Monthly Archives: September 2009

John Muir: ‘I Asked the Boulders Where They Had Been’

We’ve watched most of the first two installments of the new Ken Burns public TV extravaganza, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” The beauty of the show is exhilarating and the history is fascinating (Theodore Roosevelt–what a guy).

The first two episodes are closely entwined with the story of John Muir, and part two focuses first on his fight to complete the preservation of Yosemite and then on his unsuccessful battle to stop San Francisco from flooding Hetch Hetchy valley. Muir’s voiceovers are done in a soft Scots burr. Occasionally, you hear about Muir from Lee Stetson, who has portrayed him for decades and who has even adopted the Muir look. But when Stetson appears on camera, he speaks in a plain old General American accent. At the very end of the second episode, though, he briefly introduces a Muir quote, then instantly transitions to the gentle and compelling Muir voice, then appears on camera to finish the quote. It’s a moving performance. Here’s what he recites:

“Muir said, ‘As long as I live I’ll hear the birds and the winds and the waterfalls sing. I’ll interpret the rocks and learn the language of flood and storm and avalanche. I’ll make the acquaintance of the wild gardens and the glaciers and get as near to the heart of this world as I could. And so I did. I sauntered about from rock to rock, from grove to grove, from stream to stream, and whenever I met a new plant I would sit down beside it for a minute or a day, to make its acquaintance, hear what it had to tell. I asked the boulders where they had been and whither they were going, and when night found me, there I camped. I took no more heed to save time or to make haste than did the trees or the stars. This is true freedom, a good, practical sort of immortality.”

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Oasis

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Not a great picture, but this is a drinking fountain up along Skyline Drive, just above Tunnel Road, in the Oakland Hills. Here’s what’s unique about the fountain: It’s set up on the shoulder of the road in a place that seems meant to be of maximum use for cyclists. The road is one of the most popular climbs in the East Bay Hills, an almost leisurely ascent that invites you to spin your way up and then gets a little more serious about halfway up the roughly four-mile climb. I’d guess that hundreds of cyclists ride past this fountain on their way up every day; a few locals may stroll here, too, but the road and shoulders are narrow and you certainly don’t see many of them as you pedal through here.  

I went up here about 2 p.m. or so. A nearby weather station recorded the temperature as 95 degrees. I’ve ridden so little of late that even a relatively relaxed climb like this one has become an index of my lack of fitness. Didn’t hurt too much, though, and the reward came on the fun descent from the top of Grizzly Peak Boulevard back into Berkeley.

Anyway, the fountain: I passed it, then remembered a nice little New York Times feature from a month or so back that talked about public drinking fountains and what they represent. I turned around to use this one, and noticed many sets of bike-tire tracks in the dirt at its base. An oasis on a hot day.

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Blood Sport, and a Second Coming

A friend writes: “… The public personalities who get the most attention now are the raging, fulminating blowhards who seem to be non-differentially angry at everything. It’s become a blood sport. But it’s nonetheless disturbing when you think that the population is so much in the grip of its shadow that it needs to find a victim to feed to the lions. At times I really do wonder if Obama will end up a single term president because he could not answer that savage impetus in the country. …”

Which put me in mind of this poem from William Butler Yeats:

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

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Safire’s Rules for Writers

From Robert D. McFadden’s obituary on William Safire, the Nixon-Agnew speechwriter, conservative columnist, and usage maven:

“… And there were Safire ‘rules for writers’: Remember to never split an infinitive. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors. Proofread carefully to see if you words out. Avoid cliches like the plague. And don’t overuse exclamation marks!!”

Did I like the guy’s politics? No–not that it matters. But you have to love a guy so precisely but unfussily focused on the language and how we use it.

[Update: In his “On Language” column for October 7, 1979, Safire included a query to his readers:

“I am compiling “Ten Perverse Rules of English Grammar.” Thanks to Philip Henderson of Lawrence, Kan., I have three. They are: (1) Remember to never split an infinitive. (2) A preposition is something never to end a sentence with. (3) The passive voice should never be used.

“Any others along these lines?”

Four weeks later, Safire published, “The Fumblerules of Grammar,” which contained the first three dicta and 33 more (ending with “last but not least, avoid clichés like the plague; seek viable alternatives.”) Here’s the complete set of 36 rules (along with some research disclosing that another writer published a similar list earlier in 1979). In 1990, Safire reprinted the list (and added 18 more “rules”) in “Fumblerules: A Lighthearted Guide to Grammar and Good Usage.”]

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Friday Night Ferry, Sibling Birthday Edition

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I took the day off, so tonight Kate and I rode the boat from Oakland to San Francisco together, stopped and ate at the Ferry Building (Taylor’s Automatic Refresher), then took the last run back to the East Bay. The sun was just setting as the boat left the dock at Jack London Square. Sky and water shone with a gorgeous light all the way across. (And hey: It was by brother John’s birthday today, and I didn’t call him. Happy birthday, JB. You would have loved the ride today, but I’m sure you had a good time in Brooklyn.)

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Temperature Inversion

You know the old rule: Temperature declines as you gain elevation. Here’s an adjunct to that: Except when it doesn’t. It’s fairly common in the San Francisco Bay Area to have cool marine air trapped under a layer of much warmer air. It can be a startling experience to start a walk in the cool damp air in our flatlands neighborhood and cross suddenly–in the matter of just a few feet–into very warm, much drier air.

There’s a beautiful case in point this morning. The lower elevations around the Bay are cocooned in a blanket of cool, moist air. Here in Berkeley, one station has the temperature as 58 degrees Fahrenheit and 91 percent relative humidity. That’s at an elevation of 361 feet–probably up on campus. At the 1,300-foot level in the hills, less than five miles away as the crow flies, it’s 78 F. with 29 percent humidity. Further afield, atop Mount Diablo (about 20 miles to the east; elevation 3,849), it’s 82 F. and 8 percent while at the base of the mountain (in Clayton, 518 feet) it’s 67 F. and 44 percent.

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Canine Excrement: Ethical and Psychosocial Considerations

We have a dog. No, wait: The Dog. We live in a town that has decreed that if your dog does what it’s going to do while you’re out on a walk–take a dump on the sidewalk, in the park, or on someone’s lawn–you’ve got to pick it up and dispose of it. I’ve got no problems with the law. Really, it’s only civilized to make sure you don’t leave a pile of crap where someone else is going to step in it or play in it and curse you and your kind for it. The only thing I wonder about on a practical level is whether we’ve figured out the right long-term regime for disposal. The method I see employed almost universally–picking up the crap using a plastic bag for a glove, then dumping the bagged crap in the garbage somewhere–means that there’s lots and lots of well-preserved canine excrement headed to landfills. Lest you think I’m overthinking the issue, here’s evidence from Ithaca, New York, and Toronto, Ontario, about ways people are trying to deal with it.

But that’s just one dimension of dog waste handling and disposal. There are dimensions that cross from the pragmatic to the social to the psychic that I wrestle with almost every time I’m out with The Dog. For instance?

A simple one: Say The Dog decides a certain lawn has the perfect balance of situation, smell, and texture that he decides to grace it with a deposit. Of course it’s no harder to pick up a dump from a private lawn that from a public lawn in the park But I always find myself thinking, “Is someone watching from inside? Are they upset at the sight of a dog profaning their personal greensward? Gee, I hope not. And here I am to pick it up!

Other sample poop-scooping thoughts:

Someone else approaches as I bend over to pick up a dump: “Oh, boy–I bet I look like a doofus. Picking up a dog shit. I’m subservient to a dog! I’m picking up its crap!”

I’m carrying a plastic bag with a dog crap in it and someone else walks by: “Oh, boy–I bet this looks cool. Carrying a dog crap.” (In point of fact, I met a neighbor once who saw me carrying such a bag. She asked how long I’d carry it before throwing it out. I think she was concerned about the sanitary aspects of the operation, which is something I don’t worry about much.)

I’m carrying a plastic bag with a dog crap in it and I pass a residential garbage can: Big dilemma. I really want to get rid of this. Should I dump it in here? Would the people mind? If they see me do it, will they come out and yell at me? If that sounds ridiculous, let me say I have seen one or two household garbage cans with signs on them saying something like, “Please, no dog poop.” I know why. It stinks after a day or two. In practice, what I do depends on where I happen to be. Since I’ve gotten to know where all the public garbage receptacles are, I’ll use one of those if I’m close by. If not, I might use a residential one or bring the thing home to throw it away. I’ve imagined having someone in full entitled, proprietary Berkeley dudgeon come out and challenge my use of their can. I’ve further imagined complying with a demand to remove any illicit leavings by emptying the entire contents on the sidewalk, removing my share, and walking away. Let us hope it never comes to that.

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Guest Observation: Homer

“…Odysseus, mastermind in action,
once he’d handled the great bow and scanned every inch,
then, like an expert singer skilled at lyre and song—
who strains a string to a new peg with ease,
making the pliant sheep-gut fast at either end—
so with his virtuoso ease Odysseus strung his mighty bow.
Quickly his right hand plucked the string to test its pitch
and under his touch it sang out clear and sharp as a swallow’s cry.
Horror swept through the suitors, faces blanching white,
and Zeus cracked the sky with a bolt, his blazing sign,
and the great man who had borne so much rejoiced at last
that the son of cunning Cronus flung that omen down for him.
He snatched a winged arrow lying bare on the board—
the rest still bristled deep inside the quiver,
soon to be tasted by all the feasters there. …”

—”The Odyssey,” Book 21. Translated by Robert Fagles.”

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Guest Observation: Homer

“…Odysseus, mastermind in action,
once he’d handled the great bow and scanned every inch,
then, like an expert singer skilled at lyre and song—
who strains a string to a new peg with ease,
making the pliant sheep-gut fast at either end—
so with his virtuoso ease Odysseus strung his mighty bow.
Quickly his right hand plucked the string to test its pitch
and under his touch it sang out clear and sharp as a swallow’s cry.
Horror swept through the suitors, faces blanching white,
and Zeus cracked the sky with a bolt, his blazing sign,
and the great man who had borne so much rejoiced at last
that the son of cunning Cronus flung that omen down for him.
He snatched a winged arrow lying bare on the board—
the rest still bristled deep inside the quiver,
soon to be tasted by all the feasters there. …”

—”The Odyssey,” Book 21. Translated by Robert Fagles.”

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A Brief History of Congressional Decorum, II

1880: The Weaver-Sparks Affray

During deliberations on December 21, the House took up a funding bill–“a measure from the consideration of which no one would suspect a disgraceful riot could possibly arise,” The New York Times noted. But debate over the bill, or rather a debate over how the bill should be debated, quickly deteriorated into accusations of party disloyalty and political skulduggery. Soon, the quarreling centered on two members: James Baird Weaver, a member of the Greenback Party from Iowa, and William Andrew Jackson Sparks, Democrat of Illinois.

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While Weaver (left) inveighed against Democratic monetary policy, Sparks (right) and several others tried to shout him down, and someone was heard to call Weaver a liar. Sparks apologized for getting exercised but said he wasn’t the one who called Weaver a liar. Weaver accepted the apology, then issued a warning. Here’s how The Times described the scene in its December 22 editions:

” ‘I would not harm a hair of your head [Weaver said]; but don’t make any mistake about me. My fighting weight is 185 pounds, and my address is Bloomfield, Iowa.’

“This increased the general merriment and increased Mr. Sparks’s anger. Shaking his fist at Mr. Weaver, he shouted: ‘I have a contempt for that man’s arm. It can’t be used to hurt me. The manner in which he received my explanation shows that he is not a gentleman, a fact of which his conduct in the Presidential campaign has given abundant proof.’

“At this point, for the first time during the long controversy, Mr. Weaver lost his temper, and replied to Mr. Sparks by saying: ‘In the presence of the House of Representatives I denounce you as a liar.’

” ‘… And I denounce you as an unmitigated scoundrel,’ rejoined the irate Sparks.”

Weaver and Sparks rushed at each other but were restrained from fisticuffs as dozens of members rushed toward the Speaker’s desk. The Times again:

“At this time, the commotion on the floor of the House had the appearance of a mob fight, and from the galleries it looked as though such a termination was inevitable. At least three members were struggling to encounter each other in combat, and at least 60 others were wrestling and shouting to prevent the threatened conflict. … In the midst of the uproar some wag from the rear of the hall shouted: ‘Trot out the American eagle,’ referring to the silver mace surmounted by that bird, which is the emblem of the authority of the House when borne by the Sergeant-at-Arms. Finally, Sergeant-at-Arms Thompson made his appearance, bearing the silver mace, and parading with it among the members forced them to be seated, thus quelling the disorder.”

The House adjourned. When it met again the next day, Reps. Sparks and Weaver were taken to task for what other members termed a “pot-house brawl” and “gambling-house quarrel.” Members debated whether the would-be combatants should be censured or simply required to apologize. Rep. Selwyn Zadock Bowman, Republican of Massachusetts, thought a mere apology wasn’t sufficient for the “gross outrage” committed against the House. “The two gentlemen … had bandied between themselves the vilest and the most opprobrious epithets that could pass from one man to another. They had boasted of their fighting weight [here the House reportedly erupted in laughter]; they had treated it as a joke; they had … endeavored to strip off their coats, and had only been separated by force.”

“The vilest and most opprobrious epithets”? How times have changed. Notwithstanding Bowman’s plea to preserve the dignity of the House–“a sacred tribunal,” he called it–Sparks and Weaver were allowed to end the affair with apologies to the chamber.

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