On Writing

There is a plethora of advice out there for writers who would like their work to be read by other people. When you get right down to it, it is way easier to read about writing, read other writers’ works, or take “writing courses” than it is to just sit down and write something original.

I stole the title of this piece from Stephen King, whose book On Writing is one of the best books I’ve read on the subject. Margaret Atwood and William Zinsser have also written advice-laden tomes which are well worth reading, but the suggestions in this tongue-and-cheek web essay by writer Chuck Wendig cut right to the chase:

25 Things

The piece received many comments from “aspiring writers”, but this rather exuberant paragraph from commenter and writer Dan O’Shea pleased me with its literate extravagance:

Forward, penmonkeys! Saddle up the work of your choice! Tease it with carrots! Spur or whip its flanks into bloody froth! Ride its ass into the ground and then carve its meat into finished stories before mounting the next beast and the next and the next. Go not gentle into that good night. Hell, don’t even go gentle into lunch.

I enjoy writing and I write nearly every day, but I don’t take the craft all that seriously. I seldom edit, aside from fixing obvious typos and other infelicities, preferring to start a new post rather than obsessing over the old ones.

Perhaps it is due to the nature of the blog medium. Old posts scroll off the bottom of the screen, accumulating into untidy piles of verbal humus in the nether regions of my mind. That humus is rich stuff and serves as a seedbed for new excursions, blog posts inspired by current experiences as well as remembrances of things past. The photographs I take offer additional stimulus.

I’ve been writing for this blog and its now-lost earlier incarnations for about eight years now. I’ve been rather careless about preserving my work; the posts from the period between early 2004 and early 2010 were lost to a series of hard drive failures as well as the theft of a computer during my dark days in Hannibal, Missouri. Now my work is saved on the remote servers of the far-flung WordPress company, which seems to be thriving. I’m not too disturbed about the loss of my old stuff; many of the posts were stories and I now regard them as mere practice pieces. I can tell those stories more effectively now after years of practice. Even those few readers who once read my old blog, Rural Rambles, probably have only the vaguest of memories of the stories I told way back in the day. Surely I can tell those stories again, and tell them better — after all, who will complain? A good story is a good story, after all.

Larry

Curmudgeonalia

A crusty irascible cantankerous old person full of stubborn ideas.” is a rather pithy and accurate definition of the word “curmudgeon”, I dare say. That definition came out of the Wordnet project about five years ago. It’s an interesting word with a derogatory flavor to it, a word which is used by young people to describe old folks, and also by old people when referring to themselves in a humorous and self-deprecatory fashion; old people generally don’t mind using the word to describe themselves but might well take umbrage if you use it to describe them.

Many of the best essayists in the English language could be fairly described as curmudgeons. Complaints about the world are more interesting to read than passive expressions of smiling acceptance and complaisance, I’ve noticed.

H.L. Mencken, that journalist, pessimist, and general social gadfly, was a classic curmudgeon. Few escaped his scathing torrents of prose during the early years of the last century. Christopher Hitchens could be considered a modern example.

Some writers are part-time curmudgeons. George Orwell donned curmudgeonly robes when he wrote his classic essay “Politics And The English Language” — but some might call that particular piece shooting fish in a barrel.

Recently I was reading an essay by Roger Kimball called The Great American Novel. The essay is a lament, or perhaps a diatribe, concerning the sad state of affairs in English-language novel-writing these days. According to Kimball, very few novels of much value have been published during the past fifty years. Here’s a quote:

We get a lot of new novels at my office. I often pick up a couple and thumb through them just to keep up with what is on offer in the literary bourse. The delicate feeling of nausea that ensues as my eye wanders over these bijoux is as difficult to describe as it is predictable. The amazing thing is that it takes only a sentence or two before the feeling burgeons in the pit of the stomach and the upper lip grows moist with sweat. I am not generally a fan of the Green party, but at those moments I feel a deep kinship with their cause: All those lovely trees, acres and acres of wood pulp darkened, and for what? No one, I submit, should pay good money for a college education and then be expected to ruminate over the fine points of what is proffered to us by the fiction industry today.

Doesn’t Kimball’s prose just drip with curmudgeonly condescension? It seems that the man has decided to dislike every new novel that comes down the pike, as if the generations younger than his favored one can’t possibly equal the legendary efforts of the Writers of the Golden Age, the god-like scribes of the halcyon years of Kimball’s youth.

I did agree with a few of Kimball’s points, even though he’s on the opposite side of the political spectrum from myself. I wondered about how old the man might be. To be such a bitter curmudgeon, wouldn’t he have to be in his seventies or eighties?

I looked Roger Kimball up at the Wikipedia site. I was a bit bemused to find that Kimball is just one year older than I am! He was born in 1953. Perhaps conservative writers attain curmudgeonhood sooner than the rest of us.

Larry

Hoodoo-land

Near the Arizona-New Mexico border there is a mountainous region populated by the ghosts of past vulcanism, the Chiricahua Mountains Wilderness Area. The volcanic ash in this region cooled into a mineral known as tuff, or rhyolite, and the most populous part of the area is set aside as a national monument.

When I say populous I’m not referring to people. The mountain and canyon slopes are crowded with erect pillars, the products of millions of years of erosion. This has to be one of the weirdest landscapes I’ve ever seen. The “hoodoos”, a very appropriate local name for the formations, remind me of the sentient walking trees, the Ents in Tolkien’s novels. It is easy to imagine that the standing stones move around when you aren’t looking, perhaps even milling about and visiting each other at night. After all, there are so many of them that no-one could keep track of them all! Some views of this surreal landscape:

The last photo in the above series shows a quite striking view. The mountains in the distance are peaks in the Rincon range just east of Tucson, about sixty miles away.

Towards the right-hand side of the following photo notice the ranks of hoodoos managing to keep still until I walked away:

Parts of the Chiracahua Wilderness burned last year and several scorched mountainsides are readily visible. I squatted down in one burned area and shot this photo of one of the few plants blooming at this time of year in these mountains, Wright’s Vervain (Verbena wrightii). I had never seen the species before and, once back at the house, I had trouble identifying the plant using my photos. Bev gave it a try and quickly found a match I’d overlooked in the Peterson Guide to Southwest and Texas Wildflowers. I was a bit nonplussed and embarrassed, as I’ve been identifying plants for many years, but the woman evidently has good pattern-matching abilities, perhaps surpassing my own — but maybe I was just having an off day…

The hoodoos gathered to observe the brightly-clad tourists, marveling at the insectile walking sticks and cameras with brightly-flashing lenses:

This rock silhouette on the horizon is known as Geronimo’s Head; I liked the way the silvery dead branches framed the view:

More hoodoos with Sugarloaf Mountain in the background:

The forests in the national monument were dominated by Arizona Cypress, a species with a very delightful odor, all resinous and spicy. It was enjoyable seeing tall trees again after several weeks of short scrubby oaks and manzanitas!

Finally, here are a couple of roadside scenes. The trees bordering the road are mostly cypress:

I would really like to visit this freakishly-beautiful area at dawn someday, when the hoodoos are foraging for dewdrops, small mammals and lizards!

Larry

On Mount Ballard

Yesterday Bev and I walked up a steep path towards the summit of Mt. Ballard, the highest peak of the Mule Mountains and the eighth-highest mountain in Cochise County, Arizona.

Sage, the sure-footed collie, accompanied us up the winding trail, which was surrounded by a spotty elfin forest of shrub oaks, manzanitas, madrones, and piñon pines. We passed through a large expanse of mountainside which had been burned in a wildfire a few years ago. New sprout and seedling growth was springing up but had only attained a height of two or three feet, leaving the view across the canyon unobstructed. Some photos:

Looking across the vast expanse of Sulphur Springs Valley the snow-capped peaks of the Chiricahua Mountains can be seen, a range we plan to hike into sometime soon.

The trunks of a tall succulent plant known as the Soaptree Yucca are normally shielded from view by the dry and dead remains of spent leaves, with the current leaves forming a starburst spray at the top of the trunk. The fire burned off the dead leaves and revealed charred but undamaged trunks marked with intriguing patterns of leaf-scars and the charred leaf-stubs:

It was a pleasant hike. We stopped along the way in a grove of manzanitas and ate spinach-feta cheese bread and avocados, while Sage greedily drank from an outstretched palm filled with water from a bottle.

Larry

Mournful Wails From the Oven

Lately I’ve been baking quite often, creating variations of classic recipes for basic foodstuffs such as French bread, cinnamon rolls, and banana bread. I’ve had to adjust my techniques and my intuitive by-guess-and-by-gosh measurements to the local altitude, which is about a mile above sea level. I’ve also become a bit careful about plunging my hands into the dark recesses of bowls in a cupboard and within flour-sacks — scorpions lurk in such places from time to time.

I’m particularly fond of my invisible flocks of domesticated single-celled fungi. They are my partners in culinary crime and I am quite grateful for the services they provide, which include flatulent emissions of CO2 gas. The interaction of fungal farts with the gluten in elastic wheat dough is a crucial component of successful bread baking, a partnership which has existed for thousands of years.

Over the years I’ve spent quite a few hours observing and classifying various strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the ubiquitous brewer’s yeast used both in bread baking and in the fermentation of certain beers. Although in my baking and brewing experiences I had come to think of the tiny fungi as willful beasts which had to be coaxed and cajoled into satisfying my needs, under a microscope the organisms looked blandly ovoid, without much character to speak of.

My views of these single-celled fungi were greatly enhanced by a chance discovery and acquisition several years ago.

I happened to be on foot in a poor district of St. Louis, Missouri one fine October afternoon when I realized that I was seriously lost. The twisting lanes and alleys had defeated my rudimentary sense of direction and I sat down on a park bench next to a sleeping beggar. While I contemplated my options I happened to notice a shabby storefront across the street. I was startled, and thought, “Could that stuffed figure hanging in the store window actually be a dusty and ancient griffin?”

My curiosity was aroused as, after all, I’ve only seen a griffin on a lamentably small number of occasions. I crossed the street, narrowly avoiding a collision with an insane bicyclist, and opened the massive creaky door of the shop. All was in shadows within, and I called out:

“Is there anyone here?”

I heard a door open quietly in the back of the shop and a robed figure emerged from the dimness. The proprietor appeared to be Chinese; his robe was decorated with faded Chinese calligraphy and his beard was thin and wispy, but quite long. Oddly enough, he held a Turkish narghile in his hand, a water-pipe which appeared to be loaded with tobacco. I could smell the sweetish odor of the oily tendrils of smoke which drifted languidly from the glass bowl of the pipe.

The bald and wizened man chuckled and said, “My first customer of the day! How might I serve you, my pale friend?”

“I am curious about the creature hanging in your window — is it indeed a griffin?”

The shopkeeper smiled as he ran his hand lightly over the dusty feathers of the embalmed creature. “Yes, this is one of the very few surviving specimens of the Moroccan sub-species. The Bedouin tribesmen hunted them unmercifully and with little thought for the future, as they were essential for certain Sufi rituals. The beaks, claws, and feathers of the Saharan griffins emit a very potent odor when burned, an incense powerful enough to draw djinns from far and wide.”

I must admit that I was fascinated by these details. I asked the shopkeeper:

“So is the griffin extinct now?”

“Odd that you should ask, my inquisitive friend. I happen to have the sole remaining griffin confined in a bamboo cage in my back room. The creature was born in the Caucasus several centuries ago and spent several unpleasant years in P.T. Barnum’s sideshow before I acquired custody of him during a late-night Mah Jong session.”

“Can I see him?”

The shopkeeper smiled ruefully and said, “Oh, my curious friend, I’m afraid that this is not possible. The sight of a human other than myself would be a fatal blow to the aged creature. He believes that our race is extinct, aside from myself, and disillusioning him would not be wise. The beast is living his waning years eating a diet composed mostly of pigeons, rats, and curly dock leaves; I keep him fed and he spends his hours reminiscing about past glories and triumphs. That griffin might outlive me, though!”

I tried to conceal my disappointment. I had my camera with me — what an opportunity that could have been! I can count on the fingers of one hand the chances I’ve had to photograph mythical creatures. My thoughts strayed to that incident in the Appenines, my sole encounter with a basilisk.

The kindly shopkeeper looked sympathetic and said, “I can tell that you are a man with a keen interest in the natural world. I have something in my store-room which just might interest you.”

With a swish of his silken robes the man left the room, returning a short time later with an ebony box cradled in his arms. He deposited the box, which had tarnished brass hardware, on the counter next to the cash register.

The shopkeeper plucked a small brass key from a pocket hidden in the folds of his robes. He opened the glossy black box and withdrew an antique brass microscope.

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He asked me, “Are you familiar with the career of Carl Zeiss? This is a rare example of the output of his firm during a particularly innovative period.”

I examined the optical instrument, which was flawlessly constructed, and said, “Oh, sure, I’m familiar with Carl Zeiss. The company he founded is still producing top-quality optical instruments, as far as I know.”

The shopkeeper said, “You may not know of Mr. Zeiss’s partner, Ernst Abbe. He was another fine optician and optical theoretician, and he had a particular interest in natural history, especially in the microscopic examination of single-celled organisms. Mr. Abbe was concerned that the education of children in such subjects was being neglected. He invented a very unique type of microscope which he called the Anthroposcope, an instrument designed to make visible certain little-known segments of the electromagnetic spectrum. These normally invisible frequencies allow the viewer to perceive the emotional states of organisms which had hitherto been thought to have no mental or emotional life at all!”

I said, “This sounds like pseudoscientific bullshit to me, but I’m willing to take a chance! How much do you want for the Anthroposcope?”

The shopkeeper looked me in the eye, clasped my hand, and said, “I feel that this instrument belongs with you, my friend. Take it as a gift from a fellow student of the marvels of this world!”

I thanked the man profusely and, after asking directions, drove home to my sanctum. The Anthroposcope provided me with many insights into the private lives of my friends the yeasts.

Here’s a typical domestic view showing the interactions of several yeast cells:

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Notice the gaseous outbursts, the single-celled flatulence of the creatures.

Seeing such images increased the empathy I felt for the tiny fungi. I began involuntarily wincing as I slid pans full of bread dough into the blazing heat of my gas oven. I imagined that I could hear the shrieks and screams of the innocent organisms as they died a painful and agonized death.

I began to rationalize, just as human carnivores have done for ages in order to keep guilt at bay. After all, I had provided food and shelter to these fungi and treated them humanely while they were alive, and they wouldn’t have been nearly so numerous without my assiduous care.

I was reminded of the Lewis Carroll poem The Walrus And The Carpenter, a grimly humorous tale which deals with similar issues. Here are three stanzas from that poem:


“It seems a shame,” the Walrus said,
“To play them such a trick,
After we’ve brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!”
The Carpenter said nothing but
“The butter’s spread too thick!”

“I weep for you,” the Walrus said:
“I deeply sympathize.”
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.

“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
“You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’
But answer came there none–
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.

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Larry

A Happy, Jolly Pup And Another One Dead And Buried

Although by nature I am a rational man, someone who likes to see proof and evidence of unlikely claims, I also take great pleasure in reading and writing metaphors and other figures of speech. There are times that a metaphor can illuminate a sight or any other experience in a manner that is illogical and not susceptible of easy explanations.

We live in a world populated with beings very unlike us and we can’t help but wonder what life and perception might be like for other species. In order to remain sane we pretend, with some success, that the perceptions of other humans resemble our own private experiences, but when it comes to plants, fungi, and animals, not to mention minerals, we are entering the hazy world of fantasy and guesswork when we try to imagine the life of, say, a wasp or an oak tree.

This is where the Pathetic Fallacy can be of use, though many decry the very existence and persistence of that mode of thinking.

I proudly admit that I revel in the Pathetic Fallacy, while simultaneously realizing that it is merely a mental game. Since we can’t ever really know for certain the details of the experiences of members of other species, why not anthropomorphize now and then?

An example from the Chihuahuan Desert here in Southeast Arizona is the use of the term “pup” for a young Agave plant struggling for a share of sunlight amidst the thorny and prickly underbrush which grows spottily between the shrub oaks and manzanitas on the dry mountain slopes. Why “pup”? Perhaps because young Agaves often grow right next to the doomed parent plant, just as a puppy doesn’t stray far from its mother.

A young Agave has a paradoxically cute appearance. The viciously long and poison-tipped thorns on the tip of each leaf contrast with the diminutive size of the young plant. It seems that we are trying to use a mammalian nickname for these young desert-dwellers in order to make them seem less alien and malign.

We are accustomed to plants and animals with life cycles similar to ours: infancy, youth, and maturity followed inevitably by senescence and death. Agaves, like the periodical cicadas with their thirteen- and seventeen-year cycles, can seem disturbingly unnatural. A decade or more of youthful accumulation of energy followed by a reproductive blow-out episode, and ending in lifeless years of slow desert decay.

The Chihuahuan desert landscape is dotted with the erect stalks of dead agaves. Some of the stalks are four inches in diameter and thirty feet tall, and they take several years to decay to the point of falling over. At the base of a dead agave stalk is a nest of decaying leaves. In effect the plant becomes its own tombstone.

Some pup photos, which I managed to obtain without being pierced even once!

The other day was typically pleasant, sunny, and dry. I walked up the canyon with Sage the collie. I looked across the canyon at the opposite slope, which I had never visited before. The prospect looked inviting, as distant vistas often do. The dog and I descended the treacherous gravelly slope and ascended the opposite slope, wending our way through clumps of gnarled oaks and stopping now and then to appreciate the small-mouthed manzanita blooms.

We came to a tributary canyon and I decided to head down that new (to me) canyon to the road, a meandering route home. I noticed Sage nosing around a disturbed area in the rocky bottom of the canyon, which only channels water just after a thunderstorm. I walked over to investigate and saw tattered black fur and bones strewn around what looked like a dug hole filled with stones:

After some reflection and examination of the bones I determined that I had found the grave of somebody’s pet dog. Some animal, perhaps a coyote or javelina, had partially excavated the grave in a search for shreds of rotted meat.

After returning home I looked for images of a dog’s pelvis on Google’s image search facility. The pelvis in the photo below is exactly like the pelvises in the photos I found.

Larry

Flight of the Dictionary Demon

As some of you may recall, way back in early January, Larry abandoned me to my own devices. For awhile, I read and slept, secretly hoping for his return, but as the days gradually stretched into weeks, it became apparent that I was well and truly on my own. I could either remain in the midwest, or strike out for southeast Arizona to rejoin my lifelong friend.

However, there was one complication and that had to do with my books. After some experimentation, I found that my safe carrying limit was two – one in each clawed hand. Any more and I risked dropping one or more valuable tome. Such a decision! As I hunched over my small hoard, I reflected upon Larry’s recent difficulties as he chose which books to take and which to leave behind. From my lair, I had watched him carefully packing up his fiddle and other music books, his bound edition of Thoreau’s journals, and various other favorites from his collection. As the box filled to the top, he occasionally removed one book, gently replacing it with another. Now I was in much the same predicament.

At last, I settled upon an irreplacable first edition of Franz Passow’s Handwörterbuch der griechischen Sprache, and a 1612 first edition of Vocabolario degli Accademici della Crusca. Sadly, I left behind a number of other cherished volumes. I admit to shedding a tear or two, but comforted myself with the knowledge that most are now available online as scans, or in reprints. As an aging demon, I’ve come to the inevitable conclusion that when the time comes for me pass on to that nether world where all good demons eventually go, I can’t take everything with me. Time to begin letting go.

With little else in the way of preparation, I set out upon my southwest journey. For the first few minutes, the steady flexing of my wings felt exhilarating, but after the first half hour or so, I came to the rather painful realization that I’m not quite the demon I used to be. Long years of putzing around on foot had resulted in a gradual atrophy of my flight muscles. For the first few days, two or three hours was just about my limit. Even at that, my flapping became quite feeble towards the end. I would then drop to the ground to forage about, chasing down the odd opossum or armadillo. When not feeling up to the hunt, I confess to resorting to scrounging about in garbage cans in the parking lots of several fast food outlets. Sometimes I even managed to snag a burger or two, abandoned by a patron alarmed at the sight of a lumbering winged demon emerging from a round of dumpster diving.

After several days, I progressed beyond the snowy croplands of the midwest, then onward over the rangelands of the Great Basin. In time, I found myself in a strange land of mountains and desert. As I approached the Sonoran region, Saguaro and other cacti dotted the rugged landscape. I was struck by the warmth of the landscape, and also by the intensity of the sun. Of course, lacking experience in desert travel, I neglected to slather on SPF 30 UV protection lotion and paid the terrible price of sunburnt wings.

Just about the time I was feeling close to giving up, a familiar scene loomed into sight – the dragon rock formation a short distance from Larry’s southern abode. I had managed to cop a peek of one of Larry’s recent blog posts on an iPad abandoned by a fleeing restaurant patron.

I dropped down to roost upon this stunning outcrop, surrounded by curious vegetation such as Manzanita and Agave, and other plants which will require some looking up. Exhausted, I curled up, racking my brain for desert terminology as I drifted off for a brief slumber.

“Arroyo……bajada…..mesquite…..*snore*…..yucca…..tamale….yum….”

Awhile later, a dashing collie who goes by the moniker of “Sage” sprang up the slope and smiled in what I hoped was a greeting and not a prelude to a nip at my wingtips. In that universal creature language that is shared by so many (except man), she let me know that I had indeed arrived at the right place. She promised to send Larry up to visit me posthaste. And so my journey came to an end – but one that is actually as much a beginning as an ending.

Dictionary Demon

* click on all above images for larger views.