Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The chime of a clock, the patter of rain on the roof

In The Tempest, Caliban tells Stephano and Trinculo not to be perplexed about the music that wafts about their ears:
Be not afeared, the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices…
I sit here on my hill over Ventry Harbor and listen. The isle is full of sounds that give delight.

Gone are the voices of the cuckoo and the corncrake -- the cuckoo from the heath, the corncrake from the hay field -- replaced these days by the occasional industrial whirr of big hired machines wrapping silage in black plastic. There is a kind of music in the metallic clang and thump from Dineen's Garage on the road below –- the honest sound of keeping the world in repair. A dog barks. Crows caw-caw-caw from Lizzie's trees in Ballybeg. The wind rattles the slates and whistles at the keyholes. Somewhere high above a jetliner hums its way to America.

I'm deaf in one ear and have a hearing aid in the other. But with what I have left, I listen. To the music of what happens.

There's a little book from long ago by Max Picard called The World of Silence. Silence is the source from which language springs, said Picard, and to silence language must constantly return to be recreated. I wonder if in fact language springs from silence. Maybe it springs from the sounds of nature -– birdsong, the lowing of cattle, the cry of a newborn lamb, the wind in the willows -– not silence, but a scribble of sound on silence. In any case, I agree with Picard that language must return to silence, or almost silence, if it is to retain its power to furnish out souls.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Time and constancy

I spent a lot of time in my grandmother's house when I was a little kid, in the late 1930s and early 1940s. A big house, on 9th Street (now Martin Luther King Boulevard) in Chattanooga, Tennessee, filled with Grandma, Aunt Nellie, my mother's seven younger sisters, and her brother, the youngest of all, only two years older than me. I could draw a detailed architectural plan of that house from memory.

On the mantle in the living room was a big ornamental clock that you wound with a key in one of two holes in its face, one for the clockwork, one for the chime, the glass opening like a door. The clock chimed the quarter hour. All day, all night, every fifteen minutes, that sweet mellifluous sound punctuated our lives.

I was reminded of my grandmother's clock while reading Orhan Pamuk's The Museum of Innocence (I'll return to Kemal's happiness later). The narrator (Kemal) says of the big chiming clock in the house of Füsun's family: "[It was] not there to remind us of the time, or warn us that things were changing; it was there to persuade us that nothing whatsoever had changed."

There is some truth to that, I think. I doubt that anyone in my grandmother's house paid much attention to the clock on the mantle as a timekeeper. All the sisters would have had dainty watches, and Uncle Buddy couldn't have cared less about the time. Still, the clock chimed, like the breath or pulse of the house itself. The world outside was going to hell, a world at war, and the house breathed, in and out, steady, rhythmically, chime, chime, chime. We were alive, the house was safe, the world endured.

Ornamental chiming mantel clocks were common in those days. Ding. Ding-ding. Ding-ding-ding. Then the hour. A kind of pacemaker, keeping a family of hearts to a common beat. Those clocks would soon be replaced by television, and the shattering cacophony of the world outside would send us all our separate ways.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Little poem from the past -- 2

Click, and then again, to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Seeing -- a Saturday reprise

There was a moment yesterday evening when the elements conspired to evoke these few lines, spoken by Macbeth:
        Light thickens,
And the crow makes wing to the rooky woods,
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse.
The fading light. The crows gliding down the fields to the trees in Ballybeg:
        Light thickens,
And the crow makes wing to the rooky woods,
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse.
It's all there, in those few lines -- the mysterious power of poetry to infuse the world with meaning, to anoint the world with a transforming grace.

One could spend an hour picking those lines apart, syntax and sound, sense and alliteration. The t's of light thickening, tongue against the teeth. The alar w's making wing. The owl eyes of the double o's. The d's nodding into slumber -- day, droop, drowse.

The poet Howard Nemerov says of poetry that it "works on the very surface of the eye, that thin, unyielding wall of liquid between mind and world, where somehow, mysteriously, the patterns formed by electrical storms assaulting the retina become things and the thought of things and the names of things and the relations supposed between thing." It works too in the mouth, in the physical act of speech -- tongue, teeth, those d's gliding deeper into the darkness of the throat.

I stand in the gloaming garden and the black birds glide, down, down to Ballybeg, and I marvel that with so few syllables Shakespeare can -- across the centuries -- teach me how to see.

(This post appeared about this time last year.)

Friday, July 27, 2012


In the Preface to his lovely book The Island Within, about a wilderness island near his home on the coast of Alaska, Rick Nelson writes; "I have recorded my experiences, not as a teacher, certainly not as a thinker, but as a learner who loves his subject as deeply as he loves life itself.

I spent most of my adult life as a "teacher," and I suppose I've done my share of "thinking," but I'd like to think that those activities were means to an end: learning.

Certainly, now in retirement I don't consider myself a teacher, and I'd rather ponder someone else's thoughts than my own. These daily postings, which you are kind enough to read, are little lessons, not for you, but for myself.

It may seem strange that learning should now take preference over teaching and thinking. After all, hasn't it always been the role of elders in traditional cultures to be the repositories of wisdom. Learning is for the young. Teaching and thinking for the grey-haired set.

But no. I have less confidence in the primacy of my thoughts than I did in mid-life, and no desire to proselytize. But I am curious. Curious to absorb a bit more of the wonder of the world, read one more poem, watch one more flower unfold on the sill. These daily postings are the diary of a learner.

That you visit and read gives me one more motivation to take the time to assimilate what I learn, stitching each new acquisition into the fabric of a life. For that I am grateful, and especially to all of you -- whom I have never met -- who comment.

I learn from you.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The end of an era

Next Sunday, for the first time in living memory (in centuries!), Sunday Mass will not be celebrated in Ventry parish church. The reason: a shortage of priests in the Kerry diocese.

I don't attend Mass, and indeed the number of people in the parish who do attend has dropped dramatically since we first came here to live for a year in 1972. Still, I can't help but feel sorrow for the Sunday silence that will now fall upon this lovely church.

The church sits on one corner of a crossroad, centrally located in a parish where until relatively recently (within our tenure here) people came to Mass by shank's mare or donkey cart. A pub on the opposite corner, and a shop on another.

The church is dedicated to Saint Catherine of Alexandria, martyr. Local legend has it that her body washed up on Ventry Strand in a barrel that took seven men to lift. She is said to be buried here, which is a lovely enough myth, it seems to me, to imbue the church with a special ambience.

Something else special: The wall-sized mural behind the altar, showing Pontius Pilate as his moment of remorse for killing Christ, was painted by my friend Bob O'Cathail, who illustrated Honey From Stone.

All this lore, legend and loveliness will now presumably fade away.

Our arrival in 1972 came just at the end of an era for Catholic Ireland. It was the year that John Charles McQuaid retired as Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland, he who ruled the roost with an iron fist. The next year, Eamon de Valera, McQuaid's political ally, retired as President of Ireland. Together they nurtured a vision of a happy peasantry secure in the arms of Mother Church.

The reality was something other. The writer Sean O'Faolain called McQuaid's and de Valera's Ireland a "dreary Eden."

It certainly wasn't bursting with joy. The cities and towns were gray places. Censorship of press and film was strict. Contraception and divorce were banned. Girls and boys were put away in Church-run institutions for any inclination toward sin, or for nothing at all. We now know that abuse at the hands of priests, brothers and nuns was common.

We didn't know much about any of this at the time. We loved the place for its geographical beauty, its laid-back pace of life, its rich cultural heritage, and the kindness of the people.

What a difference a few decades made. Ireland is now a go-ahead, prosperous, secular nation. Towns are bright with paint and flowers. Girls and boys are indistinguishable from girls and boys anywhere. The Church is in collapse mode, and vocations are few.

And here below is perhaps the most striking symbol of the new Ireland, a four-story high Abercrombie & Fitch banner, temporarily covering the new A&F store to open in Dublin's most central location, College Green, formerly the very epicenter of decorum. One cannot imagine this happening in McQuaid's Ireland, although one can imagine the archbishop insisting on being driven downtown from his palace at Drumcondra to check it out for himself.

I'll leave you to decide whether the old Ireland or the new is better –- Saint Catherine in a barrel, or the A&F model in the bare.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012


John Eagleton is a meteorologist at Met Eireann, the Irish weather service. For the past ten years he has also been the weather presenter for RTE, the national television channel. He is resigning the TV gig, because of a "relentless cycle of psychological pressure" from members of the public who are upset that his forecasts do not meet their expectation.

Viewers expect their summers to be warm, dry and sunny, says Eagleton. "It would break your heart."

There can't be many less desirable jobs than being the fall guy for the Irish weather. This summer, in particular, would demoralize any weather presenter. But what am I talking about? Last summer wasn't much better. Or the one before. Or…

A letter in yesterday's Irish Times: "The sun shone on Castlerea last Friday morning for about 20 minutes. Might this be a record?"

"Where's this global warming we hear so much about?" my Irish friends ask. They are ready to embrace a little "summer" weather. But I fear they already have global warming, in the form of more moisture sucked up out of the North Atlantic and dumped on Ireland. Be careful what you wish for.

Meanwhile, what are we to make of the debate? Is anthropogenic global warming real? Is it a sufficient threat to our future security to worry about now? Global emissions of carbon dioxide rose last year by 3 percent, according to the European Commission's research unit and the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.

Like you, I'm no expert, but I do have confidence in the scientific consensus, which in the case of global warming is strong. My daughter, as it happens, is a paleoclimatologist; she studies the climates of the past. (I've described how she does it in a series of posts June 3 - 10, 2011; see archive.) Her correlations between average global temperature and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are clear and robust. The future is unlikely to be any different than the past.

I'd say global warming is no longer a scientific issue. It's time to turn it over to the economists. In the long run, it is economics that will determine the political response.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The science of happiness?

Is Kemal happy? Can he be happy? What is happiness anyway?

I'm about a third of the way through Orhan Pamuk's The Museum of Innocence. Pamuk is the Nobel-prizewinning Turkish writer you met here once before when I was writing about his novel My Name is Red. Museum is his latest.

Happiness seems to be the theme. The first chapter is called "The Happiest Moment of My Life." The last chapter (not yet read) is called "Happiness." Happiness is very much on Kemal's mind.

Kemal is the thirty-ish son of a wealthy Westernized Istanbul family. He is engaged to the beautiful and aristocratic Sibel, a mature woman of an old and respectable family. It is a match made in heaven -- or so everyone says. Trouble is, Kemal has fallen head-over–heels with Füsun, an even more beautiful 18-year-old shop girl, with whom he is having a passionate affair.

He dreams of having it all. Marriage and children with Sibel, with all the perks of respectable society. Füsun as compliant mistress. In his mind, perfect happiness.

Well, we'll see. "Any intelligent person knows that life is a beautiful thing and that the purpose of life is to be happy," says Kemal's father, as he and his son watch Sibel with two of her pretty friends. "But it seems only idiots are ever happy. How can we explain this?"

"Why are you spouting such thoughts?" says Kemal's mother. To her son she says: "Go to Sibel, share her joy."

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Every intelligent person knows that the purpose of life is to be happy. But what is happiness? How do we know it when we see it? In recent years there have been a number of books on the science of happiness. I checked them out. Clearly, brain chemistry and even genetics can influence happiness or depression. But on the evidence of literature, the very nature of happiness is elusive. Is happiness innate? Can it be nurtured? Are health and wealth sources of happiness? Can a flower in a crannied wall make one happy? A sunny day? A pill? Are only idiots happy, as Kemal's father says? Some people have everything to be happy about and yet are miserable. Others have nothing and are happy? Who can explain it? When we try to analyze happiness it slips through our fingers like water.

Will Kemal find happiness? I have another 500 pages to go. I'll let you know.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Holding hands with Crazy Jane

I read Yeats when I was young, when love seemed all that mattered. Yeats was a young man's poet, full of passion and longing. Hiding hair and dewy eyes. A girl's white limbs. He was young and foolish. I was young and foolish. The wrong of uncomely things was a wrong to great to be told. Or so it seemed.

Then, maturing a little, I put Yeats behind me. Went on to other poets. Stevens. Nemerov. Moore. Bishop. Poets that had something to say besides pining and whining. Serious poets. Grown-up poets. Or so it seemed.

And now, here I am, seventy-five. Picture and book remain, an acre of grass, midnight, and old house. The ladder's gone. Those masterful images of the mid-life poets grew in pure mind, but out of what? Old kettles, bottles, a broken can. Now I lie down where all ladders start, in the rag and bone shop of the heart.

My temptation is quiet. Neither loose imagination nor the mill of the mind can make the truth known. The work is done. Maybe what they say is true, of life and life's alarms, but O that I were young again and held her in my arms.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Little Poem from the Past

Click, and then again, to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The maintenance of self -- a Saturday reprise

Ah, yes, the pitcher plant. Those devouring goblets. Those caldrons of digestive juices. And now naturalists have found the biggest one yet, as big as a chalice, on a mountaintop in the Philippines, its punch bowl filled with beetles, flies and wasps.

Come hither, ye who flitter. Admire my colors. Sip my nectar. Yes, yes, just like that, touch my milky pool. I'll be your Tar Baby. Your flypaper paramour. That's it. Sniff my irresistible scent. My buffet waits. Sip. Lap. Gorge yourself.


Countless plants use insects to consummate the business of sex, and some, that generally live in nutrient-deficient soils, have turned to carnivory. Alastair Robinson, who was part of the team that discovered the gargantuan pitcher, says the plant is "akin to an open stomach." Which is miracle enough. But what I want to know is: Why don't its dissolving juices dissolve the plant itself?

Oh, wait. My closed stomach does the same thing, digesting plants and animals but not itself. How can that be? Well, as we all learned in school, it does. The gastric juices eat away at the stomach's mucus lining, which has to be constantly replaced. Somewhere I read that the stomach lining sacrifices half-a-million cells a minute, completely replacing itself every three days. Digestion of food is a work in progress, a delicate balance between the dissolver and the dissolved. The stomach lining works like like an ablative heat shield on a space craft, except it is perpetually regenerating.

Pitcher plants, apparently, use a variety of mechanisms to turn their prey into useful nutrients -- enzymes, bacteria, mutualistic insect larvae -- but they too must have some way of maintaining the integrity of self. Maintaining the integrity of self! That's what it's all about, isn't it. We need to eat. Other organisms want to eat us. Ablating stomach walls. Immune systems. Repair mechanisms. Our bodies are winds of molecules, torrents of cells. Blowing in and blowing out. And somehow a self remains.

The biological integrity of self, upon which depends utterly the intellectual integrity of self. Astonishingly resourceful -- for the pitcher plant and for ourselves. But not unlimited. We are all doomed to die. Let's give the last word to one of William Blake's Songs of Innocence:
Little fly,
Thy summer's play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength and breath,
And the want
Of thought is death,

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.

(This post originally appeared in April 2009)>

Friday, July 20, 2012

Wrack and ruin

One last post out of the Blasket.

This from Maurice O'Sullivan's Twenty Years A-Growing, telling of life on the island during the First World War, as German U-boats prowled the Atlantic and detritus of war washed up on the shore:
There was good living in the Island now. Money was piled up. There was no spending. Nothing was bought. There was no need. It was to be had on the top of the water –- flour, meat, lard, petrol, wax, margarine, wine in plenty, even shoes, stockings and clothes. Not a house in the Island but a store-room was built beside it to keep the gatherings, and, without any exaggeration, when you entered one of them you would think you were in a big town, with all the barrels of flour piled on top of one another, tins of petrol and every sort of riches; and when the old man or the old woman came around, all they had to do was make for the barrels of wine and help themselves to a draught.
'"By God,' one man would say, 'war is good.'"

Surely, O'Sullivan is exaggerating here, looking back from middle age in Connemara, just as in his book the sun is always shining on the island. Still, there is no doubt that the poverty of that place at that time kept everyone's eyes on the shore for any sort of wrack. Even a piece of driftwood was welcome for the hearth.

I figure I have walked nearly every foot of the cliffs that gird this peninsula, and in every cove you can see the remnants of an ancient path carved into the precipice giving access to the shingle below. The sea, even then, was an inexhaustible – if paltry – pantry of goods.

It still is. As you know, I live on a tropic beach part of the year, and have harvested my own bounty from the sea. Driftwood for our bonfire cookouts, of course. Hardly a week goes by that a plastic milk crate doesn't wash up on the sand; they have made me a nice shelf system in the garage. A fine tarp. Useful rope. Even a sizable package of marijuana and another of cocaine (both surrendered to the police).

That's the "good" stuff. Most of what washes up is garbage. Each year when we arrive on that mile of pure white sand we spend a week or so picking up trash. There is not a beach in the world, no matter how remote and otherwise pristine, that does not receive its share of debris. The world's oceans are becoming a vast circulating refuse tip. What may have been a blessing to the Blasket islanders has become, even without the U-boats, a global disgrace.

Thursday, July 19, 2012


One of the classic works in Irish to come out of the Blasket, and the first to be translated into English, is Maurice O'Sullivan's Twenty Years A-Growing," which recounts the author's childhood on the island and his eventual departure as a young man. The title comes from an island proverb:
Twenty years a-growing,
Twenty years a-blossoming,
Twenty years a-fading,
Twenty years a-withering.
If I'm to fit the pattern, I have four more years of withering.

It was commonly said among the Blasket islanders that the world changes every twenty years. What about my lifetime?

1936-1956: war. 1956-1976: cultural revolution. 1976-1996: affluence. 1996-2016: information technology.

And what about science?

1936-1956: nuclear fission and fusion. 1956-1976: DNA and plate tectonics. 1976-1996: computers. 1996-2016: molecular biology and genomics.

What about 2016-2036? The brain.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The music of what happens

The next parish over the hill is Dunquin, generally counted the westernmost point of Europe. From the precipitous seacliffs one looks out over three miles of black water to the Blasket islands, one of which, the Great Blasket, was until the middle of the last century home to a remarkable community of resilient people, a few dozen families, clustered in a tiny village hanging on a slope above the crashing waves. They spoke an Irish so pure and uncorrupted by English that it attracted a succession of international scholars in search of the Celtic past.

The scholars in turn encouraged the islanders to record their stories and experience, and from that tiny village came classic works by Tomas O Criomhthain, Peig Sayers, and Maurice O'Sullivan, all of which remain in print in numerous translations. The number of books by or about the islanders continues to grow, now consisting of a substantial library. The latest is Robert Kanigel's On an Irish Island, which tells in sweeping detail the story of the islanders and the scholars.

Kanigel promises to tell us "what we've left behind and at what cost."

Which prompted me right there on page 8 to wonder just what the Blasket islanders had that I would want.

The poet John Millington Synge, who visited the island in 1905, asked himself the same question. "They have an island, and I have an inkpot," he wrote, somewhat wistfully.

The island is admittedly a spectacular place to visit, especially on a bright day. But, lordy, it must have been a hellish place to live through the long dark winter when the island might be cut off from the mainland for weeks by the weather. I'd take Synge's inkpot any day.

If I had to choose the single most important thing the islanders left behind when the last inhabitants were moved to the mainland in the 1950s, it would be the remnants of the distinctively Irish pagan Christianity that I wrote about in Climbing Brandon, a faith lived close to nature that flourished in the early years of the Irish Christian era, grounded in the annual and diurnal cycles of the sun, the rhythms of sexuality and procreation, life, death, wind, rock, wave, moon and stars. There was no priest on the island, and no church or chapel. The tether with Rome was loose and nature dominant.

Meanwhile, on the mainland, the grim hand of the institutional Church was doing its best to bend the Irish to a jansenistic yoke that deemed every bright pleasure this side of the grave suspect and sinful.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Down by the salley gardens

The Eskimos, it is said, have thirty-nine words for "snow." Or is it twenty-nine? Or forty-nine? For all I know, it is an academic myth, one of those apocryphal anecdotes that we count as philosophically profound.

I'm thinking about the Eskimos because I'm reading about George Thompson, an English scholar who early in the last century came to the wild and remote Blasket Island, here, three miles off the end of the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland. He was one of the outside scholars and native islanders who ignited one of the most remarkable flowerings of literature the world has ever seen.

More on that flowering later, perhaps. For now, I read that Thompson wrote home to his wife that the Irish Gaelic has thirty-nine words for "darling," of which he wished to bestow on her a bountiful sampling.

First of all, it's hard to imagine the people of the island's one tiny village, buffeted by wave and lashing rain, a smoldering peat fire in the hearth, rats in the thatch, weak tea and a boiled potato for dinner, having many thoughts of billing and cooing. Who's going to whisper sweet nothings when the wind is raging through the cracks?

On the other hand, the island seems to have been well supplied with children, so maybe there was more canoodling going on than I give the Blasketers credit for.

But anyway, what's the big deal? I'm sure English, too, has thirty-nine words for "darling." Honey, sweetie, sugar, snookums, cutie pie, baby doll, angel, dearie, lover, minx, rosebud, heartthrob, tootsie, turtledove, duckie, pet, precious, and so on. I dare say any language on earth is rich in synonyms for love.

In one of the native books to come out of the Blasket, Peig Sayer's An Old Woman's Reflections, young Margaret is trying to convince her father to let her marry Tommy: "Sun nor stars ever shone down on a better man, Dad," she says, "and every knuckle of his feet and hands is worth a budgetful of yellow gold." This in an English translation, of course, but love is love in any language.

Monday, July 16, 2012


Back in 1984, E. O. Wilson penned a neat little book called Biophilia, in which he suggested that humans have an inborn, genetically determined affinity with other creatures. It's been a long time since I read the book, and I don't have access to a copy here. I can only examine my own feelings to gauge the veracity of Wilson's claim.

I am happy to lie down with the lamb. I wouldn't lie down with a lion, but I do find the idea of going on safari to shoot a lion abhorrent. I pick up non-venomous snakes without fear, but steer clear of rattlesnakes and copperheads.

Spiders? No problem. I tend a few "daddy-long-legs" here under the shelf above my desk. They are good company.

Mice? I wouldn't mind living with a few if my wife didn't object. I feel pangs of conscience when I see those lifeless astonished eyes looking up from the sprung trap.

But rats? I draw the line at rats. Not a smidgen of biophilia. They give me the creeps.

We have rats. Brown rats, otherwise known as Norway rats, Rattus norvegicus

My wife has bird feeders outside the window. She polishes her biophilia on coal tits, great tits, and (European) robins. The birds scatter seed onto the ground under the feeders. And the rats come scavenging.

Mother rat. Father rat. Baby rats. Fattening themselves on bird seed. My wife is running a regular soup kitchen for rats. The Biophilia Café. A Norwegian smorgasbord.

No way, Jose. I spoon out the poison. I cock the traps. It's me against Ed Wilson. Me against the rats. No love lost. Biophilia be damned.

After humans, brown rats have been the most successful mammal at colonizing the world. Wherever humans have gone, brown rats have followed. Commensal, they call it. Eating at the same table. The brown rat, surely has an inborn, genetically-determined case of homophilia.

The feeling is not mutual. Norman Hickin, in his book Irish Nature, says, "Perhaps of all mammals, the brown rat is loved least. Indeed, it is looked upon by most people, if not with horror, at least with disgust." Whether that disgust is innate, I will leave for Ed Wilson to decide.

Sunday, July 15, 2012


Click, and then again, to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

To look and to know -- a Saturday reprise

Screws, rivets, ball bearings, pins, axles, couplings, belts, chains, gears, flywheels, levers, rods, ratchets, brakes, pipes, pistons, valves, springs, cranks, cams, pulleys.

I have just spent an afternoon perusing again Leonardo da Vinci's Notebooks, or facsimiles thereof. Anyone with an interest in engineering cannot turn these pages without pleasure. What an explosion of ingenuity! A mind racing pell-mell through an encyclopedia of mechanical contrivance, moving at such frenetic speed that application gets left in the lurch. Everything is conceived; nothing is built.

Anatomy. Hydraulics. Optics. Architecture. Aeronautics.

Paralyzed by genius. An unquiet mind. A mind so teeming with possibilities that nothing becomes possible. At the end of his life the catalog of his accomplished works is slim indeed.

A mind bewildered by contradictions. For every delicate wildflower among his drawings there are sketches of violent storms, explosions, and turbulence. For every beatific madonna and child there are men and animals locked in mortal combat. He bought birds from cages in the market so that he might free them, and then went home and drew horrible weapons of war -- spinning scythes surrounded by dismembered bodies, bombards raining fire, and shells exploding in star-bursts of shrapnel.

Freud's psychological essay on Leonardo is one of the most interesting things the Viennese psychiatrist ever wrote, but I never thought it explained very much. Leonardo's head was bursting with so many roiling, endlessly-fragmenting, colliding ideas that I doubt if the quintessential "Renaissance man" understood himself.

In 1516, at age 64, he was invited (as a trophy of war?) to France by the French king Francis I, who had recaptured Milan, and who liked and admired Leonardo. He was given the use of a grand house, the Chateau du Clos-Luce, a short walk away from the king's own palace at Amboise in the valley of the Loire (I have labeled the chateaux on the Google Earth image below). Here Leonardo lived out the final three years of his life in the company of his young student and friend, Count Francesco Melzi.

I like to imagine him there, bundled up in a thick robe by a roaring fire, locked in reverie. His body is weakened by the illness he had contracted in Rome, but his mind is still alert. The flames dance, his eyes roam the flickering shadows. He is overwhelmed by melancholy, wondering at how little he has to show for so long a life. Only three of his paintings accompanied him to France, including the Mona Lisa (of which more tomorrow). Of course, there is the vast trove of drawings, the record of a lifetime of insatiable curiosity, which will devolve upon Melzi at Leonardo's death, the majority of which will subsequently disappear.

But enough remain to confirm his genius. What was his contribution? A few simple but important truths. Looking is the basis for knowing. Behind nature's apparent turbulence there are fixed mechanical laws. The anticipation of nature is a fraud.

(This post originally appeared in November 2009.)

Friday, July 13, 2012

A few more thoughts on yesterday's post

As I wrote I remembered a phase from a poem of Robert Lowell: "Our monotonous sublime."

That's it. A three-word phrase. I don't remember the poem, or the context. Only the phrase, lodged somewhere in the tangled neurons of my brain.

Our monotonous sublime.

That phase seems to encapsulate so much of what I am doing here, why I spend this hour every morning at my keyboard, stringing a few hundred words together, taking a few inchoate thoughts and buffing them up, tweaking a shine. I'm not tweeting. I'm not even blogging. I'm trying to keep myself awake. Awake to the sublime.

The monotony of the commonplace. The tedium of the everyday. The humdrum ordinary. How easy it is to forget that that the ordinary is extraordinary, the commonplace is uncommon. How easy to fall asleep to sublimity.

Consider that phrase from Lowell that I pulled up from memory. No big deal, you say; I carry around a lifetime of memories. Every minute of every day I am evoking memories. As I write I am drawing upon remembered words, syntax, spelling. I remember who and where I am, and a good part of the 75 years of getting here. I don't stop to think about it. Drawing upon my store of memories is about as monotonous an activity as you can get.

And yet, and yet. That phrase from Lowell was somehow stored as a trace of neurons, electrochemical connections. For decades. Retrievable. No one yet knows how. Oh, how I wish I knew where and how the phrase was stored. By what sublime mechanism.

And now I'm remembering something else, a line from the scholar of medieval Ireland John Carey that I quoted in Climbing Brandon. Carey is describing what we can learn from early Irish Christian writers, such as Augustinus Hibernicus: "Existence itself, them, is the ultimate miracle; had our eyes not grown so dull, they would be dazzled with ineffable wonder wherever we turned our gaze."

Thursday, July 12, 2012


It has been something of a sport for skeptics such as myself to debunk the so-called miracles of the Bible; that is, to suggest that events deemed miraculous –- Noah's flood, the parting of the Red Sea, the fall of the walls of Jericho, and so on –- have natural explanations. As much imagination has gone into the debunking as went into the accounts themselves.

This always seemed to me a fool's errand; one might as well offer up natural explanations for the fantastic events of a Grimm fairy tale. My proper work, it seems to me, is not to show that miracles are natural, but to celebrate the natural as miraculous.

Remember this from Augustine's City of God?
Nor are those to be listened to, who say that the invisible God does not perform miracles, for even according to them he made the world, which surely they cannot deny to be visible. Indeed, whatever miracle may occur in this world, truly it is far less than the whole of the world, heaven and earth and all things that are in them, which God certainly made. But just like the Maker himself, even so the mode of his making is hidden and incomprehensible to man. And so, although those who constantly behold the miracles of visible nature hold them in small regard, nevertheless, when we consider them wisely, they are greater than the rarest and most unheard-of things.
It is a theme you have heard here a thousand times: Why get excited by some imagined violation of natural law -– raising Lazarus, ESP, the face of Jesus on a cheeseburger, crop circles –- when far more spectacular things are happening all around us every day, indeed in every cell of our bodies at every instant. Why should I get excited about a fairytale story of water into wine when the plant on my windowsill turns water, air and dirt into red, ripe tomatoes?

The "mode and making" of the universe may be "hidden and incomprehensible to man," as Augustine says, but we can probe that incomprehensibility, as the perhaps-successful pursuit of the Higgs boson makes clear. The Higgs doesn't debunk the miracle of creation; it is part of the miracle.

I think of something the Irish naturalist Tim Robinson says in Stones of Aran: Miracles are explainable; it is the explanations that are miraculous.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The peace that passeth

Every day has its walk. Almost always in the mid or late afternoon, ideally in sunshine, but if not, in rain or mist, out across the parish, keeping to the backroads, bothareens and beaches, three or four miles at least, just to keep the machinery going, the 75-year-old legs from locking up, the four-chambered engine ticking.

Exercise, yes, but not just physical. Walking offers something else, something that running or biking doesn't encourage -– reflection and observation. The brain functions at a bipedal speed. It ambles, it lurches, it dawdles, it pauses. One foot in front of the other. One thought in front of another. The Irish naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger, who walked all over Ireland in the early years of the last century, spoke of walking with "reverent feet." Reverence involves the whole body, the whole self –- brain, heart, soul, pedal extremities. Pede-temptim. Deo gratias.

When Americans walk, we tend to fit ourselves out with Vibram boots and backpacks and a bone-crushing burden of high-tech accouterments and head uphill into rugged terrain. Hiking, we call it. Unless walking is seriously rigorous we don't really see the point. In Britain and Ireland the emphasis is on a more gentle perambulation, here and there, this and that. Rambling, they call it. Sauntering. Traipsing. Shank's mare.

In my younger years I put twenty-five pounds of equipment on my back and labored up and down the mountains of New England. I suppose I enjoyed it, but all I remember is the pain, the stumbling over rocks, the slogging through snow, head down, eyes on the next footfall. These days, I have converted to a more Thoreauvian wanderlust, more in the British style. A water bottle. A Kit-Kat bar. The wind at my back.

With reverent feet, said Praeger, "through the hills and valleys, accompanied by neither noise nor dust to scare away wild creatures, stopping often, watching closely, listening carefully."

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Bring Up the Bodies

I don't mean to be a book bore, but I've now finished Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel's sequel to Wolf Hall, her award-winning novel of Tutor England that I bogged last week. Thomas More is dead, Thomas Cromwell is administering the king's affairs, and Henry has his eye on a new lady. Heads are about to roll.

One peripheral comment.

Here we look in on Cromwell's thoughts:
England needs better roads, and bridges that don't collapse. He is preparing a bill for Parliament to give employment to men without work, to get them waged and out mending the roads, making the harbors, building walls against the Emperor or any other opportunist. We could pay for them, he calculated, if we levied an income tax on the rich; we could provide shelter, doctors if they needed them, their subsistence; we would all have the fruits of their work, and their employment would keep them from becoming bawds or pickpockets or highway robbers, all of which men will do if they see no other way to eat.
Cromwell has another source of income in mind, besides taxing the rich: the fabulous wealth of the Church, which now that Henry has been designated head of the Church in England –- well, technically it all belongs to him. Which is the kingdom's greater need, Cromwell wonders: roads, bridges, fortifications, a secure and well-fed citizenry, or monks and nuns squirreled away -- not always voluntarily -- in their rich monasteries and nunneries, mumbling prayers? A cynical and unholy thought, perhaps, but If nothing else, Cromwell is a practical man, impressed with results this side of the grave.

In Tudor England, it seems, people who fiercely resisted paying an extra farthing in taxes for shelter, doctors, subsistence, or public infrastructure (and, incidentally, fattening the coffers of politicians like Cromwell) gladly spent what little money they had on Masses for the dead and access to holy relics, their eye on eternity.

As they say here in Ireland, that's the way of it. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Monday, July 09, 2012


Somewhere at Stonehill College (I hope) are stored dozens of plastic relief maps of the United States. These are the maps originally produced (as I recall) by the U. S. Army and subsequently manufactured and sold by Hubbard Scientific. Each sheet is about 24x18 inches (100x70 miles), with vertical relief exaggerated three times. By trimming off two margins, they can be mosaicked together into spectacular room-sized, three-dimensional displays.

Which is what I used to do when I was teaching a general studies course in earth science.

I chose my classroom carefully so that the early morning sun would cast shadows that accentuated the relief. Pushed back the desks against the walls. First the eastern United States, filling the floor. Then, a few days latter, the west. (The middle of the country is too flat to warrant topographical relief.)

And we talked, applying what we had learned to the shape of the land. Plate tectonics. Ice ages. Human history. Lordy, those maps were great. We could have spent a whole semester with them on the floor. (Whence Cape Cod? Why does driving across Pennsylvania take you back and forth in geological time? What's with the Great Salt Lake? Where shall we breach the Appalachians with a canal? A transcontinental railroad; where's it gonna go?)

If they haven't been thrown out, the maps should still be in a big cabinet in the college observatory, where I had them moved when I vacated my office. I haven't heard that anyone has used them, which is a shame. They are a fabulous teaching resource.

And here's the thing: I learned more than the students. In fact, I think it's fair to say that I never understood much of anything until I had to explain it to someone else.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

After Hakuin

Click, and then again, to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

The top -- a Saturday reprise

(This post appeared in December 2005.)

There is a short (very short!) story by Franz Kafka about a philosopher who hangs around children in the street who are playing with tops. As the tops are sent spinning across the pavement, the philosopher leaps to grab them, to the distress of the kids. He has this idea that if he can understand any detail of reality, a spinning top for instance, he will grasp it all. But as soon as he has a top in hand, he is depressed, nauseated even. He tosses the top away -- until the next time.

The story is called The Top, and is, I suppose, a parable, one of those Kafkaesque parables we can make of what we want. I see it representing our desire to know and understand the reductive laws of nature, the perennial quarry of science. But knowing those laws does not satisfy our deepest yearning, which is for the thing that spins, the non-reductive thing.

Some folks are content to watch the spinning top, the blur of color and squeal. Others are satisfied by the solidity and heft of the thing in the hand. And others of us struggle as best we can to balance whirl and heft, to have our spinning top and grasp it too.

Friday, July 06, 2012

A universe on fire

I glanced up from my keyboard to see the spine of a book that has been sitting quietly on my shelf all these many years -– Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's Hymn of the Universe, a slim compendium of the great paleontologist's mystical writings.

I take it down and browse. Here are the underlinings and marginal brackets from half a century ago. I was a young man, caught up in a deeply intellectual Catholicism –- a very European Catholicism –- and enchanted by Teilhard, by his passion, by his spirituality, by his love of science. Here, it seemed to me, was a way to reconcile the two great energies of my life, science and faith.

Teilhard was an evolutionist. He saw a universe evolving from a primeval fire. Radiant, blazing.
In the beginning was Power, intelligent, loving, energizing. In the beginning was the Word, supremely capable of mastering and moulding whatever might come into being in the world of matter. In the beginning there were not coldness and darkness: there was the Fire.
His universe is a universe of matter and energy, physical matter and energy, the matter and energy of the physicist. But it is more than that. It is matter and energy that embodies an awesome potentiality. "The whole universe is aflame," he exalts.

The image of fire runs through Teilhard's book like blood courses through the body. Nothing cold, or solid, or damp. Everything is in flux. Everything is becoming. "Let the starry immensities therefore expand into an ever more prodigious repository of assembled suns." His desire to immerse himself in the great unfolding, the blazing, continuing creation, is unquenchable.

And I was swept along.

Teilhard wedded his cosmic vision to Christianity, as did that other Jesuit poet/mystic Gerard Manley Hopkins. One senses, however, that they struggled within that constraint. Their fierce engagement with the world was too expansive to be bound by any merely human dogma. Christian imagery was fodder for their creativity; it was also a parochial limitation.

I soon enough left the Christology behind, but I see now as I peruse Hymn of the Universe that I owe a great debt to Teilhard. It was he who set the cold, dry equations of my physics texts alight. It was he who alerted me to the intensity and immensity of the great unfolding. It was he who kindled the fires that still illuminate my universe.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

When it rains, it pours

The Irish weather is certainly reliable: It is either raining or about to rain.

We have been here for three weeks; it has rained every day. The ground is sodden. The banks leak ditchwater. The gutters overflow.

This, so far, is the wettest summer on record, according to the Irish Met Office. A big Atlantic low sits just to the west, sucking up big gulps of the oceans and spitting wave after wave of wet toward Ireland. A Met meteorologist is quoted in the paper saying, "There is absolutely no sign whatsoever of a move towards positivity."

Positivity? Is that what we call it now? Our forlorn hope of sun?

The gullies gurgle. The bothareens are rivers of slush. The slugs drown in the middle of the road. This is the weekend the outdoor music festivals begin in Ireland, with an extravaganza in Dublin's Phoenix Park. Punters are advised to wear wellies. Hip boots are more like it.

Oh, they will have fun, fortified with a dropeen of the hard stuff and a puff of this or that. On Monday we'll have pictures in the paper of happy kids dressed in mud and not much else. They're Irish. Shure, what would they do with sun?

Meanwhile, we sit in our cottage on the hill, looking out into the mist, listening to the rain lashing the slates. As long as the wind blows from the west and there's water in the ocean it seems certain to continue. That's the one positivity.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Another visit to Wolf Hall

I'm not finished with Hilary Mantel. I have the sequel to Wolf Hall yet to open, the recently published Bring Up the Bodies. The first book was not an easy read. There is a huge cast of characters, many with multiple names and hard to keep straight. But the going is worth it. Mantel is wicked smart, as the kids would say, and a brilliant writer. This is no supermarket historical romance. It is a keen examination of the human spirit that reaches across the ages.

Power, greed, lust, ambition. And religion, a universal toxin that seeps through the story poisoning everything.

Oh, there are moments of tenderness, loyalty, love, but on the whole, it is not a pretty picture.

Mantel paints vivid images of the excesses. Here is her description of the hanging and disemboweling of four monks who refuse the oath affirming Henry as head of the English Church:
If they think they will maintain to the end the equanimity of their prayer-lives, they are wrong, because the law demands the full traitor's penalty, the short spin in the wind and the conscious public disemboweling, a brazier alight for human entrails. It is the most horrible of all deaths, pain and rage and humiliation swallowed to the dregs, the fear so great that the strongest rebel in unmanned before the executioner with his knife can do the job; before each one dies he watches his fellows and, cut down from the rope, he crawls like an animal round and round on the bloody boards.
These scenes, of course, are enacted in the public square, with huge audiences crowding close for entertainment. Protestants killing Catholics, Catholics killing Protestants –- each communion outdoes the other in doing God's chilling work.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012


There is a moment in Hilary Mantel's Man Booker Prize-winning novel Wolf Hall -- which I have just finished reading –- when the venerable Sir Henry Wyatt says to his host Thomas Cromwell, "Thomas, how did I get so old?"

It is a question I have asked my spouse a number of times lately. Seems like only yesterday I was a young pup scampering up and down the mountains. And so that little note of humanity reaches across the centuries.

Sir Henry might well count his blessings. As a younger man he was cast into a dungeon by Richard Plantagenet, had his teeth pulled out and red hot knives applied to his flesh. He is lucky to be alive, whereas my life has been pretty much a bed of roses. Not least because I live in a time and place where religious or political non-conformity is not cause for torture. I just read in the paper the other day about two fellows in Iran who are being executed for consuming alcohol, an Islamic no-no.

Two famous Thomases in Henry the VIII's retinue: Thomas Cromwell, who is the chief protagonist of Mantel's novel, and Thomas More, Lord Chancellor. Saint Thomas More to Catholics. Canonized in 1935. Holy martyr, defender of the Faith.

Oh, yes, Faith with a capital F. The one true Faith, we were told as children. God's own and only Truth, and More was its champion. To this day, Thomas More is a holy icon to Catholic fundamentalists.

Mantel's Thomas More is a rather different fellow from the pious, kindly scholar we were offered as young Catholics. No doubt the real Thomas More had many virtues, but in Mantel's telling he was also proficient at burning heretics and putting dissenting Catholics to the torture. Possessing a copy of Tyndale's English translation of the Scriptures was sufficient ground for being burnt at the stake.

Ah, Truth. What mischief has been wrought in its name. Which Thomas More is True, the Erasmusian humanist or the zealot who turned the screws on the rack?

In lieu of considerable research, I would have to say, "I don't know." Even with research, absolute Truth would escape me. In any case, I wouldn’t send you to the stake for having a contrary opinion.

Science is the one great truth system that forgoes any claim to Truth. And out of the scientific tradition sprang those Enlightenment values that have let me, a religious dissenter, live to a fine old age with all my teeth and no worries about red hot knives.

(In the end, both Thomases lost their heads to the ax. A third Thomas, Archbishop Cranmer, met his end at the stake.)

Monday, July 02, 2012

The view

Ireland's Dingle Peninsula has long been a geological hotspot. In Honey From StoneI told of the eminent British geologists who came here in the 19th century, in their swallowtail coats and top hats, to what was then the back of the beyond, hoping to resolve some long-standing controversies in geochronology. The story I told there included such names as Joseph Beetes Jukes, George Victor Du Noyer, Richard Griffith, Henry De la Beche, Adam Sedgwick, and Roderick Murchinson -– in short, a who's-who of mid-19th-century British geology. These men were intent on establishing the antiquity of the Earth, and the Dingle Peninsula was a major amphitheater of that drama.

It still is.

This past week a group of geologists from the University of Bristol and Aberdeen University were on the Peninsula celebrating recent discoveries in the Dingle rocks. These include the fossilized burrows of two-meter-long millipedes from the late-Devonian, over 350 million years ago, further evidence of volcanic activity, and a major new fault line.

Lined up on the mantel of my fireplace are a collection of rocks I have picked up on my walks around the peninsula, each with some fragmentary evidence of past ages -- fossils, faults, cross-bedding, beach ripples -– each one a tiny clue to be put together into the great puzzle of the past. I am not a geologist, but I know that it was from the accumulation of clues such as these that we have come to understand the yawning chasm of geological time.

"A thousand years in your sight are as yesterday," sings the Psalmist. Here on my hillside of Old Red Sandstone from a long-since ruptured supercontinent, a million years are as of yesterday, or ten million, or a hundred million. An awesome, edifying vista.

Sunday, July 01, 2012


Click, and then again, to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.