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My Idea of Heaven

https://unsplash.com/collections/158745/salt-life-for-me

An English Heaven . . .

A Full English Breakfast

A Full English Breakfast

Julian Barnes, a noted English author, has a very clear and a very English notion of heaven. It starts, naturally, with a Full English Breakfast. (An English comedian said once that a Full English was one of the two things that a woman can do which would comfort any man.) Julian’s heavenly grapefruit is perfectly formed; its segments do not cling, and float away from the fruit on the tip of the oval grapefruit spoon. It had a mélange of flavors coalescing like fine wine, ‘a sort of awaking sharpness followed quickly by a wash of sweetness’.

 Then followed ‘crispy [bacon whose] fat glow[ed] like fire’, eggs which ‘trail[ed] off into filigree gold braid’ and, the tour de force, the grilled tomato. Julian rhapsodized over his grilled tomato: this tomato actually does ‘ – yes, this is the thing I remember – tast[e] of tomato’. The toast and jam is beyond his powers of description but I reckon it was Five Grain Wholemeal bread from Publix, toasted just enough to crisp the toast surfaces but only warm the interior, generously buttered with Kerry butter, and lavished with Bonne Maman Peach Preserve.

Roekelseskar by Nina Aldin Thune

Roekelseskar by Nina Aldin Thune

The main event, though, is tea. Not so much the delicate aromas of the tea itself, rather the receptacle it came in. Of my teapots over the years I am especially fond of a Brown Bessie and one which looked like a painter’s work table,both now alas dearly departed, but of Barnes’s teapot we know little. He is taken with the ‘strainer . . . attached to its spout by three silver chains’ somewhat like a demi-thurible, ‘the insignia of some chic Parisian café’, ‘a little gadget which seems to me almost a definition of luxury’.

 He finds his wardrobe full of his most comfortable, totally wabi-sabi, retired-now-magically-new clothes, and settles down for two more breakfasts.

Next day he goes shopping. A relation of his had said, “When I die, I don’t want to go to Heaven, I want to go shopping in America”. This was Publix/Whole Foods/Central Market double plus good. The range and quality was unparalleled even for those magnificent stores, including, as it did, ‘Terrine de Kangarou’, Garibaldi biscuits with a 50:50 ratio of currents to pastry, and a libation called ‘Stinko-Paralytiko (made in Yugoslavia)’.

Red Teapot by Jorge Garcia

Red Teapot by Jorge Garcia

The following day, at breakfast, he read in the newspaper that ‘No kidding, Leicester City had bloody well won the FA Cup!’

He took up golf on a course which had ‘bits of seaside links like in Scotland, patches of flowering dogwood and azalea from Augusta, beechwood, pine, bracken and gorse.’, and scored a respectable 67. That evening, his carer, Brigitta, artfully declined sex but sex was to be had as he found ‘two long red hairs’ on his pillow in the morning. It is kind of interesting, and very English, that he can make more of your Full English than a good f$%k.

Then, ‘Guess what happened next? [He] started worrying.’ Looking for reassurance, he asked ‘Look, this is heaven, isn’t it?’, to which the reply was ‘Oh yes’ And so his heavenly ‘life continued, and [his] golf improved no end.’ After a while and a cruise or two, he starts to worry again, this time about religion. His case manager asks him what he does on Sundays.‘ “On Sundays”, I said, “as far as I can work out, because I don’t follow the days too closely any more, I play golf, go shopping, eat dinner, have sex and don’t feel bad.”

supermarket from above by Bunny Hero

supermarket from above by Bunny Hero

She replies, ‘Isn’t that perfect?’

It was of course but that was not his point nor the point. Apparently, the heaven of psalms and hallelujahs, ‘Old Heaven’, had ‘sort of closed down.’ because ‘after the new Heavens were built, … there was . . . little call for it.’ The inhabitants, the ‘Old Heaveners . . . gave up speaking to anyone but other Old Heaveners. Then they began to die off.’ New Heaveners also had ‘the option to die off if they want to’. In Mr. Barnes’s heaven, people can’t stand being happy all the time and like a medieval king die of a surfeit.

An Intellectual’s Heaven . . .

Frazier, too, is equally unfit for a life of perpetual bliss. In ‘Door Jam’ he and Niles lust after an oh-so-discreet spa, which proves to be very heaven, UNTIL they found that they had had the mere Silver service, and there was the oh-so-exclusive Gold service. Their quest for heaven results in their discovery of the garbage area, and they exit pursued by bees.

The Matrix

Perhaps it is as Agent Smith says in that one good Matrix film:

Agent Smith: Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this: the peak of your civilization.

The problem of pain

Relief from Persepolis by Paul

Relief from Persepolis by Paul

Barnes quoted Flaubert – the quote I cannot find – that to someone in chronic pain that pain is forever new, forever worthy of attention, but to those who care for the invalid and witness a lifetime of agony, it becomes over time duller, more of an obstacle to be negotiated, an annoyance, even a self-indulgence. Flaubert forgets that love never tires of caring and never become inured to the problems of the beloved.

Paradiso

A good candidate for heaven would be Fiorenza (Florence, Italy), until you see the fortress town houses and learn of the terrible practical jokes the creatives would play on one another. In the science museum there, there is one of Galileo’s telescopes. When I wax lyrical about this little black tube and mention the Starry Messenger , the book he wrote about what he saw through such a little thing; a book which describes an imperfect sun pockmarked by sunspots, the Medicean Stars flocking around Jupiter, that for each of the multitude of stars we can see without a telescope there is a multitude more, and that the face of the Moon “is not robed in a smooth and polished surface but is in fact rough and uneven, covered everywhere, just like the earth’s surface, with huge prominences, deep valleys, and chasms.”, I usually get a slightly pained look and ‘Oh, really’.

Firenze Duomo by Franek N

Firenze Duomo by Franek N

There I was able to wander in the footsteps of the great Tuscan poet Dante Alighieri. His Divine Comedy actually has three parts although Hell is by far and away the best known, regurgitated endlessly in horrible films and derivative TV drama. Dante, the supreme poet working in a language of angels and Mafiosi, did so much better describing the damned and their torments than the dubious pleasures of heaven. His profound of hell is a sea of ice where Satan is rooted waist deep, chewing forever on Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. He should have a dozen or more mouths for the wicked of subsequent centuries. They are far more deserving of the worst that Hell can dish up.

(I like the idea of putting the shades of Hitler and his stooges in the front row of every Broadway performance of ‘The Producers’. As the reaction of Pyongyang to the advanced publicity to Seth Rogen and James Franco’s film ‘The Interview’ shows, nasty tyrants have no sense of humor. I hope the Seth/James film will be a runaway success.)

Unfortunately, when it comes to heaven the best that Dante – the daddy of them all –  can come up with is the thought of a white rose and an old man’s opiate blissing,

In forma dunque di candida rosa, . . .
ma l’altra, che volando vede e canta
la gloria di colui che la ’nnamora
e la bontà che la fece cotanta,
sì come schiera d’ape che s’infiora
una fïata e una si ritorna
là dove suo laboro s’insapora,
nel gran fior discendeva che s’addorna
di tante foglie, e quindi risaliva
là dove ’l süo amor sempre soggiorna.
Le facce tutte avean di fiamma viva
e l’ali d’oro, e l’altro tanto bianco,
che nulla neve a quel termine arriva.

Fiorenza is great and should be on your bucket list, but, for me, the number one, tippy-toppy experience was an open-topped bus trip out past the Belvedere, made so famous in Silence of the Lambs, and into the sumptuous summer Tuscan countryside.

Doctor Lecter and Agent Starling

Clarice Starling: Did you do all these drawings, Doctor?
Hannibal Lecter: Ah. That is the Duomo seen from the Belvedere. Do you know Florence?
Clarice Starling: All that detail just from memory, sir?
Hannibal Lecter: Memory, Agent Starling, is what I have instead of a view.

Persian Palaces

 

Hasht Behesht Palace Musicians

Hasht Behesht Palace Musicians

Just after finishing university, I took a journey through Iran, Turkey and Greece. The first leg of the plan was to head south from Tehran to Shiraz, and visit the summer palace of Xerxes the Great known to the West by its Greek name, Persepolis. Had those ancient Greeks not been so parochial, and had they not wrecked it, the awesome complex would have made an eighth Wonder of the World. For a journey like this, I was not exactly prepared. I compounded the hazards by taking with me a cute teen girl. We survived more or less intact, due to the goodwill of the many generous, kind folk along the way. I’ll write up these adventures sometime, but now I would like to tell of the Palace of Oranges.

Shiraz is called the City of the Oranges and is the home and burial place of Hafez, the Persian Dante. For breakfast we had fresh baked bread, olives and tea and then walked into town and the delightful jewel of a tea house, to which we had been taken on our first day in the City. After a wonderful glass of Sherbot (Iranian lemonade) we set out for the palace. It did not look promising. We walked down narrow, dusty medieval streets penned in by high ocher walls. The entrance was a low unadorned door, which opened into a gloomy, dusty, medieval vestibule. We walked around a corner and the garden exploded at us.

Al Hambra by Tania & Artur

Al Hambra by Tania & Artur

Gardens like this are long and narrow, and shaded by high walls. Down the middle was a pool lined with blue and white tiles. Between the walls and pool was row upon row of orange trees. At the far end of the garden was the summer house into which was inset a Moorish alcove, lined with mirrors. How lovely it must have been to sit in that alcove on cushions with friends on a balmy night savoring the scent of orange blossom.

Ta Prohm in Siem Reap by Daniel Mennerich

Ta Prohm in Siem Reap by Daniel Mennerich

 

In the Quran, heaven is liken to a garden and in Islamic countries there are many gardens. Two such gardens are in the Taj Mahal, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, and the Alhambra, Cordova, Andalusia. Both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites aka Wonders of the World and there are many more than seven. I have been to the Taj which is as beautiful in real life as it is on the picture postcards. I hope to see the Alhambra someday. I know that Jacob Bronowski loved it.

Hotel de la Paix

So what would be my idea of heaven?
I’m glad you asked me that.

It is in Siem Reap, Cambodia and was called Hotel de la Paix (Hotel of Peace). It has an undistinguished outside, hidden like the Palace of Oranges, something like a white washed Art Deco cinema in small town America. On the street side is the glass windows of the hotel’s café and a porte-cochère, into which our taxi pulled late on a July evening in 2009. The revolving doors let into a cool minimalist atrium centered on a Brancusi take on the figure forms of Angkor Wat. Above the figure floated  the tiered balconies  of the upper floors.

The Foyer Goddess by Reico

The Foyer Goddess by Reico

Behind the figure was the reception and the concierge. There we were asked one of the best questions any traveler can be asked: Would you like an upgrade?  We gladly accepted a suite for the price of a double room. Apparently, the bankers who had just broken the American credit system had also confined most of the hotel customers in other countries, so the hotel’s best rooms were vacant. So next time there is a glitch in the economy pack your bags because there will be some really good deals to be had to things normally way beyond your budget. Like this suite.

It was split level. Downstairs, the main room was divided by an enormous swivelable flat screen TV into the sleeping area with a comfy king size, bedside tables lights and so on, and sitting area with a comfy sofa, a desk and view of the central garden veiled by gauzy white curtains. The upper level was a balcony with two massage tables – les massages privés, bien sûr, and french windows which let out  on to a private sunning terrace and a huge marble plunge pool. The levels were joined by wrought-iron spiral stairs. From the sleeping area a short passage led to a huge sculpted washbasin around which were piles of wash clothes, bottles of water and what appeared to be old fashioned cruets but could be split open to reveal a unguents and oils.

Figure at Angkor Wat

Figure at Angkor Wat

To the left were your walk-in closet, a stack of teak draws and the safe, and to the right was the wonderful shower room. I think it is the best shower I have ever seen. The floor and walls and ceiling were varieties of brown biscuit in color, dimpled tiles on the floor and veined marble for walls and ceiling. The shower system was worthy of German engineering. System A was a split cylinder of shower heads to give the all-round shower, with a handheld hanging from a copper hook for those hard-to-reach nooks and crannies. System B was a huge – perhaps 20 centimeters wide – flat copper doucher capable of an excellent emulation of a tropical downpour.

Next: the pool. The pool was on the 2nd floor. To call the pool a pool gives the impression of a public building laced by a superabundance of chlorine, a pool of milky water there in, cavernous echoes, slightly scummy grout, and monstrous temperature differences which are best left to Walruses. This pool is more like a garden. To reach it, one takes the lift and then walks down the minimalist corridor, along which were niches presenting backlit Kymer reliefs, which led out into the explosion of tropical sunshine.

pool at Hotel de la Paix

pool at Hotel de la Paix

The doorway lets into an area dominated by a little canal running across left and right. You have arrived at the bit where the rooms which let out onto their own small sun decks, all of which have loungers and the like. The canal continues under the building, each side lined with alcoves with benches and cushions for quiet reading, and ending with an infinity. To reach the rest of the garden there is a little wooden bridge over the canal. There among the beds of succulents and palms are more loungers and more of the industrial sized showers. Some have stone frogs sitting around them. They reminded me of the Gorf who created the heaven called Calf Island described in Salman Rushdie’s 1st book, Grimus.

The rest of the pool had a checkerboard of water inset with small square islands sprouting fronds and palms.  Away from the loungers, several hot tubs bubbled. Another little bridge lead to the spa and the gym. The cool lavender scented spa has plush massage couches, the most expert masseurs, and all the while quietly Khmer chimes tinkle. As it was late, we opted for an early night and – of course – watched Tomb Raider.

Hôtel de la Paix by Reico

Hôtel de la Paix by Reico

Breakfast, on the morrow, was served in the restaurant. The inside of the restaurant is dark teak, its tables covered with stiff fin-de-siècle tablecloths. You are welcomed by courteous, handsome staff. The al fresco part of the restaurant lines two sides of a courtyard centered around a spreading deciduous tree and pools and flag stones. In the evening, it is candle lit. The side nearest the restaurant has conventional tables and chairs of a colonial style, the other side has five or so suspended bowers, on which you would sit or lie propped up by triangular pillows, little button shaped pillows, and shapeless pillows as soft as clouds; and supplies of comestibles furnished on teak trays on little legs. These were much to the delight of the children.

Breakfast, itself, was a vast array of breads, fruits, juices, meats, and cheeses. Tea was bought in a white porcelain Brown Bessie. On that first day I treated myself to an Eggs Benedict which I’m delighted to say was made with fresh Hollandaise.

Showers at Hotel de la Paix by Reico

Showers at Hotel de la Paix by Reico

On the opposite side of courtyard was the spacious bar about the size of decent dance hall, discretely lit with pools of blue light, huge divans and modern Khmer art. The bar itself was biscuit stone inscribed with a homage to the reliefs of Angkor, lit in blue and white. They even did a decent vodka-martini.

The last part of fine dining was the café. We had most of our lunches there. They did very well with fresh handmade ice cream, and wonderful ham and cheese croissants. The servers were handsome, efficient and courteous. I recall one in particular: a beautiful girl with long, long shimmering hair.

Outside was the Khmer capital dominated by the World Heritage Angkor Wat. Its very nice but we preferred the brooding magnificence of Beng Mealea and Ta Prohm, still claimed by the forest by the lava-like flows of Tetrameles nudiflora trees.

和平飯店 by chloe Q

和平飯店 by chloe Q

 I had a massage every day of our visit. Tough, hun? I did have lobster and I did pay more than a dollar. I bought a lovely silver bangle decorated with elephants for the wife, who added silver elephant earrings and a pendant. We sat in the night market and had our toes nibbled by minnows while drinking beer and accosting strangers to come and join us. It was undoubtedly a good trip. Could the hotel bear improvement; everything can. The massages were great but the very tippy-top best is to be had at the Le Meridien, New Delhi.

I like this hotel and I’m far from being alone. Although the name has changed, I do hope its spirit lives on.

 

Palm

Palm

The Final Days of Jesus

The Holy Sepulchre By Berthold Werner

I liked this book, The Final Days of Jesus. Its author, Shimon Gibson, is an archaeologist based in Jerusalem. He has dung up bits of the ancient city, shimmied into ancient mortuary caves and even found an ancient shroud, so he knows what he is talking about. With a name like Shimon I guess that he is Jewish, but he takes his profession seriously, so his book is mostly religion neutral, although there is a mournful note when he writes about the destruction of the second Temple in 60 C.E.

Temple Mount by Yupi666

Temple Mount by Yupi666

The book begins with that walk down from Galilee. At the end of this trek (no fifteen mile drives to the mall in those days), He stays at Martha and Mary’s house in Bethany. There is a rich crop of Beth villages around Jerusalem: Bethany, Bethlehem, Bethabara, and Bethphage (which apparently means “house of green figs.”) Gibson discusses in some detail the rituals of purification and anointing at that time and shows that Jesus’s anointing by Mary is consistent with the practices of the time.

We then walk down the steep slope of the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem, its skyline dominated by the Temple “which dazzled those who entered the city from afar” as it “gleamed all over with gold and polished stones.” The well-to-do had nabbed the hills of Upper Jerusalem for their palaces and forts while Jesus characteristically stayed with the people in Lower Jerusalem.

Dividing the city in two is the Tyropoeon Valley: Tyropoeon apparently means cheese-makers who, of course, were blessed in the beatitudes according to the Life of Brian. In Lower Jerusalem is the Siloam Miqwa’ot (ritual purification pool of Siloam). Gibson describes the care to separate the pre and post purified with different steps and even different sides of the street. In an age before antibiotics and immunization, and the prevalence of diseases like leprosy, a concern about hygiene is understandable.

Gibson downplays two events of Holy Week: Jesus’s arrival on Palm Sunday (p18) and when Jesus chased the money lenders out of the Temple precincts (p48). He argues that anything smacking of insurrection would have swiftly been jumped on by the forces of law and order, both Jewish and Roman. The Last Supper Gibson reckons took place somewhere near the Siloam Miqwa’ot and not in the tourist stop off, the Cenacle, whose Gothic arches were clearly built in Crusader times and is just too big. Why wouldn’t Jesus and the Disciples just have hunkered down there rather than schlep up the Mount of Olives? Gibson suggests that the real room was too small and they were just camping out like many other Passover visitors. The choice of Gethsemane as that evening’s camp site would have been down to its proximity to the lower city and its accessibility through the Siloam Gate. It would also have been comparatively comfy as the whole hill was an olive grove: the name ‘Gethsemane’ is derived from the Aramaic for “olive press.” Once He had been arrested, Jesus would have been taken down the Kidron Valley into the city and up to Caiaphas’s house somewhere in the Upper City.

Madaba map by By Brandmeister

Madaba map by By Brandmeister

Joseph Caiaphas, High Priest and chairman of the Sadducees, belonged to an influential family and held the job from 18 to 36 CE. It was given to him by one Roman, Valerius Gratus and fired from it by another, Vitellius, Governor of Syria, at the same time as Pilate was removed as Præfectus.” We know that Pilate really existed as there is an inscription mentioning him on a piece of stone found at Caesarea. Also, we’ve found the Caiaphas family tomb. Both fellows were career bureaucrats whose lives, their rise and fall was routine for the time, except for that minor nuisance around 30 CE which, for them, was probably simply a matter of keeping the riffraff in their place. I wonder what they would make of their fame down the ages principally due to the man they had had executed.

Gibson puts Christ’s trial in a complex of buildings near Herod’s Palace called the Essenes’s Gate, which had been built to provide a quick escape for the royals should the masses become too revolting. Here is the nice tie to the visionary folk, who lived at Qumran and wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, and shared many of Jesus’s ideas. The gate complex centered around a small courtyard with a raised platform, so would have suited Pilate for a quick summary trial. If it really was the location of the trial, then the story about Barabbas and the guilt of the Jews cannot be true. The Essenes’s Gate was far too small for a decent crowd to claim the guilt of Christ’s murder for themselves and their children. Neither was there a custom of releasing a prisoner at Passover Time. Sad to say that the Holocaust, centuries of pogroms and hatred may be all down to a few lines by a scribe trying to suck up to the Romans.

Gibson describes the horrendous business of crucifixion in some detail including the bent nail left in some poor sod’s ankle. During the siege of Jerusalem in 60 C.E. the Roman soldiery got so bored with nailing people up they “amused themselves by nailing their prisoners in different postures; so great was their number, that space could not be found for the crosses nor crosses for the bodies.” What must the screaming and groaning have been like?

Golgotha Cross Section by Yupi666

Golgotha Cross Section by Yupi666

The Roman soldiers probably did not think much of the Jewish religion. After all, Alexander the Great and his Greeks had beaten the Jews in battle, and then Pompey’s legions had done it all over again. Any normal people would have signed up for the winning gods. The Romans and Greeks believed in essentially the same capricious, amoral Marvel characters. As ingénues, those Romans didn’t realize that they were just the latest in a long line of military powers – Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians – who had been awesome in the day, and were no more. The Jews and their faith would outlive them too. Nowadays, we also prefer Marvel heroes and Mammon, and don’t have much time for the meek or the venerable.

The location of Golgotha, the site of both the Crucifixion and the tomb in the garden, Gibson reckons has always been known, as it was on a prominent outcrop overlooking a main route to the city, all the better to show off Rome’s might. It was pointed out to the Roman emperor Constantine’s mum, Helena, when she visited the city in 326-8 C.E. As she had bought the empire’s piggy bank with her, she brought up everything and anything to do with Christ, including those pieces of the true cross carried by the Frankish kings of Jerusalem, some 800 years later. She had her son tear down the temple to Athena which was standing on the hill of Golgotha and build the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which has been a place of pilgrimage and veneration to our times.

The big question is did Jesus just die that horrific death, knowing his life and work destroyed in the maw of imperial justice, or did God stretch out his hand and bring him back to life? This is a matter of belief: science, in the form of archaeology, cannot  answer yea or nay. For most of its existence the Christian tradition has stood by Jesus at the Siloam Pool with the humble folk. In time, of course, the folk from the upper city came down to help (themselves). The official religion of Constantine shattered into many fragments and became such strangers that epic bloodshed was countenanced by the words of the Good Shepherd, mildest of men. But it wasn’t all bad; even a Borgia pope left the marvel of Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel and Barbarini – the pope who had Galileo summoned to the Holy Offices of the Inquisition – sponsored Allegri’s Miserere Mei.

 

Both chapel and chant are some of the artillery of art made for the Counter Reformation. That shock and awe campaign flowered into Baroque and is in part theatrical and therefore man made. I have had many sublime theatrical experiences: the sunrise in the Tennessee Williams play, Camino Real: Much Ado in the garden of St. John’s, Oxford when the toasting summer had run dry of Pimm’s,

Clown Song in Twelfth Night
When that I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain;
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.

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Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Professor and the Wild Pig

The Bison at Altamira

Meal number four

For meal number four, Professor Pollan wanted to get the grub the good old fashioned way, old as in Paleolithic Age old, but he has a problem: “I had never hunted in my life.” It gets worse.

“Being a somewhat accident-prone individual (childhood mishaps included getting bitten in the cheek by a seagull and breaking my nose falling out of bed).”  Moreover, his “father looked upon hunting as a human activity that had stopped making sense with the invention of the steakhouse.”

So how did Pollan’s mum fare? “Thanks to my mother’s more extensive engagement with the natural world, I did have some childhood experience. These elementary foraging expeditions were always accompanied by scary surgeon general-like warnings from my mother about the deadly poisons lurking in berries and mushrooms growing in the wild: she made it sound like it wouldn’t take much for a kid to get himself killed snacking in the woods.”

The poor boy was a danger to himself, even without a gun, and was fungiphobic. Still, he was intent on escaping the cube farm.

“… I had decided that this meal should feature representatives of all three edible kingdoms: animal, vegetable, and fungi. I was about as ill prepared to hunt the former and gather the latter as an eater could possibly be.”

The lack of fire arm proficiency was just too galling: “…a line of Henry David Thoreau’s that had irritated me when I first came across it years ago. ‘We cannot but pity the boy who has never fired a gun,’ he wrote in Walden. ‘He is no more humane, while his education has been sadly neglected.’ That pitiable, uneducated boy was me.”

Gun: tick.

Mushrooms: Well, “Mushroom hunting was to me the very soul of foraging, throwing both the risks and rewards of eating from the wild into the sharpest possible relief. … If I hoped to host representatives of all three kingdoms on my plate, learning to distinguish the delicious from the deadly among the fungi was a necessity

Mushrooms: tick.

Divina Commedia

Pollan needed help. “What if I actually managed to kill something-then what? How do you ‘dress’ an animal you’ve killed? (And what kind of euphemism is that, anyway?)” He will get to almost throw up while dressing his pig. “What I badly needed, I realized, was my own personal foraging Virgil, a fellow not only skilled in the arts of hunting and gathering (and butchering), but also well versed in the flora, fauna, and fungi of Northern California, about which I knew approximately nothing. “As serendipity would have it, a foraging Virgil appeared in my life at exactly the right moment, though it took me a while to recognize him.”

Dante et Vergil dans le neuvième cercle de l'enfer par Gustave Doré

Dante et Vergil dans le neuvième cercle de l’enfer par Gustave Doré

Why Virgil? Does he need Thunderbird 2? Surely Scott in Thunderbird 1 would be a better choice. Ah, no. Pollan is indulging in a literary conceit. A long, long time ago, a poet called Durante degli Alighieri, or the more manageable Dante, was exiled from his home town of Firenze (Florence) by the Black Guelphs. Italian politics was as dysfunctional back then as now, so the machinations are complex, but suffice to say he never returned. He was in the then new wave of Italian poetry, the dolce stil novo (sweet new style, a term which Dante himself coined), and spent 20 years of exile writing Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy), expiring the following year. It is no more a comedy in the modern sense than Da Vinci’s Cartoon in the National Gallery, London is like those of the New Yorker. As the blessèd Peter Cook said of the Da Vinci sketch, “I can’t understand the joke.”

 

 

“The poem begins “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita” (halfway along our life’s path). Dante is lost in a dark wood assailed by beasts (a lion, a leopard, and a she-wolf). Things were looking dicey for our hero when he is rescued by Virgil. This Virgil is the shade of the Latin poet, author of the epic, Aeneid. He guides Dante, down through the ten circles of the Inferno – one for each sin plus one for Lucifer, then out the bottom of Hell to the base of the mountain Purgatorio, and up its 10 terraces, and to Paradiso.

Divina Commedia “is widely considered the preeminent work in Italian literature, and is seen as one of the greatest works of world literature.” To embroider Pollan’s conceit a little, the CAFOs of Agribusiness might be his idea of Hell and, if Agribusiness were a pig, then Big Organic would be a pig with lipstick. Omnivore’s Dilemma doesn’t really have a Purgatorio, it skips straight to the Paradiso of Polyface Farm.

The most famous part of the Commedia is Inferno, which is peopled by the wicked of Dante’s time. You will find a goodly crop of clerics from Pope Boniface VIII down, assorted enemies from his days in Firenze, characters from Greco-Roman myth, and those who chose mortal sin to end their earthly misfortunes. For some of the damned, part of their punishment is to lose their human form: Pier della Vigna committed suicide and was transformed into a thorn tree which bleeds; Guido da Montefeltro, advisor to Boniface VIII, hoped that the dispensation from the Pope would let him into Paradiso, but Dante finds him in the Inferno transformed into a flame.

The adventure Pollan recounts in the 4th part of Omnivore’s Dilemma is transformational, too. The tale would never feature in the Supermarket Pastoral, the genre of advertising favored by Big Organic. He discovers his Paleolithic ancestry and its uncomfortable potency.

The Forger Virgil

“The guy was a one-man traveling food network, a poster boy for tbe Slow Food movement.”

“Angelo Garro is a stout, burly Italian with a five-day beard, sleepy brown eyes, and a passion verging on obsession about the getting and preparing of food.” He “spends many of his days in California re-creating the calendar of life in Sicily, a calendar that is strictly organized around seasonal foods.”

“’In Sicily you could tell by the smell what time of the year it was,’ he said. ‘Orange season, oranges, persimmons, olives, and olive oil.’”

But before we get to the chase, there are three chapters on human nature and food.

Our omnivore’s dilemma

The phrase “… the omnivore’s dilemma, or paradox, was first described in the 1976 paper, “The Selection of Foods by Rats, Humans, and Other Animals,” by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Paul Rozin. … Rozin found that the rat minimizes the risk of the new by treating its digestive tract as a kind of laboratory. It nibbles a very little bit of the new food (assuming it is food) and then waits to see what happens.” So, omnivores have to be smart enough to successfully recall the foods that were good and successfully distinguish them from the bad and the toxic. “In the words of Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, ‘Disgust is intuitive microbiology’”.

Wild Pig by Andrei

Wild Pig by Andrei

Human omnivorosity ”is deeply inscribed in human bodies: “Our teeth are omnicompetent- designed for tearing animal flesh as well as grinding plants. So are our jaws, which we cm move in the manner of a carnivore, a rodent, or a herbivore, depending on the dish.”

We have used our big brains to master fire and then master cooking, “one of the omnivore’s cleverest tools, [which] opened up whole new vistas of edibility.” “Indeed, there is probably not a nutrient source on earth that is not eaten by some human somewhere – bugs, worms, dirt, fungi, lichens, seaweed, rotten fish; the roots, shoots, stems, bark, buds, flowers, seeds, and fruits of plants; every imaginable part of every imaginable animal, not to mention haggis, granola, and Chicken McNuggets.”

The omnivorous life style is part of the human toolkit, as there “does seem to be an evolutionary trade-off between big brains and big guts…” Herbivores do not have to be smart, as Sid the Sloth explained in the cartoon movie Ice Age.

Diego: You don’t know much about tracking, do you?

Sid: Hey, I’m a sloth. I see a tree, eat a leaf, that’s my tracking.

Those real-life teddy bears, the koala, only eat eucalyptus leaves which means, as “it happens, the koala’s brain is so small it doesn’t even begin to fill up its skull. Zoologists theorize that the koala once ate a more varied and mentally taxing diet than it does now, and that as it evolved toward its present, highly circumscribed concept of lunch, its underemployed brain actually shrank. (Food faddists take note.)”

To complete our toolkit, or the more sciencey “the cognitive niche”, we pass our food tips and techniques in a package “we call a cuisine [which] specifies combinations of foods and flavors that on examination do a great deal to mediate the omnivore’s dilemma. The dangers of eating raw fish, for example, are minimized by consuming it with wasabi, a potent antimicrobial. Similarly, the strong spices characteristic of many cuisines in the tropics, where food is quick to spoil, have antibacterial properties. The mesa-American practice of cooking corn with lime and serving it with beans, like the Asian practice of fermenting soy and serving it with rice, turn out to render these plant species much more nutritious than they otherwise would be.”

The trouble is “America has never had a stable cognitive niche; each immigrant population has brought its own food ways to the American table, but none has ever been powerful enough to hold the national diet very steady. We seem bent on reinventing the American way of eating every generation, in great paroxysms of neophilia and neophobia. That might explain why Americans have been such easy marks for food fads and diets of every description.”

Food fads have been in vogue in America for a long, long time. The “first golden age of American food faddism” was inaugurated by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg on September 5, 1866, when he opened “his legendarily nutty sanitarium at Battle Creek, Michigan” If you couldn’t afford to go there and get your grape only diet or hourly enemas, then you might “Fletcherize“ which meant “chewing each bite of food as many as one hundred times”. It’s inventor was-“Horace Fletcher, also known as the Great Masticator.” All of these daft ideas were promoted by “exponents [who] spoke not in terms of fashion but of scientific eating, much as we do now.”

The point of any fad is to make money; so long as it follows the letter of the law, you’re fine, consequences are the other guy’s problem. As Pollan puts it, there is a “tendency of capitalism, in its single-minded pursuit of profit, to erode the various cultural underpinnings that a steady society but often impede the march of commercialization.” Care for the bottom line trumps all other considerations.

Steakhouse Dialogues

“The first time I opened Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation I was dining alone at the Palm, trying to enjoy a rib-eye steak cooked medium rare. If that sounds like a recipe for cognitive dissonance, if not indigestion, well, …”

Pollan has a lot to say on the ethics of eating animals. Are the chickens at Polyface Farm mistreated? If so, would we prefer a vegan paradise? We humans are adept at coming up with excuses. This facility Pollan describes in a story about Benjamin Franklin. “He tells in his autobiography of one day watching friends catch fish and wondering, “If, you eat one another, I don’t see why we may not eat you. He admits, however, that this rationale didn’t occur to him until the fish were in the frying pan, beginning to smell “admirably well”. The great advantage of being a “reasonable creature,” Franklin remarks, is that you can find a reason for whatever you want to do.”

Even so, we now know humans do not make choices rationally. We emote, and justify post hoc. In sciencey speech, decisions are locked away in our limbic system. Pollan’s recalls his brief relationship with the animal he brought during his quest in beef industry. “I had been wondering what 534 would be feeling as he neared his end. Would he have any inkling – a scent of blood, a sound of terror from up the line – that this was no ordinary day? would he. in other words, suffer? [Temple] Grandin anticipated my question.” who observed cattle being feed through a chute “getting their shots, and going up the ramp at the slaughter plant. No difference. If they knew they were going to die you’d see much more agitated behavior.’”

Hunting Pigs

Autumn by Alois Wonaschuetz

Autumn by Alois Wonaschuetz

The professor is a male Homo sapiens sapiens. Hunting and killing wild animals is in his biological ancestry, so he is getting to do what evolution fashioned him to do. In a way, he’s been using his clever brain to avoid doing so; living a comfortable life in the cube farm, something that our cousins, the Neanderthals, didn’t have an option on. Pollan will discover that meeting his human past is literally surreal.

“Walking with a loaded rifle in an unfamiliar forest bristling with the signs of your prey is thrilling. It embarrasses me to write that, but it is true. I am not by nature much of a noticer, yet here, now, my attention to everything around me, and deafness to everything else, is complete.

I notice how the day’s first breezes comb the needles in the pines, producing a sotto voce whistle and an undulation in the pattern of light and shadow tattooing the tree trunks and the ground. I notice the specific density of the air. But this is not a passive or aesthetic attention; it is a hungry attention, reaching out into its surroundings like fingers, like nerves.

See that smoothly scooped-out puddle of water? That’s a wallow, but notice how the water is perfectly clear: Pigs haven’t disturbed it yet today.

Professor Pollan writes, “Approaching his prey, the hunter instinctively becomes more like the animal, straining to make himself less visible, less audible, more exquisitely alert. predator and prey alike move according to their own maps of this ground, their own forms of attention, and their own systems of instinct, systems that evolved expressly to hasten or avert precisely this encounter … “

This experience is truly disconcerting.

“WAIT A MINUTE. Did I really write that last paragraph? I recognize this kind of prose: hunter porn. And whenever I’ve read it in the past, in Ortega Y Gasset and Hemingway and all those hard-bitten, big-bearded American wilderness writers who still pine for the Pleistocene. it never failed to roll my eyes.

And yet here I find myself sliding into the hunter’s ecstatic purple, channeling Ortega -Y Gasset.”

Slightly less disconcerting was the reception of his hunter persona by civilized humans. After “my second trip hunting with Angelo when, … we stopped in at a convenience store … . The two of us were exhausted and filthy, the fronts of our jeans stained dark with blood. …

And under the bright fluorescence of the 7-Eleven, in the mirror behind the cigarette rack behind the cashier, I caught a glimpse of this grungy pair of self-satisfied animal killers and noted the wide berth the other customers in line were only too happy to grant us. It is a wonder that the cashier didn’t preemptively throw contents of the cash register.”

Them pigs ain’t gonna hunt themselves

Pollan started training for his quest: “I had tried out my rifle only once before taking it to the woods, at a firing range in the Oakland Hills, and by the end of the morning my paper target had sustained considerably less damage than my left shoulder, which ached for a week.”

And before we get too sorry for the pigs, he points out that in Sonoma County: “The animal is regarded as a pest in many parts of California” and “They are also, by reputation, vicious; one of the nicknames the California pig has earned is ‘dog ripper’.”

Now that the Prof has embarked on the adventure, he has to put any qualms aside; his Virgil is determined and compelling. “’You are going to kill your first pig today’, Angelo shouted over the roar of the engine. Given the nature of hunting, not to mention me, I understood this as less a prediction than a prayer.”

The experience unfolds: “When I could hear Angelo’s footsteps no more my ears and eyes started tuning in-everything. It was as if I’d dialed up the gain on started tuning in – everything.

I found I could see farther into the woods than I ever had before, picking out the tiniest changes in my visual field at an almost inconceivable distance, just so long as those changes involved movement or blackness. The sharpness of focus and depth of field was uncanny, ‘Hunter’s eye’, Angelo said later when I described the phenomenon; he knew all about it.

Later it occurred to me that this mental state, which I quite liked, in many ways resembled the one induced by smoking marijuana…”

The lucky fellow has great cannabis memories; some people just become giddy. The active ingredients of cannabis, the cannabinoids, stimulate the “brain’s ’cannabinoid network’”.  Human brains have receptors for THC, and for anandamine, an endogenous neurotransmitter, which implies that there is a serious role for the cannabinoid network. Pollan suggests that this network has evolved to tune a hunter’s mind to the task at hand. When asked about the cannabinoid network and the role of anandamine, regular pharmacologists plump for their default hypothesis of pain and reward. I prefer Pollan’s hypothesis Anything but the musings of scientists betraying the pervasive conditioning brought to us by their employers.

“Later, when [Pollan] reread Ortega Y Gasset’s description of the experience, I decided that maybe he wasn’t so crazy after all, not even when he asserted that hunting offers us our last best chance to escape history and the state of nature, if only for a time – for what he called a ‘vacation from the human condition.’”

The cannabinoid network even comes with automatic debrief. “It’s curious how the hunting story takes shape in the minutes after the shot, as you work through the chaotic simultaneous of that lightning, elusive moment, trying to tease out of the adrenaline fog something linear and comprehensible.”

“Having introduced a loaded gun …“,

“ … in Act One, the curtain can’t come down until it is fired”. Pollan becomes oppressed by Chekhov and his dictate. Why? Prof missed; close but no cigar (or pig, in this case). A lesser man would have been content to call it a day. but he had not only Chekhov guilting him, he would disappoint Angelo. Then, there was Señor Ortega Y Gasset, Pollan’s literary guide to the hunt. Ortega Y Gasset would understand, smile sadly, and suggest that he had achieved a “platonic” understanding of the hunt, akin to bird watching. The Señor wrote, “Platonism represents the maximum tradition of affected piety.” That kind of affection was not for the Prof, he determined to try again, and consummate the experience.

“The crystal stillness of the scene and the moment in time now exploded into a thousand shards of sense. Something like the fog of war now descended on the scene, and I’m uncertain exactly what happened next, but I believe Angelo fired a second time. Angelo clapped me on the back and congratulated me extravagantly. ‘Your first pig! Look at the size of it. And with a perfect shot, right in the head.’, Angelo continued, “You got yourself a big one. That’s some very nice prosciutto!”

It was a big pig; it weighed “190 pounds. The pig weighed exactly as much as [Pollan] did.” Then, he learns all about the dressing-a-pig thing: “Dead bodies are awkward, among other things, and negotiating one this big proved a difficult, clumsy, and oddly intimate operation.” To Angelo, though, all of it was normal, indeed, “[Pollan] could not believe Angelo was still talking about food. “ They managed to haul the bulky animal back to the truck and suspended from a custom made crane on the truck’s stern.

Undressing a Pig

“Next Angelo made a shallow incision along an equator circling the pig’s belly and began to gently work the hide loose. I held down a narrow flap of skin while he cut into the fat behind it, leaving as much of the creamy white adipose layer on the carcass as possible. ‘This is really good fat,’ Angelo explained, ‘for the salami.’”

Quickly they had an audience: “… a pair of turkey vultures [circled] high overhead, patiently waiting for us to finish. Whatever parts of this pig we didn’t take the local fauna were preparing to set upon and consume, weaving this bonanza of fat and protein back into the fabric of the land. Pollan dutifully “held the [animal’s stomach] cavity open while Angelo reached in to pull out the mass of organs …”

He “reached in and pulled gently and the rest of the viscera tumbled out onto the ground in a heap, up from which rose a stench so awful it made me gag. This. was not just the stink of pig shit or piss but those comparatively benign smells compounded by an odor so wretched and ancient that death alone could release it.

I still had my arms wrapped around the pig from behind, holding it steady and open, but I needed, badly, to break away for a moment to lo-care an uncontaminated breath.

What disgusted me about “cleaning” the animal was just how messy – in every sense of the word – the process really was, how it forced me to look at and smell and touch and even to taste the death, at my hands, of a creature my size that, on the inside at least, had all the same parts and probably looked an awful lot like I did.”

The yucky bit, thankfully, came to an end. Professor Pollan had successfully killed his pig. He, Angelo and Ortega Y Gasset could be proud, and Prof could return to real life. That evening, Angelo sent him an email entitled Look the great hunter! with some photo attachments. Pollan was keen to show his family, so he opened one.

“The image that appeared on my computer screen hit me like an unexpected blow to the body. A hunter in an orange sweater was kneeling observing some hoary convention of the hunter’s trophy portrait. One proprietary hand rests on the dead animal’s broad flank. The man is looking into the camera with an expression of unbounded pride, wearing a big shit-eating grin that might have been winning, if perhaps incomprehensible, had the bloodied carcass sprawled beneath him been cropped out of the frame.

What could I possibly have been thinking? What was the man in that picture feeling?”

 

The mushrooms stalk the Prof

“Nature, as the Woody Allen character says in Love and Death is like an enormous restaurant.” Quite how Woody Allen, an icon of New York City life, might know I’ll leave for your musings. The Prof finds that: “It was almost as if I had donned a new pair of glasses that divided the natural world into the possibly good to eat and the probably not.” He saw “clumps of miner’s lettuce off in the shade (Claytonia, a succulent coin-shaped green I had once grown in my Connecticut garden) and wild mustard out in the sun. {Angelo called it rapini. and said the young leaves: were delicious sautéed in olive oil and garlic.”

In his newly found vigilance, the mushrooms made an appearance. “Hiking in the Berkeley Hills one afternoon in January I noticed a narrow shady path dropping off the main trail into the woods, and I followed it down into a grove of big oaks and bay laurel trees.”

“I noticed a bright, yolky glimmer of something pushing up the carpet of leaves not two feet from where I’d just stepped. I brushed away the leaves and there it was, this big, fleshy, vase-shaped mushroom that I was dead certain had to be a chanterelle.” Bingo!

“I took the mushroom home, brushed off the soil, and put it on a plate, then pulled out my field guides to see if I could confirm the identification. Everything matched up: the color, the faint apricot smell, the asymmetrical trumpet shape on top, the underside etched in a shallow pattern of “false” gills.” Getting warm.

He “felt fairly confident. But confident enough to eat it? Not quite. The field guide mentioned something called a false chanterelle that had slightly thinner gills. Uh oh. Thinner, thicker …”

Damn!                         Prof, the Chanterelle hunter: 0          Prof’s fungiphobia: 1

Pig: Tick, Mushrooms: Next

“Isn’t it curious how in so many of our pastimes and hobbies we play at supplying one or another of our fundamental creaturely needs-for food, shelter, even clothing? So some people knit, others build things …” In Bavaria, after a full week’s work building BMWs, the German male with his German son will don identikit overalls and toolbelts, and set about building houses. Fun should be taken seriously.

Chanterelles by Charles de Mille-Isles

Chanterelles by Charles de Mille-Isles

Professor Pollan likes to garden, and has done so “since [he] was ten years old, when [he] planted a “farm” in [his] parents’ suburban yard and set up a farm stand patronized, pretty much exclusively, by [his] mother.” Garden[ing] is diverting: “mostly comic dialogue with other species”, and awesome: “… the fact that by planting and working an ordinary patch of dirt you could in a few months’ time harvest things of taste and value was, for me, nature’s most enduring astonishment. It still is.”

Still, none of this is going to help in the mushroom hunt, and there is another problem: “Mushroom hunters are famously protective of their spots, and a good chanterelle spot is a precious personal possession ….” He “… asked a slew of acquaintances [he] knew to be mycophiles [literally mushroom lovers] if I might accompany them. (The Bay Area is home to many such people, probably because mushroom hunting marries the regions two guiding obsessions: eating and the outdoors.)”

Pollan discovers that the reaction to this seemingly innocuous request might have been caused by something done by Ted, the teddy bear, in Seth MacFarlane’s movie, Ted. “You could see at once that this was an entirely outrageous request, tantamount to asking if I might borrow their credit card for the afternoon.” Even the urbane fellow pig-hunter, Jean-Pierre fended him off, and others employed :“…the same joke: “Sure. you can come mushroom hunting with me, but I must tell you that immediately afterward I will have to kill you.”

Luckily, the Prof had his Virgil. “I was beginning to think it was hopeless, that I was going to have to learn to hunt mushrooms from books-a dubious, not to mention dangerous, proposition. And then Angelo called.” After Pollan had finished skipping around in glee, a period of mature reflection set in, so he wrote: “Though l probably shouldn’t overstate Angelo’s generosity. The place he took me mushrooming was on private and gated land owned by an old friend of his, so it wasn’t as though he was giving away the family jewels.”

“The chanterelle is a mycorrhizal species, which means it lives in association with the roots of plants – oak trees, in the chanterelle’s case, and usually oak trees of a venerable age.” Angelo had taken him to an oak grove where he was on first name terms with every single tree.

“I looked around my tree for a few minutes, walking a stooped circle under its drip line, flicking the leaf litter here and there with my stick, but I saw nothing. Eventually Angelo came over and pointed to a spot no more than a yard from where I stood. I looked, I stared, but still saw nothing but a chaotic field of tan leaves and tangled branches. Angelo got down on his knees and brushed the leaves and soil away to reveal a bright squash-colored trumpet the size of his fist. He cut it at the base with a knife and handed it to me; the mushroom was unexpectedly heavy, and cool to the touch.

How in the world had he spotted it?”

Morel Mushroom by Clayton Sieg

Morel Mushroom by Clayton Sieg

The age-old reason: practice. That’s “apparently how it goes with hunting mushrooms: You have to get your eyes on”, and “before the morning was out [he]’d begun to find a few chanterelles on my own. [He] began to understand what it meant to have [his] eyes on, and the chanterelles started to pop out of the landscape, one and then another, almost as though they were beckoning to me.”

As you’ll recall, Pollan is a professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and therefore a fully paid up member of the Guild of Wordsmiths, but the quest to find wild mushrooms has uncovered a profound truth: “Our ability to identify plants and fungi with confidence, which after all is one of the most critical tools of our survival, involves far more sensory information than can ever be printed on a page; it is, truly, a form of “body knowledge not easily reduced or conveyed over a distance.” Language leaves a lot out. No matter how capacious our digital storage becomes, the written word and therefore the Internet, will only capture a little of the world we humans are capable of perceiving. Pollan sums this up in a quote from the Marriage of the Sun and Moon by Andrew Weil:

“’One learns most mushrooms in only one-way: through people who know them.”, which he illustrates with his own experience:

“… now that I have held a freshly picked chanterelle in my hands, smelled its apricoty scent, registered its specific heft and the precise quality of its cool dampness (and absorbed who knows how many other qualities beneath the threshold of conscious notice), I’ll recognize the next one without a moment’s hesitation.”

And he is, rightly, jolly pleased with himself: “It’s not every day you acquire such a sturdy piece of knowledge.” The following week, he’s off to his oak tree and its cache of golden chanterelles: “I hadn’t thought to bring a bag, and there were more chanterelles than I could carry, so I made a carrier of my T-shirt, folding it up in front of me like a basket, and then filled it with the big, mud-encrusted mushrooms.” Gleefully, he “drew looks from passers-by, looks of envy, I decided …” and later smugly mused: “So now I have a spot and, just like Jean-Pierre’s town. (Please don’t ask me where it is.)”

MUSHROOMS ARE MYSTERIOUS

Burned forest by Ethan Trewhitt

Burned forest by Ethan Trewhitt

Just in time, too. “Once the rains stopped in April the chanterelles were done for the year” The next mushrooming where the “morels [which] came up in May.”

During the pig hunts the Prof had interrogated Jean-Pierre, who finally, reluctantly, gave him a name, Anthony Tassinello, and put Pollan “in touch with Anthony” via e-mail. And Anthony was up for it. Pollan: “was surprised he’d let a complete stranger tag along, but after some back and forth by e-mail, it began to make more sense. The morels were on, and Anthony could use an extra pair of hands. especially ones that were asking for nothing in return. … the secrecy issue is not nearly so touchy in the case of the ‘burn’ morels we would be hunting.” “Burn” morels mushroom after a pine forest fire, so are temporary and easy to Google.

In due course the call came and Anthony advised Pollan how he should prepare. “Anthony also advised me to bring sunscreen and bug spray (for mosquitoes), at least a gallon of water, ChapStick, and, if I owned one, a walkie-talkie. Morel hunting didn’t sound like much fun, more like survival training than a walk in the woods.” The Prof set his alarm for 4:30 A.M.

“The forest was gorgeous, and the forest was ghastly. Ghastly because it was, for as far as you could see, a graveyard of vertically soaring trunks that had been shorn of every horizontal, every branch, by the fire.”

Anthony and Professor Pollan were joined by Ben, Anthony’s mushrooming buddy, and the legendary Paulie Porcini. Their prey: The Morel, which is “a decidedly comic-looking mushroom, resembling leprechauns or little penises. The morel’s distinctive form and pattern would make it easy to spot if not for its color, which ranges from dun to black and could not blend in more completely with a charred landscape.” On the blasted, blackened hill slopes, more than ever mushrooms “seem[ed] autochthonous, arising seemingly from nowhere, seemingly, without cause.”

Carefully schooled by the three, the Prof extemporized. “When Ben spotted me hunting in a prone position, he approved. ‘We say, stop, drop, and roll, because you can see things at level you’ll never see from above.” For a time, they wandered, Pollan trying to get his eyes on, and experiencing “mushroom frustration”. “’Mushroom frustration’ is what you feel when everyone around you is seeing them and you’re still blind …”

“Ben and Anthony had a slew of these mushroom-hunting adages and I collected them over the course of the day. ‘Seeing is boleting’ means you never see any mushrooms until someone else has demonstrated their presence by finding one.”

The “’screen saver’ – the fact that after several hours interrogating the ground for little brown dunce caps, their images will be burned on your retinas. ‘You’ll see. When you get into bed tonight,’ Ben said, ‘you’ll shut your eyes and there they’ll be again – wall-to-wall morels.”

“’But you must never forget the final theory, the theory of all theories, ’Ben warned near the end of my morning tutorial. ‘We call it TPITP: The Proof Is in the Pudding’.

After lunch, “Along Beaver Creek that afternoon the morels were totally on, as Ben would say; almost everywhere I looked the honeycombed dunce caps appeared, and I filled a bag in less than an hour.”

“It was deeply satisfying when the morels appeared, a phenomenon ‘You could swear was as much under their control as yours. I became, perforce, a student of the “pop-out effect,” a term I’d first heard from mushroomers but subsequently learned is used by psychologists studying visual perception.” I suppose the “pop-out effect” is something like seeing the 3D shapes in a stereogram or Magic Eye picture.

Circles of Hell in Dante's Inferno Graphic by INFOGRAFIKA

Circles of Hell in Dante’s Inferno Graphic by INFOGRAFIKA

This, the Professor’s last adventure has given us a wonderful insight into human nature and human religion. Earlier, I included a brief introduction to Paradiso under the guise of introducing Virgil, Dante’s guide and mentor. Now, let’s revisit the poem so I may draw an appropriate metaphor for the Prof’s achievement. Paradiso is a truly wonderful poem, and, with a little work, it’s fairly easy to read in Dante’s actual words. In the poem, Dante has captured the universe of the Feudal Church, which, to me, is full of sin and guilt, and far from the teacher who once said, “Let the children come to me”. In our world, there is no pit dug by Lucifer’s plummet from heaven, our real mountains are majestic but nothing like the terraced Babel reaching the outskirts of heaven, and heaven is not a beautiful rose window, sterile and unmoved.

Instead the Prof has brought us news from beyond words, from Husserl’s Lebenswelt (Life world). This Lebenswelt is more wonderful than we imagine, and the more we look the more wonderful it is. Its order is built into a Copper Sulphate crystal growing in a super saturated solution; into the enormous gypsum crystals of the Cueva de los Cristales, Naica; into the basalt hexagons of the Giant’s Causeway, Ireland, built by the wonderfully named giant Finn MacCool; and reflected from far away by the Ice Sculptures of the Carina Nebula. Life, Merleau Ponty’s “Chair” (français (literally): flesh), encompasses the exquisite choreography of cell division, a baby’s smile, the bliss of humans bound together in orgasm, the life of chanterelles, the mighty breach of a right whale, and up and out to the transcendental wonder of our Blue Dot. The humans of the Life-World have answered back with the serene call of the Muezzin floating over Istanbul, the throaty roar of John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom, the piquancy of Lai from Richard the Lionheart: Troubadors et trouvères by Alla Francesca, and the overwhelming Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. The genius of people created the Song Lines running across the Outback; the feathered serpent god rippling down the staircase to the pyramid temple of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza; the luminous spaces of Santa Sophia, Istanbul; and the ranked immortals and votives, the winged bulls and the black marble throne room at Takht-e-Jamshid. So it goes this Life-World, this Flesh: It runs on and on, worlds without end.

The hunt had made the Prof feel awesomely powerful, similar to the feelings described by Israeli tank commanders driving the routed Egyptian army back across the Sinai during the ‘67 War. The principle entertainment of monarchs and nobles has been hunting, because the chase gave something of the same thrills as battle. A warrior could easily describe his experience as being one with Mars or St. Michael.

Even to a sophisticated, well informed individual like Professor Pollan, mushrooming felt magical and unknowable. The secretive reflexes of mushroomers as they refused to divulge their places was akin to those concealing magical or religious law; the feelings of those questing to find such places is akin to those seeking to find answers in Nostradamus or John Dee’s angelic language. This also goes someway to explain why many prefer the half-baked Ancient Aliens to real science. For supplicants watching a TV science show, they are excluded from the chase, the false leads, the dumb mistakes, and the work with its final triumph.

If science is to be better appreciated then TV science shows should refrain from trotting out facts, handed down from Olympian heights, and seek to engage people in the process of scientific discovery. In the history of science, the pop-out effect has happened many times. From Galileo looking at Jupiter and its moons, through Kekulé dreaming of a snake biting its tail and upon waking realizing that he had a solution for the structure of benzene, to James Watson playing with cardboard shapes representing the components of DNA called bases and realizing that was a good reason for the unusual ratio of their proportions, there is ample material to include regular folk. I maintain that it is quite possible to explain Einstein Special Relativity and Gödel’s Theorem to an interested anyone, perhaps even explain Darwinian Evolution to the satisfaction of a Southern Baptist preacher.

The Perfect Meal

The Menu

The Menu

“Perfect?! A dangerous boast, you must be thinking.” the Prof quips, but I do think so. The food was spectacularly good – have a look at the photo of the menu. The first course of Abalone performed well as a “chaser of mouthwash”.

The humans furnished conversation which was like a “sustainable effervescence, unfurl[ing] like a sail”.

“There comes a moment in the course of a dinner party when, with any luck, you realize everything’s going to be okay. The food and the company having sailed past the shoals of awkwardness or disaster, and the host can allow himself at last to slip into the warm currents of the evening and actually begin to enjoy himself.”

Good job, Professor Pollan, good job.

The Persuasive Power of Repetition 1

Glass Ball by Didgeman

I can clearly remember asking my English master, “When are we going to start studying English Grammar?” I recall the fellow as young, small and slight, with a mop of curly, dark brown hair, and substantial sideburns. All in all, his 70s-fashion sense made him look like an elf. “We don’t do that anymore,” he said. And when I asked how I was going to learn it, he replied, “Read a lot”. Repeat

So I read a lot. I read The Glass Bead Game on the train from Tehran to Istanbul.

Yambuya_RDC_congo_1890 by By Th. Weber [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Congo, the venue for Heart of Darkness

I read Heart of Darkness in the wee hours working in the biscuit factory.

I read anything and everything: all of Hardy, most of Dickens; Austin and Auden, Bryson and Byron, Keats and Cummings, Dawkins and Darwin, James and Joyce, Lawrences T.E and D.H, Orwell and Orton, Pynchon and Pratchett, Shakespeare and Sheridan, and “Even Cowgirls get the Blues”.

So, I should have been well prepared to teach English in Japan, ne?

Nope, not at all. There is a reason French classes include grammaire française, or in German classes there is Deutsches Grammatik, and this was true for other language classes too: Especially Japanese learning English, and 英語人は日本語を習う.

Walrus and the Mutton Chops by andycox93

Walrus and the Mutton Chops by andycox93

My elfish English master was acting in the fashion of those times; tearing down the moldering Gormenghast of colonial methods and Victorian values, and refuting beliefs in thrashings, cold baths, and English grammars based on two-thousand-year-old Latin ones. Someone in Eng. Lit. had noticed that the English Language grew from a Germanic stock to which had been grafted French, Latin, a bit of Greek and umpteen other languages. We freely steal whenever we take a fancy to one of someone else’s nouns or verbs. It is simply ridiculous to apply highly inflected Latin grammar to this perky expressive mongrel. When my Chemistry teacher mocked the Star Trek opening lines “To boldly go” as a split infinitive, he was wrong. Infinitives are there to be split when it is the right thing to do. In Japan, folks were better educated and more practical. They knew what a clause was.

Once I had recovered from feeling nauseously miffed (about my lack of formal grammar and not the other times), I set about remedying the deficiency, only to find that the weeds of industry had produced such a plethora of books, blogs and bibles that it was nigh impossible to gain much traction on the subject until I discovered The Teaching Company. I started with the excellent “Building Great Sentences” and went to buy many great other titles.  “Building Great Sentences” inspired me to attack English Grammar again. As before there were heaps of the stuff available, but this time, thanks in main part to Richard Norquist’s excellent (and free!) ThoughtCo,com Blog and Newsletter and June Casagrande, who wrote the classic Grammar Snobs are Great Big Meanies, I got better.

This essay is the first of four on repetition, the many ways we repeat ourselves. We repeat sounds, words and phrases all the time, and we do so to increase our intelligibility and both our affect and our effect. We do so formally and informally, and have always done so. Repetition is a bore at the moment as it only multiplies the fire hose of information targeted on us. Our more rational, more intelligent progeny will have figured out how their devices work, and have a vaccine for FMO and fakenewzeemia, so will have the time to devote to the first human communication technology, speech, knowing all others are but its pale reflection.

So Repetition, then.

It is said:

“[R]epetition skulks under numerous different names, one might almost say aliases, depending on who is repeating what where:
When parrots do it, it’s parrotting. When advertisers do it, it’s reinforcement.
When children do it, it’s imitation. When brain-damaged people do it, it’s perseveration or echolalia.
When disfluent people do it, it’s stuttering or stammering.
When orators do it, it’s epizeuxis, ploce, anadiplosis, polyptoton or antimetabole.
When novelists do it, it’s cohesion.
When poets do it, it’s alliteration, chiming, rhyme, or parallelism.
When priests do it, it’s ritual. When sounds do it, it’s gemination.
When morphemes do it, it’s reduplication.
When phrases do it, it’s copying. When conversations do it, it’s reiteration..”

(Jean Aitchison, “‘Say, Say It Again Sam’: The Treatment of Repetition in Linguistics.” Repetition, ed. by Andreas Fischer. Gunter Narr Verlag, 1994)

Tetrahymena thermophila 80S ribosome model

Tetrahymena thermophila 80S ribosome model

And Jean goes onto total up 27 ways we do this thing. Some worry about repetition and need reassurance:

“Repetition is a far less serious fault than obscurity. Young writers are often unduly afraid of repeating the same word, and require to be reminded that it is always better to use the right word over again, than to replace it by a wrong one–and a word which is liable to be misunderstood is a wrong one. A frank repetition of a word has even sometimes a kind of charm–as bearing the stamp of truth, the foundation of all excellence of style.”
(Theophilus Dwight Hall, A Manual of English Composition. John Murray, 1880)

Yet even a recent Republican candidate for the Presidency (Mitt Romney) quipped,
“President Obama should stop apologizing for American People. President Obama should start apologizing to the American People,”
stealing a tip from the JFK’s (and Ovid’s) playbook.

We repeat:

  • Sounds, and have done so since babyhood;
  • Words, independent of words around them;
  • Meanings, to clarify or harp on another word;
  • Words or phrases balanced against others to produce – we hope – ringing persuasive rhetoric.

PIA19656-SaturnMoon-Enceladus-Ocean-ArtConcept-20150915, By NASA/JPL-Caltech [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Enceladus, Saturn’s Ice Moon

Thinking about and trying to teach artful repetition harks back to the Ancient Greece of Socrates and Plato, as do our prejudices about whether something said artfully can be as truthful as plain speaking. As we have some writing from these ancient orators, we also know what they called their stuff. This was not much of a problem until the nineteenth century when to be educated was to have read the Classics, as they became called, in the original Ancient Greek or the Latin of Augustus. Since then human knowledge has increased so prolifically that we have newly coined words to describe its vastness. The top unit, currently, is a Xenottobyte, which is 1,000 Yottabytes (Yb); a Yb is to a Terabyte (Tb) as a Terabyte is to a single byte (1b); a Tb is a 1,000 billion bytes, a byte is a single unit of computer storage which can be either a binary one or a binary zero.

Our recent ancestors could only wonder at our achievement, for example:

  • we have discovered ribosomes, those exquisite molecular sewing machines which spin the ubiquitous dogsbodies of life, proteins;
  • we know what lies at the heart of our sun, and why it is hot;
  • we have discovered an ocean in an ice moon orbiting Jupiter and another orbiting Saturn;
  • and we can make a movie of the visual cortex in someone’s brain watching a movie.

Not only are we as a species more proficient and busier, we simply do not have the time anymore.

Our lack of Ancient Greek and Latin also means we no longer have a handle on the names of all those rhetorical techniques handed down by those ancient orators, like anadiplosis or polyptoton, but as they are neat and would be an excellent zinger/put down, so I’ll include them and add little mnemonics in order to remember them.

Repeating sounds without meaning

A single repeated phoneme ( as in “ba” in “Ba-ba-Blacksheep” or “Ba-ba-Barbara Anne”) are our first words or a default when we have none. A child saying “Mama” is reduplicating. This is term is straight from the department of redundant redundancies, as “Mama” is twice a “ma”, i.e. a duplication, and the suffix re- means to do again, so a “re-duplicative” of “ma” should be “ma ma ma ma” and sounds very like the phrase used to illustrate the four tones of Mandarin. I would forget it but it goes well with other oily words: insinuate, global, bill.

In real speech there is a lot of – err – meaningless sounds or embolalia (em-bo-LA-lee-a, From the Greek, “something thrown in”, mnemonic “embol” as in embolism, “lalia” as in lips or the Cyclops on Futurama). Embolalia do not carry meaning in themselves. “Um”, “ah”, or “err” is not like the word “dog” which to me conjures up an image of  a furry, four footed mammal with a taste for long walks and duck jerky. But, to me, the word “chien/chienne” or “犬 (いぬ, inu )” or “perro/ perra” also means Monty T. Dog and his species which implies that there is something about meaning has to be learned. Embolalia can garner meaning from its context and tone, as in “Owh, no, Mrs.”

The master of this innuendo was Frankie Howerd, doyen of Carry On films and Up Pompeii, who even gave a class at the Oxford Union.

When we reduplicate embolalia, we stutter. To those of us like poor Ken in ‘A Fish called Wanda’ it is a curse but even the brief in that film, Archie, whose honeyed tongue makes him his mint, can, on occasion, fall short: “ I Wendy- I Wanda- I wonder…” when pondering a new girlfriend, a current wife and the possibilities.

Stuttering can be done deliberately and can be used to make a great deal of dough. Dan Dotsons deliberate duplications are his heirloom Auction Chant (or Auctioneering) which he performs on Storage Wars. There are distinct musical possibilities to embolalia and stuttering. Amy Whitehouse uses it to make “Doo Wop” and Scatman John worked on his stutter to become “Scat” art.

In the next essay, we will investigate, how to grow meaningless repeated sound into art with a capital A, and therefore any other purpose you may choose.