Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Audubon Nursery Workday Daydreams

Photo by Cara
I was pushing a wheelbarrow filled with pots of Bunchberries and Indian Plum up a trail at the Portland Audubon Society on Sunday. It was a mess. A beautiful mess. The trail was littered with gold, brown, and orange leaves. Ferns, lichens and mosses climbed over each other. Trees intertwined with one another, and small plants and shrubs grew in random clumps. Life giving water pooled, dripped, and beaded everywhere. Sunlight filtered through this mess setting the golds and greens aglow as it sprinkled everything with its warm energy. I was awestruck by beauty and complete lack of order.

In human landscaped environments, we have strategically placed trees, carefully mowed and fertilized grass, wood chips to keep down weeds and to set off persnickety ornamental shrubs, that are often adorned by toxic berries. “Berzo! Spit that out!” Basically we have moved our indoor aesthetics outside. You are not allowed to pick, dig, climb or otherwise disturb the property of this park “nature” in any way. In other words it's utterly boring and even somewhat stressful.

Humans need the complexities and comforts of a beautiful mess. A natural environment that is wild and free. In such a place I can feel my intellect untether from the right-angles of modern culture, my creativity leaps with wild abandon into the heaps of leaves, coming up with blue slugs and an occasional gnome, as a vole stands on hind legs looking on. I brush the gnome from my shirt and he lands in puff of leaves. An owl swoops silently, the vole grabs the gnome and tosses him into the scythe like talons. The owl screeches but cannot let go. Gnomes taste very bitter and can be dangerous. Talons pierce the gnome's soft body and crunch his bones. He whispers an incantation in ancient Gaelic and the owl’s eyes cloud over, the muscles in the feet relax and the gnome, badly hurt but alive, falls to the soft forest floor. A soft thud heralds the arrival of the owl's body.

The gnome indulged his temper and kicked the owl and winced in pain. He then retrieved his moss colored hat to his head and disappears into a rotting log. The vole squeaks in terror of the too-close owl and in fear of retribution from the gnome. He decides to make himself scarce. The owl's eyes clear, he squawks in indignation as he rights himself, and takes off in disgust.

I shake my head and take up my wheelbarrow handles.


Our home require order. Our daily lives require schedules by which all things get done and not forgotten. Our learning requires self discipline as does our physical conditioning, caloric intake, and even spiritual growth. All aspects of our lives require, demand, and need order and discipline to thrive and be fruitful.

I posit that our lives also need organic, lovely, unplanned, chaotic, natural mess. Our intellect craves relaxation in an unstructured and unproductive, messy way to fuel our imaginations and refresh our spirits. To feel God, (or divinity of choice) we need to be among his creations as he intended them to live together--in an seemingly disordered state, that is really arrangement so complex as to be undecipherable to our souped up ape-brains, but that we sense on some level is really a web of harmonious, symbiotic exchanges of nutrients and energy. From the worms enriching and aerating the soil with detritus, to alders fixing nitrogen and preventing erosion to heal a scarred land, to a conifer providing homes for insects, birds and mammals, to the microbes that make up eighty percent of the world's biomass.

Although we may not be capable of full comprehension, we can appreciate the vast intricacies, respect the power of intertwined life, and be humbled in its presence. We should reject the notion that we could possibly improve upon nature and that taming it is anything short of an insult, but move to become stewards, benefactors (through fishing, hunting, foraging), and students of this chaotic yet beautiful mess.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Book Review - Burning Bright: A Play in Story Form

Powell's Books · Barnes & Noble
John Steinbeck © 1950

This is one of Steinbeck's play novelettes, a format he created and unfortunately doesn't appear to have caught on. Like a play, the story is short, confined to few “sets”, and the action is carried by the dialog. But unlike a play, the supporting narrative paints a vibrant scene, paints the characters and otherwise fills out the sparse canvas that is the usual written play. It is an utterly enjoyable and fulfilling read, that I'd also love to see in a theater.

This story was written in three acts. A young wife yearns to give her beloved husband the child he craves. Unbeknownst to the husband, a childhood illness has left him sterile. He descends into a frightening depression, obsessed with the idea that the blood is where his considerable talents are stored and can only be passed in this way. Then there is a young man who works her husband with the same black eyes, and his wife wonders…

The remarkable thing about this book is that the scenes are completely changed for each act. In the first act the characters are circus performers, in the second they are farmers (and had always been farmers), in the third they are sailors. At first I wondered if Steinbeck had been smoking something funny when he wrote it this way, then I as I read on I could see the genius in it. The characters and their roles were unchanged, but the change of scene brought out different aspects of the characters and added an entirely new flavor and enhanced the mood of the scene. It was fascinating to watch one plot be told in three different parallel lifetimes.

Steinbeck was an artist of the truest kind. He could paint within the lines of reality in the most compelling fashion, but then he could go abstract and bend your mind and create something unique, heartbreaking and beautiful—all in about an hour and a half of your time.


I read that this book was subjected to intense criticism that derailed his play novelette writing. I wish he would have written his detractors and play novelette of their own, in which they meet a grisly end—he certainly had the talent for grisly endings. It is startling to know, that a writer as ballsy as Steinbeck could be hurt by criticism—he certainly didn’t write to bring warm fuzzy tingles to the masses—and I'll always wonder what stories he kept to himself because of it.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Book Review: Wild

Powell's Books · Barnes & Noble
Cheryl Strayed © 2013

I read this book in three nights. My eyes burned, I knew I was going to be tired the next day, but still I was compelled by Cheryl’s story to keep reading.

This autobiographical story follows Cheryl as a young woman who loses herself after her mother's untimely death from cancer. After spending over a month watching her mother, who was her lighthouse, waste away, she leaves her side to bring her brother to see her one last time and her mother dies in her absence. Cheryl is unmoored in a sea of self-destruction.

She tries to drown herself in illicit affairs, and even heroin. After her divorce, the idea of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail starts to gnaw at her.

Her time on the trail alternates between giving her a break from her mental anguish and forcing her to confront the tribulations of her life. The rigors of the trail causes her outward suffering just as she had suffered inwardly for years. It becomes a pilgrimage. And although she ends up basically destitute, homeless and alone—you see her not as poor, but as unburdened.

I do not like much of what Cheryl does during this story, but I admire who she becomes, and the unflinching way in which she tells her story.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Book Review: Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories, Volume I & II

Powell's Books · Barnes & Noble
Arthur Conan Doyle © 1927

I love reading classics. It all started as a teenager when I was perusing our family library, as I was wont to do on occasion, and there on our shelf was a copy of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. It had a green embossed cover with gold lettering. It felt cool. I felt cool holding it. I wondered if it was as good as its cover and read the first paragraph. I was instantly drawn in. I finished the book in record time, for me, and my mind was blown. I never saw any of the plot twists coming. Most of the books I had read until then seemed weak in comparison. I had had my first taste of book caviar, and I liked it.

I'm sorry to say not all classics have lived up to Dickens’s high bar, Little Women—terrible, Robinson Crusoe—terrible, Austen-dull, dull, dull, until the last fifty pages. They are caviar of a different flavor apparently. However, many, many have; including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes adventures.

The mysteries are fascinating, surprising, and due to Sherlock’s taste, always peculiar. Sherlock is more machine than man, so Doyle created his antithesis in John. Through him we can see Sherlock’s odd personality and exploits from a man with whom it is far easier to identify. John’s point of view is somewhat limited as Sherlock does much that we know nothing about because John is not present. It keeps the writing fresh though. After the first two mysteries, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four, I thought I was detecting a formula. Clearly so did Doyle, because the formula I thought I was seeing was never present again. Sometimes, there was a long backstory after the capture of the villain, sometimes it unfolds naturally, ending with the villain's capture or escape. Sometimes the villain wasn’t really a villain but someone seeking justice and Sherlock, bound by the puzzle but not the law, would let him go... Sometimes Sherlock is gone for weeks or months at a time, then he shows up in one of his disguises scares John out of his tweed, and then fills John in on his adventures. Sometimes the mysteries involve nobles and sometimes small folk too. The mystery just has to have stumped the Scotland Yard, which apparently isn’t too difficult, and have an element of weird to it.

For a nineteenth century man, Doyle writes women incredibly well. He neither exalts them or marginalizes them. Sometimes women have central roles (e.g. Irene Adler—the only person to outwit Sherlock), and sometimes not, but what is evident is that there is a respect for women that comes through in his writing. The writing is very readable, there’s no Shakespearean double and triple meanings and it does not employ archaic words and phrases. However, there are a few English forms of speech that made me chuckle more than once; “The ejaculation had been drawn from my companion by the fact that our door had been suddenly dashed open…” *Snigger.*

Reading an omnibus of this magnitude (1700 pages) was challenging at times. Many of the mysteries are a mere thirty-fifty pages long, some are over a couple hundred, but always it took a little time to become interested, then things get exciting and you learn bits and pieces of the mysteries, then it’s over. And again, and again, and again. I would put it down, read something else for a while, then pick it up again. It was oddly comforting to know that these stories were waiting for me.

A couple disappointments: Professor Moriarty was somewhat anti-climatic. Sherlock deals with him without the presence of his chronicler John, so, we only see Sherlock as a man worn thin and ragged in his quest to capture him as he recounts his adventures. It stinks that we’re not there when it’s happening. Of course there is the famous, is-Sherlock-dead scene, but then he’s back to reveal how he faked his death to throw of Moriarty's cronies.

Also, the Baskerville Hounds story was truly lame. John kept exalting it as the greatest mystery EVER, but the villain and his designs were mundane and not terribly surprising or great. Modern retellings have actually improved this story…

I leave you with one of my favorite character descriptions:

“His face was lean and haggard, and the brown parchment-like skin was drawn tightly over the projecting bones; his long, brown hair and beard were all flecked and dashed with white; his eyes were sunken in his head, and burned with an unnatural lustre; while the hand which grasped his rifle was hardly more fleshy than that of a skeleton. As he stood, he leaned upon his weapon for support; and yet his tall figure and the massive framework of his bones suggested a wiry and vigorous constitution. His gaunt face however, and his clothes, which hung so baggily over his shrivelled limbs, proclaimed what it was that gave him that senile and decrepit appearance. The man was dying—dying from hunger and from thirst... “ A Study in Scarlet

And that, my friends, is how a master does it.

If you don't have the patience for the full omnibus, here are a few of the best:
  • A Study in Scarlet - A masterpiece.
  • The Sign of the Four
His shorter mysteries:
  • The Red-Headed League
  • The Boscombe Valley Mystery
  • The Five Orange Pips
  • The Man With the Twisted Lip
  • The Adventure of the Speckled Band
  • The Musgrave Ritual
  • The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton - My favorite. John and Sherlock go rogue in this one and the ending is, oh-so-satisfying.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Book Review - Backyard Orchardist: A Complete Guide to Growing Fruit Trees in the Home Garden

Powell's Books · Barnes & Noble
Stella Otto © 1995

When you buy your first fruit tree, do yourself and your new tree a favor and buy this book. Now that I have three planted in my backyard, I'm wishing I would have read this prior to planting; I would have dug a much bigger hole and amended my clay soil with more sandy-loam and compost. I also would have done a better job setting my trees up for production by properly pruning those first few years of growth.

Today is a new day.

This is an easy-to-read book that covers all major fruit bearing trees with specific information for trees in different zones. Now I know when and how to prune properly. What pests to watch out for and how to prevent infections/infestations and treat them in the most effective manner; e.g. most pests have a predictable time when they are going through some sort of molt or metamorphosis making treatment particularly effective. It is best to treat a specific problem and avoid “all-purpose” treatments as they are toxic to your backyard ecosystem and may create problems that didn't exist prior by killing of natural pest predators.

Stella also provides many tables regarding fruit variety and their flavor, blight and pest resistance, days from blossom to fruit, heights based on rootstock choices, and everything else you might need. She educates us orchardists lingo, e.g. rootstock, scions, scaffold branches, callous, suckers, water sprouts...

I'll never remember everything in this book but I'll remember just enough to know its in there and how to find it.

An essential tool for any backyard orchardist.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Book Review: Beowulf

· Barnes & Noble
Translation by John Leslie Hall circa 1897

This epic poem was written over a thousand years ago in England by an unknown Anglo-Saxon poet. The story itself is actually much older, scholars think it describes events that happened in the late 5th century in Scandinavia.

Was this a fun read? Not really. Scholars, such as Mr. Hall, translate this poem with the intention of making the wording as accurate as possible to original poem. There are footnotes everywhere, explaining conflicts in opinion as to whether or not the root word more closely translates to “toilet paper” or “tissue of the bottom”. Just kidding, toilet paper wasn't invented until late 19th century. Thankfully, John Leslie Hall put in brackets a modern language synopsis of what was about to happen, [Beowulf greets King Hrothgar] then comes the archaic-poetic language form of Beowulf’s greeting. I would have been lost in this story without them.

I have always wanted to read this and I'm profoundly glad I did. The story is awesome, the monster Grendel, a direct descendant of Cain, is offended by King Hrothgar's magnificent new hall, where much like Dr. Seuss' Grinch, he couldn't tolerate their nightly merry-making, but instead of stealing their presents and decorations, Grendel came in the night and devoured the men that celebrated there.

Enter Beowulf the Magnificent, to regale King Hrothgar with tales of his legendary exploits.

Grendel uses no weapons, so Beowulf declares won't either; he defeats the monster Grendel with his bare hands, rending Grendel's arm from his socket to dangle from the rafters of Heorot hall thereafter.

But Grendel has a mother…

This story has it all.  There is a hero in Beowulf, a monster in Grendel, an hero's antithesis in Unferth, a legendary sword, a battle with a dragon, that all intertwine in historic movements of our Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian ancestors.  Ah, just breathe in the awesome.

Knowing Tolkien had a particular interest in this poem, it was fun to speculate how it shaped his own legendary LOTR series. On the lookout, I imagined some parallels between Grendel and Gollum, Gollum being less formidable but equally detestable. Also Smaug and Beowulf's dragon have several similarities, they are wormlike in body form and are notably greedy; Beowulf's dragon burns everything and everyone in sight after a cup is stolen from his hoard. The poem also refers to "middle-earth", a term I always thought was an original in LOTR.

There are probably many more subtle parallels that whooshed right over my head. However, the poem is from a period of English history where information is of swiss cheese density, and Tolkien's LOTR is often interpreted as a prehistory of England, which plugs each of those holes with literary genius to create something fictitious, yet magnificent.

I have two more versions of this poem, including Tolkien's that I can't wait to read to see what else I can find to geek-out on.