The Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann, (tr. by H. T. Lowe-Porter)

I’d heard so much about this book and have been meaning to read it for so long that I was very excited that it was finally chosen for Great Books. It’s been on the suggestion list before but never got enough votes. But I was quite disappointed, especially compared to the other Mann we’ve read, Death in Venice. The monologues and dialogues with Settembrini and Naphta were too frequent, too long, and too tedious. I had been looking forward to the theme of time and its subjectivity, but not much of that felt fresh. I did enjoy the cozyness of wrapping yourself in blankets and fur sleepsacks amidst the snows, and the impact of new technology like the x-rays and the gramophone was interesting. The most memorable bits were Hans Calstrop’s memories of his schoolmate Pribislav Hippe (the “Kirghiz”), who lent him a pencil, and the chapter “Snow” about Calstrop getting lost in a storm and dreaming of utopia. One of the Great Books participants, who loved it, says the book is about Germans blindly following the Nazis, not caring or paying attention to what was going on around them. As Mann said in the afterword:

You will have got from my book an idea of the narrowness of this charmed circle of isolation and invalidism. It is a sort of substitute existence, and it can, in a relatively short time, wholly wean a young person from actual and active life. Everything there, including the conception of time, is thought of on a luxurious scale. The cure is always a matter of several months, often of several years. But after the first six months the young person has not a single idea left save flirtation and the thermometer under his tongue. After the second six months in many cases he has even lost the capacity for any other ideas. He will become completely incapable of life in the flatland.

The translation seems quite problematic – I went back to compare the German and often couldn’t find the passage without a lot of effort because the match up is so loose. To my surprise, I stumbled across the fact that occasionally L-P took dialogue in German between Castorp and Clavdia, who often speak French to each other, and translated it into French? Why??? For example, Clavdia says “Du wirst das verstehen” and L-P renders it as “Tu peux comprendre çela” [sic – should be “cela”] So weird!

Short quotes

  • “It went against his grain to eat butter served in the piece instead of in little fluted balls.”
  • “the feeling of reckless sweetness he had felt for the first time when he tried to imagine himself free of the burden of a good name, and tasted the boundless joys of shame”
  • “One always has the idea of a stupid man as perfectly healthy and ordinary, and of illness as making one refined and clever and unusual.”
  • “He talks so well; the words come jumping out of his mouth so round and appetizing — when I listen to him, I keep seeing a picture of fresh hot rolls in my mind’s eye.”
  • Dr. Krokowski says “Symptoms of disease are nothing but a disguised manifestation of the power of love; and all disease is only love transformed.”
  • “the eyes said thou, for that is the language of the eyes, even when the tongue uses a more formal address”
  • Joachim: “You will find that when people discuss and express their views nothing ever comes of it but confusion worse confounded. I tell you, it doesn’t matter in the least what a man’s views are, so long as he is a decent chap. The best thing is to have no opinions, and just do one’s duty.”
  • “Their spirits, particularly the sallow Frau Magnus’s, were proof against any ray of cheer; forlornity exhaled from her like damp from a cellar.”
  • “Walking, he thrust the end of his stick in the snow and watched the blue light follow it out of the hole it made. That he liked; and stood for long at a time to test the little optical phenomenon. It was a strange, a subtle colour, this greenish-blue; colour of the heights and deeps, ice-clear, yet holding shadow in its depths, mysteriously exquisite.”
  • Snowflakes: “little jewels, insignia, orders, agraffes —no jeweller, however skilled, could do finer, more minute work”
  • Conserve jars: “The magic part of it lies in the fact that the stuff that is conserved is withdrawn from the effects of time, it is hermetically sealed from time, time passes it by, it stands there on its shelf shut away from time.”
  • Behrens on a new resident: “Not much hope, my lad; really none at all, I suppose. Of course, we’ll try everything that’s good and costs money.”
  • Tears: “those clear drops flowing in such bitter abundance every hour of our day all over our world, till in sheer poetic justice we have named the earth we live in after them” (meaning “the vale of tears”?)
  • Re Mynheer Peeperkorn, whose name I could not read without laughing: “his trouser pockets … are put in running up and down, not like yours and mine and most people’s of our class.”
  • Also about him: “He had said absolutely nothing. But look, manner, and gestures were so peremptory, perfervid, pregnant, that all, even Hans Castorp, were convinced they had heard something of high moment; or, if aware of the total lack of matter and sequence in the speech, certainly never missed it.” The same observation recurs in a longer quote below.

Long quotes

[from the foreword] We shall tell it at length, thoroughly, in detail — for when did a narrative seem too long or too short by reasons of the actual time or space it took up? We do not fear being called meticulous, inclining as we do to the view that only the exhaustive can be truly interesting.

Space, rolling and revolving between him and his native heath, possessed and wielded the powers we generally ascribe to time. From hour to hour it worked changes in him, like to those wrought by time, yet in a way even more striking. Space, like time, engenders forgetfulness ; but it does so by setting us bodily free from our surroundings and giving us back our primitive, unattached state. Yes, it can even, in the twinkling of an eye, make something like a vagabond of the pedant and Philistine. Time, we say, is Lethe; but change of air is a similar draught, and, if it works less thoroughly, does so more quickly.

A familiar feeling pervaded the child: a strange, dreamy, troubling sense: of change in the midst of duration, of time as both flowing and persisting, of recurrence in continuity — these were sensations he had felt before on the like occasion, and both expected and longed for again, whenever the heirloom [baptism basin] was displayed.

Habituation is a falling asleep or fatiguing of the sense of time ; which explains why young years pass slowly, while later life flings itself faster and faster upon its course. We are aware that the intercalation of periods of change and novelty is the only means by which we can refresh our sense of time, strengthen, retard, and rejuvenate it, and therewith renew our perception of life itself. Such is the purpose of our changes of air and scene, of all our sojourns at cures and bathing resorts; it is the secret of the healing power of change and incident. Our first days in a new place, time has a youthful, that is to say, a broad and sweeping, flow, persisting for some six or eight days. Then, as one “gets used to the place,” a gradual shrinkage makes itself felt. He who clings or, better expressed, wishes to cling to life, will shudder to see how the days grow light and lighter, how they scurry by like dead leaves, until the last week, of some four, perhaps, is uncannily fugitive and fleet. On the other hand, the quickening of the sense of time will flow out beyond the interval and reassert itself after the return to ordinary existence: the first days at home after the holiday will be lived with a broader flow, freshly and youthfully — but only the first few, for one adjusts oneself more quickly to the rule than to the exception; and if the sense of time be already weakened by age, or — and this is a sign of low vitality — it was never very well developed, one drowses quickly back into the old life, and after four-and-twenty hours it is as though one had never been away, and the journey had been but a watch in the night.

Our account of the first three weeks of Hans Castorp’s stay … has consumed in the telling an amount of time and space only too well confirming the author’s half-confessed expectations; while our narrative of his next three weeks will scarcely cost as many lines, or even words and minutes, as the earlier three did pages, quires, hours, and working-days. We apprehend that these next three weeks will be over and done with in the twinkling of an eye.

Which is perhaps surprising; yet quite in order, and conformable to the laws that govern the telling of stories and the listening to them. For it is in accordance with these laws that time seems to us just as long, or just as short, that it expands or contracts precisely in the way, and to the extent, that it did for young Hans Castorp.

Waiting means hurrying on ahead, it means regarding time and the present moment not as a boon, but an obstruction; it means making their actual content null and void, by mentally overleaping them. Waiting, we say, is long. We might just as well — or more accurately — say it is short, since it consumes whole spaces of time without our living them or making any use of them as such. We may compare him who lives on expectation to a greedy man, whose digestive apparatus works through quantities of food without converting it into anything of value or nourishment to his system. We might almost go so far as to say that, as undigested food makes man no stronger, so time spent in waiting makes him no older.

[Naphta says] The Fathers of the Church called mine and thine pernicious words, and private property usurpation and robbery. They repudiated the idea of personal possessions, because, according to divine and natural law, the earth is common to all men, and brings forth her fruits for the common good. They taught that avarice, a consequence of the Fall, represents the rights of property and is the source of private ownership. They were humane enough, anti-commercial enough, to feel that all commercial activity was a danger to the soul of man and its salvation. They hated money and finance, and called the empire of capital fuel for the fires of hell. The fundamental economic principle that price is regulated by the operation of the law of supply and demand, they have always despised from the bottom of their hearts; and condemned taking advantage of chance as a cynical exploitation of a neighbour’s need. Even more nefarious, in their eyes, was the exploitation of time; the monstrousness of receiving a premium for the passage of time — interest, in other words — and misusing to one’s own advantage and another’s disadvantage a universal and God-given dispensation.

Not sure I understand this at all? But it’s in the mouth of Naphta, who often says nutty things. And maybe I haven’t run with the right kind of Protestants:

Judaism, by virtue of its secular and materialistic leanings, its socialism, its political adroitness, had actually more in common with Catholicism than the latter had with the mystic subjectivity and self-immolation of Protestantism; the conversion of a Jew to the Roman Catholic faith was accordingly a distinctly less violent spiritual rupture than was that of a Protestant.

“Ah, the trees, the trees! Oh, living climate of the living — how sweet it smells! “

It was a park. It lay beneath the terrace on which he seemed to stand — a spreading park of luxuriant green shade-trees, elms, planes, beeches, birches, oaks, all in the dappled light and shade of their fresh, full, shimmering foliage, and gently rustling tips. They breathed a deliciously moist, balsamic breath into the air. A warm shower passed over them, but the rain was sunlit. One could see high up in the sky the whole air filled with the bright ripple of raindrops. How lovely it was! Oh, breath of the homeland, oh, fragrance and abundance of the plain, so long foregone!

Narration resembles music in this, that it fills up the time. It “fills it in” and “breaks it up,” so that “there’s something to it,” “something going on” … For time is the medium of narration, as it is the medium of life. Both are inextricably bound up with it, as inextricably as are bodies in space. Similarly, time is the medium of music; music divides, measures, articulates time, and can shorten it, yet enhance its value, both at once. Thus music and narration are alike, in that they can only present themselves as a flowing, as a succession in time, as one thing after another; and both differ from the plastic arts, which are complete in the present, and unrelated to time save as all bodies are, whereas narration — like music — even if it should try to be completely present at any given moment, would need time to do it in.

“Mynheer Peeperkorn has a gift, say what you like; and thus it is he can stick us all in his pocket. Put Herr Naphta in one corner of the room, and let him deliver a discourse on Gregory the Great and the City of God — it would be highly worth listening to — and put Mynheer Peeperkorn in the other, with his extraordinary mouth and the wrinkles on his forehead, and let him not say a word except ‘By all means — capital — settled, ladies and gentlemen!’ You will see everybody gather round Peeperkorn, and Herr Naphta will be sitting there alone with his cleverness and his City of God, though he may be uttering such penetrating wisdom that it pierces through marrow and cucumber, as Behrens says.”

In this book I learned

  • Third breakfast! Wikipedia only traces it here, but I doubt Mann made it up.
  • I can’t find anything about “Scotch-thread drawers” online except in full-text versions of MM, but looking up the German original it’s “file d’écosse-Unterhose.” So the translation should really be “lisle underwear.” (I doubt my blog has enough Google traction to make “Scotch-thread drawers” come up in this context – I posted the first instance of “kalegarth” back in 2005 and now it doesn’t even come up (because the blog was inaccessible for years and I’ll never get my rankings back, ah well…))
  • Original sweaters: “The women wore chiefly close-fitting jackets of wool or silk — the so-called sweater — in white or colours, with turnover collars and side pockets.” Cardigans, I guess. The German has “sogenannte Sweater… mit Fallkragen und Seitentaschen.” Love those Compound Nouns!
  • I knew Blue Peter only as the British television show, which supposedly refers to a flag indicating a vessel is about the leave, but here it’s a sputum flask. Again the translation is weird, though – it’s “Blauen Heinrich,” Blue Henry, and that’s how it’s most commonly known in English. There’s even a book – looks interesting. Blue Peter is a known variant in English, but I’d love to get more information.
  • Gala Peter chocolate
  • Formamint – “Formamint was a lozenge made up of formaldehyde, milk sugar, citric acid and pepsin-hydrochloric acid” per this very interesting-looking article I want to go back and read someday…
  • Jonathan had just told me about the parlor game of sketching a pig with one’s eyes closed, and here it is in MM, one of the faddish parlor games the residents play.
  • Soldanella, which Mann describes as having “little eye-lashed bells of rose-color, purple, and blue”
  • Coincidentally, Jonathan was reading the September 1927 issue of The Bookman and came across this: “Thomas Mann, author of The Magic Mountain, seems to be winning American favor even greater than that of Hermann Sudermann, whose Song of Songs was for long the most popular of modern novels translated from the German.” Wikipedia says “after 1945, [Sudermann’s] plays and novels were almost completely forgotten,” but Song of Songs has an entry, and the Garbo vehicle Flesh and the Devil was based on one of his novels.
  • Tula-silver-handled cane (Tulasilberkrücke): synonym for niello, found on the very helpful Canequest site
  • Skilly – but in the original it’s Linsen, lentils!
  • The Seven Sleepers
  • Philopena (Vielliebchen, translated “philippina”)
  • Weird fact: Boris Johnson is the great-grandson of the translator.

Winter – Ali Smith, 2017

Read for Second Monday book group. I loved the Christmas Carol echoes – it starts with “God was dead: to begin with” – but hated the Trumpish end: “You’re going to be saying Merry Christmas again, folks.” And the protagonist Art who writes a column “Art in Nature”… it’s a little on-the-nose. Nonetheless, Smith is always a beautiful writer.

Short quotes

  • “That’s what winter is: an exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again. An exercise in adapting yourself to whatever frozen or molten state it brings you.”
  • “Then his mother stops speaking and starts humming a tune and Art knows the doors of the reminiscence have closed, as surely as if the Reminiscence is a cinema or a theatre and the show is over, the rows of seats empty, the audience gone home.”

Long quotes

Well, imagine it like this, the optician says. Imagine I’m a car mechanic and someone brings me in a car for a service, and it’s a car from the 1940s, and I lift the lid and find the engine still nearly as clean as when it left the factory floor in (the optician checks her form) 1946, just amazing, a triumph.

You’re saying I’m like an old Triumph, Sophia says.

Good as new, the optician (who clearly has no idea that a Triumph has ever been a car) says.

Those green things, white things, polystyrene. You’re wrong, they’re recyclable. They’re free of whatever it is that’s bad for it. It’s not as bad as you’d think. I quite like them. I do! No, it’s interesting, because, because they’re so amazingly light, so that when you pick them up it’s surprising every time. You always expect them to be heavier. Even if you tell yourself, even though you know they’re light, you think you already know, you pick one up and it’s like, wow that’s so light, it’s like holding actual lightness. It’s, like, the weight of your own hand just somehow got lighter. Like a bird’s bones kind of light. If you pick up several, hold several so your hand’s full of them, you look at your hand loaded with things and your eye can’t understand it because although you can see that your hand’s full of something it feels like almost nothing’s in your hand.

None of these things is happening here. They are all happening far away, elsewhere.

But they may as well be, Iris says. What does here mean anyway, I’d like to know. Everywhere’s a here, isn’t it?

In this book I learned

The Return of the Native – Thomas Hardy, 1878

The second Hardy we’ve read for Great Books – what an interesting and weird book! I loved the description of Egdon Heath and how Thomasin feels at home there while Damon hates it. Eustacia Vye is a fascinating character, and timorous Christian provides good comic relief.

Short quotes

  • “his painfully circular eyes, surrounded by concentric lines like targets”
  • “‘When folks are just married ’tis as well to look glad o’t, since looking sorry won’t unjoin ’em.'”
  • “the hearty tones natural when the words demanded by politeness coincide with those of deepest feeling”
  • Contrast of Eustacia’s mouth with the locals “whose lips met like the two halves of a muffin”
  • “‘Little children think there’s only one cuckoo, one fox, one giant, one devil, and one reddleman, when there’s lots of us all.'”
  • “thought is a disease of flesh… ideal physical beauty is incompatible with emotional development and a full recognition of the coil of things”
  • “To be yearning for the difficult, to be weary of that offered; to care for the remote, to dislike the near… This is the true mark of the man of sentiment.”
  • “men are drawn from their intentions even in the course of carrying them out”
  • “the players appeared only in outline against the sky; except when the circular mouths of the trombone, ophicleide, and French horn gleamed out like huge eyes from the shade of their figures”
  • A hot, dry day: “large-leaved plants of a tender kind flagged by ten o’clock in the morning; rhubarb bent downward at eleven; and even stiff cabbages were limp by noon”
  • “the quiet way of one who, though willing to ward off evil consequences by a mild effort, would let events fall out as they might sooner than wrestle hard to direct them” (Eustacia)
  • Eustacia again: “instead of blaming herself for the issue she laid the fault upon the shoulders of some indistinct, colossal Prince of the World, who had framed her situation and ruled her lot.”
  • “oozing lumps of fleshy fungi, which at this season lay scattered about the heath like the rotten liver and lungs of some colossal animal”
  • Dickens said it better but differently: “Resources do not depend upon gross amounts, but upon the proportion of spendings to takings”
  • A toddler: “of the age when it is a matter of doubt with such characters whether they are intended to walk through the world on their hands or on their feet; so that they get into painful complications by trying both.”

Long quotes

“I ha’n’t been [to church] these three years,” said Humphrey; “for I’m so dead sleepy of a Sunday; and ’tis so terrible far to get there; and when you do get there ’tis such a mortal poor chance that you’ll be chose for up above, when so many bain’t, that I bide at home and don’t go at all.”

In an ordinary village or country town one can safely calculate that, either on Christmas day or the Sunday contiguous, any native home for the holidays, who has not through age or ennui lost the appetite for seeing and being seen, will turn up in some pew or other, shining with hope, self-consciousness, and new clothes. Thus the congregation on Christmas morning is mostly a Tussaud collection of celebrities who have been born in the neighbourhood.

A traditional pastime is to be distinguished from a mere revival in no more striking feature than in this, that while in the revival all is excitement and fervour, the survival is carried on with a stolidity and absence of stir which sets one wondering why a thing that is done so perfunctorily should be kept up at all. Like Balaam and other unwilling prophets, the agents seem moved by an inner compulsion to say and do their allotted parts whether they will or no. This unweeting manner of performance is the true ring by which, in this refurbishing age, a fossilized survival may be known from a spurious reproduction.

On Egdon there was no absolute hour of the day. The time at any moment was a number of varying doctrines professed by the different hamlets, some of them having originally grown up from a common root, and then become divided by secession, some having been alien from the beginning. West Egdon believed in Blooms-End time, East Egdon in the time of the Quiet Woman Inn. Grandfer Cantle’s watch had numbered many followers in years gone by, but since he had grown older faiths were shaken. Thus, the mummers having gathered hither from scattered points each came with his own tenets on early and late; and they waited a little longer as a compromise.

Neither the man nor the woman lost dignity by sudden death. Misfortune had struck them gracefully, cutting off their erratic histories with a catastrophic dash, instead of, as with many, attenuating each life to an uninteresting meagreness, through long years of wrinkles, neglect, and decay.

In this book I learned about

Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses – Robin Wall Kimmerer, 2003

I rarely buy new books these days, but I got myself a copy, as I had done for Braiding Sweetgrass (2013). When we read Braiding Sweetgrass in the Nature & Environment book group, Robin Wall Kimmerer immediately became one of my favorite authors ever, so choosing her first book as a selection was easy. We have read a lot of single-organism books (ants, beavers, coyotes, octopuses, rattlesnakes, ravens, trees…) but this was one of the best, and features in embryo many of the themes woven through Braiding Sweetgrass. The chapters can also be treated like free-standing essays – “The Owner” stood out in particular: a truly compelling essay, more of a short story, with a twist ending – a horror story, really, both beautiful and heart-rending.

Short quotes

  • “Mosses have a covenant with change; their destiny is linked to the vagaries of rain. They shrink and shrivel while carefully laying the groundwork of their own renewal. They give me faith.”
  • “Mosses engineer the movement of water simply by harnessing the attraction of water for surfaces. Their forms take advantage of the adhesive and cohesive forces of water, to move the water at will over their surfaces, without expending any energy of their own.”
  • “‘If you’re going to have livestock, you’re going to have deadstock.'”
  • “I think we need a new aesthetic that honors a mossy roof as a status symbol of how responsibly the homeowner behaves in maintaining the ecosystem. The greener the better. Neighbors would look askance at the owner of a roof scraped bare of friendly moss.” I love the idea… but mosses surely do damage roofs simply by keeping water in touch with the roof for longer?
  • “In the alveoli, your breath is but a single cell away from your blood. The cells are glistening and wet, so that the oxygen may dissolve and pass over. Through this thin watery film, deep in the lungs, our bodies become continuous with the atmosphere. For better and for worse.” Like mosses, which is why they are good indicator species of air quality.
  • “The average person knows the name of less than a dozen plants, and this includes such categories as ‘Christmas Tree.’ Losing their names is a step in losing respect. Knowing their names is the first step in regaining our connection.”
  • “Every way of knowing has its own strengths and weaknesses.”
  • “There is more living carbon in Sphagnum moss than in any other single genus on the planet.”
  • “This global cloud of spores powders every surface with the possibility of mosses.”
  • “It was not money that the rocks required, it was time. And the ‘time is money’ equation doesn’t work in reverse.”
  • “Wildness cannot be collected and still remain wild. Its nature is lost the moment it is separated from its origins. By the very act of owning, the thing becomes an object, no longer itself.”
  • “I think you cannot own a thing and love it at the same time. Owning diminishes the innate sovereignty of a thing, enriching the possessor and reducing the possessed.”
  • “trees alone don’t make a forest”
  • After discussing slug feces: “biologists may make unsuitable dinner conversation, but we are seldom bored”
  • her daughters “ate up the summer in heaping spoonfuls like homemade peach ice cream”

Long quotes

Day by day, [students’] vocabulary stretches and they proudly refer to leafy green shoots as “gametophytes” and the little brown thingamajigs on top of the moss are dutifully referred to as “sporophytes.” The upright, tufted mosses become “acrocarps,” the horizontal fronds are “pleurocarps.” Having words for these forms makes the differences between them so much more obvious. With words at your disposal, you can see more clearly. Finding the words is another step in learning to see.

Initial research on Tetraphis shed no light on why some patches produced spores and others gemmae:

There seemed to be no rhyme nor reason to Tetraphis‘ reproductive choice. But if there’s anything that I’ve learned from the woods, it’s that there is no pattern without a meaning. To find it, I needed to try and see like a moss and not like a human.

In traditional indigenous communities, learning takes a form very different from that in the American public education system. Children learn by watching, by listening, and by experience. They are expected
to learn from all members of the community, human and non. To ask a direct question is often considered rude. Knowledge cannot be taken, it must instead be given. Knowledge is bestowed by a teacher only when the student is ready to receive it. Much learning takes place by patient observation, discerning pattern and its meaning by experience. It is understood that there are many versions of truth, and that each reality may be true for each teller. It’s important to understand the perspective of each source of knowledge. The scientific method I was taught in school is like asking a direct question, disrespectfully demanding knowledge rather than waiting for it to be revealed. From Tetraphis, I began to understand how to learn differently, to let the mosses tell their story, rather than wring it from them.

Mosses don’t speak our language, they don’t experience the world the way we do. So in order to learn from them I chose to adopt a different pace, an experiment that would take years, not months. To me, a good experiment is like a good conversation. Each listener creates an opening for the other’s story to be told. So, to learn about how Tetraphis makes reproductive choices, I tried to listen to its story. I had understood Tetraphis colonies from the human perspective, as clumps in various stages of reproduction. And I had learned little by doing so. Rather than looking at the clump as an entity, I had to recognize that the clump was simply an arbitrary unit that was convenient for me, but had little meaning for the moss. Mosses experience the world as individual stems and to understand their lives I needed to make my observations at the same scale.

Driving the Adirondack roads, past glittering lakes and deep woods, you’ll scarcely ever see roadside litter. People love this wild place and the care for its well-being is obvious. But where Route 3 cuts through the mined land, plastic bags are caught in the alders and beer cans float in the ditches full of rusty water. Disregard is also a positive feedback loop; garbage attracts garbage.

The city mosses have much in common with their urban human counterparts; they are diverse, adaptable, stress-tolerant, resistant to pollution, and thrive on crowded conditions. They are also well traveled.

A city offers mosses a multitude of habitats which may otherwise be quite uncommon in nature. Some moss species are far more abundant in the human-made environment than they are in the wild. Grimmia
doesn’t discriminate between a granite crag in the White Mountains and a granite obelisk on Boston Common. Limestone cliffs are not abundant in nature, but there’s one on every Chicago street corner and
mosses perch contentedly on its pillars and cornices. Statues provide all kinds of water-holding niches where mosses abound. Next time you walk through the park, look in the folds of the flowing coat of whatever general sits mounted on a pedestal, or in the wavy marble locks of Justice’s hair outside the courthouse. Mosses bathe at the edges of our fountains and trace the letters on our gravestones.

We tend to devalue the flora of cities as a depauperate collection of stragglers, arising de novo with the relatively recent development of cities. In fact, the urban cliff hypothesis suggests that the association between humans and these species may be ancient, dating from our pre-Neanderthal days when we both took refuge in cave and cliff dwellings.

I take great pleasure in gathering plants, filling my basket with roots and leaves. Usually I go with a specific plant in mind, when it’s time for elderberries or the bergamot is heavy with oils. But it’s the wandering itself that has such appeal, the unexpected discoveries while looking for something else. I get the same feeling in the library. It’s so very much like picking berries—the peaceful field of books, the concentrated attention of the search, and the knowledge that hidden somewhere in the thicket is something worth finding.

Its tremendous water-holding capacity allows Sphagnum to modify the ecosystem for its own purpose. The presence of Sphagnum causes the soil to become saturated, filling the spaces between soil particles that might otherwise hold air. Roots need to breathe, too, and the waterlogged peat creates an anaerobic rooting environment which most plants can’t tolerate. This impedes the growth of trees, leaving the bog sunny and open.

[The hairpiece’s] intricate design of bees and flowers was carved from luminous ivory. I was immediately struck by how out of place it seemed on its velvet platform, more like a stolen treasure than a work
of art. How much more beautiful it would have been in the black oiled hair of the artist’s wife. And more authentic. In a display case, a thing becomes only a facsimile of itself, like the drum hung on the gallery
wall. A drum becomes authentic when human hand meets wood and hide. Only then do they fulfill its intention.

At the center of the garden stood a sculptured rock taller than either of us and beautifully covered with mosses. Each carefully chosen clump accented the irregularities of the boulder. An eroded pocket in the rock was filled with a perfect circlet of Bryum. The artistry rivaled any piece we had seen in the gallery and yet it struck the wrong note; the collection was only an illusion of nature. Plagiothecium can’t grow in crevices like that, and Racomitrium wouldn’t share a habitat with Anomodon, despite the beauty
of their colors side by side. I wondered how this beautiful but synthetic creation passed the owner’s standard of authenticity. The mosses had been reduced from living things to mere art materials, ill used. “How did you get these to grow like this?” I asked. “It’s very—unusual,” I hedged. Matt smiled like a kid who had outsmarted his teacher and answered, “Superglue.”

Mosses have an intense bond to their places that few contemporary humans can understand. They
must be born in a place to flourish there. Their lives are supported by the influences of previous generations of lichens and mosses, who made the rock into home. In that initial settling of spores they make their choice and stick to it. Relocation is not for them.

Here on the shadowy edge of where green life seems barely possible, Schistostega has all it needs. Rain on the outside, fire on the inside. I feel a kinship with this being whose cold light is so different from my own. It asks very little from the world and yet glitters in response. I have been blessed by the companionship of good teachers and I count Schistostega among them.

In this book I learned

  • Boundary layer where moss lives: more heat, water, carbon dioxide (10x!), less turbulence
  • Gemmae cups on moss – little eggs that are clonal propagules! They don’t go far – they “carry a combination of genes that has already proven successful on this stump,” whereas spores are “a powder of potential sent off to seek its fortune in the unknown realm beyond the stump.”
  • Psychrometer – wet-and-dry bulb thermometer
  • “The predominant cause of tree mortality in the northern deciduous forest is windthrow.”
  • Gap dynamics: different species can colonize different types of disturbance gaps. “This decaying log is a stage, and the scenes take place in the gaps, where the colonists act out their drama.”
  • Silvery Bryum is everywhere! “I have never traveled without encountering Bryum on my journey. It was on the tarmac in New York City and on the tiled roof outside my window in Quito the next morning.” Unlike larger organisms, mosses are truly omnipresent because their spores can travel the entire world easily.
  • The artist Jackie Brookner, who alas has died since this book came out. I want to visit the boulder Prima Lingua, which is at East 9th & Ave. C in Manhattan.
  • Uses of moss for diapers and sanitary napkins – knowledge male scientists didn’t get

Daniel Deronda – George Eliot, 1876

It’s no Middlemarch but I’m glad I read it. Opinions divided in the Great Books group about the first half, which focuses on Gwendolyn, versus the second half, which is more Daniel’s story. I found Gwendolyn tiresome, and her suitor/husband Grandcourt purely horrible – much more of a villain than anyone in Middlemarch. My favorite character is Princess Halm-Eberstein, who gives a powerful feminist speech near the end.

Short quotes

  • “Having always been the pet and pride of the household… she naturally found it difficult to think her own pleasure less important than others made it”
  • “Was there ever a young lady or gentleman not ready to give up an unspecified indulgence for the sake of the favorite one specified?”
  • “In the school-room her quick mind had taken readily that strong starch of unexplained rules and disconnected facts which saves ignorance from any painful sense of limpness”
  • “the sort of question which often comes without any other apparent reason than the faculty of speech and the not knowing what to do with it”
  • “Much quotation of any sort, even in English is bad. It tends to choke ordinary remark. One couldn’t carry on life comfortably without a little blindness to the fact that everything had been said better than we can put it ourselves.”
  • “sort of contemplative mood perhaps more common in the young men of our day—that of questioning whether it were worth while to take part in the battle of the world: I mean, of course, the young men in whom the unproductive labor of questioning is sustained by three or five per cent, on capital which somebody else has battled for.”
  • “authorship—a vocation which is understood to turn foolish thinking into funds”
  • “Their faces seemed full of speech, as if their minds had been shelled, after the manner of horse-chestnuts, and become brightly visible.”
  • “The days and months pace over us like restless little birds, and leave the marks of their feet backward and forward; especially when they are like birds with heavy hearts—then they tread heavily.”
  • “What should we all do without the calendar, when we want to put off a disagreeable duty? The admirable arrangements of the solar system, by which our time is measured, always supply us with a term before which it is hardly worth while to set about anything we are disinclined to.”
  • “I wonder why he fixed on me as the musical one? Was it because I have a bulging forehead, ma, and peep from under it like a newt from under a stone?”
  • “… pressing his lips together, rubbing his black head with both his hands and wrinkling his brow horizontally, with the expression of one who differs from every speaker, but does not think it worth while to say so. There is a sort of human paste that when it comes near the fire of enthusiasm is only baked into harder shape.”
  • “day followed day with that want of perceived leisure which belongs to lives where there is no work to mark off intervals”
  • “To have a pattern cut out—‘this is the Jewish woman; this is what you must be; this is what you are wanted for; a woman’s heart must be of such a size and no larger, else it must be pressed small, like Chinese feet; her happiness is to be made as cakes are, by a fixed receipt.’”
  • Quoting William Browne: “A wretch so empty that if e’er there be / In nature found the least vacuity / T’will be in him.”
  • “we were as different as the inside and the outside of the bowl”
  • Reading the lists of marriages in the newspaper gave Mrs. Meyrick “the pleasant sense of finishing the fashionable novels without having read them, and seeing the heroes and heroines happy without knowing what poor creatures they were.”
  • “Those who have been indulged by fortune and have always thought of calamity as what happens to others, feel a blind incredulous rage at the reversal of their lot, and half believe that their wild cries will alter the course of the storm.”
  • “What outpourer of his own affairs is not tempted to think any hint of his friend’s affairs is an egotistic irrelevance?”

In this book I learned about:

  • byssus: very fine cloth, or the attachment of mussels
  • scent of russia – ie Russian leather
  • making plates with playing cards – I can’t find specifics about this game. It sounds like they are tossed together? “The grandmother had a pack of cards before her and was making “plates” with the children. A plate had just been thrown down and kept itself whole. … The plate bore several tossings before it came to pieces.”
  • anecdote: “the dying Copernicus made to touch the first printed copy of his book when the sense of touch was gone, seeing it only as a dim object through the deepening dusk”
  • stiving: “to shut up in a warm close place”

Deronda on gambling – I have never thought about it from this angle, and it resonates:

I think it would be better for men not to gamble. It is a besotting kind of taste, likely to turn into a disease. And, besides, there is something revolting to me in raking a heap of money together, and internally chuckling over it, when others are feeling the loss of it. I should even call it base, if it were more than an exceptional lapse. There are enough inevitable turns of fortune which force us to see that our gain is another’s loss:—that is one of the ugly aspects of life. One would like to reduce it as much as one could, not get amusement out of exaggerating it.

The Tree: A Natural History of What Trees Are, How They Live, and Why They Matter – Colin Tudge, 2006

Read for Nature & Environment – we loved it! Tudge writes beautifully. I especially enjoyed the methodical tour through all the major plant families; the notion that trees are just as dynamic as animal organisms, just not on our timescale; and the clear explanation of polyploidy (first time I’ve felt like I’m beginning to understand it).

Short quotes

  • “an old kapok tree in Costa Rica in which biologists had thus far listed more than four thousand different species of creatures”
  • “A forest is a forest because it has trees in it, not because it may have sloths and toucans or squirrels or chimpanzees. The trees are the prime players and the animals are the dependents.”
  • “the idea … that each of us might aspire to be a connoisseur of nature, and connoisseurship implies a combination of knowledge on the one hand and love on the other, each enhancing the other.”
  • What is a tree? “Many plants … have independently essayed the form of the tree. Each achieves treedom in its own way. ‘Tree’ is not a distinct category, like ‘dog’ or ‘horse.’ It is just a way of being a plant.”
  • “The more that is revealed, the more wondrous nature becomes. The more we know about living creatures, the more deeply we can engage with them. This is the appetite, as Hamlet said, that grows from what it feeds on.”
  • “Typically, the botanist says that two similar trees are the same, while the mateiro [indigenous expert] says they are different” and is proved right.
  • “The Ducke Reserve is about a hundred thousand times smaller than the United States … yet harbors nearly twice as many kinds of native trees.”
  • “It is at least possible that many local names in Maori and a thousand other languages are not meant to express particular relationships at all. After all, traditional societies—or at least the specialists within them—typically know their local flora and fauna as well as the rest of us know our friends and family. When you know everyone individually, you do not need to name them in ways that express particular relationships.”
  • “The Latin names can be rather long, and sometimes too similar for comfort. If you’re sitting up late with a 40-watt bulb it’s easy to confuse, say, the Myrtaceae, Myricaceae, Myrsinaceae, and Myrsticaceae.”
  • “For my part, I feel that Darwin’s is a glorious vision. I love the notion that we are literally related to all other creatures: that apes are our sisters, and mushrooms are our cousins, and oak trees and monkey puzzles are our distant uncles and aunts. Conservation, on such a view, becomes a family affair.”
  • W. D. (Bill) Hamilton proposed that it was the need to avoid parasites that prompted the evolution of sex—for sex produces the generation-by-generation variation that makes life difficult for parasites, which tend to be highly specialized, to get a hold.”

Longer quotes

Groves of redwoods and beeches are often compared to the naves of great cathedrals: the silence; the green, filtered, numinous light. A single banyan, each with its multitude of trunks, is like a temple or a mosque—a living colonnade. But the metaphor should be the other way around. The cathedrals and mosques emulate the trees. The trees are innately holy.

I’ve been fascinated by lantana since seeing it grow wild in Tucson and recognizing it as the pretty pot plant with multicolored flowers I know from the northeast, so this was an interesting anecdote:

Dr. Sas Biswas, of the Forestry Research Institute in Dehra Dun, northern India, tells a charming story of sandalwood trees he once found growing in a dead straight row in the middle of nowhere. Why were they there? Who had planted them so carefully and then abandoned them? No one, is the answer. But in the past there had been a garden; and around the garden was a fence; and along the fence grew the inevitable Lantana; and sandalwood had grown as parasites from its roots. Now the garden and the fence are long gone and the Lantana with it, but the sandalwood remains.

Mangrove tree roots breathing:

The rising tide pushes the old air out; and when it recedes, fresh air flows in again through the lenticels and pneumatophores. Thus the roots of the mangrove trees effectively breathe. They use no muscle power to do this, as an animal must. The sea is their diaphragm. The tide serves to aerate their roots; wind and fleets of obliging animals spread their pollen and seeds. Trees just don’t need the elaborations of muscle and blood and nerves on which animals expend so much.

You would not immediately suspect, if you confronted an aspen in an urban park, that it is among nature’s most resourceful trees. It has a languid air, with wanly fluttering leaves on long, flat stalks, which in autumn turn a melancholic yellow. … Yet for all its bloodless foppishness the quaking aspen has the widest distribution of any North American tree, and in large stretches of the far north it is the dominant and at times the only species.

Fig pollination dependent on specific species of fig wasps:

If we do anything to interrupt the lives of the wasps—are too free with insecticide, for instance–then we we will kill off the figs, or at least ensure that the present generation is the last. The fruits of figs are essential provender not only for bats and birds but for a host of other creatures too. In Panama, figs of various kinds are in fruit all through the year, while most other fruits are far more seasonal. There are times when figs are all there is. Take away the figs, and half the fauna could be in serious trouble. The whole ecosystem balances on a pinpoint—and we could tip it into oblivion without thinking; or, indeed, we could let it slip through our fingers even if we were trying very hard to save it. On the other hand, precarious though it seems, figs and wasps have maintained their relationship in one form or another without interruption for more than forty million years. There is robustness in the system. If only we can work with it, it might pull through yet.

In this book I learned

  • Rainforest trees are especially difficult to identify and study because there are so many different species, most of them look alike, and they flower at unknown/unpredictable times.
  • “[Linneaus] led botanical expeditions from his native Uppsala with the local band out in front and everyone dressed in a uniform of his own design.” Wish I could find an illustration of them!
  • Bryophytes are not known to be a clade – “nobody knows the relationship between [liverworts, hornworts, and mosses], or whether they are closely related at all”
  • The Lost Gardens of Heligan
  • Northern conifers are tall and thin not to shed snow, but to maximize the light they get on the side, since the sun is low
  • Knobcone pine and Monterey pine can enclose their old cones in wood
  • Wollemia, like the coelacanth, was only known from 120 mya fossils until a group turned up in Australia in 1994
  • The name “spruce” comes from “Prussia”
  • Retrophyllum minus (a podocarp) is a tree that grows in running water!
  • Double fertilization – Tudge’s explanation is easier for me to understand than Wikipedia’s: in angiosperm embryogenesis, “a second cell in the pollen fuses with two sets of cells in the ovule to form a combined cell with three sets of chromosomes; and this peculiar triploid cell then multiplies to form a food store, rich in carbohydrates, protein, and often fat, that surrounds the embryo.”
  • Seagrasses are like marine mammals – they are land plants that moved to the water, but they still have flowers and pollen!
  • Avocados have a crazy system where there are two types of flower, A and B, that can only be pollinated by the opposite flower based on time of day
  • Macadamia nuts are indigenous to Australia – “the only native Australian food plants of significance to world markets”
  • Sweetgum, as the name indicates, has a fragrant resin. Tudge says it’s “known as storax or styrax,” but Wikipedia uses “storax balsam” to distinguish it from “storax” aka benzoin. I am fascinated by resins, and we have introduced sweetgums around here (Liquidambar styraciflua), but I’ve never noticed their resin. Something else to look out for!
  • There’s a native bittersweet, Celastrus scandens! I’ll keep an eye out – sounds like the terminal flower/berry clusters would be the easiest way to tell.
  • “Golden rice” is no big deal because other plants (mangos, papayas etc.) have plenty of vitamin A. “If high-tech vitamin A-rich rice is ever of help at all, it is only in regions where traditional agriculture has been shoved aside by high-tech, industrialized, monocultural farming.”
  • “a tree could grow to a height of nearly two miles if the tensile strength of water was the only constraint on its growth”
  • Sebertia acuminata accumulates nickel from soil
  • Parkia flowers: “pompoms of stamens and styles, bright red or pale yellow or bronze, depending on species, that hang from on high on long, thin threads like Christmas baubles”
  • Dependency of tambalacoque on the dodo’s gizzard apparently is too simplistic, as they are growing fine if protected from pigs etc. “Evidently it wasn’t the presence of dodoes they required but an absence of imported herbivores. This is excellent news for the tambalacoque. But it is a pity, indeed, to kill off such an excellent story.”

I questioned these

  • Tudge repeats a tidbit from the Encyclopedia of Wood, that the Paris Metro tracks are made from ekki timber (Lophira alta). I can’t find any independent confirmation, but the wood is used for railway sleepers.
  • He claims “beeches that are allowed to grow into forest trees shed their leaves” (as opposed to hedges). I certainly see tons of marcescent beeches in the woods – or are those not “forest trees” because they don’t get huge before disease takes them?

Pachinko – Min Jin Lee, 2017

I read this in September 2019 and again in September 2022. Posting it as a “quote dump” in November 2022 (backdated to September since that’s when I finished it), part of a new push to get my gazillion draft posts up so they are at least searchable. I may or may not ever come back to turn them into a proper “review,” which isn’t even exactly what I do here… more like an impression?

September 2019: Common Read for Amherst College. Min Jin Lee is the new Writer-in-Residence so I got to attend her talk for the incoming freshmen, which I enjoyed tremendously—more than the novel. I did find it engrossing and interesting, but the writing is a little clunky in parts. My favorite aspect was all the Korean food and culture I got to look up:

  • ponytail radishes – omg there are so many kinds of radishes, but not as diverse as the types of Brassica oleraceae
  • mompei – baggy Japanese work pants often dyed with indigo
  • Koreans having to adopt Japanese surnames
  • We use (store-bought) gochujang to make our own version of bibimbap, but I didn’t know about doenjang
  • jesa – ceremonies honoring deceased ancestors
  • tayaki – fish-shaped waffles – in the US there’s a chain that uses them for soft-serve ice cream, and I’d love to try it! I did, summer 2022 in Boston – more fun than delicious, but glad I had it once
  • gimbap – like Korean sushi
  • noonchi – emotional intelligence, literally “eye-measure” – such a useful term!
  • chima – long billowy skirt
  • cha color” – I guess this is brown, based on this amazing list? Some of those remind me of the neural net color names – a comedy classic!
  • unagiya – eel restaurant – I recently read something about a famous eel restaurant, I think M. Manze, and wish I could remember where I saw the article. It was about how most people who ordered eel didn’t really like it.

Yes, life in Osaka would be difficult, but things would change for the better. They’d make a tasty broth from stones and bitterness.

She would not believe that she was no different than her parents, that seeing him as only Korean—good or bad—was the same as seeing him only as a bad Korean. She could not see his humanity, and Noa realized that this was what he wanted most of all: to be seen as human.

However, she didn’t believe her son had come from a bad seed. The Japanese said the Koreans had too much anger and heat in their blood. Seeds, blood, how could you fight such hopeless ideas? Noa had been a sensitive child who had believed that if he followed all the rules and was the best, then somehow the hostile world would change its mind. His death may have been her fault for having allowed him to believe in such cruel ideals.

Re-read for Second Monday in September, 2022. The last quote above is the only one I marked both times!

  • “For a woman, the man you marry will determine the quality of your life completely. A good man is a decent life, and a bad man is a cursed life.”
  • “You want to see a very bad man? Make an ordinary man successful beyond his imagination.”
  • “Now that he was gone, Sunja held on to her father’s warmth and kind words like polished gems.”
  • “Patriotism is just an idea, so is capitalism or communism. But ideas can make men forget their own interests. And the guys in charge will exploit men who believe in ideas too much.”
  • “At lunchtime, Haruki sat at the end of the long table with two seat gaps around him like an invisible parenthesis while the other boys in their dark woolen uniforms stuck together like a tight row of black corn kernels.”
  • “The fools here have pumpkins for heads, and seeds are not brains.”
  • “Her wet, shining eyes blinked, lit up like lanterns. Her young face shone through the old one.”
  • “It had been eleven years since he’d died; the pain didn’t go away, but its sharp edge had dulled and softened like sea glass.”

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values – Robert Pirsig, 1974

Re-read for Great Books; I remember my dad reading it in the ’70s, and I first picked it up myself in college (maybe another re-read in my 20s or so? not sure). I do think it’s not aged particularly well, but I wasn’t vastly disappointed the way most of the others were.

The contrast between the narrator and his friend John, who doesn’t want to deal with technology, is still fascinating to me (see long quote below). As a hands-one person myself, I resonate so hard with the narrator. But he’s such a jerk to his poor son Chris, who is only ELEVEN! Other book group people were agitated about him taking Chris on the trip because of physical safety – that didn’t bother me, but the lack of emotional safety/support did. And the lack of understanding of a child, expecting him to act like an adult. “He’s angry and I expect we’re going to have one of his little scenes.” The contempt! Ugh.

I did enjoy the reveal of Phaedrus (the narrator’s former self), concluding with “Unusual behavior tends to produce estrangement in others which tends to further the unusual behavior and thus the estrangement in self-stoking cycles until some sort of climax is reached. In Phaedrus’ case there was a court-ordered police arrest and permanent removal from society.” It becomes like a detective story. I don’t always agree with Phaedrus, but his observations on science and teaching are fascinating. But I really trip over “Quality” as his primary value – pace Humpty Dumpty, I can’t make it mean what he wants it to mean.

Short quotes

  • “The truth knocks on the door and you say, ‘Go away, I’m looking for the truth,’ and so it goes away.”
  • “Physical discomfort is important only when the mood is wrong. Then you fasten on to whatever thing is uncomfortable and call that the cause. But if the mood is right, then physical discomfort doesn’t mean much.”
  • “Logic exists in the mind. Numbers exist only in the mind. I don’t get upset when scientists say that ghosts exist in the mind. It’s that only that gets me. Science is only in your mind too, it’s just that that doesn’t make it bad. Or ghosts either.”
  • “what old time radio men called a ‘short between the ear-phones,’ failures to use the head properly”
  • “The real purpose of scientific method is to make sure Nature hasn’t misled you into thinking you know something you don’t actually know.”
  • “You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.”
  • “I know how instructions like this are put together. You go out on the assembly line with a tape recorder and the foreman sends you to talk to the guy he needs least, the biggest goof-off he’s got, and whatever he tells you—that’s the instructions. The next guy might have told you something completely different and probably better, but he’s too busy.”
  • “This divorce of art from technology is completely unnatural. It’s just that it’s gone on so long you have to be an archeologist to find out where the two separated. Rotisserie assembly is actually a long-lost branch of sculpture, so divorced from its roots by centuries of intellectual wrong turns that just to associate the two sounds ludicrous.”
  • “One thing about pioneers that you don’t hear mentioned is that they are invariably, by their nature, mess-makers. They go forging ahead, seeing only their noble, distant goal, and never notice any of the crud and debris they leave behind them. Someone else gets to clean that up and it’s not a very glamorous or interesting job.”
  • “That wall in Korea that Phaedrus saw was an act of technology. It was beautiful, but not because of any masterful intellectual planning or any scientific supervision of the job, or any added expenditures to ‘stylize’ it. It was beautiful because the people who worked on it had a way of looking at things that made them do it right unselfconsciously. They didn’t separate themselves from the work in such a way as to do it wrong.”
  • “I like the word ‘gumption’ because it’s so homely and so forlorn and so out of style it looks as if it needs a friend and isn’t likely to reject anyone who comes along.” (I did not get how “gumption” was connected to Quality – more Humpty Dumpty. But I loved coming across it because it’s a byword on the wonderful Ask a Manager site.)
  • “There isn’t a mechanic alive who doesn’t louse up a job once in a while. The main difference between you and the commercial mechanics is that when they do it you don’t hear about it—just pay for it, in additional costs prorated through all your bills. When you make the mistakes yourself, you at least get the benefit of some education.”
  • “I have heard that there are two kinds of welders: production welders, who don’t like tricky setups and enjoy doing the same thing over and over again; and maintenance welders, who hate it when they have to do the same job twice. The advice was that if you hire a welder make sure which kind he is, because they’re not interchangeable.”
  • “The conversation’s pace intrigues me. It isn’t intended to go anywhere, just fill the time of day. I haven’t heard steady slow-paced conversation like that since the thirties when my grandfather and great-grandfather and uncles and great-uncles used to talk like that: on and on and on with no point or purpose other than to fill time, like the rocking of a chair.”
  • “the tendency underlying all the evil of our technology, the tendency to do what is ‘reasonable’ even when it isn’t any good
  • “When a shepherd goes to kill a wolf, and takes his dog to see the sport, he should take care to avoid mistakes. The dog has certain relationships to the wolf the shepherd may have forgotten.”

Longer quotes

In this Chautauqua I would like not to cut any new channels of consciousness but simply dig deeper into old ones that have become silted in with the debris of thoughts grown stale and platitudes too often repeated. “What’s new?” is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question “What is best?,” a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream.

But what struck me for the first time was the agreement of these manuals with the spectator attitude I had seen in the shop. These were spectator manuals. It was built into the format of them. Implicit in every line is the idea that “Here is the machine, isolated in time and in space from everything else in the universe. It has no relationship to you, you have no relationship to it, other than to turn certain switches, maintain voltage levels, check for error conditions…” and so on. That’s it. The mechanics in their attitude toward the machine were really taking no different attitude from the manual’s toward the machine, or from the attitude I had when I brought it in there. We were all spectators. And it occurred to me there is no manual that deals with the real business of motorcycle maintenance, the most important aspect of all. Caring about what you are doing is considered either unimportant or taken for granted.

John is horrified at the idea of fixing his motor with a shim from a beer can – this is one of my favorite sections in the whole book:

He was actually offended at the time. I had had the nerve to propose repair of his new eighteen-hundred-dollar BMW, the pride of a half-century of German mechanical finesse, with a piece of old beer can! … I should say, to explain this, that beer-can aluminum is soft and sticky, as metals go. Perfect for the application. Aluminum doesn’t oxidize in wet weather—or, more precisely, it always has a thin layer of oxide that prevents any further oxidation. Also perfect.

In other words, any true German mechanic, with a half-century of mechanical finesse behind him, would have concluded that this particular solution to this particular technical problem was perfect.

For a while I thought what I should have done was sneak over to the workbench, cut a shim from the beer can, remove the printing and then come back and tell him we were in luck, it was the last one I had, specially imported from Germany. That would have done it. A special shim from the private stock of Baron Alfred Krupp, who had to sell it at a great sacrifice. Then he would have gone gaga over it. …

I had been seeing that shim in a kind of intellectual, rational, cerebral way in which the scientific properties of the metal were all that counted. John was going at it immediately and intuitively, grooving on it. I was going at it in terms of underlying form. He was going at it in terms of immediate appearance. I was seeing what the shim meant. He was seeing what the shim was. That’s how I arrived at that distinction. And when you see what the shim is, in this case, it’s depressing. Who likes to think of a beautiful precision machine fixed with an old hunk of junk?

I should talk now about Phaedrus’ knife. It’ll help understand some of the things we talked about.

The application of this knife, the division of the world into parts and the building of this structure, is something everybody does. All the time we are aware of millions of things around us—these changing shapes, these burning hills, the sound of the engine, the feel of the throttle, each rock and weed and fence post and piece of debris beside the road—aware of these things but not really conscious of them unless there is something unusual or unless they reflect something we are predisposed to see. We could not possibly be conscious of these things and remember all of them because our mind would be so full of useless details we would be unable to think. From all this awareness we must select, and what we select and call consciousness is never the same as the awareness because the process of selection mutates it. We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.

Once we have the handful of sand, the world of which we are conscious, a process of discrimination goes to work on it. This is the knife. We divide the sand into parts. This and that. Here and there. Black and white. Now and then. The discrimination is the division of the conscious universe into parts.

The handful of sand looks uniform at first, but the longer we look at it the more diverse we find it to be. Each grain of sand is different. No two are alike. Some are similar in one way, some are similar in another way, and we can form the sand into separate piles on the basis of this similarity and dissimilarity. Shades of color in different piles—sizes in different piles—grain shapes in different piles—subtypes of grain shapes in different piles—grades of opacity in different piles—and so on, and on, and on. You’d think the process of subdivision and classification would come to an end somewhere, but it doesn’t. It just goes on and on.

Classical understanding is concerned with the piles and the basis for sorting and interrelating them. Romantic understanding is directed toward the handful of sand before the sorting begins. Both are valid ways of looking at the world although irreconcilable with each other.

What has become an urgent necessity is a way of looking at the world that does violence to neither of these two kinds of understanding and unites them into one. Such an understanding will not reject sand-sorting or contemplation of unsorted sand for its own sake. Such an understanding will instead seek to direct attention to the endless landscape from which the sand is taken. That is what Phaedrus, the poor surgeon, was trying to do.

To understand what he was trying to do it’s necessary to see that part of the landscape, inseparable from it, which must be understood, is a figure in the middle of it, sorting sand into piles. To see the landscape without seeing this figure is not to see the landscape at all. To reject that part of the Buddha that attends to the analysis of motorcycles is to miss the Buddha entirely.

[Phaedrus pursued] a ghost which calls itself rationality but whose appearance is that of incoherence and meaninglessness, which causes the most normal of everyday acts to seem slightly mad because of their irrelevance to anything else. This is the ghost of normal everyday assumptions which declares that the ultimate purpose of life, which is to keep alive, is impossible, but that this is the ultimate purpose of life anyway, so that great minds struggle to cure diseases so that people may live longer, but only madmen ask why. One lives longer in order that he may live longer. There is no other purpose. That is what the ghost says.

An untrained observer will see only physical labor and often get the idea that physical labor is mainly what the mechanic does. Actually the physical labor is the smallest and easiest part of what the mechanic does. By far the greatest part of his work is careful observation and precise thinking. That is why mechanics sometimes seem so taciturn and withdrawn when performing tests. They don’t like it when you talk to them because they are concentrating on mental images, hierarchies, and not really looking at you or the physical motorcycle at all. They are using the experiment as part of a program to expand their hierarchy of knowledge of the faulty motorcycle and compare it to the correct hierarchy in their mind. They are looking at underlying form.

I don’t think the conclusion here is entirely correct, but it’s interesting:

The more you look, the more you see. Instead of selecting one truth from a multitude you are increasing the multitude. What this means logically is that as you try to move toward unchanging truth through the application of scientific method, you actually do not move toward it at all. You move away from it! It is your application of scientific method that is causing it to change!

Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you’re no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end but a unique event in itself. This leaf has jagged edges. This rock looks loose. From this place the snow is less visible, even though closer. These are things you should notice anyway. To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow.

Mu as “no thing,” neither yes nor no:

The dualistic mind tends to think of mu occurrences in nature as a kind of contextual cheating, or irrelevance, but mu is found throughout all scientific investigation, and nature doesn’t cheat, and nature’s answers are never irrelevant. It’s a great mistake, a kind of dishonesty, to sweep nature’s mu answers under the carpet. Recognition and valuation of these answers would do a lot to bring logical theory closer to experimental practice. Every laboratory scientist knows that very often his experimental results provide mu answers to the yes-no questions the experiments were designed for. In these cases he considers the experiment poorly designed, chides himself for stupidity and at best considers the “wasted” experiment which has provided the mu answer to be a kind of wheel-spinning which might help prevent mistakes in the design of future yes-no experiments.

With nuts and bolts you’re in the range of large mechanical forces and you should understand that within these ranges metals are elastic. When you take up a nut there’s a point called “finger-tight” where there’s contact but no takeup of elasticity. Then there’s “snug,” in which the easy surface elasticity is taken up. Then there’s a range called “tight,” in which all the elasticity is taken up. The force required to reach these three points is different for each size of nut and bolt, and different for lubricated bolts and for locknuts. The forces are different for steel and cast iron and brass and aluminum and plastics and ceramics. But a person with mechanic’s feel knows when something’s tight and stops. A person without it goes right on past and strips the threads or breaks the assembly.

In this book I learned about:

Summer World: A Season of Bounty – Bernd Heinrich, 2009

Read for Nature and Environment. We liked it, although not as much as Winter World – it’s not as focused; it rambles all over the map. It’s a beautifully designed book, with green print on cream paper, but not quite enough contrast for easy reading.

Quotes

The possibility of individual caterpillars to generate amazingly different forms makes me appreciate what is possible in the debate over nature versus nurture. Much of what we are and become depends on minute subtleties, and that gives me hope in the reality of free will, and its power if we choose to exert it.

The sugar borers have achieved, or are held to, something enviable. They are in a world of plenty, so none go hungry, destroy their habitat, or jostle and interfere with each other. Somewhere there is a check on their natural rate of increase, and you can be sure of one thing—that if they could tell us what they wanted at any one time, they would vote to obliterate the forces that hold them in check, the forces that ensure their long-term benefits. And so, probably, would we, if we voted merely on the basis of our individual interests.

We can still compete with cheetahs, lions, and leopards in running down antelope, but we can do it only in the midday heat. And the reason is that we have the mental capacity to pursue a goal that we can neither see nor smell but that we can imagine. Additionally we have a unique suite of adaptation to deal with internally generated body heat under the blazing sun. They include our nakedness, our ability to route blood to the surface of our extremities so that our veins bulge at the surface of exposed skin, and our ability to sweat profusely over the skin. These are capacities needed by hunters who get their edge through endurance in the heat.

In this book I learned

  • Reason for separate leaf/flower buds (which I learned to distinguish when doing spring observation of “Order of Bloom” at the Botanic Garden): strategic time-wise separation, for example wind-pollinated before leaves, bee-pollinated in late summer when insect activity is peaking
  • Woodfrogs “often freeze solid, and in that condition they don’t have a heartbeat, breathing, digestion, or activity of the brain cells. A reputable human pathologist … would conclude that they are dead.”
  • Red-eyed vireos decorate their nests with bits of hornet nests – not as insulation, not structural, and “hornet paper is hard to come by.” Heinrich theorizes maybe it deters squirrels (e.g.) from approaching the nest?
  • Additionally, he says wood thrushes incorporate snake skin, catbirds line their nests with rootlets and decorate with grape bark, and ravens and chickadees use fur – no speculation as to why.
  • In his studies of bumblebees, Heinrich found that individual bees became specialists in particular flowers – “they developed ‘search images’ of what flowers to look for.”
  • Some caterpillars eat leaves selectively so they look the same but smaller (rather than full of holes) – to avoid giving away their presence
  • Longhorn beetles can detect tree injury – “when I chop down a pine, fir, or spruce, one group of these beetles, the sawyers, Monochamus, come flying in—within minutes!”
  • Before flower nectar is available, hummingbirds rely on the insects that yellow-bellied sapsuckers draw to their weep holes
  • “We breed ’em, you feed ’em” — bumper sticker of the Maine Blackfly Breeders Association
  • “Sand grouse in Africa have special feathers on the breast that soak up water so that it can be easily carried back to the nest. The young sip the water from the tips of the feathers, like baby mammals suckling on their mother’s teats.”
  • Cicadas are active when it’s too hot for their predator, cooling themselves with the equivalent of sweat glands.
  • Welwitschia – I love visiting the big one at Smith Botanic Garden!
  • “Perpetual summer species” – long-distance migrating birds. “They can always live in a summer world, thanks to energy-rich berries and heroic sustained exercise. … We manage the same trick of living in perpetual summer, although not by strenuous biannual migrations but by creating and retreating into ‘climate bubbles.'”
  • Heinrich claims humans are unique because we have 3 species of lice (head, body, pubic) and no other bird or mammal does. Really??? Is it possible they just haven’t been looked at closely enough? Why would that be? It only took a minute of searching to find that great apes in general have lice of both Pediculus and Pthirus genera, so I’m a little disappointed in the scholarship there.
  • “We still [post-DDT] release about fifty new chemicals into circulation per week. They are tested on lab rats—animals that never experience summer or winter, that live in dumps, and that when tested have no relation to any ecosystem except a sterile cubic plastic box.”
  • Some tree species “time their blooming by not blooming, and thereby control the seed predator population.”
  • “What we observe now is a result of evolution over hundreds of millions of years. But the selective pressures that have acted on some features in the past are now unlikely to occur every year and may be seen only rarely. Instead, they are probably witnessed only at bottlenecks.” That’s like what Beak of the Finch described.
  • I compared notes with my book group on Heinrich claiming he didn’t know rhododendrons rolled their leaves in the cold until he read it in a 2007 paper about rhodys in the mountains of northern China. “I could not believe my eyes when I saw the leaves of rhododendron of two species planted on our campus also rolling up.” We all knew that from first-hand observation. Plant blindness?

Detransition, Baby – Torrey Peters, 2021

Read for Second Monday group. I had heard a lot about this book… I did not love it, but it was both interesting and funny (very dark, though). I very much appreciated that it centered the trans viewpoint, but the behavior of the one cis character wasn’t believable at all.

Short quotes

  • “Danny was a good boyfriend to have when I was younger, when we were in college. Like, in the same way that a Saint Bernard would be a good dog to have if you were lost in the mountains. A big amiable body that a girl could shelter behind.”
  • Ugh but I understand what she’s saying: “His controlling behavior confirmed how badly he wanted her. Anyone who needed her so close, who assumed the right to know where she was at all times, whom she saw, what she wore, was someone who wasn’t going away, someone who could be counted upon, not just despite her trans-ness, but for it.”
  • “the guillotine of sadness would slam down upon her, severing her from her pride”
  • “All my white girlfriends just automatically assume that reproductive rights are about the right to not have children, as if the right and naturalness of motherhood is presumptive. But for lots of other women in this country, the opposite is true. Think about black women, poor women, immigrant women. Think about forced sterilization, about the term ‘welfare queens,’ or ‘anchor babies.’ All of that happened to enforce the idea that not all motherhoods are legitimate.”
  • “According to Reese, units of disappointment should be measured in the difference between a good mango and a bad mango.”
  • “Cream is even less forgiving than white; a single stain on cream and the whole skirt looks vaguely dirty, whereas a single stain on white just looks like a single stain.”
  • “Not a windowpane remains unbroken in the facade, already so vandalized and graffitied that to deface it further would only waste effort, the delinquent equivalent of pissing in the ocean.”
  • Beyond dark to pitch black: “Q: What do you call a remake of a nineties romantic comedy where you cast trans women in all the roles? A: Four Funerals and a Funeral.”

Longer quotes

“What’s a dōTERRA?” Reese asked.

“It’s an essential oil company,” Katrina said. “We’ll have to sit through a presentation, but at the end, I think we make face scrubs.”

This information did not illuminate the situation for Reese. Making face scrubs with a real estate agent? Is this cis culture? What’s next week? Nail art with your financial planner?

…[dōTERRA] targets, with its upscale essential oils, the anxiety of those wellness-obsessed women who are just a little too beholden to middle-class propriety to permit themselves to take up crystals and anti-vaxxing screeds.

How is it, Reese wonders, that a bunch of New York men wearing flannel and slamming whiskey in a cabin is seen as a sorely needed release of their barely tamed and authentic manliness, but when she, a trans, delights in dolling up, she’s trying too hard? It’s not that Reese thinks her desire to dress up reflects some authentic self. It’s just that, unlike bros, she’s willing to call dress-up time what it is.

In this book I learned about