Saturday, May 21, 2011

Book Review: Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, Rhoda Janzen

Rhoda Janzen has several things going for her that made this an enjoyable read. First, she is an interesting person. Second, she has a talent for a familiar kind of humor that juxtaposes insignificant detail with excellent comedic timing and an air of elegant absurdity. Third, she is an English professor with a PhD in the subject, so she has the qualifications and connections necessary to pull off a well written memoir. Fourth, she has a reasonably interesting story to tell. And fifth, her background (the Mennonite culture) provides an opportunity to gently educate the majority of us in a relatively little-known subject.

The book was thoroughly enjoyable to read, though not particularly memorable, distinctive, or informative. The theme (or 'story') really didn't take you anywhere. The book started out discussing her divorce from a fifteen year marriage, and there it ended. In between were various vignettes from her life, arranged in no particular chronological order, and the main theme was revisited from various angles. I would recommend it for light beach reading, which is exactly what it was for me--a book found in the basket of paperbacks at the beach cottage where I'm spending nine days.

It's more of a gal book than a male-oriented one, but in no way did it put me off. My Mom read it before me and I'm now passing it on to my daughter who read an excerpt and insisted I finish it quickly so she could read it all, declaring that she 'loves anything written by an English professor'. ( )

Monday, May 16, 2011

Bucket List - Total Solar Eclipses

On February 26, 1979 I had one of the most profound experiences of my life: I witnessed a total solar eclipse just west of Williston, North Dakota.  The sky was a beautiful blue, wind was calm, and when the totality arrived, the sensation of heaven revealing its secrets amid a surreal calm was unforgettable.  The sky overhead is totally black, and yet light from the horizon, where the eclipse was not total, permeated horizontally so that there was a glow lighting the ground from all directions.  There's truly nothing like it.  This fish-eye photo gives an idea of what it's like:


That experience was so moving, that I've vowed to go out of my way to repeat the experience.  My next opportunity, in planning stage, is to combine three bucket list items in one.  Beside unlimited solar eclipses, I want to experience at least one ocean cruise, and I want to return to Australia (where I spent two weeks on business in 1992, but had little time for touring).  Well, there's an opportunity for all three in one on Nov. 14, 2012 off the east coast of Australia, near Port Townsend and Cairns (prime tourist territory).  Looking forward to it!

On the longer term, there's a great opportunity to view a total solar eclipse in the US mainland on August 21, 2017.  See this link for a map of the path, which crosses Oregon, Idaho, Nebraska, Missouri, Tennessee, and South Carolina.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Tight-Rhymed Fourteener Couplet (poetry)

Euterpe - Muse of Poetry - with her odd flute-like Aulos

Her mystery envelops me; she sings as Aulos calls;
 And in the mist, by magic kissed, we dance with waterfalls.

Ever wonder about the odd selection of 'tabs' across the top of this blog?  Well, the names originated from a little poem that I formerly used as the blog's subtitle.  It goes like this:

Of Hopping Rocks, of Paradox, of Books, of Nature's Code
A few small Crumbs, whatever comes, to mark my winding road.

This is an example of my 'signature' version of an old English poetic form called a 'Fourteener.'  My personal twist is to add an internal rhyme scheme--I call it the RGB rhyme scheme (Red, Green, Blue):

The best way to describe my modification is with this "instruction manual" that demonstrates the form:

You start with RED, his rhythm FED by gliding into GREEN;

And now sweet BLUE, her meter TRUE, completes the pure FOURTEEN.

As the exampe suggests, the basic style is called a Fourteener (this is a link to the Wikipedia article).  It has a meter scheme called Iambic Heptameter--two lines of seven stressed syllables each, thus fourteen stressed syllables in all.  I call the two lines together a couplet because the cohesion is provided by two rhyming words at the end of the two lines (Green and Fourteen) in the example above.

(There's even a more tightly rhymed alternative, which I'll propose here for completeness:

You start with RED then march AHEAD to see what's SAID by GREEN;

Then switch to BLUE and let line TWO complete the TRUE fourTEEN.)

The Fourteener rhyming couplet was popular in sixteenth and seventeenth century English poetry.  But its usage back then was much less constrained than the form I have fallen in love with - only rhyming the last word of each line.  The familiar old nursery rhyme provides an example:

Mary had a little lamb.  Its fleece was white as SNOW;
And everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to GO.

By contrast, you could rewrite this to form my peculiar tight-rhymed Fourteener thusly:

A little LAMB had Mary, MA'AM. Its fleece was white as SNOW;
And ev'ry PLACE that Mary'd PACE, the lamb was sure to GO.

As you see, this form is more tightly restricted.  And yet I find it fascinating to construct these.  I've done more than a hundred to date.  An extended example appears in my Book Review of Lord of the Rings

Another internally rhymed example that most everyone is familiar with is the old spiritual 'Amazing Grace'.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the SOUND that saved a wretch like ME
I once was lost, but now I'm FOUND was blind, but now I SEE


I like this form also, but to me the more tight rhyming style just seems to resonate better as a true Fourteener. (Amazing Grace might be considered a four line 4-3-4-3 format with alternate rhyme scheme rather than a Fourteener couplet.)

Over the past few years I've spent plenty of idle hours creating these little RGB (Red, Green, Blue) gems.  Below is a generous sampling.

I posted this first one on Twitter and got a great response:

Fed Dr. Seuss some Twitter juice. A silly song he sung
as viral toads on spiral roads snatched hashtags with their tongues.

The following ones got good responses on Twitter too. The first could be considered 'Flash Fiction'

Time travel man—his risky plan: I’ll kill my young self first.
New me’s that roam the quantum foam will rise from bubble burst.

As the content of the 'Paradox' tab demonstrates, I tend to obsess about big picture philosophy.

Man’s fall from grace did not take place when Eve consumed the fruit,
But when, in Sixteen-Sixty-Six, it fell on Newton’s snoot.

Worlds best designed are those that find their God permits mistakes
To such degree that even S/he occasionally partakes.

To man I brought the beasts I wrought with life’s breath, good and fit.
To wipe them out is license flouted far beyond my writ.
            (—God, Genesis 1:26-31, 2:18-20)

“Live free or die” we hear men cry; but jails come by degree.
The birds would scoff: “Take shackles off! Can’t fly? Then you’re not free.”

Objective fact alone can’t crack the code of reasoned thought.
It first must find th’experienced mind, for there its truth is wrought.

Then there are the multiple couplet examples. Alexander Pope wrote whole books in rhyme. I've not been that ambitious yet, but here are some of my longer efforts, beginning with this five-part

"Ode to the First Woman to Thru-hike the Appalachian Trail"

Emma Gatewood: Fourteen States, the Appalachian Trail—
Two thousand miles of grueling trials. And therein lies a tale.

A test that broke much younger folk, she trekked through rain and cold—
Georgia to Maine, alone, in pain, at sixty-sev’n years old.

She hiked in Keds, and note: Instead of fancy custom pack
She stuffed her gear inside a queer old home-made denim sack.

No bag, no tent, the year she went was nineteen-fifty-five.
It earned her fame, and some would claim she kept the Trail alive.

But hype aside, this truth abides: What Grandma Gatewood did
Was conquer fear and pioneer a path for countless kids.

My environmental position distilled in a three-fourteener ode:


The following set of four is an adaption of the

Unitarian Universalist 'Seven Principles'

To seven bold-struck rules we hold. The first says ‘All have worth.’
The last declares ‘Bequeath your heirs a healthy living earth.’

Rules two and six: let justice fix compassion’s primal drive
So world-wide peace achieves release from bonds for all alive.

Our fifth and third rules guide the ‘herd’ of fellow trav’lers all
Accept and cheer your friends and peers toward growth by common call.

And at the core is number four, for balance springs from this:
Seek to be free, responsibly; dynamic truth is bliss.

For my ongoing, ever evolving 'magnum opus' novel project, 'Eden's Womb' (see the 'Books' tab to the left of this one) I used Fourteeners liberally.  First here's the one used as epigraph to the entire novel--sort of a prologue and introduction to the 'Big Picture' setting of the story.


Men knew me not.  Those fools forgot the Eye that opened first—
The Voice that spoke when Time awoke and Heaven’s water burst.

‘Midst raging void, ere dark destroyed, ‘twas I who stooped to nod,
Gave form to place o’er waters’ face … and made their precious God.
 
When worlds were new my garden grew in perfect timeless bliss.
Its fruits of life wrought man and wife.  On
her I laid my kiss.
 
To praise the good of Motherhood I taught her of the fruit;
But Good revealed leaves Sin unsealed, hence jealous thoughts took root.
 
God loved the man.  He hatched a plan to seize my universe:
So males could claim the pow’r and fame, he smote me with a curse.
 
Thus in men’s eyes my mortal guise now takes a serpent’s form,
Which sets the stage, this final age, for one most righteous Storm.

                                                                        —StrongMother Naja, demiurge,
                                                                                      “The Flame of Creation”,
                                               ‘Essential Elements’ from the ‘Core Narrative’
 
And so Naja sets into motion her scheme to take control of the distant future Earth of our story:
 
Since primal dawn I've conjured spawn, and into Chaos hurled.
Now fly at need, my living seed--approach yon hapless world.

Descend from height by dark of night; invade their misted skies.
There make from cloud an icy shroud--a clever snowflake guise.

Thy prisms train, my devious grain; enslave the witless sun.
To scour the land with beacon's hand--and seize their Chosen One.

He dwells, 'tis said, where glaciers spread - "For lo!" the prophet cries,
"From icebound womb, ere crack of doom, my final King must rise."

Below are some examples of chapter epigraphs, some better than others (I'll forgive you if your eyes are glazing over at this point.)

Beneath the ice, like winter mice, the careworn Gleaners toil
To slowly chip from glacier’s grip the fruits of once-warm soil.

FOLLY ON THE ICEWAY

To river Sprite, to squandered sight, I rise with desp’rate ode.
A mercy grant, ere Heavens rant—pray ease my awful load!

THE HAND OF THE GODS

Nine branches hath the Shepherd’s path. You cannot scout them all.
Retreat to peace … accept release!  Each road fulfills thy Call.

BLOOD OFFERING

From shore to shore, our Buddha bore his people’s urgent dream.
Yet dukkha claims all mortal gains.  Nirvana is the stream.

THE LAST OPTION

The Rotted Lands raise ghostly hands to guard their secret spawn.
Dare trespass here, you’ll flee in fear … or die before the dawn.

THE QUICK BROWN FOX

Her trifling verse—a toxic curse—escaped and plays its card.
When tamper’d bit trumps Dealer’s writ the final trick comes hard.

KIM

To stand and stare, or choose to share thy precious living wine:
Two voices stilled? One dream fulfilled? The vital choice is thine.

DEMOCRACY

Man’s god, God’s man—the early plan: A kingdom and its Lord.
But later tastes would soon replace a monarch with a board.

MYCELIA
Plague four of sev’n: lift eyes to Heav’n where mind and faith compete.
Should faith prevail the further trail shall spread before thy feet.

THE RECORDING
Where reason fails trust ancient tales to yield a path to light.
Let truth unfold from words of old: hope spring from darkest night.

THE PROFESSION
‘Step forth’, they taunt, ‘accept the gauntlet laid before thy feet.
The last gate’s key, thy destiny—at DunCanon shall meet.’ 

EYES
The sickle’s blade—of pure light made—Heav’n’s sharpest cutting brand
Cannot surpass one blade of grass deprived of human hand.
 
CONCUSSION
Those desp’rate hours—while doubt devours—evince the greater goal.
Blind Chaos bends to Spirits’ ends when pray’r directs the soul.

SNAKES
O beast of pow’r, now comes the hour: a balm applied today
Relieves thy pain in hope to gain a favor down the way.

IN A CLOAK OF EIDERDOWN
By gloom of night a new-come fright disturbs the rancid air.
An omen charm rings clear alarm: ye company beware.

MRS. WYCHERLEY’S CAT (in honor of Alexander Pope)
Her husband dead, I watched her wed that money-grubbing rake.
Sev’n years in Fleet his fate would meet; and not a penny take.

NELL
An ancient norm sustains its form within this Rotted Land:
Ere balance chose, crude science froze, usurping Nature’s Hand.

UNTIL WORD ARRIVES
In realms unseen a Fungid queen records her firm command:
“This consort-clone, ‘til now unknown, dies only by my hand.”

AVATAR
By quantum bits her Voice emits a message faint and thin.
What strength denies, the frail espies: a pow’r from deep within.

DILEMMA
From random drift a current swift; from Chaos comes a plan:
Thus Naja rose; and from her flows the Noble Course for man.

THE PHRASE
A child, thirteen, confronts a queen ‘til truth stands undenied:
‘Your sacred phrase, from ancient days, is Adam’s constant guide.’

TO CATCH HER DRIFT
Awake, stout soul!  Assume the role that Naja's plan portends:
Thy knowledge grows, Her guidance flows, Sustains, Impels, Transcends.

RUNNER
‘Twixt land and sky her peak lifts high: commanding all the realm.
Through countless years no man came near ‘til Lissa took the helm.

NO AHAB
Endure your pain for greater gain: our quest—our hallowed goal.
Leave doubt behind and steel your mind: to DunCanon we roll.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

American Chestnuts trying to return with human intervention.

A new article on the USDA blog discusses the progress being made in restoring the American Chestunt to the eastern US landscape.  This important species was virtually wiped out as a major forest canopy tree by the 1950s by a fungal infection introduced from China.

Human intervention is one thing.  True sustainability is a much slower process.

Test plantings of blight resistant Chestnuts grown in intense breeding (hybridizing) programs are now being established.  This is a very first step in a process that will take centuries to prove itself.

BTW, I have hundreds of the original American Chestnut sprouts on my 50 acres in Carroll County, MD, and have had some produce nuts.  Yes I've eaten native american chestnuts roasted over an open fire :-)

But here are some cautions:

(1) a monoculture planting of one cross does not consitute natural genetic diversity.

(2) will these planted seedlings naturalize (seed offspring in the wild)?

Not until these plantings naturalize, and/or until a diversity of blight resistant hybrids are developed, will we be assured a wild, self sustaining population. 

(3) Hybridization (I hybridize daylilies), particularly with intense selection for traits, notoriously introduces weak plants that may survive under culture, but can't compete in the wild.

(4) One final concern about naturalizing these is mentioned in the article--the problem of deer overpopulation. They ravage the understory through which seedlings must penetrate. Lack of wolves (root cause of deer overpopulation) is seriously damaging eastern forest ecosystems in general.

I've been following the progress of this important effort over the years, and it's good to see that they now have a result they can test in the field.  But there's still a mighty long way to go.