Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Fab 350,000

The best present is sometimes the one you didn't even know you wanted. For example, this past Christmas, my sister gave me a book I had never heard of called An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles. It's a fairly large book, of the size sometimes called "coffee table" with pictures of the most outlandish beetles you could imagine, in all sizes and stunning colors, and plenty of writing to boot. Here's a bit of trivia:
  • "Modern taxonomic works generally cite the number of beetle species described since the middle of the eighteenth century as between 290,000 and 350,000. Regardless of the number you choose to accept, bettles are undeniably the largest order of animals in the world." (p. 20)
  • The largest beetle family "is the the curuculionids, comprising more than 50,000 named species." (p.22) In other words, the world is full of weevils.
  • The Greek philosopher Aristotle is responsible for the name still used to refer to the order of beetles: "Aristotle described beetles as insects that have wing cases and thus named them Coleoptera (from the Greek koleon, "sheath", and pteron, "wing"). (p. 12)

Quotations from An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles by Arthur V. Evans and Charles L. Bellamy

The pictures are my own, taken last July in Cambria, CA. I am not sure about the plant, but the beetle is a Western Cucumber Beetle, Diabrotica undecimpunctata undecimpunctata (That's an ocean in the background. Not just any ocean--the Specific Ocean.)

Friday, January 30, 2009


Friday is set aside for general cleaning these days, so I am using housework as an excuse not to come up with a real entry. I did find yet one more way not to have an excuse for not having "The Little Spree" memorized. That's it, hanging over the kitchen sink. Well, it might not be quite Martha Stewart, but it gets the job done (and gives me one less excuse not to do the dishes right away too).
I slipped out to the park in the middle of doing the laundry this afternoon to see if I could get through the long-awaited taorluath variation. There is nothing like a bagpipe to make one feel, as my Canadian teacher once said, "watched". I tried to be inconspicuous, but a Parks and Rec worker who was doing something with one of the baseball fields rushed over very generously to invite me to practice closer. This was while I was still tuning, pre-piobaireachd as it were, so his later regrets in the matter are more than possible. I tried to stay just within range so he and his buddies could hear me, but as background music.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


Ray Bradbury's name calls to my mind Farenheit 451 and prose of an unsettlingly vivid kind. Did you know, however, that Mr. Bradbury also wrote the screenplay for the 1956 film version of Moby Dick?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

World Wide Words

At his first appearance in the poem, the title character of Beowulf is confronted by a Danish guard who demands to know why foreign warriors have landed on his coast. Though the Geats, Beowulf's people, have come as allies, they are quite obviously dressed for war, and the question calls for a careful reply. The poet says of Beowulf, "wordhord unleac" that is, "he unlocked his word-hoard." The imagery of a man turning valuable words over in his mind like gems, taking care to choose the one most suitable to present for the occasion is quite striking.
"Word-hoard" came readily to mind when I ran across an English site called World Wide Words a couple of days ago. It is an etymological treasure-trove if ever there was one. If you have ever wondered just where a word like snickersnee came from, you can set your mind at rest there. If you haven't heard enough legends about the origins of gringo, World Wide Words might give you satisfaction, if not complete satiety. If you have ever read The Hobbit, thereby going around for days with "Attercop! Attercop! Down you drop!" stuck in your head, it may give you solace to know that, at least, attercop is a real word. The entries are generous, not merely offering a plausible history or an accepted definition (or two, or three) but presenting a good deal of evidence as to why one version of a word's origin may be more likely than another.
Read it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Little Spree

We had a light snow the night before last, but today there was none to speak of left, so I decided to squeeze in another bagpipe practice out north of town on my way back from the post office. It was about five, so the sun was fairly low, in fact, in the shade of the closest hills, the sun was gone. About the time I had the pipes together I noticed that the fog was starting to creep through the pass on a gentle, but steady wind. The blowing fog was beautiful against the sun, and almost poetry, wraith-grey in the hollows of the hills. . .but it was uncomfortably cold. I tuned the pipes and ran through the ground and first variation of "The Little Spree". The exercise was promising, but not inspiring in execution. The chanter was sliding sharper with every phrase, and the tuning was entirely gone even before I started the variation. The holes beneath my fingers felt as though they were disappearing, or rather they began not to feel at all, and the attention I had hoped to devote to expression was being devoured by the mechanical concerns of managing from one grip to the next. So it was not exactly successful as a practice, but it was a nice brisk afternoon on which to watch a sunset.
"The Little Spree" is, as I said a couple of days ago, a work in progress for me. We had a grand teacher at the College of Piping camp I attended two years ago, Dugald MacNeill, who would gather the entire school in the gym after breakfast and make us sing through the ground of a piobaireachd. "The Little Spree" was one of these, and it stuck in my mind as one of the most beautiful grounds I had ever heard. The title is quite misleading; there is nothing at all wild about the tune, not even a wild grief. It is a very restrained tune, built around a few sparse, but carefully-placed notes, as if the composer was emptying the last memories of a mind already barren with sorrow, beyond tears. To quote The Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor: "Dr. Bett, a well known authority of a past generation, is said to have described the "Little Spree" as the saddest lament he knew." While I myself cannot claim to be anything approaching an authority, I would agree wholeheartedly. The story I seem to remember reading about the tune (there is also a "Big Spree," of similar nature, to confuse matters) was that its subject was a once- successful warrior who had lost his former strength and glory through an over-fondness of the bottle. . .that true or not, it is a sad tune.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Winter Color

The rains in December encouraged early grass; the foothills are mostly green now, however it is still a bit soon to be expecting wildflowers, so any bit of color is a welcome surprise. I was driving home from Bakersfield yesterday and noticed some yellow bushes growing in along the side of 58. They were most prolific just east of General Beale Road but there were still a scattered few as far as the Arvin exit where I stopped and snapped these pictures.

I am having no luck so far in identifying the plant.

But it is a pretty thing, eh?

A good many of last year's seed pods were still attached.

I have my spare-time activity cut out for tomorrow; it's time to give the native plants book some serious study.
The obligatory Bug, of course, tucked in the flower in the foreground. I didn't notice it when I was taking the picture originally, so I shall rest content with identifying it as a Small Dark Beetle.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Fair fa' thy honest, sonsie face. . .

. . .emm, or happy Burns Night, anyway. Today is the 250th anniversary of the birth of the Scottish poet Robert Burns, an occasion which gives the world an excuse for indulgence in haggis, good whisky, and bagpipes (also, preferably, good). Since I am myself, a bit short on haggis and whisky, and, where bagpipes are concerned, am confined to a studio apartment on a rainy evening, I shall conduct my attention to the following:

1.) Neeps and Tatties
This is the traditional accompaniment to a Burns Supper haggis; it consists of rutabagas and potatoes, mashed. I am not clear on whether they are generally mashed together in a single presentation, but I have done it that way myself in the past, and added some finely minced onions. As you can see, I am, in essence, advising the addition of a boiled rutabaga to your usual mashed potatoes. It might make you wonder just why you don't see droves of people buying rutabagas and turnips in the market.

2.) A return to Old Norse-English relations and, consequently, another quote from Baugh's A History of the English Language:
"Bessie Bell and Mary Gray, in the ballad of that name, 'bigget a bower on yon burn-brae,' employing in the process another word of Norse origin, biggen (to build), a word also used by Burns in To a Mouse: 'Thy wee bit housie, too, in ruin!. . .And naething now to big a new ane.'"

3.) Related to the previous paragraph, it seems that the further north you go in England, the more Old Norse influence you find on the language (this from a person who has never been in England at all, mind you), until you get to Scotland, and find Norse-isms quite rampant. Many people question the classification of Scots as a dialect of English, claiming, instead, that it is a language in its own right. I hasten to add I am not advocating that it is only the Norse influence that made Scots so singular, however, there is certainly a Norse element there. Google Books offers the entire text of a 1900-era volume on the subject.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

On the bright side. . .

. . .since the last day of the week has come, this is the last picture of a mountain you will have to look at for this week. This is looking more or less north from Tehachapi, on the very edge of town. Now this may not look like much, but it was a pleasant moment; it was getting ready to rain, and, to quote the ubiquitous Gawain "Each hill had a hat, a huge mist-cloak." It was all highly conducive to piobaireachd, which was convenient, since that was what I had driven out there for. As things ran, I went through my usual nonsense of warming up the pipes with light music until both they and my lip were a bit past their prime, then I tried through the ground of "The Little Spree," which I've been memorizing lately. It felt very, very good. It probably sounded a little less so, if cows are any judges. They had begun a pointed migration Away, the moment I started tuning.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Bloomin' Complicated

The interplay of Old English and Old Norse can easily become as engrossing a subject as the history of the Scandinavian invasions of England. Along with its speakers, Old Norse came to England to settle, and to stay. Because of its similarity to Old English, it is sometimes difficult to ascertain the Norse heritage of a Modern English word although, on the other hand, some forms are unmistakeable. English and Old Norse, sharing a common ancestry, differed on the pronunciation of the blend sk/sc. The Scandinavians pronounced it "sk", but the English, though they spelled it sc, pronounced it as "sh". Thus, for example, the Scandinavians had a word skelle which corresponds to our modern-day shell. The words skirt/shirt are textbook examples of this divergence; though ultimately, they were preserved as names for separate articles of clothing. Perhaps even more interesting is the passage below:
". . .Our word bloom (flower) could have come equally well from O.E. blōma or Scandinavian blōm. But the O.E. word meant an 'ingot of iron' whereas the Scandinavian word meant 'flower, bloom.' It happens that the Old English word has survived as a term in metallurgy, but it is the Old Norse word that has come down in ordinary use."

Quote from A History of the English Language by Albert C. Baugh

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A couple more

A couple more pictures from back in the day--all the way back in December. I think this was a day or two after Christmas. The fog was coming in through the pass, and the sun had just slipped behind the mountain, leaving the world very cold in temperature and stark in coloring.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

From the Archives

Here are a few pictures from a very pleasant Sunday afternoon I spent back in October. . .getting lost. You might think I would know the finer nuances of getting from Bakersfield to Tehachapi, but, having plenty of time on my hands, I took a notion to take a back road that "probably gets there eventually". It doesn't, but it was thoroughly delightful.

The strange limbo between the San Joaquin Valley and the Sierra Nevada grows into oaks and pines and welcoming foothills, but not before it has passed through a stage of almost desert sterility. There is grass on these hills, but it is very short and sparse; the cattle take all they can get. The picture below is looking back, roughly west, towards the San Joaquin, down the road I was driving on. I remember thinking at the time that a proper caption would be J.R.R. Tolkien's, "The road goes ever on and on. . ."

Some miles later, the grass grew more thickly, and opened, on occasion, to islands of granite boulders. Further still, the pines and oaks began, and the road climbed so high it seemed it was no longer on the mountain, but airborne. This impression was only confirmed by the apparition of a red-tailed hawk posed at eye-level against a backdrop of Bear Mountain and a wide October sky.
It probably puts my navigational wisdom in perspective when I explain that Tehachapi is on the other side of Bear Mountain, and if you compare the picture below with the one above, you will see that Bear Mountain was getting further away instead of closer. Not long after I admired this quintessentially Californian view of blue oaks, buckeyes, pines and granite, with the sun turning them to richer shades of gold, as it fell, I met a couple who were coming down the road, pulling a travel trailer. As I moved over to let them pass, the driver flagged me and inquired in a fatherly way as to just where I thought I was going. When I explained I had some hopes that this road might connect to something that would take me to Tehachapi, he looked much taken aback, probably at the notion that one so clueless as I should be allowed to share the road with sane people, but spoke, in a kindly tone to explain that I was on my way (and no easy way, at that) to Lake Isabella. I had begun to have my misgivings long before that, but it took the advice of a sane person, with whom I am unaccountably allowed to share the road, to bring home the truth--my holiday was over, and I should turn around and go back down into the strange, brown hills, and the all too familiar valley below them. Even back in civilization, it was several days before I could shake the feeling of flying alongside the mountain.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


I was going through the "house CD's" at work this morning to see if there was anything that might wake me up a bit, and I found this one. The fiddling is lovely, particularly track six: "I Will Go Home to Kintail". I wish the website would let you sample track seven, though; that was my favorite of the lot, a trio of modern jigs, any of which would have fit nicely in a set with "Calliope House," the jig that ends all jigs, as far as I'm concerned. If you go here, you can get a brief sample of "Calliope House" played by Alasdair Fraser.

Monday, January 19, 2009

First of the Year

The porch light at my parents' house drew the interest of this creature last night:

Perhaps not surprisingly, it is of the same species as the "first bug" of last year--a Pacific green sphinx (Arctonotus lucidis). It had a definitely greenish hue, which contrasted quite nicely with its red underwings.

Sure, there are only so many pictures you can take of a moth (even one of a definitely greenish hue) before they all start looking rather similar. I was trying to find some nice lighting that wouldn't wash out the colors but which would dispense with the need for a flash, so I brought the moth inside for a while and experimented with one of the lamps in the living room. I thought the red of my violin* might emphasize the red in the underwings, but when the two were juxtaposed, the supposed redness of the violin was much less than suspected.

*Not actually my violin; it belongs to my cousin, but he is letting me play it for a while, for which I am, and shall ever be, most grateful.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Food for Thought

On the counter were three over-ripe bananas. There is, after all, only so much you can do with over-ripe bananas, so I got a chair and began to rummage around in the top cupboard for my bread book. Wherever I may have put that, it was not in the top cupboard, but there was a curious volume, which, being the same size and shape as the elusive bread book, fooled me into taking it down. It was A Continual Feast, by Evelyn Birge Vitz, a book of recipes centred around the Christian year. There are many regional recipes, from Scandinavian pickled herring (a Christmas tradition) to the inevitable Easter Hot Cross Buns. I was most taken by an odd entry in the "Lent" section, a sort of fish pie. It pulled me in by its claim of being medieval; it made me remember that excessively fishy passage in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The fine print delighted me by explaining it was from a cookbook of 1390; it has a good chance of having been contemporary with Gawain.

Here, then, is the fishy passage, as it originally appeared:

"Segges hym served semly innoghe
Wyth sere sewes and sete, sesounde of the best,
Doublefelde, as hit falles, and fle kyn fisches--
Summe baken in bred, summe brad on the gledes,
Summe sothen, summe in sewe savered with spyces--
And ay sawses so sleye that the segge lyked."

Here is a modern English rendering by Marie Borroff:

"Men set his fare before him in fashion most fit.
There were soups of all sorts, seasoned with skill,
Double-sized servings, and sundry fish,
Some baked, some breaded, some broiled on the coals,
Some simmered, some in stews, steaming with spice,
And with sauces to sup that suited his taste."

And, finally, for the curious, here is the recipe, which seems to fall under the "baken in bred" category:

  • Dough for a 9-inch pie crust
  • 1 1/4 pound salmon, cod, or haddock (or a mixture)
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 pears, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced
  • 1 cup good white wine
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 5 cubebs, finely crushed
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 10 prunes, pitted and minced
  • 6 dates, minced
  • 6 dried figs, minced
  • 3 tablespoons damson or red currant jelly

Preheat the oven to 425 F and bake the pie crust for 10 minutes. Let cool.

Cut the fish into 1 1/2 inch chunks, salt lightly, and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons lemon juice. Set aside.

Melt the butter in a large, heavy skillet and toss the pear and apple slices in it until they are lightly coated.

Combine the wine, lemon juice, brown sugar, spices, and dried fruits, and add to the mixture in the skillet. Cover and simmer about 15 minutes, or until fresh fruit is soft but still firm. Check the flavoring, and drain off excess liquid.

Paint jelly on the pie crust. Combine fish chunks with fruits and place the mixture in the crust. Bake at 375 F for 15 to 25 minutes, or until the fish flakes easily.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Again, the recipe is from A Continual Feast by E.V. Vitz, from Forme of Cury (1390) by way of To the King's Taste by Lorna J. Sass.

Friday, January 16, 2009

For the birds

Thursday evening a lady was shopping for a guitar strap. At last she found a canvas design that had an abstract painting in earth tones on the back. The only part of the picture that was quite clear was two graceful ravens, small in the distance. Evidently, it was just the right thing, for not only did the lady say decisively that she would buy it, she began to talk about ravens. She knew a good deal about them. For example, in the mythology of Southern Alaska, it was a raven that flew off to bring back the sun when it disappeared. Also, ravens in Australia (and she knew it first hand, as she had been there) have a different cry from the ravens here. (She demonstrated the difference ably, but I cannot type it as ably.) We got onto the subject of starlings and she told how some of the audacious little birds that nest around her house started to get very territorial and attacking people who were sitting in the hot tub outside. The ensuing struggle to secure a moment's peace in the hot tub was, of course, Starling Wars.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Not so gentle on the mind

Here is a limerick by Anonymous. . .

There was an old man from Dunoon
Who always ate soup with a fork,
For he said, "As I eat
Neither fish, fowl nor flesh,
I should finish my dinner too quick."

Monday, January 5, 2009

Vaguely Chicken Salad

Somebody gave me a bag of rice from Trader Joe's with a rice salad recipe on the back. I fooled around with it, and here is what I came up with. Measurements are. . .well, I don't measure salad. Just be prudent about it and put more rice in than anything else. Unless, of course, you don't like rice. Then you should just leave it out altogether--but there won't be much else to chew on.
  • Rice, cooked and refrigerated, for ease of mixing (the Trader Joe's kind is called Basmati Rice Medley, but I'll betcha any kind would do).
  • Chicken, cooked, cooled, and cubed
  • Dried cranberries
  • Walnuts
  • Olive Oil
  • Red wine vinegar (slightly more than however much olive oil)
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Ground ginger (be generous with it)

So, that is how it goes. It is good with fresh apples, too, instead of the cranberries; I just happened to have cranberries on hand. Actually, the last time I made it, I cut up a Braeburn apple somebody had given me and that was very, very good, except that after I put most of the apple into the salad, it occured to me to taste it on its own, and then I felt awful. No, the apple didn't make me feel awful, but it was as though I had just obliterated a rare and wonderful wine in a marinade where any wine would have served. A Braeburn, come to find out, is more than good enough to be enjoyed without even the company of cheese.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

I was driving up White Wolf Grade, near Arvin early in December when the setting sun lit up the fog. Dare I pull the "it was better in person" gag again? Well, it was. The air was a cross between rose and gold.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

J. R. R. Tolkien

Today happens to be the birthday of a very remarkable man. I have had J.R.R. Tolkien much on the brain, of late, after giving in to temptation a couple of months back and buying a copy of Verlyn Flieger's Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien's World. I had read it once before, and am slowly getting through it again. It is fairly heavy going, but worth the try. The heavy going is not Flieger's fault--she uses an almost textbook-perfect style of laying out a chapter, and never puts in more than needs to be there--but there are several big ideas being presented in that book. My recurring favorite is the notion of subcreation. Tolkien held that man, made in the image and likeness of the Creator, God, has a predilection for his own admirable, though humanly imperfect, form of creation--art. As he put it in a poem: ". . .we make still by the law in which we're made." To borrow from Flieger's explanations, this creativity results in "splintered light"; the original, created light of reality is refracted through the prism of human imagination and set out in new colors.

Merry Christmas, to begin with!

Since we are still within the proverbial 12 Days of Christmas, I am only somewhat late in wishing everybody a truly merry and blessed Christmas season. While I'm at it, Happy 2009!