As you’ve noticed, we’ve been gone for longer than ever before. but, we are back today with this reminder: Seventy years ago today, the Japanese fleet with six aircraft carriers sailed from Japan, on its way to attack Pearl Harbor. We’ll have more in the coming days about those eventful days, including speculation about the only ship that actually sighted the Japanese fleet in the Northern Pacific. A Russian ship sailing from San Francisco to Vladivostok which was not on the usual – and shorter – great circle route.
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For all our conceits about being the center of the universe, we live in a routine planet of a humdrum star stuck away in an obscure corner … on an unexceptional galaxy which is one of about 100 billion galaxies. … That is the fundamental fact of the universe we inhabit, and it is very good for us to understand that. -Carl Sagan, astronomer and writer (1934-1996)
Our last post began with trains exploding. Granted, it was war, but it’s never good for trains to explode. Exploding trains are like being told that the “Sixty Minutes” film crew is at your front door. Nothing good can from it. Such things cause cognitive dissonance. A corrective is needed so here it is.
That is a postcard from the 1950’s depicting the Santa Fe Chief at the train station in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Of course, the train is dead and they destroyed the station in the name of progress in the 1970s. Turned it into a parking lot. An unpaved parking lot. Such was the idea of progress in those days. Now they’ve built a fake one and made it look like the old one on the outside. A local politician was one of the leaders behind tearing down the old Alvarado Hotel of which the train station was a part. You may have heard of him. He became Senator Pete Domenici, the United States Senator who never failed to rail against unbalanced budgets, but voted for every one of them – as long as it was proposed by a Republican president. And who single-handedly built enough forest-service roads for the timber industry to circle the globe. He was an expert in progress. Before becoming a United States Senator he was a lawyer. Someone who knew him in his lawyer days once told me that it was a good thing he became a politician because, “Pete isn’t smart enough to be a lawyer.” Now he is known as “St. Pete” in New Mexico and everybody loves him as he slips into his dotage. I wrote a letter to the local paper when he announced his retirement. I said, “I would like to congratulate Senator Domenici on his retirement. It’s the best thing he’s ever done for the Nation.”
The paper didn’t publish my letter.
And while we were killing off passenger trains and their stations, the Japanese were building high-speed rail systems. I don’t recall Senator Domenici, who never met a dirt road in a national forest that he didn’t like, demanding that America develop high-speed rail or any other kind of public transit. Now the Chinese are outstripping us by about 5,000 miles a year of high-speed rail and we have all the dirt roads we can use.
With the President about to make another appointment to the Supreme Court, we’re hearing that word “empathy” again as if it were some terrible thing.
Well, today is the 40th “Earth Day” and a piece at the New Yorker, where they are celebrating the 85th anniversary of that excellent magazine, reminded me of an insect’s view of empathy and of justice as imagined by Don Marquis. The New Yorker is running a series of articles taken from its eighty-five years of publication. Today, they feature Rachel Carson. Her book, “Silent Spring”, marked the beginning of public awareness that Mother Earth requires attention. The Environmental Protection Agency has published an official history in which it says that its mere existence is the “extended shadow of Rachel Carson.”
The first publication of “Silent Spring” came in the pages of the New Yorker which ran three extended excerpts before it was published in 1962. In the first, Carson detailed what happened at Clear Lake, California. Clear Lake was a popular fishing destination that also constituted perfect habitat for billions of little gnats that annoyed the fishermen. Thinking it would be good to rid the lake of those pests, the authorities decided to spray the lake with DDD, a close cousin of DDT. Three times they sprayed and millions of gnats died.
Unfortunately so did the Western Grebes.
“The following winter months brought the first intimation that other life was affected; the western grebes on the lake began to die, and soon more than a hundred of them had been reported dead. At Clear Lake, the western grebe is a breeding bird and also a winter visitant, attracted by the abundant fish of the lake. It is a bird of spectacular appearance and beguiling habits, building floating nests in shallow lakes of the western United States and Canada…. Following a third assault on the ever-resilient gnat population, in September, 1957—again in a concentration of one part of DDD to fifty million parts of water—more grebes died . . . .”
By now, we know the rest of the story. As Carson wrote,
“Water, of course, supports long chains of life – from the small-as-dust green cells of the drifting plant plankton, through the minute water fleas, to the fish that strain plankton from the water and are, in turn, eaten by other fish or by birds, mink, raccoons, and man himself, in an endless transfer of materials from life to life. We know that the minerals necessary for all these forms of life are extracted from the water and passed from link to link of the food chains.”
The DDD sprayed to kill the gnats went to the fish where it concentrated and then to the grebes which ate the fish and then died.
As I said, all this reminded me of archy the cockroach’s complaint in the poem by Don Marquis called, “Pity the Poor Spider.”
I will admit that some
of the insects do not lead
noble lives but is every
man s hand to be against them
yours for less justice
and more charity
The part of the Carson piece in the New Yorker that you can read without a subscription is here. The entire piece requires a subscription but it’s worth it. Subscribe to the magazine and you get access to the entire eighty-five years of the New Yorker, every article and every cartoon. We read around in back issues the way a dog eats dinner.
What’s more, the New Yorker remains true to its environmental concerns. Elizabeth Kolbert picked up the Carson mantle and carries it forward.
The Western Grebe photo is by Dominic Sherony and graciously made available through creative commons. The photo of Rachel Carson is her USFWS official portrait and is in the public domain.
Charles Dickens wrote:
We lawyers are always curious, always inquisitive, always picking up odds and ends for our patchwork minds, since there is no knowing when and where they may fit into some corner. (Dickens, Little Dorrit, book 2, ch. 12)
That is why I am able to report today that the New Yorker has added a jigsaw puzzle to its home page and it is a fine way to waste a little time. Subscribers can then read the entire issue underneath the cover they just reassembled.
Apparently the London Review of Books now twitters its famous personal ads. If you’ve never run across the ads before, many are hysterically funny. And, if this really is the Review’s twitter account, we in the Colonies no longer have to buy a subscription and wait for weeks while the hard copy of the Review makes its way across the Pond to us.
Just for fun, while we wait for New Year’s, are some examples:
Cold? Sexually hostile? You’re my PhD supervisor or my ex-wife. Good day to you both. The rest of you can say something nice to box 3678.
You’re all invited to my wedding! One lucky Male will also be picked as groom! Clutching Female,41. Not getting any younger/thinner/more fertile.
Nepenthes rajah: insectivorous pitcher plant with a trap so large it digests rats. I find it a continual source of inspiration. Female, 34.
There are 289 species of octopus. I can, and will, name them all during the act of love. Male, 58. Box no. 6759.
Should any of my readers feel an urge to respond to any of these personals, I’ll be happy to forward them for you.
Claude Levi-Strauss died last week at the tender age of 100, which means he was born during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, not that Levi-Strauss would have cared: He was a Frenchman, not an American and Roosevelt had as little impact on his life as Bridget Bardot has had on mine.
Because it rains all the time in France, it is not easy for a Frenchman to be happy. Living in the dank French climate was probably why Levi-Strauss wrote, “The world began without the human race and will certainly end without it.”
Come to think of it, the climate may well end up being the reason the world might end without humans.
But surely Levi-Strauss would have been happier had he followed Steve Martin’s advice to writers and moved to California. According to Martin, a good dose of Pacific Standard Time will cheer up any writer. As an example Martin took a passage from the Czech writer Milan Kundera; one almost as depressing as Levi-Strauss’s:
Most people deceive themselves with a pair of faiths: they believe in eternal memory (of people, things, deeds, nations) and in redressibility (of deeds, mistakes, sins, wrongs). Both are false faiths. In reality the opposite is true: everything will be forgotten and nothing will be redressed.
Czechoslovakia’s climate is every bit as rainy and cloudy as France’s. Sitting in his sunny, happy southern California (PST) garden Martin rewrote Kundera’s paragraph into:
I feel pretty,
Oh so pretty,
I feel pretty, and witty, and bright.
Still, if Levi-Strauss was right, so too was Kundera and no amount of California sunshine will fix it.
The 1949 photo of Paris in the rain was taken by Benjamen Chinn. Steve Martin’s philosophy of writing can be found in his essay for The New Yorker entitled “Writing is Easy!” republished in Fierce Pajamas: An Anthology of Humorous Writing From the New Yorker.
I’m not much of a sports fan now, but I was when I was a child and I’ve hated the New York Yankees ever since they beat my Milwaukee Braves in the 1958 World Series. Not that I hold a grudge, you understand.
I was a baseball player myself as a child. I played first base in Little League. They put me there because I was too slow for anything else. Later I would learn that slow is sometimes good, as when lovemaking, drinking fine wine, and watching sunsets, but it is not good in baseball.
I also couldn’t hit worth beans, so I crouched really low in the hopes that the pitcher wouldn’t be able to find a strike zone. Because I was such a lousy hitter, I was at the end of the batting order. One time I hit a single. After I got on base, our lead-off hitter walked, which sent me down to second base.
So there I was, standing on second base, a place that I had never been before, enjoying the view — you can see all kinds of things from second base that you can’t see anywhere else on a baseball diamond — when our next batter ripped a pitch into deep deep right field. We didn’t have a outfield fence so a well-hit ball just rolled on forever across the pasture, until it hit a cow patty or an outfielder caught up with it.
So I left second base and headed for third, as fast as my slow little legs would carry me. But what should have been a three-run home run for my team turned out to be a triple play for the other team, because I was so slow that both my teammates behind me on the base path caught up with me at third base and you can’t have three runners on one base — it’s against the rules — so all three of us were out and that was the end of the inning. I don’t remember whether I ever got to third base again in my baseball career, but I suspect that was the day when, in my childish mind, it first dawned on me that I’d never play for the Braves or the Yankees and that I would need to find a different career.
Baseball is an elegiac sport. If you don’t believe me, rent the movie “Field of Dreams.” And, if there is a heaven and if I get there, I’ll take Jenny DiMaggio, our ball-playing Border collie, to see the Yankees play the Braves. Every game will be an all-time, all-star game. Derek Jeter and Tony Kubek will turn double plays for the Yankees, throwing to Lou Gehrig at first. Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth will watch as Henry Aaron and Eddie Mathews lift home runs over their heads into the stands. I’ll be able to hear Yogi Berra’s jokes behind home plate as Whitey Ford and Mariano Rivera throw pitches past lesser Braves’ batters and Joe Torre and Del Crandall will take turns catching for Warren Spahn, Lew Burdette, and Greg Maddux. Red Barber will call the games and Red Smith will write about them. .
And the games will be played, as baseball games should be, on sunny afternoons. Night games, caused by the baleful influence of television and all the money it brings, will be a thing of the distant past.
Oh, one more thing: Since it will be heaven, the Yankees will lose, at least some of the time.
For more on the 2009 World Series I recommend this from Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post.
Christians are taught to pray the Lord’s Prayer which begins, “Our Father, who art in heaven.” In other words, Christians pray to an authority figure who lives somewhere else, a place no one can even visit in this life. The prayer signals that this authority figure is insecure and needs lots of praise. So Christians must first remind him that his name is “hallowed”; that it is His will that must be done; and that His is the kingdom, the power, and the glory for ever and ever. In fact, of the 69 words in this beautiful prose-poem of prayer, only 31 words are humans asking anything of this supernatural power and all but seven of those beg this authority figure for abstract forgiveness for our evil, fallen ways. The only material thing asked for is a piece of bread.
Navajos pray a little differently. For them, I suspect, heaven is right here, right now and their holy people a little more self-confident and less stern. This is how Navajos pray:
In the house made of dawn,
In the house made of evening twilight,
In the house made of dark cloud and rain
In beauty I walk.
With beauty before and behind me,
With beauty below and above,
With beauty all around me, I walk
Remind me: Which is the “primitive” religion?
The photo of the Navajo sandpainting (ca. 1900) comes from the Library of Congress’s “American Memory” web site.