“Such a harmlesse treasure”

Would you pay $20.00 for a plagiarized book? You might if it were over 350 years old, 1650 pages long, and weighed in at over half a stone.

I’m talking about the Dover reprint of the complete 1633 edition of The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes by John Gerard, as revised and amended by Thomas Johnson. Ever since I picked it up at a natural history book sale two weekends ago, I’ve spent at least an hour a day poring over it.

Part of its charm lies in the illustrations, which are engravings accurate enough to use for identification in most cases. This was crucial, because a standard descriptive language for botany had yet to emerge. Another consequence of that lack is a vividness in the plant descriptions, made all the more interesting by the expressive language and idiosyncratic spelling of the Elizabethan era. Gerard’s description of the wild cucumber, for example, conveys a sense of earthiness and grotesque sexuality:

The wilde Cucumber hath many fat hairie branches, very rough and full of juice, creeping or trailing upon the ground, wherupon are set very rough leaves, hairy, sharp pointed, & of an overworne grayish greene colour: from the bosome of which come forth long tender foot-stalks: on the ends of which doe grow small floures composed of five small leaves of a pale yellow colour: after which commeth forth the fruit, of the bignes of the smallest pullets egge, but somewhat longer, verie rough and hairy on the outside, and of the colour and substance of the stalkes, wherin is contained very much water and smalhard blackish seeds also, of the bignesse of tares; which being come to maturitie and ripenesse, it casteth or squirteth forth his water with the seeds, either of it owne accord, or being touched with the most tender or delicate hand never so gently, and oftentimes striketh so hard against those that touch it (especially if it chance to hit against the face) that the place smarteth long after: whereupon by some it hath been called Noli me tangere, Touch me not. The root is thicke, white and long lasting.

Much of the text was lifted from other sources, as were almost all of the illustrations. As Johnson put it, Gerard “accommodated” virtually the entire English translation, by one Dr. Priest, of the magisterial 1583 Latin herbal by Rembert Dodoens. The illustrations for Gerard’s original (1597) edition were taken from a Frankfurt herbal, whose engraver had copied at least six earlier works, mostly Dutch. The chain of copies of copies of copies extends well back before the age of printing. At least one illustration in the 1633 edition of Gerard’s herbal has been traced as far back as a sixth century manuscript copy of the Codex Vindobonensis by Dioscorides, which is presumed to follow the original, first century work fairly closely. Thus Gerard’s Herball preserves a link, however tenuous, with Hellenistic botany.

Histories of the Renaissance tend to emphasize the rediscovery of classical authors, but what really distinguished the age in my view was the unprecedented privileging of vernacular knowledge, after centuries in which allegory and abstraction reigned supreme. One sees this quite clearly in the evolution of herbals. Many of the woodcut illustrations from the earliest printed herbals reflect a sophisticated sense of design, but betray little familiarity with the plants they supposedly represent. Less than fifty years later, in Otto Brunsel’s Herbarum Vivae Eicones, the influence of the Renaissance painters and engravers, combined with the stimulation of new discoveries from overseas, resulted in woodcuts more naturalistic and finely detailed than the illustrations in some modern field guides.

Gerard was faithful to his continental models also in the attention he paid to philology, giving not just the Greek, Latin and English names but also Dutch, German, Spanish, Italian and others. Medieval scholasticism persists in the form of a brief attempt in each chapter to describe the plant or plants in terms of “Temperature”: i.e., its place in the (to us) bizarre doctrine of the four temperaments or humors. This, along with the Doctrine of Signatures, was the Medieval Christian’s way of coming to terms with the seemingly chaotic diversity of nature. (And in fact, Gerard’s alternate title for this section is “The Nature.”)

By the end of the 17th century, the growing influence of the modern, mechanistic worldview, with its emphasis on the primacy of human reason, would leave little room for the particularistic knowledge of herbals and herbalists. It was simply too unflattering to the Western European mind to contemplate a universe in which an anthropomorphic deity would make the well-being of his favorite creations dependent on something so base as the idiosyncratic qualities of disparate plants. And, of course, the growing centralization of power put village-level herbal practitioners at increasing risk of persecution. For the sake of so-called science, with nothing tangible to replace this suddenly discredited tradition, Western medicine took a great leap backwards, not to recover for close to 300 years.

Gerard and Johnson were intersted in more than just medicine. They aimed at nothing less than a complete British botany, including naturalized plants, plus whatever could be grown in gardens or was then imported for medicinal or other purposes. Although most people value the work for its insights into Elizabethan botanical folklore, I am finding the incidental descriptions of the English countryside included in the “Place” section of many chapters almost as engaging. This passage is not at all atypical in its specificity:

The Vervaine Mallow groweth not everie where: it growes on the ditch sides on the left hand of the place of execution by London, called Tyborn: also in a field neere unto a village fourteene miles from London called Bushey, on the backe-side of a Gentlemans house named Mr. Robert Wylbraham: likewise among the bushes and hedges as you go from London to a place called the Old Foord; and in the bushes as you go to Hackny a village by London, in the closes next the town, and in divers other places, as at Bassingburn in Hartfordshire, three miles from Roiston.

[Addition by Johnson:] Mr. Goodyer found the Vervain Mallow with white floures growing plentifully in a close neere Maple-durham in Hampshire, called Aldercrofts.

Nevertheless, the final sections of each chapter, where the authors discuss “The Vertues,” remain the most entertaining parts of the text. They often convey a sense of wonder and intense engagement with the natural world on its own terms, even if much of the natural history seems archaic. For example:

Beares after they have lien in their dens forty dayes without any manner of sustenance, but what they get with licking and sucking their owne feet, do as soone as they come forth eate the herbe Cuckowpint, through the windie nature whereof the hungry gut is opened and made fit again to receive sustenance: for by abstaining from food so long a time, the gut is shrunke or drawne so close together, that in a manner it is quite shut up, as Aristotle, Aebianus, Plutarch, Pliny, and others do write.

As a homebrewer with a particular interest in herbs other than hops, I am keeping a sharp eye out for any mention of the medicinal benefits of herbal beers. Chapter 314, Of Ground-Ivy, or Ale-hoofe, contains a brief reference to the then-flourishing tradition of brewsters, or female brewers – already much-maligned figures, along with midwives, “neighbor ladies,” and of course the proverbial, tale-telling “old wives.”

The women of our Northern parts, especially about Wales and Cheshire, do tunne the herb Ale-hoofe into their Ale, but the reason thereof I know not: notwithstanding it is most singular against the griefs aforesaid [i.e., “the humming noyse and ringing sounde of the eares . . . Sciatica, or ache in the huckle bone . . . the yellow jaundice . . . stoppings out of the liver . . . all manner of inflamation, spots, webs, itch, smarting, or any grief whatsoever in the eyes, yea although the sight were nigh hand gone”]: being tunned up in ale and drunke, it also purgeth the head from rhumaticke humors flowing from the braine.

About another brewing herb, Gerard writes:

Sage is singular good for the head and braine; it quickeneth the senses and memory, strengtheneth the sinews, restoreth health to those that have the palsie upon a moist cause, takes away shaking or trembling of the members; and being put up in the nostrils, it draweth thin flegme out of the head.

It is likewise commended against the spitting of blood, the cough, and paines of the sides, and biting of Serpents….

No man needs to doubt of the wholesomness of Sage Ale, being brewed as it should be, with Sage, Scabious, Betony, Spikenard, Squinanth, and Fennell seeds.

Gerard himself, plagiarist though he might be, comes across as an earnest and enthusiastic lover of plants in his preface “To the courteous and well willing Readers.” He begins by contrasting his own search for “such a harmlesse treasure of herbes, trees, and plants, as the earth frankely without violence offereth unto our most necessarie uses,” with prospectors for gold and silver.

Harmelesse I call them, because they were such delights as man in the perfectest state of his innocencie did erst injoy: and treasure I may well terme them, seeing both Kings and Princes have esteemed them as Jewels; sith wise men have made their whole life as a pilgrimage to attain the knowledge of them: by the which they have gained the hearts of all, and opened the mouths of many, in commendation of those rare vertues which are contained in these terrestriall creatures. I confesse blind Pluto is now adayes more sought after than quick sighted Phoebus: and yet this dusty metall, or excrement of the earth (which was first deeply buried least it should be an eye-sore to grieve the corrupt heart of man) by forcible entry into the bowels of the earth, is rather snatched at of man to his owne destruction, than directly sent of God, to the comfort of this life.

Gerard did not stint in portrayals of plants for which the only “vertues” were aesthetic. He devotes many pages to detailing varieties of daffodils, tulips and sweet-williams. Of the last, he concludes that “These plants are not used either in meat or medicine, but esteemed for their beauty to deck up gardens, the bosomes of the beautiful, garlands and crownes for pleasure.” Gerard ends another chapter, on a group of orchids called fox stones, by saying that “notwithstanding there is no great use of them in physicke, but they are chiefly regarded for the pleasant and beautifull floures, wherewith Nature hath seemed to play and disport herself.” Such statements capture as well as any the generous spirit of Renaissance humanism, all too soon swept away by tides of religious intolerance, revolutionary violence and the rise of monopoly capitalism.

Stalking the wild homebrew

Long-time readers of this blog may remember me writing about my friend Chris, who’s researching brewing techniques in Africa and elsewhere. He just uploaded the latest edition of his on-line newsletter, Fermenting Revolution. The “On the Ale Trail” column compares the “real ale” movement in England with homebrewing traditions in Ethiopia:

This Ethiopian ale is called tella, and it is brewed from barley malt and the leaves of a green bush called gesho (scientific name: Rhamnus prinoides).

In the past year I have had some pleasant adventures drinking this stuff in the highland towns and villages of this ancient kingdom-nation. Just a couple weeks ago I visited the islands of Lake Tana, fabled to have once been the home of the holy Ark of the Covenant – you know, that old testament relic thing that Indiana Jones was seeking in Raiders of the Lost Ark?

Well, the Ark was nowhere to be found, but I did stumble across some of the best tella I have yet to taste. Somehow that figures since this batch was brewed exclusively for the monks inhabiting this particular monastery. Somehow, men of the cloth always seem to have the best beer, be it the Trappists of Belgium or the Orthodox monks of Ethiopia.

In any case, I was glad they did. And when our guide noted that my interest had been piqued by the prospect of a taste of this brew, he offered me a large can-full straight from a huge crock turned on its side and stuffed closed with something or other. Despite the brew’s primitive trappings, I was only too eager to oblige.

It was surprisingly soft, well-filtered, pleasantly bitter, slightly herbal in aroma, and damn thirst-quenching, especially after a several hour equatorial trek.

As a brewer of gruit ales, I was most interested in the herb used in lieu of hops. A paper on poisonous and medicinal plants in Ethiopia in fact refers to Rhamnus prinoides as “hops,” but otherwise web sources indicate that R. prinoides is called “dogwood” in English – though it’s no relation to American and Asian dogwoods – and “blinkblaar” in Afrikaans. It’s very common and widespread. A medicinal database describes it as a sedative. One website I found includes a description of its cultural uses:

The chief use of this tree is magical. It is widely used by African people as a protective charm to ward off lightning and evil influences from homes and crops and to bring luck in hunting. The South Sotho name ‘Mofifi’ means ‘darkness’, and in Lesotho they say “darkness overcomes witchcraft”. This tree is also used by Africans to cleanse the blood, to treat pneumonia, rheumatism, sprains, and stomach ache, and as a gargle. It is also used in the treatment of skin complaints and respiratory infections.

Presuming that similar beliefs about this plant occur in Ethiopia, its use as a brewing herb offers a direct parallel to European folk brewing practices, where popular gruit herbs such as tansy, angelica, rue and St. John’s wort were credited with apotropaic properties.

Love apples

They lie overtop one another, intertwining with abandon. Some vines climb the buddleia bushes, while others stretch down the stone wall toward the driveway. Three of the four volunteer seedlings I transplanted from the compost pit in early June are bearing cherry-sized fruit, and new spots of orange and red appear among their tangled greenery morning and afternoon with astonishing profligacy. From where I sit, I can look over the top of my computer to a window shelf full of tomatoes I just picked an hour ago, with their parent plants visible through the window beyond. Especially with all the rain we’ve been having, few of them would make it to dead ripeness on the vine without attracting the covetous attention of pillbug, slug or hungry chipmunk.

Seedlings that sprouted in the compost pit since I removed the first wave of volunteers have flourished, too. On the upper side, growing out of the low rock wall surrounding Fort Garbage – as my dad calls it – the most successful of these volunteers is birthing fist-sized tomatoes right down among the rotting melon rinds, coffee grounds, corn shucks, and – yes – freshly discarded tomato parts. On my way up to the main house this morning, I plucked two that had almost reached full ripeness, marveling at the festive melange of growth and decay.

That particular plant hides its fruit in the pit for a reason: its upper branches were stripped by a deer or woodchuck a couple of weeks ago. There haven’t been any such depredations since, however. The leaves aren’t exactly palatable, and I imagine whoever chomped on them suffered severe stomach cramps for hours. Not for nothing are tomatoes called love apples!

Before truck-farming Amish moved into the neighboring valley about twelve years ago, we kept huge vegetable gardens, most of which had to be fenced against the animals. Only squash, tomatoes and potatoes could be grown without any protection other than a good hay mulch. One of the things I really liked about tomatoes was the way that, given a steady supply of chicken manure and hay, they could happily inhabit the very same spot year after year. We started seedlings indoors in February, but feral volunteers would quite often outstrip the tender transplants. It was always exciting to see what kind of fruit they’d bear, since we grew so many varieties.

Perhaps it says something about our lax approach to gardening that we could almost depend on volunteers. But at the peak of tomato season, it’s impossible to keep ahead of the flood. My mother used to can close to a hundred quarts a year, and we boys still found enough rotten ones to turn the otherwise dull job of harvesting into juicy warfare.

And now, again, that red flood is in full spate. Boxes of tomatoes can be had from the Amish for a few dollars each. The super-sweet cherry tomatoes from my herb/butterfly garden vie with the Macintosh apples in my fridge for my attention at snack time (which for me is pretty much all the time). We dry some, but otherwise just gorge, slicing tomatoes into sandwiches and salads, adding them to almost every dish. And what don’t tomatoes go well with? For ’tis the season too for basil, cilantro, eggplant, zucchini, peppers . . . a hundred variations on a half-dozen themes.

*

Like the potato, the tomato is a native of South America. So what did Italians eat before they had tomatoes? They ate lots and lots of eggplant, apparently. Here’s a simple oven dish of Mediterranean provenance that you could make without tomatoes – but I’m not sure why you’d want to.

Dave’s Vaguely Greek Eggplant and Black Pepper Casserole

Saute together over medium heat:
1/4 c olive oil
2 medium onions, diced
1 large sweet pepper, diced
1 medium eggplant, chopped
In my opinion, eggplant is like tofu: more or less tasteless by itself, but good for sopping up and retaining whatever oils and juices you cook it with. So use good olive oil, and err on the side of generosity!

Add and cook ten more minutes, still on medium heat, until eggplants start to break down:
2 large tomatoes, chopped
1 t salt
up to 1 full t ground black pepper, depending on freshness (and your own tolerance)
optional fresh herbs, especially thyme (I’d be cautious with rosemary or parsley here, though. Black pepper in such quantities admits of few competitors.)

Chuck everything into a 3-qt casserole dish and pour the custard overtop:
1/2 c milk
1/2 c cottage cheese
2 egg yolks

Bake covered at 375 (F.) for 45 minutes. Serve with fresh corn on the cob and a green salad topped with fresh tomatoes.

Aedes vexans

*
Grace

On the last day of summer,
drifting slow as hope through
the thick air of evening

she chances into
the plume of CO2 from
my breath, follows it upstream

to my arm’s telltale heat.
She hovers, then slowly sinks
the last few inches straight

down into my pelt with all
her landing gear extended,
proboscis going into the skin even

as the slight craft of her body
still rides the hairs down,
her feet stretching one

by one down, down,
& I am here.
Lord, I am here.

She is beautiful & blameless
& I in a mood to share
the beer in my veins, watching

as her banded
abdomen turns dark, inflates.
A long minute later

she pulls out, rises unsteadily
& sails off singing
her single note.

Then comes a rapid patter across
the field, the yard, staccato
on the porch roof &

into the woods – suddenly
it’s pouring & the treetops
are bending, swaying under

the weight of it
before the first drops reach
the forest floor.

A wheal rises where
the mosquito took the only
blood supper of her

purposeful life. While I sit
waiting for God knows what
it has fallen to me,

what she no longer needs:
the goad of her saliva.
Her fierce itch.
__________

For a place-based essay on mosquitoes by another central Pennsylvania writer, see here.

Barley wine poems

Yesterday afternoon and early evening I permitted myself to get a little deep into my cups for the first time since July 2, and just as I did then, I took a notebook out on the porch with me. This time I was drinking a spiced barley wine that I bottled way back in December 2002, after a year and a half in the cask (actually a glass carboy). I hadn’t been too impressed with it on previous tastings, but perhaps it just hadn’t aged enough.

I found myself jotting down short poems, or the notes for poems, with the kind of fury I can otherwise only manage first thing in the morning. Some of them don’t seem too bad. With some, I’m not sure now exactly what I had in mind. But maybe that’s all right.

UPDATE: Still revising as of Friday morning. It IS all in the editing!

A gnat falls into my wine.
I sip around him.
After a while the pin-
prick flotsam washes
against the side
& sticks fast.
Revives.
Crawls all
the way up to
the rim. Inspired,
I down the rest of the wine
in two big gulps.
__________

That gnat must not have been
a poet, to survive such
a baptism in wine. I raise
the glass it escaped from
in solemn tribute,
resolve to keep drinking
until the moon comes up.
__________

Cicada drone. A flicker’s
namesake call. Carolina
wren’s insistent zipper.
Crickets, crickets, crickets.
The first desultory katydid.

It’s not just in my head,
this hum,
this buzz.
__________

Drinking on the porch with
my feet propped up,
I forget myself.
What beautiful arches
you have,
I murmur.
And the toes – what fine
fat targets.
Ten
bleary half-moons
glimmer back.
__________

Six o’clock, but
no chipmunks chipping
as they almost always do
this time of year, standing at
the mouths of their burrows.
I wonder what’s
in the news?
__________

A breeze: red
maple leaves turn
their backs.
Aspen goes wild.
White pine whistles
through its teeth.
__________

The bull thistle’s clock
has three faces:
stubbled green; florid
purple; white hair
falling out in clumps.
At the peak of flowering, half
of every bush is already dead.
My eye follows
a spicebush swallowtail
making its unrepeatable way
into the treetops.
__________

In the end, the light
goes mute, retreats
one cricket at a time.
Deep in the grass, the faint
spots where glowworms
fade in, fade out.
__________

What am I missing
by writing? What
would escape me if
I didn’t write? Wait
until it’s too dark
to write anything,
listen as the katydids
start up: first this side
then the other, night
after night.
__________

Another glass of wine,
another drowned gnat.
God or evolution,
it’s all in the editing.
__________

This whole
made world
is nothing but a conspiracy
between a rock and
a hard place, says
the all-night rain.

Drinkin’ and thinkin’

I’ve never been in the habit of writing down my thoughts and observations as they occur to me. Sometime around the age of twelve, I remember deciding that any truly important ideas couldn’t die, and if they didn’t come from me, they’d come from someone else. So that allowed me to relax and, over the years, learn how to let thoughts be, to incubate and hatch out when they were ready. If you’re hungry, make an omelet; otherwise, wait and watch and let them grow their own wings. For a guy afflicted with logorrhea, as I am, this is probably an essential attitude to have toward writing.

Since starting this weblog, however, I’ve been forced to moderate a bit. Of course, I could write a lot less than I do, but I enjoy the ad hoc, ephemeral quality of this medium so much, I find it hard to keep from giving it all I’ve got. Because giving stuff away is so much more fun than hoarding, you know (see yesterday’s poem). I see the Internet culture as a potlatch of sorts – and am distressed at all the sites that now charge for access. Anyhow . . .

Yesterday evening I decided to try the ultimate stream-of-consciousness blogging experiment. I don’t have a laptop, but with the help of a little pocket notebook and a generous quantity of homebrew, I resolved to try and record everything that occurred to me over a three-hour period as I sat on my front porch. (In case you’re curious, I’m currently working on the vat of yarrow brew that I blogged about back on May 23. I decided this past winter that bottling is a waste of time – I don’t need the “mouth-feel” of carbonation, since I grew up without soft drinks – so I just siphon it off, a half-gallon at a time, into a juice pitcher that I keep in the fridge. The important thing to know is that this is a cross between ale and mead, closer to the strength of wine than beer. The sheer quantity of yarrow takes a little getting used to, but no more so than the hops in a heavily hopped microbrew such as Hop Devil. The difference is, yarrow doesn’t make you sleepy and stupid. And being as it’s homebrew (and organic), I don’t have to worry about waking up with a hangover the next morning unless I really overdo it.)

So here’s the transcript, edited as little as possible. I’ll use [brackets] to indicate editorial additions. I started right around six p.m.

I am reading from The True Subject: Selected Poems of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, translated from the Urdu by Naomi Lazard. The poem “Before You Came” just blows me away! I wonder if he knew the Zen saying about how, when one gains satori, the mountains go back to just being mountains again?

[Before You Came
by Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Before you came things were just what they were:
the road precisely a road, the horizon fixed,
the limit of what could be seen,
a glass of wine no more than a glass of wine.

With you the world took on the spectrum
radiating from my heart: your eyes gold
as they open to me, slate the color
that falls each time I lose all hope.

With your advent roses burst into flame:
you were the artist of dried-up leaves, sorceress
who flicked her wrist to change dust into soot.
You lacquered the night black.

As for the sky, the road, the cup of wine:
one was my tear-drenched shirt,
the other an aching nerve,
the third a mirror that never reflected the same thing.

Now you are here again–stay with me.
This time things will fall into place;
the road can be the road,
the sky nothing but sky;
the glass of wine, as it should be, the glass of wine.]

~
[Watching a great-spangled fritillary chase a cabbage white:] Butterfly’s flight has been shown to be random [through wind tunnel experiments] – true randomness in Nature is a rare & difficult thing – Is there a sense in which we can see randomness, then, as a gift of God, rather than as a repudiation of Creation?
~
The tragic thing about drinking (or any drug taking) is that one has the most fun in the transition between the two states, “normal” and altered. Drunkenness itself represents a vain attempt to recapture that initial “wow” feeling of a good buzz, which is of necessity ephemeral. The alcoholic is a tragic idealist. To drink regularly without succumbing to alcoholism, one needs to become a comic realist – to embrace ephemerality & then let it go, not attempt to possess it
~
Drinkin’ & thinkin’ = drinkin & stinkin’? [This is a reference to a blues song.] Or Winken & Blinken & Nod (zzzz). Rene Dubos once confessed he could only write while drunk on wine. Dude, that is so French!
~
Male cardinal in late afternoon sun, gnatcatcher on elm branch, goes down for a bath. I hear goldfinches but can’t see them. When are they going to pair off, start nesting? Not as many bull thistles in my yard this year. How much thistledown does one goldfinch nest require?
~
Right now I want NOTHING. Happy stuppor [sic]!

O.K. I take that back. I want another drink! More more MORE! (But if they’re [sic] weren’t any, I’d be fine with that. This glass is it until I draw more from the carboy, boy.)
~
I like the way a nice buzz takes my mind off SEX, and related desires, lets me just enjoy the moment.
~
My God, I just SAW a no-see-um!
TI-NY!
And now, a tiny smudge on my wrist.
For its memorial, just this ITCH.
~
As soon as I leave the porch to take a leak, a deerfly zooms in, starts orbiting my head. Damn I miss my dreads, fuckers could never bite through that. That was, like, Daoist: do nothing, let Nature take its course, and filth will repel filth: the homeopathic approach.
Go find a deer, motherfucker.
~
On the way back from pissing, I pick up the wine bottle with the beebalm flower in it. No hummingbirds all day – except I just saw one at the edge of the woods. (They have to have a nest nearby, with all the crazed courtship flights I’ve been seeing.) Set bottle w/flower down on the other stack chair. Voila! I have company!
~
THIS WRITING IS INTERFERING WITH MY DRINKING. (Think first, than write. If possible.)
~
Chipmunk clucking. He too must be in need of a good trance. [Note: this is my own theory. Conventional wisdom says that chipmunk chipping is purely territorial. Bullshit. They’re so tightly wound, I think they need to do it to calm their little triphammer hearts. I have watched chipmunks cluck (as I prefer to call it) from close quarters on numerous occasions. It sure looks like they’re zoning out!]
~
Hey, there’s the porcupine – long time, no see! Climbing my poor elm tree. Wonder if she has a porcupette under the house. (How do you pet a porcupette?) Quills shine in the evening sun. she moves around to the back of the tree, maybe to avoid the sun in her eyes? Now back in the sun for an instant: a reddish-brown tinge down under the quills, beautiful! (Red, white, brown, gray: the same range of colors as my beard) – Almost to the top –
~
A chickadee troika right beside the porch, dee dee dee WHACK – as one flies into the window behind me, another in hot pursuit. Love triangle? Or just the usual dominance/submission games. (sigh) Nature is SO unenlightened!
~
Now that I look at it, this elm does seem mighty SPARSE up top. Time for a collar [aluminum flashing to keep the porcupine from climbing it]?
~
Zoom! Speak of the hummingbird . . .
~
Oriole has the center stage now. Goldfinches have moved off. Other random chips & chirps. If I had MORE BEER, I could stay out until the thrushes tune up!
~
FAIZ is so GREAT – why didn’t I see this before? [I have owned the book for years, but wasn’t overly impressed on previous readings.]

“The birds that herald dreams
were exiled from their song,
each voice torn out of its throat.
They dropped into the dust
even before the hunter strung his bow.

“Oh, God of May, have mercy.
Bless these withered bodies
with the passion of your resurrection,
make the dead veins flow with blood.

“Give some tree the gift of green again.
Let one bird sing.”

[This is the latter half of the poem “When Autumn Came,” a political poem (in part)]

(the translator Naomi Lazard must be a true poet too)

~
Porcupine hunching down a limb (I hear it first, then look) – rests in crotch for half a minute, ascends other limb.
We have this much in common: we both love trees!
~
P. climbs four feet up & stops, does nothing for many minutes, wedged in another crotch. a snooze?
~
O.K., I’ve had enough – taste beginning to creep under my tongue (need water) [But see below.]
~
7:30 – birds quieting down – just vireo, goldfinches
~
Ten minutes later, P. still hasn’t moved. I think I will make fettuccini puttanesca for supper. But first, I feel an obligation to sit here and watch night come on. Sun now in tops of trees.
~
What was it my mother said, animals spend [on average] 60% of their time doing NOTHING? I believe it!
~
The pathos of drinking – one yearns to join Su T’ung-Po, Li Po, those fleeting moments they rendered immortal (for all practical purposes) – how I wish I could go back in time! But you know that THEY FELT THE SAME WAY – that pathetic nostalgia. “Drink sake and weep.” [This is a reference to the tanka poems in praise of sake by Otomo No Tabito (665-731). An example (Hiroaki Sato, tr.):
Better than to say things like a wise fellow, it seems, is to drink sake, get drunk, and weep]
~
7:45 – Porcupine is definitely taking a snooze. It looks so trusting.
Oops, it’s shaking its head. Sneezing, I think.
The sun retreats up the ridgeside, & just like that I can feel the cool coming on.
Irrationally solicitous for the beebalm on the other chair. (“Can I get you a coat?”)
P. scratches its head, adjusts its embrace [of the tree].
~
I can’t believe how quickly this buzz is fading (drinking and drugging is so self-indulgent)
~
Porcupine resumes climb! It’s 7:51. I need: coat, beer.
~
8:00 p.m. back from siphoning more beer. (Poetic symmetry for a man – beer passes through a hose twice)
Porcupine has climbed all of eight feet & is sprawled out asleep on a horizontal branch.
~
8:02 – first wood thrush [singing] – soon joined by a second.
(Almost full moon won’t rise till late – how am I gonna tear myself away for supper?)
~
8:07 – thrushes quiet again. Great-crested flycatcher, WEEP WEEP WEEP WEEP WEEP (but never weepy!) A very prehistoric sound. This year I have really grown to appreciate them.
~
Train. Short-hand jazz.

No one ever invented onomatopoeia for a train whistle! All you can do is imitate – yodel, harmonica. That high lonesome thing. “Well I wish I was / In a lonesome holler . . . ” Oh right, I am.

C’mon, Mr. Tanager, give me a view.

Scolding squirrel. Cat?
~
What did I do with my fingers before I had a beard to tug on?
~
Even now that it’s July and the leaves have darkened, still so many different shades of green in view.
W. thrush off to left, cuckoo [singing] to my right.
~
Squirrel still scolding, Porcupine has ascended into canopy (I missed it, too many leaves in the way)
~
The Buddhist atheist says: There is no end to suffering. Deal with it.
~
For some reason, the cover of Hayden Carruth’s Collected Shorter Poems [on the end table beside me] has a full frontal portrait of the sphinx. King as predator. Lost his nose despite his face. Still fucking sinister.
~
If I weren’t writing, I could be talking to myself. It feels good to be putting a jag to use! BUT I could also be putting the same thoughts to work in some harmonica playing. It’s a trade-off.

Alcohol keeps you at the stage of wanting to do ten different things at once – until you pass out. Mary G. Juana is so much more intelligent! Alcohol is a drug of distraction, cannabis is a drug of attention. Polar opposites. [Note to any law enforcement officers who may happen to read this: I do not buy, sell, or grow cannabis; I haven’t gotten stoned in years. But if it were legal, believe me, I probably wouldn’t be brewing half as much homebrew as I do.]
~
8:40 already!
The other major difference is that alcohol kills time, cannabis slows it down – alcohol makes you think more slowly, hence time passes more quickly. The THIRD difference [of course] is taste! I want pot that tastes like beer!
~
8:45 – must be close to sunset, maybe already past – Thrushes have been decidedly desultory [in their singing] so far. Fuckers.
~
Thinking about what Lekshe wrote about ego & illusion. It could be right. It should be right. Why can’t I let it be right?
~
Tanager still singing, thrush a ways off, toward Margaret’s house [a derelict dwelling a quarter mile from my porch]. “Chip BANG” – that’s a tanager, all right
~
Faiz Ahmed Faiz! Poet with a rhyming name!

“If a forgotten pain
in some corner of the past
wants to burst into flame again, let it happen.”

This is better than the blooze.
~
Someone explodes a firework in the valley – can’t tell which valley, due to the reverberations off the ridges.
~
8:45 – Now the thrush [is finally calling] right here – then two more – as light dims and my book becomes hard to read (good timing)
~
9:00 – first fireflies in the grass

I run my fingers over the page, stroke these poems – in English, in Arabic [script]. Nothing. what did I expect, [miniature ridges,] mountains? The page is smooth as the cheek of a too-young lover.
~
9:03 – first bat, dropping from the tulip tree I think. Thrushes are silent. Only a song sparrow. Then nothing.
~
Hello, sister mosquito!
~
Almost too dark to write. Why it seems so quiet: daytime crickets have hushed. I realize this when the first nighttime cricket starts up.
~
9:18 – [Next-to-]last entry ’cause I can’t see! I can hear chewing from the elm tree for the first time –
Night descends
[The nightly twin-propeller] cargo plane flies over
~
9:20 – P. climbs down tree – soft clack of claws on bark – Then leaf rustle as she heads up into the woods –
__________

AFTERTHOUGHT: An amusing experiment, not something I’d want to make a habit of. There’s something inherently dishonest about the pretense of unmediated thoughts/reactions here. If you’re going to go to the trouble to record, it makes no sense not to go ahead and select, modify, polish into more shapely and interesting essay(s) or poem(s) – like this or like this. (In both those cases, however, nothing was written down before the poems themselves. Otherwise, I find, the poetry plays second fiddle to the prose. My ultimate goal – an idealistic one, to be sure – is to be able to think entirely in poetry. To me, that would represent true, unmediated thinking.)

How to make an egg salad sandwich

As Via Negativa goes into its fourth month, I’ve decided to introduce a new, semi-regular feature: favorite recipes. And I’d like to encourage other bloggers in the “spirit, place and ideas” end of the blogosphere to do the same. Here’s why.

A few weeks back, my cyber-friend and fellow blogger Tom Montag left a comment to the effect of, “There you go again tackling the BIG questions!” Although I’m sure he meant this as a kind of teasing compliment, it set me to wondering (being opposed to hierarchical thinking as I am): just what would constitute a little question? I couldn’t think of any examples. And I began to worry that my love of abstract thinking was turning me into a caricature – something like the Muskrat in the children’s book Finn Family Moomintroll. While Snufkin, Moomintroll and company spend their days making lots of wild, improbable discoveries and having fun, the Muskrat lies in a hammock reading and re-reading a book called On the Uselessness of Everything. He is a grump and a scold, but Moominpappa insists he be treated with the utmost deference. Somewhere along the line the book gets lost, and at the great end-of-summer party, when the Hobgoblin is granting everybody’s wishes, the Muskrat asks for another copy. His wish is granted, but the Hobgoblin’s magic inadvertently alters it just a hair: the new copy is entitled On the Usefulness of Everything. This leaves the Muskrat extremely disgruntled, of course; his youthful critics can barely disguise their glee.

Thinking along these lines, I typed out the following mea culpa:

I ask the big questions because I am too intellectually lazy to study the details. I seek out the exotic and the occult because my own life is a godawful bore. I speak with conviction partly to sound authoritative, and partly to convince myself. Who am I? I don’t have the foggiest notion. What do I do? I bullshit my way though life. It could always be worse. I could be working in advertising or public relations. But as things stand, I have an obvious and compelling reason to want to write at least one true thing. Poetry is the by-product of that Quixotic attempt. Everything else is footnotes.

Harsh, dude! And – like all breast-beating confessions – self-centered and false.

The truth is, I produce essential artworks everyday – not invariably great works, mind you, but undeniably essential. That is to say, I cook. I feed myself and others.

I hasten to add that I am neither a gourmand nor a highly skilled chef. I specialize in a whole grain, vegetarian-except-when-we’re-eating-meat version of what they now call “comfort food.” In Plummer’s Hollow, the stew and the casserole reign supreme. I don’t give a rat’s ass about presentation (though I do appreciate it when eating out) and I’m afraid I eat way too quickly to pay attention to subtle nuances of flavor most of the time. If eating alone, I will distract myself by reading or listening to the radio while I eat. If eating with others, the art of conversation takes precedence. A little more mindfulness around here might be in order.

Actually, the last-named habit may not be entirely negative. Rabelais maintained that great thoughts could only emerge from dialogue, and then only under the influence of good eating and drinking – the typical Renaissance view, according to Bakhtin and Illich. But here too I may be in trouble: 90 percent of the content of this weblog has been written before breakfast!

This morning was an exception, mostly because I slept in until 7:00, then had to start in on laundry before I did anything else. I ate what I eat every morning: two fried eggs, sunny side up, with tarragon. I won’t give the recipe, because everyone reading this probably has equally strong, individualistic preferences for breakfast in general and how to fix their eggs in particular.

Instead, I would like to attempt to give the recipe for another egg product: egg salad sandwiches. My mother whipped up a batch of egg salad just yesterday that was superlative. I asked for the recipe, and found she had followed a decades-old clipping from Woman’s Day magazine, with one or two alterations. However, I want to go a little bit beyond the mere instructions and consider the whole recipe. If I ever write a cookbook (which would probably have to be a collaborative effort with my mom), here’s what the recipes would look like.

HOW TO MAKE A DECENT EGG-SALAD SANDWICH

Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Wrong question! First comes the zoning ordinance that says you can’t raise chickens in your backyard or in your rooftop garden! Well, why the hell not? So step number one in the making of a good egg salad sandwich is to talk to your neighbors. Chances are good that they, too, would like to keep a few hens, maybe a goat or two, not to mention enjoy the right to plant herbs and vegetables instead of grass in their front yards, as the French do. My friend the Sylph rallied the folks in her village and they managed to get the zoning ordinance amended. She now raises chicken. That’s right, just one chicken. She doesn’t eat very many eggs, I guess.

Be willing to compromise: no neighborhood should have to endure crowing roosters or screeching guinea fowl. Guineas have just about the best-tasting flesh of any domesticated bird, but if you value peace and quiet, don’t fall prey to the disingenuous claim that “they make great watch dogs!” Well, they do – if you want to be alerted every time a cricket looks at them cross-eyed. But I digress.

Don’t have a yard? More sophisticated political organizing may be required to start up community gardens. You’ll need local or state government assistance to get land – or else take the risk that some crazed capitalist running-dog mayor like Giuliani will call in the bulldozers and destroy years of work. Community gardens sound to me like a great reason to live in towns and cities, giving folks of different ethnicities, who would otherwise probably never talk to each other, the chance to trade seeds, gardening tips and (of course) recipes. Finding enough area for a small, cooperatively managed chicken coop with a large fenced run might be tricky, however.

There are other options for getting good eggs. You could visit/help start a local food co-op and/or farmer’s market; become a shareholder in a CSA farm, or simply find a local farmer or gardener who raises chickens right.

The important thing is this: the best-tasting eggs come from free-range chickens, period. The difference in taste between factory-raised and free-range or “scratch” eggs is roughly equivalent to the difference in taste between white bread vs. whole wheat, or Miller Lite vs. a microbrewed IPA. Whether or not the chickens are fed organic, non-GMO mash isn’t nearly as important in determining taste. The eggs don’t need to be fertilized. And the color of the shell is irrelevant: yes, Leghorns are the Holsteins of the chicken industry, but they are still bright enough to be able to do what all chickens (and very few humans) will do if given half the chance: balance their own diet. Left to their own devices, chickens like to eat a whole lot of weeds, worms and insects. They also stay healthier if they have an area where they can regularly take dust baths to keep ectoparasites under control, and the less confined they are, the less often they resort to cannibalism.

The yolks of free-range chickens should be bright orange, not the sickly yellow of supermarket eggs. Another thing to look for is shit on the shells. I’m serious. In any given dozen, at least a few eggs should appear fairly filthy. This is desirable because it shows that the eggs haven’t been washed. Chickens produce a thin, invisible film on the outside of the shell that helps extend the shelf life of the egg. As far as I know, it’s impossible to wash the eggs without removing that film – though I suppose the egg factories might have some way of dry-cleaning the eggs.

This brings us to another important ingredient: consumer education. In The One-Straw Revolution (one of this weblog’s foundational texts), Masanobu Fukuoka discusses the difficulty of selling organic fruit: not only will its skin or rind have some blemishes, but a fully ripe mandarin orange, for example, should be slightly shriveled. “Speaking biologically, fruit in a slightly shriveled state is holding down to the lowest possible level. It is like a person in meditation: his metabolism, respiration, and calorie consumption reach an extremely low level. Even if he fasts, the energy within the body will be conserved. In the same way, when mandarin oranges grow wrinkled, when fruit shrivels, when vegetables wilt, they are in the state that will preserve their food value for the longest possible time.”

In a chapter entitled “Commercial Agriculture Will Fail,” Fukuoka discusses eggs and chickens from an economic point-of-view. “I have been thinking lately about white leghorns,” he says. “Because the improved variety of white leghorn lays over 200 days a year, raising them for profit is considered good business. When raised commercially these chickens are cooped up in long rows of small cages not unlike cells in a penitentiary, and through their entire lives their feet are never allowed to touch the ground. Disease is common and the birds are pumped full of antibiotics and fed a formula diet of vitamins and hormones.

“It is said that the local chickens that have been kept since ancient times [in Shikoku], the brown and black shamo and chabo, have only half the egg-laying capacity. As a result these birds have all but disappeared in Japan. I let two hens and one rooster loose to run wild on the mountainside and after one year there were twenty-four. When it seemed that few eggs were being laid, the local birds were busy raising chickens.

“In the first year, the leghorn has a greater egg-laying capacity than the local chickens, but after one year the white leghorn is exhausted and cast aside, whereas the shamo we started with has become ten healthy birds running about beneath the orchard trees [and fertilizing the mandarin oranges] . . .

“Commercial chicken eggs (you can call them eggs if you like) are nothing more than a mixture of synthetic feed, chemicals and hormones . . . The farmer who produces . . . eggs of this kind, I call a manufacturer.

“Now if it is manufacturing you are talking about, you will have to do some fancy figuring if you want to make a profit. Since the commercial farmer is not making any money, he is like a merchant who cannot handle the abacus. This sort of fellow is regarded as a fool by other people and his profits are soaked up by politicians and salesmen.”

Fukuoka and many other organic farmers, ecologists, and prophets of the new “slow food” movement stress three main points: buy locally, eat seasonally and use fresh ingredients whenever possible. For eggs, that may mean cutting back in the winter, when most breeds (other than leghorns) slow down their laying considerably. I must admit we compromise on this point and buy some commercial eggs during the winter months, due partly to my two-eggs-a-day habit and partly to the pragmatic reality that, absent fresh vegetables, egg-based dishes are an important option for an otherwise fairly bland winter diet.

But eight or nine months of the year we can count on being able to stop once a week and pick up several dozen from a small back-to-the-land-type farmer named Carol. Her house is right off the small highway that also runs past the orchard where we buy much of our fruit, so it’s convenient. She puts out a funky little sign with a painting of a chicken right beside a little table with a picnic cooler on it. You take out as many eggs as you want and put your money (or an IOU if you’re short) in the cash box. Competition is fierce, and Carol’s response has been not to raise prices (bizarrely, she charges less than the supermarket) but to try and prevent her institutional customers from cleaning her out – there are any number of local restaurants who would buy her entire supply every day, but she won’t let them. Last year, as we got more friendly with her, she agreed to let my mother call and leave a message on her answering machine the night before our weekly shopping trip, and to set aside as many dozen as we request. They’ll be wrapped up in a plastic bag, stapled shut with a note often containing some personal message.

The message here is simple: know your farmer!

We raised chickens for many years when I was a kid, and one time I even plowed through a hundred years’ worth of USDA pamphlets on poultry farming for a project in history class. So as you can readily imagine there’s a lot more I could say on this subject. But recipes should be fairly brief, so I’ll confine myself to one final observation before moving on to the other ingredients: expect variation in taste from one egg to another. I think it’s fair to say that the demand for uniformity in taste grows out of – and helps reinforce – the industrial mindset.

I believe strongly that as eaters, as creators, as thinkers and as citizens we must resist mass production in every way possible. If you’re able to get eggs from a farmer like Carol, or to raise your own, you’ll notice an amazing thing: they come in all sizes and several shapes! In the spring, new layers commonly lay eggs with two yolks. Hence the imprecision of this and all true recipes. Hard-boil somewhere between five and eight eggs, preferably not fresh, but aged at least one week. This will make them much easier to shell. Also, be sure to plunge them into cold water immediately after removing them from the heat. Finely chop the shelled eggs using whatever tools and implements you like.

The other fundamental ingredient can take the form of either cream cheese or mayonnaise – preferably the former. The problem with mayonnaise is that to get it really good you have to make it yourself. That’s not at all difficult, but it means you will be eating raw eggs. We used raw eggs regularly, for eggnog as well as for mayonnaise, as long as we raised our own chickens. But with the growing proliferation of salmonella (due to industrial farming techniques, of course) we’ve been unwilling to risk it since, even with Carol’s eggs.

Everything I’ve said about obtaining decent eggs applies to other dairy products as well. Again, we happen to be fortunate in having access to a great local dairy which, while not organic, avoids hormones and other excesses of industrialized farming. Do your best. You’ll need about eight ounces of cream cheese, softened – otherwise use roughly a quarter cup of mayonnaise.

Almost as critical is the addition of one small onion (also approximately 1/4 cup), also finely chopped. A sweet onion or mild leek might seem like a good idea here – try it if you like. But I really feel that the bite of a regular onion gives the best results. I should add that if you have space for a garden, onions are supremely easy to grow from sets. Any container will do – you can grow them in your window sill. I must admit we don’t bother, however, preferring to support the local Amish truck farmers (some of whom even follow organic methods, though they’re not business-savvy enough to advertise the fact). The Amish are exemplary farmers because they put land and community ahead of personal profit (which is not to say they are communists – far from it). When we can’t get eggs from Carol, we’ll try and get them from the local Amish, even thought they’re not from free range chickens. It just makes one feel good to support people who don’t buy insurance, borrow money from banks, fight in wars or hire lawyers, who keep institutions to a minimum and who choose their leaders by lot. And needless to say, one rarely has to worry that something from the Amish was made by mass production techniques.

Salt and black pepper round out the list of essential ingredients. A whole treatise could easily be written about either one, but as I said, I’d like to keep this brief. Iodized salt? Sea salt? Kosher salt? Fresh-ground black pepper? I must admit, the last phrase immediately raises my blood pressure, conjuring up visions of snooty waitresses in absurdly overpriced chain restaurants with terrible food. Rants, however, have no place in a good recipe. Like any essential art, cooking should ennoble rather than degrade, nourish rather than produce indigestion. This sounds old-fashioned – I don’t mean to downplay the occasional usefulness of shock value (but how many “Piss Christs” does the world really need?). I simply feel that, in order to strike a proper balance between process and product, the maker should cultivate a playful attitude, consisting of about one handful each of equanimity and dynamic tension, seasoned with a dash or two of irresponsible pleasure (substitute joy if not available) and accompanied by a sizeable helping of temporal awareness. (Few other arts are as time-limited; if any culinary creation could be said to be immortal, it would have to be through recollection alone.)

In fact, I’ve been thinking recently that the most important ingredient in the creative process and/or product might be simply an enhanced quality of attention. This seems nowhere more true than of the culinary arts, oriented as they are to the daily alteration of consciousness through eating and drinking.

Now for the fun part. My mom’s old Woman’s Day recipe includes, in addition to the foregoing, 1/4 cup finely chopped green pepper, 3 tablespoons chili sauce (for which she substitutes a good tomato salsa) and two thirds of a cup of chopped English walnuts. The result, as I said, is delicious. I don’t know if she has tried substituting pecans or black walnuts for all or part of the English walnuts, but that strikes me as one interesting possibility.

Bell peppers are a standard egg salad ingredient. A mix of colors would improve not only the presentation but the taste as well. It’s a surprisingly little known fact that a green pepper is simply an unripe pepper, and hence has not reached optimal sweetness. I suspect that the popularity of green peppers among 20th century cooks was a by-product of their easy availability, related to the invention of the refrigerator car and the consequent destruction of local and regional farmer’s markets. (How many East Coast residents still remember why New Jersey is nicknamed the Garden State?)

We use a lot of frozen peppers in the winter. If you’re concerned about taste (which is, of course, a direct index of nutritive value), freezing and drying are in general much better than canning. Bell peppers of all colors are supremely easy to freeze if you have the freezer space. No blanching is required. Simply spread out the strips or bits on cookie trays, stack them up and stick ’em in the freezer for a day or two, then stuff them into ziplock bags.

If you have access to fresh peppers, the additional crispiness will change the character of the egg salad quite a bit. Otherwise, you could try substituting celery for part of the pepper. Or, given fresh peppers, you could take the opposite tack and roast all or part of them. Roasting peppers, garlic, etc. is a Mediterranean technique gaining favor among North American cooks. I’ve tried it, and I can vouch that it certainly does concentrate flavor in a unique way. It’s also fun to pull off the blackened outer skin. (Who knew bell peppers even had skins?) But oven-roasting seems wasteful to me unless: A) you’re using the oven for something else anyway; B) your oven is attached to the woodstove that heats your house (though it’s unlikely you’d be using it much during pepper season); or C) you have a toaster oven. Toaster ovens use quite a bit less electricity than their full-sized cousins.

I hasten to add that I have never tried putting oven-roasted peppers in egg salad, and I have my doubts about how well it would work. I simply raise the possibility. Of course, if you follow my mother’s lead and add some tomato salsa, you can use that as a way to introduce roasted peppers, both hot and sweet – and roasted garlic as well.

In my opinion, one of the keys to good salsa is cilantro, a.k.a. Chinese parsley. I know there are some people who object to the flavor. But I love the stuff and use it as often as possible, either directly or by adding salsa to recipes. I bring this up because some egg salad recipes call for Italian parsley. Why not substitute cilantro? You’ll thank me for it.

Two other possible, exotic ingredients have a Mediterranean provenance: kalamata olives and capers (both finely chopped, of course). We get our olives directly from Turkey, via the husband of the owner of a local natural foods store who is an importer of Turkish carpets. Buying them in bulk like this makes the olives affordable enough to use in many dishes where we might otherwise leave them out: another way to jazz up a boring winter diet! I realize that some high-end supermarkets now include olive bars where one can select from dozens of different varieties. If that’s a priority for you, fine. But wherever possible we try to limit our weekly supermarket shopping to one stop, and to patronize a chain based in central Pennsylvania that relies heavily on PA farmers for its store brands (canned tomatoes, frozen vegetables, etc.). We haven’t yet found a better source of capers than the canned Goya brand carried in this supermarket. I should mention that one recipe for egg salad with black olives and capers I’m looking at right now also calls for two teaspoons of prepared mustard.

So much for the egg salad part of the sandwich. Now, what about the bread? I’m afraid that in the interest of brevity I’ll have to leave that side of the equation unsolved for, at least for the time being. Use whatever bread you want. But for my money there’s nothing like egg salad on rye. And a good rye bread is worth a considerable quantity of blood, sweat and tears . . .

With this easy-to-follow recipe, I hope I have redeemed myself a little from the charge of being preoccupied with Big Questions to the detriment of truly useful subjects. Perhaps I have even managed to convince one or two readers that thinking and living need not be mutually exclusive activities. But what does it have to do with the via negativa, ostensible subject of this weblog?

In a word: everything. What could be more mysterious, farther beyond the reach of language than taste? Long gone are the days when scientists thought that flavor could be dissolved into a simple trinity, like light. Food scientists now recognize thousands of unique flavors, each indescribable except through comparisons with other flavors.

Eating, it seems to me, is the ultimate encounter with suchness. “O taste and see . . . “

Poetry or vomit?

In the course of some research this morning for a possible blog post on Indo-European concepts of fate, a note on a website led me back into one of my all-time favorite works of literature, Egil’s Saga.

I was also reminded of Egil, and the poet-protagonists of other sagas (especially Gisli and Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue), a week or two back by an essay of Eliot Weinberger’s that referenced the extreme complexity of oral composition by Old Norse poets. The essay, called What Was Formalism?, concludes with a detailed description of the eight-line stanza form that Egil specialized in.

“Viking formalism meant, for example, that to write a mere epitaph of ordinary statements and sentiments for a tomb – such as ‘Here lies a warrior famed for his virtue. Denmark will never know a more honorable sea-captain, or one stronger in battle’ – one began with a common stanza form, such as the dróttkvatt.

“This stanza form had eight lines, broken into two half-stanzas of four lines, each expressing a single thought, that were, in turn, divided into two couplets. Each line had six syllables; only three could be stressed (and Old Norse, as one can imagine, had genuine stresses). The first line of each couplet had to have two stressed syllables that began with the same sound, which was also the sound of the first stressed syllable in the next line. (The other stressed syllables could not be alliterate.) The two stressed alliterative syllables in the first line could not rhyme; but the first stressed alliterative syllable in the second line had to rhyme with another syllable in the same line to which it was not alliterative.

“The word order was completely unlike that of prose. For example, the structure of a normal prose sentence of 16 words (taking 1, 2, 3, etc., as the words in their proper prose order) looks like this in a relatively simple half-stanza:

2 4 5 3
1 8 9 6 7
12 10 13 14
11 15 16

“In a more complex poem, poetic syntax is further stretched by fragmenting and reassembling the clauses. For example, back to the sea-captain and the first half-stanza. (‘Here lies a warrior famed for his virtue . . . ‘) The poet employs a kenning, or epithet, for warrior (‘the one who carried out the work of ížrudr, goddess of battles’), and the whole sentence reads literally: ‘Under this mound is hidden the one who carried out the work of ížrudr, goddess of battles, whom the greatest virtues accompanied; most men knew that.’ (Though the Old Norse only has 15 words.)

“The poem (keeping the literal English prose syntax) breaks this into something like:

Under this mound / whom the greatest
most men knew that / virtues
accompanied / the one who carried out the work of ížrudr
goddess of battles / is hidden

” The pattern of clauses is:

1 3
4 3
3 2
2 1

“This was merely a tombstone epitaph, not a particularly memorable poem. It was written, as all poetry was, in a single line. (The ragged right-hand margin is a by-product of the availability of cheap paper.) There were no spaces between the words. The form of the poem was musically, not visually, evident – and evident to all its readers or listeners – and was only one of many such forms, most of them even more complex.”

What Weinberger fails to mention is that verses were typically composed in one’s head, ideally off the cuff; they were written down only to preserve them or to enhance their power. As in many other cultures where poetry is or was highly prized, strong memories and performative skills continued to be emphasized long after the introduction of writing systems. (Think of the classical Arabs and the Chinese.) It is not that Norse poets were illiterate – in fact, their skill in rune-carving was an integral part of their mastery of word-magic, as the following excerpt from Egil’s Saga demonstrates. This is the translation by Kneva Kunz in the massive, single-volume collection The Sagas of Icelanders (Penguin, 2000). Kunz’s translations of the verses in particular are an improvement over earlier English editions. Minimal notes explaining the kennings appear in the margin to the right; here, I’ll put them in brackets immediately following each verse. From Chapter 44:

“Bard told Egil to stop mocking him and get on with his drinking. Egil drank every draught that was handed to him, and those meant for Olvir too.

“Then Bard went up to the queen and told her that this man was bringing shame on them, always claiming to be thirsty no matter how much he drank. The queen and Bard mixed poison into the drink and brought it in. Bard made a sign over the draught and handed it to the serving woman, who took it to Egil and offered him a drink. Egil took out his knife and stabbed the palm of his hand with it, then took the drinking-horn, carved runes on it and smeared them with blood. He spoke a verse:

“I carve runes on this horn,
redden words with my blood,
I choose words for the trees
of the wild beast’s ear-roots;
drink as we wish this mead
brought by merry servants,
let us find out how we fare
from the ale that Bard blessed.

[ear-roots: part of the head; their trees: horns]

“The horn shattered and the drink spilled onto the straw. Olvir was on the verge of passing out, so Egil got up and led him over to the door. He swung the cloak over his shoulder and gripped his sword underneath it. When they reached the door, Bard went after them with a full horn and asked Olvir to drink a farewell toast. Egil stood in the doorway and spoke this verse:

“I’m feeling drunk, and the ale
has left Olvir pale in the gills,
I let the spray of ox-spears
foam over my beard.
Your wits have gone, inviter
of showers on to shields;
now the rain of the high god
starts pouring upon you.

[ox-spears: drinking-horns; rain: i.e. of spears, perhaps of poetry (or vomit?)]

“Egil tossed away the horn, grabbed hold of his sword and drew it. It was dark in the doorway; he thrust the sword so deep into Bard’s stomach that the point came out the back. Bard fell down dead, blood pouring from the wound. Then Olvir dropped to the floor, spewing vomit. Egil ran out of the room. It was pitch-dark outside, and he ran from the farm.”

I’m fascinated especially by the suggestion that poetry is something thrown up. The context here is a feast attending a religious celebration, to which Egil and his friends were not invited until the king intervened. Hence the hostility, of course, and hence also the irony of “inviter of showers.” This phrase, in fact, would seem to have a third layer of meaning, since the celebration was the disablot, or winter-time sacrifice to the disir (fates or personal guardians). Vomit as well as blood may have been a sacrament. A further irony is that, through his prowess with drinking, versifying and fighting, Egil “tempts fate” in the most audacious way – and thus serves the “the high god(dess)” far better than the ill-fated Bard.

The ancients attributed powers of inspiration to mead and any other alcoholic drink made with honey.* In fact, in Norse mythology, poetry itself is a form of mead, originally concocted by dwarves from the blood of a wise man. Odin, the patron of poets (and wise men) stole it from the giants in a way suggesting the involvement of other fluids, as well. He turned himself into a serpent, entered the bedchamber of the giantess Gunnlod, and seduced her into giving him a drink of the mead of poetry. Instead of a mere sip, however, he drank all of it in three great gulps, turned into an eagle and flew back to Asgard where he showed off his new prize/skill – that is to say, he spat it up. According to a Medievel Icelandic treatise on poetics, Snorri Sturluson’s Poetic Diction (Jean Young translation), “It was such a close shave . . . that he let some fall, but no one bothered about that. Anyone who wanted could have it; we call it the poetasters’ share.”

This belief forms the background here and in many other passages: Egil composes best under the influence.
__________

*Assuming that the translation is accurate, the drink here was probably an ale-mead hybrid called in later times a braggot, which any homebrewer can approximate with a mix of medium-dark malts, four pounds or more of honey per 5-gallon batch, and a strong Scottish ale yeast. This is a highly inebriating, not to mention nutritious, brew.