Indian Beach, Oregon – 2017
~ Cod by Mark Kurlansky ~
When a fox gets hungry it hunts for food. When it has caught and eaten something, it knows it’s full and then rests or plays or does whatever it is that foxes do when they’re not hungry anymore. For most of our history, when we were hunter-gatherers, things must have been the same with us. We might have cached a small store of food to help us survive the winter, but we knew better than to stockpile more than we could reasonably expect to eat.
Things changed. Somewhere along the line we learned the trick of turning the excess we might acquire of one commodity into a whole host of other goods, through trade. Extra meat or grain might be traded for other kinds of consumables or for handicrafts or luxury items of one sort or another. Item A was suddenly convertible into Items X, Y, and Z. And while Item A might be something I had limited use for, I would gladly take as much of Items X, Y and Z as I could get.
You might say that there are two kinds of hunger. There’s the hunger that is easily sated, and then there is the insatiable hunger: I can only eat so many steaks of venison, but I can never have too many golden cups. It doesn’t matter that the first (as food) is a necessity and the latter is not. Such is my hunger for golden cups that I will gladly kill every last deer in my hunting grounds to convert them into more golden cups. Finally, through my own folly, there will be no deer left to satisfy even the first kind of hunger.
Kurlansky’s book charts the effects of this same process on the humble codfish. Or, you might say, the not-so-humble codfish, for in days of yore it apparently stretched across the sea like some composite Leviathan. The cod was infinitely greater in number then and the nations fought, literally and viciously, for the right to catch it. It was the salty gold of the North Atlantic, the inexhaustible resource. Until it was exhausted.
Following the cod through Western history is, to me, the fascination of this book. We begin with the Basques, who had discovered the great codfishing grounds of Newfoundland’s Grand Banks (and quite possibly had discovered the New World) well before the time of Columbus. But Kurlansky leads us also through the colonial era, the entanglement of the fish in the slave trade, and its pivotal role in the American Revolution and the independence of Iceland.
It’s unfortunate the story must end as a tragedy. It’s tempting to blame steam-power, trawling nets, and industrialized fishing techniques. But the real villain here is that second kind of hunger, the acquisitive spirit that wants always to turn more and more of Item A into more and more of Items X, Y, and Z. If we could save ourselves from that, we might save the cod as well.
~ The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben ~
My sixth-grade teacher Mr Dailey was a hippie and a jester. A top-ten fan of The Grateful Dead, he drove a Volkswagen Beetle and liked to wear tie-dye. Twice during the school year he painted a mole on his cheek and came to class dressed in a suit, presenting himself as his own (fictional) twin brother, stepping in, allegedly, as a substitute while our regular Mr Dailey was on vacation.
Mr Dailey once taught us that science had discovered that plants were intelligent beings. Researchers had placed electrodes onto a philodendron, he said, and then someone tore off a leaf. Electric pulses from the plant were registered, indicating pain or distress. A week later, the same person could enter the room and the plant would show the same alarm signals all over again, even if the leaf-tearer refrained from touching the plant a second time. However, someone else might enter the room without alarming the plant at all. The philodendron, it seems, remembered its attacker. Possibly, it held a grudge.
It was only after enduring a week of mockery from the neighbor kids that I began to suspect he was pulling our legs. But if Peter Wohlleben’s book is to be credited, Mr Dailey was more right than he probably knew and the line between plant and animal may be an arbitrary matter. I would like to believe what Mr Wohlleben has to say about trees, their intelligence, their care for one another, their habits of communication, etc. He’s perhaps too given to poetical anthropomorphizing, but if half of what he writes is true, it’s going to put our vegetarian friends in a real bind.
Portland, Oregon – 2017
~ Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell ~
On page 64 of my copy of Homage to Catalonia Orwell describes the sounds made by the various sorts of projectiles that might kill you at the front. There’s an ancient artillery gun at Mount Aragón with shells that make a sound “like nothing so much as a man riding along on a bicycle and whistling.” There are trench mortars that go off “with a devilish metallic crash, as of some monstrous globe of brittle steel being shattered on an anvil.” And then there are the planes that swoop down firing their machine guns, the sound of which, “from below, is like the sound of fluttering wings.”
These are wonderful descriptions of horrible things. If you want to sound fancy, you might say that they suggest a small poetics of war, a marriage of the dreadful and the marvelous in Orwell’s cut-glass prose. Not that Orwell makes war sound beautiful or in any way glorious. The Spanish Civil War was, by his account, a drudgery of filth and cold and body lice, of poor rations and sparse ammunition and obscure politics. But it was also, for Orwell and for many of his comrades-in-arms, a fight for ideals and for what they sincerely (but mistakenly) believed to be the hope of the future.
If some kind of anarchist utopia briefly existed in Catalonia in late 1936, it was short lived. Human nature soon enough reasserted itself, and I don’t mean in the person of General Franco. Orwell’s party and cause fell out of political favor, the Trostkyites and the anarchists were suppressed by the Stalinists which had made friends, in Spain’s disorienting politics, with the bourgeois. Orwell suffered a near-fatal wound at the front and many of his fellow militia members and their leaders were imprisoned or murdered by those they believe were on their side.
Orwell is one of those rare figures who has, it seems, as many admirers on the political left as on the right. He wrote this book only six months after leaving the front. He claims his ideals are still intact, but he’s clearly been disillusioned. The book, in either case, is no article of propaganda. He warns the reader, “beware my partisanship!” but there’s no need, because his passion for honesty is evident. And even if one personally finds Orwell’s youthful politics naïve, one can’t help but admire the monument he has created in these pages to a cause he knew was lost in spirit even before it had lost on the battlefield.
Portland, Oregon – 2017
We should hesitate when tempted to give new meanings to old words. Of course it is natural and inevitable that the meanings of words will slowly shift over time, but those who try to hurry the process usually do so because they believe there is something for them to gain by it.
I almost want to say that we act immorally, that we sin against the plain meaning of words and against the understanding of our ancestors, when we force new definitions onto old words. And the older and simpler the word, the worse the trespass may be. Better to create new terms to accommodate the allegedly desirable new meanings, though neologizing is perilous too.
There was a moment in the founding era of our strange republic when the word “person” was by a legal fiction stretched beyond its plain meaning. A slave, you’ll recall, was notoriously considered three-fifths of a person when it came to apportioning representation at the federal level. This notion was written into our constitution.
It’s easy to see this as a cynical move to dehumanize those who were manifestly human, but many considered it an artful piece of strategy at the time. In preventing the southern states from claiming full personhood for non-voting slaves, it denied pro-slavery interests greater legislative power than they might otherwise have enjoyed.
And yet our founding fathers should have known better. They might have heard the dictionaries weeping when they agreed to transgress the plain meaning of the word; they had sinned against the English language. The horrible result was to codify in law the sub-personhood of an oppressed people.
Few would dispute the unsavoriness of the three-fifths compromise today but our own era makes a special hobby of the redefinition of terms, and this is a cause of ceaseless acrimony in the public square. Consider, if you will, the traditional definition of the word “marriage” versus its contemporary legal currency.
It has been seen as a point of justice by many to provide for the social enfranchisement of same-sex couples, to insist that they are entitled to the same legal protections as different-sex couples who marry. But who can deny that the age-old meaning of the word “marriage” did not encompass this? Was there no way of achieving the desired end without doing violence to language?
Other examples raise other issues. There seems to be some confusion today over what exactly a “man” or a “woman” is. One cannot point to a marriage; one might characterize marriage as a relationship between objects. But “man” and “woman” denote objects themselves, and the designation of a particular object as one or the other has always been considered confirmable by physical inspection.
I am not interested in joining the political or religious debate on these issues. I only want to speak on behalf of words. A language has its own life that may stretch across a hundred generations, and the meaning of certain words can stand immobile for a thousand years or more. But a language cannot speak for itself.
Chesterton’s notion of the “democracy of the dead” might be invoked here. How can a single generation justify overturning the plain meaning of words and the understanding of its ancestors? Where does it find the wisdom to fathom the consequences of such an act? We should remember that the person afflicted with hubris will often feel it as righteousness.
Portland, Oregon – 2017
~ McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon by Joseph Mitchell ~
Joseph Mitchell’s McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon is a world of a book – a lost world, you might say. It’s a collection of New Yorker pieces that Mitchell wrote mostly in the late 1930s and 1940s. These typically involve Mitchell hanging about at grimy old New York City bars or visiting peoples’ homes and listening to them talk. But, O, the people! Street preachers, saloon keepers, bearded ladies, gypsy kings, child prodigies, social crusaders, homeless drunks, aged Tammany Hall toadies, Central Park cave dwellers, steel-walking Mohawks, etc.
Mitchell’s writing is clipped and dry and masculine. His humor is dry too, and tending toward the morbid. The distance which he manages at once to sympathetically reach across and yet to coolly insist upon between himself and his subjects (and between himself and his readers) will be a point of fascination for any thoughtful reader.
Reading McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon, you feel like you’re watching a magician summon up within the scope of a ten-inch crystal ball all the variety and glory and pathos of the human condition in exquisite and particular detail – but no sooner are you offered the astonishing, keen vision of it than the inky black smothers it up. You’ll ask yourself excitedly, “What did I just see?” and you’ll lean in to look again.
Skamania County, Washington – 2016