A Mysterious Jet

In the cloudy and windy sky arcing above a level upland in Adams County, Illinois I witnessed a curious sight this afternoon. A black, slowly-moving jet airplane circled at a very low altitude above the ready-to-harvest cornfields. At one point I swear it cruised just a few feet above the power-lines.

The aircraft had an odd shape, as if a fighter plane had been equipped with reconnaissance equipment. I have no idea of what this jet was or what it was doing. A blow-up of the craft’s silhouette:

This sighting enlivened my afternoon!

Larry

Farmyard With Cushaws

Remember the farm couple who gave me the massive hunk of pork liver the other day? Yesterday I pulled in to their farmyard, as I do every day. The night before I had washed out the bloody Ziploc bags which had contained the liver and bound them into a bundle with a rubber band.

The shamelessly racist farmer was nowhere to be seen, but his wife came out to get her paper. I suspect she was waiting for me to arrive, perhaps a welcome break for her in a long autumn afternoon.

I told her about my experiences with the hog liver and she was impressed that I had actually bagged and frozen what I hadn’t consumed. I tend to get along well with elderly farm wives. Often they are the gardener and cook of the family or couple, two of my interests, so there is common ground to cultivate.

We talked of the gardening year, the difficulties involved in raising a crippled fawn to adulthood, the pickiness many people have concerning okra and liver, cooking and preserving techniques — what’s that phrase from Lewis Carroll’s epic poem The Hunting of the Snark?

Of ships and shoes and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings

She said, “Do you want some squash? We have a big pile of them over there by the pump!”

“What kind are they?”

“We call ’em cushaws. Come over here and take a look!”

I got out of the car and we walked over to the squash array. I ended up taking home a twenty-pound cushaw and a small nameless orange squash. A photo of the harvest:

Such a scene! I was particularly intrigued by the set of iron wheels on a post, right next to the green pump. I’ll have to ask about that on a future visit. Notice the leaning martin house in the background.

I’ll conclude this illustrated screed with the enigmatic last line of The Hunting of the Snark:

“For the Snark was a Boojum, you see!”

Larry

Fall Textures and Colors

There’s a low spot on a particular Adams County gravel road which I have come to appreciate. A mailbox stands alone right at a bend in the road without a presumably associated house anywhere in sight. It’s a quiet place and I stop there every day to take a break and stretch my legs:

It’s a modest and unassuming place. You can’t see around the bend; one day I’ll walk farther, but for the time being I am enjoying the mystery of not knowing. Who knows what might be around that bend? Perhaps there is a view which would be irrecoverably life-altering…

Towards the right, back behind the mailbox, is a brushy draw. The other day I walked over there to see what wonders might be concealed therein. The first thing I saw was an example of one of my favorite fall colors in this area, the unique shade common to this fallen Virginia Creeper leaf and several other plants such as the sumacs. Could this hue be called a “lake”? I’m thinking of this definition of the word:

A purplish red pigment prepared from lac or cochineal.

Interesting that both lac and cochineal are substances derived from insects.

Here’s a fall texture shot. I was impressed by the semi-regular pattern formed by the random arcing growth of smartweed flowering shoots (a Polygonum species) and the blades of various shade-suppressed grasses.

A twin-trunked soft maple had fallen into the draw, a victim of That Which Awaits All Living Organisms, including you, kind reader!

I made my way into the shady draw to investigate some sort of bracket fungi slowly but inexorably feeding upon the trunks. I’m familiar with the species, which for some unaccountable reason weeps amber tears when its youth has flown and the making of spores has become less of an issue. I later determined that the Latin name might be Inonotus dryadeus; it’s almost certainly that species or a related one.

I became curious as to the appearance of the underside of the bracket-like growths. A gap between the trunks looked large enough to accommodate my skinny frame, so I positioned myself on my back between the trunks. A thick bed of dry fallen leaves made the spot comfortable and I was briefly tempted to take a nap there, but the possibility that I might slumber on through the decades and awaken to a diminished and overcrowded world caused me to reign in my somnolent impulses.

Here are some close-up shots of the fungi, which pretended to be unaware of my presence:

Doesn’t the above photo look like some sort of protoplasmic being attempting to evolve a hand? I liked the highlights in the shot.

This photo impressed me mainly due to the planet-like gall next to the fungus, with random vegetative debris seemingly arranged around it in an artful fashion:

I extricated myself from the comfortable log cradle and reluctantly went on my way.

Larry

Doughnuts, Turkeys, etc.

For some reason this silly ditty has been running through my mind this morning. Betsy and I used to sing it to our kids; I suspect the verse comes from the 1920s, possibly sung in a vaudeville routine.

To the hoary old tune “Turkey In The Straw”:


We-lll, I went to Cincinatti and I walked around the block,
And I walked right in to a doughnut shop.
He picked two doughnuts out of the grease
So I handed the man a five-cent piece.
We--ll, he looked at the nickel and he looked at me
Says, "This nickel's no good to me!
There's a hole in the middle and it's all the way through!"
Says I, "There's a hole in the doughnut too!"

Thanks for the doughnuts -- good bye!

The last line should be sung to the tune used for “Shave and a haircut…two bits!”

I first heard these lyrics on an LP by folksinger Michael Cooney.

Larry

Racism and Hog-liver

Yesterday afternoon I was driving down a long and winding gravel road. I had just replaced a flat tire with one which I didn’t trust all that much — you might say that I was driving on tiptires.

Down at the very end of the road was a secluded farmyard with a circle drive. As I was about to insert a rolled newspaper in the box I saw a man over by a barn beckoning to me. Evidently he wanted to receive the paper into his own hands, with the added benefit of being able to meet this new driver in the battered red car.

I got out of the car, grateful for the opportunity to straighten up and stretch my legs. A stocky over-all-clad man in his seventies approached me. A woman of the same vintage peered at me from a few yards back. She was wearing gum-boots and a loose jacket.

The man said, “Howdy, fella! Y’know, if ya circle around the other way you wouldn’t have to reach over to deliver the paper!”

“Yeah, you’re right. I hadn’t thought of that.”

I gave the man the newspaper.

I said, “Nice place you have back here!”

“Yeah, we like it! Don’t get many visitors. Most people we get along with, but niggers … we just knock ’em in the head and bury ’em in a plot out back, right next to the woods!”

The farmer chuckled, as if this was an entirely natural response to a visit from a dark-skinned person. I was a bit taken aback by the casual racism, but I’ve dealt with this before. No good could come from debating the issue with the man.

The farmer went on:

“Had a visit from the sheriff a while back. Had a spot of trouble goin’ on. Generally we don’t have much truck with the law — most often we can handle things ourselves. I said to the sheriff, ‘I don’t know what you can do to help us. We have our own ways of dealin’ with trouble. Most often, if I have to, I’ll knock a troublemaker on the head and bury ‘im!'”

“You shoulda seen that sheriff jump when I said that! Like this — [the farmer demonstrated a sudden shake or start]. He didn’t know what to think!”

Neither did I …

That point being made (the implicit message seeming to be, “Yeah, now you know where we live and what we got. Just don’t be wanderin’ down here when you ain’t deliverin’ papers!”) the farmer changed the subject:

“Ya like hog liver?”

“Well, yeah, I eat liver …”

“I butchered a hog today, and ma and I have more’n what we need.” He called out to his wife, who had inched closer: “Ma, could you get some bags? Let’s give this guy some liver!”

The farmer’s wife went to the house and returned with two enormous zip-lock plastic bags. The three of us walked into the barn.

I asked the farmer, “So do you still scald a hog in a big kettle to remove the hair?”

“Naw, that’s just a pain in the butt. Used to, but nowadays I just skin ’em out.”

The farmer’s wife bustled around. She retrieved a bloody five-gallon bucket from a walk-in cooler, set it on a low platform, and was about to reach into it when she had second thoughts.

“Pa, my hands ain’t clean. You get it out! I’ll get some of those frozen Mountain Dew bottles from the freezer and we’ll pack the liver in with them, keep it cold.”

The farmer reached into the bucket and held up a huge mass of purplish-brown lobed tissue. It must have weighed five pounds; blood dripped back into the bucket.

“A beauty, eh?”

“Yeah, that’s a nice one, all right.”

What in the world was I going to do with that much liver? I wished that I had a dog to share it with!

I got home and put the weighty bag in the refrigerator. I procrastinated for a couple of hours, but I knew I had to do something with that perishable liver.

I put a pot of turmeric/paprika rice on to boil and proceeded to hack at the liver, dividing all but a quarter-pound into portions which I bagged and put in the freezer. What a mess to clean up!

I cubed the quarter-pound chunk of viscidly-gleaming liver and fried the cubed organ with diced onion and Poblano pepper. It was actually pretty good on a bed of rice, with a mild and not too “liverish” flavor. It was certainly fresh!

Larry

Signage Attack

I’m rather fond of the hop vine, a cosmopolitan plant found throughout the Northern Hemisphere. The plant is easy to overlook, as from a distance the flowers and cone-like fruits are painted with muted shades, from green to straw to brown as they mature. The species, Humulus lupulus, has a characteristic growth habit and distinctively-shaped leaves, and once you familiarize yourself with the plant you will recognize it easily, and from a distance.

Of course carefully-bred varieties are grown around the world for flavoring beer, one of our legacies from Europe. The layered papery fruits, botanically known as strobiles, contain a pungent resin which has bacteriacidal properties which at one time helped prevent contamination of beer during the brewing process. Beer-drinkers over the centuries came to associate the bitter flavor imparted by hops with quality in beers, and now the flavor is the main reason the use of hops survives. There are now other and more reliable means available for controlling bacteria. Before the use of hops became common British brewers once made use of that common weedy mint Ground Ivy as a beer flavoring agent. We’ll never know, but I’ve long wondered: who first had the idea of throwing some hops into the wort, and how long did it take for the idea to spread to the Continent?

I was driving down a gravel road near Payson, Illinois yesterday. I saw a nearly-obscured sign supporting a profuse viney growth; it looked like a hop vine, so I pulled over and had a closer look. The sign was leaning as if the vine were about to pull it down and digest it at its leisure:

The message conveyed by the sign is still partly visible, a speed limit warning, I imagine. I wanted to get a close-up shot of a cluster of strobiles but the wind was gusty, the bane of a plant photographer. I patiently waited for a lull as I steadied the wavering vine with one hand. By chance one shot of many turned out fairly well:

Notice the layered structure, myriad bracts arranged in a shingle-like overlapping array. People in vehicles driving by regarded me curiously; I could imagine a brief conversation:

“What the hell is that guy doing by that sign?”

“You’ve seen him around, I’m sure. He’s that new paper delivery guy; I saw him in a cemetery the other day. I wonder what he’s up to?”

“Taking photos, I guess. But of an old sign?”

[wryly, head shaking] “Takes all kinds, don’t it?”

Larry

A Nameless Creek

This creek in rural Adams County, Illinois might have a name but I’ve never heard one. I stopped the car for a break at a concrete bridge and gazed on the low drought-affected creek while generating an arc of urine which gracefully passed over the railing.

Just isolated pools remain after weeks of little rain. Duckweed flourishes in patches and the pools reflect a cloudy September sky:

So calm and quiet. I could hear the muted roar of a distant combine but little else. I zipped up and looked out at the upstream stretch of the creek. The view was darker and it was easy to see the scene as an abstract collage of textures:

I sighed with a trace of autumnal melancholy and proceeded on my way.

Larry

Photos From the Road

This weekend the night skies were clear in Adams County, Illinois, and the stick-figure of Orion watched over my peregrinations along the gravel roads. I eagerly anticipated the dawn as I drove, hoping I would be spared the aggravation of a flat tire.

Occasionally I would see a mysterious blue glows near a grain bins, propane burners burning throughout the night as they dried recently harvested corn. A glimpse into a blue inferno:

Here’s a shot of the horizon as dawn approached. A crescent moon was the only visible interruption of the flawless dome of the sky:

The gradations of the sky’s colors were very impressive.

A bit later I came across strata of creeping fog. I had to stop for a few minutes, as a forked extension of the fog seemed to be sliding over and under an invisible layer, perhaps an area of atmosphere with a differing density. Who knows?

I was reminded of a misty alligator about to swallow the white barn in one velvety gulp.

It is likely I’m the only person to have seen this forked anomaly, as it didn’t last long and the farmers weren’t up yet.

Larry

Dancing Through the Uncanny Valley

This video showed up in one of my “Following” feeds over at Google+; Thanks, Jeff Brown!

I found this video to be oddly compelling and more than a bit unsettling. Ostensibly a “dubbed” video of a man virtuosically dancing to the music of Foster the People, I kept feeling like this was not a human I was watching. Partly it was the lack of expression on the man’s face, and partly the mechanical “feel” of some of the dance moves. The synthesized music was appropriate, spacey and weird and eerily reflected by staccato dance moves.

I was reminded of the “Uncanny Valley”, a phrase coined by the Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori in 1970, well before the age of massive digital manipulation of visual and aural data. A summary and definition from a Wikipedia page:

The uncanny valley is a hypothesis … which holds that when human replicas look and act almost, but not perfectly, like actual human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers.

Of course the video shows a presumably real man dancing, but I surmise that quite a bit of video editing has been done to the original video data; thus the vaguely creepy feelings I at least had while watching. What do you think?

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LXO-jKksQkM?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

On a lighter note, here is a masterfully cast and performed video skit, sort of a modern version of one of the old “Candid Camera” segments. How would you react if you saw what appeared to be a crashed NASA satellite embedded in your car? Thanks go to Robin Shapiro for inadvertently alerting me to this video. Who is Robin and why has she ended up in my Facebook feed? I have no idea. Must be a friend of a friend…

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fgTyiaDmytw?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

Larry

On Thin Ice

Last night I could be found sitting in front of a computer screen reading some essays by Robert Louis Stevenson before turning in. I was struck by a metaphor in an essay, a rumination on mortality, called Aes Triplex; the title refers to a passage from one of Horace’s Odes. An explanation from a writer named J. Nathan Matias:

Aes Triplex means Triple Bronze, from a line in Horace’s Odes that reads ‘Oak and triple bronze encompassed the breast of him who first entrusted his frail craft to the wild sea.’

The Stevenson quote:

And what would it be to grow old?
For, after a certain distance, every step we take in life we find the
ice growing thinner below our feet, and all around us and behind us we
see our contemporaries going through.

Such a vivid metaphor! This morning I’ve been plagued by the idea that a variation of this trope occurs in the works of another writer — perhaps Thoreau? Sir Thomas Browne? Google was unable to help me.

R.L. Stevenson had such a natural command of prose style. He spins out elegant verbal images like an orb-weaver spider constructing its symmetrical trap in the morning sun.

Larry