Showing posts from April, 2009


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 unne…

"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…

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 origi…

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…

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.


Trout Lily

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 …

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 Bront√ęs 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…

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.

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.

National Library Week 2009

April 12-18, 2009 is National Library Week. Over on, 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.

On Reading Virginia Woolf (Part 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 b…

On Reading Virginia Woolf (Part 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 …

On Reading Virginia Woolf (Part 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…

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.

Pasqueflowers for Holy Week

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

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&#…

"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 …