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.”

August 2022 books read

  • Hot Money – Dick Francis, 1989. Re-read but maybe only for the second time as I think I got it towards the end of my first Francis deep dive. He’s shrinking on me as I age, but I went on to:
  • Longshot – Dick Francis, 1991. This one is still a winner. The relationship between survival writer John Kendall and the family he accidentally falls into is charming, and the plot is good.
  • Detransition, Baby – Torrey Peters, 2021.
  • Summer World: A Season of Bounty – Bernd Heinrich, 2009. Quotes pulled, TBD.
  • Le côté de Guermantes – Marcel Proust, 1920-1921. Quotes pulled, TBD.
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values – Robert M. Pirsig, 1974.
  • Over Sea, Under Stone – Susan Cooper, 1965. Re-read for Annabookbel’s #TDiRS22
  • The Stand – Stephen King, 1978. Umpteenth comfort re-read of the original edition, as I think the updated/uncut version is worse in many ways. But I notice the racism of the original sticks out more each time, and I wonder to what extent he fixed that in the 1990 edition. (I read it once, but that was more than 20 years ago – I agree with the GoodReads reviewer who calls it “probably the single greatest argument for a good editor in publishing history.”)
  • Ex Libris – Matt Madden, 2021. Intriguing meta graphic novel.
  • The Secret to Superhuman Strength – Alison Bechdel, 2021. Much better than Are You My Mother? – equally pretentious, but it worked for me and I very much identified with Bechdel’s love for workout gear and athletic fads.
  • When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi, 2016. I heard a lot about this touching memoir when it came out and finally got around to reading it – it is very good.
  • Wild Boy: My Life in Duran Duran – Andy Taylor, 2008. Unfortunately not very well-written or interesting, especially compared to In the Pleasure Groove, but that one had a co-writer (Tom Sykes). If AT had a ghost for this, they didn’t do a very good job. He doesn’t seem very self-aware or to have thought about what readers would want to know. Nonetheless I’m a big enough Duran Duran fan that I’m glad I read it. And this comparison is making me change my mind a bit – perhaps AT has more good bits scattered in there, hidden in the thicket of cliches…
  • Mistress Masham’s Repose – T. H. White, 1946. Another many-times comfort re-read. I shared the especially funny bits with Jonathan so I’ve compiled them.
  • The Talented Mr. Ripley – Patricia Highsmith, 1955. I finally read this after watching Purple Noon with the Far Out Film group (I also saw the 1999 film early on) and liked it OK – not my favorite genre and so dark, but I can see why it’s a classic of its kind.

And a short story: “Cold Clews,” one of Erle Stanley Gardner‘s stories featuring Lester Leith, recommended by Jonathan. Leith is a con man who simultaneously solves thefts and gets the goods for himself by incredibly baroque con jobs, and this was the wackiest one in the collection Jonathan read. I see this format is described as “puzzle plots.”

Mistress Masham’s Repose – T. H. White, 1946 – the funny bits

Not a proper post, just a listing of some place-names:

  • Biggle
  • Bishop’s Boozey
  • Bumley-Beausnort
  • Duke’s Doddery
  • Dumbledum-Meanly
  • Dunamany Wenches
  • Gloomleigh
  • Idiot’s Utterly
  • High Hiccough
  • Maid’s Malplaquet
  • Malplaquet-in-the-Mould
  • Malplaquet Middling
  • Malplaquet St. Swithin’s
  • Mome
  • Monk’s-Unmentionable-cum-Mumble
  • Ort

And the sequence of interactions between the Professor and the Lord Lieutenant:

The Professor had found the Lord Lieutenant out of bed. The latter happened to be the Master of the Malplaquet Hounds, the one with the electric bell-indicator which Maria had coveted for Gull Island, and he had evidently been having a Hunt Ball or a Farmers Dinner, for he was dressed in a scarlet tail coat with violet facings, and was wearing the buttons of the Hunt, awarded only For Valor. He had changed into mauve carpet slippers with his monogram worked in gold.

He was a tall man with an anxious expression, and he had a walrus mustache which he had to lift with one finger, when he wanted to eat.

He took the Professor into the Dining Room, and gave him a glass of port, while the latter told his story.

The Dining Room had a polished mahogany table with a sideboard to match, and fourteen chairs ranged round the walls, where the servants had to say their prayers every morning. The wallpaper was dark red and there were oil paintings on the walls. There was a picture of the Lord Lieutenant on a Borzoi-looking horse, by Lionel Edwards, with a lot of hounds wandering about among its legs. There was one of the Lady Lieutenant, on a roly-poly one, by Munnings, and another of some of the little Lieutenants, on anatomical ones, by Stewart. There was a baby Lieutenant, on a rocking horse, and several generations of Grandpa Lieutenants, on mounts called Mazeppa, Eclipse, or the Arab Steed. Some of the pictures were of mares and stallions by themselves, and these included honest creatures by Romney, fiery creatures by Delacroix, sagacious creatures by Landseer, and dotty animals with distended nostrils by anonymous eighteenth-century artists. The only person not on a horse was the Hon. Lettuce Lieutenant, the eldest daughter, who had made the mistake of being done by Augustus John. He had left it out on purpose, out of spite.

The Lord Lieutenant said: “But I say, I mean to say, do you mean to say, old boy, that this vicar of yours and that charmin’ Miss What’s-her-name have been maltreatin’ the gel in the what-do-you-may-call-it?”

“I have been trying to tell you …”

“But, good Lord, my dear chap, you can’t do that sort of thing in the nineteenth century, or the twentieth, or whatever it is. I mean, you take the first two figures, and add one, or subtract one, I forgot which, for reasons I never could fathom, possibly owin’ to these X’s which those chaps are always writin’ on monuments, and then it is different. Now, take horses …”

The Lord Lieutenant poured himself a glass of port, inserted it neatly under his mustache, and eyed the Professor warily across a silver horse full of walnuts.

“There you are, you see. All hearsay. Now, take horses. You are always meetin’ chaps who say they know of a horse that trotted thirty miles an hour, but when you ask them was it their horse, they say it was some other chap’s horse, and there you are. Now …”

“Good heavens …”

“Here, have a cigar. We keep them in this filly here, for parties. Look, you just press her tail down, like this, and the cigar comes out of her mouth, like that, oh, I’m sorry, and at the same moment her nostrils burst into flame, so that you can light it. Neat, isn’t it?”

The cigar shot out of a gold-plated steed, hitting the Professor on the nose, while a musical box inside the creature’s stomach played the last bars of “A-Huntin’ We Will Go.”

“I came to ask …”

“My dear old boy, look here, be advised by me. You drop the whole thing. You’ve got it muddled up. Perfectly natural, of course; no criticism intended. Anybody could get muddled on a thing like that, I should have done myself. But when you’ve been a Lord Lieutenant as long as I have, or a Chief Constable, or whatever I am, you’ll know that the first thing a Lord Lieutenant has to get hold of is a motive. Can’t have a crime without it. I assure you, it’s an absolute fact. First thing a criminal must do is get a motive. It’s in a book I read. Printed. Now what motive could Miss What-you-may-call-it possibly have for wanting to hand-cuff young Thingummy in the what’s-it?”

“Whereabouts, eh? Gypsies, I daresay. Wonderful chaps with horses. Now …”

“Not roundabouts!” shouted the Professor. “Whereabouts …”

“Here, have some coffee. We keep it in this copper horse here, with the methylated lamp under its tummy. You just twist his near fore, like this, and it pours out of his ear, like that, oh, I’m sorry, and the sugar is strewed about in this silver-plated stable here, to represent bedding. Pretty, isn’t it?”

The Professor mopped the coffee off his knees despairingly, while the coffeepot played “John Peel.”

“I have a right as a citizen of this country to ask for police protection, and it is your duty, as the Lord Lieutenant, to investigate the grounds …”

“Good Lord, old boy, you can’t have police protection here. What’s the good of sending old Dumbledum to protect you? Besides, I happen to know he has a lumbago. His wife sent up to borrow a smoothing iron only this evening. And who, may I ask, would stop all the motor cars, and take their licenses and that, if Dumbledum was protecting you all the time?”

“Dumbledum …”

“Here, have a chocolate. We keep them in this china hunter here, for convenience. You just lift its tail, like this, and the chocolate comes out there, like that, oh, I’m sorry, and he plays the ‘Meynell Hunt,’ only some of the notes are missing. Useful, isn’t it?”

The Professor fished the chocolate out of his coffee with fury.

“And another thing, old boy. What about witnesses? That’s one of the first things you have to have in a crime, believe me, as a Lord Lieutenant—unless you go in for circumstantial evidence, as we call it, or whatever they call it. Witnesses! It’s vital. You can’t do anything, hardly, without them. Look at that fellow who blew the other fellow up, unless it was himself, in the garage, or the swimmin’ bath, or whatever it was, only the other day. He had dozens of witnesses. Blew them all up as well. You see? I mean, you could almost say that you can’t do a crime without ’em. And where are yours, do you suppose?”

“I have a witness, Mrs. Noakes.”

“And who is Mrs. Noakes, when she’s at home?”

“Mrs. Noakes is the cook at Malplaquet.”

“Good Lord, not Mrs. Noakes! Mrs. Noakes is Mrs. Noakes? Why, I know Mrs. Noakes as well as me own mother. That’s an extraordinary thing, I must say, I mean that she should be her! Well, I remember her quails in aspic, in the old Duke’s day, poor fellow, yes, and her oyster soufflé. An invaluable woman. Often we tried to get her to come over to us, but she preferred to stay. Family feelin’. Now, take horses …”

“Not horses!”

“Well, hounds then.”

“Not hounds!”

“Yes, hounds. Take hounds. A hound will eat almost anything.”

“Here, have a cigarette. We keep them in this platinum polo pony here, for sentimental reasons. It’s an old pony of my own, poor chap. Dead, of course. Must have been dead about forty years by now. You just lift up the polo stick, like this, and he opens his mouth, like that, and out comes a cigarette, oh, I’m sorry, use a napkin, and, as you see, he plays ‘Old Faithful.’ Sad, isn’t it?”

The platinum pony had shot out a stream of about fifty cigarettes, knocking over the coffee and the port into the Professor’s lap.

He leaped to his feet, banged the table, and shouted wildly: “I demand a hearing! I refuse to be pelted with these articles!”

Then he folded his arms and sat down on a comic cushion, which began to play “Boot, Saddle, to Horse, and Away.”

“Good Lord, old boy, what are you sitting on that for? You aren’t supposed to sit on that. It’s supposed to be a sort of trick, to catch people …”

The Professor hurled the cushion on the floor, which made it play again, swept several horses out of the way, and shook his fist under the Lord Lieutenant’s nose.

“No good browbeatin’ me, old boy. Everybody always browbeats Lord Lieutenants. Doesn’t do a bit of good. To tell you the bitter truth, I simply don’t believe a word you say. Tryin’ to pull me leg. Won’t work. Now, if Mrs. Noakes was to tell me all this about dungeons and things, I’d believe her like a shot. I’d believe her if she told me that a mince pie was a ham omelet. But when a chap like you comes along, jabberin’ about roundabouts …”

“But I tell you that Mrs. Noakes will corroborate what I say …”

“Produce her, then. Produce your witness. That’s what we say, in the Law, you know. Produce your witness.”

“How can I produce her when she’s an old woman with a bad leg five miles away in the middle of the night?”

“There you are, you see. As soon as we get down to brass tacks, you always say it can’t be done. Like trottin’ at thirty miles an hour. I say I’ll believe Mrs. Noakes, you say you can’t produce her. I say I don’t believe you, you start chuckin’ cushions about. Now, take horses …”

The Professor clutched his whiskers.

“Take horses. You can always believe a horse. I always say to everybody, Give me a horse, and I’ll believe it. If a horse says there is wire in that gap, believe me, my boy, there is wire in it. Or take hounds. I always say to everybody, Give me a hound, and I’ll believe it. If a hound says there is a fox in that gooseberry bush, or in that hatbox, or wherever it is, believe me, my boy, there is a fox in it. Always believe a horse or a hound.”

The Professor had sunk back in his chair, pulling his hair out in tufts, when there was a gentle scratching on the door.

“That’s one of the hounds,” said the Lord Lieutenant happily. “Let him in, there’s a good fellow. I suppose I must have fourteen or fifteen of them round about the house, in various places. They sit under all those chairs at dinner and wait for biscuits, like dear old Lord Lonsdale. Always believe …”

A footman, however, opened the door, and announced deferentially: “A strange dog, me Lord.”

Captain was standing politely on the mat, with a shopping basket in his mouth. When he saw the Professor, he wagged his tail and came in.

The Professor read the letter in the basket and passed it to the Lord Lieutenant.

“Read for yourself.”

“Dear me, a letter from the dog. Interesting, very.”

He produced an eyeglass from his waistcoat pocket, disentangled the ribbon from his mustache, fixed it in his eye, and began to spell the letter out.

“ ‘Kind sir come back at onct …’ Bad spelling, that. Should be an S in it. However, you can’t expect good spelling from a dog. It’s not their nature. ‘… as them as what you knows of sir is up to triks again, namely that here Vicar and his fly by nite’—Good Lord, that will be Miss What’s-her-name, just like you said—‘and have gorn off’—good heavens—‘gorn off to cut Maria’s throat’! Poor child, poor child, good gracious, this is shockin’! ‘So please to come at onct’—I should think so, too—‘as If not it may be two late and Tell His Lordship’—that will be me, I expect—‘to bring the Army’! My stars, thank heaven the hound has come in time! Always believe a hound! How clever of him to write it. Must have learned it in a circus or somewhere. Bring the Army, he says. Yes, of course. The Army. Fancy cutting a child’s throat like that! Well, we must act. Action. Let me see. Where’s Kingdom? Somebody fetch me Kingdom. Oh, there you are, Kingdom. Here, Kingdom, get me some people on the telephone. Get me the Army and the Navy and the Air Force and the Fire Brigade and the Home Guard and the Rural District Council and the St. John’s Ambulance Association. Get me. Here, get me the telephone. I’ll do it meself.”

The butler carried in a telephone in the form of a plastic Derby winner, and the Lord Lieutenant began to shout commands into its mouth, occasionally applying its tail to his ear.

“Is that the Exchange? Where is the Exchange? Why not? Well then, why didn’t you say so? Get me Mr. Winston Churchill. Certainly I said Mr. Winston Churchill. Give him to me at once. Who the deuce are you, Sir? I tell you I’m the Lord Lieutenant. No, I’m not. Yes, you are. An imposter? So are you. That settled him. What? My good man, what’s the use of Mr. Attlee? Get me Mr. Churchill, like I said.”

Well, they dissuaded him from recalling Mr. Churchill at last. After that, he wanted to have General Eisenhower, Field Marshal Montgomery or Scotland Yard. The Professor cunningly went aside and wrote a message, which he persuaded Captain to deliver, saying that though the Far Eastern Battle Fleet might be very useful, yet they themselves, being on the spot, would be sure to get there sooner. The Lord Lieutenant was delighted by this second example of canine sagacity, and agreed to send at once for P. C. Dumbledum. The posse was collected without further argument.

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.


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

July 2022 books read

  • The Story of Doctor Dolittle: Being the History of his Peculiar Life at Home and Astonishing Adventures in Foreign Parts – Hugh Lofting, 1920. The Doctor Dolittle books were a huge influence on me as a kid – they’re about love of animals, passion for learning, pacifism, anti-materialism, egalitarianism, and rejection of convention. I read and re-read many of them, especially Doctor Dolittle and the Secret Lake and The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle. I own all of them except this one (I had the abridged picture book edition which doesn’t count), and Jonathan brought it home from the League of Women Voters book sale! And… it’s nowhere near as good as the subsequent ones, plus super-racist/colonialist. But it’s got the origin story of a bunch of the household animals.
  • Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen – Mary Norris, 2015. Who the heck is the audience for this book?!? I mostly enjoyed it despite Norris’ unsuccessful attempts to simultaneously appeal to grammar newbies, New Yorker nerds (right there the Venn diagram shrinks to nothingness), and memoir lovers.
  • Improvement – Joan Silber, 2017. For Second Monday but I didn’t pull any quotes, which means it left little impression. Not bad, but not at all memorable.
  • Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape – Barry Lopez, 1986.
  • A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens, 1859.
  • When I Grow Up – Julianna Hatfield, 2008. I love Julianna’s music (Minor Alps, a collaboration with my brother, is brilliant and never got the recognition it should have IMO…) and this was candid and compelling, but a depressing and harrowing read.
  • The Sculptor – Scott McCloud, 2015. I was blown away by Understanding Comics when it came out, and have admired McCloud ever since. This was both more accessible and more enthralling than I expected. The end made me cry. Graphic novels aren’t may favorite genre, but this one is great.
  • The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science – Culdasa (John Yates), 2015. This is the first truly helpful meditation book I’ve read to go beyond the basics of “note your thoughts, let them go.” It explicitly lays out steps to proceed through the stages of meditation (using the breath at the nostrils) and how to handle the hindrances and pitfalls that arise. I borrowed it through the library but will buy my own copy – a step I rarely take these days, only with books I will intend to keep for the rest of my life.
  • From Spare Oom to War Drobe: Travels in Narnia with my Nine Year-Old Self – Katherine Langrish, 2021. Read for #Narniathon2021.
  • No Exit – Taylor Adams, 2018. Change of pace: a can’t-put-it-down thriller. I loved its plot twists even though a couple telegraphed themselves from miles away. I’d rank this with Vertical Run as a reader’s advisory “Sure Bet.”

Peter Caws papers: the last few were in Spanish so I didn’t list them, but this month I digitized and uploaded “The Paradox of Induction and the Inductive Wager.” I learned strong and weak induction in CS 250 and could barely wrap my head around that, so to really follow this argument I’d need to read it a bunch more times. I’d rather focus on digitizing more papers, but it’s out there now for anyone else who wants to dive in!

A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens, 1859

Re-read for Great Books. I loved it in high school, but it didn’t hold up as well as other Dickens novels for me. Sydney Carton was the most interesting character but we get so little insight into why he’s wasted his life.

Short quotes

  • “Perhaps second-hand cares, like second-hand clothes, come easily off and on.”
  • “The little narrow, crooked town of Dover hid itself away from the beach, and ran its head into the chalk cliffs, like a marine ostrich.”
  • “The fountain in the village flowed unseen and unheard, and the fountain at the chateau dropped unseen and unheard—both melting away, like the minutes that were falling from the spring of Time.”
  • “faces hardened in the furnaces of suffering until the touch of pity could make no mark on them”
  • “that peculiar kind of short cough requiring the hollow of a hand before it, which is seldom, if ever, known to be an infirmity attendant on perfect openness of character”
  • “Sadly, sadly, the sun rose; it rose upon no sadder sight than the man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible of the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away.”

Longer quotes

I recently came across the word “sonder,” coined about 2012. But Dickens described the idea perfectly, a century and a half ago:

A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this. No more can I turn the leaves of this dear book that I loved, and vainly hope in time to read it all. No more can I look into the depths of this unfathomable water, wherein, as momentary lights glanced into it, I have had glimpses of buried treasure and other things submerged. It was appointed that the book should shut with a spring, for ever and for ever, when I had read but a page. It was appointed that the water should be locked in an eternal frost, when the light was playing on its surface, and I stood in ignorance on the shore. My friend is dead, my neighbour is dead, my love, the darling of my soul, is dead; it is the inexorable consolidation and perpetuation of the secret that was always in that individuality, and which I shall carry in mine to my life’s end. In any of the burial-places of this city through which I pass, is there a sleeper more inscrutable than its busy inhabitants are, in their innermost personality, to me, or than I am to them?

It was a large, dark room, furnished in a funereal manner with black horsehair, and loaded with heavy dark tables. These had been oiled and oiled, until the two tall candles on the table in the middle of the room were gloomily reflected on every leaf; as if they were buried, in deep graves of black mahogany, and no light to speak of could be expected from them until they were dug out.

“I don’t want dozens of people who are not at all worthy of Ladybird, to come here looking after her,” said Miss Pross.

“Do dozens come for that purpose?”

“Hundreds,” said Miss Pross.

It was characteristic of this lady (as of some other people before her time and since) that whenever her original proposition was questioned, she exaggerated it.

In this book I learned about:

Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape – Barry Lopez, 1986

Read for Nature & Environment. A profound book, one of the best I’ve read this decade. It’s up there with Braiding Sweetgrass in terms of changing the way I look at the world. I had somehow gotten Lopez mixed up with Bruce Chatwin, whose writing I don’t care for, so this was a revelation. It’s beautifully written, but the most striking thing about it is the breadth of ideas and observations, leading to insights I’ve never heard expressed elsewhere.

Short quotes

  • “Eskimos, who sometimes see themselves as still not quite separate from the animal world, regard us as a kind of people whose separation may have become too complete. They call us, with a mixture of incredulity and apprehension, ‘the people who change nature.'”
  • “unnerving with their primitive habits: a mother wiping away a child’s feces with her hair, a man pinching the heart of a snared bird to kill it, so as not to ruin the feathers”
  • “Mankind is, in fact, even older than the Arctic, if you consider his history to have begun with the emergence of Cro-Magnon people in Europe 40,000 years ago.”
  • “Sitting high on a sea cliff in sunny, blustery weather in late June—the familiar sense of expansiveness, of deep exhilaration such weather brings over one, combined with the opportunity to watch animals, is summed up in a single Eskimo word: quviannikumut, ‘to feel deeply happy'”
  • “Watching the animals come and go, and feeling the land swell up to meet them and then feeling it grow still at their departure, I came to think of the migrations as breath, as the land breathing. In spring a great inhalation of light and animals. The long-bated breath of summer. And an exhalation that propelled them all south in the fall.”
  • “Sciences are occasionally so bound by rational analysis, or so wary of metaphor, that they recognize and denounce anthropomorphism as a kind of intellectual cancer, instead of employing it as a tool of comparative inquiry, which is perhaps the only way the mind works, that parallelism we finally call narrative.”
  • “To a modern traveler the arctic landscape can seem numbingly monotonous, but this impression is gained largely, I think, from staring at empty maps of the region and from traveling around in it by airplane. The airplane, like the map, creates a false sense of space; it achieves simplicity and compression, however, not with an enforced perspective but by altering the relationship between space and time.”
  • “We sometimes mistake a rude life for a rude mind; raw meat for barbarism; lack of conversation for lack of imagination.”
  • “the caution with which one should approach any journal, of the tendency to make a single appealing narrative stand for the entire experience or, worse, to stand in place of the experience”
  • “The notion of Eskimos exploring their own lands and adapting anew at the same time Europeans were exploring the Arctic was something the Europeans were never aware of. They thought of the Arctic as fixed in time—a primitive landscape, a painting, inhabited by an attenuated people. They mistook the stillness and the cold for biological stasis. They thought nothing at all changed here. They thought it was a desert, a wasteland.”
  • “What is the point at which the ‘tragic’ loneliness of an individual, which drives him toward accomplishment, no longer effectively leads but confounds the well-being of the larger society?”

Longer quotes

At the heart of this narrative, then, are three themes: the influence of the arctic landscape on the human imagination. How a desire to put a landscape to use shapes our evaluation of it. And, confronted by an unknown landscape, what happens to our sense of wealth. What does it mean to grow rich? Is it to have red-blooded adventures and to make a fortune, which is what brought the whalers and other entrepreneurs north? Or is it, rather, to have a good family life and to be imbued with a far-reaching and intimate knowledge of one’s homeland, which is what the Tununirmiut told the whalers at Pond’s Bay wealth was? Is it to retain a capacity for awe and astonishment in our lives, to continue to hunger after what is genuine and worthy? Is it to live at moral peace with the universe?

Muskoxen are unique among ruminants in the amount of body contact they make. Even when they are fleeing, they gallop away shoulder to shoulder, flank to flank. One of the most dazzling displays of this I ever witnessed occurred on Seward Peninsula when a herd of muskoxen spun around on a hill in confusion at the approach of a low-flying aircraft. They moved as a single animal, rising in a tight turn to change direction. The wild, synchronous sweep of their long skirts was like a dark wave of water climbing a sea cliff before falling back on itself.

On land, the bear is protected by a thick underlayer of dense wool and a relatively open layer of guard hairs about six inches long. These guard hairs are so hard and shiny they appear synthetic. They are also hollow, which means that a polar bear’s fur stays erect and doesn’t mat when it is wet. Also, because of the open spacing and smoothness of its guard hairs, a bear can easily shake free of water before it freezes. (He also rolls in snow, an excellent blotter, to daub off moisture—as do people who accidently fall through the ice.)

These stories, of course, are from another era; but the craven taunting, the witless insensitivity, and the phony sense of adventure that propelled them are not from another age. They still afflict us. For these men, the bear had no intrinsic worth, no spiritual power of intercession, no ability to elevate human life. The circumstances of its death emphasized the breach with man. During these same years, by contrast, the killing of polar bears by Eskimos occurred in an atmosphere of respect, with implicit spiritual obligations. The dead bear, for example, was propitiated with gifts. Such an act of propitiation is sometimes dismissed as “superstition.” “Technique of awareness” would come much closer to the mark, words that remind you of what you are dealing with.

The ecotone [transitional area] at the Admiralty Inlet floe edge extends in two planes. In order to pass under the ice from the open sea, an animal must be free of a need for atmospheric oxygen; the floe edge, therefore, is a barrier to the horizontal migration of whales. In the vertical plane, no bird can penetrate the ice and birds like gulls can’t go below water with guillemots to feed on schools of fish. Sunlight, too, is halted at these borders.

Because you have seen something doesn’t mean you can explain it. Differing interpretations will always abound, even when good minds come to bear. The kernel of indisputable information is a dot in space; interpretations grow out of the desire to make this point a line, to give it a direction. The directions in which it can be sent, the uses to which it can be put by a culturally, professionally, and geographically diverse society, are almost without limit. The possibilities make good scientists chary. In a region like the Arctic, tense with a hunger for wealth, with fears of plunder, interpretation can quickly get beyond a scientist’s control. When asked to assess the meaning of a biological event—What were those animals doing out there? Where do they belong?—they hedge. They are sometimes reluctant to elaborate on what they saw, because they cannot say what it means, and they are suspicious of those who say they know. Some even distrust the motives behind the questions.

We know more about the rings of Saturn than we know about the narwhal. Where do they go and what do they eat in the winter, when it is too dark and cold for us to find them? The Chilean poet and essayist Pablo Neruda wonders in his memoirs how an animal this large can have remained so obscure and uncelebrated. Its name, he thought, was “the most beautiful of undersea names, the name of a sea chalice that sings, the name of a crystal spur.” Why, he wondered, had no one taken Narwhal for a last name, or built “a beautiful Narwhal Building?”

When they are feeding in the grain fields around Tule Lake, the geese come and go in flocks of five or ten thousand. Sometimes there are forty or fifty thousand in the air at once. They rise from the fields like smoke in great, swirling currents, rising higher and spreading wider in the sky than one’s field of vision can encompass. One fluid, recurved sweep of ten thousand of them passes through the spaces within another, counterflying flock; while beyond them lattice after lattice passes, like sliding Japanese walls, until in the whole sky you lose your depth of field and feel as though you are looking up from the floor of the ocean through shoals of fish.

After the herds have gone, the calving grounds can seem like the most deserted places on earth, even if you can sense strongly that the caribou will be back next year. When they do return, hardly anything will have changed. A pile of caribou droppings may take thirty years to remineralize on the calving grounds. The carcass of a wolf-killed caribou may lie undisturbed for three or four years. Time pools in the stillness here and then dissipates. The country is emptied of movement.

Eskimos quickly grasp the essence of any mechanical problem and solve it. Even when the object is something they’ve never seen before, they will select from “scrap” or “waste” material something with the right tensile strength or capacity for torsion or elasticity, something with the necessary resistance to heat, repeated freezing or corrosion, and shape it with simple tools into a serviceable if not permanent solution. Nineteenth-century explorers remarked on this capacity often, as have modern scientists with broken outboard engines and wristwatches.
Very sharp, someone once said, these broadly smiling men with no pockets, no hats, and no wheels.

The first icebergs we had seen, just north of the Strait of Belle Isle, listing and guttered by the ocean, seemed immensely sad, exhausted by some unknown calamity. We sailed past them. Farther north they began to seem like stragglers fallen behind an army, drifting, self-absorbed, in the water, bleak and immense. It was as if they had been borne down from a world of myth, some Götterdämmerung of noise and catastrophe. Fallen pieces of the moon.
Farther to the north they stood on their journeys with greater strength. They were monolithic; their walls, towering and abrupt, suggested Potala Palace at Lhasa in Tibet, a mountainous architecture of ascetic contemplation. We would pass between them, separated from them by no more than half a mile. I would walk from one side of the ship to the other, wondering how something so imposing in its suggestion of life could be approached so closely, and yet still seem so remote. It was like standing in a dirigible off Annapurna and Everest in the Himalayas.

In its initial stages, the crystalline structure of sea ice incorporates brine and is not solid. It will therefore bend under a load before it fractures, while newly formed freshwater ice, brittle and also more transparent, will fracture suddenly, like a windowpane. (Because of its elasticity, even sea ice four inches thick is unsafe to walk on, while freshwater ice only half as thick will support a human being.)

The variety of ice types and the many patterns of its fracture and dislocation amaze a first-time visitor. What could become as ordinary underfoot as soil or rock remains as exotic as the surface of another planet. When nilas sags beneath you, your legs have no idea what to do. If you are forced to cross a series of pressure ridges with a heavy sledge, or must fight constantly to keep a small boat from being crushed in moving pack ice, you have difficulty imagining any landscape more exhausting or humbling.

If I were a painter, I, too, would be taken with the fullness and subtle quality of the light here. You have the color balances from all twenty-four hours from which to choose, the sweeping lines of crisp desert vistas under huge prairie skies, and the rarefied air with which to work. Ice and water push the light up beneath cliffs and into other places where you would expect to find shadows, and back into the sky where it fills the air. At certain hours the land has the resolution of a polished diamond.

Luminist painters sought out a soothing and restful light, which they found along the New England coast at places like Provincetown, Massachusetts. The art critic John Russell, alluding to the nation’s mood after the Civil War, has called it “a healing light.” I think of these New England paintings because the light in them, the plein-air essence of it, is a familiar light in the Arctic. As I traveled to and from Resolute, especially in the evening hours around midnight, I beheld scenes that reminded me forcefully of the work of luminists like Fitz Hugh Lane. At Cape Vera, Devon Island, one evening, the water in Jones Sound was so black and matte-finished it looked like scorched earth, and the icebergs floating in it were so brilliant my eye could not rest on their surfaces. Another time, off the west coast of Ellef Ringnes Island, the air, not the sun, seemed to be the source of a flat, breathy light, within which I saw only long, restful lines: a bare strand meeting the dark water, and the water the vacant blue of the sky. And yet again on Banks Island, at two in the morning, I saw a herd of muskoxen moving across a shallow slope of green grass in strong light, through air as bright as if it had just been washed in a summer rain, with brilliant, individual pinpoints of purple lousewort and white avens in the foreground. As in the New England paintings, it was as though “all that one beheld was full of blessing.”

We desire not merely to know the sorts of things that are revealed in scientific papers but to know what is beautiful and edifying in a faraway place. Considering the tradition of distant travelers, the range of their interests and the range of their countrymen’s desire to know, the government camp on Cornwallis Island seemed an impoverished outpost. There were no provisions there for painters, for musicians, for novelists. And there were no historians there. If the quest for knowledge in any remote place is meant in an egalitarian sense to be useful to all, then this is a peculiar situation. Yet it is no different from what one would find in a hundred other such remote places around the world. Whenever we seek to take swift and efficient possession of places completely new to us, places we neither own nor understand, our first and often only assessment is a scientific one. And so our evaluations remain unfinished.

Whatever evaluation we finally make of a stretch of land, however, no matter how profound or accurate, we will find it inadequate. The land retains an identity of its own, still deeper and more subtle than we can know. Our obligation toward it then becomes simple: to approach with an uncalculating mind, with an attitude of regard. To try to sense the range and variety of its expression—its weather and colors and animals. To intend from the beginning to preserve some of the mystery within it as a kind of wisdom to be experienced, not questioned. And to be alert for its openings, for that moment when something sacred reveals itself within the mundane, and you know the land knows you are there.

If the mind releases its fiduciary grip on time, does not dole it out in a fretful way like a valued commodity but regards it as undifferentiated, like the flatness of the landscape, it is possible to transcend distance—to travel very far without anxiety, to not be defeated by the great reach of the land. If one is dressed well and carrying a little food, and has the means to secure more food and to construct shelter, the mind is that much more free to work with the senses in an appreciation of the country.

Stefansson was once asked by an Eskimo to whom he was showing a pair of binoculars for the first time whether he could “see into tomorrow” with them. Stefansson took the question literally and was amused. What the inuk probably meant was, Are those things powerful enough to see something that will not reach you for another day, like migrating caribou? Or a part of the landscape suitable for a campsite, which you yourself will not reach for another day?

It is impossible to separate their culture from these landscapes. The land is like a kind of knowledge traveling in time through them. Land does for them what architecture sometimes does for us. It provides a sense of place, of scale, of history; and a conviction that what they most dread—annihilation, eclipse—will not occur.

For Whorf, language was something man created in his mind and projected onto reality, something he imposed on the landscape, as though the land were a receptacle for his imagination. I think there are possibly two things wrong with this thought. First, the landscape is not inert; and it is precisely because it is alive that it eventually contradicts the imposition of a reality that does not derive from it. Second, language is not something man imposes on the land. It evolves in his conversation with the land—in testing the sea ice with the toe of a kamik, in the eating of a wild berry, in repairing a sled by the light of a seal-oil lamp. A long-lived inquiry produces a discriminating language. The very order of the language, the ecology of its sounds and thoughts, derives from the mind’s intercourse with the landscape. To learn the indigenous language, then, is to know what the speakers of the language have made of the land.

The literature of arctic exploration is frequently offered as a record of resolute will before the menacing fortifications of the landscape. It is more profitable I think to disregard this notion—that the land is an adversary bent on human defeat, that the people who came and went were heroes or failures in this. It is better to contemplate the record of human longing to achieve something significant, to be free of some of the grim weight of life. That weight was ignorance, poverty of spirit, indolence, and the threat of anonymity and destitution. This harsh landscape became the focus of a desire to separate oneself from those things and to overcome them. In these arctic narratives, then, are the threads of dreams that serve us all.

The land in some places is truly empty; in other places it is only apparently empty. To those who had no interest in the movement of animals, the entire region seemed empty. They could not grasp a crucial fact—seminomadic people living here in such small numbers were an indication that the animals themselves moved around. Either the animals did not stay long in one place, or there were not very many of them to begin with, or they were very hard to kill. Or there would be more people, living in more permanent dwellings. The land was not empty, but it teemed with animals that would sustain men only in a certain, very limited way. To know this you either had to live there or depend on the advice of the people who did.

One of the oldest dreams of mankind is to find a dignity that might include all living things. And one of the greatest of human longings must be to bring such dignity to one’s own dreams, for each to find his or her own life exemplary in some way. The struggle to do this is a struggle because an adult sensibility must find some way to include all the dark threads of life. A way to do this is to pay attention to what occurs in a land not touched by human schemes, where an original order prevails.

The dignity we seek is one beyond that articulated by Enlightenment philosophers. A more radical Enlightenment is necessary, in which dignity is understood as an innate quality, not as something tendered by someone outside. And that common dignity must include the land and its plants and creatures. Otherwise it is only an invention, and not, as it should be, a perception about the nature of living matter.

We tend to think of places like the Arctic, the Antarctic, the Gobi, the Sahara, the Mojave, as primitive, but there are in fact no primitive or even primeval landscapes. Neither are there permanent landscapes. And nowhere is the land empty or underdeveloped. It cannot be improved upon with technological assistance. The land, an animal that contains all other animals, is vigorous and alive.

No culture has yet solved the dilemma each has faced with the growth of a conscious mind: how to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in all life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s own culture but within oneself. If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of a leaning into the light.

In this book I learned about:

  • Interestingly, Lopez sometimes introduces terms before defining them, specifically savssat (“A Crowding of Arctic Animals at Holes in the Sea Ice”) and polynya. That works for me because I learned most of my vocabulary through context, but I wonder if it’s on purpose?
  • I wanted to find the “advertisement for a well-known ale” that David Brainard supposedly carved into a rock on the coast of Greenland. References exist but I can’t find a photo.
  • Dorset Culture art
  • Fothering
  • Similar to isotherms: isograms (magnetic gradients) and isanthers (time gradients for the blooming of flowers)
  • Rutter
  • Lopez claims that lemmings are “too small to grow hair long enough for insulation and still be able to walk”
  • “Noting that fats in the caribou’s leg joints congealed at lower temperatures the farther they were from the body core, they took the fat from the foot to use as a lubricant for bowstrings in freezing temperatures. (Western civilizations made the same discovery with cattle, whence neat’s-foot oil.)”
  • Polar bear “pries tiny thalia from a kelp strand with a single claw” – can’t find what those are? Unless he means thalli?
  • Muskoxen defending a calf until all the adults are dead hit me hard – “must have been one of the most pathetic sights ever engineered by civilized people.”
  • Many mirages were thought to be Arctic places to explore – mountain ranges and islands (“Crocker Land,” “Barnard Mountains” etc.)
  • Brasil” or “Hy-Brasil” was near Ireland (I had heard of it but thought it was related to Brazil, which it’s not).
  • Class and job differences hindered knowledge diffusion. “No one class or culture can pretend to entirely grasp a stretch of land.”

June 2022 books read

  • The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis (alternate subtitle: The Stubborn Optimist’s Guide to the Climate Crisis) – Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac, 2020. For Nature & Environment. I thought I had marked quotes, but apparently not? It was as encouraging as a climate change book can be and still be realistic… sigh.
  • Mary’s Neck – Booth Tarkington, 1932. A Jonathan recommendation I loved discussing with him. It’s the tale of a Midwestern family who try to join the in-crowd at a summer resort in Maine. Lots of humor that builds over the episodes, with recurring characters whose foibles create suspense as you wonder what social disaster will ensue this time. I probably wouldn’t read it again but I’m glad I checked it out.
  • The Letter of the Law – Carole Berry, 1987. I love books set in workplaces, and Jonathan recommended this Bonnie Indermill series because she’s in a different environment each time. This is the first, featuring a law firm. I did finish it but it wasn’t very satisfactory – it felt like there was no there there, with not enough humor and a boring mystery.
  • Scarred: The True Story of How I Escaped NXIVM, the Cult That Bound My Life – Sarah Edmondson, 2019. I picked this up after listening to part of an episode of the A Little Bit Culty episode. I’m intrigued by cults in general and had heard a bit about NXIVM but haven’t watched the documentary (The Vow, HBO). NXIVM seems to be like Scientology in combining features of religion, self-help, and MLM. I did finish it, but it left me puzzled about why the cult was able to attract and keep so many people.
  • The Dutch House – Ann Patchett, 2019.
  • Les Misérables – Victor Hugo, 1862 (tr. Isabel F. Hapgood, 1887). I’m reading this slowly in French with the Amherst group but finished it fast in translation for Great Books, so will end up with two sets of quotes. In case I don’t get to this ever, giant plug for the amazing Les Misérables Reading Companion podcast, which I am enjoying alongside our weekly discussions. I wish there was something similar for more books, but it’s a tremendous amount of work. Thank you, Briana Lewis, for your labor of love! (I did kick in a donation to help cover the costs because it’s so great)
  • The Last Battle – C. S. Lewis, 1956. Re-read for #Narniathon21.
  • Leaving Mundania: Inside the Transformative World of Live Action Role-Playing Games – Lizzie Stark, 2012. I enjoyed this, and it would make me want to try LARPing if I had all the time in the world…