Thursday, December 29, 2011

Four Holiday Movies with Dogs


In case anyone is planning a New Year’s film binge, here are a few suggestions:

The Adventures of Tintin
Although this animated feature is a little short on character development, the plot is plenty thick, and the colorful settings are marvelously rendered. The sea battle between flaming vessels is particularly vivid, and the film gets more interesting when our detective-hero and his companion, Captain Haddock, arrive in a storybook North African city to retrieve the model ship that carries the third and final clue to the location of the buried treasure.

Fans of the comic book character have had a good time pointing out all the ways that the movie fails to live up to the superb genius of the original material. Those of us who come into the theater without expectations can sit back and enjoy the ride. For myself, I’m not a big fan of animated movies, in which the plots tend to be sentimental, the expressions generic, and the voices wildly exaggerated. Ratatouille? Finding Nemo? UJggh!@#%!

But I liked Tintin, which mostly looked quite real. I think I might read the book.

Margin Call
Margin Call Takes us inside the offices of a hedge fund on the eve of the market melt-down on 2008. Half of the staff has just been fired, but one of the departing “risk managers” (Stanley Tucci) has crunched enough numbers to see that far worse news lies ahead.

The film takes place during a single late-night panic during which young employees, board members, and honchos arriving in helicopters attempt to make the best of a terrible situation, and “get out” before everything goes south. Sales manager Kevin Spacy seems to have a bit more conscience than some of his colleagues, though his emotional life is largely consumed by the health needs of his dying dog. Several sharks (including top dog Jeremy Irons) are given the opportunity to deliver fairly accurate speeches about the willing collusion between fund managers and their clients.

Never having owned a piece of a hedge fund or visited a brokerage of any kind myself, I couldn’t say how accurate any of this is, but it’s a vivid and thought-provoking film.

The Artist
This black-and-white film has a rich soundtrack and a predictable plot, but it’s a charming vehicle for the stars, who spend a fair amount of time merely grinning at one another.

An actor unknown to me, Jean Dujardin, plays the silent-screen idol George Valentin, and a second new-comer, Bérénice Bejo, is equally winsome as the enthusiastic fan who slowly creeps into his life. Both actors indulge in plenty of the “hamming” that takes the place of talk in silent pictures, but they’re very good at it, and the story itself is awfully sweet.

Young Adult
On the other hand, Young Adult is bittersweet at best. Charlize Theron plays an attractive divorcee who writes young adult novels from her high-rise apartment in Minneapolis and drinks Coke from a 2-liter bottle in her pajamas every morning. She’s pushing forty, though she looks to be twenty-five, and her life is a mess. Receiving an almost random baby-announcement email from her high school boyfriend, she decides to return to her home town and “rescue” him from what she presumes to be a boring, claustrophobic life.

Theron does an excellent job of making herself continually watchable but never likable. At the same time, director Jason Reisman succeeds in fleshing out the limited horizons of small-town life without condescension. Patrick Wilson plays the new father with aplomb—obviously happy with his domestic situation, though also guilelessly concerned to make his unexpected visitor feel at home. Added ballast is provided by Matt Freeholf (Patton Oswalt) who was the victim of a hate crime in high school and now paints model super-heroes and distills whiskey in his garage.
Considered all-in-all, Young Adult is far better than any brief description could convey. I might almost describe it as haunting.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Genius of the Season


So much is contained in a single word—a single letter. Thus, “Celebrating the birth of God” carries a different connotation from “Celebrating the birth of a god.” Maybe the phrase “Celebrating birth” says it all.

My Greek is a little rusty after all these years, but as I recall, the prefix “gen-” carries a range of inference that spans race, kind, line of descent, origin, creation, sexual relations, and reproduction. Just think of the modern equivalents: generation, genius, generator, genuine, and genesis. But we must also include such words as genus, genealogy, and general.

Clearly that simple prefix can take us in two different directions. On the one hand, it calls up a series of concepts having to do with novelty, creativity, authenticity, and uniqueness. One the other hand, it refers to concepts that lump things together into groups on the basis of their type or ancestry. We hold no one in higher esteem than the “genius,” yet reserve our most withering derision for the merely “generic.”

These two aspects of the expression will never be fully reconciled, but it would be a mistake to imagine that they’re altogether opposed to one another. We meet up with both at every family gathering: the idiosyncrasies, the differences between family members that stimulate and nourish us (though they can sometimes annoy us, too) and the veins of affection that run ever-deeper, and constitute the reality (rather than merely the pedigree) of the clan.

Praise be to whoever cooked up a universe replete with affinities, both elective and congenital. May we become ever more generous and genial in our efforts to expand the reach of such ties.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Adventures in Coulibiac Country


A Koulibiac is a loaf of fish, meat, or vegetables baked in a pastry crust. This Russian dish was traditionally made with sturgeon marrow, which is not easy to come by these days. I suspect most recipes today derive from the one that appeared in French cookbooks after Escoffier included the dish in his book.

We recently proposed this dish for a large-scale Christmas gathering on the strength of a dim recollection I had of a remark Craig Clairborne made about it. I could no longer remember what he’d said, but I knew the dish had salmon in it, and I suspected it was complicated to make. I had the distinct recollection that a recipe could be found in a book called The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth which had made its way to the basement decades ago. (I was wrong.)

According the Foodlover’s Companion, “the French adaptation of the Russian original (kulebiaka) consists of a creamy melange on fresh salmon, rice, hard-cooked eggs, mushrooms, shallots and dill enclosed in a hot pastry envelope. The pastry is usually made with brioche dough. Coulibiacs can be large or small but are classically oval in shape. They can be served as a first or a main course." The word is pronounced koo-leeb-yahk, by the way.

Perusing recipes online, we soon learned that there are many variants—though salmon, eggs, and mushrooms appear in most of them. We chose one that sounded especially interesting due to the inclusion of a can of sardines and a complicated sauce made with wine and the water in which the dried mushrooms had been reconstituted. A week before the big event, we made a trial run and found that the sardines were overpowering, the salmon was half raw, the wine sauce was indistinct and hardly worth the effort, and the rice added nothing to the dish.

On the strength of this flop, we moved on to a recipe that called for crepes rather than rice, had a less complicated duxelle of mushrooms, and included leeks rather than spinach. This recipe made use of an herb hollandaise, which seemed like a good idea. We also incorporated a twist we’d found in several other recipes, of searing the salmon fillets on both sides before adding them to the loaf, to insure that when the pasty was cut open following its time in the oven, the fish would be done.

Here’s the recipe, pretty much the way we did it. This recipe makes two loafs, ample for thirteen guests with quite a bit left over. Cut things in half if you want to make a single loaf. In any case, you might have some crepes left over, which you can have for lunch after assembling the loaves and putting them into the fridge.

The evening before the event, we prepared the leeks as follows:

Braised Leeks
9 large leeks
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup vegetable broth or water
kosher salt and pepper to taste


Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. To prepare the leeks, trim off the dark green stalks and the roots. Next, slice the leeks in half lengthwise. Place the leeks in a large bowl of cold water, cut side down, and allow them to sit there about 10 minutes. Most of the grit will fall to the bottom of the bowl. Rinse the leeks again, checking between the folds to make sure all the grit is gone. Dry the leeks with a paper towel. Spray a nine-by-13 baking dish with nonstick cooking spray. Set the leeks in the baking dish, cut side up. Brush with the olive oil. Roast 20 minutes, tossing halfway through to make sure they don't get too brown. Pour vegetable broth over the leeks. Roast another 10 minutes or until leeks are tender. Season with kosher salt and pepper.

Having performed this elaborate cleansing ritual, I might be tempted, the next time around, merely to slice the leeks thin, remove what grit is present, and sauté. We found that when slicing the finished dish, the long fibrous strands of leek were occasionally difficult to break through.

The next morning we got going on the crepes, which Hilary made one-at-a-time in a crepe pan.

All Purpose Crepe Batter
1/4 cup cold water
3/4 cup cold milk
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup flour
3 tablespoons melted butter


Mix dry ingredients in a bowl. Make a well in center and pour in liquid ingredients. Stir until smooth.

The mushrooms weren’t difficult, though it took quite a while for the fluid to evaporate. I included a step here from a different recipe, adding ¼ cup of white wine and reducing before adding the broth. And as for the broth itself, we used a corner of a chicken bouillon cube dissolved in water to cut expenses.

Filling
1 pound baby bella mushrooms, finely chopped
1/4 cup chopped green onion
1/4 cup butter
1/2 tablespoon salt
1/4 tablespoon dried marjoram
2 tablespoon flour
Dash of pepper
1/4 cup beef broth
2 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley


In a saucepan over medium-high heat, sauté the mushrooms and onion in the butter until liquid evaporates. Stir in salt, marjoram, flour, pepper and broth. Cook, stirring constantly, until mixture comes to a boil and thickens. Remove from heat and stir in parsley.

At this point, after boiling four eggs, we were ready to begin the assemble.

We had purchased two large fillets of farm-raised Atlantic salmon, which weighed in at 3.5 lbs in all. This is not a good time of year for Pacific salmon, and in any case, several butchers told us we’d be better off with the oilier, farm-raised variety, considering there was no way to check whether the salmon was done prior to cutting into the loaf.

Now wash the salmon fillets and pat dry. Remove any bones and skin. Put a little oil in a very large pan and sear the fillets on both sides. (It would be a good idea to cut them into chunks, which won’t hurt the assembly at all.) Put them on plates as they get done. The insides should still be raw.

The final assembly:

The first step is to roll out two pieces of puff pastry into rectangles. The top one will be somewhat larger than the bottom one. Flour a work surface and roll out a slab of Pepperidge Farm puff pastry to a rectangle maybe 9 x 13 inches. Roll out the other slab (two come in a box) and make it an inch smaller all the way around. The pastry stretches as you use it so the dimensions don’t need to be exact. Keep chilled until ready for use.

Now put the smaller sheet onto a piece of parchment paper on a cookie sheet. Arrange three or four crepes (overlapping) on dough followed by a layer consisting of ¼ of the mushroom duxelle. Then make a layer of leeks, followed by one of the eggs, sliced. These layers should extend to within one inch of the edge though they’ll taper inward as they pile up.

Top with half the salmon slices. (The other half goes into the other loaf.) Place an additional ¼ of the duxelle, then some more leeks, then another sliced egg over the salmon.

Make an egg wash and brush the exposed edges of the dough with it. Then apply the larger sheet of dough (which you’ve wisely kept cool in the fridge) on top. Seal all edges, cut off the excess dough, and roll pastry so the seam is underneath. Make some stars with the excess dough and apply to the top of the loaf. Then brush the entire top of the loaf with egg. Put in fridge. (Several of the recipes suggest making the entire thing the day before the event.) When the time comes, bake at 375 degrees F for 30 minutes.

Here’s the recipe we used for the hollandaise
Garden Herb Hollandaise
1 egg, yolk only
Juice of half a lemon
1 cup unsalted butter, soft
Salt and smoked paprika
1/2 cup, finely chopped selection of fresh herbs

Place the eggs yolk and lemon juice in a steel bowl over a double boiler. With a French whisk, combine vigorously until thick but not curdled and slowly add soft, whole butter until thickened. Add seasoning and herbs. Keep warm by placing in a warm water bath time to serve.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Edo Pop – A Star in the East


The Edo Pop exhibit currently on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Art is mostly Edo, with very little Pop. That’s OK with me. The Edo period, which spans the shogunate of the Tokugawa clan, runs from 1603 to 1868. During that time artists you’ve probably heard of—Hiroshige, Hokusai, Utamaro—produced affordable woodblock prints of courtesans, Kabuki performers, scenes of Mt. Fuji, and floral and avian subjects that are a delight to behold.

The Institute owns scads of these works, and they’ve put the best of them on display in the first five rooms of the exhibit. In the last two rooms we have the privilege of seeing contemporary works—videos, acrylic paintings, brief amine films, masks—that draw upon the Ukiyo-E tradition. They’re far less interesting. But few, perhaps, are likely to rush to the museum and fork over $8 to see the prints we’ve been looking at all our lives for free.

Before the show we met some friends for Happy Hour at the Fuji-Ya, only a few blocks from the museum, where the rock-n-roll was booming out of the speakers above our heads. I asked our waitress, largely in jest, if they ever had live Koto music. She responded, “No, that was at the old place. And we all wore Kimonos there.” We were pleased to discover that she had actually worked at the old Fuji-Ya, down by the locks on the Mississippi River, for fifteen years. And she, in turn, was visibly pleased that we remembered it. In fact, I remember the Koto players they used to have there, and the water tumbling over the falls just outside the window. Hence the facetious question.

I ordered the hot sake, which comes in an earthenware pitcher. In all the Japanese films I’ve seen, two men pour for one another across the table repeatedly—the cups are very small—until both are pretty well drunk. But I was the only one in the group who ordered sake, and therefore I had to do all the pouring myself.

The food was simply great. Negi Mutsi, Shake Maki, Caterpillar (a long string of cucumber slices with a smoked eel running down the middle). It goes down too quickly, however, and the bill does mount up.

Our visit to the museum happened to be on a Third Thursday, during which the “youth” element is especially strong. A rock-n-roll band, The Brutes, was playing in the first floor atrium. People wearing ties and stylish dresses were crafting Christmas cards at a few folding tables nearby—no children in sight.

The first three rooms of the exhibit consisted of a long series of stylized renderings of geishas, semi-nude female abalone divers, kabuki stars, and scenes from Japanese folklore. I like these images for the same reason I like Homer. Beyond the artistic conventions lies an expressive force that appelas to us even today. And the world being depicted is pleasantly “primitive”—in other words, it’s largely free of junk.

In one print, a woman reads a poem-scroll. She has her ink tablet, and what looks to be a book press, too. There’s a samurai sword hanging near-by, in case the poetry gets out of hand, I guess.

In another print what appeals to me most is the slate green background. Later a stunning blue begins to appear. The text accompanying the prints is long and detailed. At a certain point I quit caring which Kabuki actor played what part, or where the illegal red light districts of Kobe were located in the eighteenth century. Time to just look and admire.

In the fourth room, just as our attention was beginning to lag, nature moved to the forefront of artistic interest. These are the famous and remarkable flowers and birds of Hokusai, the pilgrimage scenes of Hiroshige. I found myself looking longingly at some of the snow scenes. It’s mid-December, after all.

The final two rooms had fewer, but far larger works, many of them digital or photographic. It would take too long to describe what was interesting about them. For the most part, they signaled an vast increase in technological dependency, a regression into adolescence emotionally, and a noticable drop in expressive power.

The Institute has so many great works of art, that the discoveries we make on the way out are sometimes among the most memorable. On our way to the third floor to see the period rooms decked out in holiday festoons, we passed what has always been one of my three or four favorite works in the museum—the mille-fleur tapestry. Parked in front of the tapestry is a medieval sculpture of the Virgin and child. Also very nice. I happened to notice that the bends in her posture bear striking similarities to those of the courtesans in the red light district in Kyoto.

But a different message is being conveyed here. I think it has something to do with the child.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Advent Reflections


- Rain in December, as we approach the shortest day of the year. It’s evocative, if not delightful, and the plants undoubtedly appreciate it.

- I recently made of poster of a photograph I took of the forest floor on the fringe of the Canadian Shield: baby white spruce, Labrador tea, bunchberry, wintergreen, false lily of the valley. You can see them all, larger than life above the fireplace, clamoring for space and light, yet harmoniously arranged. ( I did clone out a few dead twigs.)

- Which reminds me, it’s a time of death. My old camp director passed away recently. Then the co-owner of the firm where I worked for a quarter-century. (Where did they go?)

- A colleague from camp says, “We should have a reunion.” I say, “I don’t much like my former selves. Wouldn’t want to be introduced.”

- Racquetball. We aren’t as good as we once were. (Don’t play enough.)

- We skip the Bly reading. Sit by the fire catching up on the fate of the Euro.

-Then there’s the Saturday Met HD telecast of Gounod’s Faust. The story has never been good. Marlowe? No. Goethe? No. The gleeful and smug self-confidence of Mephistopheles is boring—the kind of catty naughtiness that jaded theater-goers love to titter at. Faust himself is a shallow cad with a beautiful voice. Marguerite is the best of the lot—simply naïve. She has been criticized for loving the jewels in the box too much. But the jewels provide the “objective correlative” for her brilliant, yet downtrodden, spirit.

It was fascinating to hear the Russian soprano, Marina Poplavskaya, being interviewed during intermission. She not only knows the part well, but embodies it, in so far as she seems to share the romantic faith and hope expressed by the character she’s portraying.

All three of the voices rise about the characters, as is so often the case with opera. The music lifts us above the story-line. Poplavskaya’s music most of all. She’s a believer.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Handel’s Rodelinda


There were maybe ten cars in the vast parking lot of the Brooklyn Park Regal Cinema when I pulled in at eleven Saturday morning. An elderly couple, neither of them much more than five feet tall, were walking gingerly toward the entrance across the asphalt under the dismal gray sky. Both carried canes, and I heard a middle-aged man say to his wife as I got out of my car: “This looks like the right crowd.”

When I asked for a ticket to “the opera,” having forgotten the name of the rarely-staged Handel work I was attending, the burly black teenager in the booth said, “Senior discount?”
“What’s the cut-off?” I asked.
“Sixty.”
After a split-second of hesitation, I shook my head. No. And forked over my $24.

Rodelinda is the story of the wife of a slain king who must marry the usurping tyrant to save the life of her son. It will come as no surprise to opera-goers that the king isn’t really dead. He returns in disguise with the hope, not of regaining his kingdom, but merely of rescuing his wife and son. He’s crestfallen to discover that she’s agreed to remarry, not knowing her bitter rationale, and certainly unaware that her vengeful condition for going through with the ceremony is that the tyrant must kill her son before her very eyes. Grimoaldo finds he can’t do it, and is eventually sent into a mental tail-spin as his conscience revolts at the crimes he must commit to retain the seat of dictatorial power. (Richard III he’s not.)

Throw in a trusted servant, a Machiavellian advisor, and a devoted sister to thicken the plot, and you have the ingredients for a first-rate opera. The sets are lavish and suitably Italianate, the orchestra maintains a subdued “period” flavor, with two harpsichords, no less! Fleming and Stephanie Blythe deliver their da capo arias with lovely agility, and the male leads are hardly less engaging.

Yet there seems to be a slight disjunct at the heart of this work. Throughout the afternoon, the two appealing elements I’ve just described—the melody and the drama—were somewhat at odds. And the fact that two of the four male leads were sung by counter-tenors didn’t help much. Though their voices were both very fine, the unusually high range they employed was not meant to be a reflection of character, but merely an convention of the era during which the opera was written, when castrati were the superstars of the genre.

It would be pointless, I suppose, to try to “work around” or modernize the piece by cutting the arias in half or recasting the castrati roles as baritones. As Renee Fleming herself pointed out in a recent interview, part of the appeal of the genre lies in its clarity and grace. The drama may be similar at times to the darkest turns of Simon Boccenegra or Rigoletto, but the vocal passages are invariably lilting and intricate.

It came as a surprise to me that one of the most lovely and memorable arias in Rodelinda was the heroine’s demand that the tyrant execute her son! There were times when I succumbed to the temptation to close my eyes to the drama and simply listen. And in doing do, I may have been adding to the historic accuracy of the experience. In Handel’s day, after all, subtitles didn’t exist, and few in the audience knew Italian.

Some critics objected to Italian opera at the time on precisely those grounds. If was felt that nothing edifying could be transmitted in a language no one could understand. Richard Steele, writing in the Tatler in April of 1709, observed:
“..the stage being a Entertainment of the Reason and all our Faculties, this Way of being pleased with the Suspence of ’em for Three Hours altogether, and being given up to the shallow Satisfaction of the Eyes and Ears only, seems to arise rather from the Degeneracy of our Understanding, than an Improvement of our Diversions.”
We might note in passing that Steele’s friend Joseph Addison had recently written an English-language libretto for an opera that was an utter flop. In any case, the fact that few could understand what was being said hardly seems to be the worst aspect of the opera performances of Handel’s day. As one historian of the era remarks, at the opera people would “play cards, chat, move about, eat oranges and nuts, spit freely, his and yowl at singer they did not like.” Many went simply for the stage effects and the remarkable vocal pyrotechnics of the Italian divas whose exorbitant fees eventually drove Handel to the brink of bankruptcy.

Times have changed, audiences have become more attentive, and I found myself growing increasingly irritated as a woman five rows behind me took fifteen minutes to extract her sandwich from a cheap plastic bag and then undo the Saran wrap. Reviving the eighteenth-century habit, I got up and moved long before she'd taken her first bite.

But with the help of subtitles, I left the theater five hours later, just as darkness was descending, not only buoyed by the boundless lyricism of Handel’s music but also more than a little moved by Grimoaldo’s crisis of conscience and abdication of power, Bertarido’s magnanimity, Rodelinda’s vehement defiance, and her son’s precocious courage.

Back home, I built a fire and scoured the shelves for a means of sustaining the mood. Here’s what I came up with:

Kiri Te Kanawa: Sorceress—A Handel Celebration with Christopher Hogwood (1994)
Emma Kirkby: Handel/Italian Cantatas (1981)
Natalie Dessay: Handel/Delirio (2005)
Lisa Saffer: Handel/Arias for Cuzzoni (1990)
Danielle de Niese: Handel Arias (2008)
And finally, Handel’s complete opera Aci, Galatea e Polifeo(1987)

I won’t bore you with a blow-by-blow account, but I will say that the women with lighter voices—Kirkby, Dessay, and Saffer—wrap themselves around the music especially well.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Francis Lee Jaques in Aitkin


Suppose you didn’t want to buy anything on Black Friday. Or suppose you didn’t particularly care to get an extraordinary deal. Here’s an alternative scenario.
We were in the car, heading north, by 9:15. (In Minnesota, heading “north” carries a special ring.) Nothing much to report on the way up to Aitkin, though Mille Lacs was as impressive as ever, and we spotted a swan, two golden eyes, and a few mergansers just off shore near Garrison.

We found a parking spot across the street from the American Legion in Aitkin and wandered inside to the Chili Cook-off. Folks were already having fun. Some of them in costume. We bought two tickets for $7 (total), were given our Styrofoam bowls, and began our circuit around the crowded room, sampling the offerings.

One of the entrants had put potatoes in her chili. “We have a potato farm up in Palisade,” she told me, gesturing at a framed potato sack hanging on the wall behind her booth. Another was serving little cornbread muffins on a stick. A third group had chosen a “Wizard of Oz” theme. One team (from the DNR) wore prison outfits, another had sombreros on their heads. I don’t know why.

Chili and cornbread (and potatoes) call for beer. At the bar I asked what they had, the bartender asked what I liked. I am no expert, and didn’t want to get into ales, stouts, porters, pilsners, IPAs… She was in a hurry, and as I was thinking of something to say she blurted out, “We have Bud, Bud Light, Miller, Miller Lite, Schmidt.”

OK. Budweiser sounds great.

Later, out on Main Street, we watched a succession of colorful floats pass by, their occupants throwing candy. Few of the floats had the slightest resemblance to ice houses, as far as I could tell. Then again, I’m not an ice fisherman.

While waiting for the parade to start, we’d walked down the street to the Frances Lee Jaques museum, which is housed in the old Carnegie Library building. Jaques, a wildlife artist, lived in Aitkin for many years when he wasn’t off in the Caribbean or the Rockies painting birds. He’s best known, perhaps, for a series of dioramas he did for the Museum of Natural History in New York City. Or perhaps he’s not so well-known. The New York Times once reported:
The painted backgrounds of the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History have a curious place in the hearts of almost everyone who has grown up in New York City during the last century. They are some of the most elaborate landscape paintings in the city and some of the most frequently viewed pictures anywhere, but almost nobody knows who did them or, in a sense, even seems to notice them when they’re staring straight at them.
Here in Minnesota, many of us grew to love Jaques work at the Bell Museum of Natural History. Children beyond counting have stared into the enormous scenes he did of elk on Inspiration Peak, of moose on Gunflint Beach, and of timber wolves on the rocky cliffs of the North Shore, as if they were real. And several generations of outdoor enthusiasts have cherished the scratch-board illustrations he did for the wilderness canoeing books of Sigurd Olson, and also the books he did with his wife Florence—Canoe Country, The Geese Fly High, and Snowshoe Country.

Jaques was raised on farms in Illinois and Kansas. Even as a boy he was entranced by the plumage of the birds he shot while hunting with his dad, and began to work at depicting them realistically. In the spring of 1903, after yet another unsuccessful year of farming, the family headed north in search of fertile, inexpensive soil, and ended up in a log cabin on a plot of land just north of Aitkin with an oxbow of the Mississippi River wrapped around it.

As a young adult, while working at various occupations—lumberman, railroad hand, taxidermist—Jacques continued to draw and sketch, and he also spent a good deal of time exploring the forests and lakes of the northern Minnesota border region by canoe. After serving in the military during WWI, he returned to Minnesota and found work in the Duluth shipyards, but his interest in nature stayed with him, and in 1924 he sent a painting of a black duck to Dr. Frank Chapman, a curator in the Ornithology Department at the American Museum of Natural History. To his surprise, the museum took Jaques on as a staff artist and he suddenly found himself working in the company of some of the country’s leading scientists. In time Jaques himself was recognized as one of America’s foremost wildlife artists.


Perhaps due to his years spent as an untrained but avid observer of nature, Jaques had developed the ability to render an animal’s posture and flair without resorting to the painstaking depiction of every piece of fur or feather. He was especially adept at capturing the form of birds in motion. Yet he also had the knack of integrating the elements of the surrounding environment into a pleasing whole—thus satisfying the requirements of art and science at a single stroke.

He once remarked:
The shape of things has always given me the most intense satisfaction. Everything one sees and senses. Geese in a storm, a landfall after a long period at sea, horses in a fence corner, the first glimpse of the ‘shining mountains’ across the plain, the eroded bank of a stream winding through a pasture. With me the keenest interest of all has been in wildlife, and that includes its habitat.
The main room of the museum was largely given over to holiday crafts, but in the back a number of Jaques’ paintings and scratchboards were still on display. As I wandered the gallery, I couldn’t help listening in on a conversation that a silver-haired man in a plaid shirt and hunting vest was having with a passing couple. They were telling him that their son had gone deer hunting for the first time—and got his deer.

“Was your brother there, too?” the seated man said. “You all must be very proud.”

“It was from 200 yards.”

“What kind of rifle?”

And on it went.

A little later, Hilary was admiring the paintings and the man said, “Do you like these pictures. I own most of them.”

When he found out we were fans of Jacques’ work, and actually knew something about him, he introduced himself.

“I’m Jerry Holm and this is my wife Cherie.” In the course of conversation I mentioned that I’d developed an appreciation of Jacques’ work while giving tours at the Bell Museum, and she replied, “I’m on the board there. There’s a lot going on at the Bell these days. The new planetarium...”

“The hardest thing,” Jerry told us at one point, “is to get anyone under fifty interested in this place. I don’t understand why. I’m just a dumb farmer from Palisade but I know good art when I see it. The front part of this building is the old Carnegie library, you know. It cost $15,000 to build. We added this part here where we’re standing, which wraps all the way around the back, a few years ago. It’s only 15 feet wide, but it cost $550,000. But we’ve got a lot of supporters here in Aitkin, and they really came through. Do you want to see the basement?”

So while Cherie went back to the front room to tend to customers, we took the elevator downstairs and Jerry gave us a quick tour: the vault, where the art collection is stored; the weaving room; the offices; the classroom. He also showed us a copy of The Geese Fly High.

“Do you have this?” he asked.

“Yes, we do. But it’s an old edition. It doesn’t have this full-color cover.”

“Take it. We’ve got hundreds of them.”

Jerry shared some stories about Les Kouba. And when he learned we were birders ourselves, he told us, “A friend of mine saw a snowy owl out on the road to my farm just this morning. I’ll tell you how to get there. You go out Highway 210 for about four miles. Turn left when you see the big osprey nest. You can’t miss it. Our farm is in about half a mile, it has a white PVC fence all around it.”

As we left we thanked the Holms' for their gracious hospitality. (Did I mention the donuts and the apple cider?) And when we left town after the parade we kept a lookout for the osprey nest. We spotted it, turned left, drove past the farm and all the way to a public access ramp to the Mississippi. The river is already fairly robust at this point. Well, river boats used to ply the route between Aitkin and Grand Rapids. It’s gotten pretty quiet in these parts. The edges of the river were stiff with ice. We could hear the sound of a chain saw in the distance. Someone clearing brush off a snowmobile trail, I’ll bet.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Eight Books, Cloud Nine


I like to tell myself that my book-buying days are largely over. A mere trickle moving through the house. Review copies. An occasional book from the Ridgedale de-acquisition shop. Well, yesterday that trickle became a flood. I picked up eight new books. I was on Cloud Nine.

An order arrived in the mail from Daedalus, the remainder house, at noon. It contained a coffee-table book about clouds, a brief history of the ontological proof for God’s existence, and a revolutionary revision of our understanding of the Middle Ages, Barbarians to Angels, by local archeologist Peter Wells.

Meanwhile, unaware that these goodies would be waiting for me at the front door when I returned, I went out to Ridgedale Library to retrieve a few books I’d requested about the early history of Texas. (Don’t ask me why.) Naturally I stopped into the adjoining bookshop...and left with a healthy stack under my arm. (Total cost: $5)


In that stack was a book of essays about books and reading by Washington Post columnist Michael Dirda; a slim volume of lectures by Jorge Luis Borges titled This Craft of Verse; a full-color travel guide to San Antonio and Austin; a book about tuning musical instruments called Temperament: the Idea that Solved Music’s Greatest Riddle, and a recently-revised Penguin paperback edition of Dante’s La Vita Nuova, (to replace my yellow and crumbling edition of 1982.)

The cloud book has quite a few full-page color photos of various cloud-forms, including the lentil-shaped altocumulus linticularis (sometimes mistaken for a UFO), the high-flying cirrocumulus stratiformis undulatis (otherwise known as “mackerel sky”), and the cumulus humilis (generally wider than they are tall, hence humble and unthreatening).

Among the heaps of cloud lore the book contains, I’ve already spotted one little-known gem: the cumulonimbus cloud, which is often associated with stormy weather, is also the cloud we refer to when we say we’re “on cloud nine.” Why? Because it was the ninth of the ten clouds enumerated in the original 1896 edition of the International Cloud Atlas.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Raking Perfect


Over the years I’ve become adept at delaying household chores until the perfect moment arrives. If it sometimes happens that the window of opportunity closes entirely, I say, “There’s always next year.”

Saturday was the perfect day to rake leaves—cool, bright, dry. I’d been over the grass a few times with the mower in recent weeks, so there weren’t a whole lot of leaves left to rake—mostly stragglers from the two big maple trees in the front yard. Due to the dry weather every leaf had a twisted, sculptural quality that I found myself admiring repeatedly as I leaned on my rake, enjoying the fall sunlight and assessing my stately progress across the yard. The wind kicked up from time to time, and I began to notice a leaf I didn’t recognize in the mix, small and heart-shaped, like a poplar leaf without the scalloped edges. Also greener than the rest. It dawned on me at last that they’d fallen from my neighbor’s redbud tree and drifted in from thirty yards way.
I hold firmly to the belief that it’s pointless to rake the leaves out from under the bushes. You can’t see them, they might be good for the bushes (who knows?), and in any case, why add needlessly to the world’s landfill problems?

We dump most of our leaves into a wire enclosure in the back yard. We occasionally dig soil out the bottom of the pile in the spring, but for the most part the leaves just sit there, sinking under their own weight, year after year.

Sunday morning new leaves were scattered across the yard, of course. Not so many as before, but fairly evenly spaced, as if some yet-undiscovered principle of physics were at work. The sky had turned gray. I climbed up onto the roof to clean out the gutters—yes, by hand—priding myself personally on how quiet the neighborhood was.

While I was up there, I also lopped off some overhanging branches of the mulberry and walnut trees that have been transformed from unnoticed weeds to impressive trunks in a remarkably short span. Not so long ago I was mistaking the walnuts for sumac volunteers and wondering why they weren’t sending out suckers.

An adventurous squirrel has once again figured out how to leap the ten feet from the roof of the house onto the birdfeeder. He skedaddles when I open the deck door, sometimes scurrying down the pole, at other times taking the plunge directly to the ground fifteen feet below. He invariably sits coyly on the far side of the feeder as he nibbles, blithely unaware, perhaps, that his long bushy tail is dangled there in plain sight. I’ve noticed that he eats less than the blue jays scatter when they visit. But he also keeps the birds away, and the feeding tray is hardly big enough to hold him.

Last night, as I was hauling the garbage can out to the street, I spotted four huge turkeys sitting in the trees above the neighbor’s house. I didn’t know they could fly so high.

Keats got it right in “Ode to Autumn”:
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too …

Monday, November 7, 2011

Deconstructing Ravel (or Debussy)


I never studied deconstructionism—that was after my time, thank God—but reading an on-line article in the Brittanica a few minutes ago, I learned that it was rooted in an effort to expose unsubstantiated and often false oppositions that guided intellectual inquiry implicitly. The authors of the encyclopedia article cite “nature and culture, speech and writing, mind and body, presence and absence, inside and outside, literal and metaphorical, intelligible and sensible, and form and meaning” as examples.

Personally, I don’t see what’s wrong with any of these oppositions, and would be hard-pressed to choose which is supposed to be “primary” and which “derivative.” I also begin to wonder what those (French) deconstructionist blokes would make of Hume’s oft-quoted set of oppositions between a)the natural and the unnatural; b) the natural and the artificial; and c) the natural and the supernatural. In each case, the meaning of “natural” changes slightly to fit the opposition. All three oppositions are illuminating, it seems to me.

I’ve thought of a similar set myself: truth and error, truth and falsehood, truth and darkness-and-confusion.

Among my great library-discard book finds of the last few years has been The Mirror of Ideas by Michel Tournier. I have never been able to enjoy the man’s novels, but this little volume stole my heart. It examines a long series of oppositions, some analytical, others poetic, such as willow and alder, railroad and highway, pleasure and joy, left and right, salt and sugar, tree and path. The analysis stands in the glorious tradition of Gaston Bachelard (The Poetics of Space), though the essays are much pithier and more entertaining.

There are also classic historical oppositions of personality to consider. Plutarch wrote several books about it. In our own day we have Grant and Lee, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Rousseau and Hume, Miles Davis and Chet Baker. I could go on and on.

One of the classic oppositions of our time is that of Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy. Ravel is certainly the more popular of the two. In fact, based on revenue, Ravel is the most successful French musician of the twentieth century! This is, in part, a testament to how BAD French rock-n-roll has always been. But the statistic also reflects how wildly popular such works as Bolero and the Concerto in G have remained over the course of many decades. But we’re wandering from our point.

Ravel and Debussy both write in a shimmering “impressionistic” style. They probably influenced one another (little matter) and both were deeply influenced by “ethnic” music. Debussy drew from the gamelan music of Bali, Ravel drew from his Basque roots and from Greek and Hebrew melodies. Debussy was a closet Wagnerian. Ravel was a closet classicist, and that closet door was always ajar.

In the end, most of Debussy’s compositions turned out to be wandering, self-indulgent drivel. (That’s a little harsh.) Ravel never wrote a bad piece of music in his life. Some criticize him for never writing anything BIG.

Debussy’s greatest composition is an opera, Pelléas and Mélisande. Ravel’s is a smallish, but devilish, chamber work, Trio in A Minor. Both composers wrote a single string quartet, and the two are invariably paired on recordings. I’ve heard them both a thousand times, and until recently, I couldn’t tell you which was which.

But on Sunday I heard the Parker Quartet perform the Debussy Quartet in St. Paul, and the music poured forth. It’s so rewarding to hear the individual voices sing out, and to palpably feel how hard it must be to hold all that sinuous stuff together. Astounding.

So tonight I pulled out my seldom-played 3-CD set of Debussy’s Complete Chamber Music (Delos D235914). These are the box-sets you get for free from your “record club” when you’ve earned a bunch of “points” but no longer really want anything they have to offer. Back in the day.

Well, the CD I happened upon is one I’d never heard before. (In general, I don’t think that much of Debussy. Can you tell?) The entire CD contains music for piano four-hands. Great stuff!

The lesson being—never give up. Never shut the door…and never quit the record club.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Mississippi Swans


On the spur of the moment, we decided to drive down to Alma, Wisconsin, on the east bank of the Mississippi, to see the swans that funnel through every year on their way from western Canada to Chesapeake Bay.

I booked a cheap motel in Winona and we set out Saturday morning. It was a brilliant day, blue sky, bright sun. A great day for a trip.

The swans evidently felt differently. Though Lake Pepin was beautiful and the bluffs above the road, from Maiden Rock to Chimney Bluff and beyond, were spectacular, there were no swans in Alma. We saw a shrike in a tree at one point during our drive down, but that was hardly a consolation. We followed some dirt roads north of the Chippewa River in an attempt to penetrate the Tiffany Wildlife Area, without success. There were a few widgeons intermixed with the coots and Canada geese at Reick’s Lake in Alma, where the swans normally congregate. From the heights of Buena Vista Park we could look down at the tiny fishermen in aluminum boats trying their luck below the dam.

The gentleman at the visitor’s center downtown told us the swans won’t come in until the weather turns bad. And in any case, he said, they don’t arrive in such great numbers as they used to. It seems the lake has been silting up.

Well, so it goes. On the plus side, the sloughs on the Mississippi look far less skanky than usual at this time of year, with golden leaves covering the forest floor and dappled autumn sunlight filtering down. And the remarkable Marine museum in Winona has added some choice new paintings since our last visit, including a very fine little Matisse. I wanted to take a picture of it but the docent wouldn’t allow it.

We explored the waterfront between Winona and Minnesota City as the sun was setting, and arrived at our motel feeling that we’d had a good day.

The next morning the sky was gray, the air was cold, and everything was wet, which gave a romantic sheen to the logos of the Target store and the Holiday Inn we could see across the highway from out our third-floor motel window. Yes, but what to do on a cold, rainy, pitch-black Sunday morning, 140 miles from home?

We decided to continue south along the river to Brownsville, near the Iowa border. The river fans out down there, with lots of shallow water and sand islands just stable enough from year to year to have been given names. You pass several houseboat villages along the shore. A few viewing platforms have been constructed along the highway.

Here, in the gray morning light, is where we began to see the swans, off in the distance to the right, almost out of sight. And hear them. Hundreds of them, honking. There were gadwalls and mallards, too. A few clumps of pelicans, drifting here and there as if in formation. Eight or nine egrets. Bald eagles sitting miserably on the ends of stubby deadheads a few feet off the water, off in the distance.

The rain was coming down in a light drizzle. There were very few cars passing on the highway. We stopped in several places, and finally found a good point from which to view the birds.

Had they blown in the with bad weather? I have no idea.

On the way back we took the backroads through the hilly country of Houston and Fillmore counties, stopping at Beaver Creek State Park for some watercress.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Edward DeVere for Me


I had a pass to see a sneak of the new Shakespeare movie, Anonymous, but our Happy Hour ran on too long, got a little too happy, and besides, the ramps at the West End Kerasote complex are a mess. The film fleshes out, in more ways than one, the increasingly popular notion that Edward DeVere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, actually wrote the plays we now associate with the Bard of Stratford.

I read a few of the early reviews, which were generally unfavorable. I’m not surprised. But along with the reviews, there has also been a steady dribble of condescending ink being spilled about how absurd it is even to suggest that the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays might still be in question.

I think it ought to be more widely known that there is very little evidence to suggest that the man from Stratford with whom many of us associate the plays actually wrote them…or anything else. In fact, every bit of genuine documentary evidence we have about the man could probably be listed in a three-page Word document. Much of the biography that academics take as established fact will be seen, on closer inspection, to have been largely spun from whole cloth and then transformed in time from supposition to unassailable truth. At a famous inquiry at the Folger library in 1949, one scholar was asked to present a single bit of documentary evidence from the playwright’s own time linking the man from Stratford to the authorship of the plays. After a good deal of hemming and hawing, he admitted he could not. And unlike other playwrights and scholars of the Elizabethan era, not a single one of the books he owned (if he owned any) has ever been unearthed. Strange.

This is a tiny bit of one side of the argument put forth by the Oxfordians: We know almost nothing about the man from Stratford, though millions of hours of research have been extended in search of it. On the other side of the coin, the Oxfordians point out that the correlations between the life of Edward De Vere and the plot of Hamlet, for example, are far too uncanny to be ascribed to coincidence.

Anyone who’s interested in the details can take a look at the Wikipedia article about the Oxfordian theory. The only point I’m trying to make here is that the Oxfordians are far from being the crack-pots we read about in the newspapers. Not all of them, at any rate. No less eminent a Shakespearean interpreter than Derek Jacobi stands among them. In particular, the patient, painstaking, and well-reasoned book by Charlton Osburn, The Mysterious William Shakespeare, spells out the arguments honestly and in masterly detail.

Aside from all that, my discovery of DeVere solved another problem for me. I could never understand why all the books I’d tried to read about the Man from Stratford were so boring. It’s because they’re full of speculative nonsense. “He must have walked along this….” Or “We can presume he sold his shares in the manner of…..” The man from Stratford was himself, as far as we know, very boring.

No one ever said that about Edward DeVere.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Tranströmer


When Tomas Tranströmer won the Nobel prize for literature last week, many people around the world uttered a collective, “Who?”

Perhaps half the people in Minnesota who follow such things were pleased, or at any rate, not overly surprised. This is not only because of the state’s Scandinavian heritage, but also because one of Tranströmer’s early translators and lifelong friends is Robert Bly, who is a literary institution in these parts.

I was biking with a friend on a rail-trail near Nisswa over the weekend, and conversation got around to the recent award. “I dug out this book,” my friend said, “to give him another chance…”

“I know the one,” I relied. “It has a purple cover with a painting by Vermeer.”

“Yeah, I read five or six poems…they just didn’t grab me.”

“I often take that book with me when we go up north. Yet I feel like I’ve never read it. Now Rolf Jacobson I like.”

And so it goes.

It’s a great thing that the Nobel committee still gives out awards to poets, and also great that the news can make the front page of the paper, or somewhere close. Everyone loves to dispute whether so-and-so is worthy, and who’s been unjustly neglected for too long.

Perhaps Tranströmer will someday return to the ranks of the obscure in the lengthening Nobel list, along with Frans Eemil Sillanpää, Karl Adolph Gjellerup, and Henrik Pontoppidan. Maybe tomorrow. It doesn’t matter.

As I thumb once again through The Half-Finished Heaven, with its gloomy and enigmatic urban images and it bizarre nature-associations, I hit upon expressions that seem artificial and portentous to me:

The building not open today. The sun crowds in through the windowpanes
And warms the upper side of the desk
Which is strong enough to bear the fate of others.
That's a bad line. But in the next stanza things improve.

…If you stand in the sun and shut your eyes,
You feel as if you were slowly blown forward.
The narrator has come down to the beach—a place he rarely visits—to stand among “good-sized stones with peaceful backs.”

He concludes:

The stones have been gradually walking backward out of the sea.
I like that. There is a sense of things left behind and other things being noticed for the first time. A minimum of words.

The heaviness is not in what the desk bears but in the psyche of the man who too often sits behind it.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Mysteries of Dürer


We had driven down to do a little birding at Swan Lake, a few miles west of St. Peter. A hundred years ago the lake was a market-hunter’s paradise, and thousands of ducks and geese were bagged there, packed in ice, and shipped immediately to the fancy restaurants in Chicago. Duck hunters still go there today, though more than half of the lake has been drained, and if you don’t have a boat or a canoe you’re not likely to see much. The cattails have overgrown the viewing platforms on the SE side of the lake.

Our best sighting was of a least bittern, typically an elusive bird, who was standing in the mud in plain view near the conservation club headquarters. We watched him picking up passing morsels from the muck for a good fifteen minutes.

After a pleasant picnic at Mill Pond Park, we drove up to the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College. It has a windswept feel, sitting on the top of the hill with miles of former prairie to the west and St. Peter, nestled in the valley of the Minnesota River, to the right. The arboretum is fit for a pleasant stroll. But we had it in mind to see a collection of Albrecht Dürer prints that were on display at the college’s Hillstrom Museum of Art.

The museum proved to be harder to find than the overgrown shores of Swan Lake. It’s tucked in the far basement of the student union without a single sign to guide the way. We asked around an eventually reached the empty museum. When I opened the door the attendant jumped about a foot. (I don’t think they get many visitors.)

The exhibit carries the title A Collector's Passion for Dürer's Secrets: the MAGJEKL Collection. The woman whose collection is on display, Elizabeth Maxwell-Garner, may be described, I think, as an amateur—in a good way. Her interest in the works of the great German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) was kindled as recently as 2006. The Connecticut collector now owns more than forty of the master’s woodblocks and engravings.

The images themselves are stunning, for the most part, and Maxwell-Garner has studied them with a fresh eye. She has developed a host of theories that orthodox scholars would never have dreamed of about how they relate to Dürer’s Hungarian background and the petty urban politics of the time. Each one of her acquisitions appears to have a secret meaning that no one has explored before. How extraordinary.

To take a single example, Maxwell-Garner makes the commonplace observation that Dürer’s most famous engraving has been given the name Melancholia on the basis of a word that appears in the rendering, but that word is not Melancholia. It’s Melencholia. How are we to explain the discrepancy? She proposes that the lettering actually contains an inscription in Greek rather than Latin.

"Mele" means honey in Greek; "col," means "suffering." To pronounce these two words in succession word would have required adding a meaningless "N" in between. The "ia' at the end Latinizes the Greek. A "flourish" comes next, followed by the letter "I." She tells us that researchers have ignored this symbol, though it has a horizontal slash through it—a symbol for "returning." She suspects that the “I” at the end might actually be a “J”—perhaps a symbol for Jesus or Jehovah?

Thus Maxwell-Garner concludes that the lettering actually means: "in sweetness and in sorrow, returning to the Lord." She goes on to speculate that the various objects that clutter up the periphery of the engraving symbolize various relatives of Dürer who have died. Not quite satisfied with the simplicity of these speculations, she adds:

“It is my opinion this image is a tribute to all the Dürer relatives who had died by 1514, and specifically to his mother Barbara and his sister Margret (the eighth child in the family). I also believe that this image tells us that Dürer's family is of Hungarian noble descent, that they are possibly Jewish, that Dürer's mother Barbara functioned at some point as his woodblock cutter, and that his sister Margret helped him with his engravings.”

I can’t say whether any of this is true, though some of it is definitely hard to follow. The effect of such observations is to remind us that Dürer had a lot of things on his mind as he cut these images—both “meaning” and markets prominent among them. He also took a serious interest in mathematics. Some expert has determined that the large geometrical object in the engraving is a cube, first distorted to give it rhombus faces with angles of 108° and then truncated so that its vertices lie on a sphere. The picture also contains Europe’s first magic square.

Garner will be giving a public lecture on Sunday, October 16, in the Nobel Hall of Science in Wallenberg Auditorium at Gustavus. It might be fun to listen to this wildcat art historian speak.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Lake Superior Pre-Socratics


What better place than on the shores of Lake Superior (north and south) with sea gulls keening on the beach and ships passing in the distance, to ponder the works of that rag-tag bunch of thinkers known as the Pre-Socratics, many of whom lived and wrote on or near the eastern shores of the Aegean Sea at a time when the works of Homer were established classics but Plato had not been born? These men don’t constitute a “school” of any sort, but quite a few of them incorporate water, air, atmosphere, hot and cold, and other elemental sensations into their theories. Almost as if they’d been camping.

We can learn a few things from them about the differences between science and philosophy, a few things about intuition and speculation, and also about how easily specious logic can lead people astray. Some of these thinkers uncannily anticipate entire schools of modern thought in a single sentence or aphorism. (And there are times when a single line is about as much as we need to remember.)

Thales of Miletus, by all accounts the first of the lot, is famous for suggesting that everything is water. From such a simple view many interpretations have arisen. Thinkers from Aristotle to Etienne Gilson and beyond have offered glosses on the remark, all of them much longer than the original. I probably don’t need to point out that in fact, everything is not made of water. Thales remark may be considered important as among the first attempts to say something very broad and at the same time very simple, about the nature of the cosmos. Call it science, call it philosophy. Strictly speaking it’s neither. But it does expose the urge to “unify” things which seldom bears much fruit, and is far more likely to be reductive than illuminating.

Alongside Thales remark we might set the more nuanced views of his near contemporary Anaximander, who argued that the universe is composed of four elements—earth, air, fire, and water. He further postulated a contrary succession of motions involving hot and cold, wet and dry. These elements and qualities, related but opposed to one another, offered much greater potential for both description and explanation than anything to be found in Thales work. They later formed the basis of an analysis of character, with the humors—sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, and melancholic—coming about due to various combinations of the primal elements. This theory enjoyed a very long run, not being abandoned until the nineteenth century. (For an exhaustive treatment of the history of the humors see Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humors, by Noga Arikha.)

It’s been argued that both Thales and Anaximander were engaged in scientific rather than philosophical enquiry. Well, the distinction isn’t that easy to make, even today. And we ought also the consider the possibility that their reflections were poetic in nature. We can say with some degree of certainty that in the works of Parmenides we meet up with some genuine abstract philosophizing—the results are not impressive.

Parmenides followed a line of argument from one shaky point to the next, arriving at a conclusion that no one today would accept. In brief, he reasoned that every thing occupies a space. (This might even be considered a definition: a “thing” is something that takes up space.) But he went on to argue that every space must have a “thing” in it. (Why?) But movement requires empty space, because a thing needs to move somewhere. Because there is no empty space available, nothing ever moves. Thus, he concludes, the universe is one big unchanging block of thing-ness.
Parmenides delivered this theory in verse form, and as we read it we can, perhaps, gain some sense of his overriding awe in the face of the fullness of being. In one crucial passage he writes:


How might what is then perish? How might it come into being?
For if it came into being it is not, nor is it if it is ever going to be.
Thus generation is quenched and perishing unheard of.
Nor is it divided, since it all alike is.
Neither more here (which would prevent it from cohering)
Nor less; but it is all full of what is.
Hence it is all continuous; for what is approaches what is.
And unmoving in the limits of great chains it is beginningless,
And ceaseless, since generation and destruction
Has wandered far away, and true trust has thrust them off.

This passage has the tone of a Hymn to the Lord, though the subject of the passage is not a god, but a far less personal what is—something that we’d be more likely to call being.

If the tone of the poem has a certain ecstatic appeal, the argument has none. After all, things do change. Neither generation nor perishing can be quenched by a groundless assertion to the contrary. Yes, it’s difficult to envision a time when there was nothing rather than something, and Parmenides’ verses make that point clearly. But he nowhere gives a convincing argument for the notion that the supple and multifarious beings we see before our eyes—the rocks, the gulls, the passing clouds—must in fact be a unchanging, unified block of undifferentiated stuff, like a huge block of granite.

Between Anaximander and Parmenides we see an opposition between types of philosophizing that has parallels throughout the subsequent history of philosophy. On the one hand, some philosophers attempt to explain or establish grounding principles for the fact that things change. Their philosophies are dynamic, just like the world they’re attempting to understand. Other philosophers retreat into abstract realms of their own devising, whether they be logical, ludic, mathematical, or “critical,” in an effort to escape the flux of the world via static, artificial constructions.

Both Anaximander and Parmenides have successors who continued further down the paths they chose—either toward accuracy and truth, or towards irrelevancy and nonsense. Parmenides’ friend Zeno became famous as the purveyor of mathematical paradoxes. However, life is neither mathematical nor paradoxical, and Zeno’s work will provide little nourishment to those who are genuinely interested in what life is all about. On the other hand, Anaxagoras added another crucial element to the picture of life as a ceaseless flux of hot and cold, wet and dry, earth and fire and air and water. That element was “mind.”

One of Aristotle’s disciples quotes Anaxagoras to the following effect:

Mind is something infinite and self-controlling, and it has been mixed with no thing, but is alone itself by itself. For if it were not by itself but had been mixed with some other thing, it would share in all things…for in everything there is a share of everything, as I have said earlier…[Mind] is the finest of all things and the purest, and it possesses all knowledge about everything, and it has the greatest strength. And mind controls all those things, great and small, that have soul.
Anaxagoras goes on to describe how mind controls the revolutions of the celestial bodies, and how its influence is increasing in ever-widening circles, and how individual things separate off in what seems to be some sort of centrifugal action. Yet nothing separates off completely, because everything contains at least a portion of everything else.

And the dense is separating off from the rare, and the hot from the cold, and the bright from the dark, and the dry from the wet. And there are many shares of many things, but nothing completely separates off or dissociates one from another except mind. All mind, both great and small, is alike.
It would be tendentious to describe Anaxagoras’ concept of “mind” as an anticipation of the modern “world soul.” Yet the comparison is tempting, and less far-fetched, perhaps, than the suggestion that his theory of “spinning off” contains the kernel of the modern scientific truth that heavy elements are created and hurled out into the universe when stars explode. Or as Joni Mitchell put it in “Woodstock”:

We are star dust
We are carbon,
and we’ve got to get ourselves back…
To the garden.
In any case, several elements in these theories put Anaxagoras well ahead of the pack. He recognizes that no two things are alike. He acknowledges that affinities exist between things, because they’re made of similar stuff, or spun off from the same source. He recognizes a sphere that’s utterly distinct and set off from matter—one that has an important part to play in determining what shapes matter takes. And he suggests that everything within this separate sphere of “mind” is somehow alike. (The collective unconscious?) Finally, he argues that this powerful force of “mind” is in the midst of an ongoing process that might almost be described as “developmental.”


Aristotle criticized Anaxagoras for coming up with a great idea and then doing nothing with it. He may be right. Perhaps I’m “connecting the dots” a little too freely here. Yet among early attempts to explain how the universe got to be the way it is, I find the one put forth by Anaxagoras quite appealing.

Two other Pre-Socratic thinkers may also make a serious claim to our attention—Pythagoras and Heraclitus. Modern scholars describe Pythagoras as the best known and also most obscure of the Pre-Socratic philosophers. They’re convinced he had little, if anything, to do with the mathematical theories associated with his name, and they engage in lively academic disputes over whether he urged his many disciples to avoid eating beans, due to their digestive peculiarities, or whether he loved beans above all other vegetables.

For myself, I love beans of all varieties—Tuscan beans, Boston baked beans, re-fried beans, cassoulet, you name it. (Not lima beans, though.) And the Pythagoras that interests me is the traditional one who explored the relations between number and harmony, and spoke of the music of the spheres as if he could hear it. The Pythagoras I’m referring to noticed that strings vibrating in harmony will be of varying lengths bearing a simple mathematical relation to one another. Similarly, the sides of a pleasing building façade often exhibit mathematical dimensions that differ…but exhibit similar “harmonic” patterns. It’s the birth of aesthetics!

The Pythagoras that interest me, whether real or conventional, went on to commit the classic mistake to which philosophers are prone—he elevated the mathematical relation to a position of eminence above that of the phenomenon it describes. Taking the symbol for the reality, he reified the number, and ended by suggesting that only number is real. Opps!

Heraclitus comes across as the most distinctive personality among the Pre-Socratics. He was referred to as Heraclitus the Obscure by Aristotle, and other commentators called him “The Mocker” or “The Riddler.” His doctrines are similar in some ways to those of other Pre-Socratic thinkers. The warm grows cold, the dry moist. That kind of thing. But because he presented his ideas in brief and often cryptic one-liners, they have taken on the aura of being less concerned with matters of natural science and more seriously concerned with what we now refer to as metaphysical speculation.

His most famous saying is, “You never step into the same river twice.” This remark exposes the difficulty of dealing with the man’s views. For Heraclitus’ book is lost. We know of his works only through the references of other, later writers. Here are several other versions of the same remark:

We step and do not step into the same rivers, we are and we are not.

On those who enter the same rivers, ever different waters flow—
And souls are exhaled from the moist things.


Heraclitus’ most famous general notion is that opposites are one in the same. How can that be? To take an example, a single point on a circle is a start…and also its end.

Among other personal favorites:
A man’s character is his guardian divinity.
The fire, in its advance, will consume all things.
(Or: Fire will come and judge and convict all things.)
The path up and the pat down are one.
Unapparent connection is better than apparent.


Heraclitus had a general distain for the learned, and a number of his epigrams along these lines have a mocking tone:
Let us not make aimless conjectures about the most important things.
A foolish man is put in a flutter by every word.
For human nature has no insights; divine nature has.
God is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, satiety and famine.


Political comments include:
People should fight for the law as for the city walls.
Violence should be quenched quicker than arson.


The upshot if it all, a but stern, a bit grim, might be found in the remark:
One should know that war is common, that justice is strife, that all things come about in accordance with strife and with what must be.

Or better yet:
Combinations—wholes and not wholes, concurring differing, concordant discordant, from all things one and from one all things.

Such remarks, isolated and enigmatic, have made Heraclitus the darling of modern philosophers from Hegel to Heidegger. And perhaps with good reason. He was onto something. But it’s a harsh something, decidedly Western, and quite unlike the one-liners of his Chinese contemporary Lao Tzu.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Wild or Beautiful--or Both


The handling of the Pagami Creek Fire has raised all sorts of interesting questions about wilderness recreation and forest management. The fire, which might easily have been put out in August, was left to burn in the interests of keeping the area a wilderness, and eventually raged out of control. It was still only 50% under control, the last time I checked, and 877 people were up north battling it.

A few days ago the Star-Tribune ran an editorial by local outdoor writer Greg Breining, hammering home the idea (at considerable length) that “wilderness” is a human construct which has never existed in nature. One of the points he makes in the course of his peroration is that fires have always raged across the countryside; some were lightning-driven, but many were started by Indians.

Perhaps wilderness is a human invention. If so, it’s a good one. I suspect the only problem is that we define it in a scientific rather a poetic or spiritual way, which makes us prone to eminently “rational” decisions that lead to absurdly counter-productive results.

The Indians (read here Ojibwe, Dakota, Ho-Chunk, Huron, Crow) may well have burned the countryside from time to time, but they also had a seemingly endless list of “sacred places,” which are often the same places from which we white folk now draw spiritual sustenance—rivers, waterfalls, islands, promontories, and remote, lofty places with commanding views. I couldn’t say for sure, but I doubt if they burned their sacred places to the ground in pursuit of game.

Alongside the scientific rationale for letting wilderness fires burn because it’s “natural,” we invariably hear the argument—not quite the same thing—that forest fires rejuvenate the forest. Perhaps we ought to call this the “silver lining.” The forest will be an intractable tangle of stubby underbrush and look like hell for fifty years…but the moose will like it!

Our best bet, in dealing with these things, might be to admit, first off, that we consider the BWCA wilderness (and other such places) a spiritual resource, not because they’re technically “wild,” but because they’re uncommonly beautiful. Controlled burns could be conducted when conditions are perfect, resulting in a healthy and diverse forest that visitors would return to in great numbers. And it would all be eminently “natural” because we humans, after all, are a part of nature, too.