Unreal Nature

November 30, 2008

Unwarranted Coherence

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:19 am

All of the below is from a book review, Grave Doubts: Reckoning with mass mortality after the Civil War, by T J Jackson Lears in the Dec/Jan 2009 BookForum magazine. The two books are Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering, and Mark S. Schantz’s Awaiting the Heavenly Country; though my quotes will only be from the beginning and Faust’s part of the review.

First, the beginning:

The Civil War was by far the bloodiest war in American history. The Union and Confederate armies suffered more than 620,000 fatalities — roughly equivalent to the American dead of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War put together. Among all combatants, the death rate was six times that of World War II; among Southerners, three times that of Northerners. Noncombatants, too, were swept up in this first modern, total war: An estimated fifty thousand civilians died.

… Most Civil War chroniclers have lifted their gazes from battlefield losses to political gains — the emancipation of African-American slaves and the emergence of the United States as a modern nation. The war, from this view, was a Christian saga of suffering and redemption. Its outcome was the “new birth of freedom” envisioned by Lincoln at Gettysburg, a more democratic society purged of the original sin of slavery. This Civil War story lies at the heart of the American political mythos; it also resonates with fundamental human longings — above all, the desire for mass death to make sense, to fit into some larger pattern of cosmic meaning. No wonder the grand narrative possesses so much staying power.

Still, this familiar story has had some disturbing (if unintended) consequences. It has brought an unwarranted coherence to our perception of war’s chaos. It has encouraged us to read retroactive purpose and direction into events that the people enmeshed in them may have found chillingly bereft of both qualities. And it has fostered the fiction of redemptive war — the dangerous fantasy that inspired war makers from Theodore Roosevelt to George W. Bush, allowing them to wrap their imperial adventures in robes of righteousness.

The rest, below are about Faust’s book:

Faust’s boldest and most illuminating arguments arise from her recognition of the pervasive atmosphere of uncertainty concerning who had lived and who had died. Forty percent of dead Yankees and a far higher percentage of dead Confederates were identified only by “the significant word unknown” (in Whitman’s phrase). Before battle, soldiers scribbled their names on scraps of paper and pinned them to their uniforms, hoping there would be enough left of their bodies to be returned to their families. Some battlefield casualties were “blown to atoms,” as a soldier recalled. The impact of heavy artillery on flesh meant that some men “actually vanished,” Faust writes, “their bodies vaporized by the firepower of this first modern war.” While civilians found this hard to imagine, combat veterans “understood all too well the reality of men instantly transformed into nothing.” They could hardly confront a more disturbing challenge to their taken-for-granted sense of being in the world.

… Some public figures knew perfectly well what the carnage meant, or thought they did. Three months after Appomattox, the Reverend Horace Bushnell, like many other prominent Northern ministers, detected the hand of God in the Union victory. God’s design, he said, had been fulfilled by “our acres of dead.” Like Christianity, history “must feed itself on blood,” and the United States now “may be said to have gotten a history.” The nation was “no more a mere creature of our human will, but a grandly moral affair” — “hallowed” by “rivers of blood.” “Government is now become Providential,” Bushnell concluded. This divination of the state was idolatry masquerading as Christianity, a masquerade common to romantic nationalism and all too familiar in our own time as well. As Faust suggests, Bushnell “could talk so enthusiastically about blood because he had spent the war in Connecticut, distant from the battlefields ‘black with dead’ that he described. But Providence had favored him, and he could thus claim its purposes as his own.”

… Confronted with the unadjustable reality of mass death, combat survivors found it impossible to communicate what they had experienced. Groping for words to characterize his first battle, John Casler of the Stonewall Brigade finally gave up. “I have not power to describe the scene,” he wrote his parents. “It beggars all description.” The inadequacy of language suggested a profounder inadequacy of consciousness. Under the impact of the slaughter, Civil War Americans began to doubt man as well as God — to question the human ability to understand, as well as the divine capacity for benevolence. It was not only terminal skeptics like [Ambrose] Bierce who found themselves “sentenced to life” after the Civil War. Lanier, himself a combat veteran and former prisoner of war, wrote in 1875 that for most of his “generation in the South since the War, pretty much the whole of life has been not-dying.” Where Schantz insists on the durability of the Victorian culture of death after the crucible of the war, Faust suggests that its mass slaughter created a far more contingent, and entirely less comforting, cultural legacy.

If you have time, read the full review. I think it’s excellent. [ link ]



November 29, 2008

Source of Illumination

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 2:55 pm

The novelist works neither to correct nor to condone, not at all to comfort, but to make what’s told alive. He assumes at the start an enlightenment in his reader equal to his own, for they are hopefully on the point of taking off together from that base into the rather different world of the imagination.

That’s from an old but truly excellent essay, Must the Novelist Crusade? by Eudora Welty (1965). Below are more bits taken from it. First, the opening paragraphs:

Not too long ago I read in some respectable press that Faulkner would have to be reassessed because he was “after all, only a white Mississippian.” For this reason, it was felt, readers could no longer rely on him for knowing what he was writing about in his life’s work of novels and stories, laid in what he called “my country.”

Remembering how Faulkner for most of his life wrote in all but isolation from critical understanding, ignored impartially by North and South, with only a handful of critics in forty years who were able to “assess” him, we might smile at this journalist as at a boy let out of school. Or there may have been an instinct to smash the superior, the good, that is endurable enough to go on offering itself. But I feel in these words and others like them the agonizing of our times. I think they come of an honest and understandable zeal to allot every writer his chance to better the world or go to his grave reproached for the mess it is in. And here, it seems to me, the heart of fiction’s real reliability has been struck at — and not for the first time by the noble hand of the crusader.

From the middle:

… Taking a particular situation existing in his world, and what he feels about it in his own breast and what he can make of it in his own head, he constructs on paper, little by little, an equivalent of it. Literally it may correspond to a high degree or to none at all; emotionally it corresponds as closely as he can make it. Observation and the inner truth of that observation as he perceives it, the two being tested one against the other: to him this is what the writing of a novel is.

… Writing fiction is an interior affair. Novels and stories always will be put down little by little out of personal feeling and personal beliefs arrived at alone and at firsthand over a period of time as time is needed. To go outside and beat the drum is only to interrupt, interrupt, and so finally to forget and to lose. Fiction has, and must keep, a private address.

… Indifference would indeed be corrupting to the fiction writer, indifference to any part of man’s plight. Passion is the chief ingredient of good fiction. It flames right out of sympathy for the human condition and goes into all great writing. (And of course passion and the temper are different things; writing in the heat of passion can be done with extremely good temper.) But to distort a work of passion for the sake of a cause is to cheat, and the end, far from justifying the means, is fairly sure to be lost with it.

And the ending:

A source of illumination is not dated by what passes along under its ray, is not qualified or disqualified by the nature of the traffic. When the light of Faulkner’s work will be discovering things to us no more, it will be discovering us. Even we shall lie enfolded in perspective one day: what we hoped along with what we did, what we didn’t do, and not only what we were but what we missed being, what others yet to come might dare to be. For we are our own crusade. Before ever we write, we are. Instead of our judging Faulkner, he will be revealing us in books to later minds.

My quotes don’t do justice to the piece. It’s long but highly recommended. Read it if you have time. [ link ]



Except for the Girl

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 12:42 pm

And as in Alice
by Mary Jo Bang

Alice cannot be in the poem, she says, because
She’s only a metaphor for childhood
And a poem is a metaphor already
So we’d only have a metaphor

Inside a metaphor. Do you see?
They all nod. They see. Except for the girl
With her head in the rabbit hole. From this vantage,
Her bum looks like the flattened backside

Of  a black and white panda. She actually has one
In the crook of  her arm.
Of course it’s stuffed and not living.
Who would dare hold a real bear so near the outer ear?

She’s wondering what possible harm might come to her
If  she fell all the way down the dark she’s looking through.
Would strange creatures sing songs
Where odd syllables came to a sibilant end at the end.

Perhaps the sounds would be a form of  light  hissing.
Like when a walrus blows air
Through two fractured front teeth. Perhaps it would
Take the form of a snake. But if a snake, it would need a tree.

Could she grow one from seed? Could one make a cat?
Make it sit on a branch and fade away again
The moment you told it that the rude noise it was hearing was
rational thought
With an axe beating on the forest door.

— from Poetry magazine (Oct, 2007)



The Light and the Chance

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 12:04 pm

Parmi beaucoup de poèmes / Among Many Poems (Tr. by Mary Ann Caws)
by Jacques Roubaud

Parmi beaucoup de poèmes
Il y en avait un
Dont je ne parvenais pas à me souvenir
Sinon que je l’avais composé
En descendant cette rue
Du côté des numéros pairs de cette rue
Baignée d’une matinée limpide
Une rue de petites boutiques persistantes
Entre la Seine sinistrée et l’hôpital
Un poème écrit avec mes pieds
Comme je compose toujours les poèmes
En silence et dans ma tête et en marchant
Mais je ne me souviens de rien
Que de la rue de la lumière et du hasard
Qui avait fait entrer dans ce poème
Le mot “respect”
Que je n’ai pas l’habitude de faire vibrer
Dans les pages mentales de la poésie
Au-delà de lui il n’y a rien
Et ce mot ce mot qui ne bouge pas
Atteste la cessation de la rue
Comme un arbre oublié de l’espace

— from Poetry magazine (Oct, 2000). The linked page has an English translation (scroll down to find it).



Black Zones

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:13 am

I was going to post something about photography or art or … the meaning of life … or something, but I got completely sidetracked reading Wayne Hale’s four part series on black zones — on his blog at NASA (Hale is the manager of the Space Shuttle program). What’s a “black zone”? Here is Hale’s definition:

I probably should have started the series of posts with a definition of ‘black zone’ so here it is: a portion of a manned rocket launch trajectory where the premature shutdown of any or all running booster engines will lead to loss of the re-entry vehicle and crew subsequently due to the over temperature or structural loads incurred from the resulting trajectory. Is that too muddy? Black zone does not mean what is going to happen in a normal case, only if an engine (or two or three) quits. Black zone does not take into account the weather at the proposed abort landing site which is another way to kill a crew.

The first post in the series includes this:

How about using the shuttle ejection seats on ascent?

Not good.

For example; an ejection on the launch pad would not get high enough for the parachute to open in time. Yep, you’d hit the ground from a few hundred feet altitude with the chute still unfurling. Not recommended. If your rocket was in the process of blowing up (remember Titov and Strekalov?) the blast overpressure would still be fatal at the distance the ejection seat would push you. As a final insult, the “landing” would be in the flame trench. So, an ejection off the launch pad was not a good idea for a shuttle crew.

During ascent, the capcom made the call “negative seats”. This occurred as the shuttle climbed above 80,000 feet. At that altitude the ejection seats would still work, and the pressure suit had sufficient oxygen get back down so you may ask, why was that a limit? Because an analysis of the speed and trajectory above that point resulted in enough air friction heating to melt the plastic faceplate of the helmet. And probably other things we didn’t analyse. But the basis for the call was the melting of the faceplate. So about 90 seconds into flight the ejection seats were useless and until at least 10 seconds into the flight there was not enough altitude for the chutes to open. So if you ejected in those “safe” 80 seconds? Toasted by the solid rocket booster plumes going past you. If the stack held together and didn’t have “an overpressure event” or send shrapnel headed your way.

I found the whole series incredibly interesting. Here are links to the four parts and the Q and A post that is between the third and fourth:

First part
Second part
Third part
Q and A
Fourth part

Good stuff.



November 28, 2008

Earthworms, For Example

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:19 am

So, I’m reading this article, Way, Way Too Much Information by Frank Bures in Poets & Writers (May/June 2008) that includes the following:

According to a 2003 study by the School of Information Management and Systems at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2002 human beings created five exabytes of data — or thirty-seven thousand times the amount of information stored in the Library of Congress.

Just last year the International Data Corporation released a study that estimated global data creation at 161 exabytes in 2006 (picture twelve stacks of copies of War and Peace, piled from here to the sun), and predicted that by 2010 the number will reach 988 exabytes. Also in 2006, 1.1 billion people were using the Internet regularly, checking approximately 1.6 billion e-mail accounts. And even as Americans continue to watch an average of eight hours and eleven minutes of television each week, time spent online rose 24 percent from 2006 to 2007, according to a study by the online market research firm Compete, Inc.

Awesome! The piece begins, with this:

Back in the early 1990s — the age of pagers and dial-up modems — I read an essay that changed my life. In “Thinking About Earthworms,” author David Quammen described the concept of the global mind. Philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (who dubbed it the “noosphere,” meaning an atmosphere of thought) considered this collective consciousness “wonderful,” but Quammen urged his readers to resist its pull. He advised us to spend some time in our own minds, to turn off our televisions and think about things no one else was thinking about — earthworms, for example.

So I did. By happenstance, I’ve had earthworms on my mind ever since I read children’s book writer Andrea Beaty answer the question “Tell us about your pets” with this:

Imagine a picture of fish floating upside down with little X’s on their eyes. That pretty much sums up the pets I’ve had as an adult.

As a kid, though, I had lots of pets without X’s on their eyes. I had collies, cats, parakeets, box turtles, and even a box of earthworms …

I had never thought of them as something with which I could have a master/pet relationship.

Next, of course, everybody has heard about the worm census, for example in Wriggle up and be counted in Britain’s first census of earthworms  by Alastair Jamieson in the Telegraph.co.uk (Nov 26, 2008):

During the census, due to take place in the spring, volunteers will be sent free worm-watching packs.

These will contain a chart allowing them to identify 13 of the most common worms by colour, size, shape and pattern of rings. More sophisticated identification software will be available on the project’s website.

Then, there are worms for sport. Surely one of the most brutal things ever done to living creatures is the threading from head to almost-end of the living earthworm onto a fishhook. Done every day by little children and adults alike. Or, there is this, from Dr. Jesse, B.A . (Nov 20, 2008) in the Middlebury College news:

If you want to call yourself an athlete, but don’t want to deal with physical contact, sweating, or heavy breathing, I think I have found your sport. You need only three accessories – a big stick, a piece of metal, and fondness for all things slippery. In a competitive sport known as “worm grunting,” found in Florida and other southern states, an “athlete” sees how many earthworms he or she can pluck from the ground in a limited amount of time, the record firmly standing today at 511 worms in 30 minutes.

Practical uses for worms include this from It’s a dirty business, but San Jose’s Worm Dude is wiggling his way to a small fortune by Linda Goldston in the Mercury News (Nov 21, 2008):

“All your old bank statements and credit card statements — the ultimate way to make sure no one ever sees them after they’re shredded is to compost them,” he said.

That’s where people like the Worm Dude come in.

There are 2,700 types of worms, and somebody has to figure out which ones work best for what.

Bar none, in Gach’s mind at least, the best worms for composting are Red Wigglers, “the work horses” of the composting heaps that get their start in horse and cow manure. They cost $25 a pound. The Alabama Jumpers are so good at busting up clay soil that Gach sells a thousand of them for $89.

Then there are genuine things to be concerned about (of poetic justice, if you like) where worms are bringing our toxic waste back into our own foods (because many animals eat worms). From Earthworms Found to Contain Chemicals From Households and Animal Manure in SciencDaily (Feb 27, 2008):

Scientists found 28 AWIs in biosolids being applied at a soybean field for the first time and 20 AWIs in earthworms from the same field. Similar results were found for the field where swine manure was applied. Several compounds were detected in earthworms collected both from the biosolids- and manure-applied fields, including phenol (disinfectant), tributylphosphate (antifoaming agent and flame retardant), benzophenone (fixative), trimethoprim (antibiotic), and the synthetic fragrances galaxolide, and tonalide. Detergent metabolites and the disinfectant triclosan were found in earthworms from the biosolids-applied field, but not the manure-applied field.

Then, of course, what you’ve been all been waiting for, research into the earthworm’s sexual behaviour. From Worms Triple Sperm Transfer When Paternity Is at Risk  in ScienceDaily (May 12, 2008):

Hermaphrodites, organisms that have both female and male reproductive organs, such as earthworms, are denied the right to choose their partner. However, a study by researchers at the University of Vigo has shown that worms are capable of telling whether another worm is a virgin or not, and triple the volume of sperm transferred during copulation if they detect a fertilisation competition risk.

… Worm courting can last up to an hour during which time the organisms secrete large amounts of mucus and press against each other with short, repetitive rubbing actions for subsequent exchange of sperm. If there is no fertilisation competition, worms are prudent in how much sperm they release, even waiting to mate with high-quality partners. “Worms can control copulation time or, alternatively, can have mechanisms which prevent all their sperm being released in a single mating event”, stress the authors.

The results of the study conclude that the volume of sperm donated to worms that are not virgins has been more variable than that transferred to virgin partners. In this respect, researchers estimated that the volume transferred to larger size partners which had previously copulated was five times greater than that transferred to virgin worms.

I could not make any sense of the Wikipedia section on earthworm reproduction. You’ll have to read it yourself. I sort of, kind of get this sentence, but the rest is just too darn sophisticated for me… :

The mating pair overlap front ends ventrally and each exchanges sperm with the other.

Way, way too much information. Which, if I can remember back to when I began this opus, is what thinking about earthworms was supposed to save me from. It’s no use.



November 27, 2008

Self Possession: Self Obsession

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:19 am

All of the below is from an article, A Descent in the Dark by R.R. Reno (Nov 2008) in Commentary magazine.

… A true adventurer is not foolhardy. He must realistically assess his capabilities and choose reasonable objectives. The sailor looks at himself and weighs his skills, and only then decides that he can cross the Atlantic in a smaller boat. The climber takes an inventory of his experience and judges himself capable of more remote peaks by more difficult routes. But as soon as the next step is taken, the margin of safety decreases. Bad weather, bad decisions, bad luck — all these factors crowd in more and more closely against competence and determination. That’s why the best adventures involve a strange combination of emotions: a strong expectation of success in concert with all sorts of doubts and worries about the consequences of failure.

… But these and other reminders have produced little more than crooked branches of self-understanding intertwined with self-deception. I continue to climb. I don’t doubt that I’ve done it for so many years because I’m good at it. It’s fun to do something well.

Something more is going on, though, something captured in Aristotle’s dictum that happiness is unimpeded activity. I dream sometimes about the wet, gray, crumbling limestone of the Canadian Rockies. I recall my parched mouth. I see in my mind’s eye the long run of the rope down to my belayer. The afflicting memories return, but now they are gilt and alluring. The pain, the agonizing uncertainty, the exhaustion, the shocking realization that the mountains kill whom they will—it’s all rearranged in my mind as a fire-lined gauntlet through which I have run, and I can think of nothing but the joy of running ever faster, ever harder. Even as I curse the vain folly of bringing death so close, I long for the adventure, for the lightning flashes of self-possession, for the tremendous concentration of will that comes from knowing that you’ve given yourself a thin margin for error.

This longing is not a death wish. On the contrary, I have come to see that my addiction to the risks of climbing is better understood not as wishing for death but as cursing it. God may have the power to defeat death, but I don’t. My impotence angers me, as I think it has always angered men, underlying their desire for adventure. I’ve seen death often enough to know that she is repulsively ugly. I was not courting her on the Aiguille Verte; I was asserting against her my prerogative of life. And this act of self-assertion, it seems to me, explains the appeal of adventure.

Rah, rah, rah. All very inspiring and can be extended to be about most endeavors that involve “concentration of will.”

But consider these paragraphs, also from the article:

The term adventurer was first used to describe the soldier of fortune, the man who entertains the dangers of battle not in order to defend his homeland or fulfill his duty, not even for the sake of conquest and booty, but to live as one who risks death. He takes his chances. He romances Fortuna, confident that his skill with the sword will carry him through.

… Of course, the self-assertion is temporary, an illusion of the moment. No great ascent can cancel the car wreck that might kill me on the drive back from the mountains. No adventure overcomes the reality of divorce, the death of a child, or any of the deep mental anguish that finds its way into even the most fortunate of lives. So, yes, it’s a temporary thrill. Yes, it’s hopelessly arrogant. Yes, it’s foolish and unnecessary. Yes, it’s adolescent. Yes, it leads to illusions of grandeur. Yes, it deflects from a sober assessment of the human condition. Yes, it’s a pagan impulse. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. But ever since Agamemnon gathered the Greeks to sail to Troy, men have taken life-threatening risks in order to get close enough to death to give her the finger. It’s a life-affirming thing to do, and it can’t be done at a safe distance.

Life-affirming? Soldiers of fortune? The Trojan Wars? Ten years of pointless slaughter? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes?

Ummm. No. Honestly, that last quoted paragraph is just astonishing, to me. What on earth is he thinking?



The World Opened. A Line Began.

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:06 am

Slow Waltz Through Inflatable Landscape

by Christian Hawkey

At the time of his seeing a hole opened — a pocket opened —
and left a space. A string of numbers plummeted
through it. They were cold numbers.
They were pearls.

And though they were cold the light they cast was warm,
and though they were pearls he thought they were eyes.
They blinked. He blinked back.
Anything that blinks

must be friendly, he thought, until he saw the code
— a string of numbers — carved into their sides
and grew afraid. He tried to close
the space

but it was no longer his own. He tried to close his eyes
but they were no longer his. He tried to close
his mouth, his hands, his ears
but they were no longer

his, were never his to begin with: this was the time of his seeing.
The world opened. A line began. A tree grew above him
and he thanked it. A sun dawned over the line
and he thanked it. …

That’s only the beginning of this long poem. Read the whole thing at Poets.org. I found this from a list at that web site of poems about “thanks and gratitude” — that are supposed to be suitable for Thanksgiving  (which is today in the US).

I like these lines, from later in the poem:

Some things work very hard / to leave the ground.



November 26, 2008

Killing Ethics

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:40 am

From a post, yesterday, on Slashdot (I’m using screen caps to preserve Slashdot’s quote formatting):


The linked NY Times article requires login, which I refuse to do. If you want to read it, go to the Slashdot article and click the link (the above is an image, not text that I can format).

Here is one response (of many) that touches on just a few of the many, many problems with the concept of battlefield robots:


[Again, the above is an screen cap image.]

Why anybody would try to promote these things on the basis of “ethics” is beyond me.

Link to the Slashdot thread is here: [ link ]



November 25, 2008

Peeled, Acute, Virulent

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:18 am

All of the below are taken from a collection of writings, Something to Say: William Carlos Williams on Younger Poets edited by James E.B. Breslin (1985). First, from an essay, Advice to the Young Poet that originally appeared in View (Oct, 1942):

… Consciously, sitting before a piece of paper with only words as our weapons every trick of the imagination offers itself to defeat us. Our job is to reveal what we are by what we have apprehended. It must be sensual for that is our only contact with the world. And there it IS, crouching within us — a mold packed with the images of ten million minutes before we have learned so much as to drink from a cup.

The art is to get through to the fact and make it eloquent. We have to make a direct contact, from the sense to the object (within us) so that what we disclose is peeled, acute, virulent … But we too easily get to thinking of the effect. The effect! On whom? The effect has nothing whatever to do with the matter. It is an accidental by-product of the work, to focus there is to say that the eye is simply not on the object.

… Avoid scholars but do not avoid their knowledge. Be sure only that it is not conditioned by their assumptions of learning. Infamous blackguards when too far gone “willing” themselves to their maimed attitudes. Remember that as degree men they are no more than clerks locking knowledge in awaiting a master. Get what they have, at your peril! Get it if you have to murder them for it. For without knowledge and its coinage of words, born in you or stolen, you will never raise anything by your abracadabras but straw.

Below was originally in The Harvard Advocate (Feb, 1934):

… I emphasize, it isn’t the mass of difficulties that need unhorse a genius. It is the slipping, sliding wastefulness of useless rushing about. There isn’t much to do. It’s just the flip of a word sometimes. One doesn’t have to live this kind of life, that kind of life. The only thing that has ever seemed to me to be important is never to yield an inch of what is to the mind important — and to let the life take care of itself. Sure, go ahead to Paris. Why not?

“Why not?” Words that have gotten me into more trouble than I care to admit … but which have also gotten me many of the best times of my life.



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