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)

This old English poetic form is my latest obsession - and I've added my own signature twist to it--I call it the RGB rhyme scheme (Red, Green, Blue):

If you look closely at the subtitle (epigraph) for this blog (up at the top in the title bar), you'll note that it is a poem of 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.)

So, since about the first of the year, I've been developing skill at writing my 'signature' RGB (Red, Green, Blue) format.  For my ongoing 'magnum opus' novel project, 'Eden's Womb' (click this link for a free look at the novel) I've chosen to begin every chapter with a Tight-Rhymed Fourteener Couplet epigraph. Here's a bonus four-couplet epigraph not in the book followed by some examples of chapter epigraph couplets.  Enjoy.


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, our final King must rise."

Examples of chapter epigraphs:

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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.

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.

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

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

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

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.