The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘preservation’

Venus of the Woods

October 4, 2016 | by

Celebrating the history of the beloved ash tree.

Charles May, The Old Ash, photograph, 1863.

Charles May, The Old Ash, photograph, 1863.

As a small child, my mother was taken to the Lake District, in the hope that she would have a better chance of survival under the shelter of the northwestern hills than at home on the flat, overexposed coast of Lincolnshire. It was early 1940. It would have been a grand adventure, were it not for the constant reminders that things were not as they should be. It was not just the absence of fathers, uncles, brothers, but the presence in the hotel grounds of oddly damaged things: a blind cat, a broken wheelbarrow, a man who had been at Dunkirk and did not seem quite like other grown-ups. What my mother remembers most vividly is a young woman, pale in face and dress, who spent her days sitting outside, staring up into the branches of the tall ash tree and drawing what she saw. When the sun came out, her pencil lines darkened, turning the tracery of tiny branches into black lace veils. She never spoke, but day after day she looked up and re-created the impossible patterns on her large, flat sheets of paper. What did the ash tree mean to that unknown woman? Or to my mother, in whose agitated, impressionable mind it took root and has remained ever since?

The ash tree is known as the Venus of the woods, and it seems to stir powerful feelings in those who gaze on its graceful form. Whether it is standing in spacious parkland or in an unkempt, November hedge, or rising naked from a sea of bluebells, the ash’s curvy limbs taper to an end with tips pointing to the heavens. A young ash is often like a half-open peacock’s tail, not quite ready to display its beauties; the branches of a mature ash, once fully fanned out, will slope down toward the earth, before sweeping up again, as if to send the buds flying. Through the summer the boughs cascade in all directions, wave-shaped and covered in green sprays. There are no angles on a young ash tree—everything is rounded and covered in fluttering foliage, soft as the feathers in a boa or the fur of a chinchilla. The boughs gain a few inches and furrow with the passing years, but with maturity come striking attitudes. In winter their silhouettes stencil clear skies like a row of unframed stained glass windows. The ebullient black buds stand proud, as if impatient for the spring, but in fact the ash is usually the last to come into leaf and the first to shed its seasonal foliage. The uncovered form of the ash, though, is just as compelling as the full-dress splendor of more eye-catching trees. Read More »

More Novels Starring Coins, Please, and Other News

May 16, 2016 | by

Only this watermarked stock photo of a walking one-euro coin truly captures the thrill of novels with currency at their centers.

  • I find novels starring people—or any animate creatures, really—to be unthinkably dull. For this reason I do most of my reading in the mid to late eighteenth century, when novels with inanimate objects at their centers enjoyed a brief but memorable time in the literary limelight. The most famous one was told from the perspective of a coin: “Chrysal, or the Adventures of a Guinea thrilled contemporary readers with ‘Views of several striking Scenes,’ an insider’s account of the scandalous doings of the ‘most Noted Persons in every Rank of Life,’ and tales from the gold mines of Peru, the streets of London, the canals of Amsterdam, the ports of the Caribbean, and the front lines of the Great War … It was a tipping point for what are frequently referred to as ‘it-narratives.’ It-narratives, also called ‘novels of circulation’ or ‘object narratives,’ are novels or stories that take an inanimate object or an animal as its narrator … With a market proven, writers for hire began churning them out with variable quality. By 1781, a bored reviewer in The Critical Review complained, ‘This mode of making up a book, and styling it the Adventures of a Cat, a Dog, a Monkey, a Hackney-coach, a Louse, a Shilling, a Rupee, or—any thing else, is grown so fashionable now, that few months pass which do not bring one of them under our inspection.’ ”

  • In which Nabokov, talking to us from 1926, attempts to make sense of his exile: “There is a very seductive and very dangerous demon: the demon of generalities. He captivates man’s thought by marking every phenomenon with a little label, and punctiliously placing it together with another, similarly carefully wrapped and numbered phenomenon. Through him a field of human knowledge as changeable as history is turned into a neat little office, where this many wars and that many revolutions sleep in folders—and where we can pore over bygone ages in complete comfort. This demon is fond of words such as idea, tendency, influence, period, and era. In the historian’s study this demon reductively combines in hindsight the phenomena, influences, and tendencies of past ages. With this demon comes appalling tedium—the knowledge (utterly mistaken, by the way) that, however humanity plays its hand or fights back, it follows an implacable course. This demon should be feared. He is a fraud. He is a salesman of centuries, pushing his historical price list.”
  • Today in dramatic acts of digital preservation: if ever the Daily shuts down, we hope to survive in a kind of bardic oral tradition, having former readers pass down our stories one at a time through the generations, at great length and with little regard for accuracy. The website, which I’d never heard of before about ten minutes ago, is taking fewer chances. Instead of vanishing into the mists of time, they’re keeping their users’ contributions “in a nickel-plate ‘book’ designed to be readable for the next 10,000 years … Everything on the site—roughly two million words and fourteen thousand photos—will be etched in microscopic size onto a series of nickel plates. Everything will be readable with an optical microscope.” (One of the site’s founders notes that the plates are “fire resistant” and “deal well with saltwater.”)
  • Philosophy departments are among the most Eurocentric in all of academe—which is fine, as long as they practice truth in advertising. Write to your congressman: “Any department that regularly offers courses only on Western philosophy should rename itself ‘Department of European and American Philosophy’ … We hope that American philosophy departments will someday teach Confucius as routinely as they now teach Kant, that philosophy students will eventually have as many opportunities to study the Bhagavad Gita as they do the Republic, that the Flying Man thought experiment of the Persian philosopher Avicenna (980–1037) will be as well-known as the Brain-in-a-Vat thought experiment of the American philosopher Hilary Putnam (1926–2016), that the ancient Indian scholar Candrakirti’s critical examination of the concept of the self will be as well-studied as David Hume’sthat Frantz Fanon (1925–1961), Kwasi Wiredu (1931– ), Lame Deer (1903–1976) and Maria Lugones will be as familiar to our students as their equally profound colleagues in the contemporary philosophical canon. But, until then, let’s be honest, face reality and call departments of European-American Philosophy what they really are.”

Shit Is Furniture, and Other News

May 11, 2016 | by

Merdacotta—clean enough to eat off of.

  • Because life is a waking nightmare in which the grandees of the universe spread their sagging buttocks over our prone bodies, Budweiser has changed its name to America. Ricardo Marques, a Budweiser veep hastening the arrival of the end times, gave an interview to Fast Company: “The tagline for the entire related media campaign is meant to be incredibly sincere, even inspiring message: ‘America is in your hands.’ When I ask Marques, jokingly, if drinking Budweiser now means you’re drinking America, his reply is dead serious. ‘In a way, it is true,’ he says. ‘If you think about Budweiser as the most iconic American brand when it comes to beer, it’s probably not incorrect.’ ”
  • But we mustn’t lose faith. Even as corporations coopt the nation-state and install themselves as our new gods, people are restlessly creating, inventing … turning shit into furniture. “Made out of clay and cow excrement, merdacotta—literally, ‘baked shit’ in Italian—can be fashioned into tiles, tableware, flowerpots and, fittingly, toilet bowls. An installation of items made out of merdacotta was one of the most memorable offerings at this year’s Salone del Mobile design extravaganza in Milan. Luca Cipelletti, an architect who helped to devise the exhibition, says that ‘people smile and think it’s funny to talk about caca, but behind it all we are exploring interesting and philosophical ideas about man, art and nature as well as the concept of transformation.’ ”
  • Meanwhile, in Russia, the “medical and biological” costs of keeping Vladimir Lenin’s body preserved have reached $197,000 annually. “If carefully monitored and re-embalmed regularly, scientists believe he can last in this state for centuries more,” writes Daria Litvinova for the Guardian.  (Note that dangling modifier: if the sentence isn’t corrected, someone might reasonably believe that we must embalm those scientists). “The first idea didn’t involve embalming at all, but deep freezing … In early March 1924, when preparations were gaining momentum, two well-known chemists, Vladimir Vorobyov and Boris Zbarsky, suggested embalming him with a chemical mixture that would prevent the corpse from decomposing, drying up and changing color and shape.”

The Coltrane Home in Dix Hills

September 23, 2015 | by

The deceptively ordinary house where Coltrane composed A Love Supreme.

Coltrane’s unassuming house in Dix Hills.

In an empty corner of a modest home in suburban New York, hiding beneath a construction zone’s deposits of dirt and dust on the floor, is a patch of bright, bold, almost electrically colorful vintage purple carpet. It couldn’t be more out of place; the rest of the surroundings are just exposed old wall beams and tattered bits of plaster coming down. But it seems right at home, somehow calm and calming, in the midst of it all.

The carpet dates back to the 1960s, when John and Alice Coltrane used to live here and make their way back to the same corner room to go to sleep at night. Close by the master bedroom was the kitchen, the heart of the home in a way, and from there the hallways led out to the kids’ rooms, the den with the fireplace, and the garage out to the side. Over that was the ashram. In the basement was a recording studio. Then, up a now tenuous set of stairs, was the chamber that made this modest suburban home most famous: the room where John Coltrane composed his stirring, searching masterwork A Love SupremeRead More »

How Not to Preserve Ancient Scrolls, and Other News

January 23, 2015 | by


A replica demonstrates how a scroll might have looked when it was new. Photo: Giovanni Dall'Orto, 2014

  • Resolve your literary feud the media-friendly way: (1) do it at a public event, (2) make sure there’s not a dry eye in the house, and (3) invoke the memory of Charles Dickens, just for the sport of it. More than fifteen years ago, V. S. Naipaul and Paul Theroux “fell out in a spectacularly-bitter war of words, after Naipaul sold some of Theroux’s gifts at auction. The anger seethed for almost two decades. But on Wednesday the hatchet was resoundingly buried, with eighty-two-year-old Naipaul breaking down in tears after Theroux praised one of his most famous books at a literary festival in India, and compared the author to Charles Dickens.”
  • Centuries ago, an excavation in Italy revealed a collection of some two thousand ancient Roman scrolls, most of them treatises on Epicurean philosophy. Unfortunately, the scrolls have a tendency to crumble in your hands, which makes it fairly difficult to read or even preserve them. People have tried taking knives to them (didn’t work), applying a gelatin-based adhesive (didn’t work), or just throwing them away (didn’t work). The latest solution: X-rays.
  • The architect who bought Ray Bradbury’s Los Angeles house demolished it earlier this month, thus unleashing a furor from Bradbury fans. “It’s really been a bummer,” the architect said, adding in his defense that the home was exceptionally bland. “I could make no connection between the extraordinary nature of the writer and the incredible un-extraordinariness of the house.” Yesterday he hatched a new plan to honor the space: a wall.
  • On Quvenzhané Wallis’s black Annie: “the fact that a black Annie has arrived on the scene at this particular cultural moment seems to me cruelly ironic … When it comes to persuading Americans about the virtue of selfishness, Ayn Rand has nothing on Annie … By making innocence seem invulnerable, Annie and other Teflon kids in fiction and film have helped to enable the widespread apathy about social inequalities that allows Americans to claim that our society is child-centered even though the percentage of children living in poverty in this country continues to grow.”
  • Has technology accelerated life to the point of meaninglessness? On Judy Wajcman’s Pressed for Time: “Wajcman recalls seeing, at a nursing home, a daughter with one arm slung around her elderly mother, the other tapping on her smartphone. Though Wajcman acknowledges an initial negative judgment of this scene, she quickly reconsidered. The elderly mother was clearly not very aware of her surroundings and was likely comforted by her daughter’s presence. The daughter was able to provide this solace while engaging in other activities. (She could also have been reading a book or magazine.) Is this really to be condemned?”


A Lively, Unfinished Manuscript

September 25, 2013 | by

 Illustration from “Reading the Headlines Only” Reading the Landscape of America (Nature Study Guild Publishers) by May Theilgaard Watts.  Many of the illustrations to this essay feature a variation on this blunted trapezoid, representing  the boundaries of her passenger-side window.

Illustration from Reading the Landscape of America (Nature Study Guild Publishers) by May Theilgaard Watts. Many of the illustrations to this essay feature a variation on this blunted trapezoid, representing the boundaries of her passenger-side window.

A number of years ago, on a plane returning to the United States from Mexico, I sat next to a garrulous doctor who was also the head of New York’s cactus and succulent society. He told me about plant sales, about the traditional Bajan candy that was a great threat to one-hundred-year-old cacti, and about an earlier plane trip on which he smuggled an uprooted barrel cactus back to America wrapped in a ball of dirty T-shirts. But cacti were not the reason for this trip, he explained as he showed me a medal he had just won in a long-distance race up a Guatemalan volcano, running alongside other men in his age group, forty and older. He had been busy conquering a different harsh element of the Central American landscape. After landing, as we parted ways on the elevator up to ground transportation, to myself I thought, This is a character for a short story. But even though the stories that Ivan told me revolved around botany, geology, man’s will to bend nature, it never once occurred to me until reading May Theilgaard Watts’s essay “Looking Down on Improved Property (or an Airplane View of Man and Land)” that Ivan and his chatter might be just as suited to a short ecology study as to fiction.

May Theilgaard Watts. Courtesy of Bridget Watts.

May Theilgaard Watts. Courtesy of Bridget Watts.

In this essay from Reading the Landscape of America, Watts begins her narrative with a conversation overheard between businessmen about the evergreen plantings they had been collecting for their yards; she then reflects on the great landing strip on an orchid pinned on a fellow passenger’s lapel. Once she has sensed the small presences of nature, even in the vacuum of the airport, we find her looking out the plane window at the passing city grids and farm grids and reporting that “under this net, Nature is squirming and resisting.” At every margin, every mark on the human neatness of borders, she reels off the names “dandelion, cottonwood, ailanthus,” like a refrain announcing the little victories of hardy wilderness. In another essay from the same collection, “Prairie Plowing Match,” the concern with finding pockets of “native” flora among the “foreign” plantings imported by humans is the same, but this study finds a different refrain. She refers back to seventy-five years of local literature for text suggesting the original Illinois landscape she seeks, and she uses fragments of these historical tractor-pull programs to punctuate her description of a walk around the prairie. When she finds her “natives,” she finds them along a fence rail, on the grounds of a churchyard, and inside an abandoned school house. Read More »