Ex Nihilo, X-Factor

Pluvialis continues to spellbind in reports on her goshawk adventures. If you haven’t been following along, you’re missing the show. A recent update included a remarkable observation about the kind of out-of-body experience common to many who love the countryside but live in the city.

I hope Pluvi won’t mind a lengthy borrowing. Thinking of the hills to which she and her gos escape, she writes:

“These days, when I go into town, I’m increasingly finding excuses to park my car in the Grand Arcade car park, because I know that if I reverse the car into the open-air section of the fourth floor, I can lock the car, lean out over the rail and stare at these very fields. They run like a backbone across the horizon, scratched with copse-lines and damped with cloud-shadow.

“From the carpark, there’s no sense that the hills and the town are conjoined. A strange complication arises. Something of a doubling. Leaning out over the rail, I can feel myself standing up on the hill, miles away. There’s a terrible yearning to this intuition. It’s almost as if my soul really is up there, several miles distant sitting on the hill in a den of salad burnet and dried thistles, watching my soul-less self standing in the car-park, with diesel and concrete in its nose and anti-skid asphalt underfoot. With the car-park self thinking if she looks very, very hard, perhaps through binoculars, she might see herself up there.

“Is this because I know that land intimately, every hedgerow, every thin track through dried grass where the hares cut across field-boundaries, every rusted bit of agricultural machinery, every warren and tree? Certainly the high spires and towers aren’t graspable in that familiar way. They’re no-one’s habitat. You can’t walk them. Nothing lives on them. They’re designed to command, not engender the small-scale familiarity and love common to field-margins, ditches and hedgerows full of herbage and birds.”

What a beautiful way to express this feeling I know so well! Steve and Rebecca can attest to how uniquely falconry can sew one into the landscape, but I bet the same feeling is common to other hunters, to farmers and to many who cannot be satisfied except to walk off the pavement.

Lament enters whenever we pause to consider we live mostly removed from the places we know and love best. Clearly, it is not impossible to love a town or a city. But my sense is that we are equipped as animals and (more importantly) as living things, to perceive a greater depth of detail and richness in our surroundings than we are given in views of artificial planes and angles. We need the full package of sensory input we’re designed to accept; only a living environment can provide this.

As Pluvi said, it is not just biophilia that draws her to the hills, but that must be part of it.

“It’s not biophilia per se that makes it better up on the hill. Not just that there are animals up there. But that there are many animals up there who see the land in different ways and live on it in different ways, and I think this just makes the land richer, thicker, more interesting and loveable…”

How do we reconcile this disconnect? For falconers, our hawks and dogs provide part of the answer. Trained animals serve as conduits—that’s how I see them, anyway—between the built environments we work and sleep in and the relative wildernesses we recreate in. Our animals at home, preening on perches and curled on couches, come alive in the field in a way we recognize immediately and can share almost as fully. A place for us is made as participant observers and passive directors of a team hunt. It’s an old place we’ve grown into.

To travel around Baton Rouge is to cross, by necessity, a lot of hard concrete and to pass parking lots for newish, square-fronted buildings. Certain destinations are pleasant and walkable and worth seeing, but the journeys are mostly stark and unappealing.

And I LIKE Baton Rouge! It’s home. It is actually an old city with a long human history spanning several cultures and more than two centuries. But it’s getting newer by the day. It’s turning itself upside down and re-facing its surfaces with more of the hard planes and angles that leave a guy like me desperate for sensory input. I get desperate for complication and richness and the kind of “difficulty” Pluvi finds in her Cambridge hillsides.

Trying to be generous to older cities and understand why they endure, I mentioned to her of a day in New Orleans—our city of respectable endurance if a questionable future.

Walking along the French Quarter, I once spotted through a crack in the asphalt a stratified history of the street’s pavements. The oldest seemed to be of raw cypress planks, set into the mud on end to make a kind of wooden cobblestone effect. I don’t know when it might have been laid down.

I tried to imagine the entire street paved in milled posts. A neighborhood of stone and cypress-walled houses painted Creole pastels and roofed in wood shingles. Mules pulling carts, stray dogs mingling with horses and people in the streets. Wading birds passing in formation twice a day. Windows and doors open, cooking fires going, the French Market rough and alive.

There was then in the city of New Orleans malaria and yellow fever and cholera but probably no sensory deprivation!

What else can we say about the difference between the built and more natural (not necessarily wilderness) environments we may prefer? Can anyone help define the x-factor?

Done & Back! (With links)

I shipped off the remaining part of the book project last week– illos, captions, credits– and have my life back, though my brain doesn’t believe it yet. I have a HUGE backlog of links plus some photo posts and essays planned, but I don’t intend to do them all today, so bear with me. This boy needs to get out more.

Links first.

Patrick makes a fierce liberal case for the Second Amendment.

Alex Massie imagines a Distressed Writers’ Agency:

“What’s needed, then, is a new kind of literary agency. Rather than the established model of matching authors with publishers, we need an agency that specialises in pairing the people plagued by a surfeit of ideas and deficit of willpower with those afflicted with precisely the opposite condition.

“Take Client A, for instance. He swims in ideas every morning. The poor fellow can scarcely read the newspaper without an idea for a short story or play or film or, in exceptionally hideous moments, a poem popping into his head. Why, he says to himself, that’s capital material for a writer. Time, surely, that someone made something of it. Alas, Client A has so many notions that no sooner does he sit down to crack on with his latest wheeze than he is socked by another, shinier, better (or at least newer) idea that is, he is sure, this time, the one that will make his bloody name once and for all. Client A, it may not surprise you to learn, is an expert at writing acceptance speeches for prizes given to films and books that remain, alas, unwritten.”

RTWT of course.

A lawyer and a judge steal somebody else’s property, and want to be paid for it. Isn’t this cause for disbarment??

“A leading children’s author was told to drop a fire-breathing dragon shown in a new book – because the publishers feared they could be sued under health and safety regulations.”

I posted below on a New York Times piece on urbanites who fear the country. Sippican Cottage had more to say on the subject.

“Some armed local? Oh brother. In Sharon, Connecticut? People — in Sharon Connecticut you lock your doors so your friends will know you’re not home if they come over unexpectedly and you’re out. They know where your key is anyway. William F. Buckley was born in Sharon Connecticut. Do you really think he’s coming in the window at night with a dagger in his teeth and darkness in his heart for you because you’re so Vegan you only eat things that don’t cast a shadow? Get a grip.”

A while back Mary referred to some of us as disciples of Rousseau becuause we argued for fewer rules. I at least was taken aback because my view of human nature is rather dark– more Hobbes than Rousseau. Recently I found this quote from C S Lewis That rather sums up my view, if more religiously than I would state it:

“I am a democrat because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that every one deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true. . . . I find that they’re not true without looking further than myself. I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost. Much less a nation. . . . The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.”

Related: in a very funny post, Dr Hypercube quotes Kung Fu Monkey re “Robot overlords”.

Tyrone: They bring world peace, universal health care –
John: At the cost of our freedoms!
Tyrone: MY POINT EXACTLY. We’re already giving up our freedoms — our right to privacy, gone.

It so happens that Lewis had something to day to that, too:

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

Natural (?) history: a strange stuffed “cryptocanid” that was killed in Montana many years ago has been rediscovered in Idaho. Some of the suggestions (it is a dire wolf– ONE??) are ridiculous but it would be interesting to do DNA studies. Darren?

Dinosaur Mummy

I saw several places this morning information on a dinosaur “mummy” found in North Dakota in 1999. “Mummy” really isn’t the proper term – the fossil cast is unusual in that the soft tissues are very apparent:

“Unlike the collections of bones found in museums, this hadrosaur came complete with skin, ligaments, tendons and possibly some internal organs, according to researchers.

The study is not yet complete, but scientists have concluded that hadrosaurs were bigger — 3 1/2 tons and up to 40 feet long — and stronger than had been known, were quick and flexible and had skin with scales that may have been striped.”

The interpretation of stripes is based on the observation of bands of different sized scales on the skin. It’s been very frustrating that pictures of this haven’t been posted that I can find.

This reminded me of a Douglas Preston adventure novel I read last year, Tyrannosaur Canyon, where the plot revolves around the discovery of of a T-rex preserved in a similar manner, but the mineral grain size is so small you can see features down to the cellular level.

More on Native American DNA

Matt and Chas both sent me this piece last week on another DNA study that shows Native Americans are most closely related to peoples in Siberia, indicating that is their point of origin. This isn’t exactly news, but is another corroborating study apparently done on a larger scale than most in the past.

On a related topic, some of you may recall this post I did early last year that discussed the problems the Mormon Church was having reconciling the DNA evidence of Siberian origins with their church doctrine that Native Americans are descended from a Jewish tribe that emigrated here about 600 BC. Well this article I saw this morning says they have given up. The Book of Mormon has been revised:

“The old introduction read that, after thousands of years, all the Israelites were destroyed except one branch, known as the Lamanites, and these survivors were ‘the principal ancestors of the American Indians.’

The new version reads that the Lamanites ‘are among the ancestors of American Indians.'”

As I said last year, I don’t think this will really mean much to the faith of the average LDS member, but I find it an interesting concession.

I’ve Just Finished a Month sans Internet and TV

I’ve just finished a month sans internet and tv. No saintly action, just a broken hardrive and an incomprehensible language, respectively.
So I read every book I brought. Ran out fast.
One of the books I brought was this monstrosity of a thing called The Executioners Song. I’d seen the film adaptation (loose use of ‘adaptation’), Cremaster 2, and I was baffled and anxious to read the book.
Of course the ridiculous, hypnotic film didn’t lend much to my expectations, but I’ve been trying of late to catch up on the things I’m embarrassed I haven’t read. The most difficult of these gaps-to-fill is the generation I guess about 2 back, Roth, the aforementioned Updike, Vidal, Mailer, et c, the so-called Great Male Narcissists.
Mailer to me seems the best, but this is a highly uninformed opinion.
So, lacking recourse to anything else at all, I looked at the twelve inches of English language books available in Radom, Poland. There was a short book by Murikami, and Mailer’s latest, soon to prove last, book, The Castle in the Forest. Short books are the enemy of the bored man, so despite loving Murikami and being highly ambiguous toward Mailer, I went with the longer, cheaper book.
Lord, it was awful. Unknown to me the author died as I was reading this book, probably thinking bad thoughts about him and it both.
So here’s just a small word for the man, the great novelist of his generation without a great novel. Apollo astronauts, genius double-murderers, Hitler, Mailer, the man took on the big things, wrote some really long books, and I would say none of the biggest ones are really great, but they fail because he tries too hard, too much, his great books stop just short of great because he takes off from that near-great point to leap toward an impossible height.
To read this man is to see a great writer fail time and time again to write a great book because he cannot help but try to write a book beyond greatness.
Hats off to that.