Thursday, January 20, 2022

Return of the Art Shanty Village

If you're suffering from the winter blahs, a trip to the Ice Shanty Village out on Lake Harriet might be just the thing. It's free (though donation buckets are widespread) and it's pretty safe, considering visitors are allowed into the shanties only one at a time. There's a food truck or two parked near the bandstand on shore. And once you're out on the lake you can wander through an assortment of "themed" structures most of which can be fully experienced from the outside.

I have to admit that I didn't read most of the printed signs describing what individual structures were supposed to be exhibiting. The whimsy was obvious and striking; I wasn't in the mood to think too hard about ecology or fake medical cures, and I didn't want to wait in line to go through one of the shacks. There were plenty of little kids already waiting. Nor did I try my hand at the magnetic poetry board, or snag a scarf or hat at the Ice Shanty "digger" store, where such things were hanging on clothes-lines, on offer for free.

During the time we were there, hardly more than a hour, we saw a tremendous ice-dancing performance, and a group called An Opera Theatre gave wonderful renditions of arias by Handel and Puccini to the accompaniment of accordion, melodica, and guitar.

I especially liked the tenor aria, Ché gelida manina. The breezy, romantic tune has been coming and going in the back of my mind ever since, though I only discovered how appropriate it was this morning, when a friend identified it for me and translated the title: "How cold is this little hand." 

You can hear the windy sample I recorded here.

One of the displays consisted of a fake tree with a hanging bird-feeder. A few gigantic paper mache birds on poles were lying around with which you could attempt to extract potato-sized sunflower seeds from the hanging net bags. Sound like fun? 

Our most engaging conversation took place at a less than spectacular display largely consisting of knee-high gondolas stuffed with dried grasses. The young man in charge told us he was a graduate of MCAD who specialized in environmental sculptures made of mud and sticks. Somewhere along the way it occurred to him that creating gardens with live plants would be more fun, and might also be a way to make a living.

I was listening to him as he spoke, but I was also slowly identifying dead plants in his display, one after another: baby bluestem, milkweed, bee balm, common goldenrod.

You can see the prairie plant display in the middle distance

"Do you have any Joe Pie weed?" I asked.

"Not here today, though it's one of my favorites."

"We're birders, and we spend quite a bit of time out in the prairie. That's why we know a few of these plants."

"My girlfriend is a birder," he said. "We were up at a place called Sax-Zim Bog the other day. We saw a few things, but no owls. It's an enchanting landscape. Have you been there?"

"Many times," I said. "We were there two weeks ago. We saw redpolls, pine grosbeaks. But I've yet to see a boreal chickadee."

"We did see one of those, right out behind the visitors' center."

'Oww," I said, "That must have been a thrill. Just this morning we saw a bird neither of us had ever seen before. A black duck. It typically hangs around with mallards, and looks like a very dark female mallard. I've spent thirty years looking at female mallards, saying, "Well, that one looks a little darker. Maybe it's a black duck ....But this morning, it was like WOW. That's a very dark mallard."

Our black duck

"Same with the boreal chickadee," he said. "We kept seeing chickadees and hoping they had those little differences. The auburn streak on the flank. And then we saw the real thing and it was obvious."

"Another thing I've noticed," he added. "The arts community is very supportive and all that, but ... there's also a lot of ego involved. Birders are a much more relaxed and congenial crowd."

Mostly true.

The waste-time machine

The weed display wasn't drawing much of a crowd—the plants weren't colorful and there was nothing much for the kids to do—but we enjoyed both the arrangements and the conversation. 

We continued our wander past the waste-time machine where you sat at a desk and described exactly how you wasted time. It's one of my favorite themes, though I thought it best not to waste other people's time buy writing an essay on the subject myself. We also passed a giant-sized kaleidoscope that you could go into and spin the dial, and a vaguely metallurgical shanty whose import escaped me entirely.  .  

I have no idea what this was all about

  It was a great way to get out on a balmy Saturday afternoon. And walking back to the car through Linden Hills was also a minor treat. There are lots of attractive old houses in that staid and trendy neighborhood. 

"I think Brenda Ueland lived somewhere around here..."

Monday, January 17, 2022

North Woods Elementary

 I recently fetched a book being held for me at the Golden Valley branch called Icarus Fallen: the Search for Meaning in an Uncertain World by the French intellectual Chantal Delsol. (It can be interesting to explore what our brothers and sisters in Europe are thinking about every once in a while.) In her opening salvo, however, Delsol sketches the mood of the times with an unusually broad brush: 

Western man at the beginning of the twenty-first century is the descendant of Icarus. He wonders into what world he has fallen. It is as if someone has thrown him into a game without giving him the rules. When he asks around for instructions, he is invariably told that they have been lost. He is amazed that everyone is content to live in a world without meaning and without identity, where no one seems to know either why he lives or why he dies.

I have gotten to know quite a few people in the United States and Europe over time, and I have yet to find even one who matches that description. Perhaps it's an academic disease?

Yes, Delsol is a philosophy professor at a university in suburban Paris. She is perhaps embarrassed to acknowledge that if a significant proportion of the Parisian population feels the way she describes, a half-century and more after Jean-Paul Sartre and others popularized ennui, the reason might be a simple one: the decline of metaphysics.

Metaphysics is the study of elemental things: the one and the many, the parts and the whole, being and non-being, identity and difference. In short, the whole ball of wax. The elements involved are simple, but the reasoning patterns, for precisely that reason, can be bizarre, and firm conclusions elusive.

I have never lost my enthusiasm for pondering the BIG questions. One of the best places to ponder them, I've found, is with Hilary, on the North Shore, under a starry sky, in the midst of the elements, with a carefully selected stack of books sitting on the floor by the fireplace.

 At the top of my stack during our recent New Year's trip were Chet Raymo's An Intimate Look at the Night Sky, the late Robert Bly's My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy, and a book called Metaphysics and the Idea of God by a little-known German theologian named Wolfhart Pannenberg. 

I brought Raymo up for the star charts, but found the text, which I hadn't looked at closely for years, fit my mood, too. At one point, for example, he brings up the classic question of Olbers' Paradox: If the universe is infinite, why is the night sky dark rather than bright? Raymo seems to think that the Big Bang Theory, about which Olber knew nothing in 1897, clarifies everything." If the night sky is dark," Raymo argues, "it's because the universe is young."

That makes no sense at all. Most astrophysicists agree that the stars are shooting away from one another at unimaginable speed. If so, then I would imagine that as everything gets farther and farther apart, the universe will grow darker still. In fact, the Big bang Theory would seem to suggest that the universe is NOT infinite but finite, which would shoot a big hole in Olbers' Paradox from the get-go.

These aren't, perhaps, the kind of things you think about when you're standing in the dark under the starry firmament in deep winter, but they are the stuff of metaphysics. Perhaps we could take things a step further and suggest that the concept "infinity" is a human construct created by mathematicians and other speculative thinkers. They draw our attention to the limits of particular things—the hem of a skirt or the edge of a coffee table, for example—and then say, "Now imagine something that has no edges but goes on forever."

When we imagine such things, what we tend to see is deep dark outer space. There might be an edge out there, but probably not; and if there is, we'll never see it, even with the new Webb telescope. And if we do catch a glimpse of that edge, there's no telling if something lies beyond that edge or not.

In short, infinity is a fiction. But it's an alluring one that answers to something deep within our selves, and the night sky brings that connection to the surface. That may be why Plato reasoned that the stars are individual souls twinkling in perpetuity.

We stopped at Sax-Zim Bog on our way up to Castle Danger, ate a late lunch at the Wilbert Cafe in Cotton, and came into Duluth via Highway 53. We drove through the UMD campus on Skyline Parkway, missing a few turns along the way,  and caught several glimpses of Lake Superior far below us, with the pink-orange light of the setting sun sweeping across it, highlighting the patchwork pattern of open water, smooth and shiny, interspersed with the dull, rough stretches of floating ice and slush.

The stars were spectacular that first night. The brightest I've seen in years. No moon, no clouds, and little ambient light beyond a single yard-light well down the road. Above us Orion, Taurus, the Pleiades, Sirius, Capella, blazing in the midst of an intense blue-black screen. With the help of binoculars we also spotted the Beehive Cluster and Andromeda without difficulty.

We went out again the next morning. Still pitch black. It's interesting to see Leo directly overhead, and Cassiopeia upside down, an elongated M on the horizon to the northwest. The frigid air clarifies everything and makes the stars appear more intense. 

During the ten minutes we were out, I saw two shooting stars. It's the Quadrantid Meteor Shower! 

But on our second day the wind came up, the clouds rolled in, and the waves got fierce. Out came the books. Opening the Bly collection I came upon this gem:

Loafing with Friends at Ojo Caliente

Mineral pools remember a lot about history.

Here we are at Olo Caliente, sitting together,

soaking up the rumble of earth's forgetfulness.


Why should we worry if Anna Karenina ends badly?

The world is reborn each time a mouse

Puts her foot down on the dusty barn floor.


Sometimes ohs and ahs bring us joy. When

you place your life between the vowels, the music

Opens the doors to a hundred closed nights.


People say that even in the highest heaven

If you manage to keep your ears open

You would hear angels weeping, night and day.


The culture of the Etruscans has disappeared.

So many things are over. A thousand hopes

F. Scott Fitzgerald had for himself are gone.


No one is as lucky as those who live on earth.

Even the Pope finds himself longing for darkness.

The sun catches on fire in the lonely heavens.


This isn't metaphysics, but the juxtaposition of images may reach important zones of feeling in the same way that the stars do. The kind of feeling that almost seems to drift into a cosmic understanding, or comfort. 

Too often we read a poem hurriedly. We get to the end and say, "I liked that, though I don't know what it means," or "That was a dud." And move on. What are we looking for? How is it possible to dwell with a poem, line by line, collecting the vectors and the valences, as if to generate, from such data, a new vision of the universe?

You can spend hours reading a self-help book loaded with case histories, anecdotes, and sage words of advice. Or you can read:

—the speed of the soul leaping over fences

Brings the toe forward. At other times, a book resting

On my chest takes me backward into my mother's arms ...

 By now, the baked potatoes must be done, and the broccoli is stewing in its own dissipating steam.


The next morning the air is warmer, but little else has changed:gray skies, high winds, big waves. It's still dark outside, though I can see the branches of the spruce tree bobbing up and down outside the window. 

"A theological doctrine of God that lacks metaphysics as its discussion partner falls into either a kerygmatic subjectivism or a thoroughgoing demythologization—and frequently both at the same time."

Good heavens. We wouldn't want that to happen. And a few pages later:

"I am skeptical of the claim that with the notion of highest perfection we have already reached the idea of God. The idea of God, however construed, has a considerably higher specificity ... [It] cannot be separated from the elements of personality (however we are to understand it) and of a will (whatever form it takes)."

I agree, though it all sounds a little vague. We're in the company of Wolfhart Pannenberg now, known to his friends as Wolfie. He seems to be on the right track and is careful not to let the rhetoric become too seriously detached from experience. And yet, he concludes one chapter:

"After all, it is for the sake of the task—the task of achieving a comprehensive interpretation of the finite world—that metaphysics attempts to rise above the multiplicity of the finite toward to idea of the One, a one that grounds the unity of the world and provides a unifying context for the multitude of things within the world."  

Unity? The One? We ought to be suspicious of such concepts. Is that what anyone really desires? Not at all. Unity is dull, oppressive, stultifying, and so all-absorbing as to squelch personal identity and critical judgment alike. What we're looking for in the midst of life's multiplicity isn't unity, but harmony, which is made up of nourishing interactions between things. Including, I suppose, the various parts of ourselves.


This afternoon we drove up to Tettegouche State Park and hiked in to the bridge across the Baptism River through spruce woods and aspen woods--a hike punctuated by a few meadow-like openings with impressive views of distant peaks. 

Back at the cabin, the waves continued to roll in, maybe ten feet high, never really forming a pattern, gray and dark, lumbering in, noisy and mesmerizing to watch from the windows. Here comes a good one. And look, that one fractured in the middle, and the previous wave, which showed great spread and promise thirty feet out from shore, has ended up being a dud.

We evaluate the waves like surfers, though almost every crash leads to dissatisfaction. There is no finality to it! When the wind dies down it will take two days for the energy gathered out on the lake to spend itself here on shore. Water foams or slithers away across the rocks just as a new crest approaches. The process is endless, and I suppose the incessant noise might put some people on edge, unlike the various clicks and hums resounding at random intervals from the baseboard heating here inside.  

A pine grosbeak sits in the snow under the window; he's reappeared several times, working his way through the shriveled berries in a mountain ash. Splashes of orange-red under the wings and on the rump, and a little touch of elegant green on the head, but mostly a lumpy gray—the avian equivalent of a manatee rather than a dolphin.

We take a walk down the road toward the highway with the roar of the wind at our backs. Darkness is closing in. We've heard coyotes howl along this road, but not tonight.

On the menu: spicy Thai chicken meatballs braised in coconut milk.

We make the meat balls together, brown them nicely in a beat-up frying pan. Now Hilary is at work at the kitchen counter, chopping the cilantro. Back on the couch, I open a book by Ortega y Gasset at random and read:

"Thoughts arise in the mind spontaneously, without will or deliberation on our part, and without producing any effect whatever on our behavior." 

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Kirk Cousins and Me

 We use the phrase "the holidays" for that stretch of celebratory events with friends and family that often runs from Saint Lucy's Day (December 13) past the winter solstice, Christmas, New Years, and even, for some, as far as the Orthodox Christmas on January 7, with concerts, dinners, religious observances, maybe a bonfire or two.

And then the morning arrives when you realize it's all over and a fresh new year is staring you in the face. That's a good time to get a haircut. 

I drove out to one of the chains in Minnetonka—Great Clips, I think. Now that Fantastic Sam's has raised their rates, I've been shopping around. This particular storefront is sandwiched between a Caribou Coffee and a Wild Bird Store, with Trader Joe's right around the corner, so it has potential.  

The monitor said it would be a 23-minute wait, but I'd brought along something to read: Romanticism—a Very Short Introduction from Oxford University Press. I chose this book not because I was in a romantic mood, but because it's the smallest paperback I own: 4-1/4 by 6-3/4, and only 3/8 of an inch thick. It would be nice if they had a similar volume called German Romanticism, because that particular group—Lessing, the Schlegel brothers, Schelling, Schleiermacher, the Humboldt brothers, Novalis—is a tough nut to crack.

The wait wasn't all that long. After the stylist had set me down and draped the black sheet over my chest she said, "So, what have you got going today?"

"I was afraid you'd ask me that," I said.

She grumbled something about the Vikings on course to lose to the Bears, and I replied, "I'm not much of a football fan. I watch the highlights sometimes. I wouldn't recognize Curt Cousins if I passed him in the street."

Pause. "I also cut hair down in Eagan," she said. Another pause. "I cut Curt Cousins' hair. His name is Kirk." Really?

She informed me that he's a very nice guy, likes Minnesota, sends his kids to public schools, always gives her a $50 tip.

I was happy to hear it. "But Tom Brady isn't a nice guy," she continued. "Mahomes, now he's very nice."

"Well, he seems pretty nice on the Subway commercials," I said. I presume she doesn't cut Brady's hair, but heard all this from Cousins.

"Kirk  isn't sure how long he wants to keep playing," she said. "One thing money can't buy is your health."

"It's true. You're probably too young to remember Robert Smith," I said.

"What? I remember Tommy Mason, Fran Tarkenton."

"OK. I believe Smith retired in his prime and got a law degree."

"Back when the Vikings played at the Met, you could meet the players after the game," she said. "It's not like that now."

"I saw Joe Kapp play at the Met," I said. "We lost 33-3 to the Rams. In the snow. It wasn't much fun."

I was going to mention that I knew Tony Oliva's daughter, but thought better of it. I don't know her that well. Then again, how well does she know Mahomes?

Meanwhile, she was doing a careful job on my tangled gray mop. But she wasn't wearing a mask, and it suddenly occurred to me that Kirk Cousins isn't vaccinated. In fact, he had Covid just two weeks ago. Hmmm. I wonder when he got his last haircut?

I was going to ask my stylist if she was vaccinated, but what would be the point? If she said No, would I leap up, grab my coat, and head for the door? Not likely.

The Vikings ended up winning the game. When I got home I tuned in and saw a few minutes of the fourth quarter, which included two wild, open-field Viking interceptions that reminded me of my touch football days. The win was meaningless, of course. The Vikings are out of the playoffs. All well and good. Why prolong the agony? And the Australian Open is starting any day now. Spring is right around the corner.

Later that afternoon I was rummaging through a desk drawer and made two important discoveries. One was a sheet of paper containing the lyrics to a French-Canadian shoe-passing game called Sorry Sue, written out long-hand, that we used to play at Christmas time.

Savez vous passer la traderailera

Savey vous, passer, ceci sans vous trompez

But we sing it like this:

Sorry Sue passey suree suri, surroo

Sorry Sue, passey, suree suri surroo

The other was an envelope containing three photos. One was a snapshot of the author Jon Hassler on the deck of a sailboat, one was a photo of Norton Stillman, circa 1980, at a baseball game out at Met Stadium, and one was a picture of the Bookmen ad hoc touch football squad from (just a guess) the mid-1980s.

There's me, Mike, Chuck, Roy, Jim, Rod, and John. Mike became a cop, Chuck now runs a cash register at a co-op in Grand Marais, Rod is a Unitarian minister in sunny California, and John works the floor at The Home Depot in St. Louis Park. Every time I run into him he says the same thing: "If I'm ever on 'So You Want to be a Millionaire' you'll be my lifeline." OK.

What happened to Roy and Jim? I have no idea.    

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Gee Whiz! : Three Books About Science

No sooner have I written this title than I see that it's inadequate. The word "science" is a kindergarten word. What follows is a description of books about three men who were deeply interested in the world around them. But that, too, is inaccurate.  What we have here is three books, two of which were written by insatiably curious men about other men in the past that have stimulated their interest because these men, too, were inordinately adept at examining and appreciating the wonders they observed all around them. These two books are accompanied by a third which describes the journey by an individual who was similarly inspired by his surroundings to describe the path he followed to pursue his dream of examining that world in greater depth.  

It might also be worth mentioning that all three books have a worldly or even cosmic scope, but also a regional focus. Seb Falk, who teaches at Cambridge, writes about discoveries in the library there and the lives of monks at nearby Bury St. Edmunds. (check) Hugh Aldersey Williams, a resident of Norwich, writes about the city's most famous son, Sir Thomas Browne, and  Gary Fildes writes about his own development as a budding amatuer  astronomer in the depressed Northumberland town of Sunderland. 

But enough about the inadequacy of titles.

In The Light Ages, Seb Falk introduces us to the world of medieval science by means of a single discovery. In December  1951 a young Cambridge researcher named Derek Price opened a manuscript lacking a title page but catalogued as an instruction manual for constructing an astrolabe, perhaps five hundred years old. He found something quite different. Instead of a manual written in Latin he found a work written in middle English and dated 1392 on every page describing an astronomical device far more complex than an astrolabe.. Geoffrey Chaucer had written a book on a similar subject just a year earlier, and there were grounds for suspecting that he had written this one, too.

As it turned out, Chaucer was not the author, but Falk makes a good story out of following the life of Brother John of Westwyk, the monk who did actually write it. He succeeds in clarifying the importance of such astronomical devices in an age that lacked firmly established calendars, but more than that, he recreates the world of monks, monasteries, universities, and daily life in medieval England without drawing undue attention to the religious elements involved. And considering how murky that age seems to most of us, Falk does a remarkable job a describing the era on its own terms, rather than as a half-baked preamble to more modern scientific discoveries and principles. Hence the book's title. Not the Dark Ages, but the Light Ages.  

"On Westwyk's journey through medieval science  [he writes]  we will meet a fascinating cast, none of them household names. The Spanish Jew- turned-Christian who taught a Lotharingian monk about eclipses in Worcestershire; the clock-building English abbot with leprosy; the French craftsman-turned-spy; the Persian polymath who founded the world's most advanced observatory. Medieval science was an inter­national endeavour, just as science is today. Religious belief spurred scientific investigation, but deeply devout people had no problem with adopting theories from other faiths. .. Watching how one individual knew what he knew will help us understand the ways medieval thinkers built on each other's work and influenced other scholars working in different languages thousands of miles away."

Falk has enormous enthusiasm for the astronomical principles that Westwyk and others put to use in constructing their time-keeping and navigational devices, and he tries his best to pass that on to us. The book is also amply illustrated with diagrams full of azimuths, zeniths, ascensions,  and astrological signs. But this material, while central to the narrative, is perhaps the book's least interesting element. After all, few of us will ever use an astrolabe, much less build one for our own use. But equally vivid are Falk's descriptions of daily life, social organization, crusades, plagues, medical lore, international development and exchange, and other more or less incidental stuff. We lose track of Westwyk and other characters for pages and sometimes chapters at a time, in part because longs stretches of his life have left no record, but also because Falk in intent on fleshing out the material required to help us understand the broader scene. The book carries all the fascination of Evan S. Connell at his best, but with boyish enthusiasm in place of Connells often mordant humor. 

Hugh Aldersey-Williams embarks on a similar mission in The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century. His focus is ostensibly narrower—the writings of a single seventeenth-century physician and essayist mentioned in the title. But Browne wrote about so many things that Aldersey-Williams  has his hands full examining even a representative sampling. In any case, his intent is not to convince us of how modern Browne was, but rather, to introduce us to his life and work, and also to suggest that quite a few of Browne's beliefs and speculations, which may seem odd or out-of-date or simply wrong at first glance, offer surprising parallels to the practices and uncertainties of our own time. 

Aldersey-Williams  begins his essay with a narrative of a dramatic witch trial during which Browne was called upon to testify as an expert witness. Browne offered his opinion as a physician that the fits and other symptoms exhibited by the two allegedly "bewitched" children were natural. But he went on to say, "gratuitously" in Aldersey-Williams' view, that this very naturalness was "evidence of the subtilty of the devil, who was controlling the witches actions." This comment likely contributed to the conviction and death of the two women accused of bewitching them.

Why did Browne add that remark? Aldersey-Williams  doesn't know, but he takes the episode as emblematic of Browne's often maddening equivocations and seeming indifference to the resolution of vital questions of the day. Like Montaigne in southwest France at an earlier date, Browne wrote during a period of intense religious and political strife, though you'd hardly know it by reading him.

Alongside his career as a physician, Browne took and interest in, and wrote about, many aspects of natural history, in the spirit, not of exact science, but of curiosity. Aldersey-Williams  organizes these ruminations into categories such as Plants, Tolerance, Melancholy, Faith, and Science, one chapter per subject. Within each category there is room for a wide variety of observations and musings, both on Browne's part and on that of his later-day biographer. The two are equal partners, in fact, and Aldersey-Williams' reflections are a vital part of the "dialogue."

For example, Aldersey-Williams  opens the chapter titled "Physic" with the case of a 102-year-old bulimic woman that Browne is treating. Browne, after describing the woman's condition and indulging in a digression that takes him through one of Plutarch's anecdotes, concludes: "though I am ready to afford my charity unto her, yet I should be loth to spend a piece of ambergris I have upon her, and to allow six grains to every dose till I found some effect in moderating her appetite; though that be esteemed a great specific in her condition."

Aldersey-Williams  acknowledges that it's easy to dismiss the medical practices of Browne's day as "insufferably primitive," yet he also notes striking parallels to modern attitudes and techniques.

"It is in its way a thoroughly modern encounter. Browne displays curiosity and compassion. He is alert to a possible connection between the woman's medical condition and her environmental circumstances. The medicine is unusual but like all medicines at this time it is natu­rally sourced rather than made artificially (ambergris is a fatty accretion ejected from the stomachs of sperm whales and could be found floating on the sea or lying on the coast). Browne has a clear idea of its specific effectiveness, and is aware that dosage is an important factor. He is also conscious that medicine costs money, that he must husband his resources in order to run his medical practice at a profit, and that attention given to a 102-year-old may not, in the end, be, as today's euphemism has it,' optimal resource allocation'."

The author  goes on the observe what everyone who's been to the doctor knows: today's medical practice also leaves a lot to be desired.  He describes a recent visit to a GP due to a stomach bug. "I am out in under ten minutes clutching a prescription for some opioid that will address my symptoms and a mild bewilderment at the doctor's lack of curiosity about the cause of my illness." The doctor also mentions antibiotics, but leaves it to Aldersey-Williams  to observe that no infecting bacterium has been identified, and the drugs would be unlikely to be effective. The doctor then asks Aldersey-Williams  if he wants a referral, without specifying what it would be for. "At the end I feel as if I have been played," he concludes, "and that he has had me labeled all along as one of the 'worried well'."

One of Browne's greatest claims to fame is as the inventor of new words. More than seven hundred neologisms have been attributed to him. Though many have since fallen from common use, a short list of his more durable creations (copied from Wikipedia) would include ambidextrous, antediluvian, analogous, approximate, ascetic, anomalous, carnivorous, coexistence, coma, compensate, computer, cryptography, cylindrical, disruption, electricity, exhaustion, ferocious, follicle, generator, gymnastic, hallucination, herbaceous, holocaust, insecurity, indigenous, jocularity, literary, locomotion, medical, migrant, mucous, prairie, prostate, polarity, precocious, pubescent, therapeutic, suicide, ulterior, ultimate and veterinarian. Aldersey-Williams  devotes some time on this aspect of Browne's genius, but finds the task daunting, and soon decides to highlight one or two here and there as they appear in the text with extended notes at the bottom of the page. Good idea.

In the chapter on Animals, Aldersey-Williams  draws from the text of Browne's work Psuedodoxia Epidemica to create an impromptu bestiary that includes the ostrich, the bittern, the owl, the sperm whale, the mole, and the badger, among other creatures. Because the book from which the material is drawn is devoted to what Browne calls "vulgar errors," these two-page entries are more odd than accurate or informative. For example, in Browne's day many people thought the legs of a badger were shorter on one side than the other, because these creatures were often seen running rapidly down the furrows of a plowed field.  Browne rejects this thesis, not by examining a badger or a badger skeleton, but on the strength of inductive reasoning: the legs of all other animals are the same on both sides. If a badger were differently construed, it would, in Browne's words, be "repugnant unto the course of nature."

Aldersey-Williams  is disappointed by Browne's conventional line of reasoning in this case. A more Brownian solution would have been to capture a badger, chain him to a tree, and measure his speed going clockwise and then counterclockwise around it. If the times differed, it would "prove" that the animals  legs were not the same length on either side.

Such flashes of whimsy appear through the books. Yet it's clear that Aldersey-Williams  knows the man he calls his "hero" inside and out, and has read and absorbed even the driest and least interesting of Browne's works, thus saving us the trouble. I've poked my nose into Browne's Religio Medici, his Urne Burial, and one or two other works with interest—the era, the style, the mood, the quizzical intelligence come through—but when push comes to shove, Aldersey-Williams' book is more stimulating, thought-provoking, and fun to read by far.

An Astronomer's Tale: a Life Under the Stars
, is a simpler book. Its author, Gary Fildes, grew up in a working-class home and began his professional career as a brick-layer. He went to soccer matches with his "mates" and brawled with fans of the opposing team almost by instinct. But he harbored a secret love for the night sky that was nurtured by family and a neighbor with similar interests, and a good telescope. This is the story of how Fildes, with tireless enthusiasm but no formal training in astronomy, guilelessly pursued his interests and eventually became director of the Kiedler Observatory in Northumberland, a public institution that's located in one of the world's most spectacular dark-sky havens.

Fildes isn't a researcher or even an expert astronomer; he's an educator. His passion for watching the night sky is evident on every page, and every chapter is punctuated with a section describing the night sky at a given time of year and focusing on a specific constellation. The book chronicles Fildes' extraordinary rise in the field of science education, which surprised him as much as anybody else,  in terms designed to encourage others to do the same. Or at the very least, to do a bit of reading, then find a dark place, and stand in awe of the heavens in the midst of which we go about our daily lives.  


Friday, December 24, 2021

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 genusgenealogy, and general, as well as that seemingly all-powerful biological entity, the "gene." 

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.”

Somewhere in between lies the concept of the "gens." In ancient Greece, a genos (Greek: γένος, "race, stock, kin") was, to quote Wikipedia, " a social group claiming common descent, referred to by a single name. Most gene were composed of noble families and much of early Greek politics seems to have involved struggles between gene." Eventually many of these families became associated with hereditary priestly functions.

These aspects of the concept—family origins, noble group functions—are obviously not the same as the striking individual referred to as a genius, but it would be a mistake to imagine that they’re entirely unrelated. In modern times the individualistic element has grown in prominence, no doubt, along with the notion of finding one's "true self," but we meet up with both at every family gathering: the idiosyncrasies and the differences between family members that stimulate and nourish us (though they can sometimes annoy us, too) accompanied by a sense of something hallowed in the air. At best, the veins of affection run ever-deeper and constitute the heart and soul (rather than merely the pedigree) of the clan. 

Praise be to whoever cooked up a universe replete with such a dialectic, which, whether fueled by merely congenital or broadly congenial energy, is the richest heritage we possess. 

Saturday, December 18, 2021

The Little Things

On a quiet Saturday morning with shades of copper light in the hazy sky, I pause to appreciate a few of the little things. Why? Maybe it's because four young deer stopped in front of the window here in my office a few minutes ago to nibble on the yew bushes. That hedge is immense; they can nibble all they want. But there was no sign of the ten-point buck that was cavorting in the back yard a few weeks ago.

After our first good snow a week ago, as Hilary and I set out for a pre-breakfast walk, I noticed some very delicate tracks in the snow. It had to be some sort of mouse, but the strange thing was, the tracks were coming and going from the base of the linden tree alongside the driveway. Later that morning, Hilary spotted a little mouse silhouetted against the sky. It was scurrying along a branch twenty feet above the ground in that very tree. It disappeared into what looked like a squirrel's nest—a pile of leaves situated in a fork in the branch. I saw it too. Better to spend the winter in the squirrel's domicile than ours, I guess.

I was surprised the other day to see a flicker on the bird feeder. A few of them stick around through the winter, I guess. But most of the flickers I see are flying off into the distance while flashing their white rump-feathers. To suddenly see one right outside the window is almost a shock. They're big. And the spotted breast, which in summer can look almost clown-like, takes on a subdued and striking beauty in winter light.

The sun itself has dropped very low in the sky, and now I'm reminded of the coming solstice. In our little Stonehenge of a house, the rays streak in above the piano for only a few days at this time of year and strike a light-switch in the hall at the opposite side of the room. The sunlight doesn't flip the light switch, however. That would really be something special.

One of the less serious effects of the pandemic has been the disappearance of those de-acquisition shops and lobby book carts that used to add spice to any trip to the library. Now they're back. A few days ago I returned from the library and set to work at one of my favorite idle pastimes—peeling bar codes and other stickers off the books I just bought at one of those little shops.

The selections? From the Rockford Road branch in New Hope, for a quarter, a classic mystery by John Dickson Carr called The Crooked Hinge; from the Golden Valley Library, for a dollar, Aphrodite and the Rabbis: How the Jews Adapted Roman Culture to Create Judaism as We Know It. 

My dad was a big fan of Carr, who also wrote under the name Carter Dixon. I read one of his mysteries on my dad's recommendation when I was in high school. It was one of the "locked-room" mysteries for which Carr is famous, but the solution hinged on a dental procedure performed on the victim before he'd even entered the room! I was slightly disappointed. Then again, isn't the intrigue and suspense of a good mystery almost invariably more riveting than the wrap-up, when all becomes clear?   

It was just my luck that both of these books were wrapped in Mylar, to which most of the library stickers had been affixed. Once I removed the plastic sheathes, only the little Hennepin County bar codes remained at the top of the front cover. I got to work with my thumbnail, pushing and scraping, and with patience and a little dribble of GooGone, I soon had both volumes looking like new again.

I'm not sure why I find this process so satisfying. It might be because library stickers, though necessary,  are a form of defacement , and when done right, especially on a glossy dust jacket, removing them returns the book to full dignity. Or maybe it's because I suspect I may never read these books, but at the very least, I've done something with them. 

That same afternoon—almost balmy—Hilary and I drove down to the Northern Clay Center, taking the city streets through North Minneapolis and down West River Road. One great benefit of the easing of pandemic restrictions has been that she can once again take classes at the center, during which she can make use freely of the wheels, glazes, and kiln. She's been bringing home nice pots for weeks. Classes were over but firings continue for several weeks and she still had a few pots to collect.     

Making useful articles that are also beautiful with your hands is a big thing, not a little thing. Soon quite a few of Hilary's recent creations will become Christmas gifts, but we'll keep a few favorites for ourselves. It's important, I think, to have a great variety of colors, shapes, and sizes near at hand. 

This is another one of life's "little things": choosing exactly the right bowl, pot, or plate for a given dish or task.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Exploring the South Shore

To most people in Minnesota and nearby states the phrase "North Shore" evokes images of crashing waves, towering cliffs, cascading falls, seemingly endless vistas, and easy hiking trails cutting through otherwise almost impenetrable pine forests rich in the smells of the north country. On the other hand, I suspect that for many, the phrase "South Shore" conjures little or nothing at all. Yet this region also has a lot to offer, including the Apostle Islands National Seashore, Bayfield, and the bucolic gem of Madeline Island, once the capital of the Ojibwe people, now home to Big Bay State Park, the village of La Pointe, and miles of gravel roads offering intermittent views of vintage cottages and the outer islands.

Discerning readers will immediately point out that none of the things I've mentioned here is actually on the South Shore; they all lie mostly around the corner of the Bayfield Peninsula, tucked within the protection of the outer islands and the expanse of Chequamegon Bay. But that's merely a quibble, especially when you consider that the South Shore runs for hundreds of miles, all the way to Sault Ste. Marie.

The stretch we visit, running from Superior to Ashland, has a character altogether different from its opposite number to the north. The beaches tend to be sandy, behind which the highway lopes through graceful hills weathered by streams and creeks so feeble that they've been given names like Lost Creek One, Lost Creek Two, and Lost Creek Three. The hardscrabble villages along the way—Port Wing, Herbster, Cornucopia—are miniscule, though they carry a lingering atmosphere of maritime life highlighted by the lighthouse and concrete pier in Port Wing and the Halverson Fishery in Cornucopia.

The coastline itself is punctuated by peninsulas extending out into the lake—Quarry Point, Roman Point, Bark Point, Squaw Point—and the bays that lie between them. But you don't find many DNR signs directing you to these features. More common are the signs identifying the sloughs that have formed in the backwaters where the creeks meander out to meet the big lake. It would take a connoisseur of landscapes to fully appreciate this biome—one equipped with a kayak and a field guide to ericaceous plants.

Most vacationers speed past these nondescript stretches of highway, eager to get to the shops, restaurants, and more picturesquely recreational marinas in Bayfield and Washburn. I suspect many skip the shoreline route along Highway 13 altogether—you don't actually see the lake all that often—and keep to the faster lanes of Highway 2 farther inland.

A few weeks ago Hilary and I booked a cottage right in the middle of Herbster. It turned out to be sandwiched between the fire station and the community center, which (we learned) is open twenty-four hours a day. But the setting was plenty woodsy for all that. Venerable spruce trees were growing in the front yard on either side of the sidewalk, much of the real estate nearby was undeveloped woodland, and we could see Lake Superior off in the distance out the kitchen window. 

During the two days we were there we saw only four people in Herbster: one construction worker on a scaffold refurbishing the windows of a church and a mother and her two children leaving the community center gym. Traffic on the highway at the bottom of the hill was negligible; the deer hunting opener was still a week away.

Our plan was simple: explore a few of the minor sights in the region, buy some fresh fish at Halvorson's Fishery for dinner, and read. We spent some time on our first evening acclimatizing ourselves to the suddenly snowy landscape at the beach in Herbster (see above) and the public landing at the end of Bark Point. The next morning we took a hike into Lost Creek Falls.

The trailhead lies just off County C, a few miles up the hill from Cornucopia. The air was cold and crisp, the landscape mildly hilly, and the snow-dusted forest a mix of spruce, maple, and mature red and white pine. My only concern, and a minor one at that, was that we didn't know how long the hike would be. The website described it as 1.1 miles, but didn't mention whether this was one-way or round trip. The sign on the fridge at our cottage listed it clearly at 2.2 miles each way. And the spiffy government sign at the trailhead put it a 1.5 miles in each direction.

It was a lovely trail, and the falls, though hardly dramatic, made for a pleasant stop and turn-around point. Hilary broke open a dam of twigs that had created a backwater pool downstream from the falls, and we watched the water tumble through the newfound gap in a minor torrent for a few minutes.

Such are the quiet amusements of a morning spent in the deep woods.

The hike out, as usual, was much shorter than the hike in had been. (Correct distance? A little more than two miles round trip.) On the spur of the moment, we continued south along County C over the hump of the Bayfield Peninsula and down the other side, veering east through orchards, past a golf course, and into the town of Washburn. Our new plan was to get a cup of coffee at the Coho Café and spend some time in the Chequamegon Bay Bookstore.

I rarely browse in bookstores these days—I have more books than I'll ever get around to reading. But everything is different when you're traveling. You didn't bring all that many books with you, you're spending money right and left anyway, and you sometimes form an indelible connection between book and locale that becomes a meaningful part of the vacation. I still look back fondly on the hardcover edition of The Iliad (the Fitzgerald translation) that I bought in a used bookstore in Lanesboro that later burned down. Then there's that masterful piece of travel writing, Time and Tide in Acadia, which I spotted in a little shop in Stonington, Maine. And what about that coffee-table book of the photographer Nadar's portraits of his illustrious contemporaries Baudelaire, Sara Bernhardt, Balzac, and many others that I lugged home all the way from Avignon? I've never seen a copy like it. (Confession: I haven't looked at it much, either.)

Wandering the aisles can be a pleasure in itself, but it's nice to have something in mind. I was hoping to spot an inexpensive copy of Theodor Adorno's collection Prisms. The copies for sale online start at $40. But would this rare item be stocked in sociology, philosophy, or belles lettres? This uncertainty pleasantly expanded my field of view. But I hadn't been in the philosophy section for more than thirty seconds when a different title caught my eye: The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century. I had never heard of the author, but there were attractive woodcuts scattered here and there among the pages and a blurb on the back by none other than the Spanish novelist Javier Marias. The asking price of $12 seemed reasonable indeed for a pristine hardcover with Mylar protective covers and a retail price of 20 ₤.

We walked up to the check-out desk twenty minutes later with the Browne study, a small hardcover anthology of the poems of Theodore Roethke, a beginner's instructional manual for the accordion, and a copy of Hilary's upcoming book club book, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. (We might easily have stayed longer, but the sun was shining outside, and I had neglected to bring my reading glasses.)

The woman behind the counter pulled out a small pad equipped with carbon paper and wrote the titles and prices on the topmost sheet. Then she turned to her electric adding machine and rung up the total and the tax, which she noted on the slip.

"I'm almost tempted to pay with the emergency check I carry in my wallet just to maintain the anachronism," I said. This benign remark produced only a slight look of bewilderment, so I handed the woman a credit card.

The Coho Café was closed, but lunchtime was approaching, and we decided to head up the shore to Bayfield. Along the way Hilary made use of her phone to determine that Maggie's Cafe was closed (we later learned that it had been closed for two years) but she spotted a restaurant a few blocks down the hill called the Manypenny Bistro. It was not only a good choice, but also, we learned, the only restaurant currently open in Bayfield. Our waitress explained why herring was the only fish on the menu, and we picked up a number of incidental facts about people in town from a large, talkative man named "Tiny" who was sitting alone at the next table.

Quiet times in Bayfield

Tiny seemed to be retired, though he paid for his meal with a very large bill that the waitress had difficulty making change for. Everyone who came in seemed to know him. He told us he was born and raised in Happy Hollow, just east of Cornucopia, and we took note of the road sign later as we passed on our way back to Herbster.

Along the way we'd passed the Red Cliff Reservation and taken the loop road north to the Little Sand Bay Visitor's Center. From the beach and pier the views out across the bay to the islands were grand, but the buildings were closed and the only person we saw was a goose hunter returning to his car carrying a shotgun and wearing a bizarre, full-body suit made of short strips of cloth that resembled feathers--a ghillie suit--who told us, "I missed."

There's a fishery museum further down the shore, but it, too, was closed. I walked past the yellow tape and down to the shore; the buildings appeared to be deteriorating to the point of collapse.

The fishery in Cornucopia was also closed—no fish for dinner—and the general store was closed for the season. But the sun was still shining, and we had a fine time stopping to investigate the ingress of Lost Creek into Lake Superior from both banks. This entailed driving out to the end of Roman Point and stopping at an unsigned public landing.

Chalk it up to the brilliant afternoon sunlight: everything roundabout was stunning. The slough was bristling with vegetation, the rocks on shore looked like lumps of rusty gold, the sand lay spread in elegant swirls along the beach, and the clouds drifted by in soft, theatrical bands and tufts.

We spent the evening reading and listening to Bill Evans' CDs on the DVD-player at our cottage. I took a look at an anthology of critical essays about the Scottish philosopher David Hume that contained passages like this one:

Exegetically, we could say that Hume was following Schaftesbury's two most distinctive ethical tenets, namely, that the moral life stands on its own feet, and must do so if it is to retain its purity, and that judgments are akin rather to aesthetic taste than to rational insight.

Well put. But I soon wearied of such stuff and turned my attention to a collection of blog entries set in Door County by the opera-singer-turned-mystery-writer J. F. Riordan that included entries such as "In Praise of Small Towns," "The Intricacies of Casual Conversation," and "The Going Price for Squirrels." I especially liked her piece about eating an entire package of Chuckles in the local hardware store, evaluating them, flavor by flavor, from one end of the row to another. The cashier watched her and then said, "People always finish the whole pack before they leave the store."

Meanwhile, Hilary had spotted a collection of newspaper columns on the shelf by a local author named Howard Paap, chronicling life on the nearby Red Cliff Reservation, reviewing the early history of the Ojibwe people, and describing life in Bayfield both in and out of the tourist season. Perfect.

It clouded up during the night, and our morning walk through the woods east of Meyers Beach was a chilly one, further undermined by the wooden boardwalk that extends without a break for the first three-quarters of a mile. I'm sure it serves a purpose, perhaps both practical and ecological, but in mid-November I'd rather be walking on crunchy leaves than icy planks. All the same, the hike through the scrubby woods was nice, though neither the big lake nor the red cliffs for which the area is famous ever came into view.  

A half-hour in, the trail meets up with the stub end of Mawikwe Road, and at this point you can also see Lake Superior, just down the hill through the woods. Though the trail continues through the woods for miles, we scrambled down along a steep narrow path to the lake, and I was delighted to discover when we got to the beach that it was frozen solid. We could walk back to the car along the lakeshore without struggling against the shifting sand. 

And so we did.