Wednesday, April 30, 2008

John Marks' "Reasons to Believe": Book Review

After a polite Jehovah's Witness came to our door recently and we politely declined his message, my wife wondered if he thought we'd be damned. John Marks asks himself the same question. The book's subtitle {"One Man's Journey Among the Evangelicals and the Faith He Left Behind"} indicates his investigation into his teenaged embrace of, his young adult rejection of, and his mature return to investigate those who practice a born-again Christian faith. He holds out, unable to reconcile the demands of submission with the caprices of a god who witnesses abundant evils committed in as well as in spite of a loving god's name.

Powerful themes, and Marks as a veteran journalist takes them on boldly yet sensitively. The book, as he tells us early on, was one he's been waiting his whole life to write, and it shows. As he's only two years younger than me, I admit my own interest piqued as his own tastes in rock and his own pop culture connections often intersected with mine. And, any author who cringes at the thought of a heaven full of music in the key of Chicago or Blood, Sweat & Tears-- not to mention a preacher's promise of paradise full of ourselves acting like "five year olds"-- gains in credibility as far as I'm concerned. Like him, I favor the sounds and the example of Billy Zoom of X much more!

While the publicity for the book pushes the saved-or-damned conundrum, most of Marks' study's far less dramatic. He's not criticizing the right of people to have a faith that condemns people to hell if they are not baptized and accepting of Jesus as their own savior (he finds such an element, according to the Barna polls he cites, if taken seriously at levels of committment to be only about 7-9% of the U.S.) but the right of such a bloc "to assert their belief as a national religion." (16) "Can a pluralist democracy absorb and support an exclusive, nonpluralistic belief at the heart of its system?" (16) Although the extension of such an argument falls outside the book's scope, the dangers of fundamentalist surety or evangelical righteousness certainly connect with movements far greater in numbers in the rest of the world.

Marks wonders if he's betraying himself if he gives in and returns to the comforting "call" that moved him as a younger man. He weakens if barely, but determines as the narrative progresses to remain true to himself, as a committed secular student of a phenomenon he examines from a skeptical yet respectful distance. His dual identity as one who knows the insider's lingo yet stands apart from accepting it actually increases his ability to talk to believers, who understand that Marks will not distort or misunderstand or betray what they share with him about the challenges of their faith.

His father, when his teen son became "saved," predicted "You just wait. It starts with this, and it'll end up with him not believing in God at all." (230) Marks makes much of his own very comfortable suburban Dallas roots, and shows how his family's roots lie in a mainstream Protestantism which has been eroding under the triple assaults of three disparate movements, the fundamentalists now under retreat, the evangelicals gaining, and the Pentecostals flourishing. His research reminds us that contrary to media stereotypes, fundamentalists and evangelicals remain distinct, and he explains why the latter's more emotional style fits better with the megachurches and outreaches of millennial American attitudes.

His book, however, in following such trends does often bog down in interviews, recounting dutifully conversations with pastors and workers without much verve. Chapters on post-Katrina church efforts, homosexuality, his stint in Germany that led him as a college student away from his faith, the Christian music scene, or the Young Life youth movement are all informative, but rarely rise above that function. There's a lot of quotes that remind you more of an extended feature by a reporter in a newspaper series rather than a book that ties its threads together more tightly. Towards the end, a few of these strands turn up again and connect, but much of the pace slackens for long stretches, dulling interest and goading you as a reader to wait for Marks to recount his own story to perk up the cultural or personal relevance again. Too many of these pages kept me restless, and chapters often end suddenly or on the off-note of hesitation. He speaks often of his own doubts and uncertainties, past and present, and here's when he's strongest. The book combines reportage on the religious scene with some history, some sociology, and some theology, and ultimately, Marks uses the book to work out his own guilt at "losing" his faith and reclaiming his humanist creed, shaky a substitute it may be, as more honest for him.

"I had 'lost' my faith, in that I had wanted to keep it, but couldn't sustain it. The world laid out by the Bible, the reality of it, just seemed to nullify with the years, taking one blow after another till I could no longer hold on. I had seen human cruelty that sank my ability to buy the idea of a sovereign ruler of the universe. The faith didn't help me to understand; it closed off avenues for knowledge." (252) In his interviews with such Christians as Niki missionizing in Iraq, Colonel Birdwell surviving 9/11 at the Pentagon, Daniel at Biola, or his guide Don, Marks takes great care to present these people as having earned our respect, as being tested greatly by the God they love, while Marks insists upon his own autonomy from their faith that impels them to draw him into their closed circle of the elect, according to their inerrant reading of chapter and verse and their strict standard of salvation.

Finally, as when Marks places his own existentialist (he does admire Kafka's "The Castle") views against those of a believer who saw her husband and her fellow missionaries die in Iraq on a clandestine missionary foray, he arrives at a irrevocable truth both Christians and humanists may shrink from, even though it is the logical outcome. Honesty demands he says what he thinks. Niki's sacrifice of her husband and brethren in spreading news of God gains her a reward in heaven. As Marks does not believe in God, he will drop into everlasting torment. Or, she's deluded, having gone from her dream into reality-- a hostile land where her good news was despised and her friends and spouse were murdered. Her loss remains unredeemable, her sacrifice is based on a lie.

Marks concludes: "These two interpretations are incompatible. They are mutually opposed translations of the same original text and cannot be squared. Their two hells cannot coexist. If one is true, the other must be false. Or both are false, and the truth of existence lies elsewhere. Theoretically, we are free to choose, But I suspect that Niki McDonnall will stick by her story. The question is whether I stick by mine." (197)

Marks raises many such uncomfortable issues. Those on homosexuality, women who fear men, and roles of youth at camps all could have earned even more attention. Most of all, I would have liked more discussion about the ties between evangelicals and Jews. As Marks' wife and son are Jewish, Marks' own consideration of his eternal fate intersects intimately with his family. This poignant and disturbing relevance of the talk of dispensations and being "under heavy conviction" and being left behind at the Rapture before meriting, if one holds out, endless suffering certainly deepen the impact of Marks' study. He holds back somewhat, I sense, from fully delving into the complicity of some Christians with the cause of Zion as the manifestation of the End Times simply because the realities that such alliances mask prove too eerie.

A few errors have been remarked upon by other Amazon reviewers. I add that Texas "Catholic" University's likely from the context of its graduate before and after college to be "Christian;" Meister Eckhardt does not have an "e" after the "k;" on an "October day" in Prague's Jewish cemetery it'd be impossible that a "Jewish holiday, Sukkoth or Purim, had shut the place down." (352) The former commemoration, yes; the latter feast that takes place in January or February, no!

Marks rarely indulges in his own philosophizing, being at heart a direct writer for all his learning, but he hits the target: pulling at our loyalties are a pair of "great forces." Memory tugs us back "to our childhood, our roots, our homeland, our God. Desire flings us forward, to our future, our mate, our children, and, sometimes, to our death." He fights reductionism, but stays "certain that every human being lives on some kind of the line between these two poles and finds a balance, or doesn't, at one end of the other of a spectrum." (266)

He wonders in the final pages-- looking ahead past the 2008 election and a shift away from the "politics of faith" at least in the White House-- if such a desire as many have for the apocalypse filters into a "death wish for the world." He ponders evangelical panic at the declining acceptance of "bible-true" faith collides with technologies alternately denigrated by many Christians and embraced by many "dispensationalists" who wish to use them to hasten annihilation by "spiritual warfare." The victims of such divinely-guided wrath (nothing personal as his "saved" neighbors assure him), would be the likes of Marks, his family, and the majority of the people left behind on earth.

(Posted to Amazon US today.)

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Dhá barúil a thabhairt ag foghlaim Ghaeilge.

Léigh mé dhá litir faoi ag foghlaim Ghaeilge an maidín seo. Bhí dhá litir ag scríofa chuigh "Na Amanna Éireannach" leo beirt scríobhaithe. Tá beirt a fhreagairt orthu an litir le Phaedra Keogh ag curtha sí féin ar feadh an seachtaine caite. Féic anseo ar blog agamsa má go mbeadh mhaith leat a léamh sísean, le do thóil. Bláthannaí, Duine & Gaeilge

Is an chéad litir le Siobhán Wells. Tá sí i gconaí i Bhaile Átha Cliath. Scríobhann sí faoi leibheál íseal an theanga. Measaionn sí ní raibh ag foghlaim mic aici féin an Gaeilge go leor. Ach, fhreastail sé cleachtadh na scoil aige le ceithre bliana déag. Shíl sísean gur go raibh múinteoirí go dona uirthi. Is mian léi a deisiú slí óige níos mo. Is maith leí an shampla den chéad scoth Dheas Mac an Easpaigh; d'ímir sé feín leis an teanga bheo. Foghlaimíonn Deas sí go hiontach le bliain amháin!

Is an dá litir le Tómas Ó Dúill. Tá sé i gconaí i Rath Droma i gContae Chill Mhantáin. Dúirt sé leis smaointe difríulaí. Ní aontaíonn an Dúillanach le Bean Uí Eochaidh (=Keogh) nó Bean Wells. Insíonn sé go mbeidh a foghlaim Ghaeilge a dhéanfaidh ar do chonlán féin. Bheith freagrach i gníomhartha tuismitheoiraí. Go minic, d'inis sé, ní dhearna siadsan féin ag glacadh le cúram. Tá gach duine ag lochtú scoileannaí.

Aontaim leis an Dúillanach. Ní aontaíonn mé an oiread leis Bean Wells agus mac aici. Is é mo thuairim go bhfuil ár foghlaimeoiraí ag tosú a obair nios airde. Caitheann an póbal na hÉireann siadsan féin ag fáil seans níos mo ag rá leis an teanga beo. Mura bhfuil Gaeilge acu ní mearim leo. Beidh cosuil Laidín. D'fhoghlaim mé Laidin agus Gaeilge. Ach, tá me iarraidh ag éirí an teanga in Éirinn agus an domhain anois; níl dúil agam ag fáil Gaeilge-- chomh leis Laidin-- go mbeadh ag cloiste ollúna go beag acu agus ag foghlamhtha beagán coláistí amháin iontu.

Two Opinions about Learning Irish.

I've read two letters about learning Irish this morning. There were two letters written to the "Irish Times" by two writers. The two of them responded to the letter by Phaedra Keogh that she herself had sent last week. Look here on my own blog if you'd like to read about it, please.

The first letter's by Siobhán Wells. She lives in Dublin. She writes about a low level of the language. She reckons that her son himself was not learning Irish well. But, he attended to his school lessons for fourteen years. She herself thinks that there were poor teachers for it. She has a wish to repair a better way for youth. She likes the first-rate example of Des Bishop; he plays with the living language. Des learns it wonderfully in only a year!

The second letter's from Tómas Ó Dúill. He lives in Rathdrum in Co. Wicklow. He says different thoughts. Mr. Ó Dúill doesn't agree with Ms. Keogh or Ms. Wells. He tells that learning Irish should be done as one's own responsibility. Parents are responsible for this action. Often, he told, they themselves do not accept the duty. Everybody blames schools.

I agree with Ó Dúill. I don't agree so much with Ms. Wells or her son. It's my opinion that we learners have to start to work harder. The Irish people themselves must find a better chance to speak with the living language. If they do not use Irish it will not live through them. It will be similar to Latin. I learned Latin and Irish. But, I am seeking the rise of the language of Irish and the world now; I do not have a desire to find Irish that--as with Latin-- would be heard only by a few professors and studied in a few colleges.

Grianghraf/ Photo: "Stop and speak Irish"Scoil Iognáid, Bóithrín na Sliogán- Gaillimh. Scoil na Míosa- Aibreán, 2003

Monday, April 28, 2008

Howard Devoto's "Jerky Versions of the Dream": Music Review

Although the previous three [Amazon US, where this was posted today] reviewers rate this five stars, and at the time of its original release I admired certain songs on this very well-produced LP greatly, it's a notch below the heights of "Correct Use of Soap," or "Real Life" by Devoto's earlier group, Magazine. I'd rank it better than their last LP, the weary (even by their moody standards) "Magic, Murder & the Weather" (which ironically gave them their biggest hit) and more the equivalent of the group's second LP, the troubled "Secondhand Daylight," which disappointed at the time of its release some fans for its keyboard-heavy atmospherics.

I suppose, as a Buzzcocks fan (I love "Spiral Scratch"!), and an admirer of the instrumental prowess of Magazine bassist Barry Adamson and guitarist John McGeoch especially, that I favor therefore the more aggressive tracks on "Jerky Versions" over the synth-pop that to my ears even at the time appeared to link the LP too much to its time, rather than ahead of it obliquely. As a pioneer of the post-punk movement, Devoto and his mates bailed from punk early on but kept its edge even as they layered its menace within more erudite, less insistent, and very nuanced sound experiments. Like Wire, they made their best music when challenging the norms of both art-rock musos and the new-wave conformists. They also knew, as Devoto titled their debut "Shot by Both Sides," that this doomed them (like Wire) to follow their own muse outside of the mainstream or the current fad.

That's why, on "Jerky Versions," Devoto's solo debut can only go so much further than he'd already gone with his two bands. He sustains his pace on the best songs rather than sprinting into a new rhythm. My favorites remain, a quarter-century after I first heard them, thus the top-five of the original ten tunes: "Cold Imagination" for its anthemic dirge combination; "Rainy Season" for its lulling embrace of an accessible pop approach; "I Admire You" for the wonderful backing vocals of this album's overlooked enhancement, Laura Teresa (I wonder who she is and what else she did?); "Way Out of Shape" for its sharpened, metallic guitar recalling Magazine's best; "Taking Over Heaven" for its elliptical perk-up halfway through, again thanks to honed guitar and thickened bass.

The other songs seem to wander along. They seem more of their time, as they did when they were made, at least to my ears. "Some Will Pay" stalls in Bowie self-aggrandizing poses of an overwrought vocal; "Waiting for a Train" has that la-di-da music hall tossed-off delivery that I admit always irritates me; "Out of Shape With Me" fits its title-- a good bassline but dragging vocals; "Seeing Is Believing" also seems as clichéd as its title, as it merely meanders. "Topless" is a deal-breaker, neither outstanding nor mediocre, and it's made more into a synth-pop artifact in its alternate version here, for better or worse depending on your tastes.

The other remixes and alternate versions: "Rainy" gets mixed much faster; "Rainforest" draws it out into a instrumentally-dominant long song for the dance floor of a sullen nightclub; "Cold" for #13 has a chugging guitar I like and a bit more depth; "Cold" as #14 increases the treble and sounds like its compressed, if more "live"; and finally, "Some" redeems itself a bit with slightly less mannered vocals.

Devoto, as if you are reading this probably you know, has a dry, droll, and rather lazy way of getting his lyrics across. This can work against the grain of the tune or be buried within it, as he slurs or simpers. He's an actor, and he plays a role in his literate, theatrical songs.

He can be compared to Bryan Ferry in and after Roxy Music in exactly the same method acting. As I have explained, the textures here of the better songs manage to ignite such a singer's own tensions. When the songs sound too complacent, too plugged into the stances of Devoto's electronic and angular 1983-4 era, he too trudges through them with more than a little ennui. It's his determined style, yet as with Magazine's five albums, I like it when he picks up the pace and sidles rather than saunters. When he slows down, the energy dissolves. While he may have sought this very effect, hearing the remasters in retrospect, the drive of his music leaves me more satisfied when he speeds along recklessly rather than when he turns off the ignition and coasts along in the fog.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Nabokov's "Bend Sinister":
Book Review (after my dream it inspired)

The after-effects of "Bend Sinister," that sad Vladimir Nabokov novel that I finished before sleeping, inspired a poignant dream last night. In my reverie-- a series of overlapping, dissolving vignettes each only a second or two-- the world was ending. But, this happened as a ripple transmitted by visual media that slowly spread as those recording the phenomenon on camera themselves were overtaken by this soft annihilation. This repeated itself, at first for me as the spectator with curiosity but not comprehension. Then those whose faces the amateur or professional (as if it mattered in this age of YouTube vs. CNN) reporter had documented themselves, moments later as captured on the image before it too faded, themselves turned to nothing. Not that you'd see it on camera, but there was a subtle editing that transferred you to the next group.

As far as my dream logic (suiting Nabokov's own narrative so well) can figure out, it began when some alien force had plummeted straight down into a downtown full of tall modernist buildings, all harsh Objectivist angles and oblique shiny stone granite surface. Like some Robert Longo painting seen from a distance, suited figures still walked upright, but in the monochromatic tones, a few had begun to topple. A disaster had penetrated our atmosphere, but as recording devices tried to document it and share it, those who did so and those whom they filmed would only be on the screen a few seconds before the pictures evaporated and another group took up the attempt. This was all seamlessly connected as if controlled by an unseen editor.

The first time the dreaming "I" viewed this alien intrusion, I wondered why more spectators had not succumbed. After the progression of random scenes that then unfolded, all of ordinary people gazing with gentle confusion shading into insistent dread as the camera scanned their faces, I realized that the apocalypse was upon us. I wondered why it was not instantaneous. Why hadn't I died yet? It seemed that as long as people had not been put on camera, they were still not aware of the menace that spread over the very mundane looking scenes of urban life.

But, as in one strong shot, a few women inside a steel room about the size of a small truck camper's hold, hastened to close the door that a filmer had opened, too late. In my dream, seeing this image, I understood that the contagion spread as it was witnessed, a sort of sudden shocking virus. This reminded me of a recent news story about the infinitesimal danger of setting up one of those inexplicable (to me) supercolliders inside a mountain, that could set off theoretically a black hole that without us having the time to comprehend could swallow up our universe in less than the proverbial blink of an eye.

Then, the earlier image of the alien force returned before my eye, and I knew it was my time to vanish. There was no pain involved, and like the blink, it was no different than an eyelash's closing in duration or sensation. I then woke up.

Here's a review of this amazing 1947 novel below, posted today to Amazon US. I read it in the old TimeLife Reader's Edition, 1964. The edition sold now's a newer one.

Adam Krug's a philosopher who must kow-tow to the totalitarian regime of President Paduk, who has taken over the nation. Despised by Krug, who tormented the boy he called "Toad" when they were schoolboys, Paduk gradually tightens pressure for Krug to submit by arresting his friends and eventually, in a terrible series of satiric but chillingly evoked episodes, his little son. As the book begins, Krug has been at the deathbed of his wife, and he looks out the hospital window at a puddle. This sample shows the power of Nabokov's prose, exact, precise, yet with the slight tilt of one who has learned English better than we native speakers, so as to heighten its force and ornament its control:

"They have turned on the lights of the house I am in, and the view in the window has died. It is all inky black with a pale blue inky sky-- 'runs blue, writes black' as that ink bottle said, but it did not, nor does the sky, but the trees do with their trillions of twigs." (3)

This next excerpt displays the off-kilter realism of Nabokov's prose. The omniscient voice wanders in and out of Krug's mind as the author sees fit, in Joycean homage that reveals Nabokov's deft use of indirect narration while, somehow, deepening its power by Nabokov's manipulation of his acquired language. Also, the book reads as if taking place in a Kafkaesque realm, yet one darkened even more by the shades of cruel political apparatuses that even Kafka had yet to witness. (As an aside, in its use of a phrase like "politically incorrect" and a send-up of a true press controlled by the people's participation, it eerily anticipates blogging, corporate domination of much of the Net, and even Big Brother's Newspeak, although Nabokov beat Orwell to print by a year-- in my edition's 1961 introduction he brands Orwell as clichéd but admired K.) "Bend Sinister"'s both dream-logical and mundane as the mood suits the plot, and there's an editorial slant that heightens the absurdity of much of the Ruritanian dialogue while somehow sharpening the everyday nature of brutality-- as if Bloom mingles his mind with Dedalus within the Paduk police state.

"'The state is your only true friend.'
'I see.'
Grey light from long windows. The dreary wail of a tugboat.
'A nice picture we make-- you as a kind of Erlkönig and myself as the male baby clinging to the matter-of-fact rider and peering into the magic mists. Pah!'
'All we want of you is the little part where the handle is.'" (130)

I looked up this German term: it's from a Goethe poem on a child assailed by a supernatural being who takes him away to death. I did not know this when I bookmarked this exchange, but it proves the resonance and multilayered texture of this story. The tale shifts, in the middle, into a digression on alternate readings of Hamlet, and while inventive this section appears more a chance for Nabokov to insert some pet theories in the guise of Ember, rather than a chapter that moves the admittedly challenging narrative forward. I know Nabokov's inverting what we expect in this novel, but this whole episode could have been better a feuilleton or a tale separate from Krug's story, for it is Krug who inspires us to pity and horror.

Anticipating "Lolita," this earlier novel (written 1945-6) in English sends up trashy teens, slutty vixens, sycophantic professors, and thuggish youths. These witless characters provide walk-on parts for comic, sexy, bumbling, if uneasy relief-- for many of these supporting roles only serve to tighten the net that Krug and David find themselves in as their assurances of stability disappear. As with Kafka, Shakespeare, or Beckett, these tragicomic interludes make the more ominous stretches of the story a bit less unbearable in their tension. The story becomes more manipulated by the narrator as it nears its climax, yet this conjuring trick only makes us watch more closely the dexterity of its tricks. We willingly surrender to the illusion. We see the strings, yet this only puts us more in the hands of the master, whose very fumblings (with English? with our expectations of how it's conventionally deployed so lifelessly around us?) deepen our hypnotic spell. We place our selves in the power of a maker who tells us of his own construction.

How Nabokov manages to create a book totally aware of its fictionality, while using our distance from its shadows to draw us closer into its nightmares, remains an amazing feat. This novel, while imperfect, shines more brightly than thousands of better crafted, yet far more superficial, statements about our purpose. Nabokov here may have written a novel "lesser" only by comparison with his later works in English.

Of course, this novel does not flounder in getting too exact an equivalence between any specific system of grinding down the individual in the name of the common good. Six decades later, it's still therefore fresh, for like Swift, what's attacked is not a particular cabal, but the tendency of many people to forgo thinking for themselves. An historian who's capitulated on Krug's fellow faculty tells his craven colleagues: "Oh yes, a parliament or a senate has been upset before, and it is not the first time that an obscure and unlovable but marvellously obstinate man has gnawed his way into the bowels of a country. But to those who watch these events and would like to ward them, the past offers on clues, no modus vivendi-- for the simple reason that it had none itself when toppling over the brink of the present into the vacuum it eventually filled." (40) So we repeat history farcically and inevitably.

The novel lurches about as our own minds do, between the Big Questions and the messiness of routine. Krug tries to take as an academic on the eternal mysteries; his wife's death plunges him into chaos, while all around him Krug's Ekwilist ideology (sort of a predecessor of the self-esteem fads of the later 20th century) enables the stupid to inherit this Slavified corner of a dismal world. Throughout, phrases from the "native," unnamed language are bracketed from a mingling of Russian, German, and other tongues either invented by the polymathic author or unknown at my lesser level of literacy. Again, while no explanation for these linguistic comments is given, they provide a layer I suppose of commentary for scholars and those more fluent in Slavic speech, and an estranging element for the rest of us.

Still, this novel humanizes Krug despite formidable obstacles placed by Nabokov's narrative structure and authorial tone. The relationship between departed Olga and child David deepens our connection to Krug even as we know that he's a puppet and the whole charade of Padukgrad itself plays out, supposedly as Nabokov instructs us, as another elaborate type of Potemkin village of archetypes, stock characters, and fictional ingenuity. In this too's mixed speculation on the role of the intellect.

"What is more important to solve: the 'outer' problem (space, time, matter, the unknown without) or the 'inner' one (life, thought, love, the unknown within) or again their point of contact (death)?" (154-55) While this talk may seem daunting, it unfolds as naturally (or artificially) as the surprisingly engrossing story, about which you are never sure how Krug's fate will transpire until the end (although Nabokov gives away his strategy in his introduction, if read closely).

Finally, in a manner that for its deceivingly random structure reveals much more verisimilitude than more realistically scripted depictions of organizational oppression and scholarly inspiration, Krug blurred into the narrator wonders about the ultimate purpose of any introspection, put on paper. What may have started for Nabokov as ridicule of a cult of the Leader becomes a memorable inquiry into the survival of the human within a capricious universe. We panic over our fate, the narrator notes, but we cannot imagine "the infinite past, which extends on the minus side of the day of our birth." This happens since we've already gone through eternity, but from the opposite end. It holds no fear. We've already "non-existed once," so why worry? "What we are now trying (unsuccessfully) to do is to fill the abyss we have safely crossed with terrors borrowed from the abyss in front, which abyss is borrowed itself from the infinite past. Thus we live in a stocking which is in the process of being turned inside out, without our ever knowing for sure to what phase of the process our moment of consciousness corresponds." (172)

Such a book, which for admirers of not only Kafka and Joyce but Borges and Beckett (and even Orwell) must be essential reading, manages to integrate such meditation into a moving portrayal of loss, an often mordantly funny burlesque of institutional conformity, an expression of contempt for mass culture and glorification of Everyman, and a horrifyingly exaggerated yet somehow convincing depiction of the inner life of one man collapsing under the weight not only of the truncheon and the megaphone but of the weight of mortality.

Images: P.S. Dieter F. Zimmer's filmography on the Zembla site about Nabokov has stills of a film adaptation of the novel: Film stills. Right, "dexter" although N. unconvincingly denies heraldry to interpret the title, British Penguin (they always have better art-- this ambiguous photo works well). On the left, or "sinister," U.S. Vintage. On the other hand, whoever designed the American paperback chose a precise visual "negative" of a very emblematic episode! Of course, as an intrepid fan of another equally baffling artistic creation by The Fall, forty years after the novel, now I must go back for clues to give another listen to their identically titled LP.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Owlshead Mountains & Mt. Washington

I've made an armchair expedition today, with the help of Google given the fact that oil prices, a heat wave, my often remarked sun sensitivity, probably a four-hour drive one-way, no vehicle worthy of the trek, and lack of cash all prevent me from venturing to these barren expanses myself. But, as when I was a teenager, poring over maps of San Bernardino County's deserts eccentrically inspired my imagination. We form, I read, a deep attachment to a spot that we saw, maybe only on an outing, as a child, and no matter the mundane reality, this setting lingers in our soul.

Wandering with the help of photos on the Net (see below for two of the area I write about now) and charts makes it a wonderful way to vicariously roam while saving the toll on Mother Earth. Maybe too it's her way of warning us that our footprints, carbon or tread, have left too many paths that time cannot erode, and that we need to cut back our manifest destinies so as to ensure our survival in more humble manner? Or, as many jeeps and 4WD's will still pummel the desert floor despite my own retreat from that fray, will my stance matter? As with recycling, you do pause when so many around you toss into the trash next to you what a few more steps urges you to dispose and renew. But, the green part of me hopes that more people pause before their thoughtless behavior endangers our future. This may be the upside to energy costs, although I doubt if many Indians or Chinese, let alone most of my neighbors, care much about Earth Day. Perhaps more of us will be vacationing this cyber-friendly way as fuel rises, incomes stagnate, and roadtrips for many of us become luxuries rather than impulses? Wasn't it in "Soylent Green" where the man dies as he sees on the big screen panoramas of a natural world long despoiled?

Maps always spark my dreams of travel away from the smog that comes with such urban destruction. I too long for escape-- even a lazy stick-in-the-mud who longs to retire not to the oasis but the fog. I loved Mojave placenames left by miners and railroaders. And, as I like owls, here's the best of all: "the curious twin basins on the southwest edge of Death Valley, which appear to form the eyes and face of an owl, gave rise to their current name, the Owlshead Mountains." (Richard Lingenfelter, "Death Valley & The Amargosa": 83).

Intrigued by the owl shapes, I have tried to find a suitable image of the aerial terrain that allows me to pinpoint the avian features projected by wishful men upon indifferent shrugs of tectonic nature. There's places with this name in (at least) New York, West Virginia, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Nova Scotia. Google Maps does not help much for California; there's no image I can find on-line of the sketch that christened the Owlsheads that Lingenfelter reproduces in his history on pg. 84. That survey done in 1856 and published the next year would be the first for the newish state of California establishing its borders with Nevada-- in hindsight all the more necessary given the Comstock Lode sparked a rush in 1859. Claims would soon matter much to another new rival state.

The map done by William Denton's crew chops up the owl image since any level ground's erased of features. More about that in a moment. The topographical-like maps I can locate show, oddly, "Owl's Head" immediately north of a double ring of "eyes" that to me look more like twin orbs. Not so much a couple of basins to me as a pair of circular peaks. Perhaps the lack of mapping accounts for present-day border disputes and another century's realities of the importance of deserts for more than gold. Back neatly, in a recursive hell that brings the wheel spinning back to apocalyptic prophets and pious assassins from another continent's pitiless buttes. Coincidentally, where we also find oil-- spinning into the RVs and dune buggies that crawl about the grit and dust today. Yesterday a hulking pick-up cut me off as I tried to enter a treacherous and poorly signed freeway onramp. The back of the glittering black truck had an enormous sticker: "Glamis." It's the endangered sand dunes near the Chocolate (another great title) Mountains in the Imperial Valley, which attract heaps of emissions, stink, and trash. That's only the drivers. Apropos, there's an "Owlshead Mountains Aerial Bombardment" facility listed, at the lowest end of the Panamints at the southwest corner of the National Park, north of the Marine base at Ft. Irwin where tanks prepare for combat in another arid latitude of dust and grit across the globe.

About the place, well, it's desolate. The Panamints seem quite barren, and early travellers recount how they rose to eleven thousand feet above a depression, in more ways than one, nearly three hundred feet below sea level. The exaggerated contrast, heightened by the snow that sat on the top of Telescope Peak and the two-thousand foot fingers of stone called The Minarets, must have disheartened many lost pioneers. But, as the photographs credited below also show, in the snatches of spring that the area enjoys, wildflowers soften the plains and ease the glare. A "vision quest" (I wonder what the Shoshone and Paiute there think of such pilgrims) has been logged on the Net as one man's encounter with the area, Off-roaders share their trails-- the map link gives a NGS map of the one-way road into the area; the military apparently controls the rest of the region, although part of the Owlsheads have recently been added to the park. Not that far away, news last month of investigations at Manson's '69 hideout (pre-infamy) at Barker Ranch in the canyon and possible leads for more bodies buried out there in the empty lands raises the specter of madness that accompanied so many taletellers who left this place, or pretended to have entered it! Saltpeter, it appears, firing up greenish spontaneously at night on the floor of Death Valley, is to blame.

So, not only New Agers but insane messiahs seem to have a short shelf-life left out here in unforgiving territory. Surveyors in 1856-57 drew optimistic "township lines" that showed farming or ranching plots-- I suppose wherever the ground was flat enough. Why? The maps were not at fault, but if you look at them, you see they leave numbered squares across any place where no elevation's highlighted. Even the owl is half-drawn. The rest of his head's a tidy grid on featureless white. A developer's dream, and a mapper's profit, but an explorer's shortchange and a government's defrauding. The cartographers were paid by how many of these wide acres they subdivided. Similar to the robber barons today who buy untouched hills, draw up plans for housing tracts in pristine open space, and then sell the land at inflated values to the nature conservancies that we taxpayers foot the bill for.

Lingenfelter explains that this practice led to suspicion of these maps. Salt flats, sand dunes, and mountainsides "so steep and rugged a man could hardly climb up them." Same problem today where I live near the lower slope of Mt. Washington (all of 800 feet!). There are "paper streets" on older maps of the neighborhood for homes and roads that would have to defy gravity, but unfortunately we have technology today able to cantilever and blast our way vertically, like goats.

Although the bulldozer replaced dynamite (a recent invention around the mid-nineteenth century, I suppose, by Alfred Nobel). So, at least until for me the welcome collapse of the housing bubble, it became not only feasible but, given inflation affordable, for speculators to tear up vertical rocky outcrops and wrench holes deep enough to plunk concrete blocks with windows. Three of these monoliths (one on a triple lot at thrice the size) have been erected around me the past three years, so I have reason for frustration.

To ease my edge, I can look at these photographs. Q.T. Luong, whose pinkish Panamint Range vista I included on this blog last week, here has another shot with flowers:Butte and Owlshead Mountains. Ron Niebrugge has his shot that I post, looking south, and perhaps I conjure owlish eyes on the foothills, of Hairy Desert Sunflower and Owlshead Mountains, from Ashford Mill, Death Valley. TrekNow has a good map of the general road, but the more fanciful viewer cannot make out the underlying roll of the birdland well. Map of Owlshead Mountain Trail. Finally, an article from BioEd Online: "Owl's Ears Map the World"

Friday, April 25, 2008

An Unlit Candle: Seders for Tibet

I read about this in the current "Forward," which arrived today. Jay Michaelson, whose column "The Polymath" invariably comes closest in print to what I myself believe in my better moments (despite being neither gay nor Buddhist, let alone a law professor, lauded poet, overachieving Ivy Leaguer, urban urbane wit, must I go on?). I wish I knew about his new effort seven nights ago. He's promoting, if a week too late for our home's Passover, this campaign for not only remembering at the commemoration of liberation the unfree Tibetans, but for helping to save them.

Here's an excerpt from his grassroots effort:
"And now, as the Chinese Olympic torch is met with protests around the globe, we call on you to join the effort to shed light on Tibet’s suffering by extinguishing a torch of your own.

We call on all Jews to include an unlit candle on their Seder Tables this year. The candle symbolizes both the Olympic torch, whose light has been dimmed, and the unmet hopes of a people still living without freedom.

In the Jewish tradition, light symbolizes freedom, hope, and renewal. On Shabbat, Chanukah, and on holidays including Passover, we light candles to shed light into our hearts, thank God for the blessings we enjoy, and commit ourselves to our religion’s ideals of justice and freedom for all.

But for three million Tibetans living under military rule, the light has been extinguished. Tibetans may not freely practice their religion, display their flag, or honor their leader, the Dalai Lama. Doing so puts them at risk of jail, torture, or worse.

The point is not just to have another symbol on your table. Rather, as with the rest of the Seder, the point is to stimulate discussion and action."

Michaelson writes about supporting the Tibetan cause, of course, but I think that his suggestions do not go far enough. Personally, despite the Dalai Lama's calls for no boycott either of China nor the Olympics, I wonder why such efforts should not be done. I know the Buddhist understanding seems less sanguinary, and more sanguine, than our Western theologies of liberation and teleologies of deliverance. But, perhaps without sounding ethnocentrist, a little kick in the ass might be what the Panda Bear needs? Forty years of ping-pong diplomacy do not seem to have eased the suffering of the people there, nor have they in this span surpassing the Exodus in length found their Pure Land of promise.

Surely a boycott would provide a truly powerful counterattack to the economic hegemony and political dictatorship that increasingly we outside the PRC also feel in our daily lives, as debtors, consumers, and workers who see our own democratic (such as it is in theory) gains slipping away as the foreign superpower grows in prestige and influence? I have mentioned this issue (search keyword "Tibet") more than once on this blog the past two months. Typical, you might carp. I go on the Net rather than march in the street. But, the Olympic torch never came within 500 miles of me. Like it or not, for we post-boomers, this is our cyber-Berkeley. And, where you and I share our attenuated dialogue has become the agora for our new Athenian dialogues across much more space than even Socrates knew or Aristotle defined. A few weeks ago, when on this blog I listed sites I'd found that advocated such a campaign, I found only a few, often desultorily, advocating this effort.

Most people shrug off this as too difficult; a recent book "A Year Without China" gained about as dismissive reviews as one that also came out about a year without shopping at a chain store, for much the same lethargic reason. Too much of a hassle, not worth the trouble. As for me, I look for the non-union label, so to speak. I'm tired of not having any choice on the shelf but to buy shoddy goods made by exploited workers. Personally, if the Irish had bothered to turn against the British chain stores and auto makers (back when they made cars there), the troops would have heard "slan abhaile" long long ago. Never understood why Grattan's "burn everything British except their coal" became nothing more than a rousing slogan two hundreds years hence, but I'm naive, I know. Same cognitive dissonance that makes ManU the leisure apparel of choice for the average non-Celtic fan throughout most of the 26 Counties. Yet try finding a Galway City football cap or hoodie.

Back to boycotts. If Britain was so righteous in the past to disdain diamonds from South Africa or the U.S. to prohibit cigars from Cuba, why not put our principles to work and cut ties with China? Maybe for the same reason our armies and our leaders in revenge went down rabbit holes after Afghan warlords and Iraqi 'insurgents' rather than strike the petroleum-rich pulse of the Islamofascist threat: the Wahhabi regime who, in the name of piety, has gone so far as to bulldoze Muhammed's birthplace for fear of idolatrous haji. We go after the Grenadas and Panamas with gusto, while Saudi Arabia and China (as MFN status, naturally) bask in the profits we so willingly give them with our SUVs, Wal-Marts, and daily "freemarket" choices at the market, the gas pump (I paid $25 for 6 gallons today), or the dealer. So, I agree with Michaelson's strategy, but in a spirit he would share, I also challenge his definition of what should be a far bolder initiative in the cause of human rights.

There's a link at Unlit Candle to nobler, less testy minds than mine. (I suffer from the Irish disease of begrudgery.) These more enlightened souls write nuanced articles on Tibet. Jewish activists add their own perspectives; there's also thoughts for the Seder, and a hyperlink to, among other sites, The International Campaign for Tibet at See more: An Unlit Candle

Bláthannaí, Duine & Gaeilge

Déarfaidh mé rudaí teangeolaíochtaí agus luibheolaíochtái agus daongrafachtaí go beag fúthu. Tá sé litir ar Na h-Amanna Éireannach le Phaedra Keogh go fhoilseoidh ann inniu. (Féic síos, le do thoil.) Smaoineamh mé faoi an hábhar seo céanna freisin go minic. Aontaig mé féin léisan. Scríobh Keogh as drochbhláth an theanga ina scoileanna go leor ina hÉirinn.

Mar sin féin, tá mé ag iarraidh a usáid Gaeilge beagán agam. Cruinníonn mé leis obair ar an idirlíon go rianta. Go hiondúil, d'fhoghlaim mé féin amháin. Nílim ábalta cuimhne a choinneáil go líofacht. Déanann mé dearmad leis gach focal eile!

Ar ndóigh, caitheann mé ag léamh fiche noimoid ar an maidin nuair imíonn mé ar an mbus. Chríochnaigh agallamh Bheo leis Deas Mac an Easpaig le Caiomhe Ní Laighin inné. Bhí maith liom. Thosaigh mé air dó a trí nó a ceithre de sheachtainí. Léigh mé mír gach lá. Léifoidh mé rud céann aríst. Léann mé trí huaire air, ar an laghad.

Shíleann mé faoi Ghaeilge fós. Fuair mé leis eolas faoi bláthanna léana ar mo intinn go luath! Tá Keogh i gcónaí ina Áth na Fuinseoige. Chuir mé cuairt anseo. Tá sé gaírdíní go halainn ansin. Chaith mé ag dul ar fad ag fáil an radharc seosan lasmuigh cá bhfuil mé i gcónaí. Thiomaint mé an iarnóin seosan triu ar bruchbhaileannaí Ghallchnó agus Coibhina Thiar. Tháinig mé an bóthar difriul. Bhí bóthar motair ag dúnta. Ní raibh sé ag oscailte. Chónaic mé an mullach na sleibhte leis capín shneamh. Rug mé ar feiceáil go beag ar mustard scéine ar an cnoc in aice leis an bóthar, ach níl sé go leor. Cén fath?

Maireann duine ar imeall anois. B'fhéidir, bhí siad ag tagtha le Oileáin Fhilpeaneacha go pairceannaí sin i gcluasa ansin. Feiceann tú an straid leis an ainm: "Leann na Mainile." Tógann siad teachtaí milte. Cailleann cluainte. Thiteann crannaí. Úlloird bás a fháil. Tá sean-scéal ina gCathair na nÁingeal agus fobhaileannaí ar feadh an treimse go bhfuil i gconai anseo. Beidh scéal amháin. Chuala mé siadsan riamh ó shin nuair bhí mé óg.

Flowers, People & Irish

I'll talk about things linguistic and botanic and demographic a bit. Here's a letter to the Irish Times from Phaedra Keogh published today there. (Look below, please.) I think about this same matter often as well. I myself agree with herself. Keogh writes concerning the language's ruination in many Irish schools.

Nevertheless, I am attempting to use my little Irish. I gather my work on the Net regularly. Usually, I learned by myself. I'm not able to keep a memory for fluency. I make a mistake with every other word!

Of course, I spend twenty minutes reading in the morning when I go off on the bus. I finished an interview in "Beo" with Des Bishop by Caiomhe Ní Laighin yesterday. I liked it. I started it three or four weeks ago. I have read a bit each day. I would read something again. I read it three times, at least.

I thought about Irish also. I found information about wildflowers in my mind earlier! Keogh lives in Ashford. I visited there. It has many beautiful gardens. You must go a distance where I live to see this view outdoors. I drove this afternoon through the suburbs of Walnut and West Covina. I came a different road. The motorway was closed. It wasn't open. I saw on the summit of the mountains a little cap of snow. I caught a little look at wild mustard on the hill near the road, but there was not much. What happened?

People live in the outskirts now. They came there perhaps to these fields on the fringes from the Philippines. You see a street with the name: "Manila Way." They built thousands of houses. Meadows are lost. Trees fall. Orchards die. This is an old story in Los Angeles and the suburbs during the period that I have been dwelling here. The story will be the same. I have heard it ever since when I was young.

'Wretched' level of Irish in schools
Madam, - How amusing it is that it takes a man from Flushing, New York (Des Bishop) to arouse even a bit of interest for our young people in the Irish language?

How typical is it that the RTÉ programme aired last Thursday (In the Name of the Fada) ends with Bishop - alias Mac an Easpaigh - trying to get explanations as to the inexplicable lack of spoken Irish in our schools, with the Minister for Education waffling on about change. And the conversation about Irish was in English!

How frustrating is it that we have been carrying on with this charade for the past 50years and more and that my son who, 38 years after me is in fifth year, cannot string one sentence together in a language that he has been learning for 13 years?

Could we please come to our senses and either confine the poor, even wretched, teaching of this beautiful language to gaelscoileanna or teach it so that people can actually speak it? If it took Bishop only one year to get there, why do we not have one or two years in primary school where everything is taught through Irish? - Yours, etc,

Phaedra Keogh, Killiskey Cross, Ashford, Co Wicklow.

Irish Times, 2008-04-25

Iómhá /Image: Label of a Lemon Crate/Lipéad chliathbhosca liomoid, 1920. "Mountain View, Covina"

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Glyn Jones' "Selected Stories": Book Review

I read Glyn Jones' gripping "The Pit" in a later collection of stories by various Welsh writers, "The Green Bridge," (reviewed by me on Amazon US and here recently); the novella "The Green Island" here rivals it in length, plot and premise. Two uneasy lovers find that nature conspires against them and wonder if it's more than the elements that have it in for their adulterous actions. Jones combines the quasi-biblical cadences of many of his fellow Welsh writers who move between their native language's rich imagery and eloquent rhetoric into an English perhaps marginally more spare, and perhaps more blunt. The result can make for a stylistic register that may at first sound out of sync with contemporary English. It's stranger and more detached, even as its intimacy draws you in to a faintly archaic mode, despite the modern settings of many of these stories.

Like the Irish writer Liam O'Flaherty, who also went back and forth between his native Irish and English for powerful stories that often entered into animal as well as human souls, imagining their brutal and yearning lives on the edge of civilization, many of the stories here set up parallels. Characters appear often rather archetypal, and this heavier burden means that some stories remain clunkier by comparison. I liked the selections best in which, as Jones explains in an excellent brief introduction to this 1972 anthology, as a writer he gets to play God. The clash of conformity with instinct, the pairing of beast with human, sparks confrontations and tensions that impel the best stories.

Some, as he notes, are based on anecdotes he heard; one appears taken from a Welsh legend, and the rest, even though they take place in the middle of the last century, more or less, evoke often a distant time freer of distractions from passion, revenge, lust, and loyalty. Surprisingly, the mines so well described in "The Pit" do not appear here; the pastoral settings of the south-west Welsh coast contend against the Welsh city as the places for these stories, but, as with O'Flatherty, I reckon Jones favors the rural redoubt over the urban bustle. The peace may not come in either place for his protagonists, but there's less to draw his characters away from their silent, nagging, or insistent voices in their head as they face nature and enter themselves to wrestle with the big questions that, inevitably, they must answer.

(Posted to Amazon US today; I note a collected stories came out in 1999 from U of Wales Press. Too expensive, but worth seeking in a library!)

Painting: Sir William Nicholson, Tate Gallery caption: "The Nicholsons lived at Harlech in North Wales towards the end of the First World War and later. This view is from high above Harlech Castle, which is itself on the edge of a hill, and looks across Tremadoc Bay to the mountains on the Lleyn Peninsula. It is seems [sic] to be by moonlight, after rain, with a reflection from a slate roof and a pattern of shadows cast by the walls around the fields." "The Hill Above Harlech" 1917

Mad Dogs & Irishmen?

Englishmen proverbially roam imperiously under the sun, given it never used to set on their realm, suitably a ruddy or rubicund shade spreading over the Victorian globe. Take Ulysses, Chapter two, as Mr Deasy blathering about Shakespeare (quoting Iago's "put money in thy purse" but attributing that sentiment to his presumably thrifty Statford maker-- the authorial fallacy!) interrogates Stephen:--

He knew what money was, Mr Deasy said. He made money. A poet but an Englishman too. Do you know what is the pride of the English? Do you know what is the proudest word you will ever hear from an Englishman's mouth?

The seas' ruler. His seacold eyes looked on the empty bay: history is to blame: on me and on my words, unhating.

-- That on his empire, Stephen said, the sun never sets.

-- Ba! Mr Deasy cried. That's not English. A French Celt said that. He tapped his savingsbox against his thumbnail.

I could go on quoting Joyce endlessly, but back to one problem of that empire. While much was made last century of the Irish "spiritual" conquest of the world, as a cleverly ethereal counterpart to the King or Queen's domain, the Irish still must have recorded many instances of being unable to adapt. When I was eighteen, I met a Capuchin Franciscan friar from Ireland, who disdained my own expressed sentiment to stay out of a hot summer sun. He'd suffered no harm, and couldn't understand why a native-born Californian like me would wish for shade.

As I've been thinking and reading about the desert lately, my mind keeps wandering back to the problem, at least for me, of "climate adaptation." I'd like to find out more about my pet theory that I cannot fully acclimate to Los Angeles despite my nativity (if not epiphany) here because of my Irish "blood," the fact that genetically for thousands of years-- possibly back ten or even fifteen centuries in Hibernia according to Stephen Oppenheimer's recent interpretation of DNA studies (speaking of this and Celts, French and otherwise, see my review here)-- my ancestors lived in cooler climes, which the body adjusts to, of course, over time. Not enough time, I counter in one's own lifetime, for fully adjusting to the newer region. At least for one as fair-skinned as me?

This relates to the Zionists who came back to Palestine from the shetl. Didn't they at least a notable number wilt in the Negev after so many years in the yeshiva? We all know the sabra stereotype of rugged he-men in little sun-hats toiling on the kibbutz, but I keep skeptical: surely many of them digging ditches and hoisting plows could not handle the relentless heat? While the unforgettably named (a stereotype of Victorian Albion but actually quite contemporary) Francis Spufford wrote (the title's a great quote from the gallant valediction of stoic Robert Falcon Scott of the ill-fated Terra Nova South Pole expedition) "I May Be Some Time: Ice and the British Imagination," has there been a counterpart for what Sir Richard Francis Burton titled, more erotically, the "Sotadic Zone"?

How did the mad dogs and not only English but Irishmen handle the midday tropics, the desert, the dunes? Burton famously learned a raft of lingo and disguised himself as an Arab, and we have plenty of erudite islanders who followed his eager steps into the Middle East. But, how about the ruddy nuns in wimples, the priests in black soutanes, the traders in pith and miners in denim? How did the Irish manage as they tramped the past couple centuries of trails in the name of Church, Crown, or Capital?

[Hard to find an image by name. I googled "mad dogs irishmen" to find this Indymedia blog entry, with a bowlered image from an anti-Orangemen mural, fittingly ablaze, at least pictorially so. No Orange March]

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

"Death Valley Lore": Book Review

Two Richards, Lingenfelter & Dwyer, edit this 1988 collection of "Classic Tales of Fantasy, Adventure, and Mystery." They compile them from sources that kindled the public fascination with this supposedly inhospitable, magically hidden, stupendously lucrative, yet utterly fatal place. So the legend was printed, to paraphrase John Ford. Forty-niners gone astray, John Brier & William Lewis Manly, provide their own powerful narrations from when they found themselves trapped there, the first white men to witness its terrifying and dispiriting sights. Prospectors like Shorty Harris and promoters like George Graham Rice share their polished, yet engaging, accounts, as do editors of newspapers from the camps. They're joined by a host of flimflamming publicists eager to cash in on the crazes in the later 19th and earlier 20th century surrounding hoaxes, self-dramatizing forays after lost mines, Death Valley Scotty's mendacity, and the Bullfrog discovery. Yarnspinners and poetasters-- the best being Paul DeLaney surviving the summer's heat and Sydney Norman's debunking of Scotty-- round out the breathless array of selections.

It's a handsome volume, but it would have benefited from a more detailed map than the dated, single inset one prefacing the book. I also wish more period illustrations had been interspersed throughout, instead of only at the start of each chapter. Also, the editorial material's very slim, a short introduction to the collection and brief notes prefacing the selections offering not much explanation or context for the entries. While these do often speak for themselves, the editors could have assisted the reader who does not know fact from fiction here.

For the truth, Lingenfelter's standard 1986 history, "Death Valley & the Amargosa," gives you in exhaustive but not exhausting detail a well-told in-depth survey; John Soennichsen's "Live! From Death Valley" entertains with a personal travelogue that captures the sense of the terrain from a modern perspective. (Both works reviewed by me on Amazon and this blog recently.) This subsequent anthology, on the other hand, revels in the rather dated, inflated and hyperbolic styles of the past. These types of stories made the impressions on those who never came within a thousand miles of the desert what it "must" have been like, in all its romance, horror, and hyperbole. Some of these impress-- the harrowingly detailed yet efficiently sketched forty-niner Manly or Brier's eloquence humbles you, when one realizes the limited formal education such men likely had, and how well they used their ability to tell a gripping first-person survival account better than any "reality" t.v concoction.

John Brier sums it up: "One tires of writing about yielding sand and impeding scrub, so effectual in stretching distance and consuming strength and time." (33) Either the teller begins to risk tedium by being honest, or conceit by being imaginative. Endless pages of despair don't hold one's attention; ghosts, skeletons, glitter, and wild Indians do. These rhetorical flourishes, set to separate elsewhere fools from money, or at least audiences from spare change for a paper, may wear down the contemporary reader, but they do provide an insight into how the popular press plays upon fads and puffs up trends. C.C. Julian (surprisingly absent from these earlier reports, but see Lingenfelter's history) and Death Valley Scotty foreshadowed the Tony Robbins and Donald Trump, relentlessly and inventively selling themselves as they sold you for decades on end still more of their secrets of success. They never let you peek openly into their hoard, but these early promoters know how to keep you hoping to learn more. Much of the stock market frenzy, seller panic, and buyer lust can be seen in today's e-commerce and globalized markets no less than the semi-fictitious boasts by inside traders and secrets whispered by PR spinners over a century ago from this place that still haunts dreamers and provokes schemers.

Photo: Harold Davis digitalization. See: Death Valley Sunrise 2

Richard Lingenfelter''s "Death Valley & the Amargosa" Book Review

With a fifty-five page bibliography and a hundred pages of endnotes, you'd expect this closely documented history of this region, published from a university press by a professor (of physics!) to read like most academic texts. It does not. It's witty, insightful, droll, while remaining relentlessly focused not on the feel of the area (for that, see his "Death Valley Lore" edition of century-old tall tales and/or journalism or John Soennischen's lively personal take "Live from Death Valley"; both books also reviewed by me here and on Amazon)-- but on its discovery by pioneers, its promotion by hucksters to gullible investors, and the sheer difficulty of getting its mineral and ore riches out of the Valley due to the lack of water and wood. No matter how tempting the surface finds might promise prospectors and speculators, the fact remained that more borax than gold came from there, and perhaps more lead than silver, and the enormous labor and climatic peril meant that, less than a century after it was stumbled upon by gold-rushers seeking a shortcut west, it became more lucrative as a tourist attraction rather than a mother lode.

Lingenfelter assembles his considerable data primarily from newspapers and government archives of the time. Maps both early and later help you visualize the places, and period photos give you a peek into a few of the sites. I wish more of these had been included, but it's a minor flaw. Chapters cover chronologically the pre-European settlers; the miners of the 1850s and 1860s; the Pocket Miners' boomlets that sparked buying frenzies for gold, silver, lead and later the humbler but savvily-sold borax; the copper and lead profits; and the rise of the auto, rail, and bus excursions that in the wake of Scotty's endless PR set the Valley indelibly on the map and on the silent screen. His opening paragraphs for each of the chapters and sub-sections serve as models for expository writing in their command of image, style, and intrigue.

The author wrote most of his account based on the contemporary reports from the area, and the abundance of press from the California and Nevada mining towns themselves must have rivalled dueling bloggers who try to cash in on the staked-out domains of the Net in our own feverish commercial marketing campaigns. Death Valley's Scotty and his lesser-known real-estate snake-oil rival C.C. Julian emerge from these closely printed, but largely engrossing, pages as larger-than-life promoters of their own image and of the dreams of avarice that they kindled in their readers all over the country. The narrative leaps energetically into such characters' humbug, and your patience for all the data on stock prices, lists of claims, and dutiful attention to grubstakes and legal battles, while all necessary for the foundation of such an informative text, is rewarded with a chance to feel the repelling yet fascinating charm of the salesmen who sold the spirit of the Gold Rush or Klondike or Comstock to later, more citified, folks, and delighted in the con all the way as much as perhaps many of their willing victims seemed to do. Likewise, the manipulation of Leadfield by Julian as the profits rose and fell on his considerable talents in advertising what his reader wanted can be rivalled by earlier, less-known efforts such as the Panamint and Bullfrog and Ryan mines that crested and tumbled their value on the stock exchanges in roller-coaster fashion.

Finally, there's a glimpse at such later figures as "Bob" Eichbaum, who built a toll road, sensibly, to found a resort smack in the middle of the Valley when his horses refused to go any further with his supplies for construction. He and the last to get rich off the Valley managed to do so by convincing Hoover, just before he left the White House, to protect the interests of those who had already cornered the market for the automobile-bound visitors. These developers wished to keep the mining going, while heading off any real-estate boom, and they succeeded in cornering their control of the concessions and sights, while getting the taxpayers to take over the bill for roads, maintenance, and upkeep.

Still, as Lingenfelter concludes, this may well be a great bargain, for in its appeal as a supposedly deadly, noxious, forbidden, or hellish place, its own Hollywood-fueled scenario makes it the largest National Park today. It also was spared the dispiriting subdivision of Palm Springs or the tacky sprawl of Las Vegas. In its not-quite pristine but still rather primitive state, it's a place where yearly one that half a million of us drive to, winter or summer, in search of the curious lure that impels us to look high up to Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the 48 States, while far below sea level at fittingly named Badwater.

Ag eisteacht Raidió Fáilte

Léigh mé an alt seo ar "50,000 Fáilte romhaibh" ar an eagran 22ú Aíbreán 2008 an nuacht . Craoladh Raidió Fáilte ar an tuiscint. Is stáisiún Thiar Béal Feirste é ann. Scríobh "Aisling" nuair ag curtha sí an léiríu ar an blog seosan, 28ú Márta: ba chóir duit éist le Raidió Fáilte ar an idirlíon ag, tá suíomh nua ag teacht!

Cloiseann daoine go leor an Raidió Fáilte. Tá siad i gconaí ar an domhan ar fad. Is cosuil leis Raidió na Gaeltachta nó RTÉ anois. Má mian libh a cloisfidh Gaeilge beo, caithigi sibh ag fáil áiteannái go furasta libh teachtaí agaibhsa.

Dúirt mé leis Diarmuid Ó Tuama an samraidh seo caite. Tá séisean ag obair ar an stáisiún. Tá sé labhairt ar an raidió go rialta ansin. Tá craolachán dó An Chulturlann ar an Bóthar na bhFál.

Ábalta sibh eisteacht stáisiún ar an idirlíon. Chuala mé féin air faoi lathair. Bhí sé ceol na tuaithe a sheinm. Is maith liom rince tíre go minic. Ach ní bhfuair mé seans a cloisteáil dom focal uile. Measaim go raibh an t-am ar an iarnóin a imirt nó a codladh.

Listening to Raidio Fáilte

I read this article: "Welcome to 50,000 of you all" on, in the 22 April 2008 edition of the newspaper "Lá." Raidió Fáilte broadcasts from the North. It's a West Belfast station. "Aisling" wrote when she posted a comment on this blog, 26 March: "It's right for you to listen to Raidió Fáilte on the internet at, it's a new location coming." {Her sentence sounds better if left in Irish!}

Lots of people hear Raidió Fáilte. They are living all around the world. It's similar to RnG or RTÉ now. If you wish to hear living Irish, you must get those places easily in your own homes.

I spoke with Diarmuid Ó Tuama this past summer. He himself works at the station. He's speaking on the radio there regularly. The broadcast is from An Culturlann on the Falls Road.

You're all able to listen to the station on the Internet. I heard it myself recently. There was folk music playing. I like dances from the countryside often. But I did not get a chance to hear any other words. I guess that it was the time in the afternoon to play (games) or to sleep.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Bemidbar: Passover 5768

"Into the desert" is the first phrase of the Book of Numbers, that dull census. It fits, however, our storytelling as we met for last night's seder. We hosted two families who, while they had only met each other at our own gatherings in passing over the past fifteen years, together my wife and I have known a long time. Longer, for her, as one of the women was her high school best friend. Seeing the six children, theirs and ours, at one Passover table, and the six of us at the other (although Layne cooked and cleaned so much as is her balabusta style that she rarely sat down with us, pillow and reclining if the ancients were to be strictly and luxuriously followed in their admonition to sit back and relax this night, for once), I thought about how Jews always-- and more recently non-Jews too-- have gathered for such yeastless feasts for three millennia. We had a question-and-answer, seminar sort of open-ended discussion as we navigated the venerable shoals and eddies of the "order" of Pesach.

I tried, given my own pedantry and the fact we had a professor up for tenure among us as well as a nine-year-old girl and a lot of restless teens and people with varying levels of commitment or patience for midrash jot-and-tittle minutiae, to keep it brisk. With kids younger, I've done it in under half-an-hour; this took an hour, but I hope we all learned rather than languished. Happening but yearly, the details do need repeating, and memories often lag meanwhile. The switch from a pedagogical to androgical set-up does help with older youth. Freire might applaud. We could ask them to help tell the story-- as Jews are commanded to do each Pesach-- and to explain why we do each part of the seder. In my teaching mode, I nonetheless avoid rote recitation. I used old photocopies of a family-friendly Haggadah I'd cut-and-pasted a decade ago, and we riffed off of these as older and younger moods fit.

Olivia knew lots about the rabbinic stories behind the text. She filled in helpful conjectures that have accumulated, given the centuries involved between us and the Exodus. Little Lucy perked up with the plagues and helped act out them in our traditional family charades. As Sarah pointed out, it does get easier to guess when you have only ten to start from. Layne commented that next year, she would not put the shankbone on the plate to commemorate animal sacrifice; the roasted beet could suffice as a friendlier substitute.

The last straw's that broke the oppressor's back's also a burden. Layne winced at the text's culmination in the sacrifice of the Egyptians' firstborn as a necessary goad to get the Hebrews out of that "narrow place," the land known in Hebrew as Mitzrayim. (Robin and I wondered why it's a plural noun ending). Yet, she also agreed that if there was some retribution involved in some Iraqi-vs.-American (or Israeli) atrocity today, we'd likely be unable to turn a cheek for another pacifist, unilaterally Kumbayah, cheek. Another reminder of how the two testaments differ, and of the lack of pacifists on the bristling frontiers around Eretz Israel for the past six watchful decades. Nobody celebrates with any more cinematic or bestselling "Exodus" concoction those who burrow there. About ten percent of those for whom the Law of Return attracted their parents from exile now live abroad. Many of these "olim" seem the main cause of traffic on my city's Westside! The others, as Manchán Magan has eloquently described in his two accounts of India and South America, appear to follow their ancestors, trekking across far terrain after their army service drives them away from the intifada to recover shalom. Those remaining "up there," the ones who've made "aliyah" and arose to the once-vibrant postwar challenge, face becoming a minority in their homeland. Debate between Zion as a land for "next year in Jerusalem" promise and Palestine as no land of "Israel Lobby" premise continues to roil even within our haggadah.

It lists the custom of putting fingers in our wine to take out a drop for each plague, as a reminder of diminishing the joy at the destruction of our enemies. Robin and I wondered if this was "liberal guilt." I'm not sure if this gentle gesture would find its imitation on much of the West Bank today or among those who managed, as I read the other day, to smuggle under their clogs three turnip peelings to use as "matzoh" in the clandestine seders held in the barracks at the concentration camps. As must have been all too easy in 1943 Dachau, Jews can summon up imperious injunctions from the Creator to never forget Amalek. You can't let your guard down. The enemies do wipe you out, down to the stragglers in the long line who lack the strength to flee.

But, for how long must Jews urge "never again"? Until the fourth generation? How long past 1948 is this? I can hear this as a kumbayah echo. What do schoolchildren in Hebron and among Hamas both memorize at their own dinner tables? What songs do they hum before another skirmish over this tiny rift between Africa & Asia?

My recent readings of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have refreshed in my scriptural mind such Levitical citations understood and perpetuated in their xenophobic paranoia. Dawkins cites George Tamarin's study that took Joshua's blitz of Jericho and tested the responses of Israeli children as to its morality. Tamarin found that even the secular students largely approved: 66% total, 8% partial, while 26% with total disapproval. Maimonides defended this too: "It is a positive commandment to destroy the seven nations, as it is said: Thou shalt utterly destroy them." When Tamarin replaced the biblical names with "General Lin" and "a Chinese kingdom," for a different group, only 7% approved and 75% disapproved. (255-57: "The God Delusion") But, if the Israelis lacked their Defense Force, would they have survived a month past independence sixty years ago?

Furthermore, for no Jewish argument's easy, the Chosen also have been long chided by their jealous God not to forget their own bullseyes. Almost like baboons: they cannot blend into the camouflauge. For, always each Hebrew's back(side) seems forever branded by that same Deity who placed them in this great continental divide so temptingly placed between Pharoah and potentate, three continents crossing, incense once and spices then and oil now all sought by a greedy world. Always in target range of their circling, and always multiplying, billions (it seems) of foes.

This harsh vibe after the hang loose-let live Santa Cruz spliff or Berkeley raga does remind us that when you're commanded to tell the impressionable children this perilous story of escape endlessly, that with it comes the reminder that you're a member of another tribe. Thus lots of killing of first and other-borns, on both sides of the Semitic divide, recorded in scripture, on videotapes, with stones. The leftists constantly urge us to respect The Other, and the sin of Orientalism looms large on curricula and in diversity programs. Yet, I did notice, from my own stints in conventional academia, how rarely today's few million Jews gain nuanced understanding.

Instead, it's always MOT stereotypes. A council of bearded elders plots trilateral world domination. IDF bulldozer crushes willowy peace activist. The tubby macher on the Malibu beach with the Botoxed shiksa trophy wife. Hollywood producer, twice intermarried, trots out another Broadway romp aimed at the upscale urbane (if shrinking demographic) able to chuckle at a deft sprinkling of verbal schmaltz. The latest Judd Apatow sex comedy with our nebbischy mensch pining after a perky natural (?) Nordic blonde. (Like the one he married in real life who gets to star in his movies despite a marked lack of talent.) It's ads in the "Forward" to rally with boycotts, against jihads, and amidst rumors of endless persecution. My sons with their monikers fending off snide remarks while their friends with the "right" surnames can blend in without any Jewish matrilineal connection, which I alone seem to find ironic. My wife shrugs at such tired images. It's a people always assimilating, yet never quite able to "pass" into.

So, being far from the Promised Land but with no Moshiach in sight, we at our seder returned to the edgy customs evolved of those who never quite fit in no matter where they dwell. Moses bred into Hebrews the need to cover one's rear guard. Where'd Jewish comedy be without such a nervous glance, a defensive disarming tic?

We opened the door to see if Elijah awaited. I heard this custom also arose out of the diasporic need to assure passers-by that no grounds for blood libel lurked within. A few minutes later, the Mexican neighbor's boy came to the gate to ask for Niall to come out and play. Our other neighbor, who was from Ukraine, had her partner's parents visiting. I wondered if she went to any seders after her own 1970s-era departure from the USSR, in what at the time was billed as the great rescue of Soviet Jews into freedom. As Layne and she have joked about, the expensive liberation brought about by a combination of Kissinger-type diplomacy, Israeli duplicity, and American publicity did not exactly fill the pews of our local synagogues with millions of grateful Semitic semi-Slavs. I also imagined (despite the windows being closed on her side) that our emancipated neighbor heard us all when our dozen voices sang the Four Questions demanding why we keep doing this archaic routine, Mah Nishtanyah, in Hebrew.

Leo piped up, for once, with an answer to why the Egyptians did not immediately let the Hebrews go. We recalled the chilling verse that "God had hardened Pharoah's heart," and I lamented a capricious God who changed the rules halfway through the game of life. He did it with Job, Moses, Judas, and Pharoah. I suppose that Lot finagled too when he bargained YHWH down at Sodom, however, and Moses certainly lied enough in his pimping Sarah off on various priapic potentates, one Pharoah included, as his "sister" to save his own sagging tuchas on his own desert expeditions. By the last "arranged marriage," she would have been withered considerably even by inflated biblical chronology, about ninety-odd. Did she laugh then as she had when the angel told her husband that despite being withered and unable to enjoy pleasure, she'd bear Isaac? And look how Abraham treated his own first-born, Isaac. Incomprehensible, but duly recorded and memorized, orders for slaughter of the innocent, to a dutiful founder of the Hebrews from an earlier disembodied voice above another barren mountain across that same desert's expanse.

Rosie answered why Moses had to flee into the desert. Olivia and Sarah told us why Moses stuttered-- the burning coal picked and sucked by him as a baby over the toppling heap of gold. Ben knew why he returned. No child knew the name of Moses' wife. I noted how compared to the likes of Esther or Rebecca that Zipporah (or even Tzippi if you're a sabra) failed to catch fire for the many mamaloshen of millions of mothers. We went on to the fabled events, and paused to note the late Charlton Heston's role in imprinting them on our imaginations. We oldsters all fondly mentioned the Easter apparition we loved, when both "The Ten Commandments" and "The Wizard of Oz" came on t.v., once each spring. Scott suggested that seismic shifts might have given rise to the parting of the Red Sea story; I compared the long race memory of what now archeologists confirm what must have been the post-glacial flooding around 8000 BCE that created the Black Sea.

Niall explained the symbolic charoset to commemorate the Pyramids built by the slaves (who would not have been the Hebrews, contrary to popular belief!); Sarah noted that this mortar detail actually came from the Babylonian "captivity" of the post-First Temple Hebrews exiled to Persia, long after the supposed events in Egypt. She told us how she'd studied the Joseph story in detail, and how scholars today believe that the Exodus account was "backdated" and invented to latch on to the Joseph tales. I also wondered if this could then be used to justify the Promised Land being given to the Jews, after they'd been somehow lured outside of its borders, and to defend their conquest of Canaan as being deeded them by the land-grant Lord in Manifest Destiny fashion.

Robin and Sarah also reminded us that Moses never entered the Promised Land do to his sin, not only of striking the rock twice for water (a pretty minor misdemeanor if you ask me) but for killing the evil taskmaster. Rosie pointed out that Moses only found out he was a Hebrew when his brother Aaron visited him at the Pharoah's court. I also remembered that Aaron made the golden calf, and when I suggested it must have been about six inches high due to the lack of gold that the fleeing Hebrews would have carried with them, Julia provided a rejoinder: "You don't know Jewish women."

Layne summed it all up, after an hour of such conversation, before the meal. I had mentioned to her yesterday I'd been wanting to ask folks this at our Seder, as we were all (except Lucy) grown-up enough. If as scholars now tell us, that the Exodus never really happened, why do we act as if it did? Ben observed that the Sinai was not so large as to get lost in it forty years, while Rosie noted that the disbelieving older generation longing for their shankbones had to die off first before the land of milk and honey could be entered-- according to God's relentless bookkeeping; Olivia and I agreed that the Egyptians would have noted the Hebrew episode if it had mattered in their chronicles or they'd have been too dismissive to record what would have been a minor tribe-- no 600,000 men-- passing through up and down past Gaza as they had before and since as of little importance: no plagues, no fire, no troops drowned.

The adult table spent most of their night discussing our own aging and the deaths of our parents. We all had undergone the passing away of loved ones the past year. Layne returned to the metaphorical etymology that I mentioned above, "of passing out of the narrow places." This appears to have taken on new currency in secular times, among Santa Cruz-Berkeley in spirit, NPR-demographic in substance Jews like those at our seder, as far as I can tell. These myths and those midrashim entice me, Olivia, Robin and Sarah. Nevertheless, for the less owlish at our tables, I suspected more compelling reasons to go through the ritual could be found in its symbolic enaction.

We have to overcome our limitations. In a self-actualizing manner, Jews and anybody else coming to care about this considerably hectic (if you do it right!) holiday-- note the black adoption of a "freedom seder"-- have learned to recognize that meaning lies beyond the trappings of eggs and spring fever. We dip greens and do spring cleaning and munch matzah (which may be the "bread of affliction" but less so if baked with chocolate another 18 minutes or so!). Not out of the fear that if we fail, that we'll be stricken with leprosy or that the seismic shifts may consume us as they did those cavorting around the metallic idol.

For me, I only eat matzoh at Passover: it reminds me of self-control, of the need for instilled discipline. I lack any Yiddishkeit, which for most of those last night at our home may compel them to keep up the injunction to tell this story "as if it happened to us" for so long. Any recollections of the aroma of brisket or the tang of maror for my first- and second-born will come only from this latest installment in the gnarled family tree that connects three of them back to the tribes who claimed--even if long after the fact, as inspired fiction-- they once fled across the wilderness into freedom. For us all, Passover's a reminder of how lost we are when we flee the fleshpots of Egypt alone to roam within our own bewildered souls, without comforting manna or a guiding pillar of fire.

May you live to be 120: so a woman at the Mitzvah Store blessed my firstborn a decade and more ago, across the street from my father-in-law, who died before he reached that symbolic age when Moses was buried, and, confounding fundamentalists if not rabbis, managed to write about it in the last of his Five Books. So the stories twist over the centuries into human contradictions, squaring the eternal circle clumsily. We need the company of others stubborn enough to call themselves or ally themselves with Jews: this lesson remains the conclusion of our seder. We continue on this long journey into the mortal desert that-- for we six at the grown-ups table last night different from all other nights-- will end our days at most not at six score but at best in forty years.

Image: J.M.W. Turner, 1800, Tate Gallery: "The Fifth Plague of Egypt" {Dever: cattle disease. At least I stopped eating brisket this seder, although you should taste my wife's...!}

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Irish Miners & California Deserts

Googling these four words together, not much. The Gold Rush, sure; Virginia City, Nevada, some; Western entries that mention all four, certainly. The five entries I cobble together prove that Hibernian stereotypes may span the sexes. But the sons and daughters from the oul' sod bond over demon drink and/or in dissolute digs.

Mark Twain's Chapter XXI in 1872's "Roughing It" enters Carson City, where lodge fourteen members of the Territorial Irish Brigade, among them four or five commanders. As for their proprietress: "The Secretary and I took quarters in the “ranch” of a worthy French lady by the name of Bridget O’Flannigan, a camp follower of his Excellency the Governor. She had known him in his prosperity as commander-in-chief of the Metropolitan Police of New York, and she would not desert him in his adversity as Governor of Nevada." But no mother lode struck, 25 searched webpages times ten hyperlinks means I've dug deep enough for now. Libraries may well unearth more valuable ore.

Jack Keane, who named after himself Death Valley's very successful "Keane's Wonder Mine," was an Irish miner from Ballarat (not the Australian boomtown). With with a one-eyed Basque partner, Keane hit paydirt in the Funeral Mountains in 1903, after eight years luckless. He and the Basque cashed in their shares for $50,000 each (I reckon around two million bucks today). Keane, living large with two prostitutes back in Ballarat, got liquored up. He shot the "constable." And he shot the deputy, oh no. After being released from county jail in the ironically or aptly named Independence, Keane returned to his homeland. He killed a man in a bar fight there; he spent his last seventeen years in prison.

An online registry of television episodes unearthed this tidbit: "Kung Fu" episode: "Nine Lives": An Irish miner must find a replacement for his camp's beer drinking cat mascot- which he accidentally killed- in order for him to be allowed to return to work. b[roadcast]: 15 Feb 73. A far more comprehensive scan of a more informative site for "Bonanza" failed to produce such a gem to rival this in terseness and tension.

From a handsome website entry about Cerro Gordo, "fat rock," once a mining town along the western slopes of the Owens River Valley to the east of Death Valley: The combination of whiskey and women made the dance halls, and the red-light houses of Lola Travis and Maggie Moore, the principal scenes of gunplay. Dr. Hugh McClelland, physician at Cerro Gordo, reflected upon one such incident the night he accompanied a young man wishing to visit one of the dance halls. A hot-tempered Mexican girl overheard McClelland explaining to his younger companion the reason for her odd nick-name, and came at the good doctor with a stiletto in her hand. An Irish girl caught her by the wrist and disarmed the screaming Mexican, but not before a Mexican man was shot dead by George Snow when he tried to plunge a knife into McClelland on behalf of his girlfriend. This ended in a general shooting until the lights were extinguished. Owens Valley History Still, I realize we do not learn the Mexican hostess' "odd nick-name."

This next nugget did not get uprooted from the desert, but closer to my home. Still, I find it a splendidly random find from an inestimable treasure I mean to grasp-- one day-- in the Library of America edition to take with me into "The Mountains of California," as the title of John Muir's 1894 account tells us. Its concluding chapter's all about beekeeping, which Muir, as always, tells in splendid prose.

Today, near the Rose Bowl and the start of the Arroyo Seco above which I live about fifteen miles south, Eaton Canyon's the gravelly cradle of Jet Propulsion Lab. The expanses around it loom with a typically sub-par public high school named for Muir. Around what he would have seen as orchards are a century later endless substandard ticky-tacky apartments and houses on the flats. Elegant pre-McMansions perch upon the foothills, above mini-malls, over lots of ugly corporate parks. At one of these I took my wife to a doctor, where I thought about the rocky washes above in the San Gabriels. About these, hunt down John McPhee's typically lengthy essay about how we Angelenos hold back the boulders every wet winter in his New Yorker piece published in "The Control of Nature." I have lived most of my life within sight of these ten-thousand foot peaks. Often shrouded in smog or haze, but sometimes crowned by cobalt clouds or tipped in fleeting snow, they watch me grow, for a fraction of their own implacable timespan. Here's Muir, from the Full Books text, Ch. XIV, "The Bee-Pastures"

Setting out from Pasadena, I reached the foot of the range about sundown; and being weary and heated with my walk across the shadeless valley, concluded to camp for the night. After resting a few moments, I began to look about among the flood-boulders of Eaton Creek for a camp-ground, when I came upon a strange, dark-looking man who had been chopping cord-wood. He seemed surprised at seeing me, so I sat down with him on the live-oak log he had been cutting, and made haste to give a reason for my appearance in his solitude, explaining that I was anxious to find out something about the mountains, and meant to make my way up Eaton Creek next morning. Then he kindly invited me to camp with him, and led me to his little cabin, situated at the foot of the mountains, where a small spring oozes out of a bank overgrown with wild-rose bushes. After supper, when the daylight was gone, he explained that he
was out of candles; so we sat in the dark, while he gave me a sketch of his life in a mixture of Spanish and English. He was born in Mexico, his father Irish, his mother Spanish. He had been a miner, rancher, prospector, hunter, etc., rambling always, and wearing his life away in mere waste; but now he was going to settle down. His past life, he said, was of "no account," but the future was promising. He was going to "make money and marry a Spanish woman." People mine here for water as for gold. He had been running a tunnel into a spur of the mountain back of his cabin. "My prospect is good," he said, "and if I chance to strike a good, strong flow, I'll soon be worth $5000 or $10,000. For that flat out there," referring to a small, irregular patch of bouldery detritus, two or three acres in size, that had been deposited by Eaton Creek during some flood season,--"that flat is large enough for a nice orange-grove, and the bank behind the cabin will do for a vineyard, and after watering my own trees and vines I will have some water left to sell to my neighbors below me, down the valley. And then," he continued, "I can keep bees, and make money that way, too, for the mountains above here are just full of honey in the summer-time, and one of my neighbors down here says that he will let me have a whole lot of hives, on shares, to start with. You see I've a good thing; I'm all right now." All this prospective affluence in the sunken, boulder-choked flood-bed of a mountain-stream! Leaving the bees out of the count, most fortune-seekers would as soon think of settling on the summit of Mount Shasta. Next morning, wishing my hopeful entertainer good luck, I set out on my shaggy excursion.

Pictures: "The Irish Brigade" & "Light on the Subject" (of the tarantula that terrifies Mrs. O'Flannigan's boarders) "Fully Illustrated by Eminent American Artists" from Project Gutenberg's e-text.