Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Polymetis

Today is the 310th birthday of the English scholar and landscape gardener Joseph Spence (1699-1768). Spence served both as Professor of Poetry (1728-37) and Regius Professor of Modern History (1742-68) at Oxford, and was a friend of the poet Alexander Pope. Perhaps his most influential work was Polymetis (1741), a treatise in dialogue form on the connections between ancient Roman poetry and art. The work draws extensively on examples from Latin poetry, and from "antiques" such as sculptures, medals, and cameos. The special collections department of the Carleton College library holds a 1755 edition of the Polymetis, from which the frontispiece and title page above are taken.

Spence takes aim in the Polymetis at the classical scholarship of his day, which he finds obscure and pedantic, and generally unhelpful in explicating the texts themselves. He also questions the need for a classical education grounded in a thorough study of Latin and Greek, which he considers an unnecessary preparation for most professions. He considers it more important for English students to learn to express themselves well in their own language.


The reputation of the Polymetis suffered from the dismissive remarks of Lessing in his more famous Laocoön. "Spence," Lessing writes, "has the strangest notions of the resemblance between painting and poetry." But Polymetis was popular enough in the eighteenth century that Nicolas Tindal produced an abridged version of it, titled A Guide to Classical Learning; or, Polymetis Abridged, as a kind of general classical handbook.


The copy of Polymetis Abridged (1777) in Carleton's special collections bears the bookplate of Robert Livingston of Clermont. This is probably the Chancellor Robert Livingston (1746-1813) who sat on the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, administered the oath of office to George Washington in 1789, and as Minister to France negotiated the Louisiana Purchase.

An engraving of the arms of Achilles from Carleton's copy of Polymetis (1755)

Saturday, April 25, 2009

"The Trees of Northfield"

Bur oak in the northeast corner of the block occupied by St. John's Lutheran Church.

This morning, I stopped at a sale in the book-filled garage of the former owner of The Bookcase, one of Northfield’s many defunct Division Street bookstores. Among the treasures I found, and brought home with me, was a rare copy of The Trees of Northfield, a small chapbook self-published in 1948 by Harvey E. Stork, Professor of Botany at Carleton College and the first director of the Carleton Arboretum.

“Northfield is a city rich in trees,” Professor Stork writes. “Looking eastward from Manitou Heights, one sees in summer a green grove broken only occasionally by the steeple of a church, the tower of a school, or the roof of a commerical or factory building. It seems hardly possible that this forest shelters a population of five thousand people.”

In July 1948, Stork counted “2,426 trees of 48 different species growing in the parking between the sidewalk and curb;” in other words, street trees. Of these, the most numerous species in 1948 was the American elm: Stork counted 993 of them. The ravages of Dutch elm disease were beginning to be felt in Northfield, but Stork held out hope that science would bring a reprieve for the elms. Sixty-one years later, few of those elms remain.

Harvey Stork was born in Indiana and attended Cornell University, where his appreciation for trees was shaped by the northern hardwood forest of central New York. His appreciation was part aesthetic and part practical. When he began planning the arboretum at Carleton in the early 1920s, he wanted to introduce the most ornamental varieties along with commercially valuable species like white pine. Without a clear understanding of local biogeography and landscape history, two fields undeveloped at the time, Stork had little regard for the native bur oak.

“Some virgin trees of the Big Woods still persist on the college campuses and elsewhere in the city,” he writes. “The tree is however not used much as an ornamental. The lack of autumn coloration probably is against it.”

It’s revealing of his attitude that, in praising Robert Watson’s landscaping of Oaklawn Cemetery, Stork calls the cemetery “a beautiful burial park, in which the finest monuments are spruces, pines, larches, birches, catalpas, and dozens of other choice species.” He fails to mention the magnificent bur oaks. Oaklawn Cemetary exemplified what Stork wanted to create in the arboretum—a museum of ornamental and exotic trees.

One of the values of Stork’s little book is that he identifies what he considers particularly fine specimens of each species of tree. For the bur oak, he writes: “Fine old specimen on north-east corner of lawn, St. John’s Church.” The tree is still there, more than sixty years later, despite successive street and sidewalk reconstructions, and the expansion of the church and its parking lot. The oak is actually not a particularly fine specimen of a bur oak. Perhaps because of aggressive pruning to accommodate utility wires, its branches reach upward instead of spreading, as they would have done in the native oak savanna.

Stork tells a wonderful story in The Trees of Northfield about how Northfielders banded together to save a tree. At the end of the nineteenth century, a magnificent elm stoood on Forest Avenue on the west side of town. Stork writes: “About 1894 or 1895, it was slated to be cut down, but some tree lovers came to its rescue and it was granted another 25 years of life... In order to assure its future, Professor [Andrew] Fossum prevailed on the city council to set aside the little triangle on which the tree stood as a city park. This was newsworthy because it was represented as the smallest city park in existence.”

Professor Fossum, a professor of Greek at St. Olaf, organized a benefit baseball game between Carleton and St. Olaf to raise money to build an iron fence around the elm. “It was further stipulated,” Stork writes, “that the tree was to be named after the winner of the game.” The tree became known as the St. Olaf Elm.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Iam ver egelidos refert tepores...

My other activity this week, in addition to interviewing teachers, was leading a poetry workshop for a small homeschool group that meets down the street from me. Two sixth graders, two seventh graders, two eighth graders. Four girls and two boys. On Monday, we talked about poetry in general, and wrote "synonym poems." We talked about meter, and when I mentioned iambic pentameter, there was an amazing moment when three or four of the students began to recite, in unison, the prologue to Romeo and Juliet. I explained the sonnet form, and on Wednesday one of the eighth grade girls had written a lovely and surprisingly skillful sonnet about a cat chasing a mouse. The the rhyme scheme (ababcdcdefefgg) reinforced the sense of the poem, as the rhyme was chased from line to line, and then cornered in the final couplet.

Today, we sat in the sun and, believe it or not, composed "versions" of Catullus 46. The students have had a little Latin, so I started with the original:

Iam ver egelidos refert tepores,
iam caeli furor aequinoctialis
iucundis Zephyri silescit auris.
Linquantur Phrygii, Catulle, campi
Nicaeaeque ager uber aestuosae:
ad claras Asiae volemus urbes.
Iam mens praetrepidans avet vagari,
iam laeti studio pedes vigescunt.
O dulces comitum valete coetus,
longe quos simul a domo profectos
diversae variae viae reportant.

Then I gave them a literal translation and asked them to rewrite it to make it a new poem based on Catullus. The two boys wandered off by themselves to write, and the girls stayed at the table with me, writing and pausing to ask questions. I dashed off my own version, too:

Now the last frost date is past,
The summer heat approaching fast,
The pleasant Zephyrs thaw the sky,
The world is warm, and so am I.
Now the time to roam is here,
To wander far and wander near.
We stayed together, now we roam,
And different highways take us home.

One of the girls, astutely, said, "I like how roam is repeated, because it makes you think of Rome."

It was altogether a lovely way to spend a warm spring afternoon.

Striking It Rich

Last night a group of us completed four days of interviews for teaching positions at the Cannon River STEM School. We interviewed some wonderful candidates, from experienced teachers to teachers just completing their student teacher experience and preparing to graduate in May. The ones who impressed me the most were those who were passionate, excited, articulate, smart, caring, and who showed clear evidence that they were taking the theory and concepts taught in teacher training programs and learning how to put those things into practice in the classroom. The best candidates were reflective practitioners.

Our candidates were excited, as I am, about the small class-sizes Cannon River STEM School will offer, and about the idea of an integrated curriculum focused on project-based learning that gets students into the outdoors. They were excited, as I am, about a school founded on academic rigor, a sense of community, and a sense of the joy of shared discovery. They were excited, as I am, about a school that emphasizes the skills—in science, technology, engineering, and math—and the attitudes—of wonder, creativity, and exploration—that will enable them to live good and rewarding lives in the twenty-first century.

We're in the midst of a global economic crisis that has only deepened the problems of families who find it difficult to afford health care and meet monthly expenses, and of communities who find it difficult to provide essential services. Traditional public schools, charter schools, and increasingly, colleges and universities, are operating on a shoestring. This sounds like a bad time to take on the challenges, financial and otherwise, of opening a new school. But I would argue that it's precisely the time, and that schools like Cannon River STEM School are needed now more than ever.

McKinsey & Company recently issued a report on The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in Education that offers this stark conclusion: "The report finds that the underutilization of human potential as reflected in the achievement gap is extremely costly. Existing gaps impose the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession—one substantially larger than the deep recession the country is currently experiencing. For individuals, avoidable shortfalls in academic achievement impose heavy and often tragic consequences via lower earnings, poor health, and higher rates of incarceration."

An achievement gap exists not only between minority and white students, and between the children of low- and high-income families, but between the United States and other nations. The achievement gap between the U.S. and other countries is especially striking in the areas of science and math. Based on 2003 data from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), U.S. students were outscored by students from 23 of 29 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member states on math literacy, and by students from 19 of 29 OECD member states on scientific literacy.

I've taken these numbers from a 2008 report by the Congressional Research Service on the need for increased STEM education to close this achievement gap with other nations. What the McKinsey report adds is an estimate that this gap represents a $1.3 to $2.3 trillion loss to the GDP of the United States. In other words, closing the educational achievement gap with other nations has the potential to raise our national GDP by 9% to 16%.

$2 trillion, incidentally, is the amount of taxpayer money that the Federal Reserve made out in emergency loans to failing banks beginning last September. Our priorities have become seriously skewed if we are spending on financial bailouts what we could be earning from an investment in education.

I've talked to some wonderful and promising teachers this week. I know that Cannon River STEM School has the right vision, and I'm willing to put in hundreds of hours of volunteer time to make that vision a reality. Being a member of the Cannon River STEM School board won't make me richer by a single cent. But I believe the school will help make the world richer, in more ways than one.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Spring Wildflowers in Stork Forest

Stork Forest is the wooded area of the Upper Arboretum just beyond the bridge over Spring Creek when you enter the Arboretum from Second Street. It's named after Harvey Stork, a former professor of biology at Carleton and a founder of the Arboretum back in the 1920s. In the Twenties, as local farmers were converting from wood-burning stoves to furnaces that burned fossil fuels, they saw an opportunity to convert their wood lots into arable land. As the farmers were clearing their land, Carleton's legendary groundskeeper, D. Blake Stewart ("Stewsie") drove around the countryside collecting wildflowers from the doomed woods to transplant in Stork Forest. The bloodroot, hepatica, trout lilies, and rue anemone found there today are the legacy of Stork and Stewsie.

Hepatica

Bloodroot

Trout Lily

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Worth Saving?

photo by Griff Wigley (source)

At their next meeting, the Northfield City Council will vote on a motion to approve the final plat for a proposed commercial development south of town called Bridgewater Commons. The proposal before the council calls for taking every possible step to preserve a 100-year old bur oak on the property. On the Locally Grown blog ("LoGoNo"), Griff asks: "Is this bur oak worth saving?"

Griff's opinion: "I love oak trees like [this] one but it seems pointless to go to such lengths to keep it when the whole south section of Highway 3 from Woodley/246 to Cty Rd. 1 is mostly a commercial strip with little thought to aesthetics/nature."

David L., king of the ideological non sequitur, chimes in with this: "Since when, and why, do trees get more protection than human fetuses?" Peter M. agrees, asking why we should worry about protecting "a stupid tree" when babies are being killed.

I've been training myself not to be drawn into these long circular discussions on LoGroNo, with their frequent ideological hijackings and dialogical dead-ends, but faithful readers of this blog know that I love bur oaks, and I finally couldn't resist posting this comment:
A more generous respect for all life, for the place of each organism in a biotic community, of each tree in a landscape, would go further than a continual reduction of everything to the question of abortion. David L. and Peter, like you I would not want to see abortion resorted to simply as a matter of convenience. But you are willing to cut down a 100-year old tree as a matter of convenience to developers. That attitude, it seems to me, is part of the culture of convenience that, unfortunately, is stronger than the “culture of life” in this day and age. If we want to foster a respect for life, we need to start making difficult choices about trees and other living things, not just about the young of our own species. We need to preserve or create landscapes that reflect our respect for life, not just our appetite for convenience. I think the world is more beautiful, more worth living in, more worth bringing children into, when there are bur oaks and prairies: when there is a natural landscape to balance the landscape of development.

It may be a “stupid tree,” Peter, but it says something about the strength of our character if we can find a way to preserve and protect something so old, so vulnerable, so much at our mercy.

Every year at this time, when the pasqueflowers are blooming and the trout lilies are pushing their mottled leaves up through the soil, I think of the late Paul Gruchow, a writer of wonderful, observant, and passionate essays and books about the natural world.

I only met Paul once. He invited me for coffee at his house in Northfield, and we talked about writing and about our shared understanding of "homemaking." I was a stay-at-home father at the time, and the experience of being a "homemaker" made me reflect on the ways in which "home" extends beyond the walls of our houses, into the environment around us.

Paul had just contributed an essay—the final essay in the collection—to an anthology titled Sacred Ground: Writings About Home, edited by my friend Barbara Bonner and published by Milkweed Editions. In his essay, Paul asked why we should care about the Minnesota dwarf trout lilies, an endangered species endemic to southeastern Minnesota. Here is part of Paul's answer:

Dwarf trout lilies persist only because the forests of the Cannon River watershed exist. If they are destroyed, it will be because their habitat, which is a kind of organism, has been destroyed. Dwarf trout lilies represent the health of the organism; they are one of its rarest and most sensitive points of pressure.

Think of that organism as a home. A home, of course, is not just a house. Habitation makes a house a home. The well-being of a home, therefore, depends upon the welfare of its residents. It is the responsibility of the keepers of the house, if they would make it a home, to tend to the prosperity of those who live there. Every householder who withers or dies as a result of the neglect of the keepers of the house not only diminishes the potential of that house to become a home, but also represents a judgment upon its keepers.

As a stay-at-home father, I was always thinking of the health and well-being of my children, and this led me to think more about the health and well-being of the world in which they would continue to live and grow. Being a father and a "homemaker" made me think of home in a wider sense, as a system of interrelationships in which we—ourselves and our children—are dependent parts. Our care for the dwarf trout lilies or the bur oaks represents, in a very real way, our care for ourselves—our respect for the life we share with those other members of our wider household.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Reading Journal: "Hons and Rebels"

Jessica Mitford, Hons and Rebels. Introduction by Christopher Hitchens. New York Review Books 2004. (Originally published in 1960). Paperback. $14.00.

"How I loathe that kind of novel which is about a lot of sisters," says the narrator at the beginning of Rachel Ferguson's The Brontës Went to Woolworths. But I think even she would have loved Jessica Mitford's Hons and Rebels. To clarify: it's not a novel, it's a wonderfully witty and engaging memoir that reads like a novel. It is about a lot of sisters. Jessica (known as Decca) was the fifth of six Mitford sisters, the daughters of Lord Redesdale, who grew up in dull and drafty Swinbrook House in the Cotswolds. The sisters are all "Hons" ("the Honorable Jessica Mitford"), but most of them manage, in some way, to rebel against the dull and often stifling atmosphere of their childhood. Jessica becomes a Communist, and as a girl spends dull afternoons scratching hammers and sickles into the window panes. Her older sister, eccentrically and prophetically named Unity Valkyrie, scratches Nazi swastikas into the glass.

Unity is Decca's favorite sister: tall and earnest and magnificently sullen as a teenager, she becomes Decca's beloved adversary in the ideological turf wars of the drawing room. A line is drawn down the center of the room: Decca's half is communist territory, Unity's is fascist. This is the mid-1930s, and Hitler has come to power in Germany, and Unity is smitten. Eventually she travels to Germany and, in part on the strength of her Aryan looks, manages to become part of Hitler's inner circle. As Europe moves closer to war, the sisters' drawing room standoffs become tragically real.

Under Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, it's uncertain whether England will ally with the Nazis against the Communists, or vice versa. In this atmosphere of dispirited uncertainty, Decca escapes to Spain with Esmond Romilly, Winston Churchill's nephew, to join the resistance against Franco. The first half of the memoir is a wonderful social comedy about "a lot of sisters" in an English country house; the second half is a wonderful kind of picaresque romantic comedy about the adventures and misadventures of Decca and Esmond in Europe and America.

Hons and Rebels is laugh-out-loud, read-out-loud funny, filled with an enormous zest for life even in the midst of personal tragedy and cataclysmic world historical events. Esmond Romilly is a magnetic character who steals the girl and the show; Decca's enormous love and admiration for him, and her perplexed and regretful love for her sister Unity, give this memoir heart and soul to go with all the laughter.

Pictured on the book cover: Unity and Jessica Mitford, ages 8 and 4.

Currently reading: Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September
On the top of the TBR pile: Randal Keynes, Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution & Sylvia Townsend Warner, Mr. Fortune's Maggot
Waiting for me at the bookstore: Jetta Carleton, The Moonflower Vine

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Disappointment: A Jane Austen Tour

If you have time to read a blog post that started life as a twenty-page paper, here's a link to the talk on Jane Austen I gave this evening at the Northfield Public Library as part of the National Library Week celebrations.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Death of Socrates: The Musical

For an AP World History project, Will wrote a musical version of the death of Socrates. Clara has posted the mp3 file on Ecblogue, or you can click and listen to it here.

Monday, April 13, 2009

National Library Week 2009

April 12-18, 2009 is National Library Week. Over on Northfield.org, there's a list of library week events at the Northfield Public Library, including my illustrated talk about Jane Austen at 7:00 pm on Thursday, April 16.

In other library news, Library Journal announced today the death of Judith Krug, the director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom since 1967, and the founder of Banned Books Week.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

On Reading Virginia Woolf (Part III)

III

"Virginia Woolf was a genius," Peytie says.

"The smell of hyacinths," I say, stepping into the Sunken Garden.

"Which ones are the hyacinths?"

In the morning, I waited for her in a coffee shop on Grand Avenue, drinking Turkish coffee. Pouring it from the long-handled copper pot into the miniature cup felt like a small ceremony. I wanted to ask Peytie what she thought of A Room of One's Own, but now the flow of conversation carries us on, finds different channels. She tells me about her roommate, what it's like when her college friends get together—how the conversation is pulled in so many different directions.

"Those are foxgloves," I say, pointing.

I can never grow flowers like that, so tall and straight. Mine always bend toward the sun—delphiniums prostrating themselves, toppling under their weight of blue flower.

From a distance, I took a photograph of the conservatory—the glass structure almost ghostly in the sunlight, among the bare trees at the end of March. Julie saw the photograph and said it reminded her of Kew. How connected we are, that a friend in Oxfordshire—someone I have never met, but who shares my love of books—can see my photograph and think of Kew! How separate, and yet how much a part of each other we are!

I read out the labels of all the palm trees gathered from around the world. Peytie stands under the broad leaf of a palm, like a child trying on her grandmother's hat. As we walk together I feel, "I am you."

Thus one couple after another with much the same irregular and aimless movement passed the flower-bed and were enveloped in layer after layer of green-blue vapour, in which at first their bodies had substance and a dash of colour, but later both substance and colour dissolved in the green-blue atmosphere.

Friday, April 10, 2009

On Reading Virginia Woolf (Part II)

II

Jacob’s Room opens, in medias res, as Betty Flanders, Jacob’s mother, is writing a letter. Almost exactly halfway through the novel, Woolf pauses to consider letters. The incessant expenditure of words on weighty and weightless things.
And the notes accumulate. And the telephones ring. And everywhere we go wires and tubes surround us to carry the voices that try to penetrate before the last card is dealt and the days are over. “Try to penetrate,” for as we lift the cup, shake the hand, express the hope, something whispers, Is this all? Can I never know, share, be certain? Am I doomed all my days to write letters, send voices, which fall upon the tea-table, fade upon the passage, making appointments, while life dwindles, to come and dine? Yet letters are venerable; and the telephone valiant, for the journey is a lonely one, and if bound together by notes and telephones we went in company, perhaps—who knows?—we might talk by the way.
Reading Jacob’s Room, I thought of Twitter, and the constant connectedness that it offers, and I wondered, as Woolf might, whether this accumulation of tweets deepens our friendships, makes us more intimate. In Jacob’s Room, people write letters, they have conversations, words accumulate between them—and they remain opaque. Jacob falls through the cracks of his own life. The effect is fragmentary, Twitteresque—a series of disconnected observations.

I imagine Virginia Woolf on Twitter—

The church clock, however, strikes twelve.
updated about 8 hours ago

Whether we gain or not by this habit of profuse communication is not for us to say.
updated about 5 minutes ago

Ladies with green and white umbrellas passed through the courtyard.
updated about a minute ago

The mind wanders. The eyes wander from the page. I find myself distracted by afternoon sunlight flashing off the ReMax sign down the street as the wind shifts it—like a kind of code. Things outside the book speak to me, at times, more clearly. Perhaps that’s what I found so appealing about Virginia Woolf, twenty-five years ago, when I drowned myself in The Waves and To the Lighthouse and Between the Acts. Life and art folded together. Looking up from the book was like being in the book still. There is no division...

And yet the impression is of division. Divided attention. The space between people. The War intervening and breaking everything apart. When we first hear Jacob’s name, shouted by his older brother on the beach in Cornwall, it is divided: “Ja—cob! Ja—cob!” Archer shouted.

How do we make things whole? Or is wholeness always an illusion, and life only a collection of related fragments? Here we are, standing under the dome of the Reading Room of the British Museum:
Closely stood together in a ring round the dome were Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, and Shakespeare; the literatures of Rome, Greece, China, India, Persia. One leaf of poetry was pressed flat against another in a density of meaning, a conglomeration of loveliness.

“One does want one’s tea,” said Miss Marchmont, reclaiming her shabby umbrella.

Miss Marchmont wanted her tea, but could never resist a last look at the Elgin Marbles.

The wires to the Admiralty hum.

Everything is interconnected, and the things that connect us—the wires endlessly humming with news, the entangling alliances—are what tear us apart.

The novel ends in Jacob’s room. Letters are strewn on the table, as if he had expected to return from the War. His friend Bonamy, who loved him, stands at the window and cries: “Jacob! Jacob!”

The echo of Jacob’s brother calling him.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

On Reading Virginia Woolf (Part I)

I

“You must read The Waves,” Tess said.

I read it in the profusion of spring, stretched out in the grass of the college green, and it was certainly a book about me, about Tess, about being young and reading Greek, about all those things I could not myself put into words. How deeply I felt everything! The spring, the poetry of Keats, the key of A minor, sadness, lust, and even restraint. Everything was fresh and new. The ink was still wet on Vergil’s Aeneid. Each cup of coffee was ceremonial, not yet the morning’s habit it would become in middle age. Nothing had been felt before, until I felt it myself. If ever there was a time to read Virginia Woolf, this was it.

“It’s so amazing,” she said.

I was twenty-two—an age at which young men embrace ideologies, Platonism, and the beautiful bodies of young women like Tess. In the dead of winter, I sat in her apartment and watched airplanes descend from one window pane to the next. I listened to Joni Mitchell and drank tea. At night, Tess and I lay together in our skin like fresh candles laid in a drawer, filled with the possibility of incandescence. But we never made love. Once in a great while, even now, I have to push the thought of her body out of my head, because I loved her once, and she is dead.

“Listen,” she says, opening the book. “But now Percival is dead, and Rhoda is dead; we are divided; we are not here. Yet I cannot find any obstacle separating us. There is no division between me and them. As I talked I felt, ‘I am you.’ Don’t you sometimes feel that, too?”

Even now it seems strange that she isn’t somewhere, living with some man or some woman or some collection of cats, deeply troubled as always by the world, but still part of its beauty.

Abate Fetel

Surely the "golden apple" that Paris awarded to Aphrodite as the fairest of the goddesses was not an apple at all, but an abate fetel pear—beautifully golden, with a hint of blush, and shaped like a classical torso. First cultivated in France in the 1860s, the abate fetel has become my favorite variety of pear—lovely, flavorful, firm, and with a satisfying crunch even at the peak of its ripeness. It's also perfect in Martha Stewart's Pear Upside-Down Cake. Abate fetels are available at Just Food Coop in Northfield.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Pasqueflowers for Holy Week

It's Holy Week, and the pasqueflowers are blooming in McKnight Prairie, right on schedule.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Reading Journal: The Reluctant Mr. Darwin

David Quammen, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin. Norton, 2006. Paperback. Available at the Carleton Bookstore or online.

In Fabruary I heard David Quammen give a Friday convocation at Carleton titled "Charles Darwin Against Himself: Caution versus Honesty in the Life of a Reluctant Revolutionary," which was essentially an abridged version of his short Darwin biography, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin. In the book, as in the talk, Quammen writes clearly and engagingly about science, making the concepts of biogeography and natural selection accessible to a general audience, and placing the development of those concepts in their human and historical context. Charles Darwin is a fascinating character, and much of Quammen's book reads like a captivating historical novel. Quammen takes a calculated risk in beginning his biography after Darwin returns from the voyage of the Beagle, thus skipping entirely the most cinematic episode of Darwin's life. The focus instead is on Darwin's decades long gestation of the concept of natural selection, and his reluctance to go public with his startling idea. Quammen is such a skillful writer that he can make Darwin's eight years of dissecting barnacles in rural seclusion in Kent as fascinating as his nearly five years traveling around the world. Darwin emerges as weak-stomached and antisocial, a materialist (in the philosophical sense), an agnostic, a loving and devoted husband and father, a good and highly-principled man.

Friday, April 3, 2009

"By the Bog of Cats"

By the Bog of Cats by Marina Carr, directed by Wendy Knox. A Frank Theater production at the Guthrie Theater's Dowling Studio. There are three more performances remaining: Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sunday at 1:00 pm.

Rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno
. A good woman, says the Roman poet Juvenal, is a rare bird, like a black swan.

As Marina Carr's play By the Bog of Cats opens, Hester Swane is dragging the corpse of a black swan across the snow-covered stage, leaving behind a trail of blood. Hetty isn't quite the rare bird Juvenal had in mind. She's strong, passionate, tenacious, and she has a streak of terrible darkness in her. She's a tinker—a gypsy—who grew up in a caravan beside the Bog of Cats in rural Ireland, abandoned there by her mother at the age of seven and waiting there ever since for her mother's return. In that time she's had an illegitimate child, a daughter named Josie, by Carthage Kilbride, a farmer who has left her for the daughter of a local landowner. Those attuned to classical resonances will realize that this is an Irish adaptation of the Medea, Euripides' tragedy of a woman scorned and driven to unspeakable violence.

The play is haunted with ghosts and framed with the mythic presence of the black swan. In Irish myth, the children of Lir—King Lear—are transformed into swans by a wicked stepmother who lacks the stomach to kill them outright. That mythical atmosphere hangs over the play, but the heart of the drama lies in the real—though often outsized—human passions and motivations of the characters. Virginia Burke is riveting and terrifying as Hester, with her sharp-tongued and nearly pitch-perfect Irish accent, her human tenderness rubbed raw and inflamed into a terrible rage by the wrongs she has suffered in life. Hester's disappointments, and Carr's exploration of the damaged human relationships around her, make the tragic outcome much more satisfying to a modern audience than the violent end of Euripides' Medea. Pity and fear, Aristotle tells us, are at the heart of tragedy—it is our ability to identify with the sufferings of the characters that makes tragedy effective. It's difficult, in the end, to identify with Medea, but identification—Hester's poignant identification with her daughter Josie—is what brings on the tragic denouement of Carr's play. We may never be driven to such extremes, but we can understand the emotions and motivations in the play as outsize versions of our own—our love and hate, our fierce attachments and fears of abandonment.

For all its prevailing atmosphere of tragedy, By the Bog of Cats sparkles with sharp Irish wit. Much of the humor is supplied by Carthage Kilbride's sharp-tongued monstrosity of a mother, marvelously played by Tony nominee Melissa Hart. And there's the odd, soothsaying Cat Woman, who eats mice, laps up wine from a saucer, talks to ghosts, and sees the future—at least partially. Each of the characters is beautifully realized, but it's Hester who consistently stands out. Virginia Burke gives an astounding performance.

Public Poetry at the Northfield Public Library

In early August, the director of the Northfield Public Library, Teresa Jensen, asked me to write a poem to be displayed prominently in the...