintery mix." I don't remember hearing this phrase from them before. (It makes me think of some sort of party snack.) However, today on Droop Mountain, we're getting that "wintery mix" of precipitation. The tractor looks forlorn, but I believe the trees will suffer more.

Icy trees

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Battle of the Top of Allegheny

Here's a timely Pocahontas County historical reference courtesy of On This Day in West Virginia History: The Battle of the Top of the Allegheny on December 13, 1861. Ambrose Bierce was a Union soldier during this battle, and revisited Bartow in 1903, before writing A Bivouac of the Dead, which I blogged about last year.

Here's the beginning of the West Virginia Division of History and Culture article, originally published in 1928: It's worth a visit.

This is an article about the Battle of the Top of Allegheny, fought in. Pocahontas County, December 13, 1861, between the forces of the Union under Gen. R. H. Milroy, and the forces of the Confederacy, under Gen. W. W. Loring, Col. Edward Johnson, commanding.

The two commands had camped within sight of each other since the 13th day of July, the day that the Federal forces had occupied the place at White's on Cheat Mountain. For five months the hostile camps; had watched the smoke rising from the camp fires, across one of the big valleys of West Virginia. Each camp was in the high altitude of more than four thousand feet above the sea level.

The Federal advance had been here blocked and the summer and fall had been passed with battles and skirmishes and an extraordinary effort was planned by Milroy. Both armies were on the Staunton and Parkersburg Turnpike, a famous stage road which enjoyed in its time much of the travel that afterwards was accommodated by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The Federal camp was known officially as Camp Cheat Mountain Summit. The Confederate camp was known officially as Camp Baldwin, named in honor of a Confederate colonel of that name. Between the two for a good part of the time, and until the winter fastened down was Camp Bartow, named after a Confederate general who was killed at the first battle of Bull Run. This was at the ford of the East Fork of Greenbrier River at Travellers Repose, now the town of Bartow.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Pocahontas County Girls--Outdoor Role Models

White tailed deer, doe and fawn

I'm substituting at the middle school this week. One of the really refreshing things about Pocahontas County kids is that most of them are interested in hunting, or fishing, or farming, or forestry, or some other aspect of natural history. The seventh grade science textbook had a really lame population genetics section, but when I used white-tailed deer as an example, everybody got the concept immediately.

The very best thing about this is that the girls like this stuff at least as much as the boys. Last year, when the seventh grade English class produced a newsletter about November activities, the girls wrote the best hunting stories. They interviewed their girlfriends, and the consensus was that girls prefer bow hunting because the season lasts longer and you can kill does, and that turkey hunting is an excellent activity for girls and their grandpas. Boys didn't seem to figure in the mix at all.

In this regard, at least, Pocahontas County has a happier situation for young women than many more affluent places in America. Barbara Erenreich has a funny/sad report on feminism's loss of ground in the pre-school set in her December 11 post on Bonfire of the Princesses

Disney likes to think of the Princesses as role models, but what a sorry bunch of wusses they are. Typically, they spend much of their time in captivity or a coma, waking up only when a Prince comes along and kisses them. The most striking exception is Mulan, who dresses as a boy to fight in the army, but--like the other Princess of color, Pocahontas--she lacks full Princess status and does not warrant a line of tiaras and gowns. Otherwise the Princesses have no ambitions and no marketable skills, although both Snow White and Cinderella are good at housecleaning....

Feminist parents gnash their teeth. For this their little girls gave up Dora, who bounds through the jungle saving baby jaguars, whose mother is an archaeologist and whose adventures don't involve smoochy rescues by Diego? There was drama in Dora's life too, and the occasional bad actor like Swiper the fox. Even Barbie looks like a suffragette compared to Disney's Belle. So what's the appeal of the pink tulle Princess cult?

Seen from the witchy end of the female life cycle, the Princesses exert their pull through a dark and undeniable eroticism. They're sexy little wenches, for one thing. Snow White has gotten slimmer and bustier over the years; Ariel wears nothing but a bikini top (though, admittedly, she is half fish.) In faithful imitation, the three-year old in my life flounces around with her tiara askew and her Princess gown sliding off her shoulder, looking for all the world like a London socialite after a hard night of cocaine and booze. Then she demands a poison apple and falls to the floor in a beautiful swoon. Pass the Rohypnol-laced margarita, please.

I must admit I've noticed this Disney Princess thing among the early grades, and at least half the Google searches that visit this blog are looking for "Pocahontas costumes." I hope the real Pocahontas girls continue to trade in the pink tulle for camouflage as soon as they're old enough for their first Christmas rifle. One young girl advised me this time last year, "Ammunition is always a thoughtful gift." The real Pocahontas princess would certainly have agreed.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Rodent Writing?

Cherry branch, with mouse tooth marks

These wild cherry branches were near the bottom of the woodpile, where little rodents have cached collections of cherry pits and other edibles. I've never seen anything quite like this, but apparently the deer mice (chipmunks? voles?) find something in the aromatic cherry bark attractive.

When I saw the intricate tooth marks (if that is what they are), I thought about the cryptic heiroglyphs I used to see in tater bug pronota. What message do the deer mice send me?

The marks reminded me of images of the compulsive writings of hypergraphia sufferers. I searched in vain for an Internet example, although I learned that many bloggers like to imagine they have hypergraphia. Here are a few references addressing the compulsive urge to write among humans. There are no references to rodent writing.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Pearl Buck Nobel Anniversary

Pearl S. Buck portrait, from Wikipedia

This Day in West Virginia History commemorates Hillsboro's favorite daughter, Pearl S. Buck. On December 10, 1938, West Virginia native Pearl S. Buck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for her book The Good Earth.

Stockholm, Dec. 10 - (AP) - In a brilliant ceremony in the flower-decked great hall of the Stockholm concert house, Mrs. Pearl Buck, American writer, tonight formally received from King Gustaf of Sweden the 1938 Nobel prize for literature.

Nine members of the Swedish royal family, the entire diplomatic corps and outstanding representatives of Sweden's cultural and scientific bodies looked on as the 80-year old monarch handed Mrs. Buck a parchment certificate bound in tooled leather, the Nobel medal and a check for an amount equal in American money to about $37,975.

An Italian professor, Enrico Fermi, winner of the Nobel prize for physics, was the only other prize-winner attending the presentation.

Earlier in the day in Oslo, Judge Michael Hansson of the Nansen international office for refugees, an arm of the League of Nations, accepted the Nobel peace prize on behalf of the Nansen office.

I've got some Pearl S. Buck quotes and biographical notes at Literary Pocahontas County. I've also quoted her on Civil War era textile skills in Pocahontas County and knitting, missionaries, and feminism.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Endangered Government

One thing I learned in 15 years living in Our Nation's Capitol is how fast political appointees can damage the missions of government agencies. Here's an example I find particularly painful to consider: 7 Decisions on Species Revised: Fish and Wildlife Service Cites Possibility of Improper Influence by Juliet Eilperin, November 28, 2007 in the Washington Post.

After concluding that a Bush administration appointee "may have improperly influenced" several rulings on whether to protect imperiled species under the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service has revised seven decisions on protecting species across the country.

The policy reversal, sparked by inquiries by the Interior Department's inspector general and by the House Natural Resources Committee, underscores the extent to which the administration is still dealing with the fallout from the tenure of Julie MacDonald, the deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks who repeatedly overruled agency scientists' recommendations on endangered-species decisions. MacDonald resigned from the department in May after she was criticized in a report by the inspector general and as she was facing congressional scrutiny.

In a letter dated Nov. 23 to House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall (D-W.Va.), acting Director Kenneth Stansell of the Fish and Wildlife Service said that the agency spent four months reviewing eight Endangered Species Act decisions made under MacDonald and is revising seven of them. Those rulings affected 17 species, including 12 species of Hawaiian picture-wing flies.

In the course of those reviews, for example, Mitch King, then the agency's Region 6 director, said in a June memo to headquarters that while the field and regional office's scientific review concluded there is "substantial" evidence that the white-tailed prairie dog faces a risk of extinction, "the change to 'not substantial' only occurred at Ms. MacDonald's suggestion."

....Rahall, who released the letter yesterday, said in a statement that the agency's move highlights the extent to which political ideology had influenced the administration's approach to protecting plants and animals. "Julie MacDonald's dubious leadership and waste of taxpayer dollars will now force the agency to divert precious time, attention, and resources to go back and see that the work is done in a reliable and untainted manner," Rahall said. "The agency turned a blind eye to her actions -- the repercussions of which will not only hurt American taxpayers, but could also imperil the future of the very creatures that the endangered species program intends to protect."

Mr. Rahall is our Representative here in Pocahontas County.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Life Or Death Botany: Into the Wild

Book Cover: Into the Wild

Because of the movie release, Jon Krakauer's 1996 book, Into the Wild, is once again the subject of some discussion. I was interested to read that Lorianne, of Hoarded Ordinaries, includes it in her "American Literature of the Open Road" class.

I read the book soon after it appeared in paperback, and, while I was impressed with portions of it, I found it insubstantial. (I remember thinking, "Why did I pay 12 bucks for this?" It's $14 now.)

Because Lorianne finds it worthwhile, and because I found it at the public library this week, I've taken another look at Krakauer's book. I stand by my original evaluation.

The story is simple: Young Chris McCandless walks away from his comfortable, well-educated life to live by his wits among the common folk. He has some adventures and meets nice people who like him very much. He goes to Alaska to live off the land, makes some mistakes, and dies. Jon Krakauer writes a magazine article about Chris, and gets lots of emotional letters from readers. Jon decides (a) that Chris deserves a more nuanced, detailed explication, or (b) that there's money to be made with a book, possibly even movie rights.

Drawing an unfavorable comparison between movie and book, Lorianne says:

Unlike Sean Penn's movie, Krakauer's book isn't only about Chris McCandless; it's also about how one writer discovered and pieced together Chris McCandless' story. In the film version of Into the Wild, this meta-narrative is abandoned in favor of hagiography: Chris McCandless becomes an undeniable Hero, the story of his passion and death not a mystery to be solved but a gospel to be imparted.

I like Krakauer as journalist, interviewing McCandless' family and people he met "on the road," and discussing other young men who died testing themselves against the American wilderness. For me, the author fails when he tries to analyze his own powerful reaction to McCandless.

For some reason, Krakauer fixates on whether McCandless dies as the result of poor judgement, or through a series of unfortunate accidents. I don't see much difference between the two scenarios. Some people survive really stupid mistakes, and sometimes cautious, experienced outdoorspeople die in spite of their skills. Krakauer seems to need McCandless to have died accidentally, and spends several pages defending his ethnobotanical choices.

It seems McCandless had with him a copy of Tanaina Plantlore by Priscilla Russell Kari. He used it to identify edible plants, and consumed a quantity of "wild potato" roots. The species is Hedysarum alpinum L.--alpine sweetvetch, a member of the Fabeaceae, or bean family. A congeneric species of bean, Hedysarum mackenzii --Sweetvetch/Mackenzie's Hedysarum was also present and, according to the book, not eaten by the aboriginal people. Evidently, when the roots became too dry to eat, McCandless switched to eating the seeds of "wild potato." There was some speculation that he confused the two species, and consumed the seeds of the wrong plant, poisoning himself. Krakauer insists that McCandless correctly identified his plant species, but was poisoned by eating the wrong part of the right plant.

From what I've been able to read about the two species, neither is particularly poisonous, but there seems to be continuing debate on ways McCandless could have been poisoned. Various mold infestations have also been blamed. It's not clear to me why Krakauer finds this a more acceptable cause of death than starvation, especially when you see the emaciated self-portrait photo McCandless took of himself before his death.

Here are some links on the plant species discussed, as well as the Website of an independent film on McCandless.

  • "Into the Wild" Debunked from the website for the movie The Call of The Wild from Terra Incognita Films. They take issue with many of Krakauer's details, and argue at some length about starvation versus poisoning as a cause of death.
  • Hedysarum alpinum L.--alpine sweetvetch--"wild potato" of Krakauer
  • Hedysarum alpinum from Range Ecosystems and Plants, University of Saskatchewan.
  • Hedysarum mackenzii --Sweetvetch/Mackenzie's Hedysarum--the supposedly "poisonous" species.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Machine-Knit Sock; Experimental Pair

Machine-knit striped socks

I finished these experimental socks this week. First I knitted two striped rectangles on the Antepenultimate Bond Knitting Machine, then sewed them up to form a pair of tubes, and finally knitted on toes, ribbing, and "Afterthought Heels". The "experimental" component is the seaming technique. I sewed one sock using the nearly invisible "mattress stitch," and I tried Caddy May's very flat edge-stitch latch-up technique on the other. Now, I'll walk around in them and see whether the seams are in any way uncomfortable or otherwise unsatisfactory--a sort of sock test-drive.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Kindle-Free Zone

For several years I've wished for a magic device that would let me sit in a chair, and read Project Gutenberg (and the many other free and inexpensive electronic) texts as comfortably as I would paper books. I could have the complete works of all my favorite nineteenth century authors at my fingertips, occupying zero shelf space, never yellowing, loosing pages, or gathering dust. When I pieced together a couple of discarded 10-year-old laptops into one functional Linux box, I thought I was on to something, but the LCD screen is still much harder on the eyes than the printed page, the laptop is heavy, and I seldom drag it out for reading.

E-book readers these days feature "electronic paper" displays, which are more like a book page and less like a TV screen, but I've been put off by the DRM locks and the limited file formats they can read. The manufacturers and publishers have been most anxious to make sure everyone pays through the nose for the reading experience, and to exclude public domain material, although users have developed some hacks to access free and low-cost e-texts.

All this has come up in the news again thanks to "Kindle: Amazon's New Wireless Reading Device". Kindle's price, cost of texts, DRMs and the relative merits of this device versus the others on the market have been thoroughly discussed since its release. My price point is more like the laptop I mentioned above, and I'm most likely to read texts in Project Gutenberg's price range, but I can imagine buying a device of this sort someday.

One issue I haven't seen discussed is where you can use a Kindle. It requires a wireless signal, and there won't ever be cell phone or wireless coverage in Pocahontas County--we're a radio-quiet zone because we're home to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. However, I was surprised when I looked at the Kindle Coverage Map on Amazon's Kindle product page. Sprint, their chosen service provider, doesn't cover very much of rural America. The Appalachian Mountains and Appalachian Plateau are nearly service-free, as are huge chunks of California, Oregon, and Washington. South Dakota seems completely left out, as are most of Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, and Nevada. Except for Washington D.C., no place I've ever lived has Kindle coverage. And the Washington D.C. area is Library Paradise, so you wouldn't necessarily need a Kindle there.

For a review of the ultimate consequences of this technology, I recommend Mark Pilgrim's hilarious The Future of Reading (A Play in Six Acts). Slashdot describes it: "Using Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' own words against him, Mark Pilgrim offers his chilling take on The Future of Reading with a mash-up of Bezos' Open Letter to the Authors Guild, the Amazon Kindle Terms of Service, Steven Levy's Newsweek article on the Kindle, 1984, and Richard Stallman's 'The Right to Read.'"

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Taking A Snow Day

Princess the cat sitting by the

It's been snowing all day--beautiful wet, accumulating snow. I don't know how to take a good picture of that, but Princess is doing a great demonstration of what we've beed doing all day--cuddling up to the wood stove.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Allegheny Plateau Versus Ridge and Valley Regions

I've been working my way through Soil Survey of Pocahontas County, West Virginia, a 300 page pdf file from the Soil Data Mart, a service of the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service. I've found this section, Physiography, Relief, and Drainage the most informative source yet on what biogeographical region Droop Mountain falls in.

Pocahontas County lies in both the Eastern Allegheny Plateau and Mountains and the Southern Appalachian Ridges and Valleys Major Land Resource Areas. The dividing line between these areas roughly follows the west side of the Greenbrier River.

The landforms of the county show the effects of orogenic movement coupled with erosional forces. Elevation, kind and position of rock, position of drainage courses, and climate are factors that also affect the type of topography in the county. The plateau and mountain area has nearly horizontal rocks that contain many resistant layers at the higher elevations with more weatherable rock below. This results in a dendritic drainage pattern. The ridge and valley area is slightly to strongly folded with resistant layers separated by large expanses of more weatherable rock. This results in a trellis drainage pattern.

The western part of the county, or plateau and mountain area, is generally higher in elevation and lower in temperature and has a greater amount of precipitation than that of the eastern part of the county, or ridge and valley area. As a result of these factors, a rugged and complicated relief exists. The highest and lowest elevations in the survey area are 4,842 feet at Bald Knob on Back Allegheny Mountain and 1,952 feet where the Greenbrier River flows out of the county.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Gothic Romances and Morbid Observations

I've been following the suggestions from British Women's Novels: A Reading List, 1775-1818 by Cathy Decker. Dr. Decker provides synopses and recommendations of many little-known novels. All these books are in the public domain, and many of them are available free on the Web as html, txt, or pdf files. Decker also provides a popular Regency Fashion Page. Gothic novels AND historical fashion--what could be more fun?

Another nineteenth century literary connection is Memento Mori: Death and Photography In Nineteenth Century America by Dan Meinwald. This is a long, interesting essay on nineteenth century representations of death. I don't know how other people spent their early adolescence, but in junior high school, I scoured the public library's collections of old, never-checked-out novels and anthologies. I got Dickens, Elliot, Doestoevsky, and Kipling this way, but I also got Helen Hunt Jackson, Alice and Phoebe Carey (The Sister Spirits of Poesy), some of Poe's less successful work, and the death of little Eva by Mrs. Stowe. My tastes have been called "morbid."

Here's Meinwald describing his essay's aim:

In the closely-knit social groups of the eighteenth century, the death of each person affected the life of every other. Death, like life, was a communal affair. By the nineteenth century, this was no longer the case. Feelings...were now concentrated within the immediate family....The decease of a family member was a barely tolerable event, the cause of an emotional dilemma. The grief of the survivors took novel and acute forms, both in public and in private. Outward manifestations of grief, like funeral and burial customs, reflected inward transformations. Other manifestations included a new imagery of death, both visual and literary....

The visual imagery of death created in the nineteenth century represents a diversity of attempts to come to terms with this kind of disruption and discontinuity....This impulse can be described as a romantic and sentimental desire to surmount the fact of separation. In the twentieth century, the prevailing method of dealing with permanent separation is to put it out of mind. In the nineteenth century, the tendency was to keep it in mind, to retain the presence of the deceased person in any way possible. Visual images, especially photographs, provided some of the most effective and emotionally satisfying means of doing so.

This essay could have used one more careful edit. (Memento mori images are graphic demonstrations of the fact that death was not only a more frequent, but a far more familiar occurrence in medieval Europe than it is today.--I'm pretty sure the frequency of death hasn't changed--it's always been 100%, statistically.) Nevertheless, Meinwald's text and illustrations are wide-ranging and fascinating.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

A Manual of Weeds

Book Cover: A Manual of Weeds by Ada Georgia (1914)

This summer, I quoted a passage from Manual of Weeds (1914) by Ada Georgia. I've found this book very useful, and I've been trying to find out more about the author, because women naturalists of that era were a rare and special breed, especially those associated with a "manly" and economically significant field like agriculture. It was rough enough in the 1970's when I tried to break into that world.

The Manual of Weeds was part of Liberty Hyde Bailey's "Rural Manuals" series, and the illustrations are a match to other taxonomic texts associated with Bailey, so I guessed at a Cornell Ag School connection of some sort, but my searching didn't turn up anything beyond an online copy of Ms. Georgia's book: A Manual of Weeds.

Last week, I found references to Ms. Georgia in A Handbook of Nature Study by Anna Botsford Comstock. Ms. Comstock is an interesting (and much better documented) character herself. From this passage in the Acknowledgements, I infer that Ada Georgia was employed by the land-grant branch of Cornell University.

The Cornell University Nature-Study propaganda was essentially an agricultural movement in its inception and its aims; it was inaugurated as a direct aid to better methods of agriculture in New York State. During the years of agricultural depression 1891-1893, the Charities of New York City found it necessary to help many people who had come from the rural districts a condition hitherto unknown. The philanthropists managing the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor asked, "What is the matter with the land of New York State that it cannot support its own population? "....

For the many years during which New York State has intrusted this important work to Cornell University, the teaching of nature-study has gone steadily on in the University, in teachers' institutes, in State summer schools, through various publications and in correspondence courses. Many have assisted in this work, notably Dr. W. C. Thro, Dr. A. A. Allen, and Miss Ada Georgia....

The leaflets upon which this volume is based were published in the Home Nature-Study Course during the years 1903-1911, in limited editions and were soon out of print. It is to make these lessons available to the general public that this volume has been compiled.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Locust Creek, Late Fall

Locust Creek, Low-lying Fog

This time of year, you see some spectacular scenes looking toward Locust Creek. The low hanging fog in early morning sun is a particular favorite. This picture was taken about this time last year.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Red-Tailed Hawk at Breakfast

Juvenile Red-Tailed Hawk

Yesterday morning, about 8 o'clock, our Varmint-Cam 1000 caught this juvenile Red-Tailed Hawk doing a little scavenging. Although we have crows, ravens, and turkey vultures, we're wondering why we haven't seen any of these around since the start of deer season.

Red-Tailed Hawk on deer carcass

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Dr. Bootsie Learns About Social Networking

NABLOPOMO 2007 Badge

I've nearly finished NaBloPoMo 2007, a group enterprise where members pledge to post at least one blog entry per day for the month of November. The organizers made a website with a list of participants, and used social network software to do the job, because the 2006 list of participants was large and hard to manage. Once you signed up for the project this year, you could join groups, post pictures, video, and text on their website as well as your own, and participate in forums.

It sounded great--unfortunately, every time I visited the site this month, it crashed my browser, an up-to-date version of Firefox. I even had to reboot my computer several times, and I run *nix, so that never happens. Thus, Nablopomo2007 didn't show me interesting new blogs to read. In fact, when I was able to view other participating blogs this year, I mostly saw splogs (spam blogs), blogs with but a single post, and blogs not updated even once in November. Very disappointing, but that is often the price of Internet popularity.

In the "Gains" column, I've had no trouble finding something to post every day, and last year's Nablopomo participation prompted me to near-daily posts as a regular practice. Also, this unsuccessful (for me) social network led me to join Ravelry, a social network for people who knit, crochet, and/or spin. I've been trying to figure out if social networking has any use for people past adolescence (literally and/or figuratively). So far, Ravelry functions as it's meant to, and does not make me reboot Debian Etch to get rid of phantom processes that gobble up all the CPU and RAM. Ravelry creators want to reassure us that their project is suitable for adult-like behavior:

Ravelry is not MySpace:

Don't tell Jess that she's Tom. Jess doesn't want to be Tom.

Yes - it's a community site, but Ravelry isn't just a place to hang out with friends. Even people who aren't interested in being social can get a lot out of Ravelry.

Oh, and music doesn't start up every time you turn the page.

I'm not sure if Ravelry is something I'll use much, as I'm not the most sociable knitter, but it's well-designed, efficient, and intriguing. It'll be interesting to see how it develops.

A disclaimer at Ravelry's request-- Membership is by invitation, but to be invited, all you have to do is sign up with your e-mail address, and in a few days, they'll get you enrolled. This is because they are still in "beta" (aka "under construction") and can't handle lots of new members instantly, not because new members are "evaluated" somehow.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Pocahontas County Geology

While I know my way around a species inventory, my geological knowledge would fit in a teaspoon, so I'm always looking for rock and soil resources to help me understand Pocahontas County better. Here's a collection of links I've found relating to Pocahontas County geology, geography, paleontology, and soils. After all, if you look below my blog title bar, you'll see my "blog mission statement" includes "Get to know Pocahontas County: collect empirical data...."

  • A Description of the Geology of Virginia. This is a well-done resource, and, because we share a county line with Virginia, it has information of interest to Pocahontas County geology.
  • Allegheny Mountains, from a wiki called "" this short Wikipedia-style entry lists and links to other short articles about all the named mountains in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia.
  • Soil Survey of Pocahontas County, West Virginia, a 300 page pdf file from the Soil Data Mart, a service of the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service. This is a great resource--so outstanding I wanted to see the write-ups for other counties, but so far, all I've found are soil maps and the like. Still, I plan to do some more data shopping at the USDA-NRCS Soil Data Mart.
  • Bookcover: Fossil Collecting in the Mid-Atlantic StatesFossil Collecting in the Mid-Atlantic States: With Localities, Collecting Tips, and Illustrations of More than 450 Fossil Specimens by Jasper Burns. Google Books has some excerpts, including this:

    Locality 35: In Locust Creek near Hillsboro, Pocahontas County, WV: Greenbrier group, late Mississippian period. Locality fossils occur in chunks of chert in the stream gravel of Locust Creek, above and below the stone bridge on Locust Creek Road, 1.5 miles southeast of Rout 219. From Hillsboro, take Route 219 southwest for 2 miles, then turn left on Locust Creek Road. There is a wide parking area north of the bridge. Private farmland borders the stream, so limit collecting to the streambed itself, or ask for permission to explore elsewhere.

    Nearly all of the fossils at this locality are examples of the colonial horn coral Acrocyanthus, preserved in pieces of green, tan, and especially blue chert. Many specimens are translucent, so the internal structure may be seen in small samples or in thin slices cut with a rock saw and polished. Many of the greenish chunks turn out to be sky blue inside when cut in this way.

  • Petrology and diagenesis of the Glenray limestone member of the Bluefield formation, Pocahontas County, West Virginia, a program abstract by Donald W. Neal, of particular interest to me because the sample comes from Droop Mountain:
    The Glenray Limestone is the basal unit of the drillers¡Ç Little Lime (Reynolds-Glenray limestone couplet) in West Virginia. An outcrop of the Glenray was examined on Droop Mountain in Pocahontas County, WV. The 4.5m unit consists of a fining-upwards/ shallowing-upwards unit of mixed carbonate-siliciclastic sediment. The lower part of the unit is an ooid grainstone with a typical shallow marine assemblage of crinoids, bivalves, brachiopods, gastropods, and bryozoans. The ooid grainstone grades upward to an ooid-bearing, fossiliferous packstone to wackestone. The previously recorded components are admixed with quartz silt and terrigenous mud. The upper 3m is a pelletal wackestone with both carbonate and terrigenous mud. Bioclasts are predominantly ostracodes with a sparse, low diversity fauna of similar composition to the lower section. The percentage of terrigenous material is greater higher in the section and generally finer grained. Deposition of the Glenray Limestone was in a nearshore environment where, after an initial transgression, terrigenous sediment influx increased episodically at the expense of carbonate. Diagenesis of the Glenray Limestone includes cementation of the sediment by both sparry calcite and micrite, micritization, dissolution and subsequent infilling of porosity by granular to blocky spar, recrystallization of bioclasts, minor dolomitization and silicification, formation of stylolites and solution seams, and fracturing and subsequent infilling by carbonate.
  • West Virginia Geology from WVGS The West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey has some encyclopedia-style entries on geology in the state, and leans toward the economically significant aspects of geology--think coal and limestone.
  • West Virginia GIS Technical Center--GIS stands for "Geographic Information Systems." Here you'll find news and resources on GIS, digital mapping and remote sensing within the State of West Virginia.
  • Geography of West Virginia from Wikipedia. This is a stub, pointing to Geology, Fauna, and Flora entries, and a couple of nice West Virginia maps.
  • Paleontology Portal, West Virginia. This is a page in a slick Web site funded by the National Science Foundation, and supported by several museums and the US Geological Service. Their West Virginia resources are sparse, but you could probably find nifty links to general paleontology resources.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Rooting For Weeds

Burdock blossoms

Yesterday's post on candleberry tree and post-Katrina reforestation reminded me of The Bad Seed, a 2003 essay on "weeds" by Frieda Knobloch. I'd come across it looking for references to nineteenth century American botanists, like Ada Georgia. I know from my plant ecology/agriculture background that "weeds" are disturbance plants, early colonizers, pioneers in unclaimed habitats. Candleberry trees and Ailanthus can slow down the regrowth of native species, but they'll die out eventually, to be succeeded by more stable plant communities.

That's not what Ms. Knobloch knows about weeds, not by a long shot. I'm not sure I really understand her essay, but I am intrigued. Here's an excerpt to whet your interest:

It's not the plants themselves that are weedy. The ways we cultivate and think about landscapes and cultivation--as divine punishment and reward, for example--guarantee that some of our plant cohabitors will always be seen as weeds. There are no biological qualities that define a weed, only cultural ones. Any plant that reproduces in great quantity, and that can withstand a wide range of climates and forms of cultivation and herbicide application, could possibly be a valuable crop. Value in a tradition is the key to weediness and non-weediness: Can something we know eat it? Are we likely to harvest it in some quantity for some familiar purpose? Is there a market for it?

....It's easy to see how people could sometimes end up rooting for the weeds. What they value lies in some opposition to the status quo, an ordering of nature and society or even the sacred landscape that leaves too much out. Sculptor Tony Matelli in part celebrated this side of weeds recently in his installations of weedy plant groups in gallery floors in a show titled "Abandon," which also acknowledged weeds as a sign of some failure. The two go together. Abandonment will always carry with it both the promise of new forms of attention and care, and the recognition of a failure of some kind, something "let go," a judgment....

To merely find weeds visually interesting, even "beautiful," or to rub them on our minor wounds or learn how to eat them again (like fancy chefs do from time to time) is to miss a point, like saying a fire-breathing dragon can make a good welding torch. Whatever use a plant may have, a weed has an epic quality, taking on something of the significance of Biblical tares polluting the wheat, the thistles Adam and Eve hacked through on their way out of Eden. Any plant might be domesticated, but not a weed--not weediness itself....That's permanent, a kind of backhanded gift of Old World agriculture. As long as we have weeds, there will be characters to assault our best efforts and provide the seeds for new efforts always.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Katrina's Forest Legacy

Newspapers have picked up this report from Science Magazine (AAAS): Hurricane Katrina's Carbon Footprint on U.S. Gulf Coast Forests. Here's the abstract. (Full text requires paid subscription):

Jeffrey Q. Chambers, Jeremy I. Fisher, Hongcheng Zeng, Elise L. Chapman, David B. Baker, George C. Hurtt

Hurricane Katrina's impact on U.S. Gulf Coast forests was quantified by linking ecological field studies, Landsat and Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) image analyses, and empirically based models. Within areas affected by relatively constant wind speed, tree mortality and damage exhibited strong species-controlled gradients. Spatially explicit forest disturbance maps coupled with extrapolation models predicted mortality and severe structural damage to ~320 million large trees totaling 105 teragrams of carbon, representing 50 to 140% of the net annual U.S. forest tree carbon sink. Changes in disturbance regimes from increased storm activity expected under a warming climate will reduce forest biomass stocks, increase ecosystem respiration, and may represent an important positive feedback mechanism to elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Obviously, extensive decomposition will release much carbon dioxide; from the abstract alone, it looks like the authors have hit on a way to get press attention (and continuing grant money)--talk about global warming. I was more impressed by the Washington Post November 16 article: Katrina, Rita Caused Forestry Disaster Die-Off Will Add To Buildup of Greenhouse Gases by Marc Kaufman. It gives a more meaningful context to the issue by tying together the scale of the environmental destruction, unsuccessful government attempts to address the problems, and ongoing reforestation problems.

New satellite imaging has revealed that hurricanes Katrina and Rita produced the largest single forestry disaster on record in the nation -- an essentially unreported ecological catastrophe that killed or severely damaged about 320 million trees in Mississippi and Louisiana.

The die-off, caused initially by wind and later by weeks-long pooling of stagnant water, was so massive that researchers say it will add significantly to the global greenhouse gas buildup -- ultimately putting as much carbon from dying vegetation into the air as the rest of the nation's forest takes out in a year of photosynthesis.

In addition, the downing of so many trees has opened vast and sometimes fragile tracts to several aggressive and fast-growing exotic species that are already squeezing out far more environmentally productive native species.

Efforts to limit the damage have been handicapped by the ineffectiveness of a $504 million federal program to help Gulf Coast landowners replant and fight the invasive species. Congress appropriated the money in 2005 and added to it in 2007, but officials acknowledge that the program got off to a slow start and that only about $70 million has been promised or dispensed so far. Local advocates said onerous bureaucratic hurdles and low compensation rates are major reasons.

"This is the worst environmental disaster in the United States since the Exxon Valdez accident . . . and the greatest forest destruction in modern times," said James Cummins, executive director of the conservation group Wildlife Mississippi and a board member of the Mississippi Forestry Commission. "It needs a really broad and aggressive response, and so far that just hasn't happened."

A large portion of the forest devastated by Katrina and Rita belongs to relatively small landowners, who use their property as an investment to be logged when they need some cash. The federal program designed in 2005 to address the destruction was an emergency add-on to the popular federal Conservation Reserve Program, which pays landowners "rent" for returning marginal or environmentally sensitive land to more natural conditions.

Larry Payne, director of cooperative forestry for the U.S. Forest Service, said that "Congress wanted to get money back into the hands of these people, and that was the top priority." But generally it has not worked out.

Native tree species are not recolonizing devastated areas on their own due to competition from exotic species, so human intervention is critical for forest restoration. The "Chinese tallow tree" mentioned below is the plant I know as "candleberry tree"--Triadica sebifera (L.), a tropical member of the spurge family, Euphorbiaceae. I'm a little confused about the exotic grass they mention. Cogon grass (Imperata cylindrica) is a troublesome weed, as is Japanese stilt grass (Microstegium vimineum), a plant that escaped after being used for packing material.

Hurricane Katrina came ashore along the Pearl River, which divides Mississippi and Louisiana and is ecologically very rich and diverse. The Chambers study, as well as the work of local conservationists including Cummins, found that such native species as longleaf pine, live oak and cypress survived the hurricane much better than species planted primarily for logging, such as loblolly and slash pine.

But some of the native deciduous forests were severely damaged, and the young, slow-growing oaks and maples are being squeezed out by Chinese tallow trees -- an ornamental plant imported more than a century ago. It thrives on disturbed land and is running wild in the damaged area, foresters said. The tree produces a milky, toxic sap that keeps insects away and makes an inhospitable habitat for birds and small mammals.

In pine forests, the suddenly open spaces are being taken over by other invasive species, especially cogon. The aggressive Japanese grass was initially imported as packing material for oranges, but it has gotten into the environment and pushes out more productive native species.

"People are very concerned about the invasives -- you hear that everywhere Katrina went," said Richard Martin, director of conservation services at the Nature Conservancy in Louisiana. "As the Chinese tallow and other invasives take over, they form a dense canopy that makes it hard for the oak and maple to grow well. Those trees will win out in the end, but it will take hundreds of years rather than a much quicker response if the invasives weren't there."

The slow pace of the reforestation has disappointed many conservationists, as has the government's failure to encourage the planting of longleaf pine -- which once dominated 40 million acres in the Southeast but is now down to 1 million acres.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Bewitched By Beowulf

I've seen a trailer for Beowulf, the movie. It looked like another boring foray into video game animation, but the whole idea of a movie version of Beowulf struck me as bizarre. Then I found out Angelina Jolie was Grendel's mother, and I got curious. Hollywood hearthrob hell-dam?

Blake Gopnik wrote a loving tribute to his college experience with the poem, 'Beowulf' Movie Magic Can't Conjure The Poem's Bare-Bones Enchantment (Washington Post, November 22, 2007).

The great hero Beowulf, wrestling with the monster Grendel, split the sinews of his foe and snapped his arm off at the shoulder. Going up against the monster's mother, he slammed her to the earth, then sliced her neck through with a sword.

That's nothing to what Beowulf did to me, about 20 years ago. He forced me to memorize the full beon and wesan forms of the Anglo-Saxon verb "to be," even in the preterite subjunctive. He made me write out cue cards for most of the 3,200 different words of his tale, so that I'd remember such useful terms as haeft-mece ("hilted sword"), sex-ben ("dagger wound") and galg-treow ("gallows tree"). He got me to recite the declensions of five noun classes in three genders across four cases. (After I'd crammed on what a case was, how to decline across it and what the Anglo-Saxons did to end up with three genders.)

Unlike Grendel or his mom, I gained from the assault. By learning Anglo-Saxon, I got to sink deep into the strangeness of "Beowulf," the poem composed in England sometime before 1000, and enter the imagined universe of Beowulf, its 6th-century hero. I learned to enjoy the allusive elusiveness of its circumlocutions, the drumbeat of its rhythms, the spell of its endless alliteration....

Gopnik is no academic snob--he likes the same sort of trashy movie I enjoy--with superheroes, monsters, unlikely plots, groovey special effects--but he feels that this movie misses everything great about Beowulf.

"Beowulf," the poem, is more about darkling silhouettes than three-dimensional anything. Where the movie aims for a powerful digital glow, the poem is entirely twilit. Where Zemeckis gives a crystal-clear vision of a world of striking lights and shadows, in the poem it's the vision itself that is dark and troubled. Everything about the poem is clouded in mystery, from its diction to its imagery to its mix of pagan and Christian ideals. The movie, on the other hand, believes in keeping every little hair and drop of blood and plot detail in perfect focus, leaving nothing to a viewer's imperfect imagination....

That's because reading "Beowulf" takes us to a new place, where people think about the world and its stories in terms that don't make sense to us. That's why it takes a year and more to come to terms with it (at least in Anglo-Saxon) and why the effort's worth it.

I don't buy the tired old cliche that "Beowulf" is great because it touches universal themes. What's great is that it isn't universal; that it's its own thing; that its bards managed to build a world for us that's so complete a package, in its verse and tale and coloring, that we can still get lost in it all these centuries later.

In all their many interviews, it's clear that the creators of the film could barely stomach the strange "Beowulf" they started out with. They didn't dare imagine that, even with a little cinematic help, their audience might ever come to terms with its foreignness. Instead, they had to bring the poem fully "up to date" and make it easily digestible.

I enjoyed my medieval literature classes, and took every one I could get into. (Iowa State University English Department). I'd imprinted on Tolkien in junior high, and here was "the real stuff!" Still, I can't help but envy Gopnik his experience at McGill:

...At McGill, Prof. Martin Puhvel was Beowulf's accomplice in torturing me. Puhvel had the voice and build of a bear, along with the general demeanor of an unusually misanthropic berserker. (One rumor among his students -- at least the three of us dumb enough to stick around after the first week of class -- was that, on winter nights, Puhvel could be spotted hunting in the suburban woods of Montreal. With a crossbow. Another was that he had gotten out of his native Estonia, just across the Baltic from Beowulf's homeland, on a wrestling scholarship.)

Puhvel didn't recite"Beowulf" the way an actor might, drawing out the drama so as to camouflage the demands of its verse. He intoned it, in his Viking-accented Anglo-Saxon, line after line, page after page, class after class, as though "Beowulf" the poem, like Beowulf the hero, were a force of nature that could only be borne, not fought or ever overcome. Or as though its verse were a path through a dark wood where the only outlet would be found by plunging forward, but would be sure to land us somewhere absolutely new and strange.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Andrew Price On Eminent Domain

Land use, development, and eminent domain are hot topics in Pocahontas County these days. Pick up any issue of The Pocahontas Times for the last several years, and you will read something about the controversial Slaty Fork sewage treatment plant. The latest issue (November 22, 2007) contains this report on the County Commission meeting:

...[T]he Pocahontas County Public Service District is now asking for money to evaluate alternative sites for the controversial regional sewage project in Slaty Fork....Much of the motivation for moving the site comes from the specter of eminent domain, Smith said, which has made the project unpopular with many county residents. The current site proposed by engineers sits on property belonging to members of Slaty Fork's Sharp family....Tom Shipley and his family have said they don't want the plant on their land and have challenged the project on environmental grounds and the threat that it could pose to their family business.

Although you can't search or read back issues of The Pocahontas Times unless you pay, you can learn more about the proposed sewage treatment plant at Save the Sharp Farm and 8 Rivers Safe Development. While they address family, environmental and historic preservation reasons for preserving the Sharp farm, they don't come down hard on the issue of using taxpayers' money to build and/or clean up a utility that primarily benefits out-of-state interests: the vacation home developers and Snowshoe Resort. (Oops, my point of view is showing.)

Because so many people are so offended by the prospect of eminent domain in this case, I was surprised to learn that Andrew Price used the Pocahontas Times to advocate eminent domain to assist the outside railroad/logging interests, and facilitated condemnation proceedings in his law practice. These quotes come from Benign Betrayal: Capitalist Intervention in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, 1890-1910By John Hennen.

As legal representative for several timber and railway companies doing business in the county, Price often participated in the transfer of land titles and condemnation proceedings to the benefit of his clients....[He] felt obliged to convince Pocahontas Times readers that land was more valuable to the community when it rested with timber companies than in the hands of private citizens. Tax payments on the land, even if unproductive, he explained, benefited the community and relieved the previous owners of hidden burdens:

The Greenbrier River Lumber Company's tax ticket in Pocahontas for the year 1898 amounts to $1539.36. This is tax on timberland which is unremunerative. It is a great help to the county treasury. Formerly this tax was divided among smaller landowners who did not realize how much their wild land was costing them. This is still true of the greater part of the county.

Regardless of the efforts of Price and other local elites, some citizens resisted the encroachment of industrial capitalism. Resistance to development could take the form of a landowner refusing to acknowledge the right-of-way prerogative of railroads, for compensation, through private land. County courts often convened special hearings for right-of-way disputes, where the mechanism was in place to protect the interests of big capital. County judges and court officers were by 1900 usually professionals or businessmen whose economic well-being was linked to development. If persuasion "proved ineffective, resistance could be overcome by the alliance between capitalists and local promoters. Courts simply condemned land and required that it be sold to the railroad."

Price advised his readers on the wisdom of settling condemnation proceedings out-of-court, warning them against being greedy and of hidden costs in a lost condemnation judgement. "Some of the prices asked by landowners are too high," he wrote in 1899. "The rule is when a private contract can not be agreed upon for the condemnation proceedings to be initiated. If the landowner recovers less than the amount proffered by the company, he pays the costs, and vice versa."

It seems that Andrew Price came to regret the price of progress, whether or not he admitted his own complicity. I hope we have learned from what happened with the logging boom. The prosperity was transient--where are those high-paying jobs today? Meanwhile, some environmental damage has scarred over, but the forest has fewer species, and no giant trees. I'm afraid the "tourism industry" will turn out the same--some short-term profit at the expense of long-term environmental degradation.