Living in dissonance: a very selective guide to 20th-century classical music

The way classical music fans ignore or shy away from the great works of the 20th century is a source of continual frustration for me. I grew up on this music. Here are some highly personal responses to some of my favorite works. Most of these riffs bear little or no relationship to programmatic content or the composer’s own view of the work. Please note also that this list does not pretend to be either representative or exhaustive, so don’t leave comments chiding me for neglecting this or that “important” work or composer. But please do feel free to tell me about your own favorites!

Krzysztof Penderecki – Dies Irae

The most appalling of centuries loses nothing in this translation into the dead languages that once launched the Punic and Pelopponesian Wars. Between Cassandra and Medusa there might have been a secret sisterhood of horror. Those who would be prey must first turn to stone.

Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki – Symphony #3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs)

A Polish girl imprisoned by the Nazis writes an invocation to the Blessed Virgin on the wall with a slow shard, re-tracing the letters again and again to make them straight and deep.

Leos Janacek – Glagolitic Mass

How could such soaring syllables belong to the language of slaves? How, wondered JanáÄ?ek, might the God of Nature be shrunk into something small enough to inhabit a church or concert hall?

Howard Hanson – Lament for Beowulf

English, not Hebrew, might be the most fitting tongue for those fated to remain strangers in the earth. Its words are cast in base metals, better for the clash than the clasp. Ah, but the hoard is mute, amassed by monstrous prodigies of the old gods and used to stuff the artificially enhanced hill where the king retires for his last, rapacious sleep.

Igor Stravinsky – Symphony of Psalms

The composer who scandalized bourgeois audiences in 1913 with the Rite of Spring in 1930 explored what is most scandalous about the Bible: the way its best verses erase the line between blessing and curse. David dances before the Ark of the Covenant like a prizefighter, taunting his lover: Destroyer, Motherfucker, I’ll finish what Jacob started. Don’t tempt me! It all sounds glorious.

Francis Poulenc – Stabat Mater

How much longer will the Mother stand for this, one wonders? The Mothers of the Disappeared circle the square until the dictator is forced to flee or face the music. This Stabat Mater (and there are, of course, many others) continues long past the final note.

Bela Bartók – Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste

I once heard a gypsy fiddler on the radio playing an ironic tribute to the late communist dictator of Romania, Nicolae Ceaucescu. In the middle of the song, he set his bow aside and used his fingernails to rake the strings for the length of a verse. Bartók would’ve loved that. His Music is much more life-affirming, but as with almost everything he wrote, it insists upon freedom with every jagged and joyous turn of phrase.

Fernando Lopes-Graca – História Trágico-Marí­tima

This isn’t that sea that Debussy saw, but the other, the still-unexplored ocean. She knows nothing about the romantic storms and shipwrecks that her would-be knights-errant bear like pox-ridden scraps of cloth to foreign shores.

Alban Berg – Violin Concerto

The soul in the guise of a violin always yearns for transcendence, like the girl in the old story made to lie night after night upon the king’s wrinkled and impotent body in a hopeless effort to stave off the chill of death. But what if an orchestra answered your prayers with questions of its own? The ear must get beyond its patriarchal desire to be ravished.

Akira Miyoshi – Cello Concerto

If the wood of a fallen, thousand-year zelkova tree from some Shinto shrine were cut and polished like an agate, the grain could be interpreted as a musical score – or so this work has led me to believe.

Carl Nielsen – Clarinet Concerto

True story: Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto was the wordless and slightly warmed-over theme song for my first major romantic fling. She had played percussion once in a performance with a former lover, who soloed on clarinet. Could we have picked a worse omen, I wonder, than this tribute to bipolarity with its drunken lyricism, its self-mockery, its pungent soups of despair?

Manuel de Falla – Harpsichord Concerto

Another true story: Right about the same time, a composer offered to teach me harpsichord in return for helping his daughter with English. I declined, having already decided to devote myself to Noh. Twenty years later, I remember a couple of chants, but my body has long forgotten how to unfold a landscape in one sweep of the arm. How much luckier in love might I have been had my fingers learned all the intricate steps of modern gypsies on a horizontal staircase?

I-sang Yun – Muak

The other day, I heard an auto mechanic describe what happens with a vacuum leak: It isn’t that the vacuum is leaking out, he said; the air is leaking in! In a similar manner, just a breath of an air from the steppes – less than a whole melody – is enough to turn the pure, unchanging tones of Confucian music into sonic turmoil.

Charles Ives – Three Places in New England

Whenever I hear the phrase, “bedrock American values,” I think of literal granite in New England – what geologists call the Canadian Shield. I first fell in love with it as a child in Maine. Though the tourist comes to New England for a dose of lyrical maples and churches, a resident might come to prefer the stark look of granite and everything it hides.

Virgil Thomson – film score to The Plow that Broke the Plains

What once was carried off by the wind now washes into the Gulf of Mexico. One way or another, we’ll get back to those bedrock values! But just because the plow is smiling doesn’t mean it likes its work. And just because the tunes sound happy doesn’t mean we really know how to have fun.

Roger Sessions – The Black Maskers Suite

Sometimes tenderness is all in one direction, you know? Sometimes a falconer captures a hawk and keeps it for just one season, solicitous for that roll call of distances in its hooded gaze.

Bela Bartók – Miraculous Mandarin Suite

The exotic dancer’s genius is in what she withholds. Imagine falling in love with that still center of a wheel, despair growing like a ship’s captain becalmed in the age of sail.

John Antill – Corroboree Suite

Clowning was once a scared vocation. Any real or mythic figure, any inhabitant of air, land or water could ripple through the clown’s malleable form with the flicker of a shadow from the fire. His laughter was sometimes as frightening as a difficult birth.

Alberto Ginastera – Panambi Suite

A man from the pampas wanders into a forest for the first time, gets enthralled – or maybe spooked. A clearing just wide enough to support a blade of grass looks like a revelation. Beaten by the incessant rain, he dreams of fountains, roofed courtyards, an inner sanctum as resonant as a drum.

Ali Rahbari – Persian Mysticism in G

Once, a holy man loved his donkey almost as much as he loved God. When the donkey died on the road, he raised a grave mound over him, wept, and went on his way. In time, the local residents built a shrine and spread a legend about a dead saint, and pilgrims began to come. Many hearts were blown open by the encounter. This all happened in the key of G.

Alan Hovhaness – Symphony #2, Mysterious Mountain

The exile dreams of a mountain at the center of the world, having heard that, in an expanding universe, the definition of “position” is something like “an apparent center away from which everything flees.” He nurtures his growing solitude, and writes the symphony again – sixty-seven times in all.

Arnold Schoenberg – Moses und Aron

Though a brilliant librettist and composer, Schoenberg was unable to complete his only opera; his version ends with Moses despairing of his own inarticulateness in the face of the inexpressible. According to the Wikipedia, the famed discoverer of the twelve-tone technique “suffered from triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number thirteen).”

[I]t is said that the reason his late opera is called Moses and Aron, rather than Moses and Aaron […] is because the latter spelling has thirteen letters in it. He was born […] on the thirteenth of the month, and thought of this as a portent. He once refused to rent a house because it had the number 13, and feared turning 76, because its digits add up to thirteen. In an interesting story […] he feared Friday, July 13, 1951, as it was the first Friday the 13th of his 76th year. He reportedly stayed in bed that day preparing for what he thought as his death day. After begging her husband to wake up and “quit his nonsense,” his skeptical wife was shocked when her husband simply uttered the word “harmony” and died.

We live in dissonance – remember that.

Listening post

Five a.m. A low cloud ceiling and the scent of rain. Moments after I come outside and sit down with my coffee on the dark porch, I hear the scattered, flute-like calls of tundra swans off to the east. A couple minutes later, more swans, a little closer and in the other direction, also headed north. Then a flock passes right over the house. I’m a little surprised they’re still migrating; I’ve been hearing (and sometimes seeing) tundra swans off and on for about a month, now.

It’s noisy this morning. But the highway sounds are coming up the hollow rather than over the ridge from the west, and mingle with the sounds of freight trains going through the gap. Odd that these two, major sources of anthropogenic noise here should strike my ear so differently – I love the rumble and whistles of trains almost as much as I hate the soulless whine of traffic. At any rate, I’m sure it’s partly this sonic blur of mechanical noise that makes the swans’ music seem so scattered: only the loudest notes are making it through.

About a hundred and fifty feet away along the woods’ edge, something is moving about in the dry leaves and ripping at the bark of logs or trees. It sounds too loud to be a porcupine. Maybe a bear? They could be out of hibernation by now.

From up behind the house, a dry, feline cough. We do get bobcats coming through now and then, and there are occasional sightings of cougars in Pennsylvania, but I’m betting that this is Felis domesticus – specifically, the black and white female who we think just gave birth to a litter of kittens in the basement of the barn, her major annual contribution to the local food chain. She’s probably working over the fresh chicken bones in the stone-lined compost pile we call Fort Garbage.

Light slowly seeps through the cloud cover. Whatever has been making so much noise at the edge of the woods is coming out onto the driveway. To my disappointment, its silhouette is much too small for a bear; it’s round and waddley – a porcupine. It crosses the big grate at the bend of the driveway, then goes down into the stream and comes up on the lawn near the dog statue. It noses around in the yard for the next ten to fifteen minutes.

But now something else is coming from the direction where I’d heard all the bear-like noises earlier. Another basketball-sized shadow waddles across the springhouse lawn, crosses the driveway, and heads straight under the front porch and on into its burrow under the dining room. Well, that explains it: two porcupines!

I’ve been listening for the peent of woodcocks – we’ve had two of them calling almost every night since the second week of March – but the highway noise drowns them out. At about 5:35, though, I hear the telltale whistle of wings, followed by the loud chirps emitted by a woodcock at the apex of its aerial display. And no sooner does the first one finish then the second one launches into flight.

About five minutes later, the dawn chorus begins: first the song sparrow, as if testing the waters, followed quickly by Carolina wren, phoebe, field sparrow and cardinal. A robin starts up its motor: puttputt, putt, putt. The cat pads down the driveway, rounds the bend at the big grate, and continues off down the hollow. The porcupine in the front yard stops doing whatever it had been doing, turns around and waddles down the road after the cat. What could they be up to? Should I be worried?

Just as I’m about to go inside, at 5:46, I hear the deer beginning to stir up in the woods. They’ve presumably spent much of the night bedded down in the laurel. It’s light enough now that I can just make out the shape of the lead animal as she crosses a clearing, and the next in line a few seconds later. I stand and stretch, and two white flags appear dimly among the trees. A hoof stamps once, twice, three times. As I turn toward the door, there’s a commotion of hooves on dry leaves, as if a large deck of cards were being shuffled.

I am reading Gregory of Nyssa: But how can that which is invisible reveal itself in the night?

The song sparrow’s song

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As I headed out on a walk this morning, I snapped a picture of this male song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) in full throat. Song sparrows hold forth virtually year-round, but in my family, for some reason, we tend to typecast them as prophets of eternal spring. For example, in her book Appalachian Spring (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991), my mother noted under March 13:

Song sparrows are almost always with us, but March brings them in to pack their breeding territory as tightly and as early as possible. Despite the weather, which today was hazy and cold, they all proclaimed, “Hip-hip-hurrah, boys! Spring is here!”

Mom claims she got this mnemonic from an old National Geographic record. I’m here to tell you it’s not widely attested in the popular literature. But someone named Tomm Lorenzin has compiled a helpful BirdSong Mnemonics page that includes our family’s favored onomatopoeia (albeit with an extra hip) alongside two others: Maids-maids-maids-put-on-your-tea-kettle-ettle-ettle (the mnemonic Thoreau preferred), and Madge, Madge, Madge pick beetles off, the water’s hot.

As Dave Berry would say, I swear I’m not making this up.

I try to avoid reading music criticism as a general rule. The following passage from the Birds of North America Song Sparrow monograph (No. 704, Peter Arcese et. al., Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Academy of Natural Sciences, 2002) wouldn’t seem out of place in the liner notes for some old Eliott Carter record:

Song a varied series of 2-6 phrases; 3 or 4 phrases common. Introductory phrases usually with 1-20 pure notes or complexes, but [Citations omitted.]

One nifty thing about song sparrows is that, unlike with many songbirds, the human ear can easily distinguish between the songs of individual birds. Considering the abundant variations within a single bird’s repertoire, and the variations between the many regional dialects, there’s no wonder birders can’t agree on a single onomatopoeic interpretation. But the “spring is here” business may not be pure fancy. I think Frank Chapman (Bird-Life: A Guide to the Study of Our Common Birds, D. Appleton and Company, 1910) captured the essence of it in his description of what was then known as Melospiza fasciata:

His modest chant always suggests good cheer and contentment, but heard in silent February it seems the divinest bird to which mortal ever listened. The magic of his voice bridges the cold months of early spring; as we listen to him the brown fields seem green, flowers bloom, and the bare branches become clad with softly rustling leaves.

So hip-hip-hurrah, boys and girls – and Happy Equinox!

The Mayor of Niafunke

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Gwari women in the Sahel (photo by Abdul-Walid)
“What is wrong, my love? It is you I love.
Do not be angry, do not cry.
Do not be sad because of love.”
– Ali Farka Toure, “Diaraby”

I was in Ghent last week when I heard that Ali Farka Toure had died. I was calm and sad. I went into the living room and told my hosts that a great man had left life behind. Though they were fans of world music, they had not heard of him. But perhaps they saw in my eyes something of his spirit, because when I came down to breakfast the next morning, no one was in the room but Ali Farka Toure was singing. My hosts had gone out and bought Talking Timbuktu that very morning. It was a rainy day in Flanders, but in Northern Mali, and all across the Sahel as far as Abuja, a great dust storm was whipping around the funeral cortege of the late mayor as it moved towards Niafunke.

I first started listening to Ali twelve years ago, when Talking Timbuktu was released. Two years earlier, a friend of mine had driven me to a record shop and, in great excitement, had bought me a new disc. That CD was called Meeting by the River, and it featured Ry Cooder on a modified slide guitar and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt on a modified vina. As I listened to those musical dialogues, I was awed by the depth of the relationship between the two master musicians. So, looking for lightning to strike twice, I bought Ry Cooder’s next album when it came out.

It was an amazing audio document. There was no surprise at all when it went on to win a Grammy that year. And it caught the crest of something called “world music,” introducing many people to the musical riches of far-off places like Mali. For me, it was the sound of the spirit: Talking Timbuktu made me homesick for Africa, though the music it contained had nothing directly to do with the part of Africa I came from. In fact, a Nigerian friend used to tease me – “You’re listening to that Hausa music again!” What he meant was that the music evoked the agrarian, Sahelian world that both Northern Nigeria and Northern Mali had in common, the world of syncretic Islam and the cultures of the Mande, the Fulani, the Peul, the Hausa. It had, in other words, nothing at all to do with me, a Southerner, a Christian, a Yoruba.

And yet, playing “Soukora�? (track two) over and over again, I found in it something that had everything to do with me. I didn’t know what the words meant – still don’t – but I knew there was something in the music that was deeply relational. I was hooked. A sizable proportion of my income began to go toward music from all over the world. Much of that music was from Africa, especially Mali: Oumou Sangare, Habib Koite, Afel Bocoum, Kandia Kouyate, Salif Keita, Toumani Diabate and, of course, the great Djemilady Tounkara. It was the league of heroes. A private passion was born.

When, a few years later, the opening bars of “Diaraby�? (track ten) became a signature riff on the public radio show The World, I was pleased and irritated at the same time. This was my album being broadcast to millions daily, without due attribution or respect, used as the theme for a geography quiz – and not a particularly difficult one, either. How dare they cannibalize a masterpiece for such a humdrum purpose? I had all the intolerance of a fresh convert, but in truth I secretly grew to love this modest representation of my world in the wider world. Ali’s music was everywhere. Maybe even in the White House, it had climbed in through the windows and shot the President precisely where he most needed it.

I was living in London at the end of the last century and that was when Ali Farka Toure released Niafunke, named after his home village. I bought it right away, along with Afel Bocoum’s Alkibar, which had been recorded at the same time, in the same village, by the same crew. Both were gorgeously produced, released on the Nick Gold and Jerry Boys label World Circuit.

I loved Niafunke, but wondered – could anything really compare with Talking Timbuktu? Was there any sound on God’s earth that could measure up to the final bars of “Gomni,” when Ry Cooder and Ali Farka Toure restate the song’s theme in an almost unparalleled harmonic union of guitar lines that makes the hairs stand up every single time? Could the pained longing expressed in “Ai Du�? have an equal on any other album?

I had my answer soon enough, when Ali Farka Toure came to play at the Barbican. Ticket prices were steep, by my impoverished student standards: ₤20 per person, and it was double for me because I had invited a friend along. But what a night! Before the concert, Habib Koite had been playing in the lobby, which was apt preparation. The hall was packed. Ali Farka Toure, dark and authoritative, cracked jokes from the stage and put us at our ease before the concert started. And then, the wall of sound: Hamma Sankare was a monster on the calabash, that humblest of percussion instruments; Afel Bocoum, appearing with his mentor of thirty years, was in fine voice; and the master himself, from whose guitar glistening chords unfurled on song after beautiful song. Occasionally, he would take the stage alone with his njarka and do what can only be described as calling out to the spirits. And they came, filled the Barbican to the rafters. The Londoners were awed, shaken. This was “early music” in the best sense of the word, sounds that took us back to something we might once have known.

Soon after, I finally penetrated the mystery of Niafunke. It had become clear to me that the somewhat glossy perfection of Talking Timbuktu had been jettisoned here in favor of a rawer energy. The grooves were similar, but the guitar crackled with electricity. The ambience of the recording was noticeably warmer: it was recorded in an abandoned schoolroom in Mali, not a high-tech Los Angeles studio. In fact, if there’s any flaw with Talking Timbuktu, it’s this relative lack of ambience. But to speak of Talking Timbuktu and Niafunke in this way – not to mention The Source and In the Heart of the Moon – seems almost sinful. These albums all deserve six stars out of five. Soul runs through them all. I just don’t get those “world music” snobs who dismiss albums like Talking Timbuktu because a white guy plays on it, or because it’s not tinny and scratchy like the recordings from the seventies for Radio Mali. Who cares who plays on it? As Duke Ellington said, “If it sounds good, it is good.”

In those days, I played Niafunke everyday, along with my other favorite at the time, the album of kora duets by Ballake Sissoko and Toumani Diabate called New Ancient Strings. Once, I was sitting in the university library listening to Niafunke through my oversized headphones, when a young European woman I had been trying to attract came over and sat with me. What a wonderful opportunity, I thought.

I placed the headphones over her ears and cued up track four, “Saukare.�? Ali Farka Toure learned this song in 1946, at a wedding, and it has a deep, alien sound, nothing like one might hear growing up in, say, Trondheim. In retrospect, this was most certainly not the song to draw a first-time listener to the man’s music: it’s just Ali singing, accompanied by the njarka, a single drum, and a chorus of two other voices as unsweetened as his. In any case, I explained to this Norwegian with her bright blue eyes that the song was about an ardent groom, that he was promising to bring his bride the finest bull in the herd as proof of his love. I suppose I thought this was just the thing to make her fall madly in love with me, but it didn’t seem to have the intended effect. She listened to the song politely, completely mystified. After that, we would exchange awkward hellos whenever we encountered each other in the hallways of the school.

Since then I’ve learned to temper my enthusiasm, at least in public. In private, different rules apply: “Roucky” from the 1993 release The Source still makes me feel like I’m in the best church possible; “Sambou Ya Ya” from the new release In the Heart of the Moon still speaks deathlessness into my skeptical spirit; “Gomni” – the version on Talking Timbuktu – still makes me cry. They are the work of a man who, in his generosity, in his fierce superstitions, was utterly unlike me. And yet, if I am not in such music, I am nowhere at all.

The day Ali Farka Toure died, and a day before I found out about it, I happened to hear his music. It was a Belgian television show about AIDS in Kenya, following the story of a woman who, after living in the Netherlands for a long time, went back home to help educate her fellow Kenyans about the disease. “Why Ali Farka Toure?” I asked my wife, greatly annoyed. “It makes no sense, using West African music to illuminate an East African film! They’re always trying to pull this crap, thinking no one would notice.” My wife, a genius at handling my overreactions, said nothing.

I kept watching the film, which used fragments of different songs from Niafunke: here a bus journey in the dusk, there a scene from a mountain looking out over the slums outside Nairobi. Eventually, I had to admit that it was a perfect fit. The music went along with the images, because both were about what all good art is about: being there, being present to what is, serving mystery and the visible. I like to think that the sound of “ASCO” entered my ears that evening at the very moment that Ali Farka Toure’s spirit was leaving his body, a thousand miles away.

The great Sahelian dust storm has settled for now. Ali Farka Toure, monsieur le maire de Niafunke, is gone. But his way of being in the world will continue to speak life to many, and this surely is one way of not dying.

ALI FARKA TOURE: a recommended playlist
(all available on iTunes)

1. Roucky (The Source)
2. Gomni (Talking Timbuktu)
3. ASCO (Niafunke)
4. Saukare (Niafunke)
5. Sambou Ya Ya (In the Heart of the Moon)
6. Cinquante Six (The Source)
7. Soukora (Talking Timbuktu)
8. Diaraby (Talking Timbuktu)
9. Howadolo (In the Heart of the Moon)

Also, don’t miss the tribute by Lucy Duran and Andy Kershaw on BBC Radio 3.

Used by permission. All rights reserved by the author.
See also The grass snake.

—Abdul-Walid of Acerbia

Why I love the Old Testament

These generalizations about the Tanakh – its proper name – don’t quite hold for the latest books, Ezekiel and especially Daniel, which betray a great deal of Iranian influence and thus should really be classed more with the intertestamental apocrypha and pseudepigrapha. NOTE: This is a draft post, subject to further refinement. These reasons are basically all right off the top of my head – the kind of things I would tell you if we were sitting down to coffee, and you happened to ask me how the heck a professed anarchist like me can love the Bible.

1. It does not depict a creation ex nihilo, but opens (pace the usual translations), “When God was beginning to create the heavens and the earth…” God creates as a sculpter does, day by day uncovering an emergent order from the primordial wilderness (see 15, below).

2. It contains no theology (aside from God’s teasing statement to Moses in Exodus 3:14, the sense of which is “I will be whoever the hell I want!”).

3. It is not entirely monotheistic, alluding in a few places to other gods (e.g. Psalm 82); depicting Yahweh as having divine offspring and/or representatives (“angels”); and suggesting a multiple nature for divinity itself with Yahweh’s frequent alternate name Elohim, which is a plural form. (Adonai is also a plural form, but this “is usually construed as a respectful, and not a syntactic plural,” whereas “it is argued that the word elohim had an origin in a plural grammatical form.” See the Wikipedia article Names of God in Judaism for further discussion of the way different names reflect different aspects or personalities of divinity.)

4. Its Yahweh is not incorporeal, all-good, or all-wise, and in some stories resembles an amoral trickster deity similar to the Norse Loki, the Yoruba Eshu or the Maidu Coyote. Yahweh kicks ass.

5. It is free of the poisonous influence of radical dualism (good and evil – or matter and spirit – as wholly separate, mutually exclusive categories). The problem of evil is raised but not “solved.”

6. The destiny of the individual soul after death is alluded to, but nowhere treated as a matter of consequence.

7. The language is direct, rhythmic and repetitious in the manner of the best oral epic. The graceful language and vivid imagery recall poetry more than prose.

8. It is full of analogic thinking and creative leaps, such as “Man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward” or “As the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of fools.”

9. So-called “Biblical parallelism” extends from the level of the verse to the overall organization (alternate tellings of the same story, even alternate histories – e.g. Judges-Kings vs. Chronicles), teaching a tolerance for alternative interpretations.

10. For every passage that seems hateful and exclusive, there’s a passage that’s accepting and inclusive.

11. Hints of an earlier matriarchal order abound, and despite the overwhelming patriarchal emphasis, there are more strong female characters than in any comparable work from antiquity. In Proverbs, Wisdom is allegorized as a woman. By way of comparison, Zhuangzi, my other favorite anthology of sacred literature, contains virtually no references to women.

12. The Saul-David cycle has a depth of psychological realism worthy of the greatest novels. In general, Biblical characters are three-dimensional, flawed beings.

13. No one has ever written a book on The Plants of the Prajnaparamita Sutra.

14. Human beings are consistently depicted as a very small and weak part of an overwhelmingly large universe, and become guilty of the worst kind of impiety if they start to believe otherwise.

15. Desert or wilderness (tohu) is portrayed as part of a separate order that in some sense (as the tohu-wa-bohu of Genesis 1:2) predates and gives rise to Creation; thus, it is a place of testing and renewal (for Jacob/Israel, David, Elijah, etc.) and an image almost of Emptiness in the Buddhist sense.

16. Even as captured and subverted by end-time and Messianic theologies (including Christianity), its literary richness and depth of ambiguity has provided a much-needed moderating influence on radical movements, from the hey-day of gnosticism, through the Scholastics and Kabbalists, down to the Inquisition (which is, in one form or another, on-going).

17. It spawned two translations (the King James Version and, I gather, Martin Luther’s) which rank among the most beloved and influential works of literature in their respective languages – mainly by virtue of cleaving as much as possible to the literal meaning, even at the price of excessive strangeness.

18. The opening chapter of Genesis justifiably served as Exhibit A for the pagan author Longinus’ work On the Sublime. In the Bible, things don’t have to be ideal or perfect in a Platonic sense to inspire awe or reverence.

19. The Bible’s emphasis on mitzvot (“commandments,” duties) basically reinvented religion in the West, turning it away from a primary emphasis on the worship of power and toward an emphasis on the cultivation of individual morality and social justice.

20. The Bible makes room for scathing critiques of kingship and priesthood, and its nebiim (“prophets”) constitute one of the earliest and most important literary and historical models for conscientious objection to institutional power in the West.

21. Because awe is the beginning of wisdom, as the Bible repeatedly suggests, and because spirit and breath are intimately connected, as the Hebrew word ruah (and possibly the very name Yahweh) implies.

A chef’s guide to choosing poetry

Poetry is a natural accompaniment to food. Poem chemistry helps to soothe the psyche, appetize and refresh the palate, and assist with digestion.

Some combinations of poetry and food are more successful than others. However, attempts to set down a complex list of “rules” for matching food to poetry are ill-advised; the myriad variables of preparations, spices, sauces, side dishes, etc., along with individual palate and preference, make rules impossible. That being said, I’ll step into the quagmire and share some generalities that guide me well…

If the food flavors are complex, keep the poetry simple. If the poetry is complex, straightforward and simple food preparation will allow the poems to show off.

Matching the general flavor profile of the poetry with that of the food usually works. Keep the categories simple:

FOOD FLAVORS and corresponding POETRY FLAVORSSalty or sour (savory) – Light, crisp, imagistic

Bitter – Difficult, avant-garde, acerbic

Rich – Word-rich, metaphorically dense, allusive

Sweet – Musical, direct, ecstatic

When flavor elements mix in the food, try the same combination in poetry. Tomato sauces, for example, usually combine both sweet and sour flavors, so try poems that have both aural and syntactic complexities. This is not an exclusive or hard-and-fast system by any means; there are other combinations that may work just fine and serendipitous surprises are always palate-thrilling, but this chart can be a good starting point.

Occasionally a particular flavor element in a book of poems may be echoed by one in the food, but these pinpoint matches have an element of risk. A hint of cinnamon, for instance, can work wonders with some, but not all, Ondaatje. Poems by Charles Simic tend to go very well with sausages. But best try any new combinations on yourself before serving them to guests or large gatherings.

SPARKLING POEMS are very all-purpose. Wit is a great refresher and palate cleanser. These kinds of poems are especially good with savory foods. Want a treat? Try May Swenson with pizza!

CRISP, IMAGISTIC POEMS are a good all-purpose category. Allusive poems with little or no enjambment will harmonize with a wide variety of dishes.

RICH, FORMAL OR NEO-FORMALIST POEMS are good matches for foods that have cream or butter-based sauces. Some enjambment here is usually all right.

HAIKU work with delicate foods, such as trout.

ECSTATIC OR SURREALIST POEMS are the best choice for spicy (hot) cuisine, such as some South Asian or Mexican dishes. Be careful trying to match orgasmic poems with orgasmic desserts – one will probably climax before the other, leading to a combination of satiety and dissatisfaction more reminiscent of The Wasteland.

LIGHT POEMS are another good all-purpose category. They are fine with roasts and stews, fowl, and light meats. Many will even work with meaty fish, like salmon, swordfish, or halibut.

BEAT POEMS are reserved for steaks, chops, charred dishes, and scrapple. They also handle acidic foods, like tomato sauce, and take the edge away from bitter greens.

Feel free to experiment. Learn what works for your palate. The important operative wisdom is to eat and read what you like.

For more specific recommendations of poetry, barely in time for holiday Christmas shopping, see here.

Blues country

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The Yazoo-Mississippi Delta is a vast, inland delta or floodplain stretching from Memphis in the north to Vicksburg in the south, and miles deep in rich, alluvial soil. Rocks, such as this rip-rap along the bayou in downtown Cleveland, Mississippi, are a valuable commodity.

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“As for surrealism, I think there’s more of it in the blues [than in jazz]. The early stuff, especially. Most people know Bessie Smith and perhaps Robert Johnson, but there are many others. Incredible verbal invention. What one would call ‘jive,’ but also eroticism, the tragic sense of life. If the blues were French, we’d be studying it at Yale.”
Charles Simic (interview with Sherod Santos)

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“Some of my blues is kinda sad blues ’cause sometimes I be feeling down and out. And I know some other womens do too. I play them so it will hit somebody. The songs are for anybody that listen to it – so I can tell ’em. … Shotgun, everywhere I play it, everybody like it. It’s just kinda of you’ve been mistreated and you want to blow somebody away. [laughs]. The other one is about nosy neighbors. They talk about you all the time. See, I got a lot of neighbors talking, lie, go on about me. They all the time lying and going on. And I just sat out in the yard and made a record about them. Turned the amplifier up as loud as I could get it so they could get the message.”
Jessie Mae Hemphill (1991 interview)

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Nearly 400 families lived on the Dockery plantation in the 1920s, when the style of guitar blues later associated with Clarksdale (and still later with the South Side of Chicago) first took shape. Blues researcher and native Mississippian Gayle Dean Wardlow: “It may at first seem fantastic that three of the very best bluesmen – [Charley] Patton, Son House, and Willie Brown – should have been on the same plantation at the same time. However, once we accept [Patton’s sister] Viola’s statement that Patton taught them all, it no longer seems so remarkable…. Brown was Patton’s closest disciple. Son House, with his dark brooding singing and strange chording, started a following of his own.”

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Parchman Farm, still one of the most brutal prisons in the United States. David Oshinsky:

The most common offenses – fighting, stealing, “disrespect” to an officer, and failure to meet work quotas – were punishable by five to fifteen lashes. Escape attempts carried an unspeakable penalty: a whipping without limits. One superintendent recalled a mass breakout in the 1930s in which a trusty-shooter was killed. “To get confessions,” he said, “I had whippings given to the eight we caught who weren’t wounded. Before the young ringleader confessed, I had him lashed on the buttocks, calves, and palms, then gave him fifteen lashes on the soles of his feet. This cleared his mind.”The number and severity of whippings depended on the sergeant in charge. “Book rules” meant little in the field camps, which were fiefdoms unto themselves. The sergeants worked in relative isolation. Some of them were alcoholics; a few were sadists. “They beat hell out of you for any reason or no reason,” an inmate remarked. “It’s the greatest pleasure of their lives.” Above all, the sergeants were under pressure to make a good crop, and that meant pushing the men. “What can you expect in the way of judgment at fifty dollars a month?” asked one prison official. “What kind of foreman on the outside [is] employed at fifty dollars a month? They usually pay foremen more than anybody else, the man who works the men, but that’s what they pay here – fifty dollars a month!”

Oh listen you men, I don’t mean no harm
Oh listen you men, I don’t mean no harm
If you wanna do good, you better stay off old Parchman Farm

-Booker T. Washington “Bukka” White, “Parchman Farm Blues”

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Amber waves of foam on the Mississippi River at Rosedale

Lord, I’m goin’ to Rosedale, gon’ take my rider by my side
Lord, I’m goin’ to Rosedale, gon’ take my rider by my side
We can still barrelhouse baby, on the riverside

– Robert Johnson, “Traveling Riverside Blues”

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Eatery in Rosedale

“Blues taught me a number of things. How to tell a story quickly, economically. The value of gaps, ellipses, and most importantly, the value of simplicity and accessibility.”
– Charles Simic

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Crossroads at sunset, Bolivar County, Mississippi

“The world’s still standing like it was a million years ago. Sun still comes up and goes down, wind still blow from the four corners of the earth, the stars still shine. It’s the peoples that live in the world that’s got it so messed up.”
– Big Jack Johnson (1991 interview)

Doubting against doubt: finding the grail bird

Here’s a book review to wrap up Summer Book Week. Thanks are due to my father for posting (and copyediting) in my absence, and to him, my mom and my brother for sharing their expertise in “favorite books” posts.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usI try hard to avoid anything topical at Via Negativa, but as regular readers will remember, I made an exception for the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker, announced late last April. In company with a lot of other folks, I saw it as a real emblem of hope – maybe ecocide can still be averted. Maybe there’s still time.

Since then, one of the most pivotal re-discoverers, Tim Gallagher, has had his book published by Houghton Mifflin, The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. This was no instant book, but had been in the works for some time; an epilogue gives an update as of February 2005. And Gallagher, the editor of Living Bird magazine, is no slouch as a writer.

Mostly, The Grail Bird is just a good yarn, filled with engaging portraits of the various characters who have stalked the bird for science, from the 18th century to the present. I hadn’t realized the extent to which scientists had helped decimate the last surviving populations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries through their insatiable urge to collect. The attitude of ornithologists toward birds was strikingly similar to the attitude of early anthropologists toward the “primitive” people they studied: gather all the hard evidence possible, including corpses, because of course their continued existence is incompatible with human progress. The role of the scientist was to document the march of rare species and indigenous peoples toward extinction. But while the mainstream of anthropology has long since repudiated this truly primitive mindset, evidence suggests that ornithologists are having a great deal of trouble accommodating any other storyline.

The real hero of the book is Gallagher’s good friend and fellow ivorybill fanatic Bobby Harrison, a roly-poly Southerner with an insatiable hunger for Snickers bars and Dinty Moore beef stew and an uncanny penchant for taking the long way around, whether on foot in snake-infested swamps or traveling cross-county in his beater of a van. It’s Harrison, along with Arkansas natives David Luneau and Gene Sparling, who maintains a constant vigil in the swamp. Wave after wave of crack birders from Cornell and elsewhere spend varying lengths of time in the area trying to collect solid documentary evidence of the Ivorybill’s existence, but in the end it’s the fanatical Harrison and Luneau who come up with the brief, blurry videos that remain the most solid evidence to date (if one discounts the excellent audio recordings of ivorybill calls from several locations).

The Grail Bird ought to appeal to a much wider audience than just birders. The story of the ivorybill’s repeated rediscovery and subsequent dismissal by legions of skeptics throughout the latter half of the 20th Century left me pondering the nature of doubt. Ever since the so-called Enlightenment of the 18th Century, we have been accustomed to regarding unquestioning faith as problematic; I can’t remember ever hearing a critique of “blind doubt.” But following the crushing loss of the Singer Tract in the 1940s, the American ornithological community has fallen prey to a fey kind of fatalism in regards to the ivorybill. No proof is good enough, and any ornithologist so foolhardy as to claim to have seen it – or even to believe in the veracity of a sighting – risks irreparable damage to his reputation.

That was the case with John Dennis, who had taken what was generally acknowledged as the last irrefutable photo of an ivorybill in Cuba in 1948. His claim to a sighting in the Big Thicket of East Texas in 1966 was roundly ridiculed. With Harrison’s help, Gallagher is able to relocate a sound recording Dennis had made, and the analysis of the sonogram convinced audio technicians that the call on the tape could only have been made by an ivorybill.

In another coup of investigative journalism, Gallgher tracked down the previously unknown individual who took the controversial snapshots of an ivory-billed woodpecker in Louisiana in 1971. The then-head of the Louisiana State Museum of Natural Science, George Lowery, had presented the snapshots at the annual meeting of the American Ornithological Union that year and was astonished at his colleagues’ reactions.

Lowery’s pictures were met with immediate withering skepticism by most of the other ornithologists. The photos showed two different trees, but the posture of the bird in them was too similar. You couldn’t see its bill or feet. Somehow, it just didn’t look right. And yet the question remained: why would someone go to all the trouble of climbing fifty or sixty feet up two different trees to fake these pictures – particularly since the man who took them wished to remain anonymous?

In this case, the skeptical reaction appears especially unscientific. Not only did the skeptics’ explanation fail to satisfy Occam’s razor, but their refusal to even entertain the possibility that a population of ivorybills persisted in an area with extensive tracts of suitable habitat, as attested to by a well-respected biologist, was the very opposite of the open-minded search for truth that is the supposed hallmark of Western science.

Gallagher and Harrison are among the dedicated few who never allowed themselves to believe that the ivorybill had gone extinct. It’s not that they were ever fully convinced that the bird still existed, simply that they refused to dismiss what struck them as convincing accounts by credible witnesses. They dared to “doubt against doubt,” as it were. Significantly, neither is a professional ornithologist. Each is an amateur in the best sense of the word: etymologically, a lover, someone passionately dedicated to a pursuit. Of course, plenty of scientists are also passionate advocates for the natural world: one thinks of E. O. Wilson, Reed Noss, Michael Soulé. Without true passion to burn off the choking thickets of fatalism, I wonder, can the mind ever find room for dispassionate analysis?

It’s not that Gallagher doesn’t understand where the skeptics are coming from. He gives a very sympathetic portrait of one of his colleagues at the Lab, Kevin McGowan, whom he describes as “the resident skeptic.” For McGowan, it seems, a bird in the hand is worth a hundred in the bush.

He wants to see empirical evidence for everything. This may be because he was the curator of Cornell’s bird collection for a long time and is used to dealing with evidence that you can see or touch, such as bird specimens. He is careful and precise, and if he says he saw something, there is little doubt that he did. …[H]e has less than perfect vision. He is obsessed with visual clarity to such an extent that he insists on only real glass lenses in his eyeglasses, not plastic, despite the extra weight.

After seeing Luneau’s video, McGowan is finally convinced.

“I wanted to believe before,” he told me. “But it’s in my nature to be skeptical. I just couldn’t help but have doubts, even though I trusted the abilities of some of the people who’d had sightings. It wasn’t until I saw David Luneau’s video that I really accepted the existence of this bird.”

Seeing, as they say, is believing; everything else is hearsay, even the best audio recordings. This attitude is especially curious in a field where identification by human or electronic ear is more and more heavily relied upon to verify the presence of breeding or migrating birds. Cornell Lab has taken a leading role in promoting this kind of research, as well as enlisting legions of amateur birders as so-called citizen scientists for all kinds of studies, so it is only appropriate that the Lab should’ve led the ivorybill rediscovery effort. But even the Lab’s best people are not immune to the debilitating influence of irrational disbelief. Gallagher recalls interviewing one of the searchers, woodpecker expert Dr. Mindy LeBranche, on the evening of the day when she had a good, clear sighting.

I was annoyed that so many people were throwing out percentages about how sure they were that they had seen an ivory-bill. Ron and David were maybe 85 percent sure; Jim Fitzpatrick was 98.5 percent sure; now here was Mindy saying she was 99 percent sure of her sighting.

“What’s all this crap I keep hearing about people being 90 percent sure, 95 percent sure that they saw an ivory-bill?” I said. “What is it about your sighting that gives you that one percent of doubt?”

Mindy shot right back: “Because the bird is freaking extinct! For years I’ve been convinced of that. And that’s why I can’t be a hundred percent sure.”

As we spoke, I left the camcorder running, and it was still taping for a while after the interview was over. When I played it back later, it was interesting to watch the expressions on her face while conversations went on all around her. People were laughing and joking nearby, and she would occasionally laugh along with them, throwing out a comment or two. But every time she stopped talking, she would withdraw into herself. Her face at times looked almost horror-struck, almost like that of a person in shock – or perhaps like someone who has…well, seen a ghost.

Just in the past week, the news media have gleefully seized upon reports that a number of prominent birders and ornithologists are increasingly willing to air their doubts about the rediscovery. An article challenging the evidence is scheduled to appear in an as-yet unnamed journal, with rebuttals and counter-rebuttals. The New York Times quotes two prominent birders, David Allen Sibley and Kenn Kaufman, questioning the reliability of the evidence collected to date. Both have recently authored best-selling bird guides, and both took the unprecedented step of excluding the ivory-billed woodpecker. So for the damned bird to reappear just after they had literally written it off is a bit of an embarrassment, to say the least. (Sibley subsequently uploaded a PDF file of an insertable ivorybill page at his website.) As for the scientists,

“The people who originally announced this thoroughly believe they got an ivory-billed woodpecker,” said Mark B. Robbins of the University of Kansas, one of the three scientists preparing the challenge to the Science report. “They believe one thing, we believe another. This is how science plays out, the fabric of science getting at the truth.”

Except that in this case, the fabric of science appears to be a funeral shroud. As my brother Steve recently remarked, when did it become unscientific to assume that a species is still present until the last acre of suitable habitat is completely eliminated? There’s a kind of arrogance at work here that says that since we can’t find something, it must not be there. But do we really know where and how to look? Considering that the Cuban subspecies depends on pine forests rather than bottomland swamps, it’s clear that our knowledge of the ivorybill’s habitat preferences and adaptability is miniscule.

Sibley reviewed The Grail Bird for the Boston Globe last month. Though he says he liked the book otherwise, he takes strong exception to Gallagher’s critique of the scientific community. “[T]rue science, objective and unbiased, has to be based on concrete, testable evidence. Since 1944 there has been no conclusive evidence to go along with the sightings,” Sibley intones. At this point, though, I wonder if the doubters would be satisfied with anything less than a corpse.
__________

See also Learning from the ivorybill, The finding and The thing with feathers.

A dozen natural history books for summer reading

It’s Summer Book Week at Via Negativa. Since I’ll be gone part of the week on vacation myself, I decided it would be an ideal time to consider what constitutes the perfect summer read. I’ve enlisted the help of my family to put up posts while I’m gone, and also do a little guest-blogging.

As you might guess, my mother has a large library of nature and natural history books. It includes all the expected authors – Abbey, Thoreau, Dillard, Lopez – and many more besides. I’ve been wanting for some time to get her to supply a list of her all-time favorite nature books, because I figured it would include a number of non-standard authors and even a few obscure ones. This past weekend, Mom graciously complied. Here’s her list, and what she had to say about it.

These twelve books represent only a fraction of the wonderful natural history books that I have enjoyed over the years. Most are now out of print, but all are available through Amazon.com except for one (Crip, Come Home), and that is available through Bookfinder.com – another good, online source for used books. My choices are colored by my interests over the years and by, in a few cases, authors who are or were friends. In alphabetical order by author:

Twelve Moons of the Year, by Hal Borland. Any book by Hal Borland is good reading. Most are based on his nature editorials for the New York Times. As the dust jacket tells us, “Here…is that familiar, comfortable voice, gentle wit, occasional crankiness, and dry, countryman’s wisdom that made him one of Americas’s best-loved writers about nature.” He died in 1978 and immediately fell off the radar screen in collections of best nature writers. But for anyone who loves celebrations of the daily events in country living, Borland’s work is worth reading.

The Appalachians, by Maurice Brooks. Written back in 1965, this beautifully illustrated book is a primer on the Appalachians by a man known as “Dr. Appalachia” in his lifetime. I was enchanted by it because it captures the uniqueness and beauty of this old chain of mountains stretching from Canada’s Gaspe Peninsula to southern Georgia, with such chapters as “Orchids That Aren’t in the Tropics,” “Lungless Salamanders,” and “The Wood Warblers.”

Life on a Little Known Planet, by Howard Ensign Evans. The “planet” is that of the insect world. Evans has written many wonderful books and this is just his best known. How can you not embrace the work of an author who has chapters called (for example) “The Cricket as Poet and Pugilist,” “Bedbugs, Cone-nosed Bugs, and Other Cuddly Animals,” and “The Intellectual and Emotional World of the Cockroach”? In his concluding chapter, “Is Nature Necessary?” Evans writes, “The fact that there are literally millions of species of plants and animals on this little-known planet of ours is to me overwhelmingly exciting,” and he conveys this excitement throughout his book.

Spring in Washington, by Louis J. Halle. I’ve probably recommended this book to more people than any other I’ve read. Written in 1945, Halle visits, on bicycle, all the natural places in and around Washington, D.C. When we lived there, 20 years later, we still found and visited all the places he wrote about. This is not a guidebook. Instead, Halle “undertook to be monitor of the Washington seasons, when the government was not looking. Though it was only for my own good, that is how the poorest of us may benefit the world.” I must admit that I took his words to heart.

The Long-Shadowed Forest, by Helen Hoover. Helen and her artist husband Adrian lived on the shores of a lake on the Canadian border of Minnesota during the middle of the twentieth century. Best known for herGift of the Deer, I like this book even more, maybe because of her poetic title that evokes our own forest. Hoover snowshoes in the winter and walks the other months of the year, describing what she sees in the rugged wilderness where she and her husband chose to build their primitive cabin without the amenities of modern life. She feeds a three-legged mink, watches bull moose battle, records the antics of chickadees and gray jays, and sees wolves crossing the frozen lake. But she too has a message. “When we poison and bulldoze and pollute, let us remember that we are not the owners of the earth, but its dependents. Let us look to the earth, to its wealth and beauty, and be proud that we are a part of it. Let us respect it, and time and space, the forces of creation and life itself. As we hold the future in our hands, let us not destroy it.”

A Naturalist on a Tropical Farm, by Alexander F. Skutch. For more than 60 years, before his death just a few weeks shy of his 100th birthday, Skutch, a native of Maryland, lived on a tropical farm in Costa Rica where he studied and wrote about tropical birds in dozens of books. My husband and I visited him back in 1989, when he was 85, and ate lunch with him and his wife while his tropical birds flew in, out, and around his unscreened home. Throughout his life he watched his tropical farm become an island in a sea of agriculture. In this book he writes about his life on the farm and the wildlife he observes, including leaf-cutting ants, cichlid fishes, and a potpouri of plants, birds, and mammals.

Driftwood Valley, by Theodora Stanwell-Fletcher. A bestseller after its publication in 1948, it has remained a timeless adventure book. Teddy and her husband John overcome a series of near-disasters in their attempt to live in harmony with nature. Living in the wilds of British Columbia where no white people had ever lived, they homesteaded during the latter part of the 1930s. They also collected the plants and animals of the region for the British Columbia Provincial Museum to provide a source of income. But mostly Teddy writes about the natural world and its inhabitants, including an enlightened defense of the wolves they see. “Utter silence, a deathlike hush over the land, and then, from somewhere below, came a sound that made our hearts stand still. Like a breath of wind, rising slowly, softly, clearly to a high, lovely note of sadness and longing; dying down on two distinct notes so low that our human ears could scarcely catch them. It rose and died, again and again.” Many years later I visited Teddy in her northern Pennsylvania home and heard of her years in British Columbia and of her life afterwards. During our visit, she, too, was in her late eighties, and still enjoyed snowshoeing every winter.

Iceland Summer: Adventures of a Bird Painter, by George Miksch Sutton. Sutton was the Pennsylvania Ornithologist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission back in the 1920s. Then he went on to some fame as a bird artist, in my estimation the best of all of them, and as an ornithologist adventurer in such places as Mexico and the Arctic. His books are fun to read and a joy to look at because his delicate paintings always illustrate them. Iceland Summer recounts his summer quest, along with fellow ornithologist Olin Sewall Pettingill, Jr. and his wife Eleanor, for birds in the wilds of Iceland. Not only did this book receive the coveted John Burroughs Medal for nature-writing in 1962, but he was knighted by Iceland for his contributions to that country. His painting of an Iceland gyrfalcon, which appears in this book, was used by the Iceland government in a postage stamp.

Wandering Through Winter, by Edwin Way Teale. The concluding book in Teale’s American Seasons series, it was an inspiration and goad to me, as were all the many books Teale wrote in his lifetime. From his early books on insects, especially Near Horizons, to his late books about his farm in Connecticut, Teale never wrote a bad book. His knowledge of the natural world was vast and he shared it in a most appealing way. In my opinion he was, and remains, the dean of American nature writing. In Wandering Through Winter, as he travels from the Silver Strand below San Diego to Caribou, Maine, he writes about whooping cranes, migrating whales, pupfish in Death Valley, and the eagles of a Mississippi ice jam. Teale also spends a day with a witch hazel gatherer, camps in the desert, and visits a snowshoe maker in Maine.

Crip, Come Home: The Story of a Bird Who Came to Stay, by Ruth Thomas. The bird is a brown thrasher with a broken wing who lived on the Arkansas farm of Thomas and her husband, and was able to make his living on his own despite his broken wing. For eleven and a half years Thomas meticulously observes him. She also watches her husband Stan lose his battle with cancer. “All the months of Stan’s illness, the old thrasher was a joy and a care beyond ourselves,” she writes. “Stan’s love and the old cripple thrasher, somehow they seemed one, and when I faltered, gave me strength. ‘Do not walk and weep and brood by the fire. Somewhere is another need, another pattern. Have courage to seek,'” she concludes. I included Thomas in my book American Women Afield: Writings by Pioneering Women Naturalists, and my editor said that the excerpt from Crip, Come Home brought tears to her eyes.

Mountains of the Heart: A Natural History of the Appalachians, by Scott Weidensaul. An update of the Brooks book, Weidensaul follows the Appalachians from Georgia to Newfoundland, and “we see how geology, climate, evolution and five hundred years of history have shaped one of the continent’s greatest landscape features into a mountain range of unmatched diversity and beauty.” My friend Scott has written other, more praised books such as Living on the Wind, but this is my favorite, probably because of its subject and its lyrical title, since they are the mountains of my heart too. And unlike Brooks’ book, which doesn’t say much about Pennsylvania, Weidensaul, who lives in the shadow of Hawk Mountain, writes at length about his Pennsylvania Appalachian roots.

Naturalist, by Edward O Wilson. As a great fan of Wilson’s writing, I was especially pleased when he published this autobiographical book, beginning with his childhood on the Gulf Coast of Alabama and Florida. He describes both his growth as a scientist and the evolution of the science he has helped define. As he succinctly writes, “Most children have a bug period. I never grew out of mine,” going on to specialize in ants. Unlike many scientists, Wilson has spoken out and continues to speak out about the loss of biodiversity. “The great majority of species of organisms – possibly in excess of 90 percent – remain unknown to science. They live out there somewhere, still untouched, lacking even a name, waiting for their Linnaeus, their Darwin, their Pasteur…Earth, in the dazzling variety of its life, is still a little-known planet…A lifetime can be spent in a Magellanic voyage around the trunk of a single tree.” He may be a famous scientist, but he has never lost his awe for the incredible earth we inhabit.

– Marcia Bonta

Favorite authors on ancient history

It’s Summer Book Week at Via Negativa. Since I’ll be gone part of the week on vacation myself, I decided it would be an ideal time to consider what constitutes the perfect summer read. I’ve enlisted the help of my family to put up posts while I’m gone, and also do a little guest-blogging.

Over the last few years, my brother Steve has been making an intensive study of ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine history, finding many parallels with our own times. Here’s his annotated list of favorite authors on (and mostly from) that period. I’ve refrained from including Amazon links, since many are available in multiple editions and translations.

In general, I prefer culling history from original sources wherever possible. This list is therefore top-heavy with the works of Greco-Roman historians, and is by no means inclusive. It is also more an author list than a book list, since I have found reading the works of the best historians, ancient and modern, to be a the most rewarding approach (also, it’s a sneaky way to slip in more than the recommended maximum of ten titles!). Included are two modern historians, J. B. Bury and Steven Runciman, whose exceptional scholarship fills in much of the gaps of Byzantine and Medieval history, owing in no small measure to their interest in subjects not popular with many other historians (witness Runciman’s works on the Sicilian Vespers and the Bulgarian Empire, for example).

Some might be disappointed that I have excluded Gibbon. While the unabridged Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is often an edifying and informative read, Gibbon’s undeniable command of his material is unfortunately surpassed both by his ego and his inept conclusions. In addition, Gibbon was an uncritical champion of empire as a benign and civilizing influence, a premise I reject without apology.

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War: The first book of descriptive history, Thucydides’ masterpiece is a timely parable on the pitfalls of imperial hubris. The famous Funeral Oration of Pericles highlights the glories of Athenian society at its apogee, while Thucydides’ accounts of the ruthless Athenian subjugation of Melos and the disastrous and unwarranted invasion of Sicily highlight the follies of hegemonic overstretch.

Herodotus, The Histories: This famous work by the “Father of History�? is a must-read for its entertainment value as well as its genuine historical interest. Sandwiched between riveting accounts of Greek heroics at Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, and Platea in the long Greco-Persian conflict, are fascinating if improbable cultural, geographical, and faunological digressions, such as the fabled gold-digging ants of India. Also of great interest is Herodotus’ account of Achaemenid Persian history and culture.

Appian, Roman History: This lesser-read Greek historian of republican Rome is palatable to an informed modern audience because his accounts of various Roman wars of subjugation (the Iberian wars and “Mithridatic�? wars against independent Pontus, e.g.) are marked by the author’s obvious sympathy for the vanquished tribes. In addition, Appian is the only continuous source for the tumultuous period from the Gracchi to the rebellion of Spartacus, an era that saw Rome for the first time convulsed by civil war and ravaged by the despotism of Marius and Sulla. Appian shows better than any other author how Rome morphed from a republic into an autocratic empire in the space of a few generations, and lays much of the blame on Rome’s incurable love for militarism and territorial expansion.

Plutarch, Lives: Plutarch’s timeless character studies, while of dubious historical value in places, nonetheless offer priceless glimpses into the way that Romans in the 2nd century AD were apt to regard their semi-legendary past. Particularly attractive is the biography of Numa Pompilius, Rome’s second king, who made peacemaking his top priority. For his entire reign, Rome was at peace with her neighbors. Pompilius supposedly founded the College of the Fetials, a priestly caste charged with investigating the facts of any international dispute, to determine whether Rome had a grievance legitimate enough to justify going to war. Plutarch’s larger-than-life biographical sketches have been credited with helping to inspire the chivalric code.

Sallust, The Jugurthine War/The Catilinarian Conspiracy: Sallust’s two brief extant works are usually bound together and make for a quick, rewarding read, in spite of Sallust’s preachy tone. The Jugurthine War was a late first century BC conflict against a wily Numidian usurper in North Africa who dared to challenge the Roman right to dictate terms to the Africans. Rome finally captured Jugurtha and subdued his rebellion–but at a price. The two generals who secured Jugurtha’s downfall, Marius and Sulla, quarreled over receiving credit for the outcome, and became bitter rivals. Their enmity led a few years later to the awful civil wars that tore the republic asunder a generation before Julius Caesar, and led to the slaughter of thousands of Roman partisans. Sallust’s other work is one of several accounts of the celebrated conspiracy of Lucius Catiline and his confederates in the Senate, a conspiracy that was discovered by chance and exposed by Cicero. Julius Caesar himself was quite possibly one of the conspirators, or so Cato, Cicero, and the historian Appian all believed. The downfall of Catiline cemented Cicero’s reputation as the greatest statesmen of his age and, with Cato, Brutus, and Cassius, one of the last spokesmen for the old Republic.

Tacitus, The Annals/The Histories: Tacitus, Jefferson once opined, is not to be read but to be studied. This finest Roman historian is our best source of the traumatic events of the early imperial period spanning much of the first century AD. In his economical style, Tacitus describes the intrigues of Tiberius, Messalina, Nero, Galba, Otho, and many other polititicians and rulers of this turbulent period of western history.

Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars: This scandalous set of biographies of Caesars from Julius to Domitian accuses most of Rome’s early despots of monstrous personal crimes. From the well-known aberrations of Nero and Caligula to the personal depravity of Tiberius and Claudius, this book is a depressing but probably fairly reliable illustration of the corrupting influence of absolute power.

Anna Comnena, The Alexiad: Anna Comnena was the daughter of the very capable Byzantine emperor Alexius Comnenus, whose task it was to rebuild the state after the disastrous defeat to the Seljuk Turks at Manzikert and the subsequent political turmoil. Though somewhat hagiographic, as might reasonably be expected from an adoring daughter, this is the first known work of Western history written by a woman, and is easily the most readable of the Byzantine chronicles. Aside from the endearing personal touches, this book is noteworthy for its detailed account of the use of the Byzantine secret weapon, Greek fire, and for Comnena’s lengthy discussion of the Bogomil heresy. She describes Comnenus’ efforts first to convert, and then to exterminate, the Balkan-based sect that later gave rise to the Albigensian movement in Lombardy and Languedoc.

J. B. Bury, History of the Later Empire, from the Death of Theodosius I to Justinian: John Bagnell Bury, an eminent English historian of the late 19th and early 20th century, was almost single-handedly responsible (along with Vasiliev) for restoring the image of the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire, an image which (outside of the Orthodox world) had languished in opprobrium ever since Gibbon’s dismissive treatment of this greatest Medieval European state. Generally considered Bury’s most definitive work, History of the Later Empire carefully examines the history, culture, and economics of the Eastern Empire (and of neighboring states) during the fifth and sixth centuries AD. Other works by Bury carry the history forward through the reigns of Heraclius, Irene, and other noteworthy rulers until the tenth century. As a historian, Bury far surpasses Gibbon for his impartiality, attention to detail, and avoidance of ego insertion.

Steven Runciman, The Emperor Romanus Lecapenus and His Reign: A more modern English historian, Steven Runciman, was one of the most erudite people ever to write history. Runciman seems to have known most of the languages of Eastern Europe, as well the classical and standard research languages, not to mention Turkish, Arabic, Armenian, and various other Middle Eastern languages. He was thus ideally positioned to write the many superb historical, cultural, and religious studies of Byzantium for which he is remembered, and of which the above-named is perhaps the best but by no means the only one worth reading. Lesser-known books of tremendous value include The Medieval Manichee (a history of heresy from the early Gnostics through the Cathars, and containing much material to be found nowhere else on less-studied heretical movements like the Paulicians), Byzantine Civilization, The Fall of Constantinople, History of the First Bulgarian Empire, and The Sicilian Vespers (a fascinating account of a Medieval intrigue between the thrones of Byzantium and Aragon to bring about the downfall of the ambitious hegemon, Charles d’Anjou). Runciman is also justly celebrated for his three-volume History of the Crusades, still considered the definitive work on the subject.

– Steve Bonta